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In the Book of the prophet Isaiah, chapter 9, the first 4 verses go like this, “Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan— 2 The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. 3 You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder. 4 For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor.”
Did you hear the part about people living in the land of deep darkness? The King James Bible calls it living in the land of the shadow of death. Sounds pretty ominous, but I think they are talking about spiritual darkness.
As you travel down the spiritual road of life, do you ever think much about spiritual darkness? Is there really such a thing? I mean, is it even a relevant concept in our enlightened day of instant communication and streaming media, because even just the term spiritual darkness seems like an outdated, outmoded, medieval concept that seems more appropriate for horror movies than the 21st Century. Well, a long time ago, that’s what I used to think.
When I was in my early twenties, I was living in West Germany, in the area around Heidelberg and Mannheim. I can honestly say it was one of the best times of my life. I had an apartment on the German economy and lots of friends to hang around with on the weekends. In fact, every weekend was a blast sightseeing, getting drunk in the Gasthaus and beer gardens, and hitting the punk rock clubs around southern Germany, not to mention the seedy underside of German culture that attracted American service men to the red light districts. Up to this point in my life, I was never a religious person in any way, shape or form, and I gave no concern to any kind of spirituality or religion what so ever.
I will add, however, that back in High School, my best friend took me to a Presbyterian youth group for a while that met on Sunday afternoons. It was a blast because on my first visit, when he had “free time,” the minister’s son pulled a bag of pot out of his sock and we got high in the church basement. Hey, don’t judge, it was the 70s after all. I also found out that the youth group was a great place to meet girls. So that was the extent of my religious education that I could remember, and now, almost 4 years later, I was living in Germany, having a great time, and religion, spirituality and church were absolutely nowhere on my mind, until one monumental day.
It was a Saturday in early October when my friends and I were out driving the countryside stopping at wineries and sightseeing. We saw a sign along the Autobahn for Dachau Concentration Camp, so we decided to drive over and see the Nazi camp. After passing through the gates, we were surprised that there didn’t seem to be anybody else around that day. So we got out of the car and started walking through the buildings. We went through the barracks. There were pictures on the walls of people who used to reside in that wretched place. I don’t know if it was my imagination or what, but it seemed like I could still smell the humanity in that place. It was horrible to think about, let alone touch the wooden racks they were forced to sleep on with nothing but hay for a mattress. I remember sitting on one of the bunks and positioning myself like one of the men in the picture. It was an eerie feeling. So much agony and despair was evident in their faces. I stopped outside one room, read the signs, looked at the pictures, and then walked through the gas chamber, examining the vents where the gas used to come in.
We all became very quiet as we kind of wandered off our own directions, taking it all in. I looked at all the pictures, read the plaques and captions, and eventually wandered into the crematorium. I felt odd as soon as I walked into the room. The ovens were lined up and the doors on a couple of them were open. There was a picture and a plaque mounted on a stand next to one of the ovens that showed a body being loaded into an oven by some men. As I moved closer to read the plaque, all of a sudden, I had the oddest sensation. I felt like I was literally standing inside myself. It was the weirdest feeling I ever felt, like standing inside a very tight and constricting space, only it was my body I was standing in, and I felt like I was leaning inside myself, trying to stand upright. It is difficult to explain because it is a very strange sensation.
Well, I stood there for I don’t know how long staring at the ovens when one of my friends came shuffling into the room, disturbing the silence with his feet before he said, “This is some weird shit.” I turned to look at him, “Can you imagine such a thing happening to all these people? How do things deteriorate so bad as to get to the point of shoving people into ovens?” I was staring back at the ovens. “I know, right?” My friend said, “It is pure evil, man. There are no other words to describe it – it’s like you can almost feel it. Let’s get the hell out of here,” he said as he was motioning towards the door, “This place creeps me out.” “No shit, Sherlock,” I said jarring myself out of this trance I was in, and with one last look around the room, we headed for the exit.
I didn’t think any more about it on the drive back to the base. We stopped and ate at a winery and were back in time to meet up with friends at the Gasthaus in Sembach. Around 1 a.m. I finally made it back to my apartment. I climbed into bed and fell fast asleep. The next thing I remember seeing was my apartment living room. For some reason, I was standing over by the window looking into the living room. It was a large and open living room for an apartment, and I had large windows that overlooked the street below on two walls of the living room. There I was, standing by the far window watching all my friends gathered there and having some sort of party. I was trying to figure out why I was standing there when suddenly, somebody blew a trumpet directly behind my head. The sound was so loud it froze me in place. When it finished, I turned to see who blew it, and as I turned, I saw a man. He had to have been at least 10 to 12 feet tall. He was wearing a white robe with a gold sash around his waist. I know what you are thinking, but there were no wings that I could see. The man was holding in his hand a large trumpet. I looked up at his face and just then, he lowered the trumpet and bent over to look directly into my eyes. When his eyes fixed on mine, he said, “The Day of the Lord is upon you,” and then he straightened back up and pointed towards the room. I followed his hand and looked back into the living room. Just then the walls tore open like wallpaper and my friends were all slaughtered in an instant. They laid everywhere around the room with mangled corpses and horrified looks on their faces. Suddenly I woke up and I was standing in my living room in the exact same spot of my dream, soaked from head to foot in sweat, trying to catch my breath, shocked at what I just saw.
