My mentor, especially my 4th year at Seminary, was Dr. Feuerhahn, and so by extension, I am a student of the late Dr. Hermann Sasse. The influence of these two men has shown itself in many ways, one of which is what has become my favorite hymn: Lord Jesus Christ, With Us Abide. I’d like to offer a brief reflection on the first stanza:
Lord Jesus Christ, with us abide,
For round us falls the eventide.
O let Your Word, that saving light,
Shine forth undimmed into the night.
This first stanza was written by Phillip Melanchthon, a colleague of Luther’s at the University of Wittenberg and the author of the Augsburg Confession, the Defense of the Augburg Confession, and the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope.
This first stanza is rich in the language of John’s Gospel. As John tells us of the life of Christ two big themes that arise are the contrast of light and darkness and the theme of “abiding”.
We truly live in the “eventide” of this world, as the darkness of sin surrounds us. For some this darkness is a very personal battle, especially for those who struggle with depression (be sure to click that link for a free resource on dealing with depression). But even if this darkness isn’t as dark as suicidal thoughts or crippling anxiety, the darkness surrounds us. We can look to the world and everything that is thrown at us, from an ever more materialistic world, to injustice both in the political sphere and even in the Church, to having sex pandered to us on television, in advertising, in fashion, and all over the internet. Darkness is where we find ourselves as we are being assaulted by sin and as we dive headlong into it, and darkness is the very condition of our hearts.
It is something outside of us that breaks through this darkness: “Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). The light of the Word, and of the Word-Made-Flesh, Jesus Christ is the very thing that shatters the darkness, that exposes the festering blackness of this world and of our hearts. “In Him [Jesus] was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5). The wonderful emphasis that Luther and Melanchthon brought in the Reformation was that this light, that salvation, is something that happens outside of us. That when God looks upon the sacrifice of Christ, He declares us righteous. This then comes to us through the Word proclaimed and administered in the Sacraments. So when the darkness comes creeping in, we can point to that Gospel outside of us and be absolutely certain that we are forgiven, that we are God’s own child, that we are saved.
This connects well to that other Johannine theme of “abiding.” The word “abide” shows up in just a few chapters: 5, 6, 8, and 15. Probably the most famous of these is John 15:5: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” Jesus goes on to explain this further that the one who abides in His Word abides in Him. This is the same in both chapters 5 & 8. In John 6, to abide in Christ, is to eat His body and drink His blood.
The big question that we must face is not whether God is present: as the man on the fishing boat “experiencing God’s presence in nature” will be quick to point out, but rather is God present for us as He is with us? The God present in nature is all that we are not: all holy, big, eternal, all powerful, etc. The God present for us in Word and Sacrament, that’s the God that is for us, and meets us where we are at.
Of course, that’s how God operates in Jesus Christ. As another great hymn, the Te Deum, confesses: “When You took upon Yourself to deliver man, You humbled Yourself to be born of a virgin.” The mere fact of the incarnation is not that God is present, but that He is present with us and for us “by the assumption of humanity into God.”
This means we have a God who got His toenails dirty for us, even as they trod to that lonely hill where he would be crucified. As he hung there, in mid-day, darkness covered the earth for three hours, but as John said, the darkness could not overcome Him. There on that cross, the light of the World hung for you. There sin was defeated. There, in the midst of darkness, the darkness of this eventide has been conquered by this Saving Light and the great joy of the Christian life is that when this Gospel is proclaimed, the Light of Christ shines even into the most dark places of this world.