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The Presence of Christ (For Advent)
This discourse of our Lord is one of the most difficult for us to follow and apply, and yet it has made a vivid impression on the imagination of the world. Our Advent hymns and services are full of reminiscences of it, while, like so much else in Holy Scripture, it has suffered from an irreverent literalism which has at times imposed too great a strain on the imagination until faith has closed her wings and dropped heavily to the earth. The Day of Judgment, even more than the judgment of individual souls, seems to have struck into the background of the articles of faith until 'we believe that Thou shalt come to be our Judge' has come to be a statement which all Christians pronounce and few Christians believe. Yet the season of Advent was set apart, among other purposes, to keep this great fact before us as a living motive and guide of conduct. It may be worth while therefore to try reverently to gather what was in our Lord's mind when He spoke what was transitory, what was permanent. It is impossible to leave on one side a matter of such vital importance as the final destiny of the world, and the promised presence or coming of Christ. We notice at once these two things.
I. The Transitory and the Permanent. First that, as, in an exhibition of dissolving views, one scene melts imperceptibly into another so that at a given time we hardly know what is before us, so here a great deal of our Lord's words refer to an immediate, local catastrophe of tremendous importance to His hearers the fall of Jerusalem. And then His words dissolve, melt almost imperceptibly into another scene the end of the world, His own second coming, and the dread phenomena which will precede and accompany it the one event being connected with the other as that which symbolises with that which is symbolised.
II. The Coming of Christ. Secondly, we must remember and realise that there are certain images in Holy Scripture which cannot be reproduced pictorially, nor represented in human language. Our Blessed Lord Himself seems to say that a full knowledge of what is meant by the Day of Judgment and when it will be is impossible to the human understanding. 'Of that clay and of that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.'... But there is a blight side to final judgment. We are apt to forget this. In spite of the imagery of flame and earthquake, of wrath on sinners, of shame and endless doom, the idea which most strongly impressed itself on the early Church was the presence of Christ, the victory of Christ, the coming and permanent reign of Christ.
III. The Presence of Christ. His presence! It is what they so longed to see. How impatient they were for it, how they hurried forward in imagination the slow winding up of the ages. 'O thou enemy,' they would say, 'destructions are come to a perpetual end' and Christ is coming. His will be a great Presence. In the dark days of the Catacombs where they found Him in the mystic Eucharistic Presence on the altar which covered the bones of some friend or some earlier martyr who had laid down his life for Christ, the presence was a hurried and a fleeting one, to be followed too often by dark days of persecution and anguish. It was so difficult for them to keep Christ's presence with them in its living beauty. We too know how difficult it is to retain the presence of Christ. The presence of Christ always and everywhere in a time when there should be neither day nor night, but one day this was the conception that swallowed up all others in the loving hearts of the Christians as they talked of the coming of Christ which was promised. This is a side of the Judgment Day of which we think too little, one which surely has power to diminish much of our fear.
IV. What has the Presence been to us? As we look back over life we each of us can see what the presence, the coming, of Christ has been to us. 'Thy song shall be of mercy and judgment.' Life has had its destructions. God has cast down for us those false ideals which once threatened to divert our energies and spoil our prospects. Life has had its catastrophes. The wood, the hay, the stubble, yea, even the precious stones as we thought them, all that was worthless, is gone. Nature herself inflicts on us her destruction; as life advances and old age approaches one thing after another falls away from us bodily health, mental vigour, power of leadership, power of vigorous work. God nips off those things that we valued youth, health, strength and vigour in order to develop the life of saintliness, the life of union with Himself. If you would meet your Judge with trembling hope, if you would rejoice in His presence with exceeding great joy, go and tell it out among the heathen that the Lord is King; go and proclaim the paradox of welcome: 'Let the floods clap their hands, and let the hills be joyful together before the Lord, for He cometh to judge the earth'.
To deny, to believe, and to doubt well, are to a man what paces are to a horse.
References. XXI. 8. Expositor (6th Series), vol. vi. p. 404. XXI. 10. Ibid. vol. v. p. 136. XXI. 13. J. M. Neale, Sermons Preached in a Religious House, vol. ii. p. 458. C. Perren, Outline Sermons, p. 312.
