Good Friday—Chief Service (1 PM)
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. John 19:28-30, 34 (John 18-19, Is. 52:13-53:12, 2 Cor. 5:14-21)
April 14, 2017
Why is this Friday “Good”?
My son asked me—last Sunday, I think it was: “Why is it called ‘Good Friday’? It doesn’t seem good.” We sit here in a church stripped bare, in darkness, hearing the agony of our Lord Jesus read out loud, hearing the reproaches of God against us a little on from now, praying prayers asking God for mercy. It indeed does not seem good. When we look at the mockery of Jesus, think of the shame and wounds He endured, and consider also that God looked with anger and wrath on His Son as well, because He was carrying the sin of the world, like the scapegoat in the Levitical Law—it is not good. The sin we were born in, the sins we have committed knowingly and unknowingly, the sin we often excuse, tolerate, continue in and think we can repent later—not good. Here we see it unmasked for what it is: sin brings death. Sin brings God’s anger and punishment. God will not leave sin unpunished.
The word “good” in Good Friday probably originally meant something different than we think when we hear it. It probably meant something like “holy” or “godly.”
Yet it is right to think of Good Friday as being “good” in the way we normally use the word. Good Friday is good because on Good Friday (together with Easter) Jesus fulfilled or “finished” the Gospel, the “Good News.” He finished the message that His apostles would later proclaim, and that the Reformation began to proclaim again after it was lost. He finished the good news of our justification before God, our being accounted righteous, as Isaiah the prophet put it, our being “released from sin.”
On this day Jesus “finished” the content of the Gospel.
- It is recognized as good news only by helpless, condemned sinners, terrified by God’s Law;
- But to them it is very good, because it proclaims that Jesus finished our sin and God’s wrath on the cross, and that through His Work alone, received by faith, we are accounted righteous, or justified.
The world doesn’t receive the preaching of Jesus’ suffering and death as good news. There are plenty of people who understand intellectually what we preach, that Jesus suffered for our sins so that we might not be condemned—as St. Paul writes: For our sake [God] made Him to be sin who knew know sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:17). There are plenty of people who understand this with their minds. Some—many even—profess to believe this. Yet their faith goes no deeper than their mind and intellect; it is not a faith worked by the Holy Spirit, giving salvation, on which a person stakes his life and eternity.
Such a person doesn’t really regard the death of Jesus as good news. The suffering and death of Jesus, after all, doesn’t seem like anything to rejoice in. A man dying in shame and mockery a horrible death seems weak and useless to the world, not joyful, happy news.
The agony of Jesus, the death of Jesus, is good news, whether a person realizes it or not. But most people do not. There are many people who come to church occasionally who hear the death of Jesus proclaimed, but it appears to make no impression on them. It does not lead them to renounce their sins, hear God’s Word more frequently, be baptized, live a life that is by faith in the One who died for them. Even on those who regularly come to hear the Word of Christ preached and receive His body and blood, there are many for whom it does not appear to be particularly good news.
That’s because although it is good news for all people, although it is the best news there is—it is only recognized as good news by the people the Bible refers to as “the poor”. It is recognized as good news by people who have been brought to a knowledge of sin, who as a result are terrified and afflicted.
A person comes to this knowledge through the Law of God. The more we look into God’s Law, or hear it, the more we become conscious of our guilt before God, and the seriousness of His anger against those who disobey His Law. This is one of the reasons why you are so often encouraged and exhorted to learn the Small Catechism by heart and to read the Bible. When you do, the Holy Spirit will often convict you of your sin before God. You don’t get very far in the Bible before God starts commanding things and you realize you haven’t done them. You can’t read the Bible very long before you are confronted with an example of God threatening or punishing sinners, and realizing that you are guilty of the same sins that caused Him to send the flood, or drown Pharaoh, or reject Saul. The words of Psalm 5 are an example: For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not sojourn with You. The boastful may not stand before Your eyes; You hate all evildoers. You destroy those who speak lies; the Lord abhors bloodthirsty and deceitful men. (v. 4-6) Is there anyone here today who has never spoken lies?
Those who are brought to a knowledge of their sin become frightened by words like these; we become conscious of the guilt we bear before God and His anger against us as sinners, and we look for how we can become free from sin. Because we are Lutherans, we learn that we are to take the guilt of our sin to Jesus, who atoned for the sins of the world.
But even as Christians, we find that sin remains with us. Even if we don’t know it from experience, we can look at the example of St. Peter and see just how much evil and weakness remains even in Christ’s disciples. Peter said, “I will die with you,” and couldn’t keep his pledge for a few hours. We are not able to do “our part” to be faithful Christians. We can’t keep ourselves from falling into sin.
In fact, we are not even able to produce the faith that takes hold of Jesus and saves us. The more you see your sin, the more your heart trembles in fear of God, or in anger against Him at putting you in this impossible situation of trying to please Him when you can’t. The more you see yourself fall, the more difficult it becomes in the flesh to believe that God has really forgiven you.
This is a terrible feeling to those who have experienced it. Such a person feels forsaken by God.
But even if a person has not experienced this so intensely, only those who have come to the knowledge of their sin through God’s Law hear the death of Jesus as good news. A person may not have felt God’s wrath in their hearts so intensely, or felt forsaken by God. But all Christians believe testimony of the Word of God, that there is nothing good in them, that born in the sin transmitted by Adam to his descendants, they are by nature spiritually dead, enemies of God. And all Christians know that God is angry at sin and will certainly punish it with suffering in this life, with death, and with eternal torment in hell.
And in the cross and death of Jesus we see this. Jesus was born without sin and never committed sin. The result was that He was immortal. He was not subject to death, and certainly not to God’s anger, certainly not to His condemnation.
