The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Now in the eighteenth year of king Jeroboam the son of Nebat reigned Abijam over Judah.Old Material for New Buildings
In order to understand the text we shall have to remind ourselves of two or three historical circumstances. Baasha was king of Israel, Asa was the king of Judah. There was war between Baasha and Asa all their days. The king of Israel went up against Judah and built the strong fortress of Ramah, but the king of Judah strengthened himself by calling in, on the basis of an ancient treaty, the assistance of Benhadad, the king of Syria. Benhadad and Asa went up against the king of Israel and overthrew him and took his fortress called Ramah, and with the stones of that fortress two cities of Judah were built.
Surely there is a great lesson here by which all sensible men may profit! Asa did not beat the stones into powder and throw the powder away; nor did he burn the timber to ashes and scatter the hot dust upon the flying wind so that it never could be found again. He pursued a better plan—turned the old material to new uses, and said in effect, "A stone is a stone, a beam is a beam: there is no harm in the material itself: it has been used against me, now it shall be used for me," and thus in the eloquent language of Bossuet, "with the fortresses of Samaria he built the cities of Judah." Thus the subject begins to reveal itself, and we see how, amid these ancient names, often unknown and sometimes uncouth, the very freshest lessons may be gathered. It needs no Old Mortality to carve these letters afresh, or dig the moss out of them. They are always beautiful with suggestion to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. May God give us both!
Is it not much the same as if a man should use the materials of his old self with which to build the structure of a new and nobler manhood? Suppose a man to have come over to what is expressively termed the Lord's side: we will ask, What have you done with the old material—is it to be left—is it to be utilised? Have you been so foolish as to leave all the old stuff in the enemy's hands? The stuff itself is not bad: it was only put to bad uses. We want you to bring away every stone and every beam, and with the old material to build a new palace. Once you built Ramah for the devil—now that Christ has taken you captive we want you to make an inquiry about the old stuff, that nothing be lost. Let us draw your portrait as you were in the old days. You were known for your energy: everybody used to be struck with your indomitableness: you were never tired; in the morning, in the evening, always the same. Yours was the planning head, yours was the inventive mind. "Shorten the programme!" said you; "I shall make a programme for you." Quick came the flashes of suggestion which instantly commended themselves to the judgment of those round about you. They used to call you the life and soul of the party. When you were not there, the jokes were few and flat, stale and unprofitable. The moment you came in, the sun seemed to rise, all the windows were ablaze with a new light, and the air trembled under the vibrations of a new and melodious voice. You were a grand devil's man—popular, clever, ingenious, bright, welcome everywhere. When you entered a company, the company always said, "Now we shall have an enlargement of the plan." Very good. You have come over to the Lord's side, what are you now? How much of the old material have you saved and appropriated to better purposes? In some cases, we fear, the disguise is so complete that your own mother would not know you now. You have succeeded in burying every talent, powdering every stone, burning every beam—the old material is not found among the resources of your better life. Ramah has not become Mizpah. You were once musical: your song was always ready: the company turned to you and said, "Sing us a song," and without affectation you instantly went to your music and sang, to the delight and joy of everybody round about you. And now you scarcely mumble a hymn in church, much less sing. Ramah has not become Geba of Benjamin or Mizpah. You have left the music with the enemy instead of bringing it with you and sanctifying it, by a new baptism, to higher and diviner uses.
You were always the last to leave the public-house; the last to get up from the gaming-table—you tired out everybody. Where is your energy now? You cannot bear the night air, you are afraid of draughts in the church. You, the grand old devil's Ramah, that could bear the storms of a thousand years, battering with their utmost fury upon the bastions—you always report yourself now as "Not very well, thank you."
