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XVII. REVERENCE IN PRAYER
“Lord, teach us to pray.”—Luke xi. 1.
“Offer it now unto thy governor; will he be pleased with thee or accept thy person? saith the Lord of Hosts.”—Mal. i. 8.
IF we were summoned to dine, or to any other audience, with our sovereign, with what fear and trembling should we prepare ourselves for the ordeal! Our fear at the prospect before us would take away all our pride, and all our pleasure, in the great honour that had come to us. And how careful we should be to prepare ourselves, in every possible way, for the great day! We should at once bethink ourselves of those men of our acquaintance who had been at court, and we should throw ourselves on them to tell us everything. How to answer the royal command: how to dress: how to drive up to the gate: who would meet us: how they would know us: all about the entrances, and the stairs, and the rooms: all about Her Majesty herself and the royal table. And then, when the day and the hour came,—our first sight of the Queen33(This sermon was preached in 1899.), and her first sight of us! And then, our name announced, 206 till our heart beat as never before. And then, our seat at the table: and what to say, and what not to say. And, at the end of the day, our thankfulness that we had been carried through the ordeal so well, and without any dreadful mistake.
Now, all that is, as near as can be, the meaning of Malachi in the text. The prophet is protesting against the scandalous irreverence, and the open profanity, of the people of Israel in their approaches to Almighty God. “Offer it now to thy governor!” he cries to them. “Will he be pleased with such service at thy hands? Or will he accept thee? A son honoureth his father, and a servant his master. If then I be a father, where is Mine honour? And if I be a master, where is My fear? saith the Lord of Hosts. I have no pleasure in you, saith the Lord of Hosts, neither will I accept an offering at your hand.”
1. Now, to begin with, let us take this pungent passage, and apply it to our own public worship, to the place where we are now assembled, and to the service we are now engaged in. Compare the stateliness, the orderliness, the rich beauty, the impressive silence, the nobleness, the reverential love of the Queen’s palace: compare all that with the squalor, the disorder, the absence of all beauty, the rude noises, the universal irreverence, I will not say of this church, but of so many churches up and down the land. And if, in some outward 207 things, there has been some improvement for some time past among us, how do we ourselves stand, individually, for inward improvement, for our personal demeanour of mind and heart in public worship? A Court chaplain, who is at the same time a minister of a congregation, says this to his congregation, “When you are in an audience with your sovereign, would you have your mind taken up all the time with impertinent and utterly trifling things? When you are standing, or kneeling, in the royal presence, would you turn to see who is coming in when the door opens? Would you rise and look out to see who is passing the window? Would yon stare round the room at the servants, and at the furniture, while your sovereign is speaking to you, and you to him?” And so on. No. The thing is inconceivable. No sane man could possibly do such a thing. There is a good story told at the expense of a certain enterprising and unceremonious English journalist, to the effect that the Czar returned to his councillors, and said that he had just passed through an experience that was new to him,—he had been “dismissed” by a newspaper man as soon as the interview was over. Both Malachi, and the Court chaplain, and the story about the dismissal of the Czar, have lessons for us all about our behaviour in public worship.
And, the worst of it is that all this irreverence, 208 disrespect for the House of God; and, indeed, downright profanity, begins where it should be arrested and denounced till it becomes impossible. For it begins and is perpetuated, of all places, in the pulpit. With how little reverence and godly fear do we who are ministers enter the pulpit! With plenty of fear, if not reverence, of man. Full of the fear of man, lest we do not come up to-day to what our irreverent people expect of us. How we study and prepare to pray, and to preach, setting mortal men like you before us! Were it not that He, with Whom we have to do, is, far past all His promises, “long-suffering and slow to wrath” towards us ministers, an angry Voice would many a Sabbath morning cut short our profane performances with the sentence,—“O graceless minister! Offer all that to thy governor!” And, thus it comes about,—“Like priest, like people.” For who, here, of all this multitude of people with psalm-books in their hands, really sang this morning’s psalm to God? To God? Who set everything else aside at the church door, because he was to have one more audience of the King, Eternal, Immortal, Invisible? Who prayed to God, in the opening or in the intercessory prayer, with an arrested, entranced and enraptured heart? No: not one. “Take it to your governor.”
2. And, beginning with public worship, we take all that profanity home with us to our family 209 worship. For one thing,—all our family worship is made to give place, morning and night, to anything and everything. There are so-called Christian homes where the sons and the daughters and the guests come down to family worship just as they please and find it convenient. If they are down in time for breakfast, good and well—the kitchen arrangements must not be disturbed; but the family prayers to God may be observed or not as our young gentlemen please. And, as to evening prayers,—this actually happened in one of our own houses the other night. A new servant-man brought in the books, and laid them on the table in the crowded drawing-room, at the usual hour. I should have said it was the night of a large and late dinner-party. The poor innocent fellow narrowly escaped being sent about his business as soon as the last guest had left. “Do you not know, sir”—his master set upon him—“that in good society there is ever family prayers after a party like what we have had to-night?” The stupid man had just come from a devout old castle in the Highlands, and did not know that family worship was a fast-dying-out ceremony in the West End society he had come to serve.
