Almighty God, we are thy guests today. Thou hast spread the table and sent forth thy messages of love and welcome, and we have answered them, and today we sit under thy roof, and thy banner over us is love. We would have no thought that is not becoming the house; we would be lifted up in spirit that we may praise the Lord in a fit song and worthily magnify his holy name. Thou knowest our need, and thou hast answered it in the Gospel of thy Son. Thou hast provided abundantly for us. In thy welcome there is no reserve; it is as broad as our necessity, as deep as our guilt; it is more than we can express in our poor words—an infinite love. We bless thee that we have any desires towards thyself, for they do us good. Their very passage through the soul cleanses it; they lift us up, they warm us with a new fire, they open our nature towards the best influences, they set the soul towards all the light of heaven. These desires are thy miracles; these impulses are heaven-born. This is the Lord"s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes. We might have turned wholly to the dust, and have sought under our feet the rest of beasts; instead of this we lift up our heads and thrust our hands out into the sky, aiming at great things as men struggling upward with noble endeavour, if, haply, we may attain the height of heaven. This also cometh forth from the Lord of hosts. We would bless his name; we would ascribe praise without break or flaw to the great Three-One. Send into our hearts the Holy Ghost—"Come, Holy Ghost, our hearts inspire." Give us to feel the pentecostal glow; let us know what is meant by an unction from the Holy One. Fill our hearts until they overflow. Let thy truth be precious to us beyond rubies, beyond all things accounted precious by men. May we seek for wisdom as for silver that is hidden, and for understanding as for gold that can only be had for much labour. Thus shall our life, though little, be great, and, though short, be long, and the grave shall but begin our higher being, the dark place shall be the starting-point of our bright and immortal career. The Lord send Christmastide into our hearts. May Christ be born in us the hope of glory; may every heart be Bethlehem; may every life know the shining of the star to be swiftly succeeded by the brighter shining of the sun. Then shall our lives know jubilee; then shall our spirits break into gracious liberty; then shall we feel no shame in the fellowship of the angels, being made pure as they are through the blood of the living, dying, rising Son of God. We bless thee for all family mercies. We thank thee that the children are at home again, that the fireside is complete, that on the hearth there is no coldness by reason of absence, or break, or distress. Where there is such break we will not chide the Hand that made it; if we cannot praise, we will at least be silent with religious awe; where there is a great gap we will say, "The hand of the Lord did it, and it is well;" where there is great joy we will say, "This is the light of heaven—a candle set here by the hand divine;" where there is great darkness there shall be great resignation. The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh, the Lord reigneth. Let us kiss the rod, and put out our hand inquiringly and prayerfully towards him who uses it. We send our prayers and blessings after those who have gone from us for awhile. We will not account this a break-up; it is but the momentary separation that is made up for by redoubled love. Go with our friends to their homes here and there and yonder and far away, and make others glad as well as we, and throughout all the land may there be Christmas Song of Solomon, Christian Psalm, utterance of praise and love, because he was born who cannot die, and in whose immortality we find our security of heaven. As for those who have no Christmas—to whom the year is one long winter—thou canst stand by them and speak to them in the night season, and in the prison thou canst cheer them with great visions, thou canst delight them with great satisfactions. They know not why they were born, nor can we tell them; we are dumb at the sight of their pain, we feel our own weakness when we touch their distress. But we neither began nor can we end the system of things in which we live—the Lord reigneth. As we stand at the manger-cradle we also stand at the Cross, for they are truly one—the incarnation is the atonement; the birth is the death; the death is the birth—the Life is one. Song of Solomon, come to us as we need thee, and make the day long; command the sun to stand still till we fight up to victory our great war with every enemy of the soul; and at night, after a long, strenuous battle, may we sleep like good knights of God. Amen.
Christian Consciousness: The Basis of Christian Argument
We have just looked at this incident from the purely human standpoint; let us now regard it from the Divine side. So regarding it, we must be instantly struck by the dark fact that in the most saintly lives there are moments of apparent desertion by God. Throughout these exciting events, where is the living Lord? The Apostle is brutally entreated; he is smitten on the mouth; he is thrust into prison; he is sent away as a criminal; he is tossed to and fro like a thing that has no friend. How is this? Is this the poor return for all the labour we have traced, for all the sorrow we have watched these many days? An angel in the dark heavens just now would be a sight that would confirm our faith. Some bright dazzling vision, making the great sky tremble with light, would have a happy effect upon our little souls. We feel the need of something; the reading is cold; the line wants the curve of beauty; the events need to be flushed with a new colour. Yet this is common history. We ourselves have been in exactly those spiritual circumstances. The trappings change—the incidents, the outer garments—but the inward fact abides as one of the unchangeable quantities in Christian consciousness and Christian education. God does stand afar off sometimes; he stood afar off in the olden time, and the Psalmist asked him why he stood there, millions of miles away, so far off as almost to cease to be in existence for all practical purpose and effect. Why does he not always stand close to the heart that has never struck but in his praise? Why does he turn his back upon the house in whose every room there is an altar built to him with most pious hands? We are Christian students, and we cannot deny the desertion. We have no wish to alter facts. There are times when we have no God; there are great empty hours in life in which the enemy might house himself with some comfort; there are whole days in which we cannot pray. There may be a year at a time almost when the Christian minister is no minister at all—only a dumb suppliant, only a man groping in darkness without hope of finding anything. If he be steadfast in those gloomy hours, he may come out suddenly quite renewed in strength, quite invincible in will and immortal in hope. What is this desertion? It may only be the sleep of the soul. Physiologists tell us the heart sleeps at every extreme of its oscillation. This desertion may only be the winter time in which God is giving the life deep rest, sweet sleep, and a time of recruital and renewal. Sleep is not death—the conscious absence of God is not atheism. We must learn to bear these vacancies; we cannot always be upon the mountain-top. It is part of our larger education that we should submit to these great yawning gaps, in which we have no fellowship with God that can be expressed in terms of joy. We are not Christians because we are in high moods, or in great raptures of soul, in ecstasies that outrun all speech and mock all articulate and coherent utterance. We may be silent Christians, dazed, bewildered, afflicted, deserted Christians. I am speaking now of broad effects; presently the relieving light will come—meanwhile, the great challenge is to memory, and the great appeal is to the hope that is not extinguished, but only moderated in its brightness. Do not hurry over the empty hours as if they were full—you lose a great deal by indecent haste. Why not take the hours that are in the hand and look at them and say, "These are empty of God as I usually understand that term; they are the trial of my life; they are the cold places in the course through which I pass; they may be open doors through which the devil may approach my soul"? We should be men enough in Christ Jesus to pass our gloomiest hours with a faith which, though it cannot sing, can even yet mutter some inarticulate prayer. Let us own that on the face of this chapter the enemy seems to have the advantage.
We are entitled to say, in the next place, that the desertion is apparent, not real; or temporary, not final. There is one verse, even in this dark chapter, that shines over all the rest like a lamp. That verse is the nth: "And the night following the Lord stood by him, and said, Be of good cheer, Paul." There are nights and nights. Tomorrow night is coming; this night is not the final darkness. Here begins what might be carried out into the strongest defence of some of the most precious truths in the theology of Christianity. This verse brings us face to face with the fact that Christian consciousness is the beginning of Christian argument. We do not understand the full range of the term consciousness as it is used in Christian speech. Consciousness is an individual term—that is to say, it describes personal, inward experience and knowledge. That is not a matter to be debated outside any other Prayer of Manasseh, as if it were a question of terms and figures and symbols ascertainable and expressible to the eye of the body. You cannot complete any argument either for Christianity or against it if you ignore individual consciousness. Before you can destroy Paul"s argument, you have to destroy Paul"s character. That is the unanswerable defence of spiritual Christianity. We have not spent all these months in tracing the history of Paul without being able now to see that he is a man of great mental capacity, of distinct logical faculty, of almost unexampled practical common-sense; a great demonstrator; a great leader, a great soldier, and, as such, standing on the basis of that indisputable character, he says, "The Lord stood by me." Consider the character of the witness. You are not entitled to call such a man either false or mistaken without being able to produce evidence which will leave no doubt as to the correctness of your knowledge. The Christian argument is not a matter that can be settled upon paper. The Christian consciousness, which often has no words fit for its adequate expression, is the sanctuary in which these solemn questions, regarding the Christian evidences, must be determined. Elisha had the inner vision which saw the nearer army. Jesus Christ combined both the statements upon which we are now dwelling in one sublime utterance—said Hebrews, "I am alone, yet not alone: for the Father is with me." Of what avail is our contradiction of that statement? We must destroy the character before we can destroy the testimony. This is a good answer to all attacks upon the altar of prayer. You cannot say upon paper, or as mere logicians and question-answerers, whether prayer is answered or not; you must ask the suppliant, and he is the only witness who can be heard upon the question: "Has your prayer been answered?" When the suppliant can say "Yes," that settles the question. The appeal is not—believe me—to your little scholarship, or to your little criticism; you are not addressed at all upon this subject; you are in the outer circle of things; you are not. in the court at all; you have no locus standi. Here the man—the well-known Prayer of Manasseh, the man with the solid character, and the sensible, penetrating mind—says, "My prayers have been answered." You could flippantly deny it; but you could as flippantly deny ten thousand assertions made by honest men. There is no argument in denial; you never can set a denial against the testimony of a Christian known to be thoroughly sound and good. We have been now so long with Paul that we have come to know somewhat about him. He has never been a weak man; he may have been, from the worldly point of view, self-careless, reckless, daring beyond what we should call the point of prudence: but a weak man—never. There has been no quiver in the emphasis of his voice; there has been no uncertainty in the tone of his declarations; Hebrews, therefore, steps into the witness-box and says, "The Lord stood by me." What is our answer? We are not asked for an answer; we are not invited to be critically clever in relation to that man"s testimony. Perhaps we have neglected this department of the Christian evidences—namely: the department of Christian consciousness, inward spiritual conviction, communion and trust. We have listened to the tongue of the body, uttering with uncertain emphasis uncertain words; we have not listened to the tongue of the soul, speaking firmly, clearly, and with the penetration of personal conviction.
