Who art thou?... What sayest thou of thyself? —John 1:22.
We care less what men may think of us than what we think of ourselves. It has been said, "We are each one hanging up pictures in the chambers of our own souls, which we shall have to look at when we sit in the shadows."
John's interest in this question was not from respect for the questioners; but they voiced a common question, which any man might ask, and which was echoed in his own heart; and our interest is not that we are especially like John, but rather that John is like us all.
I. What am I in view of what has been done for me?
My heart's picture-gallery is of home and childhood. I am what I am in view of what my father and mother did for my childhood; in view of what early teachers, and friends did for my youth. I do not stand alone. If I seem to, like John, just come out of the desert, I stand really in the midst of the goodly company of wise and noble kindred and friends, among whom I grew up, and who left me richly endowed with devout traditions and honorable principles. To ignore them is to fail to know whom I really am. I am the child of my age. I am what the time has made me. Its thought has come into my mind; its sympathies are in my heart.
II. I am in the presence of the demands of my time.
I am not so presumptuous as to ignore those demands, or the noble company of living men who bid me join hands with them. After all, the question what I am amounts to the question, What can I do? I would answer humbly; but true humility is not in thinking meanly of one's self, but rather in thinking generously of others. This is a grand time, because there are grand men in it; and, most of all, because Christ is in it. John the Baptist felt little as compared with Christ, but the more he saw Christ the braver he was to do his part. I may be but a voice in the wilderness, but I can lean on those great cosmic forces which are moving the earth, and my voice shall have part in the great chorus heard in heaven, saying that the kingdoms have become the Lord's.
Some men have a Ptolemaic notion of life: their little earth is the center around which all things move. If I have been of that sort, I will remember that the age has outgrown that. It is time to reconstruct one's life on the Copernican theory, admitting that ours is only a little earth in the great universe, and finding our true solar center in the great moral gravitation of the Divine Love.
III. What am I for the future?
The future of John the Baptist, when he was asked this question, was very short; only a few months. Jesus had a longer career, but it was only three years. All life is short in itself.
But we do not complain that the night is short if we are looking for the dawn, nor that the winter is short if we are eager for the spring. A short life is long enough to take the right direction, and direction is the main fact about our life. For our children we ask: How are they coming out? So God asks about His children. There really is more in us than we have ever brought out, and a true answer as to what we are will take our growth into account.
Conclusion. We are not left alone to answer this searching question, any more than John was left alone to answer. There was a common opinion of men about John, which contained a fair answer, and which indeed was what made the Jewish rulers send and ask him. All men held John to be a prophet, and there was no escaping that popular opinion, nor the presumption that, on the whole, it was just. But Our Lord did not leave John to the vindication of public opinion. He had known John from their boyhood, had watched his early career as forerunner of the Messiah, and had himself accepted his baptism even against John's wondering protest; and John had pointed out Jesus and borne witness to Him in those early days by the Jordan. So now the Lord spoke out for his friend and forerunner with a voice that ought to have reached the seared conscience of Herod: "What went ye out to see?" What was this John whom Herod keeps imprisoned in Machserus? A prophet, like Elijah, but greater, because nearer the true Light; the very morning star of the new day. We are not as famous, nor is it likely common opinion would speak so strongly about us; yet we have a reputation, such as it is, that bears witness what sort of men we are, and when men for any reason ask about us, this answer comes up. It comes up also to meet our opinion of ourselves, whether favorable or unfavorable, and sets us back sometimes into more modest estimates, and sometimes encourages us with a better estimate than we have ourselves held.
Blessed is it for us if our Lord takes it on Him to answer for us. The people round Him who counted John a prophet were greatly uplifted in their regard for John by His words. He answered for John at the time when John was in prison and despondent and discouraged—we are not told whether John's messengers to Jesus at that sad time took back to him the words of appreciation which Jesus spoke.
As for ourselves we are assured of "an advocate with the Father," and His answer for us is all we can ask. Never can we be so depressed and despondent that He will not say, "My grace is sufficient for thee."
Our lamps are going out.—Matt. 25:8.
We see how exhaustion is the correlative of action; its inevitable reaction. The more force you put forth, the greater is the exhaustion of the reaction. This seems the law of action and reaction in living beings. Our life was lit up with hope, glad expectation, earnest purpose; but it is not so bright, and unless something reviving comes to us we shall sink into a dull helplessness. "Our lamps are going out." This is the Revised Version, and is possibly a less hopeless condition than the "gone out" of the old version; but it shows us more strikingly the fact of decline. Our lamps are not yet gone out, but they are going out. It is a bad condition, and fast growing worse.
I. Exhaustion is a law of nature.
The end of the year reminds us sharply of this fact. It is the usual time for the expiration of partnerships—the papers at that season are full of notices of partnerships closing by limitation. With the year the lease runs out unless renewed, the note falls due. Many of our common relations expire with a stated time. Good business prudence looks over one's affairs and sees what is coming to an end with the time. We may properly ask, What are the lamps which are going out?
II. Life may be renewed.
If I have a certain sum of money, I can calculate what necessities it will meet, and how far it will go; but it will go only so far: beyond that is exhaustion. But if I have a bed of strawberries in my garden, after it has borne the crop of the season, and there is no more to be got from it, I can weed and cultivate and fertilize it, and next year it will bear again. And though the whole bed shows exhaustion, I can set its runners in new rows and nurture them into new life, though the old plants are only fit to be dug under; and I can renew the life of my bed, and after a season it will be as young and fresh and fertile as ever. I have completely renewed its life. So I can renew the life of a note, or lease, or partnership. So bodily strength, though exhausted every day, is renewed every night; and even if impaired by disease, it may be recovered. There is nothing necessarily hopeless in the exhaustion of anything that has life in it; but all living things need renewal. You must expect exhaustion; it is the law of life; but the life itself may be renewed, and the exhaustion repaired.
