S D GORDON
QUIET TALKS ON POWER
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An Odd Distinction.
A few years ago I was making a brief tour among the colleges of Missouri. I remember one morning in a certain college village going over from the hotel to take breakfast with some of the boys, and coming back with one of the fellows whom I had just met. As we walked along, chatting away, I asked him quietly, "Are you a Christian, sir?" He turned quickly and looked at me with an odd, surprised expression in his eye and then turning his face away said: "Well, I'm a member of church, but—I don't believe I'm very much of a Christian." Then I looked at him and he frankly volunteered a little information. Not very much. He did not need to say much. You can see a large field through a chink in the fence. And I saw enough to let me know that he was right in the criticism he had made upon himself. We talked a bit and parted. But his remark set me to thinking.
A week later, in another town, speaking one morning to the students of a young ladies' seminary, I said afterwards to one of the teachers as we were talking: "I suppose your young women here are all Christians. "That same quizzical look came into her eye as she said: "I think they are all members of church, but I do not think they are all Christians with real power in their lives." There was that same odd distinction.
A few weeks later, in Kansas City visiting the medical and dental schools, I recall distinctly standing one morning in a disordered room—shavings on the floor, desks disarranged—the institution just moving into new quarters, and not yet settled. I was discussing with a member of the faculty, the dean I think, about how many the room would hold, how soon it would be ready, and so on—just a business talk, nothing more—when he turned to me rather abruptly, looking me full in the face, and said with quiet deliberation: "I'm a member of church; I think I am a deacon in our church"—running his hand through his hair meditatively, as though to refresh his memory—"but I am not very much of a Christian, sir." The smile that started to come to my face at the odd frankness of his remark was completely chased away by the distinct touch of pathos in both face and voice that seemed to speak of a hungry, unsatisfied heart within.
Perhaps it was a month or so later, in one of the mining towns down in the zinc belt of southwestern Missouri, I was to speak to a meeting of men. There were probably five or six hundred people gathered in a Methodist Church. They were strangers to me. I was in doubt what best to say to them. One dislikes to fire ammunition at people that are absent. So stepping down to a front pew where several ministers were seated, I asked one of them to run his eye over the house and tell me what sort of a congregation it was, so far as he knew them. He did so, and presently replied: "I think fully two thirds of these men are members of our churches"—and then, with that same quizzical, half-laughing look, he added, "but you know, sir, as well as I do, that not half of them are Christians worth counting." "Well," I said to myself, astonished, "this is a mining camp; this certainly is not anything like the condition of affairs in the country generally."
But that series of incidents, coming one after the other in such rapid succession, set me thinking intently about that strange distinction between being members of a church on the one hand, and on the other, living lives that count and tell and weigh for Jesus seven days in the week. I knew that ministers had been recognizing such a distinction, but to find it so freely acknowledged by folks in the pew was new, and surely significant.
And so I thought I would just ask the friends here today very frankly, "What kind of Christians are you?" Do not say what kind you are, for I am a stranger, and do not know, and would only think the best things of you. But I ask you frankly, honestly now, as I ask myself anew, what kind are you? Do you know? Because it makes such a difference. The Master's plan—and what a genius of a plan it is—is this, that the world should be won, not by the preachers—though we must have these men of God for teaching and leadership—but by every person who knows the story of Jesus telling someone, and telling not only with his lips earnestly and tactfully, but even more, telling with his life! That is the Master's campaign plan for this world. And it makes a great difference to Him and to the world outside whether you and I are living the story of His love and power among men or not.
Do you know what kind of a Christian you are? There are at least three others that do. First of all there is Satan. He knows. Many of our church officers are skilled in gathering and compiling statistics, but they cannot hold a tallow-dip to Satan in this matter of exact information. He is the ablest of all statisticians, second only to one other. He keeps careful record of every one of us, and knows just how far we are interfering with his plans. He knows that some of us—good, respectable people, as common reckoning goes—neither help God nor hinder Satan. Does that sound rather hard? But is it not true? He has no objection to such people being counted in as Christians. Indeed, he rather prefers to have it so. Their presence inside the church circle helps him mightily. He knows what kind of a Christian you are. Do you know?
