A Sermon for Springtide
Consider the lilies of the field — Mat_6:28
The Ministry of Nature
At the sweet and hopeful season of Spring, when freshness and beauty surround us, I am sure there are few of us whose thoughts do not go forth to the wonder and the glory of the world. After the deadness of our northern February springtide comes tingling with the surprise of joy, and that is indeed one of our compensations for the stern and desolate winter of our land. Of all our poets who “build the lofty rhyme,” there is none more thoroughly English than the poet Chaucer. As we read his musical and vivid verse, it is always the sound of a brother’s voice we hear. And in nothing is he more truly English than in this, that he stirs at the call of the sweet voice of April, and casting his books aside, longs to become a child of his warm and beautiful and gladsome world. In some measure all of us feel that; nor is there aught unworthy in that restlessness. Rightly used, it may be a means of grace, drawing us nearer to the feet of Christ. And therefore I like at this season of the year to speak sometimes on the ministry of nature, and to discover what that meant for Jesus.
Christ at Home in the Country; Paul at Home in the City
Now in this matter there is one thing which strikes me, and that is the contrast between Christ and Paul. You never feel that Paul is at home in the country. You always feel that Paul is at home in the city. Country life did not appeal to Paul; it did not flash into spiritual suggestion as he viewed it. He heard the groans of a travailing creation, but he did not love it to its minutest feature. It was the city which appealed to Paul, with its great and crying problems of humanity, with its pageantry and its murmuring and its stir, with its crowds that would gather when one began to preach. The kingdom of heaven is not like a seed to Paul; the kingdom of heaven is like some noble building. When he would illustrate the things of grace, he does not turn to the vine or the lily. He turns to the soldier polishing his Armour; to the gladiator fighting before ten thousand eyes; to the freeborn citizen whose civic charter had been won in the senate of imperial Rome. I hardly need to indicate to you how different this is from Christ’s procedure. Not in the city did Jesus find His parables, save when He saw the children in the marketplace. He found them in the clustering of the vine. He found them in the springing of the corn. He found them in the lake where boats were rocking, and in the glow of sunset and of sunrise. He found them in the birds that wheeled above Him—in the fig tree—in the fowl of the farmyard. He found them in the lily of the field, with which even Solomon could not compare.
Jesus of Nazareth and Paul of Tarsus
It is for that reason that when the springtime comes I always thank God that Christ was bred at Nazareth. We owe far more to that quiet home at Nazareth than some of us may be ready to acknowledge. Paul was a native of Tarsus—no mean city. It was a place like Glasgow, the seat of a wide commerce. Paul was a city boy, bred among city streets, familiar with crowds since he had eyes to see. And though the gardens of a Roman city were very beautiful in their arrangement, yet gardens and fountains are a sorry substitute for the lone glen and the silence of the hills. But in the providence of God, Christ was a country child. There was no “Please keep off the grass” at Nazareth. Trespassers were never prosecuted on the hills there, as they ought never to be in any country. And it was there that Jesus spent His boyhood—keen-eyed, quick-hearted, loving all God’s creatures, moving, as if at home, where all was beautiful, and praying best because He loved it all. That is the note which you detect at once when you come to the public ministry of Jesus. Other teachers elaborate their parables; but with Christ they come welling up out of the heart. They were His heritage from the quiet days of Nazareth when He had watched and loved and understood. It was His manhood recalling in the strife the music that had charmed Him as a child.
As a Jew Jesus Admired the Greatness of Nature
Again, if Christ is different from Paul in this matter, He is equally distinguished from His Jewish ancestry. The fact is that in His attitude towards nature you can never historically account for Jesus. I believe that sometimes we misrepresent the Jews here. We contrast them too dogmatically with the Greeks. We think of the Jews as so intensely spiritual that they were blind to the beauty of the world. But no one who has studied his Old Testament dare make a sharp distinction such as that, for the Old Testament that is afire with God is redolent from the first to last of nature. The truth is that Jew no less than Greek looked with intensest interest on nature. Both felt the abiding magic of its power; both bowed before its ever-changing mystery. But to the Greek the world was just the world, gladsome and fair, a thing to be desired; while to the Jew the world was always wonderful, because it was instinct and aflame with God. Into that heritage Jesus Christ was born.
Jesus Involved Man with Nature
And now let me say one thing more, which helps to illuminate the mind of Christ. It is how often, when He speaks of nature, He deliberately brings man upon the scene. There are painters who delight in picturing still life, and who never introduce the human figure. They have no interest in the play of character; their genius seeks no other scope than nature. But Jesus is no painter of still life. He loves to have living forms upon the scene. He does not regard man as an intrusion, but always as the completion of the picture. Think of the day when He stood by the Temple gate, and looked up at the vine that was sculptured there. That vine was an artist’s study in still life, and it was very beautiful and perfect. But “I am the vine,” said Christ, “ye are the branches,” and the husbandman appears with his sharp pruning knife. The sculpture was insufficient for the Master, till it flashed into full significance in man. In the same way when He walked abroad, He saw more than the lights and shadows of the fields. “Behold the sower,”—somehow He could not rest till he had brought a living man into the picture. And so when He wandered by the sea of Galilee, and watched the waters, and listened to the waves, all that, however beautiful, could not content Him until the fishermen and their nets were in the picture. He could not listen to the chattering sparrows but He saw the human hands that bought and sold them. He could not look at the lilies of the field but He saw Solomon in all his glory. And it all means that while the love of nature was one of the deepest passions in Christ’s heart, it was not a love that led to isolation, but found its crowning in the love of man. My brother, there is a way of loving nature that chills a little the feeling for mankind. There is a passion for beauty that may be a snare, for it weakens the ties that bind us to humanity. But when a man loves nature as Jesus Christ loved nature, it will deepen and purify the springs of brotherhood, and issue in service that is not less loyal because the music of hill and dale is in it.