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CHRIST AND THE UNSTABLE.
TEXT: MATT. xxi. 10-16.
WE have lately seen from several examples that what is properly to be regarded as the suffering of the Saviour, that is, His pain on account of sin, and of the opposition which it offered to His divine work, did not begin merely with the time which, in a stricter sense, we indicate as His period of suffering, but accompanied Him from the beginning of His earthly life, and more especially during His public career. We shall consider this to-day more closely in connection with those events which immediately preceded the sufferings of the Saviour, specially so called. Now, if a meditation of this kind is to be really profitable to us, we must have regard to two things. On the one hand, as we are called and chosen as members of the consecrated body, the Church, of which Christ is the head, to devote our selves to the work of Christ in order to carry it on according to the measure which God has dealt to each; so in the same warfare against sin, we must also meet with the same opposition which He experienced, and Christ’s pain must be come ours; and by what He showed Himself to be in the days of His life on earth, He is set forth as the shining example which we are to follow. And on the other hand, as we are invited, with all who are weary and heavy-laden, to enjoy the fruits of His redemption; and as we can only enjoy these 104with the humble feeling that, mighty as His strength may be in us who are weak, yet sin is never quite eradicated in us, and that the remainder of it in us opposes His work, thus making us the cause of sufferings to Him and His people such as He met with at that time; so, those who caused Him pain in the days of His earthly life must stand before us as a warning and alarming example, lest we sit down idly and indulge that which is like them, in ourselves; causing rather to burn increasingly in us a holy anger against evil, that thereby there may be more and more room for the Holy Spirit to work in us and by us.
The words of our text show us the Saviour in His last entry into the capital of His nation, at the summit of His popularity among men, and at the highest stage of His influence. He is no longer called simply Jesus of Nazareth; His disciples, and after them the people, and, following their example, the children in the temple, cried, Hosanna to the Son of David! the very name by which the expected deliverer of the nation was designated, We see Him exercise magisterial authority, as it were, in the temple, as, besides the existing rulers, it became Him alone to do, who was called to institute a new and higher order of divine things. But how soon, my friends, how unexpectedly soon do we see the whole state of things change! How easily are all the people who have just been shouting their applause around Him, turned away from Him! How soon do we find the Lord, who seemed so lately to have everything at His command, a prisoner and bound in the hands of His enemies! How soon is He who but now had been hailed as the Son of David that cometh in the name of the Lord, brought forward and accused as a malefactor! If we ask the reason of this, we meet, no doubt, on the one hand, the unhappy disciple who betrayed Him; on the other, the enmity of the niters, restrained only by fear of the enthusiastic people; but how would they have ventured to lay hands on Him, how would hatred and treachery have 105dared to approach Him, if this enthusiasm of the people had been less evanescent, if the fickle disposition of the people had not favoured their purpose? And the Saviour knew this disposition, even when they were all strewing palms before Him and greeting Him as the Deliverer; we can trace this sting in His heart through all His sayings; and this suffering of soul was present with Him even in the height of His popularity. This then is the subject on which I wish to speak,—the fickle disposition of men as a source of suffering to our Saviour, and in the order that I have already indicated; namely, considering first, how our Saviour bore Himself in regard to this, and how, therefore, we also are to act; and secondly, setting before us, as a warning example, those who prepared this suffering for our Saviour.
