THE ENTHUSIASM OF JESUS
"I came to cast fire upon the earth."
- Luke xii:49
STRANGE to say, the word "enthusiasm" does not occur in our English New Testament, nor is it to be found in the Greek Testament; and yet the New Testament is the most enthusiastic of all books, and Jesus is the most enthusiastic of all men. The word "enthusiasm" is avoided, and for a reason. In the first century it had unsavory associations. Enthusiasm in the Pagan world was an ecstasy, or divine possession. An enthusiast was one who was inspired or possessed by a god. Often the enthusiast was a fanatic; sometimes he was a madman. The evangelists and apostles did not like the word, and so they kept it out of their writings. In the speech of today, enthusiasm is a noble word. It is fervor of mind, ardency of spirit, exaltation of soul. It is passion, heat, fire. Though the word is absent, the thing itself is present. Jesus bums with fervent heat. His very words are sparks that kindle conflagrations.
When a boy he visited Jerusalem with his parents, and slipping one day into the Temple to hear the scholars discussing the great problems. He lost himself. He forgot what day it was, and what hour of the day it was. Father and mother and brothers and sisters all passed completely from his mind. He jumped headlong into the discussion of the doctors, gave himself up completely to the subject of the hour, and allowed himself to be swept along on the tide thought and discussion, until all at once his mother's face appeared at the door and he was reminded the place he had left vacant in the caravan which had started toward Galilee. In this temple experience we see a nature sensitive and impressionable, capable of being heated to high temperatures.
When as a young man of thirty he next appears before us we see him at the river Jordan being baptized by the mighty preacher John. Immediately after the baptism, St. Mark tells us he was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness. The word "driven" has in it a special significance.
Jesus is so full of feeling after the experience that came to him in his baptism that he cannot remain dwelling near the homes of men, but must at once rush away into unfrequented and desert places where he can meditate upon the strange thing that has happened to him, and ponder the steps which he must next take. From this time on we have a man before us, who is being driven. Even when a boy he used a word that expressed the intensity of his feeling, "Do you not know that I must be about my Father's business?" He never ceased to 'use that word "must." They wanted him to stay in Capernaum, but he could not do it. "I must preach the gospel of the kingdom of God to the other cities also." They wanted him to stay away from Jerusalem, knowing that it was dangerous there, but he said: "I must go to Jerusalem. I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how am I straitened until it be accomplished." He felt that his life would be short and so he kept saying, "I must work the works of Him that sent me while it, is day: the night cometh when no man can work."
How intense his life was we can see in what is told us of his habit of praying. He was always praying. He arose early in the morning in order to find more time to pray; he stayed up late at night in order to increase the hours in which he might speak to God. Sometimes he did not go to bed at all, remaining all night long upon some hilltop under the stars pouring out his soul to God. He was enthusiastic in prayer, and therefore he was zealous in work. Men were astounded by the magnitude of his labors. Sometimes he did not take time to eat. Even when he went away for a season of relaxation he gave himself up to the crowds which pursued him. His words have in them an energy that burns. Again and again we catch expressions in which we can feel his great heart beating: "I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel," "O woman, great is thy faith!" "I thank thee, O Father!" All out of the throat of an enthusiast, a man with feeling. At the distance of nineteen hundred years from the day on which they were spoken our heart leaps when we listen to them. The passing of the centuries has not put out their fire. But it is not simply what Jesus says, but what those who touched him say which lets us look into the molten center of his glowing heart. Mark frankly tells us that there was a time in Jesus' life when his labor was so excessive that his friends said, "He is beside himself." Expressive, indeed, is the phrase. A man is beside himself when he is a little "off." He is not "away off," for then he is out of his head, or insane. But when a man has swung just a little from his balance he is beside himself. He is in the borderland that is between sanity and insanity. Such burning earnestness in the work of doing good had never been seen in Palestine. No wonder men said, "He is beside himself!" But this was the judgment of his friends. His enemies did not hesitate to say boldly, "He has a devil, he is mad." Jesus made this impression not once, but often. Such zeal for righteousness, such enthusiasm for helping men seemed to the cold-blooded scribes the fury of a maniac. It was when Paul was burning with the same kind of heat that Festus cried, "Paul, thou art mad!" Nothing seems so crazy as enthusiasm to a man incapable of feeling it.
