« Prev Sermon VIII. Worldly Ambition. Next »



ST. MATT. iv. 8-10.

“Again, the devil taketh Him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth Him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; and saith unto Him, All these things will I give Thee, if Thou wilt fall down and worship me. Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and Him only shalt thou serve.”

THIS temptation seems to be an offer of worldly power on an unlawful condition. The tempter addressed himself to that inclination of our nature which, when perverted in us, is ambition and vainglory. We are wont to call ambition an infirmity which lingers last and longest of all, even in minds that are noble and pure. It has in it, as we think, nothing low, mean, or little. It is closely allied with the consciousness of great powers, right intentions, high purposes of unselfish devotion for the welfare of others; it is upon a 139large scale, and takes a wide sweep and range in its aims and endeavours; it thereby lifts itself out of the common level of mankind, and rises above all lesser inducements, and the motives which sway other men; its whole tone and bearing has a breadth, dignity, and grandeur nearly allied to moral greatness. Perhaps it was in the belief that our blessed Lord was at least susceptible of some such pure and exalted allurement, that Satan presented to Him “the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them.”

He “taketh Him up into an exceeding high mountain.” We shall do best to understand this as we read it. The truest interpretations are those that are nearest to the letter. We do not know by what laws of motion or of place this mysterious passage was controlled. All the conditions of the spiritual world are inscrutable to us. As in the book of the prophet Ezekiel we read of his rapture to Tel-abib: “The spirit took me up, and I heard behind me a voice of a great rushing, saying, Blessed be the glory of the Lord from His place. I heard also the noise of the wings of the living creatures that touched one another, and the noise of the wheels over against them, and a noise of a great rushing. So the spirit lifted me up, and took me away, and I went in bitterness, in the heat of my spirit; but the 140hand of the Lord was strong upon me. Then I came to them of the captivity at Tel-abib, that dwelt by the river of Chebar, and I sat where they sat, and remained there astonished among them seven days”7676   Ezek. iii. 12-15.—and again, of his rapture to Jerusalem: “And it came to pass in the sixth year, in the sixth month, in the fifth day of the month, as I sat in mine house, and the elders of Judah sat before me, that the hand of the Lord God fell there upon me. Then I beheld, and lo a likeness as the appearance of fire: from the appearance of his loins even downward, fire; and from his loins even upward, as the appearance of brightness, as the colour of amber. And he put forth the form of an hand, and took me by a lock of mine head; and the spirit lifted me up between the earth and the heaven, and brought me in the visions of God to Jerusalem, to the door of the inner gate that looketh toward the north; where was the seat of the image of jealousy, which provoketh to jealousy. And, behold, the glory of the God of Israel was there, according to the vision that I saw in the plain. Then said he unto me, Son of man, lift up thine eyes now the way toward the north.”7777   Ezek. viii. 1-5. Moreover, we read of the rapture of St. Philip to Azotus, and of St. Paul into the third heaven;7878   Acts viii. 39, 40; 2 Cor. xii. 2. of the mysterious 141visitations of our Lord after His resurrection, and of His ascension to the right hand of God. It is, therefore, more natural to believe, that as our Lord was “led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted,” so Satan was permitted to take Him to the pinnacle of the temple and to the mountain-height, to consummate the mystery of His temptation. And we shall do best simply to believe, that from some vast summit, looking down upon a boundless reach of earth, the tempter did shew the kingdoms, and pomp, and riches, and splendour, and glory of the world. It was a vision of worldly power and greatness, full of allurements and promises; of unbounded means of doing good to man kind; of wielding such dominion as perhaps man never wielded before. Whether Satan had any power to fulfil this promise; whether any indirect means, through the agency of evil, of bestowing the kingdoms of this world; whether any control was permitted to him over the collective actings, as over the individual acts, of men, so as to give him a sway in the disposal of earthly crowns—we know not. It may be that the promise was mere guile—fair and false: but this matters little. The temptation was simply this, that our blessed Lord should obtain the powers and gifts of the world by transferring His obedience from God to Satan. And this brings the nature of the temptation 142within the sphere of our ordinary trials. It is, in fact, the peculiar temptation of those who love and seek after greatness, power, dominion, that is, of the ambitious; and as such we will go on to consider it. Now of those that seek after worldly power, some seek it in unlawful, some in lawful ways; some with motives wholly selfish; some with a persuasion that they desire it for the good of others and for the glory of God. And perhaps these latter, whatever they might admit in regard to the former kind of men, would very much resent being told that they are in danger of falling down and worshipping the tempter. Perhaps this would be gene rally thought to be a harsh judgment, and untrue. And yet there will be found in it more truth than they are aware of; it is therefore well worthy of our consideration: for there is “an exceeding high mountain” in the heart of every man, from which he is ever looking out upon manifold temptations.