The Tyranny of Time
I. It is easy to become impatient in regard to the development of our own character. Yet it is unreasonable to lose hope and courage. We often lose heart by comparing our present selves with our moral and spiritual history of yesterday. How impossible to gauge moral movement! If we are living rightly, the deepest changes are being silently wrought in the depths of our nature, and the faintest of these is a cause for infinite gratitude. No impatience will accelerate the unfolding of flower or soul, lit can only retard. Nor let us be impatient with the circumstances which discipline character; God knows best how long the gold ought to remain in the furnace, how long the jewel must suffer the grinding of the wheel.
II. We become weary waiting for the renewal of the world. Yet the kingdom of God is coming, however deeply sometimes its development may be veiled. 'What is to last for ever takes a long time to grow.' We must be struck with the spirit of patience displayed everywhere in the New Testament. Nothing is more wonderful than the serenity of our Lord in the prosecution of His great mission. The same spirit of tranquil confidence animated the apostles. Because they exulted in glorious power they were patient and long-suffering.
III. In these days of feverishness and haste our eye is too much on the clock. Rae, writing of 'The White Sea Peninsula,' alleges that in all the hundreds of Russian peasants' huts, cottages, and houses that he visited every one had a clock, yet he saw only one going. Wise people! It is well to remember that we are children of time; but the agitation and tension of watching the clock are not good for us in any sense, least of all in relation to spiritual things. When the Duke of Wellington saw a painting of Waterloo which represented him sitting on horse-back with a watch in his hand anxiously scanning the hour, the great soldier ridiculed the picture, declared the posture false, and told the artist to paint the watch out. No battle is won with a watch in our palm. The victory over our own nature, the victory that overcometh the world, are gained in patient faith and endeavour. The victory of Christ, and the setting up of His kingdom over all the earth, will be achieved, not as against time, but in quietness and confidence.
W. L. Watkinson, The Ashes of Roses, p. 31.
I. The Christian life has ever to be maintained in the face of opposition.
1. There is our own evil.
2. There are the direct temptations to defection.
3. There is always a world of unsympathising men, varying in every age.
4. There are the sorrows and trials to which all are exposed.
II. That opposition can only be met by patient perseverance.
III. That patient perseverance wins for us ourselves.
Winning and Saving Souls
When Christ spoke of losing the soul, He did not primarily refer to the loss of heaven by-and-by.
I. What is it to lose a soul? When a soul is dissipated before the body decays, when man's worldly interests destroy his capacity for truth and honour, chivalry and love, when sin exhausts his force as weeds do the soil, then a man is losing soul. We speak of saving the soul alive. What is the soul but a man's true, complete self, the sum total of all the higher faculties; and what is the life of the soul but true faith, hope, love, graciousness, generosity, joy? Not to have them, though you sin the whole world, is to lose your soul. These are the qualities which link you to God and make you a member of His family; without them your soul is null and void.
II. There is a hint in this text of Christ's, that you and I have to co-operate with the Creator in making our own souls. We were born with potentialities. We have to train our faculties, to develop our powers, to win our souls. God may, for aught I know, have made angels in the same instantaneous way in which He called light into being; but only the discipline of life can make human souls God working in us; we working in God. Live with all the soul you have.
B. J. Snell, The All-Enfolding Love, p. 17.
Winning the Soul
It is a pity that our translation runs here as it does: it conceals the point of the original entirely. What our Lord says is, as the Revised Version has it, 'in your patience (or endurance) ye shall win your souls'. The text is not a precept, but a promise. It does not send men to a duty, but assures them of a reward.
I. One is struck here with the fact, to begin with, that Christ takes for granted that these men have their souls yet to win. By means of your patience or endurance, He says, ye shall win them. And yet they had followed Him for some three years now. Could it be, we ask, that the twelve men were in some sense soulless still? If any of us find this a hard saying, probably that is because we forget one thing. We forget the immense distance that lay between Him and them. While He moves about among them He is living nevertheless, in a larger, loftier region into which they cannot enter because of their unbelief in other words because they have no soul. The soul, then, in this sense, is another name for the faculty of faith. It is the key to the spiritual world.
