"The Darkness Has Not Overcome It"#86-32
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on April 7, 2019
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2020 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: John 12:37-50
Two Lutheran pastors are sitting in an outdoor café in Germany when an announcement comes over the radio. It's a newsflash: "France has surrendered!" The date is June 17, 1940. The darkness of war is descending upon the world. Germany's charismatic leader, Adolf Hitler, had sent thousands of military vehicles rolling into France to continue to Nazi conquest of Europe. And the people around the café, when they heard the news of their country's latest triumph, they stood, and they cheered, and they sang. Some stood on tables and chairs, and they put out their arms in the signature salute to their leader, their fuehrer, "Heil Hitler!" and the younger pastor, quiet and conscientious man, sat shocked when he saw his older friend, his mentor, his fellow pastor who, until this very moment, had publicly denounced Hitler. He was shocked when he saw him stand up and put out his arm and shout, "Heil Hitler!"
And then he whispered to his friend, still seated at the table, "Put out your arm. Are you crazy? We will have to run many risks for many things, but this silly salute is not one of them." The pastor who urged his friend to shout, "Heil Hitler!" was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. That scene comes from the book, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, a recent biography of the man by Eric Metaxes, and I was shocked when I read that scene in the book. Of all the people who would stand and shout "Heil Hitler!" not Dietrich Bonhoeffer! This is the man who would just five years later be put to death for his participation in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Why would Bonhoeffer collude with the darkness like that?
As Eric Metaxes puts it in his subtitle, "Already, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was on his way to becoming a spy." A double agent. He was working in the darkness to overcome the darkness. Shortly after Hitler had come to power, many officials in the German government were already working to conspire against him and overthrow the Nazi party. Dietrich Bonhoeffer's brother-in-law was one of them, and he got Dietrich a job working for the German military intelligence. So this man, this man who many consider as a hero, many consider as a shining example of Christian courage and conviction in the face of, in defiance of evil, this man was actually an agent of the Nazi government. At least it seemed on the surface. In truth, he was working through the darkness to overcome the darkness.
Officially, Bonhoeffer was pretending to be a pastor so that he could gather military intelligence for the Nazis. Unofficially, he was a double agent. He was only pretending to be pretending. And in fact, he was serving as a pastor and conspiring to overthrow the Nazi regime. So was he pretending, or was he only pretending to be pretending? I run into a similar conundrum when I listen to the last half of the 12th chapter of the Gospel of John. In this chapter, we hear Jesus preach publicly for the last time before He's crucified. It is the beginning of the final showdown, the ultimate battle between good and evil, the clash between light and darkness. The hour has come. Jesus has come to do battle. The light versus the darkness.
Now, if you doubt that there is such a battle, if you doubt that there really is a battle between good and evil, consider the countless stories across cultures throughout the world that anticipate, that reflect this battle between light and darkness. Countless stories. In our own culture, we have many examples. We've got Dorothy versus the Wicked Witch. We've got Sherlock Holmes versus Moriarty. We've got Shrek versus Lord Farquaad. That last one might be a stretch, but you get the point. Countless stories. Understand that there is a battle raging between good and evil, between light and darkness, and this is the battle that John has been narrating from the beginning of his book. Jesus has come to do battle with the adversary. Adversary in Hebrew is Satan, Satan the adversary, and Jesus has come to confront him. Jesus has come to cast him out, to dispel the darkness from God's creation, God's world that He made and so loved.
Listen to how John sets it up all the way back in chapter 1, and then we'll skip to chapter 12. Chapter 1, remember, John said, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him, all things were made, and nothing was made without Him. In Him was life, and this life was the light of humanity. The light is shining in the darkness, and the darkness has not been able to put it out."
And then, in John chapter 12, Jesus said to the crowd, "For just a short time more, the light is with you. Walk while you have the light so that the darkness does not overcome you. Whoever walks in the darkness does not know where they are going. Trust in the light while you have the light so that you may become sons of the light." And after Jesus said these things, He went away and hid Himself from them.
"So many signs Jesus performed for them. So many signs Jesus performed before their eyes, but still they continued not to trust in Him. This was to fulfill the word of the prophet Isaiah who said, 'Lord, who has trusted what he has heard from us? To whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?' And so they were not able to trust because as Isaiah said again, 'He has blinded their eyes, and He has hardened their hearts so that they do not see with their eyes and they do not understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.' Isaiah spoke of His glory, of Jesus' glory, and he wrote about Him, and he spoke about Him. At the same time, many among the leaders trusted in Him, trusted in Jesus, but because of the Pharisees, so that they would not be expelled from the synagogue, they did not openly confess Him because they loved the glory that comes from other people more than the glory of God.
