18 April 2014

Forsaken for the Sake of Your Salvation

It is at the Ninth Hour, the hour of the evening sacrifice and prayer, when the Lord Jesus Christ lays down His life and lets go His Spirit.  Better to burn out than fade away, but Jesus does neither.  He lays down His life in the strength of perfect faith and perfect love, and hands over His Spirit to the Father who has handed Him over to the Cross.  He takes and drinks the Cup that He has been given, conforming His will to that of His God and Father, in the hope of the Resurrection.

As the priests at the Temple are beginning the daily rites and ceremonies of the evening sacrifice — the sin offering and the whole burnt offering, and then the incense offering from the golden altar  before the veil of the Most Holy Place — at that very Hour, the Son of God in human flesh becomes them all; He completes and fulfills them all in Himself, for the sake of your salvation.

This Man, Jesus the Nazarene, is the Sin Offering who is sacrificed once for all, for the propitiation of the sins of the world; He is the Whole Burnt Offering, by whom God and man are reconciled; and He is the sweet-smelling Incense that arises as your acceptable Prayer in the presence of God.  With all of that, He is Himself your merciful and great High Priest, who enters on your behalf into the Holy of Holies made without hands, eternal in the heavens, in order to bring you to the Father in and with Himself, to live and abide with Him there.

Despite appearances, He is under no compulsion; no one takes His life from Him, but He lays it down willingly.  He is moved entirely by His own divine Love for His Father, for you and for all.  It is in accordance with the good and gracious will of the Holy Trinity that He sacrifices Himself on the Cross for your salvation; on account of your sin, first of all; and, not only that, but that you might also be sanctified and live forever in the holiness and righteousness of the Lord your God.

Thus, although He is the Son of God from all eternity, He learns obedience by what He suffers in His own human flesh and blood, made mortal by your sin, and subjected to your death.  He does not turn aside from the duty of His calling as the Christ, but humbles Himself and perseveres to its completion on the Cross.  In this Sacrifice, He is perfected as the True Man, and so becomes the Fountain and Source of eternal salvation to all who hear and heed His Word in faith.

He lives and dies by faith in His Father, and He is heard because of His piety and reverence; even though it would appear that His God and Father has either forgotten or rejected Him at the last.  For He is not spared from suffering and death; far from it.  Indeed, there is no suffering that He has not suffered, no death that He has not died.  And yet, as St. Matthew indicates even at the Hour of His death, He is vindicated and glorified in His Resurrection from the dead.  All as your merciful and great High Priest, that you who sleep in the dust of the earth might also rise and live in Him.

He remains faithful to the uttermost of adversity, bearing the full burden and consequence of sin and death.  And He cries out from such depths of real anguish; neither as a pretense or a sham, nor in wretched unbelief and hopeless despair, but, even now, in steadfast faith and fervent love.  For He cries out with a loud voice, again and again, to the One who shall raise Him up from death.

But let us not underestimate or neglect to consider what our dear Lord suffers on our behalf, not only in His body, but as much or more so in His heart and mind, within His human soul and spirit; that He bears, not only the reproach of man, but also the forsaking of His God and Father.

Is this not a contradiction?  A paradox of the highest order and of the deepest mystery?  That our Lord, who remains faithful unto death, cries out to His God and Father, who is faithful in all things and changes not; and yet, the Son cries out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”

It is not simply a case of misunderstanding or emotional dismay; neither is it the exasperated retort of bitter disappointment or cynical depression.  What our Lord Jesus cries out is a confession of the truth, a solid expression of the raw facts that He is actually experiencing.

Although the Father and the Son remain united in the perfect unity of the Holy Spirit, within the one eternal Godhead of the Holy Trinity, the Father does not spare His Son from death upon the Cross, but wills that He should suffer and die that death for you and for all people.  He hands Him over to it, and He does not act to stop it.  He does not blow the whistle, throw a flag, or call a foul to call a halt to the injustice of it all.  He does not stay the execution, as He did for Abraham’s son, but He offers up His own beloved Son as the Passover Lamb, in order to spare all the others.

Neither does the Son exercise His own divine prerogative or power to save Himself from the Cross and suffering, but He submits to it in humble obedience to His Father.  He trusts that His God and Father will accomplish His purpose in this way, and that He will glorify Himself in His Son, first of all by His sacrificial death for the salvation of the world, and then also by raising Him from the dead as the Firstfruits of the New Creation.

Jesus isn’t pouting or complaining, therefore, but He cries out from within His genuine anguish to the One who remains, even now in death, His true and only God.  His experience is painful and real, but it does not alter or undo the fact of His relationship with the Father; nor does it destroy His faith in His Father’s Word and promise.  Indeed, it is that Word that He confesses and prays here, from the Psalter.  He takes upon His lips the song of Israel.  He who dies thus, dies well.

