Will He Come to the Feast?
Archibald G. Brown, June 6th, 1869, Stepney Green Tabernacle
"Then they sought Jesus, and spoke among themselves as they stood in the temple: What do you think — that He will not come to the feast?" John 11:56
Our Lord had just performed the wondrous miracle of raising his friend Lazarus from the tomb. Before an astonished group he had, with a word, called back the dead to life. At his command he who had been in the grave three days already, had come forth again to take his place in the loving family at Bethany. Such an act as this could not fail to be widely spoken about, and wield an immense influence in favor of Christ among the people.
Being conscious of this, the chief priests and Pharisees gathered a council together to take into consideration what was to be done under the circumstances, and how best they might counteract the influence which was spreading on every hand. After much deliberation they decided it was necessary that he should by some means be put to death; and from that day they took measures to carry their determination into action. Jesus knowing their purpose, and knowing also that his hour had not yet come, "Therefore Jesus no longer walked openly among the Jews, but went from there into the country near the wilderness, to a city called Ephraim, and there remained with His disciples."
While thus living in seclusion, the time for the Jews' Passover came round. From all parts of the country the male population flocked towards Jerusalem to purify themselves before the feast. It must have been a busy scene; fresh arrivals entering the holy city every minute, and all the roads and lanes dotted with the various groups, all wending their way in the same direction.
But though varied in appearance, and coming from different parts, it was evident to any observer that there was one matter paramount in the minds of all, and constituting the main theme of conversation along the road and in the temple. Had you been there, you would have heard one question asked on every hand. It was "do you think HE will come?" The little knots of people gathered in the streets — the groups in the temple — the travelers on the road — all were anxiously debating the same subject. "Will HE come to the feast? What do you think? And you?"
Who was it whose company was so anxiously desired? Who was it, the probability of whose coming seemed to absorb every mind? It was Jesus. The design of the Sanhedrin against his life, and the fact of his retirement from public, was doubtless known to most.
But the Passover was a special occasion, all males were obliged to be present; and the question was, "would HE come? Would he treat with contempt, the designs of his enemies? Would he, to rejoice the hearts of those who loved him, dare all and join them?"
These were the thoughts agitating the hearts of many. The question was doubtless asked from a variety of motives. Curiosity prompted it in many; the fame of Jesus had reached the town or village where they lived; they had heard of his power to heal the sick and raise to life the dead, and the miracle performed on Lazarus had been the talk of the place for weeks; they wished to see what he was like, who did such wondrous things. This they thought was their only opportunity; so anxiously they asked whether he had yet come; and when answered in the negative, they asked whether they thought he would come.
There were also some sullen, evil-eyed Pharisees, who gathered together in groups, argued the likelihood of his presence. Diabolical hatred and deep revenge gave them their concern; and as they laid their plans of blood, they often asked each other, "What do you think — that HE will not come to the feast?"
But in all probability the vast majority of those who asked the question did so because they felt a true desire to see him, and hear the words of his mouth. To be in his company was their chief inducement in journeying to Jerusalem.
True, they had come up from the country in obedience to law and universal custom — but still their feet trod the road all the more willingly because of the hope of seeing HIM. He was the object of attraction.
"Will HE come to the feast?" is ever the language of God's people in all their gatherings; and the motive that prompts the question is that of intense desire for his presence and company. Let us then this evening dwell upon the text, not as the language of the Jew at the Passover feast — but as the question of the saint in relation to every service.
We will dwell first on the question and different reasons for asking it;
secondly, we will give our answer and the reasons for it being such as it is;
thirdly, mention some signs indicative of his being at the feast;
and lastly, try and point out some ways to ensure his company.
1. First then, The Question.It was, "Will HE come?" They saw many others going up to the feast — but that sight did not satisfy them. On the road were relatives, friends, fellow townsmen, and numbers whom they knew by having often seen them on previous occasions. There was no lack of company, and no necessity for solitary traveling. Yet, despite the multitude surrounding them, the one question was, "will HE come?"
Believer in Jesus, is not such the case with you? You rejoice to see the multitudes flocking to houses of prayer; with David, you delight with them "to keep holiday," yet you feel that were all the world present and your Lord absent, your soul would only be filled with disappointment. It is a happy thing to come to the feasts of the Lord, surrounded by family and friends, and if HE is present, their company lends an extra charm. But how, if HE is absent? Can they supply his place? Ah, "No." Amidst a thousand equally as alone, you ask, "will HE come to the feast?" The goodness of a meeting can never be reckoned by its numbers.
A crowded church building may be full without Christ — and the room with only the "two or three" may be full with him. Numbers merely will never satisfy a saint. Nor will the respectability of those present. The best families in the land were doubtless represented in Jerusalem as well as the poorest. Yet their presence in no way lessened the desire for Christ's.
