Project Canterbury

Thoughts on Present Church Troubles
Occurring in Four Sermons Preached in St. Paul's Cathedral in December, 1880

By H.P. Liddon, D.D.
Canon Residentiary of St. Paul's, and Ireland Professor at Oxford

London, Oxford and Cambridge: Rivingtons, 1881

"Time's years are many, Eternity one,
And one is the Infinite;
The chosen are few, few the deeds well done,
For scantness is still Heaven's might." Lyra Apostolica.

Sermon II. Third Sunday in Advent. The Attractiveness of the Saints.

"What went ye out into the wilderness to see? "--ST. MATT. xi. 7.

THIS question was put to a large assemblage of His countrymen by our Lord, on an occasion of importance. He had just welcomed, and replied to, an embassy which, as we may presume to think, moved His human sympathies very deeply. John the Baptist, whose baptism Jesus had Himself received in the waters of the Jordan; John the Baptist, who had so preached repentance as to be indeed the Prophet of the Highest, going before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways;" John the Baptist was in prison. [St. Luke i. 76.] He had dared to tell a plain but unwelcome truth to a wicked king; and this king had acted as powerful vice generally does act when it is confronted by inconvenient and defenceless virtue. Herod Antipas, the capricious, tyrannical, unscrupulous, and sensual, but weak prince, who, under the title of tetrarch, ruled the country beyond the Jordan, and the northern districts of Palestine, had actually married the daughter of a neighbouring Arab chief called Aretas. But this did not [23/24] prevent him from making overtures of marriage to Herodias, the wife of his own half-brother, Herod Philip; and these proposals were favourably received. With fearless simplicity the Baptist pointed out to the king the immoral character of his proceeding; and Herod, who would have killed John had it been politic to do so, shut him up for the present in the gloomy fortress of Machoerus, on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea. [The reader will remember the interesting account of this fortress in Dr. Tristram's "Land of Moab."] It was from this prison that the Baptist despatched the embassy to Jesus. The fame of the miracles of Jesus in Galilee had reached the ears of the imprisoned Prophet, and of the few followers who still clung to him with an affectionate devotion that does them honour. It would seem probable that John had in vain endeavoured to persuade these faithful friends that if they would be true to him they must become disciples of Jesus; that his own ministry was only meant to lead men to Jesus; and that the miracles of which they heard so much ought to satisfy them that Jesus was the Messiah of Jewish prophecy. The followers of John still hesitated, and then the Baptist determined to send two of them to Jesus, that they might ask Him whether He was what John proclaimed Him to be, and might see and hear for themselves. They put their question to our Lord as if it was a message from their master; and our Lord answered them accordingly. He bade them go and tell John the story of their [24/25] Galilean experiences; how the vivid imagery of Isaiah had been translated before their eyes into the world of fact; how the blind received their sight, and the lame walked, and lepers were cleansed, and the deaf heard, and the dead were raised up, and, above all, the poor had the good news from heaven preached unto them. [St. Matt xi. 5: Isa. xxix. 18.] And then, as the disciples turned away, well satisfied, we may be sure, to carry back this message to their beloved master, Jesus turned to the multitude of bystanders with a question of His own; a question which He Himself went on to answer. "As they departed, Jesus began to say to the multitudes concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness to see?"


What, we may reverently ask, was our Lord's motive in asking this question, then and there?

It is plain, from His own answer to it, that He asked it in order first to repair and then to sustain the honour in which John the Baptist had been held by the Jewish people.

Recent events would have tended, naturally enough, to diminish that honour. First of all, there was the broad fact; John was in prison. The days were when he had had at his command the love and admiration of an entire [25/26] nation. Now his work was closed; it was closed seemingly by the mere will and fiat of a weak and immoral king. Depend upon it the majority of men thought that the sun of the Prophet of the Desert had set, or was setting, in humiliation and in ruin. In their minds' eye they traced over the gate of the fortress of Machoerus the fatal motto "He has failed." This would have been the popular impression of the moment. And our Lord Jesus Christ knew the people, as none has ever known it before or since. He knew that the people, if generous in its judgments, is also sometimes precipitate; that it is misled by mere.appearances; that success often, though not always, passes with it as a certificate of merit; and that failure, if not always yet often, is accounted a proof of moral wrong. John the Baptist was a prisoner; that was the fact before them. And however honourable to himself might be the reason for which he was imprisoned, the fact was likely, in the long-run, to outweigh the reason, and to leave an imprint of depreciation on his name and character in the coining times.

