TEXT: HEB. x.24. "Let us consider one another, to provoke unto love and to good works."
THIS day is usually regarded more as a secular and social than a religious holiday, and given up to the enjoyment of family and external relationships. But when we assemble here on this day, we surely do so in the belief that everything pleasant and joyful in our working and social life during the past year, for which we have had to thank God, had its source in nothing but the spiritual good wrought by the grace of God in the hearts of men, through the word and teaching of Christ and the gifts of His Spirit. And not less do we believe that all the progress and improvement in the future, for which we pray, as well as the remedying of all the shortcomings and faults that rise before us in the retrospect of the past year, amount just to this, that all the good that ought to be found in the disciples of the Lord should be ever assuming larger proportions in us all. And in reference to this we find in the words we have read a rule which, though always binding, we do well to lay to heart specially at the beginning of a new year. We are called to notice in these words, first, what is our true need for the year now opening; and second, the way in which this need can be met.
I. First, then, let us be sure of this, that on whatever side we consider our life, whether its busy, working side, or that of social enjoyment, we can have no other universal need in any future than just this -- that love and good works may be ever more abundant among us. Perhaps some of you think that though there is certainly a great deal in this, it does not yet include everything; it does not contain all that we might think desirable in our domestic and social concerns; it does not depend entirely on this how much prosperity or trial each of us may meet with: and yet if we reflect on everything in a really Christian light, it will soon become evident that everything does ultimately depend on this.
Yesterday we all surely looked back once more over the year that is gone, -- for I hope that the innocent gaiety with which many are accustomed to close the year would form no hindrance to this serious work, -- and I cannot but believe that all of us, in looking at our whole circumstances, found much cause for thankfulness to God. But I might just as confidently assert, on the other hand, that if we could recall all our different states of mind during the year, we should find that there has been much complaining and dissatisfaction among us. Now if this is to be remedied, so that in each new year there shall be less to vex and make us dissatisfied, how can we better attain this object than just by increasing in love and good works? And again, in looking forward to-day into the future, and picturing to ourselves what may with more or less probability be marked out in the life-path of any one of us in the year we are entering on, we shall certainly find there various disturbing and saddening things, for those are never wanting in any year of a human life. And if we ask ourselves what is the very best that each of us can do to soften and mitigate those things, what should we wish for ourselves in order to bear them the more easily; no doubt it would be, first of all, to have a heart still more filled with love. For this is most certain, that nothing more gladdens a man, nothing makes him at once so happy in himself and so able to bear difficulties from without, as having his heart overflowing with love. To be thoroughly convinced of this, we need only call to mind the Apostle Paul's splendid eulogy on love. "Love suffers long and is kind; love envieth not, boasteth not herself, is not puffed up; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things." The apostle teaches us here how a man feels who has given love full play in his soul; and we must admit that there can be no richer fountain of joy and blessedness; for such a man is inde pendent of all external advantages, and whatever he may meet with from without, he will find no cause of complaint. For, whence come most of the ills of life to a man? In so far as, in our various relations, they are caused by the faults of others and their wrong ways of acting, which cross our legitimate efforts and spoil our well-begun work, the natural result is that in such a case love feels less trouble at its own loss than compassion for the faults of another; so that vexation is kept down by sympathy, and there is hardly need of special meekness to keep all harshness in check. In this way, indeed, a heart full of love is less susceptible to all troubles that are caused by the defects and faults of others, or even, if there can be such a thing among Christians, by their intentional ill-treatment. And in all such cases are not those who cause evil to others by their faults just the very people who most need help? And what, then, is the help that he needs who, because he follows ungodly pleasure and tries to seize on the fleeting things of this world, works harm to his brother? or he who spoils his neighbour's work because he is too much taken up with himself to inquire how he may be affecting another's concerns? All that either of them needs is that he be "provoked to love." For why does a man shut himself up within himself and love no one but himself, when we are called to a common inheritance? Why does he cling to earthly joy which is followed only too soon by earthly sorrow, when he should take everything at its spiritual and heavenly value, seeing that even here our citizenship is to be in heaven? Earthly joy is a fleeting thing which we can never keep fast hold of; he who knows no higher joy has a mere passing gleam of pleasure; and selfishness sets such narrow bounds to our enjoyment that no one will remain within them to whom a wider circle is open. But love opens such a circle; where love is, everything selfish appears so empty and poor that the heart will no longer be bound by it; it is love that changes things transitory in themselves into something eternal and heavenly, and stamps them with her own divine impress. Therefore for all such erring people the only real help is that we seek to incite them to love; to kindle that divine spark in their souls, so that they may emerge from the fogs of earth, and their efforts take a higher flight.
