Let us consider the words, "Put on thy strength." Is it a thing we can "put on"? If we are strong, we are strong; if we are weak, we have no strength to "put on." What is the meaning, then, of "Put on thy strength"? Sometimes we say, "Be a man!" The reply is obvious—"How can I be more a man than I am? How can I be less, or other, than a man?" Sometimes we say, "Play the man!"—What else can I play? How remarkably pointless is the exhortation or injunction, "Play the man; be a man; bear it like a man; answer it like a man; put on thy strength"! All these sentences seem to belong to the same level of commonplace speech, and seem, indeed, to be utterly useless and pointless, because nothing else could be done. Yet we all know the meaning of those expressions. There is a meaning within a meaning when we say, "Be your best self." We comprehend the purpose of the exhortation; we are many selves; we are not always in our best mood and force. Men can rouse themselves; they can shake off sleep, or sloth, or reluctance, and can spring forward to a new point, and utter themselves in a more vital tone. You know it; it is a habit of your life. There is no magic in the doctrine: it is current in the thoroughfares of daily life; it only acquires a new accent and a new solemnity when uttered within the enclosure of the soul"s prayer. Work for a person whom you dislike, and how slowly the hours go by; how hard everything is to manage; what a weight cunningly, subtly insinuates itself into every burden that has to be borne; how cold in the morning, how hot in the noontide; how wearisome towards the time of the lengthening of the shadows! How is that best explained? By your relation to the person for whom you are working. You are only a hireling; you are waiting for wages-time; you will resort to any ruse by which you can cheat yourself out of the tedium which comes of reluctant labour. Work for a man whom you love, and the day is too short; there is no weight in the burden; if you climb a hill you say it is to get a breath of fresh air, and you are glad to ascend the steep. How is it? Because of your love; you "put on your strength;" you rise to the occasion; you enjoy the labour. You say "Nothing has been given whilst anything remains ungiven, and nothing has been done until the completing stroke has been delivered. You are the same Prayer of Manasseh, and yet how different! The spirit is not the same. Where there is love what leaping up there is of new strength, what self-surprising revelations of power! And this is the rule, the holy sovereignty, which Christ acquires over every man that enters his service with an undistracted heart.
Am I too bold in saying that no temporal object is worth the expenditure of our whole strength? I will not come down upon you oppressively from any great spiritual height, the existence of which you may doubt; I will work from your own levels, and acquire a right to speak to you by the concessions of your own reason. You yourselves have a law of proportion in life, and you work according to it. But why have any law or proportion? Simply because all things do not stand on the same level. Do you admit that? Yes. That is all I want; with that as an admission I can do all the work that remains to be done. Just the same as I can in all my Christian ministry work from the admissions which outsiders themselves make. For example, Professor Tyndall says, "There is in the universe a Secret which we cannot make out." That is all I want granted; I will not trouble him to concede anything more. And John Stuart Mill says, "Let rational criticism take from us what it may it cannot take from us the Christ." That is all I want to have admitted. The whole spiritual universe is in the one concession, and the whole Christian redemption is in the other. So when a man of business says that he does not devote himself with equal strength to all the claims of life, I ask him his reason, and he says that all the claims of life do not stand upon the same line or level, and, therefore, he distributes his strength according to their respective values. I ask no further concession. The Christian thunder is there! The Christian lightning is there! The pathetic appeal of the Cross is there! Once grant a difference of value and level amongst things temporal and perishing, and the preacher has you within his grip, and you cannot—unless faithless to your own logic—escape the gracious oppression of his benevolent tyranny. Let us see whether this cannot be made out still more clearly. Suppose you, men of business, saw a man of acknowledged capacity and force of mind devoting himself to carving faces upon cherry-stones, what would you say? Suppose you saw a young man unaccustomed to the use of mechanical arrangements and forces attempting to draw a cork by a steam-engine, what would you say, as business men of the world? I will quote from your own book of proverbs: "The game is not worth the candle." What do you mean? If Solomon had said that you would have called it "religious" and avoided it; but you yourselves write it, and I bind you to it. That is the advantage which the Christian teacher has over every other teacher. He can come down and seize all that is true in common thinking and common speech, and give it religious application. You simply mean that the man could be doing something better—that what the man is doing is not worthy of his manhood. You do not wish him to be idle, you wish to call him to an occupation worthy of his capacity and of the signature of power which is written upon his forehead. You are right; the Christian teacher wants nothing more; you are a Christian teacher up to the measure of that wisdom. The Christian preacher has nothing more to say upon that side of the question. When you have rebuked the man for carving faces upon miniature stones, and for drawing corks by steam power, another man rebukes you for writing your name in water; for imagining that God is God; that fame is immortality, and that luxury is peace. It is a cumulative argument, you understood it at the elementary point, and became ardent in the pressure of your conviction, and I ask you to carry out the reasoning to its legitimate and proper issue. Hear me when I preach to myself and say, "O, soul of mine, bethink thee, is it worth while to scratch thy name in the mean dust, over which the beast passes every hour of the day? Is it worthy of thee to beat the air, to cry into vacancy for help that does not exist? Is it worthy of thee to take up empty vessels and try to drink the air they cannot part with? I will repent; I will say, I have been wrong; I will consider my latter end; I will take in the whole horizon of this great subject, and from this moment, before the Bridegroom may come, I will have a lamp and a vessel and oil; and I will wait and watch and labour and pray, and be as one who is conscious of a capacity which might one day despise the stars; I will "put on my strength"!" Should a man talk so he would not in my opinion be a rhapsodist, but a solid reasoner, and only mistaken for a fanatic because of the ardour of his earnestness.
