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A New Song (for Holy Innocents' Day)
Why, when heaven is yet ringing with the bright message of peace, does the wailing of Ramah, of Bethlehem, shriek in upon it with discordant jar? Perhaps the words of today's Epistle may suggest our attitude while feeling after the teaching of the Holy Spirit on this festival.
The Apostle in his vision is contemplating a great company standing with the Lamb on Mount Zion, worshipping before the throne, and from that throne proceeds a voice as of many waters, and the voice of a great thunder.
I. It may be that the Teaching of Holy Innocents' Day is part of the New Song of the Church which comes forth from the throne of God. For it is the song of infant wailing, an inarticulate cry, the song of those 'whose only language is a cry,' a cry of pain, of anguish, and of misery. All who came near Christ more or less suffered by approaching Him, just as if earthly trouble and pain went out of Him, as some precious virtue, for the good of their soul. Surely this is part of the new song of Holy Innocents' Day, the true meaning of suffering in the economy of the world.
II. The Song that Mounts up before the Throne Today is also a Song without Words. It tells of no great achievements, no mighty actions. It tells of nameless fame, of passionless renown, of the glorious blessing of innocency as one of the choicest treasures of heaven. There is no other strain like it. Imperfection mingles with the song and the glory of the greatest martyrs. But they are without fault before the throne of God. The honour bestowed on little children the honour which belongs to innocency is another distinguishing mark of Christianity, the new song which the Church has tried to learn. Is the Holy Innocents' Day put there simply to daunt us, and to kindle remorse, and aggravate our loss? No, we can in a sense make ourselves young again. We can go straight to our Father's home, and ask Him to teach us even in this weary world, 'Lord, what wouldst Thou have me to do?'
What a blessing it is that there are things so good and delightful that no repetition of them can convert them into bores! Were there not some such things, eternity would be but a melancholy prospect for us. The song of heaven is called a new song, although I suppose its elements must always be the same, to express its unwearying nature. The affections are always new.
Erskine of Linlathen, in a letter to his sister.
References. XIV. 3. H. Woodcock, Sermon Outlines (1st Series), p. 45. Bishop Wilberforce, Sermons, p. 169. Expositor (5th Series), vol. viii. p. 463; ibid. vol. x. p. 153.
Christmas Day is followed by three other holy days: St. Stephen, St. John, and the Innocents. Now, why is this? Why are these three holy days put thus close together, and made to follow immediately after Christmas? And why, of all the New Testament Saints, should these three be chosen to be, as it were, the train of followers appointed to wait on the Saviour at His Birth?
I. They are examples of the fruits of the Incarnation; instances of the work of restoration, and cleansing, and refining, by Christ of that nature which in Adam had been ruined; instances of what His Coming in the Flesh could do to make men like Himself, and fit for His Glory. Thus the Festival of St. Stephen, a man like ourselves, yet raised so high as to shed his blood for the truth, and pray for his murderers; of St. John, also like one of us, yet so sanctified that he spake of the love of God as only the Lord Himself spoke of it; of the Innocents, like other children, yet whose deaths as speechless infants, the saddest of all fates here, turned the curse and penalty of Adam's sin into a crown of glory these were joined on to Christmas Day as the marks and trophies of His Christmas victory.
II. They show us that Christ's blessing is not confined to one way of serving Him, to one sort of people, but is meant for all sorts and conditions and ages; that He has a place in His kingdom for young and old, for small and great. His saints will include men cut off in their prime, yet who have in a few days fulfilled the work of many; men like St. John, who have filled a long life with the glory and love of God; and also those whom the world despises, as weak and poor, children in age and in understanding, but gentle and sanctified enough to be His witnesses, and to suffer in quietness and silence.
III. They remind us that there are many different ways of serving Christ; many different gifts; many different ways of glorifying Him; yet all are of God, all belong to His one great purpose of saving and sanctifying man, all help on towards His kingdom. St. Stephen's death (premature, from a worldly point of view) does not make St. John's long life and peaceful end less acceptable, less becoming to the beloved disciple of a crucified Master. Early to die, or long to live, are both ways which lead to glory.
IV. They exemplify those special graces (in human type) of which He came down on earth to show the perfect pattern, and which were all united in His person. They show us reflections faint, indeed, but real in human souls like our own, of the glories of the Sun of Righteousness. They show us that man can, like Christ, gladly lay down his life for the sake of God, and his brethren; that man can love, after the example, and in the way, in which Christ loved; they show us the type among men of that perfect innocence and humility which was in Him. If we want to be like Christ, we must be like St. Stephen, St John, and the Holy Innocents, in those special graces for which we commemorate them.
