Classic Text Sermon
Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father; but the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshipper shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship. – John 4: 21, 23
We are informed, in the commencement of this chapter, that, when our Lord was passing through Samaria, the disciples went for a supply of provisions into the town of Sychar, while he waited at Jacob’s well in the immediate neighbourhood. As he rested there in the heat of the day, fatigued with his journey, a Samaritan woman came to the well to draw water, from whom he requested that she would “give him to drink.” This request, so little in the manner and spirit of the country to which his dress and accent bespoke him to belong, for the Jews had an implacable enmity towards the Samaritans, filled her with a surprise which she did not attempt to conceal. The surprise was increased on hearing the answer given to the question so much agitated between the two nations, and which, on discovering his prophetic character, she put to him, Whether Gerizim or Jerusalem had the preferable claim as a place of worship. Instead of assigning the superiority to either, an exclusive claim was denied to both. This accords with the representations which the Scriptures every where give of the liberal spirit of the Christian system, in conformity to which the disciples of Christ are, at this moment, assembled in so many different places, under such a diversity of outward circumstances, with the same expectations of acceptance.
The appropriate beauty of the house of God is the beauty of holiness. “The hour cometh when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. But the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth.”
I. Let us consider the negative description of the character of Christian worship—what it is not.
1st. It is not sectarian. None present will suppose that I use the epithet sectarian in the sense in which it is often used, as descriptive of those who separate, however conscientiously, from the established forms of the religion of their country. The attribute of Christianity which I have in view, is directly opposed to the narrow feelings which this application of the epithet indicates. Rightly interpreted, it describes a character not confined to any one class of the professors of religion, but extensively prevalent among all. At the period to which my text relates, it was not, as the Jew wished to maintain, exclusively applicable to the Samaritan, nor is it now exclusively applicable to the advocates of dissent. He is the sectary, and he alone, who would introduce into religion the principle of monopoly, who neither sees nor wishes to see anything good or praiseworthy beyond the limits of his own denomination.—Sectarianism is in the mind rather than in the outward act. There may be no separation from others in the one case, where there is, and where, unless all moral distinctions are to be confounded, there ought to be a separation in the other. To assert that we are not justifiable in withdrawing from the communion of those whose religious practices and principles we deem unscriptural, would be to represent protestantism itself as a criminal schism. But our benevolent regards may be cherished towards those from whom we conscientiously separate. Though to us they appear to err, charity will lead us to hope that, in many cases, the errors are not wilful, and not inconsistent with general religious sincerity. In this world we “see darkly as through a glass.” Even inquiring minds, with equal degrees of candour and zeal for the truth, may, in religious matters, arrive at very different conclusions. Party distinctions, as such, and separate from the motives in which they originate, and by which they are sustained, are of no importance in the sight of God; and experience shows that they are but equivocal tests of character. In communions the farthest removed from the purity of scriptural requirement, sincere though misguided worshippers may be found. In communions, on the other hand, whose principles and forms are adjusted with a professedly scrupulous regard to the divine injunctions, there maybe little of that spirit which imparts to them their chief value in the sight of God. An exclusive religion can never be a scriptural one. Christianity reveals the way in which guilty creatures can be reconciled to God, and every one who, in faith and penitence, has received the proffered remedy, and whose faith operates as a purifying principle, stands accepted in the sight of heaven, whatever misapprehension in regard to subordinate points he may still cherish; and to whatever uncharitable judgment he may on this account be exposed among men, themselves equally fallible and imperfect. “Neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, shall men worship the Father. But the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth.”
2nd. It is not local. An improper estimate of the importance to be attached to particular places was alike the error of the Jew and Samaritan.
