Saturday, November 17, 2007
James S Stewart - Clouds and Darkness and the Morning Star
Clouds and Darkness and the Morning Star
'If one look unto the land, behold darkness and sorrow and the light is darkened in the heavens thereof.' ISA. 5:30.
'I am the bright and morning star.' - REV. 22. 16.
OF ALL THE DOUBTS WHICH, AS BROWNING PUTS IT, CAN 'RAP and knock and enter in our soul', by far the most devastating is doubt of the ultimate purpose of God. You may doubt some of the dogmas of your ancestors, and be none the worse for it. You may doubt a particular article in a credal statement, and still be on the Lord's side. You may doubt the validity of contemporary fashions in religious thinking, and still have your feet upon the Rock of Ages. But to doubt the final purpose of God - which means to doubt the rationality of the universe, and significance of human experience, and the worth of moral values - is there anything left to live for then?
Yet what is precisely the doubt which is lying like an appalling weight on multitudes of lives today. They would think twice before subscribing to Tennyson's faith:
'Yet I doubt not thro' the ages one increasing purpose runs,
And the thoughts of men are widen'd with the process of the suns.'
'Where is any evidence of such a purpose?' they want to ask. 'Where is any convincing trace of plan or pattern or design? It does not make sense - this tangled world. We are not getting anywhere. We are just blundering along, victims of fate and chance and accident; and all our dreams and hopes and idealisms and struggles are a mere forlorn futility.'
So they are back where Ecclesiastes was. 'Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.' What is the use, cried Thomas Hardy, of all your prayers, you praying people, when you have nothing better to pray to than
'The dreaming, dark, dumb Thing
That turns the handle of this idle Show?'
'A bad joke' - that was Voltaire's final verdict 011 life. 'Ring down the curtain,' said the dying actor, 'the farce is done.'
People do not go about saying these things, of course. Not in so many words. But deep down in the hidden recesses of many a soul that doubt has begun to stir. Has God a plan?
Mark you, they are not flippant souls whom that doubt afflicts. Some of the most lovable and devoted people in the world are in the toils of it today. There was a man I knew: he turned in, with this particular burden on his heart, to a church one day. The preacher's sermon was a hotch-potch of Emersonian optimism, plus a dash of Coue: the world was getting better and better every day, and everything in the garden of the human heart was lovely, and soon we should all reach the New Jerusalem by our own momentum. That man left the church that day not only hurt, but angry. I don't blame him. I think it would have angered Christ. Face the facts! That is Christ's first rule of honesty. And when men do sincerely endeavour to face the facts, do you think it is so very surprising that sometimes a doubt of the ultimate meaning of it all creeps in? Read your Isaiah. He
might have been writing for today. 'If one look unto the land, behold darkness and sorrow, and the light is darkened in the heavens thereof.'
Now this doubt of an ultimate plan or purpose in life springs from various sources; and I am going to ask you at this point to imagine that we have here in the church two or three typical representatives, who are going to speak for themselves.
Here is one. 'My doubt of an ultimate purpose in things,' he tells us, 'comes from science.' 'Will you explain?' we ask him. 'Well, it is like this,' he goes on. 'It is now a recognised fact that the universe we inhabit is gradually very slowly, but none the less certainly - running down like a clock, with its energy imperceptibly but steadily degenerating. And if that is true, if that is the line of our destiny, is there any sense in talking of an ultimate purpose or a plan ?' Now it is a real difficulty; and even if I were to point out to this speaker that a universe which is running down like a clock must first have been wound up by some one, and that therefore his own argument points to a divine mind in control; even if I were to remind him that in any case Christianity never suggested that our home here was permanent ('The world passeth away'), it is hardly likely that this would dispel his doubt. Some better answer will be required. There is a better answer. There is, in Christianity, an overwhelmingly convincing answer. We are coming to that soon. Meanwhile, the difficulty stands.
Take a second man. 'It is not science,' he tells us, 'that has led me to doubt the purpose of God: it is the state of the world. It is this pitiless, unending struggle for existence among the nations. It is the collapse of our idealisms before the brute facts of force and chaos. It is the feeling that there is something demonic in the heart of things which is working against us, that there is a radical twist in the very
constitution of the universe which will always defeat man's hopes, make havoc of his dreams, and bring his pathetic optimism crashing ill disaster. Purpose? Look at the world! That settles it.'
