Friday, December 5, 2014

Then Shall Thy Light Break Forth

Thomas Thacher (1620-1678), pastor of the Old South Church in Boston, preached from Isaiah 58 at a solemn assembly in 1674. The title of the sermon was “A Fast of God’s Choosing, Plainly Opened For the Help of Those Poor in Spirit whose Hearts are Set to Seek the Lord their God in New-England, in the Solemn Ordinance of a Fast.”

(In an age of 140-characters, text-ese, and sound-bytes, I wonder if our economization of communication is actually better.)

“Is not this the fast that I have chosen?
to loose the bands of wickedness,
to undo the heavy burdens,
and to let the oppressed go free,
and that ye break every yoke?
Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry,
and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house?
when thou seest the naked,
that thou cover him;
and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?
Then shall thy light break forth as the morning,
and thine health shall spring forth speedily:
and thy righteousness shall go before thee;
the glory of the LORD shall be thy reward.
Then shalt thou call,
and the LORD shall answer;
thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am” (Isaiah 58:6-9, K.J.V.).

It’s a good read (it was published four years after Thacher preached it). The older I get, the more jealous I am for the style of those old preachers: they are so pastoral. Sometimes we speak of ministers as “soul-physicians,” but sometimes these guys are more like “soul-surgeons.” I listen to a few people who do this today (Sinclair Ferguson is especially good at this), but in general it’s hard to find them.

In speaking from verse 8 (“Then shall thy light break forth as the morning”), Thacher mentions several things that this spiritual light, this sign of God’s satisfaction, does in the life of believers coming out of a time of spiritual darkness (hence the need for the solemn assembly, repentance, and fasting). One of the things he mentions is that light illuminates just how dark the darkness was: “ is light after darkness when you now see that darkness had covered your souls whereas you previously did not know what your state and condition were.”

I know this darkness from personal (and pastoral) experience. It’s the tendency to see spiritual darkness as a circumstance brought about in your life through the actions of others. This gloom through which we trudge does not originate with us, but has wrapped itself around us through the selfish, ignorant, unjust, or wicked actions/words of others (so we think - we actually can't see anything correctly). I wouldn’t be in this inky pit if it weren’t for them, we tell ourselves (and probably plenty of others). We blind ourselves to our own spiritual darkness by insisting that it is something outside that has offensively been pushed on us.

We cannot see our own darkness.

In a few days I have to speak to a small-group Bible study about why I think a popular Bible teacher is not the best person from whom to learn. The main spiritual unhealthiness I think this teacher promotes is how we hear from the Lord (specifically, in extra-biblical personal revelation). I don’t want to just offer criticism at this meeting, so I was studying what the Bible had to say about hearing God. It’s a common theme in the Gospel of John. While I was doing this research, though, I re-read the story of the blind man in chapter 9. He is given sight by Jesus, but later interrogated by the Pharisees and cast out of the synagogue as a result of his testimony concerning Christ.

“Jesus heard that they had cast him out; and when he had found him, he said unto him, Dost thou believe on the Son of God? He answered and said, Who is he, Lord, that I might believe on him? And Jesus said unto him, Thou hast both seen him, and it is he that talketh with thee. And he said, Lord, I believe. And he worshipped him. And Jesus said, For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind. And some of the Pharisees which were with him heard these words, and said unto him, Are we blind also? Jesus said unto them, If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth” (John 9:35-41).

The greatest darkness belongs to those who deny the darkness exists because of their own sin. Christ “gives them over” to this blindness (in the Romans 1:24,26,28 sense). This is how “they which see might be made blind.” Their decided condition is declared over them by the Lord.

“The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6:22,23).

“The light of the body is the eye: therefore when thine eye is single, thy whole body also is full of light; but when thine eye is evil, thy body also is full of darkness. Take heed therefore that the light which is in thee be not darkness. If thy whole body therefore be full of light, having no part dark, the whole shall be full of light, as when the bright shining of a candle doth give thee light” (Luke 11:34-36).