III. Character comes under the law of exhaustion and renewal.
It is the most living thing about us, and "goes out," like our lamps. The soul needs its bread of life day by day, and it has to bear the burden of a tired body and disordered nerves. The nature should be a good machine, that it may do good work. The physical life is the frame of the moral life, and if the frame is broken, the picture for the time is spoiled: the disorder is sadly visible. The common ailments of our bodies wear and break us down. We lose our good manners, and our peace of mind, and it is wonderful if we do not become positively wicked. Our friends look at us with wonder, and fall back into the language of the old Version, saying their lamps "are gone out."
IV. Renewal is still practicable.
(a) The life is still strong, and "where there is life there is hope." That proverb is a truth far greater than we commonly think, because life is no mere flowering out of the material elements, like the blossomlike crystals formed in some chemical substances. "Flowers of sulphur" form in the crater of Vesuvius, but they are flowers of death. Living flowers are from that life-principle which is the breath of God; and if His breath is still in your body or your soul, there is infinite possibility of renewal.
(b) The sources of life and growth are still abundant.
You can get no water from your old pump. When you try you get only painful wheezing. Pumps are not living things, but they, too, suffer exhaustion. Must you give it up, and dig a new well? Oh, no. The well is all right, and has given abundant and sweet water for a generation. You look it over, and find that the old leather valve is dry and worn out. Pour in a pitcher of water to wet it, and the wheezing is cured. Put in a new valve and the old pump is good for years to come. God's supply of living water is abundant as ever. It is only your connection with it that failed. Have you anything to draw with? You have only been letting the pump-valves get dry: neglecting the means of keeping your soul in touch with the water of life, coming to church once a month, instead of every Sunday; staying away from prayer meeting. Our lamps are going out because they want filling. The great means of supply of the oil of divine grace is secret prayer. The "closet" is an unfailing reservoir. We neglect it so greatly that we have forgotten what is there, and when we enter in and shut the door at first it seems dark and empty; but God is very present where no other can be seen, and when we look into our hearts with nothing to divert us, and then from that unpleasant sight look up, we have no need to grope in the darkness. God is just as visible as our unworthy hearts, and feeling after Him we find Him near and strong and warm with love. Here is the "oil of joy for mourning." There is plenty of oil, and the Bridegroom is not yet come. They are not going out if we have to run and fill them on our knees.
Ye are the temple of God.—I Cor. 3:16.
The characteristic thought of Judaism was the peculiar nearness of God. The many symbols of this truth culminate in the Temple planned by David and built by Solomon, with the thought later expressed in Rev. 21:3, "The tabernacle of God is with men."
This idea of the Temple, as a house of God's indwelling, our Saviour carried further, saying that He dwells in us (John 15:23), and Stephen in his last speech declares the same truth, and Paul, who heard that speech, takes it with other truths from Stephen. To us it is a household word. What does it mean? What is the inscription on the smooth-worn coin?
I. God is in our everyday life.
He helps our everyday needs. This is the Old Testament idea; and true progress into a more spiritual dispensation does not discredit the truths of the older thought; it cherishes them, while it adds to them a higher and spiritual conception.
It is God who opens to us the gates of the morning. When a Christian wakes from his night's rest, he wakes peacefully, and the sunshine is beautiful and pleasant. He recognizes it at once as the light of God's giving for a new day, and rises with confidence to the day's work.
David wished to build God a temple, but he knew that God already dwelt in his daily life, and when the Philistines invaded his kingdom he went to God with it, asking "Shall I go up against them?" and God answered, "Go up. and I will deliver them into thine hand."
There is great danger lest we cease to recognize God in everyday life.
The improvement of Egypt in the control of inundation by the great Assouan dam of the Nile has unfortunately drowned and is destroying the magnificent temple ruins on the island of Phile. That only hurts a sentiment of antiquarian reverence and makes bread for many poor. But if our rush of business drowns out our family worship, and tires us too much for a second Sabbath service, it may cost us more than its gains are worth. We need to remember that our life is sacred, for we are the temple of God.
II. It means the recognition of God in our higher life and better aspirations.
Samuel waked at the calling voice, and insisted that it was Eli who had called; but when he understood that it was, indeed, the voice of God, those draperies of the tabernacle and their solemn shadows took a new meaning to him. God was hidden in every rich embroidered fold; and the sacredness of the tabernacle was real to him in a very new sense. So we may wake, and find that our life is full of divine voices; that tell us its meaning, perhaps mingled with sadness and misgivings, but Ruskin discovered in the base of the Church of St. James, in Venice, a stone inscribed, "Near the temple let the merchant's weights be true, his measures just, his contracts without guile."
This higher recognition of God ought not to be a mere sentiment, however beautiful or exalted. It needs to be the recognition of God's voice in conscience. Conscience is the soul's inner shrine, and there is the true shekinah; there we hear the divine response.
"My being's end and aim will not be reached
Until thou come behind mine eyes and ears,
And fill the very chambers of my soul;
My source of peace and strength and joy."
III. The essential meaning of the true temple is only reached as we apprehend Christ:
Godly men of Old Testament times got hold of this idea of God as revealed "not afar off." "Your father Abraham," said our Lord, "rejoiced to see my day, and he saw it and was glad."
So David's communion with God, and apprehension of the coming Messiah (2 Sam. 7:19) was in a near vision of God, a true temple, more real perhaps than any that came to royal Solomon. One can hardly read the Psalms and not feel the presence of Christ in them. Dr. Isaac Watts put those Psalms into even verse with a Christian spirit. He made a rich collection of Christian lyrics that have been ever since largely used by Christians of different names in their Sabbath worship; and those old Jewish Psalms form a rich part of our worship. The devout echo of the old temple worship speaks to the heart that has opened its door to Christ.
Once in a strange city I came through a narrow, crooked street to the door of a church I did not know existed. It was empty, but the janitor told me that it was of a denomination quite strange to me. As I inquired of him about it, and he explained their peculiar tenets and usages, it seemed a strange kind of faith, and I wondered what sort of Christians those were whose doctrines and practices were so different from the common phraseology of the most of the churches. Nicodemus sat in wonder even at the words of the Lord for whose coming he had been longing, and exclaimed, "How can these things be?" But I saw that with all his strange words, Christ was central in that janitor's religious thought, and our faith and hope could not be wide apart.
