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The Message And The Man by J. Dodd Jackson

CHAPTER III. The Note of Idealism.

The Christian preacher is not only the accuser of men and the ambassador of reconciliation; he is also the Prophet of a new order. |Go, preach, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,| so runs his commission. His message must convey more than the promise of a deliverance from the consequences of sin. It must proclaim new possibilities for the individual. It must point to higher altitudes for the race. The preacher announces a New Jerusalem descending out of heaven. His ministry is not to lead to the better only, but to the best.

For such preaching as this there is, deep down in the heart of man, a great hunger and thirst. Sordid and materialistic as is the life of the age, engrossed as the multitudes appear to be in the pursuit of mammon, of vain glory and of pleasure, there still lingers in the human breast a suspicion that men were fashioned for something higher than the things that, so often, first engross and then exhaust their powers. The millionaire is not satisfied with his millions and, of late, has told us so. The man of pleasure is not satisfied with his pleasures, and, when he unburdens his secret mind, confesses his disappointment and disgust. Corn, wine and oil, houses, lands and station are all the objects of loathing as well as of pursuit, to those who, having won them, have found out their real quality. It is a primal instinct of the race that |the life is more than meat and the body than raiment.|

To the student of our times there is nothing more pathetic than to observe the struggles of those upon whom materialism casts its spell to escape from their bondage. To aid them in this endeavour they call the painter, the sculptor, the dramatist, the man of letters, the player skilled in the language of music, and to one and all they say, |Idealise! Idealise!| Periods of realism in art never last long, though, in a sense, realism is easier to the artist than idealism. The explanation is that it is not realism that is really in demand. The artist must give us not man as he is, but as he ought to be; not life as we know it, but life as we would know it and live it, too; not the human face scarred and seamed by vices inherited from a thousand tainted years, but fresh, and sweet, and beautiful as it came from the hands of God, new washed in the dews of His infinite affection. Even nature must be idealised, and the painter struggles to produce the perfect landscape, the sculptor to represent the perfect form. The artist who mixes no imagination with his colours never holds for long the public honour. The heart of man asks for the ideal; the actual is not enough.

And to the preacher, also, these unsatisfied spirits bring the same request. If it is not upon their lips, you may read it in the deep longing of their unquiet eyes. The age is not a happy age, and its lack of happiness does not arise, alone, from its sicknesses, its bereavements, its shattered hopes, the cruelties of |offence's gilded hand.| Some one has said that men would be happy if it were not for their pleasures, and the saying contains a profound truth. In this unhappiness they turn to see if, peradventure, the preacher can show them higher and clearer heights of joy. Sometimes, thank God! the vision splendid is spread before them. It is a vision no poet or painter, save such as have been to the springs of the Eternal, can depict, and if the glory of it find its way into the seeker's soul life for him is never the same again. But sometimes, alas! he is disappointed. The voice in the pulpit is little more than a sanctimonious echo of the voices of the street. Then goes the sorrowing seeker hence, and lo, the tiny glimmer of hope with which he came has all but been put out!

For it is a criticism one all too often hears, that the modern preacher, instead of asking too much, asks too little, and that, when he does ask for much, his asking is more for great faith than for great living from both the individual and the age. It has been remarked that almost the whole of the difference between the Christian preacher and the heathen moralist is expressed in the statement that the preacher adds to his teaching a flavour of Jewish history and sweetens with the promise of a future life. Otherwise the heathen moralist points as far up the mountain side as he. There is such a possibility as that of preaching along too low a level. It is an ill thing when the preacher becomes content with the straw and forgets the crown.

