A Sweet Echo!
Archibald G. Brown, January 2nd, 1870, Stepney Green
When You said, "Seek My face!" my heart said to You, "Your face, LORD, I will seek!" Psalm 27:8
I feel dear friends that I have this morning to perform one of the most difficult tasks possible; namely, to preach when there is no preaching power in me. I am at the present moment in intense pain, which, though chiefly concentrated in the head, seems to dart along every nerve of the body. It is with some degree of difficulty that I can even distinguish your faces as everything is at present in a wild whirl around me. What few thoughts I had collected together upon this lovely text, have broken away from my grasp, and like wild horses on a plain, seem to challenge capture. I therefore cast myself upon your generous sympathy and indulgence, and trust you will accept the words spoken in weakness, and the thoughts gathered together with difficulty, in the same spirit that led our Lord to make his kindly allowance for the unwatchful disciples, "the spirit indeed is willing — but the flesh is weak." Mat 26.41. Let us then get to the work.
One of the sweetest marvels of nature is "the echo" — one that, to the soul touched in any degree with poetic fire, must give birth to a thousand thoughts and reveries. An echo! It is nature's poetry that charms and captivates the mind, yet almost fills with fear. Well do I remember standing some years back upon a lone mountain-side — on every hand were giant peaks that towered up above, and seemed to frown on all beneath. Some were awful in their barrenness — their swelling lines unbroken by shrub or bush or tree — while others had their sloping sides mantled with a thousand pines. I was alone, and the solitude oppressed me — in vain I listened for sound of human footstep, singing bird, or bleating sheep. The silence was so intense, I thought I heard it. It seemed as if those monarch mountains had awed everything into the stillness of death. I tried to think of the ages they had reared their bald heads and darkening brows in one perpetual silence — save when the storm-cloud wreathed their shoulders and the thunder rolled amidst their crags — the thought oppressed me more than ever. For almost countless centuries these grand monuments of Divine Omnipotence had cast their dark shadow upon the narrow rocky ravine that lay below.
I felt as if the very silence would crush me, and under an irresistible impulse, rising from a fallen boulder on which I had been resting, I gave a shout. There was a moment's pause, and then those silent mountains found tongue. From side to side a very artillery was maintained. Echo awoke echo, and a second only gave birth to a third. The very pine trees seemed to nod their heads as they flung the echo back again.
The change was complete. I stood as one who had awakened a spirit he had no power to restrain. I felt as if my very presence there was an intrusion, and that the sleeping giants who had been awakened by my call, were challenging my right to their domains. From that moment to the present, I have held the echo to be one of the most glorious phenomena of nature.
But there is another echo, ungiven by nature, and unheard in mountain glen, which far more delights my soul — I mean the echo of the heart. The soul's response to the call of God — the grateful loving echo which the renewed heart gives to the call of its Lord. Far superior is the echo of grace to that of nature, for while nature repeats the words, grace answers them.
We have such an echo in this morning's text. The soul of the sweet singer of Israel had been dwelling in silence; when all at once the solitude is broken by a voice from Heaven. "Seek My face," rings into every nook and cleft of the psalmist's heart, and awakes his sleeping powers. There is but a moment's pause, and the echo is given back in tones that have reached right down the ages to the present time, "Your face, Lord, will I seek."
I think you will now have caught the thought we desire this morning to meditate upon, and may our Lord grant that while together musing upon it, there may be heard within the quiet of our breasts the still small voice of the Spirit calling us to seek a Father's face; and from this morning's gathering, may there resound a thousand echoes gathering volume as they roll.
Perhaps some may be led to ask, 'Why has this text been selected for a New Year's morning subject? Is there anything in it peculiarly suited to the occasion?' Yes, I think there is, and it is this: Throughout the year God will be calling us all by different voices to seek his face; every hour the call will be heard, and the happiness of the year will depend on the echo that the heart gives back. He who in answer to every call, whether by mercy or trial, seeks at once his Father's face, will have a happy year even in trouble; while he whose heart remains in sullen silence and heeds no calls of mercy, will dwell in gloom amid a year of plenty.
