This grim parable has, of course, a strong Eastern colouring. It is best appreciated by dwellers in those lands. They tell us that no sooner is some sickly animal dead, or some piece of carrion thrown out by the way, than the vultures -- for the eagle does not prey upon carrion -- appear. There may not have been one visible a moment before in the hot blue sky, but, taught by scent or by sight that their banquet is prepared, they come flocking from all corners of the heavens, a hideous crowd round their hideous meal, fighting with flapping wings and tearing it with their strong talons. And so, says Christ, wherever there is a rotting, dead society, a carcase hopelessly corrupt and evil, down upon it, as if drawn by some unerring attraction, will come the angels, the vultures of the divine judgment.
The words of my text were spoken, according to the version of them in Luke's Gospel, in answer to a question from the disciples. Our Lord had been discoursing, in very solemn words, which, starting from the historical event of the impending fall of Jerusalem, had gradually passed into a description of the greater event of His second coming. And all these solemn warnings had stirred nothing deeper in the bosoms of the disciples than a tepid and idle curiosity which expressed itself in the one almost irrelevant question, 'Where, Lord?' He answers -- Not here, not there, but everywhere where there is a carcase. The great event which is referred to in our Lord's solemn words is a future judgment, which is to be universal. But the words are not exhausted in their reference to that event. There have been many 'comings of the Lord,' many 'days of the Lord,' which on a smaller scale have embodied the same principles as are to be displayed in world-wide splendour and awfulness at the last.
I. The first thing, then, in these most true and solemn words is this, that they are to us a revelation of a law which operates with unerring certainty through all the course of the world's history.
We cannot tell, but God can, when evil has become incurable; or when, in the language of my text, the mass of any community has become a carcase. There may be flickerings of life, all unseen by our eyes, or there may be death, all unsuspected by our shallow vision. So long as there is a possibility of amendment, 'sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily'; and God dams back, as it were, the flow of His retributive judgment, 'not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to the knowledge of the truth.' But when He sees that all is vain, that no longer is restoration or recovery possible, then He lets loose the flood; or, in the language of my text, when the thing has become a carcase, then the vultures, God's scavengers, come and clear it away from off the face of the earth.
Now that is the law that has been working from the beginning, working as well in regard to the long delays as in regard to the swift execution. There is another metaphor, in the Old Testament, that puts the same idea in a very striking form. It speaks about God's 'awakening,' as if His judgment slumbered. All round that dial the hand goes creeping, creeping, creeping slowly, but when it comes to the appointed line, then the bell strikes. And so years and centuries go by, all chance of recovery departs, and then the crash! The ice palace, built upon the frozen blocks, stands for a while, but when the spring thaws come, it breaks up.
Let me remind you of some instances and illustrations. Take that story which people stumble over in the early part of the Old Testament revelation -- the sweeping away of those Canaanitish nations whose hideous immoralities had turned the land into a perfect sty of abominations. There they had been wallowing, and God's Spirit, which strives with men ever and always, had been striving with them, we know not for how long, but when the time came at which, according to the grim metaphor of the Old Testament, 'the measure of their iniquity was full,' then He hurled upon them the fierce hosts out of the desert, and in a whirlwind of fire and sword swept them off the face of the earth.
Take another illustration. These very people, who had been the executioners of divine judgment, settled in the land, fell into the snare -- and you know the story. The captivities of Israel and Judah were other illustrations of the same thing. The fall of Jerusalem, to which our Lord pointed in the solemn context of these words, was another. For millenniums God had been pleading with them, sending His prophets, rising early and sending, saying, 'Oh, do not do this abominable thing which I hate!' 'And last of all He sent His Son.' Christ being rejected, God had shot His last bolt. He had no more that He could do. Christ being refused, the nation's doom was fixed and sealed, and down came the eagles of Rome, again God's scavengers, to sweep away the nation on which had been lavished such wealth of divine love, but which had now come to be a rotting abomination, and to this day remains in a living death, a miraculously preserved monument of God's Judgments.
Take another illustration how, once more, the executants of the law fall under its power. That nation which crushed the feeble resources of Judaea, as a giant might crush a mosquito in his grasp, in its turn became honeycombed with abominations and immoralities; and then down from the frozen north came the fierce Gothic tribes over the Roman territory. One of their captains called himself the 'Scourge of God,' and he was right. Another swooping down of the vultures flashed from the blue heavens, and the carrion was torn to fragments by their strong beaks.
