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Vol. 5, Sermon 3 - A Thanksgiving Day

By Frederick W. Robertson


      Preached November 15, 1849

      "Afterward Jesus findeth him in the temple, and said unto him, Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee. The man departed, and told the Jews that it was Jesus, which had made him whole."-John v. 14,15.

      The man to whom these words were spoken had been lying, only a few days before, a helpless, hopeless sufferer among the porches of Bethesda, together with a number of others affected in a similar manner. By a singular, unexpected, and miraculous event, he was rescued from his calamity, while the remainder were left to the mercies of public charity, or to avail themselves of the mysterious spring of Bethesda.

      It was a time of festival in Jerusalem, the streets were probably echoing with the voice of mirth and festivity, with the sounds of them that kept holiday: but it was to this congregation of the sick and the miserable that the Redeemer bent his steps; it was what might have been expected from the Son of Man-"The whole need not a physician, but they that are sick." It was the office of the Man of Sorrows to soothe the wretched; and of all the crowded scenes that day enacting in the Holy City, the "great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered," found that their abode was the most congenial atmosphere to the soul of the Redeemer.

      And in all this we have but a miniature representation of the world as it is now. Jerusalem contained within its walls, within its proud battlements, and amidst its stately temples, as much wretchedness and as much misery, separated only by a thin partition from its abodes of luxury and state, as our own metropolis does now. It is a miniature representation of the world in this, so full of outward show and of inward wretchedness. It is a representation of the world we live in, inasmuch as it is a place where selfishness prevails; for there was affixed a certain condition to the healing of the spring, that the man should be the first; if he were not the first, no miracle took place, and there was one more friendless wretch.

      This man had no one to give him the little assistance required. For thirty-eight years he had been lingering here, and there appeared to have been no visitor who would supply what was wanting of the ties of blood or relationship. It is, I say, but a representation of what this world is, when the love of God has not touched the heart of man. It is a representation of the world, too, in this, that with suffering there is frequently appointed the remedy. The remedy is often found side by side with the pain it may relieve, if we could but make use of it. It is so in both bodily and spiritual maladies-there is a remedial system, a pool of Bethesda, everywhere springing up by the side of sin and suffering.

      It us a representation of the world, also, that the presence of the Son of Man should be felt rather in scenes of sorrow than of joy. It is not in the day of high health and strength, when our intellect is powerful, our memory vigorous, when we feel strong in our integrity and our courage, but when our weakened powers have made us feel that we are "a worm and no man;" when our failing faculties convince us that, except for our connection with immortality, our minds would be as nothing; when we feel temptation getting too strong for us, and that we are on the brink of falling-then it is that we are taught there is a strength not our own, beyond any thing that we possess of our own. It is then that the presence of the Son of Man is felt; then is the day of our merciful and mysterious deliverance.

      And there is another resemblance to be noted. The Saviour of the world went into the Bethesda porches, and out of the great number of sufferers he selected one-not because of his superior righteousness, not for any merit on his part, but for reasons hidden within His own Almighty Mind. So it is in the world-one is taken, another is left; one nation is sterile, another is fertile; one is full of diseases from which another is exempted; one man is surrounded with luxuries and comforts, another with every suffering which flesh is heir to. So much for the miniature of the world exhibited by the pool of Bethesda.

      Now in connection with this subject there are two branches in which we will arrange our observations.

      I. The cause of this man's disease.

      II. The history of his gratitude.

      I Concerning the cause of his disease, we are not left in any doubt, the Redeemer's own lips have told us what it was-"Sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee." So we see there was a strange connection between this bodily malady and moral evil, a connection that would have startled all around if it had been seen. No doubt the men of science, versed in the healing art, would have found some cause for his malady connected with the constitution of his bodily frame; but the Redeemer went beyond all this. Thirty-eight years before, their had been some sin committed, possibly a small sin, in our eyes at least, of which the result had been thirty-eight years of suffering; and so the truth we gather from this is, there is a connection between physical and moral evil; a connection, my Christian brethren, more deep than any of us have been accustomed to believe in.

      But most assuredly, many of the most painful forms of disease that come upon the body depend upon the nervous constitution; and the nervous system is connected inseparably with the moral state more than men suppose. Often where we have been disposed to refer the whole to external causes, there has been something of moral disorder in the character which makes that constitution exquisitely susceptible of suffering and incapable of enjoyment. Every physician will tell us that indulged passions will lead to a disturbed state of body; that want of self-control in various ways will end in that wretched state when the light that falls on the eye inflicts torture, the sounds that are heard in the ear are all discord, and all this beautiful creation, so formed for delight, only ministers to the sufferings of the diseased and disorganized frame. Thus we see that external suffering is often connected with moral evil, but we must carefully guard and modify this statement, for this is not universally the case ; and it is clear this was the Saviour's opinion, for when the disciples came to Him on another occasion asking whether the blind man or his parents did sin, He answered that neither had sinned, plainly showing that there was sometimes physical suffering for which there was no moral cause. In that case it was not for his own sin, or even that of others-it baffled all the investigations of man to explain it.

