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THE CONVENTIONAL AND THE MORAL
‘And as he went forth out of the temple, one of his disciples saith unto Him, Master, behold, what manner of stones and what manner of buildings! And Jesus said unto him, Seest thou these great buildings? there shall not be left here one stone upon another, which shall not be thrown down.’
Mark 13:1-2. R.V.
That Temple in Zion was the symbol of the national life, and not less of the ecclesiastical life, which found there its central expression. Our Saviour was pronouncing sentence on the Jewish Church and nation, and He was doing so on the verge of the supreme crime which filled to overflowing the chalice of national and ecclesiastical guilt. We cannot but be anxious to know why that splendid religious system was thus destined to ruin. What was the hidden weakness which would bring that proud, beautiful city to destruction?
I. The conventional and the moral.—As we approach the final and critical stage of Jewish national history from the earlier periods which are preserved to knowledge in the literature of the Old Testament, we perceive at once that two opposing agencies, present throughout, reached then their supreme antagonism. We may describe them by many terms, but perhaps the most satisfying is that which designates them respectively as the conventional and the moral.
II. Israel’s position.—Israel stood in the category of the nations and on their level, and its supreme vocation was to come out of that category and to rise above that level, and this the nation as a whole never did. It stood, and was contented to stand, in the groove of convention. On the other hand, there was the moral witness expressed in the actual fellowship of the prophets, and culminating in the teaching of Him Who was, and Who claimed to be, the Lord of the prophets. In Christ’s time the Jews had thoroughly conventionalised their religion. The distinctive element which the prophets had contributed, by title of which their writings never grow obsolete, but are competent to be the Scriptures of the Christian Church, had been submerged by these other elements—ritual, hierarchical, political, which the Jewish religion had in common with the other religions of mankind. That distinctive element was the moral element, and it finds its noblest expression in the Old Testament in the great oracle of Micah. ‘What doth the Lord require of thee?’ etc. But the token of conventionalised religion is the manifest divorce between religious beliefs and observances and the moralities of common life. Our Saviour’s tremendous indictment of His religious contemporaries is summed up in the reiterated phrase, so searching and so stern, ‘Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!’
III. And what of Christianity?—It is the spiritual religion par excellence. The life and the teaching of the Founder were one supreme protest against conventionalised religion, one supreme revelation of religion moralised. What of Christianity as we know it? It has certainly become conventionalised in aspect. Within the Church the institutions, the methods, the names of the older system have reappeared. Perhaps that was inevitable. But what of the spirit of our new Judaism? Is that also what it was? Is the token of the old hypocrisy to be seen on us also? We are proud, naturally, inevitably proud, of our historic Church. And what is Christ’s judgment of us? How does our religion express itself in common conduct? Is it or is it not moralised? At least we must be on the right road to find an answer if we hold fast to the point of sacrifice. How far does our Christianity compel us to acts and to habits of social helpfulness? How far does our religious observance draw in its train a higher standard of social action? How far does the Gospel, with its Divine example of justice, mercy, and love, find any discernible reflection in the lives of Christian men?
The best evidence of what we are is what we do, and we may wisely seek the proofs of our own religious sincerity in our conduct. There are on all sides of us urgent needs, and we can do something, though it be but little, to satisfy them. Are we doing it?
—Rev. Canon Hensley Henson.
‘It is easy enough to give oneself up to the great tide of resentment which sweeps over us when we rise from the study of the Gospel in order to examine and to judge the current procedure of the Christendom we know. Tolstoy, crying his protest of agonised revolt at the spectacle of insane cupidity and brutal force which is offered by his undone and helpless country, wakes sympathetic echoes in all our hearts, but the moment we begin to think calmly, we lay down his burning pages with a sigh of impotent sorrow. What is gained, we ask, by these passionate invectives? Where can be found in them any guidance which good men may approve and practical men may adopt? War is hideous, irrational, and extravagant, and even futile, we are told, and no Christian man is disposed to resent the sternest denunciation of it; but when all is said, there is the old besetting problem, How to enforce justice and to maintain peace among the nations in such a world as this? and we are as far as our fathers from having any other solution than the precarious and doubtful solution offered by the sword. Similarly, when we come to our own personal action with regard to social problems such as the relief of the indigent, the recovery of the socially worthless, how easy it is to denounce the hypocrisy of the general practice. These questions are wonderfully complicated, wonderfully hard to answer, and yet answered they must be by every genuine disciple of Christ.’
‘Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign when all these things shall be fulfilled?’