Take one more illustration -- that French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century. The fathers sowed the wind, and the children reaped the whirlwind. Generations of heartless luxury, selfishness, carelessness of the cry of the poor, immoral separation of class from class, and all the sins which a ruling caste could commit against a subject people, had prepared for the convulsion. Then, in a carnival of blood and deluges of fire and sulphur, the rotten thing was swept off the face of the earth, and the world breathed more freely for its destruction.
Take another illustration, through which many of us have lived. The bitter legacy of slavery that England gave to her giant son across the Atlantic, which blasted and sucked the strength out of that great republic, went down amidst universal execration. It took centuries for the corpse to be ready, but when the vultures came they made quick work of it.
And so, as I say, all over the world, and from the beginning of time, with delays according to the possibilities of restoration and recovery which the divine eye discerns, this law is working. Verily there is a God that judgeth in the earth. 'The wheels of God grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small.' 'Wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together.'
And has the law exhausted its force? Are there going to be no more applications of it? Are there no European societies at this day that in their godlessness and social iniquities are hurrying fast to the condition of carrion? Look around us -- drunkenness, sensual immorality, commercial dishonesty, senseless luxury amongst the rich, heartless indifference to the wail of the poor, godlessness over all classes and ranks of the community. Surely, surely, if the body politic be not dead, it is sick nigh unto death. And I, for my part, have little hesitation in saying that as far as one can see, European society is driving as fast as it can, with its godlessness and immorality, to such another 'day of the Lord' as these words of my text suggest. Let us see to it that we do our little part to be the 'salt of the earth' which shall keep it from rotting, and so drive away the vultures of judgment.
II. But let me turn to another point. We have here a law which is to have a far more tremendous accomplishment in the future.
There have been many comings of the Lord, many days of the Lord, when, as Isaiah says in his magnificent vision of one such, 'the loftiness of man has been bowed down, and the haughtiness of man made low, and the Lord alone exalted in that day when He arises to shake terribly the earth. And all these 'days of the Lord' are prophecies, and distinctly point to a future 'day' when the same principles which have been disclosed as working on a small scale in them, shall be manifested in full embodiment. These 'days of the Lord' proclaim 'the day of the Lord.' In the prophecies both of the Old and New Testaments that universal future judgment is seen glimmering through the descriptions of the nearer partial judgments. So interpreters are puzzled to say at what point in a prophecy the transition is made from the smaller to the greater. The prophecies are like the diagrams in treatises on perspective, in which diverging lines are drawn from the eye, enclosing a square or other figure, and which, as they recede further from the point of view, enclose a figure, the same in shape but of greater dimensions. There is a historical event foretold, the fall of Jerusalem. It is close up to the eyes of the disciples, and is comparatively small. Carry out the lines that touch its corners and define its shape, and upon the far distant curtain of the dim future there is thrown a like figure immensely larger, the coming of Jesus Christ to judge the world. All these little premonitions and foretastes and anticipatory specimens point onwards to the assured termination of the world's history in that great and solemn day, when all men shall be gathered before Christ's throne, and He shall judge all nations -- judge you and me amongst the rest. That future judgment is distinctly a part of the Christian revelation. Jesus Christ is to come in bodily form as He went away. All men are to be judged by Him. That judgment is to be the destruction of opposing forces, the sweeping away of the carrion of moral evil.
It is therefore distinctly a part of the message that is to be preached by us, under penalty of the awful condemnation pronounced on the watchman who seeth the sword coming and gives no warning. It is not becoming to make such a solemn message the opportunity for pictorial rhetoric, which vulgarises its greatness and weakens its power. But it is worse than an offence against taste; it is unfaithfulness to the preaching which God bids us, treason to our King, and cruelty to our hearers, to suppress the warning -- 'The day of the Lord cometh.' There are many temptations to put it in the background. Many of you do not want that kind of preaching. You want the gentle side of divine revelation. You say to us in fact, though not in words. 'Prophesy to us smooth things. Tell us about the infinite love which wraps all mankind in its embrace. Speak to us of the Father God, who "hateth nothing that He hath made." Magnify the mercy and gentleness and tenderness of Christ. Do not say anything about that other side. It is not in accordance with the tendencies of modern thought.'
