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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : LECTURE XXIII. SUNDAY NEXT BEFORE EASTER.

The Christian Life by Thomas Arnold

LECTURE XXIII. SUNDAY NEXT BEFORE EASTER.

SUNDAY NEXT BEFORE EASTER.

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MATTHEW xxvi.40, 41.

What, could ye not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.

These words, we cannot doubt, have an application to ourselves, and to all Christians, far beyond the particular occasion on which they were actually spoken. They are, in fact, the words which Christ addresses daily to all of us. Every day, when he sees how often we have gone astray from him, he repeats to us, Could ye not watch with me one hour? Every day he commands us to watch and pray, that we enter not into temptation; every day he reminds us, that however willing may be our spirits, yet our flesh is weak; and that through that weakness, sin prevails over it, and having triumphed over our flesh, proceeds to enslave our spirit also.

And as the words are applicable to us every day, so also are they in a particular manner suitable now, when the season of Lent is so nearly over, and Easter is so fast approaching. Have we been unable to watch, with Christ one hour? Already are the good resolutions with which, we, perhaps, began Lent, broken in many instances; and the impressions, if any such were made in us, are already weakened. They have been a burden, which we have shaken off, because the weakness of our nature found it too heavy to bear. Sad it is to think how often this same process has been repeated in all time, how often it will be repeated to the end.

Let us just review what the course of this process has probably been. Now, as the parable of the Sower describes three several sorts of persons, who never bring forth, fruit; so in the very same persons, there is at different times something of each of the three characters there described. We, the very same persons, are at one time hard, at another careless, and at another over-busy; although, if compared with, other persons, and in the general form of their characters, some are hard, and others are careless, and others over-busy; different persons having different faults predominantly. But even the hardness of the road side, although God forbid that it should be our prevailing temper, yet surely it does sometimes exist in too many of us. In common speech, we talk of a person showing a hard temper, meaning, generally, a hard temper towards other men. We have done wrong, but being angry when we are reproved for it, we will not acknowledge it at all, and cheat our consciences, by dwelling upon the supposed wrong that has been done to us in some over-severity of reproof or punishment, instead of confessing and repenting of the original wrong which we ourselves did. But is it not true, that a hard temper towards man is very often, even consciously, a hard temper towards God? Does it never happen, that if conscience presents to us the thought of God, whether as a God of judgment to terrify us, or as a God of love to melt us, we repel it with impatience, or with sullenness? Does not the heart sometimes almost speak aloud the language of blasphemy: Who is God, that I should mind him? I do not care what may happen, I will not be softened. Do not all sorts of unbelieving thoughts pass rapidly through the mind at such moments; first in their less daring form, whispering, as the serpent did to Eve, that we shall not surely die; that we shall have time to repent by and by; that God will not be so strict a judge as to condemn us for such a little; that by some means or other, we shall escape? But then they come, also, in their bolder form: What do I or any man know about another world, or God's judgments? may it not be all a fiction, so that I have, in reality, nothing to fear? In short, under one form or another, is it not true, that our hearts have sometimes displayed actually hardness towards God; that the thought of God has been actually presented to our minds, but that we have turned it aside, and have not suffered it to make any impression upon us? And thus, we have not only not watched with Christ according to his command, but have actually told him that we would not. But this has been in our worst temper, certainly; it may not have happened, -- I trust that it has not happened often. More commonly, I dare say, the fault has been carelessness. We have gone out of this place; sacred names have ceased to sound in our ears; sights in any degree connected with, holy things have been all withdrawn from us. Other sounds and other sights have been before us, and our minds have yielded to them altogether. There are minds, indeed, which have no spring of thought in themselves; which are quiet, and in truth empty, till some outward objects come to engage them. Take them at a moment when they are alone, or when there is no very interesting object before them, and ask them of what they are thinking. If the answer were truly given, such a mind would say, |Of nothing.| Certain images may be faintly presented to it; it may be that it is not altogether a blank; yet it could not name anything distinctly. No form had been vivid enough to produce any corresponding resolution in us; we were, as it were, in a state between sleeping and waking, with neither thoughts nor dreams definite enough to affect us. This state finds exactly all that it desires in the presence or the near hope of outward objects; the mind lives in its daily pursuits, and companions, and amusements. What impressions have been once produced are soon worn away; and in a soil so shallow nothing makes a durable impression: everything can, as it were, scratch upon its surface, while nothing can strike deeply down within.

Or, again, take the rarer case of those who are over-busy. There are minds, undoubtedly, which are as incapable of rest as those of the generality of men are prone to it; there are minds which enter keenly into everything presented to them by their outward senses, and which, when their senses cease to supply them, have an inexhaustible source of thought within, which furnishes them with abundant matter of reflection or of speculation. To such a mind, doing is most delightful; whether it be outward doing, or the mere exercise of thought, either supplies alike the consciousness of power. Where, then, is there room for the less obtruding things of God? Into that restless water, another and another image is for ever stepping down, pushing aside and keeping at a distance the sobering reflections of God and of Christ. Alas! the thorns grow so vigorously in such a soil, that they altogether choke and kill the seed of God's word.

So, then, we are either asleep, or, if we are awake, we are not waking with Christ. On one side, in that garden of Gethsemane were the disciples sleeping; below, and fast ascending the hill, -- not sleeping, certainly, but with lanterns and torches and weapons, -- were those whose waking was for evil. Where were they who watched with Christ one hour then, -- or where are those who watch with him now?

