Needy People Need a Light at the End of the Tunnel
Needy people need a light at the end of the tunnel. You've probably heard the joke about the guy who finally saw a light at the end of his tunnel. It turned out to be a train. In a way, the light at the end of our tunnel is one.
Needy people realize they dwell in utter darkness. In darkness, you can't clearly make out anything. Bushes look like men and waving tree branches like menacing arms. In darkness, everything is scary. Modern cities, even small ones, aren't even remotely dark anymore. Still where the LED lighting ends, the darkness seems all the blacker.
Jesus calls the area outside His kingdom "the outer darkness." Evil seeks darkness because it doesn't want to be exposed. John isn't giving you mere time reports when he tells you Nicodemus, a Jewish ruler, came to Jesus at night. The same thing for when Judas, makes his final turn away from Jesus. John lets you know, "And it was night." Darkness is the realm of Sin, of Death, of Devils.
Don't get me wrong. In Christ the light of the world, we're not darkness. Ephesians 5 says, "You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord." And 1 Thessalonians 5 says, "You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness." But still we are, in Isaiah's words, "the people who walk in darknessThose who live in a dark land."
We're needy people. We know we live in a land of Stygian darkness. The Greeks just thought they knew darkness. The Egyptians really knew it. The Lord sent a plague of thick darkness just over Egypt not in the land of His people. The Lord described the darkness as "a darkness which may be felt." The Egyptians couldn't see one another, and didn't get out of bed for days. That darkness broke Pharaoh, temporarily anyway.
While the thick darkness wasn't where the Old Testament Church was, what if you were a servant or a worker in Egyptian lands? The darkness would have been all about you too just as it is for us now. It's so dark, that men think they're women and women think they're men, and no one sees clearly enough to tell them any different. It's so dark, that babies in the womb look like an enemy or a problem. It's so dark, that men look at monkeys, rocks, or chemicals and say, "That's where I came from."
What's the answer? The adage that it's better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness it true. What a difference a single candle, even a match, makes in a dark place. But those who realize that their neediness comes from their own sinfulness, from the Sin, Death, and Devil that surround them because of their sins, know they don't have a match let alone a candle. The thick darkness that presses upon us so that we seem to inhale it, chokes us. This "Dark Night of the Soul" presses from us a breathless, "Thy Kingdom come."
The coming Kingdom of God, that's the light at the end of the tunnel, but because we mishear Jesus' words to Pilate, we don't think that's the answer. Jesus says to him, "My kingdom is not of this world." But we hear Jesus saying, "My kingdom is not in this world" (Augustine in Christianity and Classical Culture, 510). O yes it is. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for asking when the kingdom of God would come by replying, "The kingdom of God is in your midst." Of course it was. John and Jesus both proclaimed it was. Jesus commissioned 12 apostles and 70 pastors to preach, "The kingdom is here."
So where is it? You can tell from the explanation that the kingdom is much bigger than we think. It's not only here in time but there in eternity. When we pray in the depths of this present darkness (Eph. 6:12), "Thy kingdom come" we are praying for the Second Coming, for Jesus to come on a cloud, seated on His throne of glory surrounded by 10,000 x 10,000 angels. When the kingdom of glory comes all sins, death, and devils flee.
But the kingdom of glory is not the only one we are praying for. We're also praying for the kingdom of power to come. That's the reign and rule of God almighty even in this present darkness. God's reign and rule restrains the Death and Devil from doing all that they want here. His reign preserves the created order so that we still have ground that produces, sun that gives energy, air to breath, water to drink. And when things like wildfires, earthquakes, hurricanes, and more happen, we remind ourselves that this doesn't mean God's kingdom of power hasn't come. It means there is much opposition to it not only from sinners but from the demonic ranks angels emanating from the darkness.
All people in this present darkness are in God's kingdom of power. We remind ourselves of this every time we pray, "Thy kingdom come." Those in Christ wait for the kingdom of glory to arrive when God will drop the veil of the Means of Grace and reveal His kingdom, His power, and His glory to all. In the meantime, caught in the kingdom of power that is surrounded by thick darkness, we pray for light at the end of the tunnel to appear which is the kingdom of glory. And we pray for the kingdom of grace.