Yet today, on Good Friday, we see Jesus die. We hear Him cry that He is forsaken by God. We see how angry God is with our sins, that He would not spare His Son, when His Son was carrying all the sins of the world, but punished Him, turned His face from Him, allowed His Son to die and, while dying, to experience His condemnation and curse.
We also see in the Passion of Jesus that it is not just a human being who is suffering and dying on the cross. Jesus is the eternal Son of the Father, God of God, light of light. He tells Pilate “my Kingdom is from another place.” And when Pilate hears that Jesus has declared that He is the Son of God, Pilate is afraid. It is fearful to think that not just a man suffers the mockery, the agony, and death of the cross. It shows not only how wicked human beings are, that His own people would reject Him and demand Him to be put to death. It shows how serious our sins are in God’s sight, that He would require nothing less than the suffering of God in the flesh to atone for them.
When the rebellious people of Israel were thirsty in the desert, God caused water to flow out of a rock and quenched their thirst. He refreshed them, even though they were rebellious and unfaithful. But His faithful Son, there is no refreshment. Jesus is given sour wine to drink and no water, which is a picture of how the Father did not turn away His wrath from His Son. He did not relent, but gave Jesus the cup of His wrath, which belonged to us. It had to be drained to the bottom.
All that is very bad news. If you take it to heart you will be troubled and distressed, because you realize that Jesus’ agony is a picture of the agony you will endure in hell unless your sin and guilt is removed.
But how can that happen, when we continue to be sinners?
This is the good news that Jesus finished on Good Friday, the good news of the pure Gospel:
We cannot purge away our sins, not even with the help of the Holy Spirit, so that God will no longer be angry with us.
Our sins must be “put away”. We must be “released” from them. Our sin must be covered, as the 32nd psalm says.
This is why Good Friday is rightly called good, because this is what Jesus does today. He covers our sins and makes us to be accounted righteous, as Isaiah 53 said.
When the stripes are laid open on Jesus’ back by the whip, we are healed, and peace with God is being made for us.
When He is mocked and scorned as a King with a crown of thorns, and a jeering crowd calls for Him to be crucified, God is leading Him like a lamb to be slaughtered for our sins; and Jesus does not open His mouth to protest.
He is being oppressed and afflicted by God; God the Father’s will is to crush Jesus, so that we may not be crushed, but be accounted righteous, be declared not wicked but righteous and without sin.
Jesus is “reconciling the Father to us” as He is nailed to the cross and lifted up to hang there under His curse. He thirsts and is forsaken by God, so that we will not be forsaken, or thirst for God and not have our thirst be quenched. God does not let us thirst because His anger is removed from us. He is reconciled to us and at peace. “The chastisement that brought us peace was upon Him.”
That is why Isaiah says, “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied, by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.” (Is. 53:11)
Jesus made us to be accounted righteous by God. Not as a fiction, a lie. But really making payment sufficient for God to count our sins to us no longer, so that we are really righteous and just and without sin through faith in Jesus alone.
“It is finished,” says Jesus. What is finished? The atonement for our sins; God’s reconciliation with sinners, the forgiveness of our sins. It is finished. Nothing is to be done but to receive this Word of Jesus and believe that, as great as your sins are, Jesus has paid the sufficient ransom to set you free from them.
Paul says, God committed to us the ministry of reconciliation. He means the ministry of preaching this Gospel. This is why God invented the pastoral office and why He still sends men out to preach His pure Gospel.
It is to bring you good news, so that you may not thirst and get sour wine, so that you may not thirst like the rich man in hell, longing for a drop of water in the flames but never receiving one. Instead you are to receive the water of the Gospel for your thirst. That water does not come from nowhere. It comes from Jesus’ death.
Just as His body was pierced and water and blood poured, so God pours on You His grace. Announces your justification and His reconciliation with you, that He has put all your sins on His Son. Releases you from sin in the absolution. Purifies you in His sight, burying and resurrecting you with Jesus in Baptism.
Giving you His flesh to eat and blood to drink.
This streams to you from Jesus’ death, here and now.
So we call it “Good Friday,” because Jesus finished the good news on this day. Good like God said His creation was very good before the fall. Now God says all who believe in Christ are good like that; spotless, pure, holy, through faith in Jesus alone—a new creation.
Wednesday after Oculi
St. Peter Lutheran Church
Passion History III: Palace of the High Priest
March 2, 2016
“No Condemnation in Christ Jesus”
Jesus is led from the Mount of Olives bound with ropes or chains. The soldiers lead Him back to Jerusalem to stand trial before the high priest and the council of the elders, called the Sanhedrin. We can imagine the kind of abuse He had to endure on that long, torch-lit walk to the city: insults, curses, mockery, punches and kicks.
The Law of God commanded that the priests and elders were to decide legal cases in Israel, according to Deut. 17 and 19. And in the Law God gave to Israel, the punishment for false teaching and blasphemy—that is, to curse or misuse the name of God—is death by stoning (Leviticus 24). The chief priests and elders have been plotting Jesus’ death for some time, but they don’t want to just assassinate him in a corner somewhere. They want His death to look like it was done legally, both so that they can satisfy their own conscience that they have not transgressed God’s law, and so that it will look to the public like Jesus was put to death as a false prophet. In that way they intend to snuff out the people’s faith that Jesus is the Christ.
