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A Cry of Faith and Joy
We shall never, I suppose, know from whose lips and heart this cry of faith and joy first sprang. One thing is clear there has been a great danger threatening the very life of a man or a nation. There has been more than danger there has been the very presence of death; but the hour of suspense has now passed, and the man or the nation survives. Doubt has gone, certainty takes its place, and that certainty gives the thought of service, of newness of life, of joyful self-consecration. I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord.
Let us, then, take these ancient words of our Psalmist, and see whether they may not lead us up to some holy mountain spot of which we may say with reverent truth, 'It is good for us to be here'. For observe there is not only past history which we can but faintly decipher, there is also present biography. The pulses of life are in them. You can almost hear the beating of their hearts. Again and again they rise up and give their message to men.
I. It is not men and women alone that are threatened with death. It is the same with causes, and books, and faiths, and churches. These, too, have their hours of seeming sickness and joyous revival. It is the better men and women in each generation who give the life-blood of their hearts to some great causes which are restored to mankind, freedom, or justice, or peace, or temperance, or purity, and for a time they seem to make way. They are almost more than conquerors; their zeal, their enthusiasm, perhaps their eloquence, win for a time. The reformers are not only reverenced but popular; all men go after them. And then comes the change. Applause is coldly silent; its place is taken first by apathy and then by abuse. How many of the choicest spirits of the past and present have known these times of decline and depression and almost seeming death! How many whose names are now household words for noble service to God and man, how many, I say, of these have felt in dark hours that their labour was in vain! And yet in such cases the day of seeming death has been the day of real recovery, and the fainting, feeble cause might have said, through the lips of its faithful champions, 'I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord'.
II. Believing most profoundly, as I do, that the moral life of our nation will advance in the future much in the same way that it has advanced in the past, and observing how much it has owed in each generation to a few earnest Christian men and women, who rested neither day nor night till they could redress some great wrong or impart to men some great gift of God, I offer this voice of the Psalmist to any here who are struggling might and main for some righteous cause, and seem to themselves, it may be, to be watching by its bed of sickness. Public opinion, they say, is less in earnest than it once was. The tide is ebbing, not flowing. Men care less for righteousness, and justice, and virtue. In the smoke and dust of the battle we lose sight both of flag and leader. We see not our signs. There is no more any prophet, neither is there among us any that knoweth how long. If there are any tempted to say this in their haste and in the bitterness or sadness of their heart, I bid them be of good cheer and take this verse of ours to their comfort, and make it the very anchor of their soul.
III. If I mistake not, there are just now many good men and good women who have anxious fears for a life yet more precious and august than any of which we have just been thinking. I mean the life of the Bible. They say to themselves that if its power over men's hearts and lives is on the wane, and is still to be on the wane, the loss is simply fatal. Nothing, absolutely nothing, can be set against it. In this belief I for one cannot doubt that they are right. Whatever is best in our country, whatever is purest, truest, most honourable, most serious, most tender, most devout has been largely drawn, I will not say from the careful study, but from the simple and reverent love of the Bible. England and Scotland, without reverence for the Bible, would be false to their history and themselves. And I think we must go further and say many of those who foresee the grave character of the danger if it should ever arrive are also fain to believe that it is now upon us, even at the door. The supposed evil is a fact; the play has begun. The Bible, they complain, is no longer what it was in British homes and schools. It is circulated and translated, and carried by brave and loving hands to the ends of the earth, but it is less loved at home; it is less appealed to as the supreme court of conscience; it is less authoritative in moulding people's ways of thinking, and feeling, and acting. It is not easy to speak clearly and wisely on this great and many-sided subject. It is still less easy to speak words of soberness neither too rash nor too vague, but I think we may venture to say two things. First, the free criticism of both the Old and the New Testaments will in the next half-century wear a different face to devout minds from that which it wears today. They will start with less suspicion, they will end with less disquietude, they will count their gains as well as their losses. They will see that this dreaded criticism, while it has taken away something, has left behind infinitely more. Then, secondly, I believe that the value, the unspeakable and wholly unrivalled value, of the Bible can never fade from the minds and consciences of men. For all time they will go to the Bible; they will persist in going to it for their ideas of God Himself, of His mind towards us, and His dealings with us, with our failures and infirmities, our sorrows and our sins.
