The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
At that time Herod the tetrarch heard of the fame of Jesus,Chapter 60
Herod Hears of Christ
It must not be supposed that Herod had not heard of Jesus Christ until this time, but at this particular juncture the fame of Jesus made a new impression upon the ruler's mind. There are some hours that are historical, although the very things we remember in those hours have not been unknown to us or even unfamiliar to us aforetime. Notice the kind of fame which Herod heard of Jesus. Was it the fame of his eloquence or the fame of his spirituality? Was the governor struck by the breadth and grandeur of the spiritual conceptions of the new teacher? Probably not. What struck him most, and therein showed the vulgarity of his nature, was the miracles. Some men are more fascinated by lightning than by light. Herod heard of mighty works, grand wonders and astounding signs, but it is not said that he had heard of the beatitudes and revelled in sympathetic appreciation as he listened to the dripping music, the sweet pensive words which fell from the lips of the Teacher on the mountain.
It is even so today: we do not see men in their grandest point; it is some little incidental and transient thing that attracts our vulgar attention, some trick of manner, or tone of voice, or method of assault: but what of the intellectual purview, the spiritual unction, the groping after the infinite, the passion of love, the redeeming care, the eternal patience? No reference is made to the higher qualities of men until long after their ascension. At first we talk about their miracles, their prodigies, signs and tokens, and not a word do we say about the subtle process that has in it ten thousand miracles of insight and sympathy and eloquence of the heart.
Mark the wisdom of Jesus Christ in this matter, he knew how the world must be approached, he understood the value of collateral helps such as miracles; Jesus Christ never intended the miracles to be continuous in the Church, because he knew they would soon drop into commonplace. Man has a wonderful capacity for absorbing miracles, of forgetting the last wonder, and of asking for another. Yet miracles have their place; they are great trumpets that call attention, flashing, dazzling signs that awaken men and make them look, and whilst they are looking, the great Teacher seizes his opportunity to touch and bless the inner nature.
What have we been in these matters? Mere starers, wrought upon by fancy, the victims of our own wonder? Why, what is this but worshipping idols of our own making, bowing down before mean things of our own fashioning? The call to us is to the inner sanctuary, the upper chamber, the place where the Shekinah shines. We are stunned by miracles; we are saved by truth.
Given a mighty thought and a mighty deed, to know which will soonest win the attention of the world and secure its paltry fame, and the deed will outrun the thought. A man who goes into a dangerous place or takes a daring leap, or does some act of romantic madness, is known across a wider horizon than the man who has the divine gift of prayer, and who can work the all but infinite miracle of opening the door of the kingdom of heaven. Who heeds thought or cares for sympathy, or adds up in positive value the tears that flow in commiseration over human distress? The world is a ready reckoner, quick at great batches of figures, totalising them into millions that fill the mouth and daze the imagination where miracles are concerned. But where thoughts, feelings, impulses, inspirations, beatitudes, commendations of virtue are concerned, where is the ready reckoning? We shall learn better by-and-by. Keep in the school of Jesus, and you will learn that there is an arithmetic that is valueless but for momentary convenience, and that the true riches are within—that the ornament of a meek and a quiet spirit is in the sight of God of great price, that miracles of the ordinary kind, such as are found in the gospels, are but introductory, when rightly used, to the light that is meant to shine upon the mind, and to lead the heart upward into the great mysteries of truth and fellowship with God.
Herod, having heard of the fame of Jesus, even upon the comparatively low ground of miracles, gave an explanation of what he heard. I cannot tell how many hours of silence preceded the utterance, but the utterance itself came with the suddenness of an unexpected shock. Herod said with startling abruptness, "This is John the Baptist." We thought his name had been forgotten. No storied marble stood above the headless body to remind the tetrarch, no brass memorial was to be found on all the walls of Herod's palace to remind him of the death. How was it that he knew so distinctly the name of the murdered man? Is there a recording angel, are there invisible presences dogging our steps and whispering to us unwelcome words now and again, even while the wine is half-way to the livid lips with thirst for its fire? Immeasurable life, mysterious life, accursed memory! Cain took to city building, he will fill his head with masonry; still the dead man looks at him from every foundation he lays. He will build high, but the red blood incarnadines the topmost mortar, and oozes upward to remind him of what he once did.
Some say Herod was a Sadducee, and we know that the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection. If Herod was a Sadducee, this is a startling instance of the power of truth and fact to override our speculative creeds, tear them to pieces, and make us poor indeed. We shall know the value of our creed when the last pressure is put upon it. It is one thing to have a creed over a foaming glass of wine and in the midst of a smoking feast when gaiety fills the house and loud rough laughter is the music of the moment, and another thing to have a creed that will go with us through every hour of the day, through every wilderness, up every steep and rocky place, that will clutch our hand in the dark and say, "You are all right; walk on, and I will take you into the morning." Herod's, if he was a Sadducee, was a speculative creed, a thing that pleased the mere intellect for the time being, a piece of rationalism that seemed to fit the occasion. When this great tragedy asserted itself in all those bitter, cruel memories he forgot his Sadduceeism in the presence of an accusing conscience.
