“Free among the dead” Good Friday Tenebrœ 2022

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15. April 2022
Good Friday Tenebrae
Psalm 88

“O Lord, God of my salvation, I have cried out day and night before You. Let my prayer come before You; Incline Your ear to my cry.”

In Name of the + Jesus. Amen.

This Lententide, we have been learning to lament from the Psalms. Our final Psalm is possibly the most difficult to pray. It is arguably the darkest. It even stands among the most somber compositions in all of Holy Scripture, comparable to the overcast pages of Job and Ecclesiastes. 

It’s hard to imagine how to reconcile such dark tones with evangelical hope. The Gospel must predominate in Christian preaching, even on this night as Christ lay dead in the tomb. Some might even think the sentiments of this psalm too dismal for it to serve as a Christian prayer at all. The hymnal committee saw no place for it in Lutheran worship and left it out. 

Psalm 88 is not only darksome in its every line; almost alone among the psalms. “My soul is full of troubles, And my life draws near to the grave.” “Your wrath lies heavy upon me, And You have afflicted me with all Your waves.” “I suffer Your terrors; I am distraught.” “I am like a man who has no strength, Adrift among the dead, Like the slain who lie in the grave, Whom You remember no more, And who are cut off from Your hand.” 

It even ends on a dark note, without hope or resolution. Unlike most such complaints in the Psalms, there is no expectation that God will cure the psalmist and no promise to praise God upon recovery. Its final line says: “Loved one and friend You have put far from me, And my acquaintances into darkness.” Now, how can that sort of sentiment be the “last word” in a Christian prayer? That would be like Good Friday with no Easter!

But there are hints of good news. The Psalm begins by addressing the Almighty for all its gloom and shadow: “O Lord, the God of my salvation”? The intimacy and quiet hope of this address put one in mind of Psalm 22 from last night, in which the crucified Jesus, asking why God has forsaken Him, nonetheless continues to call Him “my God, my God.”

But as offended and annoyed by the Psalm as you might be, you must remember that it comes to you from the Holy Spirit like all of the Bible. If death is portrayed as a very bad thing in this psalm, then the Holy Spirit wants us to regard death as a very bad thing. You might occasionally meet pagans and unbelievers who confess openly that they are not afraid to die. Well, this psalm suggests that maybe they should be. Line after line, the writer, under the guidance and impulse of the Holy Spirit, says, in the sharpest terms, that death is a most terrifying enemy. You can ignore or avoid it, but God the Spirit doesn’t want you to forget that death is always near. Our daily prayers remind us that you must die with Christ in Baptism if you are to live.

You don’t like to talk about death because you’re afraid. Your fear of death is a reaction of the fleshly man, the “old Adam,” still active within you. There’s no point in ignoring it or avoiding it. God, the Holy Spirit, gives you this psalm so that you can honestly face up to this fleshly side of yourselves. The Holy Spirit that is to say, gives your fleshly fear its due. Because you feel this fear of death, the Holy Spirit deliberately addresses this fear and expresses it in prayer. Here is the tender condescension of God that He provides even that our fallen nature may voice itself to Him in supplication and the lowly fealty of our very fear. 

But most importantly, the Psalm is a prophetic confession of Christ Jesus’s death, burial, and even resurrection. Jesus took on Himself, not our pristine, unfallen nature, but our nature as tainted at the ancient tree in Eden and throughout the rest of our history. So the fear of death expressed in this psalm is certainly a fear that Jesus felt. If, as Holy Scripture indicates in so many places, death is but the outward expression of sin and our alienation from God, then a deeper understanding of sin must indeed imply a more profound understanding of death. And who understood sin more than Jesus? 

Likewise, His perception of death is vastly more complete and accurate than ours. He suffered all your sins in His body on the tree. He died your death and every death together at His cross.  And, as He knew more about the power of death than any of us, there is every reason to believe that He felt this fear of death more than the rest of us possibly could. 

Now, these words seem trite to describe the complete suffering of the death of Jesus. “My soul is full of troubles, And my life draws near to the grave.” “Your wrath lies heavy upon me, And You have afflicted me with all Your waves.” “I suffer Your terrors; I am distraught.” “I am like a man who has no strength, Adrift among the dead, Like the slain who lie in the grave, Whom You remember no more, And who are cut off from Your hand.”

But one expression from this psalm has been consistently used by the Church to refer to the death of Jesus, not as a term of doom but as an emblem of the high triumph and validation inherent in His Cross. That expression is “adrift [free] among the dead.” In the preaching and liturgical vision of the Holy Church, Jesus was indeed “free among the dead” in the sense that death had no dominion over Him. He was “free” with respect to death, as it could not hold Him fast. Reaching to seize Jesus in the moment of His final breath, Death found itself, cast down and trampled by the rush of His abundant life crashing into that realm where the grave, until now the undisputed victorious enemy, had so long held sway. Every antagonist fell beneath His mighty, grinding tread. 

And immediately, without delay, striding to the underworld, Jesus “went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient” (1 Pet. 3:19). To demonstrate, moreover, that our Lord was truly free among the dead, Matthew records that “the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many” (Matt. 27:51-53).

“But to You, I have cried out, O Lord, And in the morning my prayer comes before You” (v.13). It might be dark now, but the day is coming and the dawn of our Dayspring Jesus. Easter is coming. You can lament death but rejoice now in the hope of the Resurrection.

The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guards your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Amen.

Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
St. John Ev. Lutheran Church & School – Sherman Center
Random Lake, Wisconsin