Then there is the great outer circle of non-Christian people—they know. Many of them are poorly informed regarding the Christian life; hungry for something they have not, and know not just what it is; with high ideals, though vague, of what a Christian life should be. And they look eagerly to us for what they have thought we had, and are so often keenly disappointed that our ideals, our life, is so much like others who profess nothing. And when here and there they meet one whose acts are dominated by a pure, high spirit, whose faces reflect a sweet radiance amid all circumstances, and whose lives send out a rare fragrance of gladness and kindliness and controlling peace, they are quick to recognize that, to them intangible but something that makes such people different. The world—tired, hungry, keen and critical of mere sham and appreciative of the real thing—the world knows what kind of Christians we are. Do we know?
There is a third one watching us today with intense interest. The Lord Jesus! Sitting up yonder in glory, with the scar-marks of earth on face and form, looking eagerly down upon us who stand for Him in the world that crucified Him—He knows. I imagine Him saying, "There is that one down there whom I died for, who bears my name; if I had control of that life what power I would gladly breathe in and out of it, but he is so absorbed in other things." The Master is thinking about you, studying your life, longing to carry out His plan if He could only get permission, and sorely disappointed in many of us. He knows. Do you know?
The Night Visitor.
After that trip I became much interested in discovering in John's Gospel some striking pictorial illustrations of these two kinds of Christians, namely, those who have power in their lives for Jesus Christ and those who have not. Let me speak of only a few of these. The first is sketched briefly in the third chapter, with added touches in the seventh and nineteenth chapters. There is a little descriptive phrase used each time—"the man who came to Jesus by night." That comes to be in John's mind the most graphic and sure way of identifying this man. A good deal of criticism, chiefly among the upper classes, had already been aroused by Jesus' acts and words. This man Nicodemus clearly was deeply impressed by the young preacher from up in Galilee. He wants to find out more of him. But he shrank back from exposing himself to criticism by these influential people for his possible friendship with the young radical, as Jesus was regarded. So one day he waits until the friendly shadows will conceal his identity, and slipping quietly along the streets, close up to the houses so as to insure his purpose of not being recognized, he goes up yonder side street where Jesus has lodgings. He knocks timidly. "Does the preacher from up the north way stop here?" "Yes!" "Could I see him?" He steps in and spends an evening in earnest conversation. I think we will all readily agree that Nicodemus believed Jesus after that night's interview, however he may have failed to understand all He said. Yes, we can say much more—he loved Him. For after the cruel crucifixion it is this man that brings a box of very precious spices, weighing as much as a hundred pounds, worth, without question, a large sum of money, with which to embalm the dead body of his friend. Ah! he loved Him. No one may question that.
But turn now to the seventh chapter of John. There is being held a special session of the Jewish Senate in Jerusalem for the express purpose of determining how to silence Jesus—to get rid of Him. This man is a member of that body, and is present. Yonder he sits with the others, listening while his friend Jesus is being discussed and His removal—by force if need be—is being plotted. What does he do? What would you expect of a friend of Jesus under such circumstances? I wonder what you and I would have done? I wonder what we do? Does he say modestly, but plainly, "I spent a whole evening with this man, questioning Him, talking with Him, listening to Him. I feel quite sure that He is our promised Messiah; and I have decided to accept Him as such." Did he say that? That would have been the simple truth. But such a remark plainly would have aroused a storm of criticism, and he dreaded that. Yet he felt that something should be said. So, lawyer-like, he puts the case abstractly. "Hmm—does our law judge a man without giving him a fair hearing?" That sounds fair, though it does seem rather feeble in the face of their determined opposition. But near by sits a burly Pharisee, who turns sharply around and, glaring savagely at Nicodemus, says sneeringly: "Who are you? Do you come from Galilee, too? Look and see! No prophet comes out of Galilee"—with intensest contempt in the tone with which he pronounces the word Galilee. And poor Nicodemus seems to shrink back to half his former size, and has not another word to say, though all the facts, easily ascertainable, were upon his side of the case. He loved Jesus without doubt, but he had no power for Him among men because of his timidity. Shall I use a plainer, though uglier, word: Cowardice? That is not a pleasant word to apply to a man. But is it not the true word here? He was so afraid of what they would think and say. Is that the sort of Christian you are? Believing Jesus, trusting Him, saved by Him, loving Him, but shrinking back from speaking out for Him, tactfully, plainly, when opportunity presents or can be made. A Christian, but without positive power for Him among men because of cowardice!
