"Praise and thanks be to Him who lifted up the Saviour on the cross as the bringer of salvation, that thereby He might glorify Him with heavenly glory! Praise and honour be to Him who by His obedience even unto death has become the Author of our faith, that so He may be able, as a faithful high-priest, to represent before God those whom He is not ashamed to call His brethren. Amen."
TEXT: LUKE xxiii.44-49.
THE habit of expecting to find great events accompanied by strange portents is so old and so universal, that, though it might not shake our faith, we should miss a certain feeling of satisfaction, and should also be inclined to wonder, if all that took place in connection with the great event that we commemorate to-day had not been full of significance regarding the work of Christ, and the great end which the heavenly Father purposed to bring about by His death. But we find that it really was so. Looking at the sad and mournful spectacle of the death of Christ, sur rounded as He was by unfeeling enemies to the last moment, the watchful eye sees greatness and sublimity shining through all, and the believing heart is calmed and refreshed by clear tokens from above. Let us then in this light meditate together on the circumstances that accompanied the Saviour's last hours; that our comfort and hope through His death may receive new strength, and that we may take a broader and more confident view of its blessed results. We will consider first the outward signs that accompanied the Saviour's death, and then the effects which, according to the gospel narrative, those signs produced on the feelings of men.
I. When we look at the outward signs that accompanied our Lord's death, we cannot resist a feeling that there must be some great and mysterious connection between the kingdom of nature and the kingdom of the Spirit and of grace. We take note of such a connection in all the great events that take place in the world. The endeavour to trace relations of this kind is indeed a somewhat dangerous practice for those who are only slightly acquainted with natural processes, and who, on every unusual natural occurrence, set themselves anxiously to wonder what it may indicate in the spiritual world. But right as it is to warn people against this, it is very different with those who are awake to all that pertains to the spiritual life, and who look at things from the other direction. In that case the finest feelings are called into play when we search into the natural signs that may accompany and correspond with the value of spiritual events. The discovery of this connection in the great course of the world's government is the utmost, highest aim of the profoundest human wisdom and knowledge. But even in single instances, when anything great, either good or evil, occurs in the domain of the spirit, it is only the tenderest conscience that can teach us how to seek out significant signs in nature. Was it not just the consciousness of the divine in Christ that, as it were, compelled so many to discern, in the wonderful works that He accomplished, an evidence of His high dignity and mission? This connection appears at the time of His death full of significance, first in the darkening of the sun, and then in the rending of the temple veil.
It was about the sixth hour, says the evangelist, and there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour, and the sun was darkened. This darkness was not one of those eclipses which result, according to ascertained law, from the natural course of our earth and her attendant planet; it was a phenomenon out of the regular order of Nature, which covered the whole land with darkness, while the sun concealed or lost his light until the ninth hour, when the Saviour gave up His spirit. And then also, -- and this is just the most significant point, -- then the darkness ceased, and the extinguished sun beamed forth again in his brightness and spread abroad his beneficent light. Oh, my dear friends, that which made it necessary for the Saviour to appear on earth was the universal, mournful darkness of the human spirit through error, delusion, and sin; but still it was a special darkening of men's spirits, not so easily to be explained by the laws of human nature, or appearing in a general way, -- an abnormal darkening, -- that could make them put to death, and that under pretext of God's law, the man mighty in word and deed, whose teaching was in the Spirit and with power, who went about freeing those whose spirits were bound, and miraculously healing their sick; and it was to such a darkness that nature called attention when the sun was darkened in an unusual way. But inasmuch as it shone out at the moment of the Saviour's death, oh, let that be truly a token to us, a more glorious token than the bow of peace that Noah saw on the cloud after the waters of the flood had subsided! As then the Lord said, "Let this be a sign between me and thee, that I will not again destroy the race of man," so here, by the shining forth again of the darkened sun after the death of the Saviour, the Eternal says to us, Let this be a sign between Me and you that the darkening of the human soul is withdrawn and past. The light had come from heaven and shone into the darkness; and though the darkness had not yet welcomed it, though the cross was surrounded by a crowd of the very most darkened spirits, yet the light was now to hold