In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day, while I was among the exiles by the River Kebar, the heavens opened and I saw visions of God.
It is not the soil which a people till that makes that people a nation. The Jews have more than once furnished a striking illustration of this principle; for no nation has suffered more from banishment and dispersion, and no nation has more tenaciously clung to its nationality, or more effectively preserved it in circumstances the most unfavourable. It is its religion which makes a people a nation; even more than a common language, a common ancestry, and common traditions. It has ever been so conspicuously with the Jews. The record of their captivity in the East is a record of their religious experience; the literature of their captivity is the literature of their prophets, amongst whom Ezekiel occupies a place of prominence and interest. His figure, as we see him in imagination, "among the captives by the river of Chebar," is historically picturesque; but it is also suggestive of sacred and precious truth.
I. THE CAPTIVITY AND EXILE OF JUDAH AND ISRAEL MUST BE REGARDED AS RETRIBUTIVE CHASTISEMENT INFLICTED BY GOD ON ACCOUNT OF THEIR APOSTASY. Although much obscurity gathers around the earlier history of the "chosen people," one fact stands out in undisputed clearness - they were a people prone to idolatry and rebellion against Jehovah. Their own historians, men proud of their descent from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, men themselves profoundly attached to the one true God, record with unsparing fidelity the defections of their countrymen from the service and worship to which they were bound by every tie of gratitude and loyalty. Apostasy was not confined to any class; kings and subjects alike did wickedly in departing from God. As a nation they sinned, and as a nation they suffered. Surrounded by people more powerful than themselves - by Egypt, by Phoenicia, by Assyria - their strength lay in their pure faith and their spiritual worship. But again and again they yielded to temptation, and fell into the idolatries practised by surrounding peoples. The punishment was foretold, the warning was repeated; but all was in vain. And it was in fulfilment of prophetic threats that the inhabitants, first of Northern and then of Southern Palestine, were transported to the East, and condemned to the existence which awakened their pathetic lamentations, when, strangers in a strange land, they wept when they remembered Zion. Ezekiel, when he awoke to a consciousness of his prophetic mission, found himself amongst those who were bearing the penalty due to their follies and sins.
II. THE CAPTIVITY AND EXILE OF JUDAH AND ISRAEL WERE THE OCCASION OF THE RAISING UP AMONG THEM OF GREAT SPIRITUAL TEACHERS AND LEADERS. It is obvious that, when separated from their metropolis and their temple, when denied the religious privileges to which their fathers had been accustomed, the Jews stood very especially in need of men who, by their character, their knowledge, their sympathy, and their moral authority, should rally the courage, inflame the piety, and inspire the hope of their countrymen. And it is a proof of God's wonderful care and kindness that the Hebrews in their captivity were not left without such men. A noble, heroic, and saintly band they were; and right well did they fulfil a mission of no ordinary difficulty. It is sufficient to name Ezra and Nehemiah, who were commissioned to lead bands of the exiles back to the sacred soil; and Ezekiel and Daniel, who were directed to instruct their fellow countrymen in religious truth, to admonish and to comfort them, and to utter to the heathen nations around words of faithful warning.
III. THE CAPTIVITY AND EXILE OF JUDAH AND ISRAEL WERE THE MEANS OF SECURING TO THE FAVOURED NATION IMPORTANT AND MEMORABLE RELIGIOUS ADVANTAGES AND BENEFITS.
1. There were negative advantages. By means of the Captivity, the chosen nation was finally and forever delivered from the sin of idolatry. The witness of the prophets, the stern discipline of adversity, the opportunity of reflection and repentance, were not in vain.
2. There was this great positive advantage accruing to Israel through the exile in the East - the people were encouraged to turn to the Lord whom they had forsaken, to seek reconciliation and restoration, and to make vows of obedience and fidelity to him to whom their allegiance was justly due. - T.