      Now, we must remember this when we see cases of bodily suffering: we must consider that there is a great difference between the two senses in which the word punishment is used. It may be a penalty, it may be a chastisement: one meaning of punishment is, that the law exacts a penalty if it is broken-notice having been given that a certain amount of suffering would follow a certain course of action. All the laws of God, in the physical world, in the moral world, or in the political world, if broken, commonly entail a penalty. Revolutions beset a nation, shaking its very foundations, owing to some defects in the justice or wisdom of its government, and we can not say that all this comes from the dust, or springs out of the ground. There are causes in the history of past events that will account for it. The philosophical historian of future years will show the results of some political mistake, continued perhaps for centuries, by the rulers of this nation. So in the moral and in the physical world there are laws, as it were, that execute themselves. If a man eat a deleterious herb, whether he does it willingly or unconsciously, the penalty will fall on his body. If a man touch the lightning-conductor, not knowing that the air is charged with electricity, no holiness on his part will prevent the deadly stroke. But there is another kind of law, written in the hearts of men, and given to the conscience, when the penalty is awarded as the result of moral transgression, and then it becomes a chastisement, and the language of Scripture then becomes the language of our hearts. It is the rod of God that hath done all this.

      There is another thing that we must bear in mind, that there are certain evils which fall upon man over which he can have no control. They come as the result of circumstances over which he has no power whatever. So, we read in the Second book of Kings, the child of the Shunammite went out amongst the reapers; he was suddenly seized with a deadly pain in his head, was taken to his mother, sat upon her lap, and died at noon. A sunstroke had struck that child; but to say that from any fault of his he was selected as the object of suffering, when the rest of the reapers were spared, would be as unjust as to say that those upon whom the Tower of Siloam fell were sinners above all the Galileans.

      Moreover, to understand this we must recollect that the laws of God and the penalties of God are not miracles. If the penalty comes as the consequence appointed by God Himself, to follow certain sins, it is a natural punishment, but if it comes with no connection, it is then an arbitrary punishment. So, if a man educates a child ill, and be turns out a bad man, there is the natural connection between the penalty and the guilt. But if a man, pursuing his journey, is struck with lightning, there is rio penalty there. Now, in the Old Testament we find a natural punishment falling on Eli. He allowed his children to grow up without correction, and the contempt and scorn of the whole nation fell upon that family, and the father actually died in consequence of the shock of his children's misconduct. But if the father had died in battle, or by an accident, then it would have been unjust to say that there was any connection between his misconduct and his sudden death; it would have been an arbitrary connection.

      The punishments of God are generally not arbitrary: each law, as it were, inflicts its own penalty. It does not execute one that belongs to another. So, if the drunkard lead a life of intoxication, the consequence will be a trembling hand and a nervous frame; but if he be drowned in the seas when sailing in the storm, he is punished for having broken a natural law, not a moral law of God. Let us then bear in mind that if the ship convey across the ocean the heavenly-minded missionary and the scoffing infidel, if the working of the vessel be attended to, and there is nothing unusual in the winds and the waves, they will convey the one to his destination as safely as the other.

      Now, the application we must make of all this is, if a man perish when out on a sabbath-day, we have no right to say that he dies because he has broken the sabbath. If famine or pestilence visit the land, it may be explained by the infringement of some of God's natural laws; the earth may not be rightly cultivated, sanitary means have not been taken to stop the pestilence; but we have no right to say that they come in consequence of political relations which are not to our mind, or of regulations of policy of which we disapprove.

      There is one thing more. It is perfectly possible that transgressions against the natural laws of God may, in the end, become trespasses against His moral law, and then the penalty becomes chastisement. The first man that drank the fermented juice of the grape was perfectly innocent, even if it caused intoxication; but when be found how it affected his brain, it became sin to him thenceforward. The first time that a man enters into society which he finds hurtful to his religious feelings,he may have done it innocently; but when he sees how it lowers the tone of his character, he must mingle amongst them no more. So want of cleanliness in some Alpine regions may result from ignorance of the laws of nature; but when, in more crowded populations, it is ascertained that it is productive of disease, and injurious to those around them, then the infraction of the natural law is stigmatized as a higher degree of turpitude. That which was a penalty becomes something more of chastisement from the wrath of God. So it is that science goes on enlightening men more and more as to the laws of God's physical world, and telling them what they must and what they must not do, in order to lessen the amount of bodily suffering around us.

