George H. Morrison - Devotional Sermons
The Note of the Heroic
His eyes were as a flame of fire--Rev 1:14
It is notable that in this vision of the ascended Savior, the eyes should have been as it were a flame of fire. That is hardly the characteristic we should have expected after hearing of hair that was as white as snow. The snow-white hair suggests to us venerable age; it hints at the passing of unnumbered years with the inevitable quenching of the fire of youth; but when we should look for eyes that were very gentle or that were filled with the wise tenderness of age, we find that His eyes were as a flame of fire. Now that contrast at once suggests to me this thought. In Christ there is not only a beauty as of silvered age; there is also a fire and a heroism as of youth.
And it is on that note of the heroic I ask you, as we begin to think upon the matter, to bear in mind one very simple distinction. It is that the thoughts that cluster round the heroic are not exactly those which the word hero suggests. A hero is just the embodiment of our ideal. He is the man who represents to us all that we dream of, whom we can clothe in every virtue and grace we consider fine. There is nothing fixed or defined, then, in the meaning of hero; its importance is relative to the qualities we admire. The hero of an unscrupulous man of business is often a man who is only more unscrupulous. The heroine of the woman of the world is sometimes only a more worldly woman. In a hero there may be absolutely nothing heroic; if we are degraded, so shall our ideals be. But heroism is always lofty and disinterested; it is courage touched into self-forgetfulness; it is enthusiasm with the crown of sacrifice upon its brow; it is the genius of the heart defying prudence. A hero may have very evil eyes; but wherever the true heroic is, there the eyes are as a flame of fire.
Now as civilization advances and grows more complex, there is one kind of heroism that is less and less demanded. It is the heroism that may be described as physical and has for its basis what we call animal courage. In a rough and lawless and unsettled time, it might benefit a man very little to be gentle. The man who would live must have a ready sword and wield it valiantly, sometimes, for wife and children. Such times, then, in a nation's history--as we have had long periods like that in Scotland--are times that call out and develop physical heroism. It is always an early epoch in a country that is known by the name of its heroic age. But as civilization advances, life takes other aspects. The relations of man to man become more intricate. The sword that once was carried in the belt is handed over to be wielded by the law; life becomes ordered, settled, and secure. There is consummate need to be intelligent and tactful; there is less need now than once for physical heroism. We are never awakened mornings now to hear that the Highland marauders are "out" and are marching on the city. And that implies that as civilization grows and communication increases and law becomes supreme--and may I add as anesthetics are discovered that remove the necessity of facing up to pain--the accent is shifted from merely physical heroism and is inevitably placed on other virtues.
But as the need of physical heroism declines, the need of spiritual heroism steadily grows. The very causes that have lessened the value of the one have helped to heighten the value of the other. We are in no danger now from Highland marauders: the dangers that menace us are far more subtle. They spring from that lowering of moral standards that is unavoidable in our complex society. It is not easy to be oneself now, we are so interlocked with one another. We have lost a little liberty, with all our gains, and are molded more into a common pattern. The pressure of public opinion is tremendous, and public opinion makes for an average type. It is, therefore, more difficult now to be honestly true to oneself. It takes a little more heroism than it did once. We are more tempted to conform to common standards, to barter our birthright of individuality, to be what a hundred interests would have us be, rather than the men God meant that we should be. And so the need of spiritual heroism grows as the need of physical heroism lessens. The hair of His head was white as snow, we read--that does not even suggest a young society. When time has mellowed the spirit of a people, when age has tempered the passion of its youth, when the riot of its blood is somewhat cooled, and it is venerable, stately, and august, it is then (if Jesus Christ be living) that there will be eyes that are like a flame of fire.
The Union of Grace and Heroism
Now we cannot turn to the earthly life of Jesus without being struck with one marvelous union there. I refer to the union of what was beautiful and gracious with all that was in the truest sense heroic. We know that a bruised reed He would not break. We cannot fathom the depths of His compassion. There was never a patience like His patience with the twelve; there was never a pity like His pity of the sinner. He was gentle, charitable, courteous, kind, a perfect pattern of moral beauty. But the wonder of that beauty is magnified a hundredfold when we remember the heroism with which it went hand in hand. If to be true to one's mission and to stand alone, if to be faithful and joyful and quiet and undaunted, if to challenge all the powers of hell to combat, if to march forward without a falter to a cross--if that be heroism in its noblest meaning, then Jesus of Nazareth must have been heroic. Tenderness is great and heroism is sublime. In Christ there was tenderness infinite and heroism matchless. The eyes that wept beside the grave of Lazarus were eyes that were like a flame of fire.
