Transcribed from the 1905 James Nisbet and Co. edition by David Price, email firstname.lastname@example.org
SERMONS AT RUGBY
By the Rt. Rev. JOHN PERCIVAL, D.D., LORD BISHOP OF HEREFORD SOMETIME HEADMASTER OF RUGBY
JAMES NISBET AND CO. LTD. 21 BERNERS STREET, LONDON. 1905
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[Photograph of John Percival: john.jpg]
This little group of Rugby Sermons is to be taken and read as being nothing more than a few stray chips from the workshop of a busy schoolmaster, brought together by a kindly publisher, and arranged as he thought best.
They represent no body of continuous doctrine. In one case the subject may have been suggested by the season of the Christian year; in another it was the meeting or the parting at the beginning or the end of a term that suggested it; or more frequently some incident in the school life of the moment.
Such, indeed, almost inevitably is the teaching of a schoolmaster, engrossed in the training of the boys committed to his charge and growing under his hand towards the destiny of their endless life.
To those boys, and to the masters, my colleagues, and to other fellow- labourers—some gone to their rest, some still doing their appointed work—I dedicate this brief reminder of our common life in days of happy fellowship.
J. HEREFORD. July 1905.
I. RELIGIOUS PATRIOTISM.
"Jerusalem is built as a city that is at unity in itself. . . . O pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee. Peace be within thy walls, and plenteousness within thy palaces. For my brethren and companions' sakes I will wish thee prosperity. Yea, because of the house of the Lord our God I will seek to do thee good."—PSALM cxxii. 3, 6-9.
As we draw near to the end of our summer term, when so many are about to take leave of their school life, there is sure to rise up in many minds the thought of what this life has done for them or failed to do, and of what the memory of it is likely to be in all their future years as they pass from youth to age.
And it should be our aim and desire, as need hardly be said, that from the day when each one comes amongst us as a little boy to the day when he offers his last prayer in this chapel before he goes out into the world, his life here should be of such a sort that its after taste may have no regrets, and no bitterness, and no shame in it, and the memories to be cherished may be such as add to the happiness and strength of later years. And if, as we trust, this is your case, your feeling for your school is almost certain to be in some degree like that which is expressed in this pilgrim psalm. Its language of intense patriotism, steeped in religious feeling, which is the peculiar inspiration of the Old Testament Jew, will seem somehow to express your own feelings for that life in which you grew up from childhood to manhood.
Indeed, the best evidence that your school life has not failed of its higher objects is the growth of this same sort of earnest patriotic enthusiasm. Do you feel at all for your school as that unknown Jewish pilgrim who first sung this 122nd Psalm felt for the city of his fathers and the house of God? "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee. For my brethren and companions' sakes I will wish thee prosperity. Yea, because of the house of the Lord our God I will seek to do thee good."
Experience shows us that those English schools have been the best in which this feeling has been strongest and most widely diffused; and that those are the best times in any school which train up and send forth the largest proportion of men who continue to watch over its life, and to pray for it in this spirit: "For my brethren and companions' sakes I will wish thee prosperity. Yea, because of the house of the Lord our God I will seek to do thee good." On the other hand, if this feeling is weak in any school, or among the former members of it, or if it assumes debased forms, as sometimes happens, we see there a sure sign of degeneration. He who, having grown up in any society like ours, is possessed by no such love for it, and stirred by no enthusiasm for its good name, and no desire to do it good, and to see good growing in every part of it, such an one has somehow missed the chief blessing that his membership of his school should have brought to him. He may have been unfortunate, or he may have proved unworthy. The atmosphere of his school life, and the associations amidst which he grew up, may have been such that the best thing he can do is to shake himself clear of them and forget them. To such an one his school time has been a grave and lifelong misfortune; and it is the condemnation of any society if there are many such cases in it.
It is, however, exceptional in English life for men who have grown up in a great school to be stirred by no glow of patriotic feeling for it. Whatever their own experience of it may have been, they are not altogether blind to the things that constitute its greatness, and they love to hear it well spoken of.
But the quality of their patriotism will depend very much on the quality of their own life; so that the task we have always before us is to be infusing into our community such a spirit and purpose, as shall infect each soul amongst us with those higher aims, and tastes, and motives, with that hatred of things mean or impure, and that love of things that are manly, honest, and of good report, which distinguish all nobler characters from the baser, and which are produced and fostered, and made to work strongly in every society that has any claim to good influence.
Seeing, then, that a man's patriotism is to a great extent the expression of his personal life, how instructive is this picture of the patriot which the 122nd Psalm sets before us. We see thus first of all how he feels the unity of his people—their one pervading life, and himself a part of it, though possibly far away—"Jerusalem is built as a city that is at unity in itself: thither the tribes go up." Those were times when Israel suffered from division of tribe against tribe, times when the pulse of common life hardly beat at all, times of isolation or of jealousy; but the true patriot in Israel, as everywhere, was always possessed by the intense feeling of the oneness of his people under one Lord; and whenever this feeling fails, we look in vain for the higher forms of common life.
But we note, too, this Psalmist's passionate personal devotion to the object of his patriotic love—"They shall prosper that love thee"—"For my brethren and companions' sakes I will wish thee prosperity." Who can read unmoved these noble and generous outpourings?
We see, moreover, how his feeling expresses itself, as true love always does express itself in the desire to do good to its object, and, above all, how it breathes the spirit of moral and religious earnestness. "Yea, because of the house of the Lord our God I will seek to do thee good." If ever you desire to test the sincerity and the worth of any love you bear to person, place, institution, or society, you have only to turn to this Psalm, and see if these words fit your thoughts, desires, and endeavours—"They shall prosper that love thee—For my brethren and companions' sakes I will wish thee prosperity—Yea, because of the house of the Lord our God I will seek to do thee good." Here are the notes of true patriotic feeling—personal love, public spirit, sanctified by moral and religious purpose, desire to do good. These are the qualities which are the salt of all societies, and it is by virtue of these that they win their good name, if they do win it.
In the history of our own school we can point to abundant illustrations of this truth. I will mention one only, familiar to those who know our history. "I verily believe," wrote a School-house boy to his friend fifty-three years ago—"I verily believe my whole being is soaked through with wishing and hoping and striving to do the school good, or, rather, to hinder it from falling in this critical time, so that all my cares, and affections, and conversation, thought, words, and deeds, look to that involuntarily."
Such was one of your predecessors as he sat here Sunday by Sunday, a boy like any of you.
He was eager to follow those friends who had preceded him to Oxford as scholars of Balliol; he was keenly interested in all intellectual pursuits; he turned for his daily pleasure to literature or history; but alongside of it all, or rather through it all, underlying it all, giving earnestness and fervour, the true unselfish quality, to it all, there was burning in his heart a consuming zeal for the good of his house and school. "For my brethren and companions' sakes I will wish thee prosperity. Yea, because of the house of the Lord our God I will seek to do thee good."
It was through the spirit and the lives of such as he, growing up here, and leavening all the life around them, and then going forth in the same spirit, to live the noble and earnest type of life elsewhere, that the name of Rugby School became honoured among schools, and this chapel came to be looked upon as a sacred home of inspiring influences; and it is only through an unfailing succession of such Rugbeians—growing up here in the same spirit, and going forth endowed with the same character and the same purpose—that this honourable name, this tradition of good influences, can be perpetuated.
And, if we desire to see how close this is to the spirit and the work of our Lord, how it is, in fact, one manifestation of that spirit which is the saving influence in human life; we have only to turn from the text with which I started to that with which I may conclude, from the Psalmist meditating on the city and temple of his heart's affections, to the Saviour, as He drew near to the Cross, praying for His disciples—"Father, the hour is come. . . . I have glorified Thee on the earth: I have finished the work Thou gavest Me to do. I have manifested Thy name unto the men whom Thou gavest me out of the world." . . . "And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified. Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on Me through their word."
The only change we see as we step from the Psalms to the Gospel, from the Jewish pilgrim to the Saviour whom we worship, is that religious patriotism has expanded into the love of souls, the love of Him who laid down His life to save us from the power of sin and death.
It was for you and me that Christ was praying; and His prayer for us will be answered so soon as it inspires us to follow in His footsteps, so that we too, as we kneel before God each morning, each night, and think of our duty to those around us, may be able to say, in these words of His, which are at once a prayer and a consecrating vow—"For their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also may be sanctified.'"
II. THE CHILD IN THE MIDST.
"And He took a child and set Him in the midst of them: and when He had taken him in His arms, He said unto them, Whosoever shall receive one of such children in My name, receiveth Me: and whosoever shall receive Me, receiveth not Me, but Him that sent Me."—ST. MARK ix. 36, 37.
