MEMORIES OF BETHANY.
REV. JOHN R. MACDUFF, D.D.
"MORNING AND NIGHT WATCHES," "WORDS OF JESUS," "MIND OF JESUS," "FOOTSTEPS OF ST. PAUL," "FAMILY PRAYERS," "MEMORIES OF GENNESARET," "STORY OF BETHLEHEM," ETC.
NEW YORK: ROBERT CARTER & BROTHERS, No. 530 Broadway. 1861.
To MOURNERS IN ZION, with whom BETHANY has ever been a name consecrated to sorrow, these MEMORIES ARE INSCRIBED.
PASSAGES REFERRING TO BETHANY IN THE SACRED NARRATIVE.
Earliest Notice of Bethany.
LUKE X. 38-42.—"And He entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received Him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus' feet, and heard His word. But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to Him, and said, Lord, dost Thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me. And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her."
Bethany in connexion with the Sickness, Death, and Resurrection of Lazarus.
JOHN XI. 1.—"Now a certain man was sick, named Lazarus, of BETHANY, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. (It was that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick.) Therefore his sisters sent unto Him, saying, Lord, behold, he whom Thou lovest is sick. When Jesus heard that, He said, This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby. Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus. When He had heard therefore that he was sick, He abode two days still in the same place where He was."
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"And after that He saith unto them, Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep. Then said His disciples, Lord, if he sleep, he shall do well. Howbeit Jesus spake of His death: but they thought that He had spoken of taking of rest in sleep. Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead. And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent ye may believe; nevertheless, let us go unto him."
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"Then, when Jesus came, He found that he had lain in the grave four days already. (Now BETHANY was nigh unto Jerusalem, about fifteen furlongs off.) And many of the Jews came to Martha and Mary, to comfort them concerning their brother. Then Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming, went and met Him: but Mary sat still in the house. Then said Martha unto Jesus, Lord, if Thou hadst been here, my brother had not died. But I know, that even now, whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it Thee. Jesus saith unto her, Thy brother shall rise again. Martha saith unto Him, I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day. Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: He that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth, and believeth in Me, shall never die. Believest thou this? She saith unto Him, Yea, Lord: I believe that Thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world. And when she had so said, she went her way, and called Mary her sister secretly, saying, The Master is come, and calleth for thee. As soon as she heard that, she arose quickly, and came unto Him. Now Jesus was not yet come into the town, but was in that place where Martha met Him. The Jews then which were with her in the house, and comforted her, when they saw Mary, that she rose up hastily and went out, followed her, saying, She goeth unto the grave to weep there. Then when Mary was come where Jesus was, and saw Him, she fell down at His feet, saying unto Him, Lord, if Thou hadst been here, my brother had not died. When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with her, He groaned in the spirit, and was troubled, and said, Where have ye laid him? They say unto Him, Lord, come and see. Jesus wept. Then said the Jews, Behold how He loved him! And some of them said, Could not this man, which opened the eyes of the blind, have caused that even this man should not have died! Jesus therefore again groaning in Himself, cometh to the grave. It was a cave, and a stone lay upon it. Jesus said, Take ye away the stone. Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto Him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days. Jesus saith unto her, Said I not unto thee, that, if thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God? Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead was laid. And Jesus lifted up His eyes, and said, Father, I thank thee that Thou hast heard Me. And I knew that Thou hearest Me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that Thou hast sent Me. And when He thus had spoken, he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth. And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with grave-clothes; and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go."
Notices of Bethany subsequent to the Raising of Lazarus.
JOHN XII. 1-8.—"Then Jesus, six days before the Passover, came to BETHANY, where Lazarus was which had been dead, whom he raised from the dead. There they made Him a supper; and Martha served: but Lazarus was one of them that sat at the table with Him. Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment. Then saith one of His disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, which should betray Him, Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor? This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein. Then said Jesus, Let her alone: against the day of My burying hath she kept this. For the poor always ye have with you; but Me ye have not always."
MATTHEW XXVI. 12-13.—"For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial. Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her."
JOHN XII. 9.—"Much people of the Jews therefore knew that He was there: and they came not for Jesus' sake only, but that they might see Lazarus also, whom he had raised from the dead."
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JOHN XII. 12-15.—"On the next day much people that were come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet Him, and cried, Hosanna: Blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord. And Jesus, when He had found a young ass, sat thereon; as it is written, Fear not, daughter of Sion: behold, thy King cometh, sitting on an ass's colt."
MATTHEW XXI. 10-12.—"And when He was come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, Who is this? And the multitude said, This is Jesus the Prophet of Nazareth of Galilee. And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the money-changers, and the seats of them that sold doves."
MARK XI. 11-15.—"And Jesus entered into Jerusalem, and into the temple: and when He had looked round about upon all things, and now the eventide was come, he went out unto BETHANY, with the twelve. And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, He was hungry: And seeing a fig-tree afar off having leaves, He came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when He came to it, He found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet. And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever. And His disciples heard it. And they come to Jerusalem: and Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the money-changers, and the seats of them that sold doves."
Verse 19-20.—"And when even was come, He went out of the city. And in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig-tree dried up from the roots."
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LUKE XXIV. 50-52—"And He led them out as far as to BETHANY; and He lifted up His hands, and blessed them. And it came to pass, while He blessed them, He was parted from them, and carried up into Heaven. And they worshipped Him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy."
ACTS I. 9-12.—"And when He had spoken these things, while they beheld, He was taken up; and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And, while they looked stedfastly toward Heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel; which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into Heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into Heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen Him go into Heaven. Then returned they unto Jerusalem from the Mount called Olivet, which is from Jerusalem a Sabbath-day's journey."
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ZECHARIAH XIV. 4.—"And His feet shall stand in that day upon the Mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall cleave in the midst thereof toward the east and toward the west, and there shall be a very great valley; and half of the mountain shall remove toward the north, and half of it toward the south."
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"And it shall be in that day, that living waters shall go out from Jerusalem; half of them toward the former sea, and half of them toward the hinder sea: in summer and in winter shall it be. And the Lord shall be King over all the earth: in that day shall there be one Lord, and his name one."
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"And it shall come to pass, that every one that is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall even go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of Hosts, and to keep the feast of Tabernacles."
I. OPENING THOUGHTS 1
II. THE HOME SCENE 11
III. LESSONS 24
IV. THE MESSENGER 34
V. THE MESSAGE 42
VI. THE SLEEPER 53
VII. LIGHTS AND SHADOWS 67
VIII. THE MOURNER'S COMFORT 77
IX. THE MOURNER'S CREED 84
X. THE MASTER 92
XI. SECOND CAUSES 100
XII. THE WEEPING SAVIOUR 108
XIII. THE GRAVE-STONE 125
XIV. UNBELIEF 134
XV. THE DIVINE PLEADER 141
XVI. THE OMNIPOTENT SUMMONS 150
XVII. THE BOX OF OINTMENT 161
XVIII. PALM BRANCHES 178
XIX. THE FIG-TREE 191
XX. CLOSING HOURS 211
XXI. THE LAST VISIT 221
XXII. ANGELIC COMFORTERS 240
XXIII. THE DISCIPLES' RETURN 257
MEMORIES OF BETHANY
Places associated with great minds are always interesting. What a halo of moral grandeur must ever be thrown around that spot which was hallowed above all others by the Lord of glory as the scene of His most cherished earthly friendship! However holy be the memories which encircle other localities trodden by Him in the days of His flesh,—Bethlehem, with its manger cradle, its mystic star, and adoring cherubim—Nazareth, the nurturing home of His youthful affections—Tiberias, whose shores so often echoed to His footfall, or whose waters in stillness or in storm bore Him on their bosom—the crested heights where He uttered His beatitudes—the midnight mountains where He prayed—the garden where He suffered—the hill where He died,—there is no one single resort in His divine pilgrimage on which sanctified thought loves so fondly to dwell as on the home and village of BETHANY.
Its hours of sacred converse have long ago fled. Its honoured family have slumbered for ages in their tomb. Bethany's Lord has been for centuries enthroned amid the glories of a brighter home. But though its Memories are all that remain, the place is still fragrant with His presence. The echoes of His voice—words of unearthly sweetness—still linger around it; and have for eighteen hundred years served to cheer and encourage many a fainting pilgrim in his upward ascent to the true Bethany above!
There, the Redeemer of the world proclaimed a brief but impressive Gospel. Heaven and earth seemed then to touch one another. We have the tender tones of a Man blended with the ineffable majesty of God. Hopes "full of immortality" shine with their celestial rainbow-hues amid a shower of holy tears. The cancelling from our Bibles of the 11th chapter of St John would be like the blotting out of the brightest planet from the spiritual firmament. Each of its magnificent utterances has proved like a ministering-angel—a seraph-messenger bearing its live-coal of comfort to the broken, bleeding heart from the holiest altar which SYMPATHY (divine and human) ever upreared in a trial-world! Many has been the weary footstep and tearful eye that has hastened in thought to BETHANY—"gone to the grave of Lazarus, to weep there."
