Sunday, October 25, 2009
Sermons and Lessons
Let not God speak to us, lest we die. - Ex. 20:19.
The Hebrews had come up out of Egypt, and were stand¬ing in front of Sinai. The mountain was full of fire and smoke. Thunderings and voices were bursting from its mysterious awfulness. Great trumpet-blasts came pealing through the frightened air. Everything bore witness to the presence of God. The Hebrews were appalled and frightened. We can see them cowering and trembling. They turn to Moses and beg him to stand between them and God. “Speak thou with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.”
At first it seems as if their feeling were a strange one. This is their God who is speaking to them, their God who brought them “out of the Land of Egypt, out of the House of Bondage.” Would it not seem as if they would be glad to have Him come to them directly, to have Him almost look on them with eyes that they could see, and make unnecessary the interposition of His servant Moses, bringing them messages from Him? Will they not feel their whole history of rescue coming to its consummation when at last they find themselves actually in the presence of the God who has delivered them, and hear His voice?
That is the first question, but very speedily we feel how natural that is which actually did take place. The Hebrews had delighted in God’s mercy. They had come singing up out of the Red Sea. They had followed the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud. They had accepted God’s provision for their hunger. They had received Moses, whom God had made their leader. But now they were called on to face God Himself. In behind all the superficial aspects of their life they were called on to get at its center and its heart. In behind the happy results, they were summoned to deal with the mysterious and mighty cause. There they recoiled. “Nay,” they said, “let us go on as we are. Let life not become so terrible and solemn. We are willing to know that God is there. We are willing, we are glad, that Moses should go into His presence and bring us His messages. But we will not come in sight of Him ourselves. Life would be awful. Life would be unbearable. Let not God speak with us, lest we die!”
I want to bid you think this morning how natural and how common such a temper is. There are a few people among us who are always full of fear that life will become too trivial and petty. There are always a great many people who live in perpetual anxiety lest life shall become too awful and serious and deep and solemn. There is something in all of us which feels that fear. We are always hiding behind effects to keep out of sight of their causes, behind events to keep out of sight of their meanings, behind facts to keep out of sight of principles, behind men to keep out of the sight of God. Because that is such poor economy; because the only real safety and happi¬ness of life comes from looking down bravely into its depths when they are opened to us, and fairly taking into account the profoundest meanings of existence; because not death but life, the fullest and completest life, comes from letting God speak to us and earnestly listening while He speaks, - for these reasons I think this verse will have something to say to us which it will be good for us to hear.
We have all known men from whom it seemed as if it would be good to lift away some of the burden of life, to make the world seem easier and less serious. Some such people perhaps we know today; but as we look abroad generally do we not feel sure that such people are the exceptions? The great mass of people are stunted and starved with superficialness. They never get beneath the crust and skin of the things with which they deal. They never touch the real reasons and meanings of living. They turn and hide their faces, or else run away when those profoundest things present themselves. They will not let God speak with them. So all their lives lack tone; nothing brave, enterprising, or aspiring is in them. Do you not know it well? Do you not feel it everywhere?
For we may lay it down as a first principle that he who uses superficially any power or any person which he is capable of using profoundly gets harm out of that unaccepted opportunity which he lets slip. You talk with some slight acquaintance, some man of small capacity and little depth, about ordinary things in very ordinary fashion; and you do not suffer for it. You get all that he has to give. But you hold constant intercourse with some deep nature, some man of great thoughts and true spiritual standards, and you insist on dealing merely with the surface of him, touching him only at the most trivial points of living, and you do get harm. The unused capacity of the man - all which he might be to you, but which you are refusing to let him be - is always there, demoralizing you. If you knew that a boy would absolutely and utterly shut his nature up against the high influences of the best men, would you not think it good for him to live not with them but with men of inferior degree, in whom he should not be always rejecting possibilities which he ought to take? A dog might live with a wise man, and remaining still a dog, be all the better for the wise man’s wisdom, which he never rejected because he could not accept it. But a brutish man who lived with the sage and insisted that he would be still a brute, would become all the more brutish by reason of the despised and neglected wisdom.
Now we have only to apply this principle to life and we have the philosophy and meaning of what I want to preach to you this morning. It is possible to conceive of a world which should offer the material and opportunity of nothing but superficialness, - nothing but the making of money and the eating of bread and the playing of games; and in that world a man might live superficially and get no harm. On the other hand it is possible to conceive of a man who had no capacity for anything but superficialness and frivolity and dealing with second causes; and that man might live superficially even in this deep, rich world in which we live, and get no harm. But - here is the point - for this man with his capacities to live in this world with its opportunities and vet to live on its surface and to refuse its depths, to turn away from its problems, to reject the voice of God that speaks out of it, is a demoralizing and degrading thing. It mortifies the unused powers, and keeps the man always a traitor to his privileges and his duties.
