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The Message And The Man by J. Dodd Jackson

CHAPTER V. The Note of Cheer

The chapter now to be added is written under the influence of a Sabbath afternoon service in which, a few hours ago, we occupied a pew. The scene was a village chapel among the mountains of the North of England. The preacher was a layman well advanced in age, who told us that, for five-and-forty years, he had been coming from the head of the circuit to take appointments in the village. The sermon was not eloquent. It was neither learned nor profound. It gave no evidence of any great acquaintance with modern thought. There was absolutely no attempt at exegesis. Indeed, the discourse would have failed to satisfy most of those elementary canons upon which the homiletical professors lay such stress. Yet, one great excellence it had, which, to its simple-minded auditors, more than atoned for all its many imperfections: -- It was effective; it was successful. We came away thanking God for the testimony we had heard.

And herein lay the success of this local brother's unpretentious discourse: -- It cheered us, one and all. Faces brightened and drooping heads were lifted up as the old man pursued his way. The last hymn was the heartiest of all, not because, as is sometimes the case, the people were encouraged by the thought of approaching liberation, but because of the spiritual |uplift| they had realised. We heard a happy buzz of pleasant talk from young and old as they poured through the door to assemble in friendly groups for mutual |good-days| on the pavement in front of the little temple. With most of them we were well acquainted. Some were aged and infirm. Others found the struggle of life a hard one. One pew was filled with mourners who, during the latest week, had stood around an open grave. There were Christian workers to whom recent days had brought disappointments and weariness -- labourers in the vineyard who had much to try their faith, for religious work in the villages has many difficulties in these days when the great towns attract so many of our most hopeful young people from the lanes to the streets. The widow was there, the orphan, the poor, the man who had failed in life. Ah! those people had come together bringing with them to the sanctuary much doubt and care and perplexity and fear. It was good to watch them as the preacher went on; good to feel that these hearts were losing their loads, these minds their anxieties. |Not a great discourse,| the critic would have said. Perhaps not -- from some standpoints. Having reached the end of fifty years of preaching, this white-haired patriarch had long given up the idea of great discourses. To him the Master had said, |Comfort ye, comfort ye My people,| and he had walked long, long miles up the mountain side to do it. Pace the critic! This preaching was the very thing for those needy folk this wintry afternoon.

And now, in recollection of that blessed sermon, and under its gracious influence, we are strengthened to assert that it is an essential of the message that it contain good cheer for those who need it. The preacher is more than the accuser of men in Christ's stead; more, even, than the mouthpiece of a divine invitation. His task is not completed in the edifying of churches, in the building up of individual souls in faith and doctrine and righteousness. Jesus saw the sorrow of the world, anticipated the afflictions through which men would have to pass and the burdens they would have to bear. |He was touched with the feeling of our infirmities,| He drank of our bitter cup. Our griefs were in His mind when He sent His preachers forth. To be the agents of a great purpose of consolation, ministers of cheer and encouragement to hard-pressed and burdened men and women to the end of time were they sent!

