"My Son, give Me thine heart." - Proverbs 23:26.
Albert D. Belden: This sermon represents an attempt to preach the Evangel to modern youth as positively as possible.
There is strong reaction in the mind to-day against three common features of past evangelism -
It can scarcely be denied that in much popular evangelism of the past so much stress was laid on the young disciple's severance from the world that discipleship seemed to become a program of "Don'ts." "Don't drink, don't swear, don't bet, don't go to the theater, don't smoke." The "world" was identified too crudely with the pleasures of society and insufficiently with the temper and principle of society's everyday serious activities.
This type of appeal to a youth nurtured in the atmosphere of the Great War [WWI] is scarcely heroic enough. It smacks of the prig and does not raise a big enough issue with the world. Actually and not subconsciously modern youth is already too Christianized for such an appeal. It seeks rather the one great positive Act of the Soul which, by choice of the Principle and Spirit of Jesus, will put these minor matters of conduct right in its course.
The sense of spiritual autonomy in the mind of to-day, a direct product of the Christian Gospel, is such as to make it impervious to threats when it comes to matters of belief. The truth must be inherently reasonable and self-evidently appealing, so that faith leaps spontaneously to greet it - if it needs supporting by an appeal to fear it at once falls under suspicion. This does not rule out references to the inevitable consequences of neglecting moral principles, but it does mean a most judicious and careful use of such references.
You can't force the pace with youth and get strong and lasting results. We need to be careful lest in our haste to evangelize we reap the poorer type of youth for an imperfect decision whilst losing and even alienating the stronger sturdier type. In this matter more haste may certainly be less speed for the Church.
More and more the appeal to youth must be couched in the generous terms of service and good-of-others rather than of self-interest. Terms of Duty will appeal more than terms of Gain. The saving of one's own soul out of relation to other souls holds next to no attraction for the highly socialized consciousness of our time. This is all to the good, for undoubtedly a great deal of the Church's weakness in the past has been due to the fact that men and women have come to Christ for essentially selfish reasons and have maintained that selfish temper and attitude side by side with their Christian profession.
Fundamentally Christian conversion is from the principle that seeks to save its own life to the principle that is willing to lose it for Christ's sake.
But a further fundamental weakness even of much modern evangelism is that it cannot or will not relate itself intelligibly to the "mental contest" in the mind of the hearer. The human mind whilst it has an uncanny and dangerous power of keeping its knowledge in water-tight compartments, is never quite happy under such an attempt. Its need for unity is frustrated, and its power of thought is restless until it can see coherence in all its thinking or at least a large measure of coherence.
Nothing is more pathetic than the way in which human minds are constantly falling victims to plausible systems of teaching simply because they are coherent. This is a truth the modern evangelist must recognize. It is a legitimate hunger in the minds of his hearers, especially the more intelligent of them.
How does your gospel stand related to the rest of well-authenticated knowledge? Is your heavenly ladder of truth hung tantalizingly in the mists and clouds of mid-air or does one end rest solidly upon the earth? The appeal to human experience, to the real self-evident nature of the moral and spiritual needs of the soul, to the plain trend of being through all the ages, taking due, though not overdue, note of the findings of science - this is the kind of appeal which will call forth a big response from the youth of to-day.
These conditions the writer endeavors to fulfil in his evangelism of which this address is a fair specimen.
As to methods of discovering decision, he prefers the individual interview to any public demonstration. The young adolescent responds very freely to the public invitation to come forward the moment a lead is secured. It is the leader who is the real trophy - the others may stand when committed, but one doubts if it is in their best interests to achieve the poorer imitative type of decision rather than the richer.
The writer is a pastor rather than evangelist, but his ministry is governed by the evangelical passion, and especially would he say to his fellow-ministers, "Shepherd the young of your flock" by close personal attention - that is the soundest evangelism.
Albert D. Belden: What is the greatest hour of life? Scarcely the hour when you were born, for then all was so immature and your own decision played no part. Nor is it the hour of death, though that will come to us all and is solemn enough. But then the opportunities of this life will all be past.
