Editor's Letters
by T. Austin-Sparks

March-April, 1970

REALIZING CHRIST'S PRESENCE

I suppose it is true that most of the Lord's servants would acknowledge their indebtedness to some men of God whose influence had been a help to them. I gladly make this confession in quite a number of instances. In the earlier days of my ministry, when there was a true heart-hunger for God's fullest and best for my life, I was greatly inspired and helped by the life and ministry of such greatly-used servants of God as Dr. A. J. Gordon (of Boston), Dr. A. T. Pierson (of Philadelphia originally), Dr. A. B. Simpson (Founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance), Dr. F. B. Meyer, Dr. Campbell Morgan, and others. In my earliest days of ministry a little book came into my hand with some messages by Dr. A. J. Gordon. I have forgotten its title and have quite lost trace of it. But it opened my eyes to a new level of spiritual life, and was like the door into a spiritual world of which I knew very little. When in Boston in 1925 (my first visit to that country) I made a point of visiting the church (Clarendon) where Dr. Gordon fulfilled his main life-work. I was deeply disappointed at finding nothing that spoke of my dear spiritual benefactor, but I pursued him in his books, which I found in Philadelphia. Among these books, and connected with his volume on the Lord's Coming Again, I found his 'dream' - 'How Christ Came to Church'. I am giving the substance of that 'dream' here, with its larger context and purpose. Here it is:

"Not that I attach any importance to dreams or ever have done so. Of the hundreds which have come in the night season I cannot remember one which has proved to have had any prophetic significance either for good or ill. As a rule, moreover, dreams are incongruous rather than serious, a jumble of impossible conditions in which persons and things utterly remote and unconnected are brought together in a single scene. But the one which I now describe was unlike any other within my remembrance in that it was so orderly in its movement, so consistent in its parts, and so fitly framed together as a whole. I recognize it only as a dream; and yet I confess that the impression of it was so vivid that in spite of myself memory brings it back to me again and again, as though it were an actual occurrence in my personal history.

"And yet why should it be told or deliberately committed to print? 'I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord', says the apostle. His was undeniably a real, divinely given, and supernatural vision. But from the ecstasy of it, wherein he was caught up into paradise and heard unspeakable words, he immediately lets himself down to the common level of discipleship. 'Yet of myself I will not glory but in my infirmities.' God help us to keep to this good confession evermore, and if perchance any unusual lesson is taught even 'in visions of the night when deep sleep falleth on men' let us not set ourselves up as the Lord's favourites to whom He has granted especial court privileges in the kingdom of heaven. No, the dream is not repeated as though it were credentials of peculiar saintship, or as though by it God had favoured me with a supernatural revelation; but because it contains a simple and obvious lesson, out of which the entire book which we are now writing has been evolved.

"It was Saturday night, when wearied from the work of preparing Sunday's sermon, that I fell asleep and the dream came. I was in the pulpit before a full congregation, just ready to begin my sermon, when a stranger entered and passed slowly up the left aisle of the church looking first to the one side and then to the other as though silently asking with his eyes that some one would give him a seat. He had proceeded nearly half-way up the aisle when a gentleman stepped out and offered him a place in his pew, which was quietly accepted. Excepting the face and features of the stranger, everything in the scene is distinctly remembered - the number of the pew, the Christian man who offered its hospitality, the exact seat which was occupied. Only the countenance of the visitor could never be recalled. That his face wore a peculiarly serious look, as of one who had known some great sorrow, is clearly impressed on my mind. His bearing, too, was exceedingly humble, his dress poor and plain, and from the beginning to the end of the service he gave the most respectful attention to the preacher. Immediately as I began my sermon my attention became riveted on this hearer. If I would avert my eyes from him for a moment they would instinctively return to him, so that he held my attention rather than I held his till the discourse was ended.

"To myself I said constantly: 'Who can that stranger be?' and then I mentally resolved to find out by going to him and making his acquaintance as soon as the service should be over. But after the benediction had been given the departing congregation filed into the aisles and before I could reach him the visitor had left the house. The gentleman with whom he had sat remained behind, however; and approaching him with great eagerness I asked: 'Can you tell me who that stranger was who sat in your pew this morning?' In the most matter-of-course way he replied: 'Why, do you not know that man? It was Jesus of Nazareth.' With a sense of the keenest disappointment I said: 'My dear sir, why did you let Him go without introducing me to Him? I was so desirous to speak with Him.' And with the same nonchalant air the gentleman replied: 'Oh, do not be troubled. He has been here today, and no doubt He will come again.'

