“Are You Afraid of the Dark?”
February 24, 2019
Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service
Our Scripture reading this morning is from the first five verses of the Gospel of John. Please listen carefully, for this is God’s Word for us this morning.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
The prophet Isaiah reminds us that all people, including you and me, “are [like] grass. The grass withers, the flower fades,” he says, “but the word of our God will stand forever.” [Isa 40:7b-8]
We’re starting a new sermon series this morning, in the Gospel of John. I preached four sermons on my big-picture philosophy of ministry back in October, and so I thought this morning, my first Sunday morning with you as your senior pastor, we would just dive right into John’s Gospel, especially considering that what it has to say is not irrelevant to the transition that in many ways begins in full this morning.
And so, we come to the beginning of John’s Gospel – the first paragraph in what has often been called the prologue to the Gospel of John. And here we are immediately confronted with John’s grand theological claims.
Raymond Brown puts it like this, he says: “If John has been described as the pearl of great price among the NT writings, then one may say that the Prologue is the pearl within this Gospel. In her comparison of Augustine’s and Chrysostom’s exegesis of the Prologue, M. A. Aucoin points out that both held that it is beyond the power of man to speak as John does in the Prologue.” [Brown 1966, 18]
When we hear things like that, and when we come to a text like this, I think that our tendency can be to expect that John here is giving us information that is interesting to ponder, and to reflect on, but that is so high that it will not quite make it all the way down to the ground to touch our real day-to-day lives. He’s giving us abstract theology, not practical theology. But if we look a bit closer, we begin to see that that is not the case – that in the span of this one paragraph, these five verses, John manages to begin with the highest spiritual truths, and end with our deepest day-to-day struggles. And to really see that, it might be helpful for us to start with the end of this paragraph, and then consider the context in which John was writing.
The last phrase in verse five is significant. Take a look at it again. John writes “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” That verse can sound like just a nice abstract spiritual metaphor, and certainly it is that – but it’s also more than that. With this phrase, John was meeting his first readers right where they lived: Because many of them were people who were afraid that the darkness would overcome the light.
In their introduction to the Gospel of John, Andreas Köstenberger and his co-authors identify three important factors that “combined as possible occasions” for the Apostle John to write his Gospel. They were the rise of Gnostic thought, the Church’s mission to the Gentiles, and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem [301-303]. And one thing that these three audiences – that first century Jews, pagans, and Gnostics, all had in common, was that given their view of the world, they had a rational fear that the darkness really might overcome the light. Let’s take a moment to consider each of those views at the time of John’s writing.
The first is the ancient movement known a Gnosticism – a view of the world that was just emerging in John’s day. J.W. Drane notes that “The foundation-stone of [Gnosticism] was [what he called] a radical cosmological dualism.” Put a little more simply, it was “the belief that the created world was evil and was totally separate from and in opposition to the world of spirit.” Now, how that foundation played out into specific Gnostic views could vary, and as I said, Gnosticism was in its early stages of development when John wrote, but this split between the good spiritual realm and the bad created material realm was still foundational. Spiritual good was fundamentally alien to the material world that human beings inhabited. And so, there was no real hope of this material world being redeemed, because its fundamental nature was opposed to the spiritual good. And as for individual human beings, they could try to escape the material world to the spiritual realm, but there was no assurance that they’d be successful. On a cosmic level there was a rational reason for them to fear, to assume really, that the darkness would overcome the light in this world we live in. And on a personal level there was every reason to have the same fear. A thoughtful Gnostic would live in fear of the darkness overcoming the light. That is the first group.
The second group are the Gentiles – the first-century pagans. First-century Gentiles in the Greco-Roman world had a variety of beliefs, but we might reasonably lump them in with similar fears that the Gnostics had, though for somewhat different reasons. The pagan gods were unreliable sources for help, and even if one did trust in some of them, those gods were not the creators of the cosmos, but were themselves creatures, putting the effectiveness of their help into question. And so, whether on a cosmic level or an individual level, the pagan experienced a similar fear that the powers of darkness might overcome the powers of light.
