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.
THE SIGNS OF THE TIMES..
(Preached at Grace Church, Chicago, April 28, 1878.)
"O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times? A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas. And he left them and departed." —ST. MATTHEW xvi., part of verses 3 and 4.
THIS is an Easter text, though it does not seem so. It strikes deep down into the very essence of Easter joy, and, if it has a note of warning as well, with its stern rebuke of hypocrisy and wickedness, it was, at least, suited to our Lord's day and generation; and who shall say it is not to ours, Easter-tide though it be?
But why did our Lord call the scribes and Pharisees hypocrites, because, though they could discern the face of the sky, they could not discern the signs of the times? With due reverence be it spoken, it would seem at first sight as if it were tolerably easy to be a good weather prophet; a sailor or a farmer, much more a careful scientific observer, easily becomes so; but it requires insight, and wisdom, and a far-reaching observation, retirement from the world, the skill of a statesman, the power of a philosopher, the sanctity of a saint, to tell what the real signs of any time are. And then, again, what hypocrisy is there in being the former and not the latter?
My brethren, the difficulties of Holy Scripture, the apparent contradictions, cover its deepest mysteries; and he who tries to solve them, will draw forth of the treasuries of inspiration things that are both new and old, because they are eternal truth.
Over and over again the unbelieving Jews desired our Lord to prove His Messiahship by a sign from heaven. There had been darkness over all the land of Egypt at the word of Moses; the sun and the moon had stood still in the valley of Ajalon at the voice of Joshua; the chariot of fire had borne Elijah to heaven. Why should He not reveal His mighty power? Nothing seems to have more deeply moved our Lord than this request, which hardly seems at first sight unreasonable. We read in one place that at such a demand "He sighed deeply in His Spirit." He calls them "hypocrites" for asking it. He utterly refused to give them any sign such as they demanded—anything more, at least, than the sign of the prophet Jonas; and then "He left them and departed." If it was hypocrisy, of course we need not ask why our Lord was so moved at it. At that sin He poured forth, almost in the very hour of His passion, woe after woe, till the courts of the temple rang with the stern denunciation. A fig-tree full of leaves, but without the fruit it made a profession of having, was the only thing he ever cursed. For a sorrowing Magdalen, for a woman taken in adultery, for a despised publican, for the outcast leper, for the Apostle who denied Him, for doubting Thomas or persecuting Saul, He had only a tender glance, a pitying forgiveness; but for hypocrites nothing but—a woe.
But still the question remains, "Why was this hypocrisy? They watched the face of the heavens; they knew when the clouds and the sky prophesied fair weather; they knew, too, when they foretold storm and rain. They acted in their daily life on these signs, and made their preparations, no doubt, for the following day accordingly. Yet there was nothing positively sure about the evidence. They were not absolutely told by the appearance of the sky that the weather would be fair or foul. It was only probable evidence, not demonstrative. It had often happened that such and such appearances resulted in pleasant or stormy days. Sometimes the appearances failed; the expected storm did not come; the wished-for sunshine was overcast: they had made a miscalculation. Yet these miscalculations and failures of the signs did not make them give up their belief in them; still, night and morning, they watched the face of the sky, and looked for pleasant days or dreary storms. The evidence of the ordinary course of nature was quite enough for their daily duties. But there were other things just as certainly going on before them. The long history of their own nation, which they fully knew; God's dealings from generation to generation with His chosen people; the words of the Law and the Prophets, read constantly in their ears; the expectation of a Messiah; the presence of Jesus in their midst; His words of power, His knowledge of themselves and of their utmost thoughts, which pierced even to the dividing of soul and spirit; His miracles, which, though not signs from heaven, bore witness to His mission—all these, though not demonstrative evidence, were full of deepest moral power. They had just that moral probability in them, demanded just that consent of the will, which in daily life the uncertain evidence of the clouds and sky received from them.