Besides this, in sending to ask whether Jesus was the expected Messiah, John, in his noble self-forgetfulness, had sacrificed his own credit for the sake of his disciples. That they might learn the better, he was willing to seem as one who had parted with the secret of inspiration. For years he had been accounted the great teacher and prophet, whose utterances--confident, direct, vehement--had awed multitudes into a change of life. Now, it might [26/27] be thought, the light and strength of heaven had deserted him; he was but as one of the many whom he had taught and led. The great teacher, charged with an inspired message to the world, seemed to have become only an inquirer, hesitating before a difficulty: And this apparent change of attitude on the part of John towards religious truth, could not but have affected the imagination of the people. They may well have supposed--as modern critics have supposed, with less reason, since their day--that the gloomy solitude of the prison had done its work upon that noble soul; that his faith in his mission as the Precursor had given way; and that the dreadful thought that his life had been devoted to one vast mistake, had settled down upon him with all the gloom of a misgiving that ushers in the night of an absolute despair.

It was therefore in order to counteract this unworthy and depreciatory estimate of His great servant; to redress the balance of one-sided opinion; to rehabilitate St. John in the judgment of the new generation that was coming to the front, that our Lord desired His hearers to turn their thoughts back to the time of the great popularity and ascendancy of the Baptist. For the days had been when there went out to sit at the feet of the Prophet of the Wilderness "all Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan, and were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins." [St. Matt. iii. 5.] Some of our Lord's hearers had swollen the ranks of these [27/28] multitudes; and our Lord bade them ask themselves why it was that they had left their homes? Where was the reasonableness of doing so? What was the governing attraction? "What went ye out into the wilderness to see?"


Our Lord's words do, in fact, raise a very large and interesting question, which we may well consider this afternoon, namely, what it is in human character or life that exerts the most powerful attraction over the hearts of men.

Is it what we generally call amiability? the instinct or habit which makes itself agreeable to everybody; which never opposes, never contradicts, never even holds its own, when to do so would cause a momentary sense of discomfort? Is it, as our Lord puts it, "a reed shaken with the wind?" a character that bends or that trembles at the first expression of adverse opinion; at a phrase in a speech, or at a phrase in a newspaper? Is this the character that wins the human heart? Are we really won by men who, in intercourse with their fellows, can see one, and one only, golden rule of conduct, that of "making things easy," and so of voting down principle whenever it becomes unwelcome or exacting? There are many people to be met with who evidently take this view of life in perfect good faith. They have [28/29] no principles, or none which they care to defend or make sacrifices for; their one object is to avoid that kind of discomfort which arises from a sense of social collision. So they go about the world bowing and smiling their unmeaning compliments to all the incompatibilities whom they meet on their way; and whatever else may be said of them, assuredly this is deservedly said of them, that they are very amiable people. Undoubtedly such persons are easier to get on with than those who look upon the society of their fellow-men as affording them the same sort of opportunity for distinction which a sea captain discovers in the neighbourhood of a hostile fleet. They are entitled, beyond doubt, to this negative praise: but the question is whether they exert any attraction on our hearts. And that question assuredly can only be answered in one way.

