Be of Good Cheer (sermon text)
Be of Good Cheer
“And the night following, the Lord stood by him and said, “Be of good cheer”. — Acts 23: 11
Paul justified his title to the name of an apostle on the ground that he also had seen the risen Lord. If the occasion referred to in our text was one of the occasions on which he claimed to have seen the Master, we may point out one coincidence which has no little weight in making Paul's claim appear natural. For we may show that one word spoken to Paul that night was a characteristic word of Jesus. The Lord stood by him and said : “Be of good cheer.” What other word would it have been so natural for the Divine Master to utter? This will appear, and the lesson involved in it will become manifest, if I mention the other occasions on which the Saviour used this identical word, which is rendered in our version: “Be of good cheer.”
The first scene is that of the palsied man at Capernaum. On arriving in his own city, there was brought to him a man sick of the palsy, lying on a bed. The crowd was so great the sick man could not be got near. Even the room about the door was thronged. Accordingly they bore the invalid to the top of the house and thence let him down at the feet of the wondrous healer. We are led to infer that both by reason of disease and from some special sense of un worthiness, this sufferer's face wore a look of weariness and deep despondency. The expectation of recovery was gone. He may have wondered at the confident zeal of the friends who would persist in bearing him into the presence of the miracle- worker. It may be that persons in the crowd looked as if it were in them to say, how simple, if not impertinent, it was for your friends to worry your poor frame by bringing you here! But the Master's eye no sooner fell upon the man than he said:
“Son, be of good cheer; thy sins are forgiven thee.”
The second scene is that of the woman who touched the hem of his garment. For twelve years, we are told, disease had wasted her strength. The money spent on physicians had been thrown away, her case being nothing bettered, but rather grown worse. In the mass of people which pressed the Master, this woman secretly and painfully mingles, aiming to get near enough to touch, if possible, the garment he wore. At last, her finger touches the hem.
She feels in her body the strange but blessed sensation of being healed. She allows the throng to sway her back, as a wave recedes on the ocean beach. Still she carries with her the feeling that somehow she may have seemed rather to have stolen than asked the favor. The question, “Who has touched me?” strikes sharply upon her sensitive mind. It brings her, full of undefined fear, in the presence of her benefactor. Does her heart fail her lest he blame her? “But Jesus, turning and seeing her, said, “daughter, be of good cheer; thy faith has made thee whole.”
The third scene is that in which he was beheld walking on the sea. The multitudes have gone away. The evening has fully come. The Master and his disciples are separated. He is in the mountain for prayer. Their ship is laboring heavily in a tempestuous sea. Darkness, storm and danger increase every moment. To the consternation of the disciples, they see the appearance of one as if walking on the furious water.
Their imagination makes it a spirit. The courage, which might battle with wind and waves, fails them in the presence of a power of the air. They utter the shriek of uttermost fear. In contrast with the uproar of the elements, and the uproar, too, of perturbed human souls, listen, as to music coming over still water, to that calm, firm voice:
“Be of good cheer; It is I. Be not afraid.” The picture of that scene must have remained painted on the vision of those disciples; the tones of that voice must have lingered long in their ears. In many a more tempestuous sea of temptation and persecution they must have recalled this word and rejoiced in its inspiration.
Such a sea was tossing wildly for them — and this is the fourth scene — on the night of the crucifixion. It was a long storm then setting in.
In the hush before the great shock of it should be felt, we find the disciples listening to the Master with new, anxious, intense, and yet vague apprehension. He is to leave them. He is to leave them to wage the war of his kingdom alone. He is to be betrayed by one from their own number.
The priests and scribes are to do what they please with him. They themselves are to bend and well might break under the pitiless tempest which begins already to mutter around the corners of the house in which they have eaten the Passover.
The cock shall hardly crow before one, and he the chiefest, shall deny the Lord. There these eleven men are sitting, and the shadow and shiver of the coming events fall over them. They are numbed and unnerved. They had not been girded for such a conflict. The Master casts them out into the great, cruel world. There, he says, ye shall have tribulation. But in the very moment and syllable in which he casts them forth, he utters his favorite word: “Be of good cheer.” Those men slept so soundly in the watch of that night, or went away so far from him in the break of the morning, that they lost for a time the encouragement of this word. But that encouragement came back, how often it has come back to weak and tempted disciples since: “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”
It came to Paul in the castle, which we may now reckon as the fifth occasion in which the Master spoke this favorite word. Paul had gone up to Jerusalem after his third missionary Journey.
His enemies found him in the temple. With the convulsive quickness of a mob, they had dragged him from the sacred place and commenced beating him in the outer court. Under the protection of military arrest, he spoke to them in his own defense. But that defense only infuriated them.
