"Separated unto the Gospel of God"
In the course of these lectures I am to speak on the general theme of "The Preacher: his life and work." There is little or no need of introduction. The only prefatory word I wish to offer is this. I have been in the Christian ministry for over twenty years. I love my calling. I have a glowing delight in its services. I am conscious of no distractions in the shape of any competitors for my strength and allegiance. I have had but one passion, and I have lived for it—the absorbingly arduous yet glorious work of proclaiming the grace and love of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. I stand before you, therefore, as a fellow-labourer, who has been over a certain part of the field, and my simple purpose is to dip into the pool of my experiences, to record certain practical judgments and discoveries, and to offer counsels and warnings which have been born out of my own successes and defeats.
I assume that I am speaking to men who are looking upon the field from the standpoint of the circumference, who are contemplating the work of the ministry, who are now disciplining their powers, preparing their instruments, and generally arranging their plans for a journey over what is to them a yet untravelled country. I have been over some of the roads, and I want to tell you some of the things which I have found.
Today I am to speak on the Preacher's call and mission. It is of momentous importance how a man enters the ministry. There is a "door" into this sheepfold, and there is "some other way." A man may enter as a result of merely personal calculation: or he may enter from the constraint of the purely secular counsel of his friends. He may take up the ministry as a profession, as a means of earning a living, as a desirable social distinction, as a business that offers pleasantly favourable chances of cultured leisure, of coveted readerships, and of attractive publicity. A man may become a minister because, after carefully weighing comparative advantages, he prefers the ministry to law, or to medicine, or to science, or to trade and commerce. The ministry is ranged among many other secular alternatives, and it is chosen because of some outstanding allurement that appeals to personal taste. Now in all such decisions the candidate for the ministry misses the appointed door. His vision is entirely horizontal. His outlook is that of "the man of the world." Similar considerations are prevalent: similar maxims and axioms are assumed: the same scales of judgment are used. The constraining motive is ambition, and the coveted goal is success. There is nothing vertical in the vision. There is no lifting up of the eyes "unto the hills." There is nothing "from above." There is no awful mysteriousness as of "a wind that bloweth where it listeth." A man has decided his calling, but "God was not in all his thoughts."
Now I hold with profound conviction that before a man selects the Christian ministry as his vocation he must have the assurance that the selection has been imperatively constrained by the eternal God. The call of the Eternal must ring through the rooms of his soul as clearly as the sound of the morning-bell rings through the valleys of Switzerland, calling the peasants to early prayer and praise. The candidate for the ministry must move like a man in secret bonds. "Necessity is laid" upon him. His choice is not a preference among alternatives. Ultimately he has no alternative: all other possibilities become dumb: there is only one clear call sounding forth as the imperative summons of the eternal God.
Now no man can define or describe for another man the likeness and fashion of the divine vocation. No man's circumstances are exactly commensurate with another's, and the nature of our circumstances gives distinctiveness and originality to our call. Moreover the Lord honours our individuality in the very uniqueness of the call He addresses to us. The singularity of our circumstances, and the awful singularity of our souls, provide the medium through which we hear the voice of the Lord. How strangely varied are the "settings" through which the divine voice determines the vocations of men, as they are recorded in the Scriptures! Here is Amos, a poor herdman, brooding deeply and solitarily amid the thin pastures of Tekoa. And rumours come his way of dark doings in the high places of the land. Wealth is breeding prodigality. Luxury is breeding callousness. Injustice is rampant, and "truth is fallen in the streets." And as the poor herdman mused "the fire burned." On those lone wastes he heard a mysterious call and he saw a beckoning hand! For him there was no alternative road. "The Lord took me as I followed the flock, and said, Go, prophesy!"
But how different is the setting in the call of the Prophet Isaiah! Isaiah was a friend of kings: he was a cultured frequenter of courtly circles: he was at home in the precincts of kings' courts. And through what medium did the divine call sound to this man? "In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord." Isaiah had pinned his faith to Uzziah. Uzziah was "the pillar of a people's hopes." Upon his strong and enlightened sovereignty was being built a purified and stable state. And now the pillar had fallen, and it seemed as though all the fair and promising structure would topple with it, and the nation would drop again into uncleanness and confusion. But on the empty throne Isaiah discovered the presence of God. A human pillar had crumbled: the Pillar of the universe remained. "In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord." Isaiah had a vision of a mighty God, with a vaster sovereignty, moving and removing men as the ministers of His large and beneficent purpose. Isaiah mourned the fall of a king, and he heard a call to service I "Whom shall I send, and who will go for me?" One man fallen: another man wanted! God's call sounded through the impoverished ranks, and smote the heart and conscience of Isaiah, and Isaiah found his vocation and his destiny. "Here am I, send me!"