a permanent place in human nature; its kingdom was founded, and in the gracious counsel of God it was decreed that this heavenly light, proceeding from a point which at that time appeared so insignificant, should go on spreading ever more widely, and the power of the faith kindled and cherished by this light should triumph over the world and all its darkness. It is true that in the history of the gospel and of the kingdom of God there have often been times of darkness; it is true that the followers of the light that appeared in Christ Jesus have often, like Him, been put to death by the children of darkness; but the servant cannot expect to fare better than his Lord, and the darkness which made such treatment possible towards the servants of the Most High, -- weak and sinful, though truly chosen men, -- must be regarded as less deep than that in which men could so act towards the anointed of the Lord Himself. Therefore the assertion still holds good, that the cessation of that darkness was the great turning point in the history of men, and in the development of their spiritual nature. From Adam down wards the Spirit was working with growing power through the revelation of God written on the hearts of men; but the darkness could not thus be entirely dispelled. For from the beginning the flesh lusted against the Spirit, and took pleasure in the darkness, and kept back truth in unrighteousness. In this continually renewed struggle divine voices were ever coming to aid the hearts of men; but the victory of the light over the darkness became decisive only in the death of the Lord, when the kingdom of light was established, and the Lord's work accomplished. Those who are buried with Him in His death rise with Him to a new life; those who renounce the darkness of sin which the Prince of Life vanquished on the cross shall have His life manifested in them from glory to glory.
"And the veil of the temple was rent in the midst." This veil concealed the mysteries of the old covenant from the eyes of all, one man excepted, who was allowed to enter the holy of holies only once a year, to sprinkle there the blood of the covenant. As the outer curtain separated the priests of the Lord from the congregation of the people, so this inner veil separated the high priest from all his brethren in the priest hood. The rending of this veil signified in the first place that now all the mysteries of God were revealed, all hidden things to be disclosed, and that special purposes of God and declarations of His will were no longer to be announced to men in some mysterious way from one hidden spot, but that one purpose of salvation was to be openly proclaimed everywhere. And it signified further that there were no longer to be separations and distinctions among those who worshipped God in and through His Son, but that the time was come in which all should have free access to God in Christ, when all believers should be priests of the Most High, all taught of God, and each mutually serving the others in the Lord. These two truths, that all separate priesthood has ceased, and that now the whole will of God has been declared to us, cannot be separated; and only when these are taken together can we take the full comfort that there is in the power of the gospel of redemption. Before Christ fell into the hands of His enemies He testified of Himself that He had made known to His disciples all the words which He had received from the Father. What clearer testimony could there be to His having, as the Son in whom the Father was well-pleased, received the whole fulness of divine communication, securing to the human spirit a blessed fellowship with God, than just the rending of this veil; indicating that God would no longer dwell among men in one secret place, that faith need no longer, as it had hitherto done, seek His presence exclusively over the ark of the covenant which was concealed from all eyes. It meant that as Christ, when He had finished His work by the pouring out of His blood on the cross, entered into the true holy of holies; His kingdom is now the unlimited spiritual house of God, in which He is Himself the true mercy-seat, the place in which God most fully manifests His presence among men. And although during His life on earth it seemed a strange saying to the disciples that they should see the Father in the Son, yet after He was perfected and glorified by His obedience to death on the cross we recognise in Him the true image of the divine nature and the brightness of eternal love. What need, then, of any further human mediation or intercession? Here there is nothing which one alone is permitted to behold; to this mercy-seat all are free to approach. And as Christ became our Brother by coming down to us and taking on Him our flesh and blood, so we now become His brethren by His lifting us up into spiritual union with the Father, so that through Him we are all members of the household of God, all equally through Christ the children of Him to whom He has reconciled us, all members of His spiritual body, through His Spirit whom He sends into the hearts of believers. Thus then every veil is rent, and all may fix their eyes in confident faith on the Saviour on the cross, while from the exalted Saviour we receive directly the spiritual gifts and blessings which the priests under the old covenant might certainly desire for the people, but could not bestow.
