Date: March 26, 1939
Prayer for Light in Darkness
Jesus, Light of the world:
When Thou didst hang on the cross, darkness covered the earth to show the hatred with which Thy Father’s absolute holiness brands all sin. Sometimes we, too, find ourselves overclouded with the gloom of our own transgressions or the black night of a hundred heavy sorrows. In these trying hours comfort us with Thy Spirit. Show us that, when we sin, we shut out Thy light; teach us that, when we believe in Thee, we have been called out of darkness into the marvelous light of salvation. Remind us that the pall of suffering cannot last forever but must end in Thy gracious time, as the gloom over Golgotha was finally lifted. Thou art our Light, and in Thee can we find radiant gleams of guidance for any lightless moments, even for the darkness of death itself. Help us by Thy power and mercy to walk in Thy light, even though it be through the valley of the shadow. Because we are children of light, plant a deep-rooted abhorrence of sin in our hearts; and as this aversion to all things that displease Thee grows within us, our joy of life will constantly increase. Give us the grace to reflect Thy light into many gloomy hearts which still grope in darkness, so that we may continually come closer to Thee who art Love, Light, and Life eternal, our only Advocate and Mediator. Grant us Thy grace for Thy name’s sake! Amen.
From the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour. – Matthew 27:45
THE Talmud, sacred book of the Jews, tells a meaningful story about Rabbi Jochanan, president of the Sanhedrin, the Council soon after the Savior’s death. This Rabbi Jochanan was so renowned for his learning and so clear in his explanation of the Old Testament Scriptures that he was called “The Light.” Imagine, then, the surprise of his disciples when, visiting him in his last hour, they found him in tears, gripped by the fear of death. When they asked why he, “The Light,” could fall victim to such terror, he answered: “Two ways lie before me, one to Paradise and the other to hell, and I do not know which way will be mine. How, then, in this uncertainty, can I help weeping in terror?”—In the crisis of all existence, the moment of death, “The Light” had turned to darkness!
Have you ever noticed how, despite fame and learning, a similar blackness has overshadowed many at the approach of the end? Edward Gibbon, British historian and unbeliever, felt that gloom of despair and cried out: “All is dark and doubtful.” Thomas Hobbes, celebrated philosopher, Christless, helpless, hopeless, raised himself on his deathbed to gasp: “I am about to take a leap in the dark,” and then fell back dead. The German poet Goethe was overshadowed by heavy forebodings, and his last words were the plea: “Open the shutters and let in more light!” David Hume, British historian and philosopher, was so terrorized by darkness as his end drew near that he kept candles burning all night in his chamber. When man is confronted by eternity with no other guide than the light of human understanding, regardless of how self-possessed and widely acclaimed he may have been, in his last moments he faces the terrifying darkness of despair that made Voltaire’s nurse, leaving the death-chamber of that skeptic, vow: “For all the wealth of Europe I would never see another infidel die.”
Yet, thank God, there is One whose death, darker than the shadows of any human blackness, can bless your farewell to life with light. Trusting in Him, dying sinners have refused to let any night of death’s agony overcloud their joys. When the time comes for their release from life’s pain and sorrow, they can exult with these dying words of Augustus Toplady, beloved as the author of the glorious Gospel hymn “Rock of Ages”: “What bright sunshine has been spread over me! I have not the words to express it. It cannot be long now till my Savior will come, for surely no mortal man can live after glories that God has manifested to my soul. All is light, light, light,—the brightness of His own glory! O come, Lord Jesus, come! Come quickly!”
If you want to escape the appalling darkness of death; if you want light, not only for the last hour but for every hour, then dedicate these next moments to Christ; remove any disturbing hindrance which prevents you from concentrating your thoughts on a message for which you may thank God in eternity! Prepare now for a spiritual pilgrimage to the place of God’s sacred love and of man’s savage hatred, the skull-shaped hill outside the city wall, the Calvary of our Savior’s death agony. As the sun suddenly fails and gloom threatens to overwhelm, you can find light in this
DARKNESS OVER THE EARTH
to which Saint Matthew testifies in our text (chapter twenty-seven, verse forty-five): “From the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour.”