They were mad for his blood. But the great work among the churches- would suffer, if he were killed. The dominant influences working in the world were not only against him; those influences despised him and his cause. What was he, one lone man, in the face of all that was against him? He lay down in the castle. Who else but the Lord could it be who should stand by him and say: “Be of good cheer, as thou hast testified of me in Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also in Rome.”
Would you know the secret of Paul's flow of spirits from that day onward? Whether before Felix or Festus or Agrippa or at Caesar's court?
See him in the midst of the shipwreck, calm, brave, vigilant. Hear him, an ignoble prisoner standing forth in the midst of the two hundred and seventy-six souls, use almost the identical term he had heard from the Master. And now I exhort you to be of good cheer — wherefore, sirs, be of good cheer. Listen, as on the fourteenth day of their fasting, he takes bread and gives thanks to God before them all. Watch that motley mass as they catch heart from this wonderful fellow-passenger.” Then were they all of good cheer? “Follow him, as he leaves the vessel and wends his way to the imperial city. Make note that on his arrival at Three Taverns, thirty-three miles from Rome, he thanked God and took courage (pharos, cheer). For a long time, he is chained to a soldier. A man of intensely active habits, be is confined within the narrow circuit of his prison.
His friends, one by one, leave him. Some of them, alas, not only fail him, but fail the cause also.
“Only Luke is with me.”
“Look in once more,
The saint is in his bonds again.
Save that his hopes more boldly soar, He and his lot unchanged remain!”
Yes, his hopes do more boldly soar. For these are among the expressions which occur in his latest Epistles: “I am now ready to be offered. I have fought a good fight. I have finished my course.
“I have kept the faith, henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness.” “The Lord will deliver me from every evil work and will save me unto his heavenly kingdom, to whom be the glory forever and ever, amen.” With such words on his lips, the great apostle passes the valley of the shadow of martyrdom. What, I was asking, was the secret of this high flowing spirit, in the midst of age, loneliness, desertion, imprisonment, care of all the churches? Our text answers the question. His Lord stood by him and he heard again and again this favorite of the Master, saying, Be of good cheer, Paul.
I cannot think it merely a pleasant coincidence that on these five critical occasions our Lord should be reported to us as using this same word.
We are entitled to conclude that the word marks a signal characteristic in the Son of Man. He was here to encourage man in the path of righteousness. So it was predicted of him long before he came to earth in those beautiful words of Isaiah, “The Lord God hath given me the tongue of the learned that I should know how to speak a word in season to him that is weary.” And again,
“He shall not break the bruised reed nor quench the smoking flax. He shall not fail nor be discouraged till he has set judgment in the earth.” And if we recollect the familiar narratives of the gospel in the light of this repeated word, confirmations of this characteristic will spring up on every side. His quick recognition of faith, his open, full, glad recognition of it, whether in centurion of Rome or woman of Canaan, supplies evidence. His appreciation of a cup of cold water, of the two mites of the poor woman, of the love shown by the woman who was a sinner, his kindly attitude toward the despised classes of his time reveal this trait. So also his words by the bier at Nain, at the grave of Lazarus, to the thief on the cross. Indeed, it might well be claimed that one great reason why the divine Lord became flesh and dwelt among us was, that he might be able to say in hearty human words to the multitudes of earth who labor and are heavy laden, come unto me and I will give you rest. And this view of Christ brings him into close and dear relations with most of us. It was stated in the papers that some gentleman in St. Louis willed his entire property, estimated at two million dollars, to a person, because that person years before had, by a little confidence and a loan, encouraged him when he was greatly embarrassed. Plenty of people we have known who, when we were in difficulty, stood off, chilling us by their indifference, distrust or censure. They may have been righteous, yet scarcely for a righteous man will one die. But the neighbor, teacher, pastor, who, when we were setting out in life, spoke the hearty good word to us or for us and bade us substantial God speed in any worthy undertaking, he has a warm place in our hearts. When we return to the old places and meet him again, we greet him with no common grasp. If he lie in the old church yard, walking leisurely and pensively through the sacred grounds, we shall read the name on the head-stone with dimmed eyes. For it is good to be encouraged. It is at this quick tender point of the human feeling that God in Christ meets us. We stand in the close crowd where they are letting down the palsied man, or move in the dense throng through which the woman touches the hem of the Master's garment, or we toil, faint with rowing, on the little Galilean lake, or we sit in the upper room under the oppressive sense of impending evil, or we lie in the castle, prisoners, images of possible disaster gathering in the brain— these are symbols of the life we live, — but in the varied conditions the Christ of the gospel stands beside us. He is never at loss for one word. It comes spontaneously to his lips. Be of good cheer.