II. It follows then we may note it in the second place that the acquiring of a soul is a progressive affair. As much indeed is directly stated in the text: 'In your patience that is, in your trying, suffering life in the course of it and by means of it ye shall come to possess your souls'. Let no one, then, suppose that the gaining of the soul is a thing to be effected once for all. We are born into the Kingdom not men but babes. There is just one purpose that runs through all our history like a shining thread, binding its various elements and experiences into a unity: it is the purpose of God to make us alive to Himself and to righteousness, to make us partakers of a Divine nature, citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. We have just one opportunity of having His saving will fulfilled in us of winning a soul to ourselves but it is a lifelong opportunity.
III. Not only is the soul an imperfect and growing thing, but our possession of it is imperfect too. If the one has to develop so has the other also. 'In your patience,' He says, 'Ye shall possess that is, more and more ye shall come to possess your souls.' Now is not this true? The soul is not like a clod or a stone which, once you have taken it in your hands, you can hold fast. It is a far more volatile possession than that. What is the reason of the sad variations which pass across our lives so often? It is, of course, that the soul within us is so variable. God does not mean this intermittent life for His children, and there should be getting to be always less of it.
A. Martin, Winning the Soul, p. 3.
Faith and Sanctity are indeed not very frequent; but yet they are not miracles, but brought to pass by education, discipline, correction, and other naturall wayes, by which God worketh them in his elect, at such times as he thinketh fit.
References. XXI. 19. John Brown, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lv. p. 212. A. G. Mortimer, The Church's Lessons for the Christian Year, pt. ii. p. 305. F. Lynch, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lvii. p. 86. Expositor (4th Series), vol. v. p. 186; ibid. (6th Series), vol. vi. p. 399.
Alas! for the proud time when I planned, when I had present to my mind, the materials as well as the scheme of the Hymn entitled Spirit, Sun, Earth, Air, Water, Fire, and Man, and the Epic poem on what still appears to me the only fit subject remaining for an Epic poem Jerusalem besieged and destroyed by Titus.
'We do not enough realise the utterly unpatriotic aspect which the attitude of Christ must have taken in the eyes of such of His countrymen as had entered into this compromise between political and religious ends,' writes Miss Wedgwood in her Message of Israel. 'His agonised reference to the coming struggle with Rome shows how misleading was this aspect. But it was inevitable. At great political crises he who opposes the patriots is not so likely to be considered their worst foe, as he who ignores them. It was not that our Lord preached submission to Rome, though no doubt the decision as to the tribute money was capable of being represented in that light it was that He roused a spirit which moved in another plane than that of resistance or submission to imperial power. He created a weapon (it would seem) and withheld it from the service of the State. It will be found, in general, that no other treason is felt so deadly as this.
References. XXI. 20-36. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture St. Luke, p. 204. XXI. 22. Expositor (6th Series), vol. ii. p. 402. XXI. 24. A. Mackennel, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lvii. p. 168. F. E. Paget, Helps and Hindrances to the Christian Life, vol. i. p. 67.
Probably the last great historical event which in any European state has externally assumed a religious almost an ecclesiastical form is nearly the only event familiar to most of us in Russian history, namely, the expulsion of the French from Moscow.... The services of Christmas Day are almost obscured by those which celebrate the retreat of the invaders on that same day, the 25th of December 1812, from the Russian soil; the last of that succession of national thanksgivings, which begin with the victory of the Don and the flight of Tamerlane, and end with the victory of the Beresina and the flight of Napoleon. 'How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!' This is the lesson appointed for the services of that day. 'There shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars, and upon the earth distress of nations with perplexity. Look up and lift up your heads, for your redemption draweth nigh.'
Dean Stanley's History of the Eastern Church, pp. 277, 278.
References. XXI. 25, 26. O. Heagle, That Blessed Hope, p. 78. XXI. 27. Expositor (5th Series), vol. i. p. 193. XXI. 27, 32. W. H. Brookfield, Sermons, p. 187.