Take one part of life and you can see it very plainly. Take the part with which we are familiar here in church. Take the religious life of man. True religion is, at its soul, spiritual sympathy with, spiritual obedience to God. But religion has its superficial aspects, - first of truth to be proved and accepted, and then, still more superficial, of forms to be practiced and obeyed. Now suppose that a man setting out to be religious confines himself to these superficial regions and refuses to go further down. He learns his creed and says it. He rehearses his sermons and practices it. The deeper voice of his religion cries to him from its unsounded depths, “Come, understand your soul! Come, through repentance enter into holiness! Come, hear the voice of God” But he draws hack; he piles between himself and that importunate invitation the cushions of his dogma and his ceremony. “Let God’s voice come to me deadened and softened through these,” he says. “Let not God speak to me, lest I die. Speak thou to me and I will hear.” So he cries to his priest, to his sacrament, which is his Moses. Is he not harmed by that? Is it only that he loses the deeper spiritual power which he might have had? Is it not also that the fact of its being there and of his refusing to take it makes his life unreal, fills it with a suspicion of cowardice, and puts it on its guard lest at any time this ocean of spiritual life which has been shut out should burst through the barriers which exclude it and come pouring in? Suppose the opposite. Suppose the soul so summoned accepts the fullness of its life. It opens its ears and cries, “Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth.” It invites the infinite and eternal aspects of life to show themselves. Thankful to Moses for his faithful leadership, it is always pressing through him to the God for whom he speaks. Thankful to priest and church and dogma, it will always live in the truth of its direct, immediate relationship to God, and make them minister to that. What a consciousness of thoroughness and safety; what a certain, strong sense of resting on the foundation of all things is there then! There are no closed, ignored rooms of the universe out of which unexpected winds may blow, full of dismay. The sky is clear above us, though we have not soared to its farthest height. The ocean is broad before us, though we have not sailed through all its breadth.
Oh, my dear friends, do not let your religion satisfy itself with anything less than God. Insist on having your soul get at Him and hear His voice. Never, because of the mystery; the awe, perhaps the perplexity and doubt which come with the great experiences, let yourself take refuge in the superficial things of faith. It is better to be lost on the ocean than to be tied to the shore. It is better to be overwhelmed with the greatness of hearing the awful voice of God than to become satisfied with the piping of mechanical ceremonies or the lullabies of traditional creeds. Therefore seek great experiences of the soul, and never turn your back on them when God sends them, as He surely will!
The whole world of thought is full of the same necessity and the same danger. A man sets himself to think of this world we live in. He discovers facts. He arranges facts into what he calls laws. Behind his laws he feels and owns the powers to which he gives the name of force. There he sets his feet. He will go no further. He dimly hears the depth below; of final causes, of personal purposes, roaring as the great ocean roars under the steamship which, with its clamorous machineries and its precious freight of life, goes sailing on the ocean’s bosom. You say to him, “Take this into your account. Your laws are beautiful, your force is gracious and sublime. But neither is ultimate. You have not reached the end and source of things in these. Go further. Let God speak to you.” Can you not hear the answer? “Nay, that perplexes all things. That throws confusion into what we have made plain and orderly and clear. Let not God speak to us, lest we die!” You think what the study of Nature might become, if, keeping every accurate and careful method of investigation of the way in which the universe is governed and arranged, it yet was always hearing, always rejoicing to hear, behind all methods and governments and machineries, the sacred movement of the personal will and nature which is the soul of all. Whether we call such hearing science or poetry; it matters not. If we call it poetry, we are only asserting the poetic issue of all science. If we call it science, we are only declaring that poetry is not fiction but the completest truth. The two unite in religion, which when it has its full chance to do all its work shall bring poetry and science together in the presence of a recognized God, whom the student then shall not shrink from, but delight to know; and find in Him the illumination and the harmony of all his knowledge.
The same is true about all motive. How men shrink from the profoundest motives! How they will pretend that they are doing things for slight and superficial reasons when really the sources of their actions are in the most eternal principles of things, in the very being of God Himself: I stop you and ask you why you give that poor man a dollar, and you give me some account of how his poverty offends your taste, of how unpleasant it is to behold him starve. I ask you why you toil at your business day in and day out, year after year. I beg you to tell me why you devote yourself to study, and you reply with certain statements about the attractiveness of study and the way in which every extension or increase of knowledge makes the world more rich. All that is true, but it is slight. It keeps the world thin. This refusal to trace any act back more than an inch into that world of motive out of which all acts spring, this refusal especially to let acts root themselves in Him who is the one only really worthy cause why anything should be done at all, - this is what makes life wow so thin to the feeling of men who live it; this is what makes men wonder sometimes that their brethren can find it worth while to keep on working and living, even while they themselves keep on at their life and work in the same way. This is the reason why men very often fear that the impulse of life may give out before the time comes to die, and shudder as they think how awful it will be to go on living with the object and the zest of life all dead. Such a fear never could come for a moment to the man who felt the fountain of God’s infinite being behind all that the least of God’s children did for love of Him.