So they lead Jesus first to the father-in-law of the high priest, named Annas, for questioning. Then they take Him to the high priest’s palace, where the priests and the council have gathered for Jesus’ trial. First the high priest questions Jesus about His disciples and His teaching. Next they bring forward false witnesses, who accuse Jesus of threatening to destroy the temple, God’s dwelling place. But the testimony of these witnesses is contradictory. As Jesus is slandered and defamed by these false witnesses, Jesus remains silent. He says nothing in His own defense. Finally, the high priest puts Jesus under oath and commands Him in God’s name to answer this question: “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus replies, “I am. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power of God and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest shouts out that Jesus has just committed blasphemy in the council’s presence; they have heard it from His own lips. He asks for a verdict from the council, and the council unanimously votes that Jesus is worthy of death. Then, because it was late, the council disbanded for the night, in order to reconvene in the morning, when they would send Jesus to the Roman governor and ask him to carry out their sentence of death.
While the priests and elders went home and slept, Jesus was kept under guard. His guards spit in His face. They beat Him and mocked Him, putting a blindfold over His head and then slapping Him in the face, saying, “Prophesy, Christ! Who hit you?” That was how Jesus spent the night before His execution.
Early the next morning, the priests and council gathered again and asked Jesus once more if He was the Christ. And when Jesus confessed that He was, even though He knew they had no intention of listening to Him or letting Him go, they took His confession as proof of His guilt. And they made plans to hand Him over to Pontius Pilate, so that Pilate would carry out their sentence, not by stoning, as the Law mandated, but by crucifixion, which was the Roman manner of executing non-citizens.
Now we must ask ourselves why this happened, that Jesus, who was innocent, was put on trial by the God-appointed religious authorities and condemned to die as one who had cursed God. Jesus really would have been a blasphemer if He had claimed to be God’s Son and was only a man. But Jesus was innocent; He was who He claimed to be. So how could it happen that these men, the leaders of the people of God, who were supposed to be servants of God, could condemn God’s own Son as the worst kind of offender, as one who cursed God? And how could it happen that God would allow His beloved Son to be accused, tried, and condemned, and to be spit on, slapped and put to shame, by wicked hypocrites?
It was not just a tragic miscarriage of justice, not just another example of evil men getting the upper hand in the Church and using its authority to persecute the righteous.
It happened by the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, as the Apostle Peter later preached after Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 2:23). God used the wicked priests and elders of the Jews to put Jesus on trial and bring His charges against His Son. The priests and council falsely accused and condemned the Lord. But through their trial, which was unjust, God was conducting His own trial of Jesus, which was just. He was trying Jesus as the one who was accused of committing all the sins of the world.
Of course Jesus Himself had committed no sin and spoken no blasphemy. “No deceit was found in His mouth (1 Peter 2:22),” nothing untrue ever passed His lips. Yet He stood before God on trial for all the blasphemies and sins ever committed by human beings. And God found Him guilty. Through the mouth of the priests He condemned Jesus to death. God handed Jesus over to be mocked and disgraced, while even Jesus’ own disciple Peter denied ever knowing Him. Jesus was cast away by both God and man as a sinner and was handed over to the civil authority to be put to death for His crime.
Does it seem right or just or loving for God to do this? It does not. Why should Jesus be tried and found guilty by God for misusing His name? Jesus never misused God’s name or treated God’s name with disrespect.
We are the ones who have done this. We have used God’s name lightly, using it to express boredom, or irritation. We’ve sworn by His name in trivial matters, as though God’s name was not holy and worth more than everything in heaven and earth combined, and as if God didn’t care how His name was used. We’ve used it to curse people and to condemn them to hell. Some of us have even cursed God Himself, whether out loud in words or in the thoughts of our hearts. Some of us have used His name as a joke. We have tolerated, believed, or even spread false teaching in God’s name, acting as if it did not matter if God’s Word was falsified. At many times and in various ways we have denied Christ, like Peter, when we were afraid that we would be hated or laughed at if we acknowledged that we belong to Him. And in addition to the ways we have abused God’s name, we have also neglected to use it rightly. God wants us to call on His name. He wants us to ask Him for what we need, and then to praise and thank Him for His gifts and His help. But we have neglected prayer, as though we didn’t need God’s help and His gifts, and we have neglected to give thanks and praise, as though we had not received everything we have from Him.
For this misuse of God’s Name, along with all our other sins, we deserve to be brought to trial and accused. And we often feel ourselves accused.
Our consciences accuse us. They remind us of our past and all the ways we have rejected God as our God. They speak to us about the present state of our hearts, reminding us that they are not pure, but instead full of disbelief, pride, vengefulness, lust, covetousness. Our consciences put us on trial and accuse us. They call out our sins and remind us that we do not deserve to be acquitted by God, but deserve His punishment.
Sometimes our consciences fail, though. Sometimes they don’t accuse us even though we are guilty. Other times they accuse us of sins when there is no sin. However, there is another voice that accuses us which is never wrong. It is the voice of the Law of God. When the Ten Commandments accuse us of sin, their accusation is true, because those commandments don’t come from the darkened mind or heart of man, but from God. And the Ten Commandments show us to be sinners who have rebelled against God by thought and word and deed.
Then we have another accuser who shows us no mercy. This accuser would bring our secret sins not only before our own eyes but also drag them before the throne of God and the company of the holy angels and lay our shame and guilt before their holy eyes, crying out for our damnation. His name is Satan, which means “the Accuser.” He is not willing that your sin should ever be forgotten—not by you, not by God.
And yet it is Jesus and not us who stands accused by God for all your sins. And God finds Him guilty and condemns Him. How can God, who is just and righteous, pass this sentence on His Son?