Between those great hours is there not another - a great focal hour in which is gathered up all the meaning of the past and from which all the future takes new and more glorious shape? Religion has always believed in such an hour.
Even in savage and primitive days religion used to concentrate the meaning and dignity of human life into one great experience of initiation. Every savage race to-day has its peculiar rites for the introduction of youth into the responsibilities of full membership in the tribe or nation.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Christianity, the purest and most redemptive faith of all, should lay peculiar stress upon the great turning point of life, this hour of the soul's awakening, this experience when the meaning of ALL pours its golden splendor in benediction over the soul.
In recent times, however, a tendency has crept into our churches to ignore the necessity and value of this red-letter experience. The idea that it is possible for the child to grow imperceptibly and gradually into a mature Christian has left scarcely any room for a golden hour of supreme and sublime feeling and unique moral decision. Surely this is wrong. I confess to a fear lest many children to-day should grow up to manhood and womanhood without the benediction of deeply sacred memories.
It must certainly be so with the children of our modern pagans - that sad "third generation" who grow up without religion at all, whose grandparents abandoned the habit of worship whilst the second generation was still in childhood. Think of those lives maturing with only human memories in their possession - with no remembered thrill and awe of hallowed hours of prayer in home or church when God drew nigh and touched their lives with unforgettable splendor! But just as bad proportionately must it be for youth to advance in its Christian education so uneventfully and so unfeelingly that it possesses no outstanding and finally hallowing experiences. Where there is no depth of feeling, can religion be other than shallow and superficial? What one suspects is that the deep feeling, the high and thrilling aspirations that are native to youth, become repressed in this cold ultra-respectable atmosphere that blights so many churches, and the romance and splendor of Christian discipleship goes unrealized and undiscovered.
Every life at some point or other passes the rubicon between immature semi-responsible judgment and real adulthood. Every life, as it were, passes a point where its understanding of the meaning of life, or at least its desire to understand, is thoroughly aroused. At that point Christ comes to meet you with a challenge that means a crisis - that leaves you for ever better or worse than it finds you. On the threshold of real life God waits to give you a Golden Hour of Understanding, of Initiation and Decision.
Let us look at the three great factors that go to they making of this Golden Hour of Life.
I. The Awakening of the Soul to the meaning of Life.
If I understand aright the young hearts to which I am speaking, you are filled with a great and wistful desire to find the real true meaning of Life. Every now and again you are baffled in your quest - which is largely a very secret one - and then you plunge into gaiety and sport and pleasure to hide your disappointment. Some of you perhaps have even drugged the desire in you with these things, innocent enough as they are in themselves, but as I speak you feel it rising again, do you not?
Let me try to answer your longing.
Part of the answer lies behind you in all that has gone to your making. You are a child of the Stars literally - you are the offspring of all that has ever been. Think of some of the forces that have made you.
Think first of the millenniums of material development. Blazing suns and circling planets, all the mighty array of the starry heavens from which this earth came forth. Long ages of geological changes, the fashioning of continents and their sundering by oceans, the Earth prepared for Life! All this was for you!
Then, too, recall the long travail of life itself. There were immense ages of animal development, life conquering the land from the sea, travelling from the shore to the cliff and the cave, from the caves to the woods, from the woods to the garden and the plain. Man has arrived! and life moves on from the plain to the village, the town, the city!
But the story is only begun, for we must think also of the mighty epic of human history. To the making of this heart of yours that God claims to-night has gone the majestic and infinite sacrifice of all past humanity. H. G. Wells, in his Last Things, illustrates impressively, if amusingly, this great fact that you are a child of all the race. He advises us to count our ancestors. One father and mother, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-great, etc. By the time one gets to the Roman Empire one's ancestors number the population of the then known world! Countless numbers of bodies and souls have come and gone upon this planet to make you what you are to-day in this present world. You are the heir of all the ages.