Seasons of illumination are granted to men; moments of intellectual or spiritual insight in which they obtain deeper knowledge of the mysteries of life, than in years of laboured activities. Life is conditioned by depth more than by length of days. The current of history may be changed in a day, the geography of a continent is determined by the achievements of one day. "God works in moments," and when the heavens are opened and visions of God are granted to men, the day becomes a creative epoch, from which they date their redemption. The momentum of that day will not be exhausted for generations. That one day of spiritual illumination has lighted up the dark passages of centuries, and the glory of the vision has dispersed forever the gloom of the captivity. The vision by Chebar is not the solitary experience of Ezekiel. God makes Midian the training ground of Israel's emancipator, and the hills of Bethlehem for Israel's greatest king, and Jesus lived in Nazareth. The minimum of opportunity yields the maximum of results. Men have visions of God in coal mines as well as in cathedrals. The prophet in exile makes the disadvantages of his position tributary to his highest successes. "The heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God." Visions of God are only possible when the heavens are opened. Heaven is the source of all illumination, more revelations are given to this world than discoveries made in it. Stars and suns are set aside, that the prophet may see God. It is a moment never to be forgotten when God appears in unveiled splendour. It becomes imperative at times that our faith be established by visions of God. Crises in our personal history have called for special revelations. Such was the captivity to Israel. We need the vision in captivity more than in our native land, with its temples and its priests. Israel thought that God had forsaken them; the vision proved that they had forsaken God. The way of communication between heaven and earth was still open. The hope of the race lies in the unbroken connection between heaven and earth, and the opening heavens in times of great peril proclaim that God lives and loves. Chebar has become a river of life, and the exile the gate of heaven.
The heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. 1.
God is not tied to places. He can in a dungeon, in a prison, in a Babylon, let down His Spirit into the heart of any servant of His, and raise him to a prophetical height.
2. No place is so wicked but God can raise up instruments to do Him and the Church service there.
3. See here a door open for the enlargement of the Church, a type of God's goodness toward the Gentiles.
4. The godly are wrapped up in the same calamity with the wicked. Ezekiel is among the captives.
5. The godly are mingled in this world with the wicked and profane.
6. God hath a special care of His Church and people, when they are in the lowest and worst condition. They shall have a prophet, though in Babylon.
7. Take heed of judging the condition of men by their outward afflictions. Those that are in great affliction may be greatly beloved, when those who are in great prosperity may be greatly hated.
8. The wicked fare the better for the godly.
Observe the nature of the prophet's preparation for his work. It was not an outward call; it was not a visible stamp of authority or office given to him that men might see — he had that as priest before he was called to be a prophet; but it was that secret vision of God, it was that unseen speech of his soul with the Spirit of his God and of the Spirit of God with his soul that he could never demonstrate or prove to other men. That for them might be a dream of dreams, a visionary record of what never happened; but for Him from that hour it was the most real of all realities — a living voice through all his life, that shaped and coloured it long after, and that drove him forth amongst his fellow men, now to speak to them, as he tells us, in the bitterness of his spirit, and now under the burden of the Lord to sit down astonished and silent with them in their sorrow; but that made him a new, a different man for the rest of his life — from the moment that he saw and heard those visions of God and the voice of God within them. This was the secret preparation of the prophet for the prophet's work, and this is just that hidden preparation for God's work amongst men which our Church distinctly recognises the necessity of in all those who seek her ministry, while she as distinctly recognises the need for the outward and visible call. The outward call does not do away with the need of the inward voice and calling, nor does the inward voice and preparation supersede the need of the outward call and mission. It was not so in Ezekiel's case. The one joined itself on to and grew out of the other. When Ezekiel the priest was called by this hidden and overmastering voice of God, when he was called to do a special prophet's work, it was not an unknown God whose glory he was bid to see; it was the God of his fathers, the God who had formed and organised the Jewish Church and the Jewish priesthood of which Ezekiel was a member. And the voice which bid him go was not to him an unknown voice; it was a voice that had led his ancestors through the wilderness, that had spoken to them God's law from Sinai, and the very visions of glory that he beheld weaved themselves out of and grew, as it were, out of the priest's memory of the worship of the temple. The inward call sprang out of, joined itself to, rose naturally, and all the more forcibly out of the outward position and the outward calling of the man. And so is it in all settled and orderly churches. Yes; this is the true preparation and the true mission of him who would be a prophet, a speaker for God amongst the sons of men. He must be, if he is to be a successful prophet for God, a man who has seen God for himself; he must be a man who has had that vision of God that none can see but each man for himself. There are visions of God that all men may have, and may have in common together. There are visions, for instance, which we may speak of as the reflective visions of God — visions of God in the glories of Nature; visions of God in the marvels of history and of Providence; visions of God in the