By John Percival
"And, as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day."--ST. LUKE iv. 16.
"He went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there He prayed."--ST. MARK i. 35.
These two texts set before us our Saviour's habit in regard to public and private spiritual exercise; and they suggest to us the question, What have we, on our part, to say of these two elements in our own life? These texts, we bear in mind, represent not something casual or intermittent in the life of our Lord. They stand in the record of it as a typical, essential, inseparable part of His habitual practice. What we have to remember about them is that, whereas all men recognise in the life of Jesus the one unique example in human history of a life which is morally perfect and immaculate, if we were to take these out of it, the customary share in all common worship, and the private, separate communing with God, it would be an altogether different life--different in its attitude towards the common life of ordinary men, and different in its own quality and influence.
We might still admire--nay, we could not but admire--all the beauty of moral qualities, the purity, the sympathy, the love and self-devotion of it; but it would have lost its spiritual atmosphere. It would no longer be for us the life of the Divine Son, recognising and ready to share in all our attempts at worshipping the Father, however poor they may be, and living through the separate life in daily communion with Him.
Here then is His practice, written for our guidance, given that we may be stirred by it to aim upwards, inviting us to set our own practice side by side with it, and see how it looks in such a juxtaposition. Let us glance for a moment at each of these texts separately.
As regards the one which I have taken from St. Mark--"He went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there He prayed"--we have only to turn over the pages of this Gospel and note, as we go, the similar allusions, and we feel that we have here what is in fact an incidental glimpse into the habitual practice of His secret and separate life.
In this passage we read that He departed into a solitary place, and there He prayed; in another by-and-by that He departed into a mountain to pray; and then again that He spent the whole night in prayer; and we see all this not in some crisis of His life, but as a part of that which corresponds to the common daily round in your life or mine.
And the inference to be drawn, the lesson to be learnt from it, is, I think, sufficiently obvious.
This secret separate devotional exercise of the soul was His habitual spiritual food.
It was thus that He recruited His moral and spiritual forces, those forces of the spiritual life which constitute at once the beauty, the attraction, the power of His character, and His divine and awe-inspiring separateness.
And as we read and consider, the thought must surely be pressed upon us that if He needed these exercises, these secret and silent hours, what shall we say of our own lives?
And what do we expect to make of our moral and spiritual character unless we too are careful to cherish under all circumstances some such recurring moments in our round of life and occupation, at which we retire into the sanctuary of separate communion with God the Father?
You may take it as a moral certainty, proved by all experience, that unless you hold to a fixed habit of thus bringing your life into the secret and separate presence of God, in private prayer and thought, you incur the risk of sinking to any levels that happen to be the ordinary levels, and of drifting with any currents that happen to prevail.
If we turn now from this to the other text--that which refers to His customary attendance on public prayer and at the common meeting--"He went, as His custom was, into the synagogue"--the questions suggested are very pertinent and practical.
Just consider the circumstances under which, as we are told here, "He went, as His custom was, into the synagogue on the Sabbath day." The earlier part of the same chapter tells us of His fasting and temptation in the wilderness, of the commencement of His public mission, and his return to Nazareth. And, on His return, this is what we are told of him--"He went, as his custom was, into the synagogue on the Sabbath day."
Thus we see Him, fresh from the great crisis of His early manhood; the long, protracted struggle of His soul in the lonely wilderness; the subtle voices of manifold temptation; the hardly won victory and the ministering angels; all this we must suppose to be still flashing across His vision, as the scenes of any such crisis must always continue to flash through the quivering and responsive organism of the soul.
If ever any man might have claimed to need no longer the customary worship of common men, it was surely Jesus, as we see Him here on this occasion, with the breath of His own heart-searching worship still upon Him, and the light of new revelation burning in His thoughts.
Among all the significant and instructive parts of the Saviour's example this is not the least instructive; that on this occasion, as on all others, he went as a matter of regular custom into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, thus putting the seal and stamp of His own practice for all of us who believe in His name upon the duty of joining in habitual and stated spiritual exercises.
Had the Lord's example been different in this respect, how easy it would have seemed to set up a string of what we should have called sufficient reasons.
The old-fashioned routine, it might have been said, of synagogue worship, with its mechanical dulness and its mistaken interpretations of God's word, its shallow and superficial and tedious traditional commentaries, its formalism and vain repetitions; all this, whatever might have been its value for the ordinary unenlightened Jew, how could it have been necessary and what profit could there have been in it for the divinely gifted Son of man?
So it might have been argued; so indeed it would seem men who consider themselves enlightened sometimes argue in support of their own neglect of the religious life.
But it may well make us more than doubtful as to the issue of any such neglect, when we see the mind of Christ thus exemplified in His habitual observance.
We all recognise His moral and spiritual superiority. Whether His spirit has taken possession of our spirit or not, He stands out as our undisputed guide to the practice of a good life.
In vision, in insight, in purity, in stainlessness, in all that we reverence in human life and that good men strive to attain, we have no model to set beside His example. All the more, then, this fact deserves our notice, and calls us to follow Him, that we find Him, as His custom was, in the synagogue on the Sabbath day. He was there Sabbath after Sabbath listening to the provincial teacher, worshipping with the village labourer, praying with the ignorant and the foolish, there as a matter of life custom and for His soul's benefit.
I have said that it deserves our notice; but more than this--it should be graven on the minds of the young, so that they may never lose the impression of it, so that it go with them through all their years of manhood, to preserve in them the devotional and reverent habit.
It is indeed good for all of us to think of Him there in that primitive and unattractive house of God, listening to the rude Galilean accents, and bowing His head in the habitual worship of that obscure community.
I do not think it is possible for us, unless we are quite indifferent about our moral and spiritual condition--unless, that is, we have low notions about our life, a low aim and a low standard--to be unaffected in our practice by this example of the Lord. We can hardly believe that those exercises of the spirit which were so fruitful in His life will fail to bear their fruit in ours also.
What have we to say as we picture Him with all the great thoughts of His new work swelling up in His soul, the divinely appointed teacher of new wisdom and new faith, the bringer of new light among men, the voice of a new world, and yet, being all this, at the same time, and as a means for working out His mission more completely, a regular and devout worshipper in a village house of prayer?
If it should ever happen to any of us that we come to fancy we do not need such common prayer, or that because of defects in public worship we do not profit by it, does not this example of the Saviour rise up and rebuke us? Yes, you may rest assured, if that day ever comes to you, that you are in danger of drifting away from the great saving tides of the human spirit into some shallow or artificial stream of your own time and generation. But, on the other hand, it is a happy thing for our life if, growing up in the habitual use of time-honoured spiritual exercises, we have truly learnt to know by our own experience, as by the example of the Saviour set before us in the Gospel, that they are the support and safeguard of all that is highest and purest and best in us, if only we are careful to use them with sincerity and reverence.