"Then, Jesus shouted and said, 'Whoever trusts in Me trusts not only in Me, but in the One who sends Me. Whoever looks to Me is looking at the One who sent Me. I have come as light into the world so that whoever trusts in Me will not remain in darkness. If anyone hears My message and does not keep it, I do not judge that person because I have come not to judge the world, but to save the world. To the one who rejects Me and does not receive My message, that person has a judge. The very words that I have spoken will judge them on the last day because I am not speaking on My own. The Father who sent Me has given Me a command what to say and what to speak, and I know that His command is eternal life. And so whatever I say is just what the Father has told Me to say."
This is the Gospel of the Lord, praise to You, O Christ.
So the words that give me trouble in this passage are the following: "They were not able to believe because," as Isaiah said, "He blinded their eyes, and He hardened their hearts." So on first glance, it sounds like the work of the adversary. Jesus has come to bring light. Jesus has come to let people see, but the devil, he brings darkness, he causes blindness. But you look at the passage, who's doing the blinding?
John's quoting Isaiah chapter 6. In Isaiah chapter 6, the Lord God calls out, "Whom shall I send? Whom will go for us?" And Isaiah says, "Me! Me! Pick me! Send me! Here am I! Send me!" And God says, "I will send you." And He did send him, and He sent him into failure. He sent him into darkness. Isaiah would not be able to persuade the people to turn back to God; in fact, the opposite would be the case. God would use Isaiah's words to blind the already unbelieving people. God would use Isaiah's words to harden the hard-hearted people. God would use Isaiah to do the work that He had done through Moses in the book of Exodus. Read the book of Exodus. Same case. God sent Moses to speak to Pharaoh, king of Egypt. God would send Moses into failure, at least initially. Moses was not able to persuade the king of Egypt. In fact, the opposite was the case. God used Moses' words to further harden Pharaoh's hard heart.
So we have this pattern. First, there's Moses, then there's Isaiah, and now there's Jesus. God sends them into darkness. God sends them into failure. God uses them to cause blindness and hard-heartedness, so whose side is God on? Is He on the side of the light or the darkness? Well, when I searched the Scriptures for an answer, the response I see page after page is God is on God's side. And God is the light. And in Him, there is no darkness at all. God is not the cause of the darkness; God is not the source of the darkness. The adversary has brought darkness into God's world. So when Pharaoh rejected the Word of the Lord through His servant Moses—that was the work of the darkness. And when the people of Israel rejected the Word of the Lord through His servant Isaiah—that was the darkness at work. And when the people of Jerusalem rejected God's word and crucified Him—that was the darkness at work. But the light is still shining in the darkness, and the darkness has not been able to put it out.
God is at work through the darkness. God is working like a double agent in the darkness to overthrow the darkness. Even in the darkest moment of all history, the crucifixion of God's beloved Son, even there, especially there, the light is shining for the whole world to see, and the darkness has not been able to put it out.
So what does this mean for me? What does this mean for you? What does this mean for us? It depends where you are in relation to the darkness. If this Word has found you and you do not publicly confess, you do not associate with the crucified, risen, ruling, and returning Jesus as the light of the world, then you must know that you are in darkness. So I call to you, turn toward the light, walk in the light while you have the light so that the darkness does not overcome you. If this Word has found you and you openly identify with Jesus the Light, then I want to encourage you, wherever the Father has sent you, wherever the Father is sending you, even into failure, even into suffering, even if this Word has found you in the deepest, darkest, most God-forsaken hole in the planet, then I want you to know that Jesus is with you, and His light is shining in you and through you, and the darkness will not be able to put it out.
No matter where you are, no matter what you are, no matter who you are, listen again to His promise: "I have come not to judge the world, but to save the world." Are you a part of this world? Then this promise is for you. "I have not come to condemn you," says Jesus. "I have come to save you. Here's the light."
In the summer of 1944, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer found himself in a dank, dark prison. The plot to assassinate Hitler had failed. And on April 9 of the following year, Dietrich Bonhoeffer would be executed by hanging for his participation in it. People have criticized Dietrich Bonhoeffer for his role in this assassination plot. The criticisms can go in a lot of ways. He didn't do enough; he did too much; he should have done something else. Bonhoeffer would be the first to admit that he wasn't perfect; he wasn't guiltless; he wasn't sinless. When you're walking through the darkness, sometimes it's difficult to know where you're going and what consequences your actions will have or what consequences your inactions will have. But what I appreciate about Bonhoeffer's story is that when he found himself trapped in darkness, Jesus was there. Jesus took him by the hand and led him to the light.
