WHY STAND YE GAZING UP INTO
Why stand ye gazing up into heaven f
Acts i. n.
Sunday after Ascension Day, 1877.
Once again the disciples had been doomed to a cruel disappointment. Once again, as the cup of happiness touched their lips, it had been snatched from them, and dashed to the ground. Only a few weeks before their faith had undergone a terrible trial. They had borne their part in that triumphal procession—the proudest moment of their lives— when the loud Hosannas of the assembled people had hailed their Master as the rightful Heir of David's line, the long-expected King of Israel, the mighty Conqueror, Who should subdue the nations of the earth. Their hopes then had suddenly set in darkness. They were stunned and paralysed. It was with them, 'as when a hungry man dreameth, and, behold, he eateth; but he awaketh, and his soul is empty.' They had dreamt of a throne; and, behold, a gibbet. They had imagined a palace; and, behold, a tomb. Out of that tomb their hopes had arisen again with their risen Lord. They saw before them, not indeed a throned and sceptred king, not a mighty victor laden with the spoils of his foes, not all that their expectations had forecast; but they saw at least restored to them the same Master, Teacher, Friend. Then came this second shock. The Master discoursed freely with them about the promised kingdom. He led them on point by point, till the last anxious question trembled on their lips, ' Lord, wilt Thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?' What was the meaning of His revival, His resurrection, His presence among them once more, if the long-expected hour had not at length arrived? It seemed doubtless to them, as if every moment the heavens must part asunder, and the celestial hosts descend in glorious panoply»to do battle for their King. And yet day followed day in the same monotonous succession. Still there was delay; still there was uncertainty; still there was the wearisome, daily routine of common duties and common cares. They
would put an end to this intolerable suspense; they would ask the question point-blank; and thus they would extort an answer by very plainness of speech. 'Lord, wilt Thou at this time?' The answer withheld from them the one thing which they desired to know. It charged them with a difficult and dangerous task, to which henceforth they must devote their lives; it promised them a power, which would enable them adequately to fulfil this task. But to the question 'When,' it vouchsafed no reply at all. 1 Here,' it seemed to say, 'here is the work to be done, and there is the means of doing it. Ask for nothing more. It is mere idle curiosity to go beyond this, to penetrate into the impenetrable.' Then, as if to enforce by the strongest practical comment the lesson which His word had conveyed, 'while they beheld, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.' Again it was the phantom of a dissolving dream. They stretched out their hands to clutch at the kingdom, and behold the King Himself had vanished away.
Amazed and uncertain, what else could they do but to gaze up into heaven? Had He really left them, left them for ever? Or had He but retired for a moment, that He might array Himself in His glorious majesty; and would He even now emerge from His celestial chamber, resplendent in glory and attended by countless myriads of His Father's legions? So they stood transfixed, every face upturned and every eye straining, that they might catch the first ray of the descending glory, as it darted through the riven cloud.
From this dream they were startled by the rebuke of the angels. There was something hard and chilling in the very form of address, 'Ye men of Galilee;' not, 'Ye satraps of the King of Kings,' nor 'Ye captains in the mighty Victor's host.' So then the glory had departed. They were humble fishermen and peasants still, simple inhabitants of a despised province, doomed to a life of vulgar toil and commonplace cares. A fit introduction this to the rebuke which follows, 'Why stand ye gazing up into heaven?' 'Face the stern realities of life at once. You have a wofk to do, which will tax all your energies. There is this tremendous load of sin, under which mankind is sinking, and you are called to remove it; there is this dense cloud of ignorance, which shrouds the heavens from them, and you are charged to scatter it. There is a whole world to be conquered for Christ, and you must conquer it . What matter it to you when He will come—this very moment, tomorrow, next year, centuries hence? Cease to gaze up into heaven. Earth is the scene of your labours now; earth must be the centre of your interests.'
The angels' address is a rebuke to idle speculation in regions beyond the reach of human knowledge. It is a warning against substituting that which is visionary, for that which is real, in religion. It is more especially a denunciation of this over-curious spirit, in those provinces into which it is most eager to intrude itself, in matters relating to the Ascension, the Reign in Heaven, the Second Advent of Christ. At each recurring season of the Ascensiontide therefore it suggests a wholesome check to our thoughts. There is a highly practical way of regarding the Ascension: and there is also an eminently unpractical way. It directs us to the one; it warns us off from the other.
In one sense we cannot help gazing up into heaven. Are we not told elsewhere that 'our conversation,' our citizenship, 'is in heaven?' Are we not charged to 'seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God?' Are we not commanded to 'lay up treasures for ourselves in heaven,' for this very reason that'where our treasure is, there our heart will be also?' And in this spirit have we not prayed during this season that ' as we do believe our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens, so we may also in heart and mind thither ascend, and with Him continually dwell?' In what sense then can we be required to avert our gaze from heaven, and to fix our eyes on the earth?
