TEXT: HEB. xii.11, 12.
MY devout friends, the terrific form of the devastating -L-l- disease which has so long been raging in this great city has now left us, though we cannot feel entire confidence that it will not return; for it would not be the first instance if it appeared a second time, in a place so densely populated, to repeat its devastations. But are we right in availing ourselves of the apparent cessation which has been granted to us through God's kind providence, merely for the purpose of offering Him our thanks that the chastisement is past? Not so! that would not exhaust the meaning of the sacred words which we have just heard. Although this disease has been a chastisement which has brought forth the peaceable fruits of righteousness only in so far as we have allowed ourselves to be exercised by it; yet it assuredly befits us to give thanks not only that it is past, but also that it has been here. In a preceding verse, the writer speaks thus of the divine chastenings, saying, if we were left entirely without chastening, of which all the children of God are partakers, we should have no right to consider ourselves sons, but only bastards. Therefore it is most fitting on an occasion like this that we should consider God's providential dealings, which are the cause of our meeting, in their whole connection.
I do not, of course, wish to be here understood to mean that we must be able to discern and comprehend why exactly this or any other chastisement of the same or of a different kind has been needful. But as soon as the chastisement is so far past that we are able to breathe more freely, and to raise our thoughts to calm meditation, our minds should be disposed to give thanks to God by such considerations as these. We feel that we must not remain without chastisement; and even a small amount of self-knowledge suffices, in general, to convince us that the manifold forms of chastisement that we meet with in the course of our life are arranged for us all by the Father of spirits in His fatherly love, in order to exercise us now in this, now in that lesson of Christian piety.
Regarded in this way, my dear friends, the words of our text form, as it were, an explanation and application of those words of the Apostle Paul which we so often weave into our united prayer, to which also reference is not unfrequently made in our meditations, that to those who love God -- and they are assuredly only those who not only regard all that comes from Him as sent for their exercising and training, but who use it to that end -- that to them all things must work together for good. And our text has a similar relation to those other words of the same apostle, in which he calls on Christians in all things to give thanks to God, whether they seem at the time to be joyful or sorrowful things. And it is to be thanksgiving with prayer and supplication, proceeding from the consciousness that we shall always need new chastisements as means of training, as well as new tokens of favour. In order, then, that we may present our present thanksgiving to God, as it becomes His children, let us see what the words of our text represent to us as the good which our chastisement is to effect for us. It mentions two things: in the first place it is said there grows out of it a peaceable fruit of righteousness; and then, secondly, we are encouraged -- and who would not count this just as great a blessing -- after having endured chastisement, to lift up again the hands that hang down and the feeble knees; that is, to rise again to undiminished courage and to cheerful activity.
I. As to the first point, then -- the statement of the writer of our epistle that chastisement when it is present seems not to be joyous, but grievous; but that afterwards it brings forth the peaceable fruit of righteousness -- let us, first, for a moment turn our attention to this point, which of course he believes and by no means denies, that chastisement seems to us grievous. If now and then strong-minded people claim that a man should always stand unshaken, not bowed down by the heaviest trouble; that the sharpest and bitterest trial is to leave no trace on his features; the Scriptures make no such demand on us. If a severe, unwonted calamity interrupts the peaceful course of human life; if we make unexpected and disastrous experiences of the powerlessness of all art and science when opposed to the inscrutable forces of Nature; if it seems to us that, as it were, every sinew of the noble power over the earth, to which God has appointed us, were cut, and as if our mind could only slowly recover from a great defeat which it has suffered in its struggle with Nature; -- Scripture does not require us to think that joyful; it must rather, according to human nature, be grievous to us. Only we must not understand the words of our text in so limited a sense as to suppose that the peaceable fruit of righteousness may not appear until the affliction is entirely past. That could only apply in the case of sufferings that pass quickly over, such as do no doubt often fall on individuals, but not as to those which press for