It is one of the characteristics of our time, one of its most hopeful and most encouraging signs, that men are awaking to higher and purer conceptions of the Christian life and what it is that constitutes such a life. We are beginning to feel, as it was not felt by former generations, that the only true religion, the only Christianity worthy of the name, is that which aims at embodying and reproducing the spirit, the thought, the ideas of the Saviour.
Through and underneath all ecclesiastical and mediaeval revivals, and all vagaries of church tradition or of ritual, this feeling seems to be growing with a steady growth, that the real test of a man's religion is the evidence which his life affords of the Christ-like spirit. And this growing feeling gives an ever-fresh interest to the words and the judgment of the Lord on all matters of individual conduct and daily intercourse; so that if we are possessed at all by it, the Saviour is becoming more of a living person to us, and we ask ourselves more frequently, more earnestly, with more of reality and more of practical meaning in the question, how He would judge this or that side of our life, whether our conduct is in harmony with His spirit, and whether the standards of our life fit at all with His teaching and injunctions.
And how full of new meaning every familiar chapter of the Gospel becomes to you, if you are once roused to this kind of feeling; if you are feeling all the time, here is the spirit which should be dominating my own life and determining it, here are the thoughts, ideas, and views of conduct which should be mine also. How does my common life fit with all this? And it is with something like this feeling in your minds that I would ask you to consider the text I have just read to you. "Jesus took a child and set him in the midst of them. He took him up in His arms and said, Whosoever shall receive one of such children in My name, receiveth Me." And while we are considering it, let us notice also that in St. Matthew's narrative there are two other very emphatic expressions. "Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven"; and "Whoso shall offend one of these little ones that believe in Me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. . . . Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of My Father which is in heaven."
Here, then, is the child taken up by Jesus and set in the midst; we know nothing more of him but this one thing, that he represents to us our Lord's Divine love of little children, and His high estimate of childhood, as the mysterious embodiment of that character and those qualities which bring us close to the Divine life.
But this is quite enough to make us listen to the lessons of thought and warning and hope, which Jesus expounds to us as He stands with the child in His arms. His words may very well set every one of us thinking about our own life and conduct. We look at this scene—the disciples standing round, their hearts occupied, as ours are apt to be, with their own ambitions, rivalries, and jealousies, and Jesus in the midst with the little child; and we cannot mistake or misinterpret the lessons He teaches us, the lessons which welled up in His heart whenever He saw, or met, or took up in His arms, and blessed a little child.
"Let every child you meet," he clearly says to us, "remind you that if you desire to be My disciple and to win a place in My kingdom, you must fling off selfishness, and put in its place the spirit of service and tenderness." "He that would be first must be servant of all." "You must humble yourself as this little child."
And then He adds the blessing and the warning:—"Whoso shall receive one such child in My name receiveth Me; but whosoever shall offend one of these little ones, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea."
We may pause for a moment to consider what it is in childhood, what are the gifts, qualities, characteristics of the child, that drew from our Lord this special love and care and these injunctions to His followers. We do well to bear them in mind, because He has declared with such emphasis that we have no part in His kingdom unless we retain or recover these gifts. And we should bear them in mind, because of the blessing promised to those who help to preserve these qualities in others. Receive, help, cherish, or protect a child, make the way of goodness easy to him, and shield him from evil, and Christ declares that inasmuch as you have done it to the least of all His little ones, you have done it unto Him.
On the other hand, offend any such child, that is to say, hinder, or mislead, spoil or degrade him in any way; do anything to rob a child of any of these Divine gifts, rob him of his innocence, or trustfulness, or his guileless heart, and sow the seeds of evil habits or tastes in their place, and you know the denunciation or curse which the Divine voice has laid upon you for your evil deed.
A child, then, is, as it were, a living symbol of that which draws to us the love of Christ, and we cannot doubt that he is so by virtue of his innocence, his obedient spirit, his guilelessness, or simplicity of character, his trustfulness, and by all the untarnished and unspoilt possibilities of goodness in him.
It is in the blessed endowment of such gifts as these that the little child looks in the face of Christ, and is embraced in the arms of His love.
And these are, or they once were, your gifts. As you love the better life, and hope for good days, hold them fast and cherish them, or if any of them be unhappily lost, let it be your endeavour to recover it.
As we contemplate such a scene as this in our Lord's life with the little child in the midst, and listen to the Saviour's words, all the commands and injunctions to keep innocency, to keep the spirit of obedience, to keep a guileless and trusting and loving heart, gain a new force. They seem to speak to us with new voices; for if the true life, the life that has in it the hope of union with Christ, must be a life endowed with these gifts, whether in youth or age, what a blessed thing it will be for you if you have never lost or squandered them. We cannot too soon learn this lesson; for if under the influence of any wrong motives, or following any wrong ideals, or misled by any bad example, you go astray and rob your young life of these divine gifts, no man knows how, or when, or where you will recover them, and become again as a little child.
And if we turn our thoughts from our own separate personal life, and look for a moment at our duty as members of a society, how this picture of Christ embracing the little child, and blessing those who receive or help one such, should stir us to new and keener interest in social duty! Does it not carry in it, this example and teaching of the Lord, does it not carry in it the condemnation of a great many of our traditional notions about our duty to the young? We see the Lord's tenderness and love and care for the little child; we see how He values the childlike qualities; and how He enjoins the nursing and the cherishing of these. If, then, we have really learnt the lesson which He thus presses upon us, we shall feel something like reverence for every young life, as it begins its perilous and uncertain course on the sea of man's experiences; and with this feeling we shall be eager to help and protect such lives whenever we have the chance of doing it, and we shall be very careful to do them no wrong.
But when we turn from the Gospel and these thoughts which it stirs in us to our common life of every day, does it not rather seem sometimes as if this teaching of the Lord were all a dream and had no reality? And yet there is hardly one of us but would confess that, having once seen this revelation of the Lord, we are put to shame if, as happens sometimes, a young soul comes amongst us endowed with these very gifts of innocence, and high purpose, and trust, and promise of all goodness, which so won the Saviour's heart, and is met, when he comes, in school or house, not by care, or sympathy, or guidance, or protection, as of an elder brother's love, but by experiences of a very different sort. You would agree that it is a shame to us if such an one comes only to find the misleading influence of some thoughtless or bad companion, or to have held up before him some bad tradition as the law which should rule his life here.
I have known—which of us in the course of years has not known?—such cases in our school experience. A child has come from a refined and loving home, but only to meet with roughness or coarseness; and instead of retaining those gifts and qualities of childhood, which are the godlike qualities of life and meant to be permanent, he has been led to grow up utterly unchildlike, depraved, debased, hardened; and there is no sadder sight to see than a growth of this kind. And if you have ever seen it; if you have ever noticed the falling away from childlike innocence to sin, from purity to coarseness, from the open, ingenuous, trusting spirit to sullen hardness, from happiness to gloom, you know how terribly in earnest the Saviour must have been when He denounced that woe on any one who causes such debasement of a young soul—"Whoso shall offend one of these little ones, it had been better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea."
III. THE BREVITY OF LIFE.
"I must work the works of Him that sent Me, while it is day: the night cometh."—ST. JOHN ix. 4.
There are few things more commonly disregarded by us in our early years than the brevity of our life through all its successive stages, and the fleeting nature of its opportunities.
In childhood we are almost entirely unconscious of both these characteristics of life. Indeed, it would hardly be natural if it were otherwise. That reflective habit which dwells upon them is the result of our experience, and comes later. It is enough for a child if he follows pure and safe instincts, and lives without reflection a healthy, unperverted life, under wise guidance and good teaching. Growing in this way, free from corrupting influences or the contagion of bad example, and poisoned by no bad atmosphere, he develops naturally towards a manhood which is rooted in healthy tastes, affections unspoilt, and in good habits. Thus you see what the very young have a right to claim at the hands of all their elders—that they should be careful not to mislead them, and should see that they live in pure air, and feed their growing instincts and activities in wholesome pastures.
During the stage of earliest growth it would be a sign of unhealthy precocity if a child were much occupied with the continuity of things, or the close union of to-day with to-morrow, or of all our thoughts, acts, pleasures, and tastes, with the bent of character which is being silently but surely formed in us; and it would be equally unnatural if his thoughts were to dwell much on the essential shortness of our life, and the flight of opportunity which does not come back to us.