Take a third man. 'It is neither science nor history,' he tells us, 'that has shaken my faith in a divine plan. It is the fact of suffering.' And then perhaps he quotes the words of the philosopher Hume. 'Were a stranger to drop suddenly into this world, I would show him, as a specimen of its ills, a hospital full of diseases, a prison crowded with malefactors
-and debtors, a field of battle strewn with cm·cases, a fleet floundering in the ocean, a nation languishing under tyranny, famine, or pestilence.' 'Honestly,' he declares, 'I don't see how you can possibly square that with an ultimate purpose of love.' And indeed, I wonder if anyone here has never felt, like cold steel running into his soul, the sudden stab of that wild doubt? There is a most poignant moment in Eugene O'Neill's play, All God's Chillun got Wings. 'Will God forgive me?' one of the characters asks another. And the answer comes - 'Maybe He can forgive what you've done to me; and maybe He can forgive what I've done to you; but I don't see how He's going to forgive - Himself.' It is the same haunting doubt. Is there any loving purpose in command?
We have imagined these three men speaking frankly of their problem - one arguing from science, another from the condition of the world, a third from the mystery of suffering. But perhaps for someone here the problem is more intimate and personal still. It is not really science, nor the world, nor an abstract problem of evil that is your worry. It is your own experience. The psalmist advised us, when the low mood came, to address our own souls, and say, 'Why art thou cast down, 0 my soul?' But there are multitudes of people who know perfectly well what their souls would answer.
'Cast down? How can I help it? Life has been so different
from what I had hoped, so fuIl of thwarting and frustration; and I seem to be of so little use to anyone, and if I died tonight the world would go on tomorrow as if nothing at all had happened. And this struggle to achieve something like a decent character - what a weary business that has been! This troublesome self - ten years, twenty years ago, I was fighting that; and here I am, fighting the same thing still. And what's the use? I feel so tragically ineffective and futile. Don't talk to me of a divine purpose in my life! For that I can't believe.'
We have listened, then, to these different voices; and I think you will realise that what they are doing is to force us up against the most crucial alternative, the most inescapable 'Either-Or' of life. That alternative is this: Either despair or faith. Either blank, unrelieved pessimism, or a gambler's throw with your soul. Either darkness and futility and ultimate night, or the vision of God standing within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.
There is no third way. It is between these two readings of life that every soul of us must choose. But it is precisely here that Christianity comes in with its central demand. It demands that, before we choose, we should at least try to see what the men of the New Testament had seen.
What was that? They had seen one point of light in the darkness. They had wrestled desperately with this strange puzzle of life, its problems and griefs and breaking hearts; and then God had put into their hands one word, and they looked at it, and suddenly they realized that this was the solving word, the code word, and that they had only to apply this to decipher all the rest. They had pored long on life's jumbled, meaningless pieces, trying vainly to make sense of them; and then one day the semblance of a pattern had appeared, not much of a design, it is true, just two lines like a cross - but at least it was a pattern; and with this standing out, somehow all the other things began to move into their place. In the maze of life's perplexities, they had come upon one fact that made the idea of a blessed purpose suddenly credible. They - the common soldiers on life's field - had been allowed for one moment to glimpse the great Commander-in-Chief's plan of campaign. In one flash across the darkness they had caught a sight of God's meaning with the universe and with themselves. They had seen Jesus.
And this stands today as the central demand of Christianity, that when you and I are baffled by life and cannot see
purpose in it anywhere, and when we stand facing the final alternative of despair or faith, we should not decide until we have included the fact of Jesus in our evidence, and taken cognizance of His life and death and victory, and seen across the midnight darkness that bright and morning star.
This, of course, is not to exclude the possibility of other evidence. Go to Nature, for example. Is there no trace of purpose there? Have not scientists like Jeans and Eddington been telling us that everything points to the existence of an infinite, directing mind, as of a great mathematician? Does not the vast system of ordered natural law imply that ultimately the universe itself is on the side. of righteousness which is what the Bible means when it says, 'the stars in their courses fought against Sisera' ? And is there not a deeper meaning than some of us have suspected in the words of a familiar hymn?
'But the slow watches of the night
Not less to God belong;
And for the everlasting right
The silent stars are strong.'
Or turn to History. Is there no trace of purpose there?
Erratic and incalculable the course of events may often be; but do no clear principles stand out? This at least has surely
emerged from the long travail of the ages, that 'where ther is no vision, the people perish,' and that where there i moral apostasy
apostasy, there comes inevitably national deca) Does that not indicate purpose?