Law and Love
Consider two subjects suggested by our Lord's words: (1) The seriousness of life; (2) the survival of the spiritual.
I. The seriousness of life. Many most of us live on the surface of things. Life in these modern days has been made so secure that we have forgotten danger. And yet we are often reminded amid what forces we move. Fires, earthquakes, pestilence lie slumbering around. The laws of nature are unalterable; where cause is, effect must follow. In the spiritual as in the natural world cause and effect are tied together. Seriousness is not gloom. It has been well said that only the serious know the meaning of joy.
II. The survival of the spiritual. Material things are constantly showing themselves to be transient. But the spiritual things the unseen bonds which bind man to man and men to God remain. God speaks in power. It may be the hour of our redemption from the blind pursuit of material things. Those who look up listen and want to have love.
S. A. Barnett, Church Family Newspaper, vol. xvi. p. 48.
The doom of the Old has long been pronounced, and irrevocable; the Old has passed away; but, alas! the New appeal's not in its stead; the Time is still in pangs of travail with the New. Man has walked by the light of conflagrations, and amid the sound of falling cities; and now there is darkness and long watching till it be morning. The voice even of the faithful can but exclaim: 'As yet struggles the twelfth hour of the night: birds of darkness are on the wing, spectres uproar, the dead walk, the living dream. Thou, Eternal Providence, wilt cause the day to dawn!' So Carlyle, in the 'Characteristics' essay, in which he subsequently adds: 'Deep and sad as is our feeling that we stand yet in the bodeful Night; equally deep, indestructible is our assurance that the Morning also will not fail. Nay, already, as we look around, streaks of a dayspring are in the east; it is dawning; when the time shall be fulfilled, it will be day.'
Earth we have, and all its produce (moving from the first appearance, and the hope with infants' eyes, through the bloom of beauty's promise, to the rich and bright fulfilment, and the falling back to rest); sea we have (with all its wonder shed on eyes, and ears, and heart; and the thought of something more) but without the sky to look at, what would earth and sea and even our own selves be to us? Do we look at earth with hope? Yes, for victuals only. Do we look at sea for hope? Yes, that we may escape it. At the sky above (though questioned with the doubts of sunshine, or scattered with uncertain stars), at the sky alone we look, with pure hope and with memory.
R. D. Blackmore, in Lorna Doone.
References. XXI. 28. C. Bradley, Faithful Teaching, p. 69. J. Keble, Sermons for Advent to Christmas Eve, p. 300. XXI. 28-31. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xlii. No. 2496.
The new commandment to love one another; the recognition that the greatest are those who serve, not who are served by, others; the reverence for the weak and humble, which is the foundation of chivalry, they, and not the strong, being pointed out as having the first place in God's regard, and the first claim on their fellow-men; the lesson of the parable of the Good Samaritan; that of 'He who is without sin, let him throw the first stone'; the precept of doing as we would be done by; and such other noble moralities as are to be found, mixed with some poetical exaggerations, and some maxims of which it is difficult to ascertain the precise object; in the sayings of Jesus of Nazareth: these are surely in sufficient harmony with the intellect and feelings of every good man or woman to be in no danger of being let go, after having been once acknowledged as the creed of the best and foremost portion of our species. There will be, as there have been, shortcomings enough for a long time to come in acting on them; but that they should be forgotten, or cease to be operative on the human conscience, while human beings remain civilised or cultivated, may be pronounced, once for all, impossible.
John Stuart Mill.
References. XXI. 33 Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xlv. No. 2636. F. J. A. Hort, Village Sermons (2nd Series), p. 20. J. Jones, Sermons by Welshmen, p. 224. A. P. Stanley, Canterbury Sermons, p. 15. R. Allen, The Words of Christ, p. 1. T. D. Barlow, Rays from the Sun of Righteousness, p. 88. J. C. M. Bellew, Christ in Life: Life in Christ, p. 194. F. Bourdillon, Plain Sermons for Family Reading (2nd Series), p. 1.
Here is the fear: 'Lest at any time' the day shall come upon us when we are not prepared for it, which at some time will come upon us most certainly: 'lest at any time' the cry shall be made 'behold the Bridegroom cometh,' go ye out to meet Him, and we shall find that our lamps are gone out; 'lest at any time' we shall be hurried into the presence of the king and not have had time to put on the wedding garment.