It is part of the happiness, or, I fear, it must be said sometimes, part of the pain of early life, that the time before it seems so long. The day is long with its crowded novelty or intense enjoyment, or possibly with its dreary and intolerable task-work; to-morrow, with all its anticipations of things desired or to be endured, seems long; and the vista of years, as they stretch through boyhood and youth, manhood and age, seems to lose itself in the far distance of its length. So, viewed from its beginnings, life is long.
But with the approach of manhood all this begins to change. As we grow out of childhood our self-conscious and reflective life grows; and thus there rises in us the feeling of moral responsibility never to be shaken off again. Not, however, that we should leave all our childhood behind us. It hardly needs to be said that there are some characteristics of our earliest years which every man should pray that he may retain to the end. Unless he retains them his life becomes a deteriorating life.
And first among these is the reverential or filial habit. This deserves our careful attention, because we sometimes see an affectation of silly and spurious manliness, which thinks it a fine thing to cast it off. This reverential or filial feeling, which is natural to the unspoilt and truthful nature of the child, is preserved in every unspoilt manhood; only with a difference.
It is raised from the unreflective, instinctive trust in a father's guidance or a mother's love to that higher feeling which tells us that, as is the child in a well and wisely ordered home, so is each of us in that great household of our heavenly Father. This spirit of true piety, which uplifts, refines, strengthens, and gives courage to manhood, as nothing else can do, is the natural outcome and successor of a child's trustfulness, as we rise through it to the feeling that we are encompassed by a Divine consciousness, and that our life moves in a holy presence. Or again, we pray that we may not lose that simplicity and freshness of nature which is at once a special charm of childhood, and, wherever it is preserved, the chief blessing of a man's later years.
These qualities and characteristics of our infancy—trust, filial reverence, freshness, simplicity—are not qualities to be left behind, but the natural forecast of that religious spirit which is the highest growth of maturity, and our own safeguard against the hardening and debasing influences of the world and the flesh. And this was the Saviour's meaning when He said, "Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in nowise enter therein." And if there is one thing more than another that constitutes the special curse of any depraved influence acting on young lives, it is that it robs the later life of these childlike qualities which are the gifts of God to bless us in youth and age.
But assuming that we bear all this in mind, and hold fast to these fundamental gifts, and so escape those lower and baser forms of life which we meet all about in the world, spoiling the manhood and embittering the age of so many men, we cannot forget the essential difference between mature years and the years of early growth.
As we grow towards manhood our life necessarily loses its childlike and unreflecting spontaneity in the ferment of thought, desire, and passion, and in the light of experience; and therefore it becomes a matter of no slight importance to estimate the value of that which we hold in our hands to-day, the nature of the web which our conduct is weaving, and the fateful character of any mistake in the purposes, notions, ambitions, or tastes that are, as a matter of fact, fixing the drift and direction of our life. But to do this amidst all the daily temptations of life is not always an easy matter; and it is certain that we shall not do it if we do not fully recognise, while our life is still young and unhampered, the importance of these two very obvious reflections, which, in fact, resolve themselves into one, that our time is essentially short, and that our opportunities are very fugitive.
In one sense, no doubt, there is a long stretch of time before most of you. As yet hope has more to say to you than memory. Some of you will look back on these early days from the distant years of another century. Your life's journey may extend far away over the unexplored future, and may in some cases be a very long one; but, although this is possible, we are not allowed to forget that it is always precarious—unexpected graves are constantly reminding us how short may be the time of any one of us—how the night cometh.
But it is not merely of the literal shortness of our time, or the possible nearness of death, that our Lord's words should set us thinking, when He warns us that the night cometh, and we must work while it is day.
If we measure our life by the things we should accomplish in it, by the character it should attain to, by the purposes that should be bearing fruit in it, and not by mere lapse of time, we soon come to feel how very short it is, and the sense of present duty grows imperative. It is thus that the thoughtful man looks at his life; and he feels that there is no such thing as length of days which he can without blame live carelessly, because in these careless days critical opportunities will have slipped away irrecoverably; he will have drifted in his carelessness past some turning-point which he will not see again, and have missed the so-called chances that come no more.
But even this is only a part of the considerations that make our present life so precious; for this is only the outer aspect of it. What makes our time so critically short, whether we consider its intellectual or its moral and spiritual uses, is that our nature is so very sensitive, so easily marred by misuse, and spoilt irretrievably. The real brevity of the time at your disposal, whether for the training of your mind, or for your growth into the character of good men, consists in this, that deterioration is standing always at the back of any neglect or waste. Deterioration is the inseparable shadow of every form of ignoble life.
"Our acts our angels are, for good or ill, Our fatal shadows that walk with us still."
Leave your faculties unused and they become blunted and dulled; leave your higher tastes uncultivated and they die; let your affections feed on anything unworthy and they become debased.
To those who do this it may happen that whilst, so far as years go, they are still in all the freshness of youth, they are already dying that death to all higher capacity which is worse than any decay of our physical organism. Such an early death of higher tastes and faculties, and of hope for the future, is sometimes effected even before schooldays are over. And the mere possibility of such a fate overhanging any of us should stir us like a trumpet-call to take care that we do not surrender our life to any mean influence, and that we are very zealous for all that concerns the safety of the young.
"I send out my child," I can imagine the parent of any one of you having said, "to be trained for manhood; I send him to his school that his intellect may be cultivated, his moral purpose made strong, and that all good and pure tastes may be fostered in him; but it is dreadful to think that instead of this he may, by his life and companionship there, be hardened and debased, or even brutalised; he may become dead to the higher life even before he becomes a man." Seeing, then, that there is this possibility of death even in the midst of life—a possibility, we would fain hope, seldom realised in this school, but still a possibility—shall we not be very careful, men and boys alike, so to do our part in this society, so to shelter the young and strengthen the weak, and to keep the atmosphere of our life a pure atmosphere, that every sensitive soul which comes amongst us may grow up here through a healthy and wholesome boyhood, and go out to the duties and the calling of his life, strong, unselfish, public-spirited, pure-hearted, and courageous—a Christian gentleman.
IV. THE INFLUENCE OF TRADITION.
"Making the word of God of none effect through your traditions: and many such like things ye do."—ST. MARK vii. 13.
Such was our Lord's word to the Pharisees; and if we turn to our own life it is difficult if not impossible for us fully to estimate the influence which traditions exercise upon it.
They are so woven into the web of thought and opinion, and daily habits and practices, that none of us can claim to escape them. Moreover, as any institution or society grows older, this influence of the part which is handed on from one generation to another tends to accumulate; so that the weight of it lies heavier on us in an old place than in a new one, and it is obvious that there is both loss and gain in this.
A good tradition is a great help and support, giving a strength, or firmness, or dignity to our life which it would not otherwise have had.
We often see or feel the value of such a tradition as it acts upon the members of a family, or of a college, or of a regiment, or of a school.
And this influence of a tradition, inasmuch as it has become impersonal, and rooted in the general life, is apt to be very persistent, so that the man who establishes a good tradition anywhere begins a good work, which may go on producing its good results long after he himself is in his grave.
Many of you must have felt the power of such an influence, handed on to you as if it were a part of your inheritance, when thinking of a brother, or father, or other relative or ancestor, who by some distinction of character, or by some inspiring words or some brave or generous act, has left you a good example, which seems somehow to belong to you, and to stir you as with an authoritative call to show yourself worthy of it.
Similarly in a society like this school you can hardly grow up without sometimes being stirred by the tradition of the noble lives that have left their mark upon its history.
So a man's good deeds live after him, and become woven as threads of gold into the traditions of the world.
And we are equally familiar with traditions that are bad, and with their pestilent influence; for we are constantly made to feel how much of the good that men endeavour to do is thwarted, counteracted, or destroyed by influences of this sort, and how weak and imitative souls are entangled in the network of traditional influence as in a spider's web. Tradition, in fact, represents to us the accumulated power of past lives as it acts upon us from the outside, just as what men call heredity represents this same influence in our own blood.
And we have seen that this power may be, and often is, a real advantage and support to our life. We feel also that as the Divine light shines stronger and steadier in human affairs the traditional influence of each generation ought to become more and more helpful to those that follow.
And yet, you observe, the Saviour gives us no encouragement to depend upon those helps that tradition might bring us. On the contrary, His language shows how dangerous He felt the influence of tradition to be. How are we to account for this? His strongest denunciations are reserved for the Pharisaic party; and yet a historian would describe them as in many respects the best elements of Jewish life. They were earnest, patriotic, religious, many of them wise and holy men; but their judgment was held in bondage by the influence of tradition, and in this lies the cardinal defect of their life. They had set up between their souls and the spirit of God a sort of graven image of ritualistic observances, and traditional usages and interpretations. They depended on externals, or what came to them from the past or from the outer world, and their eyes were blinded, and their hearts hardened against every new revelation.