"The town of Mary and her sister Martha," then, furnishes us alike with a garnered treasury of Christian solaces, and one of the very loveliest of the Bible's domestic portraitures. If the story of Joseph and his brethren is in the Old Testament invested with surpassing interest, here is a Gospel home-scene in the New, of still deeper and tenderer pathos—a picture in which the true Joseph appears as the central figure, without any estrangements to mar its beauty. Often at other times a drapery of woe hangs over the pathway of the Man of Sorrows. But Bethany is bathed in sunshine;—a sweet oasis in his toil-worn pilgrimage. At this quiet abode of congenial spirits he seems to have had his main "sips at the fountain of human joy," and to have obtained a temporary respite from unwearied labour and unmerited enmity. The "Lily among thorns" raised His drooping head in this Eden home! Thither we can follow Him from the courts of the Temple—the busy crowd—the lengthened journey—the miracles of mercy—the hours of vain and ineffectual pleading with obdurate hearts. We can picture Him as the inmate of a peaceful family, spirit blending with spirit in sanctified communion. We can mark the tenderness of His holy humanity. We can see how He loved, and sympathised, and wept, and rejoiced!
As the tremendous events which signalised the close of His pilgrimage drew on, still it is Bethany with which they are mainly associated. It was at Bethany the fearful visions of His cross and passion cast their shadow on his path! From its quiet palm-trees He issued forth on His last day's journey across Mount Olivet. It was with Bethany in view He ascended to heaven. Its soil was the last He trod—its homes were the last on which his eye rested when the cloud received Him up into glory. The beams of the Sun of Righteousness seemed as if they loved to linger on this consecrated height.
We cannot doubt that many incidents regarding His oft sojournings there are left unrecorded. We have more than once, indeed, merely the simple announcement in the inspired narrative that He retired from Jerusalem all night to the village where His friend Lazarus resided. We dare not withdraw more of the veil than the Word of God permits. Let us be grateful for what we have of the gracious unfoldings here vouchsafed of His inner life—the comprehensive intermingling of doctrine, consolation, comfort, and instruction in righteousness. His Bethany sayings are for all time—they have "gone through all the earth"—His Bethany words "to the end of the world!" Like its own alabaster box of precious ointment, "wheresoever the Gospel is preached," there will these be held in grateful memorial.
The traveller in Palestine is to this day shewn, in a sort of secluded ravine on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives (about fifteen furlongs or two miles from Jerusalem), a cluster of poor cottages, numbering little more than twenty families, with groups of palm-trees surrounding them, interspersed here and there with the olive, the almond, the pomegranate, and the fig.
This ruined village bears the Arab name of El-Azirezeh—the Arabic form of the name Lazarus—and at once identifies it with a spot so sacred and interesting in Gospel story. It is described by the most recent and discerning of Eastern writers as "a wild mountain hamlet, screened by an intervening ridge from the view of the top of Olivet—perched on its open plateau of rock—the last collection of human habitations before the desert hills that reach to Jericho. ... High in the distance are the Peraean mountains; the foreground is the deep descent of the mountain valley."
"The fields around," says another traveller, "lie uncultivated, and covered with rank grass and wild flowers; but it is easy to imagine the deep and still beauty of this spot when it was the home of Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary. Defended on the north and west by the Mount of Olives, it enjoys a delightful exposure to the southern sun. The grounds around are obviously of great fertility, though quite neglected; and the prospect to the south-east commands a magnificent view of the Dead Sea and the plains of Jordan."
"On the horizon's verge, The last faint tracing on the blue expanse, Rise Moab's summits; and above the rest One pinnacle, where, placed by Hand Divine, Israel's great leader stood, allow'd to view, And but to view, that long-expected land He may not now enjoy. Below, dim gleams The sea, untenanted by ought that lives, And Jordan's waters thread the plain unseen.
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Here, hid among her trees, a village clings— Roof above roof uprising. White the walls, And whiter still by contrast; and those roofs, Broad sunny platforms, strew'd with ripening grain. Some wandering olive or unsocial fig Amid the broken rooks which bound the path Snatches scant nurture from the creviced stone."
Before closing these prefatory remarks, the question cannot fail to have occurred to the most unobservant reader, why the history of the Family of Bethany and the Resurrection of Lazarus, in themselves so replete with interest and instruction—the latter, moreover, forming, as it did, so notable a crisis in the Saviour's life—should have been recorded only by the Evangelist John. Strange that the other inspired penmen should have left altogether unchronicled this touching episode in sacred writ. One or other of two reasons—or both combined—we may accept as the most satisfactory explanation regarding what, after all, must remain a difficulty. John alone of the Gospel writers narrates the transactions which took place in Judea in connexion with the Saviour's public ministry,—the others restricted themselves mainly to the incidents and events of His Galilean life and journeys; at all events, till they come to the closing scene of all. There is another reason equally probable:—A wise Christian prudence, and delicate consideration for the feelings of the living, may have prevented the other Evangelists giving publicity to facts connected with their Lord's greatest miracle; a premature disclosure of which might have exposed Lazarus and his sisters to the violence of the unscrupulous persecutors of the day. They would, moreover, (as human feelings are the same in every age,) naturally shrink from violating the peculiar sacredness of domestic grief by publishing circumstantially its details while the mourners and the mourned still lingered at their Bethany home. Well did they know that that Holy Spirit at whose dictation they wrote, would not suffer "the Church of the future" to be deprived of so precious a record of divine love and power. Hence the sacred task of being the Biographer of Lazarus was consigned to their aged survivor.
When the Apostle of Patmos wrote his Gospel, as is supposed in distant Ephesus, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were, in all likelihood, reposing in their graves. Happily so, too, for ere this the Roman armies were encamped almost within sight of their old dwelling, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem undergoing their unparalleled sufferings.
Add to this, John, of all the Evangelists, was best qualified to do justice to this matchless picture. Baptized himself with the spirit of love, his inspired pencil could best portray the lights and shadows in this lovely and loving household. Pre-eminently like his Lord, he could best delineate the scene of all others where the tenderness of that tender Saviour shone most conspicuous. He was the disciple who had leant on His bosom—who had been admitted by Him to nearest and most confiding fellowship. He would have the Church, to the latest period of time, to enjoy the same. He interrupts, therefore, the course of his narrative that he may lift the veil which enshrouds the private life of Jesus, and exhibit Him in all ages in the endearing attitude and relation of a Human Friend. Immanuel is transfigured on this Mount of Love before His suffering and glory! The Bethany scene, with its tints of soft and mellowed sunlight, forms a pleasing background to the sadder and more awful events which crowd the Gospel's closing chapters.
THE HOME SCENE.
The curtain rises on a quiet Judean village, the sanctuary of three holy hearts. Each of the inmates have some strongly-marked traits of individual character. These have been so often delicately and truthfully drawn that it is the less necessary to dwell minutely upon them here. There is abundant material in the narrative to discover to us, in the sisters, two characters—both interesting in themselves, both beloved by Jesus, both needful in the Church of God, but at the same time widely different, preparing by a diverse education for heaven—requiring, as we shall find, from Him who best knew their diversity, a separate and peculiar treatment.
Martha, the elder (probably the eldest of the family), has been accurately represented as the type of activity; bustling, energetic, impulsive, well qualified to be the head of the household, and to grapple with the stern realities and routine of actual life; quick in apprehension, strong and vigorous in intellect, anxious to give a reason for all she did, and requiring a reason for the conduct of others; a useful if not a noble character, combining diligence in business with fervency in spirit.