The third group that John likely had in mind as he wrote had a very different view of the world. They were the first-century Jews. The Jews believed in a God who had made all things, who was more powerful than all of creation, and therefore more powerful than the darkness – more powerful than any of Israel’s enemies. But in recent years the Jews had begun to shift their hope from that God himself, to the instruments that God had used and given to Israel.
Two of the key instruments they had placed their trust in were their temple in Jerusalem and their Jewish political nation based in Jerusalem. But in A.D. 70 (after the Jews in Jerusalem had rebelled against the Roman Empire) the Romans reconquered Jerusalem, dismantled the political structures the Jews had put in place, and burned down their temple. And so, to many Jews at the time of John’s writing, it seemed as if the darkness was overcoming the light. And since their trust was in the temple, and their trust was in their nation, and both had just been defeated by their enemies, many Jews had begun to live in a rational fear that the darkness would one day overcome the light. Some maybe even thought that it already had.
So, whether the Gnostics, the pagans, or the Jews in the first century, John was writing to people who lived in fear – a fear that was rational given the way they viewed their lives – that in their own lives and in the world they lived in, the darkness really might overcome the light.
And what’s striking to me is that today, two thousand years later, though very few of us or our neighbors practice Greco-Roman paganism, or first-century Gnosticism, or Jewish nationalism, we still seem to struggle with the very same problems and fears that they did.
Broadly speaking, we are all afraid of the dark. We are all afraid of the darkness overcoming the light.
Think, for example of our politics. So many of the political messages in our culture right now, whether from the right or the left, can be boiled down to the simple claim that we need to act now, we need to support this candidate or that legislation, because the darkness is about to overcome the light, and this is maybe our last chance to keep it at bay. Both sides are constantly making that claim. And it resonates with people. In fact, it resonates with us so much that any political message that doesn’t contain that same fear seems implausible to more and more people.
But it’s not just a political issue. It’s everywhere. You can see it in our culture’s discussion of health, or social values. You can see it, as Pastor Rayburn mentioned at prayer meeting this week, in the way that many people in our Reformed circles interact online. Accusations fly when you are convinced that the darkness is about to overcome the light. And so, we see it both in the world and in the church.
And there are a range of ways that these fears mirror those of John’s first audience, but let me focus on just two.
The first we see in many of the views in our society. The dominant secular way of viewing the world in our culture has at its heart the same problem as first century Gnosticism. What it believes about what the material world is, and what it believes about the way things should be give it very little reason to hope that the darkness will not overcome the light.
Most secular people in our culture have an acute sense of right and wrong, just as Paul outlines in Romans 1 and especially Romans 2. And many are often passionate about issues related to right and wrong. They know that there is a good and right way that things should be, and they know that often things are not that way. And many go to impressive lengths to fight for what they believe is good, and right, and just. But at the same time, they have a rational reason to be afraid that the good and the right and the just will in the end be overcome. Because as they see it, none of those things are really rooted in this world.
Because whatever spiritual background one may believe in, most secular people take a materialistic, neo-Darwinian view of the world we live in. In other words, most view the world not as if it was made by a specific Creator, but they hold that it came to be what it is today by impersonal forces, and that life and human beings came to be what they are by the process of natural selection, of survival of the fittest, of the strong surviving by crushing, exploiting, using, or at the very least ignoring the weak, so that the weak would die off, and the strong would survive and reproduce.
And so, like first century Gnostic thought, the modern secular view of the world has a similar opposition between their ideals and what they believe are the realities of this world and how it came to be. In the case of many today, they find themselves upholding ideas of social justice and fairness and compassion, in a world that ultimately they believe came to be what it is through the strong preying on the weak – or at least the strong ignoring the weak and allowing them to perish.
In his book Mind and Cosmos, NYU philosopher Thomas Nagel (who is not a Christian or a theist) points to the contradiction between a materialistic neo-Darwinian view of the world, and a position of moral realism, which holds that certain things really are good and right, and others really are bad and wrong.
