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AN OFFERING OF LOVE
‘Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment.’
What Mary brought was not a poet’s song, or a conqueror’s crown, or some great achievement of genius, but an offering of love, and the fragrance of it has floated down the ages as Christ said it should, for it is one of the most lovely deeds that have been recorded in the pages of history. We are only told three things about Mary, the sister of Martha.
I. She ‘sat at Jesus’s feet and heard His Word.’
II. She ‘arose quickly and came unto Him.’
III. She ‘did what she could’ in bringing the best she had.
Here were faith, obedience, and good works. The other Gospels omit her name, perhaps out of regard for her safety, because they were written earlier ( Matthew 26:7; Mark 14:3).
—Rev. F. Harper.
‘When the dying Nelson lying in the cockpit of the Victory turned his dimmed eyes to his old comrade and said, “Kiss me, Hardy,” he was expressing a primal need, a hunger for love. The heart of man longs and pants and faints for love. Sometimes our feelings are too deep for words. Does not the pressed hand in the hour of sorrow speak plainer than a thousand words? Mary’s emotion was too deep for language, so she took the box and poured it out to tell how much she loved.’
A GOOD WORK
‘Then said Jesus, Let her alone: against the day of My burying hath she kept this.’
Note the time: it enhanced the gift. It was the insight of love. The Saviour was but a few hours from Calvary. Death was near.
I. ‘She did it for My Burial.’—Mary saw something was troubling Him. She had seen His Face in all its moods, and she noticed it was saddened now. The Cross was casting its shadow before. Some thought it waste. Christ called it a good, that is, a beautiful, work. It was beautiful with faith and love and sacrifice. To His sensitive Nature it was most touching. He was to be forsaken, hated, betrayed, but here at least was one heart beating true.
II. Pour your affection on those you love during their life: do not wait to lavish it on the dead. Mary did not wait to show her love: Nicodemus did.
III. Mary wanted no reward.—Love never wants to be paid. ‘So you want a bonus,’ said Hegel to Heine, when the latter spoke of the reward which awaits virtue after death; ‘you want a bonus for having taken care of your sick mother?’ Love never wants any bonus. But when we are dead we do wish some one to speak kindly of us. Every human heart desires this. So Christ promised that wherever His Gospel was preached, along with the Story of Bethlehem and Calvary and Olivet the story of the alabaster box should be told too; that this deed should go down to unborn ages and be the theme of praise to countless tongues. As St. Chrysostom said in his great Church of St. Sophia, at Constantinople, over 1400 years ago: ‘While the victories of many kings and generals are lost in silence, and many, who have founded states and reduced nations to subjection, are not known by reputation or by name, the pouring of ointment by this woman is celebrated throughout the world.’
—Rev. F. Harper.
(1) ‘There are so many like the ex-artillery man in Bleak House, who confides to his comrade George what a treasure he has in his wife, but “I never tell her so. I always take her advice—but I never tell her so. I never knew her equal—but I never tell her so.” There are many Mr. Bagnets who keep the alabaster box sealed up till the day of death.’
(2) ‘In 1858 a funeral reached the old Greyfriars’ graveyard in Edinburgh. Among others it was attended by the dead man’s faithful dog. After the funeral the other mourners returned home, the dog alone remained. So inconsolable was the loving creature that for fourteen years, till his death in 1872, he refused to leave the neighbourhood of his master’s grave. All the city heard of the dog’s love, and little children were brought to see a dog whose love was stronger than death, and men and women blushed when they looked at that graveyard dog. There he lay—on the grave—making little boys and girls more tender, and wringing tears from men. Baroness Burdett-Coutts heard of the Greyfriars’ dog, and erected near the entrance of the churchyard a fountain of marble, with a dog in bronze surmounting it, and this inscription: “A tribute to the affectionate fidelity of Greyfriars’ ‘Bobby.’ In 1858, this faithful dog followed the remains of his master to Greyfriars’ churchyard, and lingered near the spot until his death in 1872.” ’
THE TRIUMPHAL ENTRY
‘On the next day much people that were come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took branches of palm trees.… And Jesus, when he had found a young ass, sat thereon; as it is written.’
I. The principal figure in the procession was Jesus, now recognised for a short time as the Messiah, riding on a young ass.
( a) A king-like act. The ass used in times of peace, the horse in battle. (Cf. Judges 5:10.)
( b) The colt provided by His own omniscience. (Cf. Luke 19:29-30; Luke 19:32.)
( c) Unbroken, never before ridden ( Mark 11:2); because it was to be used for a sacred purpose. (Cf. 1 Samuel 6:7.) Jesus had complete power over it, that it should not be frightened. (Cf. Psalms 8:6-7.)
( d) Thus He fulfilled a prophecy uttered six hundred years before ( Zechariah 9:9) in order that He might be known and recognised to be what He really was.
II. Tokens of honour.
( a) Spreading of clothes, a ceremony for kings. (Cf. 2 Kings 9:13.)
( b) Waving of branches. (Cf. Leviticus 23:40.)
( c) Acclamations from Psalms 118:25-26. For the time they thought He was Messiah; but in the end the Chief Priests and Pharisees got their way.
III. Reasons why Jesus accepted all this.
( a) To give the Jews a last proof as to who He was.
( b) That His Sacrifice might be as public as possible. (Cf. Acts 26:26; Luke 24:18.)
—Archdeacon William Sinclair.
‘Our Lord was not merely a very humble person, as some spiritualising interpreters would have explained Zechariah’s words to mean, but He literally rode into Jerusalem on an ass. Such a fulfilment teaches us what we may expect in looking forward to the Second Advent of Jesus Christ. They show us that we must look for a literal accomplishment of the prophecies concerning that Second Coming, and not for a figurative and a spiritual one. For ever let us hold fast this great principle. To know that predictions about the Second Advent of Christ will be fulfilled literally, just as predictions about the first Advent of Christ were fulfilled literally, is the first step towards a right understanding of unfulfilled prophecy.’
A GREAT ASPIRATION
‘Sir, we would see Jesus.’
I want to ask you why it is that we should desire to see Jesus.