The kingdom of grace comes when the heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is given by means of the 3 holy things Jesus won for us, left us to use, and commanded us to use. These modern-day miracles are denied by the Reformed and misunderstood by Catholics. Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and Holy Communion are the means by which the holiness Jesus won for you 2,000 years ago is given to your body and soul in your time. By living a life without sin in your place and by dying the guilty death you deserve to die, Jesus won the holiness necessary for fallen mankind to enter heaven. When you pray, "Thy kingdom come" you're asking for this kingdom of grace to come to you, and it does by the Means of Grace piercing the present darkness with the light of forgiveness, life, and salvation.
In our Large Catechism we say that the kingdom of God is where God "rules us as a king of righteousness, life, and salvation against sin, death, and an evil conscience" (III, 51). You step away from God's kingdom of light into darkness when you step out of your Baptism which covers you with Christ's holiness. You know this is what you've done, when you find yourself defending your sins or promising to do better. You go back into the dark night of death when you walk away from Absolution which promises, "God has put away your sins; you shall not die" and try to find something worthy of life in you. And you walk away from your salvation into the devil's dark arms when you listen to what your evil conscience says about your being saved rather than what your Savior promises in His Body and Blood.
The coming kingdom of God, all 3, are lights at the end of the tunnel. When we pray this petition, we remember that a glorious kingdom is on the way; that God still rules all things in this kingdom of power, and that God graciously rules His Church even in this present darkness. And notice we confess no doubts about the kingdom coming. We begin with, "The kingdom of God certainly comes by itself without our prayer."
God would be a pretty weak king if He needed are prayers to empower Him. He would be a pretty loveless king if He said, "If they don't ask, I won't come." What loving parent does that? Jesus promises the gates of hell can't prevail against His kingdom, so you can stop wringing your hands about the sad state of the Church, our Church, or the future Church. And you can stop fearing that you've missed the train; that you didn't see it because of the thick darkness.
No, there's a light at the end of the tunnel, and it's a train, and the engine of that train is the Holy Spirit. The train is powered by God's grace which His only Beloved Son won for all sinners. This train is the real Love Train because it is powered by God loving you more than His only Son. He gave Him up to Sin, Death, and Devil, to rescue you from the same. That's the great exchange. Jesus got hell; you get heaven. Jesus got guilt; you get a clear conscience; Jesus got convicted of all your sins; you get credited for all His good works.
The kingdom is the light at the end of the tunnel and it is a train, but this train is freighted with faith that believes His holy Word. Stop thinking you can "make yourself believe." Stop thinking of faith like oil in your car which a dip stick can measure how much you have. By God grace, coming to you in Baptism, Absolution, and Communion the Holy Spirit creates the miracle that is faith which is trust, confidence in what God has done, does, and will do for you for Jesus' sake. If you focus on how much you believe, faith withers. Focus on what you believe and faith grows.
Faith is not the only freight carried by the kingdom of God chugging down the tracks. It also carries sanctification leading a godly life. God gives us the Holy Spirit, again only through His Water poured on you; His Word forgiving you; His Body and Blood ate by you, so that by His grace we "lead godly lives here in time" all the way to eternity. If you think justification is God's part and sanctification is yours, then the coming kingdom is indeed a train that will steamroll you. A godly life, a sanctified life is one lived in the Means of Grace which create a bubble of light in this darkness. You walk about in this bubble when you know and trust you live a godly life because in Christ, God sees you as godly.
On vicarage here in Austin 35 years ago, I was at a bar, and if karaoke existed I didn't know it. The band started playing: "Folsom Prison Blues". This guy stands up and belts out with such power and conviction, "I hear the train a comin' rolln' round the bend," that I could see the train, I could feel the train. When the timidest Christian, in the softest voice utters, "Thy kingdom come" he peers through this darkness and sees the light of the coming kingdom chugging toward him. And while Johnny's train tortured him, the blowing whistle of ours can blow not only our blues away but this present darkness as well. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Advent Vespers III (20171213); Lord's Prayer, 2nd Petition