The subject divides itself naturally into two divisions, namely,
First, The Call.
Secondly, The Echo.
First then, The CALL. It is God's reminder to a soul absorbed in the business, care, and pleasures of this life, to seek God's face and favor amidst them all. And here let us make a frank confession which, unless I am greatly mistaken, will be the confession of every heart that knows anything of itself. 'It is a call that we often find difficult to hear.'
The illustration I employed in the introduction of the sermon when describing the text as an echo, fails altogether to describe the surroundings of the saint; for him there is no still quiet that renders the hearing of the faintest sound a certainty — but on the contrary, a very Babel of confused noises dins his ears. A thousand voices clamor for his attention, and it is often only by straining the ear that the still voice calling "upward" can be distinguished.
Business man present, do you not find it to be so? Has not the whirr of commerce often deafened you to everything else, and has its roar not drowned all softer but sweeter sounds? You have struggled to be "in the Spirit" during your hours of toil — but how hard a work you have found it to be. You have sighed to hear the voice that would raise you far above the maddening whirl of commercial life — but the sigh was one of disappointment, for the hoarse shouts of suicidal competition alone poured upon the ear. You were like a man in a vast machinery room, surrounded by a thousand revolving wheels and creaking straps, trying in vain to catch the words he knew his bosom friend was speaking.
It is one thing to hear the voice in the sanctuary — though that is not always easy — and another to hear it on the mart — in the exchange — behind the counter — at the desk — or in the docks. The world of business is no lone mountainside on which the faintest sound that floats upon the breeze not only may, but must be heard. It is the battlefield of life on which, to multitudes, rages a life-long fight with many a confused noise. It is one thing to be "calm in the closet's solitude," but it is quite another to be "calm in the bustling street."
Man of business, we recognize the difficulties of your position, and our sympathy is yours. But remember that the acknowledgment of the difficulty to hear the voice, in no way says it is impossible. Far from it. The ear rightly tuned will hear it clear as a silver bell ringing out its note above the surrounding Babel. Do not give way to despair and do let not your heart lose hope. Although difficult, it is possible, even in and over the clamor of business life to hear the call and give the echo.
But beside the noise of business life, there is that noise of many cares. This difficulty will be understood by many to whom the previous was unknown. All are not called to business — but all are called to care. The speaker confesses to often finding it hard to distinguish the voice of Heaven amid the many conflicting calls of care. He has found it is possible to be so engaged, even in the work of the Lord and His church, as to become over-absorbed, and permit its cares to break into the quiet of the soul.
There are others also here this morning who find it as difficult as any, at times to hear this call. I refer to the Mothers. Do you not find, dear friends, that domestic cares and duties often perplex and harass and so occupy your time, that you feel as if it were next to impossible for you to have the quiet of soul necessary to hear the voice of your Father inviting you to seek his face? "Yes," I think I hear you say, "it is too true; the little world of my own home so distracts me with its many calls, that I often fail to hear the call and give the echo."
In a word, beloved, every position and station of life has its difficulties; and the greatest difficulty in this noisy, busy, feverish world, is to always be listening to the voice, "seek my face."
But alas, there are some who have never yet heard it. How sad the thought that in this Sabbath morning's congregation, there are men and women whose hearts have never heard what to so many of us is sweeter melody than all earth's music. Ah, friend, you do not know what you lose.
Your mercies, received with scarcely a thought or gratitude, would have a tenfold greater sweetness if you were to see them as calls from a Father to seek his face. Your trials, which now seem to you like crushing loads, and under which you repine and fret, would lose half their weight and bitterness, if you could but read them as so many invites to turn from earth, and seek a closer intimacy with God.
Poor soul, deafened to all heavenly music by the noise and strife of life, my heart yearns over you, and my deepest thought concerning you is "would that this morning the still small voice might find its way within your breast, and awaken new and as yet unheard echoes."