Because Jesus willingly offered Himself to bear your sin and its accusation, and indeed the sins of the whole world. Jesus offered Himself to be your mediator, to make the Father pleased with you, a sinner. He offered Himself to stand in your place. The Father isn’t committing an injustice against His Son. The Son willingly offers Himself up, to pour out His blood to save you from being accused, tried, and condemned for your sins. When the Father condemns and punishes His Son for your sins, and then forgives you, God is doing justice. “If we confess our sins,” says the apostle, “God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) He isn’t just letting us off the hook and letting our sin go unpunished. But because our sins have already been accused, tried, and condemned in Jesus, God does justly when He forgives us and cleanses us.
That is why Jesus is accused, put on trial, and condemned—to spare you from God’s accusation and condemnation. But because Jesus has already been tried for our sins and condemned, God no longer enters into judgment with you. This is what Scripture teaches again and again. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, Paul says in Romans 8:1. Those who are baptized into Christ are not condemned by God, even though their consciences, the Law, and Satan accuse them. In fact, God does not even accuse or enter into judicial proceedings with those who believe in Christ. Jesus says in John 5, Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life (5:24).
Because Jesus is accused for your sins here, God does not accuse you of them. Because Jesus was condemned for your sins by God, there is no condemnation for you. The accusations levelled against Jesus are your good testimony before God. His condemnation is your acquittal. He is the one who stands before God in your defense if anyone would bring any charges against you: If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2)
That’s why Jesus stands there silent when His accusers rail against Him. He does not want to escape their accusations. He wants to bear them all, along with all their punishment. He wants to let all the charges levelled against Him stick to Him, so that none may stick to you. He lets them slap His face, make fun of Him, spit on Him, so that the shame of our sins will be on Him and not on us.
When you are accused and brought to trial by your conscience, when Satan wants to expose all your sins to the eyes of God and call for your condemnation, and when even God seems to have rendered His verdict on you in the Ten Commandments—“He is worthy of death!”—remember Jesus’ trial in Caiaphas’ house. Here God accused Jesus of the sins of the whole world. He tried Him and found Him guilty, who willingly offered Himself to bear your sins. He sentenced Jesus to death. And therefore God does not enter into judgment with you. He does not accuse you or condemn you for the sins that Jesus bore.
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria
Wednesday after Reminiscere (Vespers/Final)
St. Peter Lutheran Church
Passion History, Part 2: Gethsemane
February 24, 2016
“Turn Not From His Griefs Away”
It’s easy for us to pass over Jesus’ suffering quickly. To not allow it to sink in.
That is an indicator of the hardness in our hearts. Even if the account of Jesus’ Passion had nothing to do with us, sympathy and love for other people should cause us to feel pity and sadness when we hear about the agonies Jesus suffered without having deserved it in any way. But of course living in the world as it is, we are used to hearing about people suffering, experiencing tragedy, and dying. Every day young men are shot and killed in Chicago, and it doesn’t even get on the news. It’s easy for most of us to be numb to other people’s suffering until it has something to do with us.
But Jesus’ anguish has everything to do with us. Our hard hearts don’t believe this, but it is true.
Because it is true it is important for us to turn our faces toward and not away from Jesus as He suffers in the Garden of Gethsemane. To open our ears and not allow our hearts to remain cold and indifferent as His Passion is read and preached. His pain has everything to do with you, if you could only perceive it.
In the reading, Jesus has His disciples sit down while He goes a little way off to pray. He tells them, “Watch with Me.” He doesn’t ask them to go do some work, to go preach or distribute alms to the poor. They are only to stay awake and watch Him as He prays.
That doesn’t sound like a very exciting thing to watch. But Jesus tells them “watch with Me” for good reason. By staying awake and praying they will fortify themselves against the spiritual attack that is coming, “the hour of the power of darkness” He spoke about.
But by watching as He prays, and not turning away from His agony, from the torment of His soul, they will see what was usually invisible to their hard hearts.
They would see in Jesus’ tears and sobs to God His Father a glimpse of the true nature of sin. And they would begin to perceive in Jesus’ horrible agony a little of His love and the Father’s love toward them.
And for the same reason Jesus speaks these words: “Watch with Me” not only for them, but for us. If we do not turn away from Jesus’ anguish in Gethsemane, we will be strengthened against temptation. We will begin to perceive what it means when we confess “I, a poor, miserable sinner…” And we will also see, as Jesus is crushed by anxiety and torment, something of His love for us.
Go to dark Gethsemane
All who feel the tempter’s pow’r
Your Redeemer’s conflict see
Watch with Him one bitter hour.
Turn not from His griefs away;
Learn from Jesus Christ to pray. (LSB p. 436)
Jesus’ Agony in Gethsemane
Jesus’ agony in the garden may not be obvious from hearing the story read. When we hear of Jesus being flogged by Pilate, crowned with thorns, having His hands and feet pierced by nails, the physical suffering is more readily apparent.
Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane is not so much physical as emotional and spiritual. But in reality, that means that His suffering in Gethsemane was worse than mere physical pain.
Jesus makes this clear when He asks His disciples to watch with Him. “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death,” He says. He doesn’t complain of bodily pain, but suffering in His soul. And the pain is so great that He is brought to the gates of death.
We shouldn’t write off these words of Jesus as an exaggeration. His suffering is so severe an angel comes to strengthen Him, otherwise He would perish there in Gethsemane.
But how can suffering in the soul be so severe that you could die from it?
There is an engraving by the famous artist Albrecht Dürer (Engraved Passion, “The Agony in the Garden”) that seems to capture this torment. In it Jesus is kneeling in the garden. Peter, James, and John are in the foreground asleep. Off to the left of the picture an angel appears in a cloud, holding up a wooden cross before Jesus. Meanwhile, Jesus lifts His hands straight up in the air. His face looks almost angry, and His mouth is open as though He is shouting at the angel or God. Perhaps He is in the midst of a groan. Whatever it is, the woodcut captures the turmoil and agony of a man who looks as if He is being torn apart from inside.