How different, again, are the circumstances attending the call of Jeremiah! There are liquids which a "shake" will precipitate into solids: and there are fluid and nebulous things in life, vague things lying back in the mists of consciousness, which some sudden shaking or shifting of circumstances can precipitate into clear intuition, into firm knowledge, and we have the mind and will of God. Yes, a little tilt of circumstances, and the mist becomes a vision, and uncertainty changes into realized destiny. I think it was even so with Jeremiah. In his life there had been thinkings without conclusions, obscure moments of consciousness without clear guidance, broodings without definite vocations. But one day, we know not how, his circumstances slightly shifted, and his vague meditation changed into vivid conviction, and he heard the voice of the Lord God saying unto him, "Before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet." It was a clear call: like lightning rather than light: and it was greatly feared, and reluctantly accepted.
I have given three examples of the varying fashions in the callings of our God: but had they been indefinitely multiplied, until they had included the last one in my audience to hear the mystic voice, it would be found that every genuine call has its own uniqueness, and that through the originality of personal circumstances the divine call is mediated to the individual soul. And so we cannot tell how the call will come to us, what will be the manner of its coming. It may be that the divine constraint will be as soft and gentle as a glance: "I will guide thee with Mine eye." It may be that we can scarcely describe the guidance, it is so shy, and quiet, and unobtrusive. Or it may be that the constraint will seize us as with a strong and invisible grip, as though we were in the custody of an iron hand from which we cannot escape. That, I think, is the significance of the strangely violent figure used by the Prophet Isaiah: "The Lord said unto me with a strong hand." The divine calling laid hold of the young prophet as though with a "strong hand" that imprisoned him like a vice! He felt he had no alternative! He was carried along by divine coercion! "Necessity was laid" upon him! He was "in bonds" and he must obey. And I think this feeling of the "strong hand," this sense of mysterious coercion, is sometimes a dumb constraint which offers but little illumination to the judgment. What I mean is this: a man may realize his call to the ministry in the powerful imperative of a dumb grip for which he can offer no adequate reason. He is sure of the constraint. It is as manifest as gravity. But when he seeks for explanations to justify himself he feels he is moving in the twilight or in the deeper mystery of the night. He knows the "feel" of the "strong hand" that moves him, but he cannot give a satisfactory interpretation of the movement. If I may say it without needless obtrusion, this was the character of my own earliest call into the ministry. For a time I was like a blind man who is being led by the "strong hand" of a silent guide. There was the guidance of a mysterious coercion, but there was no open vision. I was "in bonds," but I knew the "hand," and I had to obey. "I will bring the blind by a way that they knew not." "Thou hast laid Thine hand upon me."
And so it is that the manner of one man's "call" may be very different to the manner of another man's "call," but in the essential matter they are one and the same. I would affirm my own conviction that in all genuine callings to the ministry there is a sense of the divine initiative, a solemn communication of the divine will, a mysterious feeling of commission, which leaves a man no alternative, but which sets him in the road of this vocation bearing the ambassage of a servant and instrument of the eternal God. "For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe on Him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? and how shall they preach except they be sent?" The assurance of being sent is the vital part of our commission. But hear again the word of God: "I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran: I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied." The absence of the sense of vocation will eviscerate a man's responsibility, and will tend to secularize his ministry from end to end.
Now a man who enters through the door of divine vocation into the ministry will surely apprehend "the glory" of his calling. He will be constantly wondering, and his wonder will be a moral antiseptic, that he has been appointed a servant in the treasuries of grace, to make known "the unsearchable riches of Christ." You cannot get away from that wonder in the life of the Apostle Paul. Next to the infinite love of his Saviour, and the amazing glory of his own salvation, his wonder is arrested and nourished by the surpassing glory of his own vocation. His "calling" is never lost in the medley of professions. The light of privilege is always shining on the way of duty. His work never loses its halo, and his road never becomes entirely commonplace and grey. He seems to catch his breath every time he thinks of his mission, and in the midst of abounding adversity glory still more abounds. And, therefore, this is the sort of music and song that we find unceasing, from the hour of his conversion and calling to the hour of his death: "Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ." "For this cause I, Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles, if ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward!" "Whereunto I am ordained a preacher, and an apostle, a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and verity!" Do you not feel a sacred, burning wonder in these exclamations, a holy, exulting pride in his vocation, leagued with a marvelling humility that the mystic hand of ordination had rested upon him? That abiding wonder was part of his apostolic equipment, and his sense of the glory of his calling enriched his proclamation of the glories of redeeming grace. If we lose the sense of the wonder of our commission we shall become like common traders in a common market, babbling about common wares.