R. W. Church, Village Sermons.
Holy Innocents' Day
Today we commemorate the deaths of the little children slaughtered at Bethlehem to allay the unworthy fear of Herod. The blood-shedding of these little ones, martyrs in deed if not in will, strikes almost a discordant note amid our Christmas festivities. Our hearts are still full of the gladness of the coming of the Child-King. In our ears we still hear the ring of childish laughter, we can still see the brightness of the children's eyes, as they feel that so much of all the Christmas merry-making has been organised in love, that they may have their part in the rejoicing at the birthday of the King In the midst of it all we are pointed to this tragedy of old, the slain little ones, victims to the cruel hatred and fear of an unworthy king. We realise that it is all part of the great strife for our salvation which our Lord waged. These little victims were but the first sacrificed by the powers of evil to retard the progress of the kingdom of light. Cruelty and hatred compassed the death of the King Himself, and since then saints have suffered, blood has been shed, tears have flowed, and martyrs have witnessed by their deaths.
I. The Tragedy of Child-Suffering. It reminds us, too, of the ever-present tragedy of child-suffering the suffering which results from the misdoing, cruelty, or neglect of adult people. How sad it all is, and we realise that, like the tragedy of Holy Innocents' Day, it is all the fruit of sin! How many victims are sacrificed, year by year, by the neglect or positive ill-treatment of vicious and cruel parents! Parents so sodden by drink and other demoralising indulgence that natural affection has died within them, or only shines fitfully, making the periods of neglect, violence, and cruelty all the more horrible by contrast. Thank God, much is now being done to alleviate the suffering of little children. We may do much to alleviate this suffering, to stop this continual moral and actual slaying of little innocents, by supporting by every means in our power the carrying of the Gospel, the work of our Church, in the dark places in our cities. This is the true remedy: to lift up Jesus, the Friend for little children; to reach parents by our Temperance Societies and other reforming parish agencies; and so sweeten and make wholesome the home influences. And this is work which we can do much to aid, both by personal service and by giving of our means.
II. A Message of Comfort. We find a message of comfort as we turn again to the Epistle for today, showing us the state of happiness of little ones gathered by the Good Shepherd into His fold. 'These are they which follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth; these were redeemed from among men, being the firstfruits unto God and to the Lamb.' In some of the colonial churches this Epistle is used in place of the usual lesson in the Burial Service at the funerals of little children, and it certainly contains a message of hope and consolation for stricken hearts, bereaved of little loved ones. 'They follow the Lamb.' We, too, seek to follow Him, but, alas! cumbered by our earthly nature, how unworthy is our following! How many are our failures and mistakes! They dwell in His very presence. 'In their mouth is found no guile; for they are without fault before the throne of God.' Could there be happier conditions of existence or of service? The thought of their perfect bliss may well set ringing again in our hearts the Christmas bells of rejoicing and gladness. Surely every Christian heart must in time learn that the little one, taken in the freshness of its innocency and purity, uncontaminated by the world, is not to be mourned as one lost, but rather to be rejoiced over as a little lamb safely carried to the fold by the kind Shepherd. 'Of such is the kingdom of heaven.' Thus we see that the message of Holy Innocents' Day need not be a sad one to us at all. To the bereaved it may be a joyous and glad one, as they regard these little ones as the 'firstfruits unto the Lamb'. The first of the many little 'children of God' since brought safely to the joy of the presence of their Lord. And it will be a glad one to us all if we learn to follow the Lamb through all the dark paths of life, as they in their happier condition follow Him, bearing the marks of purity, guilelessness and obedience.
I am obliged to mention, though I do it with great reluctance, another deep imagination which at this time, the autumn of 1816, takes possession of me there can be no mistake about the fact; viz., that it would be the will of God that I should lead a single life. This anticipation, which has held its ground almost continuously ever since with the break of a month now and a month then, up to 1829, and after that date without any break at all was more or less connected in my mind with the notion that my calling in life would require such a sacrifice as celibacy involved: as, for instance, missionary work among the heathen, to which I had a great drawing for some years. It also strengthened my feeling of separation from the visible world.
Newman's Apologia pro Vita Sua.
This was also a text over which Milton says he 'did not slumber,' taking it as an incentive to purity, which struck 'doubtless at fornication; for marriage must not be called a defilement'.
When Joseph John Gurney was adopting more and more strictly the principles of Quakerism, he wrote in defence of his conduct: 'It will be difficult to the outward man to become more of a Friend, but it is the path of the cross; and of those who had the Father's name written on their foreheads, St. John heard a voice from heaven saying, "These are they which follow the Lamb whithersoever He leadeth them".'
