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Vol. 2, Sermon 20 - The Irreparable Past

By Frederick W. Robertson


      Preached May 8, 1853

      "And he cometh the third time, and saith unto them, Sleep on now, and take your rest: it is enough, the hour is come; behold, the Son of man is betrayed into the bands of sinners. Rise up, let us go; lo, he that betrayeth me is at hand."-Mark xiv. 41, 42.

      It is upon two sentences of this passage that our attention it to be fixed to-day-sentences which in themselves are apparently contradictory, but which are pregnant with a lesson of the deepest practical import. Looked at in the mere meaning of the words as they stand, our Lord's first command given to His disciples, "Sleep on now, and take your rest," is inconsistent with the second command, which follows almost in the same breath, "Rise, let us be going." A permission to slumber, and a warning to arouse at once, are injunctions which can scarcely stand together in the same sentence consistently.

      Our first inquiry therefore is, what did our Redeemer mean? We shall arrive at the true solution of this difficulty if we review the circumstances under which these words were spoken.

      The account with which these verses stand connected, belongs to one of the last scenes in the drama of our Masters earthly pilgrimage: it is found in the history of the trial hour which was passed in the garden of Gethsemane. And an hour it was indeed big with the destinies of the world, for the command had gone forth to seize the Saviour's person: but the Saviour was still at large and free. Upon the success or the frustration of that plan the world's fate was trembling. Three men were selected to be witnesses of the sufferings of that hour: three men, the favored ones on all occasions of the apostolic band, and the single injunction which had been laid upon them was, "Watch with me one hour."

      That charge to watch or keep awake, seems to have been given with two ends in view. He asked them to keep awake, first that they might sympathize with him. He commanded them to keep awake that they might be on their guard against surprise: that they might afford sympathy, because never in all His career did Christ more stand in need of such soothing as it was in the power of man to give. It is true that was not much: the struggle and the agony, and the making up of the mind to death had something in them too Divine and too mysterious to be understood by the disciples, and therefore sympathy could but reach a portion of what our Redeemer felt. Yet still it appears to have been an additional pang in Christ's anguish to find that He was left thoroughly alone-to endure, while even His own friends did not compassionate His endurance. We know what a relief it is to see the honest affectionate face of a menial servant, or some poor dependent, regretting that your suffering may be infinitely above his comprehension. It may be a secret which you can not impart to him: or it may be a mental distress which his mind is too uneducated to appreciate: yet still his sympathy in your dark hour is worth a world. What you suffer he knows not, but be knows you do suffer, and it pains him to think of it: there is balm to you in that. This is the power of sympathy.

      We can do little for one another in this world. Little, very little, can be done when the worst must come; but yet to know that the pulses of a human heart are vibrating with yours, there is something in that, let the distance between man and man be ever so immeasurable, exquisitely soothing.

      It was this, and but this, in the way of feeling, that Christ asked of Peter, James, and John: Watch-be awake: let me not feel that when I agonize you can be at ease and comfortable. But it would seem there was another thing which He asked in the way of assistance. The plot to capture Him was laid; the chance of that plot's success lay in making the surprise so sudden as to cut off all possibility of escape. The hope of defeating that plot depended upon the fidelity of apostolic vigilance. Humanly speaking, had they been vigilant they might have saved Him. Breathless listening or the sound of footsteps in the distance: eyes anxiously straining through the trees to distinguish the glitter of the lanterns; unremitting apprehension catching from the word of Christ an intimation that He was in danger, and so giving notice on the first approach of any thing like intrusion-that would have been watching.

      That command to watch was given twice-first, when Christ first retired aside leaving the disciples by themselves; secondly, in a reproachful way when He returned and found His request disregarded. He waked them up once and said, "What, could ye not watch with me one hour?" He came again, and found their eyes closed once more. On that occasion not a syllable fell from His lips; He did not waken them a second time. He passed away sad and disappointed, and left them to their slumbers. But when He came the third time, it was no longer possible for their sleep to do Him harm or their watching to do Him good. The precious opportunity was lost forever. Sympathy, vigilance, the hour for these was past. The priests had succeeded in their surprise, and Judas had well led them through the dark, with unerring accuracy, to the very spot where his Master knelt; and there were seen quite close, the dark figures shown in relief against the glare of the red torchlight, and every now and then the gleam glittering from the bared steel and the Roman armor. It was all over, they might sleep as they liked, their sleeping could do no injury now; their watching could do no good. And, therefore, partly in bitterness, partly in reproach, partly in a kind of irony, partly in sad earnest, our Master said to His disciples: "Sleep on now: there is no use in watching now: take your rest-forever if you will. Sleep and rest can do me no more harm now, for all that watching might have done is lost."