Search your creeds through and through, and see if they be faiths that will carry you across the whole bound and scheme of life, or whether they are little transient pleasures, butterflies that live in the sunshine, ephemera that die in the beam that created them. My own experience deepening every day, growing painful in richness, is this: no faith will go with a man up every hill, through every valley, into every pain and every darkness, and through all the light and joy of life, but the faith that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the only Saviour of the world. Other faiths please me intellectually more, for a little time suggestions coming from other Masters give me some delight within given limits, but the theology of Jesus Christ alone fills the whole horizon, and is equally strong at every point. As a personal experience let this go for what it is worth; if your experience coincides with it, in so far as it does let us add our testimony together until the witness becomes in itself a second gospel, not a gospel of revelation, but a confirming gospel, setting to the gospel of revelation this seal, that we have proved it in actual experience.
Herod felt the pressure of the eternal law of righteousness. There was one sermon he did remember—brief as a lightning flash, but so memorable that recollection could never throw it off. Men remember different kinds of sermons. There are some sermons we try to forget, and fail to do so. Sometimes the sermon is in one sentence: it is not at all necessary that you should approve of every sentence in the sermon, or like the sermon as a whole, any more than it is necessary for the man who sits down at the table to consume the luxuries with which it is loaded—he may refuse this, or dislike that, but there is enough to satisfy his hunger, and in that satisfaction his contentment should find its pleasure.
If you had interrogated Herod as to the scope of the ministry of John the Baptist—in what relation he stood to the ancient prophets and in what precise relation he stood to the coming Messenger, to the Lord himself—probably Herod could have given you but lame and imperfect answers. But if you had asked Herod if he could recall one thing that John had ever said, he would have recalled something that was not addressed to the multitude, but that was shot into his own bad heart. He never quoted that sermon but to himself. To himself he preached it probably every day.
The impression made upon Herod's mind was the deeper because John was know to him as a good man and a just. Our sermons derive force from our character. The solid noble character gives weight to the weakest words. A lofty and pure consistency utters what might, from a literary point of view, be of the most imperfect sort, with an accent that makes it eloquent. The grim ascetic, the stern child of the wilderness, draped in camel's hair and fed on locusts and wild honey—he on whom there rested no spot of shame, of foulness or suspicion—said, "It is not lawful for thee to have Herodias as thy wife." Who dares interfere with such things now? No man of my acquaintance. What preacher dares interfere with the family life of his congregation? Not one. Are there not families that would absorb whole libraries of consolation who would resent the faintest approach towards rebuke? If the preacher sees that you are going to marry the wrong man or the wrong woman, dare he interfere? Only at the expense of his head. The law is the same in all ages. Sympathy at a high price, judgment and rebuke at the price of loss, neglect, persecution, martyrdom. If I were to interfere with your marriages, because of their consanguinity, because of their want of adaptation and proper coincidence and rhythm, what would be your retort? Imprisonment, decapitation. Not in their physical forms—thank God we have outlived that vulgarity; but where is there a man who dare ask if the weights are just and the balances equal, or if an enemy has not snipped off part of the yard measure? No man dare interfere with such things now.
The martyrdom having been committed, we come to the twelfth verse, which reads like the bitter music of despair, ending in one troubled hope. Almost every word of the twelfth verse throbs with pathetic suggestion. "And his disciples came"—with heavy feet, with heavy hearts, with tearful eyes, with great groaning, with wonder that might at any moment turn into impiety and hard talking against Heaven's justness. "And took up the body." A heavy load, yet a precious burden; took it up tenderly, lifted it with care, a body that had never known the meaning of luxury, self-care, indulgence; a body whipped, scourged, mutilated, held in severest discipline, every member of it a slave, a gospel in itself of abstention, discipline, severe and inexorable control. Took up the body—the lips gone, the eyes gone, who can tell what was being done with that head? When the head of the eloquent Cicero got into the hands of Fulvia, the woman against whom that eloquent tongue had thundered, she pierced the tongue with sharp instruments, that she might avenge herself upon the eloquence she could not answer.
"Took up the body." It was all that was left them. They buried it—they had nothing else to do: they must needs hide it away. Give me a place that I may bury my dead out of my sight. We think we will keep the dear body for ever, but a law, higher and more inexorable than our desire in such matters, says, "The time will come when you will say—'Take it out of my sight.'"
Now for the note of a troubled hope. "They went and told Jesus." He was always hearing calamitous news. When did anybody go to him with news that made his face broaden and brighten and glow with new joy? Whenever the door of the house was battered by an importunate hand it was that some sadder tale than ever might be poured into the ear of Jesus. If you saw a woman speaking to his bent ear, she was pouring into it some tale of woe. If you saw a man accosting him, it was that the man might tell Jesus of some bitter distress at home. We could not do without that hearing ear.