Our Lord does not directly answer this question. His advice here is simply, ‘Take heed that no man deceive you.’ There is no short and easy way of wresting these secrets from God. But His warnings must be regarded and His messages carefully noted.
I. An unprofitable question.—Not only is the question a vain one, and maybe a dangerous one, but also it is an unprofitable one. Is there any one who, in his heart of hearts, would really wish to have the future clearly unrolled before him? There are few people strong enough to stand up against anxiety, even as regard evils which exist only in the imagination. These evils, ‘beyond all other evils, which never come,’ have power already to torture a man to divide up his mind into minute fragments, according to the meaning of the expressive Greek word, so that he cannot give himself wholly to anything. Few of us could bear to have a definite answer to this ‘When?’ as it concerns our life. None of us would be the better for it, most of us would be the worse; and therefore those who pretend to lift the veil are either deceivers, or they are those who have not studied the best interests of man.
II. The discipline of the present.—An anxiety which exchanges an uncertain and possible evil for one which is definite, fixed, and certain, is not the only evil which would accrue from a too intimate knowledge of the future. There is a very real danger of missing the present, of escaping God’s discipline and graduated training which belongs to the daily life, lived in dependence on God and in earnest endeavour to make each day count in the probation and equipment of our lives.
III. Days of the Son of Man.—There are days of the Son of Man which stand out in the lives of most of us, to be remembered with fear, with awe, with thankfulness, or love, but they are not the isolated days that we take them to be. If we knew the inner working of God’s power we should see that there is nothing sudden with Him, and that these striking days of the Lord are but the culmination of a series of days, monotonous and uneventful as we thought them, but in reality charged with consequence and pregnant with purpose. It is for these quiet days, these uneventful days, that I plead; these days so like each other, so simple, so monotonous, while we stand still and ask the ‘When?’ of some fancied future, or even of some certain destiny, such as death or judgment; while we stand still and look back and say, ‘Then,’ even of days whose very happiness seem to make the present gloom more insupportable.
IV. Present and future.—If we knew the future, if we knew accurately the date of God’s judgments which we feel are about to fall, if we knew exactly the date of our death, the date of our own judgment, if not the date of the judgment of the world, would not the temptation be inevitable to live in the future? Work would not be worth while, which was so soon to be cut short. Or work might be deferred, when there was so long a time in which to do it. It is a great truth, that we shall not be judged at the great day for our sins alone, but for our use of time, our use of the days. When will God come to judgment? He is judging now. Why, then, unfold the future at all? Surely, that we may cultivate that which will remain, that we may busy ourselves about those things which will stand—the gold, silver, and precious stones which will endure the fire, and not the wood, hay, stubble, which will be burnt up. As the disciples gazed at the Temple, around which judgment was gathering, it was the towers and walls, and outward ritual which was to perish; they were either the symbols of a material formalism, or the time had come when they were to give way to realities. But there were things in that Temple which would survive its destruction, and even the Day of Judgment. The presence of God would remain, the abiding treasure of those who waited for Him. So, in view of judgment to come, let us cultivate those things that will remain. Let us day by day lay up treasure in heaven, let us grow in grace, let us ‘labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life.’
—Rev. Canon Newbolt.
(1) ‘ “When?” asked the astrologer, as he scanned the heavens and persuaded himself that he read the riddle of the future in the stars. “When?” asks the fortune-teller as he pretends, by physical delineation, to read man’s future and unlock the secrets of the coming hours. Now it is Charles I, who, walking through the Bodleian Library, tests the Sortes Virgilianae (as they were called), and extracts from the casually-opened page the sinister message which was regarded afterwards as prophetic of his doom. Now it is some village maiden on All Hallows’ E’en, or the modern dabbler in crystal-gazing and soothsaying, and all these superstitions which crowd upon even an educated and civilised people when they turn their backs on the revelation of God, and feel the void which has been caused by the loss of spiritual peace and assurance.’
(2) ‘In the precincts of old St. Paul’s, in the Pardon cloister, there was one of those quaint and grim delineations of the dance of death, where the king on his throne, the soldier, the merchant, the priest, the youth, the maiden are all depicted as overshadowed by the unseen presence of death, ever at hand, ever ready to strike. Such a vision is ever present to the anxious, the nervous, the valetudinarian.’
