THE TRANSFIGURED SACKCLOTH
William L. Watkinson, Wesleyan minister, was born at Hull, 1838, was educated privately and rose to eminence as a preacher and writer. The Rev. William Durban calls him |The classic preacher of British Methodism.| |He ranks,| says Dr. Durban, |with Dr. Dallinger and the Rev. Thomas Gunn Selby as the three most learned and refined of living preachers in the English Methodist pulpit. Dr. Watkinson is famous for the glittering illustrations which adorn his style. These are for the most part gathered from biography, the classics, and science, and of late years Dr. Watkinson has become more and more addicted to spiritualizing the aspects of modern scientific discovery. Dr. Watkinson never reads his utterances from a manuscript. Nor does he preach memoriter, as far as the language of his addresses is concerned. They are always carefully thought out and are never characterized by florid diction. His simple, strong Anglo-Saxon endears him to the people, for he is never guilty of an obscure sentence. He is in the habit of saying, 'I have always been aware that I have no power of voice for declamation, and therefore I can only hope for success in the pulpit by originality of thought.'| He was president of the Wesleyan Conference, 1897-1898, and editor of the Wesleyan Church, 1893-1890. He has published several volumes of sermons.
BORN IN 1838
THE TRANSFIGURED SACKCLOTH
[Footnote: Printed by permission of B.P. Button & Company from |The Transfigured Sackcloth and Other Sermons,| by W.L. Watkinson.]
For none might enter into the king's gate clothed with sackcloth. -- Esther iv., 2.
The sign of affliction was thus excluded from the Persian court in order that royalty might not be discomposed. The monarch was to see bright raiment, flowers, pageantry, smiling faces only; to hear only the voices of singing men and singing women; no smatch of the abounding wormwood of life was to touch his lip, no glimpse of its we to disturb his serenity. The master of an empire spreading from India to Ethiopia was not to be annoyed by a passing shadow of mortality. Now, this disposition to place an interdict on disagreeable and painful things still survives. Men of all ranks and conditions ingeniously hide from themselves the dark facts of life -- putting these aside, ignoring, disguising, forgetting, denying them. Revelation, however, lends no sanction to this habit of passing by the tragedy of life with averted face; and in this discourse we wish to show the entire reasonableness of revelation in its frank recognition of the dark aspects of existence. Christianity is sometimes scouted as |the religion of sorrow,| and many amongst us are ready to avow that the Persian forbidding the sackcloth is more to their taste than the Egyptian or the Christian dragging the corpse through the banquet; but we confidently contend that the recognition by Christ of the morbid phases of human life is altogether wise and gracious.
I. We consider, first, the recognition by revelation of sin. Sackcloth is the outward and visible sign of sin, guilt, and misery. How men shut their eyes to this most terrible reality -- coolly ignoring, skilfully veiling, emphatically denying it! |The heart from the moment of its first beat instinctively longs for the beautiful....| We strive for the right and the true: it is circumstance that thrusts wrong upon us. What is popularly called sin these philosophers call error, accident, inexperience, indecision, misdirection, imperfection, disharmony; but they will not allow the presence in the human heart of a malign force which asserts itself against God, and against the order of His universe. That principle which is darkness in the mind, perverseness in the will, idolatry in the affections, |every passion's wild excess, anger, lust, and pride,| -- the existence of any such principle they absolutely and scornfully deny. There is no evil in the universe, all is good, and where everything is good human nature is still the best. A single substance comprises all that is, and no place is left for that profoundly decisive and destructive element called sin; all that we have to do is to descant on the marvelous loveliness of the world, the serene harmony of the universe, man's love of the true, the beautiful, and the good. Intellectual masters like Emerson and Renan. ignore conscience; they refuse to acknowledge the selfishness, the baseness, the cruelty of society; they are deaf to the groans of creation; they smile, and expect us to smile, whilst they clap a purple patch of rhetoric on the running sores of humanity. No sackcloth must pass their gate, and no craftsman of Ind ever wove gossamer half so delicate and delightful as the verbal veil with which these literary artists attempt to conceal the leprosy of our nature.
