The people therefore, that stood by, and heard it, said that it thundered: others said, An angel spake to him. (Joh_12:29)
Christ’s Agony and God’s Assurance
The visit of these Greeks to Jesus was a very memorable hour in His experience. It opened up prospects to Him of a worldwide recognition, and in that recognition lay His glory. But immediately there pressed upon His heart the dark road by which that glory must be won, and as the vision of a cross rose clear before Him, His soul grew exceeding sorrowful even unto death. “What shall I say,” He cried, “Father save me from this hour? But for this cause came I unto this hour. Father thy will be done, I take the cup: glorify thy name, whatever the cost to me.” And then there came a voice from heaven saying, “I have both glorified it and will glorify it again.” It was God’s assurance in the darkest hour that through agony and death Christ would not be forsaken. It was the divine token given when needed most, that the love of heaven would not let Him go. And when the people heard the voice some said it thundered, and others that an angel spoke unto Him.
Now that at once suggests two thoughts to me, and these two, to which I ask your attention for a little, are: First, there are many things to which we can give either a lower or a higher meaning. Second, it is when we give such things their higher meaning that we are nearest to the truth.
Higher or Lower Meanings
First, then, there are many things to which we can give lower or higher meanings, and we see how clearly this is illustrated in the scene from which I have taken our text. There came a voice from heaven; it was the voice of God, that voice which is as the sound of many waters, and with the same accent of unutterable depth it fell on every ear of the awed bystanders. And to some it was nothing but the roll of thunder, there was nothing miraculous or supernatural about it; it was only the muttering and brooding of the storm that had been threatening to break perhaps since sunrise. But to others, gifted with finer sense, and among them it may be the shepherds who had been on the hills at Bethlehem, there was something in the sound that was inexplicable unless it had fallen from the lips of angels. It was the same note that struck on every heart. At the back of all we see and hear there is our character, and our character reacts on everything that reaches it. So to the separate men there came the voice of God, and they all heard it—how could they help but hear it; yet when they heard it some said it thundered, and others that an angel spoke to Him.
In Nature You See What You Are
Now I might illustrate this truth in many spheres, and first let me ask you to think of the world of nature. It is the same world to everyone of us, yet to everyone of us how different it is. You send a geologist out into the country, and he has eyes for every rock and dip and cutting. You send a botanist out into the country, and every flower on the hedgebank speaks to him. To a poet there is a voice in every breeze, sermons in stones, books in the running brooks; but to Eugene Aram, cursed with a sense of guilt, every branch in the forest seemed to point a finger, and every zephyr whispered of detection. “The thief doth fear each bush and officer,” says Shakespeare. Milton, writing of the nightingale, calls it “bird most musical most melancholy”; yet the poet Coleridge, in a well-known passage, speaks of it as the merry nightingale. The fact is it was Milton who was melancholy, and it was not the nightingale but Coleridge who was merry: both listened to the same exquisite music, and then their sad, glad hearts made all the difference. My point is that they are always doing that. Unto the pure all things are pure. Our life and mood and character and temper react on everything we see and hear, until for one man this is a poor dead universe, and for another the very home of God. One world—yet some will call it a machine, and others will find it instinct with divinity. One voice—yet some said it thundered, and others that an angel spoke to Him.
Oneness in Our Deepest and Highest Lives
Or turning from nature we might think of human life, the common life we are all leading. It is very surprising, when you get deep enough, to discover the oneness of all human hearts. It is our surface-life that really separates us; it is largely outward and accidental things that drive us asunder. When you get beneath the surface into that deeper region where the truer and intense life is lived, it is wonderful how soon you find that touch of nature—the touch of nature that makes the whole world kin. Men tell us that if in one room you place two well-tuned harps and strike a note loudly on one harp, immediately upon the other harp you will hear the same note faintly yet clearly echoing: and so when the chords of these souls of ours are touched by the one hand that is the Master of their music, there is not a soul within hail but may be set vibrating in most mysterious and kindly unison. In our great experiences we understand each other. In our deeper joys and sorrows we are one. In our elemental passions, in our hopes and fears, our social distinctions crumble in the dust. There is an essential oneness in our deepest and highest life as there was in the voice that fell upon these bystanders.