I may, perhaps, be bolder when I say that spiritual objects alone are worthy of the whole strength of man. Say you, "Other things are to be touched." Certainly. Say you, "Daily duty must be done in the humblest sphere." Without any question; but I am speaking of the focalisation of human powers of the highest nature, and of the consecration of those powers. I am speaking of the application of the supreme energy of the human mind, and, so speaking, I cannot but Revelation -affirm that spiritual objects alone are worthy of all the fire that burns in the bush of the body and enshrines a present and living Divinity. When dealing with spiritual objects and considerations one feels that there is something in them akin to our best nature. There is a mystery of friendship about them; there is a masonry that is round about the majesty of eternity; we feel that we are in Fatherland; the subjects accost us with noble cordiality; great doors are set wide open before our approach in token of gracious, unlimited hospitality; portals pillared on solid gold have written above them "Welcome." Let the mind once become interested in divine studies, entranced and enthralled by spiritual occupation, then to try to withdraw the soul from that absorption would be like seeking to drag from the altar one who is lost in prayer!
Spiritual subjects acquire this mysterious dominion over the soul because they touch every point of life. They do not touch the outside only, or a limited area as our little lights do. Surely one might say without irreverence that few things can have occasioned more—amusement, shall I say?—in upper places than our attempts to make lights, God said, "I will light the day for you, but there shall be periods of time, Adams and Eves, when you shall make lights for yourselves." His great light we seem to understand as we understand great comforts and great satisfactions. "Now," saith the Lord, "the sun is going down, make yourselves lights." What lights we have made! And how we have advertised them, and made exhibitions of them; and sometimes our lights go out in a moment without giving any notice! If you would know what the sun Isaiah, try to make one; try to displace one. So with" great spiritual subjects; earthly subjects, or temporal subjects are candle-lights, gas jets, electric experiments; but the spiritual revelation of God"s heart is a firmament filled with the gracious light which shines with impartiality upon the pinnacles of a palace and the poor man"s one-paned humble dwelling-place. Christian subjects—or spiritual subjects as we have called them—touch every point of life, and touch every point of life without any sense of burdensomeness. Who cannot carry the sunlight? Yet no man can handle the sun. He who wants to see abstract truth wants to see abstract light, and it is impossible. The philosopher will say that it is impossible to see what may be called abstract light, you must see it through atmospheric conditions; but when the Christian man talks about the impossibility of seeing metaphysical, essential, abstract truth, he is mocked and nicknamed and avoided. Our Christian consolation is this: that in spiritual subjects every point of our nature receives the illumination of its capacity and enjoys the rest which belongs to its particular faculty. What a range the Christian thinker has! His library—the universe! his companions—the angels! his destiny—heaven! What a range the Christian preacher has! but he dare not avail himself of it. He could undertake, in the Spirit and grace of God, to outrun every rival if the Church would allow the use of all its resources. It is humbling from one aspect to think how every other institution can in some respects excel the attractiveness of the Church. Do not judge the measure or the influence of spiritual subjects by the space within which the Christian Church has contracted itself. In the Christian Church should be eloquence that makes the theatre an object of utter contempt. In the Church should be prayer which turns the mimic agony of actors into an offence and a blasphemy. In the Church should be music that leaves all other music behind it, panting in weakness and waving acknowledgment of defeat.
Spiritual subjects admit of a treatment which would put down the things that men now so much long for—not wholly, and not, perhaps, immediately. This thing is not to be done in the twinkling of an eye. This is a question of measurement, calculation, unanimous prayer and hearty deliberation and counsel; but I do contend that he who has in his hand unsearchable riches can outdistance those who have nothing to give but the dust on which the feet tread. Let us have decisive action. I will tell you why—time is short. Let us have decisive action. I tell you why—the enemy is on the alert. He has no holidays, he uses ours; he takes no rest, in his roar there is no break which means weakness. "He seeketh whom he may devour." Let us have decisive action. I tell you why—the Master is worthy; his name is Jesus Christ; his name is all names of beauty in one sacred, gleaming appellation. He died for us. The love of Christ should constrain us. What say you? Let us be more devoted. The daily duties of life will not be undone but better done. You will change your money more profitably after prayer—not after mimicking prayer—than before. You will write your letters, teach your children, help your friends, give counsel to the embarrassed better, with fuller wisdom and gentler grace, after a mountain walk with Christ than if you had never left the valley. You will not neglect home by attending church; you will bring your home to the church, and take the church to your home; and he would be a man of microscopic eye who could find the line which separates church from home. If we carried out our text we should have a whole manhood for Christ. "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all—": the rest weakens the sentence.
Better put the period after "all." "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all—": then let imagination fill up what is left behind in the enumeration of detail. Then will come "heart, soul, strength." With such an oblation offered to heaven there can be nothing left for the service of rival powers.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Isaiah 52". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://pro.studylight.org/
the First Week of Advent