I take for granted that all the more thoughtful among us try at times to think what will be the England of the future. We ask ourselves, Is He indeed come, or do we look for another? Will the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ, lifted up on the Cross, still our best and dearest, our tenderest and saintliest will that Name still be, by common consent, more and more above every name? Will it, far more than now, far more than ever, yet purify our private and ennoble our public life? Will it make us at least ashamed of our wretched feuds and factions, our belittling of each other's good, our trampling on each other's falls, as though we wished before we died to add one more text to the Bible? For such questions as these there is no accepted oracle, either when we put them to ourselves or when others put them to us. The future will belie both our hopes and our fears. We, in our dim, blind way are the servants, often it might seem the slaves, of the present; but, thank God, one form of freedom is even now ours. Our old men may dream dreams, and our young men may see visions, and among these dreams and these visions a place may be found for the majestic image of the Holy Bible, the Book which Jesus the Messiah loved, and interpreted, and quoted quoted even on the Cross, and claimed it as His own witness the image, I say, of this Master's Bible, supposed by men of little faith to be lying on a bed of sickness, outlived, outvoiced, outargued, and yet rising, as it were, from its couch and pointing as of old to the Cross and to Him that hangs upon the Cross, with a new and a most sure word of prophecy 'I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord'.
This is a text which often meets us in German Reformation annals. It was one of Luther's favourite passages in the Psalm which he called 'the beautiful Confitemini,' and his own dear Psalm. It is also associated with Melanchthon's dangerous illness at Weimar in 1540. Writing five years later to his friend Camerarius, Melanchthon said: 'I should like you to sing that text: Non moriar sed vivam, et narrabo opera Domini . When I lay ill at Weimar, I saw that verse written on the wall, and rejoiced at the good omen.' A biographer of Melanchthon has suggested that it was Luther who wrote the words on the wall, but in his last illness (April, 1560) Melanchthon recalled this experience and said that he had seen the words in a dream at Weimar.
Dr. Dale chose the text,' I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord,' as the text for his first sermon at Carr's Lane meeting, Birmingham, after his serious illness in 1891. Writing to Mr. Richard Davies he said that text is 'an exclamation which I suppose was originally intended as a cry from the heart of the Jewish nation when it had returned from exile and caught sight of its true vocation, but which... expressed very naturally the emotion with which a Christian minister returned to his work after an experience like mine'.
Reference. CXVIII. 17. J. M. Neale, Sermons on Passages of the Psalm, p. 268. CXVIII. 22. Ibid. p. 278.
The Refused Stone
'The stone which the builders refused.' But surely the builders could not be wrong? They were experts. We pay for an expert in our age; for we have high prices to pay for the most elaborate ignorance. They knew exactly what stone to choose and what stone not to choose, and they reported upon the case, and upon their report the stone was cast away with a spitting of contempt upon it. Does God delight to baffle the malevolent ingenuity of man? Has He some special pride in taking the experts by the feet and dipping them into the river as if He would drown them in the waters of contempt? It is an awful thing to be an expert when you do not know anything about the business in which you profess to be a proficient; your aggravation is sevenfold.
I. Many persons have undertaken to refuse the Bible stone. God has made it the head stone of the corner. Every day brings a new witness to the truth of the Bible, and even to the science of the Bible, and one day even Moses will have what is due to him in the way of tribute and gratitude and coronation. Moses has stood many a test; our hearts have ached for the grand old man as he had to die without treading the land that was fruitful with the harvest of a promise. Our grief was premature. Do not interfere with God's way. He knows it is better to die here than to die there; let Him fix the place, and dig the grave, and write the epitaph; and as for us, let us stand back; we are of yesterday and know nothing.