revelation of His Word; visions of God in the worship and sacraments of the sanctuary; but there is one vision more, one hour of vision which should come to each man, if it were but once in his life, and woe to him who claims to be a prophet for God who has not seen that vision and passed through that hour when, the man lifting himself or lifted up above the low, and mean, and poor surroundings of the daily world in which he lives, with its strife, with its sorrows, with its cares, with its business, with its seductions, and rising high above these to the very heavens where the Lord dwells, sees God for himself, hears God's voice speaking to him as His, and claiming him for His, and gives himself in answering offer, and gives himself to God and says, "O Lord, here am I; send me to do Thy work amongst men: make of me Thine instrument and Thy servant, and give me the great glory of serving Thee, and telling Thy words in the ears of Thy people." The mission of the national Church is not first and before all things to be popular. It is first and before all things to be faithful to speak the living Word of the living God, as she learned it in her visions of God. Men seem to forget this great truth nowadays, and men seem with a faithless and an anxious timidity only eager to make the Church popular, and to make her popular with the masses, and many are the counsellors and various the advice that the Church is enjoying at this moment as to how she shall make herself popular and successful. Again, there are those who would have us trust to the attractiveness of our sanctuaries and the beauty of our worship, and who tell us we shall win the masses and the people back to our deserted churches, if only we will have bright and hearty services and beautiful aesthetic churches, and all that is charming and attractive to win the senses of the multitude. You are beginning at the wrong end when you strive to win the masses to God with attractive services. Make men feel their need of the services; make men understand that when they come to the house of God they come there that they may see visions of God, see the glory of the Lord, hear His voice, learn His will, offer Him their homage and their respect; make men thus feel their need of the worship of the sanctuary, and they will come whether the sanctuary be beautiful or not, and if they come for the beauty of the sanctuary, they are degrading it by an unreal worship, unless they come for the glory of Him whom they should seek to meet there. What the Church needs for her work now is what she has always needed — men whose hearts are filled with visions of the living God, and with a firm faith in this — that He has given them a work to do, a message to speak amongst their fellow men, and the thought of that burns as a very fire in their bones, and they cannot keep back from speaking God's message and God's word of life amongst their suffering fellow citizens and fellow countrymen. Their hearts are moved by the thought that they have to go out amongst "them of their captivity," though they feel it to be a rebellious house. They have to go out to people tied and bound in the chains of their sins, as they lie without the limits of the kingdom of Christ.
Thoughts of heaven must receive their character from views of God. If we could see into heaven and did not see signs of God there, we should remain in spiritual darkness. We must pass into the house to perceive the householder. All beliefs of our interest in the heavens will be blighted unless they are steps on our way to know we have a living, almighty, perfect Friend.
2. All true views of God are given by God. He alone opens the inward eyes and presents the aspects He wants to reveal. He may open them through some outward impulse, or by action on the heart, but in either case the ripple of sensational life is hushed by the flow of a grander life, and the reasoning faculty stands still, waiting to know what it shall receive. Then, as the light air comes to a hanging leaf and stirs it, as a father's love and wisdom come to an erring child and prompt to confession, so the subject of visions of God knows that God has affected him — that God alone could accomplish that which has happened to him.
3. Visions of God require a conscious apprehension by men. Men can look upwards or downwards, outward or inward; but they may shut their eyes, So they decide whether they will see the things of God or not — whether they will accept the fuller manifestations of God or not.
4. Various aspects of God are presented. Wonderful in number and variety are the views which God has provided for willing hearts. "They are new every morning."
()To impart to man some degree of religious sensibility, it seems only necessary to lead him to a consideration of himself. Teach him to examine his own nature, to look a little into the wonderful mechanism which is going on in his own breast, and there will be found one of the most effectual means of awakening him to a real sense of the true character of his existence, and of the high and exalted relations which that existence sustains. Next, from the consideration of himself, let him turn to the consideration of the wonderful works existing out of himself. Let him look around on the green earth, with all its diversities of hill and dale, and wood and water, and sunshine and shade; and then from the plains below, let him look up to the canopy above, bright with stars and burning with suns, — and there will be seen visions of God, visions of power, wisdom, and goodness transcending his utmost powers to measure and fathom. By consciousness and observation we know how different a being a man generally is from what, considering his nature and destiny, we might reasonably expect him to be. Look at him, pursuing with passionate interest today what tomorrow will have passed into utter oblivion; now entering into contests where victory will bring no honour, and then striving after possessions whose acquirement will confer no happiness. View man in this situation and under these circumstances, and then remember that this is a being whose days upon earth are rapidly coming to an end; that he is born for eternity, for which he is here to prepare himself; and that that preparation, though embracing the interests of