THE WHIRLWIND FROM THE NORTH.
/ looked, and behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire.
EzeKIeL i. 4.
Croydon Parish Church, October 9, 1877, before the Croydon Church Congress.
THE history of the Jews was a succession of startling paradoxes. Their most signal defeats were ever their most splendid triumphs. Their worst disasters ushered in their proudest successes. At three several crises in their career—in youth, in middle life, in old age—they came into collision with three giant empires of the ancient world, Egypt, Babylon, Rome. Each time they were crushed, almost annihilated, by the conflict. Yet each time they started up into a fresh and more vigorous life. The Egyptian bondage created Israel as a nation; the Babylonist captivity consolidated the nation as a Church; the Roman devastation expanded the Church of a nation into the Church of mankind. Their three chief scourges were their three greatest benefactors —Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Titus. Their unmaking was in each case a making anew.
As a paradox, the Babylonian Captivity was in some respects the most striking of the three. In the other cases we can trace with some distinctness (at least after the event) the connexion between the cause and the effect, between the disaster and the triumph; but here it is far more subtle and less apparent. We picture to ourselves the earlier bands of Jewish exiles cowering on the banks of the Euphrates, homeless and forlorn, their ranks cruelly thinned by the calamities of war and the hardships of slavery. Hoping against hope, they strain their eyes towards their native land, eager for fresh tidings. Each new announcement is darker than the former. Blow follows upon blow, until the tale of their misery is full. The last company of exiles is deported; the last scion of royalty is a prisoner; the last breach in the fortress is stormed. The city is laid waste; the temple is a heap of stones. All is over. The sweet minstrelsies of the sanctuary jar cruelly on their ears now. The very name of Sion is a bitterness to them. And meanwhile, in this their helpless, hopeless misery, they are confronted with the most gigantic awe-inspiring power which the world had hitherto seen. All the environments of the scene combine to crush them with a sense of their own nothingness—the vast size of the capital, the luxuriance and extent of its gardens, the pomp and splendour of its equipages, its huge architectural piles, its solemn weird sculptures, the broad, ceaseless, flowing river, the mighty Euphrates (what a contrast to the scarcely audible rippling of their own little Siloah!), the boundless expanse of plain and desert beyond, parting them by a weary journey of weeks and months from the home of their forefathers. How can they help feeling dwarfed, while everything around 'is cast in this colossal mould? If at that crisis any calm and impartial bystander had been asked whether of the two—Babylon or Israel—the master or the slave— held in his grasp the future destinies of mankind, would he for a moment have hesitated what answer he should give?
And yet out of the very abyss of despair the prophet's hope takes wing and soars aloft. Abo^e the howling of the storm, and through the darkness of the night, the paean of victory rises and swells, clear and jubilant, till the whole air is charged with its defiant notes. No prophet is more hopeful, more lavish in his promises, more confident of the future, than the forlorn exile on the banks of the Chebar in the first stunning moment of his country's despair.
It is not that he sees only the bright features of the prospect. No words can be fiercer or less compromising than those in which he denounces the sins of the nation. It would seem as if in his imagery he could not find colours dark enough to blacken the Israel of God. The Israel of God? Why, 'thy father was an Amorite and thy mother an Hittite'— vile, polluted, God-forsaken heathens both—and after the foul deeds of thy parentage thou thyself hast done. The Israel of God? Why,'thine elder sister is Samaria'—Samaria the profane and the profligate; 'and thy younger sister is Sodom'—Sodom whose very name is a byword for all that is most loathsome, most abominable, in human wickedness, and whose vengeance—the sulphurous fire from heaven—flares out as a beacon of warning against sin and impurity to all time. And thou art far worse than thy sisters. Restore thee from thy captivity? Aye, then, when Samaria is restored, then when Sodom is restored— then and not till then, unless thou repent. Would they shift the burden of blame on other shoulders? Would they plead that it is unjust to make them suffer for the sins of past generations ?' The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge.' This poor rag of excuse, with which they would cover their shame, is ruthlessly torn away: 'The soul that sinneth, it shall die.' Here then is Israel's sentence: 'Thus saith the Lord; Say, A sword, a sword is sharpened, and also furbished. It is sharpened to make a sore slaughter; it is furbished that it may glitter'—gleaming defiantly, flashing out laughter, as it descends on the victim cowering to receive the blow.