      But, brethren, we have to observe that in the next sentence our Redeemer addresses Himself to the consideration of what could yet be done: the best thing as circumstances then stood. So far as any good to be got from watching went, they might sleep on: there was no reparation for the fault that had been done: but so far as duty went, there was still much of endurance to which they had to rouse themselves. They could not save their Master, but they might loyally and manfully share His disgrace, and, if it must be, His death. They could not put off the penalty, but they might steel themselves cheerfully to share it. Safety was out of the question: but they might meet their fate, instead of being overwhelmed by it: and so, as respected what was gone by, Christ said, "Sleep, what is done can not be undone;" but as respected the duties that were lying before them still, He said, "We must make the best of it that can be made: rouse yourselves to dare the worst: on to enact your parts like men. Rise, let us be going-we have something still left to do." Here then we have two subjects of contemplation distinctly marked out for us.

      I. The irreparable past.

      II. The available future.

      The words of Christ are not like the words of other men: His sentences do not end with the occasion which called them forth: every sentence of Christ's is a deep principle of human life, and it is so with these sentences: "Sleep on now"-that is a principle. "Rise up, and let us be going"-that is another principle. The principle contained in "Sleep on now " is this, that the past is irreparable and after a certain moment waking will do no good. Ay, improve the future, the past is gone beyond recovery. As to all that is gone by, so far as the hope of altering it goes, you may sleep on and take your rest: there is no power in earth or heaven that can undo what has once been done.

      Now let us proceed to give illustrations of this principle.

      It is true, first of all, with respect to time that is gone by. Time is the solemn inheritance to which every man is born heir, who has a life-rent of this world-a little section cut out of eternity and given us to do our work in: an eternity before, an eternity behind; and the small stream between, floating swiftly from one into the vast bosom of the other. The man who has felt with all his soul the significance of Time will not be long in learning any lesson that this world has to teach him. Have you ever felt it, my Christian brethren? Have you ever realized how your own little streamlet is gliding away, and bearing you along with it towards that awful other world of which all things here are but the thin shadows, down into that eternity towards which the confused wreck of all earthly things are bound? Let us realize that, beloved brethren: until that sensation of Time, and the infinite meaning which is wrapped up in it, has taken possession of our souls, there is no chance of our ever feeling other than that it is worse than madness to sleep that time away. Every day in this world has its work; and every day as it rises out of eternity keeps putting to each of us the question afresh, What will you do before to-day has sunk into eternity and nothingness again? And now what have we to say with respect to this strange solemn thing-Time? That men do with it through life just what the apostles did for one precious and irreparable hour in the garden of Gethsemane: they go to sleep. Have you ever seen those marble statues in some public square or garden, which art has so fashioned into a perennial fountain that through the lips or through the hands the clear water flows in a perpetual stream, on and on forever; and the marble stands there-passive, cold-making no effort to arrest the gliding water?

      It is so that Time flows through the hands of men-swift, never pausing till it has run itself out; and there is the man petrified into a marble sleep, not feeling what it is which is passing away forever. It is so, brethren, just so, that the destiny of nine men out of ten accomplishes itself slipping away from them, aimless, useless, till it is too late. And this passage asks us with all the solemn thoughts which crowd around an approaching eternity-what has been our life, and what do we intend it shall be? Yesterday, last week, last year-they are gone. Yesterday, for example, was such a day as never was before, and never can be again. Out of darkness and eternity it was born a new fresh day: into darkness and eternity it sank again forever. It had a voice calling to us, of its own. Its own work-its own duties. What were we doing yesterday? Idling, whiling away the time in light and luxurious literature-not as life's relaxation, but as life's business? Thrilling our hearts with the excitements of life-contriving how to spend the day most pleasantly? Was that our day? Sleep, brethren! all that is but the sleep of the three apostles. And now let us remember this: there is a day coming when that sleep will be broken rudely, with a shock: there is a day in our future lives when our time will be counted not by years nor by months, nor yet by hours, but by minutes-the day when unmistakable symptoms shall announce that the messengers of death have come to take us.