Despite the contradiction, most people cannot let go of those concepts of good and bad, of the light and the darkness, and so they hold onto both, but like the gnostic, they have to regard the light as something alien to the material world we live in, since the material world came about by opposing means. And when you hold such views, if you’re thoughtful, you cannot help but live in fear that the darkness will overcome the light.
Does that – does that set of views, or something like it – describe you, this morning? Is that how you look at the world around you? And if that is you, my challenge for you this morning is to really ask yourself: what hope can you reasonably have that the light – that the good, and the right, and the just – will not be overcome in the end, since you yourself believe that that light is, fundamentally, so foreign to the material world we live in. How can the light and this world ever be compatible? And if they’re not compatible, what rational reason do you have in hoping that the light will win out? What is your basis for hoping in this light?
Because whether you are personally an optimist or a pessimist, it remains difficult not to struggle with the rational fear (given those beliefs) that the light will be overcome by the darkness. Do you struggle with that fear? Or do you avoid it by trying not to think of the implications of what you believe?
If you fall into that group, what is your hope?
While some of us here may find ourselves in that camp, and while more of us may be tempted towards that way of viewing the world, most of us here this morning probably struggle with fear of the darkness in a different way. Most of us here probably have more in common with the first-century Jews.
If you remember, the first-century Jews had the problem of placing their ultimate trust in the instruments that God used in their lives rather than in God himself – in the means of God’s work rather than in God.
For the Jews it came in the form of their trust in the temple and in the political nation of Israel.
Now the thing that makes this tricky is that God really had and did use the temple and the nation to bless and care for his people, and to work for good in their lives. So, if that’s the case, how should we think about the nature of their error?
Let me suggest that we might think of it like a hospital that puts all their hope to cure their patience in syringes and IV lines, rather than in the medicines that those instruments were designed to deliver. Imagine a hospital that puts all their energy into getting the highest quality syringes and IV lines and the best experts in using those syringes and IVs. Maybe they host conferences where leading experts in syringe and IV technology debate the best brands of syringes and the best ways to use them, or the best technique for putting in an IV line. And they do all this … but don’t give much thought to what kind of medicine should go into the syringes or the IV lines they use. Maybe sometimes they even forget that the syringes and IV bags should have medicine in them.
As crazy as that sounds, that’s a bit like what the first-century Jews had done. And it’s a bit like what we can be tempted to do to as well.
Because God had established the temple and the nation of Israel as instruments that mediated his presence. He was the medicine his people needed. But they had become so hyper-focused on those instruments that they had forgotten that he was the source of the good that they needed. He was their light.
And we are in danger of the same thing when we trust in the good instruments God has given us to use rather than God himself. When we trust in the good things God has given us to bless us spiritually not as just instruments God uses, but as the source of our hope. When our spiritual disciplines or our theological knowledge cease to be for us the means by which we relate to God and become instead the things we trust in as the basis of our spirituality. When our liturgy and forms of worship cease to be a means of drawing close to God and become ends in themselves. When we think of our preacher not as one who is called to be the faithful means by which God’s Word will be brought to us as a congregation, and instead see the survival of the church as dependent on his skill level and intellect. When our parenting ceases to be a place for discipling our children in the knowledge of Christ and nurturing their relationship with him and becomes instead a set of techniques we hope will inoculate our sons and daughters from temptation and sin.
And of course, there are a thousand other ways that we can do that – that we can follow the pattern of confusing the instruments and means by which God brings his light and life, with the light itself.
And when we do that, then the light we begin to put our real trust in is part of the creation, and therefore fallible. It can fail us. Or we can lose it. Both it and we can be overcome by the darkness.
Where have you done that? Or where have you been in danger of doing that? Where might we be in danger of doing that as a congregation?
Now, a disclaimer is in order. While there are ways that we can over-value the instruments God uses, there are also ways that many Christians today under-value them, and that is not a correction. A hospital with the best medicine in the world that ignores the need for syringes and IV lines – that ignores the means by which that medicine is ordinarily delivered – is almost as insane as a hospital that does the reverse. That is not the solution.