Mary, again, was the type of reflection; calm, meek, devotional, contemplative, sensitive in feeling, ill suited to battle with the cares and sorrows, the strifes and griefs of an engrossing and encumbering world; one of those gentle flowers that pine and bend under the rough blasts of life, easily battered down by hail and storm, but as ready to raise its drooping leaves under heavenly influences. Her position was at her Lord's feet, drinking in those living waters which came welling up fresh from the great Fountain of life; asking no questions, declining all arguments, gentle and submissive, a beautiful impersonation of the childlike faith which "beareth all things, hopeth all things, believeth all things." While her sister can so command her feelings as to be able to rush forth to meet her Lord outside the village, calm and self-possessed, to unbosom to Him all her hopes and fears, and even to interrogate Him about death and the resurrection, Mary can only meet Him buried in her all-absorbing grief. The crushed leaves of that flower of paradise are bathed and saturated with dewy tears. She has not a word of remonstrance. Jesus speaks to Martha—chides her—reasons with her; with Mary, He knew that the heart was too full, the wound too deep, to bear the probing of word or argument; He speaks, therefore, in the touching pathos of her own silent grief. Her melting emotion has its response in His own. In one word, Martha was one of those meteor spirits rushing to and fro amid the ceaseless activities of life, softened and saddened, but not prostrated and crushed by the sudden inroads of sorrow. Mary, again, we think of as one of those angel forms which now and then seem to walk the earth from the spirit-land; a quiet evening star, shedding its mellowed radiance among deepening twilight shadows, as if her home was in a brighter sphere, and her choice, as we know it was, "a better part, that never could be taken from her." Beautifully and delicately has a Christian poet thus drawn her loving character:—
"Oh, blest beyond all daughters of the East! What were the Orient thrones to that low seat, Where thy hush'd spirit drew celestial birth! Mary! meek listener at the Saviour's feet, No feverish cares to that divine retreat Thy woman's heart of silent worship brought, But a fresh childhood, heavenly truth to meet With love and wonder and submissive thought. Oh! for the holy quiet of thy breast, Midst the world's eager tones and footsteps flying, Thou whose calm soul was like a well-spring, lying So deep and still in its transparent rest, That e'en when noontide burns upon the hills, Some one bright solemn star all its lone mirror fills."
Of Lazarus, around whom the main interest of the narrative gathers, we have fewer incidental touches to guide us in giving individuality to his character. This, however, we may infer, from the poignant sorrow of the twin hearts that were so unexpectedly broken, that he was a loved and lamented only brother, a sacred prop around which their tenderest affections were entwined. Included too, as he was, in the love which the Divine Saviour bore to the household (for "Jesus loved Lazarus"), is it presumptuous to imagine that his spirit had been cast into much the same human mould as that of his beloved Lord, and that the friendship of Jesus for him had been formed on the same principles on which friendships are formed still—a similarity of disposition, some mental and moral resemblances and idiosyncrasies? They were like-minded, so far as a fallible nature and the nature of a stainless humanity could be assimilated. We can think of him as gentle, retiring, amiable, forgiving, heavenly-minded; an imperfect and shadowy, it may be, but still a faithful reflection and transcript of incarnate loveliness. May we not venture to use regarding him his Lord's eulogy on another, "Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!"
Nor must we forget, in this rapid sketch, what a precious unfolding we have in this home portraiture of the humanity of the Saviour! "The Man Christ Jesus" stands in softened majesty and tenderness before our view. He who had a heart capacious enough to take in all mankind, had yet His likings (sinless partialities) for individuals and minds which were more than others congenial and kindred with His own. As there are some heart sanctuaries where we can more readily rush to bury the tale of our sorrows or unburden our perplexities, so had He. "Jesus wept!"—this speaks of Him as the human Sympathiser. "Jesus loved Lazarus"—this speaks of Him as the human Friend! He had an ardent affection for all His disciples, but even among them there was an inner circle of holier attachments—a Peter, and James, and John; and out of this sacred trio again there was one pre-eminently "Beloved." So, amid the hallowed haunts of Palestine, the homes of Judea, the cities of Galilee, there was but one Bethany. It is delightful thus to think of the heart of Jesus in all but sin as purely human, identical and identified with our own. He was no hermit-spirit dwelling in mysterious solitariness apart from His fellows, but open to the charities of life;—in all His refined and hallowed sensibilities "made like unto His brethren." Friendship is itself a holy thing. The bright intelligences in the upper sanctuary know it and experience it. They "cry one to another." Theirs is no solitary strain—no isolated existence. Unlike the planets in the material firmament, shining distant and apart, they are rather clustering constellations, whose gravitation-law is unity and love, this binding them to one another, and all to God. Nay—with reverence we say it—may not the archetype of all friendship be found shadowed forth in what is higher still, those mystic and ineffable communings subsisting between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in a past eternity? We can thus regard the friendship of Jesus on earth—like all ennobled, purified affections—as an emanation from the Divine; a sacred and holy rill, flowing direct from the Fountain of infinite love. How our adorable Lord in the days of His flesh fondly clung even to hearts that grew faithless when fidelity was most needed! What was it but a noble and touching tribute to the longings and susceptibilities of His holy soul for human friendship, when, on entering the precincts of Gethsemane, He thus sought to mitigate the untold sorrows of that awful hour—"Tarry ye here and watch with Me!"
But to return. Such was the home around which the memories of its inmates and our own love to linger.
Mary, Martha, and Lazarus—all three partakers of the same grace, fellow-pilgrims Zionward, and that journey sanctified and hallowed by a sacred fellowship with the Lord of pilgrims. The Saviour's own precious promise seems under that roof of lowly unobtrusive love to receive a living fulfilment: "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." Though many a gorgeous palace was at that era adorning the earth, where was the spot, what the dwelling, half so consecrated as this? Solomon had a thousand years before, two miles distant, in presence of assembled Israel, uttered the exclamation, "But will God in very deed dwell with men upon earth?" He was now verily dwelling! Nor was it under any gorgeous canopy or august temple. He had selected Three Human Souls as the shrines He most loved. He had sought their holy, heavenly converse as the sweetest incense and costliest sacrifice. How or where they first saw Jesus we cannot tell. They had probably been among the number of those pious Jews who had prayerfully waited for the "consolation of Israel," and who had lived to see their fondest wishes and hopes realised. The Evangelist gives no information regarding their previous history. The narrative all at once, with an abruptness of surpassing beauty, leaves us in no doubt that the Divine Redeemer had been for long a well-known guest in that sunlit home, and that, when the calls and duties of His public ministry were suspended, many an hour was spent in the enjoyment of its peaceful seclusion.
We can fancy, and no more, these oft happy meetings, when the Pilgrim Saviour, weary and worn, was seen descending the rocky footpath of Olivet,—Lazarus or his sisters, from the flat roof of their dwelling, or under the spreading fig-tree, eager to catch the first glimpse of His approach.
When seated in the house, we may picture their converse: Themes of sublime and heavenly import, unchronicled by the inspired penmen, which sunk deep into those listening spirits, and nerved two of them for an after-hour of unexpected sorrow. If there be bliss in the interchange of communion between Christian and Christian, what must it have been to have had the presence and fellowship of the Lord Himself! Not seeing Him, as we see Him, "behind the lattice," but seated underneath His shadow, drinking in the living tones of His living voice. These "children of Zion" must, indeed, have been "joyful in their King."
One of these hallowed seasons is that referred to in the 10th of St Luke, where Martha the ministering spirit, and Mary the lowly disciple, are first introduced to our notice. That visit is conjectured to have occurred when Jesus was returning to the country from the Feast of Tabernacles. The Bethany circle dreamt not then of their impending trial. But, foreseen as it was by Him who knows the end from the beginning, may we not well believe one reason (the main reason) for His going thither was to soothe them in the prospect of a saddened home? So that, when the stroke did descend, they might be cheered and consoled with the remembrances of His visit, and of the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth.
And is not this still the way Jesus deals with His people? He visits them often by some precious love-tokens—some special manifestations of His grace and presence before the hour of trial. So that, when that hour does come, they may not be altogether prostrated or overwhelmed with it. Like Elijah of old, they have their miraculous food provided before they encounter the sterile desert. When they come to speak of their crushed hearts, they have solaces to tell of too. Their language is, "I will sing of mercy and judgment!"
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We may be led to inquire why a character so lovely as that of Lazarus was not enlisted along with the other disciples in the active service of the Apostleship. Why should Peter and Andrew, John and James, be summoned from their boats and nets on Gennesaret to follow Jesus, and this other, imbued with the same spirit and honoured with the same regard, be left alone and undisturbed in his village home?
"To every man there is a work." Some are more peculiarly called to active duty, and better fitted for it; others for passive obedience and suffering. Some are selected as bold standard-bearers of the cross, others to give their testimony in the quiet seclusion of domestic life. Some are specially gifted, as Paul, to appear in the halls of Nero or on the heights of Mars' Hill, and, confronting face to face the world's boasted wisdom, maintain intact the honour of their Lord. Others are required to glorify Him on beds of sickness, or in homes of sorrow, or in the holy consistent tenor of their everyday walk. Some are called as Levites to temple service; others to give the uncostly cup of cold water, or the widow's mite; others to manifest the meek, gentle, unselfish, resigned, forgiving heart, when there is no cup or mite to offer!
