In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
We read this morning the first chapter of the Gospel according to St. John.
Some of you, I am sure, must have felt, as you heard it, how grand was the very sound of the words. Some one once compared the sound of St. John's Gospel to a great church bell: simple, slow, and awful; and awful just because it is so simple and slow. The words are very short, -- most of them of one syllable, -- so that even a child may understand them if he will: but every word is full of meaning.
'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.'
Those, I hold, are perhaps the deepest words ever written by man. Whole books have been written, and whole books more might be written upon them, and on the words which come after them. 'That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth.' They go down to the mystery of all mysteries, -- to the mystery of the unfathomable One God, who dwells alone in the light which none can approach unto, self-sustained and self-sufficing for ever. And then they go on to the other great mystery -- how that God comes forth out of himself to give life and light to all things which he has made; and what is the bond between the Abysmal Father in heaven, and us his human children, and the world in which we live:- even Jesus Christ, God of the substance of his Father, begotten before the worlds, and man of the substance of his mother, born in the world.
Yes. The root and ground of all true philosophy lies in this chapter. Its words are so deep that the wisest man might spend his life over them without finding out all that they mean. And yet they are so simple that any child can understand enough of their meaning to know its duty, and to do it.
Remark, again, how short the sentences are. Each is made up of a very few words, and followed by a full stop, that our minds may come to a full stop likewise, and think over what we have heard before St. John goes on to tell us more.
Yes. St. John does not hurry either himself or us. He takes his time; and he wishes us to take our time likewise. His message will keep; for it is eternal. It is not a story of yesterday, or to-day, or to-morrow. It is the story of eternity, -- of what is, and was, and always will be.
Always has the Word been with God, and always will he be God.
Always has the Word been making all things, and always will he be making.
Always has the Spirit been proceeding, and always will the Spirit be proceeding, from the Word and from the Father of the Word, giving their light and their life to men.
St. John's message will last for ever; and therefore he tells it slowly and deliberately, knowing that no time can change what he has to say; for it is the good news of the Word, Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever, because he is God of very God, eternally in the bosom of the Father.
Now St. John, who writes thus simply and quietly, was no weak or soft person. He was one of the two whom the Lord surnamed Boanerges, the Son of Thunder -- the man of the loud and awful voice. Painters have liked to draw St. John as young, soft, and feminine, because he was the Apostle of Love. I beg you to put that sentimental notion out of your minds, and to remember that the only hint which Holy Scripture gives us about St. John's person is, that he was 'a Son of Thunder;' that his very voice, when he chose, was awful; that he, and his brother James, before they were converted, were not of a soft, but of a terrible temper; that it was James and John, the Sons of Thunder, who wanted to call down thunder and lightning from heaven on all the villages who would not receive the Lord.
A Son of Thunder. Think over that name, and think over it carefully, remembering that it was our Lord himself who gave St. John the name; and that it therefore has, surely, some deep meaning.
Do not fancy that it means merely a loud and noisy person. I have known too many, carelessly looking only at the outsides and shows of things, and not at their inside and reality, fancy that that was what it meant. I have known them fancy that they themselves were sons of thunder when they raved and shouted, and used violent language, in preaching, or in public speaking. And I have heard foolish people honour such men the more, and think them the more in earnest, the more noise they made, and say of him; 'He is a true Boanerges -- a Son of Thunder, like St. John.'
Like St. John? The only sermon of St. John's which we have on record is that which they say he used to preach over and over again when he was carried as an old man into his church at Ephesus. And that was no more than these few words over and over again, Sunday after Sunday, 'Little children, love one another.'
That was the way in which St. John, the Son of Thunder, spoke when age and long obedience to the Spirit of God had taught him how to use his strength wisely and well.
Like St. John? Is there anywhere, in St. John's Gospel or Epistles, one violent expression? One sentence of great swelling words? Are not the words of the Son of Thunder, as I have been telling you, peculiarly calm, slow, simple, gentle? Can those whose mouths are full of noisy and violent talk, be true Sons of Thunder, if St. John was one?
No. And if you will think for yourselves, you will see that there is a deeper meaning in our Lord's name for St. John than merely that he was a loud and violent man.
You hear the roar of the thunder, but you know surely that it is not the thunder itself; that it is only its echo rolling on from cloud to cloud and hill from hill.