His suffering is genuine, make no mistake, as is the curse of sin and death that He not only bears but becomes in your stead.  But, even so, His Father will yet rescue and restore Him from the dust of the earth, from the depths of Sheol, even from death and the grave.  Why?  And what for?  So that the people of God, reduced to dust and dried-up dead bones by their sins, should also be raised up from the dead and live forever with the Lord.  So that the alienation and separation of sin and death should be overcome and undone, from the inside-out, through Jesus Christ our Savior.

The death of Christ is the death of death.  That is why the earth quakes and the rocks are split; because the broken-ness of this broken world is broken.  The old passes away, and, behold, all things are made brand new.  All of creation passes through death into life in the Body of Christ.

For, truth be told, Elijah has already come in order to fulfill all righteousness and restore all things.  He has already come in the Office and Ministry of St. John the Baptist; and look at what they did to him!  He was finally imprisoned and beheaded for his faithful confession of the Word of God.  But he had come preaching a Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins; to which Christ Jesus submitted Himself as the Lamb of God, for the repentance and forgiveness of the world.

By that Elijah, He was Baptized into His own death, in order to take upon Himself and bear away the sins of the world in His own Body, to suffer and die for them all; but then, also, to emerge and arise unto newness of life in body and soul, to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

By His Baptism — which is really to say, by His Cross and Resurrection — the heavens have been opened to all who believe and are baptized into Him.  And thus, the curtain also is opened, and God is revealed in the awe-full Glory of His own crucified Body.  For His Body is the Ark of the New Covenant, the Mercy Seat, and your Anchor behind the Veil; so that you now have access into the presence of God through the Flesh of Christ, and by His Blood, given and poured out for you.

As He has suffered and died for you, in your place, on your behalf, so it is that, in His Resurrection from the dead, you also come out of your tomb and enter the Holy City.  Not only on the last day, but even now, in the Body of Christ, in the Holy Communion, which is already the Holy of Holies on earth, as it is in heaven.  In His flesh and blood, you rise up with Him as incense to the Father.

Take your cues, then, dear child of God, from the way and the what that Jesus prays.  He prays the Psalter, which you also are given to pray.  It is not only instructive in the faith and knowledge of God, but it exercises your faith and love, as it opens up your lips and mouth to praise Him rightly.

There is a stark and refreshing candor to the Psalms, which honestly lay before the Lord your grief and hurt and pleas for mercy in the day of trouble.  Everywhere they give you words to cry out to the Lord for rescue and protection, for vindication, and even for vengeance against your enemies.

Among their appeals for deliverance, the Psalms often point out that the dead cannot praise God; their lips are silenced in Sheol.  On the other hand, the Psalms frequently confess that the one who trusts in the Lord shall not be put to shame, but shall be saved from every evil of body and soul.

Yet, here now, in the Psalm that Jesus prays from the Cross, everything is turned inside-out, as it is fulfilled in Him, in His Cross and Passion, and in His Resurrection from the dead.  For here is the Righteous One who trusts in the Lord unfailingly, and still He suffers all measure of abuse and pain from all sides.  But then the “Why?” of His God-forsaken-ness is answered:

For it comes to pass, in His faithfulness even unto death, that the dead who sleep in the dust of the earth shall in fact praise the Lord!  For this Lord Jesus Christ retrieves them from the grave and saves them, as He Himself is raised up from the dead by the Glory of His God and Father.

It is precisely in the midst of deep darkness that He thus brings forth the Light of eternal Day.

And what does this mean for you?

It is the answer to all your “Why’s?” and “Wherefore’s?”  It is the answer to all the Psalms, and the Father’s resounding “Yes” and “Amen” to all your prayers.

As Christ Jesus, the beloved Son, has been forsaken by the Father in His suffering and death on the Cross, so has He taken His place with you and joined Himself to you in the suffering of your sin and the darkness of your death.  But that is not the end of the story; neither His, nor yours.

Notice, again, how St. Matthew, at the very point that He records the death of Christ, he is already writing of His Resurrection; and not only of His Resurrection, but of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting of the saints, the holy ones of God, and of their entry into the Holy City.

As you are baptized into Christ, you are baptized into His death.  You share His Cross and Passion.  Not only because of your sin, that you should thus be called to repentance, but also because of your righteousness by faith in Christ Jesus.  Your faith and righteousness are exercised, strengthened, and confessed, therefore, in the suffering of His Cross.  And so do you also share the Resurrection and the Life everlasting of the same Lord Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Son of God.

The alienation and separation of your sin and death are no longer decisive, nor does any of that get to have the last word.  It is real enough, so long as it lasts; but, though you die, yet shall you live.

The Lord, who has joined Himself to you in the darkness of sin and death, shall never leave you nor forsake you, but shall raise you up from death to life.  The One who promises is faithful, and He shall do it.  For it is in Him, in His crucified and risen Body of flesh and blood, that you behold the Glory of God and actually live and abide in His presence.  So it is that, even now, from your mortal flesh and blood, you praise and glorify the God and Father of your dear Lord Jesus Christ, as a beloved son or daughter in Him.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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