This Call is one that is heard by God's saints in different degrees. All spiritual hearing is not equally acute. There are some who sit and sing,
"Oh, this is life! Oh, this is joy,
My God, to find You so;
Your face to see, your voice to hear,
And all your love to know."
While others by their side can distinguish nothing but the roar of an outside world. There are some naturally calm and contemplative spirits that "dwell with Mary at the Master's feet," and who seem enabled to detect in every providence a call to a higher life; while there are others just as anxious to hear their shepherd's voice, and yet are ever troubled about much service, and the very clatter of whose preparations fills their ear to the exclusion of their Savior's word.
The most spiritual mind is that which is most prepared to hear at all times the sweet call of the text. And he is the most spiritually-minded Christian present, who most hears and sees in all and everything an invite to a closer fellowship.
Let us now look at a few different instrumentalities by which our Lord calls us to seek His face.
1. He calls us by HIS WORD. Let us turn to memory, and see if we have not often found it so. Have there not been times with us all when the world upon which we have professed to turn our backs, has gained an extra power over us. Its glitter attracted us — its wealth allured us — and for a moment we were almost tempted to think we had made a hard bargain in giving it up. We needed something to recall us to ourselves and to our Lord; and we found that something in the Word. How that text, "What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul," tore off the tinsel and stripped the world of its charms, and made us seek his face to find our joys.
How often when we have been dragged downwards with thoughts of mammon and covetous desires, the word has come to our rescue and said with a voice that commanded attention, "Do not lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal — but lay up for yourselves treasures in Heaven" — and at that voice we were led to seek his face as our highest good.
Yes, the Bible is God's reminder to our naturally earthly souls, and in every chapter from Genesis to Revelation, there sounds the call to seek a Father's face. It is only as we read the Word as God's Word to us, that we obtain the sweetness it has to bestow.
It is recorded about that man of God — M'Cheyne — that to the very end of his life his family devotions were full of life and marvelous unction chiefly for this reason: that in his very manner of reading the chapter he reminded you of a man poring into the sands for pieces of fine gold, and from time to time holding up to you with delight what he had found. "One gem," he used to say, "from this ocean, is worth all the pebbles from earthly streams."
2. The call to seek His face is heard in the MEANS OF GRACE he has provided. The calm and quiet of the Sabbath day is a call heavenward. There is something about it that casts over the soul an unseen but felt influence as
"Composed and softened by the day
All things another aspect wear."
Who among us has not known the sweet experience of having all turbulent feelings hushed into serenity by the magic wand of the holy day. Often before coming into this great city to labor, I strolled out of the country town on a Sabbath afternoon, and under some spreading tree sat down to revel in the thoughts that spring from the associations of the day. The quiet rustle of the leaves overhead — the soothing sigh of the passing breeze as it glided through the boughs and kissed the cheek — the merry chirp of the bird as it flitted from the hedge row — and the bleat of the sheep scattered over the adjoining meadow — all these rural sounds seemed to me to blend in one sweet chorus of "seek my face!" And the very daisies, as they turned their sweet white faces to the sky; and the butter-cups, as they laughed in the golden light, seemed to write the same loving invite upon the velvet sward.
And even in this vast metropolis, bereft as it is of nature's voices, is there not something in the very cessation of its commercial toil, that quotes the text? Blessed Sabbath! God's gift to toiling man! In your quiet hours I hear my Savior's voice calling me to "Come and rest awhile!"
But above all, we are most loudly called by the voice of the "Mercy Seat." Ah, friends, who can rightly estimate the value of the privilege of prayer — a throne of grace that is always free! The glorious liberty of coming at all times, with a certainty of finding it a time when "You may be found." In times of sorrow — in hours of bereavement — in seasons of darkness and dismay — and in the confused noise of every day's life battle — there sounds forth from the "blood-stained mercy seat," the call to seek a face that is ever radiant with the smiles of unutterable love.