But out of this general sacrifice we must select for special remembrance that holiest element in it which by its glad free sacrifice has made our moral and spiritual inheritance so rich. All the martyrs for liberty, truth, purity and goodness! All the waymakers and pathfinders of the Kingdom of God!
Finally, center and source of that golden vein of purest sacrifice for you stands Jesus Christ, the revelation of the very Spirit and Life of God. Though you may never acknowledge Him, you cannot escape your indebtedness to Him - fountain and fire as He is of all that is best in our life.
Even yet, however, we may not have glimpsed the meaning of it all. What conceivable purpose can we attribute to this mighty panorama of creation and history? Well, the soul of man is obviously the goal, for in it all there is nothing greater than the soul. The whole process so far as we can judge only rises to the point of understanding in the human soul. No more reasonable explanation exists, therefore, than that assumed by Jesus, and so strikingly expressed by St. Paul. "The earnest expectation of the creation waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God" (Rom. 8:19).
The goal of Creation and of all development since is the production of beings, who, with the freedom and understanding and love of real sons and daughters, can look up to God and cry in full and glad self-surrender "Father!"
Take this explanation, and with it you can unlock every mystery in the story of the past. This "increasing purpose of the ages" explains, for example, the evolution of humanity from an animal level of existence. If you ask what is the purpose of the vast menagerie of animal life, you begin to see in the light of this crowning truth that by means of the animal God has built up our human individuality. The pressure of the intense self-regarding instinct in the animal world has steadily isolated animal souls one from another, making it possible to produce Man as a strongly individualized being. Only this process and only this condition of highly conscious Selfhood could give any meaning or value to the ultimate return or response of the human soul to God.
It is the free love of a child God seeks from man, not the forced return of a slave mind, a mere puppet or creature. And the choice that faces every soul on the threshold of real responsible life is the choice of clinging to its individuality and living selfishly or making of its individual self a gift to God in cooperation and loving service.
Every soul registers that issue. It is native to the mind of youth. God's Spirit overshadows every youthful life here, calling for the dedication of its powers to Others and supremely to the Other.
You may not have worked out its meaning in the way I have presented it to you - but you know in your heart that it is absolutely wrong to live selfishly and absolutely right to live with heroic unselfishness. God has not left you without witness - His bell rings in your soul - all your life henceforth must be a choice between these two issues unless you settle the matter now. You are on the verge of your Golden Hour with God - the hour in which you will decide once and for all by giving yourself to Him. And with every soul that so returns to God, the meaning of this vast Universe is newly consummated, and "there is joy in the presence of the angels of God" (Luke 15:10).
II. The Response of the Soul to God.
Through all the story of nature and humanity, God has been making and seeking you, as your own being bears witness through your conscience and the sublime longings of which you are conscious.
What shall be the character of your response? Suppose you do not respond at all! Then all life will become for you a flight from God and, as Francis Thompson warns us so eloquently in The Hound of Heaven, "all things betray thee, who betray'st Me"; "all things deny thee, who deniest Me." "Thou dravest love from thee who dravest Me."
But if you respond how shall it be? Will you be content to drift insensibly towards Him, making as little as possible of the occasion? Do you think that with this new understanding of what is taking place, you can just glide without any feeling, easily, almost indifferently, into right relationship to Him?
God's choice of you has meant eternal sacrifice to Him. Christianity has always measured God's passion for your soul and mine by the agony of Jesus at Calvary. There God's heart, in its deathless love of sinful humanity, is unveiled. Can you answer that Cross glibly and easily? If we saw this thing aright, you and I, would it not mean the girding up of all our strength, the gathering together of all our being, the ardent application of our thought, the exaltation of our feelings, the steadfast bracing of our will, to such a choice of God as would carry with it the utmost deliberation, the most perfect dignity, the fullest responsibility conceivable? Only thus surely should God be answered.
