THE REVERENCE OF JESUS
"Hallowed be thy name."
- Matthew vi:9.
No analysis of the character of Jesus would be complete which failed to recognize his reverence. It is one of the traits that contribute most largely to his loveliness, a characteristic that attracts the notice of every observing mind. To write a definition of reverence is not easy. There are some things which the heart can sense but which the intellect cannot easily define. We know what reverence is, and yet we stumble in trying to define it. It is respect, regard, esteem, and honor; yes, and it is more than these. Those thin and pallid syllables do not express all which the heart feels when the word "reverence" is spoken. The basis of reverence is respect or honor, but it is respect or honor working with unwonted energy. It is a deep movement of the soul. It is respect or honor squared and cubed. And then again there is an elevation in the word "reverence" which respect and esteem do not have.
Reverence is respect and esteem moving at high altitudes. It is one of the loftiest of all the emotions of the soul, and that is why it eludes us when we try to capture it in the meshes of a definition. What is it? It is homage and obeisance and devotion, yes, and something more. It is awe and fear and adoration; yes, but even these do not tell the full-rounded story. The fact is, reverence is a complex emotion, made up of mingled feelings of the soul. There is in it respect and also affection and also fear, and along with these an abiding consciousness of dependence. There is probably no expression that defines what we mean by reverence so well as the Old Testament phrase, "The fear of the Lord." The wise men of Israel were convinced that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Their effort was to make men conscious of the existence of a God of infinite power and wisdom and goodness. He was the High and Holy One who inhabits eternity, and is therefore not to be approached carelessly or thought of lightly. The Temple in Jerusalem was built in such a way as to establish the fear of the Lord in the hearts of the people. Its architecture was continually reminding them that to be reverent is to be wise. Into the outer courts of the Temple every Hebrew might go; into the inner court or holy place only one particular class of men could enter; while into the innermost sanctuary or holy of holies only one man was permitted to make his way, and that man only on one great day of the year. In this way the cardinal truth was promulgated that God is majestic and holy and can be approached only by a humble and prostrate heart. This fear of the Lord was mighty in Jesus. God was continually before his eyes. His soul was pervaded with the sense of His presence, and all that he said and did was bathed in an atmosphere created by this consciousness of the fellowship and favor of the Eternal.
To illustrate this is not easy. Jesusí entire life is an illustration of it. One cannot pick out isolated words or acts and hold them up, saying, "Behold, how reverent he was!" A man cannot be reverent at intervals. He must be reverent all the time or not at all. If he is reverent on Monday and not on Tuesday, then his Monday reverence was a pretense and a sham. Reverence is not a vesture that can be put on and laid off, it runs in the very blood of the soul. It is impossible to localize it. It is rather an atmosphere in which the personality is enveloped. It is a settled habit of the spirit, a fixed attitude of the heart, an unchanging trend of all the currents of the being toward God. No matter what Jesus is saying or doing, we feel we are in the presence of a reverential man. Would you see illustrations of his reverence, read the Gospels!
The earnestness with which he was always pleading for reverence in others is proof that in him reverence was a divine and indispensable possession. He could not have so loved it in others had he not possessed it himself. "When you pray, say, Our Father, hallowed be thy name." Probably no other words in the Lordís prayer have been so frequently slurred and overlooked as "hallowed be thy name." They lie, as it were, in the valley between the great name of God and the glorious Kingdom for which we are looking and waiting. We slide over them as though they were only a parenthesis, and hasten on to ask for bread and deliverance from our greatest foe. But Jesus is careful to place this petition at the very forefront of all our praying. Unless this desire is uppermost in our heart we are not in the mood of prayer. If our first thought is of ourselves and not of God, then we are not praying after the fashion of Jesus. When he tells us to put this petition first it is because he always put it first himself. It was his supreme ambition that his Fatherís name should be kept beautiful and holy. "When you pray, then," he said to his disciples, "pray that Godís name may be consecrated, reverenced, kept holy; hedge it from the contaminating influences of an evil world, separate it from all other names which the lips speak or the mind thinks." Any low or unworthy thought of God was to Jesusí mind abhorrent and degrading. Living always with an eye single to the glory of God, he urged men everywhere so to speak and act and live that others seeing their good works might glorify their Father in heaven.
