William Bacon Stevens
"Woe unto us! The daylight is fading, and the shadows of evening grow long!" Jeremiah 6:4
"But they urged him strongly: Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over!" Luke 24:29
I have put these two texts together because they aptly illustrate two conditions of the human mind, and two classes of men found in every community.
The first text, from Jeremiah, "Woe unto us! The daylight is fading, and the shadows of evening grow long," points to a condition of mind which is unstable in purpose, irresolute in action — letting the favorable moment for success slip by unimproved — and then, when it is gone beyond recall, lamenting its departure with doleful lamentation. This was precisely the condition of those who uttered these exclamations as recorded by Jeremiah. They had been warned by the prophet of a foreign invasion of their country; they had been exhorted to prompt and vigorous action to repel the invaders. They had ample time and means to do this — but they dallied and delayed; they let the morning hours of action pass unused; let the mid-day still find them inactive and neglectful of duty; let the enemy march up to their walls; and then, when the day was nearly spent, when they would have but a remnant of time in which to act, give way to the doleful lament "Woe unto us! The daylight is fading, and the shadows of evening grow long!"
The opportunity for success was lost; the day of action had been misspent, and the result was, captivity and slavery. They could not be roused up to a sense of their danger and to the necessity for prompt exertion — until it was too late. The day of action was going away; the shadows of the evening which was to cover them with its darkness and sorrow, were already stretched out.
Just so it is with multitudes now in reference to the work of their salvation. The gospel of the Son of God has been preached in their ears, until it has become stale and powerless. They listen to it — but take no heed to its requirements.
They know that they are sinners in the sight of God, and that if these sins are unrepented of — they must lie down in everlasting sorrow. They know that Jesus Christ is the only Savior, able and willing to save to the uttermost; yet they accept not His offer of grace. They hear the thunders of the law as it peals its terrific tones from Sinai, and the wooings of love as they whisper in tenderest accents from Calvary — but they heed neither the terrors of Sinai nor the charms of Calvary.
They are warned of a judgment to come, and of the eternal punishment of the lost; but they listen with incredulity, and move on without fear! And so they go on, step after step, wasting the precious moments of the early dawn of life, the serene hours of the morning, the work-time of noon, the declining days of past-meridian — and they find themselves towards the close of a departing day, and with the long-drawn shadows of the evening deepening into night around them, unprepared to meet the coming darkness! And so they take up, when too late, the lament, "Woe unto us! The daylight is fading, and the shadows of evening grow long!"
There are few things so saddening to the mind of those who have reached middle life — as the memory of wasted opportunities and neglected duties. If a man has been brought up in a Christian family, and educated in Bible truth — he cannot but feel the old instruction of a godly father, or pious mother, or childhood's teacher — come back upon him with almost reproachful utterances, at his neglect of acknowledged duties, and his procrastination in putting off the time of repentance and faith. He hears these warning voices urging him to accept at once the offers of redeeming love. He recalls his early teaching and recognizes inwardly its truth and his duty. He is troubled and uneasy in view of his neglect of his soul — and yet "the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful!"
Look for a moment at the opportunities which the Church affords to all attendants on her service, not only of learning their duty — but also of practicing it to the glory of God.
With almost inspired wisdom, the morning and evening and occasional services of our Church are so arranged as that each year the whole life of Jesus, from His annunciation, to His nativity; from the manger to the cross; from the grave to His ascension, from His ascension to the inauguration of the Dispensation of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, is brought distinctly before us. Not only so — but twenty-five or twenty-six Sundays of the year are specifically set apart to teach and premonish the people upon the great doctrines of the Bible; while the godly lives of the apostles and evangelists and other holy persons, whose names are in the Book of Life, are wisely commended by special lessons, because they are examples to us of saintly faith and piety which it becomes us to copy.
You can not plead ignorance of the truth. You can not plead that you have had no warning voice and no welcoming invitation.
Then, again, look at the opportunities for repentance and faith which God has given you in the daily providence of life.
You have been rich, perhaps, and He has was made you poor — Why? That He may give you spiritual riches, which moth and rust can not corrupt.
