NICOLL

GETHSEMANE, THE ROSE GARDEN OF GOD


BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE

William Robertson Nicoll, Presbyterian minister and author, was born at Lumsden, Aberdeenshire, 1851. He was educated at the University of Aberdeen, where he took his degree in 1870. He was Free Minister of Dufftown, 1874-1877; of Kelso, 1877-1885. In 1886 he became editor of British Weekly, Bookman, Expositor and Woman at Home, and is a prolific writer of books, mostly theological.

Lewis O. Brastow, D. D.


NICOLL

Born in 1851

GETHSEMANE, THE ROSE GARDEN OF GOD

Without shedding of blood is no—Heb. ix., 22.

I had a strange feeling, dear brethren, this morning, in busy London, on a week-day, in the sunshine, reading these words from the Epistle to the Hebrews; and it struck me that some few would think they were strangely antique, that they contrasted violently with your morning newspapers. And then it passed through my mind again that there could not be anything so vitally modern, so close and quick to the moment in London as just my text—"Without shedding of blood there is no"—no anything; nothing; no mighty result, no achievement, no triumph, no high thing accomplished without shedding of blood. That is just on the lowest plane what we are getting to know as a nation, and if we are taught it as Christians, then we shall come to know at last what Christianity means.

Dear brethren, life is just our chance of making this great and strange discovery, that without shedding of blood there is nothing, nothing at all. How do young people begin, most of them? They begin by doing little or nothing; they begin by trifling. And then they begin to find that they are not making progress. And if so, they are wise, gradually they put more strength into it; and then more, till at last they have put all their strength into it. And then they say they have not succeeded, have not gained their point. And they say, What have we got to do now? You take off your coat to your work. A man may disrobe; what more can be done? What more have I got left? Left? You have got your blood left, and until you begin to part with that you will never do any great work at all. I mean by that, if you leave a mark in life; to fulfil a mission in life there is wanted something more than the concentration of life. I appeal to you, there is wanted, besides, the pruning of life, aye, and even the maiming of life. There must be for success, even in the business world, I say, in the world of commercial achievement, there must be more and more an actual parting with the life before it is reached. And we are being sternly taught this lesson as a nation. But I want to teach it this morning to the Church as Christians.

Well, let me go back to the very beginning. I find that there is in the primitive elemental religion a profound and solemn witness to this truth; "Without shedding of blood there is no remission," no peace with God, no life in Christ. And I look upon these early and crude and distorted ideas as God's deep preparation of the mind and heart of man by the grand gospel of the substitution under the law of Jesus Christ for guilty sinners. And we can not get those thoughts out, they are embodied in our very language. Do you know what the word "bless" means, what it was derived from? The word "bless" comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for "blood." And the idea dimly aimed at is this: that before you can really bless a fellow creature you must part with your life, or part of your life, for him; shed blood. We can do a great deal by little things; our Lord said so—by smiles, by gifts, by kind words, by cups of cold water. Christ will never forget these things. But at the same time, if you are to bless a soul in the superlative sense, you can not do it in that easy way; you have to sprinkle the soul with blood, and with your own blood. You know what I mean. Oh, some of you know it who have labored for another soul for weary years; you know it too well. But part with your life and you will win a soul at last. It will cover a multitude of sins.

I wish I had time to quote from the primitive religions; but I would remind you of the old legend of the building of Copenhagen. The builders could not make progress with their work; the sea came in and took it away, until at last they took a human life, and by the sacrifice of that human life they gave to the city stability. And you know the old idea of primitive religion, that the corn will not grow in the seed ground unless the body of a dead man is buried there—life coming out of death. Now, I say all these things point on to the supreme Author of the universe; Jesus died, the Just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God. Now do you not think you can see how it is that the eternal Son shed His blood in Gethsemane, and offered Himself immaculate to God on Calvary?

But we shall never know quite—none of the ransomed ever know—how deep were the waters crost, or how dark was the night that the Lord passed through ere He found the sheep that was lost. But we read with hearts bowed the prayer offered up with strong crying and tears—the prayer, "If it be possible let this cup pass." There is no prayer like that, when you feel that a life is hanging in the balance, that the issues are not quite decided, that your prayer might turn it. Then you understand what prayer can be. And we hear those dim, overcome witnesses who heard afar the broken moaning, the long-drawn sighs, who saw the hard-won victory which seemed defeat, and we read—I love to read—about that all-pitying but undimmed angel who appeared to strengthen at last. God made His minister a flame of fire in the dark and cold, else could Christ have conquered? His prayer was answered; the cup was not taken away, but His lips were made brave to drink it, and He drank it and opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers. Some of my friends think that the real crowning-point in the suffering of Christ was Gethsemane, that it was over there that the cross was more the public and open manifestation which the world, passing by the wayside, could see. I do not know. Christ quivered a lament upon the cross too.