For what is it that we seek, all of us, in those whom we really love and respect? If we know anything about ourselves, we know this; that we are, all of us at times, weak, unstable, swayed hither and thither by gusts of feeling or opinion, by vacillations of which, in our higher and better moments, we are ashamed. And therefore, in our Lord's words, "we do not go out into the wilderness to see a reed shaken with the wind." We are most of us too familiar with that spectacle at home to make any efforts whatever to study it elsewhere. That which really draws us to itself is the sight of a man who knows the value of truth, and who is strong in knowing it; [29/30] strong enough to be perfectly courteous to its opponents, and to be withal entirely unyielding; strong enough to resist the delicate blandishments as well as the calculated ferocities of error and of vice: strong enough to feel that he can afford to be, and is bound to be, considerate and tender; and so, by this exhibition of a strength in which you and I know ourselves to be deficient, drawing us to lean on him in quest of a support which we do not find in ourselves. No; most assuredly, if St. John the Baptist had been the man to make himself agreeable, under all circumstances, to a king like Herod Antipas, the multitudes would never have troubled themselves to go out into the wilderness to see him.

Are we then generally attracted by the attributes of high station and position? John the Baptist was a man of good birth. But was it "a man clothed in soft raiment," who had drawn the Jewish multitudes from their homes into the desert, at the time referred to by our Lord?

There can be no question as to the attractive power which high station, and the circumstances that encompass it, exert over the minds of multitudes of men. Few persons are really insensible to this influence; and, generally speaking, those men are least of all insensible to it, who go out of their way ostentatiously to disclaim it. Nor is such an influence to be accounted for by supposing that the great and powerful are only sought after for the sake of what can be got out of them. This vulgar explanation [30/31] of their influence goes a very short way towards accounting for the facts; since we find that royalty in all ages and countries commands the homage of multitudes who never can expect to add one penny to their resources from the bounty of a Sovereign. And in truth the sentiment in question appeals not to the commercial instinct of making money and of getting on, but to a disinterested sense and conception of all that is involved in a great position. A great position, as we call it, is the product of some form of human enterprise or virtue in bygone days; it represents the valour, or the wisdom, or at least the perseverance of some among those whom we call the dead; it has accumulated with the lapse of years a vast assortment of associations, each one of which adds to it some new claim upon the popular feeling; it has been consecrated, we may dare to say, at least in some sense, by the protecting and upholding hand of God; and so it comes down to us, as a royal dynasty, or as a great family, enriched with a thousand subtle but imperious recommendations. And thus as we look on the "man clothed in soft raiment," we ungrudgingly yield to him at least a corner of our hearts.

But; does he really take possession of us? Surely not. His life may be a contradiction to all the ideal expectations that are raised by his rank. And, when this is not the case, reflection here, as in other matters, if not entirely undoing the work of imagination, at least obliges us to keep it in check. After all, what we seek [31/32] in our most serious moments is not the position, but the man; not the "soft raiment," but the mind and heart and will that underlie it. The position is not the real man: it is merely a decoration altogether outside him. And when we have stripped it off, and have looked at what lies beneath, we find, perhaps what we find elsewhere, a timid, forlorn soul, shivering at the Justice and the Magnificence of God, and as little able as ourselves to give the sort of satisfaction that is most constantly needed by the heart and will of a sinful fellow-creature.

No, if we leave our ordinary occupations, and go out into the unfrequented haunts of life, it is not to see a man clothed in soft raiment. Such persons, as our Lord says, are found elsewhere: they "live in king's houses;" they have their own range of influence and consideration, but it does not include the recesses of the heart.

Is it, then, mental power which most powerfully attracts us? Is it some great endowment that at once places a human mind in a rank high above its fellows; whether it be strength of reason, or wealth of imagination, or retentiveness of memory, or subtlety and delicacy of intellectual touch? Certainly, we see that many a man bows down to intellect who would shrink from the idea that he could care for station or for wealth. Intellect, he says, is part of the man himself, and is not, like station or wealth, a mere adjunct, contributing nothing to make him what he really is; intellect is the most conspicuous ingredient in the composition of the man; intellect above [32/33] all things is power, sometimes it is power of the highest order, wielding decisive influence in human affairs. Intellect then may well prove a commanding attraction; and the gift of prophecy, although spiritually conferred, was in its exercise an intellectual gift, which charmed and swayed the minds of men by the play of thought which was involved in its expression. And this is why our Lord asked His hearers whether they went out into the wilderness to see the popular prophet, as if in quest of a form of mental enjoyment.

