Master Sermon List
Small Beginnings Not To Be Despised
by John Angell James
"The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches." (Matthew 13:31-32)
"For who has despised the day of small things?" Zechariah 4:9.
Despondency paralyzes exertion, but hope stimulates and supports it. The man who commences an undertaking with a foreboding that it will fail, is likely by his fears to ensure the fulfillment of his prediction; while, on the other hand, the hope of success is among the subordinate means of obtaining it. Every great undertaking, especially where the scheme is novel and the difficulties are many, requires in its agents a warmth of soul, if not approaching to enthusiasm, yet very far above lukewarmness or depression. To succeed, we must calculate upon success. It is very true there must be prudence, but it must not be that prudence which creates timidity and chills the ardor of the mind. It must guide but not freeze the current of our zeal.
Despondency is never so likely to be felt as at the commencement of an undertaking, when there are few to support it, and many to oppose it; when the beginning is so small as to excite the apprehensions of its friends, and the derision of its enemies. The Jews who returned from the Babylonish captivity felt this when they applied themselves to the rebuilding of the temple. Few in number, poor in circumstances, disheartened by their poverty, and opposed by the restless malignity of crafty enemies, they proceeded for some time with cheerless heart. When the foundations of the sacred edifice were laid, the sires who had seen the magnitude and splendor of the first temple, wept as they foresaw how inferior to it would be the second. Their tears must have been as discouraging to the hopes of their younger brethren, as a shower of hail is to the buds and blossoms of spring. The Samaritans derided the work with the most cruel scorn, and tauntingly exclaimed that if only a fox ventured upon the wall, it would demolish the building. To complete the discouragement, the Jews in Chaldea despised the commencement as too feeble to be crowned with success, and on this ground excused themselves from returning to their own land, and to the assistance of their friends. Everything was disheartening. At this critical juncture, the prophet was commissioned to encourage them in the name of the Lord. He was charged to assure them that Zerubbabel, who had laid the foundation, "should bring forth the headstone thereof with shoutings, crying grace, grace unto it," and that therefore the day of small things was not to be despised.
The animating interrogation of the text has become the watchword of Christians in their labors of love; they have repeated it to each other as they have gone forth to their work, and when discouragement has lowered around them, they have, by the power of its fascination, charmed away their fears, and awakened their hopes.
This is my subject, then, on the present interesting occasion, "Small beginnings are not to be despised." I shall consider this sentiment in application to public institutions and to personal religion.
I. I shall apply the sentiment to those PUBLIC INSTITUTIONS which have for their object the glory of God in the salvation of man.
The age in which we live is happily and honorably distinguished by a spirit of religious zeal. The church of God, awakened from the slumber of ages, is going forth from the chamber of her too long repose, to do the work appointed to her by the Lord. Ingenuity has been united to benevolence, and the wisdom which descends from above into the mind of man, "has been seeking and watching for new forms of human poverty or misery, that it may meet them with new forms of pity and of aid. So many are the associations throughout our country, for humane and pious purposes of every form, that charity, where it has but a solitary offering, is almost bewildered in its choice." Institutions have arisen, and are still arising, intended and adapted to convey the blessings of eternal life to those who are perishing for lack of knowledge. Some of these are of a novel character, and others formed upon the model of societies which are already in existence, and in successful operation.
Here, the friends of Immanuel unite their energies to send the gospel to the heathen; there, are others associated for the purpose of enlightening the heathen at home. Here, a few pious youths agree to commence a Sunday school in a village; and there, a band of zealous Christians combine their efforts to erect a new place of worship in a benighted part of a large and populous town. Here is commenced a society for distributing tracts, and there another for circulating the Scriptures. Here is a scheme for preaching the gospel to sailors, and there for extending a similar blessing to the inhabitants of a village.
In many of these cases, things are sufficiently discouraging at the beginning. Little patronage smiles upon the scheme, little property enriches its funds, little assistance is brought to its labors. The timid are afraid to act, the ignorant question, the caviling object, the contemptuous sneer. And even many from whom better things might be expected, refuse their help, until at length even the friends of the scheme themselves begin to fear that it must be abandoned. They only who have known by experience what it is to originate a new institution, especially if it be outside of the ordinary routine of Christian effort, can form an adequate idea of the labor, patience, and heroism, which are requisite to carry it to maturity, amidst the doubts of the skeptical, the mistakes of the ignorant, the misrepresentations of the slanderous, and the cold and selfish calculations of the lukewarm. But still, small beginnings are not to be despised; and I shall assign some reasons on which this sentiment is founded.
1. In many instances, the most wonderful effects have resulted from causes apparently very small. It is so in nature. (The author is indebted to Mr. Jay's sermon on the same text for the ideas which suggested these illustrations of the sentiment.) The oak, in whose mighty shade a herd of cattle repose and ruminate in comfort, was once an acorn, which an infant might have grasped in his hand, or a sparrow have carried in her beak. The river that floats a navy, and becomes the means of fertility and the inlet of wealth to an empire, if traced to its source, would be found a stream which the traveler might cover with his foot. It is the same in the intellectual world. There was a time when Johnson was learning his alphabet, Newton laying the basis of his mathematical fame in committing to memory the multiplication table, and Milton catching the inspiration of poetry upon his mother's knee, from the crude hymns of his time. It is the same in the political world. Kingdoms, if traced to the first occasion of their eminence, would be found beginning with a thought or feeling in the bosom of ambition, a waking vision, or a midnight dream.
But this idea is most strikingly exemplified in the world of grace. Survey the commencement of the Christian religion. You know to what an extent the gospel has prevailed. At one time it had spread over a great part of Asia and Africa, as well as of Europe. You know how many nations still profess to believe it. You know also that its influence shall be extended in the millennial period of the church, even until the whole earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord. A time is at hand when not a vestige of many a wide-spread superstition shall be found upon the face of the earth, except in the museums of missionary societies. And what was the commencement of this universal religion? It happened that as a Jewish couple were journeying to be enrolled in their native city, they arrived at a village, where, not obtaining accommodation in the inn, they took up with the shelter of the stable. In this crude place, Mary was overtaken by the pangs of labor. She delivered a child, which, for lack of a cradle, she laid in a feeding trough. There was the commencement upon earth of that scheme which shall fill the world with its blessings, and eternity with its fame. The child then introduced to mortal existence was the Son of God and the Savior of men. All the past triumphs of the gospel, all that it is now doing, all the glorious victories it is yet to achieve, originated in the stable of Bethlehem.
Retrace the cause of Protestantism to its commencement. Look abroad on that great portion of Europe which has shaken off the yoke of Rome, and is now enjoying the light of a purer faith, England, Scotland, Holland, Switzerland, the Protestant States of Germany, Sweden, Denmark, all once followed the 'Roman beast' and bore his image. Fifty million are now asserting their right to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences, who, three centuries ago, were groaning beneath the fetters of the man of sin. And what was Protestantism in its origin? A confederation of monarchs and bishops uniting their energies to resist and break the tyranny that had so long oppressed the world? Nothing of the sort. It was merely the opposition of an Augustine monk to a Dominican friar respecting the monstrous practice of selling indulgences. It was confined to the bosom of Luther, who himself knew no more where his zeal was carrying him than his opponent did. His increasing efforts in opposition to the papal superstition were for a long time despised by those who had the greatest interest in opposing and arresting them.
Contemplate the progress of Methodism, from its small beginnings, under its indefatigable founder. That system which now reckons nearly half a million members and a thousand preachers, which has its missionaries in every quarter of the globe, which is continually and deservedly rising in public esteem, was, about seventy years ago, confined to two ministers, and some thirty or forty members, who had to work their way against the brutal violence of the mob, the injustice of magistrates, the frowns of lukewarm Christians, and the contempt of infidels. The history of this indefatigable, zealous, and useful denomination, will stand to the end of time, as a check to the despondency, and an encouragement to the hopes, of those who are anxious to glorify God in seeking the salvation of their fellow-creatures.
Meditate upon the beginnings of the most illustrious of the missionary institutions which are now employed for the benefit of the human race. The London Missionary Society, which expends nearly thirty thousand pounds a year in the spread of the gospel among the heathen; which has more than a hundred missionaries spread over Europe, Asia, Africa, and America; which has been the means of abolishing idolatry in eight islands of the Southern Pacific Ocean, and establishing churches in the heart of South Africa, and printing the Scriptures in a language spoken by a fourth part of the inhabitants of the globe, was, twenty-six years ago, confined to the consultations of nine ministers, who met in the metropolis to make the matter a subject of conference and prayer.
The Baptist Mission to the East, whose labors in the department of translating the Scriptures into the oriental languages, are so incredibly great and successful, as to render almost superfluous the gift of tongues; which can number among its agents men whose fame in Eastern literature has eclipsed the splendor of Sir William Jones's name; which has infused the leaven of Christian truth and Christian principle into many parts of the great mass of the Indian population, from the mouths of the Ganges to the banks of the Indus. This distinguished society was, eight and twenty years ago the project of a few ministers associated at Kettering, the most active and zealous of whom, notwithstanding, his present unrivaled literary renown, was then working at one of the humblest trades; and though distributing the bread of life to others on a sabbath, was on other days earning his own daily bread by the sweat of his brow.
The British and Foreign Bible Society, that most splendid luminary in the firmament of religious benevolence, holding its high station, surrounded by a thousand satellites, and perpetually pouring the light of revelation it upon millions who, without it, must sit in darkness; that most glorious society, which has already spent (if we take into calculation what has been expended by similar institutions abroad) a million sterling, and put into circulation three million copies of the Scriptures; whose praises are heard in nearly all lands, for nearly all lands on earth receive its benefits; that sublime association was, sixteen years ago, no more than a purpose entertained by a few Christians met together as a committee to transact the business of another religious institution; a purpose arising incidentally out of an application then made by a minister present for assistance to supply his Welsh brethren with an edition of the Scriptures in their own tongue. Had the most optimistic enthusiast heard their conversation and their purpose, and seen them meet again and again, as the object swelled in magnitude, and brightened in glory upon their view, would he have anticipated a hundredth part of what has been done; or had he ventured to predict that so much would have been accomplished in sixteen years, would not more cool and calculating minds have declared that his enthusiasm had risen to madness?
All these instances are striking illustrations of the sentiment that "small beginnings are not to be despised;" and that the most astonishing effects frequently arise from causes apparently feeble. Let the Christian philanthropist, who, amidst the difficulties with which he has to contend in the prosecution of his schemes, is ready to despond, look at these sublime monuments of Christian zeal, thank God, and take courage. Let him see from what little springs of benevolence, have arisen the mightiest rivers which ever flowed through the wilderness of human ignorance, poverty, and misery.
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2. We should not despise the day of small things, because the power of God can still render the feeblest instruments productive of the greatest results. Omnipotence is among the most sublime and glorious attributes of Jehovah. It is celebrated in the loftiest strains upon the pages of revelation, and is manifested by all the works and wonders of creation. God's omnipotence is the terror of the wicked, and the confidence of the righteous. God's omnipotence is the comfort and the refuge of human weakness. By omnipotence we mean God's ability to do everything which his wisdom determines right to be done. In relation to such a being, difficulty is a word without meaning. He can work by feeble means, without means, or against them. He spoke and it was done; he commanded and it stood fast. In innumerable instances he has employed, and rendered successful, instruments which were the last that we should have chosen. The rod of Moses was, in all probability, a rough, shapeless, and fragile stick, and yet what wonders were wrought by it. Who would have thought of besieging a fortified city with the blast of rams' horns, or attacking an entrenched camp with lamps and pitchers; or overcoming the powers of darkness, and foiling the gates of hell, by the crucifixion of their Opponent.
When a new religion was to be established upon the ruins of those previously existing in the world, and all nations were to be converted to it from systems to which they were riveted by all the power of prejudice, pride, and superstition, who would have selected fishermen to be its apostles, or what could have rendered them successful in their mission? "For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God;" and "that the excellency of the power might be of God." What could be a brighter display of divine power than empowering men whose knowledge was confined to the best method of catching fish, and mending nets, to contend with and conquer the sages, the systems and the pride of philosophy, and to break down a religion supported by authority and literature, the power of education, and the force of example.
But this view of the Divine operations does not warrant us in any pretension to an extraordinary commission, or any enthusiastic expectation; we are not to assume that we are raised up for some great purpose, and to accomplish some great revolution, and appeal to the power of God as containing our inexhaustible resources. However, we may contrast the thought of what God has done, and what he can do, to that desponding sense of our own feebleness, which would chill all the energies of the soul, and freeze the stream of benevolence at its source. Man requires in every case, an apparatus proportioned to the effects to be produced, and his physical power must be raised to the measure of the expected result. It is not so in the moral world and with God. Here there are no data on which to found a calculation. All is the effect of a sovereign agent who works when, and how, and by whom he will. We are certainly to use appropriate and adequate means, so far as the judgment of reason goes, but the greater may be inefficient, and the lesser effectual. The religious tract may impress where the Bible has failed. The feeblest preacher may be the honored instrument of conversion, when the most eloquent has preached in vain. All this should certainly encourage us to persevere amidst many things calculated to produce discouragement and despondency. When we have formed our schemes as they ever ought to be formed, upon scripture principles, and with religious discretion, let us then take them by prayer to the footstool of the divine throne, where, for our comfort we shall hear it declared, "that power belongs unto God."
3. It should guard us against despising the day of small things, to remember that, how ever discouraging appearances may be, we never know what God really intends to do by us. The power of penetrating into futurity is wisely and mercifully denied us. Man would be no gainer, so far as his happiness is concerned, by being the prophet of his own history. In some cases we would be cheered by a foresight of success, and the joys in store for us; but upon the whole, it is infinitely in our favor that both our joys and our sorrows should be disclosed to us only by the moments that give them birth. So we can never presently see the result of our actions, in their future influence upon others. No man who devotes himself to the cause of Christian benevolence can say what use God intends to make of him, but it is often far greater than he is aware.
Little did it enter into the mind of Robert Raikes, when, touched with compassion for the ignorant and wicked youth of Gloucester, he collected them to learn their letters, and then led the little ragged group from the scene of instruction to the house of God; that he was at that time laying the foundation of a system of 'Sunday schools' which would spread throughout England, and, finally, over the world; which could follow in the train of Christianity to whatever land she directed her course. As little did it enter the mind of Wesley, when he formed his first class of serious Christians, that he was originating in the religious world, a new denomination, which is bidding fair to rival the others in numbers, as it certainly excels them in zeal. So when a friend of the rising generation collects a Sunday school for poor children, it is not for him to conjecture what characters are to emerge thence to reform the world, or bless the church. Talents crude, misshapen, and mingled even with the basest properties, like gold in a rock, may there be elicited, preparatory to their being at last exhibited to the world in the character of the eloquent preacher, or the faithful missionary. When a new place of Christian worship is erected, who will undertake to predict where the stream of ministerial success shall first gush forth, what shall be its meandering course, where it shall touch in its progress, what moral fertility it shall produce, and how long it shall be before it is lost in the ocean of universal good?
If anyone converts a sinner from the error of his ways and saves a soul from death, he may seem to have performed one single act of usefulness, but that one single act may be the commencement of a series, which, in breadth may reach to the ends of the earth, and in length, to the end of time. That converted sinner may be, in his turn, the instrument of conversion to another, who removing to a distant climate, may carry the glad tidings of salvation to India or Thailand. And again, the first convert becoming the head of a family, may transmit religion to his children, and they to theirs, until the stream of good flowing onward from generation to generation, and widening as it flows, shall be arrested only by the blast of the archangel's trumpet.
And it is to be recollected, that the righteous are to be rewarded, not only according to their doings, but according to the fruit of their doings, not only for the single act of sowing the good seed of the kingdom in one barren spot, but for all the waving harvests, which, during a long succession of ages, shall have sprung by the power of reproduction from the original grain.
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4. We should not despise the day of small things, because, in religion, what may seem little by comparison, is, when viewed positively and absolutely, immensely great. In the administration of temporal benevolence, we naturally require the prospect of success in some measure proportionate, as to the number of objects relieved, to our labor and expense. Who would build a hospital for the sake of receiving a single patient, or an almshouse to accommodate a single pauper? In such a case benevolence would be really defeated in its object, and it would not be worth while to do so much for the accomplishment of so little. There is nothing in the individual object which can give it importance; this must be derived from an aggregate of many such.
But this remark will not apply to the objects of religious benevolence. The soul of man derives from its immortality, a worth which defies all calculation. It waits not for an accession of others of its species before it can assume that degree of importance which would justify extended, laborious, or expensive means for its salvation. Its individual value is immense and incalculable. "What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?" was a question proposed by Him, who, having made both the world and the soul, must know their relative value, and cannot be suspected of unduly elevating the one, or depreciating the other. "What, my brethren, if it be lawful to indulge such a thought, what would be the funeral rites of a lost soul? Where shall we find the tears fit to be wept at such a spectacle? Or could we realize the calamity in all its extent, what tokens of commiseration and concern would be deemed equal to the occasion? Would it suffice for the sun to veil his light, and the moon her brightness; to cover the ocean with mourning, and the heavens with sackcloth; or, were the whole fabric of nature to become animated and vocal, would it be possible for her to utter a groan too deep, or a cry too piercing, to express the magnitude and extent of such a catastrophe?" Surely then, no effort or expense can be thought ill bestowed or unsuccessful which has been the means of averting, even in a single instance, so indescribable a catastrophe.
How comes it to pass, then, that we are so little affected by the salvation of a single soul, when from time to time it occurs? How is it that when we do not hear of many souls converted, we seem to feel as if nothing had been done? There can be but one reason assigned, and that is, we look at the innumerable multitude which are seen to remain in the gall of bitterness and bonds of iniquity. It is a dreadful state of things where the prevalence of evil is so great that we feel almost discouraged from attempting to counteract it by individual instances of good. Just as a person who beheld the ravages of the plague, would scarcely think it worth while to save one or two of his fellow-creatures from death, while hundreds and thousands were expiring weekly. So amidst the millions who are dying under the power of sin, that moral pestilence which rages through the earth, we think too little of rescuing one and another from the prevailing ruin; indeed, the very excess of destruction seems to blunt our feelings.
In gazing around upon an extensive churchyard, the thought of death itself is less through the number of its subjects; the mind wanders off from the evil itself to its COMMONNESS, and then returns from this commonness to the evil, with its sensibilities wonderfully hardened. One single hillock in a desert, where a fellow-creature sleeps in solitude, or one uncoffined corpse, will probably affect us more than the most crowded burial grounds. We view our success relatively, and judge of it by comparison. If only a single child in a school is devoutly impressed, we immediately ask what is one out of two or three hundred? When a solitary individual in a congregation is converted from the error of his ways, we make a similar enquiry; especially are we in danger of this when we hear of the conversion of only a small number of the heathen. What are they, we exclaim, out of so many? What is even a hundred reclaimed from six hundred millions? Small, it is admitted, very small indeed. But let us judge of our achievements by their absolute value. Let us individualize each case, let us set the soul of one man apart by itself. Let us view it in its amazing value; let us think what the eternal salvation or the loss of but one human spirit includes! Such is the worth of the soul and the measureless importance of its interests, that if only one human spirit had strayed from the fold of God, all the angels in glory would think themselves well employed to go in quest of the wanderer. The recovery of this single immortal from the horrors of perdition, would be accounted an object of sufficient importance, to combine and employ the energies of the universe.
This is evident from the fact of there being joy among the angels of God over every sinner that repents. All heaven partakes of new raptures, not merely when a nation is born in a day, but at the nativity of every child of God. Let us, then, look at our success more in the abstract. Not that we should be content to seek for little, or be indifferent whether we have little or much. I am not now stating the consideration which should regulate a Christian's desires, but such as may dissipate his gloom, and resist his despondency in a season of comparative discouragement. If it be the will of God to grant it us, we should seek to turn many to righteousness; but where this is denied, we should think of the amount of good which has been achieved, if but a single soul has been saved by our instrumentality. In this case, instead of looking with a desponding eye upon the multitude who are not saved, let us look with delight upon the one who is, and think of the infinite and eternal happiness which will be connected with that solitary instance of success.
We may offend against the injunction of the text by INATTENTION. Whenever a scheme is submitted to our notice, professing to have for its object the glory of God and the best interests of man, let us not turn away with heedless indifference, and refuse to examine its claims. It may be novel, it may be apparently insignificant, but let it be examined. I am not advocating an indiscriminate precipitate zeal. There may be a spirit of speculation in the religious world, as well as in commerce, which is no less injurious to solid piety in the one, than to mercantile confidence in the other. We are not to countenance the wild projects of every religious adventurer, but examination is desirable in every case, to detect and expose what is bad, as well as to support what is good.
SCORN is another way of despising the day of small things. If the object of a scheme be good, if the means appear adapted to the end, let it not be contemned because it is at present in the infancy of its age and of its strength. Its supporters may be few and poor, its funds may be low, its commencement may be feeble, but let the benevolence of its design protect it from the sneer of contempt. All that is sublime in Christianity was once confined to a little circle of poor men and women. To despise an institution because it is yet limited and contracted in its operations, is like ridiculing an infant for not being a man at once.
NEGLECT is another way of sinning against the letter and spirit of the text. There are some, who, although convinced that the object of an institution is good, and who, on this ground, are kept from treating it with contempt, yet deem it prudent to withhold their support until it has become more generally known, and more firmly established. They wait until it has been tried and tested. If it be successful, they will assist its operations; if it be popular, they will join the train of its admirers. But they forget that if all men acted upon their starving prudence, it is impossible that any scheme should prosper. Every society which is now shedding blessings upon the world, would, upon this principle, have withered in the bud for lack of nourishment. Many a noble philanthropic plan, has, we fear, perished at the feet of its unselfish originator, while men of cold and calculating prudence were waiting to see if it succeeded. To assist an object when it is in the zenith of its prosperity has little merit, it is sure then to find friends; but it is a noble and heroic zeal to come forward in its support when it is struggling for existence amidst its own weakness and the suspicion, inattention, neglect, and ridicule of bystanders. Let us take care of the poor friendless infant; the popular and prosperous man can take care of himself. There is a period in the history of every society when our help would be tenfold more valuable than at any other time; in such a crisis, whenever it occurs, let us not be backward.
Especially, let those who are the principal LEADERS in schemes of benevolence, beware of despising the day of small things. Let them not too soon sink into a state of discouragement. Despondency will not only paralyze their own energies, and thus prevent the success they covet, but it will operate like the touch of the plague, on all that come within their reach. They must not be too optimistic to be prudent, but a little enthusiasm is far better than much despondency. They are leaders, and a panic in the commander is sure to communicate itself to the troops. They must appear cheerful amidst discouragement, and hopeful amidst defeat. If they have fears, they must conceal them, and exhibit only their hopes. Their courage must be the rallying point and the inspiring theme for all the circle. The neglect and inattention of others must have no other effect than to increase their own diligence, and like a mother who loves her babe the more for the persecution and abuse to which it is exposed, they must cling the closer to their favorite object, in proportion as others, who do not understand it, treat it with contempt.
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II. I shall now apply the sentiment of the text to PERSONAL PIETY.
1. True piety is often small in its commencement. This is not always the case. Sometimes a transformation of character takes place, as complete as it is rapid. Many people of notoriously wicked character have been so entirely changed under a single sermon, that in all their views, pursuits, and feelings, they have been, from that hour, new creatures in Christ Jesus. Such instances of conversion are not the ordinary method of Divine procedure; but to deny that they ever take place, is to contend against indubitable testimony. The historical parts of the New Testament furnish many cases of this nature, among which, the conversion of Paul bears a distinguished place. It must be admitted, however, that the usual process of this great change is much more slow. The figures by which it is set forth in the Word of God represent it as a gradual work. "The path of the just is as the shining light which shines more and more unto the perfect day." The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which advances through all the stages of intermediate growth to the magnitude of a tree. A Christian is first a babe, then a young man, then a father in Christ. In the growth of piety there is first the blade, then the ear, and after that the full corn in the car. All these figures imply small beginnings, and slow advances.
A pious emotion produced in the heart of a child, when her mother was explaining to her the catechism which she had committed to memory; or a devout seriousness impressed upon her mind by reading the obituary of some holy youth; the pang of compunction excited in the soul of a Sunday school boy, by the affectionate expostulation of his teacher; the reflection of a prodigal, in the land of his wanderings and his vices, upon the admonitions he had received in his father's house; the enquiry awakened in a thoughtless bosom by a hint dropped in company; such have been the beginnings, in many cases, of that religion which terminates in eternal life.
But we will represent it in a form of more frequent occurrence. How often does this great work begin in the soul under a sermon, to which the sinner was drawn by no better motive than that of curiosity? While hearing the word with listless indifference, his attention is roused and fixed by some pointed remark of the preacher, which, soft and silent as the seed that drops from the wings of the wind, and germinates where it drops, lands upon his soul, and produces a secret conviction that makes him return less easy than he came. It is not strong enough to restrain him from his evil practices, but it prevents him from enjoying them as he once did. He is less happy in evil company, wishes that he had never heard the sermon which has thus interrupted his comfort, and begins to feel angry with the preacher that has disturbed his peace. Yet he must go and hear him again. Every sermon increases his uneasiness, and yet such is the power of the fascination that he cannot keep away. The evil of sin in general, and of his own sin in particular, increases upon his view. He determines to break off wrong practices, and perform religious duties. All is now peace. He is pleased with himself, and expects that God is pleased with him too. The preacher, however, totally disturbs this groundless repose, by asserting that it is not by works of righteousness which we can do, that salvation is to be obtained. He is now plunged into the deepest distress, perplexity, and despondency. How then can he be saved? He is ready to give up all for lost, and since he cannot be saved by his good deeds, has serious thoughts of returning to his bad ones; for no man is in greater danger of being riveted to his sins than he who despairs of their being pardoned. In this situation he hears a discourse on the nature of justification by faith in the righteousness of Christ. This is what he needed. It suits his case. He believes, and enters into rest. However, his knowledge may remain contracted for a while, his faith weak, his peace easily disturbed.
2. There are many ways in which the day of small things, in this application of the sentiment, may be despised. It may be RIDICULED as the fanaticism of a weak mind, or the enthusiasm of a heated imagination, or the whim of a capricious taste. Many of the convictions, tastes, and pursuits of spiritual religion, must necessarily appear so peculiar to one who is a stranger to them, that it is no wonder he should laugh at them. Let the scorner, however, beware, for ridicule at religion is most dangerous sport. Piety is the image of God in the soul of man, and an insult offered to a portrait, is in every case, next in crime to mocking the author. Let those who are the objects of this unhallowed mirth be mild but firm. Let them take it patiently, and it will be soon terminated. There is nothing men are more unwilling to spend in vain than their scorn. They can never endure long to waste their sneers upon a rock which neither feels them nor yields to them.
Ridicule is not unfrequently coupled with DIRECT OPPOSITION. Men who find that laughter avails nothing, are very likely to exchange it for wrath, and try to effect by frowns what could not be accomplished by jests. This was the case with the enemies of the Jews who opposed the rebuilding of the temple. Persecutors vary both their weapons and their method of attack. But in the case of real religion, they are all alike unsuccessful. They may as well attempt to arrest the tempest in its flight, as to stop the course of a soul which is soaring to heaven on the pinions of faith and love. They may as soon hope to extinguish the splendor of the noonday sun, as expect to put out the light of divine truth in a mind which has been illuminated by the Spirit of God. If they would try their strength, let them go to the forest, and pluck up the veteran oak by the roots, for this is an easier achievement than to eradicate the truest sapling which the hand of the Lord has planted in his garden.
NEGLECT, however, is that which comes more immediately within the intent of this part of the subject, as a method of despising the day of small things. The first appearances of religion in the soul do not always receive from others the prompt, affectionate, and skillful attention, which they demand and deserve. There is a most criminal inattention to this subject prevailing very extensively in the churches of God. People whose minds have been recently impressed with a sense of the necessity and importance of vital religion, who have entered the paths of wisdom, with timid and feeble steps, but who are deeply and tremblingly anxious to proceed, are too often left to journey onward amidst every discouragement, without one single friend to provide help to them in their future course. Of what service to such young travelers would be the smile, and the advice, and the encouragement of those who had been long in the way!
First impressions of piety, however deep, unless carefully watched, like the young buds of fruit trees in the spring, will soon fall off from the mind and come to nothing. It is a wretched perversion of a sublime and solemn doctrine to say, "That if the work is of God, it will go on without us, and if it is not, our exertions cannot perpetuate it." The same remark will apply with just as much propriety to render preaching useless. God carries on by means, no less than he begins by them.
There are many people, it is to be feared, who would hear with indifference and neglect the very question of the Philippian jailor again asked with agony not inferior to his, "What shall I do to be saved?" The cold unconcern and unbending stiffness of some who stand high in the churches of Christ, are as reproachful to themselves as they are injurious to others. It is truly shocking to see with what inattention in some cases, and with what suspicion in others, people under the deepest religious concern, are treated by those who ought to know better. Instead of this miserable and ruinous caution, we all ought to rejoice in the first marks of true religion in anyone, whether a stranger, or an enemy, or a friend. In default of abler assistance, we should offer him our own.
We should give him every help. If he is timid, we should encourage him; if he is wavering, we should strive to settle him; if he is ignorant, we should teach him; if he is alarmed, we should soothe him; if he grows but slowly, we should bear with his dullness; if he sometimes disappoints our expectation, we should mourn over him, but not abandon him; if he turns a little out of his course, we should follow him in his wanderings, and not in anger give him up to stray farther and farther. We should conciliate him by our affection. We should guard him by our caution. We should help him by our experience. And especially should we bless him by our prayers. We should never cease our solicitude or our efforts until the day of small things has become a day of great ones, or has terminated in the rayless night of utter apostasy. This cannot be more than the nature of the case requires, for it is on behalf of a soul that must forever live in rapture, or in woe, and the man that would not spend a lengthened life, or travel around the circumference of the globe to save the soul of another, cannot yet have learned the value of his own soul.
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3. There are many reasons why the day of small things ought not to be despised. It is not despised by those who best know its importance. It is not neglected or despised by the Eternal Father. How affectingly is this set forth in the beautiful parable of the prodigal son. I need not inform you whose grace and compassion are represented in that inimitable picture, under the character of the parent. When the youth had left the house which had so long sheltered him, did the father remain contented and careless at home? No! He went out to look for his wandering child. When he saw the profligate coming at a distance, the spectacle of misery and destitution, did he return to wait his arrival in the house? No! He ran to meet him, and was the only one of the two that ran! When he beheld him covered with rags and wretchedness, did he determine before he embraced or received him to his favor to have all the rags of his disgrace stripped off, and have the youth put upon his probation? O, no! There and then as he found him, when filial feelings first returned to the bosom of the prodigal, and in the very beginning of his obedience, the father fell upon his neck, and kissed him. So truly and so tenderly does the God of love rejoice over the commencement of true piety.
It was but a day or two after Saul of Tarsus had been breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples, that the Lord exhibited him to heaven and earth at once, as a favorite of his heart, in that well-known language, "Behold he prays." The first groan of the genuine penitent is as pleasant in the ears of Jehovah as the music of the spheres, or the melodies of angels! And if he could not listen to both at the same time, he would command silence in heaven and hush the choirs above, that the cry for mercy might ascend and be heard.
Nor is the day of small things despised by Jesus Christ. To him the spirit of prophecy gave witness that he should "feed his flock like a shepherd, and gather the lambs with his arms, and carry them in his bosom." In his bosom, where he could not only hear, but feel every bleat they uttered; and have all the tenderness of his own heart excited by the anxious and fluttering pulsations of theirs. See him in the midst of his disciples. How feeble were their perceptions, how weak their faith, how worldly their expectations, how slow their growth. Yet how kindly did he bear with their dullness, and how gently did he chide their imperfections.
Whom did he ever reject that came to him in earnest, however recent were their convictions of his divine mission, or their impressions of their own sins? When the woman who had been a vile sinner knelt weeping at his feet, and the proud pharisee in the company scorned the sorrow of her bursting heart, the Savior of the world turning to her with all the mercy and dignity of his character, accepted her penitence, pardoned her sins, and sent her away both holy and happy. When the man who had been a robber was bleeding for his crimes by the side of Jesus on the cross, though his penitence probably never commenced until he was transfixed to the tree, when he turned his expiring eyes to the Savior and asked his mercy, was his prayer rejected?
Do the angels despise the day of small things? If they did, they would suspend the expressions of their delight until they beheld the redeemed sinner approaching the gates of the celestial city, in the perfection of his graces; instead however, of waiting for the termination of his career, they rejoice with unutterable joy at its commencement, and from that moment, become, with delight, the ministering spirits of the new-born heir of salvation. Nor does the mysterious, mighty enemy of God and man, look with contempt upon the beginnings of religion. The first tear of penitence, which drops from the sinner's eye, fills him with alarm, and sets in motion all his craft and power to resist the growing work of grace.
Another reason why we should not despise the beginnings of religion, is, that they lead on to great and glorious attainments. The traveler who has been journeying amidst the gloom of midnight, despises not the little luminous streak above the eastern hills, for he knows that it is the glimmering token of advancing day. The farmer who has sown the precious grain despises not the downy verdure which first appears just above the clods, for in that he sees the future harvest which is to repay his toil. The mother despises not the helpless babe to which she has given birth, for in that feeble and slumbering child, she knows there are the seeds of imagination, reason, will, and multiform affections, which shall grow with his growth, and strengthen with his strength, and which, by the fruits of their maturity, may bless and astonish the world.
So it is in true religion, little things advance to great ones! Baxter, and Owen, and Howe, and Doddridge were once babes in Christ, and so, indeed, were Paul, and Peter, and John. When the conversion of a sinner takes place, no mind but that which grasps eternity, can foresee the career of usefulness and holiness, which such a convert may have to run. In every case of real conversion, there will be a progress from a hardened sinner to a penitent; from a penitent to a believer; from a believer to a saint; from a saint to a seraph. He shall "add to his faith, virtue; and to virtue, knowledge; and to knowledge, temperance; and to temperance, patience; and to patience, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, Christian love." That first dawn of spiritual knowledge in the understanding is the kindling of a holy luminary, which shall receive and reflect as a satellite, the splendor of the fountain light, infinite ages after the sun is quenched in darkness! That first tasting that the Lord is gracious, is the incipient operation of a capacity for bliss, which shall continue to receive ineffable delight, when all the sources of sensual gratification shall have perished forever. In the train of even 'weak grace', if it is real, shall follow all the more mature virtues of Christianity; all that the Father has prepared for them who love him; all that the Son has procured by the agonies of the cross; all the mercies of the covenant of redemption; all the riches of grace; all the exceeding and eternal weight of glory, in short, infinite and eternal blessings! Let not the commencement of true religion, therefore, be treated with neglect.
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4. I shall now direct the subject to the attention of several distinct classes of people, to whom it seems peculiarly suitable. It utters a most impressive admonition to MINISTERS. To us, in a peculiar manner, is entrusted the care of souls. We labor for immortality. Our work outlives the world. The success which follows our exertions will appear before our eyes in the form of glorified spirits, through the flight of everlasting ages. What a motive to diligence! The object of our ambition should be the conversion of sinners. Everything short of this is, comparatively speaking, labor lost. When I say the conversion of sinners, I do not mean their first impressions merely; but a continued solicitude so to minister to their spiritual welfare, as that we may at last present them perfect before Christ Jesus.
True religion is considered, both by ministers and hearers, too much in the light of a state, which being attained to, the care and solicitude necessary to reach it, may, in some degree be remitted. There certainly cannot be too much concern for the production of first impressions, but ministerial concern seems too often to terminate here. There is not all that diligence which there should be, in nurturing these beginnings of piety. It appears to me that the 'preacher' is everything in the present age, and the 'pastor' is nothing. We shoot the arrow among the herd, but do not follow the stricken deer to the thicket, where he bleeds and languishes alone. We are too apt to consider, that, after we have been the means of awakening our hearers, we have nothing more to do with them, until they come before us in the character of candidates for fellowship. Wesley adopted it as a maxim, never to preach in any place, which he was not prepared to follow up; and this was wise. Serious impressions never leave the soul as they find it. Like heated iron, the mind which receives them, if not bent while it is warm, becomes more hard when it is cold. The beginnings of religion in our hearers should therefore call forth all our solicitude and tenderness. Those who may have been recently awakened should be encouraged to visit us for private and personal discourse, should be received with the utmost affection, and dealt with in the most tender and patient manner. Let not that spiritual farmer wonder or complain that he gathers little fruit, who neglects to shelter and protect the buds and the blossoms.
PARENTS stand next in responsibility to ministers. The souls, no less than the bodies of their children are confided to their vigilant attention. They should be tremblingly concerned for the eternal salvation of their offspring, to whom they have been the means of communicating a sin-tainted existence. They should teach them the principles of true religion, enforce those precepts by admonition, recommend them by example, and follow them with prayer. Having done this they should then look for the fruit of their labors. No sooner does the feeblest appearance of true piety present itself, than it should be encouraged to the uttermost. Say not; it is only "the morning cloud or early dew which will soon vanish away." How do you know it is? Cherish devout impressions upon their hearts, and, for this purpose, encourage them to unburden their minds to you; draw forth the state of their souls; question them in an affectionate manner; render yourselves their familiar friend, to whom all their feelings and their fears will be conveyed. What kind of Christian parent is that, who can treat any promising marks of piety in his child with neglect? Does the parent eagle wait for, and seize the favorable moment for teaching her eaglets, and assisting their first efforts, to prove their new-formed pinions; and the lark hover over the nest of her just fledged young, and with her wing and her song invite them to the skies, and shall not the Christian mother teach her young to soar to heaven, and help their first attempts!
SUNDAY SCHOOL TEACHERS, never forget that the ultimate object of your exertion, is to save the souls of your scholars from everlasting death! For this labor and pray. And should you perceive, at any time, in the little circles that collect around you on the Sabbath, a countenance oppressed with anxiety, and seeming, from behind a veil of modesty forbidding the use of words, to say, "What shall I do to be saved?" do not, I beseech you, do not pass it by with inattention and neglect. Do not, with a most guilty carelessness, exclaim, "O, it is only the emotions of a child whose mind is very susceptible, but which, I doubt not, will soon relapse into its former state of indifference. I have known her thus moved before, but she soon lost all her impressions again." And how did she come to lose them? Because you neglected to cherish and deepen them! Instead of such conduct, never let a tearful eye, a serious look, or enquiring countenance escape your notice. Remember, you watch for souls! The prize is infinite, and he that wins it is wise indeed.
CHRISTIANS, are there none among your acquaintances whose attention has recently been awakened and directed to the concerns of eternity, and who are in that state of deep concern which prepares them to welcome even a child that could instruct them in the things that belong to their peace? You have seen the change produced in their manner of attending upon the solemnities of public worship. You have beheld the head, which once was lifted so high in pride and vanity, dropping on the laboring bosom to conceal from the public gaze the emotions which had been excited within. You have seen the roving, restless eye, which so lately wandered round the assembly in vacant or curious mood, fixed on the preacher's lips, and suffused with the tear of godly sorrow. You have witnessed how serious, abstracted, and absorbed that countenance left the sanctuary, which used to depart in all the flutter of vanity and frivolity. And can you be an indifferent spectator of all this? Shame on you if you can! Follow these newly awakened people home to the scene of their private solicitude. You will need no apology for the intrusion, but will be hailed with the exclamation, "How beautiful are the feet of him who brings glad tidings." Go and pour the balm of consolation into the heart which God has wounded. Go and soothe their anxieties, instruct their ignorance, and encourage their hopes. Aspire to the high honor and rich reward of assisting a soul in her efforts to gain the prize of immortality!
To those who are just COMMENCING the life of religion, the subject addresses itself with emphatic accents. If these beginnings of piety are not to be despised by spectators, much less should they be despised by the subjects of them. Neglect not the slightest impression or conviction of a religious nature. Do not, for the world, treat it with indifference. It may be your soul's rising beam, the dawn of an eternal day, the commencement of everlasting life. If your mind has been awakened from the deep slumber of an unregenerate state, be tremblingly anxious that it may not sink back again into spiritual lethargy. It is the day of your visitation from God. He has approached you with salvation in his hand. "O, seek him while he may be found, call upon him while he is near." Do not say, "Depart from us, we desire not the knowledge of his ways." Our Lord, when desired by the Gergesenes to leave their coasts, complied with their requests, and visited them no more. A state of religious conviction forms a crisis in the history of every sinner. The balance of his destiny is then seen quivering, and angels and devils are watching with solicitude to see in what manner it will settle. Next to an actual plunge into the bottomless pit, there is nothing he should more dread than losing these first impressions, and relapsing again into the quietude of unconcern. Let him earnestly pray to God, and let the subject of his prayer be the permanency and increase of those views and feelings which have been recently produced in his soul.
In the progress of the work of grace, let not the YOUNG CONVERT be too much depressed and discouraged by the slowness of his attainments. If his knowledge is slow, if his hopes be sometimes low, his faith weak, his enjoyments limited, let him be roused to go forward, but not conclude that he has yet to begin the Christian race. Let him not compare himself with others who have been long in the way, and because he cannot reach their advances, be disheartened and discouraged. The new plant is not to compare itself with the veteran tree, and to be discouraged at its inferiority. Pride is often at the bottom of such discouragement. Humility would make us thankful for any measure of grace, and anxious to obtain more! Consciousness of our defects should not make us despond, but stir us up to diligence. The Christian cannot pass at once from the feebleness of infancy to the strength of manhood. He must go through the intermediate stages of the spiritual life. The believer, whose strength and stature he so much admires, was once a babe like himself, and probably at one time was subject to all the fears that agitate his own bosom. Instead of saying, "Oh, I shall never understand the doctrines of the gospel, and may as well give up the study. I shall never overcome the world by faith, and may as well retire from the field. I shall never subdue the evil propensities of my nature, and may as well yield myself their captive;" let him think how much more knowledge, separation from the world, and control over his corruptions, God has already granted him, than he once possessed. If he does not see that the top-stone of the spiritual temple is likely soon to be brought forth, does he not discern the foundation rising out of the ground?
At the same time that discouragement is prevented, let not anyone rest SATISFIED with the day of small things. If we are not to think too little of beginnings, we are, on the other hand, not to think too much of them. Despondency is that enemy of religion, which it is the design of this discourse to attack and to destroy, and it would be an abuse of the subject, if indolence and self-delight should be encouraged. Why is the day of small things not to be despised? That the subject of them may not be discouraged from seeking greater things. Despondency prevents a person from doing anything, it chains him as with a fetter to the earth. To break this fetter has been the object of the present discourse, that the disenthralled captive might be set at liberty for noble exploits. Let him arise from his prostration, and looking up to him who gives more grace, let him expect great things, and attempt great things. The man who thinks he has enough godliness, gives a decisive proof that he has none at all. There is in true godliness an insatiable thirst after larger attainments in knowledge, in faith, in hope, in love, and in purity. Therefore let every real Christian adopt the language of Paul, and act up to the assertion, "Not that I have already reached the goal or am already fully mature, but I make every effort to take hold of it because I also have been taken hold of by Christ Jesus. Brothers, I do not consider myself to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and reaching forward to what is ahead, I pursue as my goal the prize promised by God's heavenly call in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 3:12-14)
To CONCLUDE, let us be anxious neither to mistake the day of small things, nor to despise it, nor to rest satisfied with it!