"Shine Thou upon us, Lord,
Desert Solitudes -- Modern Miracles -- Our own Age -- Nothing Common or Unclean -- How to Witness for Jesus -- After Many Days
"Beyond Jordan!" To the Jews that dwelt at Jerusalem that was banishment indeed. The tract of country beyond Jordan was known as Perea, and was very sparsely populated. There were some tracts of fertile country, dotted by a few scattered villages, but no one of repute lived there; and the refinement, religious advantages, and social life of the metropolis, were altogether absent. Perea was to Jerusalem what the Highlands, a century ago, were to Edinburgh. There our Lord spent the last few months of his chequered career.
But why? Why did the Son of Man banish Himself from the city He loved so dearly? Surely the home at Bethany would have welcomed Him? Or, failing this, for any reason over which the sisters had no control, He might have found a temporary home at Nazareth, where He had been brought up; or Capernaum, in which He had wrought so many of his mighty works, might have provided Him a palace, whose white marble steps would have been lapped by the blue waters of the lake! Not so! The Son of Man had not where to lay his head. The nation, whose white flower He was, had rejected Him; and the world, for which He came to shed his blood, knew Him not. The religious leaders of the age were pursuing Him with relentless malice, and would have taken his life before the predestined hour had arrived, had He not escaped from their hands, and gone away "beyond Jordan into the place where John was at the first baptizing; and there He abode: and many came unto Him."
There was a peculiar fascination to the Lord Jesus in those solitudes, because of their connection with the Forerunner. Those desert solitudes had been black with crowds of men. Those hill-slopes had been covered with booths and tents, in which the mighty congregations tabernacled, whilst they waited on his words. Those banks had witnessed the baptism of thousands of people, who, in the symbolic act of baptism, had put away their sins. And the villagers, who lived around, could tell wonderful tales of the radiant opening of that brief but epoch-making ministry; they could speak for hours together about the habits of the austere preacher, and the marvellous power of his eloquence.
As Jesus and his disciples wandered from place to place, Andrew would indicate the spot where he was baptized; and John and he would recall together the place where they were standing when their great teacher and master pointed to Jesus as He walked, and said, "Behold the Lamb of God." Bartholomew would find again the spot where Jesus accosted him as the guileless Israelite, a salutation for which also he had been prepared by the preaching of the Forerunner. Two or three could localize the scene where the deputation from the Sanhedrim accosted the Baptist with the enquiry, "Who art thou?"
It was as though, years after the Battle of Waterloo, some soldiers of the Iron Duke had visited the historic cornfields, and had recited their reminiscences of the memorable incidents of that memorable fight. Here the long, thin red line stood during the whole day. There Napoleon waited to see the effect of the last charge of his cavalry. Yonder, through the wood, Blucher's troops hurried to reinforce their brothers in arms. And down those slopes the old Guard broke with a cheer, as the Duke gave the long-looked-for word. It was in some such spirit that our Lord and his apostles revisited those scenes, where many of them had seen the gate of heaven opened for the first time.
Probably our Lord would resume his ministry of preaching the good tidings. He could not be in any place where the sins and sorrows of men called for his gracious words, without speaking them; and to Him they probably brought the lame, the blind, the sick, and paralyzed -- and He healed them all. Many came to Him, and went away blessed and helped. So much so, that the people could not help contrasting the two ministries. There was a touch of disparagement in their comments on the Baptist's ministry. "They said, John indeed did no miracle." No lame man had leaped as an hart; the tongue of no dumb man had sung; no widow had received her son raised to life from his hands; no leper's flesh had come to him, as the flesh of a little child. It was quite true -- John had done no miracle.
But with this slight disparagement, there was a generous tribute and acknowledgment. "But all things whatsoever John spake of this Man were true." He said that He was the Lamb of God, pure and gentle, holy, harmless, and undefiled; and it was true. He said that He would use his fan, separating the wheat from the chaff; and it was true. He said that He would baptize with fire; and it was true. He said that He was the Bridegroom of Israel; and it was true. He did no miracle, but he spoke strong, true words of Jesus, and they have been abundantly verified. And these simple-hearted people of Perea did what the Pharisees and scribes, with all their fancied wisdom, had failed to do: they put the words of the Baptist and the life of Jesus together, and reasoned that since this had fitted those, as a key fits the lock, therefore Jesus was indeed the Son of God and the King of Israel; and "many believed on Him there."