1. First of all, it is obvious that to seek for worldly power and greatness by the use of unlawful means is a direct revolt from God. It is a deliberate disobedience to His will; a withdrawal of allegiance, trust, fear, hope, reverence, and worship from Him. It may not, indeed, be followed by any perceptible addresses to the prince of this world, or by acknowledged commerce with him. Men may not, by any deliberate compact, “make a 143covenant with death,” nor “be at agreement with hell;” nor, like Saul, when he had forsaken the Lord, go disguised, and inquire by night of those that have a familiar spirit: nevertheless they do, in the most real and effectual way, fall down and worship the powers of darkness. For what do men really acknowledge, in the fact of using unlawful means, such as force, wrong, falsehood, deception, equivocation, to accomplish their aims, but that these things have power and efficacy to aid and foster their designs? and what are these but powers of darkness, in which they trust, and venture their hopes of success? Take the case of Jeroboam. It was God’s will to give him the kingdom of Israel; but in His own time and way. Jeroboam took it by rebellion, and retained it by idolatry. He used the policy of the devil to accomplish a promise of God. He fell down and worshipped him, that he might have the kingdom at once. And he bequeathed this wicked policy, and the plausible necessity of maintaining it, to the kings of Israel for ever; so that he stands recorded as “Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin.” No doubt, after him, great reasons of state were found to keep open the schism from the temple, and to maintain the calves at Dan and Bethel; wise men, and astute counsellors, were not wanting to lament the necessity, 144and to perpetuate the sin, till a whole people fell down and worshipped the powers of evil, from generation to generation. Wars of acquisition, crafty diplomacy, the most dazzling splendour of earthly rule, many of the mightiest exploits in the history of nations,—what will all these appear in the day of judgment, but a worship of the world? And what will the princes of this world, their “governors, and captains, and judges, and treasurers, and counsellors, and all the rulers of the provinces,”7979   Dan. iii. 3. be seen to be in that day—except the few that have been saints in secret—but worshippers of power, and darkness, and vainglory?

But this is as true of private men as of public and notorious offenders. How few men, with the baits of power, elevation, applause, before them, can resist the allurement of indirect means, such as compromises, abandonment of pledges or obligations, and the like! It is a melancholy and most instructive fact, that there is hardly one of the world’s great men in whose private history there is not to be found some stifling of conscience, some departure from rectitude, stern fidelity, and deter mined abiding by truth and right, in the teeth of danger, or at the cost of failure in their ruling passion. In the earnestness with which they seek their aim, they grow precipitate, unscrupulous, 145reckless, obdurate; and that in proportion as the end nears, and the strife thickens, and success or failure are in the crisis. One last step, the last act which secures the desires of a life, is often one that henceforward makes life not worth the living. They have succeeded; the point is won. But at what a cost! At the price of their heart’s faith in the power of truth and right. They have in some way struck a bargain, or chaffered with a lie, and put their trust for success in a falsehood, which, if it be any thing, is an unclean spirit. They have withdrawn their faith from the supremacy of righteousness, they have forsaken the service of truth and goodness, because these appeared to be despised, disarmed, and exiled, because the world seemed too strong for them, and because the dictates of faith and truth pointed to paths that seemed to lead away from the desired end. And yet, if wrong and falsehood can at all bring success, by whose strength do they prevail? Who is he that works by them in the world, but the same that said, “All these things will I give Thee, if Thou wilt fall down and worship me?” Unlawful means are the laws and policy of the kingdom of darkness; they are its statute and its common law, its usages and prerogatives; and any man who invokes them makes himself a subject of that kingdom, and a liege and worshipper of its prince.