It must be noticed that our Lord never gave demonstrative evidence of his Messiahship. He did not come with all the starry angels; only the shepherds of Bethlehem heard their song; or St. Mary, when, in the quiet of Nazareth, the angel Gabriel bore the message of glad tidings. He would not cast Himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, that the angels might bear Him up in the presence of the wondering city. The twelve legions of angels only waited His divine word to rescue Him from Gethsemane and Calvary, but His voice was silent. He bowed His head, and gave up the ghost, while taunting voices bade Him come down from the Cross, that they might see and believe.
We sometimes feel as if we could not have failed to accept Him had we been living in the days of Herod and Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas and Judas; but He never vouchsafed any demonstrative evidence of His Divinity. His voice spoke to the inmost heart, to the depths of the moral nature, to a will that was free to accept or reject Him; there was just that uncertainty, so to speak, in the evidences of His mission, that was necessary to bring out patience, perseverance, the following of the simplest leadings of His providence, the listening to the slightest sound of His voice. Though visible to the eye, He spoke to faith, not to sight. The proud, the powerful, the ambitious, the pleasure-seeking, could not perceive Him. He was only to them the carpenter of Nazareth, the teacher from Galilee, one that was beside himself. He knew that if these evidences did not convince them, no sign from heaven would. He had said to them, "If ye hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will ye be persuaded though one rose from the dead"; and the raising of Lazarus only made some of those who saw it seek to kill the Master. This will account for the strange fact that the effect of our Lord's miracles, even on those who saw them, was not all that one would have anticipated. They did not keep Judas from betraying Him, nor Peter from denying Him. Some of the very people who were fed by the loaves and fishes went back and walked no more with Him, when He said, "I am the true Bread which came down from heaven." Nay, the evidence of the truth of the Divinity, and office and power of Jesus Christ, was of the same kind as that which external nature bears to the return of seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night; and even to the less clear and definite prophecies of clouds and sunshine, tempest and calm.
Hence, our Lord's charge against the Pharisees was that they acted on one kind of evidence for matters of daily duty, and refused it in the moral and spiritual sphere. It was enough to guide them day by day in their usual life, but all insufficient to lead them to God. They accepted these simple tokens as the voice of God's law in nature, but could not hear the same voice, speaking in the same way, in Jesus Christ. Hence they were hypocrites; because, for their own worldly interest, they readily accepted an evidence which they as readily rejected in their spiritual affairs; and conscious hypocrites, because, while they clamored for a sign from heaven, the signs of the times passed by them and moved them not.
Now, I might dwell upon the obvious fact that he who acts upon probable evidence in his daily life, and refuses to do so in matters of religion, is a hypocrite; I might show how much of this hypocrisy pervades our individual, family, national, and ecclesiastical life; but I leave the thought to your own meditations. There is a deeper lesson in the text.
I have said that it was a text for Easter-tide. How is it so?
You all know that Jonah, resting three days and three nights in the belly of the monster of the deep, and cast forth upon the shore to preach to a guilty city, was a type of Christ's resurrection; and so, our Lord, refusing them a sign from heaven, said, "there shall no sign be given unto this generation but the sign of the prophet Jonas." But what greater sign could there be than Christ's resurrection? A sign from the earth indeed, and not from the sky, with an earthquake, and angels sitting in the sepulchre, and terrified guards, and a risen Saviour; yet, surely, the greatest of signs. All this is true, but I would beg you to notice that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is supported by just such evidence, and was so supported to the Apostles themselves, and to the scribes and Pharisees, as the Messiahship of the Lord: it was not demonstrative but probable evidence; it was not addressed to the senses, but to the soul and spirit; it could be received only by those whose hearts and minds and wills were ready for its reception.
At first sight this seems a startling and paradoxical statement. There is no proof, indeed, that the scribes and Pharisees beheld the risen Lord. He showed Himself to the apostles and brethren and the holy women, but never more were His footsteps heard in the streets of Jerusalem, or did His voice resound in the temple courts; but St. Mary Magdalen embraced His feet, and St. Thomas thrust his hand into His side, and St. Peter heard Him say, "Feed my sheep . . . Feed my lambs."