And men generally are willing to dupe themselves touching the fact and power of sin; they are strongly disinclined to look directly and honestly at that inner confusion of which we are all more or less conscious. We willingly acknowledge our transgression of the higher law, that we do the things we ought not to do, and leave undone the things that we ought to do; we have an unpleasant feeling that all is not right, nay, indeed, that something is seriously wrong; but we do not unshrinkingly acquaint ourselves with the malady of the spirit as we should at once acquaint ourselves with any malady hinting itself in the flesh. The sackcloth must not mar our shallow happiness. Great is the power of self-deception, but in no other direction do we permit ourselves to be more profoundly cheated than we do in this. In the vision of beautiful things we forget the troubles of conscience, as the first sinners hid themselves amid the leaves and flowers of Paradise; in fashion and splendor we forget our guilty sorrow, as medieval mourners sometimes concealed their cerements with raiment of purple and gold; in the noises of the world we become oblivious of the interior discords, as soldiers forget their wounds amid the stir and trumpets of the battle. With a busy life, a gay life, we manage to forget the skeleton of the heart, rarely permitting ourselves to look upon the ominous specter which some way or other has entrenched itself within us, and which is the bane of our existence.
Nevertheless, sin thrusts itself upon our attention. The greatest thinkers in all ages have been constrained to recognize its presence and power. The creeds of all nations declare the fact that men everywhere feel the bitter working and intolerable burden of conscience. And, however we may strive to forget our personal sinfulness, the cry is ever being wrung from us in the deepest moments of life, |O wretched man that I am! who can deliver me from the body of this death?| The sense of sin has persisted through changing generations; it is the burden of experience and philosophy, and the genius of the race has exhausted itself in devising schemes of salvation.
Aeschylus, Dante, Shakespeare, knew of truth, justice, purity, and love, of the supreme and eternal law of righteousness; they knew that man alone of all this lower creation is subject to this transcendental rule; they knew also that the violation of this highest law lay at the root of the world's mysterious and complex suffering -- in other words, that sin was the secret of the tragedy of life. The beasts are happy because they are beasts; they do not lie awake in the dark weeping over their sins, because they have no sins to weep over; they do not discuss their duty to God, they do it; whilst, on the contrary, men are unhappy because being subject to the highest law of all, and competent to fulfil that law in its utmost requirements, they have consciously fallen short of it, wilfully contradicted it. We cannot accept the coat of many colors, whatever the flatterers may say; the sackcloth is ours, and it eats our spirit like fire.
Most fully does Christ recognize the great catastrophe. Some modern theologians may dismiss sin as |a mysterious incident| in the development of humanity, as a grain of sand that has unluckily blown into the eye, as a thorn that has accidentally pierced our heel, but the greatest of ethical teachers regarded sin as a profound contradiction of that eternal will which is altogether wise and good. More than any other teacher Jesus Christ emphasized the actuality and awfulness of sin; more than any other has He intensified the world's consciousness of sin. He never attempted to relieve us of the sackcloth by asserting our comparative innocence; He never attempted to work into that melancholy robe one thread of color, to relieve it with one solitary spangle of rhetoric. Sin was the burden of the life of Christ because it is the burden of our life. Christ has done more than insisted on the reality, the odiousness, the ominousness, of sin -- He has laid bare its principle and essence. The New Testament discovers to us the mystery of iniquity as ungodliness; its inmost essence being unbelief in God's truth, the denial of His justice, the rejection of His love, the violation of His law. The South Sea islanders have a singular tradition to account for the existence of the dew. The legend relates that in the beginning the earth touched the sky, that being the golden age when all was beautiful and glad; then some dreadful tragedy occurred, the primal unity was broken up, the earth and the sky were torn asunder as we see them now, and the dewdrops of the morning are the tears that nature sheds over the sad divorce. This wild fable is a metaphor of the truth; the beginning of all evil lies in the alienation of the spirit of man from God, in the divorce of earth from heaven; here is the final reason why the face of humanity is wet with tears. How vividly Christ taught that all our fear and we arise out of this false relation of our spirit to the living God! Above and beyond all, Christ recognizes the sackcloth that He may take it away. In the anguish of his soul Job cried, |I have sinned; what shall I do unto thee, O thou Preserver of men?| Christianity is God's full and final answer to that appeal. In Christ we have the revelation of God's ceaseless, immeasurable, eternal love. In Him we have the satisfaction of God's sovereign justice. Our own awakened conscience feels the difficulty of absolution; it demands that sin shall not be lightly passed over; it wearies itself to find an availing sacrifice and atonement. |Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world!| In Him, too, we have that grace which brings us into accord with the mind and government of God. Christ reveals to us the divine ideal life; He awakens in us a passion for that life; He leads us into the power and privilege, the liberty and gladness, of that life. He fills our imagination with the vision of His own divine loveliness; He refreshes our will from founts of unfathomable power; He fills us with courage and hope; He crowns us with victory. |God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them.| Sin is ungodliness; Christ makes us to see light in God's light, fills us with His love, attunes our spirit to the infinite music of His perfection. Instead of shutting out the signs of wo, Christ followed an infinitely deeper philosophy; He arrayed Himself in the sackcloth, becoming sin for us who knew no sin, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. We have redemption in His blood, even the forgiveness of sins; he established us in a true relation to the holy God; He restores in us the image of God; He fills us with the peace of God that passeth understanding.