Thus they stand before Christ, blocking His path, the very embodiment of that power which closes the soul against those inspiring and purifying influences that come from direct communion with God. They block the Saviour's path, because this personal communion is just what He represents to us—the direct revelation of the Spirit of God in man. He comes to reveal the Father to each of us, and to make us feel the presence of the Divine creative Spirit in every separate human life; and till we feel this personal illumination we have not realised the manifestation of the Son of God. But the Pharisee with his continual reference to tradition, his multiplication of external observances, and elaborate ritual, his reliance upon usage and external authority, knows little or nothing of the personal illumination by the direct influence of the Spirit of God upon our spirit. Hence this absolute and fundamental contrast between Jesus and the Pharisees. They represent two opposing principles in life. And it is this that gives such intensity to the words He addressed to them: "Ye have made the word of God of none effect through your traditions"; and it is a universal warning—never out of date.
If the spirit of traditional usage and influence holds the citadel of a man's life, the spirit of Christian progress cannot gain an entrance.
That is the lesson which the Saviour presses upon our attention by His denunciation of the Pharisaic usage, habit, and attitude, and it is hardly possible to overestimate the importance of the lesson, because this same spirit of Pharisaic tradition is constantly laying its hand upon every human institution, and it has contributed to every abuse or perversion that has taken possession of the Christian Church.
Our life is, in fact, a continuous struggle between the two principles here represented. Which is to prevail in it, and fix its character— traditional custom, or personal inspiration? Are we to follow the world with its conventions and laws, or to live in personal communion with God? The tendency of our life will be determined in one direction or the other according as we surrender our will to the rule of traditional notions and usages, the power of the external world, or as we seek for direct illumination of mind, conscience, and spirit at the Divine sources of truth and light.
Here, then, we have a principle to guide us in our relation to the traditions amidst which we live.
We do not expect to get away from them; we never dream of escaping from the influences of the external world, whether of the past or the present; but to move safely among them, we must have learnt and adopted this primal lesson, that no tradition, and no external practice or custom, has any authoritative claim upon us, simply from being established as a tradition or a custom.
And as we stand amidst all the conventions and practices that have come down to us, we should be able to say of every one of them—
"Every good tradition, and every wholesome and beneficent usage, I accept thankfully as part of the inheritance which good, or wise, or brave men have left as their legacy for my use and assistance; but it is my bounden duty to measure them all by the standard of God's unchanging law: by it I will prove them; I will use them or reject them according as they fit or fail in this measurement, and I will not be brought under the power of any of them."
Whether, then, we think of our separate personal life or of our life in its social relationships, we must think of it in this way if we are to be in any real sense followers of Christ. Each of you, as he steps into the world, is not merely an inheritor of certain accumulations of life and tradition, which he should follow as a matter of course. He is not born to tread a certain track of conduct or behaviour because others have trodden it before him, following it without thought like the sheep on the mountain, or like the ants as they travel from one ant-hill to another.
Your estimate of your life should be fundamentally different from this. You are primarily a child of God, illumined by direct communion with the Spirit of God; and your first duty, therefore, whenever and in whatever place or circumstances you may chance to be, is not to follow this or that tradition or usage which may meet you; but to stand up and show that you are God's child, and therefore a judge of all traditions or customs, and not their slave.
This is the revelation which Christ declares to us as the one first requisite of the Christian life. So you see the Christian man's attitude towards all traditions or customs is that of independence; his thought and his judgment are as free in regard to them as if they were newly born. He is, in fact, bound to judge them according to their deserts; and no society can hope to prosper unless this is recognised, so that evil customs may not corrupt the common life. It is the danger of such corruption that makes the Saviour denounce the traditional habit, and summon His followers to live by the rule of close personal communion with God. Thus the life that goes forward and rises to higher and yet higher levels is always a life of new revelations, a life which is being illumined and illumined afresh by those flashes of Divine insight, and strength, and courage, which come to men only as they came to the Lord Himself in the secret communion of prayer and meditation, and through that independence of spirit which arises from the sense of God's presence to guide us and to uphold.
Take your own case. If you are living here simply according to traditional rules, doing this or that because, as you may be told, everybody does it; accepting standards of conduct and rules of practice, because, as you understand, or, as some one undertakes to persuade you, they have always been so accepted, why, then, you are growing up to be one of that never-ending succession of men who are the Pharisees, the opponents of the Christ, in every generation, who live with tame conscience in any sort of company, and perpetuate the bad traditions of the world.
But if you listen to the call of Christ, and have truly learned to feel that the only real man's life is that which you live with the light of God's law shining upon it, then, as a matter of course, you will rise superior to the influence of any tradition or custom, no matter what its authority may seem to be.
And it will indeed be a happy thing for you if you grow up with that God- given strength of character and purpose which can treat all traditions, and all usages, or fashions, or customs as things that should be subordinated, and should not rule us, as things to be used by us if they help us to a better life, but to be flung aside and rejected, if they contradict the voice of God in our hearts.
V. VAIN HOPES.
"And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. But he said, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead."—ST. LUKE xvi. 30, 31.
It is by no means uncommon for any one who is living a life which does not satisfy his own conscience to console himself with the fancy that if only such and such things were different around him he would be a new man, filled with a new spirit, and exhibiting a new character. But is it so very certain that this would be the case?
Such persons are apt to dream of some goodness or some virtue which under other circumstances they would make their own; and there are, in fact, few conditions more dangerous than that of this class of dreamers, whether among boys or men. To all who may be tempted in this way, our Lord's words in the parable come with a very significant warning: "Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. But he said, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead."
When insidious and delusive hope would draw us on and beguile us in any sinful way, whispering that God will some day send special gifts and messengers of grace to inspire us with new life, this is his plain answer: "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead."
And hardly any one can say that he is altogether free from this tendency to lean upon the future with vain hopes, and is in no need of the warning which this text conveys to us.
In serious moments, when the mind is calm, and neither passion nor appetite is stirring, we feel how good a thing it is to have crucified the flesh and to be living close to Christ; but when we are within the fiery circle of trial or temptation, when sinful desires arise, or passions are strong, or solicitations to evil are subtle and enticing, then we are only too ready to catch at any hopes about the vague future. To the unstable and incontinent, to those whose nature is weak while their conscience is not dead, this hope is a dangerous temptation, beguiling them with the suggestion that some day there will open before them an easy path to that virtue or self-denial to which the way is too rough at present. "Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent." By-and-by, they say, as they dream about the future, God will lay His hand upon them; the Holy Spirit will touch their souls with new life; they will receive in some inscrutable way new power, and in the exercise of this power they will cast off the bondage of sin or weakness; but how and by what means this great and necessary change is to be brought about they do not stop to think, and meanwhile they yield to worldly or fleshly appetite, trusting vaguely to an uncertain future for some Divine gift.
If you look into the thoughts and habits of your life, some of you may be compelled to acknowledge that this case is not unfamiliar to you. So men sometimes dally with a temptation, and linger beside it, courting its company, instead of flinging it away from them, as the snare of the devil, because of some secret hope that by-and-by God will place them out of the way of it, or give them some new strength against it, which as yet has not been given. How easy it is for us to entice ourselves in this way out of the narrow path of present duty into the tangled wilderness of a weak and sinful life, from which escape becomes every day more difficult.
And this enticement along the ways of sin being so easy, it may be happening to some of you. You may feel that, judged even by your own standard, which is more likely to be too low than too high, your life is somehow unsatisfactory; your better instincts may be telling you that you were born for something higher, purer, stronger than what you are or have been; and you are cherishing the hope that it will be different with you some day; your circumstances, you think, or your occupation, or your companionship will have changed, and so you fondly imagine that you yourself will be sure to change, as if your soul were just a weathercock that answers to every changing breeze. So perhaps you hope that some habit of self-indulgence or idleness will drop off, or some evil temper be eradicated; and whilst all this vague and mischievous dreaming goes on you yield very likely to some besetting sin, making no serious effort to get away from it now, and you yield all the more because of this misleading hope that some day you will be touched by a supernatural hand, and will rise up to a regenerate life. And yet our reason tells us that all this is the very essence of self-deceit, and that such dreams and hopes are the devil's most subtle temptation. This kind of vain hope is based on a complete misconception of the nature of our conflict with sin, and the way to escape from it. To think thus of spiritual gifts and the growth of the spiritual life, is to follow a very dangerous delusion. It was just such a misunderstanding that is expressed in the hope of Dives about his brethren: "If one went unto them from the dead, they will repent." Their ordinary daily teachings, he seems to say, the voice of Moses and of the prophets, the examples of good men around them, the warnings, the exhortations, these, being so familiar, may not have startled them out of their sin; but if only one were to go to them from the dead, some messenger of strange voice and aspect, who had seen hell, and could paint its horrors, then surely the course of their life would be checked and changed, and their spirit would wake up in them, and they would sin no more. But to all this comes back the stern warning of the Divine answer: "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead."
