Archibald G. Brown, March 14th, 1869, Stepney Green Tabernacle
"Our friend Lazarus sleeps." John 11:11
Sorrow had visited yonder cottage in the village of Bethany, for the beloved brother Lazarus had been stricken with sickness. His two sisters, Mary and Martha by name, loved him well — but they knew also that they were not the only ones by whom their brother was beloved; so they sent word immediately to Jesus saying, "Lord, behold, he whom you love is sick!" John 11.3. We would have supposed that as soon as such a message reached our Divine Master, he would have hurried to Bethany, and with loving hand arrested the sickness in its course. But no, "his ways are not as our ways, nor his thoughts as our thoughts," for when he heard the tale of grief "he stayed two days in the same place."
What weary days those must have been to the weeping sisters. I can imagine I hear Mary saying, "I am sure he does love him," and Martha answering, "I know he does," and they looked one on the other, while their hearts asked the question their lips refused to utter. "If he loves him, then why does he so delay?" And now their brother grows worse rapidly, and it is evident to them, the end is near. The last breath is drawn, the last sigh heaved, the eyes become glazed, and mournfully they say, "He is gone!"
The grave receives the much loved dust, and all hope is extinguished in the sisters' breasts. But where is Jesus? Has he forgotten his friend? Is he ignorant of all that has passed? No, he is only waiting to be gracious, for he is now saying to his disciples, "Our friend Lazarus sleeps; but I go that I may awake him out of sleep."
On the road he is met first by one sister, and then by the other; the language of both was the same: "Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died." This was their belief — but it was our Lord's purpose that his friend should taste of death, that no support should be forthcoming before the end had been reached; for he had determined to glorify himself, not in checking a disease — which might be attributed by the multitude to merely human skill in medicine — but in raising the dead to life, the prerogative of God alone.
It is our purpose this evening to dwell upon the words of our Lord to his disciples, "Our friend Lazarus sleeps." We will also take the liberty of leaving out the word "Lazarus," as it is true of all and every saint that dies, that he only sleeps. As a church we have just suffered a great loss in the death of our beloved brother George Starling. One of the holiest of our number has been struck down. One of the beloved of the Lord has been removed from earth to Heaven. Our friend George Starling sleeps. But before we look at the text as specially applicable to him, let us by God's help meditate on a few of the sweet things suggested by its words.
We have first — a sweet relationship declared, "Our friend."
Secondly — a solemn fact suggested, Christ's friends die.
Thirdly — a cheering description given, "Our friend sleeps."
I.We have then in this evening's text, A Sweet Relationship Declared, "Our friend."
Behold here a wondrous condescension. Our Lord does not turn to his disciples and say, "Your friend sleeps," but he places himself side by side with them in their affection and he says, "Our friend." I confess that when in my study I read this verse slowly over, I dwelt with greatest joy on this word — lingered over it, and found that the more I did so, the sweeter it became. It seems to me to teach so sweetly, the blessed fact that Jesus is one with his people. It is equal to him saying, "Do you love him? So do I. Do you reckon Lazarus among your friends? So do I too. I am one with you in your griefs, one with you in your joys, and one with you in your friendships also."
Now as to many present here tonight who are believers in the Lord Jesus, I would say, "Beloved, you occupy this position. You are the friends of Jesus, and he willingly owns you as such."
Let us for a few minutes meditate upon the friendship Christ has to his children, and in doing so I would notice first, it is a real one. There is too much of superficial friendship abroad; plenty of the lip — but little of the heart. This is an age of shams; and among them, the most hideous of the lot, is that of miscalled friendship. I am afraid the friendships of the present day are more numerous — but less real than those of some years back. But the friendship that exists between Christ and his disciples is not one only of words: words of love he speaks, 'tis true, and sweet words they are — but their chief sweetness lies in the fact that every word of his lip has its deep echo in his heart.