A hermit on a mountain top was asked if it was not lonely up there, but said, "No; God is my next-door neighbor." The higher we rise into this knowledge of God in Christ, the greater is our spiritual power; as a pile-driver strikes its greatest blow when the weight is lifted to the very top.
Who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.—John 1:13.
Men are naturally children of God because made by Him in His own likeness. His own character was His model in making man, and the likeness shows in all a man's life, however soiled and disfigured by sin. The likeness to God is the essential plan upon which we are made. We have mind and hearts like God's, and to think His thoughts and feel as He feels is just as natural to us as it is natural for a ship to sail on the sea. A ship thrown on the shore is out of its natural element, and so is a man ignorant and careless of God. Unfortunately most men think very little about God, and care very little for His way of looking at things. It is somewhat as though our shores were strewn with ships that had been driven aground, and men, instead of trying to get them afloat again, were occupied in propping them up after some fashion, and arranging to live in them there on the beaches and rocks.
But men may become children of God in a practical and truer sense when they recognize God's hand in their lives, and try to be "followers of God as dear children." The text declares true sonship in three negatives and one affirmation. They are born into this higher sonship:
I. "Not of blood."
We count "good blood" about the most important thing in the starting of a man. The Jews carried this notion to the greatest extreme, believing that descent from Abraham made them far better than any other men, and that it assured them of God's favor and heaven. But in fact Abraham himself was a great example of the breaking down of descent. He had to leave ancestral traditions and go out alone, where no inherited advantages would stand between him and God. Our common sense tells us that real manly character must be something more than any inheritance.
"Lady Clara Vere de Vere,"
"I know you, proud to bear your name.
Your pride is yet no match for mine,
Too proud to care from whence I came."
Whatever advantage there may be in birth and family, it does not reach to the deep inward sources of character.
II. "Nor of the will of the flesh."
When a boy throws off his father's rule he gives himself to the impulse of his own will. So Rehoboam gave himself up to the advice of the young men. So sometimes a "Self-made man" boasts that he is not formed by outworn traditions.
Certainly here is an independent strength, which has its value in life. We may be glad that there is a trend away from unintelligent usages and meaningless forms. We may be glad, even though the pendulum is just now swinging too far, and we must ask if our chatter of progress is much more than conceit, and if unbridled folly does not lead to unbridled impulses and passions. These are "the will of the flesh," which is not the source of that deep, heart-searching resolution in which a man turns his natural reverence for God into a true, divine, filial obedience and confidence.
III. "Nor of the will of man."
This third negative is a comprehensive denial that one can begin to be a child of God by any merely human feeling or effort.
Above what one owes to good birth and breeding, and above the impulses which grow strong in his own heart, there is a wide range of thoughtful knowledge, and wise purpose. It comes to us by knowing men and experiencing work as well as pleasure and pain, and it gathers with it many worthy considerations. It is mature thought rather than boyish; it is considerate rather than hasty. It sees the weakness of "blood" and "the will of the flesh." It belongs to the region of manly self-respect.
In what does it fail? Only in the starting, or starting anew of a true filial relation with God. When it comes to being born manly wisdom does not help much. How can a man be born again? Not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man.
IV. "But of God."
The book of Genesis tells how God spoke the world into being. The Gospel of John, beginning with like words, tells how God begins the moral creation.
The mighty movement of the worlds through space is not too great an image to show the movement of a soul full of infinite thoughts and strong passions and purposes, reaching out into infinity and up towards the throne of God. And who can start the movement of a soul except He who started the stars in their courses?
God, who brought order out of chaos, can put our pride of birth, and strong natural impulses, and all our true manliness into their right relations. He sees what is good in these, and turns them all to good, while His own strong life under and within all is as the breath of life breathed into man's nostrils at the first.
He does it through Christ. How? Christ told Nicodemus that the secret of it all is love.
I seek not yours, but you.—2 Corinthians, 12:14.
I. This is a profession of disinterestedness, and was certainly sincere and true. The Apostle Paul gave up a promising career as a Jew, and, what was probably harder, he gave up a strong spirit of Pharisaic self-righteousness. His conscience grew keen more rapidly than his conduct grew faultless, and in times of extreme dissatisfaction he wrote that he was "the chief of sinners," and his Christian work was on a basis of lofty unselfishness. He carried it beyond negative disinterestedness, and maintained a positive personal interest in people who must have been disagreeable to his refined culture, and repellant to his lifelong Puritanism. He lived with these Corinthians two years, and wrote them two of the longest letters in the New Testament.
II. Now in professing this feeling, Paul did not think of glorifying himself. Other men have been of like spirit. It is, indeed, almost a natural instinct for the "struggle for existence," as Drummond well says, to give place to the struggle to help others. Fathers live for their families; mothers lose themselves in their children, as, indeed, Paul says in this connection. But he brings this spirit out that they may see it is the spirit of the Gospel, and of the God who gave the Gospel. This is the great fact: God seeks not yours, but you.
This great fact hardly needs proving: it only needs understanding to prove itself. Yet there are proofs that may be named, of which one is His creation of beauty and joy. God makes flowers and children beautiful because He delights in His works. His work is full of His joy like an artist's. He is not satisfied till He and His creatures can rejoice together.
So when He calls to us in the Gospel, it is not first for service, but for ourselves. He can get service from even the blind forces of nature, but He wants fellowship, and calls us back to it from our wandering.
So the call of our conscience is not general, as a charge is given by a commander to his army, but He calls us out from the ranks and charges us to special duty which is for no one else.
Howells is right in urging the attractiveness of commonplace people. God surely must look upon our little superiorities as very trifling things. His love for me is for things men might count very moderately attractive: something nearer my own self than any special excellence which my friend admires without seeing how defective it is. He knows me with my faults as well as my good qualities, and His love is close like a wife's who knows her husband better than he knows himself.
