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Home School Of Preaching Part 3: The Form of Powerful Preaching

Part 3: The Form of Powerful Preaching

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Part 3: The Form of Powerful Preaching

At the outset of this our third study together, it is perhaps helpful to pause for a moment to reflect on why we are considering Shedd on Preaching.

It is not, as I have indicated to engage in an exercise in biography, or the history of preaching. Our primary concern rather is with the matter of powerful preaching. Some of us are deeply concerned at the absence of spiritually impressive preaching in our pulpits, and see it as one of the great needs of the hour to understand why it is so lacking among us. And to that end, we are exploring the thought of Shedd, a master homiletician and powerful preacher from the past, to see if he can help us discover the root of our malaise and point us to ways we can repair it.

It might well be queried why we need to do this. Surely, some will say, the answer is simple. Our fundamental need is plainly that of greater spirituality.

Were we to experience an outpouring of spiritual power as in days of revival, all of this analysis and talk about preaching would become unnecessary.

Really what we ought to be doing is devoting these hours we have together to prayer.

I agree heartily that our supreme need is for the Holy Spirit to work among us in power. No amount of rhetorical genius or culture will ever make a man an effective preacher. Only the anointing of the Holy Spirit can do that, and indeed, we ought to never cease to plead that God would bless us with a visitation of power.

But even should he do so, a question remains. Would there be any less need for understanding the dynamics of effective preaching? Or, to put it another way, does the Holy Spirit use means adapted to his ends when he moves in power among men, or does he not? Were we to experience a special moving of the Holy Spirit in power, could preachers suddenly become careless of how they thought, of how they organized their ideas, and of how they expressed themselves? My understanding of revival and of the ministry of the Holy Spirit is such that I must say no. I understand that when the Holy Spirit fills us and takes hold of us, what happens is that we find all of our natural gifts and faculties quickened and enlarged, but not by-passed. The mind is filled with clearer insight, the heart enflamed with deeper feeling, and the will bent more earnestly upon obedience. Everything natural is sanctified and supercharged as it were, and made the more effective instrument of divine use. That, too, is how Shedd sees the matter.

"It is true that the first and efficient cause of this effect must be sought in the special and direct operation upon the individual soul of a higher Being than man. Yet it is equally true that the secondary instrumental cause of this renewal is divine truth presented by the preacher.  There must, therefore, be an adaptation between the cause and the effect, in this case as much as in any other. Second causes must be adapted to the effect as much as first causes. There is a mode of presenting divine truth which is suited to produce conversion, and there is a mode which is not suited to this end." p. 41-42

Far then from relieving us of the duty of cultivating those gifts and skills that will help us present truth effectively, our belief in the ministry of the Holy Spirit compels us to do all in our power to make ourselves fit vessels for his use.

We do not trust in our culture or technique, but we consecrate it to him, believing that he uses the means that he made when he formed us in his own image.

Lets consider the second aspect of our study of powerful preaching, namely the form of powerful sermons. Is the spiritual impact of our preaching in any way connected to the manner in which our material is presented? Does the capacity and state of mind of our hearers need to be considered? Is content all that matters, or is form of some relevance?

WGT Shedd has no hesitation in answering these questions. Form is important, he says. We must understand the people we are speaking to, and realize that there are fundamental laws and principles that affect how they receive information from others. And we must also appreciate that there are particular cultural moods that will influence how readily we will be understood and listened too. He could say, for example, of his own generation, "The greatest difference between the men of the present day and their forefathers consists in the greater distinctness and rapidity of their mental processes. They are not more serious and thoughtful than their ancestors are, but they are more vivid, animated, and direct in their thinking than they were. They are more impatient of prolixity, of a loose method of arrangement, and of a heavy, dragging method in the exhibition of truth.... The public audience now craves a short method, a distinct, sharp statement, and a rapid and accelerating movement, upon the part of its teachers." p.48

This is an aspect of preaching which does not always receive the degree of attention which, in my opinion, it requires. True, it is possible for an interest in form to outrun a concern for content, and to become a great hindrance to effective preaching. But it is also possible for us to become so remote from our hearers and so unrealistic in our expectations, that our preaching requires a miracle to be comprehended let alone useful. Shedd has some penetrating words of counsel in this regard for preachers who are intellectually inclined: "The studious, thoughtful mind especially needs the influence of homiletical discipline, in order to prepare it for the work of addressing and influencing the popular audience. There is a method of so organizing the materials in the mind, of so arranging and expanding and illustrating truth, as to exert the immediate impression of rhetoric, united with the permanent impression of logic and philosophy. This method can be acquired only by the study and the practice of the art of sermonizing." p. 45

Well then, what elements of form or style does Shedd consider indispensable to powerful and effective preaching? He lists three, plainness, force andbeauty. Let us consider these in turn.

1. PLAINNESS

Shedd asserts that powerful preaching must be plain preaching. By that he does not mean dull, commonplace or trite preaching. He is all for loading sermons with substantial teaching. But, he insists that this wonderful, heartmoving and life-transforming material must be presented in a plain form.

What does he mean by this? Shedd is using the term plainness to refer to ease of understanding and comprehension. A plain preacher is one who is easy to understand.  No one will ever be an effective preacher if he cannot be understood. People must be able to see clearly and immediately to the heart of one's thought. Power, Shedd affirms, is connected with contact; contact between the speaker's soul and the hearer's. He will be the most effective speaker whose ideas go straight to the minds and hearts of his hearers.

"The thoughts which the religious teacher presents to the common mind should go straight to the understanding. Everything that covers up and envelops the truth should be stripped off from it, so that the bare reality may be seen. There is prodigious power in this plainness of presentation. It is the power of actual contact. A plain writer or speaker makes the truth and the mind impinge on one another. When the style is plain, the mind of the hearer experiences the sensation of being touched; and this sensation is always impressive, for a man starts when he is touched." p. 55

There you have his meaning. Plain preaching strips away everything that might hinder the ideas of the preacher making their mark upon the hearts of his hearers. Our preaching should have a quality of transparency about it.