IT POINTS TO THE DARKNESS OF SIN
Last Sunday we followed our Savior carrying His cross, as Simon of Cyrene, unexpectedly pressed into service, finished this task and carried it for Him to Calvary. No time was wasted after the death procession reached the place of execution. Perhaps the cross was laid on the ground, so that the long, heavy nails could be driven through the palms of the Savior’s hands and then into His feet. Or perhaps the upright post was first imbedded into the ground and the arms of Jesus nailed to the transverse section that was then raised and fastened to the vertical beam on which the feet were finally riveted. In either method, crucifixion becomes a means of torture invented to cause intense anguish and to prolong that agony to the limit of human endurance.
Today the cross has often become just another piece of jewelry. Even some unbelievers are ready to regard it as a symbol of sacrifice. The Church of Christ exalts it as a token of triumph. If only we could fully contrast with our glorified, bejeweled, and costly crosses the two pieces of wood to which the Savior was pinioned! What pain He endured from the festering wounds on His pierced hands and feet, the exposure to the noonday sun, the tension of His body, the inflammation and fever that increased the longer He was suspended from those timbers of torture; especially, what inner pains of soul distress overshadowed Him when, suffering in my stead and yours, He bore the punishment of all sin, we shall never know, for this sorrow is past understanding! Were all this anguish momentary; had Jesus been executed with only the few seconds’ pain that modern capital punishment inflicts, even that torture would have been so terrifying that it might have seemed an eternity; but what shall we say when we remember that for hours the Savior hung there between the earth that rejected Him and the heaven that forsook Him?
Uncomplainingly, however, does our Lord suffer this ordeal. As we examine His earlier words from the cross, we see that He thinks not of Himself or of His own painracked, fever-gripped body. First of all He pleads: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” What a compelling example of reconciled love, charity, forgiveness for our enemies Christ offers us in His plea for pardon! Take these words to heart if your souls are steeped in hatred and ask God for the same spirit of reconciliation if you have not learned to maintain peace and harmony and love in your home.
Again Jesus speaks. Seeing His mother at the foot of the cross, His love for her whose bosom once cradled His infant form cries out: “Behold thy son,” and addressing John, the disciple of His affection, He adds: “Behold thy mother.” What a compelling text these words are as they come from Jesus’ death-marked lips and now speed their way across the continent, beseeching you fathers and mothers in the United States and in Canada and you sons and daughters who live your own selfish, separate lives, to learn of the dying Christ how holy are the bonds that should bind parents and children!
Once more, before the agony reaches its climax, Jesus speaks; and again He is concerned, not with Himself but with the appeal from one of the criminals crucified at His side: “Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom!” In answer the suffering Christ gives this priceless pledge: “Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with Me in Paradise.” The dying thief, a wretched sinner at noon, is to become a redeemed saint before nightfall! By the clear statement of Jesus, especially sacred to us as one of His last utterances, the penitent is promised heaven without condition or payment, without purgatory or any intermediate state, without the contribution of meritorious works. How I wish that I could stress this imperishable, Heaven-born truth of Christ’s perfect and complete redemption! If in your families some have died looking to Jesus Christ as the only Savior, you need not, indeed you cannot, pay or pray to have their souls brought to heaven. No matter what men may tell you in one of the most destructive delusions ever practiced under the name of Christ’s holy religion, when Jesus on the cross promised the repentant robber, now believing on Him, that within a few hours he would be saved for eternity, the same Lord assures you in scores of passages that you cannot pay your way into heaven since Christ paid all; you need no further purging, since the unbreakable Word pledges: “The blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanseth us from all sin”; you cannot have prayers effectively said for your soul; for when Jesus on the cross cried: “It is finished,” He meant exactly what these words say, that everything necessary for your redemption has been completed. On the other hand, if you have friends and relatives who spurn the grace of Christ and rebel against His Word, then all the prayers and payments you or anyone else offers cannot change the destiny of that Christless soul. For here is not merely my opinion nor the teaching of the Christian Church but the Word of God: “It is appointed unto men once to die,” and after this not a second chance, not a period of improving, purifying preparation for heaven, “but after this the Judgment.” If the Spirit of God in His mercy will now bring this promise of full grace through the Savior’s blood into only one heart and teach a single soul that Christ has paid all, paid fully, paid for everyone, how I will thank God in all eternity for the privilege of broadcasting!