(3) ‘What solid good, what useful information, what contribution to moral or spiritual welfare is being procured by modern spiritualism? Is it claimed that thereby the bereaved have comfort in intercourse with their loved ones? Is this the highest form, or the only form, of intercourse possible? Is there no possibility of a delusion here brought about in the spiritual world, with the ultimate aim of materialising, lowering, confining human affections to the life down here, instead of lifting up those who are separated, both one and the other, into the ample folds of the love of God? There is very little doubt that dealers in spirit communications have, in some instances, at all events, intercourse with supernatural agents in ways which they themselves do not understand. But at the end there lies too often madness, delusion, a bitter disappointment, perils to the very well-being of the soul, which sharply forbid any conscientious Christian from attempting thus to snatch an answer to that “When?” which God alone can discover, and which God in His mercy wills to hide from us until His will concerning us is ready to be revealed.’
THE GOSPEL AND THE NATIONS
‘And the gospel must first be published among all nations.’
We may take this verse as describing to us the great work of missions to the heathen, and as binding that work upon us.
I. National responsibility.—We, above all other nations, are bound by the strongest reasons and under the severest penalty to do this work of missions, because we are the great colonising race. To us English people has been given, by Divine Providence, more than to other nations, the mission to replenish the earth and subdue it. Look over the map of the world, and you will see that the English language and the English race is more and more taking the earth to itself. It is a well-known saying that upon the dominions of our King the sun never sets; that the drumbeat of the British soldier follows the sun from his rising to his setting, till it rounds the world; and it is true. The burden of dominion has been laid upon the shoulders of the English people. Why is that so? Not that we may boast of our widespread empire. It has been given to us that we may bring to the races the Gospel.
II. Individual responsibility.—This call which belongs to our England is addressed to us and falls upon us, because we are part and parcel of that great conquering and colonising race which holds more of these dark places of heathendom than all other nations of the earth put together. It belongs to us, and we shall have to account for it. For consider how this responsibility shapes itself.
( a) There is, first, the responsibility of personal service. To some the secret call of God the Holy Ghost says; ‘Go; go thy own self and preach Me among the heathen.’ And I would ask especially those who are younger among you, those whose lives are not as yet set in bonds of family hard to separate, those whose spheres of labour are not yet fixed and definite—are there not, I would ask, some among you who are so qualified and willing to say, like the prophet of old, ‘ Here am I, send me!’ That is the best way of service, the serving in person.
( b) To the larger number of Christian people the obligation shows itself differently. We cannot be the combatant soldiers of Christ’s army, we must be content to be as those who provide its supplies and guard its camps. In plain words, if we cannot do mission work ourselves, we can provide the funds to support those who can. We have not discharged ourselves of this obligation when we have subscribed our pence or shillings on the rare and infrequent occasion of a missionary meeting or sermon. Some more constant, more earnest, more worthy effort is required of us.
( c) Then comes the praying for the heathen, and for the work of missions. Intercessory prayer is the lever by which man can, so to speak, move mountains. We cannot, indeed, see how it acts; we cannot tell what springs of power in the spiritual world it sets in motion, but we follow our Lord and Master’s express command and example in making our requests known unto God.
Samuel Johnson’s observations on the duty of evangelisation may be quoted. ‘If obedience to the will of God be necessary to happiness, and knowledge of His will be necessary to obedience, I know not how he that withholds this knowledge, or delays it, can be said to love his neighbour as himself. He that voluntarily continues ignorant is guilty of all the crimes which ignorance produces, as to him that should extinguish the tapers of a lighthouse might justly be imputed the calamities of shipwrecks. Christianity is the highest perfection of humanity: and as no man is good but as he wishes the good of others, no man can be good in the highest degree who wishes not to others the largest measure of the greatest good. To omit for a year, or for a day, the most efficacious method of advancing Christianity, in compliance with any purposes that terminate on this side of the grave, is a crime.’
WORK AND ITS PRIVILEGES
‘To every man his work.’
Work is the heritage, the duty, the responsibility of all faithful servants of the Lord Jesus. Life is not a mere holiday with them.
I. The universality of the obligation.—‘To every man his work.’ There is a niche in the Lord’s house for each one, and in that niche just the sort of work we are most fitted to do. And it is to each man his work, his own particular work. It is a great thing to find out what the Lord wants us to do, and then to do it without wishing to change places with others.
II. What is this work? It is very nigh you, at your very doors.
( a) It is the work of your worldly callings.
( b) It is the work to be done in your own hearts, which can only be accomplished by the aid of the Holy Spirit.
( c) It is the work of influencing for holiness those around you.
When the end comes may we be able to say, ‘I have finished the work Thou gavest me to do.’
—Rev. Canon Twells.
‘Let me give you twelve reasons why you should work.
Work—for you were made for work, and you nullify your being if you do not work.