And for this work of consolation He not only gave a commission but He furnished, as well, an example to all who should ever preach His word. Surely one great secret of the wondrous effectiveness of that brief ministry lay in the fact that while, as we have seen, it spoke to the consciences of men, bringing home the truths of righteousness and judgment; while it set before them the way of spiritual salvation and formulated the demands and conditions thereof, indicating the higher path, the strait gate and the narrow way, it was also directed to the bruised hearts and broken spirits of those who attended His steps. We are told, after all, but very little of the words and deeds of Jesus during those eventful years in which He trod the highways and byeways of the land breaking the bread of life from city to city. Of the period passed in Nazareth in preparation for the strenuous days to come we are told nothing at all. The world, it is said, would hardly contain the books if all had been written down. But enough is told to give us visions of those unrecorded days, and to show that He was a cheering Christ, a messenger of comfort -- this Saviour of ours. Healing was in His words. |Did not our hearts burn within us while He talked with us by the way, and while He opened to us the Scriptures?| said, one to another, those two disciples who, with saddened countenances, had set out together to Emmaus on that troubled day. Watch Him yonder in the house at Bethany, what time bereavement casts its shadow upon the dwelling. |And He took little children in His arms and blessed them.| Here, again, is a whole history of tenderness. From this one act a flood of light streams backward and forward upon His whole earthly life, and we can see the kindly glance that brought the little ones around Him. We can hear the gentle voice that dispelled their shyness and gave confidence to their hearts. Even in that old time, and in the quiet and dreamy East, life had many cares. There were push and drive and hard and grinding rivalry even then. Those days had their economic questions as well as ours. It was only by hardest struggle that many a cupboard was furnished and many a table spread; for poverty is no new thing, and sorrow, affliction, oppression, dread and death are as old as the hills. We read of the beggar by the wayside, of Lazarus writhing in hunger and smitten with sores on the threshold of Dives, who wore purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. The widow's house was robbed; the orphan was cheated of his small inheritance; life, even for the fortunate, went much as it does now -- the music of gladness to-day, the solemn tones of the dirge to-morrow. How gracious to many a hearer would be that Sermon on the Mount with its passages for the special blessing of perplexed and worried souls, spoken, also, for the teaching of all who may be called to stand before the children of grief and want. |Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?| .... |For your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.| .... |Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.| .... |And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to-day is, and to-morrow is cast into the oven, shall He not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?| .... |Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings? And not one of them is forgotten before God: But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows.| .... |Consider the ravens: for they neither sow nor reap; which neither have storehouse nor barn; and God feedeth them: how much more are ye better than the fowls?| Think of it all! Imagine that great multitude gathered out of the cities and villages round about. It was a hard world from which they had come to hear this man of Nazareth, and, even as they came, care had tugged at their skirts; fear had rattled upon the doors of their hearts. Think what music would be in that sweet new Gospel of divine providence and affection, spoken in that calm and gentle voice whose every tone was vibrant with understanding, sympathy and love! Can we not see the people as darkness throws its veil across the blue Syrian sky turning once more to their distant homes, new hope and courage enthroned upon the forehead so recently seamed by care? Can we not follow them to the dawning of another day, and behold their going forth, once again, to the tasks of life brightly, bravely, cheerily? To them, indeed, had come glad tidings of great joy!

And if the Master so gave Himself to this ministry of brightening the lives of men, His first preachers caught the lesson and went forth, the same good purpose lively in their hearts. To |lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees;| to heal |that which was lame,| that |it be not turned out of the way;| |to visit the widow and the fatherless;| to |speak peace| to the people -- in these happy duties lay a large part of their work. Dark, indeed, were those early days for the infant Church; heavy the clouds above her; terrible the storms of hate and persecution which spent their fury upon her and scattered abroad her fellowship, but amidst it all more songs were heard than sighs, more triumphs than complaints. In the midnight hour a strange new music ran through the prison, for Paul and Silas |prayed and sang praises and the prisoners heard them,| and so, to crushed and bleeding souls, even there, a breath of heavenly comfort came. We have sometimes heard people talk of St. Paul in such a way as to picture one who was above the tenderness wherefrom sad hearts are blessed -- the great theologian, the mighty logician, the lone, strong, sublime man whose self-mastery lifted him above sympathy with common men. Great he was, but great in compassion as well as in mind. Among the watchwords of encouragement you will find none more inspiring than those written by his fettered hand. Was it not he who wrote that assurance which has so often come between us and despair: -- |And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God|? From him, also, came that glowing word which has shed radiance upon many a couch of pain: |For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.| There is a more noble picture of the great Apostle to the Gentiles than that above referred to. The ship is |driven up and down in Adria.| Euroclydon roars through the rigging. Mighty billows come crashing over the bulwarks. |Neither sun, nor moon nor stars| have |for many days appeared.| Nearer and nearer the helpless craft is being swept to the cruel rocks of yonder savage coast. The ship's company is in an agony of dismay. Suddenly from the cabin comes he of Tarsus. |Wherefore, sirs, be of good cheer,| he cries, above the blast, |for I believe God.| Thus does he summarise in one great assuring word the message learned at the foot of the cross. Behind it is all the authority of God's revelation to his soul upon the Damascus road!

So ministered the Master, and so, His first preachers, and hence it came to pass that the early disciples of the infant faith were known for their calmness, their courage and their joy. Men |took knowledge of them that they had been with Jesus.| This was the very age of which the poet has told us: --

On that hard Pagan World disgust
And secret loathing fell;
Deep weariness and sated lust
Made human life a hell.

But the servants of the Galilean, more persecuted than any other men, walked abroad with a gladness which was at once the perplexity and the condemnation of the time. |Rejoice evermore| was a sacred command and a glorious possibility of the new religion, for they were taught to believe that |All things are yours and ye are Christ's and Christ is God's|; they were assured that |Nothing shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord|!