Holding God continually before his eyes he saw everything in relation to the Eternal. His respect for men was due not to what men were in themselves but to what they were in the eyes of God. They were Godís children and therefore no matter how poor or degraded, they were worthy of respect and honor. Any cruelty in word or inhumanity in action toward a human being caused the heart of Jesus to flash fire, because such treatment of Godís children was in his mind an insult to God Himself. His reverence for his Father made the whole world holy, and because of his adoration for the Creator he could not turn his back upon any created being. "Honor all men" was one of the earliest exhortations of the apostles. It had its roots running down into Jesusí immeasurable reverence for God.
How careful he was for the fair name of his Father is illustrated in what he says in regard to oaths. The religious leaders of his day had a certain form of reverence, but it was circumscribed and shallow. They reverenced the letters that spelled Godís name so highly that they would never take them upon their lips. But they had no hesitation in filling the empty spaces with other words. If they would not swear in the name of God, they would fill their oaths with the names of things that God had made. Jesusí reverence for his Father was so intense that it extended also to the things created by his Father. The Jews were in the habit of swearing by heaven, but this to Jesus was profane because heaven was made by God. They sometimes swore by the earth, but this was to him also shocking because the earth belongs to God. Sometimes they swore by Jerusalem, but this also could not be permitted for it was a city dear to God. If they swore by their own heads, they were also in the wrong, for their head was created by the Almighty. Here is indeed a sensitive heart. He feels so keenly the majesty and dignity of the Eternal Father that all created things shine in the reflected glory of His face, and therefore nothing is to be treated irreverently, dragged down into vulgarity, or converted into a joke.
His reverence for the Temple was unfailing. Every stone in it spoke to him of God, and every ceremony celebrated within its courts had in it a meaning that soothed and comforted his heart. Any desecration of a building erected to promote Godís glory was to him horrible and unendurable. It was in this building that eyes were to be opened and hearts cleansed to behold the King in His beauty. Around it clustered sacred associations and sweet memories of many years. It was to Jesus indeed a holy place. But not so to many of his countrymen. In the process of moral degradation reverence is one of the first of the virtues to disappear. It is a flower of paradise that cannot blossom in the chill atmosphere of sordidness and vulgarity. The love of money had eaten out the hearts of many of Jesusí countrymen. They cared more for gain than they did for God. Caring nothing for God, why should they care for Godís temple? They converted the temple courts into a market place and drowned the anthems and the prayers with the clink of money and the bellowing of steers. Jesus could not endure it. Other men had endured it Ė he could not. Irreverence is a sword through the heart of a reverent man. Never did Jesus show such a tempest of emotion as in the cleansing of the Temple. To the onlookers he seemed to be beside himself. He became all at once an avenging fury, and before the miscreants knew what was happening their coins were rolling over the temple floor and their flocks and herds were in the street. The explanation of the tempest lies in these three words, Ė "My Fatherís house." It was not an ordinary house. It was the house of God. It was erected for Godís worship. It was a shrine for the adoring heart. It was intended to be a solace for menís woes and troubles, the very gate of Heaven. "Take these things hence; make not my Fatherís house a house of merchandise." It was his reverence that kindled a fire in his eyes and gave his words an energy that pierced like daggers.
Jesus believed in the worship of God. He was careful always to maintain the forms that nourish and guard the high sentiments of the heart. His attitude to forms has often been misunderstood by persons who, glancing at the surface, have not caught the significance of what he did. He made unrelenting war upon the Pharisees who were the anointed custodians of form. He criticized their ways of fasting and giving and praying and dressing and held up their entire life to condemnation. And because of this it has been sometimes said that Jesus did not believe in forms. This is an error. Jesus did not believe in formalism. Formalism is the corpse of form Ė form after the spirit of life has gone out of it. Jesus hated death wherever he found it. He hated it most of all in the form of worship. Worship is the body in which reverence enshrines itself. So long as the spirit of reverence lives the worship is meaningful and beautiful; but when the spirit disappears, then the worship becomes demoralizing and corrupting. The worship of the Pharisees had lost out of it the spirit of adoration. It was cut and dried, dead, mechanical, without a heart and without a soul, and therefore odious to God and all right thinking men. Reverence is beautiful and renders beautiful whatever form it chooses in which to express itself; but when reverence dies, then the forms of reverence become corpse-like and contaminate all who handle them. Jesus believed in forms. They are, when rightly used, the conservators of life. If you want to keep alive the spirit of courtesy and politeness, then do not cast away the forms of politeness and courtesy. If you wish to keep the fires of love burning, do not banish the forms in which love delights to express itself. If you desire to maintain the spirit of friendship, be sure you treasure all its forms. He was a wise man who advised us to keep our friendships in repair, and they who do not do this find at last that their friendships have decayed and passed away. Would you keep alive the spirit of reverence, then make use of the forms that are best adapted to feed and develop that spirit in the soul.
