To Give Light to Those Who Sit in Darkness

The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Fall 2019 Commencement

Louisville, Kentucky

December 13, 2019

How glorious is it to be able to sing words like that! “Mild, he lay his glory by; born that men no more may die.”

We are here in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and what a happy day it is. Look out on this assembly. See these graduates, arrayed in all of their medieval glory, every bit of all of the gown and regalia making a statement and that statement is glory to God for the accomplishment of learning for the service of Christ. Look at this congregation filled with loved ones, family, children. We're thankful your children are here. That's a sign of God's glory. They are allowed to stay realizing they will make some noise unless they protest the servant.

Otherwise, just know how happy we are to have them there. Their noise is a sign of the glory of God and the gift of life and the lives of these graduates. But there's a sense of moment in all of this. Here we are, and we're gathered together in this room, and as we look around, we recognize this particular gathering will never happen again. There's an occasion that brings us here. It's one moment in history, just one sparkle in the midst of eternity that brings all of us here and fills this room.

We're here because of the specific identity of the graduates who are here. We are here because of the mission of this institution. We are here because it is right to gather formally to celebrate something so momentous as this. We're here because of hope for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is why we're here. If you can't be happy for the church when you're looking at this crowd of graduates and gathered here for this kind of occasion, then what would be your joy?

This is faithfulness. This is what it looks like. Every one of these graduates came to hear the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ from someone. Otherwise they would never have heard and would never have come to a saving knowledge of Christ. Every one of these graduates was raised somehow, somewhere by someone in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Every one of these graduates was taught even before they arrived here. Every single one of them experienced- by one means or another- that inward call of the Holy spirit to Christian ministry as was affirmed by some congregation in an outward expression.

And then they came here and commenced their programs of study, serious programs of study, theological education, unapologetically educational, unapologetically theological. They came for the most rigorous educational and academic programs with the highest quality and they came because of this institution's faithfulness and fidelity. And that makes me particularly happy and I know you share that joy because we are not sending out a company of the confused but rather a corps of those who are committed and convictional believing in the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The great joy is that even as they heard the gospel and believed, they will preach and teach and take the gospel so that others will believe and believing be saved. I think every commencement is interesting, but some of them I think are rather artificially formal. There are no unworthy jobs. Martin Luther made that very clear, the great reformer, in his theology of vocation. Every job, every vocation is glorious and God honoring in its own way. But these days we've developed commencements for everything and everyone. You can hardly move from one grade to another in middle school without having someone declare a graduation.

But this is not that. This feels important because it is important and it's worthy of the time that we are devoting here and it's worthy of the joy that we are expressing here. It's right and proper that we turn to scripture. I want to invite you to turn with me to the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke. 

We will read together beginning at verse 57. Luke tells us, “Now the time for Elizabeth to give birth came and she bore a son and her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her and they rejoiced with her. And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child and they would've called him Zechariah after his father. But his mother answered 'No, he shall be called John.' And they said to her, 'None of your relatives is called by this name.' And they made signs to his father inquiring what he wanted him to be called. And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, 'His name is John,' and they all wondered and immediately his mouth was open and his tongue loosed and he spoke blessing God. And fear came on all their neighbors and all these things were talked about throughout all the Hill country of Judea and all who heard them, laid them up in their heart, saying, ‘What then will this child be?’ for the hand of the Lord was with him."

"And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy spirit and prophesied, saying, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. To show them mercy, promise to our fathers, and to remember his Holy covenant. An oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us, that we being delivered from the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him, all our days. And you child will be called the prophet of the most high for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways. To give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death to guide our feet into the way of peace.' "

"And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel." 

This is the word of God. What a remarkable passage it is; one of the most neglected as we think about what is most often referred to as the Christmas story. We begin immediately with the angel and Mary and do not stop to remember the angel and Zechariah. Zechariah the priest was doing priestly duties in the midst of the assignment to his priestly division. And he and his wife Elizabeth, were both of age, parallels here to Abraham and Sarah.