And now I come to the two thoughts of my sermon.

In the first place, partly from etymology, we learn that the shedding of our own blood is the condition of our blessing others. And then my second point is, that since bloom and blossom, the perfection of life, are also associated with the root, with the word blood, then I say that the bloom and perfection of our own lives depend upon our parting with the natural life and having it replaced by the resurrection life. I hope it is simple enough. Without shedding of blood there is no blessing to others; without shedding of blood there is no blessing to ourselves. Take these two great ruling missionary ideas.

I. Bloodshed for blessing others.

I spoke about Gethsemane because I wanted you to understand that I was referring not merely to absolute physical death, but to the death which leads a man to go on, and perhapsto live more abundantly than before. But still, dear friends, we have been most solemnly and impressively reminded in these times, that, whatever has failed in the Church of Christ, the race of martyrs has not failed. Great names have been written there, the names of those who have been received in heaven. And, for my part, I love the way in which the Church of Rome reverences the martyrs. You know that that Church never prays for the martyrs, but makes requests for their prayers; you know that that Church pictures in the assembly of the redeemed before the throne the martyrs in their robes of crimson and the saints in white. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. We can not atone for others, but we can bless others. We can not, dear friends, have any part in the one perfect oblation and substitution in the sacrifice of the world, but we fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ. We know Him and the fellowship of His sufferings as well as the power of His resurrection. And when Christ first laid His hand on His well-beloved He said: "I will show him how great things he must suffer for my name's sake." This is the chief work of the martyr, to suffer; and it is the chief work of every Christian to suffer for Christ's name's sake. And I sometimes think the whole of Christianity, for the present generation, is summed up in this: fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ, for until that is filled up He can not have His triumph.

But, dear brethren, of course I do not confuse labor and suffering in the Christian servant's life. The labor is effective in proportion as there is suffering, and the suffering by itself is nothing without the labor. But, oh, how Christ's great servants have suffered! Have you ever thought how St. Paul was actually driven to use the awful language of the passion when he described his own life? He did not like to do it; he always drew the line sharp and clear between himself and the Master. He said, "Was Paul crucified for you?" Yes; but he was driven to say, "I am crucified with Christ"—always bearing about the body and its death—"I die daily." Oh, they have suffered by way of bloodshed. Yes; but, dear brethren, I think that in the lives of the great servants of Christ, the elect servants, there is always one Gethsemane above the rest, far above the rest; one shedding of blood, one parting with life which makes all the rest comparatively easy. We can not tell, I think, about other people's Gethsemane; and we can not tell, will not tell, nothing would make us tell, about our own.

How does the Gethsemane come? Often it is passed with very little sign or show. You have read in "The Bonny Brier Bush" that when George Howe came home to die, his mother hid herself beneath the laburnum, and as the cat stood beneath the stile, it told the plain fact, as she had feared. And Margaret passed through her Gethsemane with the gold blossoms falling on her face. I believe there are some of you who are passing through your Gethsemane in this chapel while I am speaking to you now. There is little to show—some absence of manner, some twitching of the lips, some unwonted pallor, some strange abstraction, but no more. And you will never tell anybody about it, and nobody will discover it when you are dead. You sometimes suspect—do you not?—about another man what his Gethsemane has been. You are almost sure to be wrong. That surrender which you see was accomplished almost without murmur or reluctance. Sometimes in biographies I think I can see where the Gethsemane is. It may be, and often is, the rooting out of some cherished ambition that has filled the heart and occupied every thought, every dream for years and years. It may be the shattering of some song, the breaking of some dream. It may be, and often is, a great rending of the affections, the cutting the soul free from some detaining human tenderness. Well, we do not know—the real Gethsemane never lasts long. I think an hour is the longest that anybody could bear it—"Could ye not watch with me one hour?" True, the heartache may go on to the end, but the Gethsemane, that can not last a long time.

We have in biographies some instances of Gethsemanes, and sometimes in very unexpected places. You would not imagine that a prosperous suburban minister, with a rich congregation, and every earthly ambition realized, would have his Gethsemane as a missionary far among the heathen has. But in the "Life of Dr. Raleigh," of Kensington, whom many of you remember, there is a significant passage. When he was at the zenith of his fame he said that ministers came and looked around at his crowded church and envied his position. "They do not know," he said, "what it has cost me to come to this." In the "Life" of the beloved James Hamilton, of Regent Square, there is a passage which always touches me. It shows how he parted, for Christ's sake, with the great ambition of his life. He longed to write a life of Erasmus, but other things came and he was balked of his desire. He says:

"So this day, with a certain touch of tenderness, I restored the eleven tone folios to the shelf and tied up my memoranda, and took leave of a project which has often cheered the hours of exhaustion, the mere thought of which has always been enough to overcome my natural indulgence. It is well. It is the only chance I ever had of attaining a small measure of literary distinction, and where there is so much pride and naughtiness of heart it is better to remain unknown."