The solution is seeing each thing in its proper place. And that is what John aims at for us here.
What then is John’s solution? For the gnostic or secularist who makes the light alien to creation, and the Jew or religious person who begins to treat the means of grace within creation as if they are the light, what alternative does John offer either one?
We can answer this question, I think, first by reading the text backwards, and then by seeing it again forwards.
We have been dwelling so far this morning on verse five: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
This verse leaves us with two questions: What is the nature of this light, and why can we have confidence that the darkness will not overcome it?
And so, as we consider those questions, we look back at verse four, where it says: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” The light that we encounter in verse five, we learn in verse four is also the source of true life – of life that gives light to others, we read. Now, on one level this may refer to life in its natural sense – this light is the source of our being, of our conscious existence. But Raymond Brown points out that in John’s Gospel and also in his letters, the word “life” never just means “natural life.” It always means “eternal life” – eternal life which is not just life that goes on forever (though it is that), but it is also life in its fullness, life as it is supposed to be – as it was intended to be.
So, this light is the source of life as it was meant to be – life in harmony with God and life in harmony with neighbor. That fills in something about the nature of this light. But our second question remains: Why can we have confidence that the darkness will not overcome this light?
We come to verse 3: “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.”
Now we begin to see why we can have such confidence in this light. All things were made through him. All things. And so, anything that would oppose him owes its very existence to him, and therefore can have no hope for overcoming him.
The Gnostics put their hope in a light that was alien to creation, that had no connection to it and therefore no real power over it, and the first-century Jews had put their hope in created things, but John here tells us that the true light that we should hope in is worthy of our hope because it (or rather, he) made all that was made, and therefore has power over all that was made.
He goes on in verse two: “He was in the beginning with God.” This light is not only powerful, but eternal. And in verse one John tells us why: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
John here beautifully tells us that this true light we should trust in is himself God.
He paints a picture of the nature of this being and the understanding of God that will come to be called the Trinity. He identifies that this light as one who both is with God and is God. In putting it the way he does he avoids identifying this being with God the Father, but he also tells us that this being is not a separate God either. As later Christians would articulate it, he is a separate person from God the Father, yet one in substance with him.
And who is this light that John is telling us about then? Well, John tells us explicitly later on in his Gospel. In chapter eight verse twelve Jesus Christ declares to those who are opposing him – he says to them “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
This light is Jesus Christ. And as we look at the text backwards, John directs us to him as the true light which will never be overcome by any force set against him because he himself is God and made all things.
We see that reading backwards, but we see something else along with that reading forwards. There we see a summary of the story of this light, and of this world.
We are reminded that the Word, the Light, that Jesus the Christ, is the maker of all things. We see that in verses one through four, and that is the story of the Bible that we read in Genesis chapters one and two.
But John also directs us to Genesis 3. Because there is darkness now in creation. And where did that darkness come from? Well, John knew from the Hebrew Scriptures that it came from human rebellion. That we are the ones who brought the darkness in this world. That in our rebellion against God we have broken the peace with God and peace with our neighbor which Christ had established at creation, and we have brought into the world sin, and brokenness, and death. We brought the darkness. And now things are not the way they were supposed to be.
But John also reminds us that the story does not end there. The light did not abandon the world that chose darkness. But we read in verse five that the light shines into the darkness. He has entered into it. Christ came in the flesh to his creation that had rebelled against him. And he came to redeem it. He came to redeem all who would trust him and cling to him in faith. He came to make all things new. And in his death and resurrection we see that despite all the efforts of the darkness to overcome him, he would not be overcome. And even as he has ascended to heaven, to God the Father, he still continues to work. His light continues to shine. And still, it will not be overcome until he makes all things new and restores his creation to what it was intended to be – until that time when the darkness is no more.
John gives us just the briefest snapshot of all of that in these opening verses to his Gospel.
So, what do we do with this? What does this mean for you and me?