They were advanced in years and Elizabeth was assumed to be barren and they had no son, they had no child, they had no offspring, and in the midst of the time of the incense, an angel appeared and spoke to Zechariah and made clear to Zechariah that Elizabeth was to conceive and was to have a son. And this son was to have a special mission. But Zechariah asked questions that insinuated doubt. The angel was unhappy with Zechariah and in judgment caused him to become mute and he was mute during the entire time of Elizabeth's pregnancy. The stage is set for what we began reading.

Thus in verse 57, where, “When the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, when time came for her to bear a son." Imagine that news. Like Sarah, this may be can be explained only by means of miracle. Abraham and Zechariah and Sarah and Elizabeth parallels here. The Book of Hebrews describes Abraham at the time that Isaac was conceived by speaking of Abraham saying, "And he as good as dead."

There comes this baby. The next verse is something of a summary, "And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her and they rejoiced with her." Elizabeth rejoiced, as you see earlier in chapter one. And of course before John was born, Mary came to visit her cousin Elizabeth and the baby in her leapt in his womb. There is something central to the mission of Jesus that is reflected by this baby who is called John. And even Jesus in the womb of Mary recognizes this.

But who is this John? Who is this baby and what is he to do? What is his mission? When the name of the baby is asked? Elizabeth says John, because she has heard this of course from Zechariah who heard it from the angel, but the relatives are offended by this because there's no one in the family named John. But then Zechariah takes the tablet and writes “His name shall be John,” in obedience to what the Lord had spoken through the angel and miraculously Zechariah's lips are open and he is able to speak. Think about that for a moment, by the way. Just reflect on how many Johns are present in this room and it's not just about John the Baptist. Of course there is John the Apostle, the beloved apostle, and you start thinking about the name John in the New Testament and how much of the New Testament is about men named John. We have to distinguish between John the Apostle and John the Baptizer or John the Baptist, but think about how honored that name is amongst us right now.

As Jesus himself said of John the Baptist honor greater than that of anyone in Israel. That's why we name our boys John. What is John to do? This John. The hand of the Lord was with him. That's clear even before verse 67. The birth of this child, the conception of this child, the arrival of this child, the circumstances of the naming of this child. All of this points to the fact that something massively important is going to be manifested through this son to the glory of God. This is an entire series of events, explicable only by God's sovereign omnipotent intervention.

But Zechariah can now speak. That's so important. Zechariah can now speak after nine months of silence and in that nine months of silence, no doubt there was much he wanted to say. But now after all of those months he can speak and he has an audience of those who are asking the question, what shall this child be? What will this child do? And Zechariah's answer takes the form of a song. This is often referred to as the Canticle of Zechariah. It is poetry that comes out in this oracle for as the Lord speaks through Zechariah, we are told in verse 67 that he was filled with the Holy Spirit and he prophesied. What does he say? I want us to think of this text in three main sections, but the first section is a blessing to God.

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David.” John is not that horn of salvation. Jesus Christ is that horn of salvation. Christians know that term. They hear it over and over again and act as if they understand what it means. What is a horn of salvation? I think the first thing that would come to the mind that most Christians would be a horn that is blown. A horn that would blast and certainly Jesus Christ was a trumpet who blew.

But the main meaning of horn here goes back to the 92nd Psalm, where the horn is the horn of a wild ox and the horn is a weapon. And it is a weapon with which God the father through the son will slay sin. It is a weapon through which the father to his glory in the sun will slay death. It is a weapon. He is a weapon as the horn of our salvation who will defeat all the enemies of God. And that is the explicit context here: “For he is visited and redeemed his people and raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David.” There's the messianic covenantal promise. “This was promised by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old. That we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.”

In this first section, there's the sheer declaration of God's saving purpose and there is also the reminder of the covenant that he has made with Israel. This is God's specific faithfulness to the covenant that he made a covenant with Abraham, a covenant with Moses, a covenant with David, the covenant with Israel. It is all God's promise that he has remembered and Zechariah points to the birth of John and says, "The birth of this baby is the promise that God has remembered his promise. He's going to do what he said he would do."