I think we may all easily see where the Gethsemane came in in Henry Martyn's life, and—I say it with great diffidence—I think we may see where the Gethsemane came in in John Wesley's life, tho I should not care to indicate it. But the heart knoweth its own bitterness. What we know is that the Gethsemanes in the Christian life are in the course of duty, and in obedience to God's will, as it is revealed from day to day.

Go back to John Wesley's Journal. On one occasion he had the claim of a reputed saint, and he rejected it, and said—mark these words: "No blood of the martyrs is here, no scandal of the cross, no persecution of them that love God." No blood is here, no saint. When Adam Clarke was speaking in the City-Road Chapel in 1816, at the establishment of a missionary society in London, he told the people about the Moravians. And I need not tell you how great the Moravian influence was on early Methodism. He told his hearers at that time that the Moravians, when all told, only numbered six hundred members, but they had missionaries in every part of the globe to which it was then possible to send them. Dr. Clarke told them of the beginning, which was in the far-away place of St. Thomas. A negro slave escaped from St. Thomas somehow, and he came into contact with Zinzendorf, and found the way of salvation, and rejoiced in Christ. Well, this negro came to the Moravians, and he told them that among his fellow slaves in St. Thomas there were several—his own sister was one, I think—who were feeling after God. "But," he said, "nobody can go out to tell them the gospel unless they sell themselves as slaves and go out as slaves." Whereupon two brethren immediately offered themselves, and exprest their willingness to be sold as slaves, that they might preach Christ. Yes, we may be sure that no life will bring forth fruit to God if it is without its Gethsemane, with the great drops of blood in it; and I believe that just as the Savior's blood dropt in Gethsemane and the ground blest it, so the blood of the surrendered soul makes its Gethsemane a garden, if not now, then hereafter; but the time must be, whenever a martyr's blood has been shed, upon that ground the fruits of righteousness must spring.

II. Bloodshed for self-perfection.

I have just my other point. The second point is that there must be bloodshedding for the bloom and perfection of our own lives before they can come to their flower, to God's ideal beauty; there must be the expenditure of the natural life.

Now, what is it that should follow when we have parted with our life and lived our Gethsemane; what should be the effect upon our lives? Well, what ought to follow is, that the resurrection life, which the shedding of blood has made room for, should take the place of the other. But what does follow? I think three things, often:

First, it often happens that a real Gethsemane of the soul means a brief tarrying in this world. It seems as if too much life had gone, as if the spirit could not recover its energies. There are a few books which the heart of the Church has always loved. I call them Gethsemane books. They are books about Gethsemane, about the bloodshedding in the early days and what was gone through. They are chiefly the lives of David Brainerd, Henry Martyn, and McCheyne. But there are many others that I have no time to name. All of these died young, not without signs of the divine blessing, but their rich, fervent natures were prematurely exhausted and burned out. Have you read the memoir of Brainerd? John Wesley published it, slightly abridged, for his people, and I have a copy. Read it, mark its reserved passion, its austere tenderness; read the story of young Miss Edwards, who followed her betrothed so soon. You will then feel that you have done business in great waters. The pages of this book are all spotted with blood. Read Brainerd's aspirations:

"Oh, that I might be a flaming fire in the service of my God! Here I am, Lord, send me; send me to the ends of the earth; send me to the rough and savage pagan, to the wilderness; send me from all that is called earthly comfort; send me even to death itself if it be but in Thy service and to promote Thy Kingdom."

But sometimes the earthly life is parted with and not fully replaced by the resurrection life, and the long-drawn melancholy ensues. You really must not believe that I am speaking as an enemy of Methodism when I say I venture to think there is something of that in the life of that great saint and supreme Christian poet, Charles Wesley. I think it will be granted by his most ardent admirers that the last thirty years of his life will not compare with those of his mighty brother. They were sad years in the main, spent in comparative inaction, with many, many wearisome discontented days. Dear friends, there is no such thing as melancholy in the New Testament—nothing. And Charles Wesley's melancholy is the most attractive in the world—

Oh, when shall we sweetly move?
Oh, when shall our souls be at rest?