That was the first century, and with us now is the twentieth; and it is said that the burdens of men become more numerous and more heavy as the years pass on. Older grows the world, but there is no lessening of its care, no relief from its perplexity, its pain, its sorrow. As civilisation becomes more complex the |drive| of life waxes ever more and more fierce. Along with this complaint, it is said by some, that in the Church there is less joy than in those old days -- less, indeed, than in times within the memory of the grey-haired among us. We who are Methodists are often reminded of a former Methodism which was vocal with praises and electric with joy. They whisper that it is different with us now; that even the pulpit has lost its note of gladness. Care sits upon the preacher's brow. The songs of Zion are timed to the throb of hearts that lag for very weariness. |Some are sick and some are sad.| |Cares of to-day and burdens of to-morrow| haunt us in the very means of grace, and little is said to make us forget. |Fightings without and fears within,| from these we seek deliverance in vain. The prophet has forgotten how to comfort or, if he have not forgotten, he thinks the task unworthy of hours which might be more learnedly and impressively employed.

If we admit, as perhaps we may, the existence of a measure of truth in this complaint, it will only be to claim that there is some excuse for those whom it asperses. The intellectual problems bred of a materialistic age have so compelled the preacher to the defence of the walls of Zion that it may well have come to pass that the inhabitants of the city -- the men and women down in the streets and dwellings, for the security of whom he has been contending -- may have had to go short of many things; a time of siege is a time of deprivations and hardships for citizens as well as soldiers. The great social questions of the present day have also claimed much of his thought and effort. He has felt, and justly, that these questions ought to receive more pulpit recognition. It is possible, and should not be thought surprising, that in the ardour of the social crusade the preacher may have sometimes given to these things time and strength which might have been better spent in ministering to the personal griefs and perplexities of such as sat before him for their need's sake. It may be well for us each to make inquiry concerning ourselves in these matters. As a result we will realise again, no doubt, how numerous and insistent are the demands made upon us to turn aside in our ministry to treat of a hundred things which once upon a time we did not think of as pulpit questions. Be this as it may, here lies work for the preacher which he must not neglect. It is as certainly his duty to cheer and encourage the heart of the individual as to indicate the path to better conditions of life for the multitude.

And this he can only effectively do as he perfects himself in his understanding of their needs. Of this understanding, and of the ways in which it must be sought, we have already written and will say no more, except to point out how every new discovery concerning the preacher's duties furnishes additional illustration of the absolute necessity that he study not books only, but also men and the conditions of their lives. It is of little use knowing the contents of well-filled shelves if we have never read the living volumes before us in the pews. Again we say, |if we only knew.|

Still knowledge is not the whole of the preacher's need in order that his message may contain this cheering quality. It is even more needful that he shall, himself, be one of those who abide in the comfort of God. He must have learned the efficacy of the great consoling and gladdening verities by experience of their application to his own soul. He only can surely cheer others who himself is cheerful, and no man who has ever felt the pressure and care of life can be cheerful excepting in so far as these great guarantees have become real to his own spirit. Only with |the comfort wherewith he is comforted of God| will he comfort others!

And what are the verities whose application he must have experienced? There is not one of all the glorious circle of revealed truths that is not of use for the strengthening and encouraging of men; but there are some of these truths which might almost have been designed for this special use. Do we receive -- do we preach them as we ought?

There is the doctrine of Divine Providence. Surely this truth should be preached more frequently than it is. Surely, too, it should be preached in such a way as to link its meanings to the common hours, the common needs and anxieties of life. For the vast majority of men life is actually a struggle for bread for themselves and their dependants. We had almost said that it is a constant escape from ever threatening evils. The question of food and raiment is full for them of the direst probabilities. Many a man listens to the preacher whose life is, indeed, from hand to mouth. Fierce competition seeks at every turn to rob him of his little opportunity of bread winning. Such a man had rather be told of a providing God than of the newest discoveries in Biblical criticism. If we forget his need and suffer him to go from the Sanctuary no more hopeful and brave than when he came -- then, so far as he is concerned, we have surely failed.

