Sermons Preached on Various Occasions
by James de Koven, D.D.
with an Introduction by Morgan Dix, S.T.D., Rector of Trinity Church, New York
New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1880.
(Preached at Racine, 1859.)
"And when they saw Him, they began to pray Him to depart out of their coasts."—ST. MARK v. 17.
THE text, beloved, presents to our view a story of sorrow and of sin. Our Blessed Lord had crossed the Sea of Galilee into the country of the Gadarenes. He had been asleep in the hinder part of the ship while the waves were beating high. The disciples had cried, "Save, Lord, or we perish," and He had rebuked the winds and bade the angry waves be still. But a wilder storm than the wrath of the elements awaited Him. An unhappy demoniac, in whose soul was the bitter contest between the powers of evil and the spirit of a man, came forth to meet Him. Sad indeed is the history which St. Mark gives of his condition. No longer amid the walks of men, amid the joys of home or the sounds of the busy world, had he his dwelling. It will be remembered that it was the custom of the Jews to bury their dead outside the walls of the city, in caves or sepulchres hewn out of the rock. It was in these tombs, as we read, that he had his abode. Amid the silence of the dead, amid bones and skeletons and pallid faces, amid winding-sheets and the damp of death, he dwelt. Ofttimes they had bound him with fetters and chains, but such was his mighty strength that they were but as feeble bands. The traveler feared to pass that way, and no sound broke the solemn stillness but his pacing up and down, the living among the dead, and his cries of horror, louder than the beating of the waves upon the lonely shore, as he cut himself with stones until the blood gushed out afresh.
He it was who, perhaps with hostile thought, perhaps allured to Him who was to draw all men unto Him, came down to meet our Lord as He landed on the coasts of Gadara. Whatever his motive, he is met by the command of the Ruler of all, "Come out of him, thou unclean spirit." Evermore, in the soul of the demoniac, is a fearful contest. On the one hand he falls and worships the Master; on the other he cries aloud, "What have I to do with Thee, Jesus thou Son of God?" Evil and good strive within him. He comes unto the Lord, and yet the foul spirit adjures Him to torment him not. He would fain dwell longer in the earthly tabernacle, and make a sport of the human soul. But the stronger than the strong has come upon him, to bind and to loose. The captive is free, the prisoner is unbound, the chain is broken by Him, mighty to save.
One thing the legion of unclean spirits can obtain. Bereft of their human habitation, they would fain dwell in the herd of swine that feed by the banks of the lake. If not the nature of man, at least the bestial nature, they would seek to influence. But mark how evil ever outwits itself. The whole herd, actuated by the strange impulse, ran violently down a steep place and perished in the waters. And they that kept them fled, and told in the city and in the country what had befallen to him who was possessed with the devil, and to the swine.
We naturally ask, What was the result? Did they not come forth with songs of joy and branches of palm-trees to meet the Deliverer who had freed their countryman from a calamity so awful? Had they any other thought than to bid Him welcome who thus visibly proclaimed Himself their God? Did not their hearts beat with a deeper joy when they heard of the mighty conquest? Alas! no. They had lost their worldly goods. The herd that fed upon the shores of the lake was a goodly possession. It was worth so much, and it was a loss, a total loss. A strange fear possessed them. What if this were but a beginning? What if the presence of this mighty stranger should bring other losses with it? What if poverty and hunger were to accompany his spiritual blessings? What, after all, were grace and holiness, and demons cast out, and penitents absolved, to the loss of worldly goods? Money could buy, money made them respectable, money could clothe #and feed them; and what could these other things do? Christ and holiness were too expensive for the people of Gadara. Thus they reasoned, and thus they acted; for when they saw Him they besought Him to depart out of their coasts." With hands uplifted to bless, they will not take the benediction. With words of comfort on His lips, they will not hear Him. With the Gospel of salvation offered them, they beseech Him to depart. And He took them at their word; He heard their desire, He granted their request; He left them, and departed.
Alas for the city of Gadara! Alas for the land beyond the sea! A deeper loss than ever before has befallen them! The fields may be as glad and gay as ever; men may laugh and be merry as they did aforetime; the world may be just as busy, and men richer than before; but Christ is gone, Jesus is no longer there. The waves shall beat upon the shore for ages, and storm and calm, full many a time, pass over the waters of the Sea of Galilee; but never shall He who rules the winds and waves, and the raging hearts of men, bless them again with His bodily presence.
It is a fearful instance, indeed, of a desire granted, of a prayer heard, to the loss of those who made it; of a spiritual blindness that met with a spiritual punishment, awful indeed. You must notice that the sin of the Gadarenes was not unbelief. They had not the excuse that they did not acknowledge the Lord as a mighty being. It was rather that, knowing Him to be such, seeing His mighty works, for fear of the worldly loss He brought with Him, they besought Him to depart. In other words, the state of the Gadarenes and their sin is just the state and the sin of the majority of those who come to church nowadays, and hear the Word of God; and, perhaps, what is a thing indeed to be pondered, it may be punished in the same way.
Do you ever think, beloved, that while you may not reject Christ you may beseech Him to depart from you, and He may hear and answer your prayer?
The majority of people have a belief in Christ. They have a certain amount of good about them. They mean to be holy by and by. They have the idea of Baptism or Confirmation and a devout life as a thing for the future.
But there is something that keeps them back—some loss that they feel they must endure; something that they must give up—some pleasure, some sin; some honor, some employment; some restitution to make, a cross to bear, a self-denial to endure, a life in the world but not of it—and they can not do it.