And there is this view of life: "Suffer out my threescore years till the Deliverer come; and then this soul appeals to God to explain my life of misery with all Thy love's designs in Thee." Those are awful matters—"explain my life of misery with all Thy love's designs in Thee." But, dear friends, am I right in saying that this frame is a Christian frame? When Charles Wesley was in his last years his favorite text was—and it is a text which will always go with his name—"I will bring the third part through the fire." That is, he thought that God would bring to glory one-third part of Methodists, that one-third of them would endure to the end. Compare that with "God is with us who seeth the end." Who is right? And he never sought an abundant entrance into the kingdom. What he used to say over and over again was: "Oh, that I might escape safe to land on a broken piece of the ship. This is my daily, hourly prayer, that I may escape safe to land." In his latter days he was always warning those about him that a flood was coming out over the country which would sweep much of this religion away. You know it was said on another death-bed, "Clouds drop fatness."

It is always necessary that the bloom of life should come out of death. What Christ means is that as the natural life goes, as the veins are depleted, there is the resurrection life which should fill them and pour into them to strengthen. There is no book in the world, I think, like John Wesley's "Journal," because it is the book of the resurrection life, and I do not know another in all literature; the resurrection life lived in this world almost as Christ might have gone on living it if the forty years had been prolonged into fifty years. As a book it stands out solitary in all literature, clear, detached, columnar. It is a tree that is ever green before the Lord. It tells us of a heart that kept to the last its innocent pleasures, but held them so lightly, while its Christian renunciation and its passionate peace grew and grew to the end, the old wistfulness, the old calm fiery and revealed eloquence.

John Wesley was indeed one of those who had attained the inward stillness, who had entered the second rest, who, to use his own fine words, was "of those who are at rest before they go hence, possessors of that rest which remaineth even here"—even here—"for the people of God." With what emotion one comes to his closing days, and follows him to that last sermon at Leatherhead, on the word: "Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near!" And watch by his triumphant death-bed and hear him say, "The clouds drop fatness." The only one I can compare him with in all the history of the Church is the apostle Elliot, the missionary to the Indians, whose life was written by Cotton Mather. You know that in that day they had a tradition that the country was safe as long as the apostle was there. Some of you will remember that Nathaniel Hawthorne, in his great book, "The Scarlet Letter," tells us of how the poor children of Arthur Dimsdale pleaded to see the apostle Elliot, for the testimony is that there was an unearthly light upon his face to the last of his long life. We read about that great apostle, fit to be named with Wesley, that he had his bitter sorrows. Two sons died before him, and Cotton Mather says they were desirable preachers of the gospel. But the old man sacrificed them. Now, note Cotton Mather's phrase, "sacrificed with such a sacred indifference." And he was so nailed to the cross and the Lord Jesus Christ that the grandeur of this world would seem to him just what it would be to a dying man, when at a great age and nearing the end he grew, with John Wesley, still more heavenly, more Saviorly, more divine and scented more and more of that spicy country at which he was ready to put ashore. His last words were, "Welcome, joy," and he died. Such a life of sacrifice is the gateway of the eternal city.

2. It is likewise necessary that the conversion of the world should come out of death. I for one believe in the ancient promise, "The knowledge of the Lord shall cover the earth as the waters cover the sea." Yes, but before the knowledge of the Lord shall cover the earth, the earth must be covered with the blood falling upon it from faithful souls. "Without shedding of blood there is no—." Some young men whom I love have started societies for the evangelization of the world in the present generation. I love that; let us try.

But what is evangelization? To send Bibles, to deliver the message to everybody? No, not that, but the shedding of the servants' blood on every field, with the world as one great Gethsemane. We shall see over it the flowers that grew only in the garden where Christ's brow dropt blood. At this meeting, in this chapel, there will be some sweet mother who is going through her Gethsemane. She is resolving to give up a son who has heard the call: "Depart, for I will send them far hence to the heathen." One in widow's weeds was asked if she had subscribed to the missionary society. She said: "Yes, I gave my only son, and he died in the field." That is my text: "Without shedding of blood there is no—."

Yes, and there is some young heart here that has a great deal to give up, a great deal at home. And he is hearing me, and he has made up his mind that he will make the sacrifice, too; that he will go forth to Christ. And what are the rest of us doing? Well, dear brethren, there is to be a collection, and we will put our hands in our pockets in the old way, half thinking what we will spend, and how we are to spend it before we go home; and select a coin and put it in. And then we shall go home and see a missionary magazine on the table, and express our regret that missionary magazines are not better edited and not more interesting. Of course, there will be something for the collector when the collector goes round. It will not be much; and perhaps, owing to the war, you know, we can not give quite so much as last year.

And do you really think that the world will ever be converted in that way? Do you believe it? Have you any right to expect that it should be converted in that way? No right at all. The world will never be converted until the Church is in agony, and prays more earnestly, and sweats, as it were, great drops of blood; never, never! "Without shedding of blood there is no remission of sins."