And we may profitably consider what this means in its application to our own life. Such a warning is evidently meant to remind us that the mystery of sin in human life is not to be got rid of by any such reliance on vague hopes. This mystery of sin in the heart and life, misleading, weakening, dragging us down, means in fact the subtle, poisonous, creeping power which evil inclinations exercise over a weak and depraved will. Are we, then, to trust to some sudden visitation from above, for which we make no preparation, to break down or overthrow a power of this kind? On the contrary, the words of this parable stand here to declare to us that it is nothing less than perversity and folly in any man to go on either defiling his nature, or degrading it, or even neglecting to strengthen and support it, under this delusion that some day the breath of Heaven will sweep it clean or give it new vigour. And your own experience is in exact accordance with these parabolic warnings of the Saviour. You know that your moral and spiritual nature is now at this present time undergoing a process of continual and momentous change, that every day, or week, or month leaves its mark upon it; and that your soul's life means not waiting for some angel of God's providential grace to visit you and carry you up into a new air; but it means that you are weaving the web of your unchangeable destiny by your use or abuse of the gifts of God that are in your hands to-day.
Born into the world with the taint of inherited corruption in us, as also with the germs of pure affection and high instinct and purpose, we have to take care for ourselves and for each other that the taint does not eat out the good, by growing into sins of boyhood or of youth, or by hardening into depraved habits in our manhood. If we let our youth take an unhappy downward course, whether in taste or habit, every day puts salvation farther off from us, because every day any fault which is indulged or nursed tends to grow deeper and more inveterate; and yet, forgetting this, how many, while their early years are running to waste, nurse the vain hope that some day they will receive the sudden baptism of a new birth.
So, then, instead of vaguely trusting, any of us, to the hope of what some future call or help or happy visitation may do for us, let us obey the Divine injunction, which, when rightly understood, is very pressing, urging us, as we hope to see good days, to be very jealous of our present life and its tendencies; let us do this, standing always firm and immovable in the things that are pure and of good report.
However it may be in some other matters, in this matter of our moral and spiritual life, the greatest, the most important, the most serious thing of all, it is almost invariably true that the child is father of the man, and we feel that we have no right to expect it to be otherwise. In our everyday consideration of life, we recognise all this: we speak of growth in character and formation of habit as facts which no one would ignore, and which cannot be overestimated. But to acknowledge these, and at the same time to trust that God will hereafter arrest any stream of sinful tendency in us which we ourselves do not attempt to stop now, is to add presumption to sin.
When we speak of Heaven and Hell, we have in our thoughts the vision of those ultimate points towards which the diverging courses of men's lives are slowly tending day by day. And the question rises: "On which of these lines is my life travelling at the present time, and towards which side of the impassable gulf?"
At present we know that the way of Christ is still open before us, and that He calls us with a voice which never grows weary; but we feel equally that the future is dark, if we waste or misuse the present, and we do not know how long the heavenward path may be as open, or as easy, as it is to-day. For the question is not a question of God's untiring patience or the never-failing love of Christ. It is not how long will His Spirit continue to strive with us, as it has striven hitherto, through the care and love of parent or friend, through the exhortations or efforts of a teacher, or the example of a companion, or in a thousand other ways. The question is rather whether it is not folly to expect that God will send upon us some other more powerful regenerating and strengthening influence, if we are now neglecting all this care and love and patient striving on our behalf. "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead."
Consider these things while life is fresh, and good influences are present with you. Whatever our faults may be, they all come under this one rule, that to-day is given us to win our freedom from their power—to- day and not to-morrow. The question which is pressed home through the warning of this parable is thus a very plain one: "What is my future hope or prospect, if I let this or that particular sin lurk and linger in my heart, feeding upon me every day, and growing stronger in consequence? What if I do not resist any fault that has a hold upon me? What if I do not pray to be delivered from it? What if I do not flee from it?"
If you hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will you be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.
VI. WHAT DOEST THOU HERE?
"And, behold, the word of the Lord came unto him, and he said unto him, What doest thou here, Elijah?"—1 KINGS xix. 9.
There is a sound of rebuke in these words. They seem to imply that the lonely mountain of Horeb was not the place in which God expected to find such a servant as Elijah, and that there should be no indefinite tarrying, no lingering without an aim in such a solitude.
As you read the familiar history you see how the record of the prophet's retirement and his vision in Horeb is a record, first of all, of reaction after fierce conflict; it exhibits the picture of a strong man in a moment of weakness ready to give up the hopeless struggle, crying to God, "It is enough, now, O Lord, take away my life;" and then it shows us how God dealt with him in that solitude; we hear the Divine voice pleading in him again, bearing its Divine witness, putting its searching questions, teaching him the universal lesson that despondency, weakness, solitude, shrinking and retiring, if they have any place in our life, are only for a time, and must not be allowed to rule in it.
That Divine vision which came to Elijah in the recesses of the mountain is, in fact, the voice of God summoning him back to the duties that were waiting for him, and the renewal of his strength for the new work he had to do. And the interest of such a vision never fails, because, like Elijah, all men come to times when they too lie under the juniper tree in the wilderness longing to be set free from the burden which is too heavy for them, be it the burden of some call, or work, or duty, or of resistance to some temptation, or the struggle against sin or vice. It comes to all of us, and not once only, but many times over, this hour of darkness; and it will continue to come so long as the flesh is weak. And it is at such moments that a man is the better for going with the prophet into this Horeb, the mount of God, making Elijah's vision his own vision, and renewing his strength, at the same Divine source. How often it happens to men, to boys, to all alike, that they flee into the desert, away from the post of present duty, away from the face of difficulties which they cannot or will not stand up against, away from the moments of trial and discipline. And, seeing that our life is not and cannot be a solitary thing, seeing that the pulsations of each individual's life are creating other pulsations which answer them back in other lives, we know not where or how many, whenever we thus shrink away from our duty, when we turn our back upon it, or despond about it, when we become deaf to the higher calls, we are, in fact, crying to God to be relieved of our service to Him and to our fellows. And it is a happy thing for our life if He does not answer us according to our cry, and let us go into the wilderness, and leave us alone there.
This voice, following us with the question, "What doest them here?" is the evidence that God has not abandoned us.
"What doest thou here, Elijah?" How often must this voice have followed the monk into his solitude, refusing to be silenced, piercing through all the false notions about a man's relationship to his fellow-men, warning each soul that it cannot separate itself from the great tide of universal life.
And the voice comes to us, the same warning voice of God, whenever we stand aloof and let the tide around us run on anyhow, as if we didn't care how it ran, or whenever in obedience to any impulse, whether of selfishness or of timidity, we try to persuade ourselves that some duty may be left alone.
"What doest thou here, Elijah?" The quality of our life depends on the answer we give to such spiritual questioning day by day; for the Divine voices are never silent.
"What doest thou here?" The voice cries to us when we linger in the neighbourhood of any sin, or when we waste our opportunities in some form of idleness, or when we stand by in cold or timid indifference, refusing help or consolation to any soul which seems to need it.
"What doest thou here?" It is possible that some of us hardly like to shape our answer in plain words lest we might have to say: "I am here lingering in my present way of life, not because I feel it to be the right way, but because it is the easy way, and I cannot bring myself to face the harder and more manly course of duty. I hear the voice; I cannot get away from it; it haunts me with its inquiries, when my heart is hot within me, as it is sometimes, while yet I am burying the light that is in my soul." If it should be so with any of you, consider, I pray you, how by such hanging back you strengthen the force of evil in the world and weaken the good.
As the hour of reaction, weakness, flight, came to Elijah, so we must expect it to come to any of us; but the aim and purpose of our life should be that in such an hour we may be able to answer our Heavenly Father when He questions us, as Elijah was able to answer: "I have been very jealous for the Lord God of Hosts." If we live as those who are jealous for God and His law, letting it be known and felt that we are thus jealous for His honour, not one of us could fail to make the life around us in some degree better, brighter, happier.