When Jesus Christ had spoken this radiant comfort, it seems that His suffering assumed greater intensity. His thoughts and prayers now begin to center on Himself and His own pain in body and spirit. About noon, the sixth hour, as time was then figured, a miracle of God marks this new phase of Christ’s anguish. Without warning the sun is darkened, not in an eclipse, as some have suggested,—for astronomy knows nothing of an eclipse at this time,—but in a supernatural, foreboding manner. Don’t overlook this basic, practical truth that the Almighty, whom many refuse to recognize in His personal power, controls the heavenly bodies; that the solar system is not an intricate piece of mechanism which runs by itself; that sunrise and sunset are not merely the perpetual movements of the universe, but that the God who created sun, moon, and stars also directs their course as He upholds “all things by the word of His power.” Within a few moments after His miracle-working might begins its operation, “there was darkness over all the land,” perhaps over all the earth, as the words in the original may imply and as testimony from historical sources may indicate. At midday, when the sun should have been highest and brightest, it lost its light, and black midnight enshrouded men.
Bible interpreters, seeking to explain the significance of this darkness, have offered many reverent thoughts. Some tell us nature itself recoiled from witnessing that deepest depravity when men nailed the Son of God to an accursed tree. Others believe that Jesus at least for a few hours was to be spared the ordeal of witnessing the blasphemous acts practiced by His taunting enemies. Still others maintain that just as the Holy of Holies was cut off from common view by a curtain, so the sun was covered with a black crepe that the sinful eyes of men might not behold the depths of the Savior’s dying agony. Yet these explanations, it always seems to me, fall completely short of presenting the one decisive reason God permitted engrossing darkness to overshadow the world.
To understand the basic cause, I hold, we must recall that throughout the Scriptures darkness of this nature is evidence of God’s displeasure, proof of His hatred of sin. When the sun was dimmed on Good Friday, it was a universal demonstration of our heavenly Father’s aversion to the worldwide wickedness that His own Son bore upon the cross. Day turned to night at the crucifixion to show men how the brightness of purity and holiness had been lost through their transgressions. Noonday darkened to midnight to emphasize that the holy Son of God in the dazzling white of His divine purity had taken the black, damning guilt of human iniquity upon Himself. No wonder that before the pall was lifted, the suffering Christ, for whom every moment of enshrouding gloom added the weight of His Father’s punishment of sin, screamed: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” No wonder that immediately after the crucifixion the multitude that had witnessed the darkness smote upon their breasts as they fled from Calvary! No wonder that we, too, are gripped by this pall as evidence of God’s displeasure; for whenever in the wide world of today men rise up against God and His Christ as they did at Calvary, a heavy, black cloud overshadows them, not a darkness that robs us of physical light, but one that deprives us of the illumination and guidance for the soul and sometimes for the mind.
Need I tell you in these last days, immediately before the return of Jesus to judge the quick and the dead, that darkness covers wide areas of our world? I do not now mean the vast stretches in Central Asia, equatorial Africa, upper-Amazonian Brazil, where ten millions of human beings live on day after day and year after year without hearing even one syllable of the grace and truth that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them.” This ignorance is tragic enough, and if it were not for the mercy of God, I wonder how the churches could face the Almighty when their members often spend dollars for luxuries, fineries, vanities, sometimes even for vice and sin, and then give so few pennies for the missionary expansion of the Savior’s kingdom, that in 1900 years the churches have not yet fulfilled the divine commission “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature.” I think rather of the gloom over countries that have had the Gospel for centuries, the murky pall settling over Europe and America, the darkness in our international life, as nations, frantically rearming, are definitely realigning themselves for new hostilities; our industrial darkness, with its commercial wars, its labor conflicts, its unemployed millions; social darkness, with multitudes in a land as wealthy as the United States, doomed to continued poverty and destitution, facing a future that, humanly speaking, is absolutely hopeless; political darkness, with tremendous areas controlled by the tyranny of a dictator or, far worse, by the bloody rule of dripping Red radicalism, and the United States definitely destined to become a battleground for Fascism and Communism,—these heavy shadows come from the same displeasure of God over sin that once engrossed Calvary with its blackness. No matter how wealthy, influential, resourceful, any nation is; no matter how far-sighted and far-reaching its programs of progress may be,—if these plans contradict the Word of God or if, entirely commendable in themselves, they are accompanied by irreligion and blasphemy in the lives of the people, they are destined to failure.