I. He wishes us to see Him.—In the first place, because the whole tenor of Scripture makes it plain that He wishes us to do so. Surely He Who said ‘Look unto Me and be saved, all ye ends of the earth,’ and blamed His ancient people because they looked not to the Holy One of Israel—surely we cannot expect Him to have changed in this respect. Who can doubt that He will welcome everybody who strives to see Him as He is?
II. He is now on the Throne of Grace.—And the second reason why we should desire to see Jesus is that He is now seated on the throne of grace, whereas one day we must see Him seated on a throne of judgment. You may depend upon it that, if ever you and I are to die in peace, it can only be on the ground of having seen Jesus as our sanctification, righteousness, and redemption. As we pass through life we see many people and things, and these all impress our characters; but what if, when we come to the dark valley at last, we have never seen Him Who alone can safely guide us through the dark valley?
III. A view of the Saviour transforms the soul.—A third reason why we should desire to see Jesus can be stated thus: Because a view of the Saviour transforms our souls and moulds them into His likeness. ‘Beholding as in a glass’—which means, strictly speaking, one of the blurred mirrors of the ancients—‘the image of the Lord, we are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.’ As I read my Bible I find a hundred instances of the operation of this law. I find in the Old Testament when Moses had been forty days and nights in communication with Almighty God he had to veil his face before the people. If you turn to the New Testament you will find that a view of the Saviour produces moral and spiritual, as well as physical, results. How else can you account for the fact that when the rulers of the Jews beheld John and St. Peter and took note of their boldness, they immediately said, ‘These men have been with Jesus and they have learnt of Him.’ Or again, we read how Stephen cried, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.’ What was the result on the dying martyr? Unconsciously he at once framed himself to the example of the Saviour, and prayed for the forgiveness of his murderers. If you want to live the Christ life strive to see Jesus and study His character.
IV. Is the desire capable of fulfilment?—Is this desire to see Jesus capable of fulfilment in our present state, and, if so, how? The promise I want particularly to speak of is, ‘He that loveth Me shall be loved of My Father … and I will manifest Myself to him.’ ‘If a man love Me,’ said our Lord, ‘he will keep My words: My Father will love him, and We will come to him, and make Our abode with him.’ This shows that the vision is made to the heart and soul, and it is made to the man who walks steadily in the path of obedience. Do not lose sight of the condition. We must cultivate that holiness without which, we are told, no man shall see the Lord. Each one of us has an enemy whose ceaseless object it is to hinder us from seeing Jesus. ‘The God of this world hath blinded the eyes of them that believe not, lest the light of the glorious Gospel of Christ should shine into their hearts.’ What light that throws on the fact that too often our desire to see Jesus is not gratified! Do not put this matter off till a more convenient season. Seek Him earnestly—very earnestly—in the pages of His Holy Word, where He does reveal Himself, and if only you do this persistently and believingly you must succeed.
‘My heart is night, my soul is steel,
I cannot see, I cannot feel,
For light, for heat, I must appeal
‘He died, He lives, He reigns, He pleads,
There’s love in all His acts and deeds,
All, all a guilty sinner needs
‘Though some should scoff and some should blame,
I’ll go, in spite of fear and shame,
I’ll go to Him, because His name
DEATH THE FULFILMENT OF LIFE
‘Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone.’
The universal and inexorable doom of all life is here pronounced by Him Who abolished death. Jesus Christ abolished death in the only way in which a stubborn fact can be abolished—by showing that it is not what it appears to be. Death appears to be the seal of failure, it is the condition of success; it appears to be an end, it is also a beginning; it appears to be a humiliation and a curse, but its cleansing waters purge the soul of her travel-stains, and land her refreshed upon the farther shore.
I. Death, is the gate of life.—What was the secret, the hidden source, of St. Paul’s joyous attitude towards the thought of death? Why did he look forward to ‘finish his course with joy,’ instead of only to ‘depart satisfied’? What made him so sure that ‘to die is gain’? His belief in the Resurrection, of course. But this belief rested not only on what he saw in the clouds on the road to Damascus, not only on the reports of the Twelve and the survivors of the ‘five hundred brethren’ who had seen the risen Christ, but on the overpowering conviction, to which the Resurrection of Christ opened His eyes, that death has no sting to those who know the hidden laws of life. The passage from death unto life is no unique portent; it is the open secret of the universe, which Jesus Christ brought to light. In the world without it is exemplified in every harvest field. ‘That which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die.’ The seed ‘dies’; it does not perish entirely, else the analogy would fail; but it dies as a seed, and takes new life as a blade. In the world within St. Paul knew what it was to die to the old man, to die and be buried with Christ, and to rise again into newness of life. Is this analogy from Nature really valid and helpful? Many have doubted it. To some the law of renewal in Nature has seemed only to make the fate of mankind more cruel by contrast. The well-known lines of Catullus have had many echoes in literature. And if an impartial view of nature, including man, does give us something immortal, namely, the law of mortality, and something invariable, namely, the law of change, is this much comfort to us? There is only one way in which the values of life can escape the doom of the existences to which they are linked; and that is by constant transmutation into values of a higher quality. Cling to them as they are, and they fade and perish; let them go, make a living sacrifice of them, and they will still be yours, transmuted and enhanced. That which we receive in exchange for what we have given up is never the same as what we surrendered. In St. Paul’s words, ‘Thou sowest not that body which shall be, but bare grain.’ The new life is always life on another plane. And if we make a living sacrifice of ourselves in reasonable service to God, the new man whom we shall put on in return for the old man whom we have put off is not just our old selves back again, but a new self, nearer to the image of God.
II. The law of re-birth has an intimate bearing on our daily life.—It should determine our whole attitude towards our experience. What did St. Paul mean by saying, ‘I die daily’? Did he simply mean that he was in constant peril of death? No; his words have a much deeper meaning. They mean that the law of sacrifice has become a constant part of his experience. He is conscious that deaths and re-births are continually going on within him. His whole life has taught him that all gain comes through pain, all profit through loss. He began, it may be, with a hard struggle against his lower appetites. At least, the lurid picture of the internecine warfare between flesh and spirit, too strongly painted to represent the average experience, must surely have been drawn from his own spiritual combat; and we know that such highly-strung, neurotic temperaments as his have often to pass through the fire in this way. Then there came the call to surrender the pride of legal righteousness, and the treasure, too highly valued, of Rabbinical learning. All that he had counted gain was now to be set down as loss, yea, counted but as refuse, that he might win Christ. Henceforth he walked the earth as one already dead, and yet continually dying anew—always bearing about with him the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of the Lord Jesus might be made manifest in him. Yes, he knew, more intimately than it is given to most of us to know it, that it is the nature of all earthly things either to perish and be lost, or to be transmuted into values of a higher quality. The new life is never the same as the old. Instruments are used up in realising ends, and lower ends become instruments for realising higher ends.
