"When God's Darkness Surrounds You "#85-27
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on March 4, 2018
By Rev. Dr. Dale A. Meyer, Guest Speaker
(Q&A Topic:When God's Darkness Surrounds You)
Copyright 2020 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Exodus 20:1-17
We all have our times when things look dark. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, in the middle of the dark, dark night, and I worry. My fears close in on me, and there seems to be no way out. I trust you've had the same experience. What I say next might surprise you, but God Himself can surround us with darkness. From today's message, I pray you'll take this truth to heart: when God surrounds us with darkness, He is close to you and tells you He loves you.
O unseen God, we cannot even imagine Your greatness. Teach us to trust You are close to us. By Your Gospel set us free from our guilt and fears. Let Your words of love be light to our souls whenever we feel surrounded by darkness. In Jesus' Name we pray. Amen.
Let's go back into Bible history, back to when God gave the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. Maybe you remember how the children of Israel got to Mount Sinai, how they had been slaves in Egypt, how God sent plagues to convince Pharaoh to let Israel go, how He drowned Pharaoh's army at the Red Sea, how He brought them out of slavery into freedom. As wonderful as that was, when God gave the Ten Commandments the people didn't think they were at some feel-good praise service. It was scary. Listen to Exodus chapter 19, beginning at verse 16: "On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast so that all the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly."
God surrounded the people with darkness and they were afraid. Who wouldn't be? What makes people afraid? Nature can make us afraid: thunder, lightning, mountains shaking, avalanches, earthquakes, tsunamis, asteroids hurtling toward earth. People can make us afraid. Think about a boss who is unpredictable and can fly into a rage. Think about a person who uses power to abuse you, emotionally or physically. Places can produce fear. Your car breaks down in the middle of no place. You have to go to the hospital or enter a care facility for the rest of your life. And that brings us a great cause of fear: death. A pastor friend of mine tells me that fear is the most common emotion. One thing is common to all our fears: we feel threatened. Perhaps our way of life is threatened. Perhaps our reputation or finances or health is threatened. Perhaps life itself is about to be taken away. We feel threatened, become afraid, and we wonder, "What's to become of me?" At Mount Sinai it was all this and more. Not only was there thunder and lightning and the mountain quaking, but God Himself surrounded the people with darkness and they were afraid. These little people at the foot of the mountain, and down descends the great God who makes the strong mountain shake! What's to become of me?
It was terrifying, no doubt about that, but in that fearful darkness we learn something about God. Think about where God came down. He came down to where the people were. He did not descend on Mount Everest. He did not descend on Pike's Peak or on Mount Denali. God came down where His people were, at Mount Sinai. When God came to where the people were, He spoke out of the darkness. He did not show Himself. God did not show Himself at Mount Sinai and does not show Himself today because you and I couldn't bear it. In Exodus 33:20, God says, "You cannot see My face, for man shall not see Me and live." Isn't that true? How could you or I survive seeing the all-powerful God who created the universe? Our naked eyes can only catch the glimmer of distant stars. Could we see their Creator and live? But God came to where they were, not to destroy them but to tell them of His love. God veiled Himself in thick darkness, so He could be close, so that His people could live, and so He could tell them of His love. Please notice we are starting to shift in our thinking. We are starting to shift from a terrifying God to a God whose presence and love fills us with awe.
Here's how the Bible reports it. "And God spoke all these words, saying, 'I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery" (Exodus 20:1-2). God leads off by reminding His ancient people that He was the One who brought them out of slavery. He was the only one who got them out. They had no army. They had no constitution or lawyers to argue for their rights. Humanly speaking, they had no way out. All they had, and all you and I have, is God. "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." And next, God says He wants to be their one and only God, who will love them jealously from generation to generation.
Exodus chapter 20, beginning at verse 3: "You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate Me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love Me and keep My commandments."
Can you imagine being there? The terrifying but awesome closeness of the almighty God! He says-I have set you free. I love you. Keep My commandments.
That was then, but what about now? What about our more mundane fears? And does God surround us with darkness today? The best interpreter of the Ten Commandments is Jesus. In John chapter 8, Jesus says, "If you abide in My word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." His listeners objected: "We are the offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that You say, 'You will become free?'" That was a teachable moment, and so Jesus teaches that slavery is more than your external condition. You can be a free citizen in a free land but still be a slave. Jesus says, "Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin." Many people think sin is only outward actions, but Jesus teaches us sin is deeper than external words or actions.