The crowds also bear witness to the fire that this man had in him. He stirred men up wherever he went. They crowded him off the land upon the water. They pushed him off the plain up the hillside. They crowded the houses in which he tarried; they pressed round him as he walked through the streets. Again and again the excitement rose to fever heat, and Jesus slipped away and hid himself. Near the close of his career the crowds went wild in their tumultuous joy, shouting, singing, casting their clothing in the dust that the animal which Jesus rode might have a carpet for its hoofs like unto that furnished for triumphal processions of kings. No man can set a crowd blazing unless his own soul is ablaze. When we see some men hurrahing and adoring and other men gnashing their teeth and cursing, some boiling with love, others seething with hate, it is evident we are in the presence of a man whose heart glows like a furnace and whose soul radiates heat wherever he goes.
A still finer evidence of this is found in the character of the men whom Jesus attracted to him as his intimate friends. The apostles were all men of fire. Do not believe the pictures when they paint the twelve as limp and pallid men. They were full-blooded, virile, mighty men, full of fire and passion, drawn to Jesus because in him they saw a man who satisfied them. Peter had a seething soul; his words roll out of him like molten lava. John and James were called Sons of Thunder. The disciple whom Jesus loved was so passionate that he wanted to burn up a whole town that had insulted his Master. One of the disciples was a zealot, a member of the radical political party in Palestine. Men of party could scarcely sleep, so intense was their hatred of Rome, and no man among the zealots could have been attracted by a cold-blooded, limp-handed man. It was because Jesus had in him that which the zealots loved that Simon enrolled himself among the apostles. Judas also was a man made of inflammable stuff. His remorse sets him on fire and there is nothing more thrilling in history than his shriek: "I have sinned! I have sinned!" If there was a lethargic temperament in the apostolic company, it was that of Thomas; but even he was so devoted to Jesus that at a crisis in his life he said to his comrades, "Come, let us go and die with him." That was the feeling of them all. They loved Jesus with such an intensity of devotion, such a passionate self-abandon, that they were ready at any moment to lay down their lives for him. No man can win and hold the ardent devotion of strong men unless he has a soul that is hot. Jesus from first to last was surrounded by enthusiasts because he himself was enthusiastic.
If you ask for the cause of this enthusiasm, you will find that it has three roots. In the first place, Jesus had a sensitive nature. He was finely organized; his nerves were delicately strung. There is a vast difference in the make-up of men. Some men are coarse, stolid, heavy. They have sensations but not intense ones. They have the emotions of vegetables. There are other men who are as delicately adjusted as an Aeolian harp. Every breeze that blows over them causes them to vibrate and woos from them music. Such a man was Jesus. No finer clay was ever organized around a soul than that which formed his body, and this body was never coarsened or callused by sin. On the Mount of Transfiguration his soul so shone through his body that his disciples were awed and overwhelmed. In the Garden of Gethsemane his agony was so great that the perspiration on his brow looked in the moonlight like huge drops of blood. When his soul at one time came into his face men fell backward to the ground.
Along with this nature capable of burning there existed a vision of God and a vision of man that set the nation on fire. Jesus saw that the maker of the universe is a Father, that at the center of things there beats a Father's heart, that over all there extends a Father's care, and that to all there flows a Father's love. Other men have seen this dimly, as it were through a glass darkly, but Jesus saw it as it had never been seen before and as it has never been seen since. It was to him the one clear and luminous fact of the universe and everything else was seen in the glory of this stupendous truth. Since God is the all-Father, then all men are His children. He created them all; He loves them all, He desires to save them all. No matter who they are or what they are or where they are, they are His children, and they cannot drift beyond His love and care. Men everywhere are brothers, and for one brother to help another, this is the supreme joy in living. Other men see this dimly, but to Jesus it was all clear as the sun at noon. With such a vision of God and such a vision of man is it to be wondered at that his soul burned like a star? Out of such a nature heated hot by such a vision there came forth a purpose, steadfast and full of passion. To the clear eye of Jesus a mighty battle was raging on the earth. There was a terrific conflict between right and wrong, light and darkness, good and evil, God and the Devil. There was nothing to do at such a crisis but to throw himself wholeheartedly into the contest, fighting indomitably for the glory of the Father and the welfare of his brethren. Put these three things together - a sensitive and inflammable nature, a clear and glorious vision, and a fiery and indomitable purpose -and you have the ingredients that go to produce the divine flame which is known as enthusiasm.
