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THE RASH BUILDER

‘Which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it?’—LUKE xiv. 28.

Christ sought for no recruits under false pretences, but rather discouraged than stimulated light-hearted adhesion. His constant effort was to sift the crowds that gathered round Him. So here great multitudes are following Him, and how does He welcome them? Does He lay Himself out to attract them? Luke tells us that He turned and faced the following multitude; and then, with a steady hand, drenched with cold water the too easily kindled flame. Was that because He did not wish them to follow Him? He desired every soul in that crowd for His own, and He knew that the best way to attract is sometimes to repel; and that a plain statement of the painful consequences of a course will quench no genuine enthusiasm, but may turn a mere flash in the pan into a purpose that will flame through a life.

So our Lord lays down in stringent words the law of discipleship as being self-sacrifice; the abandonment of the dearest, and the acceptance of the most painful. And then He illustrates the law by these two expanded similes or condensed parables, of the rash builder and the rash soldier. Each contains a side of the Christian life, and represents one phase of what a true disciple ought to be. I wish to look with you now at the first of these two comparisons.

I. Consider then, first, the building, or the true aim of discipleship.

The building of the tower represents what every human life ought to aim at, the rearing up of a strong, solid structure in which the builder may dwell and be at rest.

But then remember we are always building, consciously or unconsciously. By our transitory actions we are all rearing up a house for our souls in which we have to dwell; building character from out of the fleeting acts of conduct, which character we have to carry with us for ever. Soft invertebrate animals secrete their own shells. That is what we are doing-making character, which is the shield of self, as it were; and in which we have to abide.

My friend, what are you building? A prison; a mere garden-house of lustful delights; or a temple fortress in which God may dwell reverenced, and you may abide restful? Observe that whilst all men are thus unconsciously and habitually rearing up a permanent abode by their transient actions, every life that is better than a brute’s ought to have for its aim the building up of ourselves into firm strength. The development of character is what we ought to ask from, and to secure by, this fleeting life of ours. Not enjoyment; that is a miserable aim. Not the satisfaction of earthly desires; not the prosperity of our business or other ordinary avocations. The demand that we should make upon life, and the aim which we should have clearly before us in all that we do, is that it may contribute to the formation of a pure and noble self, to the development of character into that likeness to Jesus Christ, which is perfection and peace and blessedness.

And while that is true about all life, it is eminently true in regard to the highest form of life, which is the Christian life. There are dreadful mistakes and imperfections in the ordinary vulgar conception of what a Christian is, and what he is a Christian for. What do you think men and women are meant to be Christians for? That they may get away from some material and outward hell? Possibly. That they may get celestial happiness? Certainly. But are these the main things? By no means. What people are meant to be Christians for is that they may be shaped into the likeness of Jesus Christ; or to go back to the metaphor of my text, the meaning and aim of Christian discipleship is not happiness, but the building up of the tower in which the man may dwell.

Ah, friend; is that your notion of what a Christian is; and of what he is a Christian for, to be like the Master? Alas! alas! how few of us, honestly and continually and practically, lay to heart the stringent and grand conception which underlies this metaphor of our Lord’s, who identifies the man that was thinking of being His disciple with the man that sits down intending to build a tower.

II. So, secondly, note the cost of the building, or the conditions of discipleship.

Building is an expensive amusement, as many a man who has gone rashly in for bricks and mortar has found out to his cost. And the most expensive of all sorts of building is the building up of Christian character. That costs more than anything else, but there are a number of other things less noble and desirable, which share with it, to some extent, in the expenditure which it involves.

Discipleship demands constant reference to the plan. A man that lives as he likes, by impulse, by inclination, or ignobly yielding to the pressure of circumstances and saying, ‘I could not help myself, I was carried away by the flood,’ or ‘Everybody round about me is doing it, and I could not be singular’—will never build anything worth living in. It will be a born ruin—if I may so say. There must be continual reference to the plan. That is to say, if a man is to do anything worth doing, there must be a very clear marking out to himself of what he means to secure by life, and a keeping of the aim continually before him as his guide and his pole-star. Did you ever see the pretty architect’s plans, that were all so white and neat when they came out of his office, after the masons have done with them-all thumb-marked and dirty? I wonder if your Bibles are like that? Do we refer to the standard of conduct with anything like the continual checking of our work by the architect’s intention, which every man who builds anything that will stand is obliged to practise? Consult your plan, the pattern of your Master, the words of your Redeemer, the gospel of your God, the voice of judgment and conscience, and get into the habit of living, not like a vegetable, upon what happens to be nearest its roots, nor like a brute, by the impulses of the unreasoning nature, but clear above these put the understanding, and high above that put the conscience, and above them all put the will of the Lord. Consult your plan if you want to build your tower.