futurity, is also most conducive to the best enjoyment of the present, — and nothing can account for the course of conduct which he so often pursues, but that moral insensibility and stupor into which his connection with the world imperceptibly betrays him. In the first and early period of our existence, it is our nature to be governed chiefly by sensible impressions. Our thoughts, our wishes, our enjoyments, all lie within a narrow boundary. As we advance in years, our views extend, our hopes are expanded, our expectations are enlarged. We think more of what shall be and of what may be. Our happiness is more bound up with internal feelings, apprehensions, hopes, and anticipations. Hence arises one of the great advantages attending the good, that in their minds the thoughts and feelings connected with the future must necessarily be of a far brighter and happier description than those which are experienced by persons of an opposite character. It is, however, scarcely possible at the present moment for the best of our race to regard the course of human affairs without observing much to trouble and perplex them. Often will the spirit of the thoughtful and humane faint within him at the recollection of the magnitude and extent of the distresses and afflictions that have their residence on earth. For a moment he may feel as if his faith and piety were giving way; but deeper reflection comes to his aid, and restores him to confidence and hope. Visions of God rise up before his mind, and in those visions he sees the hand of Omnipotence stretched out over the angry and tempestuous waves of mortality, and bidding them into stillness and peace. In spite, then, of the difficulties by which we are surrounded, and notwithstanding the distressing occurrences that present themselves from day to day, the Christian believer will not let go his conviction that all is under the benignant care of a wise and merciful Providence, and will eventually be made to terminate in the establishment of truth and righteousness. He pretends not to dive into the depths of the Divine counsels. Knowing how absurd it would be to expect that he, who is but of yesterday, should be able to interpret the plans and proceedings of Him whose goings forth have been from of old, even from everlasting to everlasting, he submits in reverential silence to what appears most inscrutable and mysterious, believing and trusting that, as the government of human affairs is in the hands of the same Being who first made man a living soul and breathed into him the breath of life, it cannot but tend to a blessed and happy consummation. The more he reflects on all this, the more satisfied does he feel that the Author of his existence cannot be indifferent to the workmanship of His own hands, to the offspring of His own benevolence, and that whatever appearances there are which seem to imply the contrary, are only appearances, and melt away at the touchstone of examination, like midnight vapours at the approach of day. In the midst of our labours and duties, harassed perhaps by care, wearied with trouble, trembling with apprehension, our safety, our strength, our consolation will be best sought and obtained in those retirements of the soul when the veil is removed, and our eyes are opened to see visions of God.
()I. THY SEER OF THE VISIONS.
1. A priest. Of all men, they who minister to others in spiritual things need first to have their own visions of God. A spiritually-blind priest can only give dead, formal, perfunctory service.
2. A prophet. The prophet must first be a seer. No one can speak for God who has not first heard the voice of God or seen the glory of His truth.
II. THE TIME OF THE VISIONS. Early maturity — thirty years old.
1. After years of preparation.
2. Before a life of work.
III. THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE VISIONS.
1. Ezekiel was among the captives.(1) Banished from his native land; but not from God.(2) Surrounded by sorrowful men among the captives. Atmosphere depressing. Yet light of heaven broke through it.(3) Himself a captive. Trouble revealed the need of God, and invited His gracious help.
2. Ezekiel was by the river Chebar. In a quiet scene of nature. God is in the broad earth as surely as in any temple.
IV. THE SOURCE OF THE VISIONS.
1. From heaven. Then the prophet must look up. There is a spiritual astronomy which claims our study as much as the facts of man and earth.
2. Through the opening of heaven. God must reveal Himself. Revelation is the rolling back of the curtain, opening the gates of the unseen.
V. THE NATURE OF THE VISIONS. Seeing some rays of the Divine glory, some fringe of the robe of the Almighty. This is the highest of all visions. We can see it in the human countenance of Jesus.
()(with Isaiah 6:1 and Acts 26:19): — These three incidents to which our texts refer have some significant characteristics. In the case of each man, this vision of God was his call to the prophetic or apostolic office, not to a short season of special service. Moreover, each is related with the purpose of justifying the speaker's conduct. The position of this vision in Isaiah's book is very significant. He has begun to prophesy and had spoken many things in the hearing of the people. They would not heed him but bade him be silent. He tells the story of his call, and says to them and to himself, "I must speak. I am not my own master. I have seen the Lord of hosts, and He said, 'Go.' I cannot get behind or away from that vision." Very similar are the circumstances under which the prophet Ezekiel tells his story. It is quite obvious, from the opening chapters of his book, that he shrank from the task of preaching to the exiles. But he could not help himself. Whether they hear or whether they forbear, speak he must, for he too has been told by God to go. So he relates what he saw when God appeared to him, and that must silence every qualm and query. Paul, too, is on his defence. Worldly people who recognise his genius, but pity his apparent sacrifice, and enemies who are conscience-stricken by his words are trying to silence that eloquent tongue. But he meets all their threats and entreaties with the unanswerable argument, "The risen Lord appeared to me. I had a vision, and I dare not be disobedient to that."