It is in this way that he who is strong and true makes truth and honour and uprightness stronger in those beside him; it is in this way that he who is industrious, as a duty, makes industry more prevalent; it is in this way that he who shows his hatred of impurity makes the atmosphere pure in his society.
And in so far as any of you are acting in this way you are doing a prophet's work, and you, too, may claim to have been jealous for the Lord God of Hosts. So the youngest boy and the oldest man may become fellow- labourers—[Greek text]—fellow-labourers in the harvest-field of God, and it is a great privilege to claim.
But the blessing of it is greater still. Very often, if you are known to be thus jealous, even your presence will banish sin, silencing the evil tongue, strengthening the weaker brother, and making the sunshine of a new life to shine all round you.
But what if sometimes you feel that you are not equal to all this? if when the voice cries, "What doest thou here?" you have no answer to give? It is good for us in such a case to turn and see how God dealt with His prophet, how He made him come forth and stand on the mount before him. The Lord passed over him, revealing His presence in the wind, the earthquake, and the fire, revealing it yet more intimately in the sound of the still small voice. So He sent Him out again with a new commission; and so we, too, may learn our lesson, if we care to learn it. And the lesson is this, that God renews our wavering strength, that He lifts up our drooping spirit, and opens our dull eyes and gives us afresh the hearing ear, by communion with Himself. In the solitude of the mount of God, through the symbols of His power, and in the sound of the inner voices, in meditation, in prayer, we may find those refreshing influences which give us new strength, new thoughts, new notions of God and duty, and send us out afresh to do His work in new service to Him.
We may follow His teaching to Elijah a little further. The new message to him began, "Return on thy way"—do such and such things. The new message is, in fact, just as always, a new call to old duties—"Return on thy way." And so it is for you and me. After the vision of God comes the plain and homely work to do, as we walk in old ways, and have to meet all our old dangers and difficulties. Has any one of us ever shrunk from any post of duty in life, or strayed from any straight course? Then if God has in His mercy visited us with the warning call, "What doest thou here?" or laid the call of a new message upon us, it is almost sure to have been a call to return and take the straight path, or to take our stand at the deserted post. And if it should ever happen to us that the duty which looks too hard is, as indeed it happens very often, some duty of our social life, should we feel as if the world were against us, and we were standing alone, let us not forget God's word of final encouragement to his prophet, "Yet have I left me seven thousand in Israel who have not bowed to Baal."
It is a word for all time. If ever you are fighting for the good, and growing weary in the fight, the thought may rise in you that you seem to be fighting alone, and that everything is against you, just because you cannot see the seven thousand who are in the same ranks, and on your side.
In the darkest hour of Israel's history we are thus told of an indefinite multitude who had stood firm in the faith of their fathers, untouched and untainted by adverse influence, and the recollection of it should serve to strengthen and encourage every individual who is really jealous for that which is good.
Let us, then, take the warning, and nurse it as a gift of God, and go forward where duty calls us, sometimes faint, it may be, and sometimes weary, but still pursuing.
VII. PRIVATE PRAYER, AND PUBLIC WORSHIP.
"And, as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day."—ST. LUKE iv. 16.
"He went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there He prayed."—ST. MARK i. 35.
These two texts set before us our Saviour's habit in regard to public and private spiritual exercise; and they suggest to us the question, What have we, on our part, to say of these two elements in our own life? These texts, we bear in mind, represent not something casual or intermittent in the life of our Lord. They stand in the record of it as a typical, essential, inseparable part of His habitual practice. What we have to remember about them is that, whereas all men recognise in the life of Jesus the one unique example in human history of a life which is morally perfect and immaculate, if we were to take these out of it, the customary share in all common worship, and the private, separate communing with God, it would be an altogether different life—different in its attitude towards the common life of ordinary men, and different in its own quality and influence.
We might still admire—nay, we could not but admire—all the beauty of moral qualities, the purity, the sympathy, the love and self-devotion of it; but it would have lost its spiritual atmosphere. It would no longer be for us the life of the Divine Son, recognising and ready to share in all our attempts at worshipping the Father, however poor they may be, and living through the separate life in daily communion with Him.
Here then is His practice, written for our guidance, given that we may be stirred by it to aim upwards, inviting us to set our own practice side by side with it, and see how it looks in such a juxtaposition. Let us glance for a moment at each of these texts separately.
As regards the one which I have taken from St. Mark—"He went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there He prayed"—we have only to turn over the pages of this Gospel and note, as we go, the similar allusions, and we feel that we have here what is in fact an incidental glimpse into the habitual practice of His secret and separate life.
In this passage we read that He departed into a solitary place, and there He prayed; in another by-and-by that He departed into a mountain to pray; and then again that He spent the whole night in prayer; and we see all this not in some crisis of His life, but as a part of that which corresponds to the common daily round in your life or mine.
And the inference to be drawn, the lesson to be learnt from it, is, I think, sufficiently obvious.
This secret separate devotional exercise of the soul was His habitual spiritual food.
It was thus that He recruited His moral and spiritual forces, those forces of the spiritual life which constitute at once the beauty, the attraction, the power of His character, and His divine and awe-inspiring separateness.
And as we read and consider, the thought must surely be pressed upon us that if He needed these exercises, these secret and silent hours, what shall we say of our own lives?
And what do we expect to make of our moral and spiritual character unless we too are careful to cherish under all circumstances some such recurring moments in our round of life and occupation, at which we retire into the sanctuary of separate communion with God the Father?
You may take it as a moral certainty, proved by all experience, that unless you hold to a fixed habit of thus bringing your life into the secret and separate presence of God, in private prayer and thought, you incur the risk of sinking to any levels that happen to be the ordinary levels, and of drifting with any currents that happen to prevail.
If we turn now from this to the other text—that which refers to His customary attendance on public prayer and at the common meeting—"He went, as His custom was, into the synagogue"—the questions suggested are very pertinent and practical.
Just consider the circumstances under which, as we are told here, "He went, as His custom was, into the synagogue on the Sabbath day." The earlier part of the same chapter tells us of His fasting and temptation in the wilderness, of the commencement of His public mission, and his return to Nazareth. And, on His return, this is what we are told of him—"He went, as his custom was, into the synagogue on the Sabbath day."
Thus we see Him, fresh from the great crisis of His early manhood; the long, protracted struggle of His soul in the lonely wilderness; the subtle voices of manifold temptation; the hardly won victory and the ministering angels; all this we must suppose to be still flashing across His vision, as the scenes of any such crisis must always continue to flash through the quivering and responsive organism of the soul.
If ever any man might have claimed to need no longer the customary worship of common men, it was surely Jesus, as we see Him here on this occasion, with the breath of His own heart-searching worship still upon Him, and the light of new revelation burning in His thoughts.
Among all the significant and instructive parts of the Saviour's example this is not the least instructive; that on this occasion, as on all others, he went as a matter of regular custom into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, thus putting the seal and stamp of His own practice for all of us who believe in His name upon the duty of joining in habitual and stated spiritual exercises.
Had the Lord's example been different in this respect, how easy it would have seemed to set up a string of what we should have called sufficient reasons.
The old-fashioned routine, it might have been said, of synagogue worship, with its mechanical dulness and its mistaken interpretations of God's word, its shallow and superficial and tedious traditional commentaries, its formalism and vain repetitions; all this, whatever might have been its value for the ordinary unenlightened Jew, how could it have been necessary and what profit could there have been in it for the divinely gifted Son of man?
So it might have been argued; so indeed it would seem men who consider themselves enlightened sometimes argue in support of their own neglect of the religious life.
But it may well make us more than doubtful as to the issue of any such neglect, when we see the mind of Christ thus exemplified in His habitual observance.
We all recognise His moral and spiritual superiority. Whether His spirit has taken possession of our spirit or not, He stands out as our undisputed guide to the practice of a good life.
In vision, in insight, in purity, in stainlessness, in all that we reverence in human life and that good men strive to attain, we have no model to set beside His example. All the more, then, this fact deserves our notice, and calls us to follow Him, that we find Him, as His custom was, in the synagogue on the Sabbath day. He was there Sabbath after Sabbath listening to the provincial teacher, worshipping with the village labourer, praying with the ignorant and the foolish, there as a matter of life custom and for His soul's benefit.
I have said that it deserves our notice; but more than this—it should be graven on the minds of the young, so that they may never lose the impression of it, so that it go with them through all their years of manhood, to preserve in them the devotional and reverent habit.