Ah, what a fall was there! We know the reason of it all. You did not go to Christ until you were so emaciated that there was nothing left of you. Probably you never would have come if your blood had not cooled, if your passion had not expired. You came blighted, withered, blasted, without one drop of living juice in your frame. No other man would have taken you in but the Son of God. Others would have despised such offerings, but he, Man of thorns, Man of wounds, the bleeding Man of the bursting, saving heart, he said. "The bruised reed will I not break: the smoking flax will I not quench." We see the repeated miracle of his redemption in you, a repetition of the infinite miracle of his infinite love. The reed was bruised in the devil's service. In ancient times they used to play music on the reed, and you played music till you bruised and broke the reed, and he who is the Master said, "I think I can put this together again for you. Wait." The smoking flax might be quenched, but he said, "No, I will wave it a little in the air." That was the action of reviving the smouldering flax—waving it, shaking it, till the dying spark became a living flame. Perhaps, therefore, you are only under repair—you are only being shaken a little, and by-and-by—from the stones of the old Ramah shall be built the beautiful church of Geba and the palace of Mizpah.
What is true of the building up of the individual, is true also of the building up of the Church. It is recorded of one of the Wesleys that when he heard anybody singing a nice tune on the streets, he used to loiter about until he got the melody thoroughly into his head, and then he went away and set divine words to the prostituted music. He said, "The devil has all the best tunes." Persons looking at Wesley standing listening to the street singer, would say, "What, is he caught by the song?" and they might have attributed wrong motives to his standing there, but he was pulling down Ramah that he might built Geba of Benjamin and Mizpah. The tune that was used to carry evil sentiments or bad language was brought over to tell the world the great gospel. The tune that was used for evil purposes was sanctified to the utterance of such sentiments as—
We know there are some stones very rough and unshapely, but they ought to task our ingenuity and not excite our disgust. Where to find a place for this rude man: do not encounter him with dislike; accept him as a problem to be answered by the inventiveness which was so marvellously fertile in the days of your own hostility to Christ. The sooner you get the stones put into their places the better. Do not look much at a stone: do not walk round about it frequently for the purpose of observing and surveying it, but as soon as possible put it to its best uses. In the olden times there used to be conversions. Men were turned to the Lord then with full purpose of heart. They declared themselves on the Lord's side. There are no conversions now. In the old, old time the minister used to preach for three hours, and then say he would have added more if time had permitted. Then they had conversions. Now we preach twenty minutes, and are applauded because we are so brief. Where is the result? Where are the turnings to God with full purpose of heart? Where is the crying out, sharp and piercing, like sudden agony, "Men, brethren, what shall we do?"
But let us try to tax our imagination sufficiently to suppose that there are conversions now. We are taking fortresses from the enemy now—what are we to with the old material? Hitherto we have taken it and we have stowed it away in softly cushioned pews, and we have taken care to sit so near the ends of those pews as to prevent any more stones being carted into the same quarters. We have discouraged excitement and the age is cursed with indifference: we are all indifferent. This disease of indifference has settled upon our modern life, and now, 'tis only noble to be quiet: 'tis only grand to mumble so that no soul can hear us. We have entreated the old excitement to be quiet: we have implored it to burn its wit, to strangle its humour, to silence its music, and to nod assentingly to the pulpit twice every Sunday, and to be done with it. With the stones of Ramah we have built neither Geba nor Mizpah. I speak this to our common shame. If any man can answer me that the impeachment does not implicate him, I am only glad to be so far disabused and corrected as to my impressions.
Here is a man whom we have taken from the enemy who has a gift of music: what is he going to do with it in the Church? Let us employ him at once as a singing missionary; send him out to sing. He will find the voice, we find the words. Is it possible to sing the gospel? Verily so. In a recent walk I saw some little fellows about two feet and a half high—little bunches of papers on their arms, sitting on the steps and looking at one another so coyly and nicely, with unkempt hair, and their bare feet and their tattered garments—and there was I, poor dumb priest, on my way to talk to the luxury of the age, and I felt the tears in my throat as I cursed myself. I would that some lady could have gone to those little fellows and have sung them some little hymn or sweet song. It would have been odd: it might have been useful. It would have created a laugh for the time being: it might have won a conquest. It would have been called ridiculous; in heaven it might have been termed sacrificial. What are you doing with the old material? I ask you for it, I claim it: I know the fire is upon it, and there are marks of evil fingers attaching to it, but every stone that has been taken from the enemy may become part of a palace—beautiful, because built for God.