The light that has flooded our own minds and hearts ought to stream from us without diffraction, reflection, or distortion into the minds of our hearers. And to do that, we need to be plain.

What is it that makes for plainness of speech or writing? Shedd points to several essential requirements for this quality. First, he says, there must be distinctness of thought. Our ideas must take distinct shape. We shall never be plain speakers and powerful speakers so long as our impressions of truth remain at the level of mystical intuitions. They must rise above that and be brought to the point of being stated as clear propositions. We must force ourselves, by every power of thought, logic and analysis we possess, to extract our thoughts from the shimmering mirage-like form in which they often first appear, and express them in the form of concrete ideas. Until we do so, they will remain indistinct, incompletely distinguished from other ideas, and unable to stand in their own right and be communicated with effect.

"It is not enough that thoughts be seen through a clear medium; they must be seen in a distinct shape... A style may be as transparent as water, and yet the thoughts be destitute of boldness and individuality. Such a style cannot be charged with obscurity, and yet, it does not set truth before the mind of the reader or hearer in a striking and impressive manner." p. 53

Closely related to this matter of distinctness is that of clarity. It is possible to have our ideas distinct from one another, in the sense that they stand apart from each other and have a definite and clear relation to others, and yet not give clear, accurate, adequate expression to them. We must work hard at using the best words in the best way to convey our meaning to people with clarity. No one should ever have to ask, 'What did he mean?' The moment a shadow of obscurity is cast over our thoughts no matter how important and impressive they be, they have lost their power to affect people. If the first step to achieving plainness is the discipline of hammering our ideas into distinct form, the second is expressing them in clear language.

There is a third that walks hand in hand with these other two, namely, simplicity. Our thoughts may be distinct in their outline; we may have been able to find words that express them with great exactness; but they may nevertheless still lack simplicity. The words we have chosen may be technical or outdated; our forms of expression too compressed and abstract in their precision. If that happens, we will miss our hearers. It requires savage discipline and effort to make the obscure simple. The task of us thinking in a concrete and visual is a special challenge. Few of us appreciate how often we lapse into abstract ways of speaking and writing. If we are not careful, we can find ourselves living and speaking in terms remote from the concrete and commonplace lives of our ordinary hearers. J.C. Ryle, speaking on this very point, urges preachers to heed the ancient Arabian principle which says that the best speakers are those who can turn "ears into eyes." We need to work hard to ensure that the ideas in our preaching are marked by distinctness, and expressed in clear, simple language.

To do so, we will need to hold a knife to the throat of every trace of pridethat surges within us. Plain preaching is not showy preaching. It takes " a very strong will, a very high character" Shedd claims, to resist the temptation to impress our hearers with our depth of learning or skill of language.

"Now there is nothing," he says, "that will prevent a preacher from falling into this false manner, but a determination to be plain, - a determination, whether he does anything else or not, to bring the truth into contact with the human understanding." p. 58,59

To speak to be understood by the children who hear us, for example, necessarily calls us to shed every superficial indicator of learning. It will be our truest brilliance to make the obscure and complex plain. I know of few things more humbling than to toil for hours to make a difficult passage plain, only to have a hearer say afterwards how simple and obvious everything was anyway. That kind of comment, while a compliment to our scholarship, is a dagger to our pride.

Could it be, I ask, that part of the reason for the want of true spiritual power in the pulpit is connected with our failure to preach plainly? Has our laziness hindered us from working as hard as we need to be clear and simple and distinct? Has our pride kept us from being as plain as we need to be? We do well to bear in mind that we will not be effective instruments of the Holy Spirit's power if we speak in ways that require from him a prior miracle of interpretation before there can be any work of application. Let us, to use Shedd's words, determine to be plain, determine to be so intelligible that the mind of our hearers cannot fail to understand us.

II. FORCE

A second quality of form or style that Shedd commends is  force. I like his definition of this term as it relates to style, or to the form of preaching. He describes it as the quality of penetration. Some people, he says, speak with a power that pricks. Their words penetrate beyond the point of the mind, and seem to wing their way into the depths of the soul.

"The principal quality in a forcible style," Shedd says,  " and that which first strikes our attention, is penetration. While listening to a speaker of whom this property is a characteristic, our minds seem to be pricked as with needles, and pierced as with javelins. His thought cuts through the more dull and apathetic parts into the quick, and produce a keen sensation. Force is electrical; it permeates and thrills." p.72

I well remember experiencing what Shedd is talking about at a conference in Auckland, New Zealand some years ago. The speaker concerned spoke in such a way that his words seemed to strike a path into the very deepest recesses of the heart. I sat there, at times for over an hour at a time, riveted.

Every word seemed to make contact with my inner man, and I found myself stirred and moved in ways I have never known since. What was it that gave this man's word's such penetrative force? Is the only explanation a peculiar anointing of the Holy Spirit? Or are other human factors involved as well?

Shedd contends that there are distinctive features of forceful speaking that can be identified and explained. Foremost among them is the innate power that lies in the ideas we are conveying. Force, he insists, does not lie in the sheer energy of the human mind, nor in the intensity with which we may express ourselves. At heart, it springs from the power of ideas and principles themselves.