I can scarcely imagine Nicodemus walking down the street in Jerusalem, arm in arm with another Pharisee—member of the Sanhedrin and saying to him quietly, but earnestly: "Have you had a talk with this young man Jesus?" "No, indeed, I have not!" "Well, do you know, I spent an evening with Him down at His stopping place, and had a long, careful talk with Him. I am quite satisfied that He is our long-looked-for leader; I have decided to give Him my personal allegiance; won't you get personally acquainted with Him? He is a wonderful man." I say I have difficulty in thinking that this man worked for Jesus like that. And yet what more natural and proper, both for him and for us? And what a difference it might have made in many a man's life. Powerless for Jesus because of timidity! Is that the kind you are? Possibly someone thinks that rather hard on this man. Maybe you are thinking of that other member of the Sanhedrin —Joseph of Arimathea—who was also a follower of Jesus, and that quite possibly he may have been influenced by Nidocemus. Let us suppose, for Nicodemus' sake, that this is so, and then mark the brief record of this man Joseph in John's account: "A disciple secretly for fear of the Jews." If we may fairly presume that it was Nicodemus' influence that led his friend Joseph to follow Jesus, yet he had led him no nearer than he himself had gone. He could lead him no higher or nearer than that.
John in his gospel makes plain the fact that Jesus suffered much from these secret, timid, cowardly disciples whose fear of men gripped them as in a vise. Five times he makes special mention of these people who believed Jesus, but cravenly feared to line up with Him. (1 John 3:1; 7:50; 12:42; 9:28; 19:38, 39) He even says that many of the rulers—the very class that plotted and voted His death—believed Jesus, but that fear of the others shut their lips and drove them into the shadow when they could have helped Him most. These people seem to have left numerous descendants, many of whom continue with us unto this day.
Tightly Tied Up:
Turn now to the eleventh chapter and you will find another pictorial suggestion of this same sort of powerless Christian, though in this instance made so by another reason. It is the Bethany Chapter, the Lazarus Chapter. The scene is just out of Bethany village. There is a man lying dead in the cave yonder. Here stands Jesus. There are the disciples, and Martha, and Mary, and the villagers, and a crowd from Jerusalem. The Master is speaking. His voice rings out clear and commanding—"Lazarus, come forth"—speaking to a dead man. And the simple record runs, "He that was dead"—life comes between those two lines of the record—"came forth, bound hand and foot with grave clothes, and his face was bound about with a napkin." Will you please take a look at Lazarus as he steps from the tomb? Do you think his eyes are dull, or his cheeks hollow and pale? I think not! When Jesus, the Lord of life, gives life, either physical or spiritual, He gives abundant life: That face may have been a bit spare. There had been no food for at least four days and likely longer. But there is the flash of health in his eye and the ruddy hue of good blood in his cheek. He has life. But look closer. He is bound hand and foot and face. He can neither walk nor work nor speak.
