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THE WAITING OF THE VISIBLE CHURCH.
“This I say, brethren, the time is short: it remaineth, that both they that have wives be as though they had none; and they that weep, as though they wept not; and they that rejoice, as though they rejoiced not; and they that buy, as though they possessed not; and they that use this world, as not abusing it: for the fashion of this world passeth away.”
AFTER St. Paul had given to the Church in Corinth many counsels of wisdom and perfection, he brings all his teaching to this end: “Brethren, the time is short.” Life is fleeting, and Christ is coming. In whatsoever state ye be, “the Lord is at hand.” The apostles had been taught, by the parables of their Master, to look for Him at any time, as servants for their lord, and virgins for the bridegroom. The angels of His Father, who had received Him with glory into heaven, had bid them look for His coming even as He went away. And therefore they were for ever saying, “We shall not all sleep;” “We which are alive, and remain unto the coming of the Lord, shall not prevent those that are asleep; for the dead in Christ shall rise first; then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air.”100100 1 Thess. iv. 15-17. Again, “The night is far spent, the day is at hand.”101101 Rom. xiii. 12. “The end of all things is at hand; be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer.”102102 1 St. Pet. iv. 7. And this habitual expectation chastened and subdued their hearts with awe and gladness; with a faith full of joy, and yet of fear. Their Lord was taken from them; but He was coming again; and the Church of Christ was as a family that had received one great visitation, and is waiting for another. At such a time, all thoughts are absorbed into one; all feelings, all cares, all forecastings; and that one thought and feeling is too great for words. All levity is repressed; all common and unnecessary things suspended; only necessary du ties are tolerable, and they are done in an uncommon way. There is a check upon the mind, and a limit to all its movements. And men go about the business of life with a calm and sedate carriage, and meet each other with graver looks; for the one habitual master-thought of their hearts is, the greatness and nearness of God.
And so it was that the Christians of early days did all things in the Lord: their buying and selling, marrying and giving in marriage, their weepings and rejoicings, were all measured, and checked, and subdued by the remembrance that “the time is short.” They so lived as they would desire to be found by Him at His coming. There was a twofold process ever going on within them,—the energy of daily life, and the fixed contemplation of Christ’s advent. Nevertheless, “they were not slothful in business,” but “fervent in spirit;” and for this reason, because they were “serving the Lord:” and yet there was in them a thought which was the centre of all their actings, and gave a steadiness and balance to all their daily life. The ever-present consciousness of their Master’s nearness was as some deep under tone which runs through a strain of music, and gives it a staid and solemn spirit.
But if a man should enter the same household once in the hour of its first visitation, and again after a few years or months are gone, how would he find it changed! He would find it, as men say, calmed down, and grown more natural; become itself again, that is, in truth, become common place, having reverted, like a spring released from some antagonist pressure. The truth is, they that were so visited were, for a time, above and better than themselves; and while their trial lasted, they were sustained on a higher level; but now they are only as they were before; as a man makes an effort, or strains his eyesight for a moment, and then relaxes again. For all things draw us back to our former habits: we are soon recast into old shapes, and led back into old ways. For a time, while the shadow of God’s hand was upon our heads, we resisted the power and attraction of the world; but what we were was only a condition, not a character. It was not the man, but his circumstances, and his outward state, that were changed; as a person may change his vesture, or his countenance, by choice, or sympathy, or any accidental cause. Day by day he becomes bolder and more self-possessed, more intent and concentrated upon things below God and heaven: every object around him grows larger and distincter, and the visible light in which he once saw its just proportions fades from his sight; and the thought of God which dwelt within him goes up, like the glory in the prophet’s vision,103103 Ezek. x. 4. from the threshold of the house, as if to depart from it. All men have made trial of this at some time, and know that the effect of a visitation is strangely evanescent. The checked character comes out once more, and each man is his own unrestrained self again; and he throws himself wholly into his trade or his business, into his grief or his joy, into the long-drawn aims of his ambition, or the listless languor of his worldly life. In this and for this he lives. Things near at hand again bind round and overgrow his heart, and make it a part of themselves. He has no other energy of hope or fear; he neither looks nor waits for any thing beyond. The future has no power over him. It is too dim, too far off, and too unsubstantial, to counterpoise the gain of to-day, or the pleasure of to-morrow.
And so, after a season of higher thoughts, the whole tone of the mind is let down and weakened; and a second visitation would come with the suddenness of the first, and find us as before. Such has been, and such still is, the state of Christ’s Church and household; it has left off to watch for the signs of His coming. One by one His servants have fallen asleep, while the Lord seemed to linger. Here and there, indeed, in the great multitude of churches and Christians, some have waited as men that had nothing to do in the world but to prepare for His appearing, weeping as though they wept not, and rejoicing as though they joyed not, as if the earth were floating under their feet, and the “white cloud”104104 Rev. xiv. 14. ready to appear in heaven. But the mass of Christians have been otherwise minded. The visible body has slumbered: and from that day began a decline of the high and devoted temper of faith; men left their first love; and one by one fell away from the “breaking of bread/ in which we shew forth the Lord’s death till He come. While men watched for Him, this token was in some churches daily offered, in all weekly; but they began to forsake their testimony: and with this decline of diligent waiting upon God, declined also the ever-ready spirit of a Christian life. The power of the apostolic example seemed to have spent itself in the first generations, and men grew up into an earthly, commonplace habit of life. Then came debate and strife of words, vain doc trines spun out by the subtle, and true doctrines gainsayed by the unbelieving: and the simple faith of Christ crucified, in which “the wayfaring man, though a fool, shall not err,” has been overlaid by snares of words, and beset by learned fancies; and the poor of Christ have been bewildered by their very teachers, and Satan hath beguiled them both; and the Church, which left off to dwell on the one thing needful, hath doated on a multitude of fables. Satan laid snares in every doctrine and in every mystery: the memory of the saints, the sleep of the faithful dead, the food of life, and the altar of God, became his lurking-places. The Church, against which he could not prevail, he used as an ambush.
And under this temptation, even the self-denying fainted; and a love of worldly ease, and pomp, and wealth, filled the disciples of the fishermen of Galilee; and they grew weary of waiting for their Master’s kingdom, and would fain bring it about before its time by a cunning of their own. And in His name they claimed dominion, and subdued kingdoms, and wrought unrighteousness, and gave away the thrones of kings, and taught the world rebellion; and Christendom split asunder in the midst; and the heirs of the blessing cursed each other from the seats of Christ. Wars broke out between churches; and they that should have untaught men the arts of war armed nation against nation; and Christian kings made the sacred cross a sign of bloodshed, and filled the world with tumult, and their own kingdoms with confusion. And in all this din of the great and mighty, the still small voice of truth was drowned, or pent up into cloisters; and private men were overcome with a devoted, immoderate love of worldly things, and began to plant and build; and the days of Noe came back again, which is the forerunning sign of the last times. Even the best grew heavy and tame, and left little or no stamp of God upon the world; but drank of its spirit, and loitered securely in its ways. They lost the vividness of faith, and learned an easy acquiescence in a lower standard, and were content to move along upon a lower level; though in the main Christian, they were not heavenly but earthly minded. Like Lot, they lifted up their eyes, and saw the plain “fruitful and well watered;” and first pitched their tent, and then built them an abode.
Such is now the every-day Christianity which we have inherited, and such our inconsistent state. Though we are ever saying, “He shall come again in glory to judge both the quick and the dead;” though we shew forth the Lord’s death in the consecrated bread and wine; yet men are swallowed up in this mortal life. Fathers are mere fathers; husbands mere husbands; mourners are overwhelmed with grief; they that rejoice are excessive in their gladness. The man of science has few thoughts for a world unseen; the man of business no leisure; the calculator lives in his reckonings, the buyer in his bargain; the seller has no care beyond his price; the statesman is centred in his schemes, and his whole being terminates in his line of policy. Most men are just what they are in this life; and never rise above it, nor look out beyond it. No purpose of their heart is controlled and checked by the thought of the day of Christ. They know that it must come; and deceive themselves into thinking that they are swayed by the expectation; but they neither do nor leave undone any thing that they would not do or leave undone, though He should never come again. And even more thoughtful men silently prescribe a course for the providence of God; for where is there one who so feels himself uncertain of what shall be, as to say with St. Paul, “we shall not all sleep?” Men speak as if the apostle were mistaken, and themselves better taught. We all expect to live, and then in due time to die; and that Israel must be first grafted into Christ, and His kingdom be made universal, that there is much to be done before He can come again; and that whosoever shall be quick on earth at His appearing, yet surely we shall not. Both they that slight the prophecies of Christ, and they that over-wisely expound them, alike fall into the same snare; they would make some reckoning about that day and hour, of which no man knoweth—not even God’s angels,—but the Father only. Surely it is as much a fault to say, It cannot be yet, as to say, It shall be at such time. Who can say when it shall be? Who dares to tell us when it shall not be? Uncertainty is the very condition of waiting, and the spur of expectation. All we know is, that Christ has not told us when He will come; but He has said, “Be ye also ready; for in such an hour as ye think not, the Son of Man cometh.”
Let us, then, draw some rules from what has been said, by which to bring this truth to bear on our own conduct.
1. First, let us learn not to go out of our lot and character in life, but to live above it. What and where we are, is God’s appointment. It is He who makes us to joy or weep, to have or to lose. We have a work to do for Him; and it is just that work which lies before us in our daily life. It is only the restless impatience of self-will that drives a man to throw himself into new and strange positions, other than God has ordered. There is no state or office (not being in itself sinful) in all the complex bearings of a Christian commonwealth, which may not, by the spirit of obedience, be sanctified to God; and every state has a becoming character, which we are bidden to realise in ourselves. But this character must begin and end in God; must take its rise in His will, and terminate in His glory. It is not simply by weeping or rejoicing, buying or selling, abounding or suffering want, that we are what we are; but by doing and suffering all things as He would have us to do and suffer them. To affect contempt for all these natural states and actions of life, with the plea that we live for God, is mere affectation and contempt of God’s own ordinance: to live without habitual thought of God, and of the day of Christ’s appearing, with the plea that we are controlled by the outward accidents of life, is mere self-deceit, and abandonment of God Himself. And yet to these two extreme faults almost all minds are continually tending: either to what is singular and ostentatious in religion, so ending in excitement, and often in declension; or to what is worldly and sullen, and, from a neglect of religion, ending in slighting and despising it. -
2. To check these two extremes, then, let us strive to live as we would desire to be found by Him at His coming.
Who can bear the thought of being taken unawares in the madness of a sinful life, in secret vice, or in undisguised folly; or with a temper unrestrained, or puffed up with self-esteem, or wavering at every gust of fashion, or fettered by false customs, or over-careful about money, or fretful in a low estate, or murmuring in affliction, or dreaming away this short life in the unrealities of empty self-indulgence, or forgetful of God amidst the abundance of His chiefest blessings? Let us strive, then, to put off these things with a steady boldness, and, if need be, with a severe self-restraint. The trader, or the man of letters, or of a learned profession, or of a full and easy habit of life,—each must needs look into his own state. There is a characteristic temptation which besets every state—so subtle and insensible, that it is like the ill habits of gait and manner, which, being formed unconsciously, become hardly distinguishable from our natural action, and yet produce some ill effects at last. Who is there that would not dread to be found at that day with a buried talent and an untrimmed lamp; with a sleepy conscience, or a shallow repentance, or a half-converted heart? Alas for the half-penitent, half-changed man, almost a Christian, and almost saved! It must not be so with us. At any cost, we must win eternal life. It is by living in our plain path of duty, but with an habitual remembrance of His coming; by .using the world as we use our daily food, not so much from choice as from necessity, and yet with no unthankful sullenness, but with gladness and singleness of heart; by being ever ready, both for the duties of the day, and for the coming hour of judgment,—by this twofold discipline of self is the Christian man so prepared, that the day of Christ can neither come too late nor too soon for him.
3. Surely, then, we have need to lose no time; for “the time is short.” If we dare not say, the time is not yet, how dare we live as if that were true which we dare not say? We shall lose no thing by being ever ready, and by living—if I may so speak, as men say of things they cannot calculate or control—on the chance. In the concerns of this life, the lightest overpoise of probability determines our strongest resolutions. Who would tarry under a loosened arch? who would go upon a doubtful bridge? nay, even though the chances were in favour of escaping;—but the lightest probability would fix our resolve as surely as the greatest. And yet the certain warning, if we could have it, that we should die this day ten years, would move us more deeply than the uncertain chance whether we shall not die to-night. Brethren, we have a large stewardship to account for—a tale of many years, with all the manifold workings of thought and life: our lot, our character, and every particular of what we are; all our opportunities, and all the gifts of God,—all this reckoning must be rendered at His coming. And we have a sharp warfare to maintain against ourselves, against the strong will that wrestles against conscience: we have a trying struggle to endure, that we may enter in at the narrow gate. And the time for this great mastery is wearing away, and the day of our probation is well nigh spent. To a man that looks for Christ’s coming, how utterly worthless are all things that can perish! How awful is that which is alone imperishable! All things about us shall be abolished. The solid earth shall melt, and the canopy of heaven shall be rolled away: but there is one thing which can not die; one thing which will cleave and cling to us for ever; which we brought with us into the world; which, whether we will or no, we must carry out; which, for good or for evil, haunts every man at all times, abroad and at home, in the busy throng of men, or in the dead stillness of solitude; which shall be with us in the hour of death, and stand by us in the day of judgment;—each man’s own imperishable self; the immortal spirit of life which, with all its capacities of good or ill, in the beginning came from God, and, with the stamp it has here taken, must return to God again.105105 Eccles. xii. 7.
Therefore, brethren, make sure your standing in His sight, and all things shall fall into their place; all parts of a Christian’s life are in harmony,—time with eternity; his own soul with God. You will not joy the less, nor weep the more; the happiness of your home will not be clouded, nor the burden of your sorrow be freighted with a heavier load. No; to the true Christian the cares of life shall be an easy, tolerable yoke, and all the joys of his heart shall be deeper and more lasting. If we take all things as from God, and behold all things as in the light of the brightness of His coming, all shall be well. In a little while all will be unravelled, and the snares and bonds of life be broken, and we shall be where no man can be entangled, or offend, or fall any more. A little while, and the veil which hangs between heaven and earth shall be rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and all that you have here held of God and for God you shall carry with you into the holy place; and all that is gone before you shall be found perfect, at the feet of our great High Priest, who standeth before the eternal throne.
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