Believer! rejoice that your path is marked out for you. Your lot in life, with all its "accidents," is your Lord's appointing. Dream not, in your own short-sighted wisdom, that, had you occupied some other or more prominent position—had your talents been greater, or your worldly influence more extensive—you might have glorified your God in a way which is at present denied to you. He can be served in the lowliest as well as in the most exalted stations. As the tiniest leaf or smallest star in the world of nature reflects His glory as well as the giant mountain or blazing sun, so does He graciously own and recognise the humblest effort of lowly love no less than the most lavish gifts which splendid munificence and costly devotion can cast into His treasury. Let it be your great aim and ambition to honour Him just in the position He has seen meet to assign you. "Let every man," says the Apostle, "wherein he is called, therein abide with God." However limited your sphere, you may become a centre of holy influences to the little world around you. Your heart may be an incense-altar of love and affection, kindness and gentleness to man—your life a perpetual hymn of praise to your Father in Heaven; glorifying Him, like Martha, by active service; like Mary, by sitting at His feet; or, like Lazarus, by holy living and happy dying, and leaving behind you "the Memory of the Just" which is "blessed."
As yet the home of Bethany is all happiness. The burial-ground has been untraversed since, probably years before the dust of one, or perhaps both parents had been committed to the sepulchre. Death had long left the inmates an unbroken circle. Can it be that the unwelcome intruder is so nigh at hand?—that their now joyous dwelling is so soon to echo to the wail of lamentation? We imagine it but lately visited by Jesus. In a little while the arrow hath sped; the sacredness of a divine friendship is no guarantee against the incursion of the sleepless foe of human happiness. Bethany is a mourning household. The sisters are bowed in the agony of their worst bereavement—the prop of their existence is laid low—"Lazarus is dead!"
At the very threshold of this touching story, are we not called on to pause, and read the uncertainty of earth's best joys and purest happiness; that the brightest sunshine is often the precursor of a dark cloud. When the gourd is all flourishing, a worm may unseen be preying at its root! When the vessel is gliding joyously on the calm sea, the treacherous rock may be at hand, and, in one brief hour, it has become a shattered wreck!
It is the touching record of the inspired historian in narrating Abraham's heaviest trial—"After these things, God did tempt Abraham." After what things? After a season of rich blessings, gilding a future with bright hopes!
Would that, amidst our happy homes, and sunshine hours, and seasons of holy and joyous intercourse between friend and friend, we would more habitually bear in mind "This is not to last!" In one brief and unsuspected moment Lazarus may be taken. The messenger may now be on the wing to lay low some treasured object of earthly solicitude and love. God would teach us—while we are glad of our gourds—not to be "exceeding glad;" not to nestle here as if we were to "live alway," but rather, as we are perched on our summer boughs, to be ready at His bidding to soar away, and leave behind us what most we prize.
It tells us, too, the utter mysteriousness of many of the divine dispensations.
"LAZARUS IS DEAD!" What! He, the head, and support, and stay of two helpless females? The joy and solace of a common orphanhood,—a brother evidently made and born for their adversities? What! Lazarus, whom Jesus tenderly loved? How much, even to his Lord, will be buried in that early grave! We may well expect, if there be one homestead in all Palestine guarded by the overshadowing wings of angels to debar the entrance of death, whose inmates may pillow their heads night after night in the confident assurance of immunity from trial, it must surely be that loved resort—that "Arbour in His Hill Difficulty," where the God-man delighted oft to pause and refresh His wearied body and aching mind. Will Omnipotence not have set its mark, as of old, on the door-posts and lintels of that consecrated dwelling, so that the destroyer, in going his rounds elsewhere, may pass by it unscathed? How, too, can the infant Church spare him? The aged Simeon or Anna we dare not wish to detain. Burdened with years and infirmities, after having got a glimpse of their Lord and Saviour, let them depart in peace, and receive their crowns. These decayed trees in the forest—those to whom old age on earth is a burden—let them bow to the axe, and be transplanted to a nobler clime. But one in the vigour of life—one so beautifully combining natural amiability with Christian love—one who was pre-eminently the friend of Jesus, and that word profoundly suggestive of all that was lovely in a disciple's character. Death may visit other homes in that sequestered village, and spread desolation in other hearts, but surely the Church's Lord will not suffer one of its pillars so prematurely to fall!
And yet it is even so! The mysterious summons has come!—the most honoured home on earth has been rudely rifled!—the most loving of hearts have been cruelly torn; and inscrutable is the dealing, for "Lazarus is dead!"
"He, the young and strong, who cherish'd Noble longings for the strife, By the roadside fell, and perish'd On the threshold march of life."
And worse, too, than all, "the Lord is absent." Why is Omniscience tarrying elsewhere, when His presence and power are above all needed at the house of His friend?
The disconsolate sisters, in wondering amazement, repeat over and over again the exclamation, "If Jesus had been here, this our brother had not died!" "Hath He forgotten to be gracious?" "Surely our way is hid from the Lord, our judgment is passed over from our God."
Ah! the experience of His people is often still the same. What are many of God's dispensations?—a baffling enigma—all strangeness—all mystery to the eye of sense. Useless lives prolonged, useful ones taken! The honoured minister of God struck down, the unfaithful watchman spared! The philanthropic and benevolent have an arrest put on their manifold deeds of kindness and generosity; the grasping, the avaricious, the mean-souled—those who neither fear God nor do good to man, are suffered to live on from day to day! What is it but the picture here presented eighteen hundred years ago—Judas spared to be a traitor to his Lord, while—Lazarus is dead!
But let us be still! The Saviour, indeed, does not now lead us forth, amid the scene of our trial, as He did the bereft sisters, to unravel the mysteries of His providence, and to shew glory to God, redounding from the darkest of His dispensations. To us the grand sequel is reserved for eternity. The grand development of the divine plan will not be fully accomplished till then; faith must meanwhile rest satisfied with what is baffling to sight and sense. This whole narrative is designed to teach the lesson that there is an undeveloped future in all God's dealings. There is an unseen "why and wherefore" which cannot be answered here. Our befitting attitude and language now is that of simple confidingness—"Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?"—Listening to one of these Bethany sayings (we shall by and by consider), whose meaning will be interpreted in a brighter world by Him who uttered it in the days of His flesh—"Said I not unto thee, that if thou wouldest believe thou shouldest see the glory of God?"
"O thou who mournest on thy way, With longings for the close of day, He walks with thee, that Angel kind, And gently whispers—'Be resign'd; Bear up—bear on—the end shall tell, The dear Lord ordereth all things well.'"
Our duty, meanwhile, is that of children, simply to trust the faithfulness of a God whose footsteps of love we often fail to trace. All will be seen at last to have been not only for the best, but really the best. Dark clouds will be fringed with mercy. What we call now "baffling dispensations," will be seen to be wondrous parts of a great connected whole,—the wheel within wheel of that complex machinery, by which "all things" (yes, ALL things) are now working together for good.
"Lazarus is dead!" The choicest tree in the earthly Eden has succumbed to the blast. The choicest cup has been dashed to the ground. Some great lights in the moral firmament have been extinguished. But God can do without human agency. His Church can be preserved, though no Moses be spared to conduct Israel over Jordan, and no Lazarus to tell the story of his Saviour's grace and love, when other disciples have forsaken Him and fled.
We may be calling, in our blind unbelief, as we point to some ruined fabric of earthly bliss—some tomb which has become the grave of our fondest affections and dearest hopes—"Shall the dust praise thee, shall it declare thy truth?" Believe! believe! God will not give us back our dead as He did to the Bethany sisters; but He will not deprive us of aught we have, or suffer one garnered treasure to be removed, except for His own glory and our good. Now it is our province to believe it—in Heaven we shall see it. Before the sapphire throne we shall see that not one redundant thorn has been suffered to pierce our feet, or one needless sorrow to visit our dwelling, or tear to dim our eye. Then our acknowledgment will be, "We have known and believed the love which God hath to us."
"Oh, weep not though the beautiful decay, Thy heart must have its autumn—its pale skies Leading mayhap to winter's cold dismay. Yet doubt not. Beauty doth not pass away; His form departs not, though his body dies. Secure beneath the earth the snowdrop lies, Waiting the spring's young resurrection-day."
Be it ours to have Jesus with us, and Jesus for us, in all our afflictions. If we wish to insure these mighty solaces, we must not suffer the hour of sorrow and bereavement to overtake us with a Saviour till then a stranger and unknown. St Luke tells us the secret of Mary's faith and composure at her loved one's grave:—She had, long before her day of trial, learned to sit at her Redeemer's feet. It was when in health Jesus was first resorted to and loved.
In prosperity may our homes and hearts be gladdened with His footstep; and when prosperity is withdrawn, and is succeeded by the dark and cloudy day, may we know, like Martha and Mary, where to rush in our seasons of bitter sorrow; listening from His glorified lips on the throne to those same exalted themes of consolation which, for eighteen hundred years, have to myriad, myriad mourners been like oil thrown on the troubled sea. Jesus is with us! The Master is come! His presence will extract sorrow from the bitterest cup, and make, as He did at Bethany, a very home of bereavement and a burial scene to be "hallowed ground!"