Think about this for a moment. While we may not be used to toying with such ideas in the terms Shedd uses, we are all familiar with the relative force innate in different ideas. Were I to say, for example, 'The sky outside is bright blue,' you would all understand what I meant, but probably promptly forget what I had said. However, were I to say, 'The Lord Jesus will soon return with myriads of angels to end this age,' you would be aware of my words registering more deeply upon your consciousness. Why? Because they were more clear? No. Simply because the ideas expressed are more significant and inherently more weighty. Now that, says Shedd, is a feature of all forceful speaking. Ideas penetrate when they have substance. A commonplace expression will fall like a snowflake upon our consciousness, whereas a well refined nugget of truth will pierce the most apathetic mind as David's stone did Goliath's skull. Let a preacher saturate his mind with the peerless truths of Scripture, and let his own spirit imbibe their power, and he cannot but be a forceful man.

It is at this point that I personally have received the greatest help from Shedd.

Were you to look at pages 63-65 in my copy of  Homiletics and Pastoral Theology, you would find them disfigured by marking to the point of being almost illegible. For many years, I grappled with the issue of how to preach effectively; how to find those ideas and sentiments that would thrill and nourish those I was speaking to. Often times I admit, I lapsed into what was little more than sterile brooding; a fault to which some of us are more temperamentally inclined than others. In Shedd I found the antidote.

Subjective processes, he thunders, the musing, reflective, brooding habits that the mind can so easily lapse into, spell its ruin. The mind was made to look outward, not inward. It is by steadily contemplating truths objective to itself that the mind gains vigour and energy and strength. "Insulation, isolation and subjective processes" can lead to nothing but the destruction of all energy and vitality in your mind. But on the other hand, "communion with real and solid verities promotes both." p. 65

"The oratorical power of the preacher," he claims, "depends upon his recipiency; upon his contemplation of those ideas and doctrines which the Supreme Mind has communicated to the created and dependent spirit; upon his clearly beholding them, and receiving through his intuition a fund of knowledge and force of which he is naturally destitute." p. 67

In simple terms, what Shedd is saying is this. If you would be a forceful preacher, then you must have forceful ideas to convey. And there is only one place to find such ideas. You do not find them by looking within. You find them by gazing upon the revelation that God has given us. Absorb it into your being, and you will be necessarily a forceful preacher.

It is perhaps worth adding that Shedd distinguishes between force as it relates to the penetrative power of a preacher's words, and the mere strength of feeling or passion with which he may speak. True force will always be accompanied by passion. One cannot contemplate profound ideas without feeling deeply. But it is possible to have deep feeling without true force. A preacher may rouse himself to a state of feeling and passion by sheer will, imagination, or rhetorical facade. He may master the art of varying intonation and pace, of pitch and action, but his going in circles may have precious little lasting impact. Indeed, the fluster of his acting may eventually wear him out.

"The created mind" Shedd says, " may endeavour to make for [its] want of inward power by a stormy and passionate energy; but... sooner or later the overtasked, because unassisted, intellect gives out...." p. 75

True force concerns penetration, not simple passion. And it is to be found in the constant study of God's Word.

III. BEAUTY

The third and final property of style, or form that Shedd discusses is beauty.

In drawing attention to this, I realize that this quality may strike you, as it did me at first, as somewhat superfluous and unnecessary for us to consider. We associate beauty with that which is ornate, that which is pretties, that which is decorative. And we have neither room nor need for those things in our preaching.

However, before we condemn Shedd for placing the emphasis he does upon this property, we do well first to listen to what he understands by it. We soon find that our perception has been inadequate. We find that Shedd shares our aversion to everything showy. His concept of beauty has little to do with that which sparkles and flashes, but has everything to do with completeness, and symmetry, and order. Listen to how he defines it: "The essential principle of beauty is that by which all the manifoldness and variety in an object is moulded into unit and simplicity...[Beauty] has a spontaneous origin. It springs into existence whenever the mind has succeeded in imparting the properties of unity and simplicity to a multitude of particulars which, taken by themselves, are destitute of these properties." p. 76, 79

Few of us, perhaps, have thought of beauty in these terms. In fact, few of us have ever thought about the essence of beauty at all. The moment we do, however, we recognize that Shedd is right. What is it that makes one painting beautiful, but another garish. Is it not that the one has every component in proper proportion, place and balance, every colour and tone fitly blended together? The impact of the whole is that of perfection and completeness.

The other, we note, is marked by discord and impropriety in every detail.

Perspective is distorted, colour is misplaced and mismatched, the composition is disorientated. Its ugliness relates not to the quality of the paint, nor the skill of the artist's technique, but to the absence of order and balance.

Now that, Shedd says, is exactly what we are talking about when we talk about beauty in a sermon. We are talking about its completeness. It is something spontaneous; something that arises from within, and not something washed on from outside.

"It is too much the habit to regard beauty as mere ornamentation, as something that is added to other properties, instead of growing out of them.

Hence it is too much the habit to cultivate the beautiful in isolation, - to set it up before the mind as an independent quality, and to make every other quality subservient to it.... Thus, it appears that true beauty is not an ornament washed on from without, but an efflux from within." p. 79, 82

No one can quarrel with this concept of beauty. It reflects our innate appreciation of order in our Father's beautiful, though sin-marred world. Yet, have we appreciated its importance in our preaching? Has our addiction to objectivity, and to teaching, inoculated us with the belief that as long as something is substantial and true, its form matters little? We do well to listen to Dabney who insists that the preacher's task is not simply to persuade his hearers that what he is saying is true, but that it is also good. Our object in preaching is to see the hearts of people persuaded to believe and act that means that we must help them to do more than just understand. We must help them love and desire what they hear to be right and to that end, it is fitting that our preaching should have this quality of innate beauty about it.

But how is it to be achieved? Here Shedd comes to our rescue again with commanding and helpful insights. Beauty, he says, is a product of structural form. A sermon needs unity and order and completeness to possess this

quality. Foremost among these requirements in Shedd's mind, is  unity, asingle object in view. Here his homiletics reveals his strong attachment to classical rhetoric. A discourse, he insists, must always center upon a single theme.