I. LIFE WITHOUT MIRACLES. -- The people were inclined to disparage the life of John because there was no miracle in it. But surely his whole life was a miracle; from first to last it vibrated with Divine power. And did he work no miracle? If he did not open the eyes of the blind, did not multitudes, beneath his words, come to see themselves sinners, and the world a passing show, and the Eternal as alone enduring and desirable? If he did not lay his priestly hand on leprous flesh, as Jesus did, did not many a moral leper go from the waters of his baptism, with new resolves and purposes, to sin no more? If he did not raise dead bodies, did not many, who were immured in the graves of pride, and lust, and worldliness, hear his voice, and come forth to the life -- which is life indeed? No miracles! Surely his life was one long pathway of miracle, from the time of his birth of aged parents, to the last moment of his protest against the crimes of Herod!
This is still the mistake of men. They allege that the age of miracles has passed. If they admit that such prodigies may possibly have happened once, they insist that the world has grown out of them, and that with its arrival at maturity the race has put them away as childish things. God, they think, is either Absentee, or the Creature of Laws, which He established, and which now hold Him, as the graveclothes held Lazarus. No miracles! But last summer He made the handfuls of grain, which the farmers cast on the fields, suffice to feed all the population of the globe -- as easily as He made five barley loaves provide a full meal for more than ten thousand persons. No miracles! But last autumn, in ten thousand vineyards, He turned the dews of the night and the showers of the morning into the wine that rejoices man's heart; as once, in Cana, He changed the water drawn from the stone jars into the blushing wine. No miracles! Explain, then, why it is, that though ice is of denser specific gravity than water, it does not sink to the bottom of rivers and ponds, by which they would be speedily transformed into masses of ice, but floats on the surface of the water, affording a pathway across from bank to brae, as Jesus once walked on the water from the shores of the Lake of Galilee! No miracles! It was only yesterday that He cleansed a leper; and healed a sin-sick soul; and raised from his bier a young man dead in trespasses and sins; and took a maiden by the hand, saying, Talitha cumi, "Maid, arise!" As I passed by, I saw Him strike a rock, and torrents of tears gushed out: I beheld a tree, with its sacred burden, and the serpent-poison ceased to inflame: I saw the iron swim against its natural bent, and the lion crouch as though it beheld an angel of God with a flaming sword. Again, the seas made a passage for the sacramental hosts, and the waters shrank away before the touch of the Priestly feet, making a passage through the depths. No; it is still the age of miracles.
Let us not disparage the age in which we live. To look back on the Day of Pentecost with a sigh, as though there were more of the Holy Spirit on that day than to-day; and as though there were a larger Presence of God in the upper room than in the room in which you sit, is a distinct mistake and folly. We may not have the sound as of a rushing mighty wind, nor the crowns of fire; there is no miracle to startle and arrest: but the Holy Spirit is with the Church in all the old gracious and copious plenitude; the river is sweeping past in undiminished fulness; though there may not be the flash of the electric spark, the atmosphere is as heavily charged as ever with the presence and power of the Divine Paraclete. The Lord said of the Baptist -- though he wrought no miracle -- that there was none greater of those born of woman; and perchance He is pronouncing that this age is greater than all preceding ages in its possibilities. In His view, it may be that greater deeds may be attempted and accomplished by the Church of to-day than ever in that past age, when she grappled with and vanquished the whole force of Paganism.
If there is any failure, it is with ourselves. We have not believed in the mighty power and presence of God, because we have missed the outward and visible sign of his working. We have thought that He was not here, because He has not been in the fire, the earthquake, or the mighty wind which rends the mountains. We have become so accustomed to associate the startling and spectacular with the Divine, that we fail to discover God, when the heaven is begemmed with stars, and the earth carpeted with flowers: as though the lightning were more to us than starlight, and the destructive than the peaceful and patient constructive forces, which are ever at work building up and repairing the fabric of the universe.
Do not look back on the Incarnation, or forward to the Second Advent, as though there were more of God in either one or the other than is within our reach. God is; God is here; God is indivisible: all of God is present at any given point of time or place. He may choose to manifest Himself in outward signs, which impress the imagination more at one time than another; the faith of the Church maybe quicker to apprehend and receive in one century than the next: but all time is great -- every age is equally his workmanship, and equally full of his wonder-working power. Alas for us, that our eyes are holden!