a length of time on the same community, though, it may be, passing from one to another, and thus daily renewing the affliction. And so it has been with us in the past months. When we read in the public papers the daily number of the sick and the dead; and the list of those who had recovered, beginning from a very small number and only very slowly increasing, the great disproportion was grievous to us; if a faint hope had begun to dawn upon us that the force of the disease was broken, and it spread afresh with increased virulence, that bowed us down in deeper affliction; but the peaceable fruit of righteousness was already springing up between these alternations of sorrow, and was nourished by them. I am not speaking especially of those members of the Christian congregations in this city who have made sad acquaintance with this frightful disease at close quarters: from whom members of their domestic circle have been snatched away by death -- and how often have the dead in one house been many! Even so early as the end of the year, when we kept our usual day of remembrance, this terrible form stood in painful distinctness before us; even then, we were all most profoundly sharing this sorrow with those on whom the stroke fell, while, full of the deepest sympathy, we looked round over the circle of its devastations. Now let us rather, so far as we can, fix our eyes on the whole compass of our common life, which, however, is hardly to be taken in at one view; let us look at the form which it has gradually assumed; then shall we become conscious what is pre-eminently the peaceable fruit of righteousness which proceeds from such affliction; which indeed must go on showing itself during a longer continuance of public and general suffering, and must grow and ripen in proportion as we are compelled to struggle with that which is pressing on us.
All great divine chastisements, my devout hearers, whether it be a desolating disease or a destructive war; whether it be that Nature has for once shown herself unusually niggardly, and refuses to bring forth fruits enough for the sustenance of great masses of men crowded together into narrow space; or whatever else it may be; all similar calamities, which become actually oppressive, appear to us in a natural and close connection with the state of human society. We feel that partly they would take a milder form, partly they would be more easily borne, if they did not always anew, yes, and always even more strongly produce out of the present so complicated course of our life so great an inequality of outward circumstances. This is what we are most deeply impressed with in such circumstances; the great difference between those who not only have ready everything in the way of remedy that specially depends on man and lies in his power; but are also able to afford help to many others, if they no more than cut off here and there something superfluous, and are willing to make a slight retrenchment; -- the difference between such persons and those who, being obliged in the ordinary course of life to put forth all their powers to meet the principal and most urgent needs, cannot be able to cope with such times of unusual distress and suffering. In such times we become aware of this difference in a specially painful way; for it is with good reason that we pity our brethren less on account of not being able in ordinary times to enjoy the same high and refined kind of life as ourselves, than because of being unable in unusual times to protect themselves against the pressure of distress. And the greater share we have in the benefits of our social position, and the more conscious we become how even the spiritual helps which we have at command are connected with those outward advantages, so much the more painfully do we feel oppressed by this in equality. But in that case there results to us so much the more certainly the fruit of suffering and of chastisement, which is righteousness.
That is to say, my beloved friends, this virtue finds a place only in man's social condition; if that condition did not exist, there would be no righteousness. If each of us depended only on his own ways and doings, and had only to care for himself and the narrowest circle of those belonging to him, we should know next to nothing at all of such a virtue and of the manifold discharge of obligations that arise from it. What then is righteousness? Assuredly nothing else than the justly guiding sense of the relation of each individual to the community -to which he belongs. It is the endeavour to meet the requirements of this connection at every point; and the making, with our own free will, a suitable appropriation to what circumstances demand, of all the blessings for which we are indebted to this position of united human energies; thus directing the stream of prosperity into places where things are least prosperous. It is the coming forward with active help where there is most manifest inadequacy; so that the benevolent eye may rest rather with pleasure than with pain on the still remaining inequality, and that everything in its own place may appear worthy