 

"The sermon must preserve an oratorical character. It should never allow either the philosophical or the poetical element to predominate over the rhetorical. The sermon should be eloquence, and not poetry or philosophy. It should be a discourse that exhibits singleness of aim, and a converging progress towards an outward practical end." p. 128

Here, I am well aware, he might meet with dissent from many of us here today. The expository methods of our day tend to reflect a closer adherence to the structure of the text itself than the rounded symmetry of a classical oration. They tend to be more exegetical than oratorical. Far be it for Shedd or anyone else to lay down inflexible rules at this point. But at the same time, let me urge you to reconsider the point that he makes.  It is my persuasion that some contemporary expository preaching is deficient at points. For one thing, it often taxes concentration and memory by its many diverse and scarcely related thoughts. Rather than containing a succession of ideas that build upon and reinforce each other, our sermons tend be a dislocated array of thoughts that compete with each other for retention and application.

Instead of encountering a single point of convergence that compels them to respond to a single truth, our listeners are often faced with having to deal with a number of scarcely related applicatory comments. Rather than carrying them with us in our exposition to a point of climax, we lead them along a faltering and directionless course that breeds an ever-increasing sense of tedium. The properties of converged focus, movement and climax are often missing from our preaching. Need we be surprised, then, that it fails to make much impression? Men and women are often failing to respond to what we preach because they have not felt the weight of it. They will not respond if we merely scatter our bread aimlessly over the flock. It requires clear aim, relentless pursuit, and searching appeal to achieve that end. Listen to what Shedd says:

[A sermon should be] "A rounded and symmetrical discourse, pervaded by one idea, breathing but one spirit, rushing forward with a uniformly accelerating motion, and ending with an overpowering impression and influence upon the will." p. 130

I ask, is not this kind of sermonic form better adapted to being an instrument of the Holy Spirit in producing a deep and lasting impression upon people rather than that which meanders across the fertile countryside of a text commenting here and exhorting there? Remember that our specific concern is with the issue of powerful, impressive preaching. The Holy Spirit can and often does use the most incidental of comments to work his work in lives. But that is not his usual method. I suggest that we need to give fresh consideration and urgent attention to securing more of what Shedd calls beauty in our sermons - a singleness of aim and convergence of thought and practical end that gives them an overall quality and unity that makes them more retainable and useful.

"... Sermons are more defective in respect to unity of structure, and a constant progress towards a single end, than in any other respect," says Shedd. "But these are strictly oratorical qualities, and can be secured only by

attending to the nature and laws of eloquence, - to the rhetorical, as distinguished from the philosophical presentation of truth."  p. 129

I leave you with the challenge to consider deeply whether or not form has a part to play in this matter of powerful preaching. In essence, it all comes back to our starting point. Is spiritual power simply a function of the Holy Spirit's sovereign work, his anointing upon words irrespective of their form, order or structure? Or does the divine Spirit ordinarily work through means adapted to his purposes? If so, we are compelled to spare no effort in making our preaching plain, forceful and beautiful.

With that I am finished. I began by saying that I had found Shedd and unfailing source of inspiration and help over the past years. I trust that you can now appreciate a little better why. I cannot escape the conclusion that the ideals he expounds, (by no means unique to him, I might add), lie at the foundation of powerful preaching. As I have already said, I am not decrying the contributions of more recent homileticians. But at the same time, I am not convinced that they are offering us what we most need. We do not necessarily need techniques to help us cast propositions in uniquely homiletical forms. But what we do need is redirecting back and back and back again to the basics that these older giants had mastered so well. Just as Isaac reopened the wells Abraham's servants had dug, we too need to reexplore the homiletical emphases of our fathers. And it is my prayer that as we do, heavenly power will begin to stream through us bringing with it unprecedented blessing to our needy generation.

Appendix:

SERMON - RELIGIOUS MEDITATION.

Psalm 104 34, " My meditation of Him shall be sweet."

There is no being with whom man stands in such close and important relations as with the invisible God, and yet there is no being with whom he finds it so difficult to have communication. The earth he can see and touch.

His fellow man he can look in the eye and speak to. But at no man hath seen God at any time." Century after century passes by, and the Highest utters no voice that is audible to the outward ear. Thousands and millions of human supplications are sent up to Him who dwells in the heavens, but the heavens are not rent, no deity comes down, and no visible sign is made. The skies are silent. The impenetrable vail between man's body and God's spirit is not withdrawn even for an instant.

As this continues to be the case generation after generation, and century after century, it is natural that those who know of nothing but an external and visible communication between themselves and their Maker should become skeptical concerning his actual existence. Like the pagan idolater, they demand a God who can be seen and handled. Like him, too they hanker after prodigies and wonders, and desire to be put into palpable communication with the Celestial Powers. " This generation seeketh after a sign." It is not surprising, consequently, that the natural man, finding no response to his passionate and baffled attempts to penetrate the invisible and eternal by the method of the five senses, falls into unbelief, and concludes in his heart that a deity who never shows himself has no real being.

Thus the natural tendency of all men who hold no prayerful and spiritual communication with their Maker is to atheism, so long as they live in a world where he makes no external displays of his person and his presence. A time is indeed coming, when an outward vision of God will break upon them so palpable and evident that they will call upon the rocks and mountains to cover them from it; but until that time they are liable to a skepticism which often renders it difficult, even when they make some efforts to the contrary, to believe that there is a God.

