PENTECOST - 4th Sunday After - 2
"Master, we have labored all night and have taken nothing."
When the morning broke over the waters of Genesareth, it broke upon a weary night of fruitless toil. The fishermen, Peter and the others, had spent the night upon the deep, as they had spent many a night before, and never a gleam of success had come to bless their toil. They had drawn up the boats to land and were washing their nets upon the shore, when suddenly the murmur of a crown broke upon the silence of the morning, and their hearts told them that Jesus of Nazareth was near. We may well be sure that Peter sees Him first, and first throws by the net to listen to any word that might fall from His sacred lips; and we may be surer still that Peter is filled with delight, when Jesus gets into his boat to avoid the pressure of the multitude. They pull out a little from the land, the men lie on their oars, and Jesus speaks in those accents that had such a charm for the ears of men, and such strange influence upon their hearts. When the discourse is ended, He turns to those in the boat and says, “Launch out your nets into the deep.” Now, they are experienced fishermen, and they do not think there is much use; in fact, Peter says in words to which I wish to direct your special attention: “Master, we have labored al the night and have taken nothing.” But Peter is no mere fisherman; he has begun to be a Christian; and he immediately adds, “But at Thy word I will let down the net,”
“We have labored all the night and have taken nothing;’” this is the long loud cry of the sinful world to the God Who made it, and of the sinful human heart to the God Whom it has forsaken. When Christ came, four thousand years of the world’s history had been written, and in the main, the history was this. The curse of sin had been working in the world, blighting every flower that blew, spilling every blossom that opened, tainting every fruit that grew, upon the tree of human life. But most all, had sin been busy with the human heart, that heart that God had made, with so many a capability of good, with such far reaching desires, with such generous impulses, with such a wealth of passionate affection, with so many a noble aspiration struggling up from the sordid things of earth to the heaven which sin had closed against it, but which God had meant to be its home. Sin had done its work and had blighted the fair world of God, and with sin had come suffering, and sorrow, and death, and instead of the glad music of happy hearts, a wail of lamentation and of ceaseless sorrow, the crash of ruined lives and breaking hearts went up to God from the world He had made so beautiful, and had meant to be so happy. Men, to be sure, had used their natural gifts, and had used them to many a great purpose, and with many a vast result. The sweat of countless generations had fallen upon the earth, and had coaxed it into fruitfulness. The hand of man had conquered the ruggedness of the furrow in which he dug, and his intellect had won its way to many a golden secret that gave a key to greatness and to fame. But man had not only a hand and a brain, he had a nobler thing still than either; he had a heart, and through he fund work to equal the energy of his hand, and a field for all the resources of his brain, when he sought to satisfy his heart, then, in all the broad fair world he fund nothing that could give it peace; how could he? For God had made it, and had fashioned it to such definite purpose, and with such definite intent, that small though it seemed to be, it could be filled by nothing less than God Himself. Man might be great, might win wealth, and name, and fame, but man had forgotten God, and he could not be happy.
And what of all these countless millions, who had come before our blessed Lord, who had lived and toiled an died and held nothing of what their toil had gained, but the graves in which they waited the great judgment of God; what of these? Ah, my brethren, they might have come together, and taken Peter as their spokesman, and told their history before the judgment-seat of God, in the melancholy words, “through all the dreary night that life was before the breaking of Christ’s dawn, we labored and we have taken nothing.
And think you, my brethren, is it
otherwise even now? Shall a man, even now, forget his God, and yet find peace
and happiness on earth? Is there one here who has taken sin to his heart, and
let it rule his life? Then in the name of God whom he has forgotten, of the
heart he has desecrated, of the life which he has dishonored, I say to him, that
no matter what have been to him the gifts of nature or of fortune, though he
have wealth, and honor, and the esteem of men, and a something to which, against
his better instincts, he strives to vie the name of pleasure, yet shall his
hands be empty, and should he live so to the end, he shall have to say before
the judgment-seat of God, “Lord, I have labored through all the night of life,
and have taken nothing, nothing but the everlasting fire which the breath of thy
wrath has kindled and shall keep alive, through all the ages of eternity.”
