The Village Pulpit, Volume II/Sermon LIII
THE CONTEMPLATION OF DEATH.
16th Sunday after Trinity.
S. Luke vii. 12.
"Behold, there was a dead man carried out."
INTRODUCTION.—The name of the village where the miracle was wrought which is recorded in this day's Gospel, was Nain, and the meaning of the name is "Pleasant" or "Beautiful." A sweet little village, you can picture it to yourself where you like, in the East, anywhere in Europe, here in England, it is all the same, an "Auburn" among villages, with thatched cottages, and green pastures, and the cows coming home lowing in the evening, when the curfew tolls the knell of passing day. The grey church tower peeping above the lime trees, and the rooks cawing and wheeling above the old trees. The trim gardens blazing with hollyhocks and large white lilies, and the orchards with the apples shewing their rosy cheeks to the sun. The bell is slowly tolling—"Behold, a dead man is carried out." Who is it? To-day a young man, the only son of his mother, and she a widow. To-morrow the old squire, who can no more mount his cob and go after the hounds, his whip and red coat are laid aside, and the bell is going. "Behold, a dead man is carried out." Again the Sexton is working in the church-yard, and turning up the fresh smelling earth. The bell is going. For what? Up the steps and along under the avenue come little girls about a tiny coffin, over which is cast a white pall, and on which lies a wreath of white hyacinths. "Behold, a dead child is carried out, the darling of its father." And now the yellow leaves are falling, and are heaped about the feet of the limes, and fall through the warm damp air, that smells of dying vegetation, and the priest stands in surplice waiting in the path, and the dead leaves drop on the coffin as it is borne along. Who is this? "Behold a dead woman is carried out, an aged mother, with her weeping grown up sons and daughters and grandchildren all in black following."
SUBJECT.—It is not a pleasant thing to think of, and yet it is well for you to contemplate, that some day the same question will be asked as the church bell tolls, Who is this? Who is dead? And the same answer will come, "Behold, a dead man is carried out," and that will be you. Nothing is more commonplace than to say that we must all die, and nothing is less realised and taken to heart and acted upon.
I. That procession the Saviour met, was coming out of Nain, the "Pleasant," the "Beautiful." And so, every dead man is carried out of what is a Nain to him, a pleasant, beautiful world. It is a pleasant, beautiful world. We cannot deny it. God made it and pronounced it very good. It has in it many unpleasantnesses, it has in it much that is ugly, but there is pleasure and beauty in it still, the traces of its own loveliness before sin drew furrows in its face and saddened its heart. A very Nain it is. We are now in Autumn, and the leaves are turning fast. The dogwood leaves are bright carmine, and the maple yellow as sulphur, the last flowers are out in the hedges, the pink cranesbill and the blue oxtongue which will hang on till after Christmas. The elder which was so white and fragrant in May, is covered now with purple berries, and the ash is hung with scarlet beads, so bright, so many, and so beautiful, that the swallows are hovering round them all day impatient to begin, and improvident of the future. Nature even in its decay is beautiful, and what was it in spring? Remember the primroses out on every bank, and the anemones in the wood, and the blue flush of wild hyacinths in the coppice! Verily, we are in Nain, a pleasant and beautiful place. Alas! alas! my brother! my sister! Behold there will be a dead man, a dead woman carried out from it, to see it no more, and that will be one of us. Is it sad? Yes, no doubt it is.
II. But though sad, the thought of it must not be put away. S. Paul says, "We have the sentence of death in ourselves." We carry about in us ever the doom—we are sentenced men—and the sword will fall on us some day. The story is told of a Norwegian king that he promised to give a young nobleman any reward he chose to ask for, because of something he had done for him. Then the young man boldly asked for the hand of the princess, the only child and heiress to the kingdom. The king answered him, "Yes! I have promised. You shall have her hand, and lose your head, the same day." Then a grand wedding was prepared. And a stately procession moved to the church, of the bride in white, and the bridegroom in his most gallant apparel, but as he went along, he heard a sound of a file from the executioner's room, who was sharpening his axe. And he stood before the altar with his bride, and the priest joined their hands,—but all the while the executioner was sharpening his axe. Then the bells of the city pealed, and the heralds blew their trumpets, and the people shouted, and girls strewed flowers in the path, and their way went by the executioner's lodging where he was still engaged on his axe. Then there was a great feast, and wine flowed, and the most dainty meats were put on table; it was a hot day, and the windows were open, and above the din of tongues and laughter, came the thud of a hammer. In the courtyard of the palace the executioner was setting up the scaffold. And after the banquet came a grand ball, and the rooms were lighted up, and the ball-room was hung with festoons of flowers, and the bride and bridegroom led the dance, but ever as they danced they turned their heads and looked out of the window, and saw the scaffold, which was being draped in black. At length, in the midst of all the merriment, the bell began to toll, and the door flew open, and before all the dancers stood the executioner with his axe in hand and a black mask over his face, and he beckoned to the bridegroom to come. "And behold a living man was carried out—to die."
My Brethren, it is not so very different with us. We carry about the sentence of death in ourselves. Whatever we do, wherever we go, the sentence of death is in us. You do your work. You are ploughing the field and whistling, and you carry, as you make the furrow, the sentence of death in yourself. You are busy about your house-work, good-wife, sweeping, dusting, mending, scouring, cooking,—and all the while you have the sentence of death in yourself. You have a holiday, and go on a pic-nic, and laugh, and are merry, and come back under the evening sky singing and making jokes—but you carry with you to your pic-nic and back again the sentence of death in yourselves.
III. Now if this be so, how ought we to live? Ought we to thrust the thought away from us as horrible? Ought it to mar our happiness? Ought it to disquiet us in our work? Far from it. Nain is a pleasant and beautiful place, but there is one more pleasant and more beautiful, where the leaves do not fall, nor the flowers wither, where no sickness comes, and where no dead men are carried out. Let us look to that, the new Jerusalem, the Heavenly City, the vision of peace, and that will banish our sadness, we shall not be downcast at leaving so much that is pleasant behind, but rejoice that we pass on from things temporal to things eternal.
No! we shall not be saddened by the contemplation of death, but we shall be made more earnest to use this world without abusing it, to make the most of our opportunities, to redeem the time because the days are evil, to run our race temperately, and not uncertainly, and so to run that we may obtain the incorruptible crown, that we may attain to the goal, the prize of our high calling.