And yet, as the prophet's eye ranges beyond the immediate present, what does he see? The Spirit carries him into the wilderness and sets him down there. It is the scene apparently of some murderous conflict between the wild tribes of the desert or of some catastrophe which has befallen a caravan of travellers. The ground is strewn with the bones of the dead—fleshless, sinewless, picked clean by the vultures and bleached by long exposure, tossed here and there by the rage of the elements or the reckless hand of man. Is it possible that these bones, so bare and so dry, shall unite, shall be clothed, shall live and move again? God only can say. A moment more, and the answer is given. There is a rustling, a clatter, a uniting of joint and socket, a meeting of vertebra and vertebra. Sinews stretch from bone to bone: flesh and skin spread over them. At God's bidding breath is breathed into them. They start up on their feet, an exceeding great army.
But the range of vision is not bounded here. Beyond the wilderness lies the pleasant land. Beyond the valley of dry bones is the hill of Sion, the city of the living God. After the revival of Israel comes the spread of the truth, the expansion of the Church. The exceeding great army is there; but the battle is still unfought, the victory has still to be won.
So the prophet is carried again by the Spirit, and set down in the holy city. He is there once again within the sacred precincts, where of old he had ministered as a priest. The scene is the same, and yet not the same. The hill of the temple has grown into 'a very high mountain.' Everything is on a grander scale—a larger sanctuary, a more faithful priesthood, richer and more abundant offerings. His eye is arrested by the little spring of pure water which issued from the temple rock and found its way in a trickling stream to the valley beneath—fit symbol of the Church of God. As he watches, it rises and swells, ankle-deep, knee-deep, overhead. Silently, steadily, it expands and gathers volume, pouring down the main valley and filling all the lateral gorges, advancing onward and onward, till it washes the bases of the far off hills of Moab and sweetens the salt waters of the very Sea of Death—teeming with life, watering towns and fertilizing deserts, throughout its beneficent course—a stream so puny and obscure at its sources, so broad and full and bountiful in its issues—this mighty river of God. Indeed it was no earthly pile of masonry, no building made by hands— this magnified temple, which rose before the prophet's eyes.
So it has always been. God's chief revelations have ever flashed out upon man in seasons of trial and perplexity. As in Ezekiel's vision, there has been first the whirlwind, then the cloud, then the flame, the light, the glory, glowing with ever-increasing brightness from the very heart and blackness of the cloud. There is first the wild, impetuous force unseen, yet irresistible, rooting up old institutions, scattering old ideas, perplexing, deafening, blinding, sweeping all things human and divine into its eddies. Then the dark cloud of despair settles down—the despair of materialism or the despair of agnosticism—with its numbing chill. Then at length emerges the vision of the Throne, the Chariot of God, blinding the eyes with its dazzling splendour; and after this the vision of the dry and bleaching bones starting up into new life; and after this the vision of a larger sanctuary and a purer worship. It was so at the epoch of the Babylonian captivity; it was so at the downfall of the Roman empire; it was so at the outbreak of the Reformation. And shall it not be so once again?
We are warned by the wisdom and experience of the past not to overrate either the perplexities or the hopes of the present. Nearness of view unduly magnifies the proportions of events. Yet it is surely no exaggeration to say that the Church of our day is passing through one of those momentous crises which only occur at intervals of two or three centuries. One fact alone would mark this century, even this decade which has still some years to run, as a signal epoch in the history of Christendom. The solemn ratification of the claims of the Roman pontiff to an absolute tyranny over the minds and consciences of men, followed almost without a breathing space by the annihilation of the last remnant of their temporal sovereignty—this twofold incident in itself would stamp our immediate age with a significance which no time can efface. But indeed these striking outward events, portentous as they seem, are in reality of less moment than the working of those silent underground forces, political, social, and intellectual, which betray themselves for a time only by a confused rumbling but burst out at length in devastation and ruin. It is the concurrence of so many and various disturbing elements which forms the characteristic feature of our age. Here is the vast accumulation of scientific facts, the rapid progress of scientific ideas; there is enlarged knowledge of ancient and wide-spread religions arising from the increased facilities of travel. Here is the sharpening of the critical faculty to a keenness of edge dangerous to the hand that wields it; there is the accumulation of new materials for its exercise from divers sources—the recovery of many a lost chapter in the history of the human race, whether from ancient manuscripts, or from the deciphered hieroglyphs of Egypt, the disentombed palaces of Assyria, or even from the reliques of a more remote past, the flint implements and the bone caverns of prehistoric man. These are some of the intellectual factors with which the Church in our age has to reckon. And the social and political forces are not less disturbing. The question of the relations between Church and State in England has awakened many animosities and started many alarms of late. It is only one phenomenon in the general disturbance, one gust in the hurricane, one eddy in the whirlwind which is sweeping over the length and breadth of Christendom. In Italy, in France, in Germany, the atmosphere is still more agitated. Even in conservative Russia the political barometer shows symptoms of a gathering storm.
What then must be our attitude, as members of Christ's Church, at such a season? The experience of the past will inspire hope for the future. 'In quietness and confidence shall be your strength.' We shall not rush hastily to cut the political knot, because it will take us some time and much patience to untie it. We shall keep our eyes and our minds open to each fresh accession of knowledge, stubbornly rejecting no truth when it is attested, rashly accepting no inference because it is novel and attractive. As disciples of the Word Incarnate—the same Eternal Word Who is, and has been from the beginning, in science as in history, in nature as in revelation, we shall rest assured that He has much yet to teach us, that a larger display of His manifold operations, however confusing now, must in the end bring with it a clearer knowledge of Himself, that for the Church of the future a far more glorious destiny is in store than ever attended the Church of the past. There is the whirlwind now, sweeping down from the rude tempestuous north; there is the gathering cloud now, dark and boding; but even now the keen eye of the faithful watcher detects the first rift in the gloom, the earliest darting ray which shall broaden and intensify, till it reveals the Chariot-throne of the Eternal Word framed in transcendant light. 'This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face.'
To the Jewish philosopher the vision of Ezekiel was an inexhaustible theme of speculation. The chariot of God seemed to him to enfold all the mysteries of creation. To the thoughtful Christian it will have a yet higher interest; for in the Church of Christ it receives its truest fulfilment.
The external imagery is borrowed in great measure from the sights which met the prophet's eye in his exile. The colossal sculptures of Assyria—those composite forms with the wings of a bird, and the body of a lion or a bull, and the head of a man— which our own age has unearthed from their tomb after the sleep of centuries, recal vividly the strange beings of the prophet's vision. But though the symbolism might be drawn—at least in part—from Babylonia in the sixth century before Christ, the thing symbolized is of all times and of all places. This is the very essence of the revelation. It taught the Jews to look beyond the local sanctuary, beyond the ritual forms, beyond the national revival, for a new covenant, for a spiritual restoration, for a limitless Church. Three ideas, closely connected with each other, are suggested by the imagery; mobility, spirituality, universality.
I. The idea of mobility is the foremost which the image involves. The vision of Ezekiel provokes a comparison with the vision of Isaiah. It is significant in its contrasts not less than in its coincidences. Isaiah saw the Lord enthroned on high, there above S. S. 6
the mercy-seat, there between the cherubim, there in the same local sanctuary, where for centuries He had received the adoration of an elect and special people. The awe of the vision is enhanced by its localisation. But with Ezekiel this is changed. The vision is in a heathen land. The throne is a chariot now. It is placed on wheels arranged transversely, so that it can move easily to all the four quarters of the heavens. Its motion is direct, immediate, rapid, darting like the lightning flash, whithersoever it is sped.
Not indeed that the element of fixity is lost. Though a chariot, it remains still a throne. It is supported by the four living creatures whose wings as they beat fill the air with their whirring, but whose feet are planted straight and firm. They have four faces looking four ways, but these are immovable; 'They turned not, when they went.' What these four living creatures may represent, it does not fall within my purpose to enquire. However we may interpret them, they are the firm supports of the chariot, moving rapidly, yet turning never, unchangeable in themselves, yet capable of infinite adaptation in their processes.
