By T. De Witt Talmage
"And they sat down in ranks by hundreds and by fifties."--MARK vi: 40.
The sun was far down in the west, night was coming on, and there were five thousand people tired, hungry, shelterless. You know how Washington felt at Valley Forge, when his army was starving and freezing. You may imagine how any great-hearted general would feel while his troops were suffering. Imagine, then, how Christ, with His great heart, must have felt as He saw these five thousand hunger-bitten people. Yes, I suppose there were ten thousand there, for the Bible says there were five thousand men, besides women and children. The case is put in that way, not because the women and children were of less importance than the men, but because they would eat less; and the whole force of the miracle turns on the amount of food required.
How shall this great multitude be supplied? I see a selfish man in that crowd pulling a luncheon out of his own pocket, and saying: "Let the people starve. They had no business to come out here in the desert without any provisions. They are improvident, and the improvident ought to suffer." There is another man, not quite so heartless, who says: "Go up into the village and buy bread." What a foolish proposition! There is not enough food in all the village for this crowd; besides that, who has the money to pay for it? Xerxes' army, one million strong, was fed by a private individual of great wealth for only one day, but it broke him. Who, then, shall feed this multitude?
I see a man rising in that great crowd and asking: "Is there any one here who has bread or meat?" A kind of moan goes through the whole throng. "No bread--no meat." But just at that time a lad steps up. You know when a great crowd goes off upon an excursion, there are always men and boys to go along for the purpose of merchandise and to strike a bargain: and so, I suppose, this boy had gone along for the purpose of merchandise; but he was nearly all sold out, having only five loaves and two fishes left. He is a generous boy, and he turns them over to Christ.
But these loaves would not feed twenty people, how much less ten thousand! Though the action was so generous on the part of the boy, so far as satisfying the multitude, it was a dead failure. Then Jesus comes to the rescue. He is apt to come when there is a dead lift. He commands the people that they sit down "in ranks, by hundreds and by fifties," as much as to say: "Order! order! so that none be missed." It was fortunate that that arrangement was made; otherwise, at the very first appearance of bread, the strong ones would have clutched it, while the feeble and the modest would have gone unsupplied.
I suppose it was no easy work to get that crowd seated, for they all wanted to be in the front row, lest the bread give out before their turn come. No sooner are they seated than there comes a great hush over all the people. Jesus stands there, His light complexion and auburn locks illumined by the setting sun. Every eye is on Him. They wonder what He will do next. He takes one of the loaves that the boy furnished and breaks off it a piece, which immediately grows to as large a size as the original loaf, the original loaf staying as large as it was before the piece was broken off. And they leaned forward with intense scrutiny, saying: "Look! look!" When some one, anxious to see more minutely what is going on, rises in front, they cry: "Sit down in front! Let us look for ourselves."
And then, when the bread is passed around, they taste of it skeptically and inquiringly, as much as to say: "Is it bread? Really, is it bread?" Yes, the best bread that was ever made, for Christ made it. Bread for the first fifty and second fifty. Bread for the first hundred and the second hundred. Bread for the first thousand and the second thousand. Pass it all around the circle: there, where that aged man sits leaning on his staff, and where that woman sits with the child in her arms. Pass it all around. Are you all fed? "Ay! ay!" respond the ten thousand voices; "all fed." One basket would have held the loaves before the miracle; it takes twelve baskets now. Sound it through all the ages of earth and heaven, that Christ the Lord comes to our suffering race with the bread of this life in one hand, and the bread of eternal life in the other hand.
You have all immediately run out the analogy between that scene and this. There were thousands there; there are thousands here. They were in the desert; many of you are in the desert of trouble and sin. No human power could feed them; no human power can feed you. Christ appeared to them; Christ appears to you. Bread enough for all in the desert; bread enough for all who are here. And, as on that occasion, so in this: we have the people "sit down in ranks by hundreds and by fifties;" for the fact that many of you stand is no fault of ours, for we have tried to give you seats. As Christ divided that company into groups, so I divide this audience into three groups: the pardoned, the seeking, the careless.
I. And, first, I speak to the pardoned.
It is with some of you half past five in the morning, and some faint streaks of light. With others it is seven o'clock, and thus full dawn. With others it is twelve o'clock at noon, and you sit in full blaze of Gospel pardon. I bring you congratulation. Joseph delivered from Potiphar's dungeon; Daniel lifted from the lion's den; Saul arrested and unhorsed on the road to Damascus. Oh, you delivered captives, how your eyes should gleam, and your souls should bound, and your lips should sing in this pardon! From what land did you come? A land of darkness. What is to be your destiny? A land of light. Who got you out? Christ, the Lord. Can you sit so placidly and unmoved while all heaven comes to your soul with congratulation, and harps are strung, and crowns are lifted, and a great joy swings round the heavens at the news of your disinthrallment? If you could realize out of what a pit you have been dug, to what height you are to be raised, and to what glory you are destined, you would spring to your feet with "Hosanna!"