In the last chapter of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte applies the same text to the resolute character of St John Rivers in his missionary career. 'A more resolute, indefatigable pioneer never wrought amidst rocks and dangers. Firm, faithful, and devoted; full of energy and zeal and truth, he labours for his race.... His is the ambition of the high master-spirit, which aims to fill a place in the first rank of those who are redeemed from the earth who stand without fault before the throne of God; who share the last mighty victories of the Lamb; who are called and chosen and faithful.'
Keble makes this verse the text of his lines on 'The Holy Innocents' Day'.
John Evelyn, in his Diary, quotes this verse in describing the last hours of his dear son: 'Such a child I never saw; for such a child I bless God, in whose bosom he is! May I and mine become as this little child, who now follows the child Jesus, that Lamb of God, in a white robe, whithersoever He goes; even so, Lord Jesus, fiat voluntas tua . Thou gavest him to us, Thou hast taken him from us, blessed be the name of the Lord! That he had anything acceptable to Thee was from Thy grace alone, seeing from me he had nothing but sin, but that Thou hast pardoned! Blessed be my God for ever! Amen.'
References. XIV. 4. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xlii. No. 2456. Expositor (7th Series), vol. vi. p. 177.
The Ideal Christian Life
This is a picture, furnished by revelation, of a redeemed society. Its fulness is realised in the life which is to come; its beginnings are here and now. Although, therefore, the vision of life which is painted for us here belongs in its fulness to the future, we may see its outlines in the present, see now the characteristics of the life here sketched for us; and we ought to be striving after this ideal every day.
I. In the first place, it is a complete following of Christ Following Christ is the alpha and omega of the Christian life, and without it there can be no Christian life. To follow Him in the general sense is to live in His spirit, the spirit of trust and obedience towards God, and of loving interest and service towards men, which He manifested. And to follow Him in the particular sense is to say every day with honest and earnest purpose, 'Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?' not, 'What are others doing,' but, 'What is the will of My Master for me?' Nothing is clearer to a student of the ways of Christ with men than that His will differs for different people.
II. We come upon the secret of this absolute following: 'These were purchased'. The atonement of Christ is not a cold legal transaction, by virtue of which a certain number of souls are passed over from the power of evil to the power of good; it is not thus that men are bought; but by goodness, by love, by the infinite grace of Christ the will is won over, the love of man for God is created, the devotion of the heart is purchased.
III. We see the result of following Christ manifested in the character of these elect souls. 'In their mouth was found no lie: they are without blemish.' Christ imparts this purity to those who follow Him. A more perfect following of Christ, a more perfect union with Him, will mean a more perfect purity. There is nothing that the Bible more strongly insists upon than that we shall be true. And they are without spot, they are pure and clean. Nothing pains a man who is truly seeking to follow Christ, nothing gives him such agony of soul, as the spots and stains that are in his thoughts and desires, on his inner life, spots which he sometimes thinks are gone, which break out again and again, visible it may be to no eye but his own and God's. But it is not impossible, and we are not to lose the desire. It may take a lifetime to achieve it, but it will certainly be achieved by the man who earnestly seeks it, and seeks it in the right way.
Charles Brown, Light and Life, p. 23.
References. XIV. 4, 5. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxxix. No. 2324. XIV. 6. W. Landels, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlv. p. 363. R. F. Horton, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lvi. p. 216. Expositor (4th Series), vol. i. p. 34.
From this passage Edward Bickersteth preached his great sermon at the Jubilee of the Church Missionary Society in 1848, in St. Anne's Church, Blackfriars. He dwelt on the Gospel as everlasting (1) in contrast with perishing empires; (2) in contrast to the pretensions of vain philosophy; (3) in its suitableness to the most urgent wants of mankind; (4) in the eternal blessings it conveys; (6) in the obligation of every Christian to diffuse it.
Reference. XIV. 7. N. D. Hillis, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lvii. p. 328.
I believe it to be quite one of the crowning wickednesses of this age that we have starved and chilled our faculty of indignation, and neither desire nor dare to punish crimes justly. We have taken up the benevolent idea, forsooth, that justice is to be preventive instead of vindictive; and we imagine that we are to punish, not in anger, but in expediency; not that we may give deserved pain to the person in fault, but that we may frighten other people from committing the same fault.... But all true justice is vindictive to vice, as it is rewarding to virtue. Only and herein it is distinguished from personal re-venge it is vindictive of the wrong done, not of the wrong done to us. It is the rational expression of deliberate anger, as of deliberate gratitude; it is not exemplary or even corrective, but essentially retributive; it is the absolute art of measured recompense, giving honour where honour is due, and shame where shame is due, and joy where joy is due, and pain where pain is due.
Ruskin, Lectures on Art, III.
