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Give To SermonIndex : Christian Books : LECTURE XXIX. PSALM cxxxvii. 4.

The Christian Life by Thomas Arnold


PSALM cxxxvii.4.

How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?

This was said by the exiles of Jerusalem, when they were in the land of their captivity in Babylon. There is no reason to suppose that their condition was one of bondage, as it had been in Egypt: the nations removed by conquest, under the Persian kings, from their own country to another land, were no otherwise ill-treated; they had new homes given them in which they lived unmolested; only they were torn away from their own land, and were as sojourners in a land of strangers. But the peculiar evil of this state was, that they were torn away from the proper seat of their worship. The Jew in Babylon might have his own home, and his own land to cultivate, as he had in Judaea; but nothing could replace to him the loss of the temple at Jerusalem: there alone could the morning and evening sacrifices be offered; there alone could the sin-offering for the people be duly made. Banished from the temple, therefore, he was deprived also of the most solemn part of his religion; he was, as it were, exiled from God; and the worship of God, as it was now left to him, -- that is, the offering up of prayers and praises, -- was almost painful to him, as it reminded him so forcibly of his changed condition.

Such also, in some respects, was to be the state of the Christian Church after our Lord's ascension. The only acceptable sacrifice was now that of their great High Priest interceding for them in the presence of the Father: heaven was their temple, and they were far removed from it upon earth: they, too, like the Jews in Babylon, were a little society by themselves living in the midst of strangers. |Our citizenship,| says St. Paul to the Philippians, |is in heaven:| here they were not citizens, but sojourners. Why, then, should not the early Christians have joined altogether in the feeling of the Jews at Babylon? why should not they, too, have felt and said, |How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?|

The answer is contained in what I said last Sunday; because Christ had not left them comfortless or forsaken, but was come again to them by his Holy Spirit; because God was dwelling in the midst of them; because they were not exiles from the temple of God, but were themselves become God's temple; because through the virtue of the one offering for sin once made, but for ever presented before God by their High Priest in heaven, they, in God's temple on earth, were presenting also their daily and acceptable sacrifice, the sacrifice of themselves; because also, though as yet they were a small society in a land of strangers, yet the stone formed without hands was to become a mighty mountain, and cover the whole earth: what was now the land of strangers was to become theirs; the whole earth should be full of the knowledge of the Lord; the kingdoms of the world were to become his kingdom; and thus earth, redeemed from the curse of sin, was again to be so blessed that God's servants living upon it should find it no place of exile.

But if this, in its reality, does not now exist; if, although God's temple be on earth, the appointed sacrifice in it is not offered, the living sacrifice of ourselves; if the society has, by spreading, become weak, and the kingdoms of the earth are Christ's kingdoms in name alone; are we, then, come back once more to the condition of the Jews in Babylon? are we exiles from God, living amongst strangers? and must we, too, say, with the prophet, |How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?|

This was the question which I proposed to answer: What can we do to make our condition unlike that of exiles from God: to restore that true sign of his presence amongst us, the living fire of his Holy Spirit pervading every part of his temple? I mean, what can we do as individuals? for the question in any other sense is not to be asked or answered here. But we, each of us, must have felt, at some time or other, our distance from God. Put the idea in what form or what words we will, we must -- every one of us who has ever thought seriously at all -- we must regret that there is not a stronger and more abiding influence over us, to keep us from evil, and to turn us to good.

Now, the vestiges of Christ's church left among us are chiefly these: our prayers together, whether in our families or in this place; our reading of the Scriptures together; our communion, rare as it is, in the memorials of the body and blood of Christ our Saviour. These are the vestiges of that which was designed to be with us always, and in every part of our lives, the holy temple of God, his living church; but which now presents itself to us only at particular times, and places, and actions; in our worship and in our joint reading of the Scriptures, and in our communion.

It will be understood at once why I have not spoken here of prayer and reading the Scriptures by ourselves alone. Most necessary as these are to us, yet they do not belong to the helps ministered to us by the church; they belong to us each as individuals, and in these respects we must be in the same state everywhere: these were enjoyed by the Jews even in their exile in Babylon. But the church acts upon us through one another, and therefore the vestiges of the church can only be sought for in what we do, not alone, but together. I, therefore, noticed only that prayer, and that reading of the Scriptures, in which many of us took part in common.