      My Christian brethren, we have spoken of these things at some length, because all these considerations have been brought into our view by that pestilence,* [* The cholera] from which we celebrate our deliverance this day; partly the result of causes over which man has no control, and partly the result of the disregard of natural laws; partly, also, from the presence of moral evil amongst us. That these three distinct classes of causes have been present may be proved by tracing its history. They who have made it their duty to trace out its progress tell us that its origin was in 1818, in Bengal, when it arose during the overflow of the River Ganges; and then, dividing into two streams of pestilence and death, it passed through the world; one going to the east, the other to the west. The eastern current passed on till it reached the shores of China; the western moved slowly on with gigantic tread, decimating nations as it went, cutting off nine thousand of the British army; and passing through Persia and Arabia, it destroyed twelve thousand of the pilgrims to Mecca, till it paused mysteriously and strangely on the very verge of Europe-as if the voice of God himself had said, "There is danger near; set thine house in order." By 1830 it had reached the metropolis of Russia. In 1831 it was doing its dreadful work in our own capital, while eighteen thousand fell in Paris alone; and it then passed on, as a winged messenger, across the ocean to America.

      There was then a strange disappearance of the pestilence for four or five years, till 1837, when it appeared first in the southern parts of Europe, and gradually rolled its relentless course onward to our shores. In all this you will perceive something over which we have no control. It has pursued its way not guided by moral evil or by physical causes, but by some cause, explain it as you will-as electricity, or any other conjecture-it is one that baffles every effort to stay its progress. It has taken the same road, too, that it took on its former visitation. The common food of man seems changed into something poisonous, the very air is charged with contagion; every thing proclaims it as a visitation from the Almighty. And in the very character of the disease there is something that marks it out from all other diseases: it has been truly said, that in its worst cases there is but one symptom, and that one is death. A man is full of health and strength, and in two hours he is gone. It is a disease which in its best form is terrific. That being who just now stood before you in perfect health, is in a moment a cold, livid, convulsed mass of humanity, fighting with the foe that threatens to overcome him.

      But yet we find, in spite of all this, that in the progress of this strange disease, great mistakes have been made by man. From the circumstance of the poorer classes being the chief sufferers, they fancied that it was inflicted by the higher, and in some places they rose against them, accusing them of poisoning the wells. And we find Christians so mistaken as to look on all this suffering, not as the natural connection between sin and its penalty, but as having some arbitrary connection with the sin of others, from which they themselves and their own party are free.

      But, in the next place, we find that it really has been caused in some degree by the transgression of the laws of nature; for whatever may have been the secret origin of the disease, whatever may be the mystery of its onward course, still we know that there are certain conditions usually necessary to make it destructive. So we find that in India it was the natives who for the most part suffered, those whose constitutions had less stamina than our own. And here we see that debility produced by over-work, bad air, crowded dwellings, have been the predisposing causes; and this tells us, if ever visitation could speak, that affliction cometh not out of the dust, neither does sorrow spring from the ground. It has no direct connection with moral character, except on peculiar points. Place a worldly man and a holy man in the same unfavorable circumstances for receiving the disorder, and you will not find the one has any charm to escape the fate of the other.

      But we do find that this disease is increased and propagated by human selfishness. We read of the crowds at Bethesda, of whom it was said, there was no man to put them into the water; and so it is now. The poor, the helpless, the neglected, have been the chief sufferers. Out of two hundred and forty-three who in this place have suffered from that and similar causes, one hundred and sixty-three were receiving parish relief And in this there is something that tells us not merely of ignorance, but of selfishness; for when commissioners went through the length and breadth of the country to examine into the statistics of the disease, we were met by the startling fact that medical science, that careful nursing, could do nothing while our crowded graveyards, our teeming and airless habitations, our worn-out and unhealthy population, received and propagated the miasma; and every time that a man in the higher classes perished, it was as if the poor neglected man had spoken from the grave; or, as if God himself had been heard to speak through him. He seems to say, "I can prove to you now my relationship. You can receive evil from me, if nothing else has ever passed between us; the same constitution, the same flesh and blood, the same frame were once ours; and if I can do it in no other way, I can prove, by infecting you, that I am your brother still."

      Once more: it has been produced in a degree by moral evil; vice has been as often the predisposing cause as any other external circumstance, in certain cases. I say in certain cases, not in all. A man might have been a blasphemer, or a slanderer, but neither of these sins would affect him; but those sins which are connected with the flesh, sensuality, drunkenness, gradually pervade the human frame, and fit it for the reception of this disease.