Yet what was the central fact of Christ's resurrection? It was not that He was alive again. A dead man in the olden times had but touched the bones of Elisha, and he had leaped into life; Elijah had raised the son of the widow of Sarepta; the widow of Nain had embraced again her only son; the daughter of Jairus had risen from the sleep of death to the loving affection of father and mother; Lazarus had come forth shrouded in grave-clothes, and had sat at meat with Martha and Mary; Sadducees as well as Pharisees had no doubt that a resurrection was possible; the taunting question they had put to Jesus, about whose wife the woman who had had seven husbands should be in the day of the resurrection, was proof of this: Christ might have risen only for another agony, crucifixion, and death. The central truth of the resurrection was not so much that He was raised from the dead, as that He raised Himself up, never to see corruption. It was not so much that He was alive again, as that He could not be holden of death; because He was declared to be the Son of God, with power, by the resurrection of the dead.
Yet, what human witness was there of the fact that Christ had raised Himself up? No mortal eye, in the silence of that early morning, beheld the quickening of the inanimate body of Jesus. Alone in the union and communion of the undivided Trinity, He spake the Word and it was done. Doubtless, the morning stars sang together, and the Sons of God shouted for joy. Doubtless, the angel could say, "Why seek ye the Living one among the dead? He is not here, He is risen." But, on Christ's divine word, and on it alone—nay, on His divine presence speaking to the inner heart and spirit and faith of the Apostles—rested the proof that the Son of God had raised Himself from the dead, and showed Himself to be "He that liveth, and was dead, and is alive for evermore, and hath the keys of hell and of death."
If Christ had revealed Himself in majesty to the wondering Jews, if Herod had seen Him, and Pontius Pilate, and Caiaphas, and the soldiers that mocked Him, it would not necessarily have convinced them. As it was, they said that His disciples came by night and stole Him away; and had they seen Him, if everything else had failed, they would have said He was an apparition, or that it was done by the power of Beelzebub. The proof of the resurrection in its fullness was moral and probable proof. It did not force conviction. It depended more or less upon testimony—first, of Christ, then of the angels, then of the women, then of the apostles, then of over five hundred brethren at once, then of St. James and St. Paul. After the apostles and apostolic men passed away, it was still more matter of testimony, of tradition, of the Bible, of the Church of the Living God. Nor was it any the less borne witness to, because the eye-witnesses had passed away; for probable evidence, and the power of testimony, is in every way sufficient to convince those who can be convinced; and for ever, the words of our Lord to the doubting apostle are full of deeper meaning: "Thomas, because thou hast seen, thou hast believed; blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed." As the years roll on, the resurrection of Jesus is not a fact fading in the dim distance, but truth as full of proof and of power to-day as when from lip to lip the tidings ran: "He is risen!"
If you have followed my argument, you will perceive that our Lord declared that the evidence of the resurrection is of the self-same sort as that on which we act in the common affairs of life, and that it is hypocrisy to act on one and not on the other.
But let me carry you one step further. The evidence on which those facts which the resurrection of Christ establishes, and which depend upon it, is of the self-same nature. These facts are: 1. That He who raised Himself from the dead was the eternal Son of God. 2. That His resurrection gave us a renewed assurance that our souls should live for ever, and that our bodies should be raised at the last day, like unto His glorious Body; and 3. That Christ's resurrection was a triumph over sin and death, and through it the life of Christ was to be given to Christians, in and through the Sacramental life of the Church.
Do I need to prove from Holy Scripture that Christ's resurrection establishes these facts? "He was declared to be the Son of God with power, by the resurrection from the dead." "Life and immortality have been brought to light through the Gospel." "We have been begotten unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ." "Christ is risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of them that slept." "As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive." "The like figure whereunto even Baptism doth now save us, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ." "Buried with Him in Baptism, wherein also ye are risen with Him." "Whoso eateth My flesh, and drinketh My blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day."