There is again the doctrine of the Divine Presence. |I will be with thee in the six troubles, and in the seventh I will not leave thee.| The wonderful truth of Jesus Christ in living, constant, saving nearness to every man, ready to help, to deliver and guide -- here is a doctrine, mighty to comfort all the world. Before us are men who, morning by morning, go forth with trembling to spend the day in associations full of such temptations and dangers as are undreamed of by us. Here are men and women haunted by bitter memories, whose midnight solitude is disturbed by the ghosts of buried years. There are many lonely people in the world, many from whom lover and friend have been put far away. For such is this treasure of promise committed unto us. Send yonder man back to his conflict; yonder stranger to his loneliness; yonder memoried soul to his solitude to face again the spirits of his bygone days, with this thought: that every step of the way -- whether in the city or in the desert -- Jesus Christ will be by his side. Such a preaching will be sweeter to him a thousand times than perplexing metaphysical discussions.

Then let us not forget to apply the promises by which the Master has strengthened the exhortations given to His servants in all times to labour in the fields of Christian service. Of such promises there is surely a varied and glorious store, and for all of them there is need enough. Never do we preach but before us is some toiler almost ready to give up because of long delay in the appearance of the first signs of harvest. Encourage him! Tell him that the God of the sowing is also the God of the reaping. Tell him not to be |weary in well doing, for in due season| he |shall reap if| he |faint not.| Tell him that |he that goeth forth weeping, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.| Tell him this. He has heard it all before, of course, or else he had not so long struggled on in the work. Tell it him again and again, for again and again the need to hear it all will come. Tell it him gloriously, confidently. He will go back to his Sunday School class, back to his labour among the poor, out to his next appointment on the plan, with a new hope which will be also a new power!

And let us remember that there has been given unto us for the comforting of His people the revelation of the glory laid up for them that fear Him. To the writer a little while ago an able and spiritually minded Unitarian minister made this statement: -- |In every service I conduct I announce, at least, one hymn on immortality. The people need to hear of it.| There is food for thought in such a confession from such a source. Once upon a time it was common in Methodism to hear sermons on Heaven. To-day how infrequent such sermons are! Yet surely the King has not withdrawn this portion of the message from our hands. And surely there is occasion for such reminders to be given. How many there are to whom |Earth's but a sorry tent;| how many, again, who go in bondage to the fear of death all their days; how many more who look mournfully after departed dear ones and wonder how it goes with them across the stream. To all such people is the preacher commissioned, and they look wistfully toward him for the word that may let the glory in!

And that word we do not speak nowadays as often as we might, perhaps not as often as we ought. Here, again, is something to be recovered by the present-day preacher. Possibly when he comes to talk of the glories |laid up,| this same preacher may find need for some new forms of expression. Perhaps he will not find it possible to speak with the old literalism of his predecessors. But the living core of the message is still his as it was theirs. The divine example, too, is before him every time he harks back to his Master's presence. In that great day of sorrow when He spake to the disciples of His early departure, He, seeing their grief, said, |In My Father's house are many mansions .... I go to prepare a place for you.| Preach Heaven! This very day there are hearts breaking for the story!

To cheer the souls of men by the use of this, or any other material, and in any legitimate way we can -- to this must our preaching be absolutely and resolutely bent. To make brighter the lives of men; to take out of the future its dark dreads and fears and to fill it with beckoning blessings; to make the sanctuary a place of healing, a house of bread, a rock of cooling streams; to make of every service a season of refreshing -- for all this are we responsible to the King who sent us out to His suffering children. The message He entrusted to us contains the sufficiency for it all!

But more, we repeat, than the mere letter of the message is needed. The best of words may be so spoken as to bring but small assistance to such as hear. Again we say that the preacher must, himself, live in the comfort and courage he preaches to others, or else there will be somewhat in his voice that will spoil it all. The word and also the tone! |The tone| must be the tone of absolute realisation and assurance. Pronounced in any other accent the words of the Gospel of joy sound impossible; the blessings they promise seem dim and far away; the fact of providence becomes a mere theory; the future harvest of holy sowing a pious but foolish hope; the sweet fields of Eden a fair but airy dream. Nothing is colder than perfunctory, official, professional consolation and encouragement. When fear whispers |Courage!| the chattering of his teeth makes our terror worse!

So, once again, the preacher's success and effectiveness are found largely to depend upon his own heart's condition. The message will carry little more cheer than the messenger can pour into it out of the stored up happiness and confidence of his own breast. In the cheer of God must he abide who would scatter a little comfort among his fellow men!

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