"AND when they came to Jesus, they besought Him instantly, saying, that he was worthy for whom He should do this: for he loveth our nation, and he hath built us a synagogue. Then Jesus went to Them." St. Luke, vii. 4, 5. 6.
YOU will recognize these words, beloved brethren, as occurring in the narrative of our Lord's cure of the centurion's servant. The circumstances of this miracle are all of them, without exception, sufficiently remarkable. Our present attention, however, is to be called only to that one of them which suggests the proper inducement for our availing ourselves of the high privilege of contributing, according to the ability which God has given, toward providing, or maintaining, a place for His worship.
The sole argument which the elders of the Jews employed, in urging, with extraordinary importunity, our good and gracious Lord to comply with the centurion's entreaty, and restore his servant to health, was the fact, that the centurion, of his own accord, and at his own expense, had provided a house in which the people of God could duly worship Him--a synagogue, in which the law might be daily read and expounded, and prayer, public and private, be continually made.
This argument, it would appear, was enough, not only to move the Saviour to the exercise of His wondrous power as desired, but to exercise it in a manner more immediate and unusual than was His custom. For we read that as soon as it was announced "he hath built us a synagogue," "Then Jesus went with them"--went without delay, and as if for that very reason. And we find that the cure was effected without so much as the entering of Christ into the house, or his giving a direction, or even uttering a word. That faith, which at first had led to so noble a deed as the building a house of worship for the Almighty, was now found to he unequaled in Israel, and worthy of so signal an honor.
From the present circumstance, then, it would appear that good deeds done for the House of God are in a peculiar sense acceptable to Him, and that they ensure a more than ordinary recompense of reward. Christ, when on earth, performs, with unusual alacrity and in such a manner as to confer very great distinction, one of His chief miracles, in behalf of a centurion, a foreigner and stranger, one who had naturally an inferior claim upon His kindness, when told that "he was worthy for whom He should do this," and that his worthiness consisted in the respect that "he loveth our nation, and he hath built us a synagogue."
Elsewhere, in Holy Scripture, we shall find abundant evidence in favor of the present inference.
A blessing or a curse is again and again represented as the invariable consequence of zeal or indifference in regard to the House of God.
These are the words of The Lord by the prophet Haggai, when summoning his people to the re-building of the Temple: "Consider your ways. Ye have sown much, and bring in little; ye eat, but ye have not enough; ye drink, but ye are not filled with drink; ye clothe you, but there are none warm; and he that earneth wages earneth wages to put it into a bag with holes. * * * * Why? saith the Lord of Hosts. Because of mine House that is waste, and ye run every man unto his own house. Therefore the heaven over you is stayed from dew, and the earth is stayed from her fruit. And I called for a drought upon the land, and upon the mountains, and upon the corn, and upon the new wine, and upon the oil, and upon that which the ground bringeth forth, and men, and upon cattle, and upon all the labor of the hand." And these are His words, so soon as that work had been thoroughly entered upon: "Consider now from this day and upward, from the four and twentieth day of the ninth month, even from the day that the foundation of The Lord's Temple was laid, consider it--from this day will I bless you." The fulfillment of which promise is thus recorded in the book of Ezra: "And the elders of the Jews builded, and they prospered through [or during] the time of the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo"--while in that same book there is a passage occurring in the decree of Artaxerxes, testifying to the natural instinct--to the conviction of a heathen--in the present regard: "Whatsoever is commanded by the God of Heaven, let it be diligently done for the House of the God of Heaven: for why should there be wrath against the realm of the king and his sons."