I know very well how all this which I have undertaken to preach this morning may easily be distorted and misunderstood. It may seem to be the setting forth of a sensational and unnatural idea of life, the struggle after which will only result in a histrionic self-consciousness, a restless, discontented passion for making life seem intense and awful, when it is really commonplace and tame. “Let us be quiet and natural,” men say, “and all will be well.” But the truth is that to be natural is to feel the seriousness and depth of life, and that no man does come to any worthy quietness who does not find God and rest on Him and talk with Him continually. The contortions of the sensationalist must not blind us to the real truth of that which he grotesquely parodies. His blunder is not in thinking that life is earnest, but in trying to realize its earnestness by stirring up its surface into foam instead of piercing down into its depths, where all is calm. Yet even he, grotesque and dreadful as he is, seems almost better than the imperturbably complacent soul who refuses to believe that life is serious at all.
The whole trouble conies from a willful or a blind under estimate of man. “Let not God speak to me, lest I die,” the man exclaims. Is it not almost as if the fish cried, “Cast me not into the water, lest I drown,” or as if the eagle said, “Let not the sun shine on me, lest I be blind.” It is man fearing his native element. He was made to talk with God. It is not death, but his true life, to come into the divine society and to take his thoughts, his standards, and his motives directly out of the hand of the eternal perfectness. Man does not know his own vitality, and so he nurses a little quiver of flame and keeps the draught away from it, ‘a hen if he would only trust it and throw it bravely out into the wind, where it belongs, it would blaze into the true fire it was made to be. We find a revelation of this in all the deepest and highest moments of our likes. Have you not often been surprised by seeing how men who seemed to have no capacity for such experiences passed into a sense of divine companionship when anything disturbed their lives with supreme joy or sorrow? Once or twice, at least, in his own life, almost every one of us has found himself face to Lace with God, and felt how natural it was to be there. Then all interpreters and agencies of Him have passed away. He has looked in on us directly; we have looked immediately upon Him; and we have not died, - we have supremely lived. We has e known that we never had so lived as then. We have been aware how natural was that direct sympathy and union and communication with God. And often the question has come, “What possible reason is there why this should not be the habit and fixed condition of our life? Why should we ever go back from it?” And then, as we felt ourselves going back from it, we have been aware that we were growing unnatural again; we were leaving the heights, where our souls breathed their truest air, and going down into the valleys, where only long habit and an educated distrust of our own high capacity had made us feel ourselves more thoroughly at home.
And as this is the revelation of the highest moments of every life, so it is the revelation of the highest lives; especially it is the revelation of the highest of all lives, the life of Christ. Men had been saying, “Let not God speak to us, lest we die;” and here came Christ, the man, - Jesus, the man; and God spoke with Him constantly; and yet he lived with the most complete vitality. He was the livest of all living men. God spoke with Him continually. He never did a deed, He never thought a thought, that He did not carry it back with His soul before it took its final shape and get His Father’s judgment on it. He lifted His eyes at any instant and talked through the open sky, and on the winds came back to Him the answer. He talked with Pilate and with Peter, with Herod and with John; and yet his talk with them was silence; it did not begin to make His life, to be His life, compared with that perpetual communion with His Father which made the fundamental consciousness as it made the unbroken habit of His life. All this is true of Jesus. You who know the rich story of the Gospels know how absolutely it is true of Him. And the strange thing about it is that the life of which all this is true is felt at once to be the most natural, the most living life which the world has ever seen. Imagine Jesus saying those words which the Hebrews said: “Let not God speak to me, lest I die.” You cannot put those words upon His lips. They will not stay there. “0 God, speak to me, that I may live,” - that is the prayer with which He comes out of the stifling air of the synagogue or the temple, out of the half-death of the mercenary streets, out of the foolish rivalries and quarrellings of His disciples.
And every now and then a great man or woman comes who is like Christ in this. There comes a man who naturally drinks of the fountain and eats of the essential bread of life. Where you deal with the mere borders of things he gets at their hearts; where you ask counsel of expediencies, he talks with first principles; where you say, “This will be profitable,” he says, “This is right.” Remember I am talking about him now only with reference to this one thing, - that when men see him they recognize at once that it is from abundance and not from defect of vitality that this man lives among the things which are divine. Is there one such man - it may be one such boy - in the store where all the rest of you are working for ri¬valry or avarice? Is there one who works from principle, one who works for God; and will you tell me whether you do not all count him the most genuinely living of you all?