Jesus made fierce war on formalism, but he ever was a scrupulous observer of form. He was always in the Synagogue on the Sabbath day. He followed faithfully the order of the service. He repeated the prayers, he sang the psalms, he listened to the reading of the Scriptures. When he fed the five thousand men on the other side of Jordan he was careful to return thanks to God before the meal proceeded. When he stood at the grave of Lazarus, he first looked to God in prayer before he spoke the words, "Come forth!" In the upper chamber he observed the forms of the Passover, omitting nothing from the ritual, sacred because transmitted through so many generations. The soul of Jesus was reverent. He found it easy to bend the knee. It was natural for him to look up. He looked into his Fatherís face, saying at every step, "Lo, I come to do Thy will, O God!"
Here, then, we have a virtue upon whose beauty we should often fix our eyes. We do not have as much reverence as we ought to have. We are not by nature or by training a reverent people. There are those who say we become less reverent as the years go on. The older people are constantly lamenting that they miss a certain beautiful respectfulness, a lovely reverence which were more common many years ago. There are wide areas of American society from which the spirit of reverence has been banished. Men and women in many a circle are clever, interesting, brilliant, but they lack one of the three dimensions of life Ė they have no reach upward. Their conversation sparkles, but it is frivolous and often flippant. Their talk is witty, but the wit is often at the expense of high and sacred things. He has come far down in the scale of being who in order to display his powers finds it necessary to ridicule those things which have been prized by all good men. When one enters the world of our present-day reformers he is impressed by the large number who lack the upward look. Many of these men are tremendously in earnest, they see the crying evils of the world; their sympathies are wide and their zeal is hot, but they have no sky above their heads. They aim to glorify no Father who is in heaven. Some of them claim to admire the Man of Nazareth. They extol his character and his teachings. Yet, strange to say, they do not imitate his reverence, or cast a single glance in the direction in which his eyes were always looking. One finds this lack of reverence even in the church. In every community there are those who treat the house of God as they treat a streetcar, entering it and leaving it when they please. Even habitual church attendants often surprise and shock one by their irreverent behavior in the house of prayer. Those persons are not ignoramuses or barbarians; they are simply undeveloped in the virtue of reverence.
Why is it that reverence is apparently in a state of decadence? Is it due to our improper reading? The press is constantly exploiting the sordid side of human nature, calling our attention to moral collapse and degradation, and it may be that our familiarity with vice in its varied forms is taking off the edge of our sensibility so that we no longer respond readily to the things which are noble and high. What has the stage to do Ė do you think Ė with our loss of reverence ? It is lamentable that so large a proportion of plays move in that borderland which lies between decency and indecency. The openly immoral play cannot as yet be endured, but the play that is most popular is often a play that skirts the edges of the realms of the indecent. Theater audiences seem to like a sentence now and then that looks in the direction of the unclean, and to relish an occasional insinuation or remark that leads down to the mud. Our imagination may be so coarsened by the realms through which it travels as to lose the capacity for feeling the rapture of the sense of awe.
Possibly we are becoming less reverent because we are ashamed of being afraid of anybody or anything. Fear is one of the elements in reverence, and there is a popular impression that all fear is degrading. Fear is of two kinds Ė there is a godly fear and a fear that is ungodly. The latter has terror in it and throws a shadow and brings a chill.
But there is a fear which all unspoiled spirits feel in the presence of the high and holy. If mortal man, stained and marred by sin, is not awed by the thought of a Holy God, it is because he has lost the power of feeling. If there is a fear that degrades and paralyzes, there is also a fear that cleanses and exalts. The fear of the Lord is not only a virtue to be coveted by men, it is a grace lacking which angels and archangels would be incomplete. Reverence is the atmosphere of heaven. Let us come often then to the reverent Man of Nazareth who by his awe-struck obeisance to his Heavenly Father shames us out of our irreverence and makes it easier for the heart to kneel.