But the child of God-the believing, the spiritual, the prayerful man-is delivered from this atheism. For he knows of an intercourse with his Maker, which, though unattended by signs and wonders, by palpability and tangibility for the bodily senses, is as real and convincing as anything outward or visible can be. He has experienced the forgiveness of sin, and found the disquieting remorse of his soul displaced by the peace of God in his conscience, and the love. Of God in his heart. He has known the doubts and fears of a sick bed to give way before God's inward assurance of mercy and acceptance, He has been in a horror of great mental darkness, and into that black void of his soul God has suddenly made a precious promise, or a comforting truth distinct, and glittering night sky. He has had 1ove, and peace, and joy, and the whole throng of devout and spiritual affections, flow in currents through his natural hard and parched soul, at the touch of a Spirit, at the breath of a Being, not of earth or time. And perhaps more convincing than all, he has offered up prayers and supplications, with strong crying and tears, for a strength that was not in himself but which he must get or die, for a blessing that his hungry famine struck soul must obtain or be miserable, and has been heard in that he feared. Thus the Christian's belief in Divine existence is a vital one. In a higher sense than that of the poet, it is "felt in the blood, and felt along in the heart." It is part and particle of his consciousness, waning only as his religious experience wanes, and dying only when that deathless thing shall die.

Yet there are fluctuations in the Christian's faith and sense of God. He needs to school and train himself in this reference. God himself has appointed instrumentalities  by which to keep the knowledge of himself pure, clear, and bright in the souls of his children, " until the day break and the shadows flee away:" and among them is the habit of devout reflection upon his being and attributes.

The uses of religious meditation upon God, to which we are urged by both the precept and the example of the Psalmist, may be indicated in the three following propositions:  .Meditation upon God is a lofty and elevating act, because God is infinite in his being and perfection's.  2.It is a sanctifying act, because God is holy in his nature and attributes. 3.It is a blessed act of the mind, because God is infinitely blessed, and communicates of his fullness of joy to all who contemplate it.

1. In the first place, meditation upon God is a high and elevating mental act, because of the immensity of the Object. "Behold the heaven of heavens cannot contain thee," said the awe-struck Solomon. 11 God is a most pure spirit, immutable, immense," says the Creed. Reflection upon that which is infinite tends of itself to enlarge and ennoble. Meditation upon that which is immense produces a lofty mood of mind. This is true even of merely material immensity. He who often looks up into the firmament, and views the great orbs that fill it, and the great movements that take place in it, will come to possess a spirit akin to this material grandeur-for the astronomical spirit is a lofty one-while he who keeps his eyes upon the ground, and looks at nothing but his little plot of earth, and his own little life with its little motions, will be apt to possess a spirit groveling like the things he lives among, and mean like the dirt he treads upon. Says the thoughtful and moral Schiller: ' "The vision of unlimited distances and immeasurable heights, of the great ocean at his feet and the still greater ocean above him, draws man's spirit away from the narrow sphere of sense, and from the oppressive stricture of physical existence. A grander rule of measurement is held out to him in the simple majesty of Nature, and environed by her great forms he can no longer endure a little and narrow way of thinking. Who knows how many a bright thought and heroic resolve, which the student's chamber or the academic hall never would have originated, has been started out by this lofty struggle of the soul with the great spirit of Nature; who knows whether it is not in part to be ascribed to a less frequent intercourse with the grandeur of the material world, that the mind of man in cities more readily stoops to trifles, and is crippled and weak, while the mind of the dweller beneath the broad sky remains open and free as the firmament under which it lives."

But if this is true of the immensity of Nature, much more is it of the immensity of God. If the sight of the heavens and the stars, of the earth and the vast seas, has a natural tendency to elevate and ennoble the human intellect, much more will the vision granted only to the pure in heart - the vision of the infinite Being who made all these things-exalt the soul above all the created universe. For the immensity of God is the immensity of mind. The infinity of God is an infinity of truth, of purity, of justice, of mercy, of love, and of glory.

When the human intellect perceives God, it beholds what the heaven of heavens does not possess and cannot contain. His grandeur and plenitude is far above that of material creation; for he is the source and the free power whence it all came. The magnificence and beauty of the heavens and earth are the work of his fingers; and there is nothing which the bodily sense can apprehend, by day or by night, however sublime and glorious it may be, that is not infinitely inferior to the excelling, transcending glory of God.

It is one of the many injuries which sin does to man, that it degrades him. It excludes him from the uplifting vision of the Creator, and causes him to expend his mental force upon inferior objects-upon money, houses, lands, titles, and "the bubble reputation." Sin imprisons man within narrow limitations, and thus dwarfs him. And it is one of the consequences of his regeneration that he is enabled to soar again into the realm of the Infinite, and behold unlimited perfection, and thereby regain the dignity he lost by apostasy. For it is a moral and spiritual difference that marks off the hierarchies of heaven from the principalities of hell. Rational beings rise in grade and glorious dignity by virtue of their character. But this character is intimately connected with the clear, unclouded contemplation of God. It is the beatific vision that renders the archangels so lofty. And it is only through a spiritual beholding of God that man can reascend to the point but little lower than the angels, and be crowned again with glory and honor.

11. In the second place, meditation upon God is a sanctifying act, because God is holy and perfect in his nature and attributes. The meditation of which the Psalmist speaks in the text is not that of the schoolman, or the poet, but of the devout, saintly, and adoring mind. That meditation upon God which is " sweeter than honey and the honey-comb " is not speculative, but practical. That which is speculative and scholastic springs from curiosity. That which is practical flows from love. This is the key to this distinction, so frequently employed in reference to the operations of the human mind. All merely speculative thinking is inquisitive, acute, and wholly destitute of affection for the object. But all practical thinking is affectionate, sympathetic, and in harmony with the object. When I meditate upon God because I love him, my reflection is practical. When I think upon God because 1 desire to explore him, my thinking is speculative. None, therefore, but the devout and affectionate mind truly meditates upon God; and all thought upon that Being which is put forth merely to gratify the curiosity and pride of the human understanding forms no part of the Christian habit and practice which we are recommending. Man in every age has endeavored " by searching to find out God." He has striven almost convulsively to fathom the abyss of the Deity, and discover the deep things of the Creator. But because it was from the love of knowledge rather than from the love of God, his efforts have been both unprofitable and futile. He has not sounded the abyss, neither has his heart grown humble, and gentle, and tender, and pure. His intellect has been baffled, and, what is yet worse, his nature has not been renovated. Nay, more, a weariness and a curse has come into his spirit, because he has put the comprehension of an object in the place of the object itself; because, in his long struggle to understand God, he has not had the first thought of loving and serving him.