Indeed, just in proportion as ancient Israel were ready and abundant, or remiss and illiberal, in their offerings for this purpose,--just in that proportion did the blessing or the curse of the Almighty rest upon them. Where in the world's history do we meet with such magnificent gratuities toward any object, as the gifts made by this people in the days of David and Solomon for the Temple of the Most High? And where else do we meet with the enjoyment of such national peace and prosperity--when silver was as the stones of the street, and cedar trees as the sycamores of the vale--when Judah and Israel were many as the sand which is by the sea in multitude, eating and drinking and making merry--as that of the time during which the Temple was in preparation or in building? Or, on the other hand, where do we meet with such judgments as were visited upon the Israelites, so often as due provision for maintaining the worship of Al-mighty God ceased to be made? Wherever, in the books of the Kings or the Chronicles, there is a record of the restoration of an altar, it is almost invariably coupled with that of the conclusion of a war, or some other public advantage. [Joseph Mede.] And from an historical circumstance related in the hook of Joshua, it would appear, that by right-minded people in ancient times, the land destitute of an altar to the Almighty, was looked upon as unholy and unclean, and likely to prove the unfailing source of disaster to its occupants. The possessions of the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh, were separated by the river Jordan from the land of Canaan, which contained the Tabernacle of the Lord. They therefore erected an altar within their own borders. This act met with the general reprobation of the other tribes. And Phinehas, and ten of the princes of Israel, were sent to the children of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh, with the following remarkable message: "If the land of your possession be unclean, then pass ye over unto the land of the possession of the Lord, wherein the Lord's Tabernacle dwelleth." In the Psalter, for the thirteenth morning of the month, there occurs a verse, in which, by a figure unsurpassed in all other poetry, David, as her presents one and another of the several hills about Jerusalem as fairly leaping forward from their bases, in their anxiety to be chosen for the future habitation of the Ark, sets forth this same idea, viz.: that a blessing and an honor are inseparably associated with the land itself in which the Houses of God are builded. As the procession, embracing the whole nation, with the King at its head, passes by these successive hills, and draws near to Mount Zion with the Ark, which is thenceforth to rest thereon, from the singers going before, and the players on instruments following after, arises the interrogatory and the declaration: "Why leap ye, ye high hills? this"--not ye, though your summits be loftier, but this, Mount Zion--"is the hill which God desireth to dwell in: yea, the Lord will dwell in it for ever."
But let us now pass from a general to a particular consideration of this matter. In so doing, we shall find, in the case of Obed-Edom, a special blessing resting upon an individual for his making of his own house a House of God, as it were, by receiving and retaining therein the Ark of the Covenant: "And the Ark of God remained with the family of Obed-Edom in his house three months, and the Lord blessed the house of Obed-Edom, and all that he had."
In the case of Nehemiah, who was a chief nstrument in rebuilding the Temple, we find his services in this behalf urged as a special argument for future remembrance and reward in the great day of final account; and moreover the true doctrine of the recompense of reward for good deeds so properly stated, as to guard against the possibility of error: "Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and wipe not out my good deeds that I have done for the House of my God, and for the offices thereof. * * * * And spare me according to the greatness of Thy mercies."
It is not for their own merit or worthiness' sake, that God rewards our good deeds and Works; but of his own free mercy and goodness.
No one who reads in such wise as he should, the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, can for a moment question whether or no they encourage us to work in hope of the reward laid up for us. For we are therein told, that in keeping of God's commandments there is great reward: that "unto him that soweth in righteousness, shall be a sure reward"--and are hidden: "Love your enemies, do good and lend,--and your REWARD shall be GREAT;" and again: "Look to yourselves that ye lose not those things which ye have wrought, but that ye may receive a full reward." The only question is, whether this reward springs from the worth or worthiness of the work itself, as a debt of justice due unto it; or from God's mercy, as a recompense freely bestowed, out of God's gracious bounty, and not in justice due to the work itself. This question is, however, satisfactorily determined by the text from Nehemiah, and these similar passages, viz.: "Sow to yourselves in righteousness, and reap in mercy"--"with thee, O Lord, is mercy; for thou rewardest every man according to his work." "The wages of sin is death: but eternal life is the gift of God." So far as ourselves are concerned, whatsoever the reward may be, it is merely the reward of grace. In so far as God's promises and covenant are concerned, it may be viewed as the reward of justice. "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins." [Vid. Mede, Disc, xxxiv].
But to pursue the present investigation. From, their history it will appear that almost all of those, who were remarkable for the good report which they obtained, and for the special favors heaped upon them by the Almighty, were also noted, like the centurion in our text, for providing and maintaining places for the Divine Worship. Of Noah it is said, that he "found grace in the eyes of the Lord," and that "he was a just man and perfect in his generation; and that he walked with God." The first act recorded of him after the flood is, that he "builded an altar unto the Lord," and so acceptable was his so doing, that God associated therewith His promise, never again to smite every thing living.
Abraham received the title, friend of God; and was vouchsafed almost unequaled temporal and spiritual blessings. Now, in every place in which he sojourned, the first thing related of him is, "and there he builded an altar unto the Lord."
The same was the practice of Isaac, whose seed sown "the Lord blessed an hundred-fold, and to whom he gave possessions of flocks, and possessions of herds, and great store of servants, so that the Philistines envied him."
Jacob, to whom was given, in token of his power with God and with men, the name Israel, and in whose hand even adversity proved an advantage, consecrated his Bethel and his El-elohe Israel wherever he encamped.
