Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? . . . And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
What has this text to do with Easter-day? Let us think a while. Life and death; the battle between life and death; life conquered by death; and death conquered again by life. Those were the mysteries over which the men of old time thought, often till their hearts were sad.
They saw that they were alive; and they loved life, and would fain see good days. They saw, again, that they must die: but would death conquer life in them? Would they ever live again?
They saw that other things died, or seemed to die, and yet rose and lived again; and that gave them hope for themselves at times; but their hopes were very dim, till Christ came, and brought life and immortality to light.
They saw, I say, that other things died, or seemed to die, and yet lived again. Light rose out of darkness every morning and lived: but darkness, as they thought, killed the light at even, till it came to life again in the morning, and the sun rose once more. The sun himself--they thought of him as a glorious and life-giving being, who every morning fought his way up the sky, scattering the dark clouds with his golden arrows, and reigning for a-while in heaven, pouring down heat and growth and life: but he too must die. The dark clouds of evening must cover him. The red glare upon them was his dying blood. The twilight, which lingered after the sun was gone, was his bride, the dawn, come to soothe his dying hour. True, he had come to life again, often and often, morning after morning: but would it be so for ever? Would not a night come at last, after which he would never rise again? Would not he be worn out at last, and slain, in his long daily battle with the kingdom of darkness, which lay below the world; or with the dragon who tried to devour him, when the thunder clouds hid him from the sight, or the eclipse seemed to swallow him up before their eyes?
So, too, they felt about the seasons of the year. The winter came. The sun grew low and weak. Would he not die? The days grew short and dark. Would they not cease to be, and eternal night come on the earth? They had heard dimly of the dark northern land, where it was always winter, and the night was six months long. Why should it not be so in their own land in some evil time? Every autumn the rains and frost came on; the leaves fell; the flowers withered; the birds fled southward, or died of hunger and cold; the cattle starved in the field; the very men had much ado to live. Why should not winter conquer at last, and shut up the sun, the God of light and warmth and life, for ever in the place of darkness, cold, and death? So thought the old Syrians of Canaan, and taught the Jewish women to weep, as they themselves wept every autumn, over Adonai, the Lord, which was another name for the sun, slain, as they thought, by the winter cold and rain: and then, when spring-time came, with its sunshine, flowers, and birds, rejoiced that the sun had come to life again.
So thought the old Greeks, and told how Persephone, the fair maiden who was the spring-time, was stolen away by the king of darkness who lived beneath the earth; and how her mother earth would not be comforted for her loss, but sent barrenness on all the world till her daughter, the spring, was given back to her, to dwell for six months in the upper world of light, and six months in the darkness under ground.
So thought our old forefathers; and told how Baldur (the Baal of the Bible), the god of light and heat, who was likewise the sun, was slain by treachery, and imprisoned for ever below in hell, the kingdom of darkness and of cold; and how all things on earth, even the very trees and stones, wept for his death: yet all their tears could not bring back from death the god of life: nor any of the gods unlock the gates which held him in.
And because our forefathers were a sad and earnest folk: because they lived in a sad and dreary climate, where winter was far longer and more bitter than it is, thank God, now; therefore all their thoughts about winter and spring were sad; and they grew to despair, at last, of life ever conquering death, or light conquering darkness. An age would come, they said, in which snow should fall from the four corners of the world, and the winters be three winters long; an evil age, of murder and adultery, and hatred between brethren, when all the ties of kin would be rent asunder, and wickedness should triumph on the earth.
Then should come that dark time which they called the twilight of the gods. Then the powers of evil would be let loose; the earth would go to ruin in darkness and in flame. All living things would die. The very gods would die, fighting to the last against the powers of evil, till the sun should sink for ever, and the world be a heap of ashes.