Let us not disparage the ordinary and commonplace. We are all taught to run after the startling and extraordinary -- the statesman who accomplishes the coup d'etat; the painter who covers a large canvas with a view to scenic effects; the preacher who indulges in superficial and showy rhetoric, the musician whose execution is brilliant and astonishing. We like miracles! Whatever appeals to our love for the sensational and unexpected is likely enough to displace our appreciation of the simple and ordinary. When the sun is eclipsed, we all look heavenward; but the golden summer days may be filled with sunlight, which is dismissed with a commonplace remark about the weather. A whole city will turn out to see the illuminations, whilst the stars hardly attract a passing notice. Let there be a show of curiously-shaped orchids, and society is stirred; but who will travel far to see a woodland glade blue with wild hyacinths, or a meadow-lawn besprent with daisies. Thus our tastes are vitiated and blinded.
It is good to cultivate simple tastes. The pure and childlike heart will find unspeakable enjoyment in all that God has made, though it be as familiar as a lawn sparkling with dewdrops, a hay-field scented by clover-blooms, a streamlet murmuring over the pebbles, or the drawl of the shingle after a retreating wave. It is a symptom of a weak and unstable nature to be always in search for some new thing, for some greater sensation, for some more startling sign. "Show us a sign from heaven," is the incessant cry of the Pharisee and Scribe: and when the appetite has been once created, it can never be appeased, but is always set on some novelty more marvellous and startling than anything which has preceded. Be content with a holy ministry which does not dazzle by its fireworks, but sheds a steady sunshine on the sacred page. Cultivate familiarity with the grand, solid works of our English literature. Avoid the use of extravagant adjectives. Take an interest in the games of children; in the common round and daily task of servants and employes; in the toils and tears of working-girls; in the struggling lot of the charwoman who scrubs your floors, and the lad who cleans your boots. Do not be always gaping at the window for bands to come down the street; but be on the pavement before your house with a helping-hand and kindly word for the ordinary folk that labour and are heavy-laden. It is remarkable that in all these there are tragedies and comedies; the raw material for novels and romances; the characters which fill the pages of a Shakespeare or George Eliot. All life is so interesting; but we need eyes to see, and hearts to understand. There has been no age greater than this; there is no part of the world more full of God than yours; there is no reason why you should not see Madonnas in the ordinary women, and Last Suppers in the ordinary meals, and Holy Families in the ordinary groups around you -- if only you have the anointed eyes of a Raffaelle or a Leonardo de Vinci. If the world seems common or unclean to you, the fault lies in your eyes that have made it so.
Let us not disparage ourselves. We know our limitations; we are not capable of working miracles -- our best friends are well acquainted with this, for no eyes are quicker than Love's. We are sparrows, not larks; clay, not alabaster; deal, not mahogany. But if we cannot work miracles, we can speak true, strong words about Jesus Christ; we can bear witness to Him as the Lamb of God; we can urge men to repent and believe the Gospel. The world would have been in a sorry plight if it had depended entirely on its geniuses and miracle-workers. Probably it owes less to them than to the untold myriads of simple, humble, obscure, and commonplace people, whose names will never be recorded in its roll-call, but whose lives have laid the foundations on which the superstructure of good order, and government, and prosperity, has been reared.
Remember that God made you what you are, and placed you. Dare to be yourself -- a simple, humble, sincere follower of Jesus. Do not seek to imitate this or the other great speaker or leader. Be content to find out what God made you for, and be that at its best. You will be a bad copy, but a unique original; for the Almighty always breaks the pattern from which He has made one vase. Above all, speak out the truth, as God has revealed it to you, distorting, exaggerating, omitting nothing; and long after you have passed away, those who remember you will gather at your grave and say, "he did no miracle -- there was nothing sensational or phenomenal in his life-work; but he spake true things about Jesus Christ, which we have tested for ourselves, and are undeniable. Indeed, they led us to believe in Him for ourselves."
II. THE WAYS IN WHICH WE MAY BEAR TESTIMONY TO THE LORD JESUS. -- There is no miracle in your life, my reader. You are no genius; you do not know what it is to have the rush of thought, the power of brilliant speech, the burst of song. You have no wealth, only just enough for your bare sustenance, and nothing to spare. You have no rich blood in your veins, come of a line of heroes or saints. As you look daily into the common routine of your lot, it seems ordinary enough. Be it so; there is at least one thing you can do, as we have seen -- like the Baptist, you may witness for Jesus.