There is, indeed, for the created mind, no true knowledge of the Creator but a practical and sanctifying knowledge. God alone knows the speculative secrets of his own being. The moral and holy perfection's of the Godhead are enough, and more than enough, for man to meditate upon. " The secret things belong unto the Lord our God," but those things said Moses to the children of Israel, "but those things which are revealed belong unto us, and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of his law."

True meditation, thus proceeding from filial love and sympathy, brings the soul into intercourse and communion with its object. Devout and holy reflection upon God introduces man into the divine presence, in a true and solid sense of these words. Such a soul shall know God as the natural man does not, and cannot. " Judas saith unto him, not Iscariot, Lord, how is it that thou wilt manifest thyself unto us, and not unto the world? Jesus answered, and said unto him, If a man love me, he will keep my words and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him and make our abode with him." In the hour of spiritual and affectionate musing upon the character and attributes of God-and especially upon their manifestation in the Person and Work of Christ-there is a positive impression upon the heart, directly from God. In what other mode can we get near to the Invisible One, here upon earth, than by some mental act or process? In what other way than by prayer and meditation can we approach God? We cannot see him with the outward eye.

 

We cannot touch him with the hand. We cannot draw nigh to him with a body of flesh and blood. In no way, here below, can we have intercourse with God, except " in spirit." He is a pure Spirit, and that part of us which has to do with him is the spirit within us. And in this mode of existence, the only ordinary medium of communication between the divine and the human spirit is thought and prayer. God, with all the immensity of his being, and all the infinitude of

his perfection's, is virtually non-existent for that man who does not meditate and who never prays. For so long as there is no medium of intercourse there is no intercourse. The power of thought and of spiritual supplication is all that God has given us in this life whereby we may approach him, and be impressed by his being and attributes. Eye bath not seen him; the ear cannot hear him. Nothing but the invisible can behold the invisible. Here upon earth, man must meet God in the depths of his soul, in the privacy of his closet, or not at all.

The Christian life is so imperfect here below; that it is unsafe to set it up as a measure of what is possible under the covenant of grace. The possibilities and capacities of the Christian religion are by no means to be estimated by the stinted draughts made upon them by our unfaithfulness and unbelief.

Were we as meditative and prayerful, as was Enoch, the seventh from Adam, we like him. should "walk with God." This was the secret of the wonderful spirituality and unearthliness that led to his translation. Is there upon earth to day any communion between man and God superior to that between the patriarchal mind and the Eternal? Men tell us that the ancient church was ignorant, and that it cannot be expected that Seth and Enoch and David should be possessed of the vast intelligence of the nineteenth century. But show me the man among the millions of our restless and self-conceited civilization who walks with God as Enoch did, and who meditates upon that glorious Being all the day and in the night watches as David did-show me a man of such mental processes as these, and 1 will show you one whose shoe latches, even in intellectual respects, the wisest of our savannas is not worthy to stoop down and uffloose. No scientific knowledge equals, either in loftiness or in depth, the immortal vision of the saint and seraphim. And were we accustomed to such heavenly contemplation and musing, the " fire would burn " in our hearts as it did in that of the Psalmist and our souls would "pant" after God. God would be real to our feelings, instead of being -a mere abstraction for our understanding. We should be conscious of his presence with distinctness equal to that with which we feel the morning wind, and should see his glory as clearly as we ever saw the sun at noonday. With as much certainty as we know the sky to be overhead, and underneath the solid ground, should we be certain that " God is, and is the rewarder of them that diligently seek him." There would be contact. " I want," said Niebuhr, wearied with seeking and not finding, "I want a God who is heart to my heart, spirit to my spirit, life to my life." Such is God to every soul that loves him, and meditates because it loves.

True meditation, then, being practical, and thereby bringing the subject of it into communion with the object of it, is of necessity sanctifying. For the object is Infinite Holiness and Purity. It is he in whom is centered and gathered and crowded all possible perfections. And can our minds muse upon such a Being and not become purer and better? Can we actually and affectionately commune with the most perfect and high God in the heavens and not become sanctified? The spirit of a man takes its character from the themes of its meditation. He who thinks much upon wealth becomes avaricious; He whose thoughts are upon earthly glory becomes ambitious; and he whose thoughts are upon God becomes godlike.

III. In the third place, meditation upon God is a blessed act of the mind, because God himself is an infinitely blessed being, and communicates of his fullness of joy to all who contemplate it. Mere thinking, in and of itself, is not sufficient to secure happiness. Everything depends upon the quality of the thought, and this again upon the nature of the object upon which it is expended. There are various kinds and degrees of mental enjoyment, each produced by a particular species of mental reflection; but there is no thinking that gives rest and satisfaction and joy to the soul, but thinking upon the glorious and blessed God. All other thought ultimately baffles and tires us.