And then--so strangely does God's gift of hope linger in the hearts of men--they saw, beyond all that, a dim dream of a new heaven and a new earth in which should dwell righteousness; and of a new sun, more beautiful than ours; of a woman called "Life," hid safe while all the world around her was destroyed, fed on the morning dew, preserved to be the mother of a new and happier race of men. And so to them, heathens as they were, God whispered that Christ should some day bring life and immortality to light.
My friends, shall we sneer and laugh at all these dreams, as mere follies of the heathen? If we do so, we shall not show the spirit of God, or the mind of Christ. Nor shall we show our knowledge of the Bible. In it, the spirit of God, who inspired the Bible, does not laugh at these dreams. It rebukes them sternly whenever they are immoral, and lead men to do bad and foul deeds, as Ezekiel rebuked the Jewish women who wept for Thammuz, the dead summer. But that was because those Jewish women should have known better. They should have known--what the Old Testament tells us all through--what it was especially meant to tell the men who lived while it was being written, just because they had their fancies, and their fears about summer and winter, and life and death. And what ought they to have known? What does the Old Testament say? That life will conquer death, because God, the Lord Jehovah, even Jesus Christ, is Lord of heaven and earth. From the time that it was written in the Book of Genesis, that the Lord Jehovah said in his heart, 'I will not again curse the ground for man's sake: neither will I again smite any more anything living, as I have done, while the earth remaineth--seed time and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night, shall not cease'--from that time the Jews were bound not to fear the powers of nature, or the seasons, nor to fear for them; for they were all in the government of that one good God and Lord, who cared for men, and loved them, and dealt justly by them, and proved his love and justice by bringing the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt.
God treated these heathens, St. Paul says, as we ought to treat our children. His wrath was revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. All wilful disobedience and actual sin he punished, often with terrible severity; but not their childish mistakes and dreams about how this world was made; just as we should not punish the fancies of our children. The times of that ignorance, says St. Paul, he winked at till Christ came, and then he commanded all men everywhere to repent, and believe in the God who gave them rain and fruitful seasons, filling their hearts with food and gladness.
For he had appointed a day in which he would judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he had ordained; of which he had given full assurance to all men, in that he had raised him from the dead.
Some, who were spoilt by false philosophy, mocked when they heard of the resurrection of the dead: but there were those who had kept something of the simple childlike faith of their forefathers, and who were prepared for the kingdom of God; and to them St. Paul's message came as an answer to the questions of their minds, and a satisfaction to the longings of their hearts.
The news of Christ,--of Christ raised from the dead to be the life and the light of the world,--stilled all their fears lest death should conquer life, and darkness conquer light.
So it was with all the heathen. So it was with our old forefathers, when they heard and believed the Gospel of Christ. They felt that (as St. Paul said) they were translated out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light, which was the kingdom of his dear Son; that now the world must look hopeful, cheerful to them; now they could live in hope of everlasting life; now they need sorrow no more for those who slept, as if they had no hope: for Christ had conquered death, and the evil spirit who had the power of death. Christ had harrowed hell, and burst the bonds of the graves. He, as man, and yet God, had been through the dark gate, and had returned through it in triumph, the first-born from the dead; and his resurrection was an everlasting sign and pledge that all who belonged to him should rise with him, and death be swallowed up in victory.
'So it pleased the Father,' says St. Paul, 'to gather together in Christ all things, whether in heaven or in earth.' In him were fulfilled, and more than fulfilled, the dim longings, the childlike dreams of heathen poets and sages, and of our own ancestors from whom we sprung. He is the desire of all nations; for whom all were longing, though they knew it not. He is the true sun; the sun of righteousness, who has arisen with healing on his wings, and translated us from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. He is the true Adonai, the Lord for whose death though we may mourn upon Good Friday, yet we rejoice this day for his resurrection. He is the true Baldur, the God of light and life, who, though he died by treachery, and descended into hell, yet needed not, to deliver him, the tears of all creation, of men or angels, or that any god should unlock for him the gates of death; for he rose by his own eternal spirit of light, and saith, 'I am he that was dead, and behold I am alive for evermore. Amen. And I have the keys of death and hell.'
