The Sabbath Day’s Journey
The mount called Olivet, which is from Jerusalem a Sabbath day’s journey — Act_1:12
A Three-Quarter Mile Journey
A Sabbath day’s journey with the Jews was a quite exact and definite expression. It was a journey of about three-quarters of a mile. In the Exodus, you will remember, the tabernacle was in the center of the camp. On every side of it were ranged the tribes of Israel. From the tabernacle to the farthest tent was a distance of about three-quarters of a mile and that was a Sabbath day’s journey. Such was the technical import of the word, but like other words, it got a vaguer meaning. It came to mean a short and easy journey, a journey such as anyone might take. And it will help us to understand our text and some of the wealth of meaning in it if we keep that looser significance in mind.
The Mount of Olives Is Associated with Loneliness
As most of you doubtless are aware, though it may not often be present to your thought, the division of our Bible into chapters is a comparatively modern device. In the ancient Greek Testament there are no chapters. Now unquestionably, on the whole, the division into chapters is a help; yet there are cases where it is not a help but, on the contrary, obscures the meaning One such unfortunate division bears directly on the Mount of Olives. At the end of the seventh chapter of St. John we read, “Then every man went away to his own house.” At the beginning of the next chapter, “Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.” And it is only when we take these two together and let them lie together in the mind that we feel what the writer wanted us to feel, the spiritual loneliness of Christ. Every man went unto his own house; Jesus went unto the Mount of Olives. It haunts the memory, that lonely figure, homeless when all the company went home. And then, deepening the feeling greatly and throwing light on the loneliness of Christ, we are told here that the Mount of Olives was but a Sabbath day’s journey from Jerusalem.
The Loneliness of Christ
Now loneliness is of many kinds, just as love is of many kinds. And there are many pictures of loneliness in Scripture, that perfect mirror of the human heart. There is the loneliness of Cain when he was driven out from the face of living men. There is the loneliness of Abraham when he went out not knowing whither he went. And there is the loneliness of the apostle John when he was an exile on the isle of Patmos where in the evening when the sun was setting he could perhaps sit by the sad waves on the seashore. All these were far away from friends and kindred. They were separated from all the ties of home. Their eyes looked out on unfamiliar scenes where was no form of comrade or of brother. But the loneliness of Christ was of another kind. It was the loneliness of Olivet, and Olivet was but a Sabbath day’s journey from Jerusalem. Not far away from Him were happy homes. He saw the sunshine flashing on the walls. In the still evening He could hear the voices of the children who were playing in the marketplace His was a loneliness amid familiar scenes and not far distant from familiar faces where men were toiling and cottage fires were smoking and mothers were rocking their little ones to sleep.
Loneliness Amid Men
Perhaps we better recognize the truth of this when we compare our Savior with the Baptist. The Baptist was a very solitary figure. The Baptist withdrew himself from human companionship— retired to the solitude of deserts— moved apart from men, far from the markets, where the lonely reeds were shaken by the wind. And yet the Baptist, for all his desert-solitude, does not touch one with such a sense of loneliness as Christ who moved among the haunts of me, The one was a recluse and dwelt apart; the other the friend of publicans and sinners. The one was a harsh and rigorous ascetic; the other was infinitely genial. And He loved the children, and He went to marriages, and He moved in the traffic of the village street; and yet I wonder if in all the centuries there has ever been such loneliness as Christ’s. The loneliness of John was desert loneliness; it was the loneliness of isolation. But the loneliness of Christ was not like that. His was the loneliness of Olivet.
The Unutterable Loneliness
And is it not the case that loneliness like that is very often the most intense of all? It is not those who are alone who are most lonely.
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods.
There is a rapture by the lonely shore.
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar.
But often there is a loneliness unutterable in the crowded city where the street are thronged and the windows are brilliantly lighted in the evening. That is the loneliness of every city, it is the loneliness of every Christmas, where love and life and sympathy and comradeship may be so near and yet so far away. And that, too, was the loneliness of Olivet where Jesus went when everyone went home, only a Sabbath day’s journey from Jerusalem.
Mount of Olives Associated with Agony
Secondly, let us recall how the Mount of Olives is associated with agony. It is there that we find the agony of Christ; you remember the story of that agony? When the supper was ended they sang a hymn together, and then they went out to the Mount of Olives. They went down to the valley and across the brook and so upward to that place where was a garden. And there, under the silvery olive trees, with the light of the harvestmoon making them beautiful, our Savior was sorrowful even unto death. There He wrestled in spirit with His cross till his fast falling sweat was red as blood. There He fought His battle for the crown. There He conquered the shrinking of the flesh. And all this anguish which has redeemed the world was experienced upon the slope of Olivet, only a Sabbath day’s journey from Jerusalem.
Now as with loneliness, so is it too with agony. There is agony of many kinds in Scripture. There is every sort of human anguish there in that immortal mirror of mortality. There is the agony of Abraham when he climbed Moriah to sacrifice his son. There is the agony of Hagar out in the desert with her little Ishmael. And you must take such agonies as these and compare them with that under the olive trees to understand the agony of Christ. The agony of Abraham was on the lonely mountain where never a sound was heard except the calling wind. That of Hagar was in a dreary desert where could not be heard the beating of another heart. But the agony of Christ was in a garden, a garden under the shelter of Mount Olivet, and Olivet was but a Sabbath day’s journey from Jerusalem. All that anguish, not on the lonely moor, but known in its bitterness under the olive trees; amid familiar scenes where folk were moving and where the bridles rang upon the path, and Jerusalem but a little distance off, where mothers watched and little children dreamed, where some were toiling and some were making merry and some were brokenhearted.
The Greatest Suffering Is Not in Isolation
Now does it not occur to you, my friend, that that is an illuminating thought? The greatest and most poignant sufferings— are they not always near the haunts of men? Men fly to the wilderness and suffer there as many a hermit and anchorite has done. Men scale the snowy cliffs and suffer there as in heroic adventure on the Alps. Yet perhaps I the sorest and most bitter suffering is not the suffering of distant solitude’s, but that which (like the Lord Himself) is not far away from anyone of us. It is suffering within hail of home and in the midst of familiar faces. It is the suffering of love despised, of friendship broken, of service unrewarded. It is the suffering of being true to God in daily duty and at every cost; it is the suffering of fatherhood and motherhood. Such agony is not a distant thing; it is not like that of Abraham or Hagar. It is near at hand, amid the lives we cling to, within the sound of voices that we love. It is the anguish not of Mount Moriah where everything was desolate and still. It is the anguish of the Mount of Olives.
The Triumph of the Mount of Olives
In the third place, and lastly, I observe that the Mount of Olives is associated with triumph: it was the scene of the Ascension of the Lord. It is not often that farewells are victories; very often they are tragedies. Had we
Never met or never parted
We had ne’er been brokenhearted.
But the farewell of our Lord was not a tragedy; it was the crowning hour of all that He had lived for, “who for the joy set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame.” That hour was the coronation of His work. It was the completion of His career of service. It was the victorious ending of His toil and tears, of His humiliation and His sacrifice. And to me it is beautiful that all this happened, not in some remote and shadowy region, but within a Sabbath day’s journey of Jerusalem.
The Comparison between the Death of Moses and Christ
Compare, for instance, the going home of Christ with the going home of Moses. One feels the difference between Christ and Moses by a comparison like that. Moses went home upon a lonely height far from the pleasant stir of human life. It was a desolate and dreary spot where God unlocked the gate and took him in. But Christ went home amid familiar scenes and with the voices of those He loved around Him, not far away from the city of His ancestry. The eagle was wheeling and the wind was calling when “God kissed Moses, and he slept.” His work was over, his splendid service finished, and the scene was far and desolate and lonely. But the triumph of Christ was of another kind. He went to the liberty of heaven from Olivet, and Olivet— a Sabbath day’s journey from Jerusalem.
Now did it ever suggest itself to you how exquisitely beautiful that was? Christ triumphed then where He has triumphed always, near to the ordinary home and ordinary heart. There is a triumph of the lonely student keeping his vigil separate from men. There is a triumph of the Arctic traveler when he wins at last the silence of the pole. But every victory that Christ has won has been wrought out where men and women are, amid those hopes and fears and passions and affections which are the warp and woof of all humanity. It is Christ who has transfigured home and the lot of childhood and the love of motherhood. It is Christ who has ennobled common life, touching it with the glory of the infinite. He has won His victories where He was lonely; found His triumphs where He found His agony, not far away in any voiceless wilderness, but within sound of the voices of the city, That is why we can turn to Him tonight, certain that He is not far away. That is why we can say with glowing hearts, “I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.” And that, I take it, is why He passed victorious into that heaven where His Father dwells from a familiar little hill called Olivet, which is but a Sabbath day’s journey from Jerusalem.