For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus goes deep. In Matthew chapter 5, verses 21 and 22, He says, "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever say, 'You fool!' will be liable to the hell of fire."
That nails you, and it certainly nails me. Similarly, with sexual conduct, Jesus teaches, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery,' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart." Those are just two examples to show that sin is deeper than outward words and actions. Sin is deep in me, deep in you. In Mark chapter 7, Jesus says, "Out of the heart of man come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness" (Mark 7:21-22). Yes, you and I by nature are slaves to sin and slaves are fearful people. Will the Master beat us? Will the almighty God descend in terror and punish us for our wrongs? The most fearful darkness of all is when it dawns on us God will judge us and can punish us for our sins. When God surrounds us with fear of judgment and punishment, God is showing us that He is our only way out. Let me stress that. Yes, indeed, God does surround you and me with darkness. Just as the slaves experienced in Egypt, God shows us that there is no way out of our slavery to sin except through Him and His deliverance. When fears of judgment and punishment are closing in, we cry out with the psalmist: "Hear my prayer, O Lord; give ear to my pleas for mercy! In Your faithfulness answer me, in Your righteousness! Enter not into judgment with Your servant, for no one living is righteous before You" (Psalm 143:1-2).
"God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him" (John 3:17). In the darkness that comes from our sins, we are not alone. God shows His jealous love from the cross of Jesus Christ. The Bible says, "They led Him away to crucify Him. Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, 'Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?' that is, 'My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?'" (Matthew 27:31, 45-46).
One scholar has said that the cross of Jesus Christ is a mirror where we see ourselves. At the cross, we see what is due us. At the cross, we see what's to become of us sinners. And what is to become of us? The answer is death. The darkness that engulfs us because we have sinned and still are falling short of the glory of God became the punishment and death Jesus suffered at the cross. Our only way out is death. Jesus dies eternal death for you, for me. He is condemned, so the world can be saved.
Out of Jesus' death comes resurrection, His resurrection on Easter and our resurrection to new life now and eternity in heaven. St. Paul says in Romans chapter six, "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life."
So, what's to become of me? In the death of Christ, the answer is forgiveness. The sin that is so deep in your heart and mine is covered over by the blood of Jesus. In the darkness of the cross, light dawns. You are freed from slavery to sin, and a promised land awaits you. Quoting St. Paul again, "We know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him. We know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death He died He died to sin, once for all, but the life He lives He lives to God. So you also must consider yourself dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus" (Romans 6:6-11).
Were you there when God raised Him from the tomb? Were you there when God raised Him from the tomb? Oh... Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. Were you there when God raised Him from the tomb? Through faith the answer is "Yes, I am there. His death is my death to sin. His resurrection is my newness of life and my sure and certain hope of heaven. Yes, I'm all in with Jesus."
At the beginning, I mentioned I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and my mind fills with worries and fears. Do you know the feeling? Here's how it goes for me. My mind churns with whatever I'm worried about. The darkness makes it worse; I can't see any way out. Sooner or later, I think, "Dale, give it up to God. Many of the things you fear are real, not imaginary. Dale, give them to God." That's what I do. I might quote some Bible passage that I've memorized. I give it to God and eventually fall back to sleep. In that darkness, I know God is close. He loves me, and He will be my Deliverer. The light of Easter shines. This experience is exactly what the psalmist commands. "Ponder in your own hearts upon your beds, and be silent. Offer right sacrifices and put your trust in the Lord" (Psalm 4:4-5).
What are those "right sacrifices"? They are the Ten Commandments. God's Son Jesus says, "If you love Me, you will keep My commandments" (John 14:15). "You shall not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain." "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy." "Honor your father and your mother." "You shall not murder." "You shall not commit adultery." "You shall not steal." "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor." And finally, "You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor's."
To covet means to desire something, especially something that belongs to someone else. Again, this Commandment against coveting takes us down to the deep sinfulness of our heart, but there is more. When God says, "You shall not covet," He is pleading-don't let your heart be enslaved to anyone or anything except Me! I love you. I have set you free. "Thou shalt not covet!" "Thou shalt not covet!" The crucified and risen Christ is light in our darkness. "If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed!" Amen.