We Color Life Differently
But then the strange thing is that men should take that life, that common stock and harvest of experience, and should view it so differently and give it such different colorings as it passes through the alembic of their characters; that for one man life becomes a glory and for another man life becomes a curse. What is a pessimist? He is a man who holds that life for all its sunshine is a tragedy. What is an optimist? He is a man who holds that for all its tragedy life’s brow is towards the sunrise. Yet pessimist and optimist alike, with a whole world between their interpretations, are looking out on the same crowded theatre and listening to the same human voice divine. You remember how the poet Keats describes this life:
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and specter thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs;
Where beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond tomorrow.
I should call that the pessimistic view. And you remember how Longfellow describes this present life:
Life is real, life is earnest,
And the grave is not its goal.
I should call that the optimistic view. Yet before both there passed the same procession, and it was the one world which inspired both their songs. Some said it thundered when the voice was heard, and others said an angel spoke to Him. Some could hear nothing but a threatening tempest; others in the same voice detected angel music. And so with life at large, men are so different—may I not say they have made themselves so different—that where to one there is only the muttering storm, to another there are the broken syllables of God.
The Importance of Interpretation of Experiences
And is it not the same with our own life’s experience? What different meanings we extract from it! It is not what we meet with that is of supreme importance, it is how we interpret what we meet with. The same joy will make one intensely selfish, and make another to be intensely grateful; and the same sorrow will make one man blaspheme, and bring another broken-hearted to God’s feet. How many have cried in some desolating hour when they have been stripped of the savings or of the love of years—how many have cried, lifting rebellious hands, “This is cruel; I cannot believe God loves me.” Yet Job, stripped in a day of everything, crushed, humbled, ruined, orphaned in an hour, could only cry, “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Do not forget, then, that it is our privilege and our power always to react on whatever God may send. The speech of God has always double meanings, and the interpretation is not God’s but ours. By all we have made ourselves, by what we strive for, by our faith, our love, our real and vital manhood, do we extract the meaning of our providence’s and get just what is really our own. “We all get what we bring.” Some said that it thundered, others that an angel spoke—it was the same voice transmuted through different hearts. And the vast distinction between the lives that triumph and those that go drifting out into the night, is not so much the kind of thing they meet with as the kind of way in which they understand it.
Christ’s Life Differently Interpreted
Then I often think of our text and of its bearings when I read the Gospel story of the life of Jesus. What a moral test and touchstone was that life—take some of His great miracles and see what happened. “He casteth out devils by Beelzebub,” the scribes said; and His friends and relatives said, “He is beside himself.” But the common people, when they saw the miracles, immediately glorified the God of Israel. How is it with us as we face that life today? What do we make of these deeds, these words, that death? God does not force us to accept the truth; He says, “There are the facts, interpret them for yourselves.” Happy the man who in a simple faith has been so nourished and upbuilt by Jesus Christ that though all the world should gainsay him he would still be confident that no one less than an angel spoke to him.
Attributing Higher Meaning Brings You Closer to the Truth
Thus far then of the first thought I wished to illustrate, that things may be capable of deeper or higher meanings; now secondly, and in a few sentences in closing, this: It is when we give such things their higher meaning that we are nearer to the truth.
Now I ask you to observe in the passage of our text that none of the bystanders gauged the voice correctly. Some said it thundered, and yet it did not thunder. Some said it was an angel, and yet no angel spoke. Both parties were wrong; both were beside the mark; as a matter of actual fact, both were astray. Yet the men who interpreted the sound most loftily were far nearer to the truth than were the others. Whose was the voice that spake? It was the voice of God. And not one in the crowd recognized it as God’s voice. To that extent everyone of them was wrong, the wisest of them no less than the most foolish. But if an angel, with his magnificent intelligence stands nearer to God than a dead thunderbank, and if the voice of an angel that expresses reason is more akin to God’s voice than the brooding storm, then the men who interpreted the sound most loftily—who said it was not thunder but an angel— were far nearer to the truth than were the others.
Need I expand that lesson ? I think not. You can take it with you and practice it. The chances are that in nine-tenths of our judgments, you and I like these Jews are quite astray. But whatever you are judging, lean to the nobler side. If it is thunder or angels, vote for the angels. I care not what it be, whether your neighbor’s character or your own trials or public men or Scripture. And though when the morning breaks we all may be proved astray—for who dare be dogmatic in this world of shadows—I think we shall find that if we took life at its highest and interpreted everything at the largest, not its least, we shall be nearer the truth as it is in Jesus, than if we had chosen in any lower way.