Here also we find, not only illustrations of the supreme argument for prayer, but illustrations also of the supreme argument for immortality. That is not a question to be determined by words and sentences, by logical fencing and by historical research; we must go by the instinctive nature as well as by the logical faculty. We cannot help to pray; we are bound to pray. As for our immortality, we know it; it is graven upon the very substratum of our life. We were immortal before we were mortal, and we are only mortal as a part of our immortality. These are contradictions in mere words, in narrow letters, but they admit of the completest reconciliation in that sacred consciousness which is the strongest defence of every Christian position.
We cannot look at this incident without seeing, in the next place, that the enemy is made to serve the cause he would destroy: "Be of good cheer, Paul: for as thou hast testified of me in Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome"—and the enemy shall pay the expenses. The enemy is always forced into servitude; he thinks he is overturning the kingdom at the very moment he is unwittingly strengthening it in all its time-relations. God maketh the wrath of man to praise him. God has many servants, as well as those who were openly anointed on the plain, or secretly ordained in the high places of the hills. God has black servants; God has messengers, errand-bearers, menial attendants of every name and kind and size. A great host is God"s; verily, he is the Lord of hosts. Everything is working for Christ, if we could only see it so; all secular progress is simply making a wider road for the chariot of Immanuel. The Christian cause had great difficulties at first—there is a shorter way from Jerusalem to Rome now than there was in the days of Paul. Paul did not go from Jerusalem to Cæsarea at his own charges. The invention of steam was an incident in the development of Christian progress. Christians ought to keep their eyes open. The moment there is a new way of travelling invented, the first traveller should be a missionary. The instant you can find a shorter way of communicating with the distant parts of the earth, you should send a Christian message through the new medium. That is done ceremonially on some great occasions—for example: when the cable is laid from Great Britain to any great country, the monarch of the one sends the first message to the monarch of the other, wishing, "God speed and God bless you, even you and your land." That is symbolical of what ought to take place. The ships are Christ"s, and you have let other people use them first for merchandise, and the missionary has been stowed away somewhere as a thing not wholly welcome. "The children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light." You can now travel what once took fourteen days in seven; what use is the Church making of that progress now? The Church has taken to merchandise, to ship-loading, to money-trafficking. There lies under the ocean a mysterious thread; what use is the Church making of that black thing? None. That is for politics, for stocks and shares—that thing so near being not a thing, but a thought—that separating line between the material and the spiritual. The Church is making no use of it; the Church is a dead carcase. I would have the Church buy up all the bad houses in London, and in the world, and make good places of them; I would have the Church advertise Gospel services in every newspaper in the kingdom; I would have the Church—alive! There is no deader thing unburied, in many respects and in many places, than the professing Church of Christ. It pursues its way, will stand still for anything, hide its head on any pretence, mumble its little hymn, hasten through its perfunctory prayer, and go home to forget it all. The Church is not the heroic force of this day, saying, "I must see Rome also." When the Church goes to see Rome, the Church goes in a tweed suit, in holiday attire, and chokes out of itself every trace and sign of its being a Church; the Church travels incog. Would God we were alive! We should buy up all the bad places, fill up all the rat holes; we should be alive, we should be mad! Yet some ministers have told me that they really dare hardly propose to publish even a small hand-bill announcing some special service. Who fails in that case? Not the man who wanted to publish the bill, but the men who prevented its publication. Let us know them, name them, blame them, point them out, and say, "These are the men that hinder the Christian cause." We have fallen into lackadaisical tempers and moods; we are not abreast of the age. If a man should now get a drum or trumpet, or tambourine, or anything with which to beat the devil on his own ground, he is called by unfriendly names. What is our calling in Christ? Is it to fall asleep, or to be the first force in society? If you make your Christianity a respectability, you are crucifying the very Lord you profess to adore. Let me call younger men to heroic temper and force and holy courage in this matter. Never mind the charge of madness; in his own day they said that Jesus had a devil, and that he was mad; and later on they said that Paul was beside himself. If we have fallen upon the cold and monotonous days, in which our religion is but a performance, and our worship but a ceremony an hour long, we are not advancing, we are retrograding; we are not awake, we are asleep. Let me say again and again—for herein would I find the very refrain of my ministry were I closing it today—if Christianity is not a passion supreme in the soul, it is the greatest mistake ever perpetrated by intellectual men. All the roads are being made for Christ. See the patent spade, and patent mattock, and patent roller, and patent steam engine—they say these things are being used for certain definite purposes; they know not what they say. Every turnpike is being made for Christ; every horse is being saddled for Christ; every mighty throb of steam is preparing to carry Gospel news to far-away places. Would God we had the sense of the children of this world!
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Acts 23". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
the First Week after Epiphany