But we may have adverse experiences with which the conduct of others has nothing to do, which we may regard as coming to us through the hidden purpose of God and directly from His hand. Must we not admit, then, even as regards these, that the more pure and tranquil a man's heart is by the power of love, the more it is filled with grace and peace, just the more easily will he bear all that thus comes to him from without, and to surmount it; because the sufferings of this present time cannot be compared with the blessedness that is in a loving heart? And if we find that any one lacks the real strength to overcome what he has already encountered, or calmly to meet what may still threaten him, no doubt the first thing that we desire and recommend for him is trust in God. But how can we have living trust in God if He is not near and present in our soul; that is, if we do not in the depth of our hearts see His divine nature as that of the strong and beneficent God? But God is love, and therefore we can only be near Him in the living strength of love. And so it will only be the loving man who truly trusts in God; and if, in whatever circumstances our consciousness of God has another stamp than that of child like confidence, the cause of that can only be that the heart is still closed against love, and its hard crust has not yet been softened by that penetrating power that can fill every part of it with its divine fire, and draw forth and cherish everything fair and good.
But now, passing from the thought of individuals and what concerns their welfare, let us turn our attention to that which is more important -- our life as a community in its various aspects; a subject which on such a day as this is of deepest interest to every right-thinking man. Here also we must as truly acknowledge that we should not have had so much to complain of as undeniably there has been in the past year, if there had been found among us that of which our text speaks -- a greater abundance of good works. This is surely made plain to us by the fact that in this connection we do not easily hear a complaint without attaching blame somewhere. And though the blame may often be unjust and groundless, yet there is implied in this the general admission that in the nature of things there is some blame connected with every such complaint; because in these matters everything depends as much on integrity and goodwill as on sense and judgment. Therefore if each one, as he could and ought, sought not his own, but the things of others; that is, whatever might conduce to the common good; if each kept clearly in view what it depends on, in all his relations, that justice be done and good promoted among men, and all imperfections and inequalities more and more smoothed away, so that we are always making life easier to each other; then there would be no cause to complain. And what tends most to this is just such good works as the apostle describes, "If there be any virtue, and if there be any praise . . . whatsoever things are lovely and of good report, strive after these things." And this applies by no means only to so very imperfect a state as our own justly appears to us; for even if we were much further advanced than at present, and in consequence had much less among us to be regretted, yet if there were any real cause of complaint, we should still be obliged to say that there had been a lack of good works. For had these not been wanting at the proper time and place, nothing evil would have happened of which we should have cause to complain. How could there be a better rule and a greater blessing for the social life of men than that evil be overcome with good? But overcoming presupposes action and effort; therefore if evil is to be overcome with good it can only be done by earnest diligence in good works. And thus we can truly say that this is all we need for our life in common.
If these two things, love and good works, dwell richly among us, not only should we all be cheerful and content, because each one would exert a beneficent and cheering influence in all his relationships, but everything praiseworthy and of good report before God and man would blossom out among us in richest abundance. And therefore if in passing over into a new year we still see something gloomy and for bidding, we cannot deny to ourselves that there has been a lack of the true power of love and of true diligence in good works. Love is the balm with which we are to refresh every wounded spirit, -- the wine which we are to hand to every sorrowful one. And diligence in good works is the perpetual offering, indeed the only one, which we have to make to the commonweal in order to clear ourselves from the reproach that we make such slow progress towards the aim which we all set before us. Let us only unite those two, and soon all that we have to complain of will be removed, and all attained to that we wish and hope for. Not only is each of these by itself a real need, but the two together are in fact the only means by which everything is put to rights; and they are so closely connected that each promotes the increase of the other. How could the abundance of love fail to increase everywhere the wealth of good works? and if we were everywhere surrounded by good works flowing from a pure heart, how could love fail to have ever freer course in every breast, and so everything unite in making us rejoice more and more in the Lord?
