Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord, from henceforth: yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them.
A VOICE from heaven pronounced these words to St. John the Divine, and commanded him to write them for the consolation of believers to all future generations. And how often, my brethren, have they animated the Christian during his wearisome journey of life, and given him hope and courage in the prospect of its immediate termination? How often have they produced a heavenly calm in his breast when agitated with worldly distresses, or dried the tears of anguish from his eyes when looking upon the cold remains of some object of fond affection? They pronounce a blessing upon those "who die in the Lord;" and this assurance is itself a blessing of unspeakable value to those who live in the Lord. What can be more essential to the happiness of the good man than to know that death does not terminate his being,--that the grave, when it closes over his mortal body, does not bury up thoughts and affections, and lofty hopes and virtuous aspirations; but that death, on the contrary, is only a rest from his earthly labours, the termination of his earthly sorrows, and that his works of piety and virtue shall follow him to a brighter and better world? From henceforth, saith the Spirit, this is the solemn decree of the Eternal. From the time that Jesus, the Saviour, vanquished death, and rose triumphant from the grave,--from that time this blessing was purchased by his blood, its reality was proved in his own exalted person, and it has been proclaimed to the world by his appointed messengers. On this solemn occasion when your hearts are filled with grief, I present to you words of the surest and best consolation. To you, weeping relations, afflicted friends, bereaved people, I say, Blessed is he who hath died in the Lord, for he rests from his labours, and his works do follow him. That the power of this consolation may be felt, I beseech you to meditate with me upon the nature of the blessing expressed in these words. May that Holy Being whose voice first spake them, and through whose mysterious dispensation their soothing influence is now so much required, may he be present with us by his Spirit, and give us minds attentive to hear his truth, and hearts prepared to receive and obey it.
1. Those who die in the Lord are pronounced blessed; in the first place, because they rest from their labours. Under what a delightful image is our future existence presented to our minds! It is a rest. We are supposed to be wearied with the labours of life, to be harassed with its cares, to be disheartened with its sorrows and disappointments,--how desirable then is the assurance of quiet and refreshing repose! Like the children of Israel in their pilgrimage of forty years through the barren desert, when panting for the shade and cooling streams of Judea, we look forward with ardent desire to our rest, the milk and honey of its land of promise, the green banks and refreshing waters of its Jordan.
So truly is life a journey, and so truly are men only sojourners upon earth, that many who have been destitute of the glorious promises we enjoy, have been willing to look upon the grave, even the dark and cheerless grave of nature, as their place of repose. They feared not its eternal silence; they shrunk not from its utter extinction of thought and feeling. In the midst of their sufferings and disappointments, they would find comfort in saying, "There the wicked cease from troubling, and there the weary be at rest. There the prisoners rest together; they hear not tire voice of the oppressor." It was sufficient for them that they could cast off the load of existence which they had found it so grievous to bear; arid often with impious hands they hastened their relief, throwing themselves into their imagined bed of eternal rest, with the precipitation of despair. If then, under many aspects of our present being, entire annihilation, were it possible, would be gladly chosen as a relief, of what inestimable value must be that religion which grants us this relief effectually, and still permits us to retain all that is most desirable in life; and not only so, but promises pleasures unspeakable and never ending? Such is the blessing pronounced upon those who die in the Lord.
The Christian, at his death, shall rest from the labours and cares of this life. It was part of the original condemnation of our sinful race that man should "eat his bread in the sweat of his face." Now in the present condition of the world we ought not to esteem this an hardship. Labour is essential to any portion of earthly happiness we may obtain. He knows not the pleasures of repose, who has never experienced the pain of weariness; he knows not the delights of tranquillity, who has never felt the agitations of care; he knows not the full satisfaction of a light and bounding heart, who has never felt it pressed and pierced by untoward circumstances. We can have no happiness here but in a kind of contrast to pain. But although reason acknowledges all this, still labour and care are in themselves evils. We avoid them when we can. We are assured that they are evidences of our fallen state. We esteem him an enviable man who has the smallest portion of them. Now, from the dead they are removed for ever. There is no work nor device in the grave whither we are going. Those anxious days which you have passed, those weary and wakeful nights will be experienced no more. Never again will disappointment cross your path, nor sudden misfortune cast to the earth with ruthless hand that fabrick of prosperous comfort, which you have been for years erecting for yourself and your children. He who has never eaten his daily bread but with the painful exertions of severe toil, will have a rest, which through life he could never taste. He who has had anxiously and constantly to think of the maintenance of those whom Providence has committed to his protection, and has never been cheered by the brightness of his future prospects, will find himself lightened of his load, and his heart freed from corroding care. All the evils of existence will be removed, and only its real blessings and enjoyments will go with us to the other world.