People do experience such suffering of soul that they die. They suffer such inner torment that they take their own lives. Perhaps it is a chemical imbalance in the brain, as they say today; or perhaps, as Luther thought, the devil harasses people with despondency and sorrow until they give way to despair.
Other people experience torment of soul that is explicitly spiritual. They become overwhelmed with the awareness of their sins; they become painfully conscious of God’s wrath against sin. Luther experienced this, and occasionally people still do today. When a person undergoes this they are not merely depressed but are actually experiencing a little of the pains of hell. They experience separation from God and can’t find rest from their spiritual agony. Luther expresses this in his hymn “Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice” (LSB p. 556, st. 3):
My own good works all came to naught,
No grace or merit gaining:
Free will against God’s judgment fought
Dead to all good remaining.
My fears increased till sheer despair
Left only death to be my share;
The pangs of hell I suffered.
Luther is not being metaphorical there. Consciousness of sin and God’s wrath against it are the pangs of hell itself.
But even the greatest saints only experience a small taste of those agonies. What Jesus experienced in the garden was far beyond that. He was experiencing the undiluted anger and judgmetn of God in His soul. As He looked to what was to come, He saw that He was going to be forsaken by God on the cross. He was bearing the full force of God’s anger. The grief and anguish this caused Jesus was enough to kill Him without whips, nails, and the Roman spear. Had the angel not come to Him and God not supported Him He would have died in God’s anger. All alone in the night He wrestled with God.
And so Isaiah’s prophecy concerning Jesus was fulfilled: “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief…Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…” (Isaiah 53:3-4) He was sorrowful to the point of death because He was not bearing His own sorrows but ours, and those of the whole world.
The grief and regret that sinners in hell experience for eternity for their sins was on Him. In hell the damned will be gnawed forever by a worm that does not die—their conscience accusing them, “You brought this on yourself by rejecting God! Why did you do that?” They long to be able to go back and repent but they can’t. There is no hope. That is also what we have merited by every one of our numberless sins. That is the bitter cup that Jesus drinks on the Mount of Olives—alone.
The most terrible part of Jesus’ torment is that, as He anticipates what is coming, He is not merely facing human enemies in Jerusalem. He isn’t merely facing Satan and the unclean spirits. But it is God His Father whose hand is coming down on Him. Jesus makes that clear to the disciples when they first enter the garden. He says, “You will all fall away from Me this night, because it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’” (Matthew 26:31, Zechariah 13:5) Jesus is the Good Shepherd; His disciples are the sheep. And the prophecy Jesus quotes makes it clear that the One who strikes down the Good Shepherd is God Himself. God Himself strikes down His Son because He is carrying on Himself the guilt of the world’s sins. So it is God who judges Jesus, God who condemns Him, God who is angry with Him.
It’s no wonder that Jesus prays in great agony and grief. He casts Himself down on His face and begs His Abba, His dear Father, to take this cup away. And as His prayers are answered with “No” from His Father, He becomes more anguished. He has known since before the world was created that this is what must be, yet He asks His Father to let ther ebe another way. And as He prays His sweat becomes like great drops of blood streaming from His body. He waters the garden with bloody sweat. And the Father looks at His beloved Son in agony, falling apart, writhing like a worm, and says, “No, You must drink this cup.” That is what we see when we watch with Jesus—the Father, who has said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased”—will not spare His beloved Son the anguish of His wrath. He does not spare His Son because nothing less will atone for our sins. In Jesus’ torment we see what sin is and what it does. It brings torment and agony to Christ. And what will it do to those who don’t repent?
That’s why Jesus tells the disciples and us to watch. But they don’t. They fall asleep. It’s too much for them to bear. So, in addition to all the other sufferings, Jesus also bears this—that He is utterly alone in His anguish, abandoned by God and all men, even His friends.
Who can bear to watch Jesus suffer?
Why would we want to look at Jesus like this? Who can bear to see the Son of God, our Lord, laid in the dust like this, being destroyed like this?
But Jesus calls us to do it. “Watch with Me.” He knows we need to see Him like this because we are weak. We fall into sin so easily.
Jesus has told the apostles, “You will all fall away tonight.” The version we read said, “You will all be offended,” but it means “fall away”—that is, leave Jesus, fall from grace, lose faith and the Holy Spirit. Many evangelical preachers teach that this is impossible—true Christians can never fall away. That isn’t true. When a Christian gives into temptation and lets sin master him, he falls from faith. When the disciples abandoned and denied Christ, they fell away from Him. And when we fall into unrepentant sin we also fall away from Christ. We forfeit eternal life until we are again brough to contrition and repentance. This is a present danger for us. That’s why Jeuss warns the apostles and us to “watch and pray,” so that we may not fall into temptation.
However, we often believe that this can never happen to us. Peter said, “I will never deny You, even if I have to die with You.” Peter had too much confidence in his own spiritual strength. And so do we. That’s why Jesus wants us to watch with Him.
Watchin with Him means being alert to the devil’s temptation and calling on God for help. This is spiritual warfare. But the disciples fell asleep. Jesus pointed out this inconsistency to Peter. “Couldn’t you even watch one hour?” How are you going to die with me if you can’t even stay awake and pray for an hour?
The question applies to us as well. Why is it that we think we are so strong when we can’t even overcome small temptations? Why is it that we think we’re so strong that we can afford to do without His Word, prayer, and gathering with other Christians?