I. THE IMPERATIVE CONSTRAINT OF A VISION OF GOD. We are all familiar with the fact that every life of successful achievement must be the result of concentration. The natural tendency is for the elements of our life to fly off at a tangent, and there must be some centripetal force which will keep them circling round the centre if any work is going to be done. We need to come under the unifying influence of a dominant purpose which shall weld the elements into a homogeneous whole; otherwise there will be discord and dissension. No man can build up a colossal business, or become a successful artist, or secure lasting fame in literature, who does not feel the spell of this purpose and walk under its constraint. Now, the most powerful constraint which can fall upon any man is that due to a vision of God. By that I do not mean just a belief in the existence of a Divine Being. A man may believe so far and be practically unaffected by his belief. It was something very far removed from a mere intellectual assent which transformed the lives of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Paul. The attempts to describe what each saw vary immensely, and show wide differences of literary ability. No one would put Isaiah's majestic chapter and Ezekiel's rather involved and labouring effort upon the same plane of literary merit. But Isaiah and Ezekiel and Paul are all attempting to describe a very real vision. Each knew that God had come into his life. For note the similarity of the immediate effects. Isaiah felt the whole building to tremble and the air seemed filled with the hissing steam which is emitted when fire and water mingle. He could only cry out in terror, "Woe is me." Ezekiel fell upon his face before the appearance of the glory of the Lord, and then went away and sat amongst the captives for seven days dazed and astonished. Paul was stunned, blinded, smitten to the ground, and was led helpless into Damascus. And the ultimate consequences were similar also. And each man explains his conduct by declaring that he is under the imperative constraint of the vision of God. He dare not be disobedient to that. Nothing but death can break its spell. The vision of God will constrain us very powerfully! It will brook no disobedience. It will be more imperious than the dictates of prudence and of propriety. It will explain all our enthusiasm which the man who has never seen God cannot understand. There is no other influence which is powerful enough to oppose the disintegrating force of self-love and self-will within us, and to unite our hearts in the service of a true religion. Mere intellectual assent to dogmas about a divinity will not constrain us to forsake sin. Ceremonials and forms of worship cannot redeem us from callousness in worship and in conduct. The forces within us smite such barriers aside or leap over them at once. How noteworthy it is that in these three cases the ritual of the Jewish religion in which they had been trained is forgotten! There is no priest in the temple in which Isaiah stands, and no sacrifice is offered. Ezekiel the priest sees the glory of God as he sits in the plains by Babylon's river. Saul, the punctilious and phylacteried Pharisee, meets Jesus face to face on the lonely road near Damascus. For years each man had been familiar with the most suggestive ritual which the world ever possessed, and it had only touched the surface: it had only succeeded in making them moral. It was the vision of God which revolutionised their life, making their nature reel to its foundations and turning the river of their energy into another channel. All devoted lives have been inspired by a vision of God, and not by the sight of a temple; by appropriation of the sacrificial offering, and not by kneeling before an altar. We shall only be blacklegs or hangers on, men called in to fill an emergency, if we depend for our inspiration upon anything less than a vivid personal experience of God. But is it possible for us to have a vision of God? According to the teaching of Jesus Christ, it is. "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." "He that hath seen Me, hath seen the Father." It is possible for us to have an encounter with the Divine Person; to feel the contact between His Spirit and ours; to stand amidst a busy world and to be oblivious to all, whilst we gaze with entranced souls upon the flashing glory of God. But this is not to be a solitary experience casting a spell over succeeding years. Verily the time when the Lord of Glory first came to our side will be the epoch from which we reckon time. But if we see God in the face of Jesus Christ, He is with us always, even unto the end. Am I wrong in interpreting the emotions which sometimes surge in our hearts as a kind of envy of those men who received such a call to the ministry as came to these three servants of God? We urge ourselves on with a whip into which the cords of duty, of necessity, of reward, are lashed; but it is painful progress. We wish that our rapt eyes might see the Lord upon a throne high and lifted up, or a flaming glory borne by wheels full of eyes, or that some blinding light from heaven might enfold us in its passionate embrace. Is it not blessedly possible for us to have such a vision of God as never gladdened the eyes of Isaiah or Ezekiel? There is one significant difference between the apology of Paul and that of the earlier prophets. They are seeking partly to satisfy their own hearts and quiet the storm within; they fell back upon their vision as the justification to themselves. Paul has no misgivings within to hush! Why not? Because the vision of God is for him constant. It cannot fade as did that given to Isaiah! The Christian man lives in the Divine presence. There is no necessity for us to travel back along the road to some sacred spot marked by its altar. The place where we are standing now may be the place of vision. And we have to practise the presence of God!