What a miserable mistake it is of the present day to suppose that the so-called respectability of a congregation constitutes in any way the prosperity of the Church, or the value of its services. The child of God will rejoice to see them brought under the sound of the gospel as he would any other sinners — but beyond that, their company gives him no pleasure; he can no more feast on respectability than on numbers. He wants Christ. He would sooner worship with the poorest and their Lord, than with the wealthiest without him. Christ's presence is to him simply indispensable, and no one else of any number of others can take his place.
Many of these Jews had come on purpose to see him. The journey had been undertaken with this expectation. Let them see ever such glorious sights, yet if they do not see HIM — they must return to their homes disappointed men and women, the one design of their coming being unfulfilled.
Say, child of God — has the expectation of meeting your Lord not been the sole motivating power that brought you here? Was the language of your heart, as you walked to the sanctuary — the same as that of the seeking Greeks, "we want to see Jesus?" Will this sanctuary be nothing better to you than a sepulcher, if you have to mourn an absent Christ? And surely, if there is one time more than another when we feel we must have the Lord's presence in order to be refreshed, it is when (in obedience to his command) we gather round the table to remember him in broken bread and outpoured wine, as so many of us hope to do this evening.
Yes, we have come here on purpose to see Jesus, and nothing short of the sight of his blessed face will satisfy our souls; with what deep anxiety therefore is the question being asked by many a heart, "What do you think — that HE will not come to the feast?"
There are many reasons prompting the question; but as we desire the service this evening to be brief, we can only dwell on one, and that is that we feel it will not be a feast at all if he does not come.
No true child of God can feast on externals. Without Christ, the feast is no better than a fast. Let there be everything else but Christ, and he only starves — but never feeds. Here is a touchstone whereby the true saint is discovered, and the formalist detected. The latter is satisfied with the temple — the people are the service. He never takes the trouble to seek Jesus or ask whether HE is at the feast or not. So long as the service is conducted in what he terms "the proper way" — so long as the form is decorous or showy as his taste inclines — so long as the ritual is duly observed, he is perfectly satisfied. He is a formalist — and the form suffices him.
Far different is it with the spiritual man; to him the form is of little value, and anything that serves to destroy the spirituality of the worship is looked upon by him with abhorrence. All his desire is to know whether Christ is present, and if so, whether he is communing with him; and all he dreads is lest anything should occupy the position that belongs to his Lord alone.
Let me illustrate what I mean by an anecdote. A Spanish artist was once employed to paint a picture of the "Last Supper." It was his chief desire to throw all his powers into the form and countenance of the Savior, so that HE alone might attract the gaze of the beholder. But it so happened that he put on the table in the foreground such exceedingly lovely cups, the workmanship of which was so beautiful, that when his friends came to see the picture in his studio, they all said "What beautiful cups they are." "How lovely." "You have indeed been most successful in them." Nothing was said about the Savior — but all about the cups.
"Ah!" he said, when they had all gone, "I have made a great mistake. I see that these cups attract the eyes of the spectator away from the Master whom I wanted to be the object of admiration." So he took his brush and rubbed them from the canvass.
Just so, will the believer willingly dispense with anything however good it may be in itself, if but for a moment it diverts his gaze from the person of his Savior. The formalist stops at the lovely cups; the true Christian at nothing short of his Lord. He will desire his Lord's presence moreover, because it is HIS being at the feast that gives him a spiritual appetite. Not only must Christ give us the food — but he must also give us the appetite to desire the food; and this is most necessary, for the very choicest of food is insipid to the taste, if the appetite is lacking.
Have we not often found by bitter experience, that it is possible not only to lack communion with Jesus — but to be in such a dull, indifferent state of soul as not to pant and hunger for it? But let Christ be at the feast, and spiritual desire will be aroused, and the first step towards being fed is to hunger. In order, therefore, to have a feast and the hunger to enjoy it, there is a need for Christ to be present.
To sum it all up in a sentence — Christ's company is the feast; let that be lacking, and it is only bitter mockery to call the most elaborate service by that name. For this reason, with far deeper anxiety than the Jew's, we ask, "what do you think, that HE will not come to the feast?"
This question was also asked, because they knew there were many reasons why he should stay away from the feast. The high priests were up in arms against him. The Sanhedrin had determined his death. There was danger in his showing himself openly among the people. It was the remembrance of these things more than anything else, which caused them to wonder whether he would come to the feast.
And, beloved, do we not know of many things sufficient to make us doubt whether he can come into our company? Has he lived in our warmest heart's affections? Do we not have to confess to a terrible amount of worldliness, coldness and indifference? Has there not been in all our hearts, sufficient coldness to make us question whether he can again give us a love-visit? Have we not often been ashamed of him — and blushed to speak his name — and refused to defend his cause when it has been assailed? Is it, I ask, any marvel that conscious as we all must be of having often denied him, we tremblingly put the question, "Will HE come to feast?