It is indeed good for all of us to think of Him there in that primitive and unattractive house of God, listening to the rude Galilean accents, and bowing His head in the habitual worship of that obscure community.
I do not think it is possible for us, unless we are quite indifferent about our moral and spiritual condition—unless, that is, we have low notions about our life, a low aim and a low standard—to be unaffected in our practice by this example of the Lord. We can hardly believe that those exercises of the spirit which were so fruitful in His life will fail to bear their fruit in ours also.
What have we to say as we picture Him with all the great thoughts of His new work swelling up in His soul, the divinely appointed teacher of new wisdom and new faith, the bringer of new light among men, the voice of a new world, and yet, being all this, at the same time, and as a means for working out His mission more completely, a regular and devout worshipper in a village house of prayer?
If it should ever happen to any of us that we come to fancy we do not need such common prayer, or that because of defects in public worship we do not profit by it, does not this example of the Saviour rise up and rebuke us? Yes, you may rest assured, if that day ever comes to you, that you are in danger of drifting away from the great saving tides of the human spirit into some shallow or artificial stream of your own time and generation. But, on the other hand, it is a happy thing for our life if, growing up in the habitual use of time-honoured spiritual exercises, we have truly learnt to know by our own experience, as by the example of the Saviour set before us in the Gospel, that they are the support and safeguard of all that is highest and purest and best in us, if only we are careful to use them with sincerity and reverence.
VIII. AN UNANSWERABLE QUESTION.
"Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? Not one."—JOB xiv. 4.
This is one of those simple questions which, by their very simplicity and directness, set us thinking about the importance of our personal life.
"Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?" But all our common life is somehow the outcome of our separate individual lives—of your life and mine. Therefore how important it is in the common interest that each of us should look above all things to his own life and its character, for this will determine his contribution to the life of his society.
Nearly all men are keen about the reputation of their society, about the name it bears, about the way in which men think and speak of it.
Thus you are no doubt sensitive, almost every one of you, about the good reputation of your school or your house, or any society with which you may happen to be closely connected or identified.
And this is a healthy and praiseworthy feeling. It would indeed be a bad sign if such a feeling were wanting or weak in any society.
But I am not sure that we keep it before us—all of us—as clearly as we ought to do, that this reputation of the society is simply the outcome of our separate lives and habits.
The reputation is the reflex of the life; hardly ever, perhaps, an exact reflex, very often a distorted reflex with this or that feature exaggerated; but yet always a reflex.
The reputation you bear is the impression made by your common life on the minds of those who see it from the outside, or who hear men's talk about it.
And we do well to be sensitive on such a subject; but we do still better if we bear in mind that this common life is what comes out of our own life, and is the result of its contact with that of our neighbour.
And with this thought in our minds we feel how searching and how directly personal is this primitive and childlike question, Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?
Societies, especially young societies, are very impressible, and their character—the quality, that is, of their life—is fixed by prevailing influences, which show themselves in fashions, habits, and tendencies, in the common types of thought, or taste, or behaviour, or conduct.
This is obvious enough to every one; but what we do not seem always to consider is the extent to which these influences or fashions have their origin, so far as our own society is concerned, in our own lives. They are, in fact, in the main the general outcome of our separate lives.
Do you, then, think of yourselves—this is the practical question to which these considerations lead up—as sources or centres of such influence, contributing your personal share to this common life?
It may make an immense difference to all your thoughts about your common habits, and your standards of daily conduct and duty, if you remember this ancient saying, that no man can bring a clean thing out of an unclean. And so I have to ask you to consider a little how the common life of this society is dependent upon your life.
Every individual acts upon the life of the community around him as a power or influence in it. This seems so obvious when mentioned as hardly to deserve the mentioning, and yet in practice we are very apt to overlook it.
You and I, all of us, without any exception, are endowed with some share of this power.
In this respect, as in other ways, there is, of course, every possible difference in degree between one and another, between the strong and the weak, between those who are conspicuous and those who are obscure; but there is no other difference.
Every one of you possesses some share of this mysterious, and undefined, and immeasurable gift of influencing his neighbour's life. Every sin that may have a root in your heart is acting, though you may not think of it or intend it, as a pestilent influence outside your own life; every virtue you exercise may be causing similar virtues to take root and grow in some one near to you.
The tone of the society or life around you is, in fact, just the sum and expression of such individual influences as these.
We may not be able to trace all the various and multitudinous germs or seeds of such influence as they flow out from us in our daily round of common life; but we are conscious that each and every single soul, all through its earthly course, in the family and in the outer world, from youth to age, is, in fact, a sower scattering these germs of good or evil unceasingly. We know, also, that when they are once scattered they cannot be gathered up again. They are yours to scatter—these seeds that you are adding to the common life—and you are responsible for the fruit they bear; but having sown them, you are powerless afterwards to prevent them from bearing fruit after their kind in other lives. Once launched in the air around you, they spread their contagion of evil or their stimulus to good, their savour of life or death.
The mere suspicion of this undefined power over other lives which is inherent in our own life should surely make us very careful about it.
It gives a new sense of personal responsibility; it lays its hand upon us to check us in any vice, or folly, or sin; and it is a stimulus to every virtue and to all good purposes.
But the thing which of all others it is perhaps of most importance for us to remember about it is that this stream of our personal influence which flows out of our life is a double stream. It is of two kinds. One part of it flows unconsciously, whether we think of it or not; it streams out from our personality as sunlight from the sun.
The other is that which we exercise by some conscious effort of the will, and with some deliberate purpose or intention.
Now, in the case of most of us, this tide of unconscious influence flowing from us without any deliberate or set purpose on our part, our involuntary contribution to the common life, is far more powerful for good or for evil than anything which we ever do by way of active purpose to influence another's life, and this because our unconscious influence is the reflex on the outer world of what we are in ourselves; it is the projection, or shall we say the radiation, of our own life, its tastes, tempers, habits, and character, upon the lives around us.
What we do or intend to do, what influence we endeavour to exercise, is very likely to be at the best intermittent, but this door of involuntary communication between every man's life and his neighbour's life is always standing open; and so it comes about that your life, whether public or private, is of more importance to others than anything else about you.
At a time when so many things contribute to fix men's thoughts on externals, and we are all tempted to think more about our work than about our life, more about what we are doing or intending to do, than of what we are in ourselves, these considerations assume an unusual importance.
Moreover, in a society like this, where you live so close to one another, and so much in public, there is a special reason for giving to such considerations some special attention; and the thought suggested by this world-old inquiry—Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?—becomes a very direct warning to look well to our separate life, and take care what sort of unconscious influences it is spreading around it.
A moment's reflection will remind you how quick and strong such influences may easily prove, independent of all intention or desire on our part, or even in spite of our deliberate wishes or hopes. One man is careless or irreligious, and his weaker neighbours catch the infection of his example; another indulges in some bad habits of language or conduct, or he is addicted to some low taste, or he lives by some low standard, and this or that companion is drawn down to his level; and so the evil of his life takes fresh root in another life, and it gets into the air, and it is impossible to predict the limit of its influence.
Or, on the other hand, one man is intellectual or refined in his tastes, and by merely living in a society he creates an atmosphere of intellect or of refinement around him; or, it may be, he is earnest and courageous, and others are drawn to admire and imitate, and so he proves a centre of courage and earnestness. Such is the solidarity of your life, as men call it, and there is no escape from it, or from the responsibilities which it lays upon you.
As the tree is known by its fruits, as men do not gather grapes of thorns, as the same fountain does not send forth sweet water and bitter, so we have to remember, when we think of the tides of unconscious influence that are continually streaming out from us, that they are wholesome, or the reverse, according to the character of our secret and separate life.
Through them any one of us may become to his neighbour or his friend a savour of life unto life, or of death unto death.
There are sure to be many in such a congregation as this who have visions of the good they hope to do; and there is a spirit of native generosity in almost all which makes them shrink from the thought of doing harm to another soul.
Well, then, in this thought of your influence, conscious and unconscious, your first and constant prayer will surely be: "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me."
The effective servant of God is always the man who has been prepared and purified by the vision of God in his own soul.
If, then, we desire to contribute some good to our society and no evil, we must take care to keep our hearts open to the cleansing influences of the spirit of holiness, so that no habit of sin shall cast its dark shadow around us, or vitiate that atmosphere which is inseparable from our personal life.
IX. SOWING BESIDE ALL WATERS.
"Blessed are ye that sow beside all waters."—ISAIAH xxxii. 20.