"They told Jesus." To tell our grief is something: to put our distress into words is to get relief. We can tell the Saviour everything; we keep back no syllable of the tale. You would be lighter of heart if you would tell the Saviour everything that is giving you distress. He is our priest, and to him we must confess. Tell him about your difficulty at home, your trouble with your child, your perplexity in business, the distresses for which there are no words—these you can sigh and hint at in your suggestive and eloquent tears. Let there be no want of confidence between you and your Lord. It is not enough that he knows by his omniscience. He asks us to tell him as if he knew nothing. Herein is the mystery and the grace and the satisfaction of prayer. Though the Lord knows everything we are going to say, he entreats us to say it, knowing that in the prayer itself is often hidden the contentment of its own answer.
What effect was produced upon Jesus Christ? "When Jesus Christ heard of it he departed thence by ship into a desert place apart." It was most natural. There are some occurrences that simply make us quiet. There are shocks we can only answer by eloquent dumbness. He departed and went into a wilderness: it was better to be among the barren sands than amongst murderers and most cruel-minded men. There are times when we are all but inclined to give up our work. Our rain is lost, our dews fall in stony places, our best endeavours are returned to us without echo or answer of joy and gratitude, and we sigh for a lodge in some vast wilderness, some boundless contiguity of shade. This will be only for a while, however, in the case of Jesus Christ. "When he went forth and saw great multitudes he was moved with compassion towards them, and he healed their sick." He was bound to come back again: the sickness would have a greater effect upon him than the murder. He will not relinquish his work because of instances that might have shocked him with fatal distress. He looks upon the multitudinous man and not only upon the individual mischief-doer and murderer. He was the Son of Man, Jesus Christ always took the broad and inclusive view, and this held him to his work when individual instances might have driven him away from it and afflicted him with fatal discouragement.
It is even so we must look at our work, great or small. If we were to be determined by the action of this man or that we should soon abandon the work and have nothing more to do with it. We have not to look at the individual stumbling-block, at the personal fault-finder and heart-breaker, we have to look upon the multitude, the sum-total of things, we have to listen for the universal human cry, and so long as we hold ourselves to universals rather than to particulars we shall be found steadily in our work. Now and again we may be in the wilderness for a while, shocked and distressed, mourning with a great sorrow some unlooked-for calamity, but as upon the air of the wilderness there come the moan and sigh and wail of the world's sorrow we shall go out again and be found faithful servants, working to the last limit of our strength, and working till the last glint dies out of the fading day.
To this Jesus let us cling, to this Jesus let us ever more go. Withhold nothing from the Lamb of God. The bitterer our tale the sweeter his reply, the more agony there is in our prayer the greater grace will be in his answer.
And when it was evening, his disciples came to him, saying, This is a desert place, and the time is now past; send the multitude away, that they may go into the villages, and buy themselves victuals.Chapter 61
Making Suggestions to Christ
One cannot but be struck by the infinite ludicrousness of the situation. It is sadly comical. Jesus Christ did not receive much help in the way of suggestion from his disciples; and when they had come forward for the purpose of making propositions I know not of any figures more strikingly grotesque and pitiable. We, however, have been in the same position with the disciples sometimes. In those hours when lucky ideas have occurred to us, and very bright suggestions have been welcomed as if they were angels from heaven, we have gone to supreme minds, to the great burning and leading intellects of the age, and have laid before them our neat little plans for meeting urgent circumstances, and to our humiliation and bitterness we have found that the suggestions which we considered startling in their originality were dismissed twenty years ago as sophisms that would not bear looking into, It is dangerous to meddle with some minds. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. It is infinitely impertinent to make suggestions to Omniscience.
Look at the disciples. A happy idea has occurred to them, and their faces are flushed by its fire. They are benevolent men, they have been measuring the situation with their calculating eyes, they have seen the sun westering, they have felt the evening chill in the wind, and they have thought very kindly of the numerous people who were in the desert place, and as if their Master had been absorbed in contemplations supernal, having in them nothing of care for the present life, they go up and tell him what to do. They will be snubbed. I wonder what his answer will be: certainly it will turn their counsel upside down, whatever it be.
What was the proposition of the benevolent men? Surely they spoke one word for the multitude and twenty for themselves. It was evening, and they, perhaps, were getting tired, and they thought to hide their desire for rest under pitying sympathy for the weariness of other men. Now they take the case into their hands what will they do? Let us hear them. Perhaps they may speak revelations. "Send the multitudes away into the villages that they may buy themselves victuals." That is the world's benevolence, that is the conception of charity in many cases and in nearly all cases in the absence of the inspiration of the love of Christ. Pause awhile. Look at these benevolent men; admire their superlunar benevolence and kindness of heart. We are glad to hear them speak now and again: when they do speak they make history. They spake about the children, and said, "Send them away;" and Jesus said, "Suffer the little children to come unto me." Hear them speak about the multitudes, and they say, "Send them away." This—O, hear it—this is the grand suggestion of the servant: what will the command of the Master be? O, little moth, silly, silly moth, take care of the candle or thy wings will be scorched. Theological suggesters and preaching men, and persons who have theories to propound, take care lest the Master overhear you and account you the children of folly.