For the preacher like the rest of men may become enslaved to things and powers material. |Where there is no vision the people perish,| and of vision, in the larger sense, the preacher may share the general poverty. After all, even he belongs to the age into which he was born, and it needs qualities that are none too common to resist the influences of the times and of environment. Beside all this, are there not personal experiences in the lives of all of us which make it hard to keep our eyes upon the stars? We think of the local preacher spending his week in the market or behind the counter, in office or mine or factory or in the field wrestling with Nature for the bread that perisheth. We think of the minister often worried, almost distracted, by |the care of the churches,| by the crabbed foolishness and miserable jealousies of contentious men and women. We must remember that for many a preacher life is not a May Day festival, but a question and a struggle. Surely the wonder is not that sometimes the man in the pulpit speaks in a minor key, but that, under all the conditions of his life, we hear from him so much of the higher music as we do. The memory comes to us as we write of a man who preached the Gospel for years with the cruel disease of cancer gnawing at his vitals. We can recall others who came to proclaim the golden year from domestic circles blighted by the debauchery and vice of children but too well beloved. Did these men sometimes speak falteringly, and with hesitation, the message in which they asked and promised glorious things? Did they, from the very darkness of the clouds lowering above them, see only the lower slopes of the Mountains of the Lord? Who could wonder? The preacher is but a man!

Yes, the preacher is but a man, and as a man finds out something else: -- That, after all, it is not out of his experiences of life, nor from the influences of his time, nor from both together that the greatest hindrance to altitude of tone in his preaching arises. As a man is in heart and life so in some degree he preaches. The call of the Gospel is to perfection, and the perfect man is not yet, though many there are, even in these days, whose lives are a constant and noble struggle to reach this far-off mark. Is it strange that sometimes a preacher's own failure to gain the wished for heights should cause him to put before others possibilities, not, indeed, according to his own low level of attainment, but still far below those he is sent to declare? Living on low levels means inevitably preaching on low levels, though, as a man's preaching is derived from higher sources than are found in his own soul, his call to others ought always to be of higher things than he has, himself, attained.

Here, then, are some of the reasons why it often happens that our preaching lacks the elevation of high idealism. This idealism is none the less needed that there are reasons for its absence. Along these lines lies one of the great struggles of the preacher's life, which is so triumphantly to resist the influences of his day and the depression of his personal experiences, so to live his own life that he shall always be able to act as a joyful guide to the Alps of God.

And what are these higher heights to which he has to point his fellows? We ask the question first as concerning the individual and then as concerning the nations. We shall surely find it easy to obtain an answer to the inquiry in both its forms.

|Easy!| Yes; for the heights designed for us to reach are so clearly mapped out in the teaching, and especially in the life of Him whose word the preacher comes forward to declare, and whose example it is his glorious employment to put before the world. |The prize of the mark of our high calling| is the utter conquest of sin in the heart, its eradication not only in branch but in very root. Our goal is the utterly blameless life. It is more glorious, even, than this. It is the realisation in their perfection, not of negative virtues alone, but of virtues positive, active, aggressive. It is in brief the |perfect man in Christ Jesus.|

And of what use is any lower understanding or interpretation of the purpose of Christ? Indeed, is any lower interpretation possible on the face of things? We cannot bring ourselves to believe that He would of set purpose come to secure a partial triumph in the subjects of His grace. We speak of the difficulties of this our doctrine, but, after all, greater difficulties would have to be overcome in consenting to any lower conception of the divine intent. Try to imagine the Master effecting the saving of a soul with the design that it shall still hold to some remains of former vices, to some of its old lusts, of its ancient enmities. Imagine Him, again, agreeing that a man shall continue to be the prey of evil tempers, of covetousness, of jealousy, of pride and falseness. Imagine Him entering into a tacit compromise with the forces of evil, that He will take so much and expect no more in the worship and ownership and conquest of those for whom He died. The idea is unthinkable! Jesus Christ came, suffered, bled, died, rose again, and ascended up on high that once more the eyes of God might look upon a perfect man.