III. I do not think that we ought to dwell much on the thought of death; indeed, I am not sure that Spinoza was wrong when he said that there is no subject on which the wise man will ponder less often than on his own death. One of the most illuminating thinkers among our contemporaries was accustomed to say, ‘Death does not count.’ It does not count, in this sense—that it is not of great moment whether God calls us in youth, middle age, or old age. God is just and merciful, and will somehow give us all a fair chance of doing and being what He requires of us. We need not trouble ourselves about the fate of unbaptized infants, or persons cut off, as it seems to us, without the opportunity of preparing for death. We are much more sure that God is just than that ‘as the tree falls so must it lie.’ I rejoice, too, that the rather vulgar and morbid attitude towards death which was common in the last century is now felt to be in bad taste. And I hope that we are losing, together with the fashion of parading our bereavements, that disinclination to talk and think about the dead which is the obverse side of the same false sentiment. Let us do all in our power to ‘keep the memory green’ of those whom we have loved and lost, and not behave as if some tragic or shameful thing had befallen them or us. If we could face the changes and chances of this mortal life in the simple faith that they are meant to be stepping-stones, and not stumbling-blocks; if we could face them with a fixed resolve to tear the heart of goodness out of what appears to us as evil, confident that all things must work together for good to those who love God, how much useless friction and fretting we should escape, and how much braver and happier our lives would be!
‘The righteous law of the spiritual world, the law of death and re-birth as the condition of all growth and all permanence, has been dimly perceived by nearly all religions. The more we study the dogmas, the ritual, and the sacred mysteries of the various religions that have flourished among men (excluding the worship of mere savages) the more impressed we shall be by the universality of symbolism intended to express the law of spiritual death and re-birth. If there be a “key to all mythologies” it is here. Men have felt that everywhere in Nature God has stamped some hint of the law of re-birth. The changing seasons, the rising and setting suns, the time process itself, with its mysterious register, human memory—all point to the central law of the higher life, “That which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die.” This train of thought has its value as an argument for our survival after death. It is, indeed, the chief foundation of our faith in a future life. Without undervaluing the argument from Divine justice, which is not satisfied, so far as we can see, by the distribution of rewards and punishments in this world; without undervaluing the confident claim of human love, which asserts its prerogative as the most Divine part of our nature, to insist that it has the quality of everlastingness, so that neither death nor life, nor any other creature can separate us from love, whether human or Divine, or terminate our capacities of loving and being loved—without undervaluing these arguments, I still think that the strongest argument for immortality is the unquenchable conviction that in the mind of God values are facts, and indestructible facts. Whatever has value in God’s sight is safe for evermore; time and change cannot touch it. And so far as we can make our own those things which we know to be precious in His eyes, we have the assurance that for us, too, death has no importance, save as the entrance to another state, in which those same treasures will be ours, purer and more unalloyed.’
LIFE THROUGH DEATH
Why did out Lord speak in parables? Because they are easily remembered. Because they are easily understood. Because they aroused thought; they made people think, and when people begin to think they begin to learn.
I. This parable speaks of life coming through death.—Through death to life is the Divine order. The burial of the seed is not its destruction, but its quickening and its expansion. The seed-corn of one year must perish if the harvest of next year is to be reaped. There is no life without dying; e.g. take a single grain of wheat, in it there is provision of a hundredfold increase, but for that increase its own life must be surrendered. When we see the harvest fields bending low with golden corn, remember the harvest comes through death. So all our life, all our pardon, all our peace, all our comfort, all our hope comes through the death of Christ. ‘They have have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore are they before the throne of God.’
II. Life comes through death, the death of Christ.—Christ dieth no more. ‘All His tears have been changed to pearls, all His blood-drops into rubies, all the thorns of His crown into diamonds.’ ‘He hath given us rest by His sorrow and life by His Death.’ And He says to every believing soul, ‘Because I live, ye shall live also’ ( John 14:19). In the great Harvest-Home of Heaven ‘He shall see of the travail of His soul, and shall be satisfied,’ for He shall ‘gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad.’
—Rev. F. Harper.
‘I have read of a minister who was standing before the window of an art store. A picture of the Crucifixion was there. A street arab approached from behind. Turning to him, the good man asked, “Do you know Who that is hanging upon the Cross?” “That is our Saviour,” came the prompt reply, as the boy looked at the inquirer with manifest pity and surprise at his ignorance. “Them’s the soldiers, and that woman crying there is His mother.” He waited, that the man might take it in, then added, “They killed Him, mister, they killed Him!” “Where did you learn all this?” inquired the minister. “At the Sunday-school,” said the boy. The preacher turned and went his way, but presently he heard a voice of one who had run to overtake him, saying, “He rose again, though, mister; I wanted to tell you He rose again.” ’
A LIFE OF SERVICE
‘If any man serve Me, let him follow Me.’
Here is the secret of true Christian service. In what must the Christian worker follow Christ? In His
I. Obedience.—He came to do God’s will. Have we tried to find God’s will concerning us? It is so much more pleasant to do the work which is most congenial to us. But if we are to follow the Master, our desire will be to be used of Him just as He will, and when, and where.
II. Humility.—How much Christian workers of all kinds are tempted by pride. How much we think of ‘our’ work, ‘our’ preaching, etc. If Christ is to use us, we must have the humble spirit which will enable us to take the lowest place (even that of a door-keeper if need be). It is more difficult to get good workers for the lowliest offices than it is for the highest, because men and women have not learnt to follow Christ in His humility.
III. Love for all men.—We have our favourites; Christ loved all men. It is so much more congenial to look after the ‘goody’ people. We need a large heart if we are to follow Him Who came to seek and to save the lost.