How much better to have gone to him and have left the case in his hands. It is always wise to trust Omniscience. It is a continual mistake to be making suggestions to Divine Providence. Remain where you are: Jesus knows when the sun is going down, and when your hunger becomes a distress. I will not leave the ground until he bid me go. In his presence I have no hunger, no pain, no weariness: I stand here till he says, "It is now time to arise and go hence." I pray you, with a beseeching of the heart, not to be making suggestions to Divine Providence, but to remain in your situations, houses, businesses, and present relations until he give the sign to go. Let us be thankful that we are not left to the devices of the disciples: let us gladden ourselves with the holy and inspiring thought that the Master still lives.
How will Jesus receive this suggestion? Deferentially? He never did receive a suggestion from the disciples with the slightest token of respect. Once one of them said to him, "This be far from thee, Lord," and he said, "Get thee behind me, Satan." Another time they said, "Take the children away," and he said, "Suffer the children to come." Now they say, "Send the multitude away, that they may buy victuals for themselves in the villages," and he says, "They need not depart—give ye them to eat." How musical his voice sounds after their rough tones. Put the two expressions together, and see the infinite discrepancy. "Send the multitude away, that they may go into the villages and buy themselves victuals." It is not a suggestion, it is the rudest, vulgarest proposition that the lowest and coarsest minds could have made. Now hear the voice that holds in it all heaven's music—"They need not depart." That was the revelation, and that is true of human life in all its points, aspects, bearings, and necessities.
You need not go out of the Church for anything that is really good for you. When will the Church arise to this conception of her responsibility, and to this realization of her unsearchable riches? The idea which presses itself upon us as a trouble is that people imagine the Church is a measurable quantity, set up for the purpose of dealing out a specific article. Is there bread in the Church? There is bread enough and to spare. Has the Church a music hall, a picture gallery—does the Church afford opportunities for recreation, for intellectual culture, for social progress, for the consideration of ethical commerce? If the Church fail in these particulars it is because the Church has been misread, not because the Master occupies a solitary point and leaves the rest of his universe to be occupied by other persons.
What do you most need? I will find it for you in the Church. You need not depart from Christ, for whatever you want he has the key of the library, he keeps a great bread-house, he knows how he has made you, your love of art, your passion for music, your delights and your comforts, every one of them he is accountable for, as to their control and supply. Let me, therefore, protest against any theory that would narrow the Church and dwarf it into one amongst many, instead of making it many in one. I am aware that we have driven away so many people from the Church into the villages to buy victuals for themselves that we shall have a good deal to do to get back terms and phrases which ought never to have been divorced from the altar, and when they do come back they will be so distorted in image, and so vitiated in use, that for a long time some persons will protest against their being used within the walls of the sanctuary.
Where are our hosts of young people now? We have sent them into the villages to buy bread. Where those that were weak and faithless of heart, weak and trembling in soul, doubtful, troubled by infinite unrest of heart? We have sent them into the villages to buy bread. We were only too glad to get clear of them. Jesus never sent them away: as they were going he said, "You need not depart." The Church, therefore, must bestir herself to a realization of her true call of God. I want the Church to have many mansions. If you please, the mansions need not, so to speak, overlap one another, or encroach upon each other's position and special meaning—but in my Father's house there should be many mansions, and no man should be allowed to go away because there is not enough for him at home. Build the Church ten times the size, stretch its hospitable roof over all things that can feed the best nature, and charm the noblest instincts and impulses of human nature, and do not narrow and impoverish and dwarf yourselves.
You are called upon, Christian Churches, to supply all the necessities of the world. We may have to alter old habits and modernize ancient methods and do a great many things that appear to be revolutionary, but I would write upon every church front, as an appeal to the whole public, these sacred words—"Ye need not depart." Everything that man can need for his healthy instruction, edification, culture, and perfecting is within the boundaries of Christ's conception of his own Church. The time will come when we shall not need to modify any of the great grand words ever spoken by Jesus Christ. The mischief is that a cold age wants to drag down the reading to its own coldness. I say concerning this Book of marvels and most astounding miracles—let every line stand. There are coming men who can read the Book in all its apocalyptic wondrousness of suggestion, colour, pomp, and music. We may not be able to read it; our ears are filled with unholy noises, our eyes are divided so that we cannot focalise our vision and fix it with intensity enough upon the object to see its real beauty, but in the coming time there are generations that will be able to read the Book in all its breadth, and we must not spoil it for their using. Fear not, the lion of the tribe of Judah hath power to open the Book, and in an infinitely less degree, but not wanting in healthy and noble suggestion, is it true that hearts are coming, brighter minds, nobler souls, who will be able to open the Book in its true sense and read it with all its magic and power and grandeur of suggestion.