2. And, once more. It may be objected, all this is plain in the case of those that use unlawful means; but surely it cannot be said of those who use no means but such as are lawful in the pursuit of advancement; or, in other words, it is possible to be ambitious, and yet never to seek the aims of ambition by means that are forbidden. It may be said, also, that a man ought to desire to rise in his profession, to extend his usefulness, to gain influence, to become an authority, and the like.

Now, to this there are many answers.

First of all, it will generally be found, that men who set themselves to rise in their profession, as it is called, do so by unintermitting exertion of their own natural powers. The world calls it honourable exertion, a laudable enthusiasm, with out which a man will never succeed. It is much to be feared that this is often a mere stretch of the natural faculties, an unsanctified exertion of intellect or perseverance, and an entire reliance on their own powers, with a virtual but real withdrawal of faith from the providence of God. And what are our natural powers, apart from the illumination and guidance of God, but powers of this life, of this fallen, deceived, and deceiving world? What is self-reliance, but a disguise of the tempter, masking himself from our sight in the workings of our own minds? The whole life of 147an ambitious man, trusting to his own powers, even though he never transgress the strict laws of truth and uprightness, what is it but weariness, rivalry, anxiety, self-guidance? Now this is as full a withdrawal of submission and docile reliance from God, as can be imagined. If he does not fall down and worship the tempter, he does not worship God by seeking all things as His gift. And what is this withdrawal of worship from God but a direct worship of self, or a constructive worship of this world, of its powers, chances, and events?

Another thing that may be said is, that this withdrawal of the heart from God is all the more explicit when the subject-matter of a man’s life is of a kind in which the providence of God is specially manifested; such, for instance, as all offices in His Church, and all things which lead or relate to them. It is not only by simoniacal contracts that men may obtain holy functions by bar ter with the enemy of the Church. The use and laying out of natural gifts and powers, such as intellect, learning, dexterity, eloquence, and, much worse, of the gifts of His Spirit, so as to attract the notice of those in whose hands is the disposal of dignities and preferments; the willing acceptance of prominent places; the doing of acts in a direct line of suggestion or invitation of ulterior 148ends; the outrunning of the providence of God; the overpassing of limits which He has drawn along our path, into spheres where we no longer have His sanction, which in themselves are lawful, but are not for us: in these and many other ways men do distinctly transfer the intention of their heart and its affections from God, as the guide and disposer of their life, to an unknown power, which is partly self, partly the world, and covertly he who, through the world and ourselves, leads us captive at his will.

3. And again. Men may most fully entangle themselves in this sin of transferring their worship from God to the prince of this world, without ever using any means, lawful or unlawful, to attain their desires. There is such a thing as a sup pressed covetousness or ambition, an importunate and unscrupulous craving after things so far be yond a man’s reach, that he never attempts to attain them. What is more common than for men to indulge in visions of what they desire to be and to possess; to harbour, and to fill up with most elaborate details, imaginations of great estates, offices, trusts, and stations, and what they would do, and say, and look like, if they were in them? They fancy to themselves all manner of scenes, actions, successes; and people a whole world with dependants, followers, admirers; and tell themselves 149most pleasant tales of wonderful undertakings and achievements, kingdoms exalted, factions abolished, nations governed, Churches purified, schisms healed, heresies overthrown, mankind illuminated; in all of which they are the chief leaders, counsellors, and actors. Out of all these splendid and gaudy visions, self emerges at last as the beginning and the end of all. They live in a dream of self-love; they have waking visions all day long of their own importance; and they soothe themselves with the persuasion, that the greatest men in the world are often least known and acknowledged.