So much the worse, then, for the tendencies of modern thought. I yield to no man in the ardour of my belief that the centre of all revelation is the revelation of a God of infinite love, but I cannot forget that there is such a thing as 'the terror of the Lord,' and I dare not disguise my conviction that no preaching sounds every string in the manifold harp of God's truth, which does not strike that solemn note of warning of judgment to come.
Such suppression is unfaithfulness. Surely, if we preachers believe that tremendous truth, we are bound to speak. It is cruel kindness to be silent. If a traveller is about to plunge into some gloomy jungle infested by wild beasts, he is a friend who sits by the wayside to warn him of his danger. Surely you would not call a signalman unfeeling because he held out a red lamp when he knew that just round the curve beyond his cabin the rails were up, and that any train that reached the place would go over in horrid ruin. Surely that preaching is not justly charged with harshness which rings out the wholesome proclamation of a day of judgment, when we shall each give account of ourselves to the divine-human Judge.
Such suppression weakens the power of the Gospel, which is the proclamation of deliverance, not only from the power, but also from the future retribution of sin. In such a maimed gospel there is but an enfeebled meaning given to that idea of deliverance. And though the thing that breaks the heart and draws men to God is not terror, but love, the terror must often be evoked in order to lead to love. It is only 'judgment to come' which will make Felix tremble, and though his trembling may pass away, and he be none the nearer the kingdom, there will never any good be done to him unless he does tremble. So, for all these reasons, all faithful preaching of Christ's Gospel must include the proclamation of Christ as Judge.
But, if I should be unfaithful, if I did not preach this truth, what shall we call you if you turn away from it? You would not think it a wise thing of the engine-driver to shut his eyes if the red lamp were shown, and to go along at full speed and to pay no heed to that? Do you think it would be right for a Christian minister to lock his lips and never say, 'There is a judgment to come'? And do you think it is wise of you not to think of that, and to shape your conduct accordingly?
Oh, dear friends! I do not doubt that the centre of all divine revelation is the love of God, nor do I doubt that incomparably the highest representation of the power of Christ's Gospel is that it draws men away from the love and the practice of evil, and makes them pure and holy. But that is not all. There is not only the practice and the power of sin to be fought against, but there is the penalty of sin to be taken into account; and as sure as you are living, and as sure as there is a God above us, so sure is it that there is a Day of Judgment, when 'He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He hath ordained.' The believing of that is not salvation, but the belief of that seems to me to be indispensable for any vigorous grasp of the delivering love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.
III. And so the last thing that I have to say is that this is a law which need never touch you, nor you know anything about but by the hearing of the ear.
It is told us that we may escape it. When Paul reasoned of righteousness, and temperance, and judgment to come, his hearer trembled as he listened, but there was an end. But the true effect of this message is the effect that Paul himself attached to it when he said in the hearing of Athenian wisdom, 'God hath commanded all men everywhere to repent, because He hath appointed a day in the which He will judge the world in righteousness.' Judgment faithfully preached is the preparation for preaching that 'there is no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus.' If we trust in that great Saviour, we shall be quickened from the death of sin, and so shall not be food for the vultures of judgment. Can these corpses live? Can this eating putrescence, which burrows its foul way through our souls, be sweetened? Is there any antiseptic for it? Yes, blessed be God, and the hand whose touch healed the leper will heal us, and 'our flesh will come again as the flesh of a little child.' Christ has bared His breast to the divine judgments against sin, and if by faith we shelter ourselves in Him, we shall never know the terrors of that awful day.
Be sure that judgment to come is no mere figure dressed up to frighten children, nor the product of blind superstition, but that it is the inevitable issue of the righteousness of the All-ruling God. You and I and all the sons of men have to face it. 'Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness before Him in the Day of Judgment.' Betake yourselves, as poor sinful creatures who know something of the corruption of your own hearts, to that dear Christ who has died on the Cross for you, and all that is obnoxious to the divine judgments will, by His transforming life breathed into you, be taken out of your hearts; and when that 'day of the Lord' shall dawn, you, trusting in the sacrifice of Him who is your Judge, will 'have a song as when a holy solemnity is kept.' Take Christ for your Saviour, and then, when the vultures of judgment, with their mighty black pinions, are wheeling and circling in the sky, ready to pounce upon their prey, He will gather you 'as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings,' and beneath their shadow you will be safe.