II. Refusals do not end in themselves. Do not suppose that the matter is of no consequence; that we can refuse, and nothing more will be heard of it. It is not so written in the Book. They refused to obey, and the consequence is that the Lord mocked them and shamed them. We have to face our refusals. We cannot throw our lives behind our backs, and say, Nothing more will be heard of this. Everything more will be heard of it; we shall give an account to God for every idle word we have spoken; we shall have to account for our decisions and elections and preferences.
III. There is a refusal which is right. Moses when he was come of age refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter. The offer was made to him, he might have had the honour, he might have occupied an exalted position; he was learned in all the lore of the Egyptians, he had been proved to be a man of capacity, of great physical beauty and majesty, of great moral force and dignity; and when the offer was made to him that he might be the son of the king's daughter, he said, No. Then what will you choose? I choose rather to suffer affliction with the people of God. These are the refusals that mark critical points in human history. These, too, are the refusals which bring character to completeness and to crowning majesty. Resist, refuse the devil, and he will flee from you.
IV. We cannot depose those whom God has called in His electing love to this position or to that. We can say to Him, Lord, make me much, little, nothing, but let me know that it is Thy doing, and I shall be calm with Thine own peace; I shall not know the burning of jealousy and of envy; I will know that He who set the stars in their places has appointed my habitation. That is the spirit in which to accept the providence of life, and work out the destiny fixed by the love of God. Understand that we cannot all be at the head of the corner. Honour enough for us if we be in the God-built edifice, whether in the base, in the midst, or at the top.
Joseph Parker, City Temple Pulpit, vol. II. p. 2.
The Blunder of the Builder
Taking this incident as a parable of life, the blunder of the builders corrected by the providence of God, let us notice, in the first place, how often in our human experience this parable finds illustration, and then we shall be better able to appreciate its application to the history of our Lord and Saviour.
I. Interpreting our text in its purely human aspect, have we not here in this incident of the rejected stone a picture of misunderstood lives, a parable of unappreciated life? Lives misunderstood, love unappreciated, devotion neglected, the tender ministry of a woman's love cast aside there is the hidden spring of much of life's silent tragedy.
II. Our text is also a picture of unappreciated truth. How often the truth which today lies at the foundation of life was in a previous age sneered at and condemned. The great builders of the temple of truth have frequently been forced to confess their blunder in casting aside some new idea quarried out of eternity, but whose significance they failed to understand.
III. The blunder of the builders reminds us of the compensations which God reserves for His servants who are misunderstood or unappreciated. Our text lifts for a moment the curtain that sways between time and eternity, long enough to see how lives that are stunted here break into the fullness of unshackled power yonder. But this reversal of the builder's blunder is not necessarily deferred to eternity. We witness the vindication of rejected truth on this earth.
IV. We turn to the last application of our text, as a prophecy fulfilled in Jesus Christ. It is the glory of our age that never was the place of Christ in human history so clearly recognized as now. All that is deepest and most sacred in life today, the noblest charities, the most enduring influences, the hopes of progress, no less than the achievements of the past, rest upon the great truths which became incarnate in His character and found expression in His life.
D. S. Mackay, The Religion of the Threshold, p. 249.
Reference. CXVIII. 22-24. H. Melvill, Penny Pulpit, No. 1696, p. 607.
Difficulty of Realizing Sacred Privileges (Easter)
This is Easter Day. Let us say this again and again to ourselves with fear and great joy. As children say to themselves, 'This is the spring,' or 'This is the sea,' trying to grasp the thought, and not let it go; as travellers in a foreign land say, 'This is that great city,' or 'This is that famous building,' knowing it has a long history through centuries, and vexed with themselves that they know so little about it; so let us say, This is the Day of Days, the Royal Day, the Lord's Day. This is the Day on which Christ arose from the dead; the Day which brought us salvation. It is a Day which has made us greater than we know. It is our Day of rest, the true Sabbath. Christ entered into His rest, and so do we. It brings us, in figure, through the grave and gate of death to our season of refreshment in Abraham's bosom. We have had enough of weariness, and dreariness and listlessness, and sorrow, and remorse. We have had enough of this troublesome world. We have had enough of its noise and din. Noise is its best music. But now there is stillness; and it is a stillness that speaks. We know how strange the feeling is of perfect silence after continued sound. Such is our blessedness now. Calm and serene days have begun; and Christ is heard in them, and His still small voice, because the world speaks not. Let us only put off the world, and we put on Christ. The receding from one is an approach to the other.
