George H. Morrison - Devotional Sermons
The Departing of the Angel
And they went out, and passed on through one street; and forthwith the angel departed from him--Act 12:10
The Ministry of Prisons
In the verses that precede our text we have the familiar story of Peter's release from prison. Perhaps the story would have been still more familiar, and would have impressed itself still more vividly on Christendom, had it not been overshadowed by that other scene when Paul and Silas sang in the jail at Philippi. The world would have been a great deal poorer but for its prisons. We owe more to our prisons than we think. Shining virtues have been developed in them; miracles of heaven have been wrought in them; immortal literature has been written in them, and these are things we could ill do without. And we could not do without that word of Jesus either--Sick and in prison, and ye visited Me.
No Prison Walls Can Shut Out an Angel
Peter, then, had been imprisoned by Herod. He had been cast into the inmost ward. You can hear door after door shut behind him with a re-echoing clang And then, to make assurance doubly sure, he is chained to two soldiers as Paul was, afterwards, in Rome. Perhaps Herod thought that if Peter's Master when He was left for dead had burst from the sealed grave, it were well to make assurance doubly sure when the prisoner was one of Jesus' henchmen. But there were some truths that Herod had yet to learn. And one of them was that when God Almighty works, "stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage." Behold the angel of the Lord came upon Peter, and a light shined in the prison. You can shut out a man's nearest and dearest from him, but no authority can shut the angels out. And the angel touched Peter, and the chains fell off him. And the angel led him out from ward to ward. And the iron gate swung back upon its hinges, and Peter was out under the stars again. And the angel and Peter passed on through one street, we read, and forthwith the angel departed from him.
Why Did the Angel Lead Peter Out of the Prison and Then Leave Him?
Now, do you see why the angel left the disciple then? There is strong doctrine in the departing of the angel. Sometimes the angels leave us for our sin. We are so coarse, and evil-inclined and worldly, it would stain and sully their white robes to walk with us. They try it for one street--for we have all our chance--but it does not prove "the street which is called Straight." There is always a dying out of vision when a man or woman loses the childlike heart, and the dying of vision is the departing angel. Sometimes then, the angel leaves the soul--the brightness fades, the heavenlies disappear, the presence of white-robed purity is lost--and all because a man is growing worldly.
But that was clearly not the case with Peter. Right to the end, through all the struggle and the storm of life, Peter preserved, as only the greatest do, the great heart of a little child. If every child has got its guardian angel, I do not think that Simon's would be lacking. Yet for all that, when they had passed through one street, forthwith the angel departed from Simon Peter. And I think it is not difficult to see why. The angel's work was done; that is the point. There was no more need for the ministry of miracle. Peter was a man among men now; in the familiar streets, freed from his shackles, and with friends to go to--it was at that point the angel went away. There was the presence of Christ for Simon Peter now; there was God in His eternal law and love; but there was no need for the angel any more. His task was over when the chains were snapped, and the last gate between Peter and liberty swung wide.
God Intervenes Only in Extraordinary Difficulties
I wonder if you grasp, then, what I should venture to call the helpful doctrine of the departing angel? I think it is a feature of God's dealing that has been somewhat neglected in our thought. It means that in extraordinary difficulties we may reasonably look for extraordinary help. It means that when we are shut in prison walls and utterly helpless to extricate ourselves, God has unusual powers in reserve that He is willing to dispatch to aid His own. But when the clamant need goes, so does the angel. In the open street, under the common sky, do not expect miraculous intervention. It was better for Peter's manhood, and it is better for yours, that only the hour of the dungeon should bring that. The angel departs, but the law of God abides. The angel departs, but the love of Christ remains. And I think that all God's leading of His people and all the experience of the Christian heart might be summed up, with not a little gain, in the departing angel and the remaining Lord.
Israel in the Wilderness
I want then to take that suggestion and bring it to bear on various spheres of life. And first we shall think of Israel in the wilderness. There was a helplessness about Israel in the wilderness like the helplessness of Peter in the prison. It was a terrible journey through that gloomy desert, twice terrible for these newly emancipated slaves. There were mighty barriers between them and Palestine quite as impassable as any prison doors. They would all have perished but for angelic help. Hungry, the flight of quails came from the sea, and the ground was covered, in the red dawn, with manna. Thirsty, there flowed a stream of water from the rock, and they drank of the spiritual rock which followed them. The Red Sea became a highway for their feet, and they found a road right through the swellings of Jordan. It was the angel of God smiting their fetters off. It was the angel of God bursting the gates before them. Out of the dungeon and prison house of Egypt they were carried by the constraint of irresistible power. But then, when they reached Canaan and had, as it were, passed through one street of it, forthwith the angel departed from them. The manna ceased to fall after one harvest. They drank no more of the water from the rock. There came days when they were hunted down by enemies, yet the Jordan never stayed its flood again. Jehovah was with them still in love and law; the mystical presence of Jesus was their shield. But the need was past; the prison gates were broken, and they learned the doctrine of the departing angel.
In the Course of the History of the Christian Church
Or we might think of the history of the Christian church in this light. We might compare Pentecost with after centuries. There was a radiance and a spiritual glory about Pentecost that remind us at once of Peter and the angel. There were tongues, as it were of fire, on every head; the doors of that upper room were opened wide; the bonds of that little company were loosed; they were filled with joy, and they got new gifts of speech. It was a season of wonder and of miracle; it was the intervention of heaven for an hour. And then the church passed on through one street mystical, and forthwith the angel departed from them. Could Justin or Jerome or Augustine work miracles? Does God give any missionary now the gift of tongues? Can we heal the lame with a word as Peter did? Can we shake off the serpent as Paul did at Malta? There are some men who would have us believe we can; and there are more who, knowing that we cannot, think it impossible that it was ever done. I beseech you to avoid these two mistakes. Remember the doctrine of the departing angel. We are out in the streets now under the stars of heaven; miraculous ministries would simply ruin our manhood. Once, when there were prison gates to open, the angel came and gave the church her liberty. But now the Lord is our shepherd and our stay; the grace of an abiding Christ suffices. The angel has been summoned home to God.
In the Unfolding of Our Individual Life
I think, too, that we become conscious of this truth in the unfolding of our individual life. There comes a time in the life of every one of us when, not for our sin but for our deepest good, the angel leaves us as he left Simon Peter. In childhood we were very near the angels; we heard the beating of their wings sometimes when the world was hushed and everything was dark. We never thought of law or will or character; we lived in a dreamland, and the great dream was God. "Heaven lies about us in our infancy." In my church in the far north--and a beautiful church it was--we had curtains on each side of the pulpit. The way into the pulpit was through the curtains. And I often used to notice a tiny girl gazing at these curtains with very eager eyes. It was quite clear it was not the minister she was looking at. It was whenever the curtains moved that she would start and stare. I found out afterwards what all the interest was. The little child thought that heaven was behind the curtains. It was only a wilderness of joists and planks, but she thought that Christ was there; she thought that God was there; she thought that the minister stepped out from God into the pulpit, and every time the curtain rustled--little heart, little eager, beating heat! who could tell but thou mightst catch the shimmer of an angel there? Ah, well, she has passed on through one street since then, and forthwith the angel has departed from her. She will never mistake an organ-loft for heaven again. She never expects to see the gleam of wings now. And it may be that she looks back half wistfully to the day of glory in the grass and splendor in the flower. But my point is that the angel must depart if we are to walk the street of life in our true dignity. We are not here to dream that heaven is near us; we are here so to live that heaven shall be within us. And if at every turn the angel met us and the vision of a dream enchanted us, we should lose heart and nerve and power for the struggle and be like the lotos-eaters in ignoble quietude. The angel may go, but duty still remains. The vision may disappear, but truth abides. We never understand what will is, we never realize what we can do, we never feel the worth of personality moved by the spirit of an ascended Lord, till the hour when the angel goes away. Therefore, in the interests of highest and holiest manhood, we shall thank God for the angel-atmosphere of childhood, and thank Him nonetheless that when we have passed through one street, forthwith the angel has departed from us.
In the Experience of the Death of a Loved One
I think, too, we may swing this thought like a lamp over the dark chamber of the grave. In a great congregation there are always mourners, and I do not like to close without a word for them. It may be there is someone here who, looking backward, remembers an angel presence. Perhaps it was a mother, perhaps a sister;, but they were so gracious, so gentle, and so patient, that you see now it was of heaven, not of earth. And you thought it was going to be a lifelong comradeship; you would travel on through all life's streets together. But you only passed on through one street, and forthwith the angel departed from you. And you are not yourself yet, any more than Simon was. The streets seem strangely unreal; how the wind bites! But like Peter when he came to himself, you too shall say, "It was the Lord who sent His angel to deliver me." There was some work to do, and it was done. There was some help to give, and it was given. There were chains to break and prison doors to open, and you can bear witness that it was all accomplished. Remember the doctrine of the departing angel when the heart is empty and the grave is full.
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