III. Paul brought this truth out because he saw its redeeming power. God's personal regard for us is the great power to lift us up.
Among the old war pictures I remember one of a captain of artillery bringing his battery into action. His whole soul was in the effort to rally his men and guns on the line. You could hear the thunderous roll of the wheels, crushing over all unevenness and hindrance, the frantic straining of the horses, the fearless, intense resolution of the men, and above all the captain waving his sword, shouting his commands—but shot dead just as the guns wheel into line. Our captain died rallying us, but He rose again, and He still has His dying enthusiasm of love for each one of us. "I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me."
Gough used to tell of a forlorn couple brought up on the platform in a great temperance meeting, and signing the pledge; when the chairman said to the poor woman, "Now, you will not forget that you are one of us," she looked up, and drew her poor shawl more tidily about her with a new revival of self-respect. God's regard makes me one with Him.
IV. There is a deeper meaning of Redemption.
If God loves us with such a deep personal regard, there must be something in us upon which His love can fix. Say it is only possibilities of good that God sees in us, that may be enough for His love to lay hold of with farseeing assurance of what He can bring us up to.
An emigrant looks out over a rolling prairie with enthusiasm. The prairie grass he can plow under, and it shows how strong the soil is, and what a yield he can get with the work he can put into it. There is no dwelling in sight, but there is a tent in his big wagon, and he and the boys can build a tight cabin before winter. He figures it all out, and exults in the independent home for the dear wife before her young strength and beauty is worn out. So the Lord looked over the lands of Galilee, and reckoned on what a harvest He and His disciples could reap for eternal rejoicing.
When Mary Magdalen broke her box of ointment, it was not merely the odor of the sweet and costly ointment that "filled all the house." The great thing in the mind of Christ was that "she loved much." A great heart is a great capacity of feeling. Everyman who is honest with himself has lamented his own coldness and inertness. In Mary the Lord saw a capacity that already had made her capable of an action which has been praised through the ages; and He felt that with divine grace it would grow till its sweetness would fill all heaven with joy. That was the end for which she was forgiven much; and that large love is the end of redemption now.
This day is the Scripture fulfilled in your ears. —Luke 4:21.
Our Lord's sermon at Nazareth was received with resentment: report of miracles in Judea had crowded the synagogue, and, reading the sixty-first chapter of Isaiah, which foretells Messiah's coming, He declared that it was fulfilled then and there. But the angry Nazarenes drove Him out, trying to kill Him, as indeed He was rejected by many; and the prophecy was fulfilled "not with observation," but in the quiet thoughts and deep welcome of a few like Nathaniel.
Great movements of nations have often begun in events little noticed at the time. Few in our own country, and almost none in England, saw in that little skirmish at Lexington, April 19, 1775, the beginning of the expulsion of British rule from the land.
And in changes in men's hearts such great fulfillment of little beginnings is the universal law. We come to points in our lives where a prophet might see that we are making decisions which will strengthen and enlarge till we are changed men, and entering a new career. Faith sees God in the silent movement of men's hearts, and looks forward with the quickness of light; as old Simeon, looking on the infant Jesus, said, "Mine eyes have seen thy salvation."
Nazareth rejected Jesus, but greater cities were waiting to receive Him; some of His old neighbors were offended in Him, but thoughtful men saw that He was fulfilling the promise of God.
I. He fulfills our best hopes.
I first came to love that great prophecy of Isaiah when I was deciding to make the ministry my life-work. I was giving up some pleasant plans, but I came to see that my best hopes, for this world as well as heaven, were in accepting what seemed my duty; and Isaiah brought out to me the loving, self-sacrificing Christ as the best idea of an intelligent, right-minded man. To join my young manhood with that young man who "came to his own" confident that they would really receive Him, however for a time they might refuse—that was the best and happiest thing I could do with my life. John says, "He came unto His own, and His own received Him not." But He was received by Peter and John, and Mary and Martha, and Lazarus and Mary Magdalene, and a great company who now walk in white. And every Christian has, as He had, a great joy of love overtopping all disappointment, and growing sweeter and brighter continually. the real hope and success of life is bound up with Jesus and His work.
II. He leads us into a new life.
Job is not alone in saying, "My soul is weary of my life." After a hard, unsatisfying day one is glad to sink into a dreamless sleep; and one wakes sometimes wishing he did not remember some bad things. Dickens' man who was "haunted" by his memory, we can understand. Oh, for a new life!
"To find at last, beneath
Thy trees of healing,
The life for which I long!"
This longing for a new life is expressed in the new name which not a few good men have taken. Simon became Peter; Levi the publican became Matthew the Apostle; Saul became Paul; the greatest historian of the church took the name Neander, a new man, and his old Jewish name was forgotten.
I think every Christian has felt the fresh joy of the new light in which his faith and love begins to walk. "Behold, I make all things new. Old things are past away; behold, all things are become new." In the morning freshness of new hope and love one says: It is a new world about me, and I find myself a new man.
III. He shows the success of Christian patience.
It needs patience to stand fast, not carried off one's feet by the flood of unworthy success around us. Our Lord shows us how to do this. Most men saw in Him no fulfillment of prophecy, but the woman of Samaria saw in His words the real history of her life with all its struggle and sorrow. We look up into a darkening sky, but we hear Christ's word, and as we continue to look up the stars come out one by one.
"Watchman, what of the night?" we ask. The watchman answers, "The morning cometh, and also the night"; not full day yet. The night seems long to the weary watcher, but it is no longer than it must be to teach us our lesson of patience.
Slowly we learn that the great fulfillment must be in our own hearts. Did God take millions of years to make this material world where we live? Some think so. He could have made it in six days of twenty-four hours each. Why not? But we men who live in the world—could God make us in six days? Can even divine power make character, except by the slow processes of growth? Can God teach us patience without giving us time to learn the lesson? At any rate, I am glad that His way in this is "line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little." I think I can understand that better.
I think this is His school of patience and wisdom, and that in this school is my chance for character.
