A Challenge and War-Charge
“O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory, through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, immoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, for as much as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.” — 1 Corinthians xv. 55 — 58.
*“This date is an approximation of when this sermon was delivered.”
THERE is little fear that the minister of this flock should forget that man is mortal. Where men are massed in such numbers, we not only believe in mortality, we see it. We hear the funeral knell, like the striking of the clock, habitually. The mower has always work in this pasture; every week the great gleaner has some ears of corn to gather in this harvest field; and every time we assemble in this house we have to remember that some who were with us when we met before have crossed the flood and entered into their rest. We cannot forget this.
But, my dear friends, there is a danger lest you should forget it. Not being able to take a glimpse over so large a company as this, if your children have been spared to you, if your house has been unvisited by death for this last nineteen or twenty years, you may be apt to think that you have immunity given to you, that you will never come to the grave, that death may arrest others, but that you sit alone in some privileged security and shall see no sorrow, that the arrows may fly and strike on the right hand and on the left, but that you walk invulnerable amongst the dead. It is well, therefore, in order to cool the hot blood of our youth, and to stir the dull blood of our age, that we should ofttimes make a journey to the tomb and reflect on death, judgment, resurrection, and eternity. In these busy times, when men have so much to do in order to live, it may be of much service to them to think how certainly they must die. ’Tis greatly wise to talk with our last hours. The shroud, the grave, the mattock, may teach us more of true wisdom than all the learned heads that ever pondered vain philosophy, or all the lips that ever uttered earth-born science.
Now, I intend to-night, as God the Holy Ghost shall enable, to address my text first to believers in Christ, and then briefly to warn those who are as yet not included in that happy number. I must leave your conscience to judge to which class you belong. I fondly hope that no one will be so perverse as to take encouragement that does not belong to him, but that every man will be wise enough and honest enough to his own heart to take just that truth which fits his own case, and lay it home to his conscience and to his heart.
I. First of all, THE MESSAGE TO BELIEVERS. We take this text, not with the hope of exploring it, but with the thought of skimming the surface with the swallow, rather than diving into its depths like leviathan.
There are three things on the surface: — A brief but unparalleled challenge given to two dreadful and invincible foes — “O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where is thy victory?” a glorious pean of splendid triumph — “Thanks be to God that giveth us the victory;” and a war charge addressed by a great commander to his soldiers — “Brethren, be ye steadfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord.”
There is here, first, a double challenge: “O Death, where is thy sting?” Death, thou skeleton monarch, where is thy sting? Fleshless rider upon the pale horse, we ask thee, where is thy sting? With a horrible and ghastly smile, he answers us, “My sting! Thou hast but to open thine eyes and see it, and ere long I shall make thy flesh quiver with it, when I send it in even to thy very soul. Where is my sting! Is it no sting to thee to know that thou must leave everything thou callest dear on the earth, that thine estates must be left behind thee, and thy broad acres must be all renounced. Is it nothing to thee that thy houses and thy lands, thy merriments and thine enjoyments, thy feastings and thy riotings, must be forsaken; that the hearth and everything that is genial in the family, friendship and the communion of generous hearts, and everything that makes glad the eye or cheers the ear must be left behind thee? For thine eye, when filmed by my finger, no more the landscape, the rugged mountain, or the plain. For thine ear, when I have sealed it in eternal silence, no more the voice of them that make merry, no more the music or the choral hymn; thou shalt be deaf for ever when I cast thee into the grave. Is it no sting to thee to leave the enjoyments of the house of God? For thee no more the communion of the body and blood of Christ, for thee no more the gladsome seasons when the tribes come up to the house of the Lord with willing footsteps to keep holy-day and magnify him who hath loved them and given himself for them. Is it no sting to remember that soon thou must gaze, for the last time, upon the cheek which is now so fair in thy sight; that soon thou must take the last fond gaze on her who is the partner of thy life, that thou must leave everything, taking nothing with thee, returning to the earth naked as thou earnest from thy mother’s womb, stripped, bereft of everything, a penniless beggar, going back to the vile dust from whence thou didst spring — is there no sting in this?”