II. We are taught secondly, in the words of our text, how we are to satisfy this need, which is common to us all. We are each of us ever more strongly and urgently to call on ourselves and others for good works, and this incitement is to proceed from our considering one another; that is to say, this expression that we are to consider one another certainly aims ultimately at this, that we are to care for each other in regard to those specified points; but it also declares very distinctly that our care is to begin with each of us well considering others in order that we may concern ourselves about them, and gain an intuitive knowledge how things are with them, taking note of their condition, and rightly recognising their needs. See here how the writer of our epistle in this beautiful exhortation presents us to each other, if I may so express it, at the new year, as a possession entrusted to us, of which we have to take care. We are to consider one another; that is the work of the Christian community; we are to care for each other in the true Christian sense; that is, in reference to the kingdom of God and its advancement; and that is to be the light in which we always regard each other. Now if we ask in the first place how we are to set about stirring up others to love, most people will certainly consider the thing demanded impracticable, if it is made so universal. But in these days we make far too great a distinction between the more distant and the nearer relationships in which we stand to others, -- much greater than the Christian ought to make it. For this does not admit of a doubt, that the more our Christian feeling increases, the less does this distinction become; the more distant draw nearer to us, and the distance seems to us not nearly so great as is taken for granted in the usages of our ordinary life. Because to the true disciple of the Lord there is absolutely no man who is nothing to him; on the contrary, every man who at any time crosses our path is either one who already enjoys with us the benefits of redemption, and confesses and praises the same Lord, or he is one whom we should feel called on to seek to make a partaker in those benefits. Therefore we should regard no one as a stranger; but all and always, though in different ways and degrees, as our brethren. And so we must say, on the other hand, that no one belongs exclusively to one or to another among us; but that we are all the common property of each other. Inasmuch as we are all called to a great partnership, each one has rights of love over each, and demands to make on each, in so far as the life of one touches the other, or any thing can be transmitted from the spirit of the one to the other. And yet there does always remain this difference, that we have many opportunities of fulfilling this duty to wards some, few of doing so towards others; that with some it is made easy for us to consider them, with others not so. We need go into no further detail to explain how it is that in the closer relations of life we consider each other, and how the true Christian life in each should so find expression, that each point of contact with another should be to that other a stimulus to love. But is it not possible also with more remote connections, if we only carry everywhere the tender solicitude of a loving spirit? Can we not, if only our will is earnestly bent to it, consider in the same way those who are not immediately around us, so as to note what each is in want of? And shall any one, whose need we have discerned, go from us without having received a spiritual gift according to the measure of our powers? Oh, how we limit our noblest influence to a small section of our life, and therefore how empty is all the rest, if we neglect this duty!