HOW gently, yet how earnestly, does he call upon us to |watch and pray, lest we enter into temptation.| To watch and to pray: for of all those around him some were sleeping, and none were praying; so that they who watched were not watching with him, but against him. In our careless state of mind the call to us is to watch; in our over-busy state the call to us is to pray; in our hard state there is equal need for both. And even in our best moods, when we are not hard, nor careless, nor over-busy, when we are at once sober and earnest and gentle, then not least does Christ call upon us to watch and to pray, that we may retain that than which else no gleam of April sunshine was ever more fleeting; that we may perfect that which else is of the earth, earthly, and when we lie down in the dust will wither and come to dust also.

Jesus Christ brought life and immortality, it is said, to light through the gospel. He brought life and immortality to light: -- is this indeed true as far as we are concerned? What do we think would be the difference in this point between many of us -- who will dare say how many? -- and a school, I will not say of Jewish, but even of Greek or Roman or Egyptian boys, eighteen hundred, or twenty-four hundred, or three or four thousand years ago? Compare us at our worship with them, and then, I grant, the difference would appear enormous. We have no images, making the glory of the incorruptible God like to corruptible man; we have no vain stream of incense; no shedding of the blood of bulls and calves in sacrifice: the hymns which are sung here are not vain repetitions or impious fables, which gave no word of answer to those questions which it most concerns mankind to know. Here, indeed, Jesus Christ is truly set forth, crucified among us; here life and immortality are brought to light. But follow us out of this place, -- to our respective pursuits and amusements, to our social meetings, or our times of solitary thought, -- and wherein do we seem to see life and immortality more brightly revealed than to those heathen schools of old? Do we enjoy any worldly good less keenly, or less shrink from any worldly evil? Death, which to the heathen view was the end of all things, is to us (so our language goes) the gate of life. Do we think of it with more hope and less fear than the heathen did? Christ has risen, and has reconciled us to God. Is God more to us? -- God now revealed to us as our reconciled Father -- do we oftener think of him, do we love him better, than he was thought of and loved in those heathen schools, which had Homer's poetry for their only gospel? We talk of light, of revelation, of the knowledge of God, while verily and really we are walking, not in light, but in darkness: not in knowledge of God, but in blindness and hardness of heart.

|The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.| How great is the loving-kindness of these words, -- how gently does Christ bear with the weakness of his disciples! But this thought may be the most blessed or the most dangerous thought in the world; the most blessed if it touches us with love, the most dangerous if it emboldens us in sin. He is full of loving-kindness, full of long-suffering; for days, and weeks, and months, and years he bears with us: we grieve him, and he entreats; we crucify him afresh, yet he will not come down from the cross in power and majesty; he endures and spares. So it is for days, and months, and years; for some years it may be to most of us, -- for many years to some of the youngest. There may be some here who may go on grieving Christ, and crucifying him afresh, for as much as seventy years; and he will bear with them all that time, and his sun will daily shine upon them, and his creatures and his word will minister to their pleasure; and he himself will say nothing to them but to entreat them to turn and be saved. This may last, I say, to some amongst us for seventy years; to others it may last fifty; to many of us it may last for forty, or for thirty; none of us, perhaps, are so old but that it may last with us twenty, or at the least ten. Such is the prospect before us, if we like it: not to be depended upon with certainty, it is true, but yet to be regarded as probable. But as these ten, or twenty, or fifty, or seventy years pass on, Christ will still spare us, but his voice of entreaty will be less often heard; the distance between him and us will be consciously wider. From one place after another where we once used sometimes to see him, he will have departed; year after year some object which used once to catch the light from heaven, will have become overgrown, and will lie constantly in gloom; year after year the world will become to us more entirely devoid of God. If sorrow, or some softening joy ever turns our minds towards Christ, we shall be startled at perceiving there is something which keeps us from him, that we cannot earnestly believe in him; that if we speak of loving him, our hearts, which can still love earthly things, feel that the words are but mockery. Alas, alas! the increased weakness of our flesh, has destroyed all the power of our spirit, and almost all its willingness: it is bound with chains which it cannot break, and, indeed, scarcely desires to break. Redemption, Salvation, Victory, -- what words are these when applied to that enslaved, that lost, that utterly overthrown and vanquished soul, which sin is leading in triumph now, and which will speedily be given over to walk for ever as a captive in the eternal triumph of death!

Not one word of what I have said is raised beyond the simplest expression of truth; this is our portion if we will not watch with Christ. We know how often we have failed to do so, either sleeping in carelessness, or being busy and wakeful, but not with him or for him. Still he calls us to watch and pray, lest we enter into temptation; to mark our lives and actions; to mark them often; to see whether we have done well or ill in the month past, or in the week past, or in the day past; to consider whether we are better than we were, or worse; whether we think Christ loves us better, or worse; whether we are more or less cold towards him. I know not what else can be called watching with Christ than such a looking into ourselves as we are in his sight. It is very hard to be done; -- yes, it is hard -- harder than anything probably which we ever attempted before; and, therefore, we must pray withal for his help, whose strength is perfected in our weakness. And if it be so hard, and we have need so greatly to pray for God's help, should we not all also be anxious to help one another? And knowing, as we do from our own consciences, how difficult it is to watch with Christ, and how thankful we should be to any one who were to make it easier to us, should we not be sure that our neighbour is in like case with ourselves; that our help may be as useful to him as we feel that his would be to us? This is our bounden duty of love towards one another; what then should be said of us if we not only neglect this duty, but do the very contrary to it; if we actually help the evil in our brother's heart to destroy him more entirely; if we will not watch with Christ ourselves, and strive to prevent others from doing so?

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