I have met some Christian people who reminded me forcibly of that scene. They are Christians. The Master has spoken life, and they have responded to His word. But they are so tied up with the grave-clothes of the old life that there can be none of the power of free action in life or service. May I ask you very kindly, but very plainly, are you like that? Is that the reason you have so little power with God, and for God? Perhaps some one would say, "Just what do you mean?" I mean this: that there may be some personal habit of yours, or perhaps some society custom which you practice, or it may be some business method, or possibly an old friendship which you have carried over into the new life from the old that is seriously hindering your Christian life. It may be something that goes into your mouth or comes out of it that prevents those lips speaking for the Master. Perhaps it is some organization you belong to. If there is lack of freedom and power for Christ you may be sure there is something that is blighting your life and dwarfing your usefulness. It may possibly be that on a practical basis in your daily life you are exerting no more power for God than a dead man; a Christian, indeed, but without power because of compromise with something questionable or outrightly wrong. Is that so with you? I do not say it is, for I do not know. But you know. The hungry, critical world knows. Subtle, keen Satan knows. The Lord Jesus knows. Do you know if that describes you? You may know with certainty within twenty-four hours if you wish to and will to. May we be willing to have the Spirit's searchlight turned in upon us tonight.
The Master's Meal.
There is another kind of Christian, an utterly different kind, spoken of and illustrated in this same Gospel of John, and I doubt not many of them also are here. It is Jesus' ideal of what a Christian should be. Have you sometimes wished you could have a few minutes of quiet talk with Jesus? I mean face to face, as two of us might sit and talk together. You have thought you would ask Him to say very simply and plainly just what He expects of you. Well, I believe He would answer in words something like those of this seventh chapter of John. It was at the time of Feast of Tabernacles. There was a vast multitude of Jews there from all parts of the world. It was like an immense convention, but larger than any convention we know. The people were not entertained in the homes, but lived for seven days in leafy booths made of branches of trees. It was the last day of the feast. There was a large concourse of people gathered in one of the temple areas; not women, but men; not sitting, but standing. Up yonder stand the priests, pouring water out of large jars, to symbolize the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the nation of Israel. Just then Jesus speaks, and amid the silence of the intently watching throng His voice rings out: "If any man thirst let him come unto Me and drink; he that believeth on Me, as the Scripture saith, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water." Mark that significant closing clause. That packs into a sentence Jesus' ideal of what a true Christian down in this world should be, and may be. Every word is full of meaning.
The heart of the sentence is in the last word "water." Water is an essential of life. Absence of water means suffering and sickness, dearth and death. Plenty of good water means life. All the history of the world clusters about the water courses. Study the history of the rivers, the seashores, and lake edges, and you know the history of the earth. Those men who heard Jesus speak would instinctively think of the Jordan. It was their river. Travelers say that no valley exceeded in beauty and fruitfulness that valley of the Jordan, made so by those swift waters. No hillside so fair in their green beauty, nor so wealthy in heavy loads of fruit as those sloping down to the edge of that stream. Now Jesus is plainly talking of something that may, through us, exert as decided an influence upon the lives of those we touch as water has exerted, and still exerts, on the history of the earth, and as this Jordan did in that wonderful, historic Palestine. Mark the quantity of water—"rivers." Not a Jordan merely, that would be wonderful enough, but Jordans—as Jordan, and a Nile, and a Euphrates, a Yang Tse Kiang, and an Olga and a Rhine, a Seine and a Thames, and a Hudson and an Ohio—"rivers." Notice, too, the kind of water. Like this racing, turbulent, muddy Jordan? No, no! "Rivers of living water," "water of life, clear as crystal." You remember in Ezekiel's vision which we read together that the waters constantly increased in depth, and that everywhere they went there was healing, and abundant life, and prosperity, and beauty, and food, and a continual harvest the year round, and all because of the waters of the river. They were veritable waters of life.
Now mark that little, but very significant, phrase "Out of"‚—not into, but "out of." All the difference in the lives of men lies in the difference between these two expressions. "Into" is the world's preposition. Every stream turns in; and that means a dead sea. Many a man's life is simply the coast line of a dead sea. "Out of" is the Master's word. His thought is of others. The stream must flow in, and must flow through, if it is to flow out, but it is judged by its direction, and Jesus would turn it outward. There must be good connections upward, and a clear channel inward, but the objective point is outward toward a parched earth. But before it can flow out it must fill up. An outflow in this case means an overflow. There must be a flooding inside before there can be a flowing out. And let the fact be carefully marked that it is only the overflow from the fullness within our own lives that brings refreshing to anyone else. A man praying at a conference in England for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit said: "Oh Lord, we can't hold much, but we can overflow lots." That is exactly the Master's thought. "Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water."