I. Yes, my devout friends, we cannot and dare not conceal it from ourselves, the position of those who seek to promote what is good, who are in earnest in labouring at the work of redemption, is still the same as that of the Saviour Himself. They are a little handful—each one of them alone—but, still more where they would like to work in union, beset by enemies and traitors. They meet, no doubt, on the other hand, with much admiration; much enthusiasm is aroused by their courage, their self-sacrifice, their constancy; but often in the most decisive moment this enthusiasm fails to stand the test, and they see themselves forsaken and thrown back upon themselves. Under these circumstances then, surrounded by people of this fickle disposition, what can we learn from the conduct of the Saviour? In the first place, He knew the fickleness of the populace, and hence did not allow himself to be deluded by their ebullition of kindly feeling. Who among us, my friends, in the Saviour’s position, if at that feast which drew together many thousands from all parts of the country into Jerusalem, he had been met with such universal favour by the populace—if on every side so much willingness to accept his help had been manifested, 106so much eagerness to commit themselves to his guidance—who would not have formed the most flattering hopes, which yet no results would have justified; who would not have allowed himself to be seduced into schemes which would have had no relation to the actually existing means that were to be put in operation! Very far was the Saviour from this! Though we do not find that He expressed aloud His suspicion of the real import of these marks of honour, or that He rejected them, yet all His discourses between this brilliant moment and the time of His being seized, of which the evangelists have preserved for us so great an abundance, show plainly how correctly He estimated His position. How many hints there are that the people would, notwithstanding all this, refuse and reject Him; how many open and more private warnings to those who led others astray or suffered themselves to be so led; how many words of comfort because all the good that He had planned for men would not be spread abroad until future generations. He even saw plainly beforehand the temporary painful timidity of His disciples, and foretold that when the Shepherd should be smitten the flock would be scattered. And so He did not allow Himself to be misled into building any far-reaching project on those utterances of the multitudes that poured around Him with their plaudits; no open war against those who, to their own condemnation and the ruin of the people, sat in Moses seat; no attempt to give to the kingdom of truth a striking, outward form, and put it in the place of the worn-out, dead priesthood; only all kinds of precautions that it might be brought safely, in its unseen form, through all the coming storms. Oh, my friends, that we might learn this from the Saviour! For there is nothing more bitter than hopes and plans for good that have proved vain, and of which we are obliged afterwards to confess that they had not been so well-founded as we thought, and that we might easily have foreseen their unsuccessful issue. But 107we shall only acquire this wisdom by keeping our zeal for the kingdom of God pure from all culpable thoughtlessness, and by letting the deepest earnestness rule our lives; we shall only learn it if in our judgment of men’s state of mind, vanity has no part whatever, and if, in order to estimate it, we always look into the inmost recesses and the former history of our own hearts.
But in the second place, the Saviour by no means neglected to make use of the favourable, though transitory, emotions of the people. If we assume, as we must, that He who had no need that any one should tell Him what was in man, knew the multitude for what they were, even in the midst of their enthusiastic acclamations, we see how little this interfered with His usual manner of acting. Though He knew that these same people who were now shouting their rejoicings around Him, would soon by their acts be against Him, just as His open enemies had always been, yet He did not now hesitate to make it understood that He was indeed the One who was to come: If these should not speak, He says, according to another account, the stones would immediately cry out. What He would gladly have done long before, cast out the crying abuses from the temple and cleanse His Father’s house, He felt that He could now do; He felt that these stirrings of feeling, transient as they were, made all opposition to His absolute authority for the moment impossible; and if He knew equally well that in a few days it would all sink back into the old disorder, yet He omitted nothing that the moment allowed, nothing that was an indication of His office, and worthy of His having effected in so short a time. He did not scorn to effect what was to pass away, because even previsions of the future are profitable; and thus He sought to draw from even this transient excitement every advantage which it really offered.