Is the absent Saviour not to be sought? Martha and Mary knew the direction He had taken. The last time He had visited their home was at the Feast of Dedication, during the season of winter, when the palm-trees were bared of their leaves, and the voice of the turtle was silent. Jesus, on that occasion, had to escape the vengeance of the Jews in Jerusalem by a temporary retirement to the place where John first baptized, near Enon, on the wooded banks of the Jordan. It must have been to Him a spot and season of calm and grateful repose; a pleasing transition from the rude hatred and heartless formalism which met Him in the degenerate "City of Solemnities." The savour of the Baptist's name and spirit seemed to linger around this sequestered region. John had evidently prepared, by his faithful ministry, the way for a mightier Preacher, for we read, as the result of the Saviour's present sojourn, that "many believed on him there."
If we visit with hallowed emotion the places where first we learned to love the Lord, to two at least of those who accompanied the Redeemer, the region He now traversed must have been full of fragrant memories; there it was that Jesus had been first pointed out to them as the "Lamb of God;" there they first "beheld His glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and of truth." (John i. 28.)
On His way thither, on the present occasion, He most probably passed through Bethany, and apprised His friends of His temporary absence. Lazarus was then in his wonted vigour—no shadow of death had yet passed over his brow; he doubtless parted with the Lord he loved happy at the thought of ere long meeting again.
But soon all is changed. The hand of sickness unexpectedly lays him low. At first there is no cause for anxiety. But soon the herald-symptoms of danger and death gather fast and thick around his pillow; "his beauty consumes away like a moth." The terrible possibility for the first time flashes across the minds of the sisters, of a desolate home, and of themselves being the desolate survivors of a loved brother. The joyous dream of restoration becomes fainter and fainter. Human remedies are hopeless. There was One, and only ONE, in the wide world who could save from impending death. His word, they knew, could alone summon lustre to that eye, and bloom to that wan and fading cheek. Fifty long miles intervene between the great Physician and their cottage home. But they cannot hesitate. Some kind and compassionate neighbour is soon found ready to hasten along the Jericho road with the brief but urgent message, "Lord! behold he whom thou lovest is sick." If it only reach in time, they know that no more is needed. They even indulge the expectation that their messenger may be anticipated by the Lord Himself appearing. Others might doubt His omniscience, but they knew its reality. They had the blessed conviction, that while they were seated in burning tears by that couch of sickness, there was a sympathising Being far away marking every heart-throb of His suffering friend. Even when the stern human conviction of "no hope" was pressing upon them, "hoping against hope," they must have felt confident that He would not suffer His faithfulness now to fail. He had often proved Himself a Brother and Friend in the hour of joy. Could He fail—can He fail to prove Himself now a "Brother born for adversity?"
Although, however, thus convinced that the tale of their sorrows was known to Jesus, a messenger is sent,—the means are employed! They act as though He knew it not; as if that omniscient Saviour had been all unconscious of these hours of prolonged and anxious agony!
What a lesson is there here for us! God is acquainted with our every trouble; He knows (far better than we know ourselves) every pang we heave, every tear we weep, every perplexing path we tread; but the knee must be bent, the message must be taken, the prayer must ascend! It is His own appointed method,—His own consecrated medium for obtaining blessings. Jesus may have gone, and probably would have gone to restore His friend, even though no such messenger had reached Him: We dare not limit the grace and dealings of God: He is often (blessed be His name for it!) "found of them that sought Him not." But He loves such messages as this. He loves the confiding, childlike trust of His own people, who delight in the hour of their extremity to cast their burdens upon Him, and send the winged herald of prayer to the throne of grace on which He sits.
Would that we valued, more than we do, this blessed link of communication between our souls and Heaven! More especially in our seasons of trouble, (when "vain is the help of man,") happy for us to be able implicitly to rest in the ability and willingness of a gracious Redeemer.
Prayer brings the soul near to Jesus, and fetches Jesus near to the soul. He may linger, as He did now at the Jordan, ere the answer be vouchsafed, but it is for some wise reason; and even if the answer given be not in accordance with our pre-conceived wishes or anxious desires, yet how comforting to have put our case and all its perplexities in His hand, saying, "I am oppressed; undertake Thou for me! To Thee I unburden and unbosom my sorrows. I shall be satisfied whether my cup be filled or emptied. Do to me as seemeth good in Thy sight. He whom I love and whom THOU lovest is sick; the Lazarus of my earthly hopes and affections is hovering on the brink of death. That levelling blow, if consummated, will sweep down in a moment all my hopes of earthly happiness and joy. But it is my privilege to confide my trouble to Thee; to know that I have surrendered myself and all that concerns me into the hand of Him who 'considers my soul in adversity.' Yes; and should my schemes be crossed, and my fondest hopes baffled, I will feel, even in apparently unanswered prayers, that the Judge of all the earth has done right!"
"It is said," says Rutherford, speaking of the Saviour's delay in responding to the request of the Syrophenician woman; "It is said He answered not a word, but it is not said He heard not a word. These two differ much. Christ often heareth when He doth not answer. His not answering is an answer, and speaks thus: 'Pray on, go on and cry, for the Lord holdeth His door fast bolted not to keep you out, but that you may knock and knock.'"
"God delays to answer prayer," says Archbishop Usher, "because he would have more of it. If the musicians come to play at our doors or our windows, if we delight not in their music, we throw them out money presently that they may be gone. But if the music please us, we forbear to give them money, because we would keep them longer to enjoy their music. So the Lord loves and delights in the sweet words of His children, and therefore puts them off and answers them not presently."
Observe still further, in the case of these sorrowing sisters of Bethany, while in all haste and urgency they send their messenger, they do not ask Jesus to come—they dictate no procedure—they venture on no positive request—all is left to Himself. What a lesson also is there here to confide in His wisdom, to feel that His way and His will must be the best—that our befitting attitude is to lie passive at His feet—to wait His righteous disposal of us and ours—to make this the burden of our petition, "Lord, what wouldst Thou have me to do?" "If it be possible let this cup pass from me, nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt."
Reader! invite to your gates this celestial messenger. Make prayer a holy habit—a cherished privilege. Seek to be ever maintaining intercommunion with Jesus; consecrating life's common duties with His favour and love. Day by day ere you take your flight into the world, night by night when you return from its soiling contacts, bathe your drooping plumes in this refreshing fountain. Let prayer sweeten prosperity and hallow adversity. Seek to know the unutterable blessedness of habitual filial nearness to your Father in heaven—in childlike confidence unbosoming to Him those heart-sorrows with which no earthly friend can sympathise, and with which a stranger cannot intermeddle. No trouble is too trifling to confide to His ear—no want too trivial to bear to His mercy-seat.
"Prayer is appointed to convey The blessings He designs to give; Long as they live should Christians pray, For only while they pray, they live."
The messenger has reached—what is his message? It is a brief, but a beautiful one. "Lord, behold he whom Thou lovest is sick."
No laboured eulogium—no lengthened panegyric could have described more significantly the character of the dying villager of Bethany. Four mystic words invest his name with a sacred loveliness. By one stroke of his pen the Apostle unfolds a heart-history; so that we desiderate no more—more would almost spoil the touching simplicity—"He whom Thou lovest!"
We might think at first the words are inverted. Can the messenger have mistaken them? Is it not more likely the message of the sisters was this:—"Go and tell Him, 'Lord, he whom we love,' or else, 'he who loveth Thee is sick?'"
Nay, it is a loftier argument by which they would stir the infinite depths of the Fountain of love! They had "known and believed the love" which the Great Redeemer bore to their brother, and they further felt assured that "loving him at the beginning, He would love him even to the end." Their love to Lazarus (tender, unspeakably tender as it was one of the loveliest types of human affection)—was at best an earthly love—finite—imperfect—fitful—changing—perishable. But the love they invoked was undying and everlasting, superior to all vacillation—enduring as eternity.
It is ours "to take encouragement in prayer from God only;"—to plead nothing of our own—our poor devotedness, or our unworthy services; they are rather arguments for our condemnation;—but His promises are all "Yea, and amen." They never fail. His name is "a strong tower," running into which the righteous are safe. That tower is garrisoned and bulwarked by the attributes of His own everlasting nature. Among these attributes not the least glorious is His Love—that unfathomable love which dwelt in His bosom from all eternity, and which is immutably pledged never to be taken from His people!
Man's love to his God is like the changing sand—His is like the solid rock. Man's love is like the passing meteor with its fitful gleam. His like the fixed stars, shining far above, clear and serene, from age to age, in their own changeless firmament.
Do we know anything of the words of this message? Could it be written on our hearts in life? Were we to die, could it be inscribed on our tombs, "This is one whom Jesus loved?"