In the former this feeling was strengthened by the misapprehension or perversion of the divine direction given to his forefathers, “Unto the place which the Lord your God shall choose out of all your tribes to put his name there, even to his habitation shall ye seek, and thither shalt thou come, and thither ye shall bring your burnt-offerings; and there ye shall eat before the Lord your God.” To the most scrupulous observance of this injunction, no criminality could attach. It would have been highly presumptuous to have offered sacrifice, or to have observed any of the annual festivals elsewhere. The error lay in ascribing an efficacy to the place independent of the character of the worshipper. An error of the same kind, but with less to justify it, was adopted by the Samaritan. He could not say that there was any divine command directing to the choice of Gerizim, as being particularly suited to the offices of religion. He could say, however, that tradition pointed it out as the spot on which Abraham and Jacob had worshipped. And he attached to it, on this account, a sanctity equal to that which the Jew claimed for the temple at Jerusalem. That the same superstitious spirit should still be seen among the votaries of false religion, is natural. The Hindoo, performing his weary pilgrimage to the temple of his idol divinity, and the Mohammedan offering a similar tribute to the tomb of his prophet, are spectacles which the spirit of their respective systems would have led us to expect. But what shall we say to opinions and usages equally superstitious among the professors of Christianity ? What shall we say to the religious value which was formerly, and is still, attached to a visit to the local scenes of our Saviour’s miracles, and sufferings, and death? What shall we say to those religious pilgrimages which are made to spots far less remarkable 4 In what light, I might add, are we to view the religious veneration which is sometimes paid to consecrated buildings? It is proper, where practicable, that particular edifices should be appropriated to the worship of God; but no peculiar efficacy belongs to these places. Even Zion, with all its sublime associations, and solemn remembrances, has now ceased to be sacred. It is on the spirit, not the local situation, of the worshipper that his acceptance depends. “Neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, shall men worship the Father. But the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth.”
3rd. It is not eternal. To the mere forms of religion a very undue importance was attached, both by Jews and Samaritans. This was especially the case with the former. There was a conformity to the divine requirements, in the constitution of the Jewish priesthood, and a splendour in their temple services, which could not be claimed for the rival system. The improper spirit which these tended to cherish is too congenial to the depravity of the heart to be confined to a particular period or people. A dependence on mere outward observance, and, when it is possessed, a glorying in ritual splendour, are equally the error of the superstitious part of the professors of Christianity. The same boastful terms in which the Jew was accustomed to speak of the one, are still employed with reference to the other. It may be justly questioned, however, whether these services are entitled to the very lowest species of merit which has been claimed for them—that of being adapted to impress the imagination, and whether it is not at first only, and on the minds of strangers, that this effect is produced. It is not those whose forms of worship are most simple, who have least of what may be called the poetry of religion. It is the truths presented to the mind, rather than the forms exhibited to the eye, by which the imaginative faculty is cultivated. A Protestant peasantry will, perhaps, be found, in this respect, to have the vantage ground over a Catholic. The supplications of penitence, the humility of faith unfeigned, the confidence of Christian hope, and the love of God in the heart, are the sweetest sounds, and the most delightful sight, and the most exquisite feelings which can enliven our devotion. But they are impressions which a pompous ritual cannot impart, and for which, when wanting, it can be no substitute. “Neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, shall men worship the Father. But the true worshipper shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth.”
II. Let us consider the positive description of the character of this worship.
1st. It is spiritual. The mere homage of the lips, were it known to be so, would not be accepted by one man from another. The language of insincerity, however flattering, is justly considered as disgusting in the common intercourse of life. And it cannot surely be less so when it is presented to an omniscient God. Even at a time when local and external worship was in its fullest operation, there was evidence sufficient that something more was necessary to acceptance. No language could convey a more striking idea of the immensity of the object of worship, and of the spirituality required in the worshipper, than that employed by Solomon at the dedication of the temple. “Will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold the heaven, and heaven of heavens, cannot contain thee, how much less this house which I have builded !” Similar to this was the language which, through Isaiah, was employed by God himself. “The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house that ye build for me, and where is the place of my rest? To this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite heart, and who trembleth at my word.” It is nevertheless true that, in one respect, outward observances had, under the former economy, a value altogether independent of the character of the worshipper. Being intended to prefigure and introduce a higher dispensation, they answered an important end, even when no spiritual qualities were possessed, and no spiritual benefits were received by the offerer. At the time when our Lord held this conversation with the woman of Samaria, the sacrifices, which were still observed with all the nicety of ceremonial precision, had lost none of their original typical significancy, though, in a great majority of instances, it was custom, not intelligent piety, which dictated the observance. But no such secondary adventitious value belongs to the rites of Christianity. The age of typical institutions is passed. The devout feelings of the worshipper, all outward observances, are worse than useless. It is not merely the rising incense and the bleeding victim, even the bended knee and outstretched hand, if inward principle is wanting, will be only a solemn mockery. “God is a spirit, and they who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth;” in spirit, as opposed to forms; in truth, as opposed to shadows.
