Watch ye, therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man.
This might be a text for a history of the Christian Church, from its foundation to this hour, or to the latest hour of the world's existence. We might observe how it Lad fulfilled its Lord's command; with what steadiness it had gone forward on its course, with the constant hope of meeting Him once again in glory. We might see how it had escaped all these things that were to come to pass: tracing its course amidst the manifold revolutions of the world, inward and outward. In the few words, "all these things that shall come to pass," are contained all the events of the last eighteen hundred years: indistinct and unknown to us, as long as they are thus folded up together; but capable of being unrolled before our eyes in a long order, in which should be displayed all the outward changes of nations, the spread of discovery, the vicissitudes of conquest; and yet more, the inward changes of men's minds, the various schools of philosophy, the successive forms of public opinion, the influences of various races, all the manifold elements by which the moral character of the Christian world has been affected. We might observe how the Church had escaped all these things, or to what degree it had received from any of them good or evil. And then, stopping at the point at which it has actually arrived, we might consider how far it deserves the character of that Church, "without spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing," which should be presented before the Son of Man at his coming again.
This would be a great subject; and one, if worthily executed, full of the deepest instruction to us all. But our Lord's words may also be made the text for a history or inquiry of another sort, far less comprehensive in time and space, far less grand, far less interesting to the understanding; yet, on the other hand, capable of being wrought out far more completely, and far more interesting to the spiritual and eternal welfare of each of us. They may be made the text for an inquiry into the course hitherto held, not by the Church as a body, but by each of us individual members of it; an inquiry how far we, each of us, have watched and prayed always, that we might be accounted worthy to escape all the things which should come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man. And, in this view of the words, the expression "all these things which shall come to pass" has reference no longer to great political revolutions, nor to schools of philosophy, nor to prominent points of national character; but to those humbler events, to those lesser changes, outward and inward, through which we each, pass between our cradle and our grave. How have we escaped these, or turned them to good account? Have earthly things so ministered to our eternal welfare, that if we were each one of us, by a stroke from heaven, cut off at that very point in our course to which we have severally attained this day, we should be accounted worthy to stand before the Son of Man?
Here is, indeed, a very humble history for us each to study; yet what other history can concern us so nearly? And as, in the history of the world, experience in part supplies the place of prophecy, and the fate of one nation is in a manner a mirror to another, so in our individual history, the experience of the old is a lesson to the middle-aged, and that of the middle-aged a lesson to the young. If you wish to know what are the things which shall come to pass with respect to you, we can draw aside the veil from your coming life, because what you will be is no other than what we are. If we would go onwards, in like manner, and ask what are the things which shall come to pass with respect to us, our coming life may be seen in the past and present life of the old; for what we shall be is no other than what they have been, or than what they are.
Let us take, then, the actual moment with, each of us, and suppose that our Lord speaks to each of us as he did to his first disciples: "Watch and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things which shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man." We ask, naturally, "What are the things which shall come to pass?" and it is to this question that I am to try to suggest the answer.
Those arrived at middle age may ask the question, "What are the things which shall come to pass to us?" Now, setting aside extraordinary accidents, on which we cannot reckon, and the answer would, I think, be something of this sort: There will not come to pass, it is likely, any great change in our condition or employment in life. In middle age our calling, with all the duties which it involves, must generally be fixed for each of us. Our particular kind of trial will not, it is probable, be much altered. We must not, as in youth, fancy that, although our actual occupation does not suit us, although its temptations are often too strong for us, yet a change may take place to another line of duty, and the temptations in that new line may be less formidable. In middle age it will not do to indulge such fond hopes as these. On the contrary, our hope must lie, not in escape, but in victory. If our temptations press us hard, we cannot expect to have them exchanged for others less powerful: they will remain with us, and we must overcome them, or perish. Have we tastes not fully reconciled to our calling, -- faculties which seem not to have found their proper field? We must seek our remedy not from without, humanly speaking, but from within: we must discipline ourselves; we must teach our tastes to cling gracefully around that duty to which else they must be helplessly fastened. If any faculties appear not to have found their proper field, we must think that God has, for certain wise reasons, judged it best for us that they should not be exercised; and we must be content to render him the service of others. In this respect, then, the immediate prospect for middle age is not so much change as steadfastness. Fortune will not suit herself to our wishes: we must learn to suit our wishes to her.
But go on a little farther, and what are the things which must come to pass then? A new and most solemn interest arising to us in the entrance of our children into active life. Hitherto they have lived under our care, and our duty to them was simple; but now there comes the choice of a profession, the watching and guiding them, as well as we can, at this critical moment of their course. What cares await us here; and yet what need of avoiding over care! What a trial for us, how we value our children's worldly interests when compared with their eternal -- whether we prefer for them the path which may lead most readily to worldly wealth and honour, or that in, which they may best and safest follow Christ! This is a danger which will come to pass to us ere long: do we watch and pray that we may be delivered from it?