Not in the spirit of a barren cynicism does Christ lay bare the ghastly wound of our nature, but as a noble physician who can purge the mortal virus which destroys us. He has done this for thousands; He is doing it now; in these very moments He can give sweet release to all who are burdened and beaten by the dire confusion of nature. Sin is a reality; absolution, sanctification, peace, are not less realities. Christ's gate is not shut to the penitent, neither does He send him empty away. We go to Him in sackcloth, but we leave His presence in purity's robe of snow, in honor's stainless purple, in the heavenly blue of the holiness of truth. The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Him, that He may give to the mourners in Zion beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.
II. We consider the recognition by revelation of sorrow. Sackcloth is the raiment of sorrow, and as such it was interdicted by the Persian monarch. We still follow the insane course, minimizing, despising, masking, denying suffering. Society sometimes attempts this. The affluent entrench themselves within belts of beauty and fashion, excluding the sights and sounds of a suffering world. |Ye that put far away the evil day, and cause the seat of violence to come near; that lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches, and eat the lambs out of the flock, and the calves out of the midst of the stall, that chant to the sound of the viol, and invent to themselves instruments of music, like David; that drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the chief ointments: but they are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph.| So do opulent and selfish men still seek |to hide their heart in a nest of roses.| Literature sometimes follows the same cue. Goethe made it one of the rules of his life to avoid everything that could suggest painful ideas, and the taint of his egotism is on a considerable class of current literature which serenely ignores the morbid aspects of life. Art has yielded to the same temptation. The artist has felt that he was concerned only with strength, beauty, and grace; that he had nothing to do with weakness, agony, wretchedness, and death. Why should sorrow find perpetual remembrance in art? Pain will tear our bodies, but we will have no wrinkles on our statues; suffering will rend our heart, but we will have no shadows on our pictures. None clothed in sackcloth might enter the gate that is called Beautiful.
Most of us are inclined to the sorry trick of gilding over painful things. We resolutely put from us sober signs, serious thoughts, and sometimes are really angry with those who exhibit life as it is, and who urge us to seek reconciliation with it. When the physician prescribed blisters to Marie Bashkirtseff to check her consumptive tendency, the vain, cynical girl wrote, |I will put on as many blisters as thee like. I shall be able to hide the mark by bodices brimmed with flowers and lace and tulle, and a thousand other delightful things that are worn, without being required; it may even look pretty. Ah! I am comforted.| Yes, by a thousand artifices do we dissemble our ugly scars, sometimes even pressing our deep misfortunes into the service of our pride. Many of the fashions and the diversions of the world much sought after have little positive attractiveness, but the real secret of their power is found in the fact that they hide disagreeable things, and render men for a while oblivious of the mystery and weight of an unintelligible world.