There is an illustration that Jesus would have loved right at our door, upon our own hearthstone. There is often in these days a wanton and foolish heedlessness and lack of reverence in our home relationships. For how many lads is home just a hotel, with Mother for manageress and Father for proprietor? There the boy sits at meals, mum and dumb, with no vital link evident between him and his parents. In and out he goes, taking all their love for granted, and making a very poor return for the years of care that have clothed and sheltered him. Yet no home comes to its full meaning till it finds a soul, till the parents and children are bound together, not merely by physical ties, but all over again by ties of the Spirit, fully, consciously, responsibly entered into by all concerned.
Let me advise some of you growing lads on the threshold of manhood to do something that will give your fathers the shock of their life. Take your father on one side some time - he has often taken you on one side! - and looking him straight in the eyes, and gripping his hand as hard as you can, just say to him: "Father, I'm nearly a man now, and I want to say to you that I'm downright glad you are my father. I love you, and want to tell you so!" Do you know that, in those words of frank responsible avowal of reverence and love, all the myriad sacrifices your father has made for you will be forgotten in the deep and perfect joy with which his love is consummated in you, his son?
You girls - do that with your mothers. You will not know yet, though you may in future years, what it means for a mother to yearn for her daughter's real trust and love. "She confides in everybody else but me"; is that your mother's lament? Do you take her love for granted and leave her to guess at yours? If so, her little world of home is stultified - its purpose unfulfilled even yet.
And there in miniature is a picture of God and Man - God and you. The Heavenly Father has His heedless sons and daughters - His children - growing up to responsibility - from whom He yearns to hear that declaration of trust and love which will give Him unhindered thoroughfare in their life. For that consent He must wait. "He cannot deny Himself," (2 Tim. 2:13) and having made you for a son, He cannot treat you as a creature. He stoops to plead with you, "My son give Me thine heart" (Psa.23:26).
Shall your response then not be made with the fullest dignity and deepest solemnity? Will you not set aside some hour that shall be all golden with decision and glad free surrender?
III. God's Acceptance of the Gift.
I believe the day is coming when not only the necessity of this Golden Hour with God for every soul will be recognized, but by right training and due development there will be a grand unanimity of movement in surrender to God of our youth in the mass. It will no longer be an experience into which this one enters to-day and that one tomorrow, but in "countless hosts" our Christian youth, brought to the Golden Hour of decision by a common course of training, will "stream through the gates of pearl" in happy thrilling fellowship.
What days they will be for the Church! What an hour that will be - for God!
We do not think of this matter enough from His side. What must it mean for Him to "see of the travail of His soul and be satisfied," (Isa. 53:11) as one by one His children give their hearts for ever to Him in final devotion? What must it mean for Him to secure your heart and life as a new base for His great Redemptive work in the human race?
And do you think you can really give yourself to Him thus and there be no movement from Him? Golden indeed will be that hour when you feel descending upon your soul the infinite peace, "the joy unspeakable and full of glory" (1 Peter 1:8) that is the sign of His acceptance of your holy gift!
Will you not seek that final blessing - that deep abiding knowledge borne in upon your heart and brain by God's own Spirit that you are His and He is yours for ever and for ever?
There are few things more wonderful in the experience of the faithful disciple of Jesus than the way that the conviction of the reality and grace of God grows steadily upon the soul. Truly Christ brings us to "the Father." And though, after such an hour you must go down again into the Valley of Testing where your loyalty and faith will be tried to the utmost, as, indeed, it must be, yet you will carry with you through all the valley's humiliation the knowledge of what you learned in the Mount of Decision.
As the traveller says to himself: "The city I saw from the hill must still be there," though in the lowlands he loses sight of it, so you will judge all your life by the experience of this hour. Its golden splendor will shed its radiance on every step of your future path. Its testimony will light your way through every time of temptation and of gloom.
God has made choice of you! In creation, in Christ, in the witness of your own heart!
Have you nothing to say to Him to-night?
A sermon preached by Albert D. Belden, Westcliffe-on-Sea, England, 1925
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