As to ourselves, my friends, as we allow ourselves too 108easily to be carried away into indulging extravagant hopes, when we see men better than they really are, so we are also too much inclined to despond when we observe that their movements towards good were only passing and superficial ebullitions. We are disgusted with their praise, their honour, their attachment, when we find how at other times they give the same to those who are utterly different from us, to whose views and mode of action we are thoroughly opposed. We lose all delight in their pious emotions, in their interest in what is good, when we see plainly how soon it is swept away by anything whatever that touches them personally, or how readily the same easily-moved feelings may be enlisted on the opposite side. And, indeed, because what we really love and honour is only real goodness that flows from the pure fountain, we would prefer to have nothing at all in common with such people, and rather fear to injure our work by using the passing impulses of such uncertain characters even as instruments and means towards what we are trying to do. Would that we could in this matter follow exactly in the footsteps of the Saviour! Holy indignation at the changeable character of men was not indeed unknown to Him, nor did He reckon this fluctuating multitude, in their favouring mood, in the number of His people; but He had no hesitation in availing Himself of their mood in order to effect something good by means of it. On men themselves there can certainly be nothing built in such a state of temporary excitement, and nothing that it produces is of much value, in so far as it is their work. But why should it not be of value as a work of ours, which yet could not have been accomplished without them? If we can wring from them a contribution or some co-operation in a good cause, which does not on that account become theirs, nor is the worse for it, are we to miss the opportunity? Rather let us avail ourselves the more quickly of the uncertain and brief help, the more uncertain and brief it is; 109and let us reflect that this also is a talent that God has entrusted to us, a power that we are to use, each of us where he is placed in the Lord’s vineyard, so as to accomplish with it as much as we can. And this will become the more easy to us if, in the third place, we become like the Saviour in this, that even in these transient stirrings of feeling we do not fail to recognise their noble and divine origin. For in His conduct this is plainly to be observed. Therefore He bore with, and indeed took pleasure in, the acclamations which expressed the emotions that His superior dignity had aroused, though but for a moment, in their minds. Therefore He did not oppose them with that sullen sternness with which another would perhaps have told them that they were not worthy thus to greet Him. But when the chief priests and elders came and asked Him in doubt, Hearest Thou what these say? or, according to another evangelist, Rebuke Thy disciples and forbid the people; He did neither the one nor the other: on the contrary, He acknowledged it as a good thing, as praise offered to God and to Him, by referring to the Scripture that says, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast Thou prepared praise; He recognised it as necessary, by answering them, as another evangelist tells us, Verily, if these should hold their peace, the stones would cry out. And can we, my dear friends, do otherwise than, like the Saviour, recognise the Spirit of God even in such transient excitements among men? No man can call Jesus Lord, says the apostle, but by the Holy Spirit, and this word we may neither wrest nor explain away. Every impression, therefore, even though transient, produced by the words or the person of the Saviour, that bends the knees of men to the dust in real feeling before Him; every honest, though only momentary testimony of their reverence towards Him, by which they, as it were, glorify His throne set up in the Church; every feeling of horror that seizes their hearts at the thought 110that His rule round about them, which they themselves have so little supported, may some day come to an end; every service, every contribution which they pay, with their heart’s consent, to what we as ministers and servants of our Lord undertake:—all this is the work of the Divine Spirit. And are we not to honour and recognise it? Are the indications of it too many and too various, so that we may easily do without or neglect some of them? If we justly feel grieved that every stirring of this Spirit in the hearts of men does not take a thorough hold and renew and sanctify them, are we therefore to rejoice the less at His every lightest knock at the door of men’s hearts, at even the first traces of a life of their own, though it is not yet permanent? Ought we not to be less cast down by the fugitive character of such moments than cheered because there is, nevertheless, a stirring in the hearts of men? Though we do not always venture to prophesy that such stirrings will at some future time lead to fear, and to a point at which men will repent and smite on their breasts and ask, What shall we do to be saved?—even supposing we did not foresee this, are we, on that account, not even to take the pure enjoyment of the thing itself? For what better proof can there be how deep the germ of the divine lies in human nature, and properly belongs to its essence, and hence what can be more moving and cheering to us, than those very fits of piety wrung from hardened or thoughtless men?
May we all thus learn from the Saviour to restrain the natural feeling of aggrieved indignation at the fickleness of men, by striving to find out all that God is effecting, and being set with our whole soul on every good work that our hand finds to do. But do we become altogether like Him in this matter, only by thus acting in regard to the fickleness of others? Must we not also think about banishing it from ourselves? Only remember that in Him there was and could be no trace whatever of this infirmity of human nature; 111remember, at the same time, how often you good men, even at heart pious men, have yielded to it in dismissing your weightiest convictions and resolutions; look around you; how much good is forgotten through fickleness, that was begun vigorously and with noble zeal; and you will not fail to acknowledge that even the best are not quite free from this mischievous weakness.
II. Let us therefore, secondly, set before ourselves as a warning, the inward condition of those who in this fickle way forsook the Saviour, and the responsibilities they incurred.