Work—for your Saviour wishes it; and it is His dying legacy.
Work—for there is no safeguard of the soul like work.
Work—for nothing draws out graces, and makes them grow, like work.
Work—for there is no comfort in sorrow like doing some work for God.
Work—for all the world reads that book, and there is no evidence of the truth of God, and no honour to religion, like “good works.”
Work—for “your Father worketh hitherto,” and Christ works.
Work—for none go into the vineyard but labourers.
Work—for “He rendereth to every man”—here and for ever—“according to His work;” and as your works are on this earth, so will be your place in the ranges of the blessed.
Work—for it is the happiest thing in this world.
Work—for the day is quickly passing when we can work, and “the shadows of evening are already stretching out,” to foretell “the night, when no man can work.”
Work—for it will be more joy and love to have something to lay at His dear feet when He comes.
I would wish that every one of us would lay down one simple rule: I will ask myself, every night, What have I done to-day for usefulness?’
THE CALL TO WORK
When we remember that the coming of the Lord shall be the time when our work shall be tested, when we shall receive praise or blame, it should come home to us very strongly that here is a true call—the call to work.
I. The nature of the work.—We shall best understand what it is if we remember the words of the Lord during those wonderful forty days He spent on earth in His resurrection body. ‘Ye shall be witnesses unto Me.’ This is the work for all of us. The great command to spread His Kingdom is binding on every one of us, and those who cannot go forth can work here at home. It is a work to be done in the world—in our own country, in our own diocese, in our own parish, in our own homes. It is a work which must be done by each one in his or her own walk of life—the work of witnessing for Christ.
II. Three great gifts.—We have here three great gifts which the Lord gives to us, and He expects us when He comes back to render an account of what we have done with them. What are they?
( a) The Lord gives us work to do. He gave ‘to every man his work.’ It is a very great thing to be trusted.
( b) He gives His servants ‘authority.’ There is a great deal of meaning there. The word is translated here ‘authority,’ and it is very often translated ‘power.’ It is not only that we have the ‘authority’ of heaven behind us to act as soldiers and servants of the great Captain, but also that His ‘power’ is given to us. The Lord never calls upon us to fulfil any duty or task without enabling us by the ‘power’ of His Holy Spirit to do it.
( c) He gives material to work with.—He ‘delivered unto them his goods’ ( Matthew 25:14). Not the same amount to each one, but to ‘each one according to his several ability.’ The material is our talents—that means ourselves, our powers, our faculties. The Lord has given them, and He expects us to use them for Him.
Rev. W. T. Hollins.
‘An important rehearsal for a great oratorio was in progress, Sir Michael Costa conducting. The chorus filled the building, and the thunder of the organ, the rolling of the drums, the clear ringing tones of the cornets, the clash of the cymbals, and the beautiful notes of the stringed instruments combined to make splendid harmony. “ Stop!” All waited in wondering silence for Sir Michael’s reason for his sudden command. “Where is the piccolo?” he asked. In all the grand peals of music Sir Michael Costa missed that tiny note, and the whole was to him imperfect. The incident has a great lesson for us. In the mighty chorus of the service and adoration of God’s people, the Lord Jesus will miss us if we are silent and idle.
THE LAW OF THE HOUSE
‘To every man his work’—this is the law of the house. No idling can be suffered in Christ’s household. It is a rule without an exception—‘To every man.’
I. The work we have to do.—This command, so universal in its range, is nevertheless particular and individual in its application. ‘To every man his work.’ We are not all called to do the same work.
( a) There is work to be done in the foreign field.
( b) There is work to be done at home.
( c) There is work to be done in our own hearts.
II. Why is work necessary?
( a) Work is necessary for health. ‘Work is life.’
( b) Because idleness leads to every other evil.
( c) Because of man’s natural tendency to sloth and self-indulgence.
( d) Because the Lord Himself is a worker.
III. The spirit in which the work should be done.—If we would serve Christ aright, we must take heed to our spirit. Our work should be done—
( a) Promptly. ‘Go work to-day,’ said the father to his son in the parable, ‘in my vineyard.’
( b) Filially. ‘ Son, go work to-day in my vineyard.’ Beware of inverting the Divine order. If we would be servants, we must first be sons.
( c) Prayerfully. Let none think that Christ’s work can be accomplished by human energy. Those who do so are doomed to disappointment.
—Rev. E. W. Moore.