IV. Self-denial.—How little does self-denial enter into our lives! If we keep the Friday fasts and the Lenten fasts, we think we have done all that is required. But it is possible to observe these seasons and yet to be strangers to any real denial of self. ‘If any man will come after Me, let him … take up his cross.’ The cross does not enter sufficiently into our lives. Yet ‘no cross, no crown.’
‘A life spent in the pursuit of enjoyment cannot justly claim to be a human, still less a Christian life. Every exceptional indulgence in amusement or living which we admit, every use which we make of money or leisure for rest, for travel, for the accumulation of works of art or literature, must satisfy two tests before it can be approved by an awakened conscience. It must be found to contribute directly or indirectly its full value to the efficiency of our work; and it must not be such as to cause even the weak to offend by a perilous example.’
THE SANCTIFICATION OF SORROW
‘Now is My soul troubled: and what shall I say? Father, save Me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour. Father, glorify Thy Name.’
Joy and sorrow are the warp and woof of human life. No life is wholly free either from the one or from the other. They are intimately bound together, but in no life was the juxtaposition of joy and sorrow more striking than in the life of our Divine Lord. The transition from the hosannas and rejoicings of the admiring crowd to the deep agony of the Passion, and then the new birth of joy and triumph on the morning of Easter Day—all this teaches an impressive lesson for human hearts. It was at the moment of His exaltation that He shed His tears over the devoted city of His race. It was the voices which cried, ‘Blessed be He that cometh in the Name of the Lord, Hosanna,’ which should soon cry, ‘Crucify Him, crucify Him!’
I. There are two ways of regarding the sorrows of life.—To one whose view of life is only worldly, the sorrow which occurs in it can seem only as a drawback, a misfortune, a diminution of life’s true purpose; but in the Christian view sorrow is the occasion of setting forth the glory of God. ‘Father, glorify Thy Name.’ For, first of all, the sorrow or the suffering which comes to us is the Will of God. Suffering is a mark not of His anger but of His love, and as the Saviour of the world is made perfect through suffering, so by our sufferings, if we do but bear them aright, we are fellow-sufferers with Him. We fill up what is lacking, as St. Paul says, in His sufferings, and there is no sorrow and no suffering which is not sanctified to the children of earth, if only that small prayer be theirs—‘Father, not my will, but Thine be done.’
II. Again, there are lessons in sorrow which cannot be learned anywhere else.—It is sorrow more than joy that seems to open the gate of heaven. It is in the school of suffering, though we be but in the lowest forms of that school, that we learn lessons of patience and of the discipline of the soul, and of the insight into Divine things. It is there that those of us who have suffered—and who has not?—there that we have seemed to know something of the infinite depth of the Divine compassion. Yes; and there is in sorrow the lesson which it is hard to learn elsewhere—the lesson of sympathy. By our own sorrows and sufferings we can feel not only for, but with, those of others. It is only too easy in this world to pass by on the other side when men are in trouble. Of this I am quite sure—that it is at the foot of the Cross alone that that lesson is learned.
III. There is one sorrow, the greatest of all, which needs its explanation from the life of Jesus Christ.—I would not make light of it. Every year as we grow older the vacant spaces in the circle of those whom we have loved seem to grow more numerous and more pitiful, and, if this world be all, the pitifulness of them remains insoluble; but the Christian who knows that this life, truly regarded, is a discipline, a preparation for a higher life hereafter, feels the blessing that lies beyond the pain. Each departed friend, says a great German thinker, is a magnet that attracts us to the next world. And as the years pass, and those whom we have known rise one after another from our side and lift the veil and pass out into the darkness, it comes to be that we seem to have more friends over there than here. Our heart is more and more where our friends are—in heaven; and for us, too, when the time comes, the transition may—will—in the mercy of the most Merciful, be but a step. So it is that the sanctification of sorrow does indeed glorify God’s holy Name.
‘To say, as some do, that the only cause of our Lord’s trouble was the prospect of His own painful death on the Cross, is a very unsatisfactory explanation. At this rate it might justly be said that many a martyr has shown more calmness and courage than the Son of God. Such a conclusion is, to say the least, most revolting. Yet this is the conclusion to which men are driven if they adopt the modern notion that Christ’s death was only a great example of self-sacrifice. Nothing can ever explain our Lord’s trouble of soul, both here and in Gethsemane, except the old doctrine, that He felt the burden of man’s sin pressing Him down. It was the mighty weight of a world’s guilt imputed to Him and meeting on His head, which made Him groan and agonise, and cry, “Now is my soul troubled.” ’
VOICES OF GOD
‘The people therefore, that stood by … An angel spake to Him.’
We know the group who thus failed to recognise the voice of God—Jews, Greeks, unbelieving priests, etc. No voice reached them.
There are voices of God still speaking to us, and according to our spiritual readiness we hear them or let them pass.
I. The voice of Providence.—Illness comes; bereavement comes; happiness comes. To none the voice is wanting, but to some the ear.
II. The voice of Nature.—The glories and wonders of day and night. But this voice is a sound of awe, without a message to him who knows not the God of grace.
III. The voice in our hearts.—The restlessness, the ache, the reaching-out of empty hands to grope for we know not what. To many these are rebels that must be crushed. But some know the meaning of such voices, and cry out, ‘My soul is athirst for God.’ To them Christ will give rest.
IV. The voice of the Gospel.—To some this is an empty sound; they hear the voice, and seek to know what it is. Others seek no Gospel; content without a God. To the best of us how far less meaning does this voice convey than we ought to discern in it!
‘He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.’
‘The reason why persons so seldom hear God speaking, and sometimes even go the length of doubting whether He does speak nowadays, is that they do not go to Him with a mind prepared to receive everything He says, and so ask Him to speak to them. When they read the Scriptures, they do not read them without a bias; they are determined to cleave to their old ways and habits of life, though the Scriptures should forbid them; and, as to their religious opinions, they have made up their mind upon those before they go to the Bible, and whatever the Bible may seem to say, they do not mean to change them. Or, if they think of praying to God for guidance in any perplexity, they pray with some secret inclination to one line of action, or some secret aversion to another, and are not perfectly open and ready to take any line whatever which God may indicate. Let not such persons think that they shall ever hear God’s voice. He is a searcher of the heart.… We must go to Him with singleness of purpose, really bent upon carrying His will into effect, however hard the doing so may be to flesh and blood, if we desire the guidance of His wisdom.’