The circumstances of the Apostles will supply us with a first answer. What was a fault in them, will be a fault in us also. They were eager to know the exact time—the year and the day and the hour— when their King would come and claim His kingdom. They could not submit to wait patiently. The Master Himself had been quite explicit on this point. He had told them again and again, that this knowledge was hidden from them. He had figured this truth in parables; He had enunciated it in plain language. He had bidden them to watch and be ready always, because they knew not what hour their Lord would come. He had warned them that this ignorance was complete, was absolute, was universal. 'Of that day and that hour knoweth no man.' It was hidden even from the angels of heaven—the angels, who serve in the presence of God; it was hidden in some sense from the Son Himself in His mediatorial capacity—the Son, to Whom all things were made known. It was buried deep, dark, inscrutable, in the eternal counsels of the Father. And still, notwithstanding these frequent declarations, the Apostles attempt again and again to probe this secret; still the last words which they address to their risen Lord ignore the oft-repeated warning; still the last answer which they receive from His lips is a rebuke for desiring to fathom the unfathomable. 'It is not for you to know the times or the seasons.'
The attitude of the Apostles is the type, a forecasting, of the attitude of the Church in aftertimes. The subject has exercised a strong fascination over Christians in all ages. No rebuff and no disappointment seems to have produced any effect. Again and again men have been found to predict the time of the Second Advent. Again and again their predictions have been falsified by the event. In language not less clear than the voices heard by the Apostles of old, the stern logic of facts has rebuked their presumption. 'It is not for you to know the times or the seasons.' 'Why stand ye gazing up into heaven?'
And the wrong done by this lawless speculation is not trifling. It tends to impair that attitude of patient waiting which is enjoined on the Church. It substitutes a spasmodic, intermittent, feverish watchfulness (with intervals of sloth and indifference) for the calm and continuous expectation, which alone becomes the sons of God. It is chargeable with still more fatal consequences than these. It has bred disappointment, and frpm disappointment has sprung scepticism, and from scepticism, mockery and unbelief. It has given occasion to the enemies of Christ to blaspheme. From the Apostolic age to the present day there have been scoffers, walking after their own lusts and saying, 'Where is the promise of His coming?' From then until now men have been prone to forget 'that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years.' And the guilt lies in no small degree with the lawless speculation of believers. Strange that it should have been so; strange that men should not perceive how each such prediction falsified, each such hope disappointed, is after all only a fresh confirmation of the Master's saying, 'Of that day and that hour knoweth no man.' 'It is not for you to know the times or the seasons.'
This then is one sense, in which we are forbidden to gaze up into heaven—this presumptuous forecasting the day of the Lord's Advent. And the second is akin to it. It has reference to the place and the circumstances of Christ's reign, as the other had reference to the time. 'Christ has ascended into the heaven of heavens; Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father; Christ will descend thence to judge the quick and dead. Where then is Christ now, at this moment? In some far-off star, which sparkles overhead in the midnight sky? In some bright, ethereal region in the mid-air, which we can vaguely imagine?' Nay, we do but perplex ourselves with such idle speculations; we only create difficulties, where there are none, by attempting to realise that which with our present faculties is unrealisable. Only reflect for a moment on the meaning of the terms which you are using. We see now only 'through a glass darkly,' not 'face to face.' We behold, not the eternal things themselves, but only their shadows. God speaks to us not yet plainly, but in parables. Here are metaphors, and we would argue upon them as if they were scientific statements. 'Set your affection on things above.' What do we mean by 'above?' Surely, not overhead. What is above us now will be on a level, will sink below us a few hours hence as the earth revolves on its axis. What is above us at this very moment is beneath the feet of our Australian fellow-disciples of Christ. 'God dwelleth in the heavens!' What again do we mean by 'the heavens?' Not surely the skies. God can no more dwell in the skies, than He can dwell on this solid earth, than He can dwell in the restless ocean. Strain your eyes and rack your thoughts, as you will, to find the place of His abode; and your brain will only grow giddy in vain. Attempt to reckon the myriads upon myriads of miles which separate you from that faint star barely discerned through the most powerful telescope, that star from which the very ray of light now striking the reflector was darted centuries before the human race existed on this earth. Have you arrived one whit nearer to the abode, the court, the throne of God, by all this tension of your senses, by all this play of your imagination? Nay, this heaven, this sky overhead, in its purity, its calm, its glory, its spaciousness, is only an image—a sublime image indeed, but an image still—of an infinitude, which we cannot describe, cannot realise. But the abode of God—God the Infinite, God the Omnipresent—why 'the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain' Him. When the Apostle describes 'the King of kings and Lord of lords, Who only hath immortality,' as 'dwelling in the light unapproachable,' we picture to ourselves such a radiancy as Dante has described, or Angelico has painted. We are obliged to sustain our imagination by such aids. But here too light is only a figure. God Himself dwells no more in the light than He dwells in the darkness. But light is warmth, is geniality, is revelation, is life to us; and therefore it serves as an image of the eternal perfection.
