11th Sunday after Pentecost – August 20, 2017
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward the sky so that darkness spreads over Egypt—darkness that can be felt.” 22 So Moses stretched out his hand toward the sky, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days. 23 No one could see anyone else or move about for three days. Yet all the Israelites had light in the places where they lived.
24 Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and said, “Go, worship the Lord. Even your women and children may go with you; only leave your flocks and herds behind.” 25 But Moses said, “You must allow us to have sacrifices and burnt offerings to present to the Lord our God. 26 Our livestock too must go with us; not a hoof is to be left behind. We have to use some of them in worshiping the Lord our God, and until we get there we will not know what we are to use to worship the Lord.”
27 But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he was not willing to let them go. 28 Pharaoh said to Moses, “Get out of my sight! Make sure you do not appear before me again! The day you see my face you will die.”
29 “Just as you say,” Moses replied. “I will never appear before you again.” (Exodus 10:21-29)
“The Sun has perished out of heaven, and an evil mist hovers over all.” The ancient Greek writer, Homer, used those words to describe a solar eclipse. It was an awe-inspiring sight for the ancients to witness the moon cross in front of the sun, and it wasn’t just the Greeks that wrote about it. Over 4,000 years ago, before Abraham was born, the Chinese witnessed the first recorded eclipse and considered it an omen of doom. The ancient Babylonians knew the stars so well that they could accurately predict when an eclipse was going to happen, much like we do today.
Even today, in our modern world, amidst the hustle and bustle of everyday life, most will still be amazed at tomorrow’s total solar eclipse. Cars will stop on the side of the road. Workers will walk outside of buildings to look up (with the appropriate eyewear). And for a couple of minutes across modern America, everything will stop and everyone will look up. It will be a lot like when the moon blocked the sun thousands of years ago.
But some things, thousands of years ago, were different. In the Old Testament, when the Israelites found themselves slaves in Egypt, God sent ten plagues to convince Pharaoh to let God’s people go. Every plague God sent on Egypt attacked one of their false gods. The Egyptians worshiped Hapi – the god of the nile, so the true God turned the water to blood. The Egyptian god of fertility had a frog head, and God sent a plague of frogs on the Egyptians. For eight plagues this continued, as God undid every Egyptian false god with his real power.
But there was one Egyptian god still untouched by the plagues, and he was the king of them all. Ra, the sun god, was the most worshiped god of Egypt. And when Pharaoh still refused to let the Israelites go, God revealed his almighty power even over the sun. “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand toward the sky so that darkness spreads over Egypt—darkness that can be felt.’”
Some have suggested that this coincided with a total solar eclipse, like the one we will witness tomorrow. But there was more at work here than a simple “lucky” movement of the moon. The longest a total eclipse can last is 7 1/2 minutes. This darkness over Egypt lasted 3 days! And it didn’t just get somewhat dark. “No one could see anyone else or move about.” Most telling of all was how God described the darkness he sent. He called it a “darkness that can be felt.”
A darkness that can be felt isn’t just a momentary threat. This is a darkness that slowly moves through you. It doesn’t just surround you. It fills you. Darkness like that pulls away all hope. It makes you want to scream only to convince you that no one is listening. This darkness immobilizes. And in the end, this is a darkness that kills.
Those are the words God uses to describe the entire world we live in. “See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples.” When God uses these words to talk about darkness, he is really talking about sin. This is a world covered with the darkness of sin. Even worse are the people – thick darkness covers them. And that includes us.
Darkness cannot produce its own light. Something else has to come to remove darkness. And for us and for our salvation, that is exactly what God did. Our verse of the day for this morning told us how: Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.” He came as “the light [that] shines in the darkness.”
He came to take the darkness of our sins up on himself. As the light of the world, Jesus allowed himself to be snuffed out on the cross. The Gospel of Luke tells us that after Jesus suffered our punishment on the cross, just as he was about to die, something strange happened. “It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining.” Some astronomers say there was a solar eclipse just at that moment, but that doesn’t explain the miracle. This darkness was more than 7 1/2 minutes. “The sun stopped shining” for three hours!
Then came the fulfillment of another prophecy. “I will turn the darkness into light before them.” Jesus did that on Easter Sunday. He did all of that for you, so that Paul could write, “You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.”
So how can we live in the light of the Lord and still stand in a sin-darkened world? How is that possible? Well, God has done it before. While the plague of thick darkness covered the Egyptians, the book of Exodus tells us, “All the Israelites had light in the places where they lived.”
So what can guide us through the darkness of this world: our every day problems, our crises of faith, our pain and suffering? God’s Word. The Bible calls God’s Word “a lamp for my feet and a light for my path.” This Word of God is what enables us, formerly spiritually blind people, to “Live as children of light.”
Even when you know the end is coming. The book of Acts told us this morning what that will look like, too. “I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below… The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.” That will be the Last Day, when the Lord brings us home to heaven.
Tomorrow, Lord willing, we will once again see a magnificent show of God’s creation. The moon will pass in front of the sun to form a total solar eclipse. What a reminder that will be for you and me. We once felt the darkness of our sins. But Jesus came to take that darkness upon himself, to win heaven for us. And when he comes again “the sun will be turned to darkness”, but we will stand with him in his brilliance forever. Jesus might not return tomorrow. But we can be ready for him always, singing joyfully that we have: “Life un-eclipsed by doubt and dread: [because] Christ has risen from the dead.” Amen.