A DIVIDED CROWD
The passage is an interesting one. At the sound of the voice the crowd divided itself into two distinct parties. What is the lesson for us?
I. A severe trial (it must have been) to the men of His generation to believe on the Lord. Why did God so disguise Himself as the carpenter’s son? Why did He not reveal Himself so that all might recognise Him? In reply to these queries see that to have done so would have (1) violated the whole order of the universe, would have overturned the whole principle of God’s dealings with men. That principle is to try men and to prove them. We are sent into the world for a probation of our faith and obedience; and (2) there is no reason to think that any wonder in heaven above or earth beneath could have altogether prevented unbelief. Here comes in text. Men of our Lord’s day wanted proof; but what proof could be greater than a voice from heaven?
II. Upon all the verities of God the multitude, from the first Advent until now, have been divided. See how it is now with ourselves—
( a) The coming of Christ to judge the world. Large numbers wholly disbelieve; large numbers still practically disbelieve.
( b) The Church of Christ. It is the very Kingdom of the Eternal Son, God’s own Household, to forsake which is to forsake Him. Yet half of those who hear the Creed, ‘I believe in the Holy Catholic Church,’ believe not. To some it is the truth of God; to others it is nothing.
( c) How is it with the Sacraments? Baptism and the Lord’s Supper? To some a source of spiritual thought; to others a common thing, neglected, forgotten.
III. With whom shall we range ourselves?—The whole world, every parish, every family divided between those whose ear is opened, and those whose ear is stopped, to the voice from heaven. The voice is speaking even now.
‘This verse apparently is meant to describe the various opinions of the crowd which stood around our Lord, about the voice which spoke to Him. Some who were standing at some little distance, and were not listening very attentively, said it thundered. Others, who were standing close by, and paying great attention, declared that an invisible being, an angel, must have spoken. Both parties entirely agreed on one point. Something uncommon had happened. An extraordinary noise had been heard, which to some sounded like thunder and to others like words. But nobody said they heard nothing at all. That the voice must have been very loud seems proved by the supposition that it was “thunder.” That the reality and existence of angels formed part of the popular creed of the Jews seems proved by the readiness of some to take up the idea that an angel had spoken. Some think that the Greeks, not knowing the Hebrew langage in which probably the voice spoke, fancied the voice was thunder, and the Jews of the crowd thought it an angel’s voice.’
THE ATTRACTIVE POWER OF CHRIST
‘I, If I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Myself.’
John 12:32 (R.V.)
Nothing had ever happened to suggest to this Galilæan carpenter the strange notion that any individual could thus attract the world, much less that He could Himself do so. We wonder at the mere assertion—that the Nazarene should have spoken such words, should have advanced such claims.
I. What, then, is the wonder of His having realised them?—Upon any theory, this claim was put on record while the Kingdom of Heaven was like a grain of mustard, the least of all seeds. Here and there, in the midnight of heathendom, glimmered a spark of light—the stars of the Apocalypse, scarcely visible in the gloom. Do you think that any uninstructed eye could have foretold from these the glory of the morning and the noon? And yet, here is the assertion. And it might help some perplexed student, who fails to satisfy himself with the evidence of minute and detailed predictions (simply because they are minute, and the distance in history is great), if he would fix his attention rather upon two vast and commanding portents—in the Old Testament the expectation of a suffering Hero, a world-wide Benefactor stricken by God and afflicted, this hope cherished by a nation which dwelt alone, and which maintained that the bones of the righteous should be made fat; and again, in the New Testament, the universal claims put forward by Jesus, and accepted by various centuries and diverse civilisations.
II. Christ lifted up has, indeed, demanded and received the homage of all men.
( a) He came to the Jew, and melted his formalism, kindled his narrow bigotry into a generous world-embracing ardour, lighted up his shadowy truths like the pictures on a lampshade when the flame is kindled, and bade him convert the world. Whereupon all of Judaism that refused to join the new movement died; it exists only as a fossil.
( b) Christ came to the Greek, and used his exquisite language, his logic, and his sense of beauty, to acknowledge and celebrate, as fairer than the sons of men, the visage that was more marred than that of any man.
( c) He turned to the Roman and bade him organise the world-empire which asks neither weapons nor territories, and set the crown of the world upon a Christian head.
And the Greek and the Roman obeyed.
( d) He confronted the naked and bloody races which rent in pieces the laws, the civilisation, and the empire of the ancient world—and they, so strangely unlike His earlier converts, they also fell upon their knees before the Cross of Jesus.
Was it a delusion, this, which was predicted and came true, that the same influence which fascinated the Greek and the Roman should draw to itself also the Vandal and the Goth, and float like an ark of refuge, bearing the old literature and the old arts, above the deluge in which all else of beauty or splendour was submerged? As the name of Christ went out among the nations, all who accepted Him were elevated—a strange result of any superstition; all who rejected Him were left like stranded hulks upon a desolate beach, and to-day the fullest light of prosperity and splendour of civilisation and power is shining upon those nations who have the freest and most unimpeded access to the four pamphlets which record His story, and kindle the love of Him amid new generations and lands unknown to those who preached Him first.
III. To-day the experiment is being tried by Christian missions upon the vastest scale.—Does He really draw all men unto Himself? Go, it is said to the missionary—go and try whether the same story which kindles the soul of statesman and poet and sage at home can also attract and elevate the South Sea islander, the African, the Brahmin with his dreamy intellect and his debased and debasing creed. They went, and now Central Africa is ruled by Christian kings, and the whole of India is moving and turning in her sleep.
IV. Further, it is He, Himself, as He declared, Who is the secret of His unparalleled attraction.—Men are not won by any doctrine, however momentous, they are drawn to Himself; and many a strange but well-attested fact is evidence that no man is always and really insensible to His power.
‘In the year of revolutions, in ’48, when every throne in Europe was shaken, the fierce and godless mob of Paris, having expelled their king, broke into the royal palace, and, after plundering it, proceeded to wreck the chapel. Down in promiscuous ruin went carvings and precious stones, golden vessels and gorgeous robes, until in their hottest rage, they found themselves face to face with a picture of their Lord and ours. And those furies recognised their Friend; the leaders recoiled, their followers stopped and gazed. Some one cried “Hats off!” and in dead silence, bareheaded, they bore out the picture to a place of safety before returning to prove that nothing else was sacred to them.’