These, then, are the comforting signs which our faith sees accompanying our Lord's death. But that which these tokens of grace and peace signified could only be realized through the saving power of the gospel in the hearts of men. And when we review the history of the Christian Church down to the present day, we see with joy and comfort how that power has gone on extending since that eternally significant hour. The extension of this blessed kingdom still proceeds too slowly for our devout wishes; we still see on the earth too much darkness, into which the light has not yet penetrated. But even in regard to this slow progress we see something to comfort and gladden us when we consider what took place in the minds of men at the Saviour's death, to which let us now direct our attention.
II. "And the centurion who kept watch beside the cross, when he saw what was done, cried out, Certainly this was a righteous man!" What was it then that took place before his eyes and called forth this exclamation? He saw how the darkness fell and the light of the sun was quenched; he saw with what unexpected suddenness He died, who seemed still to have long agonies before Him; he saw and heard how He, charged with such crime as would make peace and calmness impossible to most men, yet could with perfect tranquility commit His spirit into the hands of the heavenly Father; -- then he spoke, and said, "Certainly this was a righteous man!" How little had the rough soldier up to this time concerned himself about the excitement caused by the appearing of the Lord among this strange and despised people of the Jews!
We see here, then, an effect of the death of the Saviour, even if it were but a passing impression, in the stirring of this man's mind out of utter indifference to a recognition of Christ's dignity. Another of the evangelists reports the man as saying, "Truly this was the Son of God!" that is, that what He had been accused before the Roman governor as claiming, He had proved Himself to be. As the centurion had now become fully assured of this, we may well suppose, taking the two sayings together, that since, in the fulfilment of his office, he had led Christ forth to death, his mind had been fluctuating between the impression made by the high position of the accusers and that produced by the person of the Saviour. And in proportion as this latter impression became the stronger, he must also have debated in himself the question whether He had been a righteous man given up, guiltless, to death by His enemies, or whether, seeing that He quitted this earthly life amidst such portentous signs and in so kingly a manner, He were not in truth the Son of God. Oh, blessed question, that arose in an utterly darkened soul! Oh, sudden awakening of the spirit out of the deepest darkness, to drink in the heavenly light that comes with the faith that the Word has been made flesh, and that the Son of the Highest has appeared in human form! And just so, thanks be to God. does the preaching of the death of our Lord still go on producing effects peculiarly its own. When thoroughly blinded souls are to be initiated into the mysteries of the kingdom of God, when the kingdom of heaven is to be opened to those who are still walking in the shadow of death, then nothing will avail but making known the dying Saviour to men. The story of His death has ever been the mightiest word of life; arid when the scene is described by one whose own spirit is inspired by faith, even careless souls are often awakened. And if at first they say no more than, Certainly this was a righteous man; let them but hear afterwards His own words about the glory which He has always had with the Father; let them hear the history of His life and the results of His resurrection; then they will join in saying, "Surely this was the Son of God!"