Do not drag down the Book to your present coldness. Do not imagine that the Book is about to accommodate itself to the impoverishment which you have inflicted upon yourselves. The miracles stun us because we have lost the power of grasping them, but when materialism goes down and faith rises to its proper position the miracles will be easy reading to all believing souls. You must enlarge the idea of the Church.
"They need not depart—give ye them to eat." You never know how much you have till you begin to give. The thing given with the right spirit grows in the giving. You will find after you have withdrawn some donation from your store, with a good motive and a right intent, that when you go back again to the store it will have returned, and in your secrecy you will say, "What mystery is this, when I have given the money? It was taken out to be given, but I must have forgotten to convey it." This is the ministry of the angels, to go to the secret drawer and put the money back, to watch your face when you return to count what you expected to be the diminished amount. We have proved this: we must not be accounted foolish men by those who have not entered into the same experience. If I were my own treasurer I should be poor in a month: I would not know what had been done with the money. But taking it always from him, in the act of giving it to him it grows in the giving.
Let us hear those wonderful men talk again. And they say unto him, "We have here but five loaves and two fishes." Did they tell the truth? No. Did they distort the facts? No. Is it possible to state a fact and yet to keep back the truth? Perfectly possible, and done every day. Let us hear how much they had. Five loaves and two fishes—and no more. Sure? What had the fools forgotten? What we forget in all our misreckoning. Give me the inventory of their property, will you; it will then read thus: "We have here but five loaves and two fishes, and God and Christ, and the Miracle worker and the Creator." What poor inventories we return. The stationer could give us paper enough for our inventories ten thousand times over. We give the material side only when we add up our riches; we put down the loaves and the fishes, and the water and the gold, and the silver and the stones—but what about ideas, impulses, thoughts, purposes, burning desires, imperishable capacities? What about the immortality that stirs within us? With such omissions your inventory is not worth the paper it is written upon. When you reckon up your little stock to-night do not forget to add at the foot of the roll—"and Christ, and Providence, and my Father in heaven," and you will lay down your weary head as a millionaire, multiplied by innumerable millions as to store and value.
Jesus said, "Bring them hither to me." He was not disturbed by the number, as the disciples were. In their hands the loaves would have been only five and the fishes would have been only two, but in Christ's hands the stock will be multiplied into a great feast. It is the same with everything we have. Let us take up our two talents to Christ—we shall bring them back two hundred. Let us take up our resources to Christ, and we shall come back multiplied into an army that cannot lose a battle. This accounts for your non-success, my friends: you are using your little store without passing it through the all-multiplying fingers: if you were more religious you would be more successful.
Now this is a miracle which does not appeal to the imagination. Sometimes the rationalists have told us that the people upon whom the miracle was wrought were simply operated upon by a magnetic will, by a higher power of mind than their own, and they for the time being became the happy subjects of a kind of magnetic action. I imagine the bread had no imagination to be wrought upon: it would appear to me that the five loaves and the two fishes were not subjects for the operation of any magical art. Moreover, the whole story is so constructed as to make it sternly literal. "Jesus commanded the multitude to sit down on the grass, and took the five loaves and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed and brake, and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude." Jesus did not personally give the bread to the multitude—he passed it, as he passes all his bread, through the medium of ministries and servants of his own appointing.
It was more than a mere miracle: it was a sacrament. He made a religious feast of it. He never did anything secularly, as we use that cold term—his whole life was religious, his very breath was a prayer, the opening of his eyes was a revelation. He did nothing without his Father. We should have larger comforts if we had more religion in the using of them. Your unblest bread will soon be done. If you eat animally you will be choked, if you eat sacramentally you will have bread enough and to spare. Eat with contentment of heart, with a sense of gratitude and thankfulness to God, as the guest of God, and the host will see that you have enough. Do not spread an atheist's table that you may put upon it venison and wines of all fanned vineyards: you will only get up a glutton and a winebibber, flushed with a bad heat and satisfied but for an hour. On the poorest meal, on the simplest engagement of life, ask the heavenly blessing—secretly or audibly, but mean it—and sitting down to your little table, say, "I am here as God's guest: he asked me to sit here," and the feast will be a holy sacrament.
There are eternal meanings in this bread-giving. This is the miracle of the ages. It is the only miracle which all the evangelists have told, and there may be a purpose in this unanimity of record, for this is the miracle we must all partake of or we cannot live—we must eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of God. "Except a man eat my flesh and drink my blood he hath no life in him." This is the true bread which cometh down from heaven, of which if a man eat he will hunger no more. Now we come with our little dwarfing expositions, and take all the sap, the juice, the wine out of this holy growth. We will ask little questions about transubstantiation, and we will set up little enigmas and miserable riddles which are unworthy of the Christian imagination, and our religious liberties and privileges. This is not a question of transubstantiation: the bread does not pass into any other body or substance: the wine is wine at the last as at the first, and no magic can change its nature. And yet as in the letter I feel the spirit, so in these elements of bread and wine my heart feels that it is feasting upon the living Lord. Do not ask for this gospel to be reduced to words: I ask you to enlarge your words to receive this gospel.
