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Question and Attitude
Inquiry and attitude should correspond. You should look as if you meant your questions. Do not let us have any discrepancy in the man himself; no asking of questions about one way whilst we are looking over the shoulder towards another. Do not mock kind Heaven. "Thitherward": literally, Hither-ward. Jeremiah is writing in Judah, and he says the time will come when the returning ones will face this way; and they will be asking from step to step, Which is the road to Zion? Sometimes we look our prayers; sometimes we are on the right road and do not know it. There are more Christians in the world than slumber in our pews. God will interpret both the question and the man. Sometimes men will be on the right road, and be surprised to find themselves there: the answer to such will be, Go on, turn not to the right nor to the left; you are quite in the proper direction, all you have to do is to go on. Thus God delights to surprise human souls. Some questions are born in us; we know things by the very torment of our ignorance. Does that sound paradoxical? To me it is experimental. Curiously and inexplicably, we feel that there are some things we ought to know, and do not; then questions arise in our minds, as, for example, Who can tell us? Who will show us this good? Where are the men who know things that we do not know? and the re shall go forth out of the human heart a great cry for God's prophet, the teaching man, the seer in Israel. Questions about a certain kind of knowledge seem to be born in every soul; love for certain kinds of intelligence is inborn. Here is a little creature three years old who cannot be kept away from the piano. He will be there when you are not looking; he will rise early in the morning and grope his way towards the musical instrument, Why this, thou little Mozart? I cannot help it. Would you not like to go to the gaming-table? Would you not prefer to go to the flower-house? Would it not be more in your way, poor little child, to have hoop, or humming-top, or bagfuls of marbles? He does not answer in words, but he goes back to the piano as if he had left it in some other world and was delighted to find it again; it talks to him, and he talks to it, and if you will allow the little soul to tarry there he wants no other heaven just now. Others are fond of language or science or history; there is a predestination that settles us if we will listen to it. The Lord has not turned any one of us into a pathless world; he has made little feet for every path there is up the mountains and across the deserts and through the gardenland. He says to every traveller, I want you to go down this road; do not turn to the right or the left; you must be trained in the way you should go, the predestined, foreordained road; you will find walking smooth down there, but if you get upon any other path your feet will be pricked with sharp thorns.
Then certain kinds of need seem to grow in consciousness in the soul. We do not establish prayer by argument. If a man has to argue himself into prayer he cannot pray; if a man has to reason himself up to an organ he will never be an organist; if a man has to scourge himself in order to preach he will never be a preacher. He must preach because he breathes, he must play his instrument because he cannot be happy away from it. Prayer is the impulse of the soul: it is the cry of need, it is the utterance of wonder, it is the affirmation of spiritual certainty; the soul says, I know that if I could only speak loudly enough, or softly enough, I should be heard and answered from above. It is of no avail that we tell the spiritually minded man that the air is emptiness. He does not believe us: he says, I almost see my friends there; every waft of wind is like the throb of a heart. You are fools who have no encircling hosts of spirits: they only are wise who know that the air is the upper Church. When such need makes itself felt, then we begin to ask questions.
There must be persons who can answer great questions. First find out the human instrument if you can: Where dwells the seer? who keeps God's keys? whose tongue is learned that it can speak a word in season to him that is weary? The soul is never called upon to ask little questions. All the inquiries of the soul when the soul has fair-play are great, sublime, heaven-ascending, heaven-storming. If you are content with asking little questions, you must be content with receiving small replies. When Jesus Christ touched the human mind interrogatively, it was to call it up to some high questioning: What think ye of Christ? How does David call Christ both Son and Lord? All the questions, therefore, which Christ ever indicated showed that question-asking is right within certain limits. We do not heed the questions of mere curiosity or impertinence; we ought not to listen to the interrogatories of profanity: when the soul is really alive with interrogation it will know how to put its own questions, and it will give the Church no rest until those questions have been answered substantially. If the Church cannot answer the great questions of the soul, then it is no Church, though its spire be high as heaven. What are Christian teachers for but to answer the questions of the soul, to rebuke all the little questions, and to urge the soul to make bolder inquiries, yea, to thrust itself upon God in reverent cross-examination, that he may grant it great vision of light and great treasure of benediction? Nor must we think that only the nominally great can answer the soul's questions. Sometimes a little child might guide a king; sometimes a native of the very humblest type and status may know more about Ms village than the most distinguished stranger that approaches its obscurity. Except ye be converted and become as little children ye cannot answer some of the greatest questions about the invisible kingdom. Not when we are intellectually greatest, but when we are spiritually tenderest and most sympathetic, can we respond to those who say in pain, Who will show us any good? and to those who ask in wonder and in hope, Which is the way to Zion? We must cultivate this grace of asking really important and even sublime questions. They will lift the mind above the world; they will send currents of fresh air, so to say, from heaven's own sanctuary through the weary, hard-driven brain.