THE CHRISTIAN IDEAL
We must take people as we find them; we must know them as well as we know the message we have to declare to them. Unless we do so, and unless we deliver our message in the light of this knowledge, we have no right to expect for it an adequate response.
I. There are certain main types of character to which the best Englishmen always respond; that, whatever other qualifications they may require, there are certain main characteristics which every one who is to secure their admiration must possess. Let me very briefly notice three of the most prominent of these.
( a) First comes a strong sense of duty. Whether or not Englishmen themselves obey the law of duty, they nearly always respect the man who does. This characteristic certainly lies at the very foundation of their conception of manhood. No man who is deficient in this respect will be accepted by them as realising their ideal.
( b) Then, secondly, the man who is to attract the admiration of Englishmen must be a manly man. No one-sided development will do so. That is why introspective devotionalism on the one hand, the severe and sombre type of saintliness on the other, have never commended themselves to the popular imagination here in England. They may command respect, but only in exceptional instances do they arouse the desire for imitation. Our ideal man must be made of living flesh and blood. However well disciplined his passions and desires, they must be there, and we must know that they are there. His humanity, his kindliness, his sympathy, must express themselves spontaneously and naturally. We must be able not merely to respect, but to love him, to feel at ease with him, to know that in our frailties and weaknesses—nay, even in our sins and meannesses—we can readily turn to him for help and encouragement and support.
( c) And, thirdly, the man whom Englishmen respond to must, under the conditions of our modern life, be a man who actively recognises his social responsibilities. Even men who shirk these responsibilities themselves know in their hearts that they are wrong in doing so, and show that they know it by the admiration they bestow on unselfish social work of any kind. Indeed, the fact that a man is doing such work causes the ordinary Englishman to overlook a great deal in his opinions or methods which may be distasteful to him. ‘After all,’ he will say, ‘he is doing his best; he is really trying to make a difference to people’s lives. He may not be doing it the way which I think best, or from motives which I can understand; but he is doing it, that is the great thing!’ A man who places duty first, a man who is thoroughly human in his instincts and sympathies, a man who is taking an active share in the struggle for the alleviation of the evils which oppress his fellow-men, and for the establishment of more perfect social conditions among them—whatever else the man may be, he must be all this if the ordinary Englishman is to respond to him, and to see himself at his best in him.
II. How far can the Christian ideal of manhood be said, without any strained interpretation, to meet these requirements?—How far can we legitimately present it in terms to which the ordinary Englishman will readily respond? Now what strikes many of us as remarkable is this, that not merely is the Christian ideal capable of meeting these demands, but that the characteristics which I have mentioned are its leading and fundamental characteristics. Take them one by one.
( a) The recognition of the supremacy of the law of duty.—What is the master-note of Christ’s life—“I came not to do My own will, but the will of Him Who sent Me”—but this recognition expressed in its highest terms? What was His appreciation of the centurion’s exceptional spiritual insight—“I have not found so great faith; no, not in Israel”—but the emphatic declaration that the principle of authority lies at the very root of the ordered Christian life? What is sacerdotalism, properly interpreted, but the application of this principle to the life of each member of the body? The Christian, so far as he is a true Christian, is primarily a man under authority—a priest, a man with a special vocation; a man sent, consecrated, set apart to do a certain work allotted to him by a higher Power.
( b) Then, again, the characteristic of full human sympathy and sensibility.—Can we give a higher expression to this than that which is given in the fact of the Incarnation—the fact that God Himself used every faculty of our common human nature to express His Divine activity? Nor is this merely a temporary union of two incongruous elements. It is the manifestation of an eternal principle. The grave was empty on the third day. ‘Handle Me and see,’ said the risen Christ. ‘Hath a spirit flesh and blood as ye see Me have?’ The ideal which Christianity presents is that of human nature expressing itself in its fullness, not merely in time, but through all eternity as well. Christianity knows nothing of disembodied spirits, whether in this world or the next.
( c) Once more, the claim that the true man should take his full share in the movement which makes for social alleviation and progress; that this ideal must include the establishment of perfect social conditions amongst his fellow-men—what is this but the foreshadowing of, and the reaching out towards, that ideal of the Kingdom of God established here on earth which stood in the forefront of the Gospel message, and became the dominating vision of those who accepted that message?
Let the Christian ideal be presented to the English people with that special regard for their distinctive ways of thought and feeling which Christ ever showed in dealing with men, and we need not despair of the awakening of a response which will add to the membership of His Church all that is best and strongest in our manhood.
‘We still speculate upon what might have happened if the august and far-reaching plans of Julius Cæsar had not been cut short. William the Silent, and Gustavus, and many a hero, and many a reformer died, we say, not too soon for his own fame, but too soon for the nation, perhaps for the race which he would have blessed had time been granted him. Only One ever said: “I, if I be prematurely cut down, cut off in the midst of my days, shall then become mighty. Mine is the vitality of a seed, which when it dies begins to live.” Yet another wonder. The speaker was a Jew. And Judaism, by the mouth of all its prophets, had bidden men to turn not to them, but to Jehovah. They were the mere “voice of One crying” through their lips: of One Who would not give His glory to another. And yet, in the very heart of this Hebrew race, One Whose teaching is steeped in the prophetic thought boldly proclaims that His function is to draw all men unto Himself; and the two emphatic words in the sentence are “I” at the beginning, and “Myself” at the close—“I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Myself.” Nor is there any more pronounced characteristic of His teaching, always and everywhere, than the daring appropriation of the functions of Deity.’
THE MAJESTY OF THE DIVINE HUMILIATION
We may regard the text as our Lord’s explanation of the purpose of His Passion.
I. What does He mean by the expression ‘If I be lifted up from the earth’?
( a) His primary reference, no doubt, is to His Crucifixion, which was so soon to take place. It was, indeed, His ‘lifting up from the earth’ in a literal and very painful sense. And from John’s comment in the verse immediately following, ‘This He said, signifying what death He should die,’ it is clear that the inspired Apostle so understood the words. But I cannot think that this is their only meaning; for the word here used is one which generally has an honourable sense. It is hardly likely that our Lord would have used it in a connection which would convey to His hearers only the idea of shame. So, while retaining this as part of their meaning, we must look for a wider reference in His words.