And "All the people that stood by, when they saw what was done, smote on their breasts and returned." These were the same people who had cried, "Crucify Him, crucify Him!" who had laid a curse on themselves with the words, "His blood be on us and on our children! "And now, when they saw what had taken place, they smote on their breasts and turned away. Was it only because the spectacle of the Lord's death, with which they had come to amuse themselves, was finished? No; for the evangelist says they smote on their breasts; so he must have seen, by this and similar signs, that something more was going on in their minds; that the death of the one righteous man had staggered them in their contempt and hatred that they had begun to be doubtful if it was for their own good that they had slain the Prince of life. And even if it cannot be denied that with the greater number this was only a transient emotion, yet many of these same people were afterwards present on the day of Pentecost, and heard Peter bear public testimony to the Prince of life; and then many among them smote on their breasts a second time, and with very different feelings, and cried, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" My dear friends, may this day on which we commemorate the death of Christ be every year blessed with like blessings in every Christian community, in every land where the Christian name holds a place! And we know that it is so indeed. For the kind of people have not yet died out from among Christians, who stumble at the offence of the cross, who are even bold enough to scorn the Crucified One, though they do not disdain outwardly to bear His name. Indeed, it may be said that many turn their minds so entirely against Him, that with all their power they resist being taken hold of either by the impressive signs that accompanied His life and His death, or by the Spirit and the power that work in His words, or by the effects that have followed the preaching of His name in the world. But even such people, when they see believers bending in the devotion of grateful hearts before the cross of the Redeemer -- when they hear us renewing together our engagement to make known the blessings of His death till He comes -- oh, then, many who have hardened themselves in opposition against the Saviour begin to feel troubled, and smite on their breasts. And if there comes another and yet another stirring of the Spirit; if the word of the Lord again and again sounds in their ears and knocks at their hearty, oh, then at last they turn thoroughly from the way of ruin and become His and ours.
"And His acquaintance, and the women who had followed Him from Galilee, stood afar off, beholding these things." Close to His cross stood only His mother and the disciple whom He loved. The rest had been scattered as He had fore told to them, and did not until later join those who were the immediate witnesses of His death. And these, His acquaintance, His faithful handmaids and friends, stood afar off, be holding it all. Just as it was in His own mother's heart that the influence of the Saviour was first felt on earth -- when, after His presentation in the temple, she pondered, in quiet meditation, all the words that were spoken of Him there -- so now His faithful handmaids stood silently watching from a distance the ebbing life of their beloved Master, comforting themselves in the thought of His passing to the Father, and laying up in the depths of their hearts all that they saw. But why did they stand afar off? Oh, may we not still put the same question to many Christians? Those who cling closely to the Saviour's cross, those who are there led by Him, like Mary and John, into the tenderest and closest union of heart, are always comparatively a small number. But let us not hold lightly those who stand farther off; let us rather look on those disciples of the Lord who also stood afar off as saying something in their favour. For many who do not seek after an assured personal union with Christ have yet salutary impressions made in their inmost hearts by His self-sacrificing death and the quiet greatness of His life -- impressions of which they become more or less conscious, and which sooner or later come to bear fruit. We know also of those who do not gather so closely as others round the cross of the Redeemer, -- we know it from manifold experience that the contemplation of His death has not been without a blessing to their hearts. And yet we will call to them, as we might have done to those disciples of the Lord, "Why stand ye so far off?" Draw nearer, that you may see still more clearly how the glory of the only-begotten Son is revealed in the Crucified. For the more closely you listen to His last words, the nearer you come, to catch, as it were, the parting glance of His eye, the more believingly you witness His death, just so much the more surely will you become joyful witnesses to His resurrection; and His whole nature will more promptly, effectively, and deeply take hold on you and bear you onward to eternal life. Yes, there is still always room there. All who have been already stirred up to faith, all who have been taken captive by the glory of this day, by this vanishing of the darkness before the shining forth of the light that shall be quenched no more, by the rending of the veil, throwing open for ever all the blessings of the spiritual sanctuary; all may now gather ever more closely around the cross of Him who came to this world for the salvation of men, and who died on this day that He might return to heaven. His cross is the sign under which alone we can all conquer. As He, the Captain of our salvation, overcame by His obedience unto death, so we can overcome only by taking up His cross and following Him; by not shrinking from going through tribulation into the kingdom of God, which He has prepared for us; or even from being made perfect, as He was, through suffering and the cross. Let us all vow anew such allegiance as this to Him, and never will He cease to bless us as from His cross. Amen.