Do you remember that phrase in the third chapter of Joshua—"For Jordan overfloweth all its banks all the time of harvest." When there was a flood in the river, there was a harvest in the land. Has there been a harvest in your life? A harvest of the fruit of the spirit—love, joy, peace, long-suffering; a harvest of souls? "No," do you say, "not much of a harvest, I am afraid," or it may be your heart says "none at all." Is it hard to tell why? Has there been a flood-tide in your heart, a filling up from above until the blessed stream had to find an outlet somewhere, and produce a harvest? A harvest outside means a rising of the tide inside. A flooding of the heart always brings a harvest in the life. A few years ago there were great floods in the southern states, and the cotton and corn crops following were unprecedented. Paul reminded his Roman friends that when the Holy Spirit has free swing in the life "the love of God floods our hearts." (Rom. 5:5)
Please notice, too, the source of the stream—"out of his belly." Will you observe for a moment the rhetorical figure here? I used to suppose it meant "out of his heart." The ancients, you remember, thought the heart lay down in the abdominal region. But you will find that this book is very exact in its use of words. The blood is the life. The heart pumps, but the stomach makes it. The seat of life is not in the heart, but in the stomach. If you will take down a book of physiology, and find the chart showing the circulation of the blood, you will see a wonderful network of lines spreading out in every direction, but all running, through lighter lines into heavier, and still blacker, until every line converges in the great stomach artery. And everywhere the blood goes there is life. Now turn to a book of physical geography and get a map showing the water system of some great valley like the Mississippi, and you will find a striking reproduction of the other chart. And if you will shut your eyes and imagine the reality back of that chart, you will see hundreds of cool, clear springs flowing successively into runs, brooks, creeks, larger streams, river branches, rivers, and finally into the great river—the reservoir of all. And everywhere the waters go there is life. The only difference between these two streams of life is in the direction. The blood flows from the largest toward the smallest; the water flows from the smallest toward the largest. Both bring life with its accompaniments of beauty and vigor and fruitfulness. There is Jesus' picture of the Christian down in the world. As the red stream flows out from the stomach, and, propelled by the force-pump of the heart through a marvelous network of minute rivers, takes life to every part of the body, so "he that believeth on Me"—that is the vital connecting link with the great origin of this stream of life—out of the very source of life within him shall go a flood-tide of life, bringing refreshing, and cleansing, and beauty, and vigor everywhere within the circle of his life, even though, like the red streams and the water streams, he be unconscious of it.
An Unlikely Channel.
What a marvelous conception of the power of life! How strikingly it describes Jesus' own earthly life. But there is something more marvelous still—He means that ideal to become real in you, my friend, and in me. I doubt not there are some here whose eager hearts are hungry for just such a life, but who are tremblingly conscious of their own weakness. Your thoughts are saying: "I wish I could live such a life, but certainly this is not for, this man talking doesn't know me—no special talent or opportunity; such strong tides of temptation that sweep me clean off my feet—not for me." Ah, my friend, I verily believe you are the very one the Master had in mind, for He had John put into his gospel a living illustration of this ideal of His that goes down to the very edge of human unlikeliness and inability. He goes down to the lowest so as to include all. What proved true in this case may prove true with you, and much more. The story is in the fourth chapter. It is a sort of advance page of the Book of Acts. A sample of the power of Pentecost—before the day of Pentecost. You and I live on the flood-side of Pentecost. This illustration belongs back where the streams had only just commenced trickling. It is a miniature. You and I furnish the life-size if we will.