Have we not also been often absent from the feast when he has been present? Are there not some here who, although they desire to sit at his table this evening, cannot help but remember that through backsliding, they have long been absent from the feast? With what deep anxiety do you ask the question, "Lord, now that I am coming to the feast again, can't you condescend to meet me after I have been absent so long when you have been present?"
And are there not more of us who feel that although we may have constantly given our bodily presence — yet our hearts have been far away, occupied with a thousand other things than communion with our Lord? And our hearts this evening feel that if he were to deny his company now that we desire it, it would only be perfect justice.
There is yet another cause sufficient to make us wonder whether he can come to the feast — and it is the many vows we have made at former feasts, and broken. What resolves we have made when sitting at his table on former occasions. What lives we meant to lead. To what heights of spiritual-mindedness we determined to rise. What lives of thorough consecration we vowed to live. How we wept over past coldness, and resolved that our future career would be a very contrast to the past.
But alas, the resolves have passed away with the ordinance! The vows of a Sabbath evening have been forgotten on a Monday morning, and we have again sunk into our former life of cold indifference and worldliness, to be again roused the following month, and to again relapse into the half-hearted state in which perhaps some feel they are this evening.
Oh, is it any wonder, friends, that on remembering all these things, we marvel if Jesus can again honor us with his company. There are sufficient causes known to all our hearts to make us say, "What do you think, will he not come to the feast?
II. I will try and give the Answer, and some Reasons for it being what it is.
Well, dear friends, in answer to the question "Will HE come to the feast?" I reply, "Yes, I think he will." No, "I believe he will." Yes, more, "I know he will." My reasons for giving such an answer are fourfold.
First — I think he will come to the feast, because he loves it himself. Is it a joy to you to commune with him? It is an equal joy to him so to do. Do you love his company? He also loves yours. Is it your delight for him to draw near to you? It is also his delight to be near his people. Is your language, "O that I might find him?" His is, "Let me see your countenance — let me hear your voice!" Christ finds his joy in walking in the garden and beholding his fruits. "He feeds among the lilies." Jesus loves the feast as much and far more than you do. It is no irksome work to him to be in company with his people. Therefore, because it is his delight, I think he will come to the feast.
I think moreover he will come because he has instituted the feast and invited us to it. The sweet feast we hope to celebrate this evening is no man-appointed ordinance. It was his dying command, "do this in remembrance of me." He has ordained it; he has provided the feast at his own cost; it is he who invites us. Do you think then that when we come at his own invitation, to meet with him and feast on his bounty — that he himself will be absent? Surely not. Would you invite a friend to sup with you and then let him find an empty house and bare table when he came at your own request? You never would! Nor will your Lord. His command thus to remember him, is a sweet guarantee that he will meet you at the feast.
Banish from your mind all thought of man in the sacred ordinance — it will only give rise to doubting. The table is his not man's, the provisions are his not ours; the invitation comes from him, from no lower source. Certainly then when we come at his own bidding, we shall find him at the head of the table waiting to greet us.
Very likely also these Jews entertained the hope he would come, from the fact that he had often come before. May we not do the same? Can we not call to mind many times when he has favored us with his company at the feast — when we have been no more deserving of it than we are now. Has he not often met with us in so sweet a manner, that we could scarcely tell whether we were in the body or out of it? We had no claim on him then, and we have none this evening. We were all unworthy then — and could not be more so now. Then if we have found him at the feast on former occasions despite all our lack of merit — then why not again? Ah, friends, it is a blessed thing that his visits of love do not rest on our worthiness to receive them — but on his grace to bestow them; and for this reason I think he will come to the feast.
My last reason for so thinking, is because of his promises. He has said, "Lo, I am with you always." Mat 28.20. He has said, "I will manifest myself to them," John 14.21, that is, to his disciples. He has said, "Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them." Mat 18.20. With so many precious promises, I venture to say to every timid doubting saint, "I know he will come to the feast."
III. What are the Signs of his being at the Feast?
Well, they are many. The first is a melting heart on account of sin. Our own unworthiness will appear great, in proportion as we have communion with Christ. Self and Christ can never stand together; where HE is — self lies in the dust. He who has but little nearness to Jesus may entertain flattering thoughts concerning himself — but when our Lord comes up to the feast, the very light of his countenance reveals ourselves to ourselves, and the sight is such that with melting heart we have to exclaim, "Unclean, unclean!"
Do not think, dear friend, because you are filled with anguish that you have lived so far from him, that therefore you can have no fellowship with him — that very sorrow of heart is a true though painful proof that he is drawing you nearer. We are never so far off, as when unconcerned about the distance; and often never so near, as when we mourn our distance the most. If Jesus comes up to the feast this evening, all our hearts will bow in penitential grief like weeping willows before the breeze. Self accusations will abound. Pride will be trampled underfoot, and every soul be filled with what John Newton termed "pleasing grief."