Nevertheless suffering is a stern fact that will not long permit us to sleep. Some have taught the unreality of pain, but the logic of life has spoiled their plausible philosophizing. A man may carry many hallucinations with him to the grave, but a belief in the unreality of pain is hardly likely to be one of them. The laughing philosopher is quite invincible on his midsummer's day, but ere long fatality makes him sad. There is no screen to shut off permanently the spectacle of suffering. When Marie Antoinette passed to her bridal in Paris, the halt, the lame, and the blind were sedulously kept out of her way, lest their appearance should mar the joyousness of her reception; but, ere long, the poor queen had a very close view of misery's children, and she drank to the dregs the cup of life's bitterness. Reason as we may, suppress the disagreeable truths of life as we may, suffering will find us out, and pierce us to the heart. Indeed, despite our dissimulations, we know that life is not a matter of lutes, doves, and sunflowers, and at last we have little patience with those who thus seek to represent it. We will not have the philosophy which ignores suffering; witness the popularity of Schopenhauer. We resent the art which ignores sorrow. True art has no pleasure in sin and suffering, in torture, horror, and death; but on its palette must lie the sober colorings of human life, and so to-day the most popular picture of the world is the |Angelus| of Millet. We will not have the literature that ignores suffering. |Humanity will look upon nothing else but its old sufferings. It loves to see and touch its wounds, even at the risk of reopening them. We are not satisfied with poetry unless we find tears in it.| We will not have the theology which ignores sin and suffering. The preacher who confines his discourses to pleasant themes has a meager following; the people swiftly and logically conclude that if life is as flowery as the discourse, the preacher is superfluous. Foolish we may often be, yet we cannot accept this Gethsemane for a garden of the gods; the most wilful lotus-eater must perforce see the streaming tears, the stain of blood, the shadow of death. Nature in the full swing of her pageantry soon forgets the wild shriek of the bird in the red talons of the hawk, and all other sad and tragic things, but humanity is compelled to note the blood and tears which flow everywhere, and to lay these things to heart.
Christ giveth us the noblest example of suffering. So far from shutting His gate on the sackcloth, once more He adopted it, and showed how it might become a robe of glory. He Himself was preeminently a Man of sorrows; He exhausted all forms of suffering; touching life at every point, at every point He bled; and in Him we learn how to sustain our burden and to triumph throughout all the tragedy. In His absolute rectitude, in His confidence in His Father, in His hours of prayer, in His self-sacrificing regard for His fellow-sufferers, in His charity, and patience, we see how the heaviest cross may be borne in the spirit of victory. We learn from Him how divine grace can mysteriously make the sufferer equal to the bitterest martyrdom; not putting to our lips some anodyne cup to paralyze life, but giving us conquest through the strength and bravery of reason in its noblest mood, through faith in its sublimest exercise, through a love that many waters cannot quench nor the floods drown. Poison is said to be extracted from the rattlesnake for medicinal purposes; but infinitely more wonderful is the fact that the suffering which comes out of sin counterworks sin, and brings to pass the transfiguration of the sufferer.
Christ teaches us how, under the redemptive government of God, suffering has become a subtle and magnificent process for the full and final perfecting of human character. Science tells us how the bird-music, which is one of nature's foremost charms, has risen out of the bird's cry of distress in the morning of time; how originally the music of field and forest was nothing more than an exclamation caused by the bird's bodily pain and fear, and how through the ages the primal note of anguish has been evolved and differentiated until it has risen into the ecstasy of the lark, melted into the silver note of the dove, swelled into the rapture of the nightingale, unfolded into the vast and varied music of the sky and the summer. So Christ shows us that out of the personal sorrow which now rends the believer's heart he shall arise in moral and infinite perfection; that out of the cry of anguish wrung from us by the present distress shall spring the supreme music of the future.
The Persian monarch forbidding sackcloth had forgotten that consolation is a royal prerogative; but the King of kings has not forgotten this, and very sweet and availing is His sovereign sympathy. Scherer recommends |amusement as a comfortable deceit by which we avoid a permanent tete-a-tete with realities that are too heavy for us.| Is there not a more excellent way than this? Let us carry our sorrows to Christ, and we shall find that in Him they have lost their sting. It is a clumsy mistake to call Christianity a religion of sorrow -- it is a religion for sorrow. Christ finds us stricken and afflicted, and His words go down to the depths of our sorrowful heart, healing, strengthening, rejoicing with joy unspeakable. He finds us in sackcloth; He clothes us with singing-robes, and crowns us with everlasting joy.