In all this the spiritual sin is complete. It is a mixture of self-love, self-elevation, forgetfulness of God, who has revealed His will in appointing our actual lot, and of craving for what He has not ordained for us, with a secret willingness to attain our desired vision if we could. The means, indeed, may never come within our reach; but we are as willing to possess the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them, as if they were tendered to our hand. It is to be feared, that if the means were presented, we should be tempted to be unscrupulous in using them. Perhaps we should not venture on direct and visible transgressions of the divine laws; though it is hard to say to what we may not be led by a habit of self-intoxication and secret vainglory. It is certain that 150we are thereby disposed, by preparation of heart, for any thing rather than fail in our cherished desires. It is very awful to think of the unknown sins which are virtually contained in strong desires after the things of this world. When they master a man, they make him impatient of all obstructions, reckless of moral prohibitions, of the admonitions of Providence, and the warnings which God conveys when He visibly withholds from us the means of attaining what we desire. To go on craving after an end which He keeps back, is morally equivalent to seeking it by unlawful means. In either case it is a contravention of the Divine will. No one can as yet conceive, how deeply the hearts of some men who never emerge from private life are tainted by this sin; those, too, who are least suspected, whose outward life gives no opportunities of expressing in any definite form the particular kind or direction of their ambitious hankering. Perhaps they never exhibit more than discontent, bitterness, and a censorious temper. The secret is untold, and dies with them; it is seen only by the holy angels, and shall never be known until the secrets of all hearts shall be revealed.

This is true not of those alone who are baffled in their ambition or disappointed in their expectations, but also of the most successful. Power reveals what is in man. The sins of self-confidence 151and self-contemplation reach their height in the man who has gained his end without seeking and receiving it as a gift from God. Success is a confirmation, in retrospect, of all his self-choosing, self-guidance, self-advancement. He is, as men vauntingly say, the maker of his own fortunes; and strange enough it is, that even Christians use such a phrase in commendation. Men who have risen in the world as statesmen, jurists, warriors, orators, merchants, philosophers, and the like, are often practical atheists. They have so long taken cognisance of no powers and agencies but such as they can measure, calculate, and control, that they cease to be conscious of any other. They act as if higher powers did not exist—that is, as if they did not believe them. They could not ignore them more completely if they did not believe them; and what in effect is this but to be “without God in the world?” And this habit of acting without dependence on God forms first an unconsciousness, and then an insensibility, of His presence and power. What do we mean when we say that a man is intoxicated with the world, or eaten up by self-sufficiency, but that the world is his idol, or that his trust is in himself? And what is this but self-worship—the finest of Satan’s wiles? Something a man must supremely love, trust, reverence, and obey. If it be not God, it 152can only be one other. Under whatsoever guise or array—whether it be the powers of the world, or the laws of nature, or the agencies of men, or the gifts of intellect, or moral force, or those faculties which seem most our own, that is, our very self,—it is no other than he who, on the top of the mountain, said, “All these things will I give Thee, if Thou wilt fall down and worship me.” Self is but the subtilest array and the near est approach of his presence. When we worship ourselves we worship him.

And this leads to one or two plain reflections.