II. THE CONTENTS OF OUR VISION OF GOD DETERMINE THE LIMITATION OF OUR WORK. Isaiah sees God exalted upon a throne, with sweeping robes filling the temple, before whom the cherubim veil their faces and the choirs of heaven chant "Holy," and the smitten prophet cries, "I am unclean." This is a vision of God as exalted in righteousness. It is the moral supremacy of Jehovah over against the sin of Israel which fills the vision of Isaiah. It is different with the vision granted to Ezekiel. He gazes upon a blazing glory, which is supported by the cherubim, and which moves throughout the world with the swiftness of lightning upon the wheels full of eyes. Obviously this is God as sovereign in nature and history; this is God as omnipresent and omnipotent, governing the councils of the nations and ruling over all. I do not mean that Isaiah and Ezekiel saw only this. Isaiah knew of God's omnipotence, for "the whole earth is full of His glory." Ezekiel understood God's moral supremacy; but the over, powering conception of God of the two visions is different. Now see what a connection there is between the dominant idea of God in the vision, and the work which each man has to do. Isaiah is sent to a people living securely in Jerusalem, but sunk into great sin. He has to exalt the Holy One of Israel over against the impurity of the nation's life. Ezekiel is a prophet sent to a later generation, a mere handful of exiles who have been led away from despoiled Jerusalem by the armies of the mighty king of Babylon. Sitting by the river Chebar, the harps hung on the willows in a strange land, it seems as if Jehovah is not able to help them. Then Ezekiel comes to exalt the Omnipotent King in place of the boasting, hustling strength of Nebuchadnezzar. Now turn to the vision given to Paul, and consider its meaning and contents in the light of his writings and work. He saw God revealed in Jesus Christ. That meant the God whom Isaiah saw, a God exalted in righteousness, whose holiness convicted the self-righteous Pharisee as the chief of sinners, and made him preach, "All have sinned and come short of the glory of God." That meant also the God whom Ezekiel saw, a God who is supreme above all the machinations of men and the swift vicissitudes of human experience, so that it is a part of his work to tell men that "all things work together for good to them that love God," and therefore to "rejoice in the Lord alway." But it meant also another aspect of God of which Isaiah and Ezekiel had only faint knowledge, namely, as the Father of men, who so loved the world as to send His Son to be the propitiation for all sin, and was calling all men everywhere to enjoy His salvation and to be reconciled to Him in Jesus Christ. And therefore Paul can be sent not to the few people of one nation to meet their special needs, but to all nations, to preach a Gospel which satisfied the universal and unchanging needs of the whole human race. So do the contents of our vision of God set the limits to our work. Our service in the world is determined by our knowledge of God. That is abundantly illustrated on the wide field of history. Any monk in mediaeval England could repeat a paternoster, but it needed a man whose heart was illumined by personal intercourse with the Father to translate the Bible for the people. The last century was satisfied with a most rigid and mechanical conception of God; and it was marked by a national life as meagre in its religious attainments as it was poverty-stricken in its religious ideals. It was only when men like Wesley and Carey, who had brooded over the Word of God and had become filled with His Spirit, delivered their message, that the Church was roused from its lethargy and began to save men at home and abroad. Herbert Spencer can write learnedly about the first principles of philosophical study; but he has no message to the sinful, because God is to him the unknowable, and that vision of God makes him powerless to serve. Matthew Arnold may compose clever essays which render a service within certain narrow limits, but he cannot preach to the mass of men, because his vision of God as only a power not ourselves which makes for righteousness is too dim to touch the heart of man. Huxley and Mill can tell people a great deal about the life history of a lobster or the laws of logic, but ask them to come to the bedside of a dying man or to comfort a sorrowing heart, and they are dumb, and must give place to the humble saint who has looked into the eyes of the Risen Christ. And so in all our work, its limitations are determined by the contents of our vision of God. A man who has never seen a holy God will not care much about holiness. Why is a man content to amass a fortune by a policy of greed and grab, though he leave the world worse than he found it? Because he has never been into a holy place and seen God giving up in love! And the other part of the truth is that the Christian's vision of God is the only satisfying one. It is no disparagement of the work of Isaiah and Ezekiel to point out that it was limited. This was the necessary result of the imperfection of all pre-Christian knowledge of God. The jewel has many facets; and one man gazed upon one flashing surface, and another in different circumstances upon a second. But Paul saw God in Christ, who is the express image of His person; and we all may see the glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father. This does not lift the veil from the secret nature of God. Nothing is more magnificent in these visions than their reverent reticence. No one can see God; only the appearance of His glory. But we see all that glory in Jesus Christ. Failure to interpret God through Jesus Christ only has always spelled disaster. The vision of God in Jesus Christ crucified and risen again is the only vision which can satisfy all the needs of our own heart and fit us to render permanent service to men in all circumstances. And this is the vision of God upon which we may gaze today. We shall not stand in any smoke-filled temple and gaze upon a throne high and lifted up. We shall not watch the whirling wheels full of eyes which carry the burning glory. But we may see Jesus. He is no dim, fading figure upon time's canvas. He stands before us a living Person, clear cut against the horizon of eternity. We know the life He lived, the death He died, and that He rose from the dead. The supreme business of every man in this life is to see God in Jesus Christ himself, and then to help others to have the vision. Deep down in the heart of every man is the longing which cries with the badgered patriarch, "Oh that I knew where I might find Him, that I might come even to His seat!" "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No man cometh unto the Father but by Me!" "It is the voice of Jesus that I hear." Jesus brings us to our Father, and puts our hand in His strong grasp.
()"I had visions of God." So said Ezekiel. He was selected from a crowd that he might have them, and he had them. There is something that is arbitrary in God's selection of a prophet; so that the man is, as Paul said, apprehended, and cannot choose but hear. There are also qualities in the man that cause him to be chosen. He will be a man of sense. He will be a man of intellectual power, for a prophet must not be a fool; and of moral power, one in whose heart are certain abiding convictions. But chiefly he will have the spiritual sense, the seeing eye. The soul has senses as the body has, and the pure in heart shall see God. It is quite conceivable that when our Lord chose His disciples He may have done so at first sight, for He knew what was in men. Perhaps it is more easily conceived that He had known, watched, studied them for months, and had said within Himself that when the time came for beginning these were the men who should be His chosen ones. Either way, they were chosen because they were fit to be, a preliminary fitness being implied. When we are told that a certain man had visions of God, it implies that beside the God who gives it there is the man who can receive it; and when He speaks there is a man who, being aware of it, stands in a listening attitude. The added sense which certain prophets have had is not a mere human faculty invested for the time with keener powers, but is a distinct and particular thing. The poet's eye sees visions not shown to others; and what were the world if it were robbed of the poet's dreams? The practical man has his uses — he who knows that two and two are four, utilitarian to his core; who never had a waking dream in his life. But where should we be without the man who sees the heavenly glories and calls things by their truest names? He has visions, this man, and so perhaps the astronomer may have, and the historian and the biographer, but they are not the visions given to him of the added sense, the pure in heart, and the prophet by the river, nor are they worth as much. Take away the seers, the mystics, the dreamers, and we are bankrupt. These men find the gold, mint it, and scatter it abroad for commoner men to find. Someone has expressed his pity for the blind man for this reason among others, that he has "knowledge at one entrance quite shut out." For it is perfectly true that he who adds a sense to us adds in effect a world. If you can unstop the ears of a deaf man, and so give him the sense of hearing, you give him immediate entrance to the world of sound, the sweet world of the breeze, the bird, and the speaking friend. This explains why it is that the great realities of the spiritual world are myths, names, and dreams to so many people, and why there are so many people to whom one cannot speak of his deepest experiences. Words are only symbols to convey impressions and when there is no appreciation or reception of the impression, what is the use of words? When you talk to these people about the markets and the price of corn and coal, or when you go to a higher level and speak of pictures, poetry, and music, you speak intelligible words; but when you speak of grace in any of its thousand terms, you treat of things they do not know. The expressed mission of Christ was to open the eyes of the blind. It was His condemnation of the wilfully blind around Him that they had eyes but could not perceive. It was then, and still is, the emphatic cry of the Christian, "I see," the meaning, the shore, the eternal Face. It is an interesting conception that one has when he thinks it might have pleased God to have made our mortal nature differently, and to have endowed it with four senses instead of five. Suppose it had been thought sufficient that we should be able to see and to hear, to feel and taste, but were denied the sense of smell; and yet God, denying us this, had filled the world with odorous buds and fragrant trees as now. Then the meadow-sweet were vain, the perfume of the violet unreal, and all sweet scents non-existent, But God had presently, let it be imagined, repented, and had given to one solitary and selected man the sense of smell; and this man, forgetting the deprivation of the rest of us, came to us with his question, Can you tell me why there should be so great a difference between the fragrance of the violet and the rose?" "My dear sir," we should reply, "we do not understand you; the shape of the flowers and their size and colour we can speak of, but what this fragrance is we are unable to understand." And should he go on to speak such words as smell, odour, and scent, we could only insist on our denial. The lack of sense makes it so. And it is precisely in the same way that visions of God are impossible to some men, and so frequent with others. A man is not necessarily beside himself because he sees what the rest say is not there, or hears a voice when all the world declares there was no sound. For then suppose the cure were worked on us, and we should walk through the gardens with a new sense added. With what wonder we should become aware of their odours, and go from flower to flower to try them all The more the world grows sordid, and, as it terms it, practical, the more it needs the added sense. When a man is wholly given to trade, and a woman to frivolity, the day of seeing visions of God is gone. What is needed is the added sense; for then the Church sees something more than organisations, and the nation more than colonies; and even the common man sees the encircling hills run back and life grow wide with astonishing speed. There is a prayer which, if answered, would meet the necessities of the case: "Open the young man's eyes, that he may see." "Lord, that I may receive my sight."