What are the great questions that men should ask? Men must answer that inquiry themselves. Why be so anxious about details and trivialities and frivolities? Why hold the letter in your hand and ask a score of questions about the sealing of it? You are not going to be saved by the seal; break it, open the letter, read it. He is not a student who fritters away his intellectual energy in inquiries about the sealing of the letter; he is the reverent inquirer, and therefore the deep and earnest student, who says, The seal must stand back until I have had time to make some larger inquiries; I may come back upon it and ask it questions; meanwhile, what does the letter itself say to me, what its message of love, what its stimulus to service? If you are really in earnest, if your souls be aflame with divine sincerity, you will know what questions are important and what are trivial. There shall come a time when the only questions worth asking will be religious questions: Where is Zion? Where is God? What is truth? Where is peace? Frivolities will then cease to excite our interest. The time will come when there will be a complete inversion even of intellectual relations. The first shall be last, and the last shall be first: inquiries which we now deem to be supreme we shall one day regard as insignificant. Yes, Religion, sweet, fair visitant from heaven, despised and esteemed not, shall one day have its chance. What do all your inquiries amount to when set side by side with the possibility (let us use no firmer term at this moment) of knowing and realising the spiritual and the divine? Granted, merely for the sake of argument, that it is possible to know something of God, before that possibility all other inquiry fades and perishes. Suppose that we could know everything about this handful of mud we call the globe, what does it come to? Nothing! Yet the important men now on the thoroughfare are the men who are going to the geological museum. By all means, I say to my fellow-travellers, Gentlemen, stand back and let them go. The men who are important now are the men who are going to the Houses of Parliament Hats off! Here are men who are going to make a new unintelligibility in the form of an Act of Parliament. The first shall be last and the last shall be first, and the time will come when the man who says "Let us pray" will be greatest in the kingdom of wisdom. But let us suppose, merely for the sake of acquiring information, that we know everything that can be known about the earth. The earth was formed (take down the ciphers) ten billions three millions five hundred and ninety-four thousand two hundred and seventeen years, eleven months, and three weeks ago have you got that down? What good has it done you? Do you feel better now? Can you rest? Are you satisfied? Do you say, This is heaven Oh say those sweet words again! Ten billions three millions. Yes, you may say them over and over again, until the day of doom, and you will not find one particle of real comfort in them. Now suppose you know all about the strata, how they were built, and how they were piled, and how they were coloured, and can trace every line, and discourse with eloquence upon every lamination, now how do you feel after all that? Are you at peace? are you at rest? I see your fingers going out after other worlds to clutch them because you have exhausted the little volume of the earth. But the universe is just as little to God as the earth is to you and the universe. There is nothing great beside God that is, in comparison with him, in relation to him. No: the time will come when we must know God himself; God shall be all in all, as an intellectual inquiry, as a spiritual delight, as a moral rest, as a promise of eternal growth and never-ceasing service. It is necessary that some men should be geologists; we must have all kinds of people to make up a complete world. There must be some persons who are doomed to the humiliation of breaking stones and giving fragments long names: what does it all come to? Within its own limit, useful; within its own limit, entertaining, instructive, and delightful: but when viewed in relation to what we may call the totality of things, the highest meaning and the supreme purpose, what are all these inquiries but trivialities learned, pompous, magnificent nothings!