One is, that the highest apparent success in this world is often the most real and utter failure. By accepting of its offers, many men have in reality lost all. There is something very fearful in the uniform success which seems sometimes to attend on wicked men. All winds and tides, and outward influences, and conjunctures of unlooked for events, seem to befriend and to wait upon their will. They are carried up to the head of their callings, and to the lead of their professions; to the summit of kingdoms, and to the pinnacle of Churches; and wealth pours it self at their feet, and men seem fascinated by their tongues, and give way to their plans and schemes, and offer themselves for tools to carry them into effect. All this seems the favour of 153Providence, and the countersign of the Most High, owning and declaring their acts as the will of Heaven. God’s servants are often perplexed at these things, and are in doubt whether, after all, they have not “cleansed their heart in vain, and washed their hands in innocency.” It seems, for a time, either that right and wrong are artificial and conventional usages, or that the laws of God’s providence are out of course. “Until I went into the sanctuary of God; then understood I the end of these men; namely, how Thou dost set them in slippery places, and castest them down, and destroyest them.”8080   Ps. lxxiii. 16, 17. It is the Divine indignation which bids them prosper. The world loves its own, and heaps its gifts and honours on those that are likeminded with itself. They that have most cunning to advance its interests, touch its sympathies, flat ter its weaknesses, soothe its disappointments, and sustain its self-esteem, are its surest favourites. And, under the supreme control of the Divine Providence, which orders the universal scheme of the world and disposes all its issues, there is a vast body of inferior powers left in the hands of men, whereby to reward and enrich the servants of the world. So that there are always at work two administrations, a lower and a higher, a human and a divine: the human busying itself in 154details that are visible, proximate, and imperfect; the divine ordering those laws that are final, perfect, and supreme. Men make beginnings, but God ordains the endings; so that the same man, at one and the same time, may both succeed and fail. He may win all in the lower world of human action, and lose all in the higher order of divine rewards. He may be both most exalted and most abased, most prosperous and most baffled, most mighty and most powerless, most cherished by men and most cast off by God. Set him on the throne of the world, with all creatures at his foot, and his name blotted from the book of life. “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”

Therefore, when success wafts men onward, they have reason to fear and to look with a twofold scrutiny into their aims, employments, and alliances. There is something suspicious in the favour of many men, in general popularity, worldly reputation, and the concurrent applause of those who are morally divided. It savours of the woe “when all men shall speak well of” us, and of the kiss that was given in Gethsemane. How many men who have begun well, in great fervour and fidelity to God, have had their active powers warped, and the warmer affections of their hearts 155stolen away, by the greetings, gifts, and flatteries of life! High place, great friendships, open avenues to elevation, daily approaching success, have been the ruin and utter loss of thousands. From a simple and saint-like temper, they have become subtil, designing, and secular. Their worldly powers and their personal endowments have been every day developed and multiplied so as to win a double measure of admiration and a perpetually increasing name; while in the eye of God they have withered and fallen away from the very root. Prosperous men are seldom devout; religious men generally suffer by success; high characters sink as their worldly reputation rises; and moral principle deteriorates as men obtain advancement in the world. They gain their point, but in gaining it lose all that makes it to be desired. They win places of power, but by means which make them powerless when the place is won. Under their seeming success there is the deepest failure. They forfeit the kingdom of God for the baits of this false and fleeting life; or, for a few years of honour in a fallen world, they lose a high place in the orders of heaven, and are even “saved so as by fire.”

Another remark we may make is the reverse of the last; I mean, that seeming failure is often the truest success. It was He that spurned the tempter when he offered Him all the kingdoms of the world 156who afterwards said, “All power is given unto Me in heaven and in earth.” They that forsook houses, brethren, sisters, father, mother, wife, children, and lands, for His name’s sake, received all these an hundredfold, and the heritage of eternal life. Though they had nothing, yet they possessed all things.8181   2 Cor. vi. 10.

So it has ever been with the Church. When she forsook all, then she was most richly endowed in heaven; when most overcome, she overcame all. Such has been the secret history of saints. Their great powers in the world were the reward of their perfect deadness to it. Because they refused its offers, therefore they became its rulers. Because they had no desire, nor love, nor appetite for it, therefore they were set to dispose of it. Because they shunned its titles and exaltations, therefore they were honoured and lifted up to the thrones of power. They were true followers of Him who, when He perceived that the people “would come and take Him by force, to make Him a king, departed again into a mountain Himself alone.”8282   St. John vi. 15. They ran counter to it, and yet won its willing obedience; they were unpopular and unpalateable to the men of the world, and yet they were followed and obeyed by them; they deprived themselves of its powers and gifts, and did things the 157most inexpedient in the calculations of worldly schemers, and yet all things seemed spellbound to work with them and for them. Nothing is more certain than that they who have done most for the kingdom of God on earth have not been the most popular in their day; and they who have been the most popular, even among good men, in the kingdoms of the world, have left the fewest and faintest traces of truth upon mankind. God seems to work by contraries, and to harden the heart of the world against His servants, to “make His power to be known.” For some have been truly outcast, misrepresented, spoiled, and set aside, so that people have thought them fairly defeated and extinct; and yet the working of their words and deeds, of their silent example, and imperceptible influence on other minds, has spread itself unawares through out whole nations and Churches. They have courted no one; were solicitous for no favour, or gift, or privilege; they have even crossed the wise and powerful, and resisted the hands which hold the powers of the world. Many of the greatest benefactors of mankind have died without leaving so much as to pay their burial, and yet the hearts of men have obeyed them to the third and the fourth generation.