()Some men never had any religious experience even of the lowest type; some men never prayed: are we to go and ask such men what they think of prophets, inspired souls, minds that burn with enthusiasm? We shall go to them for religious judgment when we go to the blind for an opinion of .colour, and to the deaf for an opinion of sound. There are some men whose opinion we do not take upon any subject. On the other hand, when a man says he has seen heaven opened, and has seen a Divine vision, and has felt in his heart the calm of infinite peace, we are entitled to question him, to study his spirit, to estimate his quality of strength and tenderness, and to subject his testimony to practical trial. If the man himself is true, he will be better than his certificate; and if the man himself is false, no certificate can save him from exposure and destruction. Let us attend to this man awhile. He comes amongst us with unique pretensions. He says he was "among the captives by the river of Chebar." Then was Ezekiel a captive? The historical answer is, Yes; the religious answer is, No. He was a prisoner, and yet he was enjoying the liberty granted to him by enlarging heavens and descending visions. Have we not had experience of this kind? May we not so far claim the companionship of the prophet? You do not live in the prison. Plato said that when was taken to prison the prison ceased; it was the prison that gave way. A right mind can never be in prison. What did Ezekiel see? — "visions of God." By this term we are not to understand simply great visions. Ezekiel saw God, hints of God, gleams of the Divine presence, indications and proofs of God's nearness; verily, they were sights of God. "The word of the Lord," he continues, "came expressly" unto him. By "expressly" understand directly, certainly, without mistake. The voice of God cannot be mistaken: it startles men; then it soothes men; then it creates in them an attentive disposition; then it inspires men; and then it says, Evermore, till the work is done, shall this music resound in your souls. Then there is a "word of the Lord," actually a "word." There is some word the Lord has chosen, taken up, selected, held up, stamped with His image? Yes. Where is it? Every man knows where it is. The word of God is nigh thee, in thee, is in a sense thyself. To want God is to have Him; to demand the word of the living God is to know it. What may come of expansion, enlargement, higher and higher illumination, only eternity can disclose; but the beginning is in the very cry that expresses necessity or desire. Then comes the vision itself. Who may enter upon it? Personally, I simply accept it. We are not all poets, prophets. Some of us have but one set of eyes; the best thing for us to do is to listen, and wonder, and believe. We are rebuked by these revelations. We think we see everything when we see nothing. What have we seen? Trees? No: only the wood in which trees grow. Flowers? Not one; but things that want to be flowers, aspirations, struggles towards beauteous expression and fragrance. We have not yet seen one another. We have seen nothing as it really is. When a man, therefore, has seen aught of God or spirituality, we should listen to him with entranced attention. The talk is to us lunacy, the words are madness, until we are touched with a kindred spirit, sublimed by a kindred faith; then all things are known to be possible with God. The need of every age is a spiritual ministry. Spirituality and superstition are not the same thing. We want men who will give us ideal visions of life, high conceptions of morality, sublime forecasts of destiny, and a deepening sense of the sinfulness of sin. We need men who can create, not moral commandments and stipulations, but a moral atmosphere, which a bad man cannot breathe. It is better to pray than to doubt; it is mentally stronger to believe than to deny. "The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God"; the prophet hath said in his faith, "The heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God." I would rather listen to the second man than to the first. The probabilities, at least, are on his side. Already there are intimations that the universe is larger than any fool has discovered it to be. Let us hear the prophet.
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