We have certainly no reason to assume that many of those who had celebrated the Saviour’s entry, who had publicly directed the hope of the whole nation to Him, and, as His numerous retinue, had supported His strong measures in the temple, would, a few days after, have joined in the cry, Crucify, crucify Him! that the very same people who so confidently proclaimed Him as the Messiah, had afterwards a hand in His death as if He had been a base impostor; or even that their hope of a new and better kingdom of God had entirely vanished, and that just for that reason they would have preferred to see Him utterly destroyed on whom this hope had rested with so decided a predilection. No, the sentiments of men are seldom so entirely turned round, especially from what is good and true to what is perverted and evil! It is not so, assuredly, with any of us, that we could by any possible means become doubtful as to Christ being the foundation-stone of our faith and our salvation, His image and His word the universal standard of all our actions. But just as those people would not likely have thus kept silence, so that we cannot understand what has become of the great host of admirers and adherents, but rather there would have arisen a great and serious struggle, if they had not become doubtful whether supporting Jesus was really after all the means by which that better kingdom of God was to be brought in, or if they must not postpone their hopes to 112another time; so we also as individuals are often unstable, and what we held with the strongest conviction as good and right, and as necessary for the well-being of present and future generations, and were ready to promote with all our powers, we not unfrequently become again uncertain about, when the decisive moment is at hand. Now, in seeking to point out, from the example of that mixed multitude, what is the cause of this changeable behaviour, I think that many a one is saying to himself, But how are we to know at first, and who is to judge, if such a thing occurs with us, whether it is instability, or rather a later and correct knowledge? for how often it is only through a state of vacillation, and after having inclined alternately to this side and to that, that we arrive at a firm conviction! And how often a man is too hasty with his resolutions, so that it is a real step in the way of improvement when from a false certainty he comes to doubt and uncertainty! But this question need not interfere with the view I have started, for just how these changes of conviction come to pass can only be determined by what has preceded them in us and without us. Let us only, in the first place, not forget that we enjoy a great advantage over those contemporaries of Jesus whom we are setting before us as a warning example. That is, that a Christian guided by the Spirit of Christ will seldom come to a firm decision on any important matter by himself, but through that same Spirit, who is the Spirit of truth; and if he takes up anything in a fit of passionate excitement, a sense of insecurity will arise at the same moment and will go on increasing; and therefore with him it is rarely an advance when from firm conviction he goes back to doubt. Now if with ourselves, what we felt certain about becomes again doubtful, the firm purpose unsettled, whence does that come? This we shall see in those men, in whom we see mirrored both the bold and the cowardly heart.
In the first place, my friends, what is expressed by the 113jubilation of that multitude at the entry of Christ, but the hope that He would redeem Israel? They believed that the time was come, or would presently be, when He would come forward publicly, and announce Himself with authoritative credentials, as God’s ambassador; everything would then bend before Him, and they, reminding Him at the same time of the way in which they had even now professed their faith in Him, would then renew their profession, and would not only obtain from Him deliverance from all their troubles, but would also share in all the glory of His kingdom. But now they saw Christ Himself in trouble; and if they meant to be loyal to Him, they must have felt called on, instead of merely receiving help and deliverance from Him, to help Him, as it were, in the first place, by making their voices heard in opposition to the demand of the angry crowd. You see here, my friends, how it is not infrequently with many people. Some prospective undertaking of an individual or of a community appears to us in the highest degree desirable and profitable, perhaps even necessary, to prepare the way for and to support what most concerns ourselves. We long for the moment when they will begin their operations, we receive the first indications of it with rejoicing and exultation, we set ourselves in readiness to apply the hoped-for help to our own uses, and then we join in the cause itself with all our might. But if, meanwhile, the enterprise itself come into danger; if those in whom we hoped meet with difficulties and opposition, and seem to be themselves in need of help; then we become doubtful, and think that in those who are themselves in want of our help there cannot surety be the power that we supposed to help us; we think we must have been mistaken, and are quite rejoiced that we have been warned at the right time and have discovered our mistake. But is not this a very strange way of thinking, opposed to universal experience and to the first principles of all human action? Is there any power in human affairs except by the 114union of human faculties? Is there any kind of help and support that should not be mutual? Can any one receive help in any way, whether from friendship, or through family connections, or by the public authority, if he has not him self without intermission upheld and maintained those very powers? Is it not, therefore, the greatest folly if, instead of supporting with all our might that from which we expect good—as the friends of the Saviour ought to have showed publicly that the voice of His accusers was by no means the voice of the whole people—if, instead of this, we think that there can certainly be no help and deliverance for us in what will perhaps perish if we ourselves do not support it? Did not the Saviour for this very reason come in the form of a servant, was He not tempted in all things like as we are, that we might understand that God will bestow everything on us only in a human way; that is, growing up gradually from a feeble beginning that stands in need of help?
