There are seasons when the professing church undergoes fearful trials. She suffered in olden times the ordeal of persecution. Edicts and writs were issued, forbidding all worship in the name of Jesus; cruel penalties were the reward of those who were faithful to the doctrine of the cross. The rough wind howled dreadfully; but the result was that the church, which had been overgrown with hypocrisy, was speedily freed from pretenders; and only those remained whose faith could bear the fire.
The church was thus refined by persecution, and might have thanked her persecutors for having put her through the blessed process.
Now-a-days we are not so much subject to this test, but the world hates us still. It now fawns upon the Christian; it invites him to share her joys; and bids him be no longer rigid and strict. It offers him rich rewards and soft speeches, if he will but compromise a little, and not be too sternly pure and upright.
What of this? Is it not the same purifying process? Let those who love the world go to it by all means, and let those who value the world’s pleasures have them. If it were possible for me to put a hedge all round this church, so that none of you should be tempted to enter the theater or enter into giddy company; if I could put a wall all round, so that none of you should ever be tempted into the gin-palace or the play-house, I should not dare to do it, for what would you then be? You would only cease from these things because you could not get at them; the taste for such vanities, if it be in your hearts, would be uncured.
If you were hypocrites you would not be so likely to be found out, if never tried; and those of you who are genuine would never grow into strong men, but remain Christian babies-nursed and dressed by others, but not at all able to run alone. The blandishments of the world are only another form of that fan which is in Christ’s hand, with which he purges the great visible heap lying upon the threshing-floor of his church.
When some of you fall into temptation, though we cannot but weep over you, yet we do not know but what your outwardly falling into temptation may only have discovered the rottenness and wickedness of your heart, and so we may be well rid of you; and you yourself, in the long run, may have your eyes opened to much secret evil, which otherwise you would never have detected.
At certain times discord has marred our churches. Blessed be God we have not felt it here, but when it does come, I am not certain that that is altogether a matter of regret. There are parties and strifes, and all this is sin, but when the church is shaken those that can be shaken will be shaken, and they will slide off, some this way and some that; but those who cannot be shaken will stand fast in their integrity, and defend the faith once committed to the saints.
There may also happen great fallings into sin; some who have been prominent in the church may make shipwreck, and when this occurs, woe indeed is it to the whole community, and sorrow to every member; but still I am not certain but what there may be a gain even in the loss, for then those are discovered whose faith may have stood in the wisdom of man, who have been depending on human countenance, and not following holiness for its own sake, and others who have merely been led by associations and not by principle, are led to great searchings of heart.
I would sorrow in all cases of failure, but not as though I had no consolation, for, my brethren, those only are shaken that may be shaken; but those who are rooted and grounded in Christ, and are truly what they profess to be, will stand fast unto the end.
That old oak in the forest is one of the noblest works of God. Look at it just now bursting into full leaf, bearing well its verdant honors, and making a picture worthy of the artist’s rarest skill. What are these dry pieces of wood which strew the ground beneath it? What are these large branches which rot under its shade? It is needless to ask, for we all know that they fell from the tree during winter’s storms. Is it a cause of regret for the sake of the tree that those rotten branches were broken off? It may be a lamentation as far as concerns the broken boughs, but the tree itself had never been so healthy, and never looked so complete if the rotten branches had been suffered to abide. When the hurricane came howling through the woods, the old tree shivered in the gale, and mourned as it heard the cracking of its boughs, yet now it is thankful because the sound healthy branches with sap and life in them are all there, and the withered ones no longer encumber the trunk.
Summing this matter up in a word or two, I do not think times of storm to a church are in the long run to be regretted; a calm is much more dangerous. The plague bearing miasma settles and festers in the vale till the atmosphere becomes deadly, even to the casual passenger; but the storm fiend, as men call him, leaps from the mountains into the sunny glades of the valley; with terrific vigor hurls down the habitations of men, and tears up the trees by the roots; but meanwhile all is superabundantly compensated by the effectual purging which the atmosphere receives. Men breathe more freely, and heaven smiles more serenely now that the heaviness of the death-damp is gone, and the poisonous vapor clings no longer to the river’s bank and the valley’s side.