( b) They probably refer, secondly, to the translation of His work from an earthly to a heavenly sphere. Henceforward that work was not to be the close contact with human suffering and the battle with human sin that characterised His earthly ministry. It was to be the exhibition of His triumph over death and of the glory of the Resurrection Body. This was to be followed by His continued intercession for us at the throne of grace, and the assurance of His real though invisible Presence with the Church to the end of time. This sense is very clearly brought out in the other two passages in which this word is used by our Lord in reference to Himself, both of which occur in the Gospel of John. In one He says that as Moses lifted up the brazen serpent in the wilderness, so shall the Son of Man be lifted up. In the other He tells His hostile hearers, ‘When ye have lifted up the Son of Man, ye shall know that I am He.’ In both these passages the primary reference is to the Crucifixion; in the latter it is very clearly so. But in both there is a reference to something more, viz. successful work and acknowledged power.
( c) This last passage carries us a step further and introduces the idea of glory. The Son of Man is to be lifted up, not only to do His great work, but to receive the worship which is His due. This is the exaltation to the right hand of the Father of which St. Paul speaks. He uses—though in an intensified form—the same word which our Lord uses here: ‘hath highly exalted Him.’ And the tense of the Greek word shows that it refers to a definite act of exaltation, which must be the Ascension. So in the ‘lifting up from the earth’ there is a threefold thought—suffering, triumph, and glorification. These connect themselves with the great events which were so soon to occur, and which we commemorate on Good Friday, Easter, and Ascension Day.
II. Our second question is what our Lord means by saying ‘I will draw all men unto Me.’ As to this also there are three things to notice.
( a) First, the fact of attraction involves the exercise of power. Our Lord is therefore making a definite claim for Himself to power over men. But the drawing is with ‘the cords of a man,’ with ‘the bands of love,’ as Hosea had expressed it long before ( Hosea 11:4). It is irresistible, but not violent; the magnetic attraction of a great personality, not the compulsion of overpowering strength. It has that highest attribute of supreme power—that it not only controls the action, but captivates the will, of its subjects.
( b) Secondly, we note that this attraction is to be exercised on all men. It is not only irresistible in its power, but universal in its scope. No race or order of men is exempt from it. In this the claim made by our Lord for Himself goes far beyond that expected by most Jews from the promised Messiah. He was to be a mighty ruler of the Jews, and the restorer of their national greatness. And it far exceeds the success attained by the founders of other religions. Gautama and Mohammed have drawn millions to their teaching, and have made Buddhism and Islam the faith of great communities; but each has found the limit which it cannot pass—the nations that will have none of it, and amongst whom it has hardly made a proselyte. Christ alone has founded a religion which knows no limit of language, race, or territory, but which has met the needs of all who would accept it in every place and time.
( c) Thirdly, the result of our Lord’s uplifting is to draw all men to Himself. You will have noticed that the Revised Version has ‘unto Myself’ instead of ‘unto Me. This slight change of rendering is important, as it marks the personal character of the attraction. Our Lord does not say that He will draw all men to His Church or to His teaching, or even to a higher mode of life, but to Himself. Herein He gives us a lesson most necessary in these days. A great German scholar has set the religious world asking ‘What is Christianity?’ He invites us to find its essence in the teaching of Christ on matters concerning this life and the world to come. Our Lord shows that the essence of Christianity consists in the revelation of Himself. This is a tremendous claim to make, and one which, if made by a merely human teacher—however holy his life and lofty his teaching—would repel rather than attract his hearers. It is inconceivable that the Preacher of the Sermon on the Mount could have made it had He been less than the Incarnate Son of God.
III. What is the practical lesson for us of this inspiring truth?
( a) First, it reminds us of the infinite range of our Lord’s sympathy. He shares with us all the sentiments of human nature except those arising directly from sin, and in sharing He sanctifies them. So, whatever our lot in life may be, let us remember that He knows it from experience, and can enter into all our feelings. And surely there is a special lesson for those who are called upon to endure disappointment and humiliation in the sight of their fellow-men. Let such take comfort from the knowledge that humiliation is not degrading, but elevating. It is often the sign of real success, the veil of true dignity.
( b) Secondly, the text bids us remember that our Lord is drawing us to Himself. We may, if we choose to do anything so terrible, resist that Divine attraction, and render it useless so far as we are concerned. But we cannot say that it has never been exercised on us. So, my friends, let us remember the great responsibility which rests on us by reason of this part of our Lord’s work. We actually have the power to render a portion of that work useless, to deprive our Lord of part of His reward. For is not every soul precious in His sight, so that the loss even of one leaves some place in His diadem unfilled? So let the text lead us to Him; not to any speculations as to the mystery of His nature, or to special explanations of His teaching, but simply to a more devout, intelligent, and single-hearted love towards Himself.
—Rev. Barton R. V. Mills.
‘The fulfilment of this prediction is one of the most striking facts in history. From whichever point of view we regard it nothing has had such an influence on the world as the Christian religion. Different thinkers have explained this in very different ways, but none venture to deny the fact. And another thing which is no less true, though perhaps less generally realised, is that the dominant feature in the Christian religion is adoration of the Person of our Lord. The great men of the world are remembered mainly for their teaching or their work—Plato for his philosophy; Shakespeare for his poetry, Raffaelle for his pictures, Newton for his scientific discoveries. In all these and in many other cases the work is greater than the man. But when we read of our Lord we think far less of His teaching or of His miracles than of Himself. We honour Aristotle because he wrote the Ethics. We reverence the Sermon on the Mount because it was uttered by Christ. Such is the instinctive and almost unconscious testimony of the human mind to His Divinity.’
‘THE POWER OF GOD’
What is the secret of Christ’s attraction? What is the magnetic power of His appeal, as He calls us to-day in His passion, ‘Come, take up the Cross, and follow Me’?
I. It is surely, first of all, the appeal of sympathy.—This world—if you have not found it out yet you speedily will—is a world of suffering, deep-seated, widespread. Much is being done to alleviate physical pain; much is being done to make existence here more cushioned and comfortable; but there are troubles which no surgeon can touch, no benevolence alleviate, no forethought avert.