Then, further, another condition is continuous effort. You cannot ‘rush’ the building of a great edifice. You have to wait till the foundations get consolidated, and then by a separate effort every stone has to be laid in its bed and out of the builder’s hands. So by slow degrees, with continuity of effort, the building rises.

Now there has been a great deal of what I humbly venture to call one-sidedness talked about the way by which Christian character is to be developed and perfected. And one set of the New Testament metaphors upon that subject has been pressed to the exclusion of the others, and the effortless growth of the plant has been presented as if it were the complete example of Christian progress. I know that Jesus Christ has said: ‘First the blade, then the ear; after that the full corn in the ear.’ But I know that He has also said, ‘Which of you, intending to build a tower’—and that involves the idea of effort; and that He has further said, ‘Or what king, going to make war against another king’—and that involves the idea of antagonism and conflict. And so, on the whole, I lay it down that this is one of the conditions of building the tower, that the energy of the builder should never slacken, but, with continual renewal of effort, he should rear his life’s building.

And then, still further, there is the fundamental condition of all; and that is, self-surrender. Our Lord lays this down in the most stringent terms in the words before my text, where He points to two directions in which that spirit is required to manifest itself. One is detachment from persons that are dearest, and even from one’s own selfish life; the other is the acceptance of things that are most contrary to one’s inclinations, against the grain, painful and hard to bear. And so we may combine these two in this statement: If any man is going to build a Christlike life he will have to detach himself from surrounding things and dear ones, and to crucify self by suppression of the lower nature and the endurance of evils. The preceding parable which is connected in subject with the text, the story of the great supper, and the excuses made for not coming to it, represents two-thirds of the refusals as arising from the undue love for, and regard to, earthly possessions, and the remaining third as arising from the undue love to, and regard for, the legitimate objects of affection. And these are the two chords that hold most of us most tightly. It is not Christianity alone, dear brethren, that says that if you want to do anything worth doing, you must detach yourself from outward wealth. It is not Christianity alone that says that, if you want to build up a noble life, you must not let earthly love dominate and absorb your energy; but it is Christianity that says so most emphatically, and that has best reason to say so.

Concentration is the secret of all excellence. If the river is to have any scour in it that will sweep away pollution and corruption, it must not go winding and lingering in many curves, howsoever flowery may be the banks, nor spreading over a broad bed, but you must straighten it up and make it deep that it may run strong. And if you will diffuse yourself all over these poor, wretched worldly goods, or even let the rush of your heart’s outflow go in the direction of father and mother, wife and children, brethren and sisters, forgetting Him, then you will never come to any good nor be of use in this world. But if you want to be Christians after Christ’s pattern, remember that the price of the building is rigidly to sacrifice self, ‘to scorn delights and live laborious days,’ and to keep all vagrant desires and purposes within rigid limits, and absolutely subordinated to Himself.

On the other hand, there is to be the acceptance of what is painful to the lower nature. Unpleasant consequences of duty have to be borne, and the lower self, with its appetites and desires, has to be crucified. The vine must be mercilessly pruned in tendrils, leaves, and branches even, though the rich sap may seem to bleed away to waste, if we are to grow precious grapes out of which may be expressed the wine of the Kingdom. We must be dead to much if we are to be alive to anything worth living for.

Now remember that Christ’s demand of self-surrender, self-sacrifice, continuous effort, rigid limitation, does not come from any mere false asceticism, but is inevitable in the very nature of the case, and is made also by all worthy work. How much every one of us has had to shear off our lives, how many tastes we have had to allow to go ungratified, how many capacities undeveloped, in how many directions we have had to hedge up our way, and not do, or be this, that, or the other; if we have ever done anything in any direction worthy the doing! Concentration and voluntary limitation, in order to fix all powers on the supreme aim which judgment and conscience have enjoined is the condition of all excellence, of all sanity of living, and eminently of all Christian discipleship.

III. Further, note the failures.

The tower of the rash builder stands a gaunt, staring ruin.

Whosoever throws himself upon great undertakings or high aims, without a deliberate forecast of the difficulties and sacrifices they involve, is sure to stop almost before he has begun. Many a man and woman leaves the starting-point with a rush, as if they were going to be at the goal presently, and before they have run fifty yards turn aside and quietly walk out of the course. I wonder how many of you began, when you were lads or girls, to study some language, and stuck before you had got through twenty pages of the grammar, or to learn some art, and have still got the tools lying unused in a dusty corner. And how many of you who call yourselves Christians began in the same fashion long ago to run the race? ‘Ye did run well.’ What did hinder you? What hindered Atalanta? The golden apples that were flung down on the path. Oh, the Church is full of these abortive Christians; ruins from their beginning, standing gaunt and windowless, the ground-plan a great palace, the reality a hovel that has not risen a foot for the last ten years. I wonder if there are any stunted Christians of that sort in this congregation before me, who began under the influence of some impulse or emotion, genuine enough, no doubt, but who had taken no account of how much it would cost to finish the building. And so the building is not finished, and never will be.

