Can our lives, society, the world, change for the good?

New Worlds for Old

J. Sommerville Smith: "New Worlds for Old" is a post-war [World War I] message. It was meant to confront and counteract a mood of mind very prevalent after the initial exultations, actual experiences and ultimate disillusionments of the war. It was the first address of a mission week, and had as its particular purpose the arousal of new hope.

Without such a hope it is difficult, if not impossible, to get a beginning made at all in the work of evangelism. It is interesting and instructive to note how frequently the approach of the Spirit of God to the soul, in Old Testament times and New, is with a "Fear not!" (Gen. 15:1) or a "Be of good courage" (Psa. 31:24). There are many patients the best physicians cannot cure, not because of the essential deadliness of the disease, but because hope has somehow been irrecoverably lost. Some men die too easy, the experts tell us. All ministers who have sought to "do the work of an evangelist" (2 Tim. 4:5) know that this is one of the difficulties in the spiritual sphere to be frequently met with, and not only in the reaction after the war strain. This mood must be mastered, if progress is to be made.

The case of the father of the epileptic boy in the 9th chapter of Mark is the case of many. They are alive to their distressful situation, their desperate need, their pathetic impotence. They have tried in turn every remedy they know, and have found it wanting. They have tried the disciples and found them wanting. So they yield to the stern logic of experience, and are on the point of settling down to the acceptance of the inevitable and the unalterable. If they turn to the Master Physician, it is with a cry whose undertone is that of despair: "If Thou canst do anything." To which the immediate and challenging reply is "If thou canst believe." (Mark 9:23)

The dull despair of the spirit must be broken in upon and hope awakened. Among numerous instances of this, mark the miracle wrought upon the lame man at the beautiful gate of the temple. The cripple's first appeal to Peter and John was no more than the monotonous whine every passer-by had heard for a lifetime. There was no lift, no grip in it, nothing that moved to meet the healing mercy of God which was there to minister to his need. The conditions of cure were not present until the two comrade-disciples said, "Look on us." (Acts 3:4) Then only did he give heed, and then only did the saving power of the risen Christ begin to act.

Preachers seeking verdicts for Christ and results in the salvation of men will find it so still. They must find the means with many men and in many missions to invade the prison of despair.

The main conviction on which this particular address is based is that this necessary preparatory work is best done by the appeal to actual experience. In the address two words of personal witness are drawn from the apostolic age but these are backed up by instances drawn from the Church's age-long story right down to the present hour.

There are many minds to which a doctrine, explained with whatever clearness and earnestness, does not carry the irresistible appeal we want to make in the work of evangelism. Men want to know how it comes out in real life. It is working models which interest them and convince them. When the preacher has thus persuaded them that the thing they have despaired of can be done, that God is even now equal to the impossible situation, the way is open for a fuller presentation of the truth as it is in Jesus and a stirring summons to discipleship and service. This was carried out in the remaining days of the mission.

The constituency to which the appeal was made was not a specialized one. It was an ordinary adult audience in a working-class community, ranging in age from the youth of sixteen to folks of sixty [then thought of as old!]. Some of those present were, to those who knew their story, among the best illustrations of the truth preached. Some were of those to whom it was hoped that the message would come in power. Some were living in the shadow of faded hopes and in the chill of a lost glow. Some have spoken gratefully of the heartening which the word brought to them. Some have testified of the blessing received in the subsequent days of the mission when masters in Israel [the Israel of God] related the Gospel to the needs of the individual and the problems of the hour.

In the following up of the address no special pressure was brought to bear upon those present.

There was no after-meeting, no lifting of hands or signing of cards. All were made aware of the willingness of the preacher to unfold personally and more fully the truth that saves. The invitation was repeated with more urgency as the week advanced, but for the major part of the result we have to trust to the fulfillment of the promise regarding any word which is God's own truth "It shall not return unto Me void." (Isa. 55:11)

J. Sommerville Smith: Throughout the course of time the story of human life has been told in two main versions.

These stand in clear contrast, and they divide the world. The first is furnished in the opening chapter of Ecclesiastes :

"The thing that hath been it is that which shall be, and that which is done is that which shall be done, and there is no new thing under the sun" (Eccl. 1:9).

Here is a verdict passed on life by one [Solomon?] who had a big share in it. He had a command of the recognized sources of pleasure and satisfaction which few have. What did he not possess for the living of a full life?

He had intellectual interests and a noble chance of satisfying and fostering them. He had leisure for research, and he used it. He pierced into the secret of things and won a name as a discoverer of the treasures of wisdom. But was he satisfied? Not at all. More knowledge often meant a heavier heart. Increase of knowledge was increase of sorrow.

