Sermon 16. Religious Cowardice

"Lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees." Hebrews xii. 12.

{175} [Note] THE chief points of St. Mark's history are these:—first, that he was sister's-son to Barnabas, and taken with him and St. Paul on their first apostolical journey; next, that after a short time he deserted them and returned to Jerusalem; then, that after an interval, he was St. Peter's assistant at Rome, and composed his Gospel there principally from the accounts which he received from that Apostle; lastly, that he was sent by him to Alexandria, in Egypt, where he founded one of the strictest and most powerful churches of the primitive times.

The points of contrast in his history are as follows:—that first he abandoned the cause of the Gospel as soon as danger appeared; afterwards, he proved himself, not merely an ordinary Christian, but a most resolute and exact servant of God, founding and ruling that strictest Church of Alexandria. {176}

And the instrument of this change was, as it appears the influence of St. Peter, a fit restorer of a timid and backsliding disciple.

The encouragement which we derive from these circumstances in St. Mark's history, is, that the feeblest among us may through God's grace become strong. And the warning to be drawn from it is, to distrust ourselves; and again, not to despise weak brethren, or to despair of them, but to bear their burdens and help them forward, if so be we may restore them. Now, let us attentively consider the subject thus brought before us.

Some men are naturally impetuous and active; others love quiet and readily yield. The over-earnest must be sobered, and the indolent must be roused. The history of Moses supplies us with an instance of a proud and rash spirit, tamed down to an extreme gentleness of deportment. In the greatness of the change wrought in him, when from a fierce, though honest, avenger of his brethren, he became the meekest of men on the earth, he evidences the power of faith, the influence of the Spirit on the heart. St. Mark's history affords a specimen of the other, and still rarer change, from timidity to boldness. Difficult as it is to subdue the more violent passions, yet I believe it to be still more difficult to overcome a tendency to sloth, cowardice, and despondency. These evil dispositions cling about a man, and weigh him down. They are minute chains, binding him on every side to the earth, so that he cannot even turn himself or make an effort to rise. It would seem as if right principles had yet to {177} be planted in the indolent mind; whereas violent and obstinate tempers had already something of the nature of firmness and zeal in them, or rather what will become so with care, exercise, and God's blessing. Besides, the events of life have a powerful influence in sobering the ardent or self-confident temper. Disappointments, pain, anxiety, advancing years, bring with them some natural wisdom as a matter of course; and, though such tardy improvement bespeaks but a weak faith, yet we may believe that the Holy Ghost often blesses these means, however slowly and imperceptibly. On the other hand, these same circumstances do but increase the defects of the timid and irresolute, who are made more indolent, selfish, and faint-hearted by advancing years, and find a sort of sanction of their unworthy caution in their experience of the vicissitudes of life.

St. Mark's change, therefore, may be considered even more astonishing in its nature than that of the Jewish Lawgiver. "By faith," he was "out of weakness made strong," and becomes a memorial of the more glorious and marvellous gifts of the last and spiritual Dispensation.

Observe in what St. Mark's weakness lay. There is a sudden defection, which arises from self-confidence. Such was St. Peter's. He had trusted too much to his mere good feelings; he was honest and sincere, and he thought that he could do what he wished to do. How far apart from each other are to wish and to do! yet we are apt to confuse them. Sometimes indeed earnest desire of an object will by a sudden impulse {178} surmount difficulties, and succeed without previous practice. Enthusiasm certainly does wonders in this way; just as men of weakly frames will sometimes from extreme excitement inflict blows of incredible power. And sometimes eagerness sets us on beginning to exert ourselves; and, the first obstacles being thus removed, we go on as a matter of course with comparatively small labour. All this, being from time to time witnessed, impresses us with a conviction, unknown to ourselves, that a sanguine temper is the main condition of success in any work. And when, in our lonely imaginings, we fancy ourselves taking a strenuous part in some great undertaking, or when we really see others playing the man, so very easy does heroism seem to be, that we cannot admit the possibility of our failing, should circumstances call us to any difficult duty. St. Peter thought that he could preserve his integrity, because he wished to do so; and he fell, from ignorance of the difficulty of doing what he wished.

