« PreviousContinue »
they seck relief by removing the picture from the chambers of their imagery, or turning its face to the wall. Without the hope of a better world, apart from mercy, pardon, grace and glory, through the blood of Jesus Christ, what were death to me, or to any, but an object of unutterable gloom ? I shrink from seeing it. With all the strong consolations of the gospel, ah what sight so bitter as to see a loved one dying ; our sweet flower withering day by day on its drooping stalk; the cold shadow of death, like an eclipse, creeping over the whole horizon of our being, till, one hope after another disappearing, the case assuming a gloomier and yet gloomier aspect, we are left, but for the inner light of the Spirit and God's truth, in blank despair 2 As we hang over the dying couch or cradle, how it wrings the heart to see the imploring look turned on us, and we can give no relief; to hear the low moanings, and we cannot still them ; and when the struggle is long protracted, to be forced to pray that God in mercy would drop the curtain, and close this dreadful scene. There is no event so terrible as death. There is no sound so awful as that last sigh. There is no coldness feels so chill to the hand as the brow or face of the dead. And when, in place of one full once of light, and life, and love, our arms embrace a pale, claycold corpse, when, for the smiling face, childhood's pattering feet, and prattling tongue, and bright sparkling eye, and merry laughter, we have nothing but that solemn countenance, that rigid form, that marble brow, that cold clammy hand, that silent tenant of a lonesome room, beside whom we tread with noiseless step, and, as if afraid to disturb their slumbers, speak in hushed whispers, and with bated breath, verily death needs all the consolations that religion can administer.
Apart from the hopes of a better and a brighter world, to one's self, also, what is death but an unutterable evil? What weary hours, and days, and nights, are often preludes to the closing scene. And that scene! what terrible sufferings may we have to endure, and others have to witness in our dying chamber 2 How may they resemble those appalling struggles amid which the dying man seemed to us to be doing battle with an invisible enemy, who had him by the throat, and whom he was trying, but in vain trying, to throw off 7 Steps he into a palace or a hovel, Death, without any question the King of Terrors, presents the features of a tremendous curse in that ghastly countenance, the fixed and filmy eyes, the restless head, the wild tossing of the arms, the hands that, as if they sought something to cling to, clutch the bed-clothes, the muttering lips, the wandering mind, the deep insensibility, the heavy breathing, the awful pauses, and that long-drawn, shivering sigh, which closes the scene, and seems to say, as the departing spirit, ere it quit the bounds of time, casts one last look on all that is past and gone, Vanity of vanities, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.
Solomon pronounces a living dog to be better than a dead lion; and I say, better be a living beggar than a dead king. I love life; I love to walk abroad and see the sun shine, and hear the birds sing, and wander by rippling stream, or sit on banks where sweet flowers grow ; I love the homes where I look on happy faces smiling, receive welcome greetings, and hear kind voices speaking. To have all these shut out, to be nailed up in a narrow coffin, to be buried in the dull earth, to moulder amid silence into dust, to be forgotten, and, when fires are cheerily blazing on our own hearth, and songs and laughter by their merry ring tell how broken
hearts are sound again, to think of ourselves lying cold, and lonely, and joyless in the tomb, are not things we love to dwell on. Our Lord himself shrank from death; he cast himself at his Father's feet, to cry in an agony, If it be possible let this cup pass from me. And who, unless some unhappy wretch, courts death, wishes to die, to lie down among those naked skulls, and the grim unsocial tenants of the grave 2 Faith herself turns away from the thought. Standing on the edge of the grave, she turns her eye upward ; and, leaving the poor body to worms and dust, she wings her flight heavenward, follows the spirit to the realms of bliss, and loves to think of the dead as living ; as not dead; as standing before the Lamb with crowns of glory, and bending on us looks of love and kindness from their celestial seats. Yes; death needs all the comforts that religion can summon to our aid.
Nor has Christ left his people comfortless. By his life, and death, and resurrection, he has fulfilled the high expectations of prophets; nor, bold as it is, is the language too lofty which Hosea puts into his mouth, O death, I will be thy plagues; O grave, I will be thy destruction. The death of Death, the life of the grave and greatest of all its tenants, he has conquered the conqueror of kings; he has broken the prison, he has bound the jailer, he has seized the keys, and he comes in the fullness of time to set all his imprisoned people free. They are prisoners of hope. He will bring back his banished. He has entered into glory as their forerunner, or, as my text calls him, “the first-born from the dead.”
Let us consider in what respects Christ is “ the firstborn from the dead.”
I. He is so in the dignity of his person. He is the greatest who ever entered, or shall ever leave, the gates of death.
In one of the boldest flights of fancy, Isaiah sets forth the destruction of the Babylonian monarchy. He sees a mighty king descending into the grave, breaking its awful silence. His footsteps disturb the dead; they raise themselves in their coffins; and as he enters alone the dark domain of a monarch mightier than himself, on his ear fall the voices of kings long buried, muttering, Art thou also become as we? Art thou become like unto us? When we die we sink into the grave like raindrops into the sea, as snowflakes alight on the water; for however man's death may for a little agitate some living circles, it never stirs the dead. But Jesus Christ being the Lord of glory, the fountain of life, the creator of the sun that darkened over his cross, and of the moon that shed her silver light on his lonely sepulchre, his descent into the tomb was an event which might well be set forth in the prophet's magnificent imagery. I can fancy all the dead astonished at his coming ; and that, as he enters the domain of the grave, a spirit-voice breaks its silence, saying, “It is moved for thee to meet thee at thy coming; it stirreth up the dead for thee, even all the chief ones of the earth; it hath raised up from their thrones all the kings of the nations. All they shall speak and say unto thee, Art thou also become weak as we ? Art thou become like unto us?”
Fancy some great, good, brave, patriotic monarch, bound in chains, and after being ignominiously paraded through the public streets, thrust into the common gaol, to exchange the glory of a palace for the gloom and shame of a dungeon. Isow would such an event impress the spectators with the mutability of earthly greatness! And were such a reverse of fortune borne out of love to his subjects, how would it win their admiration, how would it move their love as well as pity! Yet, what were such an event to that which, unnoticed by the world, is passing in yonder garden, where by the waning light of day two men and a group of weeping women, amid silence broken only by sobs and soft whispers, are laying a dead body on a hurriedly prepared bed of spices? Nor man's, nor angel's eyes, had ever looked on a scene so wonderful. Solomon had said, Will God in very deed dwell with men on the earth 2 but what would Solomon have said, had he seen the young child in the manger, still more, had he seen the lonely tenant of that tomb 2 Whom the heaven of heavens cannot contain, here a sepulchre holds. Repulsive to the eye as are these skulls and mouldering bones, the grave boasts of having held some nights within its chambers one who, while he honored lowly cottages with his visits, was greater than any whom palaces have opened to receive. The language of the prophet is literally accomplished. The regions of death were moved at Jesus' coming. Never before, never since, has the opening of these gates awakened those within. They sleep too sound for that. How unmoved do parents lie when their children are laid by their side; the mother never flings her arms about the dear babe that death restores to her bosom ; and to the cry of room, room, the unman