By Paul Koch –
Being a pastor affords me with some pretty unique experiences. I’ve been invited into the midst of people’s most tender moments. From the bedside of a dying father to the joy of a wedding day or the baptism of a newborn baby, I have found myself graciously allowed to share in such experiences. These moments have certainly impacted me over the years; teaching me humility, kindness, and gentleness. But there are other experiences that come as part of this vocation. For instance, I spend a lot of time in a church building. Far more time than most people. Part of my weekly routine to preach on Sunday morning is to come here early in the morning, when there is no one else in the building, when all the lights are off and the even before the sun is up, and I practice my sermon. If you’ve never had the experience, it is strange to be in the church when it is dark. A dark church seems foreign and strange. All the elements are there, the altar, pulpit and lectern, the baptismal font and communion rail, but in the shadow of darkness it all has a somber and foreboding feel to it.
From my childhood memories of the church one of the most dramatic and therefore most memorable services throughout the church year was Good Friday service. Not only was the altar draped in black and the pastor wearing only black but throughout the service the lights were slowly dimmed. By the end, the whole place was left in darkness. That darkness was impactful. Something dramatic had happened. The King of kings and Lord or lords had died on Calvary’s cross. The darkness reflected not only the somber nature of such a moment but my own darkness. My own ungratefulness and repentance was somehow evident in the darkness. And to this day, coming into the sanctuary late at night or early in the morning without any extra lights causes me to reflect upon my own sin and failure.
Of all the places that we desire to have light, a church is perhaps one of the most earnest. The use of oil lamps and candles were so necessary to the lighting of the worship space that they have become part of the ceremonial acts of the church itself. We don’t need to use candles for light anymore, but we still do. Light in the house of God has taken on new meaning beyond the practical. When the light is carried out of the sanctuary on Good Friday, we long for its return. It doesn’t seem right to enter into a dark church. When we gather together, we feel that we are leaving behind the darkness of the world. We want to enter into the light, we want all the candles lit and all the lights turned on. After all, this is a place of revelation and light, of hope and joy. So even when I come here in the darkness it seems like I can only handle it for so long before I turn on a few lights.
The life and work of the great prophet Jeremiah is one in which he is sent to explore the darkness. The people of God had turned from His ways. They were mired in idolatry, chasing after their own gods, finding security in their own scheming and strength. So Jeremiah is sent to hammer them with the Law of God. He beats upon their stony hearts again and again with judgment and warning. The darkness from his words rise like a huge tidal wave bringing with it the looming Babylonian exile. Disaster upon disaster will befall the people of Judah, and Jerusalem itself will fall. Reading the book of Jeremiah is like walking into a dark church: sitting there in the pew with no light, no relief, no joy. And then the words begin to flow, out of the darkness they drive you mad within your own head. Your mind races from the great things that God has done for you, the mercy and deliverance He has accomplished, and then you are pounded again and again with the realizations that your thoughts, words, and deeds do not reflect the gifts given.
We ought to give thanks then that we gather in a place of light. We may read from Jeremiah’s great work from time to time, but even when we do we read it from the comfort of the light. That is, we read it as Christians, as brothers and sisters of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are those who have been given His gifts. We’ve tasted and confessed that the Lord is good. And so we light the candles and turn on the lights and sing our praises to our God. We’ve escaped the place of darkness and stepped into His marvelous light. Or at least that is what we pretend has happened.
You see, the closest thing to standing in the church early in the morning and preaching out into the darkness is to stand here right now and preach to you. Oh, I know that the candles are burning and the lights are on, but we haven’t fully escaped the darkness. The darkness that Jeremiah battles through his work, the darkness that still holds so many in our world, that same darkness is carried into this place – it is here even now. It is not the intentional darkness of a Good Friday service but the shameful darkness of sin. It is here, and you are the ones who brought it in. The darkness is carried into the house of God by those who sing His praises.
We have this habit of pretending that it is us versus them. We gather together in the light filled church and we pity those in the darkness. But we are them. Sure we may not be as lost and aimless as those trapped in the darkness, but we are not free from it either. As long as we bear our crosses, as long as we wait for the return of Christ, as long as we struggle and strive day in and day out, the darkness does not leave us. We don’t need to pretend any longer. We don’t need to keep up the façade. We are Christians and we have doubts. We are Christians and we have deep and powerful regrets. We are Christians and we have hurt those we should love. We are Christians and we have squandered the blessings of our gracious giver God. We may gather in a place full of light but we remain a church plagued by darkness.
All this means that any hope that is found within or any confidence that we are supposed to find inside ourselves, in our own strength, in our own effort, in our good deeds, in our best attempts, it is all tainted by darkness. To find then hope and confidence, to find assurance and light, means that we must become beggars looking outside of our own efforts and deeds for hopefulness. Otherwise the darkness will swallow us whole. It offers no relief as it brings us to our knees in repentance.
Out of the darkness the booming voice of Jeremiah proclaims, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will dwell securely. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’” (Jer. 33:14-16) There, breaking through the darkness comes a ray of light. A new Branch will sprout from the line of David: a righteous Branch who will establish justice and righteousness in the land. Through this Branch there is hope. Through this one there is salvation for Judah and Jerusalem and you.
The righteous Branch is the one born of Mary, the holy Son of God himself. He is a light that has come into the darkness and his light is the light of men. Notice what that old prophet says we shall call this Branch. He says he will be called “The Lord is our righteousness.” You see the righteousness is not us. It is not our deeds or our efforts. Our righteousness is our Lord himself. He is the one who bears our darkness. He is the one who dies in our place. He is the one who rises form the grave to promise that there is something greater, something beyond this darkness.
The dark church fades into a church of light not because we have lit a few candles or turned on the overhead lights, the darkness fades because the light of Christ is present. His light shines the brightest when it is at work bringing that light to each and every one of you. His light shines when the Lord our righteousness washes you clean in the waters of baptism and clothes you in His holy garments. His light shines when He feeds you His own body and blood for the forgiveness of all your sins. His light shines even in the dark recesses of your heart when He declares that you are loved, and that you are free. And the church shines bright when together we believe that Christ alone is our righteousness.