      That startling moment will come which it is in vain to attempt to realize now, when it will be felt that it is all over at last-that our chance and our trial are past. The moment that we have tried to think of, shrunk from, put away from us, here it is-going too, like all other moments that have gone before it: and then with eyes unsealed at last, you look back on the life which is gone by. There is no mistake about it: there it is, a sleep, a most palpable sleep-self-indulged unconsciousness of high destinies, and God and Christ: a sleep when Christ was calling out to you to watch with Him one hour-a sleep when there was something to be done-a sleep broken, it may be, once or twice by restless dreams, and by a voice of truth which would make itself heard at times, but still a sleep which was only rocked into deeper stillness by interruption. And now from the undone eternity the bosom of whose waves is distinctly audible upon your soul, there comes the same voice again-a solemn sad voice but no longer the same word, "Watch"-other words altogether, "You may go to sleep." It is too late to wake; there is no science in earth or heaven to recall time that once has fled.

      Again, this principle of the irreparable past holds good with respect to preparing for temptation. That hour in the garden was a precious opportunity given for laying in spiritual strength. Christ knew it well. He struggled and fought then; therefore there was no struggling afterwards-no trembling in the judgment-hall-no shrinking on the cross, but only dignified and calm victory; for He had fought the temptation on His knees beforehand, and conquered all in the garden. The battle of the judgment-hall, the battle of the cross, were already fought and over, in the watch and in the agony. The apostles missed the meaning of that hour; and therefore when it came to the question of trial, the loudest boaster of them all shrunk from acknowledging whose he was, and the rest played the part of the craven and the renegade. And if the reason of this be asked, it is simply this: They went to trial unprepared: they had not prayed: and what is a Christian without prayer but Samson without his talisman of hair?

      Brethren, in this world, when there is any foreseen or suspected danger before us, it is our duty to forecast our trial. It is our wisdom to put on our armor-to consider what lies before us-to call up resolution in God's strength to go through what we may have to do. And it is marvellous how difficulties smooth away before a Christian when he does this. Trials that cost him a struggle to meet even in imagination-like the heavy sweat of Gethsemane, when Christ was looking, forward and feeling exceeding sorrowful even unto death-come to their crisis; and behold, to his astonishment they are nothing-they have been fought and conquered already. But if you go to meet those temptations, not as Christ did, but as the apostles did, prayerless, trusting to the chance impulse of the moment, you may make up your mind to fail. That opportunity lost is irreparable: it is your doom to yield then. Those words are true, you may "sleep on now, and take your rest," for you have betrayed yourselves into the hands of danger.

      And now one word about prayer. It is a preparation for danger, it is the armor for battle. Go not, my Christian brother, into the dangerous world without it. You kneel down at night to pray, and drowsiness weighs down your eyelids. A hard day's work is a kind of excuse, and you shorten your prayer and resign yourself softly to repose. The morning breaks, and it may be you rise late, and so your early devotions are not done,or done with irregular haste. No watching unto prayer-wakefulness once more omitted. And now we ask, is that reparable? Brethren, we solemnly believe not. There has been that done which can not be undone. You have given up your prayer, and you will suffer for it. Temptation is before you, and you are not fit to meet it. There is a guilty feeling on the soul, and you linger at a distance from Christ. It is no marvel if that day, in which you suffer drowsiness to interfere with prayer, a day on which you betray Him by cowardice and soft shrinking from duty. Let it be a principle through life, moments of prayer intruded upon by sloth can not be made up. We may get experience, but we can not get back the rich freshness and the strength which were wrapped up in these moments.

      Once again this principle is true in another respect. Opportunities of doing good do not come back. We are here, brethren, for a most definite and intelligible purpose-to educate our own hearts by deeds of love, and to be the instrument of blessing, to our brother men. There are two ways in which this is to be done-by guarding them from danger, and by soothing them in their rough path by kindly sympathies-the two things which the apostles were asked to do for Christ. And it is an encouraging thought, that he who can not do the one has at least the other in his power. If he can not protect he can sympathize. Let the weakest-let the humblest in this congregation remember, that in his daily course he can, if he will, shed around him almost a heaven. Kindly words, sympathizing attentions, watchfulness against wounding men's sensitiveness-these cost very little, but they are priceless in their value. Are they not, brethren, almost the staple of our daily happiness? From hour to hour, from moment to moment, we are supported, blest, by small kindnesses. And then consider: Here is a section of life, one-third, one-half, it may be three-fourths gone by, and the question before us is, bow much has been done in that way? Who has charged himself with the guardianship of his brother's safety? Who has laid on himself as a sacred duty to sit beside his brother suffering? Oh! my brethren, it is the omission of these things which is irreparable: irreparable, when you look to the purest enjoyment which might have been your own: irreparable, when you consider the compunction which belongs to deeds of love not done; irreparable, when you look to this groaning world and feel that its agony of bloody sweat has been distilling all night, and you were dreaming away in luxury! Shame, Shame upon our selfishness! There is an infinite voice in the sin and sufferings of earth's millions, which makes every idle moment, every moment, that is, which is not relaxation, guilt; and seems to cry out, If you will not bestir yourself for love's sake now, it will soon be too late.