In 1808 there was a meeting of the emperors of France and Russia at Erfurt. There were distinguished men there also from other lands. It was so arranged that when any of the emperors arrived at the door of the reception-room, the drum should beat three times; but when a lesser dignitary should come, then the drum would sound but twice. After awhile the people in the audience-chamber heard two taps of the drum. They said: "A prince is coming." But after awhile there were three taps, and they cried: "The emperor!" Oh, there is a more glorious arrival at your soul to-night! The drum beats twice at the coming in of the lesser joys and congratulations of your soul; but it beats once, twice, thrice at the coming in of a glorious King--Jesus the Saviour, Jesus the God! I congratulate you. All are yours--things present and things to come.
II. I come now to speak of the second division--those who are seeking; some of you with more earnestness, some of you with less earnestness. But I believe that to-night, if I should ask all those who wish to find the way to heaven to rise, and the world did not scoff at you, and your own proud heart did not keep you down, there would be a thousand souls who would cry out as they rose up: "Show me the way to heaven!" That young man who smiled to the one next to him, as though he cared for none of these things, would be on his knees crying for mercy. Why this anxious look? Why this deep disquietude in the soul? Why, at the beginning of this service, did you do what you have not done for years--bow your head in prayer? You are seeking.
"I am a gambler," says one man. There is mercy for you. "I am a libertine," says another. There is mercy for you. "I have plunged into every abomination." Mercy for you. The door of grace does not stand ajar to-night, nor half swung around on the hinges. It is wide, wide open; and there is nothing in the Bible, or in Christ, or God, or earth, or heaven, or hell, to keep you out of the door of safety, if you want to go in. Christ has borne your burdens, fought your battles, suffered for your sins. The debt is paid, and the receipt is handed to you, written in the blood of the Son of God--will you have it? Oh, decide the matter now! Decide it here! Fling your exhausted soul down at the feet of an all-compassionate, all-sympathizing, all-pitying, all-pardoning Jesus. The laceration on His brow, the gash in His side, the torn muscles and nerves of His feet beg you to come.
But remember that one inch outside the door of pardon, and you are in as much peril as though you were a thousand miles away. Many a shipwrecked sailor has got almost to the beach, but did not get on it. There are thousands in the world of the lost who came very near being saved--perhaps as near as you are to-night--but were not saved.
On the eastern coast of England, a few weeks ago, in a fishing-village, there was a good deal of excitement. While people were in church, the sailors and fishermen hearing the Gospel on the Sabbath, there was a cry: "To the beach!" and the minister closed the Bible, and with his congregation went out to help, and they saw in the offing a ship in trouble; but there was some disorder amid the fishing-smacks, and amid all the boats, and it was almost impossible to get anything launched. But after awhile they did, and they pulled away for the wreck, and came almost up, when suddenly the distressed bark in the offing capsized, and they all went down. Oh, if the lifeboats had only been ten minutes quicker! And how many a life-boat has been launched from the Gospel shore! It has come almost up to the drowning, and yet, after all, they were not rescued. Somehow they did not get into it!
I suppose there are people who have asked for our prayers, and I suppose there were some in the side room, last Sabbath night, talking about their souls, who will miss heaven. They do not take the last step, and all the other steps go for nothing until you have taken the last step, for I have here, in the presence of God and this people, to announce the solemn truth, that to be almost saved is to be lost forever. That is all I have to say to the second division.
III. I come now to speak to the careless. You look indifferent, and I suppose you are indifferent. You say: "I came in here because a friend invited me to see what is going on, but with no serious intentions about my soul. I have so much work, and so much pleasure on hand, don't bother me about religion." And yet you are gentlemanly, and you are lady-like, in your behavior, and, therefore, I know that you will listen respectfully if I talk courteously. Christian people are sometimes afraid to talk to men and women of the world lest they be insulted. If they talk courteously to people of the world, they will listen courteously. So now I try to come in that way, and in that spirit, and talk to those of you who tell me that you are careless about your soul.
Then you have a soul, have you? Yes, precious, with infinite capacity for joy or suffering, winged for flight somewhere. Beckoned upward, beckoned downward. Fought after by angels and by fiends. Immortal!
"The sun is but a spark of fire,
A transient meteor in the sky:
The soul, immortal as its Sire,
Can never die."
Your body will soon be taken down, the castle will be destroyed, the tower will be in the dust, the windows will be broken out, and the place where your body sleeps will be forgotten; but your soul, after that, will be living, acting, feeling, thinking--where? where? Oh, there must be something of incomputable worth in that for which heaven gave up its best inhabitant, and Christ went into martyrdom, and at the coming of which angels chant an eternal litany and devils rush to the gate. When everything above you, and beneath you, and around you, is intent upon that soul, you can not afford to be careless, especially when I think, this moment while I speak, there are thousands of souls in heaven rejoicing that they attended to this matter in time, while at this very instant there are souls in the lost world mourning that they did not attend to it in time. Hark to the howling of the damned!
Oh, if this room could be vacated of this audience, and you were all gone, and the wan spirits of the lost could come up and occupy this place, and I could stand before them with offers of pardon through Jesus Christ, and then ask them if they would accept it, there would come up an instantaneous, multitudinous, overwhelming cry: "Yes! yes! yes! yes!" No such fortune for them. They had their day of grace, and sacrificed it. You have yours; will you sacrifice it? I wish that I could have you see these things as you will one day see them.
