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Almighty God, we are here still, even in thine house, and in the most holy place upon the earth, even the sanctuary of God, because of thy tender mercy and thy lovingkindness towards us. This is the crown and the sum thereof: thou hast no other love to show us here and now, than in the house and in the cross of thy Son Jesus Christ. This is the very sun of thy glory, the full outshining of thy grace and wisdom, and no other light can we now have than that which is the grace of Christ Jesus. We stand in that grace, it is our comfort, our strength, our one hope: without it our life has no light, no music, no outlook with it we have new Heavens and a new earth; every day and every breath we draw is a promise that we shall soon see the broader revelation.
Thou hast brought us up out of the valley of the week and set out feet upon a high hill, where the wind is pure, and whence we see all the blue-ness of the summer sky, and hear voices that are not heard in other places. This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven: the angels are not far away, and the harpers harping with their harps are just behind the translucent cloud. We have come to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, written in heaven: today our aspirations are realised in a great gladness, we see the invisible, we touch the impalpable, we are close to God: behold here we see the shining of thy garments, as thou dost stand backward towards us, for now could we not bear the intolerable shining of thy face. Make thy goodness pass before us, and that will be pledge enough that thy glory will follow. May we see thee in every blooming flower, hear thee in every trill that makes the woods alive, and feel thee near in every tender perfume of the garden. Give us a great conception of thyself, deliver us from all narrow views, and all superficial interpretations, save us from the poverty and the bondage of the mean letter, and lead us into the freedom of intelligent sympathy and the possession of glowing love.
We bless thee for thy word so grand, so tender, broad as a firmament and yet particular as a shining star, having a message to each heart, a special blessing for each needy life. We bless thee for the cross, that upgathering and expression of the principle of sacrifice which is part of this wondrous scheme of thine, which is known by every root that brings forth its stem and blossom, and felt by every heart, but realised in all the glory of its meaning only in the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world. Help us to live in his Spirit, to realise and enjoy with unutterable gladness all the meaning and purpose of the shedding of his blood. When the tempter would drag us down, may we answer him with the lightning of the cross, and find our security in the wounded Son of God: he loved us, he gave himself for us, he spared not the blood of his heart, and we need it all.
Let thy merciful visitation of us this morning be felt by every heart, so that there may be no exclusion from thy blessing. May the hospitality of thine house offer itself to the poorest and meanest of us, to the man whose face is an anxiety and whose heart is a bitter torment to itself. Speak great hospitable words to the prodigal returned, tell him that there is no robe in thine house too good for his wearing. Kiss every little child, bless every one who is weary and ill at ease, deliver from perplexity the soul whose embarrassments are too vexatious, and send light upon lives that have dipped down into great caverns of darkness. Lift us all above our fears, enable us to set our feet upon the neck of our spiritual enemies, and may we today enter, not only into the serenity, but into the triumph of faith.
Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly. We listen for the rolling of thy chariot wheels delay not on the road: thy whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now, for thy coming. O bridegroom of the earth, come: Saviour of the world, tarry not long behind we are lost and weary and sick and bruised: we shall die presently if thou dost not come. But thou wilt not deny the voice of thine earth, thou wilt surely reply to her sighing, and there shall yet be gladness where there has been much woe. Amen.
1. And Jesus went out, and departed from the temple: and his disciples came to him for to show him the buildings of the temple.
2. And Jesus said unto them, See ye not all these things? verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.
3. And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming (thy presence), and of the end of the world (the age)?
4. And Jesus answered and said unto them, Take heed that no man deceive you.
5. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am (the) Christ; and shall deceive (seduce) many.
6. And ye shall hear (be about to hear) of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.
7. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places.
8. All these are the beginning of sorrows.
9. Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you; and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name's sake.
10. And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another.
11. And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many.
12. And because iniquity (lawlessness) shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.
13. But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.
14. And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world (Roman empire) for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.
15. When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place (whoso readeth, let him understand:)
16. Then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains:
17. Let him which is on the housetop not come down to take any thing out of his house:
18. Neither let him which is in the field return back to take his clothes (his cloak).
19. And woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days!
20. But pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the Sabbath day:
21. For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.
22. And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect's sake those days shall be shortened.
23. Then if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there; believe it not.
24. For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.
25. Behold, I have told you before.
26. Wherefore if they shall say unto you, Behold, he is in the desert; go not forth: behold he is in the secret chambers: believe it not.
