Christian World Pulpit
In those days there was no king in Israel: and in those days the tribe of the Danites sought them an inheritance to dwell in…
It was natural that Micah should deplore the loss of his images. We may smile at his grief, and say that he was a very ignorant and a very superstitious man. Doubtless he might have reflected that the loss was not irreparable; doubtless he might have consoled himself with the thought of what remained. And yet we, with our purer faith and nobler creed, need to remind ourselves that such superstition is not altogether unknown amongst us. There has always been a tendency to mistake the outward and visible for the inward and spiritual, to think or to act as if these were all, and to forget the beyond; even to imagine that if these are withdrawn and taken from us, then all is gone and nothing more is left. Idolatry in its grosset forms has passed away, and it is not likely to return; but the tendency still exists to pay undue deference to and to depend upon what is visible and material and transitory, while we ignore those unseen and abiding elements in which alone the true vitality of religion consists. Let us trace this tendency in three directions.
1. Religion is enshrined in ceremonies. Forms may be not only useful in religion, they are to certain extent necessary. In Christian worship there has always been more or less of form, ceremonial, ritual. Men have tried at various times to maintain a religion which should be purely spiritual, but the effort has not in the long run been successful. In early days Christian worship was severely simple. It was so partly by design, in contrast with the sensuous materialism of surrounding idolatry; partly of necessity, because of the poverty of the worshippers. In later times came the elaboration of ceremonial. The question for us is, What have we more? Do our worship, our ceremonies lead us to what is beyond? Are we relying on the accessories, or on the everlasting truths they enshrine? What have we more? I may, for instance, be accustomed to a place of worship where the services are rendered with the most exquisite musical taste, where the art of the sculptor or the painter ministers to my sense of culture and refinement; but what have I more? If altered circumstances should force me to worship with none of those surroundings, could I know that there in the meanest and poorest temple is no less the presence of God? If I should be condemned as an invalid to pass weary months and even years within the four walls of my sick-room, could I rest in the assurance that still Christ is with me, and that possessing Him I possess all things? This is to penetrate into the kernel of religion; this is to have the power as well as the form of godliness, and it is to this that all form, all ritual, should lead up, and without this they profit nothing.
2. But religion is not only enshrined in form; it is embodied in phrases. Churches have their creeds and their catechisms. Religious truth must find its expression in doctrine, in portable forms which are easily remembered, though the doctrine probably expresses very inadequately the truth it inculcates. A sound creed is the basis of a strong character. Words are the necessary embodiment of truth. But there is always a danger lest the mere framework of words be taken as a substitute for the truth it indicates. There are those who worship, instead of a living Christ, their own wooden and stony forms of theology, which may leave them just as hard and just as narrow and just as loveless as any other form of superstition. The history of Christianity is full of examples. This tendency to depend on words is especially seen in the decadence of any religious movement. Phrases which were at one time pregnant with meaning are repeated with parrot-like accuracy by those who are very far from being animated by their spirit. They think that because they have the words they must also have the truth. "What have I more?" We have our doctrines, our creeds, our catechisms; but do they lead us to what is beyond? Do we reach forth with the strong grasp of a living faith to the unchanging and eternal truths which the words embody? Do you remember that it is one thing to say, "I believe in God," another to believe in God with heart and soul as the great Factor in our lives? Phrases may change; but God does not change. Truth cannot change, though it may be conveyed through different means. Creed is important, but character is greater than creed. Life is more than orthodoxy, and goodness than correct opinions.
3. Once more, religion is not only enshrined in ceremonies and creeds, but also in persons. When St. Paul says that the Church is the "body of Christ," he implies that our Lord works through Christian people, and that they are His representatives on earth. As a matter of fact all our earlier impressions, and many of our later impressions, in religion, have come to us through persons. The mother who taught our infant lips to pray, the teacher who first instructed us in the simple truths of the gospel, the pastor at whose feet we sat as children, the friend so noble and so brave on whom we leaned for counsel and guidance — these and others were those who first brought religion to our notice as the great power in the world. And no one can overrate the power and the value of religious training and Christian friendship. But yet even the best and purest and holiest of earthly influences may sometimes be almost the idol, whose removal may be the wreck of our hopes. I sometimes tremble for the religion of the young lad who goes forth from a holy and happy village home into the crowded thoroughfares of the great city. Will he stand fast in the future? Will he be true to the teaching of his boyhood in the presence of increasing temptations? Will he keep to the old faith in the land that is new? He will not, if his faith is merely second-hand. He will not if he has never really made his parents' belief to be his own belief. The great question is, "What have I more?" I have Christian influence around me, I have religious friends; but what have I more? If God should see fit to take away these, have I learnt to trust in the one Friend from whom neither distance nor death can part? Can I lean on Him when every earthly prop is removed? Some years ago I was called to visit an aged lady who was on her death-bed. She was a very sincere Christian, who had led an exceptionally useful life of active benevolence. But she had drunk deep of the cup of sorrow; she had been reduced through monetary losses to comparative poverty; her husband had deserted her, and she had few, if any, relatives who could help her. And as I sat by her bedside, a few hours before her death, she talked of her trials, her sorrows, her losses, when, suddenly raising herself, she pointed upward to a text above her bed, and said, "But I have found that true all along." I looked up and read the text. It was the familiar promise, "I will never leave thee nor forsake thee." Yes, earthly friends might fail and leave her, but there was One who would never forsake her, the unchanging Friend who had strengthened and supported her in life as in death. Certainly the day will come to us all when all earthly helps will leave us, and we shall have to fall back on the unseen realities, or on — nothing. At such a time, if ever, we shall need to depend on the reality and not the shadow. No forms, no phrases, no friends can help us then. Nothing but the living Christ can then be our strength and stay; He and He only can say, "When thou passest through the waters I will be with thee." May God keep us from trusting in the shadow rather than the substance. "Whom have I in heaven but Thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside Thee. Thou shalt guide me with Thy counsel, and afterward receive me to glory. My flesh and my heart faileth, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever."
(Christian World Pulpit.).
Parallel VersesKJV: In those days there was no king in Israel: and in those days the tribe of the Danites sought them an inheritance to dwell in; for unto that day all their inheritance had not fallen unto them among the tribes of Israel.
WEB: In those days there was no king in Israel: and in those days the tribe of the Danites sought them an inheritance to dwell in; for to that day [their] inheritance had not fallen to them among the tribes of Israel.