Here is a man we have captured, who used to be quite famous for his humour. He was in very deed a wit. He saw the comical aspect of every question, he had a keen eye for the ludicrous, a happy tongue for the expression of all that he saw and felt. He is now in the church—what is he doing? Sleeping. The Church will not have him. The Church is wrong. We should make a modern Elijah of him, and he should taunt the priests of evil on their own ground and across their own altars, till they ran away for very shame. Such a man should have a function in the Church. We do not want his humour here, mayhap: let that be fully understood: but it is wanted somewhere in this heathen London. The Church has been unjust to laughter. It has left that stone in the devil's Ramah: it might have made a figure in God's Geba or Mizpah.
But is there not danger in employing such persons to do such work? Yes, there is danger in doing it; but, as we view the case, there is more danger in not doing it. We are too much afraid of danger. There was great danger in entrusting the revelation of Christianity to a few fishermen, ignorant and feeble in every aspect of social importance. We dare not have done it. We should hardly have trusted any one of these men to have posted a letter. But Jesus entrusted them with a letter for the universe. There was great danger in selecting as the patriarch of the Church a man who had cursed and sworn and denied his Lord. We should never have spoken to him more. Jesus, mighty Saviour, set him in the front; a supreme danger or a divine philosophy. Clothe men with responsibilities if you would call up their supreme power to its best expression, its most solid and massive and dominating attitude. Give them to feel that you are afraid of them and suspecting them, and all the time adding them up to prove if they are correct, and you undo the very work you suppose yourself to be doing. Understand that the weak things are always, under divine uses, the strongest. It is the child that rules your house. You are a very stupendous person, no doubt, but the baby is more stupendous still. Is there not danger in these odd methods and irregular means? Yes, but Christianity is another word for danger; it does nothing according to the wisdom of orthodox prudence, it turns the world upside down, and those who are mightiest in its propagation are those upon whose foreheads the world has written most legibly—"Mad."
We want to know what has become of the old material. You were greater on the other side than you are on this. You made more of a figure, you created a deeper impression, you were better known as an actor than ever you have been known as a preacher—how is that? You were better known as a blasphemer than you are known as a suppliant—how is that? O that we could utilise all the old forces!
Jesus Christ works in the spirit of this text in building up his kingdom. He takes the stones from the enemy—to whom coming as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men but chosen of God and precious—they are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; and are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; in whom all the building fitly framed together, groweth unto a holy temple in the Lord: in whom ye also are builded together for a habitation of God through the Spirit. Jesus Christ will overthrow the fortress of the enemy, and take every stone and beam and timber away, and rear new edifices with them. Out of the ruins of Saul he will build Geba and Mizpah, called Paul; and Paul shall be as great a Christian as ever he was a Pharisee. There will be no disguise about the man, he will not change his identity; the intensity that made him a persecutor will make him an evangelist, the astuteness which made him famous in the school of Gamaliel will make him famous in the higher school of Christ. The man who went out to persecute the Church of God will go out to his death with a nobler loyalty of composure, yea, will welcome it as one who is ready to depart
Out of the ruins of Luther the monk, Christ will build Luther the Protestant reforming teacher. He will not make a less Luther. He will not say to him, "You must lay aside your commonness, your vulgarity of speech, your buffoonery; your must lay aside your music and your humour, and your love of all the movements of the times; and you must become a smaller man." He said, "I shall want all your humour, all your rude force, all your blunt expression"—for Luther would never have been the man he was in Europe but for that singular faculty—which is oftentimes known as vulgarity—the power of speaking expressively, the power of being graphic and vivid, the power of saying what the common people understand in their own language and with their own accent.