2. But it is not from labour and care merely that we seek repose; we desire relief from sorrow and suffering. These cannot follow us to the grave. They belong to this world. Here they must remain; and here they have power to take hold upon us all, and, each of us in our turn, to silence our songs of joy, and dim our eyes with tears of anguish. Who has escaped suffering from pains of body, or pangs of soul? But in the grave that body which has often caused us to groan with the torments of disease, will be laid aside, and all our sorrows of every description will be forgotten. We can weep no more at our separation from beloved friends; we can no more be distressed with the cruelty of enemies, or the coldness and unkindness of those whom we loved. Here these various evils have power to disturb, or agitate, or agonize us. But in the grave, the whole body will crumble to pieces, and cause us not one pang, and the enfranchised soul will ascend to the place of immortal joy, where sorrows and sufferings can never find an entrance.
3. Again, we shall rest from the labours of our Christian calling. You all can appreciate what it is to repose from other labours, and can covet such repose. Would, my beloved brethren, that you all as anxiously desired relief from these. Would that you all knew by experience what are the hardships of the follower of Christ; how he has to contend with sin, to resist temptation, to tear from his heart beloved but dangerous propensities, to cultivate an untoward soil, to nourish the good dispositions planted by the Spirit of God, and to guard them from watchful and inveterate adversaries. Were you practically acquainted with these, the constant occupations of every true Christian, then would you understand how anxiously he must look forward for the time when he may remit his painful exertions, when he will no longer have to keep guard against temptations from without, or maintain a warfare with passions within. The true Christian, although he will in general be one of the happiest among men, yet he has before him a most important and arduous work which he has not completed, and which he is conscious can never be finished, but on the brink of the grave. In performing this work, he encounters many things which distress him and interrupt his progress. His hope is sometimes clouded, his faith is trembling, his devotion languishes, and then how severe are his exertions to maintain his spiritual condition. Now at his death, these painful exercises will be needless. Then will he be freed from dulness of devotion and inconstancy of spirit. His affections will be always exerted and never wearied, always burning and never wasting away.
Such is the repose of them who die in the Lord. But when we discourse of a rest from labour, you must not imagine, my brethren, that we would represent the future state as one of inaction. The rest spoken of is not the unconscious rest of slumber, nor the unsatisfying rest of indolence, nor the stupid rest of unemployed faculties. No, my brethren, heaven must be a place of exertion, of animation, of excitement. We must there have our appropriate employments. What they are to be, "eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man to conceive of them." We know, however, that they will be performed without pain, without weariness, and we shall never experience disappointment in their results. Many who have never felt the overflowings of gratitude in the renewed heart, when contemplating the wonders of redeeming lover experience a kind of dissatisfaction at the representation of heaven as a place where the spirits of the blessed employ an eternity in one unceasing song of praise. And perhaps most persons would acknowledge that the prospect of unchanging occupation, however delightful and exalted in itself, cannot afford us the highest pleasure in anticipating it constituted as we are. And why should we imagine that such is our destination in heaven? We should thus wrong our Maker, who hath given us these varied faculties; we should wrong our Saviour, whose religion hath required us to cultivate them. Why should they be cultivated on earth, if they are not to be employed hereafter? Not any of them attain their perfection here. No power of intellect, no virtuous temper of mind, no religious affection, has ever arrived at its full dimensions on earth. When we come to die, we feel as if we could make infinitely greater advancement in all. And wherefore shall we not make it? We shall, my brethren. The future world we believe will give us opportunities for social employment, for happy and grateful exercise and employment, for sublime intellectual improvement, and for songs of ecstatic devotion, such as angels sing to their melodious harps. And one source of our most exalted delight will be--ceaseless progression. Forward we shall move in knowledge, in virtue, and happiness, drawing nearer to the throne of God, looking with a steadier eye upon its brightness, and receiving from it larger measures of divine favour and affection. That this is true, may we not infer from the latter words of our text, "and their works do follow them." The works of the righteous are not lost or left behind. They go with those who performed them. But for what purpose we must here inquire. To establish their title to future rewards? To be the means of purchasing for them the favour of God? By no means, my brethren. Let us not for a moment harbour so dangerous a presumption. Our best and purest works are not of such value. We can place upon them no such dependance. They have been too few, too often