And now we may see, it seems to me, what the text has to do with Easter-day. To my mind our Lord is using here the same parable which St. Paul preaches in his famous chapter which we read in the Burial Service. Be not anxious, says our Lord, for your life. Is not the life more than meat? There is an eternal life which depends not on earthly food, but on the will and word of God your Father; and that life in you will conquer death. Behold the birds of the air, which sow not, nor reap, nor gather into barns, to provide against the winter's need. But do they starve and die? Does not God guide them far away into foreign climes, and feed them there by his providence, and bring them back again in spring, as things alive from the dead? And can he not feed us (if it be his will) with a bread which comes down from heaven, and with every word which proceedeth out of the mouth of God?
Consider, again, the lilies of the field. We must take our Lord's words exactly. He is speaking of the lilies, the bulbous plants which spring into flower in countless thousands every spring, over the downs of Eastern lands. All the winter they are dead, unsightly roots, hidden in the earth. What can come of them? But no sooner does the sun of spring shine on their graves, than they rise into sudden life and beauty, as it pleases God, and every seed takes its own peculiar body. Sown in corruption, they are raised in incorruption; sown in weakness, they are raised in power; sown in dishonour, they are raised in glory; delicate, beautiful in colour, perfuming the air with fragrance; types of immortality, fit for the crowns of angels. Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. For even so is the resurrection of the dead.
Yes, not without a divine providence--yea, a divine inspiration--has this blessed Easter-tide been fixed, by the Church of all ages, at the season when the earth shakes off her winter's sleep; when the birds come back and the flowers begin to bloom; when every seed which falls into the ground, and dies, and rises again with a new body, is a witness to us of the resurrection of Christ; and a witness, too, that we shall rise again; that in us, as in it, life shall conquer death when every bird which comes back to sing and build among us, is a witness to us of the resurrection of Christ, and of our resurrection; and that in us, as in it, joy shall conquer sorrow.
The seed has passed through strange chances and dangers: of a thousand seeds shed in autumn, scarce one survives to grow in spring. Be it so. Still there is left, as Scripture says, a remnant, an elect, to rise again and live.
The birds likewise--they have been through strange chances, dangers, needs. Far away south to Africa they went--the younger ones by a way they had never travelled before. Thousands died in their passage south. Thousands more died in their passage back again this spring, by hunger and by storm. Be it so. Yet of them is left a seed, a remnant, an elect, and they are saved, to build once more in their old homes, and to rejoice in the spring, and pour out their songs to God who made them.
Some say that the seeds grow by laws of nature; the birds come back by instinct. Be it so. What Scripture says, and what we should believe, is this: that the seeds grow by the spirit of God, the Lord and Giver of life; that the birds come back, and sing, and build by the spirit of God, the Lord and Giver of life. He works not on them, things without reason, as he works on us reasonable souls: but he works on them nevertheless. They obey his call; they do his will; they show forth his glory; they return to life, they breed, they are preserved, by the same spirit by which the body of Jesus rose from the dead; and, therefore, every flower which blossoms, and every bird which sings, at Easter-tide; everything which, like the seeds, was dead, and is alive again, which, like the birds, was lost, and is found, is a type and token of Christ, their Maker, who was dead and is alive again; who was lost in hell on Easter-eve, and was found again in heaven for evermore; and the resurrection of the earth from her winter's sleep commemorates to us, as each blessed Easter-tide comes round, the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, who made all the world, and redeemed all mankind, and sanctifieth to eternal life all the elect people of God: a witness to us that some day life shall conquer death, light conquer darkness, righteousness conquer sin, joy conquer grief; when the whole creation, which groaneth and travaileth in pain until now, shall have brought forth that of which it travails in labour; even the new heavens and the new earth, wherein shall be neither sighing nor sorrow, but God shall wipe away tears from all eyes.