It is also a friendship that is heartily reciprocated by the saint. In the love of a saint to his Savior, there is a blessed reality. Whoever else he may not love with all his heart, his Savior he must. Whatever else he may be in doubt about, he cannot doubt the fact that he loves Jesus. With Peter he cries, "You know all things, you know that I love you!" John 21.17
In this friendship, there are no secrets kept on either side. The old saying runs "whisperers separate chief friends;" but in close friendship nothing is hidden; so whispers have nothing to reveal. When Jesus says to anyone, "my friend," he declares a friendship that ignores all secret-keeping, for "the secret of the Lord is with those who fear him." Psalm 25.14.
He tells them the secrets of his love, the secrets of his sufferings for them, the secrets of the glory he has laid up for them. The sweet work of sanctification is learning about Jesus, and it is the Spirit's mission to take of the things of Christ and reveal them to us.
So it is with us who are his beloved; we cannot even if we would, and we would not if we could, hide anything from him. If there is a secret sin in the heart, if there is a fall in the life, O bear me witness, saints of God, there is no peace for us until, like the woman of old, we have "told him all." Mark 5.33. Heavy burdens roll off the soul, and sweet ease flows into it by telling Jesus everything.
Are we bowed down by sorrow, or sore pressed by affliction? We can only find relief in the same way the early disciples did: "they went and told Jesus." Mat 14.12. And oh, how sweet it is in silent moments just to tell him that in the secret depths of our heart, we love him. That is true communion, when Christ tells his secrets to his disciples — and the disciples in return confide their all to him.
Jesus shows his friendship by helping in time of need. You may think, my hearer, that you have many friends willing to help you; doubtless you have, as you are not now in need of any help. But wait until you require it, and you will find the only time to count how many friends you have, is when you need them; and then generally it is no difficult matter to count them because of their multitude.
Doubtless in the crowd here tonight there are some hearts which know the bitterness of finding out that those whom they supposed would be most firm and true in the hour of trial, become as nothing. "A friend in need, is a friend indeed." And when Jesus says of anyone "my friend," he shows his friendship by a thousand loving proofs. Never is Christ's friendship so sweetly shown, as when we need it the most.
Moreover, if a person says to me, "my friend," I naturally expect he will show his friendship by calling in to see me. Just so, sweet are the love visits that Jesus pays to his friends. How can they be described? Have you not thought at times, perhaps when depressed or in sickness, "surely such a one will call on me and help to wile away the tedium of the day." What a thrill of joy you experienced when the well-known knock sounded, and the familiar voice and step were heard upon the stairs. But the sweetest knock I know of, is that of Him who says to his church, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any man hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and sup with him, and he with me." Rev 3.20.
Yes, Jesus calls on his friends; he comes to them in their loneliness; and when no one else is near, he talks so sweetly that the time flies, and we are compelled to say, "It is good to be alone with no one else but you." Like the disciples journeying to Emmaus, we forget the distance while he talks with us by the way, and makes our hearts burn within us.
That disciple will little know the sweets of the religion of Jesus, who seldom knows what it is to hear his Lord's knock, and who seldom sups with his beloved in closest fellowship.
Jesus is never ashamed of his friends. Once he has said, "my friend," he never retracts the sentence. There are many butterfly friends fluttering around us all. They are seen in the summer of prosperity — but conspicuous by their absence in the winter of adversity. When the sun shone on you, you could hardly count them for their number; but when matters changed with you, you could hardly count them at all. Once you went out, and everybody seemed to know you; but now if you walk along the street your old acquaintances all seem to be stricken with a sudden short-sightedness; you are brushed passed by the very ones who used to be the foremost in greeting you. Most of them would be ashamed to be seen walking with you for half a mile; such, alas! are some of the paltry friendships of this world.
But if Jesus says, "My friend," he will stand by me in times of poverty as well as wealth. He will stand by me when the world derides, and when all others forsake. He is "a friend that sticks closer than a brother." Pro 18.24
One more thought before I close this first point, and that is the friendship of Jesus lasts forever. The sweeter the friendship — the more terrible the blow that severs it. But severed it must be at last. Where are many of our friendships on earth now? Who among us cannot look back and recall to memory well-loved faces that have been hidden from our eyes for years, and will remain so until the trumpet of the resurrection morning.
