Perfected. Good Friday, Tenebrae. 2016
Good Friday—Tenebrae (7 pm)
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. John 19:28-30 (Lamentations 2:13-15; Hebrews 10:1-2. 10-18)
March 25, 2016
No one ever thinks destruction is going to come until it does. Till the end people keep believing that the good times will go on forever; at least the days of terror will pass them by. We all secretly believe we’re special.
Nevertheless, God warns us with clear and certain words that destruction is coming to the world because of sin. He tells us clearly and unmistakably—He never, never, never will overlook sin or let sinners go unpunished.
“He will render to each one according to his works…for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil…” God says in Romans chapter 2 (v. 6-9).
And as the children have learned from the catechism, God says regarding the ten commandments: I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sins of the fathers to the 3rd and 4th generation of those who hate Me…”
Which means if you want to disobey God’s commandments, if you want to excuse your disobedience to God—not matter what that disobedience is, no matter how minor you think it is—you can’t tell yourself that God will forgive you anyway. You’re only kidding yourself.
The two sets of readings we heard are examples of this. In the first we saw Jesus, the Son of God, stretched out on the cross, giving up His spirit. Destruction comes upon Him as God visits our iniquities upon Him.
The first set, from Lamentations, are the prophet Jeremiah’s words as he weeps over the destruction of the city of Jerusalem, about 500 years before Christ. God told the people of Israel before they entered the promised land that if they did not keep His commandments, God would not only not be their God and abandon them to their enemies. He would actively turn against them Himself and set Himself against them. As He had once looked on them to bless them and do them good, He would set His eyes on them to punish them. And after the Israelites came into the good land that God promised them, they forgot His warning. They turned aside to worship idols. God sent them many prophets to warn them of the destruction that was coming, and to cease from their rebellion against Him.
But they didn’t listen. And so in Lamentations, Jeremiah wanders through the ruined city that had once exulted in God’s favor and bragged of His presence. He mourns over the city’s destruction. “The Lord determined to lay in ruins the wall of the daughter of Zion; He stretched out the measuring line…” (Lamentations 2:9). God was calculating and measuring with precision not to build Jerusalem up but to destroy it. Jeremiah watches children die in the arms of their mothers, because after the invading armies have ransacked the city, there is no food.
Destruction came upon Jerusalem because of the sin of the people. They should have known that this was the inevitable result of their sin. But they chose to believe false prophets who told them that the day of destruction would not come. “Your prophets have seen for you false and deceptive visions; they have not exposed your iniquity to restore your fortunes, but have seen for you oracles that are false and misleading.” (Lamentations 2:14)
What happened in Jerusalem is coming for everyone who transgresses the commandments of God. Destruction is coming on the world because of sin.
And not only because of the sins we know and willingly do, but also because of those we don’t know, and those which we can’t help. The sin we were born in, that we inherited from Adam, is going to be rewarded with destruction. The sins of our hearts that we try to suppress—unbelieving thoughts, evil desires, hatred and desire for vengeance, pleasure in our neighbor’s downfall—are going to be visited with eternal punishment.
In other words, things cannot go on like this! Our sins must be removed, otherwise all we have in front of us is the fearful and certain destruction that God will bring on all the ungodly. The emptiness of the altar and chancel tonight—its desolation—is a faint reflection of the eternal desolation that is to come on the world and all who commit iniquity.
But let us turn our attention again to the second set of readings, from St. John. There Jesus, as we said before, is experiencing desolation. He is experiencing the judgment of God on sin.
As He hangs on the cursed tree of the cross, He cries out, “I thirst.”
Of course, Jesus is thirsty. Dying people often experience great thirst. And besides the fact that He is dying, Jesus has other reasons for His thirst. He has been up all night and all morning laboring for our salvation. He prayed and wept in Gethsemane, and sweat like great drops of blood fell from His body. He was arrested and marched to the house of the high priest, some miles away, enduring blows and curses. Then all night He was accused by false witnesses, by the assembled elders of His people, and by the chief priests, until at last they declared Him to be worthy of death. He then was handed over to Pilate and accused and interrogated before Him. He stood in front of a crowd that screamed for Him to be crucified. He was mocked by the entire troop of Roman soldiers. He was torn open with whips and crowned with thorns. Finally they forced Him to carry the heavy cross to the Place of a Skull. There His hands and feet were nailed to the wood and they lifted Him up to hang from those nails. It is no surprise that Jesus is thirsty after that ordeal, no surprise that as His blood pours out He is seized with thirst.