      Lastly, this principle applies to a misspent youth. There is something very remarkable in the picture which is placed before us. There is a picture of One struggling, toiling, standing between others and danger, and those others quietly content to reap the benefit of that struggle without anxiety of their own. And there is something in this singularly like the position in which all young persons are placed. The young are by God's providence exempted in a great measure from anxiety: they are as the apostles were in relation to their Master: their friends stand between them and the struggles of existence. They are not called upon to think for themselves: the burden is borne by others. They get their bread without knowing or caring how it is paid for: they smile and laugh without a suspicion of the anxious thoughts of day and night which a parent bears to enable them to smile. So to speak they are sleeping-and it is not a guilty sleep-while another watches.

      My young brethren-youth is one of the precious opportunities of life-rich in blessing if you choose to make it so, but having in it the materials of undying remorse if you suffer it to pass unimproved. Your quiet Gethsemane is now. Gethsemane's struggles you can not know yet. Take care that you do not learn too well Gethsemane's sleep. Do you know how you can imitate the apostles in their fatal sleep? You can suffer your young days to pass idly and uselessly away; you can live as if you had nothing to do but to enjoy yourselves: you can let others think for you, and not try to become thoughtful yourselves: till the business and the difficulties of life come upon you unprepared, and you find yourselves like men waking from sleep, hurried, confused, scarcely able to stand, with all the faculties bewildered, not knowing right from wrong, led headlong to evil, just because you have not given yourselves in time to learn what is good. All that is sleep.

      And now let us mark it. You can not repair that in afterlife. Oh! remember every period of human life has its own lesson, and you can not learn that lesson in the next period. The boy has one set of lessons to learn, and the young man another, and the grown-up man another. Let us consider one single instance. The boy has to learn docility, gentleness of temper, reverence, submission. All those feelings which are to be transferred afterwards in full cultivation to God, like plants nursed in a hotbed and then planted out, are to be cultivated first in youth. Afterwards, those habits which have been merely habits of obedience to an earthly parent, are to become religious submission to a heavenly parent. Our parents stand to us in the place of God. Veneration for our parents is intended to become afterwards adoration for something higher. Take that single instance; and now suppose that that is not learnt in boyhood. Suppose that the boy sleeps to that duty of veneration, and learns only flippancy, insubordination, and the habit of deceiving his father-can that, my young brethren, be repaired afterwards? Humanly speaking, not. Life is like the transition from class to class in a school. The school-boy who has not learnt arithmetic in the earlier classes can not secure it when he comes to mechanics in the higher: each section has its own sufficient work. He may be a good philosopher or a good historian, but a bad arithmetician he remains for life; for he can not lay the foundation at the moment when he must be building the superstructure. The regiment which has not perfected itself in its manoeuvres on the parade ground can not learn them before the guns of the enemy. And just in the same way, the young person who has slept his youth away, and become idle, and selfish, and hard, can not make up for that afterwards. He may do something, he may be religious-yes; but he can not be what he might have been. There is a part of his heart which will remain uncultivated to the end. The apostles could share their Master's sufferings-they could not save Him. Youth has its irreparable past.

      And therefore, my young brethren, let it be impressed upon you-NOW is a time, infinite in its value for eternity, which will never return again. Sleep not; learn that there is a very solemn work of heart which must be done while the stillness of the garden of your Gethsemane gives you time. Now-or never. The treasures at your command are infinite. Treasures of time, treasures of youth, treasures of opportunity that grown-up men would sacrifice every thing they have to possess. Oh for ten years of youth back again with the added experience of age! But it can not be: they must be content to sleep on now, and take their rest.