III. We consider the recognition by revelation of death. We have, again, adroit ways of shutting the gate upon that sackcloth which is the sign of death. A recent writer allows that Shakespeare, Raleigh, Bacon, and all the Elizabethans shuddered at the horror and mystery of death; the sunniest spirits of the English Renaissance quailed to think of it. He then goes on to observe that there was something in this fear of the child's vast and unreasoned dread of darkness and mystery, and such a way of viewing death has become obsolete through the scientific and philosophic developments of the later centuries. Walt Whitman also tells us |that nothing can happen more beautiful than death,| and he has exprest the humanist view of mortality in a hymn which his admirers regard as the high-water mark of modern poetry. But will this rhapsody bear thinking about? Is death |delicate, lovely and soothing,| |delicious,| coming to us with |serenades|? Does death |lave us in a flood of bliss|? Does |the body gratefully nestle close to death|? Do we go forth to meet death |with dances and chants of fullest welcome|? It is vain to attempt to hide the direst fact of all under plausible metaphors and rhetorical artifice. It is in defiance of all history that man so write. It is in contradiction of the universal instinct. It is mockery to the dying. It is an outrage upon the mourners. The Elizabethan masters were far truer to the fact; so is the modern skeptic who shrinks at |the black and horrible grave.| Men never speak of delicious blindness, of delicious dumbness, of delicious deafness, of delicious paralysis; and death is all these disasters in one, all these disasters without hope. No, no, the morgue is the last place that lends itself to decoration. Death is the crowning evil, the absolute bankruptcy, the final defeat, the endless exile. Let us not shut our eyes to this. The skeptic often tells us that he will have no |make-believe.| Let us have no |make-believe| about death. Let us candidly apprehend death for all that it is of mystery and bitterness, and reconcile ourselves to it, if reconciliation be possible. If we are foolish enough to shut the gate on the thought of death, by no stratagem can we shut the gate upon death itself.
Without evasion or euphony Christ recognizes the somber mystery. The fact, the power, the terror of death are displayed by Him without reserve or softening. And He goes to the root of the dire and dismal matter. He shows us that death as we know it is an unnatural thing, that it is the fruit of disobedience, and by giving us purity and peace He gives us eternal life. The words of Luther, so full of power, were called |half-battles|; but the words of Christ in their depth and majesty are complete battles, in which sin, suffering, and death are finally routed. He attempts no logical proof of immortality; He supplies no chemical formula for the resurrection; He demonstrates immortality by raising us from the death of sin to the life of righteousness, by filling our soul with infinite aspirations and delights. Here is the proof supreme of immortality. |Verily, verily, I say unto you, he that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father.| The moral works are the greater works. Wonderful is the stilling of the sea, the healing of the blind, the raising of the dead, but the moral miracles of our Lord express a still diviner power and carry with them a more absolute demonstration. If, therefore, we have known the power of Christ delivering our soul from the blindness, the paralysis, the death of sin, lifting it above the dust and causing it to exult in the liberties and delights of the heavenlies, why should we think it a thing incredible that God should raise the dead? If He has wrought the greater, He will not fail with the less. Christianity opens our eyes to splendid visions, makes us heirs of mighty hopes, and for all its prospects and promises it demands our confidence on the ground of its present magnificent and undeniable moral achievements. Its predictions are credible in the light of its spiritual efficacy. |And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you,| Being one with Christ in the power of purity, we are one with Him in the power of an endless life. Death has its temporary conquest, but grace reigning through righteousness shall finally purge the last taint of mortality. Not through the scientific and philosophic developments of later centuries has the somber way of viewing death become obsolete; Christ bringing life and immortality to life has brought about the great change in the point of view from which we regard death, the point of view which is full of consolation and hope. In Christ alone the crowning evil becomes a coronation of glory; the absolute bankruptcy, the condition of an incorruptible inheritance; the final defeat, an everlasting victory; the endless exile, home, home at last. Once more, by boldly adopting the sackcloth Christ has changed it into a robe of light. |That through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil|