of the whole and express its spirit. Times of repose, whether we regard them more from the side of work or from that of enjoyment, rather bring with them various temptations to unrighteousness, and, as experience teaches, are not specially fitted to favour a correct estimate of our relations towards others and of our duties towards the whole. As long as all around us are at least in a tolerable state, each of those who are in more favoured circumstances believes only too easily that he has a perfect right to all that he possesses and enjoys, and that he may dispose of it as seems best to him for the carrying out of his own wishes, without being in the least under any obligation as to others. That is the beginning of unrighteousness; and how easily, if nothing intervenes, can it grow from this beginning to a threatening and dangerous height. Therefore from time to time, by unknown and ungoverned forces of Nature, or by means of the seeds of discord that are always present in human society, or through some general blazing up of passions, the Most High brings about sharp chastisements that affect wide districts; and there is indeed good reason then to say that whom He loveth He chasteneth. Then those possessions often flee away suddenly in vapour and smoke; then the firmest edifice falls to ruins in a moment; and then each one learns by experience that what he possesses and enjoys is not his own work, but dependent in every way on much that is not in his own power; and above all on the security and protection of public spirit and good will. And in this way every one learns also to regard himself more as an administrator of a common property; and in this conviction gives up his false idea that he is a proprietor sufficient to himself, and so entirely rightful a possessor that he would have a claim to compensation if he ever sustained any damage. And the same holds true even of the bitterest loss which such times of chastisement may bring to an individual. For if love has lost a beloved object, there lies even in the sorrow which we feel, the consciousness of a power which is not broken, but only quiescent; and even amidst and through the sorrow a longing is stirred, and reminds us that this power of loving is a talent entrusted to us, a common property; and we thankfully acknowledge that if the chastisement does not offer us exactly a compensation for what we have lost, yet that it satisfies our impulse to be working by love. Now if every one not only considers himself as a steward of common property as to his outward possessions, but also lives in the consciousness of how he himself is indebted to the whole, that becomes a new beginning, a fresh seed of righteousness among a people.
And this, my beloved, is called in our text a peaceable fruit. This expression of the sacred writer stands in the closest connection with what goes immediately before; that every chastisement, at the time when it lays hold of us, seems not joyous, but grievous. Joy and sadness the alter nations of these opposite states of mind -- are most closely connected with our natural temperament. Where joy is so strongly and vehemently expressed that it almost overpasses the bounds of a certain moderation that we have in our mind's eye; and, in the same way, when we see men going along oppressed and bowed down by sorrow; there we have a foreboding that for the moment, at least, things are going ill; indeed that the power of the spirit over the flesh is almost endangered; then we see how easily the soul can be shaken from its true balance, which yet is necessary to it if the spirit is to keep a firm hold of the reins and assert its ruling position over the flesh. But all the vicissitudes of life, whether they may plunge us suddenly from joy into sorrow or the reverse, are meant, just through exercise, through the wise encountering of danger, to raise us more and more above this vacillation; so that we may guard against excess, and equanimity may be the prevailing habit of our life. But we only encounter danger thus when the consciousness of spiritual well-being, which does not depend on the changes in our natural life, has become really our own feeling, the true substance and strength of our life. Then those varying emotions of the mind will more and more be repressed, and the uniform higher life will predominate; the oil of peace will more and more smooth and level the troubled surface; and the summons by the divine will will make us as secure amidst all storms as in the most sheltered haven. But above all, is it this very righteousness to which we are called by the divine chastisements, which produces and confirms this peace in us. For how can we still be keenly moved by the acquisition or the loss of outward possessions, if we regard ourselves only as stewards of those things, who will have no further account to render for what is taken from them? And if in suffering and in joy we equally feel the need to keep faith and to show love to those among whom God has placed us, how can it but be that in a soul thus exercised God's peace should prevail even during His fatherly chastenings.