In the experience of some, the holiest tie on earth has been snapped. "Until death do us part" has become a reality, and the memory of a happy past is all that now remains of marriage love.
Parents have seen their rosebuds wither in the home — and bosom friends have been torn away by the ruthless hand of death. I have little doubt that in tonight's congregation, a thousand broken friendships are represented. But the friendship that exists between Jesus and his beloved one can never be broken. Let my soul but hear him say, "my friend;" let him but whisper in my ear that I am among the happy number he calls his friends — then let come what may, in sickness and pain, he will stand by my side and only come nearer as my body grows weaker.
In the last struggle, when I gasp for every breath, when earth with all its glitter recedes; when the clammy sweat stands in beaded drops upon my brow, even then, although deaf to all other sounds, my ear will hear his sweet voice say, "My friend, my friend!" And when death has conquered, and only cold clay remains, then will those loving lips declare "our friend sleeps," for "precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of the righteous." Psalm 116.15
Surely then we may say that in this evening's text we have a sweet relationship acknowledged: "Our friend."
II.In the second place and more briefly, we have A solemn fact suggested. Christ's friends die. The friendship of Christ does not exempt from death. This death-reaper spares none. Death does not ask whether the shock of corn is ripe for glory — or is as yet green, and unprepared for the sickle. He does not ask whether his victim is a child of God — or one of the world's devotees. This mower does not hold back his scythe because the one who comes before his sweep happens to be one of the chief supports of the church, or one of its brightest members. Death's arm is not paralyzed because yonder one is a friend of Jesus. All alike are laid low — the friend, and the foe of the Savior; the lily of the valley — and the thistle of the wilderness; the prepared and the unready. Sin must have its punishment. The seed will bring forth its black fruit; and though in the believer sin is pardoned, yet it remains ingrained in his very nature. With but two exceptions, all the friends of Christ since the time of Abel downward, have had to die, and
"Ten thousand to their endless home
This solemn moment fly;
And we are to the margin come,
And we expect to die."
Christ permits his friends to die, in order to make manifest how completely he has conquered death. Suppose that instead of tasting death, all of Christ's friends were like Enoch translated into glory; might not death boast and say "Aha, they dare not meet me in the field. Their Lord is afraid to put his conquest to the test. 'Tis easy for them to say 'O death, where is your sting?' For they have never met me foot to foot in my own dark valley. 'Tis easy for them to assume the victory when they have been spared the fight."
Now the Lord will not have death so triumph, and therefore he declares, "My friends shall meet you, proud conqueror; in single combat they shall one by one make you bite the dust! Before my very weakest child, your boasted terrors shall fail — a thousand songs of triumph shall be sung by quivering lips; your absolute defeat shall be declared by every friend of mine that dies." Yes, friends of Jesus, unless your Lord comes again and receives you to his arms — die you must, to be another witness to his conquest over the last enemy.
Another reason why the friends of Jesus die, is that they may be brought into conformity with their Lord. It may seem strange to some of your ears — but I believe there are many here who would rather prefer to die than otherwise, in order that in everything they might be conformed to their Master. Doubtless, it will be an honor to be one of those upon the earth when Jesus comes, and "be caught up... to meet him in the air, and so be forever with the Lord;" 1 Thessalonians 4.17. But I take it to be a higher honor to die; to be conformed to Jesus in his death; to follow him to the grave. Certainly they will have precedence at the day of the Lord's second coming; for it is those who sleep in Jesus that shall rise first, and then afterwards those who are alive and remain shall be caught up.
That Christ's friends die is certain, for "our fathers, where are they?" Zechariah 1.5. Abraham, "the friend of God," was gathered to his people, and his dust deposited in the cave of Macpelah. Isaac and Jacob, and Daniel, and all the prophets have sunk into the grave; and the beloved disciple, who leaned his head on the Savior's bosom, had to die.
Are there not hundreds here this evening who have but to look at the family record in the old Bible to see the names of Jesus' friends who have long since fallen asleep in their Savior's arms?