But of course Jesus’ thirst is not merely a physical thirst. It is a spiritual thirst, the thirst of one being consumed in the heat of the wrath of God. In Luke 16 we are told the story of the rich man and Lazarus; Lazarus lived covered with sores and racked with hunger, but when he died, the angels carried him to the bosom of Abraham. But the rich man in Jesus’ parable died and went to hell. And there in the flames, he cried out for Lazarus to come to him and touch his tongue with a drop of water, so severe was his thirst and agony in the flames of hell.
Jesus, God’s Son, also experiences this thirst on the cross. Though He was innocent and had done nothing to deserve God’s wrath, He was experiencing the torments of the damned. God’s eternal destruction was upon Him.
Destruction had come upon Jesus because He was offering Himself there for our transgressions.
Jesus has another thirst parching Him on the cross. It is the thirst caused by His love for us. He loves us, and because He loves us He thirsts for our salvation. He thirsts that we might be saved from the destruction coming on the world because of sin.
In Jesus’ heart burns an unquenchable fire that causes this thirst. It is the fire of divine love; the fire that burned the bush on Sinai but did not consume it; the fire that later set the mountain ablaze. That fire does not burn against us but for us; it burns in Jesus’ heart, and it causes Him to thirst for our salvation. And this thirst will not be quenched until He has rescued us from destruction.
This fire that is burning in Jesus’ heart is described in the Song of Solomon: “Love is as strong as death, jealousy is fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the LORD. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly despised.” (Song of Solomon 8:6-7) Solomon is not talking about the love of a man for his wife. He is talking about the love of the heavenly bridegroom, Jesus Christ, for His bride, the Church. The very flame of God burns in Jesus’ heart and drives His thirst for our salvation.
“You have captivated my heart, my sister, my bride,” says the Bridegroom in the Song of Solomon to His beloved. Jesus, the bridegroom of the Church, has had His heart wounded and stolen by those who have deserved destruction. He will not be satisfied until He has freed His beloved bride from destruction. It is for this that He thirsts.
And so it is not the drink of sour wine that Jesus receives that quenches this thirst. His thirst is quenched when destruction is removed from His bride, the elect. And that happens when, after receiving the drink from the sponge, He says “It is finished,” and gives up His spirit in death.
There His thirst is quenched. What He thirsted for—our salvation—is finished, completed.
But how can that be true? Just as Jesus experienced the fire of divine love burning in His heart, we experience the fire of evil desire still strongly glowing in ours. How can our salvation be accomplished and our destruction be averted when sin seems so often to still hold us captive?
In the readings still ahead of us, from the tenth chapter of Hebrews, the author tells us about the futility and weakness of the sacrifices offered in the temple in the Old Testament. “The Law…can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins?” (Hebrews 10:1-2)
Each year on the day of atonement, the high priest would bring blood behind the veil, into the most holy place, and put it on the atonement cover, or mercy seat, of the ark of the covenant. That mercy seat was the place of God’s dwelling on earth. And yet the sacrifice was repeated yearly. The blood continued to be put on the mercy seat because each year the people of Israel had new sins to atone for. And the writer of Hebrews tells us, there was no way for these sacrifices to make the people perfect or complete or “finished.” They were never completely through with their sins. Their sins were never finally gone.
In the end, this was because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins (Hebrews 10:4). An animal’s life, an animal’s soul, is not sufficient to remove the sins of a human being and save him from destruction.
And so the yearly sacrifice of atonement didn’t give people a clean conscience.
But on the cross Jesus is offering a better sacrifice, one that really is sufficient to cancel our sins. When Jesus suffers and dies on the cross, it is not merely a human being suffering agony and then dying. God is hanging on the cross; God suffers anguish; God dies. When Jesus’ blood is poured out and His life is given, a greater price has been paid than all the debt of your sins—a greater price than the cost of the sins of the whole world. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23); the due reward for your sin is eternal death. But Jesus has paid more than enough to ransom and release you from eternal death; more than enough to ransom the whole world. His death and the shedding of His blood have removed sin.