Intellect, no doubt, is attractive, but the attraction is wanting both in power and in universality. It is not a universal attraction; since to do justice to intellect there must be mind enough to take stock of what it is and of what it achieves; and most of us, you and I, make no pretension to be intellectual in this sense. And it is not a very powerful attraction: there are large regions of our nature, and those often the most interesting, which it does not remotely touch. How often do we see intellect triumphantly silencing adverse argument, yet quite unable to produce conviction; the truth being that, although no answer seems to be forthcoming, something whispers that there is an answer, if it could only at the moment be produced. Such a whisper proceeds from a district of the soul for which mere intellect has made, and can make, no provision whatever. This district is spirit; just as real a department of the soul's life as is that in which intellect lives and works: just as real, but a far [33/34] higher one. There were simple Christians who had no chance in conversation with a master of profane repartee like Voltaire; but then his brilliant sarcasms left them where they were; an ostentatiously godless logic does not even touch that region of spiritual instinct in which, as in a native atmosphere, faith and love flourish and grow.

The truth is, that intellect often forfeits its legitimate power through being divorced from goodness. There is no necessary connexion between goodness and the very highest intellectual gifts. Balaam is an instance of lofty prophetic insight, joined to a fatal obliquity or weakness of moral character; he died fighting against the enemies of the truth which he had defended and proclaimed. [Numb. xxxi. 8.] Bacon, the father of the inductive philosophy, is a sample of the highest scientific intellect; and yet, for the credit of intellect, we almost wish that he could have been less wise than he was if he could not have been less mean.

And, not to insist on other instances, what a conspicuous example of this fact is afforded by the great writer, who more than any other man has formed the modern mind of Germany. All the world knows that Goethe's works sparkle with an originality that is all his own; and yet it is difficult to name a book that leaves us with a more melancholy impression of the tranquil and deliberate selfishness of a human character than Goethe's Autobiography. Goethe delights us while he is educating [34/35] taste, while he is stimulating and refining thought, while the heart is out of the way, and all that is highest and deepest in life is not immediately in question. But, in times of real seriousness or real sorrow, Goethe would be intolerable: mere polish or acuteness are lost upon the finest faculties of the soul of man. Goethe differs conspicuously from our own Shakespeare, with whom intellect is constantly in close alliance with higher qualities; and whose majestic language stutters, once and again, as he feels himself on the confines of a higher world, as if in instinctive deference to a Truth, or to a Beauty, Which is beyond the compass of human thought to reach.

But, in all probability, there is no created intellect so acute, so trained, so endowed with all the apparatus of knowledge, so vast in its capacity, and withal so intense in its power of concentrated application, as that of the Evil and apostate Spirit, the king of the children of pride. [The Intellect in Our Lord's Human Soul, is, of course, not in question.] For many thousand years he has been observing, inferring, correcting his observations and his inferences, accumulating knowledge in a vast field of experience, which is only not infinite, profiting by man's wisdom and by man's success, as well as by man's failures and his folly, and thus becoming by a process of unarrested growth, a being of mental powers, to which there can be no parallel among the sons of men. And yet when we think of his relation to the All-holy and Loving God, of his will stiffened by ancient persistence into determined and [35/36] irrevocable opposition to goodness, of the whole volume of desire in his nature changed from love into a malignant hatred, we see how his consummate intellectual endowments only enhance our reasons for utterly shrinking from his dreadful approach. No! intellect is not of itself attractive, at least in the long-run; and if the multitudes went out into the wilderness to see the last of the prophets, it was because, if a prophet, he was more than a prophet; because there was that about him which threw even his great prophetic endowments into shadow, while it drew to him the inmost hearts of men.