And now there only remains to us the question, If we are to stir up others to love, how is it to be done? Only in one way. Does it seem to you that if love is to begin for the first time in a human breast, if there is no living spring of love there, then, in order that this spring may break forth, he must first receive love from without, and be, as it were, inoculated with it? But this can only be effected by the presence of another love, to which the new love may spring up as a response. How can we but admit this from the depths of our hearts, when this principle is the foundation of our common faith? Tor what was the need of the human race but fellowship with God, that is, love to Him? The natural disposition to this was fast asleep in men; and what other way could God have taken to awaken it than by manifesting His love in his Son? Then sprang up in man's heart a love responsive to that which had appeared in the Son, -- to that original love which kindles the true spiritual life in man, -- an answering love, flowing heavenwards from man's heart. And just so it is with the first awakening of love in each individual life. And even where love does not altogether need to spring up for the first time, but exists already, as it must in every Christian heart, it may yet not be sufficiently operative, and may need to be strengthened. In this case also a love is to be produced that is not yet there; and this must be effected just in the same way as that first awakening. Do you ask again, then, how can we stir up one another to love? In no other way than this, that we our selves show love to him in whom we wish to excite it. If it is hearty, brotherly love with which we consider another, and try to understand him without giving way to any unfavourable prejudice, so that we cast no look upon any brother but one of love that seeks to serve him; it cannot fail that he will become aware of that love and its considerate efforts to do something for him suitable to his circumstances; and when he does so, our love will not return to us empty but will produce some fruit in his heart. When the Lord sent out His disciples for the first time to declare His Word and to preach the Kingdom of God, He prepared them for the case in which their word might not take root in men's minds, and told them that their blessing would return to themselves. But in all the workings of love, simply as love, we have not that to fear; it is not possible that it should ever be quite unfruitful. The heart of man may be hardened against the divine Word and against the voice of truth; but that it should ever be able to harden itself against pure love is not to be imagined. If love is only there, alive and active in the soul, and expressing itself in word and deed, it must find entrance, it must take hold and move, it must work a change in some way. And as the effect of love can be no thing but good, seeing that love is gentle and patient even when it punishes and afflicts, it cannot but move the human heart to love in return. And if only we do not relax in the expression of our love, we shall have to rejoice in its taking captive our brother's heart, and our provoking him to love will not be in vain. But otherwise than thus it cannot be done. Perhaps we can only say for ourselves as to the past, that we have rather sought to move men to stronger manifestations of love by severe words and harsh judgments, or by representing the advantage they would derive from doing so, or the harm they would avoid. Let this be past with other mistakes. It may be that those counsels, if they were well intended, brought back at least a blessing to ourselves; but in the future we are going to do better. For nothing creates love but love itself. If we wish to stir others to love, let us ourselves be filled with love, so that every word and act may show it. Then there will assuredly be abundant fruit, and the incitements to love which proceed from love will not be in vain.
But further, according to the direction of our text, we are to consider one another to provoke to good works. Indeed, ii faith works by love j if this active faith means that the Spirit of God has, through the preaching of the Word, taken a settled place in the heart; then all virtues and all that is lovely and of good report, and therefore also all good works, are nothing but the fruit of the Spirit; and thus it appears as if love and good works were inseparable. Only we may say that love is more the inward side of a right state of mind, and good works its outward and active side. And if we question experience, we are constrained to confess that they do not always keep pace together. Why is this, and whence also the need, in addition to provoking to love, of special incitements to good works? From this reason; that love, in order to produce its proper abundance of good works, must first, if I may so speak, come to years of discretion. For if we see that there is really love somewhere, but miss the good works, what can be the reason, but that the right perception is wanting, partly of what is, for each occasion, good and well-pleasing to God, and partly of how to accomplish it. How otherwise should it be that often, with the best will and the most entire honesty, there are so many blunders and wrong-doings? And how then are we to stir each other up to good works? Just by seeking, according to our ability, to bring our brother to a clear understanding of what is right, and to throw light for him on the just and true connection of things. And this can be done without any self-sufficiency. For we are bound to assume that there is love in the heart of every Christian, until the want of it is forced on our notice; and therefore if we find one lacking. in good works, we must not ascribe this beforehand to anything contrary to love; for this judgment would itself be at variance with love. Rather let us remember how the Lord Himself spoke of that which was pre-eminently a work of darkness, when His enemies vented their malice on Him and delivered Him up, guiltless, to death, -- how, with full and true knowledge of all, He said to His heavenly Father, "They know not what they do." And in like manner we are to account for all deficiency of good works and all wrongdoing that may still appear in the Christian community, by the sup position that in some way those concerned know not what they do. And then, if we understand better than they the matters in which they fail, we are bound to communicate our knowledge to thorn; and if otherwise, we can at least try to make them aware of their lack of knowledge, and then help them to seek it where it is to be found. There is no other real stirring up to good works, than that each one strives to increase the amount of true knowledge and correct judgment, wherever and however he can. For if there is the will to do good, then the knowledge which directs this inward desire, and presents the good aimed at in its full worth and beauty, is the most powerful incitement, which no one can withstand. And if this effect does not appear, then undoubtedly something else is wanting, and that can be nothing but love, which we must therefore seek to stir up in order that it may produce good works. But again, if we find that there is a disproportion between the love which we know actually exists in the heart of our neighbour, and his good works the latter lagging behind the former we may be sure the only reason for this is the want of correct knowledge, which he will gladly receive from any one who has it to communicate.
And now, my dear friends, let us be thoroughly honest with ourselves in this matter and ask ourselves how faithful we have really been as to these things in the past year. I fear we have been greatly wanting in this way; that even when we have made advances to others with inducements to love, we have yet not considered them to provoke them to good works. For I think, if this were not the case, we should be able to show among us a much greater abundance of deeds well-pleasing to God. Only do not suppose that I mean at the new year to blame you for that commendable modesty which is not in a hurry to judge of a neighbour, and still less is inclined to take for granted beforehand that another does not know how to help himself in what is his duty; for this is only a pretext that vanity takes for displaying its own wisdom. No; we honour this commendable modesty; but, if we will really be honest, we must confess that behind this modesty is very often hidden an unbrotherly mistrust that the other might not admit that we had the right, even so far as every Christian must joyfully allow it to another, to look so nearly at the more intimate concerns of his life as to be able to consider him with a view to his good works. There is concealed under it a lazy indifference, as if we were not called on to kindle for others the light of truth, and, by communicating to them correct knowledge, to show them what beautiful and good work they could do for God; -- an indifference which is so much the more culpable, if we are afterwards only too ready to blame where wo were not willing beforehand to enlighten. Yes, I fear that we cannot carry over from the past year into the new one a clear conscience in this matter. It is difficult, there is no doubt, to lay down an exact rule here; and yet, if our own knowledge is clear and active, and we feel honestly sure on some point; if we remember how our brother's work and duty are connected with our own, of which we must render an account; then we may be very certain that if we neglect to compare our views with his, to bring light into his dark places, and to try whether he may not also have something to communicate to us, so that we may, if possible, attain to agreement in opinion and to working in concert; then real modesty was not the cause of our holding back; and by doing so we defraud our brother and ourselves of a common good, and also directly or indirectly endanger our own sphere of work. Genuine modesty sets to work humbly, giving no cause for supposing that we only wish to show off our own wisdom and to set ourselves up over others; and we shall certainly fulfil in the best way this duty of stirring up to good works, and be most happily successful in it, when this modesty is united with the natural ardour and enthusiasm for all that each of us has discerned to be true and right. And then the love for truth which we have in our hearts, and our evident zeal for good cannot fail to be a stimulus to good works; while active co-operation, with frank inter change of benefits and mutual support, must produce such works in ever-increasing abundance.
And if we thus more and more consider one another to provoke to love and to good works, oh, what a beautiful year shall we then spend! how much will then more quickly and easily assume a better appearance, how much will then disappear, over which we have now to lament! And in a fulness of contentment and joy how much fairer and more blameless will the Church of the Lord appear! how much steadfastness and security shall we have gained, each in his own calling, and with how much greater gladness of heart shall we then look back on the year now opening, when it, too, has passed away!
Let us then lay to heart these words of Scripture, and may we all be agreed in resolving that, as the Lord has cast our lot together, we will all of us consider each other to provoke unto love and to good works. Then shall we be ever more worthy followers of Him who, throughout His life supplied the first and strongest stimulus to love and good works; awakening in us, by the fulness of His divine love, the purest responsive love, that of gratitude; while by His knowledge, the living knowledge of the Father, with whom He is one, He becomes to us the Truth, teaching us the works which we are to do, and towards which we are to encourage each other. And thus it must always be by His power that we stir up each other. It is only the grace of God in Him that we must always go on understanding better and making known more diligently among men, that through it the man of God may be made capable of good works, and rich in them to prepare for Him the dominion which is His due. And so will our whole life be a truly Christian life; that is a life that is blessed of God and really heavenly.