“Where is my sting! Ask the grey-headed,” the monster says, “whether they already do not feel the pangs of it. Their eyes grow weak, the strong pillars of the house of man begin to fail, the breath comes heavily, the hair is blanched; the grasshopper has become a burden, and the grinders cease because they are few. Ask me where is my sting! Even the young can feel it, for, if they think at all, they know that every breath they draw is but a step towards the tomb, and that their pulses,
‘Like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.’
“Where is my sting!” says Death. “Look to the widow in whose heart my sting is rankling now. The beloved of her soul has departed, and she is left to mourn like a turtle without her mate. Ask the fatherless where is the sting of death as they are driven into the street, received by the cold hand of public charity, scarce housed and fed. Where is my siting! Ask the weeping child as he looks down into the coffin upon the dead face of the mother that once toiled and laboured for him, who once cherished and loved him, but who has now gone to the place appointed for all living. Aha! Aha!” saith he, “where is my sting! Ye have all felt it in the departure of your beet beloved ones, when ye most wished to have them. The State has felt it. I smote the fellow to the crowned head and laid him low; I smote again, and took away the statesman when he had returned from a distant empire laden with the spoils of many years’ experience. I have with my sting taken away the rich and the mighty, the beautiful and the lovely, the learned, the pious, the good, the benevolent; I have taken them away just when the world wanted them the most, till I made good men say, ‘The righteous perish and the godly man ceaseth from the earth.’ Ask me where is my sting!” he cries, and drives onward his white horse of terror and dasheth from us in disdain.
Ay, Death! but we defy thee still, and though thou hast thus vented thy spleen, we cry to thee again, “Have at thee, Death! have at thee! Thou hast no sting, for all thy boast. To believers thou art a stingless-locust now. Hold awhile till we hear the other tyrant, thy powerful confederate.”
“O Grave, where is thy victory?” From its hollow depths the Grave replies, “Ask me where is my victory! Wherefore, O foolish son of Adam, dost thou not ask where is not my victory? From Machpelah to Gethsemane I have had my splendid triumphs. Onward, from the first age even until now, I have proved to men that I am victor. Where are my triumphs! Open the soil upon which your fair world rests, and see if every vault be not filled with a putrid mass of rotten mortality. Could ye bring up your fellows from the grave, and pile them above the sod, there would be so many dead that there would not be room for the living. Yes, heap them up, heap them up till they make a pyramid higher than the Egyptian Pharaoh ever reared; pile them up and they will outreach the Alps and salute the morning star with their dread heights of rottenness!
“Where is my victory! Ask every howling tempest as it drives the ship like a cockle-shell before it, ask every sunken rock and reef and ice-bound shore. Where is my victory! Ask the battlefield of yesterday, all gory with blood shed by a brother’s hand, where sons of Anglo-Saxon mothers lie upon the plains of their own country, slain by their own brother’s hand! Where is my victory! From Waterloo go back to Trafalgar; stretch your wings and fly to ancient times, to Salamis and Marathon, or farther back still; speak ye of all that Sennacherib did, and the mighty host that went before him, when he smote the loins of kings and slew hecatombs of their subjects in an hour.
“Where is my victory! There is not a spot of ground but feels it, there is not an age but must testify thereunto. The signs of it are everywhere. Look at yonder lovely nook, where birds are singing and sweet flowers are up-springing from the ever-green sod. Ye will say, ‘Death hath never been here.’ But what mean those hillocks bound with the brown bramble? I have been here, and here keep I my place. Look yonder where the white stones stand up like the very teeth of death, and see how I have devoured my thousands. From yonder busy city they bring them out by scores each day and lay them in the tomb, and yet ye ask me where is my victory! Why, ye are every one of ye captives of my perpetual triumphing; ye are marching on, every one of ye, downwards to my jaws. Go whither ye may, ye are always coming down to my doors, I shall soon shut my gates upon ye, every one of ye. Strong and healthy men, men of brawny arm, men of massive intellect, men whose limbs totter not though ye bear mighty burdens, I shall one of these days receive you, helpless as little children, and ye shall lie in your white cerements, in your wooden case, and I shall then prove to you and to the world where is my victory.”