2nd. It is filial. Terror in all ages has been the predominating spirit of idolatrous worship. This was the necessary consequence of the circumstances of the worshippers. With no higher illumination than unassisted reason, conscience tells us that we are sinners. Unassisted reason, however, cannot impart to us the certainty of forgiveness. And if the certainty of this is not possessed, there is nothing to exclude the tormenting dread which must be the inseparable accompaniment of the consciousness of guilt. This feeling is, accordingly, strongly depicted in the outward features of idolatry. Its ceremonies have been principally deprecatory, or intended to avert punishment. The sanguinary rites of Moloch, so often referred to in the Old Testament Scriptures, and in which human victims were the offering, have been widely prevalent. Of this revolting character were the druidical rites of our forefathers in this island. Of the same kind are the religious rites of many heathen nations at this day. Nor is this the character of the rites only. The very hideous forms of their idols (those which have been brought from the South Sea Islands are an example) are a striking testimony to the fact that terror is the predominating feeling in the religion of those who are destitute of the light of divine revelation.
The same feeling, though in a much smaller degree, characterized the worship of the Jews. Not that that highly privileged people were left in uncertainty respecting the doctrine of forgiveness. In respect of the mode of it, their conceptions might be indistinct and imperfect. But there was no obscurity in regard to the unaccompanied by fact; that being as clearly promulgated under the Jewish economy as it now is under the Christian. Accompanied, however, as the information was with so many and such striking displays of sovereignty and power, the feeling of awe was in most as prevalent as that of love. It was reserved for Christianity to merge these sterner attributes of the divine character in those that were more attractive, and, by one potent word, to dispel every vestige of terror from the minds of the worshippers. It is not in the relation of a king, sovereign, or master, that you are called on to approach the Divinity, but in the endearing relation of a father—a father who seeks only the happiness of his spiritual offspring, and whose character has been rendered palpable by the engaging attributes of Him who is “the impress of his person.” Fear is in this way supplanted by love, and a filial, not a slavish, spirit pervades our devotions.
3rd. It is universal. Simple and spiritual in their nature, there is no place where the observances of Christianity may not be performed, and performed with acceptance. The proofs of this are coeval with its origin. How unlike to the spacious halls and the lofty arches of the Jewish temple was the upper room in which the members of the first Christian church were accustomed to meet! Yet it was there that the principal prediction respecting New Testament times was fulfilled—that what was spoken by Joel, and reiterated by a greater prophet, was verified. “Suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like unto fire, and it sat upon each of them.” How inferior even to the accommodations of the upper room were the circumstances of Paul and Silas in the prison of Philippi, and of John in the isle of Patmos! But it was in the former of these cases that the devout exercises of these holy prisoners were heard by God, as well as by their companions in bonds; and it was in the latter case that the privileges of the seraph were conferred on the saint, that the veil was removed from the beloved disciple which concealed things future, and things celestial from his sight. We admit that these things occurred in an age in which the administration of religion was in some respects supernatural, but there was nothing peculiar to that age in the acceptance of the services of these primitive confessors. This was in no degree connected with the religious character of the place. When in later periods the true worshippers of the Father have been similarly situated in regard to outward accommodations, we doubt not but their services have been equally pleasing in the sight of heaven. Far different from the circumstances in which you are now placed was the lot, at a former period, of the godly in our own land. Theirs was not “the religion of cathedrals,” or “the religion of churches,” or even “the religion of barns.” It was on many occasions the den and the cave which responded to the sounds of their devotions. But these devotions, springing from faith, and hallowed by suffering, mingled with the hallelujahs of angels, and the anthems of the spirits of the just. Nor are these remarks to be confined to periods of persecution, or to the religious services of those who were its victims. We doubt not that there are thousands at this moment engaged in the undisturbed observance of the same ordinances with ourselves, in places which have been subjected to no forms of ecclesiastical consecration, and which have not been even exclusively appropriated to religious exercises, whose services will come up as “a memorial before God.” And the period, if we mistake not the meaning of prophecy, is fast approaching when the universal character of Christian worship will be still farther and more strikingly illustrated in the restoration of that people to whose local religious predilections our text specifically refers. It is not necessary to the fulfilment of the predictions, respecting that restoration, that the Jews should literally return to their own
land, any more than it is necessary, according to the literal import of some other predictions, that all nations should be assembled for worship in the ancient capital of the Jews. When these wandering outcasts shall look, with penitence, to Him whom their fathers pierced, their predicted restoration will be effected. In whatever place, or under whatever circumstances they are, they may then be said to be worshippers in Zion, and to be inhabitants of Jerusalem. Spiritual in their nature, their thanksgivings shall be “as incense,” and the lifting up of their hands as the evening and morning sacrifice.