There is one thing, however, in the life of all, which comes especially as an instance of the history of the text. The spiritual life of a man is a strange thing. That life which is between each man's soul and God has a mysterious history. If it be true that man is made in the image of God, though that image be marred, if it be true that "the light of God lighteneth every man that cometh into the world," if it be true that God wills that all men should be saved, we must know that God speaks to the soul of every man; that He has a message for each man's need, a Gospel of glad tidings for every creature under heaven, that there is no one whom God at some time or other has not mercifully tried to bring unto Himself. In some way suited to the capacity of each, God has spoken and called by His Spirit. I suppose there is no one before me who is not conscious of this—that he might have been a Christian man if he would; that Christ has stood near him, and stretched out His hand unto him, and called him gently, although he did not answer; that Christ has stood, as it were, in his very coasts—in the church, in his home, in his place of business. And the reason why He is no longer with him is because he besought Him to depart.
Perhaps there is no period of life when the advent of Christ to the soul of man, if I may call it so, seems to come so evidently as to the child, just entering into manhood. Whether he be baptized or unbaptized, whether it be the speaking of the grace already within him or the voice of God's ineffable election, Christ stands by his side. His voice is very gentle, His accents most loving. He lays his hand upon his brow and almost leads him with His love. His words are like the sound of many waters, and harpers harping with their harps. It would only be a little self-government, the restraint of the passions, the life by-rule, the steady habit of duty, reverence, obedience, and devotion; and he almost tries it. But life is sunny, and hopes are bright, and the world seems strewed with flowers; and, half sorrowful, he falls at the feet of his Lord, and beseeches Him to depart. And he leaves him, for a little while, to himself and the busy world.
He grows older and stronger, and is more full of manhood and power. The world, indeed, is not so bright as it was, but it more fills his soul. He works, and is strong; he eats, and is satisfied. Busy action delights him. He is tempted, and he sins; there are spots on his soul: the prayers of his childhood, the simplicity of his boyhood—they are gone. But all the while Christ beholds him; He loves him still; He watches him every day, and once more He stands by his side. It is in the height of his happiness, it may be, in the tenderness of his love, in the first joy of a father's heart, in the brightness of his promise, that He calls him. But can he leave the world and its pleasures? Can he leave the pursuit of gain? Can he become humble as a little child? Nay, it is too deep a loss, and once more he bids Him depart.
He is middle-aged now, and his locks are somewhat silvered. His passions are tamed and his blood runs coldly. Nothing excites him greatly, but he lives in the routine of his business. He is a man of habits. He does every day what he did yesterday. His dreams are over, and realities beset him. Things have disappointed him, and he thinks much of his comfort. There is a charm about his home and his children. It is a quiet place for him, where he can rest. There at least he is sure of sincerity and truth and unselfish love, and there his heart centers. It is there, once more, with chastising love, the Master meets him. He can only be made perfect through suffering. The grave yawns for his loved ones. It is the fair child or the wife beloved that he must bury out of his sight. By the side of the open grave, in the midst of his sorrow and his heart-broken anguish, once more he sees that form divine. He hears the only words that can comfort him. A vision of that love, better than of sons and daughters, flashes upon him. But it is but for a moment: earth is too strong for him, and he beseeches Him to depart.
Age, weary age, is upon him. His staff will hardly support him as he totters along. Sadly, sadly pass the days, cold and desolate. There is a voice in his ear saying evermore, "Earth to earth, dust to dust!" Father and mother and early friends, where are they? Hopes and expectations, and the aims of youth, what have they come to? Life, life, what has it been? In the wakeful nights memory torments him. Ghosts of sins long since committed haunt him. Melancholy shapes beset him. As one that stands upon the seashore, with impassable rocks behind, and sees the advancing tide that shall overwhelm, and hears no sound of answer but the ceaseless beating of the waves and the wild cry of the sea-birds, so he stands on the brink of eternity. The years of his life stretch out before him; they mock him with their emptiness. Like a spectral host they march along, and as they pass by, one by one, cry aloud with accents of terror, "Lost, for ever!"
He knows it not, perchance, but, veiled in wrath, still Christ is standing by him. His very remorse is the voice of the Lord. It is the last opportunity, the last hour of his probation, the last effort of mercy. "Will he let Him go away, with heaven and hell before him, and the grave open at his feet? Alas! He is passing by. There is no sound that bids Him stay: no voice that says, "Abide with me"; no hand that touches the hem of His garment; no supplicating cry, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on me!" Will no one warn him? can friend nor brother help him? shall the Lord pass out of his coasts for ever? Close his eyes gently, and part his silver hair upon his forehead, and cross his hands upon his bosom, and say your prayers, and write his epitaph, for all is over—over until you and I and the people of Gadara, with kindreds and nations and languages, shall see Him once again in the clouds of heaven.
Oh! my brethren, I beseech you to ponder the matter most carefully. God is very merciful, but we may slight His mercies. He may be calling you now, and you may be asking Him to depart. Is there no voice speaking at your hearts that you fain would silence? It will take but a little effort, and He will go away from you. Pleasure, and gayety, and business, and making money—there are ten thousand ways of bidding Him depart. But do you desire to lose Him? Are you sure He will ever come again? Would you wish Him to take you at your word? Is the little you will make by it worth such a loss? Is the world, after all, the better portion? Were the people of Gadara better off than the persecuted disciples?
Oh! if Christ is calling you now, in this Lenten season, by the voice of nature or the voice of grace, by joy or sorrow, at home or in the church, in whatever way it may be, now, in this approaching Confirmation, kneel at His feet and say, "Lord, help me." And the answer will be yours: "Go in peace; thy sins are forgiven thee." For He is ever repeating the promise: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man will open unto me, I will come in unto him, and sup with him, and he with Me."