In both of these statements Jesus identifies the darkness not as something exterior to us, but something akin to what we now call “worldview.” Our philosophy of life, our way of seeing and evaluating everything in our experience of reality, is either one illuminated by the pure light of the wisdom of the Word, or is darkened by “vain...imaginations,” “their foolish heart,” “the vanity of their mind,” or “the blindness of their heart” (Romans 1:21; Ephesians 4:17,18).

Yes, this is the continual state of unbelievers, but spiritual darkness can sometimes afflict believers.

“...through unbelief and the temptations of Satan, the sensible sight of the light and love of God may for a time be clouded and obscured from them, yet he is still the same, and they shall be sure to be kept by the power of God unto salvation” (1689 Baptist Confession, 17.1).

“Believers may fall into sin through neglect and temptation, whereby they grieve the Spirit, impair their graces and comforts, and bring reproach on the cause of Christ and temporal judgments on themselves; yet they shall be kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation” (Baptist Faith & Message 2000, V).

This brings me back to Thacher’s sermon and Isaiah 58:8.

Then shall thy light break forth as the morning...” This is a promise of God.

What brings the light that shows just how dark our darkness was?

“ loose the bands of wickedness,
to undo the heavy burdens,
and to let the oppressed go free,
and that ye break every yoke?
Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry,
and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house?
when thou seest the naked,
that thou cover him;
and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?” (58:6,7).

Sadly, when we go through times of spiritual darkness, we tend most to focus inward on ourselves (again, I say this out of personal and pastoral experience). With blind eyes continually gazing at the darkness, we, as Thacher said, do "not know what [our] state and condition" is. The remedy according to the Lord’s words through the prophet is just the opposite. We are commanded to do just the opposite of what our natural (sinful) instincts are when we are going through a season of darkness. Instead of falling deeper into the singularity (black hole), we are to turn outward to care for others. “Then shall thy light break forth as the morning...”

Maybe you’re thinking, “but isn’t it hypocrisy to do these things if I don’t feel like doing them?”

The Lord Himself answers this a few chapters earlier (where He’s speaking about right observance of His sabbath): “Thus saith the LORD, Keep ye judgment, and do justice: for my salvation is near to come, and my righteousness to be revealed” (56:1).

It would be hypocritical to take care of others if we were attempting to procure salvation or righteousness for ourselves. That’s not the case in chapter 58. He’s calling His people (a people struggling in spiritual darkness) to a humble repentance, a fast, that consists in obeying His command to care for those in need. The goal isn’t salvation through righteousness. God Himself provided that a few chapters earlier. The purpose is obeying God (the fruit of those truly justified by faith). It’s not hypocrisy to do what God has commanded when you don’t feel like it. It’s spiritual discipline.

And He promises that the darkness will lift when we do it. One of the first things we realize with the coming light of dawn is just how dark the previous darkness had been. Our turning in on ourselves meant we weren’t caring for others – a rebellion against the command of the Lord. As a result He sends the darkness, usually through conflicts with others or difficult circumstances (which sometimes triggers depression). We deny the darkness belongs to us and blame others in our vain imaginations. And the darkness deepens.

Want to see reality? Consider your salvation (justified by faith in Jesus Christ alone) and obey God’s command to care for others – whether you feel like it or not. The light will dawn and you’ll see reality. Your darkness was yours.

Something else Thacher says: “...when this light that is promised is gradual, like the light of the morning that ‘shineth more and more unto the perfect day’ (Proverbs 4:18). You must not say there is no light because it is not noon at dawn. If spiritually it is but the dawning of the day or the light of the morning star, you still have cause to acknowledge it is an answer to prayers. If it foreshadows the beginning of your return from spiritual captivity or outward calamity you are to acknowledge it as a springing light which shall go on to the perfect day in full perfection of glory.”

Believer bowed down in gloom, the light does not come from contemplating the murk (darkness cannot be seen for what it is while we are still blind to it). It comes with a faith in Christ that produces self-disciplined obedience to His commands to care for others selflessly.

 “Then shall thy light break forth as the morning...”

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