3. The call is heard in MANIFEST MERCIES. God's acts of loving-kindness towards us, are not to be received by us with scarcely a thought and buried in the deep grave of base ingratitude, without our learning from them any lesson, or hearing from them any voice.
His mercies are his most loving reminders of himself. They are golden fingers beckoning us to nearer fellowship with Heaven. A happy home — a loving wife — a frame buoyant with health — the comforts of life denied to multitudes of others; all these and a thousand other mercies enjoyed by many of us, call to us loudly to "seek the face" of him who freely bestows them all.
Believe me, friends, our mercies are often removed through our loving them too well, through our accepting their comfort — but refusing to obey their voice.
4. The call is often given by TRIALS. This point may, perhaps, come home more to the majority present than any of the previous ones. We are too prone to look upon our sorrows as tokens of Divine anger, instead of our Father's voice to us. There is just as much love (if we would always realize it) in God's rod as in His kisses. The troubles of life give the same identical call as what we term its mercies. I say, "what we term," because if it were not for our short-sightedness, we would see that our very bitterest sorrows ought to be placed in the catalogue of "Mercies."
Have you, friend, during the past year been called to pass through the cold waters of bereavement, loss and disappointment? They were but your God's voice saying to a soul he saw making earth too much its home, "Seek my face!" It may be so again with you this year. With all my heart I wish you a "happy year," yet I cannot dare to hope that it will be one free from all dark days. But this I do hope and pray, that with all of us every trial may be heard as a call "upward."
God often deals with us as a farmer did with a sheep that would not follow in the way he wanted. He took its little lamb away, and placing it on his shoulders, he walked along the road. It was quite sufficient; the bleat of the lamb drew as with unseen cords the mother after it. Our dearest loves and comforts are often taken by the "great shepherd" to lead us in His footsteps.
5. The call is heard by the influences of the Spirit. I feel that here I have a great difficulty in describing what I mean. The sweet working of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers is something too delicate to be portrayed in words. Let me, therefore, set forth the experience I mean by calling memory to do its work.
Can we not all remember how after some long season of spiritual drought, when the heavens above us have been as brass, there has come into our soul a fresh spring time. Previous to that we had found no blessing in anything. The Bible seemed to us a closed book, its verses and chapters yielded us no joy. Prayer itself had become almost a weariness, as time after time we rose from our knees as unrefreshed as when we bowed them, and even the very services of the sanctuary had lost their charm. When all at once, a something crept over our spirits that defies description. That something melted the heart that had so long been frost-bound. Tears began to flow — but more through joy than grief. The dead weight was slowly raised from our heart. We opened the word that had appeared so barren of comfort; and lo! every verse sparkled with heavenly dew. We knelt to pray, and instead of a stern unrefreshing duty, we found it to be bliss. We poured out our confessions and desires, and rose from the "Mercy Seat" new men.
What had worked to change so rapidly yet so completely? We could hardly say, except that in the quiet of the soul, amidst its gloom and spiritual desolation — there had sounded the voice "seek my face," and that voice had turned our winter into summer gladness.
II. The ECHO.Having listened to the many calls of God to seek his face, we will now lend an ear to the saint's response. What echo does his voice awaken? What returning cry does it give birth to? Listen!! "Your face, O Lord, will I seek."
The first thing we will notice about the echo is that it is one of the heart. "My heart said to You," etc. There are many who say it with the lip, who never mean it in the heart; and there are multitudes who say it by their actions, who never breathe it from their souls. A mere verbal echo — a parrot cry — is not what is described here. In such an echo there is no melody that God delights in. The truest formalist, whose soul and spirit are as dry as parchment, can utter the words though he is as ignorant as a post, of the experience he professes.
It is also quite possible to give an exceedingly loud echo by our actions, while the heart remains as silent as death. You may read the Word — utter the prayer — keep the Sabbath — attend the means of grace — and yet be a stranger to the Psalmist's feeling. Like a waxwork figure moved by machinery, you may nod, and smile, and lift up your hands, and yet not possess one iota more of life.