Heaven comes into the human mind not through poetry, or philosophy, or science, or art-not through any secular knowledge but through religion. When a man thinks of his wealth, his houses, his friends, or his country, though he derives a sort of pleasure from so doing, yet it is not of such a grave and solid species as to justify its being denominated "bliss." No thought that is expended upon the creature, or upon any of the creaturely relations, can possibly produce that " sober certainty of waking bliss" which constitutes heaven. If it can, why is not man a blessed spirit here on earth? If it can, why is it that man in all his movements and strivings never reaches a final centre, at which he is willing to say to his soul: "This is enough; this is all; here stand and remain forever?" Man is constantly thinking upon the things of earth, and if they have the power to awaken calm and contented thought, and to induce a permanent and perfect joy, why is he so restless and unhappy? And why does he become the more wearied and soured, the more intensely he thinks and toils?

But there is higher and nobler thought than that of trade and politics. Man can meditate upon purely intellectual themes. He can expend intense reflection upon the mysteries and problems of his own mind, and of the Eternal Mind.

He can put forth an earnest and graceful effort of his powers within the province of beautiful letters and fine art. But does even such an intellectual, and, so far as it goes, such an elevating meditation as this produce and preserve genuine tranquillity and enjoyment? Are poet and philosopher synonymous with saint and angel? Is the learned man necessarily a happy one? Look through the history of literary men, and see their anxious but baffled research, their eager but fruitless inquiry, their acute but empty speculation, their intense but vain study, and you will know that the wise man spake true when he said, "He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow."

Hear the sigh of the meditative Wordsworth:  "Me this unchartered freedom tires; I feel the weight of chance desires; My hopes no more must change their name, I long for a repose that ever is the same."

No, all thought, which does not ultimately come home to God in practical, filial, and sympathetic communion, is incapable of rendering the soul blest.

The intellect may find a kind of pleasure in satisfying its inquisitive and proud desire " to be as gods, knowing good and evil," but the heart experiences no peace or rest, until by a devout and religions meditation it enters into the fullness of God and shares in his eternal joy.

And here again, as in the former instance, our personal experience is so limited and meager that the language of Scripture, and of some saints on earth, seems exaggerated and rhetorical. Says the sober and sincere apostle Paul -a man too much in earnest, and too well acquainted with the subject, to overdraw and overpaint-" Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him." There is a strange unearthly joy, when a pure and spiritual mind is granted a clear view of the divine perfections. It rejoices with a joy unspeakable and full of glorying. All finite beauty, all created glory, is but a shadow in comparison. The holy mind rapt in contemplation says with Augustine: 'I When 1 love God, 1 do not love the beauty of material bodies, nor the fair harmony of time, nor the brightness of the light so gladsome to our eyes, nor sweet melodies of varied songs, nor the fragrant smell of flowers and perfumes and spices; not manna nor honey. None of these do 1 love, when 1 love my God. And yet I love a kind of melody, a kind of fragrance, and a kind of food, when I love my God-the light, the melody, the fragrance, and the food of the inner man: when there shineth into my soul what space cannot contain, and there soundeth what time beareth not away, and there smelleth what breathing disperseth not, and there tasteth what eating diminisheth not. This is it which I love, when I love my God.

We find it difficult, with our sluggish and earthly temper, to believe all this, and to sympathize with it. Yet it is simple naked truth and fact. There is a heaven, whether we reach it or not. There is a beatific vision of God, whether it ever dilates and enraptures our eyes or not. God is infinite blessedness and glory, and no good being can behold him without partaking of it. As he gazes, he is changed into the same image from glory to glory. The more clear and full his vision, the more overwhelming and 'boundless is the influx of heaven into him.

We may know something of this here on earth. The more we meditate upon God and divine things, the happier shall we become in our own minds. There are at this moment, upon this cursed and thistle-bearing earth, some meek and gentle spirits whose life of prayer and holy communion streaks the heavens with bars of amber, and apparels everything in heavenly light. And the more this divine pleasure enters the soul, the more will it hunger and thirst after it. For this is the summum bonum; this is the absolute delight. This never satiates. This never wearies. This joy in the vision of God has the power to freshen and invigorate while it runs through the fibres of the heart; and therefore, even amidst the most ecstatic and satisfying visions of heaven, the blessed still cry: "My soul pants after thee, 0 God, as the hart pants after the waterbrook; my heart and my flesh cries out for the living God."

 

Never will our minds reach a state in which they will really be at rest, and never will they put forth an activity, which they will be willing to have eternal, until they acquire the mental habits of the holy angels. In the saints' everlasting rest, there is an unintermittent contemplation and sight of God.

Who of us is ready for it? Who of us is certain that he will not turn away, when he finds that this, and this alone, is the heaven of which he has heard so much? Who of us has such a holy frame and such a spiritual sympathy with God, that every deeper descent into that abyss of holiness and purity will reveal new sights of joy, and start out new feelings of wonder and love? Who of us can be happy in heaven? For this open vision of God, this sight of him face to face, this beatific contemplation of his perfection's, is the substance of paradise, the jasper foundation of the city of God.

We have thus seen that religious meditation upon God and divine things elevates, sanctifies, and blesses. But though this Christian habit produces such great and good fruits, there is probably no duty that is more neglected.

We find it easier to read our Bible, than to ponder upon it; easier to listen to preaching, than to inwardly digest it; easier to respond to the calls of benevolence and engage in external service in the church, than to go into our closets. And is not this the secret of the faint and sickly life in our souls? Is not this the reason why we live at a poor dying rate? Think you that if we often entered into the presence of God and obtained a realizing view of things unseen and eternal, earthly temptation would have such a Think you that if we strong power over us as it does? received every day a distinct and bold impression from the attributes of God, we should be so distant from him in our hearts? Can we not trace our neglect of duty, our lukewarm feelings, and our great worldliness of heart, to our lack of the vision of God?