Happy assurance! The pure spirits who bend before the throne know no happier. The archangels—the chieftains among principalities and powers, can claim no higher privilege, no loftier badge of glory!
Love is the atmosphere they breathe. It is the grand moral law of gravitation in the heavenly economy. God, the central sun of light, and joy, and glory, keeping by this great motive principle every spiritual planet in its orbit, "for God is love."
That love is not confined to heaven. It may be foretasted here. The sick man of Bethany knew of it, and exulted in it. Though in the moment of dissolution he had to mourn the personal absence of his Lord, yet "believing" in that love, he "rejoiced with joy unspeakable and full of glory." His sisters, as they stood in sorrowing emotion by his dying couch, and thought of that hallowed fraternal bond which was about so soon to be dissolved, could triumph in the thought of an affection nobler and better which knit him and them to the Brother of brothers—and which, unlike any earthly tie, was indissoluble.
And what was experienced in that lowly Bethany home, may be experienced by us.
That love in its wondrous manifestation is confined to no limits, no age, no peculiar circumstances. Many a Lazarus, pining in want, who can claim no heritage but poverty, no home but cottage walls, or who, stretched on a bed of protracted sickness, is heard saying in the morning, "Would God it were evening! and in the evening, Would God it were morning!" if he have that love reigning in his heart, he has a possession outweighing the wealth of worlds!
What a message, too, of consolation is here to the sick! How often are those chained down year after year to some aching pillow, worn, weary, shattered in body, depressed in spirit,—how apt are they to indulge in the sorrowful thought, "Surely God cannot care for me!" What! Jesus think of this wasted frame—these throbbing temples—these powerless limbs—this decaying mind! I feel like a wreck on the desert shore—beyond the reach of His glance—beneath the notice of His pitying eye! Nay, thou poor desponding one, He does cherish, He does remember thee!—"Lord, he whom Thou lovest is sick." Let this motto-verse be inscribed on thy Bethany chamber. The Lord loves His sick ones, and He often chastens them with sickness, just because He loves them. If these pages be now traced by some dim eyes that have been for long most familiar with the sickly glow of the night-lamp—the weary vigils of pain and languor and disease—an exile from a busy world, or a still more unwilling alien from the holy services of the sanctuary—oh! think of Him who loves thee, who loved thee into this sickness, and will love thee through it, till thou standest in that unsuffering, unsorrowing world, where sickness is unknown! Think of Lazarus in his chamber, and the plea of the sisters in behalf of their prostrate brother, "Lord, come to the sick one, whom Thou lovest."
Believe it, the very continuance of this sickness is a pledge of His love. You may be often tempted to say with Gideon, "If the Lord be with me, why has all this befallen me?" Surely if my Lord loved me, He would long ere this have hastened to my relief, rebuked this sore disease, and raised me up from this bed of languishing? Did you ever note, in the 6th verse of this Bethany chapter, the strangely beautiful connexion of the word THEREFORE? The Evangelist had, in the preceding verse, recorded the affection Jesus bore for that honoured family. "Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus." "When He had heard THEREFORE that he was sick,"—what did He do? "Fled on wings of love to the succour of His loved friend; hurried in eager haste by the shortest route from Bethabara?" We expect to hear so, as the natural deduction from John's premises. How we might think could love give a more truthful exponent of its reality than hastening instantaneously to the relief of one so dear to Him? But not so! "When He had heard THEREFORE that he was sick, He abode two days still in the same place where He was!" Yes, there is tarrying love as well as succouring love. He sent that sickness because He loves thee; He continues it because He loves thee. He heaps fresh fuel on the furnace-fires till the gold is refined. He appoints, not one, but "many days where neither sun nor stars appear, and no small tempest lies on us," that the ship may be lightened, and faith exercised; our bark hastened by these rough blasts nearer shore, and the Lord glorified, who rules the raging of the sea. "We expect," says Evans, "the blessing or relief in our way; He chooses to bestow it in His."
Reader! let this ever be your highest ambition, to love and to be loved of Jesus. If we are covetous to have the regard and esteem of the great and good on earth, what is it to share the fellowship and kindness of Him, in comparison with whose love the purest earthly affection is but a passing shadow!
Ah! to be without that love, is to be a little world ungladdened by its central sun, wandering on in its devious pathway of darkness and gloom. Earthly things may do well enough when the world is all bright and shining—when prosperity sheds its bewitching gleam around you, and no symptoms of the cloudy and dark day are at hand; but the hour is coming (it may come soon, it must come at some time) when your Bethany-home will be clouded with deepening death-shadows—when, like Lazarus, you will be laid on a dying couch, and what will avail you then? Oh, nothing, nothing! if bereft of that love whose smile is heaven. If you are left in the agony of desolation to utter importunate pleadings to an Unknown Saviour, a Stranger God—if the dark valley be entered uncheered by the thought of a loving Redeemer dispelling its gloom, and waiting on the Canaan side to shew you the path of life!
Let the home of your hearts be often open, as was the home of Lazarus, to the visits of Jesus in the day of brightness; and then, when the hour of sorrow and trial unexpectedly arises, you will know where to find your Lord—where to send your prayer-message for Him to come to your relief.
Yes! He will come! It will be in His own way, but His joyous footfall will be heard! He is not like Baal, "slumbering and sleeping, or taking a journey" when the voice of importunate prayer ascends from the depths of yearning hearts! If, instead of at once hastening back to Bethany, He "abides still for two days where He was"—if He linger among the mountain-glens of distant Gilead, instead of, as we would expect, hastening to the cry and succour of cherished friendship, and to ward off the dart of the inexorable foe—be assured there must be a reason for this strange procrastination—there must be an unrevealed cause which the future will in due time disclose and unravel. All the recollections of the past forbid one unrighteous surmise on His tried faithfulness. "Now, Jesus loved Lazarus," is a soft pillow on which to repose;—raising the sorrowing spirit above the unkind insinuation, "My Lord hath forsaken me, and my God hath forgotten me."
If He linger, it is to try and test the faith of His people. If He let loose the storm, and suffer it to sweep with a vengeance apparently uncontrolled, it is that these living trees may strike their roots firmer and deeper in Himself—the Rock of eternal ages. Trust Him where you cannot trace Him. Not one promise of His can come to nought. The channel may have continued long dry—the streams of Lebanon may have failed—the cloud has been laden, but no shower descends—the barren waste is unwatered—the windows of heaven seem hopelessly closed. Nay, nay! Though "the vision tarry," yet if you "wait for it" the gracious assurance will be fulfilled in your experience—"The Lord is good to them that wait for Him, to the soul that seeketh Him." The fountain of love pent up in His heart will in due time gush forth—the apparently unacknowledged prayer will be crowned with a gracious answer. In His own good time sweet tones of celestial music will be wafted to your ear—"It is the voice of the Beloved!—lo, He cometh leaping upon the mountains, skipping upon the hills!" If you are indeed the child of God, as Lazarus was, remember this for your comfort in your dying hour, that whether the prayers of sorrowing friends for your recovery be answered or no, the Lord of love has at least heard them—the messenger has not been mocked—the prayer-message has not been spurned or forgotten! I repeat it, He will answer, but it will be in His own way! If the Bethany-home be ungladdened by Lazarus restored, it will exult through tears in the thought of Lazarus glorified. And the Marthas and Marys, as they go often unto the grave to weep there, will read, as they weep, in the holy memories of the departed, that which will turn tears into joy—"Jesus loved him."
"Our friend Lazarus sleepeth."—The hopes and fears which alternately rose and fell in the bosoms of the sisters, like the surges of the ocean, are now at rest. Oft and again, we may well believe, had they gone, like the mother of Sisera, to the lattice to watch the return of the messenger, or, what was better, to hail their expected Lord. Gazing on the pale face at their side, and remembering that ere now the tidings of his illness must have reached Bethabara, they may have even expected to witness the power of a distant word;—to behold the hues of returning health displacing the ghastly symptoms of dissolution. But in vain! The curtain has fallen! Their season of aching anxiety is at an end. Their worst fears are realised.—"Lazarus sleepeth."
How calm, how tranquil that departure! Never did sun sink so gently in its crimson couch—never did child, nestling in its mother's bosom, close its eyes more sweetly!
"His summon'd breath went forth as peacefully As folds the spent rose when the day is done."
Befitting close to a calm and noiseless existence! It would seem as if the guardian angels who had been hovering round his death-pillow had well-nigh reached the gates of glory ere the sorrowing survivors discovered that the clay tabernacle was all that was left of a "brother beloved!"
From the abrupt manner in which, in the course of the narrative, our Lord makes the announcement to His disciples, we are almost led to surmise that He did so at the very moment of the spirit's dismissal—the Redeemer speaks while the eyelids are just closing, and the emancipated soul is winging its arrowy flight up to the spirit-land!