I think you will find that all great preachers have preserved this wondering sense of the greatness of their vocation. It was most impressively true of Dr. Dale, a distinguished Yale lecturer, and my illustrious predecessor in the pulpit at Carts Lane. The members of my old congregation have often tried to describe to me the mingled dignity and humility with which he proclaimed the gospel of salvation. They say that at times he spake with a sort of personal diffidence born of a great surprise that he should be counted worthy to "bear the vessels of the Lord." They tell me that it was peculiarly manifest at the table of the Lord, and at other times, when, in the handling of the most august themes, he was leading his people into the innermost secrets of the holy place. All this was equally true of another man, very different in mental equipment to Dr. Dale, Robert M'Cheyne, who, in Scotland, brought the riches of grace to an almost countless multitude. Andrew Bonar, M'Cheyne's intimate friend, has told us with what full and delicate wonder he carried his ministry in the Lord. In their conversation he would frequently break out into deep and joyful surprise. The glory of his ministry irradiated common duty like a halo, and God's statutes became his songs. I do not marvel that Andrew Bonar can write these words about him: "He was so reverent toward God, so full also in desire toward Him... he never seemed unprepared. His lamp was always burning, and his loins always girt. His forgetfulness of all that was not found to God's glory was remarkable, and there seemed never a time when he was not himself feeling the presence of God."
This sense of great personal surprise in the glory of our vocation, while it will keep J us humble, will also make us great. It will save us from becoming small officials in transient enterprises. It will make us truly big, and will, therefore, save us from spending our days in trifling. Emerson has somewhere said that men whose duties are done beneath lofty and stately domes acquire a dignified stride and a certain stateliness of demeanour. And preachers of the gospel, whose work is done beneath the lofty dome of some glorious and wonderful conception of their ministry, will acquire a certain largeness of demeanour in which flippancy and trivialities cannot breathe. "I shall run the way of Thy commandments when Thou shalt enlarge my heart."
Now, if such be the sacredness of our calling, and its consequent glory, we cannot be blind to its solemn responsibilities. It is a great, awful, holy trust. We are called to be guides and guardians of the souls of men, leading them into "the way of peace." We are to be constantly engaged with eternal interests, leading the thoughts and wills of men to the things that primarily matter, and disengaging them from lesser or meaner concerns which hold them in servitude. We are to be the friends of the Bridegroom, winning men, not to ourselves, but to Him, match-making for the Lord, abundantly satisfied when we have brought the bride and the Bridegroom together. I do not wonder that men shrink from the calling even when they feel the glory of it! I do not wonder at the holy fear of men as they approach the sacred office! Listen to these words of Charles Kingsley, written in his private journal, written in the dawning of the day on which he was to be ordained to the priesthood of the Lord: "In a few hours my whole soul will be waiting silently for the seals of admission to God's service, of which honour I dare hardly think myself worthy. Night and morning for months my prayer has been, Oh, God, if I am not worthy, if my sin in leading souls away from Thee is still unpardoned, if I am desiring to be a deacon not wholly for the sake of serving Thee, if it is necessary to show me my weakness and the holiness of Thy office still more strongly, Oh, God, reject me!" I say I do not wonder at the shrinking, and I would not pray that the day may come when it may entirely pass away, lest in a perilous self-confidence we lose the brightness of the glory, and have an impoverished conception of our great vocation. In this matter, as in many others, "the fear of the Lord is a fountain of life," and "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom."