I. 'Lest at any time.' But what then? What are we to do? What comes before this? Hear our Lord's words. 'Take heed to yourselves.' That is to be our great business, continually to watch, perpetually to take care. And it is 'Take heed to yourselves '. No one can do it for us, we must set about it for ourselves.
II. Is it very wearisome to watch? So it is. But better to be weary with watching than to be drowsy and to be lost. Hear a little story. Some English sailors went on expedition into a cold, frozen country, where the frost is bitter beyond any that we have here. A doctor was with them, who said, 'I am used to this. You are not. Let me tell you one thing. Probably one or more of you will be sleepy with cold and will ask to lie down. If any man lies down to sleep, he will never wake again in this world. It is the first sign of being frozen to death. The rest of you must push him on, drive him on, goad him on, if it be necessary; but, as you value his life, do not let him lie down.' Well, they went on; and who should be the first that complained of sleepiness but the doctor himself! 'Let me lie down only for two minutes,' he said, 'I shall be rested directly only a few minutes' sleep and I shall be refreshed.' 'No, no,' they cried, 'you yourself told us of the danger; we will not allow it; we will prick you on with our swords, if it be necessary, but lie down you shall not' They went on, and the doctor lived to thank them for remembering his words.
So it is with us; if we lie down, that is, if we are careless and take our ease in this world, we are lost; 'therefore, let us not sleep, as do others, but let us watch and be sober'.
III. 'Lest at any time.' But there is a world where we shall have no cause to say this. There can be no 'lest at any time' in heaven. There, danger is over. 'There,' as the prophet says, 'we may lie down and none shall make us afraid.' There need be no watching there. The sheep there are in a fold, into which none can come to do them harm.
J. M. Neale, Sermons in Sackville College Chapel, vol. i. p. 108.
'Observance, loyal concurrence in some high purpose for him, patient waiting on the hand one might miss in the darkness, with the gift or gifts therein of which he had the presentiment, and upon the due acceptance of which the true fortune of life would turn; these,' says Mr. Pater, in his romance of Gaston de Latour, 'were the hereditary traits awake in Gaston, as he lay awake in the absolute, moonlit stillness.'
The fighter for conquering is the one who can last and has the open brain; and there you have a point against alcohol.
I hear the voice of my God commanding, Let not your heart be overcharged with surfeiting and drunkenness. Drunkenness is far from me; Thou wilt have mercy, that it come not near me. But full feeding sometimes creepeth on Thy servant: Thou wilt have mercy, that it may be far from me.
References. XXI. 34. Expositor (6th Series), vol. i. p. 275; ibid. vol. vii. p. 109. XXI. 34-36. Ibid. (4th Series), vol. ii. p. 74.
The command of the New Testament, Watch that ye may be counted worthy to stand before the Son of man, put into other words, what is it? It is this: 'So live, as to be worthy of that high and true ideal of man and of man's life, which shall be at last victorious.' All the future is there.
References. XXI. 36. T. Arnold, Sermons, vol. iv. p. 77. XXI. 37. J. Keble, Sermons for the Holy Week, p. 11. XXI. 37, 38. Expositor (4th Series), vol. iii. p. 225; ibid. (6th Series), vol. xi. p. 172. XXI. 38. Ibid. p. 171. XXI. 41. Ibid. (5th Series), vol. v. p. 312. XXI. 45, 46. J. Keble, Sermons far the Holy Week, p. 46. XXII. 3. Expositor (5th Series), vol. ix. p. 437. XXII. 4. Ibid. (6th Series), vol. iii. p. 105. XXII. 5. Ibid. vol. i. p. 195. XXII. 7-20. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture St. Luke, p. 211. XXII. 11. F. St. John Corbett, The Preacher's Year, p. 141. XXII. 14. J. Bannerman, Sermons, p. 153. XXII. 14-30. F. B. Meyer, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lii. p. 382.
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Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Luke 21". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://studylight.org/
the Fourth Week after Epiphany