Yes, there is a pleasure in the grief, though not in its cause. It is this grief that prepares for joy. The highest communion, generally follows the deepest self-abasement. So will it be received by all God's children. The crown will be removed from every brow, and cast at Jesus' feet. Deep humiliation will be one of the signs of Christ having come up to the feast.
A second sign of his presence will be a joyful heart on account of pardon. When Christ visits his people, he not only makes them see the number of their sins — but also their complete pardon, and it is this double sight that prepares the soul for sweetest fellowship. This sorrowful heart and joyful heart beat beneath the same breast at the same time. To quote John Newton again —
"With pleasing grief and mournful joy
My spirit now is filled;
That I should such a life destroy
Yet live by him I killed."
If Jesus meets you at the feast dear friend, you will get beyond the mere hope you are pardoned, and will be able to read your complete forgiveness in his wounds. You will hear him say, "I have put away your sin," and you will have the greatest joy any saint on earth can have — that of knowing the blood of Christ has cleansed you from all sin.
The third sign of Jesus being at the feast is an indifference and forgetfulness about all externals. This point I have already touched upon — but much more might be said upon it. How few of us know what it is to be so absorbed in talking with Jesus, as to be unconscious of the outside world. Would that we could have such an experience as that of Colonel Gardiner, who when riding out with a friend one Monday, after having been at the communion service the previous day, made an apology for being so absent in manner, and said "that his heart had gone up so high while at the Lord's table, that he could not yet get it down to the things of the world." Happy the man who gets his heart so high, that it takes two days to come down to earth. Alas! with most of us it is no difficulty to sorrow over our sin. Yet if Jesus come to the feast, we shall know, at least in some degree, what it is to be forgetful of all things else but his sweet company.
IV. I will try and point out some Ways to Ensure His Company.
The first and most apparent way is by asking for it. Christ will never say "no" to the united request of his people, and we may rest most assured that when that united request is simply for his presence, it will be granted. Let us now, dear friends, invite him. Let there be from every heart a special invite given, "Lord, visit me!" He has said, "Ask, and you shall receive." John 16.24. "Blessed Jesus, we do ask. As a company of your disciples we now look up to You, and invite You for your own sweet mercy's sake to come to the feast this evening."
Poor wearied one, do you feel that Christ's company would refresh you and give you new life? Do not be afraid — ask him, and he will come. O, ask him every saint, for he will be found by those that seek him.
Another way is by forgiveness. Nothing so surely hinders Christ's communing with us as an unforgiving spirit; where that is, the joy of fellowship cannot be. A soul in an unforgiving frame is in just the very frame that renders Christ meeting him at the feast impossible.
Are you saying even now, "Well I can never forgive so and so; or this or that supposed slight." Well then, dear friend, do not expect that Jesus will come up to the feast in your experience. That one fly will make the whole ointment lose its sweet savor to you. While you withhold forgiveness, I am certain your Lord will withhold his company.
But why not forgive anew? Why, in order to secure Christ's company, should there not be a general forgiveness on the part of all towards all? I am sure there are none of us that do not need to be forgiven, as well as to forgive. Let us all be able now to say with truth "forgive us our trespasses — as we forgive them who trespass against us." Mat 6.12. A child of God never looks so thoroughly Christlike, as when he pardons — as when he forgives as he has been forgiven. Can there be a sweeter time to forgive than when we meet to celebrate a dying Savior's love? Surely not. It is the very time beyond all times, when differences should be healed.
Warburton and Tucker were bishop and dean at the same time of the same cathedral. An unhappy quarrel produced such a coldness between them that for some years they were not even on speaking terms. It was on one Good Friday, not long before Warburton's death, that they were at the Lord's table together. When he handed the cup to the dean, he stooped down, and said with deep emotion, "Dear Tucker, let this cup be the cup of reconciliation between us." I need not add that it was.
So let it be with all this evening. In that cup, let every angry feeling be drowned. "Forgive, forgive, forgive," and Christ will come and meet you at the feast.
Oh, to wait in loving quietness of spirit for him! Let him see us thus waiting for him, beloved, and he will fulfill our desire and "sup with us."
And now, poor sinner, before we close, a word to you. Jesus is here, closer to each one of us than we are to the other. He is by your side. He has come up now to the feast. What will you do? What will you say to him?
Oh, invite him to your feast; tell him "you have nothing to offer him but a broken heart and contrite spirit," and he will not despise that. Trust him, sinner. Trust him now. Cast yourself at his feet while he is here and cry, "O bless me, even me!" May the Lord visit every longing heart, and meet every saint at the feast, for his name's sake. Amen.