What a beautiful thing it is, enthusiasm! Moses turned aside to see a burning bush; everybody turns aside to see a burning man. Glance across the centuries and you will note that every time the race has turned aside from the beaten path it has been to see a man who was burning. Enthusiasm is of different kinds, but every kind is fascinating. There is what we may call physical enthusiasm, the enthusiasm of the nerves and the blood. It is this enthusiasm which was kindled at the great athletic contests in Greece, and which blazes at our modern football contests. To be one of forty thousand people watching a few strong men engaged in a strenuous game stirs the nerves and sets the corpuscles in the blood to hurrahing. It is not a high form of enthusiasm. But it is glorious, and men will go miles to experience the thrill. Much higher than this is intellectual enthusiasm, the fervor which men feel in the pursuit of truth. This is the enthusiasm of explorers and discoverers and inventors and scholars -- men who devote their lives to the sublime work of snatching a new kingdom from the clutch of the unknown. Men count not their lives dear in the pursuit of knowledge. When we read of an explorer dying in a wild and desert land, or of a physician giving up his life in the laboratory in search of a secret which will diminish pain or lengthen life, we are awed into silence. The heart knows that it stands in the presence of something divine. Above this is the aesthetic enthusiasm, fiery zeal in the pursuit of beauty. There are men and women in whose eyes there is a hunger after beauty that we who do not have it cannot understand. The man with the artistic eye is seeking everywhere for beauty. When his eyelids fall, his soul still sees forms, colors, lights, shadows, scenes of loveliness and perfection. What a history it is, the history of art. What a line of heroes and martyrs have traveled the steep and thorny road.
Many a man has painted day by day until his eyes began to fail, and then he has painted on and on amid the deepening shadows, never faltering, never surrendering until the final darkness falls. Others have in their ears a hunger after harmony. All through life they thirst for fuller measures of lovely tones. There is no temple for them but the vast and glorious temple of music, and melodies and divine sequences of ordered tones flow in a constant tide through the soul. What biographies they are, the biographies of musicians. For many of them it has been a life of labor, privation, sacrifice, disappointment, poverty; but all things precious have been counted dross by souls in pursuit of higher strains of the heavenly anthem. Before all such martyrs the soul takes off its shoes, knowing that the ground is holy. But higher than all enthusiasms is the fire that bums in souls in love with God. To know Him, to serve Him, to glorify Him, this is the highest ambition of which the soul is capable, and the soul when possessed with this ambition burns with a fire that cannot be quenched. This was the enthusiasm of Jesus. In him the highest of the enthusiasms reached its climax. He lived and moved and had his being in the presence of the Eternal. From the beginning to the end he saw the majesty of righteousness, loved the beauty of holiness, and lived for the glory of God.
It is not to be wondered at, then, that the religion of Jesus likes the word "fire." John the Baptist declared that he could baptize only with water but that one was coming who would baptize with fire. From John's hands men came dripping, from Jesus' hands they came blazing. St. Luke tells us that on the Day of Pentecost there seemed to be a flame on every forehead, fit emblem of the new religion's heart. John on the isle of Patmos thinking of Jesus sees him with eyes like flames of fire and feet of burnished brass. He hears him talking to the Laodiceans, and this is what he says: "I would thou wert cold or hot. Because thou art lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spew you out of my mouth." One can drink cold water with a relish. He can also drink water heated to a certain temperature. But against tepid water the stomach rebels. The beloved disciple does not hesitate to represent Jesus saying, "Lukewarm Christians are nauseating to me!"
And alas! How many lukewarm Christians there are, men who are indifferent, neutral, neither hot nor cold. They do not oppose, they approve, but approbation cannot set the world on fire. Approbation is a nod of one comer of the intellect; enthusiasm is the smile of the soul. What is the matter with Christians that they are so lacking in enthusiasm? The answer is that the nature is saturated, soaked by the chilling drizzle of worldliness, and along with this deterioration of nature comes a diminishing of the vision of the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of man, and because there is a shadowed vision the glowing purpose is also lacking, and the soul does not catch fire. What, then, shall we do? Let us go back to Him who is a zealous God, so eager and ardent in His love that He gave His only begotten Son. If we are not ablaze in the presence of such a gospel, it is because we have a heart of stone; but He who knows our frame and who remembers that we are dust has promised to remove the heart of stone and to give us a heart of flesh.