Or turn to your own experience. 'I came about,' said, Robert Louis Stevenson, describing a decisive stage of hi soul's career, 'like a well-handled ship. There stood at the wheel that unknown steersman whom we call God.' Perhaps there has been no such dramatic hand of Providence in you experience. But before you deny the presence of an over ruling purpose, think again! I put this to you now: Are there not certain things you would die rather than do? Are there not certain ideals of honour and truth that have a absolute claim on you, so that you can only say, 'Her stand I: I and no other' ? Where does that feeling come from Do you really believe Bertrand Russell when he asserts that it is just 'the outcome of accidental collocation of atoms' Were the heroisms of the martyrs, and the preaching of Savonarola, and the devotion of a Wilberforce, and the sacrifice of a Livingstone, and the shudder that passed over your own soul when the first real temptation came, and the peace that followed when you conquered - were these things the product of chance groupings of atoms? Do yo not think that that explanation is definitely less plausible far more incredible, than the Christian one, according t which that sense of honour, that resolve to die rather than do certain things, is the grip of a living God upon you soul; in other words, the clear token of a great purpose working through your life?
Yes, there are these lines of evidence. God has not lei himself without a witness to His purpose in nature, history, experience. But that is not enough. Men never felt that was enough. Still the mists of uncertainty linger. Still the shadows of the dread doubt darken the soul. But suddenly out of the mists comes Jesus! High in the darkened heavens rides a messenger of hope. I am the bright and morning star!
How do I know, looking at Jesus, that life has a meaning, and God a purpose! I know it from His character. Into this tumbled, chaotic world there has appeared at one point of time that quality of life - absolute chivalry, consistency unwavering, love triumphant over every evil, compassion as wide as the sea, purity as steady as a rock. And when I gaze at that, immediately there is a voice in my own heart that begins to cry - 'The meaning of life is there! God's purpose for me, and for all humanity, is there. Soul of mine, follow the gleam!'
How do I know, looking at Jesus, that life has a meaning, and God a purpose? I know it from His cross. When a flag is flying in the wind, you cannot always make out its design and pattern; but then perhaps there comes a sudden stormy gust, and blows the flag out taut, and for a moment the pattern stands out clear. Was it not something like that which happened over nineteen hundred years ago? The flag of life and of man's long campaign had been flying for ages, and none could read its meaning; but suddenly came a storm-blast, the fiercest gust of all, and straightened out the flag: and men looked, and lo its pattern was a cross. Does it not help you, in your own sufferings, to know that that cross is the ground-plan of the universe, that life is built like that; that the trials and troubles and sacrifices which often seem so meaningless, the very negation of all purpose, are really the means by which the most glorious purpose imaginable is being wrought out; and that therefore every pain you have to bear can be a holy sacrament in which the God who suffered on Calvary comes to meet you, and your contribution to the building of the kingdom of heaven and the redeeming of the world? Christ died to tell us that.
How do I know, looking at Jesus, that life has a meaning, and God a purpose? I know it from His resurrection. Do you
remember the dramatic passage in which Browning likens conversion to the effect of a lightning-flash in a dark night showing up everything momentarily as clear as day?
'I stood at Naples once, a night so dark
I could have scarce conjectured there was earth A
nywhere, sky or sea or world at all:
But the night's black was burst through by a blaze ...
There lay the city thick and plain with spires,
And, like a ghost disshrouded, white the sea.
So may the truth be flashed out by one blow.'
What was the resurrection of Jesus? What were the appearances to the disciples? They were the lightning-flash of God the bursting of the unseen world into the seen, the break through of God's new creation, the spiritual world order into the order that now is. No wonder Paul, meeting Jesus outside the gates of Damascus, fell blinded to the earth! What had he seen? Do not think it was the Syrian sunshine that dazzled him. No! He had seen - for one tremendous moment, in that risen, death-defeating Christ he had seen - the unveiled purpose of God. And you who have been where Paul and these disciples were, you who on some high road of the spirit have met the risen Chris again and felt the thrill and glory of His power, you to whom He is now the companion of the way in a blessed intimacy 0 friendship whose wonders never cease - you need no further proof. Life does have a meaning and a purpose and a goal And we poor struggling creatures are not the doomed play things of chance and accident and futility. We are getting somewhere. We are moving onwards to a day when this suffering, tormented creation shall see at last of the travail of its soul, and this corruptible shall put on incorruptibly and this mortal shall put on immortality, and God shall be all in all.
'I am the bright and morning star,' says Jesus. It all comes back in the end to the question: Who will follow that gleam? Are we prepared to live now as those who have seen the purpose of God, as men and women who have tasted the powers of the world to come? And will we hold to it in spite of everything, in spite of the tangles and the darkness and all our own secret sorrows and disappointments and defeats, that God's will is coming out at the last; that though hindered often and set back by human blindness and folly and sin, its ultimate victory is sure? 0 trust that morning star! God set it in the sky for you.
'And all the jarring notes of life
Seem blending in a psalm,
And all the angles of its strife
Slow rounding into calm.
And so the shadows fall apart,
And so the west winds play;
And all the windows of my heart
I open to the day.'