27. For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.
28. For wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together.
29. Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken:
30. And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
31. And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
32. Now learn a parable of the fig tree; Where his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh:
33. So likewise ye (the pronoun is emphatic), when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors.
34. Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.
35. Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.
36. But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.
37. But as the days of Noe were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.
38. For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark,
39. And knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.
40. Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left.
41. Two women shall be grinding at the mill (the lowest form of female labour); the one shall be taken, and the other left.
The Exciting Element In Christ's Ministry
Imagine a river very broad and deep, rolling quietly and rhythmically for long miles, not a bubble upon the surface, no noise, no tumult, a great, deep, strong, noble stream of water, and imagine that stream suddenly coming to a terrific precipice. What a cataract, what a roar and rush and tumult, what rainbows made by the sun, what snowy veils and screens, what infinite wizardry of shape and sound and suggestion! It does not look like the same water. Nothing is so accommodating as water; it will do anything, it will allow itself to be broken up into little drops that shall sparkle like diamonds in the shining sun, and gather itself into great masses and carry navies as if they were straws driven by the wind. It will run through gardens, it will come into houses dripping and dropping just to suit the capacity of your little cup; it will gather itself into infinite blackness in the heavens, and fall in daily baptism upon the thirsty earth. There is nothing so genial, yet so terrible, as water unless, indeed, to be its mate and contrast, fire.
It is even so with these speeches of Christ. Up to within a few chapters of the portion we have now read, the stream of his talk has rolled forward in infinite calmness and nobleness, having no end of suppressed power in it but just recently it has come over a terrific precipice of rocks, and it has been rolling and dashing amongst us like a fierce cataract, so that some of us have hardly been able to recognise the grand, massive, eloquent Speaker, in the recent turmoil and rush of his enthusiasm, passion, and eager, burning consecration. Yet the Speaker is one and the same, master of all styles. Never man spake like this Man. No prophet could forecast his tone, or tell with certainty what course he would take in any argument, or what answer he would make to any temptation. We are now amongst the parables of judgment, and are standing in what may be termed the very sanctuary of destruction and sacrifice.
At this moment the idea of destruction is uppermost in the Saviour's mind. The explanation is that his own soul was sorrowful even unto death. When a man's soul is sorrowful, there is nothing being built up outside of it. The universe takes its hue and tone and meaning from the inner experience and consciousness of the observer. The cross is already shouldered, the nails are already half in the quivering hands, the blood is already beginning to trickle down the anxious face. So all things are dying around him: the temple is trembling, the heavens are gathering themselves up into a last agony, the old earth is pained at her heart and will presently give way.
How exquisite was the correspondence between the inner and the outer in the life of Christ! He saw things with his heart. When he nestled in his Father's bosom and felt all the serenity of that divine warmth, he said, "Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; yet I say unto you, That Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these." That was his view of nature and of life, as he laid his hand upon his Father's heart. When he felt his Father's arms strongly and warmly around him he said, "Fear not, little flock; it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom," and the embrace was closer and closer between the Father and the Son. Now that Calvary is in front, Golgotha, the place of skulls and bones, preceded by Gethsemane and all that Gethsemane means even the temple, marble and gold, the choicest thing of its kind in all the earth, is reeling and trembling and will presently fall flat down, a mass and heap of shapeless stones, as if struck by every wind of heaven. True Man, real Heart, grand Soul, what wonder that he spake lightning to the hypocrites, and tore the visors from their face with a ruthless energy? They were so unlike himself: he fought them as men would fight beasts, or ghosts, or things that make the life afraid.
And the disciples come in once more, with their usual good purpose, and with their usual feebleness. Worn and sad of heart, his life a great agony, every look a pain, every pulsation a dying, he was walking away from the temple, and his disciples, well-meaning little children, really soft of heart and good-willed, came to him to show him the buildings of the temple. They thought it would strike his mind as in the case of our social sorrows. They would show him something, they would try to lure him from his brooding thought that had so much blood in it. Perhaps if they talked to him, he would forget his woe awhile. So like children that would show their toys to a boy distressed, they would show him the beautiful temple, they must touch its stones with a trembling reverence, and thus seek to charm him from his grief. He heard what they had to say, and said, "Ye see these things?" "Yea, Lord." "There shall not be left one stone upon another that shall not be thrown down. Do not comfort me with things that perish: do not meet an infinite agony of the heart with things that have the writing of condemnation upon their very faces. Your meaning is good, but the comfort you offer me is itself short-lived; yea, presently a great sharp wind will blow through all this temple fabric, and no two stones piled upon each other shall anywhere be found."