"And now came an indescribable rush of emotion. As when a strong current is suddenly checked, the stream rolls back upon itself and is choked in its own foam, so the intense curiosity which had been going out toward the mysterious hearer now returned upon the preacher: and the Lord Himself 'whose I am and whom I serve' had been listening to me today. What was I saying? Was I preaching on some popular theme in order to catch the ear of the public? Well, thank God, it was of Himself I was speaking. However imperfectly done, it was Christ and Him crucified whom I was holding up this morning. But in what spirit did I preach? Was it 'Christ crucified preached in a crucified style'? Or did the preacher magnify himself while exalting Christ? So anxious and painful did these questionings become that I was about to ask the brother with whom He had sat if the Lord had said anything to him concerning the sermon, but a sense of propriety and self-respect at once checked the suggestion. Then immediately other questions began with equal vehemence to crowd into the mind. 'What did He think of our sanctuary, its gothic arches, its stained windows its costly and powerful organ? How was He impressed with the music and the order of the worship?' It did not seem at the moment as though I could ever again care or have the smallest curiosity as to what men might say of preaching, worship, or church, if I could only know that He had not been displeased, that He would not withhold His feet from coming again because He had been grieved at what He might have seen or heard.

"We speak of 'a momentous occasion'. This though in sleep, was recognized as such by the dreamer - a lifetime, almost an eternity of interest crowded into a single solemn moment. One present for an hour who could tell me all I have so longed to know, who could point out to me the imperfections of my service; who could reveal to me my real self, to whom, perhaps I am most a stranger; who could correct the errors in our worship to which long usage and accepted tradition may have rendered us insensible. While I had been preaching for a half-hour He had been here and listening who could have told me all this and infinitely more - and my eyes had been holden that I knew Him not; and now He had gone. 'Yet a little while I am with you and then I go unto him that sent me.'

"One thought, however, lingered in my mind with something of comfort and more of awe. 'He has been here today, and no doubt He will Come again'; and mentally repeating these words as one regretfully meditating on a vanished vision, 'I awoke, and it was a dream'. No, it was not a dream. It was a vision of the deepest reality, a miniature of an actual ministry, verifying the statement often repeated that sometimes we are most awake toward God when we are asleep toward the world."

That is the 'dream' and its effect on Dr. Gordon as inspiring him to write on "He will come again". But what of the larger context? Firstly, its effect upon myself. The effect has been to make me always - in leading any service - keep as high and reverent a level as possible. To maintain a dignity, respect, and 'good taste' worthy of such an honourable presence as that of our Lord. The result is that anything 'cheap', undignified 'loose', in leadership is very abhorrent to me, although I trust that I am not haughty and superior. This leads to my real purpose in writing in this way.

In another place in this little paper we have had to dwell upon the very low behaviour of some Christians in the Church at Corinth. It is a picture of behaviour - especially in the Assembly - which is so very unworthy of Christ and would seem to imply an almost total loss of the sense of His presence. Do you not feel, dear friends, that there is a lot of room for a recovered sense of reverence and dignity in our gatherings? Should this be artificial, induced by dim light, soft music, stained glass windows, and solemn procession? Our Lord - the glorious Son of God, Creator of all things, exalted above all dignities in the universe, destined to be the sovereign Ruler of the universe - has said: "Wheresoever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am." "There I am!" Oh, how much there is that results from not realizing His presence! The noisy chatter before and immediately after 'worship'(?). I dare not list the things which would not be if there was a due respect for His presence. Dr. Gordon may have spoken of Him as "Jesus of Nazareth", and referred to His lowly appearance, but when he realized who had been present he was almost devastated with shame and self-confusion. 'Jesus of Nazareth here, watching, listening, feeling'?'

What respect have we for Him? Are we such victims of our natural senses, our eyesight, that because we do not see Him in the flesh, we are without spiritual sensibility? When we ask Him to be present do we really realize who it is that we invite? What would we do if we knew that some very high dignitary in this world was coming amongst us?

I am sure that we should derive much more blessing from His presence if we were more "in the Spirit" of that presence. But, not only on one day in the week, and when we 'go to church', but we ask for His presence always. This is my word of appeal.

- T. Austin-Sparks.


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