“To show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant.” Mercy. “To show the mercy promise to our fathers.” Mercy- God's forgiveness when we deserve no forgiveness. God's love, when we deserve no love, God's rescue, when we deserve no rescue. All of this promised in this baby named John. But then specifically, secondly, “The oath that he swore to our father Abraham to grant us that we being delivered from the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear.” It is not just that God has raised up a horn of salvation by which he will defeat his enemies and make the world safe for Israel to be faithful to God and to worship him without fear. It is also that Israel is to serve him in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

Imagine this canticle, imagine those who were there celebrating the birth of this baby and they came and this is not the kind of language that you hear in the chatter of happiness and joy around the crib of a newborn. This is no mere newborn boy. This is a miraculous birth that points to a sovereign mission that God has given by his own authority. A particular mission that is the fulfillment in itself a biblical prophecy. As is made clear in the verses that follow: “And you child will be called the prophet of the Most High. For you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” Here in the Canticles of Zechariah, we hear the prophets of old.

Imagine what it meant for this man, nine months mute to finally declare that he knows the identity of this boy. He is the one who was going to prepare the way of the Lord to make his way straight. You hear Isaiah there, of course. You hear Malachi in the fulfillment of John. There is more than we can possibly trace here, but in the third section, notice this. That John's purpose will be “to give knowledge of salvation to his people,” that is, to God's people, “in the forgiveness of their sins because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high. To give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Zechariah knows that the coming of John points to the forgiveness of sins and the redemption that God had promised. Zechariah also knows that John is not the one who will accomplish these wonderful, infinitely precious promises of God, but he's the one who will come to prepare the way for this to happen. Notice specifically that what is to result from this as he goes before the Lord to prepare his ways. It is first to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins. So why are we happy about these graduates? What gives us such joy on the on this occasion? It's because what was here assigned to John is what by the call of God is now assigned to them.

They are to give knowledge of salvation to God's people in the forgiveness of their sins. That's all together by the way, don't chop that up. It's not just to give knowledge of salvation to his people... in the forgiveness of sins. The knowledge of salvation is the knowledge of the forgiveness of their sins. It's just amazing when you think about this. This is the most wonderful news that human lips could ever communicate. This is the most powerful message that any human being could ever share with another. It is the knowledge of salvation. It is the knowledge of the forgiveness of sins. All around us right now are teeming millions and billions of people who know they have a problem.

They're going to therapist after therapist. They're going from this self help book to that. They're going from this guru to another. They are involved in meditation and tea ceremonies and they're trying to look within. And then they go to the therapist to find out what happened to them. That explains why they are as they are. When they don't get the answer they want from that one, then they shift to another therapist in order to get an answer that is more pleasing to them. But of course, if their problem is ever solved, the therapist is out of a client, which is to say that all of this is just evidence of a brokenness. A horrible brokenness. And what is it that they need to hear? Well, there are many good words that could come to them as prudential wisdom. There's good, practical advice that could come from all kinds of places and the therapists have something to say otherwise people would not go to them. But what you have and what you will say is the knowledge of salvation to the people in the forgiveness of their sins. It's the most amazing thing. That's what we are sending out these graduates to do, to go out into the nations and to go into the pulpits and into the churches and to speak to everyone everywhere in order to communicate the knowledge of salvation.

But it's not just some kind of salvation as in, this is good news, God loves you. That's true, but it's better than that. It's infinitely better than that. You are a sinner and yet God shows his mercy to you in Christ in whom your sins can be forgiven. Without the forgiveness of sins, there is no salvation. Without the forgiveness of sin, there is no good news. If our sins are still on us and that is the final verdict about ourselves, then we are lost and will bear the wrath of God forever.

But the good news is that God in Christ accomplished all that is necessary for the forgiveness of our sins. Again, we think of Luther who reminds us that it's dangerous to look into the manger scene and see that baby. It's dangerous to look to that baby without reminding ourselves he's born to die. The timbers of that trough will be transformed into the timbers of a cross. Mild he lay his glory by, born that men no more may die.

He lived a sinless life as the son of God incarnate in human flesh, and he died on the cross as our substitute, paying with his own blood, with his own life, the penalty that we could not pay. Being himself, the perfect substitute acceptable to the father for the forgiveness of sin. So I'd say he paid the penalty in full and then he was raised by the power of God on the third day as the vindication of that atonement that he accomplished for us. And that salvation is preached to all, that salvation is found in Jesus Christ.