Have you eaten of the bread sent down from heaven—have you drunk of the blood of the Son of God? If not, you have no life abiding in you. Lord, evermore give us this bread. This is the bread that endureth unto life everlasting. In my Father's house is bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger: I will arise and go to my Father, and I will say unto him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son." Have you challenged him with a speech so eloquent in contrition? He will shake the heavens that he may reply to you with the enthusiasm of his whole house; his angels and his firstborn will consider it no humiliation to gather around you and clothe you and make you rich with all heaven's wealth.
Return, return, thou hungry wanderer in the wilderness: thou needest not depart: in thy Father's house are all mansions, and there is a resting-place even for thee.
And straightway Jesus constrained his disciples to get into a ship, and to go before him unto the other side, while he sent the multitudes away.Chapter 62
Revelation By Night and Day
In the case of feeding the multitude the disciples rashly undertook to give advice to the Master; they rushed into sacred and forbidden places. Out of their urgent cleverness, they had evolved the suggestion which pleased them like a new toy. We have seen how Jesus Christ treated the smart ignorance of his shallow counsellors, and with what infinite beneficence he confounded the notion of sending anybody away from himself to find anything that could do human life the very least good.
Now the scene quite turns. Jesus Christ leaves the disciples to manage their ship, just to show them how cleverly they can do without him. They wanted to take the bigger case into their own hands, and he would not allow them so to do, but to meet them by gracious compromise he gives them a ship to take care of, with what upshot we have seen. Thus he always rebukes clever meddlers with his administration; he gives them something to do by their own skill and power, and shows them by many a disaster what it is to take life away from its divine centre, and to conduct life on a wrong principle. He allows us to make little experiments—well for us if he be looking on even from a mountain top whilst we make them. It would be the death of us if he turned his back away and looked otherwhere. He is gracious, and allows us to work our own cleverness on a small scale, that we may see how frail we are, and how hollow and utterly wanting in all comprehensive and grave wisdom, and how true it is "without me ye can do nothing." He is allowing you now to conduct that small enterprise of yours in business. You will come to him presently, all broken in pieces, and ask him to reconstruct you. Well will it be for you if he is looking on from a mountain top—he will gather you together again with a great redeeming grace and gently rebuke you for undertaking to do anything by yourself alone.
Jesus went up into a mountain apart to pray. We wonder how a grand outward ministry can be sustained. The answer is simple in its sublimity. Every outward ministry that is massive, life-taxing, so to say blood-drinking in its fierce demands upon the ministry, is sustained by mountain climbing, solitary communion with God, the nursing of old gentle mother Nature, and soul-fellowship with the Father of all life. The inward man must be renewed day by day: we must deepen the soil, if we would enrich the crop. If the Master could not do without lonely prayer, the servant surely cannot dispense with secret devotion. It is not enough to pray aloud, nor is it sufficient to pray in company in the language of common prayer: we must know the agony, which is joy, of speechless communion, and the exquisitely tender gladness of secret fellowship. We must be closeted with God. "Come up to the top of the mountain," said the Almighty to Moses, "be ready in the morning;" and while the dew was sparkling in the hardly risen sun they held great speech together, sublime as music. O, those dewy hours, those opening moments of the day—what conquests may then be won; when our first interview is with God, we cannot fear the face of man. Let us look at the scene until it live before the eyes of our heart for ever.
He went up into a mountain. No traveller accompanied him, no seething multitude made the air hot by pressure and noise. The great wide sky—how wide it can be, let the poet tell me—opened before him like a door into the central heaven, where the throne is, and where the Shekinah burned as if glad to see him back again, poor without him, owing all its blue and light and tenderness to his presence.
What can be so hospitable as the summer sky? Whilst we set our figures against it with some view of adding up in totals its height, it lifts itself with infinite dignity above the standard with which we were about to estimate it. What can open like the sky? Now and again we have said, "How light it is: how truly beautiful," and suddenly, as if the sun had heard us, he answered our challenge by a broader revelation of his light, that cleansed the earth of its shadows and made the green glitter and gleam as if with new and unfathomable life.
Away went the traveller—the breezes breathing upon him like blessings beforehand, and though every shadow formed itself into the suggestion of the cross, the light beyond was a prophecy of triumph and glory. Always look to the light as well as to the shadow. Christ's back was bent as if by a burden invisible, yet he lifted his head with kingly dignity and moved upward like one who had an appointment with God. He went up into a mountain apart to pray. Not alone to recruit his bodily strength, not to view the varied and enchanting scenery. He went to church, he sought the sanctuary, he yearned for the infinite. If he could not do without going to church, who am I that I can dispense with attendance upon the sanctuary? I am but a fool with cap and bells, pleased with the jingling of my own metal, if I do not go to church to fill up the emptiness which nothing else can satisfy.