“By foreign streams they’ll cense to roam,
Nor weeping think on Jordan’s flood;
In every clime they’ll find a home,
In every temple see their God.”
“Neither in this mountain, nor yet in Jerusalem, shall men worship the Father; but the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth.”
1st. In the exercises of God’s house let us guard against a superstitious spirit.
The gross superstition of the Jew and Samaritan, to which the text refers, is not the error into which, at the present time, we are most likely to fall. It may be presumed that there are few or none present who adopt the opinion that any circumstances of local character, or any forms of ecclesiastical consecration, can possess or impart any spiritual efficacy. All of us, however, are in danger of laying too much stress upon the mere externals of religion. A very undue importance is often attached to the mere outward act by which we are initiated into the profession of Christianity. There are many who would be shocked at the idea of a child remaining unbaptized, who would feel no compunction in the habitual neglect of all practical solicitude for the spiritual interests of their offspring. Equally unscriptural and delusive is the confidence which is frequently derived from participating in the ordinance of the supper. To that ordinance it is too common to apply the language, and with the language the ideas, of a popish ritual, and to suppose that there is a higher degree of acceptance in this than in any other divine appointment; and that this is necessarily connected with the mere act of observing it. These are opinions which the mode of its celebration, and the instructions which accompany it, have not always a tendency to counteract. The difference is palpably striking between the language of those who speak of high communion sabbaths, and the phraseology which describes the commemorative rite by the simple designation of “breaking of bread,” and which classes it with to the apostles’ doctrine, and fellowship, and prayer.” We need not say which of the two it is safer to adopt. No greater benefit can be derived from a formal observance of the supper than from a formal observance of any other institution of the gospel. The religion of the soul is the soul of religion. If the heart is not right, no ordinance, however scriptural, can be acceptable. If the heart is right, it will give a value to every ordinance of divine appointment.
2nd. In the exercises of God’s house let us guard against a formal spirit.
To the importance of what are termed the sealing ordinances of our religion nothing disparaging is intended in the remarks which have been now made. Baptism, whether administered by immersion or effusion, whether an adult or an infant is the subject of it, is an impressive rite. By the application to the body of that element which cleanses from natural defilement, it exhibits to the eye the necessity of the spiritual purification of the soul, and points to the religion, of which it is the introductory ordinance, as being the instrument in the hand of the Spirit of effecting this purification. “Sanctify them through thy truth; thy word is truth.” The lessons symbolically inculcated in the ordinance of the supper are not less important. The doctrines which it shadows forth and impresses on the mind are of the life of godliness. It is calculated to affect us deeply with the evil of sin, the love and condescension of the Saviour, and our obligations to serve him. But for this purpose, it must be something more than an outward observance. “Bodily exercise profiteth little.” The mere participation of bread and wine is not communicating. The fact which was intended to be exhibited in this commemorative rite must be remembered. The scene of Calvary must be realized. The death of Jesus, not so much in its tragic and sentimental as in its religious and doctrinal aspect and interest, must be present to our minds. Strangers to these feelings, you are symbolizing with the condemned practices of the church of Corinth. You liken a religious ordinance to an ordinary meal. You do not “discern the Lord’s body.”
3rd. In the exercises of the house of God let us guard against a bigoted spirit.