Reflections for March 4, 2018
Title: When God's Darkness Surrounds You
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. That was Dr. Dale Meyer. Joining us now with some reflections on what we've just heard, here's Pastor Ken Klaus.
Ken Klaus: You know, Mark, I have preached a few thousand sermons in my life, and I have listened to many thousands more. Having said that, today's message is absolutely unique.
Mark Eischer: Really? How so?
Ken Klaus: Never have I ever heard anyone before Dr. Meyer speak about the Lord sending down the darkness.
Mark Eischer: In his sermon, Dr. Meyer described that scene at Mount Sinai and how God came down and He surrounded the mountain in darkness. In Exodus chapter 10, we read how God also used darkness as one of the plagues against Egypt. And it says total darkness covered Egypt for three days, a darkness so oppressive it could be felt. Have you ever experienced anything like that?
Ken Klaus: I've been in an underground mine when they turned off all the lights. The guide spoke in calming words and tried to prepare us for what was going to happen. Then he switched off the lights and told us to put our hand in front of our faces.
Mark Eischer: And you couldn't tell it was there.
Ken Klaus: Nope, brought it closer and closer until I could feel my breath on my palm, but I still didn't know my hand was there. That darkness was tangible, palpable. The darkness could be felt. Then the guide said, "Okay, I'm going to stop talking now." And he did. The darkness became even more frightening because the silence was terrifying. I have no idea how long it lasted, not that long, probably. Finally, one of our people, in a quivery voice said, "This has been a grand experiment. Thank you. Now, turn on the lights!" That last part was somewhere between a plea and an order.
Mark Eischer: In Exodus chapter 19, we read they were commanded to wash their clothes before coming to the mountain to receive God's commandments. Do you see a connection there?
Ken Klaus: I believe so, and it comes from the fact that the Lord is establishing a new covenant, a new agreement with the people. He has them clean up in part because He wants them to give their best for this solemn occasion, but He also does so to let them now their best is never going to be good enough. He wants them to know they must always depend upon Him.
Mark Eischer: So the Lord got their attention in a way which simply couldn't be ignored or explained away.
Ken Klaus: Nobody is going to be a wise guy with the earth rocking under his feet and lightning bolts making his hair stand on end. And then, when God has their attention, He gives them His commandments. He comes in the darkness and says, "Look, I'm the Boss, but I want you to be My people-My forever people. And if you want that, too, here's what I want you to do.
Mark Eischer: We notice there's no back-and-forth bargaining going on here.
Ken Klaus: Yeah. That's because there's two types of covenants. The first kind is what we call a "parity covenant," which is an agreement made between equals. If you sell me your car, that's an agreement made after some negotiations between two people who can look each other eye to eye. But there's also another kind of covenant. It's called the "suzerainty covenant," in which one party, the more powerful one, lays down the particulars.
Mark Eischer: Sort of like being told how much I'm going to be paying in taxes this year.
Ken Klaus: Exactly. The government doesn't say, "Mark, is this okay with you if we take this much?" The same thing happens at Sinai. The Lord doesn't negotiate His commandments. He doesn't say, "Is ten all right, or would you prefer seven?" He says, "Because I have made you My people, this is what I want you to do and not to do."
Mark Eischer: Dr. Meyer also spoke of another time when God used darkness for His purposes.
Ken Klaus: At the crucifixion of His Son. Jesus said He was forsaken by His Father. That's something which had never happened before. Then, in Luke 23, we've got something else which is new. It says, "It was now about the sixth hour (that's noon), and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, when the sun's light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, 'Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit!' And having said this, He breathed his last." The prophet Amos had said the Day of the Lord would be a day of darkness, and Jesus had agreed. In the previous chapter of Luke's Gospel, He said to those who had come to arrest Him: "This is your hour-when darkness reigns." Here we see those prophecies being fulfilled.
Mark Eischer: The Bible also says, "The sun's light failed."
Ken Klaus: We're told it last three hours, so it wasn't an eclipse, wasn't a storm, but in that darkness the Lord's purpose of redeeming sinful humankind was completed. And another covenant was established. This is a covenant of grace, forgiveness, and salvation.
Mark Eischer: Pastor Klaus, looking ahead to next week, what's your message going to be about?
Ken Klaus: Well, we're going to continue that theme of light and darkness. I'll be talking about people who love the darkness-and why they shouldn't.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"May God Bestow On Us His Grace" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)