But, in the second place, it is certainly still worse if the fickleness arises from the fact that it is just we ourselves who ought to afford help to what we have counted good and excellent; if it is when the consummation is to be reached perhaps in doubtful, unpromising circumstances, that the firmness of our resolutions is lost; in short, if a timid disposition or cowardice is the source of our instability. That was certainly the case with many who, when they shouted their Hosannas to the Saviour, had firmly resolved to join Him and share His fate; who at that time were not intimidated by the well-known hatred of the upper classes towards Him, but intended nobly and gloriously to maintain that struggle together with Him; but now, when it was actually begun, they drew back. And how often do we meet with the same spectacle in individuals among men who have recognised what is good. At a distance, opposition, struggles, self-sacrifice cannot alarm them; but when the moment conies they lose heart; anxiety and misgiving master the weak mind, 115and instead of saying to themselves, The thing you meant to do is still right and good, but you are too timid, too feeble, too weak of will to carry it out, you have given yourself credit for what you are not capable of doing;—instead of this, the desponding heart abuses and deceives the understanding and poisons the judgment with worthless fancies, as if what had formerly been aimed at with lively zeal were neither so good nor so necessary a thing as had then been supposed; as if beneficent time had now for the first time revealed the true nature of the case. Oh, my friends, I cannot begin to tell what deep debasement there is in this condition; with what compassion, bordering on contempt, noble and strong souls look down on it, and how they grieve or reproach themselves for having perhaps reckoned more on us unstable ones than the Saviour did on the men of His time. And how much shame do we prepare for ourselves if that from which we in our cowardice drew back, is yet splendidly carried out! how much reproach if, just because of our cowardly instability, it is discontinued! For we are not, of course, to covet that every good work should be done through us, and we may rejoice just as deeply in that which, through the grace of God, is done by others; but this joy befits only those, and in fact they alone share it, who have themselves done all they could. And if we are disappointed of something that we had desired as a great blessing, there remains to us, it is true, the comfort that all is only for the best as the Lord orders it; but this comfort befits only those, and they alone actually enjoy it, who have risked everything in order to attain what they desired. Shame and confusion, on the contrary, on those who are compelled to say to themselves, If you had continued steadfast, you might now be among those who are thanking God that He has made use of them for the furthering of what is good; but now you have done everything that lay with you to hinder it. And a burning and grievous sting must be fixed in the hearts of those who are obliged to say to themselves, 116that God will now again prepare praise for Himself only out of the mouth of sucklings; that everything on which perhaps their hopes, with those of many thousands, were set, is again deferred for the next generation; nay, that perhaps only the stones are speaking of that which was then undeveloped and went back, while free and pious men might be joyfully thanking God if it had been accomplished; and that this also is their fault. For where an unstable disposition gains the upper hand, there the little number of the good and strong labour in vain for the present, and none but babes, who are witnesses of the great fault without sharing in it, dare to hope; when faint-hearted hesitation prevents the aim from being promptly met at the right moment, then all that men, moved by the presence of what is great and divine, have felt, is like sterile blossoms from which there remains no fruit. But monuments of ruin will speak; for where precious opportunities are missed for the kingdom of God, there ruin breaks in, there follow close behind, as they did then, the judgments of God.
Yes, my friends, unstable souls are like that fig-tree, the account of which comes soon after our text, the tree to which, in returning to the city next morning from Bethany, the Saviour went to pluck fruit, and found nothing but leaves. So also those people, however much cultivation has been bestowed on them by the stirring and inspiring presence of what is good and beautiful, have never anything to show but the barren decoration of fine feelings and high-sounding words. But the Saviour’s heart was vexed; He said to the tree, Be thou forthwith dried up! And what have such people to expect, especially in so decisive a time, but that the power that exhausts itself in empty utterances will entirely leave them, and nothing but the outward life remain, as a warning monument.
Let every one then, trembling at the thought of such results, strive to have his heart kept steadfast, to be ready at 117any cost to cleave to what he has recognised as true and right. And that we may be able to do this, oh let us be branches in our vine, the Lord, so pervaded by His Spirit and His presence, that, far from being sounding brass or tinkling cymbals, we may enjoy the living faith that makes no difficulty about mountains being removed, and the living love of which our eternal fountain is the Lord, who clung even to the weak disciples with heartfelt fidelity, and bound them together, as may He also bind us, to loyalty in life and in death. Amen.118
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