The Blessing of the Unexpected
And they compel one Simon a Cyrenian, who passed by, coming out of the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to bear his cross.–Mark 15:21
His Physical Weakness Speaks of His Humanity
I want you, please, to note the words that are employed in Mark 15:20-22. In this, the greatest hour of history, every word is of supreme significance; thus we read in Mark 15:20, “They led him out to crucify him.” And then we read in the Mark 15:22, “They bring him unto Golgotha.” These two words are just a little window on to the supreme physical exhaustion of the Savior in this the greatest hour of His agony. You see, when He left the Praetorian they were leading Him; when they came to Golgotha they were bearing Him. He had started walking; He had stumbled; He had needed the support of these strong hands, and I think nothing could more eloquently speak to us of the full true humanity of Christ than just the awful physical weakness of that hour. For fifteen hours, since the hour of the Last Supper, our Lord had suffered the most awful strain, the strain of body, the agony of mind. “My soul is sorrowful, even unto death.” Now, He was so utterly forspent that He staggered and stumbled in the way. “He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” All this, my brother, my sister, He bore for you and me when He might have had hosts of angels at His bidding. Here, as at the outset of His mission, He refused to turn stones into bread, refused to avail Himself of anything that might break the bond between Him and us when He was dying in our room and stead.
The Romans and Jews Were Not Anxious to Alleviate Jesus But to Keep Time
It was the custom of these Roman soldiers to make the criminal carry his own cross, but in this instance that was quite impossible. What were they to do? No Roman would have touched the horrid thing–Roman shoulders were not meant for that. To have made a home-born Jew bear it would have been to court uproar; and just then, coming down the way that probably led from the uplands about Bethany, they saw the very person that they wanted. Others were travelling in companies, this man was travelling alone. His dark skin showed that he was a foreigner; his costume showed he was an African; he was a stranger who had no kith or kin, he was far from home, probably friendless. This was the very person that they wanted. I don’t suppose these soldiers pitied Christ; half an hour before they had been mocking Him; they were irritated at the loss of time, things were not going according to their program, and they cried, “You, you, Cyrene come here!” (He was known afterwards as Simeon Niger.) And him they compelled to bear the cross. This Gospel is very rich in vivid touches; is there a touch so vivid as this one?–the sinking Saviour, the irritated soldiers, the dark-skinned foreigner coming from the country, and over everything the blue heaven, and the birds singing as they used to sing when Jesus was a happy boy at home.
A Man Can Serve Christ Although He May Be Ignorant as to Who He Is
I want for a little while just to try and show you some of the teachings of that story, and in the first place, will you notice how a man can serve Christ though he is utterly ignorant who He is. I don’t imagine for a single moment that Simon had ever seen the Lord before. Possibly, and indeed probably, he had never even heard His Name, for the Lord’s Name had not penetrated Africa, and it was in Africa Simon had his home. Probably he had just arrived the other day. Then, you observe, he was coming from the country; that means he had his lodging in the country. At Passover the city was so full that many had to get lodgings in the country, and therefore that morning, coming to the city, he had no idea who the prisoner was–he was doing something for somebody he did not know. The strange thing is that he was called to serve somebody whom he had never heard of; called to help in a great hour which was going to change the future of the world; called not to a little service, but to a great service, so splendid and unique that any of Jesus’ disciples might have envied him. Mary broke the spikenard on His head; Martha made Him a supper in the evening; Joseph served by giving Him a grave, Lazarus by giving Him a cottage; but all these services, however beautiful, are not to be matched with this of Simon when he relieved the Lord of the burden of His cross. To him and to him alone was it given to help our Saviour in His deepest need, to him to relieve Him of His cross when all the others forsook Him and fled. And how profoundly significant it is that this service, such a glorious service, was rendered to the Christ he did not know. And then one thinks of the parable of Jesus about the Last Judgment of the world: “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom that is prepared for you; for I was hungry and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink,” and then the blessed are going to say in frank astonishment, “Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, or thirsty?” You see, evidently in the mind of Christ thousands are serving Him who never knew Him–in little actions, in the kindly loving deeds, in the little offices of courtesy and love; and what is to hinder us widening out that thought to the great services of men written in the history of the world? The men who built these highways across continents–they were serving Christ although they never knew it; the men who constructed railways across Africa–they were serving Christ although they never knew it; the man who invented printing, though he may never have thought about the Lord, he too has been a magnificent evangelist. So was it with Simon; he knew nothing of the prisoner, he had not the least idea whom he served when he carried the cross up the hill, but he was serving the Lord Christ, he was helping on the coming of His kingdom. He has got his reward.
The Unexpectedness of Life
And then, another thought embodied in our story is just the unexpectedness of life. This was the great hour in Simon’s history, and it just came to him like a bolt out of the blue. You have got to picture him that beautiful spring morning leaving the cottage where he had had his bed, crossing the fields brilliant with anemones, going up the pathway to the city, meditating on the goodness of the Lord in bringing him to the city of his dreams and allowing him to see the holy place. He had come there to celebrate the Passover, and that done, he was going home again to his wife and his two boys in Africa who had been praying for him every day; and just then, dreaming his own dreams and meditating upon the God of Jacob, he was gripped and brought into the presence of the Lord. And one feels how it would come to him all in a moment that he was present at the greatest hour of history, the hour for which the world had been waiting, the hour that the Psalmist had foreseen, the hour that the prophets had foretold, and it just came to him without any sound of trumpets. Simon dreaming his own dreams, his greatest hour met him by the way. And I scarcely need to tell you how true that is of life. Have not we a proverb in almost every language that it is the unexpected thing that happens?
- Joseph came out to see how his brothers fare, and Joseph is never going to see his home again.
- David in the morning is king, and when night falls he is flying from his son.
- Matthew is sitting at the receipt of custom; somebody speaks to him and calls him, and the future is never to be the same again.
How often our sorrows take us unexpectedly! How often our joys take us unexpectedly! How often the things we have looked for never come, the things that we never looked for have arrived: all of which should teach us not that life is chance, but that our highest wisdom is to trust Him when we know not what an hour may bring forth. How often Jesus meets us unexpectedly when our thoughts are busy with something else! And I beg of you never to forget that that is how the Lord is going to come, in an hour when you never think of it. If you and I were in the hands of fate, life’s unexpectedness would be its tragedy; but we are not, thank God, in the hands of fate. We are in the hands of One who loves us and who knows us; One who sees the fall of every sparrow, in whose eternal love is no tomorrow, whose everlasting purposes embrace, as Dr. Granville Williams says:
“Whose everlasting purposes embrace all accidents, converting them to good.”
“Almost by the merest chance I met the Lord.” I dare say Simon spoke like that. “Had I overslept myself by half an hour I would never have stumbled on the Saviour.” He did not oversleep himself, because the Lord God is merciful and gracious and loved him from the foundation of the world.
We Are Blessed by the Things We Are Compelled to Do
Then the last lesson which I want to touch on is this, how men are blessed by the things they are compelled to. As the years went by and Simon’s hair grew white, I am perfectly certain he often thought of that. Will you please observe he was compelled; his wishes were not consulted in the matter. Very probably he was rebellious; this was degrading to an honest Jew, and then, was not he due in the Temple at that hour, and was not this interfering with his plans? But it was no use struggling; he was one, the might of Imperial Rome legion; better to yield to the inevitable, although he did it with a curse within his heart. And the beautiful thing is that just that bitter task to which he was compelled proved the glory of his life. There is no question that he became a Christian. Alexander and Rufus were members of the Church. Mark talks as if everybody knew them; they were familiar figures in the Church at Rome, and all the blessing and the altered home, and the new deepened spiritual relationships came from something to which he was compelled. If he had had his way that morning, if nobody had interfered with him, if he had been allowed to do just as he pleased, he would have gone back to Africa, and we would never have heard of him. But the bitter thing he had to do, doing it perhaps with a curse within his heart, was just what proved his blessing. There are things in your life you are compelled to do; there are things in your life you are compelled to bear. Sometimes you think that if you were only free from them life would become sunshine and music, but one of the deepest lessons of this life is that things we are compelled to are the road to character and heaven. Accept that task you have got to do; accept that burden you are compelled to bear. The wonderful thing is how often it proves the very cross of Christ; it brings you into His fellowship; it deepens your character; it steadies you; it gives you the kingdom and the patience of the Lord; it draws you into sympathy with others. Simon became quite a noble character through the bitter thing he was compelled to. Has not it been the same with you and me?