‘The distinguished foreigner who was asked if he had noticed any one characteristic equally marked in all the nations he had visited, was not far wrong when he answered, “I think that all men love lazy.” We live in a day when there are “gods many and lords many,” but certainly the god of ease is among the most popular of modern deities. There is not one of us probably that has not been tempted to worship at his shrine. The forms of sloth are various, the slothful spirit itself remains the same. Physical, mental, spiritual sloth—all must be reckoned with if we are to be faithful to our trust.’
THE MASTER’S COMING
‘Watch ye therefore: for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at even, or at midnight, or at the cockcrowing, or in the morning: lest coming suddenly He find you sleeping.’
I. The supreme event in history.—As Christ’s first advent in the flesh is the greatest event that has been, so His second advent in glory is the greatest event that shall be. We are called to realise ( a) its certainty; (b) its importance. There are things that hinder our realisation of Christ’s second advent: the absence of visible signs and indications of His coming; the mistakes and errors of men concerning it: the absorbing interests of life; the unpleasing character it bears for us because of sin; and the apparent distance, as of ages vast and long, at which it stands. Hence men are uninterested, and pass it by. The solemn close of life is for us, individually, the coming of the Lord.
II. The supreme duty of life.—The urgency of the duty lies in our ignorance of the time of His coming, joined with the possibility that He may come at any time. He may come ‘ at even’—that is, soon and early, when watching seems unnecessary, and there are many hours yet for rest and pleasure; ‘ at midnight,’ the thickest, darkest period of life, when our employments are many, and cares oppressive, and we have enough to do without watching for Him; ‘ at cockcrowing,’ when the watcher is prone to grow weary, to cease from expectation, and yield to slumber; or ‘ in the morning,’ when the night of life is ending, and infirmities are heavy, and the spirit droops, and to watch is hard. The terms are taken from the Roman military watches of the night, and are full of suggestiveness.
III. The supreme disaster of life.—‘Lest coming suddenly He find you sleeping.’ To sleep is to be forgetful of what has happened—Christ’s first advent for our salvation; to be indifferent towards Christ Himself, to be negligent as to His work, and our own characters as made and revealed thereby—to be utterly careless about His second coming. Upon this slumber Christ may break in most unexpectedly.
‘The duty of watching has been thus described: “He watches for Christ who has a sensitive, eager, apprehensive mind; who is awake, alive, quick-sighted, zealous in seeking and honouring Him; who looks out for Him in all that happens, and who would not be surprised, who would not be over-agitated or overwhelmed, if he found that He was coming at once; who lives in the thought of Christ as He came once, and as He will come again; who desires His second coming from an affectionate and grateful remembrance of His first.” ’
‘THAT BLESSED HOPE’
I. It is a Person we expect.—Our God and Lord, our Saviour, our Master, ‘this Jesus,’ ‘the Christ,’ or as St. Paul says so beautifully, ‘We look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ’ ( Php_3:20 ).
II. The day of the Advent is a long-promised day.—St. Jude tells us that Enoch, the seventh from Adam, predicted it (St. Jude 1:14). And all through the Bible, like a golden thread, the promise is repeated, till in the last chapter the Saviour bends down from heaven and says, ‘Surely I come quickly.’ And then will all the saints be gathered ( Mark 13:26-27; 2 Thessalonians 2:1). The sheep in ‘one flock’ ( John 10:16). Every child at home ( John 11:52). All the jewels made up ( Malachi 3:17).
III. It will also be the great dividing day.—Those who love Christ will be eternally separated from those who have never loved Him.
And if any one is tempted to say in his heart ‘The world goes on, suns rise and set, years, centuries, millenniums succeed each other, yet Christ does not come. Will He ever come?’ Let such an one remember that those who wait for our Lord shall not be disappointed.
—Rev. F. Harper.
“What I say unto you I say unto all, Watch.’
What is the sort of life to which Christ here calls us?
I. A wakeful life.—There may be sleeping souls in wakeful bodies. Sleep is unconsciousness. Many live long hours unconscious of God, the soul, and eternity. Sleep is inactivity. How many are alert and active in the exercise of their permitted and commanded communication with God Himself? The wakeful life is
( a) A sober life, Watch, and be sober.
( b) A prayerful life, Watch and pray.
( c) A life of companionship with Christ, Watch with Me.
II. That great word ‘all.’— All the disciples needed it that dreadful night. The life of the Acts of the Apostles is a life of perpetual, of unsleeping watching. Difficult to the young; the busy; to the intellectual; to the sorrowful.
( a) Let us have special moments of spiritual watchfulness.
( b) Let us knit them together by lifting up the heart between time in briefer callings in of grace.
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Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Mark 13". The Church Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 14 / Ordinary 19