Peter wanted to die rather than deny Jesus. That was a good intention. It came from the Holy Spirit. But Peter’s flesh was weak. Jesus knew, as the One who had done combat with Satan and successfully resisted his assaults, how weak our flesh is. Unlike Jesus we are born corrupted by sin; He knew that our flesh is so great a liability that it makes us unable to resist Satan’s temptation apart from the help of God which we invoke through prayer.
“I know that in my flesh dwells no good thing,” St. Paul says in Romans chapter seven. Elsewhere he says, “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Romans 8:8) And He tells us that our flesh always fights agains the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5).
In other words, we should not trust ourselves in the slightest, not even to overcome the smallest temptations, but only in God’s help and grace.
But as we watch and pray with Christ, we receive armor against Satan’s attacks, and we call in heavenly reinforcments. Through Jesus’ agonies, the lust of our flesh is checked. Through prayer Satan is driven off and we receive heavenly aid.
But Peter and the others neglect these armor and weapons. Finally Jesus asks them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest?” They are napping and indulging the desires of their flesh at precisely the wrong time. And the result is catastrophic.
First they try to attack the men that come to arrest Jesus. They don’t realize that by doing this they are opposing God’s will. They take up an earthly sword, which is useless agains the spiritual enemies they are really fighting, the “powers and principalities” (Ephesians 6).
And when Jesus rebukes them for this, and they see that they are not going to prevent being arrested and killed themselves if they stay with Jesus, they abandon Him.
This is what we do by nature? Do you recognize yourself in the story? All of it is a result of not watching with Jesus.
We put confidence in our flesh. We turn away from Jesus’ agonies, not wanting to see His bloody sweat, tears and groans, not realizing that Jesus’ suffering is the only way our flesh is overcome and put to death. We indulge our flesh instead, seeking what pleases it instead of denying it, taking our cross, and seeking first God’s kingdom and righteousness.
In the end we also fall and forsake Jesus in trying to hold on to our lives.
This is the reason for Jesus’ agony.
It is because His disciples, then and now, are like this, that Jesus experiences this agony.
He is suffering because we have loved the flesh more than we loved God, because we trusted in ourselves instead of the Lord. He is in agony because of our willfulness because we have done what pleased us instead of seeking to accomplish God’s will for us, as Jesus did when He prayed, “Your will, not mine, be done.”
He is in agony because even when we watch and pray, when we are faithful, the sinful flesh clings to us and leaves its stain even on the good works we do at the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Were it not for Jesus’ suffering that makes us clean in God’s sight even our good works could not please God.
Because of these things Jesus faces God’s wrath in Gethsemane.
But here in Jesus’ agony, we see not only our sins and God’s wrath, but the unquenchable fire of God’s love.
Because Jesus goes to this suffering willingly. And the Father gives His Son to this torment willingly.
Jesus says when His disciples try to prevent His arrest, “Do you think I cannot pray to My Father…and He will send me 12 legions of angels” instead of 12 poorly-armed fishermen? As Jesus is being led away in chains to trial, even then He could ask the Father to spare Him the torment of the cross and abandonment by God. He could pray that and the Father would give Him what He asked.
Jesus doesn’t pray for that. He goes out ot meet the armed mob that is going to take Him in chains to the chief priest. He goes, knowing all that would happen, having concluded His prayer to His Father: “Your will be done.”
So we see the Father’s will in Gethsemane: to give His Son to suffer for our sins, that they should be atoned for and covered. And the Son is of one will with the Father. He also goes willing to His suffering for our sakes.
From watching Jesus’ agony, you can see the mystery of God’s love for sinners. He goes willingly to this torment out of love for His selfish, self-indulgent disciples. Peter. You. Me.
What kind of love must it be that would embrace the pains of hell for someone else?
That is the love of God the Father and God the Son for you.
A lamb goes uncomplaining forth
The guilt of sinners bearing.
And laden with the sins of earth
None else the burden sharing.
Goes patient on, grows weak and faint,
To slaughter led without complaint,
That spotless life to offer.
He bears the stripes, the wounds, the lies
The mockery, and yet replies:
All this I gladly suffer. (LSB p. 438 st. 1)
The peace of God, that passes understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria
O Jesus! Now Your blood begins to pour
From Your face with the sweat of Adam’s curse.
Judas has received the silver purse
And your disciples have begun to snore.
Your feet, washed with the weeping of a whore,
Your throat, which soon will gasp in bitter thirst,
Contort and choke; Your capillaries burst
And sobs wrack Your body to its core.
All this because my sins swarm upon You
And sting You with the thorn-pricks of despair,
And all the evil I routinely do
Is but the billionth part of what You bear.
Yet You accept and say, “Thy will be done,”
And let my guilt lie wholly on God’s Son.
In Memoriam + Shirley S
Woodlawn Funeral Home
Psalm 108:12 (Job 19:21-27, 1 Cor. 15:51-57, St. Matthew 27:45-54; 28:1-6)
June 23, 2014
“Vain is the Help of Man”
Shirley’s relatives and friends,
Members of St. Peter:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
God’s word for our comfort this morning are these words from Psalm 108, which Shirley had underlined in her Bible:
Give us help from trouble: for vain is the help of man.
What a word for this woman of few words to leave behind!
What a marker to leave behind for us on the journey which she has now completed!
Give us help from trouble: for vain is the help of man.
I wish I could preach a sermon on this text to all the people I know who have wandered away from God and His church, considering Christianity no longer relevant to them, perhaps. A distant memory from their youth that can no longer be reclaimed.
I wish I could preach this text to them all. Give us help from trouble: for vain is the help of man. I know that while Christianity may no longer seem relevant to them, they still have trouble. Sometimes they are even conscious of having trouble that is beyond human power to help.