Even as we tremblingly listen, the Grave shuts its yawning mouth and all is still save where the voice of faith, looking down upon the dry bones and believing that they shall yet live, cries, “Despite thy vaunt, thou braggart, thy boastings are as hollow as thyself. Where is thy victory? We will prove thee impotent yet, O desperate Grave! Thou hast no triumphs. Our Lord, Jehovah’s Christ, the Resurrection — he hath broken open thy portals, and made through thy territories a passage wide for all believers to the Land of Promise. What though —
‘An angel’s arm can’t snatch me from the grave,
Legions of angels can’t confine me there.'"
Turn thee now, O believer, and sing a pean of triumph. “The sting of death is sin.” Through Jesus Christ that is forgiven. “The strength of sin is the law.” Through Christ Jesus that has ceased to thunder, for it has been fulfilled and has become our friend. Therefore, “thanks be unto God which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Prepare ye then the voice of joyous thanksgiving; make ready your triumphal hymn. Death, we now triumph over thee; thou hast spoken, but now we will speak and answer thee to thy face. Death has no sting to a believer. Once death was the penalty of sin; sin being forgiven, the penalty ceaseth, and Christians do not die now as a punishment for their sin, but they die that they may be prepared to live. They are unclothed that they may be clothed upon with that house which is from heaven. They leave the tenement of clay that they may inherit the eternal mansion.
There is no sting left in thee, O Death, in thyself. As for all thou canst tell us of aches and pains and groans, we know that all these things work together for our good. As for what thou tellest us of thy gloom and of thy horror, we believe in nothing that thou sayest; for, if Christ be with us, we will walk through the valley of the shadow of death and fear no evil.
As thou hast lost, thy sting in thyself, O Death, so thou hast also lost thy sting as to all that we lose by thee. Thou tellest that we lose the sights of earth, but, skeleton king, we gain the sights of heaven. What are the landscapes of this dusky world compared with the azure skies, the lakes of crystal, and the plains of everlasting green in the land of light and glory? What are the cities of this world — the giant cities of the West, the fairy cities of the East, — what are they all compared with Jerusalem, the golden city, the pearly-gated, the city whose walls are jasper, whose very paving-stones are laid with fair colours? Lose by losing earth! Surely in gaining heaven the loss is all forgotten! Thou sayest our ears are closed; it is not so; they are opened to hear the seraph’s hymn and to listen to the music of the cherubim, awful, sublime, and beautiful. Thou sayest we leave behind us wealth and wit-and friends. Fool that thou art, ’tis wealth we gain, and all is dross we leave behind; and as for friends, we have as many — yea, and many more — and they are better too than those we leave on earth. We have beloved ones that have crossed the flood, and at their head we have One who is better to us than a million friends, the Chief among Ten Thousand, the Altogether Lovely. As for all that thou canst take away, take it, and welcome, since the joy which shall be revealed in us is an exceeding and eternal weight of glory. This far surpasseth the light affliction of losing all that earth can give.
Death, we tell thee again that thy sting is taken away as to the friends we have lost. The widow, weeping, tells thee that she does not feel thy sting, far her husband is in heaven, and she is following him as speedily as time can carry her. The mother tells thee, Death, that through grace thou hast no sting in her thoughts concerning her infants. She rejoices to know that at her breast there once did hang immortal spirits that now behold tire Saviour’s face; and we say to thee, Death, concerning all beloved ones who have gone, that we sorrow not over them, and would not
“Break their placid sleep,
Nor lure them from their home above.”
We devoutly thank the Father of spirits, who has safely housed them beyond fear of damage and brought them to the desired haven where no rough wind or tempestuous wave shall ever rock their keel again. “Blessed,” we say, as we repeat the voice from heaven, “blessed are the dead which die in the Lord;” and that voice from heaven responds again, in tones articulate, “Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours, and their works do follow them.”
“Thus brighter hopes, that are Dot dreams,
Their light around the spirit shed;
And heaven itself breaks out in gleams
Of glory round the dying bed.”
Death, thou hast no sting — thy pains are loosed. What though thy face be pale, thy shadow dark, as thou flittest across the chamber! What though frail nature shrink and shudder at thy dart Kind Jesus, help us — we cling to thee, and all our spirit bravely cries, in calm defiance, lively faith, and holy rapture — “O Death, where is thy sting? Thanks be unto God that giveth us the victory!”
As for the grave, dear brothers and sisters, let us answer its foul-mouthed boastings. We tell the grave that it has no victory in itself. ’Tis true we shall sleep in it, but we sleep as victors; we hear the shout of triumph, and we lie down as warriors taking their rest, not as vanquished ones. Christ hath made the tomb, which was once a prison, a resting place for the bodies of his saints; he hath made the tomb his royal closet, where he bids his beloved lay aside the dusky garments of their work-days till they shall be cleansed and made meet to be the garments of his everlasting holy-days in heaven. O Grave, when thou dost encompass our bodies thou art thyself defeated — thou art our servant; call us not thy slaves; we conquer are we come to nestle in thy bosom. O, Grave, we have lost nothing but the like of that we committed to thy keeping when we placed the slumbering forms of friends we dearly loved to lodge within thy arms. Their relics are there, but they are in heaven; their corruption is there, but the earnest of their resurrection is on high, and that which lives in deathless immortality is above. There they lie, for flesh and blood have sin; there let them lie, for flesh and blood must be purified; but they shall live, and we tell thee, Grave, that when the trumpet sounds thou must give back our friends to us, ten times more dear than they were when with hollow sound of “Dust to dust and ashes to ashes” we laid them in thy cold embrace. Thou hast no victory, ’tis but a temporary triumph; thou must give back thy prey. Talkest thou of corruption; what is it but as the fuller’s bath wherein the body lies till it be made of purest white? Speakest thou of cold vaults, darkness, and damp; what are all these but fit accompaniments of the process in which the corruption shall become incorruption and the mortal immortality? We smile at all thy horrors, we salute thee rather as the place where we shall take repose awhile than as the dungeon of our souls’ imprisonment. O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where is thy victory?
I wish I could set these matters to-night in language such as Christmas Evans would have used in his glowing moments. This is a right glowing theme, that might make a dumb man speak, and might summon the ears of the deaf to listen. Christ hath vanquished death by dying. He hath disrobed the grave of its triumphal garments by wearing its cerements himself. He consecrated the sepulchre by slumbering in its dark recess. Death is the destroying angel now no more, the tomb no more a charnel house. Behold, as Samson carried the gates of Gaza to the top of Hebron, doors, posts, bars, and all, so hath Christ carried the gates of death to the top of heaven’s hill, posts, and bars, and all, and all the legions of hell cannot bring bade the trophies which our Samson has rent away. Bound himself once with cords by his own brethren, lie snapped them as though they were green withs, and in heaps upon heaps lie has laid his enemies dead at his feet; sin, and death, and hell, all are vanquished by the Man that once was bound, but who now binds captivity and leads it captive. Sing unto him, ye spirits that are redeemed before the throne; lift up your hallelujahs, clap your wings, sweep your harps and say, “All hail! thou vanquisher of death, thou destroyer of the grave!” Let the echo reverberate to the lowest depths of hell, and let the fiends bite their fire tormented tongues and gnash their teeth in vain., whilst that song is echoed in notes like these, “O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where is thy victory?”
Hark now! Oh, hark! heed the war charge of our Great Captain. “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord.” Alas for the embattled hosts of God’s elect, if thou, O Death! didst seal the dispatch from the gory field of battle, and thou, O Grave! didst hollow out the niche where the wander should receive in holy fane his honourable due! “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.”
’Twere a troublous and a toilsome thing, in truth, to be steadfast if there were no reward. Christian men and women, to you is this word of admonition given. Inasmuch as you shall not die but live, inasmuch as you are the heirs of immortality and life, Christ bids you this day be steadfast. Be steadfast in your doctrine. Hold the truth, and especially the solemn truth of resurrection; hold it firmly, as with an iron grip. Be ye steadfast in holiness; let nothing move you; stand to the right. Remember, if the earth reels, your hand is on the stars, and therefore you need not lose your hold. Be ye steadfast in your profession; blush not, hide not your candle under a bushel. The glory that is to be revealed will make you good amends for all the shame and contumely that the reproach of Christ may bring upon you. Be ye steadfast in everything that is a matter of faith to you — steadfast in your firm belief of Christ’s redemption of your souls — steadfast in the full conviction that ye are the adopted children of your heavenly Father — steadfast in your continual perseverance in sanctification, that you may be fitted for the embrace of your Lord. Be ye steadfast like mountains that never move, like the hidden pillar’s of granite on which, though eye hath never seen, this large globe resteth; like those under-lying rocks which bear up all the deep soil, be ye everlastingly steadfast.
Temptation will come; “be ye unmoveable.” Like cedars rocked in the storm, but never uprooted; like lighthouses against which the huge waves dash, and over which the mountains of foam will leap, be ye bright in testimony, but never stirred in steadfastness. Like some peak that glitters in the sun, and anon is shivered in the lightning, yet still standeth looking up to the next storm and defying the next blow, so “be ye unmoveable.” As the anvil to the stroke of the hammer, so bear ye persecution, affliction, temptation; let none of these things move yon, neither count your life dear unto you. Immortality! be that your watchword, as ye stand in your ranks while the shot is flying, and the foe is advancing. When ye are bidden not to advance, but to stand still — “having done all to stand” — be this your reflection, “your life is hid with Christ in God.” Immortality shall make amends for all your pain and suffering here. Resurrection shall restore all you seem to lose in the fray.
Be ye “always abounding in the work of the Lord.” Be ye working here, and there, at home and abroad; in the morning, when the first ruddy streak paints the brow of the young dawn, at noonday, when the hot sun pours out its lavish floods of light, at eventide, when the birds are going to their rest, and at midnight, if there be a fallen sister who at no other hour can be reached. “In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thy hand.” With a heart for any strife, be first' and foremost in every conflict; dash in at every skirmish, and be in thy rank at every decisive struggle. Hide not thy face from shame and spitting, turn not back from labour or from scorn; “in the sweat of thy face thou shalt eat bread” on earth, but that bread which thou eatest in heaven, so gloriously won by the grace of God, shall be all the sweeter for the sweat that was lavished upon it. “Always abounding in the work of the Lord.”
But I hear some of you say, “To what end is all this strain?” “Ah!” says one young man, “I have been steadfast and unmoveable, and I have lost my situation. Instead of being prospered by it, I have suffered loss.” Well, there is another and a better land; thy wrongs shall be righted there. Think thou of the rest which remaineth for the people of God. “Ah!” says a mother, “but I trained up my little child, and she just began to gladden my heart with her first prayer, and then she died.” Refrain thine eyes from weeping, for thy work shall be rewarded, saith the Lord; she lives a better life than she could have lived with thee. I, too, may ask, “To what end?” I may say that I see many brought to Christ, and what becomes of them? — they die. In the college, out of our small numbers, two men we trained for the ministry have fallen asleep in Christ — one while yet a student, and the other when he had but departed from us a few months. Well, but what of all this? They live: we trained them for the skies, and made them choristers for eternity.
Our work is not lost; we must be steadfast, always abounding in God’s work while here. It seems to me that this is the end for which the Sunday-school teacher, the mother, the father, the minister should always be working. What does the farmer look for? Is he content when he sees the corn turning yellow to say, “How straight it stands! What a good harvest there is!” No, no, he never counts that he has his harvest till they shout the “Harvest Home.” So we should think our work is newer rewarded to the full till souls, saved through our means, get to heaven, and until we get there to meet them there. I see some dear brethren here who I have no doubt look for many souls to meet them at the gates of Paradise, and I can cast my eye over a sister here and there in this Church who, highly honoured of God, will have young spirits to meet them at heaven’s gate and salute them joyfully as mothers in Israel. Happy, happy we, who, when we wing our way to heaven, shall hear a band behind us, and when we turn our heads, wondering who they are, shall hear each say, “Thou didst bring me to Christ; thou didst teach me his blessed name; thou didst rescue me from sin and vice; thou hast led me along the golden shining path to heaven, and here I am, to share thy bliss for ever.” Brethren, there is another and a better land; “therefore be ye steadfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.”
II. We will pause a minute, and then use our text for a very short time indeed for the other part of the congregation, uttering A WARNING TO UNBELIEVERS.
Where are they? Where shall I point my finger? Whither shall I present my gaze? They are mingled everywhere, in almost every pew. In these aisles and in these pews we have men and women who do not love Christ, who have not passed from death unto life. Strangers, ay, and those that hear us every Sabbath-day too, to our pain and grief are here — hundreds, hundreds, hundreds that are still enemies to God, and in the gall of bitterness.
Hear me, then, hear me! To you death has a sting. It will sting you in death; it will plague you on your pillow; it will make you toss your aching head; it will make your heart palpitate with a huge unutterable dread. You shall feel the sting, and your friends shall see that you feel it by those dread expressions! of awful gloom which shall come over you on the bed of death. And there will be a sting after death, a sting the momenta you are dead. Summoned before your God, ye shall hear your sentence, and there will be a sting in judgment. When the body shall rise from the grave, then there will be a sting for ever and for ever, in the second death — for ever and for ever. Is there any man here who can measure eternity? Who can tell its everlasting years? Yet all the while there shall be a sting in death, and such a sting, and such a terror, and such a misery, and such a torment, as only they can know who have begun to feel it, and even they know it not, for still it is for ever and for ever, when twice ten thousand thousand years have gone — for ever and for ever still!
There is a sting in Death to you, and over you the Grave will get the victory, for the Grave shall devour you. When you wake up from it again it shall not be to newness of life, it shall not be in the image of the second Adam, but in the image of the first, and perhaps in the image of the first Adam in all the decay and loathsomeness into which death brought him. I know not in what form the wicked dead shall rise; it may be they shall even in their bodies be the objects of everlasting contempt, devoured by the worm that never dies, so that their very flesh will give evidence of it. O my hearers, if these things be true, it is time that we woke up, it is time that saints woke up to try and bring you to Christ; it is high time that you also awoke up out of slumber. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hand of the living God,” “for our God is a consuming fire.” Are you ready to meet God? Are you ready for judgment? Can you confront the Judge? Who among you can, dwell with everlasting burnings, or abide with the devouring flames? Do you shudder? Do you say, “Great God, save us from our sin?” The path is easy, the path is open; God willeth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should turn unto him and live. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved. Trust Jesus now and you are saved at once. Death has lost its sting in that moment, and the Grave its victory. We said this morning in our simple discourse, “Repent and believe the gospel.” This is the sum of the gospel, to repent and to know Christ. Oh, that the Spirit of God may lead every one in this assembly so to do at this very hour, and then ye can walk over your graves without a fear, and descend into them without dread, for ye shall come up out of them with triumph, ye shall ascend to heaven with glory, and so shall ye be for ever with the Lord. The Lord add his own blessing for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.