Such, then, is the preacher's calling, so sacred, so responsible, so glorious; what can be the mission of such a vocation? Have we any clear word of enlightenment which places it before us like a shining road? I think we have. Whenever I want to recover afresh the superlatively lofty mission of my calling I reverently turn into the holy place where our Master is in communion with the Father, and in that mysterious fellowship I hear my calling defined. "As Thou hast sent Me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world." The serenity that pervades that sequence is overwhelming. The quietude of the passage is the quietude of stupendous heights. It is the serenity of sublimity. The "even so" which associates the two sentences on the same level of thought and purpose is majestic and divine. It places the mission of the Galilean fishermen in line with the redemptive mission of the Son of God.
Let us move reverently in that secret holy place. "As Thou hast sent Me." The words lead our halting, failing thought into the inconceivable state which our Lord described as "The glory which I had with Thee before the world was." I know that we have neither wing with which to soar into the mysterious realm nor eye wherewith to see the burning bliss. But we may feel the majesty of what we cannot express. It is well to feel the awe of the undefined and the indefinable. And it is well to lose ourselves in the vast significance of words like these, "The glory which I had with Thee before the world was." Brood upon it. The sublime abode! The holy Fatherhood! The light ineffable! The mystic presences! The cherubim and seraphim who "continually do cry, Holy, Holy, Holy!" And then in that glory the redemptive mission of the Prince of Glory! A wonder more glorious than the glory is the laying of the glory by! "He emptied Himself." The amazement of the spirits that surround the throne! "The word became flesh." The wonder of it! The awe of it! "As Thou hast sent Me into the world."
And now change the scene. The inconceivable glory is laid aside. The Son of Glory is no longer surrounded by cherubim and seraphim, swift and pure as light. But in the guise of a Galilean peasant He has a few fishermen around Him, dull in apprehension of spiritual purpose, timid in heart, irresolute in will, often seeking personal advancement rather than the progress of truth, very lame, very dense, altogether very imperfect and soon to forsake Him and flee.
And these two scenes are linked together. "As Thou hast sent Me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world." That the one "going out" should be linked with the other is to me the wonder of wonders. The marvel is that they should be mentioned in the same breath, included in the same bundle of thought, comprehended in the same purpose. For what does the association mean? It means the exaltation of Christian apostleship, the glorification of the Christian ministry. It means that the mystic ordination that rested on the Son of Glory, when He came to earth, rested also on the fisherman Peter as he went down to Caesarea. It means that the same holy commission that wrought in the redemptive ministry of the Son of God wrought also in the energies of the Apostle Paul as he went forth to Macedonia, and on to Corinth, and Athens, and Rome. It means that you, in your sphere of service, and I in mine, may, in our own degree, share the same joyous commission as was held by the Prince of Glory when He was made in the likeness of man. It is the glorification of the apostle's mission and service. "As Thou hast sent Me."
We must, therefore, look carefully at what is said about the nature and character of our Lord's mission if we would understand our own commission, and so realize the glory of our own appointment and the dignity of our own service. We must reverently gaze upon the one that we may thereby apprehend the other. Have we any further guidance concerning the mission of our Lord? Did He define it? Did He describe it? Has He anywhere outlined it in features that we can comprehend? I think such light has been given us. We are told that Jesus went into Nazareth on the Sabbath day. He entered the synagogue. He opened a book and read a selected passage, and then He appropriated the words as descriptive of Himself, and as finding fulfilment in His own life. And what was the passage? "He hath sent Me to preach the gospel to the poor, to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind; to set at liberty them that are bruised and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord." Is it possible that the passage is a lamp whereby we may interpret our own ministry? Look at the cardinal words in the passage, "preach," "heal," "deliver," "give liberty," "proclaim!" Can we extract the common virtue of the words? Have they any general significance? Is there any common denominator? May we not say that in all these varied words there is a pervasive sentiment and purpose of emancipation? Are they not all suggestive of an opening, an emergence, a release? Let us review the words: "Sent to preach"; to give the open vision of divine grace to those whose thought is darkly bounded and imprisoned. "To heal"; to give the grace of comfort to those who are crushed beneath the unintelligible weight of sorrow and care. "To deliver the captive"; to give the open spaces of a noble freedom to all who languish in any form of unholy servitude. "To set at liberty them that are bruised"; to give open passage to all who are lying with broken wing or broken limb, to all whose powers have been shattered by disappointment and defeat. "To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord"; to announce the open door in the present hour, and to say that by God's grace there is a present right of way from the deepest gloom of the soul into the radiant light of acceptance with God In all these words there appears to be this general sense of emergence and release. There is an opening of mind, an opening of heart, an opening of eyes, an opening of doors. In every word the iron gate swings back and there is the sound of the song of freedom.