Death a SLEEP!—How beautiful the image! Beautifully true, and only true regarding the Christian. It is here where the true and the false—Christianity and Paganism—meet together in impressive and significant contrast. The one comes to the dark river with her pale, sickly lamp. It refuses to burn—the damps of Lethe dim and quench it. Philosophy tries to discourse on death as a "stern necessity"—of the duty of passing heroically into this mysterious, oblivion-world—taking with bold heart "the leap in the dark," and confronting, as we best can, blended images of annihilation and terror.
The Gospel takes us to the tomb, and shews us Death vanquished, and the Grave spoiled. Death truly is in itself an unwelcome messenger at our door. It is the dark event in this our earth,—the deepest of the many deep shadows of an otherwise fair creation—a cold, cheerless avalanche lying at the heart of humanity, freezing up the gushing fountains of joyous life. But the Gospel shines, and the cold iceberg melts. The Sun of Righteousness effects what philosophy, with all its boasted power, never could. Jesus is the abolisher of Death. He has taken all that is terrible from it. It is said of some venomous insects that when they once inflict a sting, they are deprived of any future power to hurt. Death left his envenomed sting in the body of the great victim of Calvary. It was thenceforward disarmed of its fearfulness! So complete, indeed, is the Redeemer's victory over this last enemy, that He Himself speaks of it as no longer a reality, but a shadow—a phantom-foe from which we have nothing to dread. "Whosoever believeth in Me shall never die." "If a man keep My sayings, he shall never see death." These are an echo of the sweet Psalmist's beautiful words, a transcript of his expressive figure when he pictures the Dark Valley to the believer as the Valley of a "shadow." The substance is removed! When the gaunt spirit meets him on the midnight waters, he may, like the disciples at first, be led to "cry out for fear." But a gentle voice of love and tenderness rebukes his dread, and calms his misgivings—"It is I! be not afraid!" Yes, here is the wondrous secret of a calm departure—the "sleep" of the believer in death. It is the name and presence of JESUS. There may be many accompaniments of weakness and prostration, pain and suffering, in that final conflict; the mind may be a wreck—memory may have abdicated her seat—the loving salutation of friends may be returned only with vacant looks, and the hand be unable to acknowledge the grasp of affection—but there is strength in that presence, and music in that name to dispel every disquieting, anxious thought. Clung to as a sheet-anchor in life, He will never leave the soul in the hour of dissolution to the mercy of the storm. Amid sinking nature, He is faithful that promised—"Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world."—"Thou art with me," says Lady Powerscourt—"this is the rainbow of light thrown across the valley, for there is no need of sun or moon where covenant-love illumes."
A Christian's death-bed! It is indeed "good to be there." The man who has not to seek a living Saviour at a dying hour, but who, long having known His preciousness, loved His Word, valued His ordinances, sought His presence by believing prayer, has now nothing to do but to die (to sleep), and wake up in glory everlasting! "Oh! that all my brethren," were among Rutherford's last words, "may know what a Master I have served, and what peace I have this day. This night shall close the door, and put my anchor within the veil." "This must be the chariot," said Helen Plumtre, making use of Elijah's translation as descriptive of the believer's death; "This must be the chariot; oh, how easy it is!" "Almost well," said Richard Baxter, when asked on his death-bed how he did.
Yes! there is speechless eloquence in such a scene. The figure of a quiet slumber is no hyperbole, but a sober verity. As the gentle smile of a foretasted heaven is seen playing on the marble lips—the rays gilding the mountain tops after the golden sun has gone down—what more befitting reflection than this, "So giveth He His beloved SLEEP!"
"Sweetly remembering that the parting sigh Appoints His saints to slumber, not to die, The starting tear we check—we kiss the rod, And not to earth resign them, but to God."
Or shall we leave the death-chamber and visit the grave? Still it is a place of sleep; a bed of rest—a couch of tranquil repose—a quiet dormitory "until the day break," and the night shadows of earth "flee away." The dust slumbering there is precious because redeemed; the angels of God have it in custody; they encamp round about it, waiting the mandate to "gather the elect from the four winds of heaven—from the one end of heaven to the other." Oh, wondrous day, when the long dishonoured casket shall be raised a "glorified, body" to receive once more the immortal jewel, polished and made meet for the Master's use! See how Paul clings, in speaking of this glorious resurrection period, to the expressive figure of his Lord before him—"Them also which SLEEP in Jesus will God bring with Him!" Sleep in Jesus! His saints fall asleep on their death-couch in His arms of infinite love. There their spirits repose, until the body, "sown in corruption" shall be "raised in incorruption," and both reunited in the day of His appearing, become "a crown of glory in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of their God."
Weeping mourner! Jesus dries thy tears with the encouraging assurance, "Thy dead shall live; together with My body they shall arise." Let thy Lazarus "sleep on now and take his rest;" the time will come when My voice shall be heard proclaiming, "Awake, and sing, ye that dwell in dust." "The winter is past, the rain is over and gone, the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in the land. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away." "Weep not! he is not dead, but sleepeth. Soon shall the day-dawn of glory streak the horizon, and then I shall go that I may awake him out of sleep!"
Beautifully has it been said, "Dense as the gloom is which hangs over the mouth of the sepulchre, it is the spot, above all others, where the Gospel, if it enters, shines and triumphs. In the busy sphere of life and health, it encounters an active antagonist—the world confronts it, aims to obscure its glories, to deny its claims, to drown its voice, to dispute its progress, to drive it from the ground it occupies. But from the mouth of the grave the world retires; it shrinks from the contest there; it leaves a clear and open space in which the Gospel can assert its claims and unveil its glories without opposition or fear. There the infidel and worldling look anxiously around—but the world has left them helpless, and fled. There the Christian looks around, and lo! the angel of mercy is standing close by his side. The Gospel kindles a torch which not only irradiates the valley of the shadow of death, but throws a radiance into the world beyond, and reveals it peopled with the sainted spirits of those who have died in Jesus."
Reader! may this calm departure be yours and mine. "Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord. ... They REST." All life's turmoil and tossing is over; they are anchored in the quiet haven. Rest—but not the rest of annihilation—
"Grave! the guardian of our dust; Grave! the treasury of the skies; Every atom of thy trust Rests in hope again to rise!"
Let us seek to have the eye of faith fixed and centred on Jesus now. It is that which alone can form a peaceful pillow in a dying hour, and enable us to rise superior to all its attendant terrors. Look at that scene in the Jehoshaphat valley! The proto-martyr Stephen has a pillow of thorns for his dying couch, showers of stones are hurled by infuriated murderers on his guiltless head, yet, nevertheless, he "fell asleep." What was the secret of that calmest of sunsets amid a blood-stained and storm-wreathed sky? The eye of faith (if not of sight) pierced through those clouds of darkness. Far above the courts of the material temple at whose base he lay, he beheld, in the midst of the general assembly and Church of the First-born of Heaven, "JESUS standing at the right hand of God." The vision of his Lord was like a celestial lullaby stealing from the inner sanctuary. With Jesus, his last sight on earth and his next in glory, he could "lay him down in peace and sleep," saying, in the words of the sweet singer of Israel, "What time I awake I am still with Thee."
"It matters little at what hour o' the day The righteous falls asleep. Death cannot come To him untimely who is fit to die. The less of this cold world the more of heaven; The briefer life, the earlier immortality."—MILMAN.
"Our friend Lazarus sleepeth." This tells us that Christ forgets not the dead. The dead often bury their dead, and remember them no more. The name of their silent homes has passed into a proverb, "The land of forgetfulness." But they are not forgotten by Jesus. That which sunders and dislocates all other ties—wrenching brother from brother, sister from sister, friend from friend—cannot sunder us from the living, loving heart on the throne of heaven. His is a friendship and love stronger than death, and surviving death. While the language of earth is
"Friend after friend departs— Who hath not lost a friend?"
the emancipated spirit, as it wings its magnificent flight among the ministering seraphim, can utter the challenge, "Who shall separate me from the love of Christ?" The righteous are had with Him "in everlasting remembrance." Their names "written among the living in Jerusalem;" yea, "engraven on the palms of His hands."
One other thought.—Jesus had at first kindly and considerately disguised from His disciples the stern truth of Lazarus' departure. "Our friend sleepeth." "They thought that He had spoken of taking of rest in sleep." They understood it as the indication of the crisis-hour in sickness when the disease has spent itself, and is succeeded by a balmy slumber—the presage of returning health; but now He says unto them plainly, "Lazarus is dead." How gently He thus breaks the sad intelligence! And it is His method of dealing still. He prepares His people for their hours of trial. He does not lay upon them more than they are able to bear. He considers their case—He teaches by slow and gradual discipline, leading on step by step; staying His rough wind in the day of His east wind. As the Good Physician, He metes out drop by drop in the bitter cup—as the Good Shepherd, His is not rough driving, but gentle guiding from pasture to pasture. "He leadeth them out;" "He goeth before them." He is Himself their sheltering rock in the "dark and cloudy day." The sheep who are inured to the hardships of the mountain, He leaves at times to wrestle with the storm; but "the lambs" (the young, the faint, the weak, the weary) "He gathers in His arms and carries in His bosom." He speaks in gentle whispers. He uses the pleasing symbol of quiet slumber before He speaks plainly out the mournful reality, "Lazarus is dead." Truly "He knoweth our frame—He remembereth that we are dust." "Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear Him!"