Ah! God knows, life is sad enough, and hard enough, and bitter enough, without blighting it to the very root, by the curse of mortal sin.
It would be strange to me, my brethren, if any one, in all this vast assembly, could, speaking in all sincerity, his own personal experience, declare that life, in all the stages of it through which had passed, had been to him perfectly satisfactory. We know too well, and feel too sadly, what life is, and what the world is; we know too well, and with an experience too bitter to be easily forgotten, how many a cloud has come, and how heavily they have rested, and how long, upon the few gleams of sunshine that time and circumstance have thrown across our path of life, creatures of time that fleets, and that never fleets so quickly as when a sense of present happiness would make us fain delay its passing. We have seen too many a bark freighted with our golden hopes go down in the troubled sea of life; we have planted too many a tree of desire, and watched and waited till we deemed the fruit was ripe, and then plucked it, and found it turn to dust and ashes on our eager lips; we have seen and felt these things too often to be very sanguine about any great happiness that life can possible bring. But, oh! Why should we add to these sad thoughts about the present, and memories of the past, thoughts and memories whose transient sadness the hand of God, when He crown us with a crown of heaven’s glory, shall change into unending joy – why should we add to these the fatal presence of a mortal sin? Ah, my brethren, when God dooms to the sinner, as God does come, and never more mercifully than at such a time as this, when you stand before the altar where Jesus is, to listen to the words that Jesus spoke, when God comes to the sinner by some inspiration of His grace, when He touches him, for that is often God’s way, with the sharp touch of some merciful sorrow, or wakens him from his fatal lethargy by some keen sting of affliction, and when the sinner enters into himself, and reviews the wasted years that he has been spending away from his Father’s house, he has nothing for it but to fall at the feet of Jesus, and say to Him, “Lord, through all this dreary time that seemed like one long night, when the very star of hope seemed to have been blotted by my evil life from the heaven above me; when the sea of life seemed black and shoreless in its vast immensity, and never a sound came upon my ear but the moaning of the waves that seemed hungry for my soul’s life; when, through the blinding mist of warring passion, I scarce could see Mary’s pure eyes with all the tender light in hem of a mother’s pitying reproach; through all the blackness of the night of sin, Lord, I have labored hard, putting my hand to many a work, toiling as if my unblessed toil could lead to anything, vexing my soul with many a scheme that had no good result, rent with many a desire that had no fulfilment, toiling in many a purpose that had no issue. I have labored, I have served hard taskmasters who knew no pity, who exacted their task of work with inexorable strictness, and paid no wages but the wage of death. I have served the world, and its chain has been about me till it has eaten into my very soul. I have served the flesh until its desires have turned to stings of scorpions – served the devil till his relentless hand has grasped me as his very own. I have labored, and have taken nothing.”
This will always be the sinner’s cry – that he has sacrificed his happiness, and, that for the sinner hell begins, even before the grave has hidden away from the eyes of men the scandals of his evil life.