The student of history knows very well that there are cer¬tain ages and certain races which more than other ages seem to have got down to the fundamental facts, and to be living by the elemental and eternal forces, - ages and races which are always speaking with God. So we all feel about the Hebrews. The divine voice was always in their ears. Often they misunderstood it. Often they thought they heard it when it was only the echo of their own thoughts and wishes that they heard; but the desire to hear it, the sense that life consisted in hearing it, - that never left them. And so, too, we feel, or ought to feel, about the great Hebrew period of our own race, the Puritan century, in which everything was probed to the bottom, all delegated authorities were questioned, and earnestness everywhere insisted upon having to do immediately with God. Plenty of crude, gross, almost blasphemous developments of this insistence set themselves forth; but the fact of the insistence was and still is most impressive. It never frightened the Puritan when you bade him stand still and listen to the speech of God. His closet and his church were full of the reverberations of the awful, gracious, beautiful voice for which he listened. He made little, too little, of sacraments and priests, because God was so intensely real to him. What should he do with lenses who stood thus full in the torrent of the sunshine? And so the thing which makes the history of the Puritans so impressive is the sense that in them we come close to the great first things. We are back behind the temporary, special forms of living, on the bosom of the primitive eternal life itself.
When we turn suddenly from their time to our own time what a difference there is! At least what a difference there is between all their time and a part of ours. For our time is not capable of being characterized as generally and absolutely as theirs. It has many elements. Certainly it has much of Puritanism. The age which has had Carlyle for its prophet, and which has fought out our war against slavery has not lost its Puritanism. But the other side of our life, how far it is from the first facts of life, from God, who is behind and below everything! When I listen to our morals finding their sufficient warrant and only recognized authority in expediency; when I behold our politics abandoning all ideal conceptions of the nation’s life and talking as if it were only a great mercantile establishment, of which the best which we can ask is that it should be honestly run; when I see society conceiving no higher purpose for its activities than amusement; when I catch the tone of literature, of poetry, and of romance, abandoning large themes, studiously and deliberately giving up principles and all heroic life, and making itself the servant and record of what is most sordid and familiar, sometimes even of what is most uncomely and unclean; when I think of art grown seemingly incapable of any high endeavor; when I consider how many of our brightest men have written the word Agnostic on their banner, as if not to know anything, or to consider anything incapable of being known, were a condition to shout over and not to mourn over, - when I see all these things, and catch the spirit of the time of which these things are but the exhibitions and the symptoms, I cannot help feeling as if out of this side, at least, of our time there came something very like the echoes of the old Hebrew cry, “Let not God speak to us, lest we die.” We are afraid of getting to the roots of things, where God abides. What bulwarks have you, rich, luxurious men, built up between yourselves and the poverty in which hosts of your brethren are living? What do you know, what do you want to know, of the real life of Jesus, who was so poor, so radical, so full of the sense of everything just as it is in God? You tremble at the changes which are evidently coming. You ask yourself, How many of these first things, these fundamental things, are going to be disturbed? Are property and rank and social precedence and the relation of class to class going to be overturned? Oh, you have got to learn that these are not the first things, these are not the fundamental things! Behind these things stand justice and mercy. Behind everything stands God. He must speak to you. He will speak to you. Oh, do not try to shut out His voice. Listen to Him that you may live. & ready for any overturnings, even of the things which have seemed to you most eternal, if by them He can come to be more the King of His own earth.
And in religion, may I not beg you to be vastly more radical and thorough? Do not avoid, but seek, the great, deep, simple things of faith. Religious people read thin, superficial books of religious sentiment, but do not meet lice to lice the strong, exacting, masculine pages of their Bibles. They live in the surface questions about how the Church is constituted, how it ought to be governed, what the forms of worship ought to be. They shrink from the profound and awful problems of the soul’s salvation by the Son of God and prepa¬ration for eternity. Do we not hear - strangest of all! - in religion, which means the soul’s relationship to God, do we not hear there - strangest of all - the soul’s frightened cry; “Let not God speak with me, lest I die”? In all your personal life, my Mends, it is more thoroughness and depth that you need in order to get the peace which if you spoke the truth you would own that you so woefully lack. You are in God’s world; you are God’s child. Those things you cannot change; the only peace and rest and happiness for you is to accept them and rejoice in them. When God speaks to you you must not make believe to yourself that it is the wind blowing or the torrent falling from the hill. You must know that it is God. You must gather up the whole power of meeting Him. You must be thankful that life is great and not little. You must lis¬ten as if listening were your life. And then, then only, can come peace. All other sounds will be caught up into the prevailing richness of that voice of God. The lost proportions will be perfectly restored. Discord will cease; harmony will be complete.
I beg you who are young to think of what I have said to you to-day. Set the thought of life high at the beginning. Expect God to speak to you. Do not dream of turning your back on the richness and solemnity of living. Then there will come to you the happiness which came to Jesus. You, like Him, shall live, not by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God!