Now in the light of these words dare we take up the Master's sequence and give this same interpretation to our own mission and service? I think this is our holy privilege. It is one aspect of "The prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus." "As Thou hast sent Me into the world even so have I also sent them,"—to preach, to heal, to deliver, to open the iron gates, to be the ambassadors of a glorious freedom for body, mind, and soul. Yes, I think we may accept this interpreting light upon our calling; the mission of the apostle is determined by the mission of the Master, and that mission is declared to be one of wide and inclusive emancipation.
If this be so, if we may read our calling in the words of the Master, by what method are we to follow the ministry of emancipation? We are to follow it in two ways, by the service of good news, and by the good news of service. First, we are to find our mission in the service of good news. That is our primary calling, to be tellers of good news, to be heralds of salvation. Here are the emphatic words: "Preach!" and again, "Preach!" "Proclaim!" "As ye go, preach!" And what is to be the theme of the good news? This we will consider in greater detail later on. But meanwhile let this be said. It is to be good news about God. It is to be good news about the Son of God. It is to be good news about the vanquishing of guilt and the forgiveness of sins. It is to be good news about the subjection of the world and the flesh and the devil. It is to be good news about the transfiguration of sorrow and the withering of a thousand bitter roots of anxiety and care. It is to be good news about the stingless death and the spoiled and beaten grave. That is to be our first mission to the world,—to be carriers of good news. That is to be our glorious mission. We are to go about our ways finding men and women shattered and broken, with care upon them, and sorrow upon them, and death upon them, wrinkled in body and mind, and with the light flickering out in their souls. And we are to bring them the news which will be like oil to dying lamps, which will be as vitalizing air to those who faint, which will be like the power of new wing to birds that have been broken in flight. "The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit and they are life."
But we are not only to preach the good news. We are also to incarnate it in vital service. Our mission is to be one of emancipation both by word and work, by gospel and by crusade. Everywhere we are confronted by big iniquities, frowning like embattled castles. Around us are grim prisons where innocence lies entombed. All over the world captives are held in a thousand evil servitudes. And here is our mission, which is reflected from the mission of our Lord, "He hath sent me to give liberty to the captives." The word of grace is to be confirmed by gracious deeds. The Gospel is to be corroborated by the witness of daring exploits. The herald is to be a knight, revealing the power of his message in his own chivalry. That is to say, there is laid upon the preacher the supreme privilege of obligation and sacrifice. He is to be filled with the "love and pity" which are the very energies of redemption. The good news without the good deed will leave us impotent. But the spirit of sacrificial love will make us invincible.
There is much that might make us afraid. The very terms of our commission might fill us with dread. "I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves." How quixotic the enterprise appears to be! Let our thoughts go back to the first preaching crusaders, so apparently weak and fearless as to be compared to innocent sheep! And these men are sent forth into a wolfish environment, where the odds appear to be overwhelming, and the outlook one of hopeless and cruel defeat. And the words of the commission are unchanged. Still does the Master say to you and me, "I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves,"—against cruelty, and lust, and greed, and indifference, against every form of sin, against an army of antagonists, fierce and terrific. What is to be our inspiration and our confidence? I will dare to place two separated passages side by side that I may offer you the heartening secret of their communion. And here is one of them: "As Thou hast sent Me into the world." And here is the other: "Behold the Lamb!" The Lord who was sent into the brutal or indifferent environment of man was the Lamb of God! The Lamb came among wolves. And now let me place another pair of passages side by side, and the analogy will help us forward to the inspiration we need. And here is one: "Even so have I also sent them into the world." And here is the other: "I send you forth as sheep." The Lamb of God Himself came among the wolves. And He sends His sheep among the same fierce and destructive presences. The Lamb sends forth the sheep!
And how fared it with the Lamb? I turn to the Word of God and I read: "These shall make war with the Lamb and the Lamb shall overcome." And I read again: "And I beheld, and in the midst of the throne stood the Lamb." The Lamb was triumphant. It was not the wolf who conquered, but the Lamb, and in the victory of the Lamb the safety and triumph of the sheep are assured. That is our inspiration. "In the world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world." We are "called with a holy calling." Our mission is beset with antagonisms. The way will rarely, if ever, be easy. But in chivalrous faith and obedience our victory is secure.