Is there a more touching story in all the Gospel than the story that, in some phase or other of its manifold significance, comes home to every heart – the story of the Prodigal – of the son who grew weary of the quiet plenty and the uneventful serenity of his father’s house, and felt the young blood stirring in his veins, and thoughts of some large license, which he called freedom, rising in his heart, till he longed to break away from what his inexperience deemed the dull monotony of home. And a wild dream haunted him of a world fair and beautiful, fairer and more beautiful than any his feet had walked in, while they trod the quiet ways of home. He thought he could find a field for his talents, and places where the prizes of life would come to him, and, above all, where – come what might – he would have his own way, and be his own master. And he thought, too, poor fool, that in those fairy scenes which fancy conjured up, he would meet with friends more faithful, hearts more true, love more tender and more enduring tan he had ever known at home. And, thinking those thoughts, one day his foolish heart swelled into the ingratitude of rebellion, and, demanding from his father the portion of the substance that fell to him, he went his way – turned his back upon the home where he had been so happy, had sought the world afar, which his foolish fancy painted so pleasant and so beautiful. He sought it, but found it far different from what he had imagined. He found what we, what most men find – summer friends to flatter, while flattery was worth the pains, smiles on many a lip, while he could pay for smiles – found, in short, the hollow, heartless world, where self-interest rules supreme, where the smile so easily turns to a sneer, and where friendship and affection are little more than words. He wasted his substance, the Gospel tells us, living riotously – which means this, that he threw the reins upon the neck of passion, and let it carry him where it would. And the glory of his youth was dimmed, and the bloom of his innocence was rubbed away, and his heart grew hard by very contact with harder hearts, and no one would have known him for the young man who, so short a time before, had left his youthful home with dreams so brilliant and with hopes so high. And, withal, he never found affection like the affection he had spurned, never found a heart so tender or so true, never a love so strong or so long-suffering as the father’s heart that he had so sorely wounded, and the father’s love of which he had made so little. And then, in a land far off, poverty came upon him, and the summer friends fell one by one away. And he felt the sickness and the sinking of the heart that comes from blighted hopes, and from thoughts of happier things that might have been. And a vision rose before him of the home he had deserted; and the bitterest of his thoughts was this, that by his own perversity, by the stroke of his own right hand, he had severed every tie of affection that might have bound him to the past, and that the home of his lost youth was closed against him forever. And so, in the meanest of menial employments, he sate among the swine, staying his body’s hunger with the acorn husks, but finding in the worthless husks of memory and regret nothing that could appease for a moment the hunger of his heart.
Do you think that such a man is happy? Ah! My brethren, I have met such men when they came back from that far-off, desolate land of sin, and I have asked – “Have, you, then, in all this lawless time, have you, then, been happy, even for the passing hour?” And they answered – “No; we never knew what happiness was, while we continued in the madness of passion – in the unspeakable folly of mortal sin.” Ah! My brethren, it is well for the sinner that the parable does not end where, a moment ago, we left the prodigal weighed down by the cruel hunger of the heart that was almost despair. Our Lord had more to tell about the prodigal: for, as he sat heart-sick and desolate, a thought like a ray of heaven’s sunshine came upon the darkness of his soul. He thought of he days when he was innocent, and of the home that had left none but blessed memories in his heart; and, more than all, he thought of the Father’s love that had been shown so freely in the old, happy time, and he felt that the heart that had such love should also be the home of mercy as boundless as the love was great; and he said: “I will arise, and I will go to my father.” Ah! But what shall he say? Ah! He is humbled to the dust, his pride has left him, his waywardness has gone. His penitent heart finds fitting words; “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee; I am not worthy to be called thy child, make me as one of they hired servants.” He had fund the way home at last. We can picture him as he goes, way-worn and weary, sobbing out his broken words of sorrow, resigning forever the old position of a son, and thinking how supremely happy he could be as a servant, in the house where he once was master. But he had never guessed the depth of tenderness in his father’s heart. That father had never forgotten his wayward child. He sees him while he is yet a long way off, and he never dreams of waiting till he comes. He runs to meet him, and throws himself upon his neck, and kisses him. The son sobs out his broken words of sorrow – “Father,” . . . but, lo! The father seems scarce to listen to the words of his repentance, never seems to catch the drift of the humble proposal that the prodigal is making – he turns to his servants and says to them: “Bring forth quickly.” . . .
Is it a mere story, to catch the fancy? Ah! My brethren, it is eighteen hundred years since Jesus told it to the sinners who stood around him; and ever since, and still, the scene that it typifies of being daily, hourly enacted in the Church. It is repeated in every confessional where the sinner comes from the far-off land of sin. He comes, it may be, trembling, with his words of sorrow broken by his sobs – “Father, I have sinned,” and he pours his tale of guilt into the ear of the minister of God. There is no harsh chiding, no galling words of reproach. The priest who sits in that tribunal, knows well that he sits there as the representative of Jesus Christ, and he will not, he may not, he dare not, as he hopes for heaven, reject a sinner for whom Jesus died. The words of absolution are pronounced, and the robe of grace is put upon sinner’s soul, the ring of God’s friendship is upon his finger, and he who but a little while ago had starved upon the husks of swinish passions, finds himself an honored guest at that Holy Table, where Jesus gives him His flesh to eat and His blood to drink.