The proof of the eternal Sonship of Jesus, the proof of the immortality of the soul, of the resurrection of the body, of the sacramental power of Baptism and the Eucharist, all rest in a great degree on the proof of Christ's resurrection; and rest not on demonstrative, but on probable evidence, addressed not to the senses, but to the higher reason, the moral nature, the better self of each human being. No voice from on high, no splendor flashing from the courts of heaven, no sapphire throne with emerald rainbow round about, no sound of living creatures chanting by the crystal sea, "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain," has yet declared to eye and ear that Jesus Christ is God; yet from ten thousand hearts, from king and peasant, from learned and unlearned, in the midst of days of peace, and much more in the times of sorrow and distress, goes up the world-wide confession, "I believe that Jesus is the Son of God."
You can not find within the folds of the brain the immortal soul of man. The knife of the anatomist can not detect it. You can not tell how it leaves with the parting breath the inanimate form. You can not watch it as it speeds away; you know not whither it goes. No one has ever returned from that other world to tell the story of judgment, or purgation, or eternal woe or bliss. You stand as it were on the brink of a lonely river, you waft your farewells from the shore, and they depart and come no more, or come as phantoms and as ghosts. And yet, from broken hearts and sorrowing souls, from the gloom of churchyards and the shadow of cypress-trees, goes up in the Easter-tide the cry, "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? "For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus, shall God bring with him." You bury the body deep down in the earth; the ashes are scattered to the four winds of heaven. Science proves to you that the particles of matter are transformed into other bodies, and blossom again in flowers, and wave in fields of abundant grain; and yet you hear and believe, at every burial, the words, full of immortal cheer, of the great apostle: "It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body."
Nor is it otherwise with the sacramental life of the Church. You bring your little children to the font; you hear the solemn words, you see the cleansing flood; yet as you do so, accusing voices rebuke you as they did the disciples of old, and declare it to be a meaningless ceremony. You kneel before the altar of God; the sacrificial words are uttered, the mysterious sentence of consecration is pronounced; the sorrowing and the penitent, the tempted and the forlorn, the thankful and the afflicted, alike press near and kneel as at the foot of the Cross. As they do so, louder still are angry and rebuking words, and the sacrament of love is made a sacrament of wrath. Yet, in spite of all, the words of Jesus fall on the ear: "Suffer little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of God"; "As often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do show forth the Lord's death till He come"; and ye know that He who is the Resurrection and the Life is there. You can not see His form, yet you say to Him, "Abide with me; for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent," and He is known to you in the breaking of bread.
Brethren, do you need any other proof of these things? Let scribe and Pharisee clamor for a sign from heaven: these signs that speak to heart and soul and to the inner life of thousands of Christians, are enough for us.
Finally, beloved, do you read, as a Christian ought, the signs of our own day and times? You talk, no doubt, of the Eastern question, of Turk and Russian. You have a word for Bismarck, or Gortschakoff, or Disraeli; you know something about gold, and silver, and specie payments, and the course of trade, and what we call preeminently good or bad times; you watch uneasily, perchance, the busy war of words, the lack of high principle, the downward rush of our dreary political life; you hear this muttering of communism, which, only on Good Friday last, burst forth into a shriek of blasphemy in the greatest city of the land; you are appalled at the stories of crime and shame even in children, which are crowded together in those daily papers that are at once the accusers and the corrupters of our national morality; but do you see, behind them all, the deep spiritual realities?
Immortal souls are hurrying to their last account; the increasing throng of the dead crowd upon the footsteps of the living; accusing voices from the land of silence intercede against the world; a divided Church clamors for unity of faith and worship. Heresies, hundreds of years old, are dying of decrepitude, and their own children expose their wasted limbs and whitened hair upon the lonely moors. Behind the veil, the New Jerusalem is getting ready for the hour when, to a wondering world, she shall appear. In the darkness of the night the watchman calls, again and again, "The morning cometh!" There is a tremulous movement, as if all things would awake to God.
Hear, O my friends, the distant crowing of the cock; behold the first faint streaks of rosy light; the everlasting Easter draws nearer and nearer!