      We are to pass on next to a few remarks on the other sentence in this passage, which brings before us for consideration the future which is still available: for we are to observe, that our Master did not limit His apostles to a regretful recollection of their failure. Recollection of it He did demand. There were the materials of a most cutting self-reproach in the few words He said: for they contained all the desolation of that sad word, never. Who knows not what that word wraps up-never-it never can be undone. Sleep on. But yet there was no sickly lingering over the irreparable. Our Master's words are the words of One who had fully recognized the hopelessness of His position, but yet manfully and calmly had numbered His resources and scanned His duties, and then braced up His mind to meet the exigencies of His situation with no passive endurance: the moment was come for action-"Rise, let us be going."

      Now the broad general lesson which we gain from this is not hard to read. It is that a Christian is to be forever rousing himself to recognize the duties which lie before him now. In Christ the motto is ever this, "Let us be going." Let me speak to the conscience of some one. Perhaps yours is a very remorseful past-a foolish, frivolous, disgraceful, frittered past. Well, Christ says, My servant, be sad, but no languor; there is work to be done for me yet-rise up, be going! Oh my brethren, Christ takes your wretched remnants of life-the feeble pulses of a heart which has spent its best hours not for Him, but for self and for enjoyment, and in His strange love He condescends to accept them.

      Let me speak to another kind of experience. Perhaps we feel that we have faculties which never have and now never will find their right field; perhaps we are ignorant of many things which can not be learnt now; perhaps the seed-time of life has gone by, and certain powers of heart and mind will not grow now; perhaps you feel that the best days of life are gone, and it is too late to begin things which were in your power once: still, my repentant brother, there is encouragement from your Master yet. Wake to the opportunities that yet remain. Ten years of life-five years-one year-say you have only that-will you sleep that away because you have already slept too long? Eternity is crying out to you louder and louder as you near its brink, Rise, be going: count your resources: learn what you are not fit for, and give up wishing for it: learn what you can do, and do it with the energy of a man. That is the great lesson of this passage. But now consider it a little more closely.

      Christ impressed two things on His apostles' minds: 1. The duty of Christian earnestness-"Rise;" 2. The duty of Christian energy-"Let us be going."

      Christ roused them to earnestness when He said, "Rise." A short, sharp, rousing call. They were to start up and wake to the realities of their position. The guards were on them: their Master was about to be led away to doom. That was an awakening which would make men spring to their feet in earnest. Brethren, goodness and earnestness are nearly the same thing. In the language in which this Bible was written there was one word which expressed them both: what we translate a good man, in Greek is literally "earnest." The Greeks felt that to be earnest was nearly identical with being good. But, however, there is a day in life when a man must be earnest, but it does not follow that he will be good. "Behold the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him." That is a sound that will thunder through the most fast-locked slumber, and rouse men whom sermons can not rouse. But that will not make them holy. Earnestness of life, brethren, that is goodness. Wake in death you must, for it is an earnest thing to die. Shall it be this, I pray you?-Shall it be the voice of death which first says, "Arise," at the very moment when it says, "Sleep on forever?"-Shall it be the bridal train sweeping by, and the shutting of the doors, and the discovery that the lamp is gone out?-Shall that be the first time you know that it is an earnest thing to live? Let us feel that we have been doing: learn what time is-sliding from you, and not stopping when you stop: learn what sin is: learn what never is: "Awake, thou that sleepest."

      Lastly, Christian energy-"Let us be going." There were two ways open to Christ in which to submit to His doom. He might have waited for it: instead of which He went to meet the soldiers. He took up the cross, the cup of anguish was not forced between His lips, He took it with His own hands, and drained it quickly to the last drop. In after years the disciples understood the lesson, and acted on it They did not wait till persecution overtook them; they braved the Sanhedrin: they fronted the world: they proclaimed aloud the unpopular and unpalatable doctrines of the resurrection and the cross. Now in this there lies a principle. Under no conceivable set of circumstances are we justified in sitting

      "By the poison'd springs of life,
      Waiting for the morrow which shall free us from the strife."

      Under no circumstances, whether of pain, or grief, or disappointment, or irreparable mistake, can it be true that there is not something to be done, as well as something to be suffered. And thus it is that the spirit of Christianity draws over our life, not a leaden cloud of remorse and despondency, but a sky-not perhaps of radiant, but yet of most serene and chastened and manly hope. There is a past which is gone forever. But there is a future which is still our own.

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