And what is the secret of all this, but that they worshipped the Lord their God, and Him only did 158they serve? They indulged themselves in no remote visions, in no restless imaginations, in no exciting self-contemplation. The whole horizon of their hearts was clear. Nothing lay beneath it disturbing the truth of their intentions. There was no end in life they desired but to do the will of God. They had no cravings for things out of their sphere, no forecasting and expectation of any thing to come. What God had made them, that they simply desired to be—to realise deeply their present lot, to live wholly in it and for it alone, to confide in it as the pledge of God’s presence. No nice calculations of probable gain, or usefulness, or power to be gotten otherwise or elsewhere, had any sway over them. They would not hesitate a moment to do acts of the highest indiscretion, as the world judges, and to throw away all promises and offers of interest and advantage, rather than seem to yield even a constructive worship to the powers of the world. They were of more price than the world: with all its gifts and all its gold, it could not buy them. These are they “of whom the world was not worthy.” It was cheap, slight, and paltry in their eyes; for by faith they had already “seen the King in His beauty, and beheld the land which is very far off.”8383   Isaiah xxxiii. 17. They had seen the throne and Him that sat upon it, who is “as a jasper and a 159sardine stone” to look upon; and all earthly things waxed pale and dim. They had tasted “the powers of the world to come,” which are perfect and eternal; and the purest and best things of this life drew from them not desires, but tears. None so intensely perceived the good and beautiful which yet lingers in the earth; yet they shrank from the savour of death which, by sin, is shed abroad upon the creation of God. They took refuge in the unseen kingdom, which is all pure, deathless, ever lasting; serving and waiting for Him who “hath made us kings and priests unto God.”

What is this visible world but the disordered array under which the one only true kingdom abides the day of “the restitution of all things?” The world, with its pageantry, is but shadow and simulation, imitating the order of heavenly things. What else are its fountains of honours, its patents of nobility, and the solemnity with which it issues out its badges and titles of distinction, and arranges its servants in ranks of high and low degree, according to their fidelity to its service and their devotion to its will? But there is coming a day when “the face of the covering” shall be destroyed, “and the veil that is spread over all people,”8484   Isaiah xx. 7. and “the kingdom which cannot be shaken” shall stand forth, and then shall many be first that now are 160last, and last first. Then will be a strange and awful cancelling of degrees, and an unexpected marshalling of God’s elect in a new and wonderful order. Then it shall be seen for whom the right hand and the left, which the sons of Zebedec blindly though nobly desired, are indeed prepared.

Let us beware, then, of the baits and allurements which are peculiarly rife in these latter days. Let us suspect calculations of expediency, dexterous plans, great undertakings at little cost, popular systems of religion, tempting offers of worldly favour and support—that is, the whole course and movement of the world. God’s kingdom is to be spread and served in God’s own way. There is no other than that hard, strait, unpopular way which prophets, martyrs, and saints have trod. Let us keep close to this. Let no visions draw us out of it. They can only beguile us of our reward; promise us kingdoms, and rob us of our crown; offer us purple raiment, and make the shame of our nakedness to appear “before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, and the elect angels,”8585   1 Tim. v. 21. at His coming.

« Prev Sermon VIII. Worldly Ambition. Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection