Sermons on the Apocalypse, the Holy Name, and the Proverbs
by John Mason Neale.
London: J.T. Hayes, 1871.
SERMON V Preached Second Sunday after Epiphany, 1863. LISTLESSNESS. 'Thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead."--REV.
IT is not of this verse by itself that I am so much going to speak: but of it, as the Antiphon, so to say, to the whole Epistle; ay, and to that also to Laodicea. And nothing can concern us more nearly. Every Religious House, in these times at least, must have a name that it liveth. It must be, and is, so with you. Impossible that you should carry on the works you are carrying on, without others concluding at once that they must be done from the pure love of GOD, and in simple dependence on the HOLY GHOST. But I wonder how we should feel if a direct message came to us from the LORD as it did to Sardis: with what terrible anxiety we should listen to it; the exquisite joy if it were--"Because thou hast kept the word of My patience, I also will keep thee in the hour of temptation;" the misery, if we heard, "Because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of My mouth;" the rapture of: "Thou hast borne, and hast patience, and for My Name's sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted:" even though it were checked with: "Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee;" and, lastly, the almost despair of: "Thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead."
Now before I go on notice this. Considering how common in the Apocalypse are plays upon words, it is very possible that the proper name of the Angel of the Church of Sardis had something to do with life: such as Vitalis in Latin; Zosimus in Greek. So the terrible irony as touching himself would be all the more bitter.
Now what strikes me first of all as the great characteristic in common of these two unhappy Churches, is the absence of all mention of external trouble, or inward temptation. Ephesus is vexed by Nicolaitanes; Smyrna shall have tribulation ten days; Pergamum is twice said to dwell "where Satan's throne is"; "where Satan dwelleth." Thyatira is tempted by "that woman Jezebel" to the lusts of the flesh; Philadelphia is harassed "by them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie." But dead Sardis, and miserable Laodicea, have no fears, no trouble, no enemy. Satan knew too well to harass them. They were, as the Prophet says, settled upon their lees. Now, my Sisters, what is true of Churches is true of individuals. Therefore there may be comfort, or there may be warning here. Who would not rather be tempted with Philadelphia than have the peace of Sardis? And notice this. Next to Smyrna and Philadelphia, to whom not one word of blame is said, perhaps Thyatira comes highest: she whose last works and love were more than the first; that is a glorious advance. She it is who is attacked by the most loathsome temptation: that of "that woman Jezebel." Now, whether this really were the founder of a sect, or merely a personification of the Gnostics, still the trial to the Church was the same. They taught that it was a small thing for a man to despise the temptations of the flesh, if he fled from them and avoided them. No, they said: 'the true, the glorious victory was to remain superior to such pleasures while tasting them to the full; to give up the senses to all they could desire, while the spirit remained in a calm, pure region above them. This, they said, was defying Satan in his own kingdom and stronghold.
And a masterpiece of Satan's that was: and thousands it drew away to hell. And, singularly enough, the very name, Jezebel, has an analogy with the teaching. We know, from the Old Testament, the kind of life she led; we know from other history that she, before her marriage with Ahab, was the priestess of Astarte, the Venus of the Zidonians, and yet her name is said, in the old Phoenician, to mean pure; just as Agnes in Greek.
And Smyrna again is tempted to open blasphemy: Smyrna, the spotless Church.
So, my Sisters, try to learn this. Temptations, let them be what they may, if only they are resisted, are the mark of growth: it is that terrible stagnation, when nothing has to be resisted, that all true servants of our dear LORD ought earnestly (His dearest servants most earnestly) to pray against.
Another thing to be observed. I have spoken so much and so lately about this, that I should not have entered into it again, had it not been there so plainly. Our LORD continues, about Sardis: "I have not found thy works perfect before GOD." Now perfect is not the right translation. It means literally, not having been filled up to the brim; that is, not thorough. You know how small a thing this appears to us. I say us, because I am to blame in that sense as much as any of you. "That will do." I doubt if that sentence has not done as much harm in the English language. That will just prevent open failure, and make the work keep on; the rest is useless labour. If I needlessly put off a Confession, because to-morrow will do as well; if I needlessly repeat what I have said before, instead of writing for you afresh, that is not thorough. If you,--but the rest I leave to your several consciences.
Well;--and as I said, we might think this,--a fault, certainly,--but see the judgment which He, the Most Merciful, as well as the Most Just, pronounces on it. This is the whole sum and substance of the sin; you heard the sentence before: "Thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead." This is only the declaration of the earthly, transfigured by the Heavenly Solomon: "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might."
My Sisters, if any of you feel in your heart of hearts that you have so offended, (and He that wrote these Apocalyptic Epistles only knows), we have not so long entered on the new year but that it is comparatively unspoiled ground. Begin again once more.
And, with respect to that, the threatening to the Laodiceans has much to do. "I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot." How are we to understand that? Better not love GOD at all than love Him half-heartedly? It is well to look at that: for there is certainly a difficulty; and three ways have been proposed of explaining it. The first would make it a mere expression of (as they say) holy impatience, against half-and-half love. Just as we say, when we object strongly to any measure, "Anything rather than that," meaning thereby, certainly not anything; but under very great limitation, and in a most confined sense. But, if we realize how completely these Epistles were the exact verbal words of our LORD to the Churches, we could hardly allow that He could so have spoken. For, of a perfect Being, it would not be a holy, but an unholy impatience. Then; another explanation: as food, if quite hot, or quite cold, is acceptable; but neither one nor the other, is to us disgusting; so the hot and the cold are, here, both good; only the lukewarm evil. But I suppose we all feel that such a low interpretation is utterly below the dignity of a common prophecy,--to say nothing of the especial glory of this book. No: the cold, addressed to a Church, situated in the midst of a heathen country, signifies those who have never given ear to the True Faith; who have never received the Gospel: better heathen, unregenerate, than regenerate, lukewarm Christians.
Then, there is so very dear a thing in this Epistle. Sardis, at this time, was not only one of the most luxurious, but one of the most populous of the cities of Asia Minor. Notice then: our LORD will not allow the few names, insignificant in the eyes of the world though they might be, to think that they are overlooked by Him. And only a few names, rather than a few? Surely with reference to that Book of Life in which the names of all who have fought the fight well,--who have run the race well, are even now enrolled. But see how our LORD takes care that, even in that general condemnation, even when He so speaks of the Church as dead, He is careful that His own dear servants, few though they be, should feel that they are not overlooked by Him. It is the old story over again, "Wilt thou destroy all the city for lack of five?" And the five, though they were not to be found, yet had they been found, would have been precious in the LORD'S sight.
And now remember, my Sisters, unless the matter had been, as it were, so completely pressed on me, by a text which I took without the slightest reference to that, I would not have spoken to you about listlessness and the doing a thing without putting your whole heart and soul unto it. I told you just now how, if you fail in that respect, these Epistles pronounce a deeper condemnation than we might have expected: now, I remind you, how, if you succeed in what seems to be a little, trifling, insignificant thing, you will have your part in the blessing pronounced on those who have thus contended, and those who have thus conquered--(the Church that had little strength)--"Hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy Crown." And now, &c.