And salvation and the forgiveness of sins comes to all who confess the Lord Jesus Christ as savior, and come to know him and repent of their sins. In Jesus Christ there is full forgiveness of sins forever. We get to send these graduates out today to take that message, “to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins because of the tender mercy of our God whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high.” That's an interesting metaphor for Christmas, isn't it?

We tend to think of Easter and resurrection and sunrise. Just think here for a moment. Of course, this is pointing in a larger way to the visitation of God to his people. But just think about that morning after that night in Bethlehem, and think of that morning and recognize what it metaphorically demonstrated. The arrival of Christ is indeed the sunrise. God has visited us from on high. John is “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death”. Again, we hear the words of Isaiah.

To give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death to guide our feet into the way of peace. Peace here of course meaning peace with God and salvation. How's that for a job description? You sit down next to someone on a plane and they say, "What do you do?" Then these graduates say, "Well, I give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. What do you know about this plane?" But that's actually your job description. There it is.

And you hear Isaiah again in the background, the people who have dwelled in deep darkness have seen a great light. You get to take that light to people who even now are sitting in darkness. Isn't that the reality that gives such gravity to our gathering here? Even now, right now, there are billions of people who are sitting in darkness. But they're not merely sitting in darkness, they're sitting in the shadow of death. And your task following the example of John is to guide their feet into the way of peace.

John's ministry was unique in the fulfillment of biblical prophecy and there's a wonderful reason why Luke helps us to understand by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the sequence of the events with the birth of John and then the birth of Jesus, and all that came before it in order that we would have the context for understanding the life and ministry of Jesus and the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is for our good and for God's glory that we come to know these things. 

But it's not just about John. This text gives us such inspiration and encouragement for Christian ministry and missions today. This is what we're assigned to do, this is what we get to do. This is what these graduates are being sent out to do. This is what they have been prepared for. There's the real reason for the joy in this occasion. So graduates of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the class of December 2019, may you go in joy to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins.

May you go in full conviction to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. May you in full joy, guide our feet into the way of peace. This congregation's not only looking at you, you're looking at them. No one brings himself or herself to any moment like this alone. God has worked through so many others, including churches. And Southern Baptist have generously supported by the Cooperative Program to make possible what takes place here.

There are donors to this institution who are not here and can't be here and many of them have gone on to Glory who have given sacrificially so that you would have this opportunity. And their hopes are in you, yes. But their hopes are through you for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ and for the mission fields of the world. We will never be together exactly this assemblage, ever again until one day when we will be together, all of us, by God's grace, in Christ again.

And then and only then we'll become to know what God did through these graduates for his glory. So graduates, go in conviction, go in courage, go in grace, go with joy. You're going with the joy of this faculty who have invested themselves in you. You are going with the joy of this assembly who is here to witness this occasion. But I want to say in conclusion, that I want to speak to those who are not amongst the graduates but are amongst the congregation and there may be some here this morning who are wondering what these things mean.

And I just want you to know that the greatest hope and joy of these graduates would be that if you do not know the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior, that you would. That you would come to know him, that you would come to know that the baby whose birth we celebrate in Bethlehem was none other than the very son of God who came, as we have said, to die so that we might have everlasting life. The good news of the gospel is that even as every one of us is estranged from God eternally because of our sin, deserving nothing but his wrath, God in his grace and mercy, the mercy declared in this text, God in his mercy sent Jesus to do what we could not do, to redeem and to rescue.

And the forgiveness of sins, as we have seen, is promised to those who profess with their lips that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in their heart that God has raised him from the dead. So the greatest joy that would come out of this ceremony in this gathering would be that if there be anyone here who does not yet know the forgiveness of their sins, that you would by the declaration of God's word today, come to know Christ and the forgiveness of sins.

And if you do not know Christ, I want to point all of you to these graduates, every one of whom would find their greatest joy in helping to explain further what it means to know the salvation that God has accomplished in Christ. All this to God's glory. To the graduating class of December 2019 of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go. Go boldly, go graciously, fulfill all that God has assigned to you and called you to do. Amen.

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