That, my friends, is indeed the blessed experience which we have already made in the time now past, when that bitter chastisement assuredly lay heavily and oppressively enough upon us. Indeed what I have just been expressing was the view and the disposition which on the whole was prevalent; and how did we rejoice to see this seed of righteousness not only spring up everywhere, but make such increase that, with the exception of a few easily forgotten moments of transient tumult which perhaps took place here and there, we were preserved throughout our land from all kinds of violent deeds which often enough result from great general calamities. And many undoubtedly have become aware of this to their comfort; that it is only the sentiment of piety and of submission to the divine will, deeply impressed by the grace of God on our people, and well sustained and fostered in their character and spirit, although often concealed in ordinary life and not at all making an outward appearance everywhere, -- that it is this alone which, in this time of trouble and anxiety, has kept us free from everything that would hinder us now from looking back, with a pure feeling of thankfulness, on the chastisement which God has removed from us. Oh, if to all the misery that we have seen and borne together, crime had been added! if disobedience to the laws, whether to those which always rule our life, or to the regulations which in that trying time were judged necessary to check the destructive spreading of the disease, -- if this disobedience had broken out into acts of violence, so that internal peace and security had been destroyed; how heavily should we have been bowed down by the reproach which in that case would have lain on our commonwealth, that we were not capable of offering prayer and supplication in a way pleasing to God! and moreover how little should we be fit to lift up the hands that hang down and the feeble knees! Well for us, therefore, and let us thank God specially for this, that in the midst of the sorrow and suffering of this painful time, the peaceable fruit of righteousness has grown up among us; that a disposition to Christian gentleness and benevolence was so actively manifested that even those who are most at a disadvantage in our complicated social condition must yet admit, with joy and gratitude, that their fellow-citizens are not unworthy stewards of temporal blessings, and that they have faithfully come to their help in the time of need. And thus also, through this trial, every fair bond of harmony and confidence has been more firmly knit. Only let us not, through being too strongly moved by any thing that the moment brings, thoughtlessly forget the chastisement which God brought upon us and which He has now removed; and so we may hope that from one period to another the tree of righteousness will bear still richer and fairer fruit; that we shall be more and more richly adorned with all social and Christian virtues, and that by public spirit and regard to law, by integrity and pure goodwill, we shall show ourselves worthy of the divine chastisement. For the Father chastens those whom He loves, and means by His chastening to exercise them in godliness.
II. And now let us lay to heart the second part of our text: "Lift up," says the sacred writer, "the hands that hang down, and the feeble knees."
You will feel bound to admit that it is the nature of all chastisements like this, that in more ways than one they impede men in their usual work. We have to rejoice over many beneficent works of brotherly love, which this time has brought to light among us; but let us not forget, at the same time, how urgently these were required; and then we shall certainly be obliged to confess, that however laudably sympathy was expressed during this distress, that is still no proof that our hands had not become weary and our knees feeble; only this effect is often not felt until afterwards! Were we not all filled far more than ordinarily with the sense of the insecurity of all human things? and it is the universal experience that this feeling cannot but weaken in many ways the inclination for and ardour in all the social movements and operations working into each other, from which, nevertheless, the common well-being must always, as it were, proceed anew; so that only too often, during such general troubles and after them, a great many ruin themselves in the most criminal and hazardous play with earthly possessions. But if it is only the more thoughtless who do this, yet we notice similar changes in almost all; and there are only a few who distinguish themselves by continuing quite the same. And if we go back to the cause that produces such effects, it is evident that the appeal in our text directly points to it. As soon as this pestilence began to devastate our part of the world, so rich in arts and sciences, how keenly did we feel that all our acquaintance with the forces of Nature, our skill in setting one over against another and overcoming one by another, yet always again proved insufficient as soon as an unknown evil broke out; so that this shape of terror has swept over one country after another without being unmasked or arrested! And when it came into the midst of us, how fully we all felt, even apart from the way in which efforts were made to arrest and suppress the evil, that the ordinary course of life and of business was forcibly broken up! Now if that was what met us everywhere when we swept our eye over the great field of most multifarious work in our social life, how natural it is that, as the result of this, when the evil has passed away, every one should ask himself, What then is to be the fruit of all the toils and anxieties on which I am now about to enter anew? This is certain, that if I make use of my faculties in the accustomed way, I shall soon again approach the position in which in the former free and happy times it was well with me. My works will again go on in my hands, and the reward of them will again come to me as before; industry and faithfulness, knowledge and skill, will again, though not alone, yet for the most part, determine the measure in which, in my own sphere, I shall share in the good things of this life. But how poor a thing is this whole mode of action! how does this great fabric of human operations still lack a stable foundation! Were there, indeed no other danger than that of falling into the hands of men, no other troubles than those arising from the conflict of human passions or the complications of human circumstances, then we could still count on probabilities, there could still be something favourable drawn forth from what was unpropitious. But when Nature pours out on us from her own bosom entirely new and fearful calamities; so that in spite of all precautions and all the skill of the physicians, human beings perish in great masses, is it worth while in such an uncertain state of human affairs, -- an uncertainty that we thought ourselves out of reach of long ago -- to plunge anew into a life that is nothing but labour and toil? What pleasure could there be in carrying on even the simplest undertaking, when death may so suddenly come between the beginning and the end? To what end do we sow and plant and water, when we know so little, ah! not merely if we ourselves, but if any one distantly related to us shall escape this plague that snatches away its victims so suddenly, and reap what we have sown? Why not return to the simplest possible life without so many appliances, which yet are so often in vain, without so many exertions which yet may so easily be brought to mockery? Such thoughts betray the paralysed activity which is unhappily with too many the result of the divine chastisement. Are not all the sinews of courage cut where such words are heard? have not the hands there truly become weary and the knees feeble?