The interest of life, which had, perhaps, something begun to fade for ourselves, will revive with vigour at this period in behalf of our children; but after this it will go on steadily ebbing. What life can offer we have tasted for ourselves; we have seen it tasted, or in the way to be tasted, by them. The harvest is gathered, and the symptoms of the fall appear. Is it that some faculty becomes a little impaired, some taste a little dulled; or is it that the friends and companions of our life are beginning to drop away from us? Long since, those whom we loved of the generation before us have been gathered to the grave; now those of our own generation are falling fast also -- brothers, sisters, friends of our early youth, a wife, a husband. We are surrounded by a younger generation, to whom the half of our lives, with all their recollections and sympathies, are a thing unknown. Impatience, weariness, a clinging to the past, a vain wish to prolong it in an earthly future, -- these are the things which shall befal us then: and they will befal us too surely, and too irresistibly, unless, by earlier watchfulness and prayer, we may have been enabled to avoid them. For vain will it be, with faculties at once weakened by the decay of nature and perverted by long habits of worldliness, to essay, for the first time, to force our way into the kingdom of heaven. Old age is not the season for contest and victory; nor shall we then be so able to escape unharmed from the temptations of life as to stand before the Son of Man.
These are the things which will come to pass for us and for you. But for you there is much more to come, which to us is not future now, but past or present. With you, for a time, it will be all a course forwards and upwards. From the preparation for life, you will come to the reality; from a state of less importance, you will be passing on to one of greater. Your temptations, whatever they may be now, will not certainly become weaker. As outward restraint is more and more taken off from you, so your need of inward restraint will be greater. Will those who are extravagant now on a small scale, be less extravagant on a large scale? Will those who are selfish now, become less selfish amidst a wider field of enjoyment? Will those who know not or care not for Christ, while yet, as it were, standing quietly on the shore, be led to think of him more amidst the excitement of the first setting sail, amidst the interest of the first newly-seen country?
You know not yet, nor can know, the immense importance of that period of life on which many of you are entering, or have just entered. You are coming, or come, to what may be called the second beginning of life: to which, in the common course of things, there will succeed no third. Ignorance, absence of temptation, the presence of all good impressions, constitute much of the innocence of mere childhood, -- so beautiful while it lasts, so sure to be soon blighted! It is blighted in the first experience of life, most commonly when a boy first goes to school. Then his mere innocence, which indeed he may be said to have worn rather instinctively than by choice, becomes grievously polluted. Then come the hardness, the coarseness, the intense selfishness; sometimes, too, the falsehood, the cruelty, the folly of the boy: then comes that period, so trying to the faith of parents, when all their early care seems blasted; when the vineyard, which they had fenced so tenderly, seems all despoiled and trodden under foot. It is indeed a discouraging season, the exact image of the ungenial springs of our natural year. But after this there comes, as it were, a second beginning of life, when principle takes the place of innocence. There is a time, -- many of you must have arrived at it, -- when thought and inquiry awaken; when, out of the mere chaos of boyhood, the elements of the future character of the man begin to appear. Blessed are they for whom the confusion and disarray of their boyish life is quickened into a true life by the moving of the Spirit of God! Blessed are they for whom the beginnings of thought and inquiry are the beginnings also of faith and love; when the new character receives, as it is forming, the Christian seed, and the man is also the Christian. And, then, this second beginning of life, resting on faith and conscious principle, and not on mere passive innocence, stands sure for the middle and the end: those who so watch and pray as to escape out of this critical period, not merely unharmed, but, as it were, set clearly on their way to heaven, will, with God's grace, escape out of the things which shall befal them afterwards, till they shall stand before the Son of Man.
But the word is, "Watch and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape." We see the time with many of you come, or immediately coming; out of your present state a character will certainly be formed; as surely as the innocence of childhood has perished, so surely will the carelessness of boyhood perish too. A character will be formed, whether you watch and pray, or whether you do neither; but the great point is what this character may be. If you do not watch the process, it will surely be the character of death eternal. Thought and inquiry will satisfy themselves very readily with an answer as far as regards spiritual things: their whole vigour will be devoted to the things of this world, to science or to business, or to public matters, all alike hardening rather than softening to the mind, if its thoughts do not go to something higher and deeper still. And as years pass on, we may think on these our favourite or professional subjects more and more earnestly; our views on them may be clearer and sounder, but there comes again nothing like the first free burst of thought in youth; the intellect in later life, if its tone was not rightly taken earlier, becomes narrowed in proportion to its greater vigour; one thing it sees clearly, but it is blind to all beside. It is in youth that the after tone of the mind is happily formed, when that natural burst of thought is sanctified and quickened by God's Spirit, and we set up within us to love and adore, all our days, the one image of the truth of God, our Saviour Jesus. Then, whatever else may befal us afterwards, it rarely happens that our faith will fail; his image, implanted in us, preserves us amid every change; we are counted worthy to escape all the things which may come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man.