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, ex tempore, at Racine College, 1873.)
"Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin."—II. KINGS xiv., part of verse 24.
THE words which I have taken as my text occur over and over again in the history of the kings of Israel and Judah. Jeroboam, was a mighty monarch. He overthrew the kingdom of David and Solomon, and rent away ten tribes from the nation God had established. He founded a dynasty; he married a daughter of the king of Egypt. He built cities, and fortified them; he waged wars, and won victories. He seemed to the ten tribes like a great deliverer. He rescued them from what they regarded, and in some sense truly, as an intolerable tyranny. He was a mighty man, vigorous, active, successful. He reigned two-and-twenty years, and at the end of that time died in peace, and slept with his fathers, and was buried in his ancestral sepulchre, and his son reigned in his stead. But—and here is the striking lesson of all that he did, and all that he was—of all his glory and all his power this was the sum, this the epitome. In lands he never dreamed of, by lips whose language he could not have understood, wondered at by the hearts of children, a lesson and a warning to the strong and the brave, the one record of his life that remains is found in the words of the text, "Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin."
I do not wish to dwell at length upon the nature of Jeroboam's sin. It was, as you all know, idolatry. Idolatry is of two sorts: the worship of some other being than the one true and eternal God; and the worship of the one true God under some visible form not ordained by God, as though He were or could be included under that form. The former is the worst sort of idolatry, and was the sin of Ahab; the latter appears to have been the sin of Jeroboam.
Our age and country are not exposed especially to the temptation of Jeroboam's sin. The worse sort of idolatry is our temptation. The thoughtful and the earnest give themselves to the study of nature. The birds of the air and the fishes of the sea, the wondrous things brought forth by the deep; the mighty fields of everlasting ice, the enduring mountains, the sun and moon and stars, and all the hosts of heaven—these, in their greatness, in their wondrous laws and mighty movements, are studied and marveled at. Nor these alone; man mightier than they, as an individual and in society, in his mind and in his consciousness, in his intellect and in his emotions, in his history and language and struggles and development, in all that he has thought or done or aimed at, these alike are investigated. Wondrous studies, happy labor, blessed endeavor, if it bring the soul nearer to Him who made the heavens, the earth, and all things therein, and who sitteth upon the circle of the world, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers. Vain toil, if in tracing back force behind force, law anterior to law, he stands at last, face to face with what seems to be the primordial existence, and sees nothing behind but the eternity of matter, or some blind power, without love, or thought, or care, or providence, or personality. But this is the idolatry of the thoughtful and the educated. There is another idolatry more vulgar and universal. Men struggle to maintain themselves and their families. They seek to develop material resources; they build railways, they advance the interests of cities, they heap up houses and lands, and stocks and bonds, or seek to do so; and to their possessions, or the vain effort after them, they give love and fear, and desire and hope; they give time and energy and self-denial; they give wife and children, all that they are, and all that they hope to be. In short, they dethrone God, and give themselves to that covetousness which is idolatry. In some sort, my brethren, we are not as religious as Jeroboam. He worshiped the God of Israel under a visible form unordained of God. It may startle some of you to hear me say so, but God has commanded us to worship Him under a form. Do you ask me under what form? "He humbled Himself, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of man"; nay, "being found in fashion as a man, He became obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross." "Wherefore," remember, "God also hath highly exalted Him, and given Him a name which is above every name; that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things on earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." Still, in the form of man, He is the center of the adoring multitudes of heaven and earth, of angels and men, of the saints in Paradise, and of the militant host which toils and struggles in this weary world.
Do you know what it is to worship, my brethren, the Incarnate Son of God, who not only sits at the right hand of the Father, but, in the Church and in His sacraments, reveals His hidden glory? Ye worship God, ye think; but do ye worship God in Christ? The awful touch of God made man, the body of Christ, which is the Church of God—its powers and mysteries and sacraments, its guidance and strength and comfort, because everywhere in it is the hidden presence of Jesus—this is our refuge from that backward course which leads by slow but sure steps from Christianity to Judaism, from Judaism to the denial of a personal God, until the horror-stricken soul, burning, longing, desiring, stands face to face with the blank darkness of materialism.