But I should remark here that what I am speaking about as failure is not incomplete attainment of the aim. For all our lives have to confess that they incompletely attain their aim; and lofty aims, imperfectly realised, and still maintained, are the very salt of life, and beautiful ‘as the new moon with a ragged edge, e’en in its imperfection beautiful.’ Paul was an old man and an advanced Christian when he said, ‘Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect, but I follow after.’ And the highest completeness to which the Christian builder can reach in this life is the partial accomplishment of his aim and the persistent adherence to and aspiration after the unaccomplished aim. It is not these incomplete but progressive and aspiring lives that are failures, but it is the lives of men who have abandoned high aims, and have almost forgotten that they ever cherished them.

And what does our Lord say about such? That everybody laughs at them. It is not more than they deserve. An out-and-out Christian will often be disliked, but if he is made a mock of there will be a soupçon of awe and respect even in the mockery. Half-and-half Christians get, and richly deserve, the curled lip and sarcasm of a world that knows when a man is in earnest, and knows when he is an incarnate sham.

IV. Lastly, I would have you observe the inviting encouragement hidden in the apparent repelling warning.

If we read my text isolated, it may seem as if the only lesson that our Lord meant to be drawn from it was a counsel of despair. ‘Unless you feel quite sure that you can finish, you had better not begin.’ Is that what He meant to say? I think not. He did mean to say, ‘Do not begin without opening your eyes to what is involved in the beginning.’ But suppose a man had taken His advice, had listened to the terms, and had said, ‘I cannot keep them, and I am going to fling all up, and not try any more’—is that what Jesus Christ wanted to bring him to? Surely not. And that it is not so arises plainly enough from the observation that this parable and the succeeding one are both sealed up, as it were, with ‘So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be My disciple.’

Now, if I may so say, there are two kinds of ‘forsaking all that we have.’ One is the forsaking by which we become disciples; and the other the forsaking by which we continue true disciples. The conviction that they had not sufficient to finish is the very conviction that Christ wished to root in the minds of the crowds. He exhibits the difficulties in order that they may feel they cannot cope with them. What then? That they may ‘forsake’ all their own power to cope with them.

That is the first kind of ‘forsaking all that we have.’ That makes a disciple. The recognition of my own utter impotence to do the things which yet I see must be done, is the underside of trust in Him. And that trust in Him brings the power that makes it possible for us to do the things which we cannot of ourselves do, and the consciousness of the impotence to do which is the first step toward doing them. It is the self-sufficient man who is sure to be bankrupt before he has finished his building; but he who has no confidence in himself, and recognises the fact that he cannot build, will go to Jesus Christ and say, ‘Lord, I am poor and needy. Come Thou Thyself and be my strength.’ Such a forsaking of all that we have in the recognition of our own poverty and powerlessness brings into the field an Ally for our reinforcement that has more than the twenty thousand that are coming against us, and will make us strong.

And then, if, knowing our weakness, our misery, our poverty, and cleaving to Jesus Christ in simple confidence in His divine power breathed into our weakness, and His abundant riches lavished upon our poverty, we cast ourselves into the work to which He calls us by His grace, then we shall find that the sweet and certain assurance that we have Him for the possession and the treasure of our lives will make parting with everything else, not painful, but natural and necessary and a joy, as the expression of our supreme love to Him. It should not, and would not be difficult to fling away paste gems and false riches if our hands were filled with the jewels that Christ bestows. And it will not be difficult to slay the old man when the new Christ lives in us, by our faith and submission.

So, dear brethren, it all comes to this. We are all builders; what kind of a work is your life’s work going to turn out? Are you building on the foundation, taking Jesus Christ for the anchor of your hope, for the basis of your belief, for the crown of your aims, for your all and in all? Are you building upon Him? If so, then the building will stand when the storm comes and the ‘hail sweeps away the refuges’ that other men have built elsewhere. But are you building on that foundation the gold of self-denial, the silver of white purity, the precious stones of variously-coloured and Christlike virtues? Then your work will indeed be incomplete, but its very incompleteness will be a prophecy of the time when ‘the headstone shall be brought forth with shoutings’; and you may humbly trust that the day which ‘declares every man’s work of what sort it is’ will not destroy yours, but that it will gleam and flash in the light of the revealing and reflecting fires. See to it that you are building for eternity, on the foundation, with the fair stones which Jesus Christ gives to all those who let Him shape their lives. He is at once, Architect, Material, Foundation; and in Him ‘every several building fitly framed together groweth into a holy temple in the Lord.’

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