A doctor at that prison camp where Bonhoeffer was executed observed his final hours. He recorded the following in his journal. "Between five and six o'clock in the morning, the prisoners were taken from their cells. Through the half-opened door in one room, I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer. Before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor, praying fervently to his God. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer, and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In almost 50 years that I have worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God."
I invite you to pray with me. Lord Jesus Christ, You died to save us from the darkness. Save us now from our apathy. Save us from our unbelief. Save us from our fear of the darkness. By the power of Your resurrection, by the presence of Your Holy Spirit, give us confident faith. Lead us by the light of Your promises, that we may know the joy of the Father's glory, and honor, and immortal light because You live and reign now in that light with the Father and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and forever. Amen.
Reflections for April 7, 2019
Title: The Darkness Has Not Overcome It
Mark Eischer: Once again, here's our Speaker Dr. Michael Zeigler.
Mike Zeigler: Thanks, Mark. Again, I have joining me, Dr. Nik Ripken. He's the author of the book, The Insanity of God, and Nik and his wife Ruth, they together have interviewed more than 600 followers of Jesus, facing persecution in 72 countries, and has come to write this book, telling many of their stories. This week we heard about Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer's story, and some would consider him as a Christian martyr in the sense that he was willing to give up his life in this world for the sake of God's truth in Jesus.
Nik you've made it your mission to collect and retell the stories of Christians around the world enduring persecution—sometimes to the point of death. Now Nik I've heard you say in another context that in the Bible, persecution is normal. What does that mean for Christians today?
Nik Ripken: Well, it means that they probably have to flip their theology. Because in the Western world, we're taught that when problems come up on you, and generally it's natural, people do two things: they pray first of all, "God deliver me," and secondly, "God punish the bad guys." Well, believers in persecution, that's not what they taught us. They taught us that persecution is like the sun coming up in the east. That Jesus told us that we would suffer as He has suffered. And one of the questions, Dr. Ziegler, that we have to answer as a church today, "How do we know today when to leave Joseph in Pharaoh's prison?" Because if we write emails, and we bombard presidents and prime ministers, like we do when our Iranian pastor friend went to prison in Iran, and just got out this past year. We demand his deliverance based on human and civil rights as interpreted in the Western world. But what happens? If we are successful in advocating for Joseph in Pharaoh's prison, and we get him out, we have to be psychologically, physically, emotionally and, most of all, spiritually tough enough to know when to leave Joseph in jail.
Mike Zeigler: Right. So that God would bring about much good even though this is evil, and like you'd said last week, we don't wish this upon anyone, we don't want this for ourselves or for our loved ones, but God uses these things even for great good.
Nik Ripken: What we've learned is persecution is not something you run away from. If you have somebody that's fearful and afraid, lovingly deal with it. But if you have somebody on your team that wants to be persecuted, wants to be beaten, you need to take them to a psychiatrist. So you don't run away from it, you don't run toward it, it just is. What you do with it will give its value, or its harmful nature; it's up for us how we walk with Jesus when these kind of things become our daily bread.
Mike Zeigler: Nik, what do we do to best identify and support followers of Jesus who are suffering persecution?
Nik Ripken: That's a great question. When Ruth and I show up, they want to know where did we come from, why are we looking for them? And we tell them we have days that we pray for them and weeks that we pray for them, and we call them out by name if we know their names, and they weep, and weep, and weep, and say the debt that we can never repay the West is the debt of prayer. But they are in chains because of two things: they have given their lives to Christ, and they're sharing Jesus with others.
Nik Ripken: The way that I identify with believers in persecution is when I share my faith with my family, my neighbors, and the schools in which I attend or teach. At work when I share Christ that I have taken on His Lordship in my life, as they have. And when I share Christ with others, that's how I identify the most with our brothers and sisters in chains. But I must say, and I don't want to say this, when we don't share Christ, and we keep Him to ourselves, we are not just failing to identify with brothers and sisters in persecution, we are identifying with their persecutors. Because what Satan wants the most on our earth today is to keep people from having access to Jesus the Christ, and when we withhold our witness—then whose side are we on?
Mike Zeigler r: That makes me think of Jesus' words here in John 12 we just heard that the leaders believed in Him, but were afraid to acknowledge him publicly because, as John says, "They loved the glory that comes from people more than the glory of God."
Nik Ripken: You have captured their heart by quoting that Scripture.
Mike Zeigler: Well, thank you so much for your time Nik. If you would like to hear more about Nik's ministry, go to his website. It's nikripken.com, that's N-I-K-R-I-P-K-E-N.com. Thank you.
Nik Ripken: It's a joy to have been with you.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"My Song Is Love Unknown" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia