Yahweh is Lord of all. In the 9th plague, God sent darkness and it was a direct assault on the Egyptian god, Ra. The Egyptians believed every evening when the sun set below the horizon, their god, Ra, descended into the underworld. Through the night, Ra journeyed through the underworld and was reborn at dawn as the sun rising.
Egyptian religion was all about bringing order to chaos. Their religious traditions sought to maintain the natural order of things. And their myth about Ra’s daily cycle of death and resurrection assured them that life in Egypt would continue as usual and Egypt would continue as the most powerful empire in the world. The Egyptians believed that--like the cycle of night and day--dark times in their empire would always be followed by light as predictably as the daily cycle of light.
And then our Lord sent darkness on Egypt for three days. The darkness Scripture describes is not just the darkness of night or of a naturally occurring eclipse. The plague of darkness lasted three days. This is a supernatural event. (It brings to mind the three days Jonah spent in the belly of the whale or the three days Jesus was sealed in a tomb after crucifixion.)
Verse 21 says it was “a darkness so thick you could feel it.” A few years ago, Kelly and I took the kids to the underground sea near Athens, TN. This is a depe cave, in which is an underground lake. We used flashlights and their are lights on the walls of the cave passages. However, at one point our guide said, "OK. Now we are going to turn off all the lights so you can experience absolute darkness." And with that, she turned out all the lights and you couldn't even see you hand a couple inches in front of your face. That's the kind of darkness God sent on Egypt.
Verse 23 says, “people could not see each other, and no one moved”. And this went on for three days. “But there was light as usual where the people of Israel lived.” This is a principle for you to understand. If you follow the Lord, you will have light in your life—for Jesus is the ‘light of the world.’ But if you reject God and turn to idols, you will be lost in darkness, a darkness so thick you can feel it wrapping it’s evil hands around you, closing in until it’s too late.
As we draw near to Thanksgiving, I’m reminded of how important tradition is. We all probably have important traditions we keep every year. My mother and my extended family (my siblings and their children) has had a tradition of gathering for a Thanksgiving meal, usually the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Sometimes this has been at my house and other times at my mother and sister’s house. This year, because of COVID, we decided it’s best to not gather so many people from different households together in one large gathering. Many of you may be altering your family traditions as well. It’s a little sad, but I’m choosing to focus on all the good things God is doing and all the things I have for which to be thankful.
Tradition can be a good thing. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism and one of the greatest Christian leaders of the last 500 years, included tradition among the four most important ways we can know God. The first and most important is Holy Scripture, but there is also tradition, reason, and experience. Traditions can help us learn from past experiences as we remember and honor those who have gone before. (Aren't you glad you don't have to learn everything the hard way through personal experience. Think about how dangerous that would be!)
Yet Wesley also taught that when tradition and Scripture are in conflict, you must always follow Scripture and not tradition. And when reason and experience show your tradition is wrong or dangerous, you must break with tradition.
Tradition is a good thing, unless we make it into an idol—making it more important than God, letting it absorb our heart and imagination more than God, and expecting it to give us what only God can give. You know traditions have become idols when they can't be changed no mater what. Idols are disgusting to God because they separate us from God and plunge us into darkness.
If you don’t believe tradition can become an idol in church, you may be as blind as the Egyptians were during the plague of darkness. “Tradition” is an idol that is erected right in the sanctuary of many churches. As a young pastor, you learn very quickly to be careful how you deal with people’s traditions in church. (You learn or you won’t be a pastor for very long.) Ironically, we even have a name for these unbreakable traditions; we call them “sacred cows.”
One example of tradition becoming an idol comes from an experience early in my ministry. A church was getting ready for their summer Vacation Bible School. Their new children's minister was decorating the church. She decorated the sanctuary with the theme for the children's lessons. Unfortunately, a group in the church became very angry that she had (in their eyes) desecrated the sacred space of the sanctuary. That was a sacred cow for them. Decorating a sanctuary for VBS may seem like a silly tradition to get so worked up about, but that is because it’s not your tradition. What are your sacred cow (whether it’s at church or somewhere else)?
For many, nostalgia about “the way the world used to be” becomes an idol. We look back fondly at the way things used to be in “the good old days” and it blinds us to the good days God is giving us right now. Or worse, it keeps us from moving forward into the new good God wants us to have tomorrow. Some look at the 1950s in America as a golden age when everything was at it's best; they think, "If we could just go back tot he way things were then." Perhaps they forget that in the 50s, America was still segregated--black people were not afforded equal rights and equal access as white people and it was a great stain our our nation's integrity. I'm very glad things have changed for the better. The truth is, the “good old days” weren’t as “good” as we think. We conveniently forget all the bad of those days and only recall the sweet memories. Ironically, we often only see the bad things of our current situation while overlooking the good.
The Pharisees in Jesus day devoted their whole lives to God, yet they rejected the Son of God when he came to them. They were threatened because he challenged their traditions. And so Jesus said, “You can’t put new wine into old wineskins.” (Matthew 9:17 paraphrased)
I have heard it said recently, nostalgia is the enemy of Jesus’ mission. Jesus told his followers, “go and make disciples of all the nations…” (Matthew 28:19) Meanwhile, so many Christians spend their time arguing about what style of songs we should sing in church or whether we should wear dress clothes or go casual. Perhaps we argue about these things because we want to focus on our comfortabl traditions instead of going out as soldiers of Christ. When the church worships the idol of traditions, it forsakes Jesus’ mission and becomes irrelevant. Sanctuaries grow empty and churches close. Jesus said, "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." (Paraphrase Matthew 310)
The Church is not a building. The Church is the people. All who follow Jesus as Lord and are saved by His grace are the Church. We are each one stones in a living Temple. And we have a sacred purpose. To tell the world about Jesus, to share His love, and to make disciples.
So what is your mission? How are you going to live out your mission this week to bring the light of Christ to our dark world? May I make some suggestions?
Worship the Lord, not just by what you do on Sundays at church. Worship Him all week long; let your actions be your praise. Turn away from all else--even traditions--and follow the Lord.
Use every opportunity to share Jesus’ love with others. Jesus said "They will know you are my followers by the way you love one another. It's not your political views or the football team you follow. It's your love that shows people you are a Christian.
Tell someone what Jesus has done for you. If Jesus has made a difference in your life, then tell people about it. This is what it means to be a witness and Christians are called to be witnesses for Christ.
Invite someone to church. It's never been easier to invite people to church. All you have to do is attend an online worship service on Facebook live and click the "share" button to share the service with a friend. Invite people to church--whether it is for an online service or onsite.
So then, go and make disciples of all nations...