Consider the darkness in American church-life, where twentieth-century Judases and skeptical churchmen surround the cross of Jesus with a barrage of unbelief, so that the Christ of atoning love cannot be seen clearly; picture the moral darkness stigmatizing our age with profanity and perjury, revolt against parental authority and the renouncing of interest in children, hatred and murder, adultery and sex perversions, theft and defrauding, false witnessing and gossiping, covetousness and greed; add to this the educational blindness which makes some of our schools recruiting-stations for unbelief and pioneer outposts of atheism,—these beclouding sins are responsible for the tragedy that after ten years of the most widespread efforts for human relief and improvement the world has ever seen conditions in 1939 in many ways are not better than in 1929, in some respects definitely worse. If it is true, as I have repeatedly emphasized on the basis of the Word of God, that “righteousness exalteth a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people,” then we ought to stop talking about theoretical ideals in America and concentrate our efforts upon the administration of justice and the punishment and restriction of crime through those means which God expects every government, Christian and non-Christian, to use. Unless there is a definite moral improvement in the American nation, and I appeal to the Christians of this country to give their help in organized efforts of faith, prayer, and Christian life,—unless the reign of open corruption and vice is checked, this country, regardless of all the optimistic predictions of statesmen and diplomats, will grope in darkness such as has never previously covered this land.
The gloom at Golgotha above all must remind us of the penalty of unforgiven transgressions which dims our own happiness. If I could speak to you individually to analyze the difficulties that embitter your lives, the haze in which you stagger about uncertainly, I know that in each instance the hideous effect of sin would soon be uncovered—sin in your life or in someone else’s life, sin which you have committed or which you have suffered. If your home has been broken, you need not seek far to find the cause in lust, hot temper, drunkenness, or gambling. If you are deprived of the opportunity of working, the process may be somewhat more complicated, but finally you will find one of the hundred forms of selfishness which are responsible for our industrial difficulties. If your life is darkened by sickness, the cause may be the sin of a drunken driver, your ruinous living, or that inborn wickedness under which every one of us finally pays the penalty of death.
God was thinking of you and me when that heavy blackness hung over Golgotha at noonday, enshrouding the cross on which Christ paid the price of our sin; and it is my prayer that this evidence of our misdeeds will sink deeply into our souls, not only to remind us of our own unworthiness but particularly to prepare our hearts for that greater grace by which every shadow overcasting our lives may be removed.
IT HELPS TO LEAD TO THE LIGHT OF GRACE
Through that faith we can acclaim the Christ of the murky cross “the Light of the world.” For as every other part of our Savior’s suffering, so this darkness can help bless us with heavenly brightness. I remind you, first of all, that Christ, who felt the weight of this pitch blackness over His cross, is your sympathetic Savior and consoling Friend. When gloom grips your heart as you look out into the dark world for one small ray of hope, what a blessed assurance to know that a darkness far deeper than the annoyances in your life once completely encircled the sin-bearing Savior! What a privilege in those moments of blindness, when your hands reach out for someone to whom you can cling with death-defying certainty, that you, through faith, can grasp Jesus in prayer and, kneeling before Him, can say: “O Christ, my Christ of the cross, the midnight of sorrows has come upon me. No one on earth knows how I grope for light and relief, how I suffer under this black and heavy cloud. But You know my agony, for You were in a darkness a thousand times more impenetrable than my night of sorrows; I know that my prayer will find a responsive answer in Your heart of love.” Those who acclaim Christ in this way as a Friend, a Sympathizer, to whom they can intimately and confidently pour out the sorrows of their own heart, will testify that they would not exchange this divine source of sympathy for all the pearls in the ocean and all the diamonds hidden in earth’s untouched treasure-houses. An old Arabic proverb says: “I complained because I had no shoes until I saw a man who had no feet.” In a much higher sense some of you, looking to Christ in faith and beholding the incomparably darker pall of His soul-enshrouding gloom, will never complain of the dusk in your lives.