But the thunder itself -- if you have ever been close enough to it to hear it -- is very different from that, and far more awful. Still and silently it broods till its time is come. And then there is one ear- piercing crack, one blinding flash, and all is over. Nothing so swift, so instantaneous, as the thunder itself, and yet nothing so strong.
And such are those sudden flashes of indignation against sin and falsehood which break out for a moment in St. John's writing, piercing, like the Word of God himself, the very joints and marrow of the heart, and showing, in one terrible word, what is the real matter with the bad man's soul; as the thunderbolt lights up for an instant the whole heavens far and wide. 'If we say that we have fellowship with God, and walk in darkness, we lie.' In that one plain, ugly word, he tells us the whole truth, frightful as it is, and then he goes on calmly once more. And again:
'He that saith, I know God, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar. He that committeth sin is of the devil. He that hateth his brother is a murderer. If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar; for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? He that doeth good is of God; but he that doeth evil has not seen God.'
Such words as these, coming as they do amid the usually quiet and gentle language of St. John -- these are truly words of thunder; going straight to their mark, tearing off the mask from hypocrisy and self- deceiving and false religion, and speaking the truth in majesty.
And yet there is no noisiness, no wordiness, about them; nothing like rant or violence. Such a man is a liar, says St. John: but he says no more. That is all, and that is enough.
So speaks the true Son of Thunder. And his words, like the thunder, echo from land to land; and we hear them now, this day, in a foreign tongue, eighteen hundred years after they were written: while thousands of bigger, noisier, and frothier words and more violent books have been lost and forgotten utterly.
And now, my friends, we may find in St. John's example a wholesome lesson for ourselves. We may learn from it that noisiness is not earnestness, that violence is not strength. Noise is a sign of want of faith, and violence is a sign of weakness.
The man who is really in earnest, who has real faith in what he is saying and doing, will not be noisy, and loud, and in a hurry, as it is written, 'He that believeth will not make haste.' He that is really strong; he who knows that he can do his work, if he takes his time and uses his wit, and God prospers him -- he will not be violent, but will work on in silence and peaceful industry, as it is written, 'Thy strength is to sit still.'
I know that you here do not require this warning much for yourselves. There is, thank God, something in our quiet, industrious, country life which breeds in men that solid, sober temper, the temper which produces much work and little talk, which is the mark of a true Englishman, a true gentleman, and a true Christian.
But if you go (as more and more of you will go) into the great towns, you will hear much noisy and violent speaking from pulpits, and at public meetings. You will read much noisy and violent writing in newspapers and books.
Now I say to you, distrust such talk. It may seem to you very earnest and passionate. Distrust it for that very reason. It may seem to you very eloquent and full of fine words. Distrust it for that very reason. The man who cannot tell his story without wrapping it up in fine words, generally does not know very clearly what he is talking about. The man who cannot speak or write without scolding and exaggeration, is not very likely to be able to give sound advice to his fellow-men.
Remember that it is by violent language of this kind, in all ages, that fanatical preachers have deceived silly men and women to their shame and ruin; and mob-leaders have stirred up riots and horrible confusions. Remember this: and distrust violent and wordy persons wheresoever you shall meet them: but after listening to them, if you must, go home, and take out your Bibles, and read the Gospel of St. John, and see how he spoke, the true Son of Thunder, whose words are gone out into all lands, and their sound unto the end of the world, just because they are calm and sober, plain and simple, like the words of Jesus Christ his Lord and our Lord, who spake as never man spake.
And for ourselves -- let us remember our Lord's own warning: 'Let your Yea be Yea, and your Nay Nay; for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.'
Tell your story plainly and calmly; speak your mind if you must. But speak it quietly. Do not try to make out the worst case for your adversary; do not exaggerate; do not use strong language: say the truth, the whole truth; but say nothing but the truth, in patience and in charity. For everything beyond that comes of evil, -- of some evil or fault in us. Either we are not quite sure that we are right; or we have lost our temper, and then we see the whole matter awry, through the mist of passion; or we are selfish, and looking out for our own interest, or our own credit, instead of judging the matter fairly. This, or something else, is certainly wrong in us whenever we give way to violent language. Therefore, whenever we are tempted to say more than is needful, let us remember St. John's words, and ask God for his Holy Spirit, the spirit of love, which, instead of weakening a man's words, makes them all the stronger in the cause of truth, because they are spoken in love.