We cannot escape the evils of life; they are inevitable and inexorable. We may hide from our eyes the signs and sights of mourning; but in royal splendor our hearts will still bleed; wearing wreaths of roses, our heads will still ache. A preacher who complains that Christianity is |the religion of sorrow| goes on to predict that the woes of the world are fast coming to an end, and then the sorrowful religion of Jesus Christ will give place to some purer faith. |Through the chinks we can see the light. The condition of man becomes more comfortable, more easy; the hope of man is more visible; the endeavor of man is more often crowned with success; the attempt to solve the darkest life-problems is not desperate as it was. The reformer meets with fewer rebuffs; the philanthropist does not despair as he did. The light is dawning. The great teachers of knowledge multiply, bear their burdens more and more steadily; the traditions of truth and knowledge are becoming established in the intellectual world. It is so; and those of us who have caught a vision of the better times coming through reason, through knowledge, through manly and womanly endeavor, have caught a sight of a Christendom passing away, of a religion of sorrow declining, of a gospel preached for the poor no longer useful to a world that is mastering its own problems of poverty and lifting itself out of disabling misery into wealth without angelic assistance. This is our consolation; and while we admit, clearly and frankly, the real power of the popular faith, we also see the pillars on which a new faith rests, which shall be a faith, not of sorrow, but of joy.| Now, the deepest sorrow of the race is not physical, neither is it bound up with material and social conditions. As the Scotch say, |The king sighs as often as the peasant|; and this proverb anticipates the fact that those who participate in the richest civilization that will ever flower will sigh as men sigh now. When the problem of poverty is mastered, when disease is extirpated, when a period is put to all disorganization of industry and misgovernment, social and political, it will be found by the emancipated and enriched community what is now found by opulent individuals and privileged classes, that the secret of our discontent is internal and mysterious, that it springs from the ungodliness, the egotism, the sensuality, which theology calls sin. But whatever the future may reveal, all the sorrows of life are upon us here and now; we cannot deny them, we have constantly to struggle with them, we are often overwhelmed by irreparable misfortune. Esther |sent raiment to clothe Mordecai, and to take his sackcloth from him; but he received it not.| In vain do men offer us robes of beauty, chiding us for wearing the color of the night; we cannot be deceived by flattering words; we must give place to all the sad thoughts of our mortality until haply we find a salvation that goes to the root of our suffering, that dries up the fount of our tears.
In a very different spirit and for very different ends do men contemplate the dark side of human life. The cynic expatiates on painful things -- the blot on life's beauty, the shadow on its glory, the pitiful ending of its brave shows -- only to gibe and mock. The realist lingers in the dissecting chamber for very delight in revolting themes. The pessimist enlarges on the power of melancholy that lie may justify despair. The poet touches the pathetic string that he may flutter the heart. Fiction dramatizes the tragic sentiment for the sake of literary effect. Cultured wickedness drinks wine out of a skull, that by sharp contrast it may heighten its sensuous delight; whilst estheticism dallies with the sad experiences of life to the end of intellectual pleasure, as in ornamental gardening, dead leaves are left on ferns and palms in the service of the picturesque. But Christianity gives such large recognition to the pathetic element of life, not that it may mock with the cynic, or trifle with the artist; not because with the realist it has a ghoulish delight in horror, or because with the refined sensualist it cunningly aims to give poignancy to pleasure by the memory of pain; but because it divines the secret of our mighty misfortune, and brings with it the sovereign antidote. The critics declare that Rubens had an absolute delight in representing pain, and they refer us to that artist's picture of the |Brazen Serpent| in the National Gallery. The canvas is full of the pain, the fever, the contortions of the wounded and dying; the writhing, gasping crowd is everything, and the supreme instrument of cure, the brazen serpent itself, is small and obscure, no conspicuous feature whatever of the picture. The manner of the great artist is so far out of keeping with the spirit of the gospel. Revelation brings out broadly and impressively the darkness of the world, the malady of life, the terror of death, only that it may evermore make conspicuous the uplifted Cross, which, once seen, is death to ever vice, a consolation in every sorrow, a victory over every fear.