The film of the camera is developed by careful, unhurried chemical processes; and it is full of moral meaning that the picture comes out only in the darkened chamber. But it comes out, and may be fixed to stand clear in all lights.
In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. —John 1:4.
Light suggests knowledge as contrasted with ignorance, activity and courage instead of fear and inertness, hope and gladness rather than despondency and sorrow, truth against deceit and all impurity; and Milton's beautiful line, "Hail, holy Light! offspring of Heaven first-born!" suggests spiritual analogies full of instruction. Light is a becoming image of God, and especially suggests God coming into our life. Most inspiring is Guido's beautiful painting of "Aurora," where the sun-god is the radiant center of all the golden beams that spread over the yellow and crimson clouds. So God is the center of our hope and intelligent work.
I. God of the Morning; the Sunrise of Our Spiritual Life. As I wake with new strength to meet the opportunities of the new day, I need to meet them at my best, and this must include my best moral strength, enlightened by God.
(a) I ought to wake to a sane self-knowledge. We do this as to matters of comparatively trifling importance. My watch will not go, and I take it to the watchmaker. He puts his magnifying glass in his eye and holds the watch in the strongest light of his broad window. Then he holds it with the open works down and gives it a smart jar with his other hand, and it starts. He sets it right, shuts it up, and hands it back "all right." He has shaken out a speck of dirt that I have dropped in from my old-fashioned key. Why do I not just as naturally take my heart to my Saviour? It does not respond with instinctive devotion to the beauty of the morning. As far as any bird-like joy is concerned, it might be still dark night. Has it stopped, so that it no longer marks the hours of gratitude? Let me take my heart to my Lord and ask Him to look into it and see what is wrong. What I need is for God to shine into my soul, and see what speck of dirt I am harboring there, and shake it out. if need be.
(b) I want a cheerful assurance that I am in kind hands. I saw once a total eclipse of the sun. It was not blotted out, but a lurid ring surrounded the black moon. The most startling appearance was the gray, chilled aspect of town and country: no lovely summer twilight, but a death-like pallor that made us shiver before we realized that the air was sensibly colder. Oh, how sweet was the passing of the shadow and the return of warm light! If there has been an eclipse of my spiritual sun, I want assurance that the eclipse is really passing, if not past, and that the warm light shines again.
(c) I need to begin my new day with intelligent perception of the new commandment which makes me a new man. It is said that Henry of Navarre came to his first battle with a conviction in his heart that he was a coward; but he unlaced his helmet and fought bareheaded, at first pale as a ghost, but soon overcoming fear, his face showing his conscious kingship and inspiring his army to victory. Christ's new commandment gives us the spirit of heroic brotherhood.
II. Light on the Day's Work, shining through all its Thorns.
(a) We want an intelligent and high aim; not
"A soul immortal wasting all its fires;
Spending its strength in strenuous idleness."
Spurgeon said to each new member, "Now, which department of our church work shall I introduce you to?" The Chief Shepherd has an intelligent and specific work for each of us, and says, "He that followeth me shall not walk in darkness."
(b) A near question is of our own character and growth; not what things we accomplish, but what manner of men we are coming to be. Ruskin says, "Every duty omitted obscures some truth that we should know."
III. Light at Eventide. Trials and perplexities do not cease, even though the best of the working day comes to its end.
Some things have gone wrong, and to right them was beyond our power. A child could not see how the wheels of a watch moving in opposite ways could move the hands on regularly in their even course. We may see that, but there are things that puzzle us, with all our wisdom and earnest work.
The failing of strength as old age comes upon us is not easy to bear, and most old men have to bear it when their continuing wants call for as much work as ever. Most men learn something of self-control, and many bear in silence what cannot be helped, but old age to some is a time of querulous complaint and wearying impatience. Those dearest and most helpful in their courage pass away, and we have to bear our trials alone.
As the day wears away and we sit in the shadows, we want a light better than our eyes can see. I had been sick at sea, but the storm abated, and toward evening I crept on deck. I did not see a fair sunset, but there was a rosy light in the far west that might have been the reflection of a golden glory such as often adorns the sky over that beautiful land far westward from our rolling ship. We want to look beyond any horizon we can see. The best that our eyes can reach is only a gleam from the sweet homeland where is our Father's house.
He said, Bring them hither to Me.—Matt. 14:18.
This may seem a good variant of the phrase, "Come to Jesus." That was a phrase a while ago made quite common by some evangelists, who did not guard as carefully as they might against a natural misunderstanding—the mistaken idea that our Lord offers us His help without calling for any work on our part. Our present text does not permit us to neglect our own work, however it insists on our need of God's help. It specially considers what we have ourselves, and what we can do, but bids us bring our resources to Christ.
I. We need to do this that we may see what our resources really are.
(a) What are they for? The five loaves were for the feeding of the multitude. They are not to be looked upon as the ration of the twelve; and whatever resources you and I have are first of all for a generous and not a selfish use. It is presumed that we have already taken the place of an unselfish and perhaps extreme altruism. The objection to altruism is that it is not practicable—well, it is practicable in the presence of the Lord, who "calleth the things that are not as though they were." When He and we together are measuring up our resources, we meet at first the question, What is wanted of our resources? And the answer is that we are not measuring them up for our own satisfaction, but for a large and generous purpose. Our resources are from God, and their use must be according to His thought. A boy's wages may seem to him his spending money, but perhaps they ought to be to help his mother's need. Christ "pleased not himself," and every Christian needs to bring his resources to Him to see what they are for.
(b) What do they amount to? Are they at all enough to meet the necessities of the occasion? Five loaves are not worth counting in feeding five thousand until we bring them to Jesus, but in His hands they are more than enough. Washington, though a rich gentleman, had not sufficient resources to build up the struggling nation, but bringing his resources to the patriotic manliness of the people, which he believed in, it was enough. God showed him how that intangible element of strength could carry him through Valley Forge.
Our common error is in supposing that the law of divine measurements which answered for Washington at Valley Forge will not answer in our common life. In truth, that is just where it will answer supremely well, because it is our common daily life that has most to do with the great interests of character-building and personal devotion that are so dear to God that He holds underneath the everlasting arms. Those were brave men who suffered with Washington that most trying winter of our Revolutionary struggle, but we know very well that every one of those
In their ragged regimentals,"
was the representative of a loving American home, where a patient and loving wife prayed every night for the husband and elder boys in the tented camp. That army knew well enough that brave men "do not live by bread alone," but by patriotism, and love of home, and the devotion that does without a hundred necessities, so that the men at the front might not falter. We, too, need to measure up our resources by that same arithmetic of love which makes a man count all his children as "hostages to fortune." When a young man marries he needs to understand the paradox that two who love each other can live on less than either one alone and selfish.
II. We need Christ to help us use our resources.
(a) His help is our absolute necessity. What could the twelve do with those five loaves before those five thousand men? The Lord's command, "Give ye them to eat," simply gave them a helpless responsibility. They had not enough to feed the multitude. God gives a child into my arms, but what strength or wisdom have I to bring that child up?
(b) We need His help that we may use our resources right.
What was right in handling that multitude, encouraging their good thoughts, lifting up discouraged hearts, but saving them from a Messianic uprising against the government and anarchistic riot? What a responsibility rested upon His followers! How does our commonest charity run into great social questions? What can we do? We must bring our hopes and kindly wishes to Christ.
(c) We need Christ's help to look beyond immediate need and work.
Christ was feeding those men, but to-morrow they would be hungry again, and almost forgetting who had helped them. Their fathers had eaten manna in the wilderness, but were dead. What resources have we that do not run out and leave us destitute?
That alone is the true bread of life which nourishes in us the qualities that are so like God's own character, that they tend directly to Him and cannot die.
The boy who spares spending his wages that he may give them to his mother has begun to taste the bread of life which Christ gives; the mother who brings her motherhood to Christ and learns from Him better how to live for her child, gets a taste of "that living bread which came down from heaven"; every man who learns what it is to consecrate his strength, and use it according to the unselfish thought which he learns from Christ, draws his life from Christ.
The way and the truth and the life.—John 14:6.
A bright girl, graduating from a public school, began her salutatory address with the salutation—though she changed it—of the Roman gladiators: "We who are going out to live salute you." So our inspiring Lord, even out of that last sad evening, brought the words of hope, intelligence, and strength. Christ is full of light and cheer.
I. The way.
We have many perplexities, the worst of them moral, which we hesitate to confess. A man walking through the woods is sure he knows the way, but the path grows less plain; it brings him at length to a tree where a squirrel track is all there is to find; and he is forced to admit that he is lost.
(a) The way out is now the real question. The sun is going down, and he would be glad to get back where he entered the woods and ask the way of someone.
Sometimes one is lost in worse perplexities than the branching paths of a summer woods. One suddenly finds he is in danger, as a crowd of men and boys in a city street watching the slow dragging down toward the wharf of a great derrick one hundred feet high, when, with a crash, one side settled down a foot or so, and the immense structure toppled and seemed falling to crush them all. It did not fall, but for a terrible moment death seemed upon us.
Christ went directly to the perplexity of an ill-deserving fear, showing that God longs to pardon. With this "fearful looking for a judgment," one grows weary, as well as anxious, wondering if he can ever escape from himself.
"They change their clime, but not their soul," said Horace; but this is just where Christ shows the way out—in "a new heart."
(b) The way in.
This appeals to courage and high hope.
"I'll find a way, or make it," said the brave Roman, sword in hand. But not every resolute man has found the way, or been able to carve it for himself. Even some of God's servants have felt "hedged in." Not so our great Captain. His life shows no uncertainty of the thing to do. The way of Christ's followers is known to God, walled from danger on either side, and leads straight into secure rest for the weary, and assurance that our pilgrimage is no useless wandering. Perhaps its early steps are a way into the right way, but it goes on, securely toward heaven and heavenliness.
II. The truth.
In spite of Pilate's sneering question, we all want a sure foundation on which our hearts can stand. Some truths we know before Christ tells us. Sun, moon, and stars, in their nightly movements, declare, "The hand that made us is divine;" and the singing birds sing of God's kindness in their joyful lives. But we are not stars or birds, and no man, looking into his own life and seeing something of its faults, "cometh unto the Father" but by "the way of Christ." Our peace must not be "dislocated from conduct," and our Lord only proclaims a pardon that takes away sin as well as punishment. He alone shows us how to bring "grace and truth" together.
Probably the easiest conception of the true life to us is of the life in heaven. Heaven and earth are our Father's house, and the "many mansions" that we think of most are the homes that Christ prepared for His own in heaven. But Jacob found "the house of God" in the desert place where he slept, and since "the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us," many have entered into life before reaching the gate of death. Christ is our life here and now, leading us into a land of Beulah which has the climate of the land beyond the river. "This is life eternal that they may know Thee," and "whosoever liveth and believeth in Me shall never die."
As the Jordan bursts full and strong from its fountain source at the foot of Lebanon, so the faith that is in Christ springs into full, vigorous life, to flow on its hundreds of miles, all the way down its life-giving course till it ends in the Sea of Death.
But "Godliness hath the promise of the life that now is." A true life includes strength and courage and high purpose and self-sacrifice, and all the worthiness which assures heaven of citizens at last, and fills heaven with joy to-day as the angels witness the triumph of men over temptation and weakness. And all just study of human conditions shows that this true life is not reached without gracious assistance. A new-born babe has the faculties of manhood, but would never develop them without the long and patient and loving nurture of its mother; and we are all but babes unless our Lord nurtures us into true spiritual life.
The life of hope, the life of joy, the life of love and loving service—all these are in Christ. "I am come that they might have life," He said, "and that they might have it more abundantly."
He puts the thought into all His teachings. To the Samaritan woman He said, "The water that I shall give him shall be in him, a well of water springing up into everlasting life." The grandest conceptions revealed themselves in Him to the lowliest minds.
The "power of an endless life was seen in the disciples, as well as in their Lord: a quick intelligence and feeling of generous emotion, a high courage, a fixed purpose of love."
Thy righteousness is like the great mountains; Thy judgments are a great deep.—Psalm 36:6.
The unchanging steadfastness of nature is the security of our daily comfort, and we take it as evidence that the laws of moral life are just as uniform; and we are glad that we do thus live under a "reign of law," however it may mean that we must suffer for our sins and follies. We have a deep sympathy with the law of right, and we become content to suffer for doing wrong, if in it all we feel the greatness and stability of the righteousness of God.
There is great beauty in comparing it with the "great mountains." The mountains change their looks as the shadows of passing clouds alter their apparent form, and the air, clear or misty, brings them close or moves them far off; yet nothing on earth is more enduring and unchanging. In that mountain valley you knew twenty years ago there is now a railroad instead of the old stage-coach, a hotel instead of the old tavern, and the fences are gone from the dooryards; but the grand old hills frame the picture as of old, massive and broad-based, and give it its characteristic features. The mountain ranges over the land compel the way of the watercourses, and of the highways of travel. They write large the great underlying uniformity of nature, the confidence of the farmer and toiler on land and sea, and the assurance of every child that "lays him down to sleep."
I. Now, the Bible bids us see in this unchanging nature the unchanging righteousness of God and adjust our lives to it.
When our Lord had fasted forty days in His great solitary meditation on the work He was undertaking, He was worn out with it, and the tempter urged Him to make bread of the stones on the mountain; but the Lord seemed seized with a great reverence for those natural laws from which He was then suffering, and answered, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God." A true man will ask no exemption from natural law. The Son of Man would not use His miraculous power to help Himself. Even on the cross it was flung at Him, "He saved others; Himself He cannot save!" Two men were carrying a heavy plank. One said to the other: "Are you a Christian?" "Yes, I am." "Then carry your fair share of the load."
There is also good in this hard nature, with its severe reprisals. The wakeful night of the self-indulgent King Ahasuerus led to his learning about the service to the kingdom of Mordecai and his fellow Jews.
"Sweet are the uses of adversity." We do not believe it though Shakespeare says it, but because it is true, and it would help us to know them.
II. The majestic steadfastness of nature is appropriate to the great system of moral law which it enshrines.
(a) It is like the mystery of divine judgment; "a mighty deep"; something more profound than the superficial snap-judgments with which men so often wrong one another. There are larger views of justice; that divine forbearance with which God says, (Num. 11:9), "I will not return to destroy Ephraim, for I am God and not man"; something of that stately dignity with which the father in the parable says to his self-righteous and hard-hearted elder son: "It was meet that we should rejoice and be glad." How the recurrence of the quiet evening and the fresh new morning keeps perfect tune to the beautiful words, even of the prophet Jeremiah: "His compassions fail not; they are new every morning" (Lam. 3:23).
(b) It is like the mystery of the divine forgiveness. I trust that God forgives my sins, but I know that He forgives some men; and yet we all know that some of the best men and women, who long ago repented of their sins, and have long been trying hard to do right, have troubles that cling about them, growing out of early mistakes and sins, which distress them not a little, and about which they have offered many prayers, like Paul's about his "thorn in the flesh," but which have not been answered to their desire any more than Paul was answered. Have they been forgiven? Surely. Was not Paul forgiven? Yet the old trouble clings fast.
A man can be forgiven, and even know that he is forgiven, and yet know that old error and sin handicaps him, and he is not likely to lose all the pain and shame of it. Pardon is something more than release from pain. Pardon is the favor of God, unearned, freely given, but not seldom it gives one a deep peace of such a nature that he does not stop to think whether the old pain of his sin is gone or not.
III. Fellowship with the Spirit of God.
A careful reader of the Book of Psalms can hardly fail to remark the personal idea of God which pervades them. True safety is in nearness to God. "He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High" (Ps. 91:1). True hope and joy is there. "With Thee is the fountain of life; in Thy light shall we see light" (Ps. 36:9).
Not every Christian has this idea clearly developed, but the lack of it is the lack of the best spiritual joy and strength.
The personal regard of God is declared in that familiar word, "loving-kindness," which has no place outside the Bible and the circle of Bible readers. "What shall I give thee?" God asks of His child; and the answer is, with the mediæval saint, "Nothing, Lord, but Thyself."
Thou art my Father, my God, and the Rock of my Salvation.—Psalm 89:26.
The Divine Fatherhood is what Mr. Beecher used to say ought to be the controlling idea of Christian theology, rather than the kingship which commonly controls. Yet the authoritative majesty of the king must not be forgotten; and the great musician Rubinstein, after hearing Mr. Beecher preach, said, "He brings God down to men, but he ought to bring men up to God." In thinking of the Divine Fatherhood we need to hold a lofty and uplifting conception; not that God is something like a father, but He is the ideal Father, from whom "every fatherhood in earth and heaven is named" (Eph. 3:15).
I. The Divine Fatherhood is a fact of Christian consciousness.
The race-tradition finds utterance in the genealogy of the Lord Jesus, given in Luke 3:38, where the line is traced back to "Seth which was the son of Adam, which was the son of God."
(a) God's Fatherhood appears in His particular care of individuals. Mrs. Julia Ward Howe was in Washington and brought a case of need before a distinguished Senator, who excused himself, writing that he was so taken up with matters of wide public interest that he could not look after individual cases. Mrs. Howe wrote in her note-book that "at last accounts the Lord God Almighty had not attained to that eminence."
I think every thoughtful man can see God's personal, individual care in his own life, and especially in his thoughts.
Probably this consciousness of the Father is most frequent in our consciences. In questions of right we ought to recognize His voice, and, as a matter of fact, do, especially if we are so reconciled to our Father that we are glad to know He is speaking. Even when we have done wrong, conscience accuses us, but there is in it an undertone of readiness to forgive.