intermitted, too mingled with corrupt motives, and are in their best condition too imperfect. The Gospel teaches us to look only to the merits of our blessed Saviour, and to expect eternal life through him alone. By the shedding of his blood, the punishment of sin is remitted; by his intercession, we are restored to the favour of God; and by the sanctifying influences of his Spirit, we are purified for the kingdom of heaven. Our works then follow us, that what was begun here may be perfected in heaven. They follow us too, that they may receive the approbation of our Maker and Judge. All those deeds of private benevolence which we may have performed, all those secret virtues we may have practised, will then be proclaimed. The good which here sought retirement, and shrunk from the applause of men, will be then pre-eminently distinguished by the divine favour. Have courage then, ye who are the meek of the earth, and dare not let your full worth be known; ye also whose good is evil spoken of, and ye whose best exertions have only met with opposition and disappointment, the time will come when you shall enjoy your reward. "The Father, which seeth in secret, himself shall reward you openly." Saints and angels shall see you crowned with glory, and shall hear your applauding salutation, "Well done, good and faithful servants, enter ye into the joy of your Lord."
Such, my brethren, is the nature of the blessing pronounced in the text. Who then will not be anxious to secure it? Who will not pray that his death-bed may be one of peace; the prospect of his grave like the anticipation of refreshing slumbers; his emancipation from the body, the escape of a soul from darkness, pain, and confinement, into glorious day and overflowing delights, and freedom and strength of motion as angels wings? He who sincerely desires this happiness, and earnestly prays for it, may obtain it at the price. Let him live in the Lord, if in the Lord he would die. By no other means can this blessedness be secured. How can they expect it who pass the days of their sojourning here in folly, and vanity, and sinful pleasures? From what labours have they to rest? Alas! their labours are their delights, the whole object of their existence. And what works of theirs would they desire to follow them? Would they take with them the wealth they have striven to accumulate? It cannot pass the barrier of the grave; and if it could, think you it would bribe to mercy the righteous Judge, or purchase heavenly joys, or build in Paradise palaces of splendour, and gardens of delights? Would they take their dear bought, fame, the work of a life? What would it avail? Will angels and just men made perfect, applaud him whose heart is hard and selfish, and whose ambition has eaten up kindly sympathies, and generous affections, and the spirit of devotion? No, my brethren, the only works which survive the grave, are the works of Christian purity and love. These, indeed, are eternal as the God who commands them, and precious as the joys by which he rewards them. These are the only treasures which heavenly spirits estimate--the only prevailing title to their applause. Riches, and reputation, and worldly learning, and worldly pleasures, are the works of time, and with time they shall perish; but deeds of piety, and faith, and love, are the works of immortality, and those who possess them shall enjoy everlasting pleasures at God's right hand.
It is from a knowledge of the character of him, who by a most afflictive and mysterious dispensation of Providence, has been removed from among you, and in full confidence that his labours were those of Christian love, and his works those of Christian faith, that I have used in reference to him, and for your consolation, my brethren, the impressive words of the text. I do not appear before you to eulogize his memory. Oh no! too recently has his voice been heard from this sacred place; too recently have you met him in the daily walks of life, as the faithful pastor and the affectionate friend; too recently, alas! have your sorrowing footsteps followed him to the silent tomb, to permit your recollections of him to grow languid. But in preparing myself for the first Lord's day duties of this bereaved church, neither your feelings nor mine would be satisfied without some reference to an event which a whole community deplores, which a united congregation most deeply laments, and which I, in common with my brethren, regard as one of the most afflictive that could have befallen our brotherhood. A bright example of Christian piety and ministerial faithfulness has been removed from us. One whose native sweetness of disposition, gentleness of manners, and honourable principles of moral conduct, seemed less than almost any other person's to need the sanctifying and restraining influences of divine grace; but yet, whose humility was such, that he felt more powerfully than almost any other his dependance upon the Spirit of God, and placed himself more entirely beneath its guidance. Enjoying a success in his ministerial career, which would have rendered many arrogant, and which might almost have justified a degree of self-elevation, his conduct was still meek and unobtrusive. The mild and affectionate, as well as impressive preacher to the two or three gathered together in yonder humble chapel, was not the less mild and affectionate rector of this splendid church; erected principally through his assiduity, and its worshippers assembled by personal respect for his character, and the consciousness of improvement under his conciliating, but earnest ministrations.
