HH Sir Godfrey Gregg D.Div
And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:–Matthew 6:28
Jesus Keenly Alive to the Message of Nature
During the glorious days of June, when the world is so full of light and joy, it is an unspeakable satisfaction to remember that our Lord was keenly alive to the message of nature. It is part of the undying charm of the Gospel story that while it sounds all the deeps of the human spirit, it never forgets that we are living in a world where the grass is green and where the birds are singing. There are poets whose gift is that of interpreting nature. There are others whose genius works at its noblest in interpreting the strange story of mankind. But the sublimest masters are endowed with both these gifts–they interpret nature and they interpret man. Now Jesus Christ was far more than a poet; He was inspired as no poet ever was. Yet the twofold gift of interpreting nature and man, the gift that is the glory of our masterpieces, shines out most cloudlessly upon the Gospel page. It is there we read of the Samaritan woman. It is there we read of the denial of Peter. But the mustard-seed and the birds and the lilies are there too.
Love of Nature Was a Hebrew Tradition
Now no doubt this love of nature which was so strong in Jesus sprang partly from the circumstances of His birth. He was a Hebrew with a Hebrew lineage, after the flesh, and nature was eloquent with voices to the Hebrew. You can often tell what a people gives its heart to by the richness and copiousness of its vocabulary. Where a nation’s interests have been long and deeply engaged, there it soon wins for itself a wealth of terms. Well, in the Hebrew language there are some ten words for rain, and to the understanding heart that is significant. Into that heritage, then, Jesus of Nazareth entered. He was the child of a race that had lived with open eyes. And if the glory of the world lights up the Gospel story–if there are sermons in stones, and books in running brooks, there, we owe it in some measure to God’s ordering, when He cradles Emmanuel in a Hebrew home.
From Fear of Nature to Love of It
But between the Hebrew outlook on nature in the Old Testament and the outlook of Jesus as we find it in the Gospels, there is one marked difference that we cannot note too closely. There is one contrast which no one can fail to remark, who reads the prophets and the Psalms and then turns to the Gospels. In the Psalms, the world is magnificent and terrible. It is a mighty pageant of grand and mysterious forces. We see the sun there rejoicing like a strong man to run his race; we hear the rush of the storm as it shatters the cedars of Lebanon. The sea is angry, its waves mount up to heaven. There is the role of thunder; there is the flash of lightning. You feel that clouds and darkness are never far away. It is a vast and glorious world–hardly a kindly one. Now turn to the Gospels, and do you note the change? Consider the lilies of the field, the fowls of the air. Behold the sower goes forth to sow in the spring morning. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard-seed. It is not that vast and magnificent things are disregarded, and the beauty of the small things recognized. That is not what gives us the sense of contrast between the nature of the Psalmist and of Jesus. It is rather that the world is a much kindlier place; there is less menace in its terrific powers. It is still as full of mystery as ever; but it is the mystery of love now, not of fear.
Now can we explain that deep and striking change? It is quite clear that nature will not explain it. Had Jesus lived under a sunnier sky or amid fairer pastures than the old Hebrew Psalmists, we might think that the change was due to change of scene. But the same stars looked down on Jesus of Nazareth as touched into music the craving heart of David; and the same wild storms leapt out of the blue heaven as have given the fire and rush to Hebrew melody. And the hills and the streams and the gleaming of the sea far off, these were the same. It is clear, then, that there is no explanation there.
Nature Was Not Kinder to Jesus
Nor is there any–I speak with loving reverence of One to whom I owe so much–nor is there any explanation for the change of persons. I mean that had a lot of Jesus been a kindly lot, I could have fathomed His kindly view of nature. Has not Tennyson sung very wisely and very well–
Gently comes the world to those
That is cast in the gentle mould?
And had the life of Jesus been a life of ease and tenderness, I think I could explain His view of nature. But did He not come unto His own and they received Him not? Was He not despised and rejected of men? Were there no drops of sweat like blood in lone Gethsemane? Was there no cup to drink, no cross to bear and die on?’ I do not think that bitter sorrows like these make a man ready to consider the lilies. In my own tragedies, the world grows tragic. I understand the storm when I am storm-tossed. But to Jesus, misunderstood, cross-burdened, Man of Sorrows, nature was genial, kindly, homelike, to the end.
Man’s Attitude toward Nature Changes as a Result of Inward Change–
God Not a Mere Creator but a Father
Here is the explanation of that contrast. It does not change the scene, nor change of circumstance. It is the changed thought of God that is the secret. To prophet and Psalmist, no less than to Jesus, the world was alive and quivering with God. But to the prophet and Psalmist God was Jehovah; to Jesus of Nazareth God was Father. Twelve times over in this sixth chapter of Matthew Christ speaks of the Creator as “your Father.” I have read of the child of a distinguished English judge who was rebuked for prattling beside the judge’s knee. And the child answered: “Why should I not? He may be your judge, but he’s my father.” So when the thought of the Creator, infinite in majesty, was deepened and softened and glorified in Fatherhood, the mystery of fear was swept out of the world, and the gentle mystery of love came in. It was a Father who had reared the mountains. There was a Father’s hand upon the storm. At the back of the thunder, no less than in the lilies, there was a Father’s heart, a Father’s love. It was that glorious truth filling the heart of Jesus that made all nature what it was for Him. Perfect love had cast out fear.
Here is a story I came across in the city of Florence there is an old building now used as a museum. Six hundred years ago it was a palace, and on the altar wall of its chapel, sometime about 1390, Giotto painted a portrait of the poet Dante. This portrait, the only one painted during the poet’s lifetime, is of inestimable value. But the building fell upon evil days; it was turned into a jail for common criminals; its walls were coated with whitewash. And for centuries under this covering the face of Dante was hidden, until its existence was well-nigh forgotten. But in 1840 three gentlemen, one of them an Englishman set to work and discovered the lost likeness. And now the old prison wall is full of glory because the lineaments of the great poet shine out there. Ah, yes, if a common wall is quite transfigured when the likeness of Dante is discovered on it, no wonder that a common flower is glorified when it reveals–as it did to Christ–the Father. It is a great thing to be alive to beauty, but men were alive to the beauty before Jesus lived. It is a great thing to feel the mystery of nature, but men had felt all that in paganism. What Jesus did was to take the truth of Fatherhood, and touch every bird and every lily with it, till beauty deepened into the brotherhood, and we and the world were mystically kin. “When I consider the heavens,” said the Psalmist, “what is man, that thou art mindful of him?” But Jesus, just to reassure us of God’s mindfulness, says, “Consider the lilies of the field.”
Jesus Used Nature in the Interest of Morals
Such, then, was the secret of nature for our Lord. And now I have a word to say upon one other point. I want you to observe how constantly and simply our Lord used nature in the interests of morals. Our outlook on nature is very largely emotional. We make it a mirror to reflect our moods. If we are happy, then all the world is happy. But if we are sad, then even “the banks and Braes O’ bonny doon ‘mind me O’ departed joys, departed–never to return.” Now, all that is very natural, I doubt not, and it is a witness to the grandeur of our human story that we make every stream and every sunset echo it. But in the life of Jesus, there is little of that; it is the moral helpfulness of nature that He seizes. Burns wondered how the flowers could bloom when he was so weary. That is the emotional outlook on the world. Tennyson said: “Flower in the crannied wall, could I but understand thee, I should know what God and man is.” That is the intellectual outlook on the world. But Jesus said: “Why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field,” and that is neither emotional nor intellectual; it is moral. I do not mean that Jesus was blind to the other aspects, but I do mean that He centred His thought on that. For the soul and the life and the individual character–these things were so transcendently important to Christ Jesus, that everything else must be impressed by their service. In the glorious days of June, we are apt to grow a little dull to what is highest. Just to be alive is such a sweet thing at such a time, that the hope and the resolve of sterner moods take to themselves wings and fly away. Do not forget the earnestness of Christ. Do not forget that out in the summer fields this was His aim–to fashion noble, trustful, reverent disciples. We must have room for the lilies of the field no less than for Gethsemane; we must remember the birds not less than the bread and wine if the whole ministry of Christ is to be operative in winning us to some likeness of Himself.
To the Very End, Nature Appealed to Jesus
It is notable, too, that as Jesus’ life advanced, and as the shadows upon His path grew darker, we find no trace that Jesus outgrew nature, or passed beyond the power of its reaching. I think most of us have had hours when nature seemed to desert us. She became numb and had no healing for us. It may have been the hour of a great sorrow or a great crisis in our life’s career. And I think that most of us have had moods and feelings which we thought that nature was powerless to interpret. She could not enter into our weary problems. So as our life goes on we drift away from nature, and nature silently drifts away from us. But what I want you to note is that though that happens with us, there is no trace that it ever happened with Jesus. Here on the hillside, He is speaking of Providence, and He says, “Consider the lilies of the field.” Then follows the preaching of the kingdom throughout Galilee, and “the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard-seed.” Then the shadow of Calvary falls, and the awful death that is coming–can nature interpret and illuminate that darkness? “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone.” And where did Christ agonize? Was it in the upper room? He went into a place where there was a garden. And in the exultant joy of resurrection morning, did He hasten away into the city? He waited till Mary supposed He was the gardener. Right on, then, through the wealth of all His teaching, right on through His suffering and death and rising, the voices of the natural world appealed to Jesus. Nature may seem to fail us before the end, but it never deserted Jesus Christ.
In Perfect Touch with His Father’s World
And the reason is not very far to seek. “I come…to do thy will, O God” (Hebrews 10:7). It was the childlike heart, absolutely true, never swerving by a hairbreadth from the line of duty; it was His perfect obedience to a Father’s will that kept Jesus in perfect touch with His Father’s world. Do you remember how Wadsworth, speaking of the man who does his duty, says:
Flowers laugh before thee in their beds
And fragrance in thy footing treads?
He means that nature ceases to be musical when we are anywhere else than on the path of duty. Here, then, is the secret of a happy summer, in which all the world and you shall be in comradeship. It is to be patient, brave, unselfish, kind, and loyal. It is to accept the cross. It is to be true. To see the beautiful, you must be dutiful. It is a most strange world. “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God”–even in the lilies of the field.