They may not be able to imagine sitting in church or going to Sunday School anymore like they did when they were kids. But who that has known trouble and pain is beyond wishing that there is a God who can be counted on to hear prayer and to help in trouble?
Most of us endure many troubles while we are alive. Shirley had some. She wasn’t one to talk about them a lot, I think. But the old spiritual we heard at the close of the visitation is a quiet witness to the fact that she endured her share of trouble on earth. Just a few more weary days and then I’ll fly away. To a home on God’s celestial shore, I’ll fly away.
We can fly away from many of the troubles we experience in this world into the company of loved ones or into the bottom of several stiff drinks. But those troubles are just shots across the bow. Today God reminds us of a trouble that we all have from which we can’t fly away. If we avoid facing it today, it will be back to visit until, finally, it comes for us.
The great trouble we share is death. It’s a trouble that no human power can help. Nothing makes it go away. No human power can make it tolerable. The best we can hope for from the help of man is that we forget about it for awhile. But it remains. It is a relentless reminder that we live in this world under God’s judgment, that we must reckon with God.
Give us help from trouble: for vain is the help of man.
God has answered that prayer of David the Psalmist which was also Shirley’s prayer. He has given us His help where the help of man is vain.
It is help that relieves in the distress of death. It not only gives relief to the soul, as it did to Shirley as she was dying, but it gives release from death itself.
It is the help of God that overcomes and destroys death and sin. It was pictured before us in the Gospel reading today. God’s help from all trouble is the death and resurrection of Jesus.
What we sang about as children in Sunday School is God’s help from the trouble of death. When we grew up and became strong we turned to human strength to save us. We put our trust in the help of man, whether it was money, or career, or love, or possessions, or pleasure. But these turn out to be vain.
Then there is Jesus’ agony and death on the cross. The sky is dark and He cries out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” That doesn’t seem like any kind of help at all. It seems worse than simply dying. And the people who stand looking on can’t understand it. They believe that if God is going to help Him he must have to come down from the cross, even if it’s at the eleventh hour. They fill a sponge with sour wine and sit and watch to see whether Elijah will come down from heaven and save Him.
Elijah doesn’t come. Jesus cries out one final time and dies. There is an earthquake. It looks like God has utterly abandoned Him.
He has. That is God’s help for us, as strange as it seems. That is the help that melted the hard Roman soldier so that he said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”
Jesus was abandoned to death. That is God’s help for us. There death’s power over us was broken. That’s why Paul in the Epistle reading gloats over death: O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?
That’s why Job, in the midst of his agony, says, I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God.
Jesus was abandoned for us. He tasted death for us. And then death let Him go, because it could not hold Him. Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Death let Him go. The place He lay is empty. And now death has lost the power to hold us, for we are flesh of Jesus’ flesh, bone of His bone.
Vain is the help of man. All of man’s attempts to make death not so bad, to escape from the shadow it casts over our life, are vain and empty.
But this is not the help of man. It is God’s help.
He gave this mighty help to Shirley when she was baptized into Christ.
He strengthened her to believe in Jesus’ victory for her by preaching His cross and resurrection into her ears and into her heart. He strengthened her heart by giving her the very body and blood of Jesus that destroyed death.
Today He also gives His help to you in your trouble, as you grieve and walk through the valley of the shadow of death. He proclaims Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and His rule over all of our trouble.
Soon He will return to destroy death entirely, the final enemy. The same word He speaks today will summon those who are in the graves to rise and live as He arose and lives forevermore.
While we wait for that day He speaks life to us and declares our sins forgiven, so that even while we are dying we live. He declares life is yours as a free gift through His suffering and His resurrection.
Man’s word might give temporary consolation, but this is the word and help of the living God. Man’s word delivers no one from death. But this is God’s Word that created life, that is life. It declares you free and it frees you from the trouble of death. Because of it Shirley rests with Jesus Christ. And one day soon in her flesh she also will see God.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Soli Deo Gloria
Stärk mich mit deinem Freudengeist,
heil mich mit deinen Wunden,
wasch mich mit deinem Todesschweiß
in meiner letzten Stunden,
und nimm mich einst, wann dirs gefällt
im wahren Glauben aus der Welt
zu deinen Auserwählten.
Your joyful Spirit give me strength,
Your bloody wounds repair me,
And let Your soothing sweat of death
In my last hour prepare me.
And take me, when it please you well,
In true faith from this tearful vale
To dwell among Your chosen.
I found this hymn in German in the Gebets-Schatz. It did not cite an author, but it turns out that it is the last verse of Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut (Lord Jesus Christ, O Highest Good) by Bartholomäus Ringwaldt. The hymn I’m most familiar with from Ringwaldt is “The Day is Surely Drawing Near” which is about the Last Judgment.
Above you have Ringwaldt’s words, with my translation. I have not found many other translations of Ringwaldt’s hymn. I found a couple on hymnary.org. Maybe there are some elsewhere.
Below are some older English translations of the last stanza. The first is from an early 20th c. United Brethren Hymnal; the second from “A Hymn and Prayer Book for the use of such Lutheran Churches as use the English Language,” published in New York state in 1795. Both of them can be found on www.hymnary.org. I’ve noticed that the German hymns tend to be much more graphic and visceral, asking to be connected to the physical ugliness and suffering of Christ’s passion.
For those who have suffered spiritually, the desire to be made whole by Christ’s bloody wounds and washed in His death’s sweat is not gruesome or morbid. If you have tasted death or hell, you are not comforted by attempts to avoid them by appealing to Jesus’ majesty. You know that there is no avoiding the attacks of hell and the terror of judgment. Then you are comforted not by pretending like they don’t exist or won’t come to you as long as you’re a good boy, but by the promise that Jesus’ wounds have enveloped ours, that His Spirit is our Spirit, that He sweat the sweat of death for us, and our death is caught up in His. The death of Jesus does not allow us to escape our own cross and death. But when we sweat the sweat of death we know that we will not awaken in the eternal fire, but among the chosen in heaven. That is promised by Jesus’ passion, which the Gospel proclaims is for us.
I don’t know whether it is just that English speakers have always been too polite to use the visceral German language exemplified by this hymn, or whether there are some older translations that mirror it in English. But you can see clearly here how the earlier English translations kind of “clean up” the hymn. Part of that can be attributed to the attempt to reference the English translation of Isaiah 53. But still it’s odd to me. It seems to me that the whole strength of this hymn is in the visceral and intimate connection of the Christian’s death to the death of Jesus. It’s the same thing that made “In Christi Wunden Schlaf ich ein” (I fall asleep in Jesus’ wounds) so powerful, moving, and comforting.
I suspect that it’s just that until recently such imagery was considered impolite or obscene in American/English society. It may be too that there was some anti-Catholicism involved; Rome has a devotion to the wounds and suffering of Christ that seems grotesque to American tastes. It may be that the same spirit that moved Lutherans to get rid of their crucifixes in the United States moved them to eliminate the blood and sweat and wounds from their hymns.
See for yourself:
Thy joyful Spirit give me pow’r
Thy stripes heal my diseases
Apply Thy blood in my last hour
To save me, dearest Jesus!
Then to Thy promis’d rest me bring
That with the ransom’d I may sing
Thy praise above forever.
Thy joyful Spirit strengthen me
Thy wounds heal my diseases
Thy blood in my last agony
Apply in that great crisis.
And take me to Thy promis’d rest
Where I may sing with all the blest
Thine everlasting praises.
And here’s mine again for comparison:
Your joyful Spirit give me strength,
Your bloody wounds repair me,
And let Your soothing sweat of death
In my last hour prepare me.
And take me, when it please you well,
In true faith from this tearful vale
To dwell among Your chosen.
|Full Name:||Ringwaldt, Bartholomaüs, 1532-1599|
Bartholomew Ringwaldt was born at Frankfort-on-the-Oder, in 1530, and was a Lutheran pastor at Langfield, in Prussia, where he died, 1598. His hymns resemble Luther’s in their simplicity and power. Several of them were written to comfort himself and others in the sufferings they endured from famine, pestilence, fire and floods. In 1581, he published “Hymns for the Sundays and Festivals of the whole Year.” –Annotations of the Hymnal, Charles Hutchins, M.A. 1872.
Ringwaldt, Bartholomäus (Ringwalt, Ringwald), was born Nov. 28, 1532, at Frankfurt a. Oder. He was ordained in 1557, and was pastor of two parishes before he settled in 1566 as pastor of Langfeld (or Langenfeld), near Sonnenburg, Brandenburg. He was still there in 1597, but seems to have died there in 1599, or at least not later than 1600…
Ringwaldt exercised a considerable influence on his contemporaries as a poet of the people, as well as by his hymns properly so called. He was a true German patriot, a staunch Lutheran, and a man who was quite ready to face the consequences of his plain speaking. His style is as a rule clear and good, though his rhymes are often enough halting; and he possessed considerable powers of observation and description…
As a hymnwriter Ringwaldt was also of considerable importance. He was one of the most prolific hymn-writers of the 16th century….
Those of Ringwaldt’s hymns which have passed into English are:— i. Es ist gewisslich an derZeit. Second Advent. The anonymous original of this hymn is one of Zwey schöne Lieder, printed separately circa 1565, and thence in Wackernagel, iv. p. 344. W. von Maltzahn, in his Bücherschatz, 1875, No. 616, p. 93, cites it as in an undated Nürnberg broadsheet, circa 1556. Wackernagel also gives along with the original the revised form in Ringwaldt’s Handbüchlin, 1586. Both forms are also in the Unverfälschter Liedersegen, 1851, No. 746, in 7 stanzas of 7 lines. It is based on the “Dies Irae,” but can hardly be called a version of it. The original has a picturesqueness and force which are greatly lost in Ringwaldt’s revision. It was much used in Germany during the Thirty Years’ War, when in these distressful times men often thought the Last Day was at hand…
… iv. Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut, Du Brunnquell der Genaden. Lent. One of the finest of German penitential hymns. Wackernagel, iv. p. 1028, gives it, in 8 st. of 7 1., from Ringwaldt’s Christliche Warnung, 1588, where it is entitled “A fine hymn [of supplication] for the forgiveness of sins.”
–John Julian, Dictionary of Hymnology (1907)
Marburger Gesangbuch (Marburg Hymnal….1700s)
In Your Name, Lord Jesus Christ the crucified, I, a poor sinner now have risen. As the true, patient little lamb to the slaughter, You suffered the most painful death on the tree of the cross for me, and with Your rose-red blood have redeemed me from all my sins, death, devil, and hell. Rule my heart through Your Holy Spirit. Refresh it with the heavenly dew of Your grace. Preserve me in your grace with Your divine love this day, and bury me, body and soul, in Your holy wounds. Wash me clean of all my sins, keep me in all good works, and lead me out of the vale of tears of this world into the eternal joy and glory of Your kingdom, You faithful Savior Jesus Christ, my only comfort, hope, and life. Amen.
From Ev. Luth. Gebets-Schatz (Evangelical Lutheran Prayer-Treasury, the Missouri Synod’s gigantic German prayer book)