Christ's friends may moreover be called to die very painful death. How general is the fallacy that an easy death is the sign of grace. How common the expression, "I am sure he is happy now, for he died very quietly." No greater mistake can be made than to suppose the nature of the death, is any indication of the state of the soul. Some of the most worldly die without any bands in their death; while on the other hand some of the most godly die the hardest deaths, accompanied with the most acute agony the human frame can bear.
Christ's apostles were favored with no easy deaths. Peter was crucified. James and Paul beheaded. And of the rest, scarcely one escaped martyrdom. How about the noble army of martyrs? Do you not think that Christ loved them, even when wrapped in flames? What was it that sustained the poor wretch upon the wreck — but the loving voice of Jesus whispering in his ear, "my friend." The case of our departed friend George Starling is a striking proof of the fact that Christ's friends may die painful death. I have seen scores of deaths, and stood by the death-bed of many a child of God and friend of Jesus — but I do not think I ever saw a more painful journey through the valley. I cannot remember ever having seen a sterner fight with death right up to the very last moment; and yet when our Savior looked down into that quiet ward in the Hospital, and beheld our brother convulsed with pain, he said, "Our friend, George Starling!"
III.We have in this text, a very cheering description. "Our friend sleeps." Not our friend is dead. How sweet is this description of death, and yet not more sweet than true. Those verses you sang just before the sermon were not only sweet poetry but precious truth.
"It is not death to die,
To leave this weary road,
And 'midst the brotherhood on high,
To be at home with God.
It is not death to close
The eye long dimmed by tears,
And wake in glorious repose
To spend eternal years!
Jesus, O prince of life!
Your chosen cannot die;
Like You, they conquer in the strife,
To reign with You on high!"
How pleasant is the idea of sleep. Let us try, and for a few minutes carry out the metaphor.
To sleep, there must be a place to rest. The weary tramp stretches himself upon the grass. The City Arab curls himself upon the step. The man of wealth reclines upon the downy bed. Where do Jesus' loved ones rest? Their bodies slumber in the tomb — but the emancipated soul is enfolded in his loving arms and on his warm bosom.
In sleep, there is a rest from pain. Have you not, when sitting by the sick bed, thanked God when sleep has closed the eyelids of the sufferer? The brow that was knitted with pain becomes smoothed; the hands clenched in agony relax; the groans are hushed. For a time pain is a forgotten thing.
"Our friend sleeps." There is rest from pain in death. When I received the telegram on Friday night, saying that our brother Starling was gone (for he died only a few moments after I left him) I could only say "thank God, the poor fellow is now free from his agony! The sufferer rests from his suffering."
In sleep, there is a rest from care. You may have been worried and careworn all day long. A leaden weight has pressed upon your spirit and anxious foreboding has filled your heart. But now sleep takes you in its arms, the mental strain departs — care for awhile at least is banished.
Just so, Jesus' friends forget their sorrows, when they fall asleep in Him. Did you ever watch a child sob itself to sleep? I often have. The little one cries as if it would break its tiny heart, and the big tears roll down its little cheeks. By-and-by the sobs become less frequent, the last tear glistens in the eye, and now it sleeps. A smile plays round about the lips. The rainbow has followed the storm. Just so, God's children often cry themselves to sleep — and awake in Heaven without a tear, for their God has wiped them all away.
Sleeping implies waking. We only lay ourselves down to sleep with the view of awaking refreshed; and it is the expectation of waking, that distinguishes sleep from death. Jesus only permits his friends to sleep, because he can insure their waking. He gives his beloved sleep, and he will arouse them when the morning of the resurrection day begins to dawn. The loved ones most of us have sleeping in their quiet tombs, are watched by their heavenly Friend with a solicitude beyond a mother's over a first born; and when he whispers in their ears, "Beloved, 'tis time for you to arise!" then the sleeping dust shall awake, beautiful, glorified, and with the dew of an eternal youth!
And now I want, as I said at the commencement of the sermon, to insert the words "George Starling." Yes, our friend; and I know there is not one present who knew our brother, who will not claim the word, "Our friend George Starling sleeps."