These lightless hours on Calvary offer much more than sympathy. They teach us that “weeping may endure for a night,” but that light dawns with the morning of deliverance. The text records that this darkness was “over all the land” “from the sixth hour . . . unto the ninth hour,” and then that pall was raised. Lift up your heads, bowed down in grief though they may be, to hear this truth: Through Christ all darkness must end. The black sorrows in your life may last longer than three hours of some excruciating pain; or the three days that the lifeless body of a beloved one remains in your home before it is consigned to the grave; or three months of desperate effort to recover from accident and disaster; or three hard, grinding, impoverished years of relief, part-time work, unemployment; or three decades of unhappy home-life; or threescore years of a sickly, maimed, crippled body or of blinded sight; yet, however long this darkness prevails, if you have learned to glory in the Cross of Christ, it must finally vanish and give way to light. As the sun once more shone forth over Calvary and Jesus could say: “It is finished,” to signify that His agony and its purpose were completed; as He could declare in the last word from the cross: “Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit,” so the time will come when you, too, can say: “It is finished,” when you, too, can entrust your soul into the hands of your heavenly Father. This deliverance may dawn more quickly than you dare expect, or it may come, as it came to Jesus, in your last hour; but always you, the heavyladen, the burden bearers, the downcast, the sightless, hopeless, joyless, find heavenly comfort in the promise that the darkness overhanging your life will not continue forever. It must stop. Even while it lasts, you can turn to Jesus and say:
Sun of my soul, Thou Savior dear,
It is not night if Thou be near.
Who can describe the light that surrounded the blessed Savior when darkness disappeared? They laid Him in the grave, but He could not be kept there. On the third day He rose again, and all gloom was banished in His exalted glory. If you read the last book of the Bible, with its prevision of eternity, that heaven which God in this moment offers each penitent sinner through faith in Christ, you will be impressed with the frequent references to light, crystal clearness, radiance, and dazzling white that Saint John employs as he portrays that homeland in the “better country.” That eternal victory over darkness can be ours in Christ’s resurrection to glory. With the promise that heaven is for all believers, that Jesus preceded us on the Good Friday 1900 years ago to prepare a place for us, to write our names in the completed Book of Life, we can have light for any darkness that may seek to obscure our path. Those who are Christ’s have God’s Word, which is to be a light unto their path. They are blessed by the faith which in Baptism and Holy Communion can help dispel gloom. Theirs is the privilege of speaking confident prayers by which every enemy of their soul can be shattered.
At the beginning of the last century, when Napoleon mapped his campaign against Russia, that entire nation—how different it is now!—united in public and private prayer for God’s protection. When the French emperor heard of these petitions for his defeat, he replied sarcastically: “So they want to conquer me with prayers? Bayonets alone can decide the contest. . . . With my five hundred thousand warriors I will push forward to Moscow and put their prayers to shame.” You know how his blasphemy was silenced and those petitions answered. As his French legions marched on, they found the country deserted and all food supplies destroyed. Besides, God made the winter of unparalleled severity during that campaign. Almost two thirds of a million well-equipped French soldiers had entered Russia, but only sixteen hundred fit for service were able to flee. Napoleon himself barely escaped, disguised as a miserable fugitive.—With the same prayerful trust in God, darkness and defeat which seem inevitable can overnight be turned into spiritual light and soul victory. The cross can never be completely hidden from the believer’s view, even by the blackest cover men’s hatred can produce. For the believer it will always gleam through the night of sorrows, and its radiance is never more brilliant than during the last shadows preceding the heavenly light. In the moment of death, when all on earth vanishes, the eyes of faith, raised confidently to Jesus, behold Him in His glory. God grant that for our last hour our prayer, springing from a glowing confidence in Jesus, may be:
Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes,
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me!
Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.