      II. But we will pass on to consider the history of this man's recovery, and of his gratitude. The first cause for gratitude was his selection. He alone was taken, and others were left. He had cause for gratitude, also, in that he had been taught the connection between moral evil and its penalty. He had been taught the certainty of God's laws, how they execute themselves, and, more blessed than all, he had been taught that there was a Personal Superintendence over all the children of men. The relief had come from the personal interposition of the Son of Man. He went and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had done this. And this explains to us the meaning and the necessity of a public acknowledgment of our gratitude. It is meant to show this nation that it is not by chance, nor by the operation of science, nor by the might of man, that we have been rescued, but that our deliverance comes direct from God.

      Let us observe the popular account (for John gives us the popular account) of the angel troubling the water. It matters not whether it is scientifically to be proved or not, the secret causes lie hid beyond our investigation; but this you can observe, that it was a religious act, that it was not done by chance, that there were living agents in the healing process. The man of science in the present day would tell you what were the ingredients in the spring-how it told on the cellular tissue, or on the nervous fabric; but whatever he may make of it scientifically, it is true morally and religiously; for what is every remedy but the angel, the messenger of God sent down from the Father of all mercy, the Fountain of all goodness? So when we celebrate a day of national thanksgiving, it is but the nation's voice, arising rn acknowledgment of a Parent's protection-that these things come not by chance, but that there is personal superintendence over this world, and this deliverance is the proof of a Father's love.

      Once more: a day of thanksgiving is meant to be a warning and a reminder against future sins. "Sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee." And it has ever been so that the result of panic has been reaction. After excitement comes apathy; after terror has been produced, by danger especially, comes indifference, and therefore comes the warning voice from the Redeemer-"Sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee."

      But we may perhaps say, "My sin did not produce this disease. It was no doing-no fault of mine; it came from causes beyond my control. The pestilence now has wreaked its vengeance; I find I had nothing to do with it, and I may dismiss the subject from my mind." My brethren, let us look into this a little more deeply. It was not directly your sin that nailed your Redeemer to the cross, but the sin of the cruel Pharisees, of the relentless multitude; yet it is said, "The Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all." It arises all from this circumstance, brethren-there are two worlds, a world of evil and a world of good. The Son of Man came as the perfect and entire representation of the kingdom of holiness. He came in collision with the world of evil; He died for sinners-for the sins of others-of all who partake of the nature of moral evil: and therefore by their sin they nailed the Redeemer to the cross. All those who opposed themselves to Jesus would have opposed themselves to Moses, Zacharias, and Abel; they allowed the deeds of their fathers, and were partakers of the blood of all the prophets that had been slain upon the earth.

      The men who join in a crowd, aiding and abetting the death of any individual, by the law of every country are held guilty; and now, though there may have been no distinct act of selfishness by which any man has perished at your hands; though there have been no distinct want of care for the poor-still I may fearlessly ask you all, Christian brethren, does not your conscience tell you how little the welfare and the comfort of others has been in your thoughts? As far as we have taken a part in the world's selfishness; as far as we have lived for self and not for our neighbors; as far as we have forgotten the poor sufferers lying in the porches of Bethesda-not directly, but indirectly, all that has fallen upon this land may have been sent as a chastisement to us.

      And there is this to be explained-"Sin no more;" meaning apparently, that if a man did not sin, nothing more would happen. Are we to understand, then, that if a man has been blameless he will never suffer from sorrow or sickness? or that if a man will avoid sin, he will never be visited by death? To have said that would have been to contradict the history of the Redeemer's own life and death. He died, though He sinned not. How then, brethren, can we understand it? Why, we can understand it but in this way, by recalling to our memory what has been already said of the difference between the punishment and the penalty. If a man live a humble and holy life in Christ Jesus, there is no promise that if plague visits his land it shall not come nigh him. Live in purity, live in unselfishness; there is no promise that you shall not be cut down in a day; there is nothing in religion that can shield you from what the world calls trouble-from penalty; but there is this-that which would have been chastisement is changed into penalty.

      The Redeemer suffered death as a penalty; but by no means as chastisement; on the contrary, it was the richest blessing which a Father's love could bestow upon His well-beloved Son, in whom He was well pleased. So it will be with every one of us. He who lives to God, rests in his Redeemer's love, and is trying to get rid of his old nature-to him every sorrow, every bereavement, every pain, will come charged with blessings, and death itself will be no longer the king of terrors, but the messenger of grace, the very angel of God descending on the troubled waters, and calling him to his Father's home.

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