You have been poor and He has made you rich — Why? That you might "remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth."
You have been well, and He has laid you on a bed of sickness — Why? That you might consider your latter end.
You have been sick and He has made you well — Why? That you should love your Divine Healer, and seek for your spiritual healing.
You have been called to sorrow and mourning — a beloved wife, a devoted husband, a darling child, an honored parent — has been taken from you — Why? That you may be weaned from earth — fasten your affections on things above, and prepare yourself to meet death in peace.
How many of these providences have each one of you experienced? Try and call to mind what they are, and mark how loudly God spoke to you in each one of them: "Son, daughter, come to me; prepare to meet your God!" Your life is full of the echoes of God's voice speaking to you in His daily providence, as well as in the inspired word and through the ministry of His Church. Yet hour after hour has glided away, and you have hesitated, wavered, procrastinated, put off to a more convenient season. The day of life has touched its meridian; it is declining towards the western horizon; the evening shadows lie upon your path — and you are not saved!
Shall life's sun go wholly down, shall the night of death wrap you in its starless mantle, without one honest effort on your part to secure your soul's salvation?
Let us turn now to the other text.
The one which we have been considering refers to wasted opportunities; to fearful neglects; to a time of action grievously misspent, and so resulting in personal and eternal ruin.
The other text is just the reverse. It speaks of a wondrous opportunity, promptly, gladly, embraced and enjoyed. It tells of seizing upon opportune moments, and making them useful for eternity. "But they urged him strongly: Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over!"
On the afternoon of the day of Christ's resurrection, two disciples were returning from Jerusalem to their home at Emmaus, and were conversing with great earnestness as they journeyed, when a stranger approached and, attracted by their mournful and excited manner, asked, "What are you discussing together as you walk along? They stood still, their faces downcast." To this question one replied, "Are you only a stranger in Jerusalem, and do not know the things which have come to pass there in these days?" The stranger, for the purpose of drawing out their minds still more, asked, "What things?" To which they replied, "About Jesus of Nazareth. He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn't find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see."
Then the stranger said to them, "'How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?' And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus acted as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly: 'Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.' So he went in to stay with them."
Here was an instance of a ready seizing hold of an unexpected opportunity of grace; of an earnest constraining appeal to one for further instruction and blessing; of an unwillingness to lose so precious a season of deepening their knowledge of the truth thus marvelously given to them. And yet they did not know then, that the stranger was Jesus. He had not then made Himself known to them. He was to them only a spiritually-minded, and scripture-filled stranger, whose conversation . . .
riveted their attention,
engrossed their minds,
fired their imaginations,
cleared away their doubts, and
made their souls to glow and burn with especial fervor —
as they took in His words, and as He opened to them the Scriptures.
And oh! were they not repaid? Were they not well rewarded for their devout attention, their readiness to hear, their willingness to be taught, their earnestness to secure still further His presence and instruction?
Yet, beloved, would I speak extravagantly, if I said that Jesus often reveals Himself to His disciples now, with as much preciousness as He did to the two at Emmaus? I think not. They, indeed, had His personal presence; but yet they did not know until just as He vanished out of their sight, that He was Jesus. They listened to Him, not as their Lord and Master — but as to a wise and well-instructed stranger; they heard Him speak only two or three hours at the most, and only about the Messianic aspect of the Old Testament. Their eyes were blinded that they would not know Him until He made Himself known in the breaking of bread; and before they had time to recover from the surprise of the revelation, "He vanished out of their sight!"
But what, brethren, do we have? We have not the unknown Jesus — but the known Jesus to be our companion. We have Him to walk with us, not in one afternoon's walk of seven or eight miles — but each day of our life, and all the way of our pilgrimage. We hear Him speak to us, not in the tones and accent of a stranger — but as our own dear Lord and Savior. To us, by His Spirit — He reveals, not only the prophets of the Old Testament, and the things there written concerning Himself — but in the full canon of the completed Scriptures; in the prophecies of Revelation, as well as those thousands of years before.