His eulogy has already been spoken by one who knew him from his youth, and knew him well, and who has borne ample testimony to his long course of pure and consistent conduct, and to his eminently faithful discharge of all the social duties of life. [Rev. Dr. B. T. Onderdonk.] We who have known him for a shorter period, and principally during his ministry, may add our public voice, and say, That never has there been associated with us one who has more universally secured our respect and affection. No unpleasant collisions ever marred our intercourse; and although he has executed in the most successful manner, the most difficult work for a minister, that of rearing a parish in the midst of surrounding ones, and partly by their temporary loss, yet I bear testimony before you all, that it has been done without exciting the slightest emotions of dissatisfaction, and that his decease is by none more deeply and unaffectedly deplored than by those who on this account were most exposed to be alienated from him. What more can be said in proof of his sweetness of disposition, his amiable manners, his disinterestedness, his purity of motives, and unaffected piety? If more could be said, I would utter it, for in these respects no one held him in higher estimation while living, no one more entirely venerates his memory now that he is dead. I use no extravagant or unweighed words of praise, in saying, that beneath that altar repose the mortal remains of one, who, in the faithful and affectionate discharge of social and domestic duties, in the mild graces of Christian piety, in the varied occupations of the Christian pastor, preaching in the temple, holding intercourse in the family circle, counselling the aged, and above all, instructing the young, and winning over their hearts to piety and virtue, may be an example and a model to any amongst those who are left behind.
To you who have lost such a friend; such a pastor; and but for obtruding on the sacred privacy of domestic grief, I would say, such a son, and brother, and father; what words of consolation can I speak? You already know every thing from which I could draw consolation, that if he lived this life of exemplary piety, his end was its appropriate termination. Though the summons came upon him suddenly, he was not unprepared; though called from much that could render life desirable, and with large prospects of usefulness and happiness opening before him, he readily, and even cheerfully, answered the summons of his Maker. To remain, said he to the weeping friends around him, might be well for you, but for me to depart and be with Christ is far better. And it was entirely upon the merits of that Christ and Saviour that he placed his hope of salvation. Often and often did he disclaim any worthiness of his own as a reason for his acceptance. His whole confidence was in his Redeemer, and in this faith he departed, saying but a short time before his decease to a dear friend, with peculiar emphasis, I know that my body is returning to its kindred earth, but my spirit to God who gave it.
Called to lament the loss of such a friend and pastor, you cannot weep for him. Blessed, unspeakably blessed is he, for he hath died in the Lord, and he rests from his labours. But you weep for yourselves, and for the bereaved church. It is my duty to exhort you not to let this be a vain and unprofitable grief. Let it be mingled with solemn meditations upon your own mortality, with serious examinations of your own state of preparedness, and with resolutions of greater diligence in your Christian calling.
With this view, awaken memory to all the kind and faithful admonitions of your deceased pastor, recall his benevolent expression when meeting you in private life, his solemn and unaffected demeanour when offering your devotions from that sacred desk, or when addressing you from this place, where now, alas! I stand to preach comfort to his afflicted people, and to mingle my lamentations with theirs. Ye little children, the lambs of this his beloved flock, remember his love for you, his watchful care over you, his anxiety in training you to piety in the simple and impressive discourses to you, when assembled around him in that place.
When the heart is softened by recollections like these, then consider, my beloved brethren, that his labours and prayers were intended to fit you for that state to which he has now departed. Oh let them not be in vain! Let his instructions be engraven on your hearts. His body reposes beneath the altar of his ministrations, let the memory of the departed saint quicken the devotions there addressed to the living God. Beloved brother, faithful pastor, affectionate friend, farewell! Thou art resting from thy earthly labours, but though thy mortal career has ended, its influences shall remain. Thy life shall illustrate the excellency of piety and virtue, thy death-scene shall proclaim the power of religion to give peace, and hope, and joy, to the departing soul, and thy memory shall preach the Gospel of that Saviour in whose presence thou art now enjoying its eternal rewards.