In some degree, then, as we grow like unto Christ, that union of qualities will be found in us. It is a distinctive mark of that new character that has been built up through the powers of the Gospel that there is ample room in it for all that is gracious and, at the same time, for all that is heroic. There were two great schools of philosophy in Rome in the age preceding the entrance of the Gospel there. The one was Stoicism and the other Epicureanism, and each had its own ideal of human character. The aim of the Stoic was to foster heroism; he crushed out the affections ruthlessly. The aim of the Epicurean was not heroism; it was just to fashion amiable gentlemen. But the needs of the human heart broke down the first, for pity and love demanded recognition. And the grandeur of the human heart broke down the second, for there is that within each of us that craves for self-sacrifice. What the world needed was a type of character that could embrace and glorify the two ideals, and I humbly submit that the Gospel gave us that. There is a place in it for pity, and there is room for love; there is dew and sunshine for the tenderest affections that nestle in the shadow of the heart; but there is room for the heroic too. We have a cross to carry; we have a witness to bear. We have a life to live; we have a death to die. We are following a hope that is sublime, and we don't fare well without a little heroism. We shall be poor disciples of a compassionate Lord unless we have eyes that can soften into pity. But we shall be poor soldiers in the mystical warfare unless these eyes are as a flame of fire.
What Is Spiritual Heroism?
It is notable, too, that as the spiritual life of Christendom has deepened, as it has grown richer with the passing of the ages, it has brought with it a deeper and truer concept of what spiritual heroism really is. There is a well-known poem by Tennyson under the title of St. Simeon Stylites. It is a gruesome description of one of these pillar-saints whom people venerated in the Middle Ages. St. Simeon spends his years on the top of a high pillar; he is scorched by the sun and is swept by the storms of winter. He grows blind and deaf; he is racked with intolerable fevers and chills. He is praying night and morning for heaven's pardon. And round the base of the pillar people are ever thronging to do reverence to this ascetic saint. Now that is an extreme case, I grant you willingly; and it is almost repulsive, even in Tennyson's hands. But the fact remains that, in the Middle Ages, it was such lives that were the types of moral heroism. Even St. Francis, the gentlest of all mystics, was desperately cruel to himself. It was very noble--I think we all feel that. It was very noble; but it was mistaken. And we should thank God that we are living in a time when the heroism of self-suppression is disowned to make room for the nobler heroism of service. It is not on the tops of pillars that we look for saints now. It is not in cell or monastery that we search for heroism. The Christian doctor who labors among the leprosy patients, the Christian student who will hold fast to truth though a score of voices denounce him as a fool, the Christian worker who goes down into the slums and toils there for the poor and the fallen for whom Jesus died, the gentle Christian girl who volunteers for mission work in the jungles--it is these that are our types of the heroic. The heroism of the hermit is gone. We have drunk more fully of Christ Jesus now. We have seen more deeply into these wonderful eyes which John says were like a flame of fire.
The Challenges to Heroism Today
But I must close, and I do so with two remarks. The first is that there is always danger for a church when the note of the heroic passes from its life. It is very pleasant to be very comfortable and to talk about one's good-natured congregation. But the eyes of the vision were not good-natured eyes; they were eyes that burned as with a flame of fire. It was heroism that made Christ's church in Scotland. And it was heroism that saved Christ's church in Scotland. It was secession, and deposition, and disruption, in the times that are well described as moderate. And when that uncalculating enthusiasm passes and leaves us comfortable and statistical and unmoveable, let us beware lest a voice say to us also, "I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot."
And the second is: I appeal to the young men on the ground of the heroism of Christ Jesus. Mr. FitzGerald, the translator of Omar Khayy'am, in an exquisite little piece he calls "Euphranor," has some suggestive words on chivalry. He says that the charm of chivalry was just its note of heroism; and if it appealed--as it certainly did appeal--to the bravest and noblest and most gallant men, it was just because it put the accent there. May I not do the same with Jesus Christ? I think it is a true appeal to opening manhood. Never forget the heroism of Jesus, nor the heroic in the Christian calling. The time will come when you will need Christ's tenderness. You will want a gentle Lord, and you will find Him. But today it is a call to the heroic that appeals, and I thank God I can hear that call in Christ. Go! mother, bowed with a mother's sorrow--go to the graveside where Jesus wept. But eager, gallant, generous heart of youth--why should I lead you to that scene of tears? You crave a heroic captain for the battle, and the eyes of Christ are as a flame of fire.
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