But where the peaceable fruit of righteousness has really ripened under the heat of chastisement, there more lively voices are heard instead of such talk. We whose aim is not enjoyment, and who have no desire to strive after possessions in order to enjoy them -- why should we stop and turn back? Shall we do so because we have certainly been convinced in the most impressive way of the insecurity of enjoyment and the deceitfulness of possession? Possession is not the spur of our zeal, enjoyment is not the reward of our labour! Our reward is with our Father in heaven, who sees in secret; and the secret thing that He sees is the spirit in which and the faithfulness with which we share in the whole duty of men on earth. If we are to have dominion over the earth, and more and more cultivate it and bring it to perfection, then let us do our best! How much of our works shall remain, lies with Him who knows how He means everywhere to adorn and beautify, even externally, the spiritual body of Christ. Whatever of it is destroyed, let us begin diligently anew, so that the damage may soon be repaired. If through chastisement we become conscious how much we still come short of perfection in this earthly calling, let us the more faithfully see to it that everything salutary may turn to the greatest possible good, that no profitable experience be lost, so that the spiritual eye may be always becoming more keen, and the action of the faculties accelerated, and so the fabric of the common weal rest on ever firmer foundations. If death has snatched away an unusual number of the friends who should have worked with us, let us each according to our ability take up their work and bear their burden; and above all, let us also, on the other hand, limit the power of this death wherever and so far as we can by temperance and moderation, and by pious cheerfulness. And why should the chastisement that has come upon us make the manner of life which we have inherited and continuously cultivated, in any way distasteful to us? Have we really experienced in this time of suffering -- experienced perhaps more than ever before -- what happiness it is even amidst sorrow and tears to show love and do deeds of kindness? And does not a life like ours, with these complicated relations, which can only be regulated by love and faithfulness, -- with these manifold difficulties, which only love and faithfulness can overcome, does not such a life afford us most opportunities for doing this, and, in the facility with which powers can be united for good work, the most abundant means for the purpose? Let us then keep our common duty steadily in view; thus let us listen to the voice of the divine chastening; and so shall we be already beginning, even before the sound of that voice dies away, to lift up the hands that hang down and the feeble knees, in order, as what follows our text implies, to take sure and vigorous steps without stumbling. To this, my beloved friends, may this time conduce for us, and for all whom the Lord has visited!