"More than a prophet"! What was it--this something which transcended the highest gifts, and which lured the Jewish multitudes into the wilderness to the feet of the Baptist? Was it the report of his supernatural birth? was it the spectacle of his hard, ascetic life? was it the firmness of his resolve? the simple majesty of a nature that was conscious of a single aim, and indifferent to all besides? These things no doubt had their weight. But beyond them was the feeling which is always inspired by a great religious character, of whose consistency we are well assured, but which we only half understand. It lives and moves before us, evidently in constant communion with God, while shrouding from the public eye [36/37] much which our curiosity would fain explore. Of this reserve of spiritual power in St. John, his hermit life in the desert, his wild food, his dress of camel's hair, were aptly suggestive; they showed that this side of existence was repressed for the sake of the other, and that to John the other was incomparably the vaster and more real. Without analyzing their feelings, these multitudes felt that in coming near to John the Baptist they were like travellers who stand at the base of a mountain which buries its summit in the clouds: they knew that a man of no common mould was there, and that he was worth understanding, if he could only be understood. This reserve is inevitable in the case of every great servant of God, and it goes to account for his attractive force. We too, moral pigmies as we are, long to catch a glimpse of that greater world in which God's spiritual aristocracy lives and works; we listen for the distant echo of its secrets; we are irresistibly drawn to claim such fellowship with it as we can, if only because it touches a chord in our souls which reminds us that we too have been created for the Infinite Being, and have before us, if we will, a destiny of boundless magnificence.

It was this quality in St. John which our Lord desired to suggest to the minds of those who listened. For if they did understand it, there would be no danger of their thinking that John was a prophet who had been discredited by the cessation of his public utterances or by his imprisonment. If John was more than a prophet, [37/38] it mattered little, from this point of view, whether he prophesied or not. If his body was detained by the bars and bolts of the royal prison-house, those bolts and bars could not confine the activities or narrow the range of his majestic soul. They could but illustrate the vulgar impotence of the world of sense when it provokes a conflict with the sublime aspirations and convictions of the world of spirit. It was this quality in St. John which explained his high office as our Lord's Precursor. "Yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet; for this is he of whom it is written, Behold, I send My messenger before Thy face, that he may prepare Thy way before Thee."

In truth, such a character as St. John's raised expectations which it could not satisfy. It pointed upwards to the Infinite and the Perfect: but as men gazed into the vast azure, all became vague and indistinct, and the soul fell back upon the dull concrete realities of everyday existence. If the work of John was to be completed and sustained, another Presence was needed; a Presence so real and certain, and withal so unassailable in Its majestic beauty that in It the human heart would find that even its highest hopes were not disappointed.

It is this quality which to the end of time explains the attractive power of churches and of men. Churches do not draw us into communion with them when they ostentatiously profess to have no positive doctrines, and to be only anxious to secure adherents; they do not draw us by their intimate relations with powerful empires, or by [38/39] the high station of their chief ministers, or even by the intellectual endowments of their most distinguished representatives. The human soul seeks in the Church of God something more than a reed shaken with the wind; something more than a man clothed in soft raiment; even something more than an intellectually gifted prophet. It seeks that felt but indescribable touch of a higher world which lifts it above the trivialities of this: it seeks a temple, the threshold of which it may cross, but whose sanctuary lies within the bosom of the Infinite; it seeks a life, the divine pulsations of which it knows to issue from an invisible Heart; above all, it seeks whatever will lead it most effectually and most intimately to Him--its Lord and God--Who alone can satisfy the deep, mysterious yearnings with which He has Himself endowed it.

And as with churches so with men. It is not the easygoing, the highly-placed, the intellectual who win our hearts. The men who really take us captive are the saintly. They take us out of ourselves: they draw us into the wilderness; we follow them into some solitude of thought where the common associations of life are not. And then, in silence it may be but by their example, they bid us look upwards, if we would understand what they are; they bid us look upwards, beyond themselves, to the strength and secret of their life, to Jesus Christ, God and Man, Crucified, Risen, Ascended, Interceding. Oh! divine prerogative thus to prepare the way of the Lord! [39/40] Oh! happiness, undeserved and unspeakable, thus to be drawn to Him, though it be by influences which we only half understand ourselves, and which the world, if it does not always persecute, will never understand, until all is made clear in the presence of the Eternal Judge!

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