These words form part of a great prophetic vision. The prophet is standing among his countrymen like a watchman on the walls of Jerusalem. And far away, as he looks, the distant horizon of his stormy sky is bright with Messianic hopes, but around him the shadows lie dark and heavy.
It was his destiny to speak to a people whose ears were dull of hearing and their hearts without understanding; but he never lost the conviction that the holy seed of God's spirit was alive in them. Amidst all present discouragement he lived in the hope of a brighter and better day, when the eyes of those around him would be opened, and their hearts changed, and a new spirit would take hold of them, and righteousness, peace, prosperity, and gladness would prevail. And no man's life is worth much which is not inspired by some such hope.
What Isaiah saw immediately around him was sin and moral blindness. What he saw immediately in front of him was the consequence of these in woe and desolation. "Year upon year," he cries, "shall ye be troubled, ye careless ones: thorns and briers shall come upon the land of my people: until the spirit be poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness shall become a planted field." But in the day of that outpouring, the heart of the people would turn and be uplifted, renewed, and purified, the wilderness would become a planted field. And this thought brings him to the final outburst of the text I have just read to you, which is a blessing on those true Israelites who realised the high calling of God's people, and were inspired to fulfil it, sowing everywhere and always the seeds of Divine influence. The whole vision is highly instructive, for it is the vision of what occurs again and again in all human history; but it is of this blessing with which it closes that I desire to say a word or two to-day.
Amidst all the threatening and discouraging symptoms of the national life, Isaiah turned to the bright vision of those servants of God whose faith should never fail, and in whom there should be no variableness, and no wavering. "Blessed are ye that sow beside all waters." Sow your seed of good influence, he seems to say to them, in good times, in bad times; sow it in this place, and in every place, sow it in the wastes of the moral wilderness, sow it in the face of every enemy, sow it in faith and hope and without fear. It is on them he depends to prepare for that happier season when the wilderness of the spiritual life around him should become as a planted field; and with prophetic insight he perceives that it is on such as these that the Divine blessing always rests. "Blessed are they that sow beside all waters." It is a text to be taken with us whenever any change comes over the circumstances of our life. If we are changing from a life of rule or discipline to a life of free choice, from school to home, from boyhood to manhood, this blessing declares that there should be no change in the attitude and purpose and aim of life.
It is another way of saying that the laws which should guide our conduct, and the principles which should inspire and direct us, are of universal application; that they know no difference of time or place, and that if they bind you here they should bind you everywhere. And simple and obvious as this may seem, it is not altogether an easy truth to carry into practice. "Blessed are ye that sow beside all waters." Your seed field is not here or there only; it lies on every side of you, and in all places; it spreads into the future farther than your eye can travel, and it will extend itself before you as you go; and the reality and vigour of good purpose in you will be determined by your recognition of this truth.
Let us consider it with reference to our own case at such a time as this.
There are always growing up here in every generation those who feel a pride in their school, and in the spirit of it, who strive honestly and earnestly to sow in their society the seeds of manliness, and truthfulness, and good tone, and purity. It would soon go very ill with this or any other society if it were not so. And those who grow up in this way are continually leaving us in their turn, and they will remember with affection the place of their high purposes and earnest and manly efforts. They go out into a new world, and travel along other streams; and blessed are they, if they continue faithful, sowing still beside all waters.
But every change brings with it some element of risk. There is nearly always something of surprise to us in the new forces that confront us in any society which we enter as strangers; and the first feeling that rises is sometimes a feeling of our own weakness or insignificance.
In such a case it is well if we have realised beforehand that our laws of conduct should not vary, and that the call of God, which we have recognised once, is a call which never ceases, and which no circumstances should make inaudible.
When we approach any change we all need this kind of warning; because there are so many things in our life which we are apt to allow our circumstances to regulate for us. Experience tells us only too plainly how much we depend upon the influences that are around us, and how often we fail to carry with us the strength we have gained in one field when we pass over to the next. With the holy we learn in some degree to be ourselves holy; with a perfect man we too are able to walk perfectly; but on the other hand, in our imitative way, as the scene changes, we sometimes find ourselves learning frowardness with the froward, practising indifference with the indifferent, if not actually slipping with the vicious into some vicious way. There is always some risk of such changes; and it is always well for us to be taking care that our better life has its root in our own heart and spirit, and that we do not wear it as a garment suited to the society in which we happen to be, and change it for the worse, if there comes any corresponding change in outward influences.
Hence it is that at these times, when we are about to separate, these words of Isaiah come to us with a very appropriate reminder: "Blessed are ye that sow beside all waters."
To those who are leaving our society to begin a new life elsewhere, as to those of us who go in the hope of returning by-and-by, they are charged with the same lesson. They bid us all alike take care and see that what is good in our present life has become our own personal and permanent possession, independent of surroundings; that it has sunk in some degree into the fibre of our character; that it is settled in us by conviction and principle, to guide and direct us everywhere, and is not merely a circumstantial garment, a sort of livery of this or that particular place, which will slip off us as we leave it.
Many of you have learnt, I feel sure of it, to feel during these your school days, the satisfaction of living here a true and worthy life; you have tasted of that pleasure which the careless, the indifferent, and the sinful hardly taste at all, the pleasure that dwells with the consciousness of earnest effort and sincere striving after the best things within us. The love of Christ may have taken hold upon you; the associations of your school and its inheritance of great and good examples, or the sense of honour may have stirred you; the feeling of your closeness in life to those around you, and of the strong currents of mutual influence, may have opened your eyes to what you owe to your neighbour and to the claims of social duty. Some one of these causes, or it may be some other cause, may have given you strength and power to walk amongst us in the narrow way of good habit and good influence. And wherever this is so, we thank God. But the question to-day is, What assurance do you feel that this will continue? When we go elsewhere, what habits, what tendencies, what fixed bent of spirit and character shall we exhibit? Knowing as we do how strongly the forces of the outer world will act upon us, it is never a useless warning which bids us take care that in new spheres we do not forget our old principles, or lay aside any good habits. "Blessed are ye that sow beside all waters."
We have learnt to look upon certain laws of conduct and feeling, certain duties, certain standards of life, as beyond dispute, and fundamental. If so, they are also of universal application; and we should hold them as things which are altogether independent of the customs, traditions, or tone of any society into which we may go.
It is probable that some of you may find this doctrine not altogether free from difficulties before many weeks are over. You may find yourselves young and apparently uninfluential members of some society in which the standards of life are low, and you may be tempted to think, under the pressure of surrounding opinion, that you are not called upon to set up or display any standard of your own; and there is always a chorus of voices ready enough to echo any such tempting suggestions.
But if ever you are tempted thus to let slip the things you have learnt and accepted, the voice of Isaiah should prove a help and a safeguard. And its exhortation is supported by the respect and admiration you feel for any one who has the courage to stand alone in such a case, true to his rooted convictions.
Another word may be added. We met, a great many of us, this morning at that table to which men do not come unless they entertain the purpose of treading in the footsteps of Christ, and of nursing His Holy Spirit in their hearts. As we lifted up our hearts there, as we ate of that bread and drank of that cup, as we prayed to be kept safe from the sins that most easily beset us, as we sealed in each other's presence the resolutions which are to direct our steps in safe paths, it was not of circumstances or places that we were thinking—it was the vision of Christ our Saviour that was before our eyes, and we pray that this vision may remain with us. When we think of all our diverging paths as we separate just now, and of the uncertainty how many of us may meet again in that far horizon, and how many may have wandered out of the way in the wilderness, we do not doubt that we shall often need the strengthening influence of this vision of Christ, if we, too, hope to inherit the blessing which is reserved for those who are faithful under all circumstances, and who sow beside all waters.
X. THE PRESENCE OF GOD.
"And Jacob awakened out of his sleep and said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not."—GENESIS xxviii. 16.
These words indicate the beginning of a new life in the patriarch Jacob. They tell us of the moment when, as it would appear, his soul awoke in him. And they surprise us in some degree, as such awakenings of spiritual capacity often do; for Jacob's recorded antecedents were not exactly such as to lead us to expect the dream and the vision, and the awakening which are described in this passage.
He had cheated his brother out of his father's blessing; he was leaving his father's house in consequence, to avoid this brother's threatened vengeance; and as he slept at Bethel he dreamed his dream of the ladder set up on earth and reaching to heaven; and he saw the angels ascending and descending, and the Lord standing above it, and he heard the Divine voice charged with promise and with blessing: "I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest." This, taking it in all its parts, is a very surprising narrative; and the point in it on which I desire to fix your attention for a moment is this, that this vision startled him into a new consciousness—"Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not." It was the beginning of a new life.