In the wake of this experience reaction came. The dispirited seeker turned to the intoxicating cup. Something sang to his wearied heart the same seducing song which Omar Khayyam heard:

"Come, fill the cup, and in the fire of spring
Your winter-garment of Repentance fling,
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To flutter - and the Bird is on the wing."
Edward Fitzgerald

There was nobody to ration our writer in the pleasures he took. He gave them the chance of yielding all they could yield. He laid all on the Altar of Pleasure, and if it could have done what it promises to do to any man, it would have done it for him.

From pleasure he turned to labor. He became busy with all sorts of enterprises - housebuilding, forestry, gardening, great municipal improvement schemes, not excepting the providing for musical culture and attention to the fine arts. Andrew Carnegie was evidently not the first in this field.

But the verdict on them all is the same:-

"The Wine of Life keeps oozing, drop by drop. The Leaves of Life keep falling, one by one."

Surely "this also is vanity and a striving after wind" (Eccl. 4:16, R.V.).

Not that he did not see that there was something more in wisdom than in folly. "The wise man's eyes," he declares, "are in his head, but the fool walketh in darkness" (Eccl. 2:14). Alas! that it should avail so little. "Yet, I perceived," he confesses, "that one event happeneth unto all."

The preacher was a thorough-paced pessimist. He did not quite leave God out. He believed, in a cold, cheerless way, that there was a God and that He had a plan, but that men did not know it. Apart from the noble conclusion of the Book which corrects its earlier chapters, the book of Ecclesiastes has been not inappropriately named "An Altar to the Unknown God."

With such an empty outlook the verdict on life is not much higher nor more heartening than Omar's:-

"Some for the Glories of this world; and some
Sigh for the Prophet's Paradise to come;
Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go,
Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!"

Now this is a mood often to be met with at the present hour, and just because the Bible is the mirror of a real world - real, though set in the light of eternity - we meet it here. We have a [Benjamin] Disraeli, [British Prime Minister], for instance, reaching, as The Times declared, the pinnacle of ministerial renown, the favorite of his sovereign, the idol of society summarizing his view of life in the words: "Youth is a blunder, manhood a struggle, old age a regret" [Coningsby]. We have our Thomas Hardy [W. B. Yeats?] speaking of Faith, Hope and Love as "broken beneath the passing feet of the years which, like great black oxen, tread the world." And East meets West in the dismal readings of life by Swami Vivekananda : "Social service and philanthropy are mere social scavengering. No everlasting good can be done in the world."

Is it not Ecclesiastes over again: "The thing that hath been it is that which shall be, and that which is done is that which shall be done, and there is no new thing under the sun"? (Eccl. 1:9)

Now, to my thinking, we have here one of the greatest dangers of our time. A mood like this is all too apt to lay its paralysing hand on the spirit of Church and Nation. One of the saddest features of these post-war days is the number of hopeless people to be met in a day's journey - disappointed, disillusioned, despairing people. They have come to expect nothing but the old way of things in the lives of men, in the story of the Church, the country, or the world. They smile a sarcastic smile at everything - at the hope of spiritual revival, at the vision of ampler justice, at the dream of world-peace. Instead of the building of a Holy City on service and sacrifice, they only foresee the building of Babylon again on greed and wrong, force and falsehood. How call such a prospect fail to petrify all life and effort?

Now I do not propose to argue the case for hope and confidence of better things point by point. I know what we are up against when we try to advance the Kingdom of God by a single yard. That advance will be disputed to the death. The most buoyant among us will come to believe that we still inhabit the same world as crucified our Lord.

All I want to do is to set over against this dark, despairing view of life, this consciousness of the grind of material forces, the version of two men who had faced it all and fought their way through to a nobler and more heartening conclusion - Paul and John.

Hear what Ecclesiastes says: "The thing that hath been it is that which shall be, and that which is done is that which shall be done, and there is no new thing under the sun." The same old sin, the same old shame, the same old weakness, defeat, failure and decay.

But hear what Paul says: "If any man is in Christ, there is a new creation: the old things are passed away; behold they are become new." (2 Cor. 5:17, R.V. marg.). And listen to another voice, the voice that comes from the quarries of Patmos, from one bent with adversity, persecution, injustice and suffering: "He that sitteth on the Throne saith, Behold, I make (am making) all things new." (Rev. 21:3.)