Let us here put the searching question to ourselves, "Does my heart say, "Your face, Lord, will I seek." All worship (so-called) in which the heart is lacking, is nothing less than a solemn mockery of God — a hideous sham, devoid of all profit to the performer — I dare not say worshiper — and it is an insult to the God before whom it is performed.
God grant that throughout the weeks and months of this year, the silence of our hearts may be broken by this oft-repeated response to our Father's call.
How has it been with us during the past year?
When the Word has called us, what answer have we given? Have we often gone to that blessed book to hear its voice — or is it a neglected volume, in the very dust of which that rests on its cover, our own shame might be written?
Have the ten thousand mercies we have received led us to closer communion, and called us to deeper consecration — or have their voices been lost in the caverns of an ungrateful heart?
Have our trials been purifying fires making the gold of our graces brighter reflectors of the refiner's face, or have we just 'put up' with them in stolid indifference, or murmured under them with a hardening heart?
These are important questions, for trials and mercies never leave us as they find us — but either mar or make our Christian life. What answer have we given to the call sounding from the means of grace? Has the response been heard in the sanctuary and prayer meeting — or do both testify against us and exclaim, "We called — but you refused?"
What obedience have we given to the sweet admonitions of the Spirit? Have we been quick to yield ourselves to their inspirations — or have we done our best to strangle them in their birth? Has the Holy Spirit been invited, or grieved? Courted or quenched? If one may speak in this matter for the many, there is cause for deepest humiliation on the part of all. The call has been ringing clear and often given — while this echo at best has been but faint and indistinct, and too often, alas, unheard!
I will now conclude this sermon by two or three words of practical advice, and the first is this:
Be ever listening to hear the voice. We often lose its melody by inattention and spiritual drowsiness. We permit the world to occupy so much of our attention, that in its conflicting cries we miss the voice which alone could make our heart rejoice. While engaged in life's busy world — enjoying daily mercies — bearing our appointed burdens — or taking part in the service of God's house — let us ever be straining the ear to catch, amid other sounds, the still small voice of love inviting us to seek His face. Happy is that man who is ever found thus striving to detect the call of Heaven in the providences of life. He shall hear whispers of love never heard by the unwatchful saint, and shall possess secret joys unknown to the inattentive soul.
The next word of loving advice is this: When you hear the call, give the echo at once. Do not delay one moment. Do not stay a minute; for in so doing you may lose a blessing. The echo delayed, may never be given. The sweet influences of the Spirit, trifled with, may die away.
Does something say to you, "seek my face in my Word," then take down the book and reply, "Your face, Lord, will I seek"? For perhaps, if resisting the desire, you say, "there will be time for that a few hours from now," when that time comes, the desire may have departed; the book will appear "sealed;" and a season of refreshing will have been lost.
Does the same voice within your soul say "pray," then pray at once. If you can, get away somewhere alone, and while the voice calls to prayer, pray. If unable to obtain solitude, then lift up the heart in quiet, for your God can read the desire of the heart.
But any way, do not delay to give the echo. The moment the sighing of the breeze is heard — set the sails; for if not, it may pass away and leave your soul like "a painted ship on a painted ocean." God alone knows what seasons of fellowship and happiness we lose by refraining from obeying the first impulses of the Spirit. It will indeed be a happy year, and one of spiritual growth, if in all our hearts, before the call has died away in silence, the echoes are awakened on every side. Let us close with this cheering thought.
The seeker shall never be disappointed. Listen to our Father's declaration, "I have never said to the seeking seed of Jacob: Seek my face in vain." Isaiah 45.19. Earnest seeker, you shall assuredly be a happy finder; and though at present your heart's echo seems to have awakened no other, yet persevere, and soon you shall hear the voice, "Behold my face!" God grant that the call and the echo and the result may abundantly be ours throughout this year of 1870.