We must prove the reality of our sincerity by the set and stress of our lives. Observe, these people do not only ask a question, they discover a disposition, they represent an attitude: "They shall ask their way to Zion with their faces thitherward." They lose no time in asking questions; they ask them as they go: Is this the road? we know it is: and the answer is, Yes, go on; fair Zion, beautiful as heaven's morning, stands yonder, with doors thrown back to give you welcome and hospitality. It is well thus to be doing two things at once, to be gathering information and to be realising it, to be asking questions and to be losing no time in progress. Here we have no mere speculation, no mere intellectual entertainment; here we have nothing but dead earnestness, the tongue asking the question which the face represents in action. How is it with us? We can show where we want to go. God finds our piety in the stress of our lives. How are these people looking? is the divine question: not, Are they faint, are they strong? not, Are they singing songs, or are they breathing sighs? but, Are they facing right? Then he will write in his record, "Faint, yet pursuing." Not the man who could rise and go up to the signal was healed of the serpent-poison, but he who only could turn his closing eyes in that direction, he was saved; the moment his dying eye caught sight of the typical Saviour, the virus was cleansed from his blood, the fiery flying serpent was forgotten, and he, because of his look of faith and hope, was saved, and made a man again. We can show where we would be if we could. That is all any preacher has a right to ask of us. We follow this line of policy in all ordinary life. Here, for example, is a young man about whom I will take your judgment. He says he is most anxious to learn what the Christian religion really is. Very good: what does this young man do? He attends a course of infidel lectures. What is your judgment about him? Can the unbeliever represent faith? Can the unbeliever really do that which is fair to any question which he opposes? Can the deaf man who never heard a sound tell you what music is? I convict that young man, not of irony only, but of falsehood and of blasphemy. He does not mean what he says when he indicates his desire to know what the Christian religion is. Suppose a man says, I am most desirous to know what may be known of the Godhead, therefore I am going to listen to six lectures on Agnosticism. What do you think of that poor crippled "therefore"? Did you ever meet so base a pretender in logic? What we insist upon is sincerity.
If you want to know about the Christian religion go to a Christian church, go to Christian literature, go to Christian teachers; if you want to know about atheism, go to atheists; they ought to know their own negation. Here is your son, who longs to be an arithmetician; therefore he goes every night to the music-hall. What would you say about him as a boy as your boy? Or perhaps you could speak more freely about him if he were somebody else's boy. But the question is, What do you think of him? He says, The desire of my soul is to be an arithmetician and therefore he spends six nights a week in the music-hall? You would not believe the witness. Suppose a man should say, I want to know what mountains really are, and therefore I am going to visit the lowlands of Holland. You would not believe the man; you would say, If you were really in earnest about seeing mountains, you would not go to Holland; if you were really in earnest, you would not go to even low-lying countries; but you would say, Where are the mountains? and I will climb them as much as I can, for I am anxious to know something of their height and something of their formation and something of the atmosphere that blows round their elevated heads. Now that you talk so you are a sincere man, you are at all events going in the right direction, and by so much you must be credited with sincerity. You can show what you would be and where you would be if you could.
If you really wanted to know about God, you would read the Bible; but if I found you reading every other kind of literature but the Bible and yet professing to want to know about God, I should not believe you: on the other side I will take this encouragement, that if we find any man in church we have a right to infer that he wants to know God, and reconciliation, and for giveness, and cleansing, and heaven. To be in the sanctuary should mean so much; it should cease to be a custom, a conventionality, or an aspect of social respectability: to be in the church should mean to have the face Zionward. Some may have their faces Zionward without having made any public declaration of that fact; some may peep into the church in the hope that they may see God. We will not say that any man goes to church out of mere curiosity; we would rather give the larger interpretation to human conduct, and say, Behold, what are these that fly as doves to the windows? What are these coming out on extraordinary occasions to the house of God? behold, these are earnest men, who are not only asking about Zion but who are setting their faces thitherward, and we know from their look, from those burning faces, that they mean to reach Zion. Accept that interpretation, and coming to church shall mean all that and all the plus which is involved in that elementary construction of human conduct.
Almighty God, thou dost wait to be gracious; thou dost not shut the door of Zion; thou dost welcome all returning souls, for thou hast no pleasure in darkness or in death. Thou art the God of life, thou art the Sovereign of eternity. Behold, thou hast sent forth the gospel of thy love in Christ Jesus the Lord throughout all the earth. Thou dost wait for returning captives, thou dost tarry for home-coming prodigals. Give us to feel that we are all welcome at our Father's door. We bless thee for infinite love, for love we cannot follow with our understanding, which our dreams cannot picture, from which our imagination stands back in awe and great surprise. Thou hast sent thy Son to save us, thou hast made the Cross the centre of the universe. We bless thee for that wondrous Tree; we thank thee for Golgotha. We come to the Cross for pardon, for purity, for peace, for all things needful for time and for eternity. For all thy care and patience we bless thee; we have stood only in the goodness of God; beyond that goodness we have no foothold, no hope, no light. Jesus, still lead on! Make tomorrow more abundant than today, in light, in promise, in fruitfulness; and at the end may we not know ourselves to be old, because our youth is just beginning. Comfort all that mourn: speak of rest to those who are heavy-laden: tell those who are wandering in the wrong direction that thou art waiting for them at home. Now may there be a great return of hearts, a great renewal of plighted troth at the altar which stands on Calvary. Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Jeremiah 50". Parker's The People's Bible. https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 14 / Ordinary 19