J. H. Newman.
Easter Day Morning
I. I would say to all who love the Lord Jesus Christ, to all who have mourned for their sins that brought Him to His death, that we have two reasons to rejoice to-day that we rejoice both for His sake and for our own. We rejoice because He Whom we love, He Who loved us, and died for love of us, is not now dead, but alive for evermore. And again we rejoice because we are ourselves alive from the dead, able to live a holy life, a life in God's presence, like the life which He lives now. Yet these two reasons for joy are one, because the truth is, that He and we are one. Still we can distinguish in thought and word what cannot be separated; we may say that we rejoice for Jesus' sake that He is alive and for our own sake that we share His life. They who mourn for the dead without a Christian's hope do not cease to love those whom, as they think, they have lost for ever; they grieve that they cannot feel their love, that those who are gone are no longer able to love them. But Jesus is not only alive in the sense that our departed friends are, but in every sense; He not only is a living soul but is alive both in Soul and Body, alive and working with all the powers of true God and true man. We can, in the Spirit, have direct intercourse with Him and He with us; He knows all our love to Him, and He tells us all that we can comprehend of His love to us.
II. Again we rejoice for Jesus' sake that we ourselves are alive. If we were still dead in sin, we could do nothing for Him; even if we knew how He loves us, we could make no return to Him for His love, no reparation to Him for our sins against Him, our wrongs done to His loving heart. But now we can; if we are indeed united to Christ by faith; if we have died to sin on His Cross, and risen with Him to a new life now, we can do Him real service; now, by our works of charity to His Brethren we can do acts of kindness to Himself, can do what He will actually be grateful for, will reckon as returns made for His own unutterable acts of kindness to us. Remembering our state by nature, our own sinfulness when Jesus first loved us, we are enabled to measure the greatness of His love, who loved us when we were so unworthy; but now we are not ashamed to accept His love, because, unworthy as we were, we are so no longer He has made us worthy. Loved by Him and sanctified by His Spirit of Love, we will not shrink away from His presence and say we are unworthy of it; but will come nearer to Him, and seek to be made one with Him, knowing that if we are united to His spotless holiness the sins of our own nature are of a surety all purged away.
W. H. Simcox, The Cessation of Prophecy, p. 310.
The Lord's Victory (Easter Day)
I. It is clear why our Church selects the 118th Psalm for Easter Day. It is full of the great tidings of a risen conquering Lord a Psalm of rejoicing, and a giving of thanks to Almighty God.
II. If there comes one day above all others in the year on which it becomes a Christian to be in gladness, to put away his sorrow, to be lifted up in heart, it is Easter Day.
III. Jesus is shown to us, no longer in humiliation, a very scorn of men, no longer subject to insult, no longer enduring great suffering, but shown to us as a Mighty Conqueror.
IV. The joy that a Christian feels today, it is a widespread joy; it is not only that the Holy and Innocent Jesus has shown Himself the Conqueror, but it is because the benefit of His victory reaches far and wide reaches to all the race which He came to save.
V. The resurrection of the dead is assured to us by what happened today; that is our blessed hope, which the Lord Jesus Christ, by bursting the bonds of death, has given us for an anchor of the soul, safe, sure, and steadfast.
H. D. B. Rawnsley, Village Sermons (3rd Series), p. 92.
References. CXVIII. 24. Canon Beeching, The Grace of Episcopacy, p. 19. G. Brooks, Outlines of Sermons, p. 266. CXVIII. International Critical Commentary, vol. ii. p. 402.
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Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Psalms 118". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26