Man seems to himself sometimes to be playing a game of chess with an unseen adversary, where a mistake is met with a blow, and that a blow without a word. Think of the tragedies which are grouped together within the walls of even one of our hospitals. It is well to face the fact that God allowed suffering, that He even inflicts suffering, lest we should be tempted to imitate the impenitent thief, that unworthy communicant in the sacrament of suffering, and blaspheme God, and doubt His wisdom, and reject His love, in the shattering of our hopes, the desolation of our life, in the pain and anguish which He thinks fit to put upon us. It is in the face of a suffering world that the Cross is raised. And I repeat that the appeal of the Crucified is the appeal of intense sympathy. It has been said that our Blessed Lord never experienced human sickness. It may well be that the Lamb without spot and blemish might not experience this sign of human imperfection. But He did feel and did bear the extremity of physical, mental—yes, even spiritual—pain, so that His sympathy is literally the suffering with those towards whom He exercises His tender love; and this is wide and far-reaching. ‘The infinite goodness has arms so wide’—says the great poet—‘that it receives that which turns back to it.’ ‘The Eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.’ Round the sacred pool of Christ’s Blood lie a great number of impotent folk, blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water. ‘Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ This is the message of intense sympathy, with which the Saviour draws all men unto Him with the cords of a man, with bonds of love.
II. But the appeal of the Crucified is more than the appeal of sympathy. It is the appeal of power.—Christians are not scholars merely in the school of a master. They are sinners who have found their Saviour. Never let us forget that the Gospel is good news, the best of all news, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. The Gospel of Christ is the power of God unto salvation, and the Cross is the message of power. We have thought already, perhaps you will say morbidly, of the suffering which is in the world. But what, after all, is the greatest pang that the human heart can suffer? It is surely the sense of sin. Do you want to know its malignity? Look at the Cross. Do you want to know its power? Look at the Cross. It is a real work to be good. We are not going to saunter into Heaven, or get there on the wings of sentiment, or the occasional uplifting of a Sunday heart, which we put on with our Sunday dress. It is a real work to be good. For sin must be crucified; it must form part of that burden on the Cross. We must die unto sin, in a way which is something more than a phrase or a sentiment. So that we may be able to say, ‘How shall we that are dead unto sin, live any longer therein?’ Is it true that the sense of sin in the world is diminishing, that there are few asking now, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ Are we listening to those who say that sin is inevitable, or at the worst only a struggle of the inner self to emancipate itself from its fleshy envelope, in an inevitable conflict of fluctuating issue? Are we folding our hands to submit to the fatalism which binds our freedom to inevitable heredity, against which it is useless to struggle or protest? Are we to give in to the straitened fetters of environment, and shift the blame for our wrong-doing upon circumstances over which we have no control? Are we to listen to the apostles of human self-complacency, who would have us believe that what we call sin is a positive good; who would say that sin so-called is a stage in man’s development, an experience which enlarges his ideas, and gives a foil to virtue, and is an incentive to it? We know how people shrug their shoulders and say, ‘Well, it does no man any harm to have a little knowledge of the world.’ ‘No one is the worse for having had a past.’ If temptation be substituted for sin, there may be a partial truth in these statements; but sin can never be anything else but that which the Bible calls it again and again—‘a missing of the mark, a failure in life’s aim, a throwing of ourselves away.’ Here, as we look at the Cross, there is power. Christ draws all sinners unto Him by an exhibition of power which triumphs over the malice of sin, and by a system of grace which abounds in fuller volume where sin did much more abound. Flowing from the Cross, as we know, there is a vast system of love which meets the sinner on every side with Divine strength. The Cross and all that flows from it makes it impossible for us to say that we sin because we cannot help ourselves. I know it is possible to frustrate the grace of God, to make all the provision for our salvation useless, by one simple thing on our part. All we have to do to make the Word of God of none effect, all we have to do to stultify the Cross, is to neglect it. There stretches the rope of rescue, which has been fixed with infinite pains and danger between the shore and the sinking ship; but here is one and here is another who will not commit himself to it. He is afraid, or he does not understand, or he is dazed, or he believes that the rescue will come in some other way; and he goes down with the sinking ship, simply because he neglects the salvation proffered to him, and proffered with much pain and peril. As you look at the Cross cast aside your weakness, drive away your fears; lay hold of salvation, lay hold of eternal life, for ‘Now is the accepted time; now is the day of salvation.’ The Cross of Christ is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth.
(1) ‘A well-known man in London has recorded for us in his reminiscences the desolation of heart which he experienced when he learnt for the first time from the doctor whom he had gone to consult that he was the victim of a malignant and incurable disease. He tells us how completely, as he came out of that man’s house, the whole aspect of things seemed changed to him, as he came out a doomed man, condemned to bear his burden until death should release him. Sorrows like these burst in upon human life with startling suddenness, and reveal to us that we are all moving onward in a Dance of Death, such as Holbein’s pencil had delineated on the walls of the Pardon Cloister of Old St. Paul’s.’
(2) ‘As we travel in foreign countries we come quite unexpectedly sometimes on the image of a Great Agony, rudely moulded, placed with little respect to artistic fitness. It meets us as we land upon the busy pier; it stands by the roadside where the labourer passes to his work day by day, and the children race along in their glee chasing each other beneath its sombre shadow. Behind it and around it Nature laughs with her merry smile in clustering roses, green lanes, and waving cornfields. Or here it stands at the corner of some street in the grim, gaunt city where men pass and hurry on in the eager pursuit of wealth, or in the despair of dark hours, without one thought either of heaven or hell. “Surely,” we say, “this is out of place; it is an intrusion, this image of sorrow and sadness, in a world which has so much that is joyous in it. It is unwise to intrude this image of failure upon those who at least would fain forget their sorrows, and meet life’s duties as they come, for they are hard enough as it is.” And yet, did we but know it, there is many a soul sick with anguish, even amidst the joyous brightness of this world’s fairest scene. There are hearts feeling with ever-increasing bitterness that in the eagerness to gain this world, they are losing their own souls. If it be hid away it is no less there, this seamy side of life, on which that suffering Face looks down, and which that tender appeal alone can reach.’
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Nisbet, James. "Commentary on John 12". The Church Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week of Advent