Video of Tenebrae Vespers is here. The sermon begins around the 47:20 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There’s an old spiritual called “Sinnerman,” first recorded at some point in the 1950s, and my favorite version goes like this: “O sinnerman, where will you run to? Sinnerman, where will you run to, all on that day? Run to the mountain, the mountain won’t hide you. Run to the sea, the sea will not have you. And run to your grave, your grave will not hold you, all on that day” (16 Horsepower, “Sinnerman”). If the wrath of God is coming down, there is no place you can hide where He will not find you. It might well be a paraphrase of Psalm 139: “Where shall I go from Your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you” (139:7-12). The wages of sin is death, and therefore death is coming for every person, because there is no one righteous before God, not even one.
Where will you run to, all on that day? The day the Revelation describes: “When [the Lamb] opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?’” (Revelation 6:12-17).
Now, we might think we have some time before that day. We might think that that day is probably far off, so we have time to get ourselves right, to make up for what we’ve done, to balance out our sins with good works, and then we won’t have to worry on that day. But St. John says that day is not far in the future; it’s not in the future at all. It has already happened. The judgment is not something you have time to prepare for, because it has already happened: “This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19). This is why the demons are confused when Jesus shows up. This is why people are healed and the dead are raised. Because in Jesus the judgment of this world has already come. None of us can escape it or better prepare ourselves for it, because the world has already been judged and found wanting. And specifically, the judgment of this world happens when Jesus is lifted up on the cross: “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out” (John 12:31). The leaders of Israel and Pilate think that they are the ones doing the judging: “If this man were not doing evil ,we would not have delivered him over to you.” Pilate said, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own laws.” But they cannot crucify him (John 18:30-31). Later, Pilate will say to Jesus, “Do you not know I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” (John 19:10). Pilate sits down on the judgment seat, and eventually “delivers him over to them to be crucified” (19:13, 16).
We, too, judge Jesus. We decide what we think about Him, whether what He says applies to us or is relevant, whether He fits into our lives, or whether we want to accept this or that of His words. But neither the leaders, nor Pilate, nor we are actually doing the judging, even when Jesus is crucified. God is doing the judgment in the Son on the cross, and the judgment on every single one of us, first of all, is “Guilty.” What else could it be for those who conspire to crucify the Son of God?
And so, as the other Gospels describe, there is an earthquake (Matthew 27:51), and darkness “when the sun’s light failed” (Luke 23:45), because this is what happens when the day of God’s wrath comes. Jesus alone knows what to do when the wrath of God comes: “Into Your hand I commit My Spirit” (Psalm 31:5; Luke 23:46). But, sinnerman, where will you run to, when the judgment has come? Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and you perish in the way, for His wrath is quickly kindled. But blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him. Kiss the blood-stained body of the crucified Son; look on Him whom you have pierced, and believe (John 19:37; Zechariah 12:10). So must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life (John 3:15). There is one single refuge in this entire dying, judged, and condemned creation, and it is exactly in the place where the wrath of God falls on His creation. But it falls not on all the sinners, who cannot hide from the wrath. It falls on the One who becomes sin, and willingly lays down His life to make friends out of His enemies. Because the wrath of God falls there and there alone, He alone is your refuge in the midst of everything you have done and left undone. Blessed is the one who takes refuge in Christ from the wrath of God!
“Be gracious to me, O Yahweh, because I am in distress; my eye is wasted from grief; my soul and my body also. For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my iniquity, and my bones waste away. … I had said in my alarm, “I am cut off from before Your eyes” (Psalm 31:9-10, 22). “In You, O Yahweh, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame; in Your righteousness deliver me! Incline Your ear to me; rescue me speedily! Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me” (31:1-2)! How can you know that the God before whom the world stands condemned will have mercy on you? Only because He is the one into whose hand Jesus, suffering on the cross, committed His spirit; and He is the one who did not let His Holy One see decay, who answered this cry of the Son: “Into Your hand I commit My spirit. You have redeemed Me, Yahweh, faithful God of truth… You have not delivered Me into the hand of the enemy… I trust in You, O Yahweh; I say, ‘You are My God.’ My times are in Your hand; rescue Me from the hand of My enemies and My persecutors! Make Your face shine upon Your Servant; save Me in Your steadfast love” (31:5, 8, 14-16). In His steadfast love, the face of the Father shines again on the Son as He takes up His life in resurrection. Blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him!
Here is your refuge from your own sin and from the sins of those around you. Here is your refuge from this world that is passing away. Here is your refuge from death in the life of Him who pours out baptismal blood and water from His side, to wash you clean. The mountain will not hide you; it will be removed from its place. The sea will not have you; the sea will be no more (Revelation 21:1). The grave will not hold you, because you belong to the crucified one who is the resurrection and the life. “Here we have a firm foundation, here the refuge of the lost: Christ, the Rock of our salvation, is the Name of which we boast; Lamb of God, for sinners wounded, sacrifice to cancel guilt! None shall ever be confounded who on Him have built their hope” (LSB 451:4).
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 4/5/23