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"Seek ye first the kingdom of God," and His righteousness." — St. Matthew vi. 33.
To-day the Church turns its thoughts from the beginnings of our Lord's ministry toward its close. We have been occupied with His coming, birth, and manifestation : we now move toward His cross.
The spirit of the text is the spirit of the Epistle. There is one •'' race '' to be run ; one " prize " to be gained. Everything else is less than the " incorruptible crown." The cross lies on the way to that. Put all else aside ; count all else immaterial ; do all, bear all, for that. Seek it " first."
The command carries the whole weight and compass of its meaning clearly written on its face. " Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness." The impression it conveys directly to every soul is the true one. I doubt whether in this cono^res^ation there is a person really listening to it that lias not said silently,
" That is a high call ; that must come out of the very Spirit and throne of God ; it sounds like the voice of One who speaks with an authority that it would be vain to question ; the words have the ring of eternal truth, reason, and right in them." It is an explicit requirement, — positive, comprehensive, intelligible. It
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stands there in the midst of that Divine sermon, which begins with beatitudes and ends with a warning, like the mount on which it was delivered in the scenery around it, the summit of an ascending grade of many heavenward-leading invitations. It sounds out a rallying cry for the waking minute-men of the army of the Great King. " Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness."
Sometimes when men are called so to rouse and enrol themselves under Christ's cross they are ready in the main, they acknowledge the general duty; but they want to ask particular questions and to receive particular
explanations. Such states^ of mind, if they are honest, and are fairly met, may end in faithful service on the Saviour's side. Seeking, they find. But Christ knew that there are other postures of men's minds, terribly common, where a life with Him amid the realities of the spiritual world are not set at all into this foremost place ; indifference is the first and fatal danger. There is not concern enough to raise particular inquiries. There are no questions to be asked about the methods, the conditions, the preparations, the way of the eternal life with Christ, because the treasure lies too far away. Sometimes, when you, men of business, are invited to embark in a new enterprise, you see and acknowledge its eminent importance, and only delay for an intelligent investigation. In other cases, you say at once that it has no attraction for you ; you are interested in other matters ; and, before he has opened his portfolio or unrolled his scheme, you dismiss the applicant from your door. It is to this last class of dealers with His heavenly benefit that the Saviour is here spealdng, — the unconcerned. To use His own language, which is always the best, " the cares of this world," " the deceitfulness of riches," " the pride
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of life," " what shall we eat ? " " wherewithal shall we be clothed ? " " how shall more goods be got and laid up for many years," or spent, or shown ? — these are the real interests ; they are supreme. "Why not frankly confess it, you man or woman of the world ? Why do you go round about the matter with ingenious circumlocutions, with your apologetic postponements, your half-way assent, or your heartless confessions ? If these " be thy gods," why not acknowledge and stand by them ? Why add an unmanly pretension to an ungodly preference, and crown your faithlessness to Christ with an acted lie to your fellow-men? Why buy your unopened Bible, and pay the tax on your reluctantly occupied pew, and repeat compliments to a public Christianity, and send for the minister to bury your dead, if your life and heart have another master, another worship, and another heaven ? Natural honor must admire Elijah's straightforward and clear-dividing doctrine : " If the Lord be God, follow Him ; but if Baal, then follow him." Only one kingdom can he first.