2. The counterpart to the mobility in the larger dispensation of the future, thus implied in the vision, is its spirituality. It is mobile, just because it is spiritual. The letter is fixed; the form is rigid and motionless as death. The Spirit only is instinct with life. 'Whither the Spirit was to go, they went.' This is the reiterated description of the movement of the living creatures. 'The Spirit of the living creature was in the wheels;' 'The Spirit lifted me up, and took me away;' 'The Spirit lifted me up between the earth and the heaven.' In such language does the prophet again and again describe his successive revelations. 'I will put my Spirit within you ;' this is the repeated promise, announcing the national revival. 'I have poured out my Spirit upon the house of Israel;' this is the climax of God's grace to His forgiven and restored people. Everywhere the presence of the Spirit is emphasized; and this emphatic reiteration is the more remarkable, because it is found in the midst of accurate dates, precise measurements, topographical descriptions, minute external details of all kinds.
3. But lastly, if spirituality characterises the motive power, if mobility is the leading feature in the intermediate energies and processes, universality is the final result. The chariot of God moves freely to all the four quarters of the heavens. The prophet sees it first in the plains of Babylonia. He is then carried in his vision to the Temple at Jerusalem. There he beholds the glory filling the holy place, the throne of God supported on the cherubim; and there too—an unwonted surprise—are the four faces, the wings, the hands, the wheels full of eyes, just the same forms and the same motions, which he had seen in the land of his exile. Aye, he understands it now. The living creatures of Babylonia are none other than the sacred cherubim of the sanctuary. Three times, as if be would assure himself or convince others by reiteration, he repeats the words 'the same which I saw by the river Chebar.' So then, God works with power, God is enthroned in glory, not less in that far-off heathen land, than in His own cherished sanctuary among His own elect people. The very title, by which the prophet is addressed throughout, proclaims the same truth; not'son of Abraham' though Abraham's descendant he was, not' son of Aaron' though of priestly race he was, but'son of man.' He is called to be the prophet, not of a special nation, not of a sacerdotal order, but of the whole human race.
I need not remind you to what extent this vision was illustrated by the Israelite Church of the Restoration; how the dispersion of the Jews sowed the truths of which they were the depositaries broadcast throughout the civilised world; how the synagogue worship grew up by the side of the temple worship, thus delocalising to a great extent the religious associations of the people; how the order of teachers and interpreters and students of the law rivalled and at length outstripped the hierarchy in public estimation, thus breaking up the monopoly of priestly influence; how the gradual influx of proselytes tended more and more to substitute a religious for a national bond of union; and thus, despite all the narrownesses of sects and all the reactions of epochs, the tide set steadily in the direction of a larger, freer Church. I need not say how at length in the fulness of time the vision found its true antitype in the revelation of the Eternal Word Incarnate—of Him Who, being the Son of David, was also the Son of Man—interpreted as that revelation was forthwith by a striking comment in the complete destruction of the Temple and the final dispersion of the race—the sweeping away of the old to make room for the new. The trickling brook, issuing from the hard rock of Judaism, had indeed swollen into a mighty stream, flowing onward and giving life and health to the nations. These things are plain. It remains for us to appropriate the lesson.
For the vision of Ezekiel is not a dead or dying story, which has served its turn and now may pass out of mind. It lives still as the very charter of the Church of the future. If in this nineteenth century we Englishmen would do any work for Christ's Church, which shall be real, shall be solid, shall be lasting, we must follow in the lines here marked out for us. Mobility, spirituality, universality, these three ideas must inspire our efforts. Other methods may seem more efficacious for the moment, but this only will resist the stress of time. Not to cling obstinately to the decayed anachronisms of the past, not to linger wistfully over the death-stricken forms of the past, not to narrow our intellectual horizon, not to stunt our moral sympathies; but to adapt and to enlarge, to absorb new truths, to gather new ideas, to develope new institutions, to follow always the teaching of the Spirit—the Spirit which will not be bound and imprisoned—the Spirit which is like a breath of wind —the Spirit whose very name speaks of elasticity and expansion, passing through every crevice, filling every interstice, conforming itself to every modification of size and shape; this is our duty as Christians, as Churchmen, as Anglicans, remembering meanwhile that there is one fixed centre from which all our thoughts must radiate, and to which all our hopes must converge—'Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to-day, and for ever.'