It is the story of a woman; not a man, but a woman. One of the weaker sex, so called. She was ignorant, prejudiced, and without social standing. She was a woman of no reputation. Aye, worse than that, of bad reputation. She probably had less moral influence in her town than any one here has in his circle. Could a more unlikely person have been used? But she came in touch with the Lord Jesus. She yielded herself to that touch. There lies the secret of what follows. That contact radically changed her. She went back to her village and commenced speaking about Jesus to those she knew. She could not preach; she simply told plainly and earnestly what she knew and believed about Him. And the result is startling. There are hundreds of ministers who are earnestly longing for what came so easily to her. What modern people call a revival began at once. We are told in the simple language of the Gospel record that "many believed on Him because of the word of the woman." They had not seen Jesus yet. He was up by the well. They were down in the village. She was an ignorant woman, of formerly sinful life. But there is the record of the wonderful result of her simple witnessing—they believed on Jesus because of the word of that woman. There is only one way to account for such results. Only the Holy Spirit speaking through her lips could have produced them. She had commenced drinking of the living water of which Jesus had been talking to her, and now already the rivers were flowing out to others.
What Jesus did with her, He longs to do with you, and far more, if you will let Him; though his plan for using you may be utterly different from the one He had for her, and so the particular results may differ too. Now let me ask very frankly why do we not have such power for our Master as she? The Master's plan is plain. He said: "Ye shall have power." But so many of us do not have power! Why not? Well, possibly some of us are like Nicodemus—there is no power because of timidity, cowardice, fear of what they will think, or say. Possibly some of us are in the same condition spiritually that Lazarus was in physically; we are tied up tight—hands and feet and face. Some sin. some compromise, some hushing of that inner voice, something wrong. Some little thing, you may say. Humph! as though anything could be little that is wrong! Sin is never little!
A Clogged Channel.
Out in Colorado they tell of a little town nestled down at the foot of some hills—a sleepy-hollow village. You remember the rainfall is very slight out there, and they depend much upon irrigation. But some enterprising citizens ran a pipe up the hills to a lake of clear, sweet water. As a result the town enjoyed a bountiful supply of water the year round without being dependent upon the doubtful rainfall. And the population increased and the place had quite a western boom. One morning the housewives turned the water spigots, but no water came. There was some sputtering. There is apt to be noise when there is nothing else. The men climbed the hill. There was the lake full as ever. They examined around the pipes as well as possible, but could find no break. Try as they might, they could find no cause for the stoppage. And as days grew into weeks, people commenced moving away again, the grass grew in the streets, and the prosperous town was going back to its old sleepy condition when one day one of the town officials received a note. It was poorly written, with bad spelling and grammar, but he never cared less about writing or grammar than just then. It said in effect: "Ef you'll jes pull the plug out of the pipe about eight inches from the top you'll get all the water you want." Up they started for the top of the hill, and examining the pipe, found the plug which some vicious tramp had inserted. Not a very big plug, just big enough to fill the pipe. It is surprising how large a reservoir of water can be held back by how small a plug. Out came the plug; down came the water freely; by and by back came prosperity again.
Why is there such a lack of power in our lives? The reservoir up yonder is full to overflowing, with clear, sweet, life-giving water. And here all around us the earth is so dry, so thirsty, cracked open, huge cracks like dumb mouths asking mutely for what we should give. And the connecting pipes between the reservoir above and the parched plain below are there. Why then do not the refreshing waters come rushing down? The answer is very plain. You know why. There is a plug in the pipe. Something in us is clogging up the channel and nothing can get through. How shall we have power, abundant, life-giving, sweetening our own lives, and changing those we touch? The answer is easy for me to give—it will be much harder for us all to do—pull out the plug. Get out the thing that you know is hindering!
I am going to ask every one who will, to offer this simple prayer—and I am sure every thoughtful, earnest man and woman here will. Just bow your head and quietly under your breath say to Him: "Lord Jesus, show me what there is in my life that is displeasing to Thee; what there is Thou wouldst change." You may be sure He will. He is faithful. He will put His finger on that tender spot very surely. Then add a second clause to that prayer—"By Thy grace helping me, I will put it out whatever it may cost, or wherever it may cut." Shall we bow our heads and offer that prayer, and hew close to that line, steadily, faithfully? It will open up a life of marvelous blessing undreamed of for you and everyone you touch.
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