Would we really describe the dwelling-place of God? Then let us adopt the prophet's description, 'The high and holy One that inhabiteth eternity.' Language cannot go beyond this. 'Inhabiteth eternity,' a cross metaphor, it will be said; time and space are confused. Yes, but herein consists the sublimity and power of the image. God has no palace but eternity. And so again, when we saythat Christ dwells 'at the right hand of God,' it is still more obvious that we are dealing with a metaphor: God has neither hands nor feet: with God is neither right nor left. It would be blasphemy to think otherwise of Him. Nay, S. Paul says that we ourselves—you and I, Christian men and women— by virtue of our baptism, by virtue of our Christian profession, have been 'seated together with Christ in the heavenly places,' have been enthroned already, where Christ Himself is enthroned. This is an obvious metaphor. And why then should we press the words in the other case, as if they described some visible scene, with Christ sitting on the right hand of God? We recall the court of some earthly sovereign, where the heir-apparent holds the place of honour nearest the throne; and we picture to ourselves some far-off celestial palace, with its rainbow hues, its starry glories, where such a scene is enacted, only with a brilliancy intensified a thousandfold. We have in our mind's eye perhaps the representation of some famous painter, who has described on canvas the session of the Son in glory. And yet—with a strange inconsistency—when the painter attempts to portray the Eternal Father, our mind recoils with horror. We shudder at the profanity, we avert our gaze. Our repulsion, our horror, is a silent witness to us, that the scene cannot be localised, cannot be portrayed.
But 'what then?' it will be said, 'the very purpose, you confess, of the Ascensiontide is to testify to the glorification of humanity in the Session of Christ, as Man still, on God's right hand. Does not this suppose some locality? How can you understand it otherwise?'
Why should you expect to understand it? Is your understanding all-powerful? Nay, do you even understand yourself—yourself, whom you are questioning every moment? Do you understand how it is that, while your body is fixed on this one spot, your mind is traversing all space and all time, soaring into heaven beyond Arcturus and the Pleiades, piercing into the remote past when this earth was peopled with strange monsters, plesiosauri and pterodactyls and labyrinthodons? This is a fact. And, if this is possible, can you not conceive it possible also, that the humanity of Christ—with all the limitations which it implies—may be brought into close proximity, may, in some mysterious way, be placed in a position of unique honour, in relation to the Illimitable, Infinite, Eternal Father, such as is represented to us in a figure, in a parable, by sitting at the right hand of God? Do not presume that you know everything, when in fact you know nothing at all.
S. P. S. ii
Stand no more gazing up into heaven. Spend no more time on barren speculations; they only absorb energy and paralyze action. Nor yet on mystic reveries; they only satisfy the feelings, without stimulating the conscience. Be stirring, be working, be witnesses to Christ.
Stand no more gazing up into heaven; but rather ascend thither as at this season, and there 'in heart and mind continually dwell.' Ascend thither in the contemplation of humanity exalted, enthroned, glorified in Christ, in the presence of the Eternal Father. This thought must purify, must stimulate, must sanctify you, as you remember that you too are seated with Christ—seated with Him even now—in the heavenly places. Ascend thither in the realisation of Christ as still a living Being, still a living Man, Who, though 'touched with the feeling of our infirmities,' has nevertheless entered into the heavenly sanctuary, the true Holy of Holies, and there makes atonement for our sins. Ascend thither in the assurance of His reappearing again, at the great restitution, when there shall be new heavens and a new earth, and when God shall be all in all. Ascend thither in the spirituality of your worship, this knowing, that if Christ had not gone away, the Comforter, the Guide to all truth, could never have come; and that therefore His departure was ordained to wean you from outward, formal conceptions of religion. So rise from earth to heaven; or rather, so call down heaven upon earth. The kingdom of God is within you, is around you; heaven is in your homes, in your chambers and warehouses, in the very streets, if you have only eyes to see it.
Stand no more gazing up into heaven; but return from the Mount of the Ascension to the city of your abode, to the duties of your vocation, to the struggles of your every-day life. There continue in prayer and supplication; there await in confidence that outpouring of the Spirit, which is never denied to those who do earnestly seek it: there live and there bear witness to Christ, that you may win yourselves, may win others, to God.