Most of you knew him, and all who did so must have loved him. I will not, this evening, pass a high flown eulogy upon him; there is no occasion for it, and I have but little sympathy with the practice. Nor am I preaching what is generally termed a funeral sermon; but I feel that when God permits us to witness a remarkable triumph over the last enemy, it is only right to give you the simple recital. Let me therefore, in a word or two, tell you a few facts about our sleeping friend.
Our dear brother prayed for the last time in this place six weeks ago tomorrow. Many of you will remember the prayer. It happened that Monday evening that it was much laid upon my heart that there were some present more than usually depressed in spirit. On looking over those present to see who to call on to pray, my eye fell on our dear brother, and something said, "ask him." I did, and requested him especially to remember the disconsolate and sorrowful in his prayer. He told me in the hospital, that he hardly knew how to pray that night, for only that day the physician had told him that there was no hope for him. That prayer will never be forgotten by many of us. There was a peculiar pathos about it, and no wonder; for the poor fellow was praying for himself.
Just after this he went down to Chatham, his native place, being desirous of speaking for Christ to some of his old friends there, before he was no more. He told me on his death-bed of the happy time he spent there; when too ill to stand, he sat in a chair and addressed those who used to listen to his words before he came to London.
Shortly after his return from Chatham, he entered the hospital, and it was there he triumphed. When I went to see him he was in the most excruciating agony. I will not attempt to describe it; it would but harrow your feelings, and do no good. Suffice it to say it was the greatest pain the human frame could bear. I said to him, "Well, brother and how is it with you in your soul now?" He gasped out, "He is precious — precious. O, he is precious; I cannot tell you how precious."
A few moments afterwards he added, "Dear Pastor. I only have one trial, and that is that my dear wife is not so happy as I am." For a moment or two I tried to rally him, and said, "perhaps you may be raised up again;" when, with a look that carried conviction with it he said, "Never; the Lord has told me I am going home!" and then turning to me he said at intervals in the most simple way, "Can you explain, Mr. Brown, how it is that I am so willing to die, for you know that I have every reason why I should desire to remain on earth? I am only twenty-six. I have a loving wife and a dear little girl, and everything to make me happy, and yet my desire is to depart. I really wish to die. Surely it is because I want to be with Christ which is far better."
The nurse of the ward said to me, "if ever there was a good man in the hospital, he is one, and he is so grateful for everything. I am sure I never do any little act of kindness for him — but in spite of all his pain, the smile comes upon his lip." I thanked God for that testimony.
A few days after, when sitting by his side, I talked to him of the joys of Heaven that were awaiting him; being unable to speak, he made signs for the slate to be given him, and slowly wrote "I have the pledge of Heaven within my heart already." The following day when there, I thought he was insensible, and I said to his wife, "What kind of a night has he passed?" She answered "a terrible one. He has been delirious most of its hours; but even in his delirium his thoughts have wandered to the best of things; for he has recovered his voice and sung a hymn right through." Our brother came around and said, "Did I really sing a hymn last night, darling? Which one was it?" She replied,
"Jesus the very thought of Thee,
With sweetness fills my breast;
But sweeter far your face to see,
And in your presence rest."
I could not help asking to what tune he sang it. He, motioning to his wife not to speak, said "I think I know which one it must have been, for I am so fond of it. Was it not this?" And to my surprise, summoning all his strength, he commenced singing the sweet song. Looking to his wife, he said, "Was that not it?" And she answered, '"Yes." At the close of this service we will sing this same hymn to the same tune. May the Lord help us to sing as sincerely as he did.
Just before he died he said to me, "You know, Pastor, it was always my desire to enter the ministry and be devoted to the Lord's work; but now I pray that I may be like Samson, and by my death slay more than by my life." It is in the hope that our brother's prayer may be answered, that I have told these simple but touching facts.
After the most intense agony, accompanied with joy truly astonishing, the Lord gave the sufferer rest on Friday evening. "Our friend, George Starling, sleeps." The Lord grant that when the summons comes to us, Jesus may say, "My friend;" and after death may it be truthfully recorded, "he only sleeps." The Lord grant it for his name sake. Amen.