Silence ensues. Jesus went to the mount of Olives, and when he was quiet a little, the disciples came to him to continue the conversation which he had suddenly introduced. "Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?" Curious yet. Not struck by what was going to happen immediately in the way of humiliation and death, always forgetting the cross, always forgetting the only things they ought to have remembered, persistently throwing the. mind forward to glories and kingdoms and princedoms and masterships of various degree and name. He could not bind them down to the only thing he came to exemplify and glorify the principle of self-sacrifice. Yet he answers them now with a thunderstorm. Yet amid all that thunderstorm there are streaks of blue sky, outlooks upon silent and beautiful places that may be temple gates or the beginnings of infinite sanctuaries. Never was such a speech delivered by mortal lips, its thunder, its silence, its infinite energy, its instruction which might have been whispered in the ear of trouble. It was his own speech in very deed, both in its intellectual capacity, in its moral tone, in its subtle simplicity, in its grand grasp of past, present, and future, in all that was awful in grandeur and all that was luring and tender in heaven's own beauty.
What is the subject? The coming of Christ. How will he come when shall these things be what shall be the sign of thy coming? "Tell us," said the eager disciples, "something about it, that thou hast not yet spoken to any human ear." They gather closely around him: emphatically they came to him privately, and they clustered around him they would almost have crushed him in their eager love and in the straining of their attention to hear every tone and whisper of that voice. "Tell us."
How could he refuse? Twelve children overgrown, twelve faithful yet fickle men, twelve hearts that had done all they could for him it was indeed but little, still it was not underestimated by his all-appreciating love. Now surely they will draw from him all that is in his heart. How can he refuse? We have seen him shake off deputations of other kinds, notably the people who came about the tribute money, the Sadducees who came with a question about the resurrection, others who came tempting him he so spake to them that they never came back again. The burnt child dreads the fire. But now these are his own twelve, and they want to know all about it, and the place is propitious and convenient the mount of Olives, nobody there but themselves why should not the whole thirteen of them carry the same secret? Yet he tells them much, and keeps back the thing they wanted to know, yea, in the very midst of his speech he saith, "No man knoweth the hour, no, not even I." How he could know and not know, be and not be, contradict himself with violence and yet be the same, infinite in self-coherence and in self-harmony fools can never understand it, only those who are elected, called, sanctified can enter into that mystery. He is going to tell us, but he will not. He makes a great speech and leaves us in utter ignorance of the one thing we desire to know. Yet he speaks the one word which it is only needful for a man to heed to be truly wise. "Watch." The watcher wins, the watcher reads, the watcher sees the coming day. Watch! We have seen men watch for the sun rising from the point of the Righi all were looking in one direction, nobody looking otherwhere the sigh, the joy, the tears, the religious silence. So says the Son of man, "You want to see me coming, to rejoice in my cloudless light, to behold the beauty of my kingdom Watch." Let us regard this coming of Christ in any light coming into the individual heart, coming among the nations of the earth, coming in the pomp and glory of His power and sovereignty. Regard the coming of Christ in any and every sense, and let us see what we can learn from this eloquent exposition of the case.
Do we not learn first of all that the coming of Christ makes itself fell through all the space of life? When he moves, he stirs the universe. He cannot come or go as if nothing had happened. He was before all things, and by him all things consist, and in him all things are made. The clouds are the trailing of his garments, and on the wings of the wind he flies. What wonder then that when he comes there shall be stir, tumult, agitating, shaking, a pulsing through and through the whole life and economy of things? Behold his deity in this very action. The earth would be extinguished in its little cloud, and the nearest star would not know that the spark had gone out so says the astronomer. But when the sun, at which all lamps are lighted, withdraws, the universe is enwrapped in impenetrable and intolerable night. Jesus Christ is the centre of all things, his life touches every point and tests every interest. Christ cannot easily and quietly settle into a corrupt scheme and become, so to say, part and parcel of it. Whenever he moves, creation vibrates to his step. When he came into the world Herod and all Jerusalem were troubled. Inquiry, inquest, search, fear, curiosity, anticipation, hope, gladness all these conflicting emotions and ministries were set to work immediately: when he comes into the individual heart, old habits protest, old appetites cry out, the whole heaven and earth of the personal life are shaken, and they tremble under the tread of his coming.
Do we not also learn that the coming of Christ seems in its process to contradict its result? What harmony is there between a Christ that shall pacify all things and bring in sweet peace to reign as universal queen and all this tumult wars, rumours of wars, nation rising against nation, kingdom against kingdom, famines, pestilences, earthquakes, and these are but the beginning of sorrows? Is there any relation between such phenomena and the incoming of profound and universal and eternal peace? The devil dies hard always. The devil has made up his mind not to quit us easily; he will have the last pull. Remember the miracle in which Jesus Christ ordered the devil out of the sufferer, and the devil tore him and came out of him, but not without a final struggle, not without one more assault, not without upgathering his whole energy and seeking to kill him in the very act of leaving him. So it must be in the individual heart, in the national conscience, in the universal aspiration and feeling. Whenever Christ comes he comes by processes that seem to contradict the very idea of his coming.
Is this your experience? Be not afraid, be not cast down by a great fear and sorrow, lest Jesus Christ be not coming to you at all. Say you, "I am only fighting, struggling, praying without an answer, knocking at a door that will not open, but I am still knocking can this be right? I have doubts, anxieties, tumults, that I dare not put into words," is that your speech? It reads as if part of this mightier eloquence "Nation shall rise against nation famines, pestilences, earthquakes, desolations, abominations, great tribulations." Your little cross is cut out of this infinite tree on which is hanging the Son of God. Let no man's heart therefore fail him because he is now only in the tribulational period of this progress. The Son of God is coming, though at present it seems as if the Son of God had forsaken the universe.
Nothing happens in all this tumult that was not foreseen. In the twenty-fifth verse Jesus Christ says, "Behold, I have told you before." There are no surprises to Omniscience: nothing happens by accident in all the machinery and economy of the universe. The very hairs of your head are all numbered. There are no accidents, in any lawless and incoherent sense of the term. All things work together for good to them that love God. My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers trials, because out of the working of these trials shall come a complete and final peace. What knowledge of human nature is here revealed on the part of the Son of God. He knows the course of truth in the world, he knows precisely what every man will feel, how certain interests will be shocked, how evil habitudes must be displaced by violence, and how at the last there will be a fight between evil and good, devil and God, that shall seem to wreck the universe. God knows the whole scene down to Armageddon's bloody field it is before the Divine vision: not a soul in all the holy army shall be lost, but when the night falls on the ghastly field, only evil shall be wounded and smitten with death. Hope on, live in watchfulness 'tis not ours to lead, but quietly and loyally to follow.
Now in view of these marvellous circumstances, the inquiry becomes very natural Why should the incoming of the Son of God be accompanied by commotion and tumult so tremendous? Why not come like a dawning day, why not like the springing corn or the budding flower? He does come exactly like these very things you have named. Like break of day know ye what that means in the jungles where beasts congregate and vermin swarm in countless multitudes? Know ye that the shining of the sun upon some places is like a shower of darts? How the forsaken holes are sought by the wandering vermin, how eyes not made for much light flee away from the broadening day as from an enemy that will kill and spare not? And the springing corn do not talk lightly about the springing corn as though it were all ease. Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened except it die. The springing corn is a springing out of corruption, life out of death, the mystery of germination, the central mystery of material things. The springing corn how that sharp spike pierces the dust and comes up into the light, and how quietly it grows, say you? So it does, but to what end does it grow? See how the blade grows up into the ear, and how the full corn grows in the ear, and how the golden head is bent again towards the dust out of which it came, and how it stands there like a doomed sacrifice awaiting the priest's knife that shall cut it down and grind it between the upper and the neither millstone, and burn it with fire, and then give the world its bread. Is there no tumult, is there no pain, is there no agony there? He does come as break of day and as springing corn.
And think ye that the dust of the earth has no history of sorrow and smiting and wounding and great pain? How is the dust formed? By terrible revolutions, by shattering rains, by powdering winds: the dust is, so to say, the sweat of the very rocks, the dust itself is the result of smiting, grinding, pulverising by processes which, if the earth had been sensitive, would have meant sorrow, pain, bitterness, Golgotha, Calvary. The whole creation groaneth, and travaileth in pain together until now.
And the spring comes through difficulty: the winter will hardly let it come, the great winter that you thought had gone, comes up ten days after the spring has had possession and says, "Retire," blows upon the green young thing great breaths of ice, and sometimes it seems as if the spring must go away and never come again. Dear spring, sweet child, vernal beauty, truly thou hast a great fight to fight to get thy hold upon the earth. Spring wrestles with winter, fights him bravely, will have her way, and "flings a primrose on the bank in pledge of victory."
So Christ will come. Let no man attempt to define the advent of Christ. Let it take upon itself the smallest or the largest meaning it will always imply shaking, distress, war, desolation, movement of the most terrific kind; but over it all, under it all, round about it all, is the sweet promise that the whole earth shall be the garden of God, the old, old earth shall have the best robe flung around its shoulders, and like a returned prodigal shall be set in its Father's house to go out no more for ever. We are part of the earth, and every man of us shall be saved not a soul amongst us shall be lost. Hope on, fight on, pray on, and even thou, poor wanderer, miserable self-tormentor, shut up with devils at night and fighting invisible foes all day even thou shalt be on the right side of the door when the door is shut.
Almighty God, thou art always coming: behold Jesus Christ is born amongst us every day, every night the shepherds sing and hear the song of the angels, and are filled with great joy because the delivering life has come into the world. May Christ be born in us the hope of glory, and may he come to us with the light of every morning, and shine upon us all the night long through every star. Enable us always to hear the footfall of thy coming, that we may always watch and be ready, and be found amongst those servants who are blessed because of their industry and vigilance.
Enable us to know the uncertainty of our life as we surely know the littleness of its span. So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom. May we know how to reckon our days well, with all soberness and accuracy, that we be not found amongst those fools who suppose they can never die. Enable us by the ministry of thy Holy Spirit, ever indwelling and ever working within us, to see life as it is, in its simplicity and mystery, in its immediate duty and its far-off anticipations, in its tragedy of sin, in its need of divine help, and enable us, having seen all this, to avail ourselves of divine answers to the whole necessity, and to live in thy truth and walk in the light of thy revelation. Teach us that greatest of all lessons, self-renunciation, utter, complete, joyous, triumphant trust in God.
In thee we would live and move and have our being, not only by the necessity of nature, but by the compulsion and sweet constraint of sympathy and love. We have undertaken for ourselves, and behold a great failure is the result. We cannot touch the inner wound, we cannot heal the disease which consumes our life, but there is balm in Gilead, there is a Physician there, there is One who is mighty to save, Jesus Christ of God, Emmanuel, Wonderful, Counsellor, the Prince of peace, known to us by many names expressing one love, and completing one grand capacity to deliver. We bless thee for Jesus Christ: we needed his name for our names are poor without it; we needed his presence as flowers need the sun. Thou hast not withheld him: by a great shining of love he fills the whole sky, and by infinite tenderness of grace, he re-lights the lamp of our hope day by day, so that we can look beyond death and the grave and all things terrible and feast our vision on the Paradise of God. Whilst we are here, make us quick to know thee well, clear-sighted that we may see the inner meaning of thy word, and conscientious, that with all faithfulness of purpose and service we may do the immediate duty, and find in it a great reward.
We commend one another tenderly to thy care. We find no fault with one another, for when we stand in thy presence, we are all guilty before God, but we pray for one another with all the desire and simplicity of eager love, that every one may have a blessing all his own, that there may fall upon us a common benediction, impartial as the glory which lights every corner of the earth. Pity our littlenesses: in the day of our feebleness and humiliation look not upon us with the scorn we cannot bear. Pardon our sin: when it is greatest, thy love is greatest: where sin abounds, grace doth much more abound. Thou wilt have the heathen for thine inheritance and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession, and thy blood shall take away the sin of the whole world. This is our joy, this our hope, and out of this glad prospect do we draw every song that our heart would sing.
O Living One, cause death itself to die; O thou in whose heart there is no purpose but of love to the children of men, drive out of our hearts all anger, wrath, bitterness, clamour, and selfishness, and make our spirits sanctuaries of thine own presence.
We commend unto thy tender love all for whom we ought to pray the old, who will soon become young again; the young, who know nothing of the mystery and sadness of the world into which they have come; the poor, to whom it is a hardship to live; the rich, who have the responsibility of wealth; the wayward and the wandering, the prodigal, who seems as if unable to come home again, the hard heart that even our love cannot soften. We pray for the sick and those that are ill at ease, for all who are housed in our hospitals and are there receiving the ministrations of science and Christian charity. We pray that thou wouldst make their bed in their affliction, comfort them in their manifold sorrows, and sanctify unto them every visitation of thy purpose. Prosper thou all wise and learned men who are searching into the causes and the remedies of disease; let a great light shine upon them in all their inquiries, and may the time come when disease shall be unknown because sin is no longer in the world.
The Lord give us this day sweet messages from Heaven: may we hear great voices, like rushing, mighty winds, and tender voices, the very whispers of God's own love, so that according to our necessity all the revelation of Heaven may be adjusted. Make every preacher of the gospel today as a flame of fire, anoint him with an unction from the Holy One, and make the Christian pulpit this day vindicate itself as the supreme institution of the world for the education and inspiration and ennoblement of the human mind. To this end do thou make even our weakness a cause of strength, and make all thy preachers but instruments on which thou wilt discourse the music of the eternal decrees and the infinite love. Amen.
The Two Futures
You know that he will come, you do not know at what precise hour he will appear. The future is known, yet unknown. Consider what the future is. It touches the uttermost bound of time. If one might perpetrate a contradiction in terms, it is the horizon of eternity, the furthest away point in a line which has no limits. We are obliged thus to talk in self-contradictory speech when we would represent the great and grand things of creation. Number has to be set aside or talked of in terms that appear to be confusing, as the Three are One, and the One is Three.
There are two futures. This is a fact which is so often forgotten in the reasoning of men. There is a grand future, and a little one; the great future in which Imagination holds court, the future of fancy and speculation, the unmapped land of dream and fancy and vision, where life is to be a miracle, and every day a keen surprise. That is the future which the poets have taken under their care, that is the future whose firmament they have punctuated with radiant stars; but there is a little future in which Imagination has been supplanted by Anxiety, the future that is just about to dawn, the near To-morrow, the Presently that makes weak men restless and strong men quiet in hopefulness.
With these two futures we are well acquainted. The danger is that we confuse them in our view and reasoning, and should thus be talking about two totally different things in one and the same way. We have a future which we consign to Imagination: we have another future which we hand over to Anxiety, and anxiety often beats imagination, gets a firmer grip of some men than Imagination can ever get; men who take thought for tomorrow may take no thought for eternity: anxiety bars and limits and bounds them with prison boundaries and forces. Their anxiety is greater than their imagination because their selfishness is greater than their religion. Herein it is that so many persons get wrong.
So we have two futures, the near and the distant, the future in which Anxiety plays its vexatious and harassing part, and the great future where Imagination revels and poetises and dreams; and my difficulty, as a religious teacher, is this, that my scholars or pupils will so give way to little carking mean anxiety as to leave no space or time or opportunity for the consideration of that grand future which must come and bring with it all that we mean by the sweet pure name of Heaven.
Let us see how Jesus Christ himself treated the question of the future. His action in relation to it was varied yet consistent, and, as usual, was authoritatively instructive. In the first place Jesus Christ used the future as a source of inspiration, but it was not the little future of tomorrow, it was the great future of all time unborn that he so used; he often spoke of the Grand Future. "Hereafter ye shall see heaven opened," said he. "What thou knowest not now, thou shalt know hereafter." "I have many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now." "Fear not, little flock: it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." "He that endureth unto the end shall be saved." "When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him." You do not wonder that a man who could project himself thus infinitely across the ages, should say, from the point of his final projection, "Take no thought for the morrow, do not be the victims of anxiety; have a future, but let it be a grand one, apocalyptic in its possibility and colour and form and tone, worthy of the mind that dreams it; and do not be the victims of anxiety and petty care and carking vexation." He provided for that particular element, so to say, of the human mind, which must take hold of the future, but as he saw that element rising and asserting itself, he put within its grasp something worthy of its capacity.
The New Testament is full of the same thought. What wonder that Jesus Christ said, "I am not come to destroy the prophets"? The world must live in its prophecies. Today is too small a boundary for the soul: one world at a time was not enough for the soldier Alexander 'tis not enough for a man in whom the divinity has come. The prophets lived in the sunny future, so did Christ set his little church under its warm rays, and bless it with the promise that the voice of the turtle should be one day heard above the roar of the storm. Our life is not to be locked up in the narrow prison of one day. Among the riches of the church are not only things present but things to come. These things to come make up the mystery of glory which burns in the apocalypse. A nation is to be born in a day, the enemy of man, the old Abaddon is to be encoiled in chains that cannot be broken, the dead are to be raised incorruptible, death itself shall die, the grave-scars are to be rubbed out of the green earth, sorrow and sighing are to flee away, the whole creation, forgetting its grievous overthrow and its sharp pain, shall stand fast on eternal pillars and be beautiful as a palace built for God.
Nor is this the poetry of speech; it is the reality of fact. The word poetry is often misunderstood: it is the blossom of reality, the uppermost phase and culminating beauty of hard history and stern fact. Tell me does he talk mere poetry, in the sense of talking only that which is visionary and impossible, who takes a root or a seed of a flower and says, "Out of this shall come strength and shapeliness, bud and blossom and fruit: birds shall sing in its branches and men shall lie down at noon beneath its cool shade or out of this little seed shall come a flower, an apocalypse in itself, and the bee shall draw honey from its hidden cell"? If we had never seen the outcome of root or seed we should say concerning such a man "Visionary, poetical, romantic, dreamy, utterly without practical sagacity and arithmetical and measurable aptitude in relation to things of time and sense." But the man is no mere poet in the sense of creating universes in words only: rightly judged, the man who so speaks about root or seed is only an historian by anticipation; he is a reasoner, he is the prince of logicians.
In viewing the future, therefore, do not be drawn away by the cry of poetry or romance. He is no visionary who sees in the seed time the prose out of which will come the poetry of harvest. On the other hand he would be the loose reasoner who sees seed only in the seed, wood only in the root, and did not see in the seed waving cornfields, and food for the lives of men. There shall be a handful of corn on the top of the mountains, the fruit thereof, the poetry thereof, shall shake like Lebanon. Was he only a word-painter who so spoke? Credit him with the most penetrating vision and with that grand historical capacity which sees all possibilities in the germ and seed of things.
There is a poetry which is the highest form of fact. If a man could have said in England two hundred years ago, that communication with the ends of the earth would one day be a question of mere moments, and that according to the face of the clock men would be talking in New York about something which had happened in London actually before it had taken place, he would have been regarded as the wildest of lunatics, without practical aptitude, one of the dreaming seers that you can make nothing of, a puzzle in providence, the very mystery of Omnipotence. Yet would he not in reality have been the severest of reasoners, the most acute and penetrating of logicians? We who have no faith discount and discredit the faith of other men. The passionless man can never understand passion, the literalist cannot follow the logic of prophecy, the moral Laplander can never be made to dream of the luxuriant Christian tropics. You cannot be more than you are. But do not therefore say that other men are no more gifted than yourselves. There are men to whom there has been no future in the sense of cloud and mystery and chaos, but to whom the future has given up its secret in many a fore-blessing rain, in many a secret hint, in many a quiet night visit in many a glowing dream.
Do not let us therefore measure others by ourselves. We have to take our view of the future from Christ, and he regarded the future as an inspiration. It was his sanctuary of retreat: he lived in it, he projected himself beyond the fevered day, and lived in the calm eternity. We must do the same, or we shall be vexed and stung with details which come and go with the fickle wind. Blessed is the future which is coming upon Christ's church, a day without a threatening cloud, an infinite paradise without one thorn or noxious plant, a home from which no child has wandered, a sweet heaven unvisited by sin and untroubled by pain. Such is the flower which comes out of the Christian seed, and he who foresees and foretells its coming is not a speaker of words but a prophet of facts. Therefore comfort one another with these words. If in this life only we have hope, we are of all men most miserable. We have reckoned this world at a cheap rate because of the power of an endless life. If there be no endless life, we have done this world an injustice. Our light affliction, therefore, is but for a moment, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which arc seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal. In proportion as we live in heaven are we masters of earth: just as we hide ourselves in the sanctuary of the great future and view all things from Christ's standpoint are we at rest, and amid raging seas and rocking mountains our eyes look upon the river, the streams whereof make glad the city of God. Let us see to it that we follow Christ in this, namely, that we do not live in the little future which is mastered by anxiety, but in the great future, which yields its riches to a reverent imagination.
In the next place, Christ treated the future as unknown and yet well known. "Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come. Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not, the Son of man cometh. Of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only." Here we have a quantity spoken of that is well known yet unknown, unknown yet well known. Have we any parallel to this in our lower courses of thinking and action? Most assuredly we have. We know that tomorrow will come: tell me what will tomorrow bring with it a sullen face of cloud or a bright countenance of June light, blessing the lands that wait for it with all the benediction of summer? We know the great fact that to morrow will dawn; we know not what will be the incidents of the day, who shall live, who shall die, what controversies will be adjusted, what correspondence will turn our thoughts into new directions, and tax our energies with new claims. We know it we do not know it.
So with the harvest: the harvest will surely come, but will it be good or bad, early or late, satisfying or disappointing? Will it be well gathered or ill gathered? The harvest is known, but the incidents of its quality and abundance no man can know, with certainty. And death will come. When? Thank God we cannot tell. Who could face his duty, if he knew to a moment when and how he would die? The great future is revealed, the detailed future is mercifully kept back. Watch therefore therefore be ye also ready. That is all.
So then from the parallels or analogies which are supplied by our own life I can understand in part Christ's treatment of the future. The Lord will come: great events will transpire, the trumpet shall sound and the elect shall be gathered together from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. The long-waiting earth shall receive her Lord when? Of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only. There are some secrets which can be at rest in only one heart.
And yet Jesus Christ viewed the future as having an immediate influence on the present, therefore he called for vigilance and readiness, and rebuked the men who were so miscalculating the coming of the future that they did injury to their fellow-servants. He had such a knowledge of history that he was enabled to tell his age that in the days of Noah men were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, and knew not until the flood came in great blotches of black rain upon the hot streets, and the lightning flashed and the thunder rolled and the whole heaven became a deluge and the wicked were lost. "So," said he, "it will be about this coming of my own. Men will chaffer with one another, hold wordy controversy with one another in points theological and ecclesiastical, and will speak about difficulties which a reverent heart could have subdued and dissolved, or be indulging in selfish appetite and desire until the great trumpet sound and the event transpire. Such was his grasp of the future, such his insight into its breadth and narrowness!
We cannot improve though we might enlarge his lesson, when he condensed his instruction into one word, "Watch." A great expectation warms the heart, a grand dream helps us to bear the burden of the sweltering day, and noble thought ennobles the mind which entertains it. He who has only a wall in front of him is in a prison. He who is bounded by a horizon has an infinite liberty.
Now Christ comes into the region which we term practical, and in that region he says, "Be ready: WATCH: be in the tower: be looking out: at any moment the crisis of creation may supervene." To work in this spirit is to work well.
Jesus Christ was always practical, though oftentimes he said things which seemed to be of a visionary nature. He was practical when he told his church to take care of the poor and to visit the sick and bless the unblest and give joy to him who was sad of heart. Christianity has its own secularism as well as its own theology. To hear some persons talk one would imagine that Christianity was only the latest phase of the theological imagination. Christianity has its humanities as well as its divinities. There are two commandments in its infinite law, the love of God, the love of man. There is no religion under heaven so hard-working as Christianity: it never rests. Hindooism has its At Home, Mahometanism makes no proselytes, Confucianism lets the world alone, but Christianity lets nobody alone. It is the working religion, the missionary religion, the energetic faith, the revolutionary force. Do give Christianity the credit of being the hardest working religion known amongst men. I do not mean merely hard-working in any ceremonial sense, but in the largest sense of beneficence, love, evangelisation, caring for everybody, never resting, until the last man is brought in. Not judging by majorities, but judging by individualities; counting every man one, and reckoning that its work is unfinished till the last man is homed in the very heart of Christ.
Our Christianity is nothing if it be not thus practical. He only is the visionary theologian who is so lost in theological speculation as to neglect the ignorance, the disease, the poverty which are lying round about his very house and path.
" This Gospel shall be preached for a witness to all nations, and then shall the end be. " "That is the end of Jerusalem, before the destruction whereof the Gospel was preached throughout the world. Witness Paul, saying, Their sound hath gone out into all the earth; and again, The Gospel is preached to every creature under heaven, so that ye may see it running from Jerusalem into Spain. And if one only apostle, Paul, spread the Gospel so far, what shall we think did all the rest? And this was a great miracle for the convincing of the unbelieving Jews before their destruction, for the Gospel to be preached in all parts of the world, in twenty or thirty years at the most; if this would not move them to believe, nothing could." (Chrysostom). "This must not be understood as done by the apostles, for there are many barbarous nations of Africa amongst whom the Gospel was never yet preached, as we may gather by such as have been captives there. This therefore remaineth yet to be accomplished; and because it is a secret when the world shall be filled with the Gospel, it is a secret likewise when shall be the day of judgment, before which this must be." (Augustine.)
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Matthew 24". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30