Now, all this sounds very old-fashioned and very much like the teaching that we have heard, and perhaps in varying degrees disparaged, from the lips of those whom we call, sometimes with a slight, but none the less real, touch of sarcasm, |holiness men.| How afraid we are that any one should ask us to be too good! But the teaching of Scriptural holiness was once one of the glories of Methodism and clear in the forefront of her preaching. To-day, perhaps, we hear less concerning that gospel than once we did. Is it absolutely certain that this fact always works out to the advantage of the preacher and his people? To-day, also, we hear less concerning the joy of the Christian life than formerly; less concerning new triumphs in the conversion of sinners than in days it is glorious to remember. To-day men complain, as we have already heard, that the preachers ask too little and do not bid them look so high as something in their bosoms tells them they ought to look. The preaching of Scriptural holiness has been discredited, it must be confessed, by the language into which it has often been thrown; by a disposition to censoriousness in those who have given it a large place in their ministry; by a disposition, too, on the part of its preachers to label as sins many things which were capable of innocent use and enjoyment, to cut out of life more than they sought to put in, dealing rather in prohibitions than in inspirations. This doctrine has suffered, again, more than most, from the inconsistencies of its apostles, as was indeed inevitable and should have been expected, for the higher a man's preaching the more clearly his personal imperfections are brought out by force of contrast, which may be rather to the glory of the preaching than to its discredit. Say, however, all that can be said in this direction concerning the doctrine of Christian Perfection; the ideals of the Gospel for human living are no lower than the highest word the Perfectionist has ever uttered. These ideals, as put before us and required of us, are part of the message of the Cross, and the preaching which does not include and enforce them is incomplete and cannot become, in the highest sense, effective in the accomplishment of its divine purpose. When a man's preaching presents ideals higher than those of the Sermon on the Mount; when he asks for a whiter purity, a more embracing charity, a nobler style of living than are required by Jesus Christ, then will have come the time to call a halt. Up to this point he has behind him not only divine permission but divine command. By his ears, if he but listen, may be heard, also, the voices of men who are weary of the valleys and the swamps, and who long to climb the heights and pierce the clouds that hold their vision from the skies. We need a new Puritanism, and it must not be a Puritanism principally of prohibitions, as was the old. It must be a Puritanism in which all the glories possible to heart and mind and soul are set forth in charm and beauty.

But the preacher has a message for society, as well as for the individual, and it is essential to the highest uses of that message that sublimer notes should be struck than are commonly heard. Jesus Christ showed an interest in trade, and the sellers of doves and changers of money heard from Him, one day, words of such a sort as made their ears to tingle. The preacher must not be afraid to insist on perfect integrity, perfect honesty, and even perfect brotherhood in commerce. We have heard somewhere the story of a business man in Brighton to whom, one day, a customer chanced to speak concerning F. W. Robertson -- perhaps, taking one thing with another the most influential preacher of the Victorian era. Leading his client into a little room behind the shop he pointed, with these words, to a portrait upon the wall: |That is F. W. Robertson, and when, standing behind the counter, I feel a temptation to do a dishonest thing in trade, I come in here and look up at that face.| What a tribute this to a great ministry which had its message for the office and the shop and turned commerce and handicraft into great religious acts. To the world of industry the messenger of Christ must also bring the new ideals he has learned. Why should the relationships of master and servant, of capital and labour, be poisoned by suspicion and marred by covetousness, oppression, evasion of mutual obligations? The problem to be solved in this twentieth century is probably this of the relations between the man with money to spend and the man with work to sell. Ah, if only Jesus Christ were President of the Board of Trade! Paul was not afraid to lift up his voice on these extremely practical subjects, and even now, the sixth chapter of Ephesians is far from out of date: |Servants,| he says, turning to the one class, |be obedient to them that are your masters .... not with eye-service as men-pleasers, but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.| To the masters also, he has something to say: |And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening, knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with Him.| St. James, that great practical homilist, could not be silent here. Of all who ever addressed the capitalist upon his responsibilities surely never one spoke more strongly than did he. |Go to, now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you..... Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth.| Here is denunciation hot and stirring, and the preacher may at times have to denounce, and when the time comes, must face that duty manfully for the sake of God and men. On this page, however, we plead not for denunciation but for idealism, -- idealism supported by the truths of the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man, and enforced by all the tender meanings of the Cross.