Moses, with whom, as with never another, God spake face to face, and whose miracles were only inferior to those of the Messiah, long ere the ark and the glorious Tabernacle were yet made, of his own accord prepared a place without the camp, whither every one should go which sought the Lord.
While David--the man after God's own heart, and whose highest favor was not his advancement to he king over Israel, not that " he died in a good old age, full of days, riches, and honor;" nor even, that Messiah was called his son; hut that God of His gracious goodness was pleased to pardon and put away his sin, to purge him with hyssop, and to wash his soul so crimsoned with guilt, until it became whiter than snow--seems to have had no more abiding thought than that of the house which was to be builded for the Lord; exceeding magnifical of fame and of glory throughout all countries; and never another gave of his own greater gifts than he, for that purpose: "Moreover, because I have set my affection to the house of my God, I have of mine own proper good, of gold and silver, which I have given to the house of my God, over and above all that I have prepared for the holy house, even three thousand talents of gold, of the gold of Ophir, and seven thousand talents of refined silver, to overlay the walls of the houses withal: the gold for things of gold, and the silver for things of silver, and for all manner of work to he made by the hand of artificers."
Surely but little more can he required to evidence from Holy Scripture, that good deeds done for the House of God, are in a peculiar sense acceptable to Him, and that they ensure a more than ordinary recompense of reward. And that little is readily found in the testimony of the Almighty Himself to David: "whereas it was in thine, heart to build an house unto my name, thou didst well that it was in thine heart;" and in David's benedictory prayer for his people: "I know also, my God, that Thou triest the heart, and hast pleasure hi uprightness. As for me, in the uprightness of mine heart I have willingly offered all these things: and now have I seen with joy Thy people, which are present here, to offer willingly unto Thee. O Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and of Israel, our fathers, keep this forever--this willingness to offer unto Thee for Thy Holy Temple--in the imagination of the thoughts of the hearts of Thy people." For, verily, had there been a more acceptable and a more blessed thing than this, David would have asked it for his people.
This, then, brethren beloved, is the motive, and the only motive, wherewith I would urge you, this day and so long as occasion may be, to the largest liberality that your several circumstances will allow, in bringing your gifts to the altar for this your Church, viz., the peculiar acceptableness in the sight of God of good deeds done for His house, and their unfailing recompense of reward. I will not seek to interest you with the details of our history hitherto--from what time, a half dozen in number, we gathered in that private room--without local habitation or name--owning no more than a Bible, a Prayer-book, a Lecturn, and a surplice, until the lines are fallen to us in so pleasant a place, and ours is so goodly an heritage as this. I will not speak of the seven years' Jacob-like toil for this our Rachel--in the consuming drought by day, and frost by night--of the sleep that has departed from the eyes--of aught that has been done or endured in building you an house of worship, nor of the readiness wherewith by one of your number, were it in his power, you should be wronged of the privilege of contributing in the least to this object. I will not ask you to return with me to the a-hungered and athirst--to the naked and sick and in prison--to the crazed, and fatherless, and widows, to whom this church, in her measure, has sent her charity and her ministry, and tell you that in very deed she is WORTHY--WORTHY--WORTHY--for whom you should do this. I will not bid you follow me into the far future when others shall be here in our stead, and rejoice as we contemplate the fresh springs of beneficence that hence, for our this day's deed, shall more copiously issue, to sweep through the length and the breadth of the land--nor, if there be a reluctant one among us, who, like Esau of old, despises his privilege, and thinks and says, what a weariness it is, this continual solicitation, would I seek to remove his disinclination by crimsoning his cheek with the question, Didst not thou ask of the Almighty thy daily bread, and the forgiveness of thy sins this day? And wilt thou not, if wise, entreat them again to-morrow and the third day? Nor will I inquire of one and another, if I myself may not he hound up in your undying memories of joy or sorrow--if God of His goodness have not permitted me to render you an acceptable service--which you would now requite in the manner most satisfactory, by furthering her welfare to whom my life unreserved is devoted. No, brethren beloved, I will seek to move you only by the high and holy and proper motive--that good deeds done for the House of God are, in a peculiar sense, acceptable to Him, and that they ensure a more than ordinary recompense of reward. Nor will I doubt that its influence, under the divine blessing, shall so sufficiently. prevail, as to enable me, with ray utmost wish fulfilled, to stand by that altar and say: "Now, therefore, our God, we thank Thee, and praise Thy glorious name; but who am I, and what is my people that we should be able to offer so willingly after this sort? for all things come of Thee, and of Thine own have we given Thee."