In St. Mark's history, however, we have no evidence of self-confidence; rather, we may discern in it the state of multitudes at the present day, who proceed through life with a certain sense of religion on their minds, who have been brought up well and know the Truth, who acquit themselves respectably while danger is at a distance, but disgrace their profession when brought into any unexpected trial. His mother was a woman of influence among the Christians at Jerusalem; his mother's brother, Barnabas, was an eminent Apostle. Doubtless he had received a religious education; and, {179} as being the friend of Apostles and in the bosom of the pure Church of Christ, he had the best models of sanctity before his eyes, the clearest teaching, the fullest influences of grace. He was shielded from temptation. The time came when his real proficiency in faith and obedience was to be tried. Paul and Barnabas were sent forth to preach to the Heathen; and they took Mark with them as an attendant. First they sailed to Cyprus, the native place of Barnabas: they travelled about it, and then crossed over to the main land. This seems to have been their first entrance upon an unknown country. Mark was discouraged at the prospect of danger, and returned to Jerusalem.

Now, who does not see that such a character as this, such a trial, and such a fall, belong to other days, besides those of the Apostles? Or rather, to put the question to us more closely, who will deny that there are multitudes in the Church at present, who have no evidence to themselves of more than that passive faith and virtue, which in Mark's case proved so unequal even to a slight trial? Who has not some misgivings of heart, lest, in times such as these, when Christian firmness is so little tried, his own loyalty to his Saviour's cause be perchance no truer or firmer than that of the sister's-son of a great Apostle? When the Church is at peace, as it has long been in this country, when public order is preserved in the community, and the rights of person and property secured, there is extreme danger lest we judge ourselves by what is without us, not by what is within. We take for granted we are Christians, because we have been taught aright, and are {180} regular in our attendance upon the Christian ordinances. But, great privilege and duty as it is to use the means of grace, reading and prayer are not enough; nor, by themselves will they ever make us real Christians. They will give us right knowledge and good feelings, but not firm faith and resolute obedience. Christians, such as Mark, will abound in a prosperous Church; and, should trouble come, they will be unprepared for it. They have so long been accustomed to external peace that they do not like to be persuaded that danger is at hand. They settle it in their imagination that they are to live and die undisturbed. They look at the world's events, as they express it, cheerfully, and argue themselves into self-deception. Next, they make concessions, to fulfil their own predictions and wishes; and surrender the Christian cause, that unbelievers may not commit themselves to an open attack upon it. Some of them are men of cultivated and refined taste; and these shrink from the rough life of pilgrims, to which they are called, as something strange and extravagant. They consider those who take a simpler view of the duties and prospects of the Church to be enthusiastic, rash, and intemperate, or perverse-minded. To speak plainly, a state of persecution is not (what is familiarly called) their element; they cannot breathe in it. Alas! how different from the Apostle, who had learned in whatsoever state he was, therewith to be content, and who was all things to all men. If then there be times when we have grown thus torpid from long security, and are tempted to prefer the treasures of Egypt to the reproach of Christ, what can we do, what ought we to do, but to {181} pray God in some way or other to try the very heart of the Church, and to afflict us here rather than hereafter? Dreadful as is the prospect of Satan's temporary triumph, fierce as are the horsehoofs of his riders, and detestable as is the cause for which they battle, yet better such anguish should come upon us, than that the recesses of our heritage should be the hiding-places of a self-indulgent spirit and the schools of lukewarmness. May God arise and shake terribly the earth (though it be an awful prayer), rather than the double-minded should lie hid among us, and souls be lost by present ease! Let Him arise, if there be no alternative, and chasten us with His sweet discipline, as our hearts may best bear it; bringing our sins out in this world, that we be not condemned in the day of the Lord; shaming us here, reproving us by the mouth of His servants, then restoring us, and leading us on by a better way to a truer and holier hope! Let Him winnow us, till the chaff be clean removed! though, in thus invoking Him, we know not what we ask, and, feeling the end itself to be good, yet cannot worthily estimate the fearfulness of that chastisement which we so freely speak about. Doubtless we do not, cannot measure the terrors of the Lord's judgments; we use words cheaply. Still, it cannot be wrong to use them, seeing they are the best offering we can make to God; and, so that we beg Him the while to lead us on, and give us strength to bear the trial according as it opens upon us. So may we issue Evangelists for timid deserters of the cause of truth; speaking the words of Christ, and showing forth His Life and death; rising strong from our sufferings, and {182} building up the Church in the strictness and zeal of those who despise this life except as it leads to another.

Lastly, let us not, from an excited fancy and a vain longing after the glories of other days, forget the advantages which we have. No need to have the troubles of Apostles in order to attain their faith. Even in the quietest times we may rise to high holiness, if we improve the means given us. Trials come when we forget mercies,—to remind us of them, and to fit us to enjoy and use them suitably.

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The Feast of St. Mark the Evangelist.
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