But even when family worship is never,—morning nor night—pushed into a corner, it might almost better be. The regulation chapter; the wooden monotony; the mechanical round; the absence 210 of a thought, or an idea, or an emotion, or a feeling; one pushing about a creaking chair when he is on his knees: another yawning till the whole room is ashamed of the indecency: another coughing and sneezing without ceremony; and then,—before Amen is well uttered,—all the room beginning to talk at once: it had been so bottled up for the past ten minutes. I only know one house, in all my acquaintance, where ordinary decorum is taught to the children and the guests in the matter of a moment of reverential silence before the Babel begins again after prayer to God. Now, would you cough in the Queen’s face? Would you yawn till she heard you? Would you up, and begin to talk to her servants before they are well off their knees? “Take it now unto thy governor.”
Very few men are such well-mannered gentlemen at home as they are in company. No man dresses for his wife and children, as all men so scrupulously dress for court and ceremonial. But some select men do. They have a queen every evening at home, and young princes and princesses at table with them. And they have their reward. And so in the matter of family prayers. Few men, ministers or others, prepare themselves for family prayers as they do for State services, and ceremonial devotions. But some men do: and they, too, have their reward. Thomas Boston made it a rule to prepare himself for family worship, as regularly, 211 and as honestly, as for the pulpit or the prayer-meeting. And he had his remarkable rewards, as you will see when you read his remarkable Memoirs of himself. An old college friend of mine keeps me posted up with the work of grace that always goes on in his congregation, and in his family. And, not long ago, I had a letter from him telling me that God had given him the soul of another of his children: and the best of it was that it took place at, and sprang out of, the family worship of the manse. You and I would be taken aback if any one—a child, a servant, a guest—said to us that they had ever been any the better of any family worship of ours. We do not expect it. We do not prepare for it. We do not really wish it. And we do not get it. And we never shall.
But it is perhaps at the breakfast and the dinner table that our family mockery of God comes to its most perfect performance. This is the way they said grace about the year 1720 in England. “In one house you may perhaps see the head of the house just pulling off his hat: in another, half getting up from his seat: another shall, it may be, proceed as far as to make as if he said something, but was ashamed of what he said,” and so on. You will see the miserable picture finished when you go home today. And you will see the heartless mockery to perfection the first public dinner you are at. I suppose this is what Malachi meant 212 when he said, “Even the Lord’s meat is to you contemptible.”
3. And then, secret prayer, “closet” prayer, as Christ calls it,—even where there is a certain semblance of it,—take it to thy governor! For are not these its characters and features, even where it in some measure exists? Its chanciness, its fitfulness, its occasionliness, its shortness, even curtness, its hastiness to get it over, and to get away from it, and from Him; and so on. “Be not so hasty,” says the prophet, “to get out of His sight”; showing, you see, that in secret prayer they had the very same impiety and profanity to contend with that we have. And, again: “If the spirit of thy ruler rise up against thee, leave not thy place.” No: leave not thy place, for His spirit rises up against all haste to get rid of Him and all dislike at His presence, and all distaste, and all restraint of prayer. “Leave not thy place.” The whole world is in that word. Thy soul is in that word. Thy salvation, and the salvation of others, is in that word to thee, “Leave not thy place.” No! Leave not thy place. Keep firm on thy knees. Go back a second and a third time. Even after thou art out of thy door, if the Spirit moves thee: and more, if He has forsaken thee and does not move thee, go back: shut thy door upon thee again: for thy Governor is there waiting for thee, and nothing in thee pleases Him like secret prayer. 213 And, sometimes, speak out when you are alone with Him. You will find it a great assistance to a languid faith sometimes to speak out. Cry aloud to Him sometimes. You will find a mighty alteration in your heart as you continue, and continue, in secret, and in intimate and in confiding prayer. Say to yourself that the Governor of heaven and earth is shut in with you, and you with Him; and be not in such a hurry to “dismiss” Him.
Now, this Royal command has again gone forth among us concerning next Lord’s Day. “If the Lord will, the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper will be dispensed here.” “The Mighty God, even the Lord, hath spoken. Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God hath shined. Gather my saints together unto Me; those that have made a covenant with Me by sacrifice.” And in obedience to His command we shall all be gathering together to the Lord’s Table about this hour next Lord’s Day. Now, let us just do—all this week—as if it were the week before we were to go to Windsor or to Balmoral. Let us think all the week about our King, and about His Table, and about how we should prepare ourselves for His Table; and how we should behave ourselves at it. Let us seek out those royal favourites who are at home at the Lord’s Table, and go by their advice. There are books, also, of court etiquette, that are simply invaluable to intending communicants,—golden 214 books, in which the ways of heaven are set forth, and illustrated, for the counsel and guidance of new beginners. Read nothing else all the week. Fill your mind with the ways and words and manners of the Royal Table. And be ready, with the right words to speak, when the King speaks to you. And when He comes in to see the guests, He will see you with your wedding garment on: and He will look on you with His Royal countenance, and will say to you, “Eat, O friends! drink, yea, drink abundantly, O beloved.” And you will call the name of this place Peniel: for you will say, “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.”215
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