I didn’t sleep the rest of the night, but sat there in my living room just staring at the floor and thinking about what just happened. It was incomprehensible at first, and surreal. “Did that just really happen?” I thought over and over again. The completely soaked clothes I was wearing reminded me it did just happen. I changed my clothes and went back to the couch, and sat there, just staring at an empty room. Something happened to me, I didn’t know what, but I knew it happened the moment that 12-foot-tall man bent over and stared into my eyes. It was like he burned a hole right through me and I was fundamentally changed on the inside. Before that night, I could have cared less about spirituality, religion and all that. But all that changed that night. From that night forward, God and spirituality moved to the top of my list.
I just sat in my living room staring and thinking. I wanted to find out what just happened to me. Then suddenly, I got up and went on a search for a box I had of some of the things my grandfather gave me as a child. One of them I knew was a Bible. Now I had never read that Bible, or any other Bible for that matter, before in my life, and the Bible he gave me was really just a keep sake because he wrote a personal inscription to me inside the cover. So I began reading that Bible starting with Genesis chapter one, and began introducing myself to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the Holy One of Israel. I read the rest of the night and the rest of the weekend, for that matter, and began the search to try and explain what just happened to me.
I have learned that opinions vary. Some time ago, I shared this story with an acquaintance over coffee. After sharing the story, he commented that perhaps I had some sort of psychotic break and that this was the only way my mind could make sense of the break and bring me back to sanity. I thought about that for a moment, then I responded that in all honesty I couldn’t deny that possibility. However, it didn’t explain the change within me, because after the event, I was different. I looked at things differently. Getting smashed, going to punk rock clubs and the red light district didn’t hold much interest for me anymore. Instead, now I wanted to study and learn all that I could about God. Don’t misunderstand me, I didn’t go out and start preaching on street corners, shouting at people to repent and all that. In fact, I never told anyone what happened to me until years later, when my own dad had a near death experience that changed his life. But a key factor for me was that after my event, I also began a life of prayer. So no matter what, I couldn’t deny what happened to me and the change it made within me.
The verse I brought up in the Book of Isaiah, chapter 9, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” It’s that “deep darkness” part that grabs me. Today, I believe what happened to me was that for the first time in my life, I was confronted with genuine spiritual darkness when I visited the Dachau Concentration Camp. Spiritual darkness is real, even in our day and age. But somehow, from that place of deep darkness, my soul saw the light, and the spirit, the ruach of God within me, awoke. Perhaps God sent a messenger that same night to confirm that awakening within me.
Isaiah goes on in his verses to remind the reader that a long time ago, when the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the two most northern tribes of Israel, which later became the Galilee, fell into deep darkness and became oppressed by the Midianite armies, God sent Gideon to deliver them. Even though Gideon had a much smaller army, God routed the Midianites and delivered the two tribes from destruction and oppression. Isaiah reminds us that just as God delivered them in the days of the Midian, it will be God also who shines the great light later in the land of Galilee. He will shine it for the people sitting in deep spiritual darkness, sometime in the future, when the Greeks and Romans oppress, and the Messiah would preach the good news of the Kingdom of God, first in the Galilee. And it is the same God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who drives the darkness away still today from our own lives when we turn to him and seek the Holy One of Israel. For he is the Lord, and beside him, there is no other.
Just a few chapters later, Isaiah writes my favorite verse in the entire Bible; Isaiah 12:2, “Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust and will not be afraid; for Jehovah God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.” This means that even though the spiritual darkness may grow and encompass the entire land around you, Jehovah God is still our salvation. You can trust in him and not be afraid. He shines the light in the midst of deep darkness.
Let me encourage you. If you have never been to such a place as Dachau or Auschwitz, I would encourage you to go. It is an experience everyone should seek. I know today I am not alone in my experience because I have met others whose lives have been fundamentally changed by such visits. Which is evidence to me that just as in the days of Midian, when God delivered Zebulun and Naphtali from their oppressors, and in the days of the Galilee, when the Messiah began to teach the good news of the Kingdom of God, from such places of deep darkness, the light of God often shines the brightest. I hope this message has been an encouragement to you on your spiritual walk. Amen.
Pastor Robbie Taylor