We must have sanctuary hours, Sabbatic times. Herein is the wondrousness of that word—"Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy." The word holy there cannot mean anything of the nature of spiritual sanctification: a man cannot remember any one day to keep it holy unless he keep the whole time holy. You might as well say, "Be truthful one day in seven, be honest one day in seven, be high minded and pure one day in seven." It cannot be done. Holiness is not an entry upon a register: a man cannot look at his time-bill and say, "The time has come round for me to be holy." So with this church going. You cannot go to church on Sunday with any deep and living appreciation of its opportunities and privileges unless you are in church all the week long. The church is not a separate building you can enter upon particular days: if so at all, it is so only to those who do not enter into the spirit and genius of the occasion. The whole world is sacred, and the church is quiet. We must have quietness as well as sacredness. If we enter church in this spirit, we shall be alone, yet not alone, for the Father will be with us.
Jesus Christ could not live within the boundaries that could be touched: he yearned for the infinite, and must in his life have an outlet towards the eternal. Man, I will not discourage or lay upon thee one straw's weight of disapprobation: if it is in thine heart to grip the bigger earth, the larger place, the broader liberty, the unnameable quantity—thou art not far from the kingdom of heaven.
In Jesus Christ's prayer we do not find what is usually known as asking, or petition, in the ordinary sense of the term. That is the very smallest portion of prayer. Prayer was communion with God,—in the case of Jesus Christ, identification with the Father, absorption in him, communion with the spring of all being and might. The begging attitude becomes us well, but we must not abide in that posture of petition, it is the poorest notion of prayer to beg, to ask, to desire that the right hand may be filled and the left hand be filled and the head and the heart be filled,— it is the meanest begging. We should seek to be one with God, we should enlarge prayer from petition into fellowship, communion, sympathy—then may we hold long talks with God, have all-day speeches with him, and be impatient because the darkness threatens to punctuate with its too hasty period the eloquence of his communications. Rest in the Lord, wait on the Lord, hope thou in God—these are the terms which express the completest joy of prayer.
When the even was come, he was there alone. He was often alone, he was always alone—he never could be dualised. When in the crowd he was alone, he trod the winepress alone. He was with us, yet in a sense not of us: he sat down beside us, and yet the universe separated between the points. Yet in one sense, limited by convenience, he was alone on the mountain, though all the angels were with him. The evening before, five thousand men crowded upon him, and their appeals were like five thousand arrows quivering in his heart. He was then the centre of humanity, now he stands alone upon the mountain, and is the centre of creation, alone as he was before the world began, alone, gathering strength by rest, alone because solitude is needful to the completeness of the soul's education, and he must teach us this by example.
Jesus Christ went up into the mountain for our sakes: if he taught us to pray, he taught us how to pray, where to pray, when to pray. We must have our times of withdrawment if we would get a strong hold of life and be master of its vexing details. Do not always be in the crowded streets or in the rush and noise of tumultuous throngs. Five minutes every day alone with God would make us more than conquerors in the day of battle. Fear yourselves if you dare not be alone: probe into causes, when you dare not take a lonely walk—all the day long from the morning until the evening; your brain is unhealthy, your heart is unsound or your circumstances are of a nature to be pitied, if you fear to go up a mountain alone and be there all day without speaking to any human creature. Solitude, religiously used, chastens the soul, fills the heart with heavenly peace, and opens the mind to the daily revelation which God makes to those who love him. We have times for eating, times for sleeping, times for recreation, why not have times for communion with God and reading deeply the mysteries of his Word? Time spent with God lengthens and gladdens all other time. No man ever lost a customer by being at church with the right motive and with the right spirit. No man ever found three-and-twenty hours in any day of which one hour was given to the worship of the Father of spirits.
Turning now our attention to the disciples, we find that their management of the ship was a poor management. The ship was now in the midst of the sea, tossed with waves, for the wind was contrary. They who were going to manage the multitude, were unable to manage their own ship. Our helplessness ought to be the basis of our best education. If we cannot manage the little how can we manage the great? Thus light is let in upon the administration of the universe. If we are in trouble with one little ship, how then can we control all the ships of the sea, all the star-vessels that sail through the infinite firmament, all the hosts of men that gather on the face of the earth, all the legions of angels that people the cities above, all the forces that burn and throb in every line of the immeasurable universe? We may see how great the Lord is by seeing how little we are ourselves. The infinite discrepancy should drive us to the use and security of prayer.
On the fourth watch of the night Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea. They could not come to him, so he went to them. They must know what it was to be away from Christ; still the eyes of watchful pity were upon them, they were seen from the mountain, they were in an enforced and undesirable loneliness—
How did Jesus Christ view the tossing vessel and the fear-smitten disciples? With somewhat of amusement, knowing how near his own hand was, and how adequate his strength? Did he think of what had occurred a few hours ago, when those blundering navigators proposed to deal with a great question of political necessity in the wilderness? Did he say, "This will show them how little they are and how unworthy to meddle with the administration of vast concerns"? We cannot tell what were his intellectual processes, but his heart was always at the front, his beneficence seemed to outrun his judgment—so he went unto the panic-driven disciples when they were tossed on the sea.
