Exposing the Darkness
While in college, a group of us from the geology club, went spelunking. Don’t worry spelunking isn’t against the law nor is it some college drinking game. Spelunking in short is the hobby of cave exploring. We went exploring in the many caves found in southeast Missouri. Often many of the cave entrances are none descripted. For the most part they are just small holes in the ground. Yet when you get down into the cave chamber it opens up into vast passages.
Journeying in through the cave it is essential that you have a helmet and a carbide lamp attached to it. Within the depths of the cave one discovers pure and absolute darkness. SO this little carbide lamp, on top of your helmet makes all the difference in the world between finding your way out or being lost in the darkness.
The same is true for God’s grace.
The theme of walking in the darkness is a major theme we see all over the New Testament. It perhaps springs from the Messianic prophecies such as Isaiah 9:1-2, which Matthew quotes at the beginning of his gospel: “… the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, echoes that prophecy in Luke 1:78-79: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.”
John’s gospel, filled with references to Jesus as the Light of the World, begins with a great hymn: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” And in 3:19-20, John picks up the theme again: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil … do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.”
We are told that as the realm of God breaks through into our lives, it does so in a burst of light! For example, in Luke’s birth narrative, the angels appear to the shepherds wreathed in glorious light, and the way of the magi is marked in Matthew with the light of a star. Even after the Ascension, we are told that while “Peter, bound with two chains, was sleeping between two soldiers, … suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He tapped Peter on the side and woke him, saying, ‘Get up quickly.’ And the chains fell off his wrists” (Acts 12:6-7).
Prison cells in Peter’s day were pitch dark. Without electricity, there was no easy way to light the dungeons in which men were kept, and no oil lamp would be put in the hands of a man who might be desperate to escape his prison cell.
So most of prison time was lived in dank, underground cells, in a darkness so thick as to be nearly impossible to penetrate, no matter how one might strain to see. Such sensory deprivation often led to madness, so that even when a person was released, their imprisonment might persist in their minds.
Furthermore, first century city streets had no illumination either. To be out at night alone was a hazardous proposition, as dangerous as in our cities today, but also perilous because of unseen obstacles that might trip one. To travel without a light was to risk serious injury.
For these reasons, darkness was not an abstract idea to Paul’s readers; it was a real threat. They knew the power of a single small lamp, if placed on a stand, to illuminate a circle of family or friends gathered after sunset. A traveler on a country road, running late and moving as swiftly as possible to reach the safety of an inn for the night, would breathe a sigh of relief when he saw the lamps in the windows, announcing that he had at last reached his destination.
Paul is reminding us of Jesus’ instruction that we must be that sort of beacon: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16) and “Therefore consider whether the light in you is not darkness. If then your whole body is full of light … it will be as … a lamp …” (Luke 11:35-36).
Paul himself has experienced the spiritual truth that he is preaching. He had been an enemy of those who called themselves “Followers of the Way,” when he was blinded by a brilliant light, and the voice of Jesus spoke to him (Acts 22:6-11). He was so overcome, he says he fell to the ground and “those who were with me took my hand and led me to Damascus.” The effect of the light was so great, that even those with him saw it, though they did not hear the voice.
It is because of his own experience that Paul is so forceful in telling us that the Light of the World (Jesus) calls us to take over the role of being Light in our own world. Jesus’ own promise is that, “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” “Everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness … believe in the light, so that you may become children of light” (John 12:46 and 36).
Paul never knew Jesus in the flesh. Peter could talk about the stories Jesus told, could call on his personal experiences with Jesus in times of difficulty. We might expect Peter to be singing hymns in the darkness of a prison. But Paul is like us. He never knew the man Jesus, never heard him preach, never saw him raise a friend from the dead nor heal a Gentile woman’s daughter. Everything he learned about Jesus he learned after Jesus had certainly died and had apparently been resurrected. Like us, he had to struggle with doubt, had to work through his salvation “with fear and trembling.” Paul, of all the apostles, is the only one who, like us, walks only “by faith, not by sight.”
From this, we can take heart. Some may be certain, some may know the will of God easily, but Paul knew what it was to walk in darkness and uncertainty. He knew the darkness of his life before being blinded by the light. He knew what it was to be set free. And as one who had been set free, he offers us freedom also. He speaks as one “born out of time” to a flock of people dismissed as “out of the flock” — us Gentiles. He invites us in. On behalf of God, who wishes us to be reconciled, Paul invites us in the words of an ancient hymn:
Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.