The devotional language and feelings of the first Christian worshippers were eminently catholic. It was not on those churches only to which the pastors ministered, on which they invoked blessings from on high, but on “all that in every place called upon the name of Jesus Christ, their Lord.” We come short of the catholicism of their language, and still more of the catholicism of their spirit. In none of the services of the house of God is this deficiency more discernible than in that which of all others required the predominance of opposite feelings. If the fence, as it has been sometimes called, which it is customary to draw round a sacramental table, had been intended to exclude none but those who were wanting in the principles, tempers, and conduct essential to the character of the Christian, it had been well. We cannot too frequently, or too earnestly, impress on persons of this description that their commemoration of our Redeemer’s death is unwarranted. The free communion for which we contend is not to be confounded with a promiscuous, indiscriminate communion. But it is not to the irreligious and immoral that the sentence of exclusion has been confined. In some cases it has been extended to all, however excellent their character, who had not the sectarian impress of the administrator of the ordinance. It is time that usages so unsuited to our communion exercises should be abolished and forgotten. The table at which you commemorate your redemption is not yours. It is not the table of a sect or of a party. It is the Lord’s. It was the design, as it is the obvious tendency, of the ordinance of the supper to cherish unity of affection—to make us feel while we outwardly recognise the ties which bind us to the Christian brotherhood. We best fulfil the intentions of the Divine Appointer of this service—we add equally to the pleasure and profit to be derived from it, when these brotherly feelings are indulged; when, dismissing every bigoted and sectarian sentiment from our hearts, we view it as “the communion of saints”—when our Christian affection is as wide as the terms of acceptance— when we can say, with the same sincerity with which the words were originally uttered, “ Grace be with all who love the Lord Jesus Christ.” You are insulting, instead of honouring your Redeemer, if you can approach the ordinance of love without love in your hearts—if you can raise your walls of partition and separation in the very act of commemorating an event which was intended to break them down, and to introduce the faithful of every place, and of every name, “through one Spirit unto the Father.”
4th. In the exercises of God’s house let us guard against a slavish spirit.
In those who have no revelation to assure them of forgiveness, the spirit of terror and bondage is what we are led to expect. In some periods of their history it was not surprising in the Jews themselves. When final exhibited the awful appearances which bespoke a present Deity, when the cloud rested on it, and the thunders rolled, and the lightning played on its hoary summit, we do not wonder that the spectators should have trembled. When a similar manifestation was made to Elijah, in the cave on Horeb, it was natural that he should cover his face with his mantle. Equally natural was it, though it was only in vision, that when the Lord appeared to Isaiah, on a throne high and lifted up, he should have exclaimed, “Woe is me, for I am done; for I am a man of unclean lips.”
But this spirit ill becomes us who are called to “the adoption of sons”—who hear not the thunder of an introductory economy, but “the still, small voice” of a sublimer dispensation. The trembling apprehensions which would be appropriate in approaching a throne of judgment, befit you not in approaching a throne of grace. Least of all do they benefit you in exercises in which more than in any other they prevail—the exercises in which are displayed before you the symbols of your redemption, and the pledges of your forgiveness. It is joy, not terror, which on such an occasion becomes you—joy, that “ the flaming sword” has been removed from the entry to the celestial paradise— that we have not “a high-priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities;” who on earth suggested the apology for his disciples, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” and whom we can approach in the confidence that, at his Father’s right hand, he is still making it for us.
Imagine not, my brethren, that the possession of this filial confidence is the property only of a privileged few of the children of God, and that there must be a long course of religious services before you can be entitled to appropriate the promises on which this confidence is founded. If we wait till we are entitled on the footing of merit to do this, we shall never enjoy the privilege. The exhibition of the divine mercy to sinners, and to backsliders, as well as others, will authorize you to appropriate them immediately, though it is in the spirit of penitence, and in the intention of obedience, that the appropriation is to be made, and though it is only in the practice of obedience that it can be scripturally maintained. Take them to yourselves the comfort which the invitations and promises of the gospel are so well fitted to impart; and when, in the devotional exercises of this house, you draw near to the Great Object of worship, in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, let it be under the elevating and encouraging recollection that it is to “his Father and your Father, to his God and your God.”
This Sermon is called Christian Worship Delineated by Robert Brodie
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Source: The British Pulpit: Consisting of Discourses by the Most Eminent Living, Sermon 53. pages 483 thru 488
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