The success of a Christian mainly depends upon a uniform and habitual communion with his God and Redeemer. No spasmodic resolutions into which he may be exasperated by the goadings of conscience can be a substitute for it. If holy communion and prayer are interrupted, he will surely fall into sin. In this world of continual temptation and of lethargic consciences, we need to be awakened and awed by the serene splendor of God's holy countenance. But we cannot behold that amidst the vapors and smoke of every-day life. We must go into our closets and " shut the door, and pray to our Father who seeth in secret." Then shall we know how power to resist temptation comes from fellowship with God. Then we know what a Sabbath that soul enjoys, which, with open eye, looks long and steadily at the Divine perfections. With what a triumphant energy, like that of the archangel trampling on the dragon, does Moses come down from the Mount into the life of conflict and trial. With what a vehement spiritual force does a holy mind resist evil, after it has just seen the contrast between evil and God. Will the eagle that has soared above the earth in the free air of the open firmament of heaven, and has gazed into the sun with an undazzled eye, endure to sink and dwell in the dark cavern of the owl and the bat? Then will the spirit which has seen the glorious light of the divine countenance endure to descend and grovel in the darkness and shame of sin.

It should, therefore, be a diligent and habitual practice with us, to meditate upon God and divine things. Time should be carefully set apart and faithfully used for this sole purpose. It is startling to consider how much of our life passes without any thought of God; without any distinct and filial recognition of his presence and his character. And yet how much of it might be spent in sweet and profitable meditation. The avocations of our daily life do not require the whole of our mental energy and reflection. If there were a disposition; if the current of feeling and affection set in that direction; how often could the farmer commune with God in the midst of his toil, or the merchant in the very din and press of his business. How often could the artisan send his thoughts and his ejaculations upward, and the work of his hands are none the worse for it. " What hinders," says Augustine,' " what hinders a servant of God while working with his hands, from meditating in the law of the Lord, and singing unto the name of the Lord most high? As for divine songs, he can easily say them even while working with his hands, and like as rowers with a boat-song, so with godly melody cheer up his very toil." But the disposition is greatly lacking. If there were an all-absorbing affection for God in our hearts, and it were deep joy to see him, would not this " sweet meditation 'I of the Psalmist be the pleasure of life, and all other thinking the duty-a duty per formed from the necessity that attaches to this imperfect mode of existence, rather than from any keen relish for it? If the vision of God were glorious and ravishing to our minds, should we not find them often indulging themselves in the right, and would not a return to the things of earth be reluctant? Would not thought upon God steal through and suffuse all our other thinking, as sunset does the evening sky, giving a pure and saintly hue to all our feelings, and pervading our entire experience? So it works in other provinces. The poet Burns was so deeply absorbed in the visions, aspirations, and emotions of poetry, that the avocations of the farmer engrossed but little of his mind, and it has been said of him, that, though his hand was on the plough his heart was with the muse."

Were the Christian as much absorbed in the visions, aspirations, and emotions of religion, it would be said of him, too: "His hand is on the plough, but his heart is with his God; his head is in his worldly business, but his heart is with his God."

Finally, let us be urged up to the practice of this duty by a consideration which has most force, it is true, for unrenewed men who know nothing of the Christian experience, but which still has much strength for us if we consider our remaining sin and the slender amount of our intercourse with God. We still find it too difficult to delight in God. It is still not so easy and pleasant as it ought to be to walk with God. Notwithstanding our vocation and our expectation, it is still too difficult for us to be happy in heaven. It is in this reference that the subject we have been considering speaks with great emphasis. Let us remember that a foundation for heaven in our own minds is requisite in order to the enjoyment of the heaven that is on high.' That rational being who does not practise the meditations and enjoy the experiences of heaven, will not be at home there, and, therefore, will not go there. Every being goes to 11 his own place." Is it supposable that a soul that never here on earth contemplated the Divine character with pleasure, will see that character in eternity, in peace, and joy? Is it supposable that a human spirit filled with self-seeking and worldliness, and wholly destitute of devout and adoring meditations, will be taken among seraphim and cherubim when taken out of time? Is that world of holy contemplation the proper place for a carnal mind filled through and through with only earthly and selfish thoughts? Can the sensual Dives be happy in the bosom of Abraham? God is not mocked, neither can a man cheat and impose upon his own soul when in eternity.

Every one will then be brought to his individuality. He will know then, if not before, what he does really love and what he does really loathe. And if in that other world there be only a pretended and hollow affection for God, with what a sigh and long-drawn moan will the wretched being fling down the harp with which he vainly tries to sing the heavenly song. For whatsoever a man thinks of with most relish here in time, he shall think of with most relish in eternity.

He who loves to think of wealth, and fame, and sensual pleasure, and loathes to think of God, and Christ, and heavenly objects, shall think of wealth, and fame, and sensual pleasure in eternity, where all such thinking is " the worm that dieth not, and the fire that is not quenched." But he who, in any degree, loves to think of God and Christ, and abhors to think of sin in all its forms, shall think of God and Christ in eternity-where all such thought is music, and peace, and rest.

The destination of every man in another world may be inferred and known from the general tenor of his thoughts in this. He who does not love to think upon a particular class of subjects here will not love to think upon them there.

The mere passage from time to eternity can no more alter a man's likes or dislikes in this respect than the passage of the Atlantic can alter them. And that rational spirit, be it human, angelic, or arch-angelic, which in eternity cannot take positive delight in contemplating God, but recoils from all such contemplation, is miserable and lost, though it tread the golden streets and hear the rippling murmurs of the river of the water of life. But if our meditation upon God is sweet here, it will be sweeter in eternity. And then our blessedness will be certain and secure; for no spirit, human, angelic, or archangelic, can by any possibility be made unblest in any part of God's vast dominions, if it really finds joy in the contemplation of the ever-present God.

Amen

 

Last Updated on Sunday, 13 March 2011 20:47  

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