References. XIV. 9-11. Expositor (4th Series), vol. ii. p. 290; ibid. (6th Series), vol. iii. p. 457. XIV. 12. J. A. Alexander, The Gospel of Jesus Christ, p. 487. Expositor (6th Series), vol. i. p. 143. XIV. 12, 13. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxi. No. 1219. H. M. Butler, Harrow School Sermons (2nd Series), p. 71.
After describing the scene at Cromwell's deathbed, Carlyle quotes this verse to round off his hero's career: 'Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord; blessed are the valiant that have lived in the Lord. Amen, saith the Spirit Amen. They do rest from their labours and their works follow them.
'Their works follow them. As, I think, this Oliver Cromwell's have done and are still doing! We have had our "Revolutions of Eighty-eight," officially called "glorious," and other Revolutions not yet called glorious; and somewhat has been gained for poor Mankind. Men's ears are not now slit-off by rash Officiality; Officiality will, for long henceforth, be more cautious about men's ears. The tyrannous star-chambers, branding-irons, chimerical kings and surplices at All-hallowtide, they are gone, or with immense velocity going. Oliver's works do follow him! The works of a man, bury them under what guano-mountains and obscene out-droppings you will, do not perish, cannot perish. What of Heroism, what of Eternal Light was in a Man and his Life, is with very great exactness added to the Eternities.'
If the blessedness of the dead that die in the Lord were only in resting in the grave, then a beast or a stone were as blessed; nay, it were evidently a curse and not a blessing. For was not life a great mercy? Was it not a greater mercy to serve God and do good to enjoy all the comforts of life, the fellowship of the saints, the comfort of ordinances, and much of Christ in all than to be rotting in the grave? Therefore some further blessedness is there promised.
In The Friend (essay XIV.) Coleridge pronounces the following eulogy upon Dr. Andrew Bell, founder of the 'Madras' or monitorial system of education, 'Would I frame to myself the most inspiriting representation of future bliss which my mind is capable of comprehending, it would be embodied to me in the idea of Bell receiving, at some distant period, the appropriate reward of his earthly labours, when thousands and ten thousands of glorified spirits, whose reason and conscience had through his efforts been unfolded, shall sing the song of their own redemption, and pouring forth praises to God and to their Saviour, shall repeat his "new name" in Heaven, give thanks for his earthly virtues, as the chosen instrument of Divine mercy to themselves, and not seldom, perhaps, turn their eyes towards him, as from the sun to its image in the fountain, with secondary gratitude and the permitted utterance of a human love.'
I have certainly seen sometimes engraved over your family vaults, and especially on the more modern tablets, those comfortful words, Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord. But I observe that you are usually content, with the help of the village stonemason, to say only this concerning your dead; and that you but rarely venture to add the yea of the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours, and their works do follow them. Nay, I am not even sure that many of you clearly apprehend the meaning of such followers and following, nor, in the most pathetic funeral sermons, have I heard the matter made strictly intelligible to your hope.... And yet it is a text which, seeing how often we would fain take the comfort of it, surely invites explanation. The implied difference between those who die in the Lord, and die otherwise; the essential distinction between the labour from which those blessed ones rest, and the work which in some mysterious way follows them... ought, it seems to me, to cause the verse to glow on your (lately, I observe, more artistic) tombstones, like the letters on Belshazzar's wall; and with the more lurid and alarming light, that this following of the works is distinctly connected, in the parallel passage of Timothy, with judgment upon the works.
Ruskin, Fors Clavigera, XLV.
References. XIV. 13. Archbishop Temple, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lix. p. 65. J. Baines, Twenty Sermons, p. 75. C. Gutch, Sermons, p. 290. J. Keble, Sermons for the Holy Week, p. 241. Expositor (6th Series), vol. vi. p. 14. Ibid. (6th Series), vol. x. p. 369. XIV. 13, 14. J. G. Greenhough, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lix. p. 86. XIV. 14-20. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. 1. No. 2910.
I must, in passing, mark for you that the form of the sword or sickle of Perseus, with which he kills Medusa, is another image of the whirling happy vortex, and belongs especially to the sword of destruction and annihilation; whence it is given to the two angels (Revelation 14:16 ), who gather for destruction, the evil harvest and evil vintage of the earth.
Ruskin, The Queen of the Air, sec. 30.
References. XIV. 18. Expositor (6th Series), vol. ix. p. 139. XV. 1. Ibid. (6th Series), vol. x. p. 200. XV. 2, 3. S. H. Fleming, Fifteen-Minute Sermons for the People, p. 62. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Revelation, p. 341. XV. 2-4. J. H. Holford, Memorial Sermons, p. 166.
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Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Revelation 14". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://www.studylight.org/