Jesus went unto them walking on the water. If this act stood alone, it might affright us. Do not read the miracles as if they were unconnected events—any one miracle will terrify you. You must read every miracle as part of some greater wonder; then it will come to you not with violent and mighty shock, and overthrow you by irresistible collision, it will fall into the rhythmic march of a life that could never be measured by the figured lines of human arithmeticians. Yet all past miracles are lost upon us: we must have a present miracle. The disciples therefore could not live upon the miracles of yesterday, they must have the miracle of that very particular hour. So must it be with ourselves—we cannot live upon historical wonders, we can only be nourished by daily revelations of divine power and continual manifestations of divine care and love. We cannot be saved by a cross eighteen hundred years old, viewed in the mere light of history; we are saved by a cross older than the foundations of the earth, yet new as the sin of this present evil moment. Jesus Christ must be the Lamb slain from before the foundation of the world, and slain every day to our consciousness, our helplessness, our burning contrition and our penitence which cannot answer its own bitter prayers. Life is a continual miracle. The bread we eat is always broken by divine hands. We have so confused and huddled events as to forget their right succession: we are too frequently content to stop at intermediate causes and present agencies—were we to search back the bread that is in our hand every day as to its history and its origin, we should find that it was broken by divine, all blessing hands, and is itself a miracle.
The disciples were afraid when they saw this figure, and cried out, saying, "It is a spirit." How we are frightened by a spirit! Whoever was quite comfortable even with a supposed ghost? Whoever was just where he would like to be when in the middle of a haunted house, without a man within a mile of him? Yet God is a spirit: we who would be afraid to go into a reputedly haunted room and stop there alone one night, cry out sometimes in unbelief and foolish questioning, "Why does not God show himself?" God is a spirit. It is not enough to see the figure: the sight is often misleading: so the ear must be charmed—the voice can do what the eye fails to accomplish. So Jesus said, "Be of good cheer, it is I, be not afraid." You cannot read the sermon—you must hear it. Some of us cannot read the Bible, we must hear it read by a sympathetic voice every tone of which is a subtle suggestion or a profound exposition. The eye is a deceiver, and is deceived every day, and there is no more mischievous sophism than the proverb "Seeing is believing." So it may be, but what is seeing?
The ministry of the human voice is of God's appointment. It charms itself into ineffable colouring, apocalyptic variety and suggestion, it booms, it whispers, it commands, it soothes, it thunders with strength, it prays with piteousness of sympathy. The gospel therefore is given in charge to the human voice. Preach the gospel—it never can be read, but in a secondary and introductory sense it must be heard. The voice of Jesus was recognized when his figure was indistinguishable.
Now comes the great If that always lay in Christ's road like a preliminary cross. Peter answered the Lord and said, "If it be thou." That was the old If—it occurs in the story of the temptation, early in this same gospel. When the tempter came to him, he said, "If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made loaves." Now the senior disciple says, "If it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water." Beware of the doubting If. Every man has his own test of deity. Peter had his little test. It was accepted, and Peter shows us here instinctively what is shown in every day's history of human life, properly read, that men when they have their tests accepted, are made afraid of their own tests, and sink in the very water they wanted to walk upon. Beware of setting tests for God; be on your guard against yielding to your own cleverness in setting traps for deity. Sometimes the Lord may accommodate himself to our absurdities of conception and desire. In this case, when Jesus said "Come," the proposition was Peter's, the test was Peter's, the failure was Peter's: he was afraid by the very manifestation of his own proofs, and ran away from his own test, like a man surprised in guilt.
What will Jesus do? He will save the doubter as well as the despairer. He saved the whole body of the disciples in their despair, he will save the single disciple in his doubting. So he must save us every day. Every day plucks me from the yawning abyss, every day I have the same mean coward's prayer to offer, "Lord, save me, or I perish," and he has the same great lordly reply of the outstretched and all-redeeming hand. That is the image of human life, that is the symbolism of our daily experience, our continual discipline, crying in the bitterness of despair, being answered out of the fulness of infinite love.
Then the result—"Of a truth thou art the Son of God." So we are converted every day, and every day we sin. In the morning we write a great "If," in the evening we write a great creed. We never read yesternight's creed, we always begin with the morning's great If.
We may include the remaining three verses of the chapter, and say, in doing so—see how Jesus Christ goes to work again. He entered into the land of Gennesaret. The men soon had knowledge of him, and they sent out into all that country, and brought unto him all that were diseased, and besought him that they might only touch the hem of his garment, and as many as touched were made perfectly whole. Back to work again, on the mountain and in the city—these were the points between which that heart oscillated—longing for the mountain, drawn to the city, yearning for communion, yet devoted to beneficence, every day needing fellowship higher than the relations of earth could supply, and every day going down the mountain again to pick up the lonely one, to help the helpless, and to redeem with mighty heart, even with outflowing of sacrificial blood, every son of Adam.