And even to those among whose relatives some have fallen victims to this desolating disease -- for even this sorrowful page must not remain unnoticed in our solemn meditation -- even to such there will open, in that case, a special source of comfort. After all, the children of men are always dying and being torn away from the midst of their families! nay, the ordinary proportion of death, looking at least at such an extent as that of our own country, will only have been increased to a trifling amount by this pestilence. They are really always dying, at all ages, sometimes suddenly, sometimes slowly, after more or less suffering; and after the first pictures of memory are somewhat faded, the one manner of death or the other makes but a trifling difference to the survivors as to the reality of their loss. Let us therefore set aside this difference as of minor importance, and in its place bring forward another. Every case of death is meant at least to make an instructive and elevating impression on a portion of our community, and to lead us back from the outward appearance to the inward mystery and the deeper significance of life; and this is the last service that each one can render to the society in which he himself has become a partaker of the divine Word. But the separate deaths of men in the ordinary way produce this salutary effect in a much slighter degree, and extend it only over a smaller circle, which, having been in general more or less prepared for the event, receives the impression only very gradually. And when relatives and friends accompany to the place of rest the cast-off vesture of a beloved one departed, is it easy for them, in the sense of their loss, to rise above the thought of the individual? Can we suppose that one readily thinks how many such mournful processions daily traverse our city? Does one reflect at such times that the rule of being severed from life is, when considered as a whole, as settled and regular as that of coming into it? But this great harvest of death, how universally has it awakened and heightened the sense of the uncertainty of this earthly pilgrimage! How has it, by the unwonted form of the disease, which truly had always the seeming of a very death, by the inconceivable rapidity with which life gave way, -- how has it in these ways brought closer to us all the mystery of this transition! How has it impressed this on the hearts of all, that we can only walk worthily and cheerfully in this presence of death by keeping our minds at all times well regulated, and preserving the peace of God unbroken, so that we are conscious of being prepared for any kind of season, and for going on in peace with whatever the Lord may have appointed, as His servants. And this last and important service has been rendered in a very notable manner by the victims of this disease, even by those who have breathed their last far from their own people, tended by public servants; and who rest apart from their fathers, among those who shared the same lot.
And now, though doubtless this increase in wisdom, (as well as the peaceable fruit of righteousness and the reawakening of energy and courage,) is shared only by those, who, as our text says, have allowed themselves to be exercised by chastisement, yet we may all be supposed to have had a part in this exercise. For those alone have excluded themselves from it who have either sought in the whirl of dissipation to deaden the consciousness of what was going on around them; or who, not without at the same time evading their proper duty, escaped, by going to a distance, the sight of the common distress. But every one who, faithful to his ordinary rule of life, has gone forward in the way of his duty, has continued busy while conscious of the danger equally near to all, and has served the common cause according to his ability, has also been exercised in a way for which such a time has an advantage above all others. Only let us by no means confine this exercise to the chastisement now happily past, and so bring it to an end with this day's solemnity. No; as surely as every one of us will remember this time, may the remembrance be as indelibly fixed in all our hearts that in such immediate contact with death we can only be firm and undismayed because we have the prevailing consciousness of being citizens of a higher world, in which what is uncertain and transitory has no part; and because the eternal life which we owe to Him, who brought with it true immortality to light, far surmounts all adverse contingencies, and does not allow the heart's gladness in God to be lost even amidst His chastenings. If these naturally seemed to us at the time to be sorrowful; yet it was not the sorrow of this world; but that divine kindred feeling, which not only leads to salvation, but includes it. With such sentiments let us hold fast the remembrance of this time, that it may become a permanent blessing to us, as a salutary token from our own life, that though here we walk amid transitory things and in the presence of death, yet even here our manner of life is in heaven, Amen.
Yea, gracious Father in heaven! we know Thou chastenest whom Thou lovest! Therefore in Thy chastisement we have discerned Thy fatherly love, according to which Thou didst seek to make us riper in Christian godliness, to unite us more heartily together, and to give us a new and precious pledge that to those who love Thee, the most crushing and painful things must work together for good. Let then Thy dealings be honoured by us, in that Thy chastening is not lost on any of us, and that we always rejoice in the peace able fruit of righteousness that grows out of it. Then will our course become ever more secure and our steps firmer; and thus exercised in the understanding of what tends to our peace, we shall be ever becoming worthier of the glorious title of a royal priesthood, the people of Thy choice, whom Thou, according to Thy gracious good-pleasure, art leading even through earthly sufferings to unclouded peace. Amen.