Not as though sin no longer lives and works in you. But it is no longer counted before God, because it has been paid for by the death of Jesus.
That is the reason why those who believe in Jesus are no longer burdened with the consciousness of sin so that we need new sacrifices to be offered for us. It’s not that we don’t experience our sinful desires or see how we stumble and fall into sin. It’s that we believe that the blood Jesus shed and the death He died cancels and covers all our sin—the sin of our past, the sin that lives in us now, and the all the sin that we will commit before we, too, give up our spirits in death.
On Sunday morning, in Bible class, I have often asked the class whether they have experienced what it is to have a disturbed conscience, a conscience that is uncertain because it is aware of sin and God’s wrath against it. It seems that almost everyone there not only has experienced it, but many continue to experience it often.
Through the death of Jesus God wants to give us a restful, peaceful conscience; not a conscience that thinks that it no longer sins, but a conscience that is at rest because it believes and is confident that by His one offering Jesus has put our sins away from God’s sight forever.
That is what Jesus said before He died: It is finished. There is no more price to be paid for sins. There is nothing left to be done to save us from destruction. All is accomplished when Jesus gives up His spirit.
And the tenth chapter of Hebrews echoes these words of Jesus. It says that although God commanded the sacrifices of the Old Testament, they were never really His will, His lasting will. Jesus came to accomplish God’s will; not to sacrifice many animals, but to make one sacrifice—to offer up His own body and blood to God. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all (Hebrews 10:10)—we have been made holy and set apart for God by the one sacrifice of Jesus.
And again: For by a single offering Jesus has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified (Heb. 10:14). Jesus has perfected us, completed us. He has finished us by a single offering, the offering of Himself. No, we think, how are we perfected? How are we finished? It is finished, Jesus said, and then died. The turning away of the Father’s wrath, the reconciliation of God with us, the covering of our sin, our being counted righteous, or justified—all finished, completed, perfected, when Jesus is delivered over to death.
Finally: “The Holy Spirit also bears witness to us, for after saying, ‘This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,’ then He adds, ‘I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.’ Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.” (Hebrews 10: 15-18)
The reason there is no longer any offering for sin is not because Christians no longer sin. It is because, as the LORD promised through the prophet Jeremiah, He “remembers our sins and lawless deeds no more.” The Lord is not forgetful. He does not remember them because they have been paid for by Jesus. The Lord indeed puts His laws on our hearts and writes them in our minds, and yet, nonetheless, that doesn’t enable us to keep His laws without sin. But as the writer of Hebrews points out, the inscription of the Law on our hearts is not the whole of the New Testament. He writes His laws in our hearts and minds and begins to sanctify us in this life. But our justification, the blotting out of our sins from before God’s eyes, is not simply begun now. It is completed. It is finished. And as a result, there is no longer any offering for sin.
Destruction is still coming on the world because of sin. The day is far spent and evening is at hand. The world has grown old, and as it ages it is not becoming better but more wicked. Judgment looms. It appears to glower over us too. The end of our lives is before us. And when it comes, it will look and feel the same as it does for the rest of the world—not like a happy day, but a day of mourning. It will not look like the day of our salvation, but the day of our destruction. It will not appear to be light but darkness.
In the Tenebrae service tonight the candles are halfway out. When we have sung the Benedictus they will all be extinguished except the one in the center. Then that one too will be taken from its stand. The Church will become totally dark, just as everything became dark for Jesus’ disciples when His body was taken down from the cross, wrapped in the cloth with spices, placed in the tomb, and sealed in with a heavy stone.
Likely when we die that is what our eyes will see and our senses will experience at the ending of our lives—darkness.
But as the lights go out and the darkness descends, Jesus’ words from the cross will sustain us: It is finished. With those words, like Moses, we will enter the thick darkness where God is (Exodus 20: 21), and in the darkness the light will dawn on us (Luke 1: 79), because by one sacrifice Christ has perfected us before His Father.
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Soli Deo Gloria