But I am not concerned to dwell longer upon the idolatry and consequent schism of which Jeroboam was guilty. The point to which I wish chiefly to call your attention is this, that the stamp put upon him by the just judgment of God is that he made others to sin. "Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin." I do not propose, beloved, to speak to you about your sins, but about the effect of your sins upon others. And herein perhaps I shall the rather move you, because—and it is one of the better features of our poor human nature—many a soul, however lost and ruined, starts back affrighted at the thought of making another being like unto himself. I know, indeed, that the devil has his ministers as well as Christ. There are those who seem filled with an eager desire to make others as evil as themselves. Nay, it is sometimes appalling to witness how much more in earnest is the messenger of Satan than the Christian bought with the blood of Jesus. With what hesitation and feebleness, and fear of offending, will the latter seek to win a soul to Christ, while the former knows neither fear nor hesitation nor lack of opportunity. Of these I do not speak. There may not be one such before me. But there are those, unquestionably, who have at some time or another, by persuasion, by argument, by inducement, enticed others to sin. There are many sins which need company; they are scared by solitude. They need one or two, or a crowd, to make them either possible or pleasant; and so for the time many a one, who would shrink from injuring the soul of his neighbor, has become a tempter, because the nature of his sin demanded association, and to sin at all one or more must sin with him. Perhaps you say, for it is a common saying: "This is quite true, but in my sin I was not the tempter, but the tempted." This excuse, let it be noted, is not always as true as it seems; for in the mystery of our moral nature, strange as it may appear, one may be both the tempter and the tempted at the same time. But let it be so if you will; then I bid you, who have known what it was to be led astray by another, the more earnestly to heed my warnings, lest, in spite of your bitter experience, you too should be guilty.
But there is another way, still more potent than actual enticement, by which you may lead another astray—the power of example. You may disgust by enticing words; you may arouse antagonism by the mere placing in human language your guilty thought; you may call to the rescue all that is noble and pure and good in him to whom you speak. But example—the doing wrong without a word, the committing your own life to what is evil, the open surrender of yourself to sloth, or gluttony, or pride, or envy, or malice, or covetousness—this is all the more potent in proportion as it is done without argument, without persuasion, as though it needed no defense or excuse. It may sound like a paradox, but a man's bad example is all the more powerful in proportion to his goodness. Most of us are not prepared to follow the example of the wholly vicious, but just in proportion as truth, or generosity, or good nature, or public-spiritedness, or talent, or eloquence, or energy, or wealth, or station, or beauty is enlisted on the side of any wrong, in that proportion is the example the more dangerous. When, then, a man excuses his sin by saying, "Whatever wrong I do, I am at least honest, or kind to my family, or generous to the poor, or a good citizen, or full of philanthropy," he is merely stating the real measure of the force of his evil example. His wickedness recommends itself too often to the observer, just in proportion to the goodness which serves either to hide or to excuse it.
But one may say, "I set no evil example; my sins, whatever they are, are hidden ones; so far as public observation goes, no one is the worse for my life." Brethren, there is something mightier than words, more potent than example, and that is a man's influence. It is a moral atmosphere, and, like the natural atmosphere, is breathed unconsciously, while all the time it is for life or death. Men sometimes think they have no influence; but there is no one so poor, or weak, or untrained, or unworthy, but there is some one else who derives either good or evil from his existence. And here is the terrible thought: a man's influence does not come from what he seems to be, not from what he thinks he is, not from what he would like to have others think of him, not from his public reputation—from nothing but his real character. Observers may estimate his influence for good or evil, according to their estimate of his character. People may be deceived as to it; a man may deceive himself; but when the deeds of life come to be reckoned, when all the subtle forces by which a man moves his neighbor are counted up, the effect which each person has upon his fellows for good or bad will be due to what he is in the sight of the Eternal God. Yes, my friend, to your mother and to your father, to the wife of your bosom, to your son and daughter, to him or her whom you love the best on earth, you are, so far as your influence goes, not what you seem to be, but what you really are—a life-giving power, or a moral pestilence.