Such common prayer takes place amongst us every morning and evening, as well as on Sundays within these walls. Whenever we meet on those occasions, we meet as Christ's church. Now, conceive how the effect of such meeting depends on the conduct of each of us. It is not necessary to notice behaviour openly profane and disorderly: this does not occur amongst us. We see, however, that if it did occur in any meeting for the purposes of religious worship, such a meeting would do us harm rather than good: its witness to us would not be in favour of God, but against him. But take another case: when we are assembled for prayers, suppose our behaviour, without being disorderly, was yet so manifestly indifferent as to be really indecent; that is, suppose every countenance showed such manifest signs of weariness, and impatience, and want of interest in what was going forward, that it was evident there was no general sympathy with any feeling of devotion. Would not the effect here also be injurious? would not such a meeting also shock and check our approaches towards God? would it not rather convince us that God was really far distant from us, instead of showing that he was in the midst of us?

Ascend one step higher. Our behaviour is neither disorderly, nor manifestly indifferent: it is decent, serious, respectful. What is the effect in this case? Not absolutely unfavourable certainly; but yet far from being much help towards good. We bear our witness that we are engaged in a matter that should be treated with reverence: this is very right; but do we more than this? Do we show that we are engaged in a matter that commands our interest also, as well as our respect? If not, our witness is not the witness of Christ's church: it does not go to declare that God is in us of a truth.

Let us go on one step more. We meet together to pray: we are orderly, we are quiet, we are serious; but the countenance shows that we are something more than these. There is on it the expression, never to be mistaken, of real interest. Remember I am speaking of meetings for prayer, where the words are perfectly familiar to us, and where the interest therefore cannot be the mere interest of novelty. Say, then, that our countenances express interest: I do not mean strong and excited feeling; but interest, which may be very real yet very quiet also. We look as if we thought of what we were engaged in, of what we are ourselves, and of what God is to us. We are joined in one common feeling of thankfulness to him for mercies past, of wishing for his help and love for the time to come. Now, think what would be the effect of such a meeting. Would it not be, clearly, positively good! Would not every individual's earnestness be confirmed by the manifest earnestness of others? Would not his own sense of God's reality be rendered stronger, by seeing that others felt it just as he did? Then, here would be the church of God rendering her appointed witness: she would be giving her sure sign that God is not far from any one of us.

Now, then, observe what we may lose or gain by our different behaviour, whenever we meet together in prayer; what we lose, nay, what positive mischief we do, by any visible impatience or indifference; what we should gain by really joining in our hearts in the meaning of what was uttered. It is a solemn thing for the consciences of us all; but surely it must be true, that, whenever we are careless or indifferent in our public prayers, we are actually injuring our neighbours, and are, so far as in us lies, destroying the witness which the church of Christ should render to the truth of God her Saviour.

I do not know that there is anything more impressive than the sight of a congregation evidently in earnest in the service in which they are engaged. We then feel how different is our own lonely prayer from the united voice of many hearts; each cheering, strengthening, enkindling the other. We then consider one another to provoke unto love and good works. How different are the feelings with which we regard a number of persons met for any common purpose, and the same persons engaged together in serious prayer or praise! Then Christ seems to appear to us in each of them; we are all one in him. How little do all earthly unkindnesses, dislikes, prejudices, become in our eyes, when the real bond of our common faith is discerned clearly! There is indeed neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free, but Christ is all, and in all. And to look at our brethren, once or twice in every day, with these Christian eyes, would it not also, by degrees, impress us at other times, and begin to form something of our habitual temper and regard towards them?

Thus much of our meetings for prayer. One word only on those in which we meet to read the Scriptures. Here I know, that difference of age, and our peculiar relations to each other, make us very apt to lose the religious character of our readings of the Scriptures, and to regard them merely as lessons. No doubt, the object here is instruction; it is not so much in itself a religious exercise, as a means to enable you to perform religious exercises with understanding and sincerity. Still there is a peculiar character attached even to lessons, when they are taken out of the Scriptures: and the duty of attention and interest in the work becomes even stronger than under other circumstances. But with those of a more advanced age, I think there is more than this; I think it must be our own fault, if, whilst engaged together in reading the Scriptures, which we only read because we are Christians, we do not feel that there also we are employed on a duty belonging to the Church of Christ.

Lastly, there is our joint communion in the bread, and in the cup, of the Lord's Supper. Here there is seriousness; here there is always, I trust and believe, something of real interest; and, therefore, we never, I think, meet together at the Lord's table, without feeling a true effect of Christ's gifts to and in his Church; we are strengthened and brought nearer to one another, and to him. But this most precious pledge of Christ's Church we too often forfeit for ourselves. That we have lost so much of the help which the Church was designed to give, is not our fault individually; but it is our fault that we neglect this means of strength, so great in bearing witness to Christ, and in kindling love towards one another. What can be said of us, if, with so many helps lost, we throw away that which still remains? if, of the great treasure which the Church yet keeps, we are wilfully ignorant? How much good might we do, both to ourselves and to each other, by joining in that communion! How surely should we be strengthened in all that is good, and have a help from each other, through his Spirit working in us all, to struggle against our evil!

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