For the world of statesmanship, again, the preacher has a teaching of idealism, which is a very different thing from the preaching of party politics, which has done more harm a thousand times than any good it has ever effected. In the nation as Christ would have it there should be no jealousy between class and class; no oppression of the poor by the rich; no reproach for either honest poverty or honest wealth. In such a state there would be a chance for every man. Government would not mean tyranny; liberty would not mean licence. There would be purity of administration. There would be consecration of national resources to the good of all. War, by such a state, would be as impossible as it is now imminent. In such a state, again, sermons on the text, |Our country right or wrong,| would neither find preachers to deliver them nor audiences to listen to them. When the New Jerusalem is built in England, the slum, the gin palace, the workhouse, and the gaol will be things of the past. |Thus saith the Lord of Hosts; there shall yet old men and old women dwell in the streets of Jerusalem, and every man with his staff in his hand for very age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the streets thereof.| Oh, the dream is overpowering in its glory; and it is not a dream, but a prophecy from Calvary to the sorrowing nations of a sinful world!

So the errand of the preacher is to declare the Golden Age for which men have longed with, oh, such longing! amid the sins, and crimes, and miseries which have made up so much of human history. Of this so greatly desired time have they dreamed. To bring it in they have schemed and laboured, bled and died. They have thought to hasten its dawn by the founding of |Utopias,| of |Merrie Englands,| by many a promising, but disappointing device. There is but one man who can tell them how it must come -- how indeed it will come -- and he is the man who has sat at the feet of Jesus Christ; who has seen His arms extended wide upon the Cross and learned those politics in which eternity is set. The Golden Age will come when the world shall listen to him, and give itself to the practice of that old doctrine which is to be the creation not only of a new Heaven, but, also, of a new Earth.

But the preacher must do more than formulate the divine command; more than paint glowing pictures of glorious possibilities. It is required that his idealism shall be shown to be practicable. It is of no use to tell a drunkard that Christ wants sobriety, or a liar that the Lord wants truth in the inward parts; it is of no use preaching about the conquest of temper and of passion; about the crucifixion of covetousness and envy and jealousy; about patience, gentleness, kindness, love, unless, along with the demands of this new scheme of living, the great evangelical watchwords and promises ring strong and true. The glory of the preacher is that he, alone of those who bring forth programmes for the lives of men, can tell us how his programme may be carried out. He has a wonderful authority given unto him in his dealings with the weak and erring. He can make to every man who gives himself to Christ, and to the living of the life He asks, the promise that Christ will give to him nothing less than His own very self. To any man who tremblingly, tearfully |makes up his mind to try,| the preacher may pledge his Lord in guarantees which will be honoured to the very uttermost. Power! There is God's for his promising. Grace! There is Christ's for his disposal. He is the almoner of an infinite bounty. Then to the preacher there comes from his own vision a courage which he can communicate to others. No other man sees such possibilities in human nature as he, for he looks on man in Jesus Christ, and discerns better things in him than man had hoped for in himself. He beholds, also, the Spirit of God at work in the world; hears His footsteps as He goes to and fro in the land. Hence he can cry to the nations to lift up their head, knowing that |the Lord Omnipotent reigneth.| He is the idealist whose ideals -- more |impossible| than all the dreams of moralists and poets -- are the true practical politics of individual and national life. The time is ripe for a new preaching of the possibilities of humanity, for a new setting forth of what life and character, personal and national, may be, and must be, to please Him and realise the blessing the Creator had it in His heart to give to man when first He sent him forth in the glory of His image. For such preaching, we have already said, men are waiting, listening, longing. They wait, too, for a new declaration of the high provisions of help available for human endeavour. Men instinctively anticipate that the ideals of God concerning them will be high, but they anticipate, also instinctively, that the provision for the realisation of these ideals will be sufficient. They do not ask that, for the sake of human weakness, God shall make honesty less than honest; truth less than true; purity less than pure, but they do ask that for all these things He shall give grace and guidance. Does our preaching answer these instinctive expectations, these deep longings, these inborn hopes in those to whom we are sent? Do we truly put before them that high life their spirits yearn to live? Do we show them the path |o'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent,| to the heights that kiss the stars?

If we do, well; but if not: -- Then, perhaps, we should not wonder, nor be astonished, if pews are empty, if church membership declines, if men say that there is little profit in coming to hear thoughts no higher than their own. They look for the preacher to ask for better, higher, harder things than all their other leaders. If he fail in this his church has but little to draw them within its doors. Practical idealism is essential to effective and successful preaching.

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