" The kingdom of God, and His righteousness." Can there be any ambiguity about the object ? It is plainly of two parts : one social and outward, — God's " kingdom " ; the other personal and inward, — " His righteousness " ; and these two are so fitted together, and so partake of each other, that each alone is incomplete ; both are one in the fulfilment of the Christian obligation. And the Saviour's command is not kept till both are sought. Yet, in seeking them, there is no dividing of the attention, no doubling of the purpose, and no divergence in the road. After all it is but one thing^ one object, one seeking, one choice and act, one eternal blessing. How is it with the prodigal? Up to a certain time he has no particular destination, no plan, as he has
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no faith. He only intends to wander on, and get the most selfish enjoyment out of the world that it can be made to yield him. The one bad determining act was done where he set up his own headstrong will, took the means of self-gratification into his hands, and made the
world's great sensual saloon his only home. But the prodigal was no extraordinary monster. This Christian community has thousands of men in it that are doing the same thing in kind every day, and doing it reputably enough. The one characteristic fact about him was that his back was turned to his father and his father's house. He sought another kingdom first. Precisely how far he had gone, or into what company, was not the^r^^ consideration ; but which way he was moving. His father let him have his portion of the property, to try his unfilial and dismal experiment with ; and so Providence lets irreligious and unchristian men have money and prosperity, for the same purpose, here. There is something unspeakably pathetic, sad, in the sight of a man, with a heart in his breast which God made, getting worldly success, nothing else, and working this experiment out. Tlie badges of fortune that He hangs out about him, and about his family, are only the mockeries of his mistake. How he is to discover it is only a question of time ; and this* is partl}?^ the sadness of it. You look at him as one after another of his purposes is accomplished, as one token after another of his rising and flourishing condition is put forth in his establishment, and you wonder when and how it will be that the
hunger in his heart is to discover itself to him. What will be the mysterious influence, — whose infidelity, whose treachery, what disorder, what miscalculation, — that will turn all these splendors into husks, and these apples into ashes? On which child's bloom will the
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blight settle ? In what night will the alarm come, that is the beginning of the end, saying, " Thy soul is required of thee " ? Fulness of the intellect, fulness of the body, fulness of the estate, will not keep the sense of hunger away, — and the sense of it is the reality of it.
When " he comes to himself," you find one thing presenting itself to this man's empty heart. It is that one thing that makes all the difference between a bad and a good son, a self-alienated, wretched child and a filial one, an obstinate and a repenting sinner. The whole change is wrought immediately within, him. But what change ? I*^ot a change of place; he has done nothing yet but think and feel. Not a change in his outer man. IS" either
time nor miracle has repaired the waste of dissipation in his body. ITot a complete revolution yet, in all the courses and tendencies of his thoughts and desires, — for it takes time to swing all these round, in the new-born man, so that they shall play spontaneously and harmoniously with the motions of the Spirit in the "new creature." But, a change in his relations to his Father and his Father'^s house. In that point, which is the decisive point in every character, the change is entire. Before, every longing, impulse, passion, from intellectual curiosity down to fleshly lust, looked for its indulgence away from home, which means away from God ; and obeying that choice, every step bore him literally " away." Place is not essential at first ; but destination is essential. Distance is not the principal thing ; direction is. Does the heart turn loyally and yearn faithfully to God? And now, what is the first sign and proof of the inward transformation ? It is in the character of the " first " thought and the " first " desire. Before, it was to get away from the Father and forget Him ; now, it is to get home and abide with Him. And here you find
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just those two parts of the new life which the text requires; the new ^lace and the new heart ; the seat at the family board, and the reconciled feeling; the open and visible return, as well as the secret repentance; the Father's house, or Church, as well as the Father's favor and forgiveness; — indeed, where else shall the favor and forgiveness be found but there, on the appointed spot, at the threshold of the old house-door, where childhood and baptism once left him ? Yes, " the Jcingdom of God, and the righteousness thereof." It will not do to stay back among the husks of the far country, no matter whether they are the dissolute husks of sensual pleasure, or the sordid husks of a thrifty and elegant worldly-mindedness, or the frost-bitten husks of intellectual pride ; — not the least matter. It is your Father's house that claims you. Men will ask, and they have a right to ask, "Under which king? Whose art thou ? " Much goods may have been laid up for many years, or you may have failed to get them, or may have squandered them. These are not differences in the sight of Him who says, " Seek first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness." To Him the only differ9
ence is between those that are seeking and those that are not. " This night thy soul shall be required of thee." Whose is that soul ?
" Seek ye." But there are two different kinds of seeking. One is the seeking of those who do not know, while , they seek, whether they shall find or not ; the other of those w^ho know, — because they believe, and know in whom they believe, — that by seeking they shall find. This seems to some of you, perhaps, a not very important difference; or else so very plain a one that everybody must see it. You would not think so, any of you, if you saw how many people there are in
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every assembly as large as tins who can say sincerely tliat they wish they were Christ's disciples, and yet are not, and do not know how to be, or whether in fact they can be. What is this but seeking without knowing whether they shall find " the kingdom of God, and His righteousness " ? They seek, if peradventure they may
find. Some do, — they say, — and some fail; they are not sure whether there is some antecedent, fatal, foreordained objection in the mind of God ; — they are not sure whether the message the King has sent them is all true, and the ofier of His love is as large as it seems ; they are not sure whether there are not difiiculties in themselves, of constitution, or habit, a temper or a tongue so unpromising as to shut out all probability of their evfer making strong Christians ; they are not sure whether they shall have any helps after they begin seeking, or enough to carry them through ; they are not sure but there are some mystical conditions, or incomprehensible doctrines, which are laid down at the door of the kingdom, which they are expected to comprehend, or be kept away. It is easy to see what irresolute, ineffectual seeking this will be. It is not that seeking of faith which the Saviour tries in so many ways to create, — by showing us Himself, by assuring us of the tenderness of the Father's compassion, by comparing earthly things with spiritual, and the temporal with the eternal, telling us that all our outward wealth is but the grass that tomorrow is cast into the oven ; by solemn repetitions of the promise that He will keep those who once, in a good confession, commit themselves to Him; by declaring
that no one shall pluck them out of His hand ; by miracles that open the kingdom of God to our very eyes ; by the parable of the great supper for "the lame, the halt, and the blind " ; and by dying in the depth
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and boundlessness of His love, that "whosoever will" may come. Yes: "the kingdom of God" is there, and is open ; the " righteousness " of God is real and waiting. It is not a venture, a possibility, a haphazard seeking, — like that before the dreary and unbelieving mind of Rabelais, when he felt himself dying, and said, in melancholy acquiescence, " I go to seek the great Perhaps." How unlike St. Paul's " I have finished my course, henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness which the Lord will give me," or St. Stephen's " Lord Jesus, receive my spirit," with his face already like the face of an angel ! Yes, there must be some faith, to begin the seeking ; faith enough to be sure of God; faith enough to be certain that, whatever we may do or be, Christ means what He says
when He declares " The kingdom of God has come nigh unto you," " Ask, and ye shall receive," " Seek, and ye shall find."
Seek it first : — first in time, now, before anything else is sought or done ; first in importance, never letting any other interest crowd this aside, or other engagements take precedence of the appointed means and ordinances that lead to this ; first in earnestness, cheerfully sacrificing society, business, income, admiration, just so far as they hinder or interfere with this ; first in afibction, so that you can sincerely say, with St. Paul, " I am persuaded that neither life nor death, nor things present nor things to come, nor high things nor low things, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate me from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus my Lord." Why, if this were the manner and the spirit of all our seeking, — intense and sober and confident, — if all the world's business were so done, and its pleasure so moderated and purified, as to be in all points made secondary and
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tributary to tliis, — I liardlj know whether the greater change would pass over the world or over the Church ; — over those that profess and call themselves Christians, yet make their religion wait for their traffic and their entertainment, or over the surrounding multitudes that do not believe the faith of Christ to be a reality at all only because they do not see avowed Christians treating it and presenting it as the "first" thhig. Yet this is perfectly compatible with a diligent business life, with doing vigorously the daily work that your hand finds to do, with public spirit, with learning, with patriotism, with all the refinements and culture of a high-bred tone of civilization. IS^ay, everything other than this, — everything that inverts this Divine order, or subordinates Christ's kingdom and righteousness to the kingdom of this world, and seeks material or merely intellectual glory firsts is not a high-bred civilization ; but the seeds of weakness and vulgarity and extravagance and hollow scepticism, and a foetid barbarism are in it, till the curses of God light upon it, and you have the old spectacle of commonwealths revolting from their heavenly King, and perishing in dishonor. To make spiritual interests foremost and supreme is not fanat14
icism or asceticism. Christ takes all truth into His Gospel, and remembers our whole condition. When He says, " Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness," what follows? "all other things shall be added unto you." " Godliness is profitable for the life that now is, as well as for that which is to come " ; for both lie within the Father's keeping, and over both His empire extends.
There was living, not long ago, a thoroughly consecrated Christian merchant, now among God's saints no doubt in paradise, who began and finished his whole
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prosperous career as a steward seeking " first " Christ's kingdom, — and giving of his income, to the glory of that kingdom, first a tenth, then a half, and finally the whole. When this man found himself prostrated by disease, and not very likely to recover, his conversation was as cheerful and manly as ever. If the Master should call him, he was ready. But it would be a severe
disappointment, he said, if he should be long inactive and unprofitable. There was the balance, in him, of the helieving and the working faculties. " You can understand this state of feeling," he said to his clergyman, " because you are interested in your own work for the Master, and would regard your separation from it as a calamity. IS'ot," he continued, " that I would compare money-making in importance with the preaching of Christ, but I think I can say, as in the sight of God, that my aim in making money is the same as that of every true minister of Christ in preaching the Gospel." That candid and confidential statement, with eternity in plain sight, disclosed the real secret of the energy of his business life. It is just as possible for such a man to seek first God's kingdom and righteousness in the regulated and sanctified activity which yet never takes him from his place in the Lord's service, as if he waked and slept in a cloister.
I recall another eminent merchant, up to the close of his last day of health working indefatigably, as he had worked for many years, not to add more to a great fortune, but to serve and set forward, with what he already had, and with every capacity of his capacious nature,
this kingdom, and the glory of its King. The few final months he gave especially to the relief and evangelization of the freedmen at the South. On one of the
bitterest days of the Winter, as if some solemn prein-
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timation told him his hour was at hand, he refused to leave his counting-house, where he was laboring from morning till night in this work of mercy. Feeling a strange pain in his head, he bandaged it with water and worked on. As the night came on, he rose from that desk, where he had earned a dignity which gives him a place, it seems to me, with the missionaries and soldiers of the cross, with statesmen and scholars, and turning to his clerk said, as his last words, — sublime in their simplicity as almost any of the dying expressions of saints on record, — "Now, — have I left anything undone ? " Before he had reached his home, the cloud
fell over his mind; and, after a few half-articulate syllables, showing that his thought was still reaching back to the poor creatures that leaned upon him, breathing that charity which " never faileth," about midnight li,e fell asleep. Why is it, O men of strength, young men, or men in whom the fire of youth is cooling, — why is it that we do not see the true glory of our lives, and round them out, and end them, oftener, in such holy grandeur as this? — "Have I left anything undone?" for Christ and His kingdom ? It matters very little how soon the night shuts in, or the Master calls, if all our days ended with that. The kingdom would go forward, though men die ; the race would be emancipated and regenerated by the living power and witness of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.
Would to God, dear friends, that all the air about us were quick with that spirit ! that the life kindled and glowed, with healthful fire, along all our sluggish congregations and our worldly highways ! Have no fears that faith and prayer will open the windows of heaven too wide, or that our staid Lents and reverential Pentecosts will be too refreshing ! Spiritual interests are foremost
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and supreme. Eternity is close at hand. The Judge does stand at the door. The time is short. Wisdom does utter her voice in these streets, " Unto you, O men, I call." Jesus of Nazareth, as the Gospel says, is passing by. This Church is opening her gate for the yearly ingathering. E'o man can serve two masters. Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness, — first in time, first in concern, first in earnestness, first in affection.
" Awake, thou Spirit who of old, in love and truth. Didst fire the watchmen of the Church's youth, "Whose voices through the world are ringing still, And bringing hearts to know and do Thy will.
" Would there were help within our walls !
Oh let the promised Spirit come again Before whom every barrier falls,
And, ere the night, shine forth as then! Rend Thou the heavens, and make Thy presence felt; These chains that bind us at Thy touch would melt.
" Oh that thy fire were kindled soon!
That swift from land to land its flame might leap I Lord, give us but this priceless boon
Of faithful servants, fit, for Thee, to reap, — And let them all the earth for Thee reclaim To U Thy kingdom, and to know Thy name."
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