Suppose, on your way home, a runaway horse should dash across the street, or between the dock and the boat you should accidentally slip, where would you be at twelve o'clock to-night or seven o'clock to-morrow morning? Or for all eternity where would you be? I do not answer the question. I just leave it to you to answer.
But suppose you escape fatal accident. Suppose you go out by the ordinary process of sickness. I will just suppose now that your last hour has come. The doctor says, as he goes out of the room: "Can't get well." There is something in the faces of those who stand around you that prophesies that you can not get well. You say within yourself: "I can't get well." Where are your comrades now? Oh, they are off to the gay party that very night! They dance as well as they ever did. They drink as much wine. They laugh as loud as though you were not dying. They destroyed your soul, but do not come to help you die.
Well, there are father and mother in the room. They are very quiet, but occasionally they go out into the next room and weep bitterly. The bed is very much disheveled. They have not been able to make it up for two or three days. There are four or five pillows lying around, because they have been trying to make you as easy as they could. On the one side of your bed are all the past years of your life--the Bibles, the sermons, the communion-tables, the offers of mercy. You say: "Take them away." Your mother thinks you are delirious. She says: "There is nothing there, my dear, nothing there." There is something there! It is your wasted opportunities. It is your procrastinations. It is those years you gave to the world that you ought to have given to Christ. They are there; and some of them put their fingers on your aching temples, and some of them feel for the strings of your heart, and some put more thorns in your tumbled pillow, and you say: "Turn me over." And they turn you over, but, alas! there is a more appalling vision. You say: "Take that away!" They say: "There is nothing there, nothing there." There is--an open grave there! the judgment is there! a lost eternity is there! Take it away! They can not take it away.
You say: "How dark it is getting in the room!" Why, the burners are all lighted. Your family come up one by one, and tenderly kiss you good-bye. Your feet are cold, and the hands are cold, and the lips are cold, and they take a small mirror and they put it over your mouth to see if there is any breathing, and that mirror is taken away without a single blur upon it; and they whisper through the room: "She is gone." And then the door of the body opens and the soul flashes out. Make room for the destroyed spirit.
Push back that door! Lost! Let it come into its eternal residence. Woe! woe! No cup of merriment now, but cup of the wrath of Almighty God. The last chance for heaven gone. The door of mercy shut. The doom sealed. The blackness of darkness forever!
Voltaire is there. Herod is there. Robespierre is there. The debauchees are there. The murderers are there. All the rejectors of Jesus Christ are there. And you will be there unless you repent. You can not say, my dear brother, that you were not warned. This sermon would be a witness against you. You can not say that God's Holy Spirit never strove with your heart. He is striving now. You can not say that you had no chance for heaven, for the Omnipotent Son of God offers you His rescue. You can not say: "I had no warning about that world; I didn't know there was any such place," for the Bible distinctly rings in your ears to-day, saying: "At the end of the world the angels shall separate the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into a furnace of fire." And again that book says: "The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God." And again it says: "The smoke of their torment ascendeth for ever and ever."
You can not say that you did not hear about heaven, the other alternative, for you hear of it now: "The Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall lead them to living fountains of water, and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes." No sorrow, no suffering, no death. Oh, will you be careless any longer, when I tell you that Christ, the Conqueror of earth and hell, offers you now escape from all peril, and offers to introduce you this very hour into the peace and pardon of the Gospel, preparing you for that good land? The sides of Calvary run blood for you. Jesus, who had not where to lay His head, offers you His heart as a pillow of rest. Christ offers with His own body to bridge over the chasm of death, saying: "Walk over Me; I am the way."
O suffering Jesus! the thief scoffed at Thee, and the malefactor spat on Thee, and the soldiers stabbed Thee; but these who sit before Thee to-day have no heart to do that. O Jesus! tell them of Thy love, tell them of Thy sympathy, tell them of the rewards Thou wilt give them in the better land. Groan again, O blessed Jesus! groan again, and perhaps when the rocks fall, their hard hearts may break.
"Nothing brought Him from above,
Nothing but redeeming love."
The promise is all free, the path all clear. Come, Mary, and sit to-night at the feet of Jesus. Come, Bartimeus, and have your eyes opened. Come, O prodigal! and sit at thy father's table. Come, O you suffering, sinning, dying the soul! and find rest on the heart of Jesus. The Spirit and Bride say "Come," and Churches militant and triumphant say "Come," and all the voices of the past, mingling with all the voices of the future, in one great thunder of emphasis, bid you "Come now!" Are not those of you who are in the third class ready to pass over into the second division, and become seekers after Christ? Ay, are you not ready to pass over into the first division, and become the pardoned sons and daughters of the Lord Almighty? I can do no more than offer you, through Jesus Christ, peace on earth and everlasting residence in His presence.
"When God makes up His last account
Of natives in His holy mount,
'Twill be an honor to appear
As one new-born and nourished there."
Good-night! The Lord bless you! Go to your homes seeking after Christ. Sleep not until you have made your peace with God. Good-night--a deep, hearty, loving, Christian good-night!