Consider now, for a few moments, the risk and danger of tempting another to sin, whether consciously or unconsciously done. The injury is done, not to the pocket, not to the reputation, not to the health, not to the body it may be, but to an immortal existence. It tries to injure one for wham the Son of God upon the cruel Cross poured forth His precious Blood. It seeks to destroy one for whom the saints are pleading, the Holy Ghost is interceding with unutterable plaints, the Great High Priest is pouring forth His unending entreaty. It is an attempt at soul-murder. Sometimes, too, it is done to one you yourself love. Nay, the very love that is felt has been made, ere now. the excuse and reason for the sin.
Mark this, too. In some sort, the results of tempting others to sin may be irremediable. You tempt your neighbor, he tempts a third person, and the sin goes on propagating itself, I know not with what geometrical progression. It travels away, it journeys into other lands, it goes down to the next generation. It is perchance to the injury not of one, but of many. It becomes a taint in the blood, an evil impulse in the onward march of humanity, another wave in that turbid flood that beats with an angry surge against the snow-white rocks of the eternal shore.
Again, you may repent yourself; you may remember with bitter anguish the sins you have committed; you may strive to undo the past; where once you tempted, you may lift a warning voice. But what if your influence is gone? "What if the words, so powerful to move to wickedness and sin, fall dead and idle when they tell of temperance, righteousness, and judgment to come? Or what if he whom you tempted is dead—gone where you are taught to believe neither sigh nor tear, nor penitential anguish, nor even heart-broken prayer can ever benefit? O land of darkness and silence, land of gloom and the shadow of death, what shall I do, what can I say, if there are accusing voices that await me there! if eyes shall gaze at me, and fingers point at me, and there is no Saviour to hide me in His loving arms!
I can not, however, mention this sad possibility without speaking of two limitations to the melancholy thoughts.
First: Terrible as it is to tempt another to sin, responsible as one becomes, to a certain degree, for the sin into which he leads another, the responsibility can not be made by any just thinker to rest wholly with the tempter. No one need yield to a temptation. We have the sure word of promise. There hath no temptation taken you above that ye are able, but God will with the temptation always provide a way and means of escape. No voice is so pressing, no example so potent, no influence necessarily so great, as to compel any one to voluntary sin. Whatever blame the tempter must bear—and I have not, I believe, overstated it—it at least must fall short of this, that it never yet compelled any one of necessity to sin. If a man falls, he falls because he has failed to trust in that powerful arm which is ever ready to help—in that Eternal Master, that ever-mighty Saviour, who is stronger than the strongest temptation.
Secondly: We can not estimate the power of a thorough penitence. It joins itself to the wounds, and thorns, and anguish of the Cross of Christ. It reaches wheresoever that Cross reaches; it is as mighty as that love which in the last agony called the penitent thief to sorrow, and by a sudden glance wrought in St. Peter the bitterest repentance. As it was in the miracle of the loaves, it may make even the fragments of a wasted life more than the original quantity. But ah! my brethren, it must be real sorrow; not the sorrow of the world that worketh death, but a sorrow deeper, wider, fuller than the sin—a sorrow that burns with the anguish of love, and in its agony is crucified with Him who died for sinners.
My brethren, we live in a time when never was there more demanded of Christianity, or greater need of its influences, and when, in some of its aspects, Christianity never seemed so feeble. Holding, too often, to an individual Christianity, which almost makes the idea of the Church of Christ seem an impossibility, there is nevertheless a loss of individual responsibility. Men do not feel that on the history of each individual life, whether men know that life or not, whether it is praised, or blamed, or regarded with utter indifference, turns the question of eternal life or death. On what you are in yourselves depends what you are to others; and for your words, your deeds, your example, your influence, whether in high or low estate, whether rich or poor, you must give answer. It may be ten talents, or five talents, or only one; but, whichever it is, the reckoning must be made.
The summer is past, the harvest is ended; the days tarry, but the years fly quickly, and life is ever tending to death, and after death—for the punishment of the wicked and the reward of the good—the judgment.