If you are a secular person, then what does the Holy Spirit speaking through John have to say to you this morning?
You know, on a deep level, on a gut level, that there is right and wrong. There is light and darkness. That is good and that is right. But John says you’re also not seeking the real source of the light. The light is not some alien thing to the material world we live in. He is the one who made the cosmos. He is the source of all that is good and right. He is the true force at work to bring things back to the way they are supposed to be. He is the one who entered this dark world in the person of Jesus Christ. If you want true hope, if you want the true light which the darkness will never overcome, then you need to seek Him. Not a concept, not a system, not an abstract ideal. You need to seek Him.
And for the rest of us here, who have sought him, what does the Spirit of God have for us this morning?
He has for you a warning not to confuse the instruments of the light with the true light, and an assurance that the true light will never be overcome by the darkness.
It’s an odd thing, and maybe a sign of the stupidity of sin that when we transfer our hope to the means of grace from the source of that grace we move our hope from an infinitely stronger source of assurance, to a finite and therefore weaker one.
The means of grace matter. They matter immensely. Without syringes and IV tubes so much medicine in the hospital will never be delivered and received. In the same way, without our personal spiritual disciplines, without covenant nurture in our homes, without rich Biblical worship in our church, without diligent and faithful preaching from our pulpit, we will miss numerous blessings God would deliver to us, we would miss numerous encounters with God himself.
And so, we should care deeply about those things and work to cultivate them.
But we must never confuse the needle with the medicine. The syringe has no power in itself to cure.
In our struggles in this life, in our trials, in our temptations, in our fears, in our battles with the forces of darkness, our hope, our remedy, is Jesus Christ himself. Every means of grace is just a way to connect to him.
And that should encourage you immensely.
Because no force of darkness will overcome him.
Whatever individuals or powers in creation might oppose you, they have no real power against Jesus Christ, because Christ, while not the source of their rebellion, is the source of their being. He made them. Your opponents will never overcome him.
Whatever sin and temptation you may be struggling with, Jesus has already stood against it. As the author of Hebrews put it “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Jesus faced any temptation you might, and he stood firmly against it. He is without sin. Sin and temptation will never overcome him.
Whatever brokenness you are struggling with in this life, Jesus entered into it and was victorious. On the cross he entered into death itself, and in his resurrection, he showed for all to see that not even the darkness of death could stand against him. Brokenness and death will never overcome him.
And so whatever darkness it is you face, whatever darkness it is you fear, your deepest need is to cling to Jesus, because he is the light whom the darkness will never overcome.
And how do you cling to him?
Well, that brings us back to those instruments, those means again, doesn’t it? And it puts them in their proper place. Once we remember that our hope is not in our techniques, but in Christ’s power and our clinging to him, then those instruments can serve in their proper roles.
Then we can cling to him by faith in all the ways he has called us to: through prayer, and his Word, through seeking to follow his commands of love in how we treat our children, our parents, our spouse, our neighbors, through enthusiastically engaging in corporate worship, through attending to his Word preached.
Where have you been relying on the means in themselves? Where do you need to remember the one whom those means are meant to connect you to? Where are you afraid of the darkness? And where do you need to receive the encouragement that you belong to the One whom the darkness will never overcome?
We live in a society that is terrified of being overcome by the darkness. We live lives that are often in fear of the darkness.
But John tells us that those who cling to Christ have no reason to fear.
Because: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
And it never will.
This sermon draws on material from:
Augustine. Homilies on the Gospel of John 1-40. Translated by Edmund Hill. Edited by Allan D. Fitzgerald. The Works of Saint Augustine. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2009.
Brown, Raymond E. The Gospel According to John. vol.1. Anchor. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1966.
Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the Gospel of John. Edited by Francis J. Moloney. Anchor. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.
Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John. PNTC. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.
Drane, J.W. “Gnosticism” New Bible Dictionary (3rd Ed.)
Köstenberger, Andreas J., L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles. The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2009.
Michaels, Ramsey J. The Gospel of John. NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010.
Nagel, Thomas. Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012.