And it is just because meetings like the present do, as we believe, with all their faults conduce to this end, that they claim our sympathy and support. Since the time of that Church assembly in the dim and remote past, when these islands were for the first time represented in the deliberations of the Church, the Council of Aries, there have been numberless synods, convocations, ecclesiastical gatherings of different types and for various ends; but these Congresses have a character and a value of their own. It is surely no small gain that members of our Church are found to muster year after year in ever-increasing numbers— clergy and laity, representatives of all schools and types of thought, men of all positions in life—to exchange ideas, to understand others and to make themselves understood, to quicken their sympathies and enlarge their views and stimulate their energies by the contact of mind with mind and the communion of spirit with spirit. But the Congress of this year has a significance of its own. We shall meet to-day, probably in larger numbers, certainly under a higher sanction, than heretofore. We are gathered together for the first time under the shadow of that great see, which even under papal domination was regarded as second only to Rome in Latin Christendom, and which, liberated from that yoke, has certainly not lost in importance by the world-wide diffusion of the English race and language—a see which in its first beginnings was ennobled by an Augustine and a Theodore, and in after ages was graced by the saintly scholar Anselm, by the patriot statesman Stephen Langton, by a long line of famous names which it would be difficult to match elsewhere. In this year's meeting the Congress may be said to have stormed the citadel of the English Church.
This being so, we are especially bound to see that the temper of our meeting be not unworthy of the occasion. The dangers of ecclesiastical gatherings are notorious. From Julian to Gibbon the strifes of Churchmen have been a fertile theme of scorn to the enemies of the faith. They have neutralised the sufferings of many a martyr, and drowned the eloquence of many an apologist. While on the battle-field of Christian souls the attacks of foes from without have slain their thousands, the quarrels of parties within have murdered their tens of thousands.
It is related by Bede (//. E. ii. 2) that when the native British bishops were about to hold a conference with S. Augustine of Canterbury, they consulted a certain anchorite famed for his sanctity and wisdom, whether they should abandon their own traditions and adopt the teaching of this foreign missionary. 'The Lord,' he replied, 'has said, Take My yoke upon you, and learn of Me; for I am meek and lowly of heart. If this Augustine therefore is meek and lowly of heart, ye may well believe that he beareth the yoke of Christ himself, and presenteth it to you to bear; but if he is ungentle and proud, then plainly he is not of God, and we may not give heed to his word.' 'But how,' they asked, 'how are we to ascertain this?' 'Arrange it so,' he replied,'that he and his come first to the place of synod; and if, when you approach, he shall rise to greet you, know that he is a servant of God, and listen obediently to him; but, if he shall spurn you and refuse to rise in your presence, though ye are more in number, then do ye also spurn him.' The advice was taken. Augustine did not rise, and the British Church was hopelessly alienated. It was a simple, foolish test, you will say. Perhaps so; I know not; but is not this a type, an apologue, a parable of the disastrous spirit in which from age to age Churches have fostered animosities and created schisms by stiffness, by discourtesy, by severity and unfairness to opponents, thus engendering an exasperation which blinds the eyes to the real points at issue? As we read the history of the great Nestorian and Monophysite schisms for instance, must we not honestly say that no small share of the blame lies at the door of the orthodox party who triumphed at Ephesus and Chalcedon? By their bitterness and injustice, by the display of a temper which had nothing in common with Christ, they made the better cause appear as bad as the worse, and they forced their antagonists into a position where concession or retreat seemed impossible. And meanwhile, what is the impression made on those without by this unlovely spirit which, reversing the Apostle's language, 'resenteth all things, suspecteth all things, feareth all things, imputeth all things?' The condemnation of ecclesiastical synods by the illustrious Cappadocian father, Gregory Nazianzen, who himself presided at an Ecumenical Council, has passed into a proverb. These annual Church Congresses have done something to wipe away this reproach. Let this year's meeting be a brighter example than any. To hear patiently and to argue calmly, to strive to appreciate our opponents' views, to be willing to rectify our own, above all not to esteem others worse than ourselves, but to give them credit for the same sincerity and zeal for Christ of which we ourselves are conscious—this is our first and paramount duty, as members of a Church Congress.
In this spirit we would meet to-day. In this spirit let us strive now and always 'to labour and to wait,' ever looking forward to the dawn of that great morning, when a fuller revelation than Ezekiel's shall open before our eyes; when even the glory 'filling the house of the Lord' shall fade before a brighter, purer light, as the moon and stars disappear before the rising sun; when the very temple itself—type and antitype—shall melt and vanish away; when the vision of the prophet by the Chebar shall give place to the Apocalypse of the seer in Patmos; when God shall be all in all. 'I saw no temple therein; for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it. And the city had no need of the sun neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof.'