But let me hasten to note that in each case in which our Lord used this word, he gave reason for using it. The cheery voice stood for a cheery reality.” If, “argues St. James, “a brother or sister be naked and destitute of daily food and one of you say unto them.” Depart in peace, be you warmed and fed: notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body, what doth it profits? “It was no wordy encouragement which came to the palsied man. When the Master said to him, “Thy sins are forgiven thee, “
there were those standing round who were ready to think that this was something more easily said than done; for to forgive a man his sins belong to God alone, and though Jesus might say it, yet who could verify it? But soon came a declaration which everybody could verify. But that ye may know that the Son of Man hath authority on earth to forgive sins, arise, take up thy bed and go to thine house. And he arose and departed to his own house. The cheering words of one who could send a palsied man home healed, carrying his bed with him, were spirit and life. So also, the diseased woman was not merely talked to, she had been made whole. The anxious disciples in the storm, too, heard the master say, “It is I; be not afraid, “but more than that happened, “When he was come into the ship the wind ceased.” On the night of the betrayal, likewise, a wonderful reason was given why the disciples should take heart: “I have overcome the world.” Nor was Paul left with a vague exhortation to cheerfulness; he was given a particular and definite promise, that his imprisonment would enable him to bear the witness he loved so well within the walls of the great capital of the Roman world. Yes, Christ's gracious words, in each case, stood for gracious realities. When he said cheer, the cheering fact was on its way. How often we have seen some well-intentioned doctors tell us to dismiss our fears with respect to some friend stricken with disease, “There is no serious illness, she will be well in a few days.” But we have sometimes failed to dismiss our fears. Courage and the light heart would not come, because we were not sure the doctor knew what he was affirming. For cheery words must have the backing of facts.
They must come from one who has knowledge or power to bring things to pass. But the great Physician in whom we trust has never failed during these nineteen centuries to reward the courage which his spoken promises have inspired.
The uses of this theme we have now been following are not far to seek. Little need to make formal mention of them. But I would like to have this theme leave on your minds pleasant impressions of Christ, our Lord. How our faces light up, when, talking together of some friend, now absent, we say to each other. Do you remember such and such favorite words he used to speak? Those favorite words are like a right natural expression preserved in a portrait. So does not this word there, call up within us a picture of the Lord, which we can carry with us and never lose?
Surely it will give a vast deal of help to us to think of Christ in this light. He is the being, who beyond all others, has the disposition and the power to cheer human hearts. That, indeed, is what makes him have his hold on the world. For we are all passing, or have just passed, or are soon to pass through some experience, like that of the children of Israel, “when they journeyed from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way.” We need to be assured that he who has been lifted up and passed through the heavens, is still touched with the feeling of our infirmities and has great store of courage for us which will never fail us.
I would like to have you note also that Christ imparts to those who follow him, the same spirit of encouragement which he possessed himself. It is astonishing how much many of us lack this spirit. It is so much easier for many people to criticize, find fault, tell what people ought to do, and throw cold water on smoking flax. It was so with the twelve disciples at first. They acted as a kind of body-guard to their Master. They looked frigidly on the mothers who would bring the little children to him. They were not gracious to that Syro-Phenician woman. Send her away: for she crieth after us.” But particularly suggestive is the account given of what took place, when Barti-meus the blind man called so earnestly upon the Savior for help. Many, it is said, rebuked him that he should hold his peace. But Jesus said, call ye him. And they not only called him, but, what is specially to be remarked, they took up the Master's own word and made it theirs. For they said now. Be of good cheer, arise, he calleth thee.
They say it, because their Master had said it before them. His influence transforms them. Instead of belonging to the multitude who hinder those who would come out of blindness and darkness and sorrow, they themselves become angels of comfort and help. So the favorite words of the Master pass into the familiar speech of his church. They are caught up and carried down the centuries. Surely, our study teaches us, that we should be encouraged Christians, for we have in Christ a strong friend; we should be encouraging Christians, for our fellow-men need all the cheer we can possibly give them in the way of righteousness; we should become Christians, if we are not such. Else you will only hold back or hold others back; you will look on and see men needing moral help and you will have hard work to say or do anything to help them. Your years will run fast away and though you may meet with scores and hundreds who want incentive and aid in order to live a good life or die a peaceful death, yet you will come to your end, and, looking back, have to confess that you have not encouraged anybody to live more worthily or die more triumphantly. But once in Christ yourself, you will find that he gives you from time to time the satisfaction, like which there is no other, the satisfaction of bringing good cheer into the moral and eternal life of the world.