Now, between these two renderings of life and history, to which does your vote go? For me, I cannot but cast it for the New Testament speakers. They did not deal in sentiment. They were in close touch with reality, closer than Ecclesiastes. Ill-health, ill-treatment, ill-will - to these they were no strangers. They could not at will create a hedge of sunshine round their lives, and forget even for a day the desperate anguish of the world. In their generation justice was fighting a hard and seemingly losing battle with injustice. Right was repeatedly thrown back. Evil was constantly triumphing. It was no mere poetic fancy, but a hard, crushing fact:-

"Truth for ever on the scaffold
Wrong for ever on the throne."
James Russell Lowell

That was the world as they knew it. Their Lord lingered. He did not come back a day or two, or a year or two, after He went away. There remained no illusions on that point. Their faithful ones suffered, and no Divine Voice vindicated them. Their dear ones died, and there was not the faintest sign of the Advent of victory and glory. Was Ecclesiastes right after all: "The thing that hath been it is that which shall be ... and there is no new thing under the sun"?

A thousand times No! "No new thing under the sun:?" These comrades of the Cross stand boldly before the world and say:- "If any man is in Christ there is a new creation, the old things are passed away, behold, they are become new." "He that sitteth on the Throne saith: Behold I am making all things new."

Why, every conversion is an evidence of this truth. Every life new made is a challenge to the complaint - that there is nothing new under the sun. If Ecclesiastes had drawn out Paul's horoscope he would have portrayed him going on to the end a fanatical Pharisee, or, if the early fires should have died down, drivelling down into an invincible self-content. But that was because the preacher had never looked into the Face of Christ, and was not able to conceive of a Christlike God.

If he had had Augustine's future to predict, what would he have made of the man who ran away from his mother's prayers and almost broke her heart?

If he had had Raymond Lully's hand to read, would he by any chance have discovered, in that dainty, dangling courtier, a future ambassador for Christ and a daring crusader of the redemptive love of the Cross?

If he had known John Newton, would it ever have dawned on him that that "African Blasphemer," as Newton called himself, would be found voicing the secret soul of our faith and love in his hymn: "How sweet the name of Jesus sounds"?

If Fred N. Charrington had come before him, with all that life offered to the promising son of a prosperous brewer, could he have conceived the miracle which issued in the choice of Christ, His Cross and His service, in preference to a fortune, a path of easy-going and a possible peerage?

Think of it, brothers, God is always ready to do something new. He is always on the initiative. He is out to create new hopes, new impulses, new affections, new powers. Call no situation impossible. He is the God of the impossible. He can change things. There is only one unpardonable sin, it is the sin for which we do not seek pardon; only one unconquerable temptation, it is the temptation over which we do not claim victory. Can you stand up and say, "I believe in God the Father, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His Son, our Lord?" Then you can pass on to say: "I believe in the forgiveness of sins." [Apostles' Creed]

Turn to Him, then. Trust in Him. Take ten looks at Him for one at your own powers and resources. In his essay on Robert Burns, Stopford Brooke lays the blame for the tragedy which clouded and cut short a life so charged with power, on the Ayrshire [Scotland] ministers of the poet's time. They were as a class saturated with Moderatism [moderate opinions]. They believed in culture, but rejected all ideas of conversion. They trusted in ecclesiastical authority and had no room for evangelical teaching. They knew nothing of those powers that overleap all barriers of circumstance to win and change lost men.

Robert Burns was not devoid of a spiritual sense. Far as he might be in the far country, he turned many a wistful look home. "The Cottar's Saturday Night," was one of those lingering looks. Why didn't he set out? Because, as Dr. Brooke says, those blind guides threw Burns back on himself. They did not show him the Father. He might have come all the way if he had been shown the Father. But these Moderates left the burden of return and renewal upon himself, upon his powers, his resources, his impulses. Why should they? They need not, should not so have done.

In his case, your case, my case there stands One among us as full of power as of pity; and the testimony of tens of thousands is summed up in the words:

"He breaks the power of cancelled sin,
He sets the prisoner free,
His blood can make the foulest clean,
His blood availed for me."
Charles Wesley

This is life's one great noble chance to those who live in the light of the day of the Son of Man. This is what He came for. This is what God engages to do. Silence your whining fear. Repudiate your miserable mistrust. Judge nothing by the failure of your own powers and purposes. God is more than your most and better than your best. Launch out on His promise, His good faith, His tried and tested power. In the light of the Cross, uplifted, accepted and conquered, everything is possible. In spite of everything, you may yet be the man God meant you to be, and do what He meant you to do. Claim Christ to-day, Saviour, Master, Friend. He claims you.

This will not only make a glorious difference to you. It is as true of the Church as of the believer, as true of society as of the world. All hope, all help, all progress come in terms of Christ. "How soon a smile of God can change the world."

Let us be awake enough, loyal enough, sharers enough in His redeeming passion and we shall see the sight John saw, not as a promise looked at as through a telescope, but near, incredibly near, and splendidly possible: "He that sitteth upon the Throne saith : Behold, I am making all things new."

Sermon preached by J. Sommerville Smith, Glasgow, 1925, BV3797.A1T4

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