(b) His Fatherhood appears in His patient carrying on the training men need. He fits His help to particular needs, as Lucas Malet makes Sir Richard Calmady, a cripple, find his life-work and happiness in helping cripples.
As men grow older they realize their need of training. The school time is past, but the demands of work are for a skill they feel they have not acquired; and Christian men become increasingly conscious of their need of higher spiritual wisdom and gentleness than they have attained. Old men are often sadly fretful, and have a consciousness of unfitness to enter the lovely, refined society of the life to come. Only one thing is open in this strait to the man whose childhood is gone, but who keenly feels his childishness, and that is to cast himself anew upon the patience of the loving Father; as after the Civil War some old men who had been slaves came begging to be taught with the little children that they might be fit to live in the new conditions.
(c) Fatherhood is the best name for that brooding presence in our lives, which Matthew Arnold called "a power, not ourselves, which makes for righteousness"; which works silently, as the gardener who by night gently untwined his vines which were overtopping their trellis, and substituted another trellis which was higher, that the vines might wake in the morning to a higher growth.
II. The Divine Fatherhood calls for a response in practical sonship. We are certainly children of God by nature, being born by His will and made in His likeness. This fundamental fact of our being we can never escape. Yet too many of us live as though it were not real. It needs to be completed by our own choice. The framework of a house, which has not yet been covered in, shows the shape of the dwelling that is to be, and gives some idea of the size and arrangement of the rooms; but it is imperfect and weak, and liable to be thrown down by a sharp gust of wind. It is never safe till the roof and sheathing are on. The natural filial relation may be regarded as the basis for the gracious relation which gives promise of all that is excellent in sonship, as it accepts and rejoices in all the lovely things that our Lord reveals about fatherhood. It is little comfort to know these things so long as we refuse to make them real by our own choice. The practical answer is in the word: "As many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the children of God" (John 1:12). Nothing is more natural than sonship, but nothing calls for more supreme effort than to attain one's true nature, as perfect naturalness of manners is the most perfect acquirement of refined breeding.
Our practical knowledge of our Divine Father is through admission to His family; as the street gamin answered, "No, I do not know Jesus Christ, but I know one of His friends, and I like her." The Lord Jesus bids us call God "our Father," with no selfish individualism; and says: "In my Father's house are many mansions. I go to prepare a place for you."
In a distant city I found a telephone system named the "Home." Looking up from writing a letter, that name was opposite me, and there I could go into the booth, "and shut the door," and talk with my own home eight hundred miles away. So we can call up the heavenly home and make our sonship in the family as in the perfect Fatherhood.
He careth for you—i Peter 5:7.
This is not an exhortation, but a statement of a fact which can hardly be apprehended without carrying with it a tremendous exhortation, whose urgency grows in proportion as we grow to know the fact more fully. We can hardly come to know it completely, but may approach it by looking from several points of view.
I. God's care provides a place for us. God did not make man till he had prepared a place for him, planting a garden "eastward in Eden," and filling it with fragrant flowers and all manner of pleasant fruits for his enjoyment. This was not an exceptional provision for man's early innocence alone. A place for his abode and work is an essential part of God's care, not only now, but forever. When Christ was leaving His disciples and thinking of the consummation of human life, He said, "I go to prepare a place for you."
It is not always a garden. Rasselas, "Prince of Abyssinia," in Johnson's story, was unhappy in his lovely valley. But God has a place in His ordered system for every man, and that place underlies one's work and hope.
Many years ago a young man talked to a company of students about a very self-denying and hazardous missionary work which he was just undertaking. He said that he was quite sensible of the risks he was taking, but he was satisfied he was going to "just the place where God wished him to be"; and as he said this his face lighted up as if with a vision of heaven, and those students felt as if they were looking upon the angel face of Stephen.
II. God's care is not merely for the order of His system, but personal, with regard for a man's individuality. He says, "Behold I stand at the door and knock." He waits on our personal action, but His patient waiting is not with the cold face of an inscrutable destiny. God has all the winning and gracious ways with which a wise mother knows how to persuade her children to choose wisely. A lot of garden vines had failed to twine, themselves for healthy, supported growth, and it was no little work to lift them from the ground, disentangle them from noxious weeds, and then, without breaking or bruising, to start them as they ought to grow. A gardener needs to know in what direction the vines naturally twine, and a hundred things more; and then he has to handle them with patient and persistent care.
I have seen bullets made out of cold lead, crushed into shape in the steel grip of a machine; and I have heard that gold and silver, though cold, are stamped into money by a powerful steel die; but when God would mold a man to His will He warms the wax before He presses His seal upon it.
III. God's care is more than respect for might, or even for strict right. We care for good men, and successful men; but God cares for weak men who are making a failure of their life, to save them from failure, and help them into true success. His care for us sees our ill-desert, and. forgives and redeems and restores. He cares even for "the outcasts of Israel."
Bunyan says he had a dream that he was on a bleak hillside, where the north wind chilled him to the bone; but some good women showed him how to come around on the other side of the hill, with those whose sins were forgiven, and there, sheltered from the cold wind, they were rejoicing in the warm sunshine of God's forgiving love.
IV. God's care connects our little lives with the great world movement for right, so giving to us worth and dignity.
God's kingdom is made up by the union of principles and men. We see the King on His throne of righteousness. We know that in His heart are all holiness and justice and truth, and we know that we are unholy, and have often been unjust, and our truth is perverted with prejudice, and we shrink away from Him. But He reaches out His strong and tender hand, and lays hold of us in love, and draws us to His breast, and says: You are my child; come take in this holiness and justice and truth which are my nature, for what I wish is that these principles should be embodied in men. His kingdom is the incarnation of the great principles of holy love and truth.
V. His care is not merely for us as we are, but more for us as we shall be with His teaching and help.
Nothing is uglier than a childish look in a face old enough to show thought and character; but there are many men whose spiritual nature is dwarfed, and we wonder whether they have read Paul's "When I became a man, I put away childish things."
We love a little child, but would be pained to think the childish