We hear Him in His exquisite picture-parables, those painted windows of the Gospel cathedral, bedecked with the tracery of the divine artist! We see Him as the wondrous miracle-worker in the realms of sea and sky, mind and matter, life and death. To us, He speaks in the words of His Sermon on the Mount, and in the discourse in the upper room of Jerusalem. We listen to His prayer, on the mountain top, in the garden, and in the words of His own matchless form! We witness His daily life, through the three years of His holy ministry! We go with Him to Calvary, see Him wrapped in linen and spices, laid in Joseph's grave! We hear Him, after His resurrection, tell doubting Thomas, "Reach here your hand and thrust it into my side; and be not faithless — but believing." We hear Him ask Peter, "Simon, son of Jonah, love you me?" We accompany Him to the Mount of Olives, catch the words of His last and great commission, and watch His receding form as He is taken up and "a cloud receives Him out of sight."
Is not this, then, better than that which the two disciples had? His word to each of us is, "Lo, I am with you always!" "If any man loves me — my Father will love him, and we will come and make our abode with him." Yes, He dwells in us, as an abiding guest.
But all depends on our doing as these disciples did — constraining Jesus to "abide with us."
He will be with us, if we seek Him, not only in His Word — but in the assemblies of His people; for He has said, "Where two or three are gathered together in my name — there am I in the midst of them." He will be with us in the celebration of the Holy Communion — for there He is specially set forth crucified before us. He will be with us in the worship of the great congregation — for He ever inhabits the praises of Israel. Nor in these public places only.
He will abide with us in our hearts — if we are meek and lowly in heart, for such hearts are His temples. He will abide with us in our homes — if, like Mary and Martha of Bethany, we ever keep a guest-chamber for Him. He will be with us in our business — if, like Matthew at the tax collector's booth, our ear is ever open to hear, and our hearts ever ready to obey, His call, "Follow me!" He will ever be with us in our studies, if, like the doctors of old in the Temple, we seat Jesus in the midst, and ask Him the questions which make for our eternal peace.
There is no unwillingness on the part of Jesus to abide with us. It is that our hearts are not prepared to receive and welcome such a visitant! Is not this a grievous wrong which we are doing to our souls? Shall we allow them to continue in such a condition, that we cannot, by reason of our cherished lusts, or sins, or covetousness, or worldly-mindedness — constrain Him to come in and abide with us?
Finally, there is one point which some of you have reached, to which all are hastening, when it will be settled whether we shall exclaim with the deluded and unprepared Jews in Jeremiah's day, "Woe unto us! For the daylight is fading, and the shadows of evening grow long!" Or whether, in response to our constraining importunity — Jesus will go in and abide with us. The day of life is fast fading away to all of us; the shadows of life's evening are, to many of us, lengthening and deepening. Sunset is near — the night of death is at hand.
If your manifold and most graciously bestowed opportunities of securing salvation, and conquering your spiritual enemies, are allowed to slip away unused; if the convenient season passes without your making it convenient to accept the offered grace — then must you very soon — how soon we know not, for God has said, "My Spirit shall not always strive with man" — then, I say, shall you soon take up the doleful cry, "Woe unto us! For the daylight is fading, and the shadows of evening grow long!"
If, on the other hand, favored as you are with such manifestations of Jesus' love and grace, you say to Him, "Abide with us," and by your faith and love "constrain" Him to tarry with you — then how exquisitely sweet and precious will His presence be to your soul! How His life will flow into your life . ..
opening your mind to understand the Scriptures;
opening your heart to His indwelling grace;
filling you with a joy and peace which passes understanding;
and enriching you with all needed strength and moral loveliness, so that you will be made "fit for the inheritance of the saints in light."
Let not Christ now present with you — pass away from you and leave you to die Christless, and to go Christless to the judgment and to eternity! Constrain Him to abide with you. He will readily assent. He is more willing to be your guest — than you are to be His host.
But delay not, for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent; and when the day of grace once sets behind the horizon, it is followed by no tomorrow. For the uniform declaration of God's word and God's ministers, and God's Church, and God's providences is, "Behold now is the accepted time; behold now is the day of salvation!" And "For in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom!" And "As the tree falls — so it lies!"