Speak to others privately. When only two disciples were standing beside him, John preached the same sermon as he had delivered to the crowd the day before, and both of them went to the frail lodging where Jesus was making his abode. There is nothing that more deeply searches a man than the habit of speaking to individuals about the love of God. We cannot do it unless we are in living union with Himself. Nothing so tests the soul. It is easy to preach a sermon, when the inner life is out of fellowship with God, because you can preach your ideals, or avenge on others the sins of which you are inwardly conscious; but to speak to another about Christ involves that there should be an absolutely clear sky between the speaker and the Lord of whom he speaks. But as this practice is the most difficult, it is the most blessed in its reflex influence. To lead another to Jesus is to get nearer Him. To chafe the limbs of some frozen companion is to send the warm blood rushing through your own veins. To go after one lost sheep is to share the shepherd's joy. Whether by letters addressed to relatives or companions, or by personal and direct appeal, let each one of us adopt the sacred practice, which Mr. Moody followed and commended, of allowing no day to pass without seeking to use some opportunity given by God for definite, personal dealings with others.
The apostle Andrew seems to have specially consecrated his life to this. On each of the occasions he is referred to in the Gospels he is dealing with individuals. He brought his own brother; was the first to seek after a boy to bring to the Saviour's presence; and at the close of our Lord's ministry he brings the seeking Greeks. Did he not learn this blessed art from his master, the Baptist?
It is requisite that there should be the deliberate resolution to pursue this holy habit; definite prayer for guidance as one issues from the morning hour of prayer; abiding fellowship with the Son of God, that He may give the right word at the right moment; and a willingness to open the conversation by some manifestation of the humble, loving disposition begotten by the Holy Spirit, which is infinitely attractive and beautiful to the most casual passer-by.
Speak experimentally. "I saw and bare record." John spoke of what he had seen, and tasted, and handled. Be content to say, "I was lost, but Jesus found me, blind, and He gave me sight; unclean, and He cleansed my heart." Nothing goes so far to convince another as to hear the accent of conviction on the lips of one whose eyes survey the landscape of truth to which he allures, and whose ears are open to the eternal harmonies which he describes.
Speak from a full heart. The lover cannot but speak about his love; the painter can do no other than transfer to canvas the conceptions that entrance his soul; the musician is constrained to give utterance to the chords that pass in mighty procession through his brain. "We cannot but speak the things that we have seen and heard."
Does it seem difficult to have always a full heart? Verily, it is difficult, and impossible, unless the secret has been acquired of abiding always in the love of God, of keeping the entire nature open to the Holy Spirit, and of nourishing the inward strength by daily meditation on the truth. We must close our senses to the sounds and sights around us, that our soul may open to the unseen and eternal. We must have deep and personal fellowship with the Father and the Son by the Holy Ghost. We must live at first-hand on the great essentials of our faith. Then, as the vine-sap arises from the root, its throb and pulse will be irresistible in our behaviour and testimony. We shall speak true things about Jesus Christ. Our theme will be evermore the inexhaustible one of Christ -- Christ, only Christ -- not primarily the doctrine about Him, or the benefits accruing from fellowship with Him, but Himself.
Thus, some day, at your burying, as men turn homewards from the new-made grave, and speak those final words of the departed, which contain the most unerring verdict and summing-up of the life, they will say, "He will be greatly missed. He was no genius, not eloquent nor profound; but he used to speak about Christ in such a way that he led me to know Him for myself: I owe everything to him. He did no miracle; but whatever he said of Jesus was true."
III. THE POWER OF POSTHUMOUS INFLUENCE. -- John had been dead for many months, but the stream he had set flowing continued to flow; the harvests he sowed sprang into mature and abundant fruitage; the wavelets of tremulous motion which he had started circled out and on.
How many voices are speaking still in our lives -- voices from the grave! voices from dying beds! voices from books and sermons! voices from heaven! "Being dead, they yet speak." Let us live so that, when we are gone, our influence shall tell, and the accents of our voice linger. No one lives or dies to himself. Each grain on the ocean-shore affects the position of every other. Each star is needed for the perfect balance of the spheres. Each of us is affecting the lives of all that are now existing with us in the world, or will exist. To untold ages, what we have been and said will affect all other beings for good or ill. We may be forgiven for having missed our opportunities, or started streams of poison instead of life; but the ill effect can never be undone.
Parents, put your hands on those young childish heads, and say pure, sweet words of Christ, which will return to memory and heart long after you have gone to your reward! Ministers of religion, and Sunday school teachers, remember your tremendous responsibility to use to the uttermost the opportunity of saying words which will never die! Friend, be true and faithful with your friend; he may turn away in apparent thoughtlessness or contempt, but no right word spoken for Christ can ever really die. It will live in the long after years, and bear fruit, as the seeds hidden in the old Egyptian mummy-cases are bearing fruit to-day in English soil.