But let us resume our narrative, and follow the journey of the dead man's "Friend." It is a mighty task He has undertaken; to storm the strong enemy in his own citadel, and roll back the barred gates! In mingled majesty and tenderness He hastens to the bereft and desolate home on this mission of power and love. We left the sisters wondering at His mysterious delay. Again and again had they imagined that at last they heard His tardy step, or listened to His hand on the latch, or to the loving music of His longed-for voice. But they are mistaken; it was only the beating of the vine-tendrils on the lattice, or the footfall of the passer by. The Lord is still absent! Their earnest and importunate heart-breathings are expressed by the Psalmist—"O Lord our God, early do we seek Thee: our soul thirsteth for Thee, our flesh longeth for Thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is; to see Thy power and Thy glory, as we have seen Thee." Be still, afflicted ones! He is coming. He will, however, let the cup of anguish be first filled to the brim that He may manifest and magnify all the more the might of His omnipotence, and the marvels of His compassion. The thirsty land is about to become streams of water. The sky is at its darkest, when, lo! the rainbow of love is seen spanning the firmament, and a shower of blessings is about to fall on the "Home of Bethany!"
LIGHTS AND SHADOWS.
The sounds of lamentation had now been heard for four days in the desolate household.
In accordance with general wont, the friends and relatives of the deceased had assembled to pay their tribute of respect to the memory of a revered friend, and to solace the hearts of the disconsolate survivors. They needed all the sympathy they received. It was now the dull dead calm after the torture of the storm, the leaden sea strewn with wrecks, enabling them to realise more fully the extent of their loss. Amid the lulls of the tempest, while Lazarus yet lived, hope shrunk from entertaining gloomy apprehensions. But now that the storm has spent its fury, now that the worst has come, the future rises up before them crowded with ten thousand images of desolation and sorrow. The void in their household is daily more and more felt. All the past bright memories of Bethany seem to be buried in a yawning grave.
We may picture the scene. The stronger and more resolute spirit of Martha striving to stem the tide of overmuch sorrow. The more sensitive heart of Mary, bowed under a grief too deep for utterance, able only to indicate by her silent tears the unknown depths of her sadness.
Thus are they employed, when Martha, unseen to her sister, has been beckoned away. "The Master has come." But desirous of ascertaining the truth of the joyful tidings, ere intruding on the grief of Mary, the elder of the survivors rushes forth with trembling emotion to give full vent to her sorrow at the feet of the Great Friend of all the friendless!
He has not yet entered the village. She cannot, however, wait His arrival. Leaving home and sepulchre behind, she hastens outside the groves of palm at its gate.
It requires no small fortitude in the season of sore bereavement to face an altered world; and, doubtless, passing all alone now through the little town, meeting familiar faces wearing sunny smiles which could not be returned, must have been a painful effort to this child of sorrow. But what will the heart not do to meet such a Comforter? What will Martha be unprepared to encounter if the intelligence brought her be indeed confirmed? One glance is enough. "It is the Lord!" In a moment she is a suppliant at His feet. Doubt and faith and prayer mingle in the exclamation, "Lord, if Thou hadst been here, my brother had not died!"
That she had faith and assured confidence in the love and tenderness of Jesus we cannot question. But a momentary feeling of unbelief (shall we say, of reproach and upbraiding?) mingled with better emotions. "Why, Lord," seemed to be the expression of her inner thoughts, "wert Thou absent? It was unlike Thy kind heart. Thou hast often gladdened our home in our season of joy—why this forgetfulness in the night of our bitter agony? Death has torn from us a loved brother—the blow would have been spared—these hearts would have been unbroken—these burning tears unshed, if Thou hadst been here!"
Such was the bold—the unkind reasoning of the mourner. It was the reasoning of a finite creature. Ah! if she could but have looked into the workings of that infinite Heart she was ungenerously upbraiding, how differently would she have broached her tearful suit!
Her exclamation is—"Why this unkind absence?"
His comment on that same absence to His disciples is this—"I was glad for your sakes that I was not there!"
How often are God and man thus in strange antagonism, with regard to earthly dispensations! Man, as he arraigns the rectitude of the Divine procedure, exclaiming—"How unaccountable this dealing! How baffling this mystery! Where is now my God?" This sickness—why prolonged? This thorn in the flesh—why still buffeting? This family blank—why permitted? Why the most treasured and useful life taken—the blow aimed where it cut most severely and levelled lowest?
Hush the secret atheism! This trial, whatever it be, has this grand motto written upon it in characters of living light;—we can read it on anguished pillows—aching hearts—ay, on the very portals of the tomb—"This is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified thereby!"
At the very moment we are mourning what are called "dark providences"—"untoward calamities"—"strokes of misfortune"—"unmitigated evils"—Jesus has a different verdict;—"I am glad for your sakes."
The absence at Jordan—the still more unaccountable lingering for two days in the same place after the message had been sent, instead of hastening direct to Bethany, all was well and wisely ordered. And although Martha's upbraidings were now received in forbearing silence, her Saviour afterwards, in a calmer moment, read the rebuke—"Said I not unto thee, if thou wouldst believe, thou shouldst see the glory of God?"
It is indeed a comforting assurance in all trials, that God has some holy and wise end to subserve. He never stirs a ripple on the waters, but for His own glory, or the good of others. The delay on the present occasion, though protracting for a time the sorrows of the bereaved, was intended for the benefit of the Church in every age, and for the more immediate benefit of the disciples.
They were destined in a few brief weeks also to be desolate survivors—to mourn a Brother dearer still! He who had been to them Friend—Father—Brother, all in one, was to be, like Lazarus, laid silent in a Jerusalem sepulchre. The Lord of Life was to be the victim of Death! His body was to be transfixed to a malefactor's cross, and consigned to a lonely grave! He knew the shock that awaited their faith. He knew, as this terrible hour drew on, how needful some overpowering visible demonstration would be of His mastery over the tomb.
Now a befitting opportunity occurred in the case of their friend Lazarus to read the needed lesson. "I was glad for your sakes, ... to the intent ye might believe."
Would that we could feel as believers more than we do—that the dealings of our God are for the strengthening of our faith, and the enlivening and invigorating of our spiritual graces. Let us seek to accept more simply in dark dealings the Saviour's explanation, "It is for your sake!" He gives us a blank for our every trial, indorsing it with His own gracious word, "This, this is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified thereby."
The words of Martha, then, surely teach as their great lesson, never to be hasty in our surmises and conclusions regarding God's ways.
"Lord! IF Thou hadst been here?" Could she question for a moment that that loving eye of Omniscience had all the while been scanning that sick-chamber—marking every throb in that fevered brow—and every tear that fell unbidden from the eyes that watched his pillow?
"Lord! if Thou hadst been here?" Could she question His ability, had He so willed it, to prevent the bereavement altogether—to put an arrest on the hand of death ere the bow was strung?
O faithless disciple, wherefore didst thou doubt? But thou art ere long to learn what each of us will learn out in eternity, that "all things are for our sakes, that the abundant grace might, through the thanksgiving of many, redound to the glory of God."
* * * * *
But the momentary cloud has passed. Faith breaks through. The murmur of upbraiding has died away. He who listens makes allowance for an anguished heart. The glance of tender sympathy and gentleness which met Martha's eye, at once hushes all remains of unbelief. Words of exulting confidence immediately succeed. "But I know that even now whatsoever Thou wilt ask of God, God will give it Thee."
What is this, but that which every believer exults in to this hour, as the sheet-anchor of hope and peace and comfort, when tossed on a tempestuous sea—a gracious confidence in the ability and willingness of Christ to save. The Friend of Bethany is still the Friend in Heaven. To Him "all power has been committed;" "as a prince He has power with God, and must prevail."
Yes, gracious antidote to the spirit in the moment of its trial; when bowed down with anticipated bereavement; the curtains of death about to fall over life's brightest joys. How blessed to lay hold on the perfect conviction that "the Ever-living Intercessor in glory has all power to revoke the sentence if He sees meet"—that even now (yes now, in a moment) the delegated angel may be sent speeding from his throne, to spare the tree marked to fall, and prolong the lease of existence!