Out of the ruins of the drunkard Jesus Christ builds the apostle of temperance. Who can speak so well about drunkenness as the redeemed man? We have around us many conspicuous examples of this: such examples throw floods of light upon the meaning of this text. Out of the old ruins build the new palace, fetch all the old stuff away, every stone, every beam, every nail, and use all in the uprearing of the new sanctuary.
Jesus is building his great house, and some day men will say about the stones that are in it, "What are these, and whence came they?" and Jesus will answer with a pride of satisfaction flooding and flaming his soul, "Every stone that is there is precious to me: this is Ramah, rebuilt as Geba; this is the old fortress turned into the new sanctuary," and as he looks upon that palace, wide as the horizon, high as heaven, what wonder if, seeing the travail of his soul, he is satisfied?
All the old fortresses must come to one of two fates—they will be ground to powder, or they will be rebuilt in forms of infinite and indestructible beauty.
Almighty God, why art thou so concerned that we should obey thee? Why dost thou not close thine hand upon us, and return us to the earth? Thou dost stoop down to us, and care for us as though we were of consequence to thee. The heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain thee. The angels thou dost charge with folly; the heavens are not clean in thy sight. Yet thou dost look down upon the children of men, and shed blood for them, thou dost call for them as loving hearts would call for those who are hungry, and offer them bread. Yea, thou dost seem to stop the universe in its way that some poor lost lamb may be gathered up again. The Son of man came, to seek and to save that which was lost. Why came he? We can be of no consequence to the Eternal. Surely we are but as insects in the sunbeam, living a moment, and quickly dying in the presence of him who made all time and who opens the year as he closes it without sign or token that any great event has occurred to himself. Thou dwellest in eternal time, thou art measured by the unending and unbeginning now. Yet thou dost care for us, thou dost pity us with tears; thine heart grieves over us, as if we could complete thy dominion and enhance thy joy. Like as a father pitieth his children, even so dost thou pity the sons of men. We know it. In no otherwise can we understand the providences which make up our lives. They are not judgments, they are not symbols and pledges of wrath; they are veiled angels, they are messengers of love, tenderness, and redemption. All things are greater than we suppose. When thou art feeding the one bird in the winter time, thou art feeding the whole universe the year round. If thou canst be interested in one of us, then art thou interested in all. The whole earth is thine; the Jew and the Gentile are thine; the uttermost part of the earth is not far from thee: the whole earth in all its points touches the eternal throne. Give us grace, mercy, and peace as a new year token. May we feel that the Lord is still amongst us—the fire that burns but does not consume: a presence that would cheer by suppressing itself rather than a fire that would flame out upon us, and terrify by judgment and penalty. Give us understanding of ourselves that we may have better understanding of others. Open thou our eyes that we may behold wondrous things out of thy law. The Lord be pitiful to us still with tenderness of mercy. The moment the mercy is withdrawn our life is extinguished. We live in mercy, we live in the pity of God; we are preserved by thine heart, else would we be crushed by thine hand. We love the Saviour. His name becomes dearer to us as the years rise and fall, and number themselves with the eternity gone. He is all in all. He is the root and the offspring of David, the bright and morning star. He is Alpha and Omega; and there is no escape from the line of his love—high as heaven, deeper than any parts of the earth, stretching over every sea, so that the land and the water, and the family and the state, and the market-place and the cemetery, are all under his watch and care. Plant many a flower upon the grave; conceal it with flowers; may they spring so richly and so beauteously that the grave shall be rather a type of the resurrection than a sign of the conquering death. Do for us all we want; or take hold of our hands, and help us to do it ourselves, that we may be pleased for a moment, though never missing the consciousness that our hand is in the hand of God. God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—thou dost by these names stand far away from us; God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ—by this sweet name dost Thou come into every house, and touch every heart. Amen.