Dr. Powell is one of the great preachers of the South, to whom some of us are deeply indebted. For thirty-nine years he has been pastor of the First Christian Church of Louisville, Kentucky, and his place of influence and command, both in city and State, is unique in the annals of the pulpit. An extraordinary personality, he is an amazing pastor, a fearless prophet, and a great citizen.
A Virginian, born in 1860, Dr. Powell was educated at the Christian University, and ordained to the ministry in 1881. After pastorates at Charlottesville, Norfolk, and Lynchburg in his native State, he went to Kentucky where, in 1887, he became minister of the First Church in Louisville. He has published three books, Savonarola, a series of addresses on civic righteousness; The Victory of Faith, a book of sermons, and Prophet’s Vision and President’s Dream, a forecast of the League of Nations.
In the Sermon here to be read he is dealing in a forthright fashion with deep issues of life and faith—the mystery of suffering, the shadow of sin, and the deep pathos of death—finding an explanation in “the proven experience of the goodness of God.” Logic fails, but faith wins.
Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he came.
So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life. Genesis 3:23-24.
When we think of the story of Eden there comes before the mind a vision of radiant beauty. Birds of wondrous plumage sing for us. We walk along embowered pathways. Dominant in the picture is the ideal love of the first man and first woman. The environment of this ideal love is the garden of Eden. Milton has made it impossible for the imagination to do more than fold its wings and rest.
What is the meaning of this story? There are great spiritual truths enshrined in this “parable of Eden,” as Phillips Brooks terms it. It is a curious fact that about the garden with its freshness and beauty and the cross with its tender pathos, have been waged our greatest theological battles. Seemingly theology would have no work to do in dealing with these beautiful themes. None the less, great problems, with which we can only deal incidentally in this sermon, confront us immediately. Why should God have created man capable of sinning? Why should not the Edenic state have been permanent? Why the entrance of the serpent and temptation? Why not every step joy, every sound music, and all the ages one long jubilee? Why create man a free moral agent? These questions involve the goodness of God. Theologians must deal with them. Christian faith, based upon the proven experience of the goodness of God, can alone banish our doubts and fears. Logic fails, but faith wins.
Eden is the seed-bed of the soul, holding potentially genius, leadership, saintliness, heroism, and all the manifold and multiform experiences and manifestations of character and life. Eden is a shut casket of unimagined possibilities. Eden is the baby soul waiting the touch of temptation, struggle, noble adventure—in order to attain self-realization. Eden is the soul with which each of us starts, without memory, without consciousness of sin, without knowledge, without imagination, without aspiration or hope or fear, without joy or peace, not having known their opposites in pain—waiting the hour of revelation and liberation, which comes only through the shock and surprises of life’s experiences.
The entrance of the serpent into the fair garden of innocence, the temptation, the fall, the stinging sense of shame, the awakening of conscience—out of it all issuing character as the meaning of life. Only such interpretation can give any significance to the presence of man on the earth, or the ministry and meaning of evil. As a parable, each of us knows the meaning of Eden in his own experience; knows the significance of the serpent and the fiery sword which guards forever man’s return to innocence and babyhood. To think of Eden as a permanent state is to believe that God created man with no ministry or mission as concerns the development of character. The Edenic state could be affirmed of the babe who is born today—without knowledge of evil and incapable of knowing that evil is evil until conscience has been awakened—until there comes the awareness, through temptation and the fall, of both good and evil.
There is the startling statement in our text that God drove man out of his blissful Eden. We discover in the story nothing cruel or arbitrary, nothing that is not strictly in accord with the constitution and nature of the man whom God created. We do not stop to consider why God failed to create some other being than man, or a being differently constituted; but in the presence of man upon the earth there came into existence a free moral agent. The conditions of choice were placed before him. He was confronted with prohibition and the penalty of disobedience. He could choose, under the challenge of temptation, either obedience or disobedience. He comes to a knowledge of good and evil through disobedience and the punishment which follows the disobedience is self-banishment. To the transgressor Eden could nevermore be Eden.
The scene was changed. Man stood looking out upon a new world. The garden had been wiped out of existence; the flowers had faded; the glory had departed. The man was self-banished and yet God-banished, since God created him with the power of choice and the spiritual penalty involved in that choice. It is God working through spiritual law who drives the traitor from the companionship of free men. It is God who through spiritual law places upon the brow of Cain the stamp of the murderer. Man has been constituted in his creation with the certain and inexorable working out of these spiritual laws. These laws are not engraven upon the rocks but upon the human soul. They are in the nature and constitution of man. One does not go to the Bible to find out that sin is followed by suffering. Ever since man came upon the earth it has been true that “whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap.” These spiritual laws are not made true by being printed in the Bible, but because they are true in the very nature and constitution of man, they are put in the Bible. Every man confirms in his own experience—saint or sinner—the working out of these laws. The wilderness makes us. Man’s banishment was his enthronement. Not until the flowers of the garden have been exchanged for the sword and the shield does man become conscious of his power. Banishment from Eden is man’s salvation and liberation. No sainthood is possible without temptation to be resisted and sin to be overcome. There can be no glowing brain without problems to be solved; there can be no sympathy or loving self-sacrifice for others if there be no pain in the world; there can be no thrill of tightening muscles in lifting the heavy load unless there be something heavy to lift; no joy of awakened power unless there be difficulties to overcome; no dream of a brighter tomorrow, for innocence lives only in the present.
Think of what it would mean to go back into the Edenic state and eternal monotony! Such a heaven would be spurned by any soul which has known the shame of sin and the joy of forgiveness. Think you the mariner who has wrestled with wind and wave—who has known shipwreck and the harbor’s safety—who has felt the keen thrill of high peril and the equal thrill of deliverance and victory—think you the mariner could be tempted to a yachting expedition in some land-locked bay? It is life.
Better fifty years of Europe
Than a cycle of Cathay.
If we shall know the joy of living when “the pulse throbs with the fulness of the spring” we can only find it in the wilderness with its perils and its challenges. Nothing else is life, nor can life be found otherwhere than in the opportunity offered for some high adventure of soul and body. Vegetation otherwise.
The school of the wilderness holds all the ministries adapted to the training, toughening, polishing and purifying of the soul. Not in some luxurious boudoir but on the battlefield do we come into regnant life. We must meet the dragons in the wilderness and slay them. Only so can we come into the consciousness of power to dare and to achieve. Not otherwise is there entrance for us into the realm of the “I can” men, which is another word for “king.” The whole story of life is that of the pioneers conquering the wilderness, subduing nature, blazing trails through pathless forests, mad with thirst, exposed to all dangers and hardships of the explorer—fighting wild beasts—the mirage turning into burning sand—on and on through weary days and restless nights until “the wilderness and the solitary place have been made glad and the desert has been made to blossom as the rose.” The men of blood and iron who conquered the wilderness have been those who have accepted the challenge of the Almighty—“Give me men to match my mountains.”
Our text reminds us that when God drove man from the garden “he placed at the east of the garden cherubim and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.” We cannot again enter our Eden. We cannot recover the lost chance. “Water that is spilled upon the ground cannot be gathered again.” “The mill will never grind again with the water that is past.” Each stage in life has its own lessons to learn and if we fail to learn them we cannot go back to school in that department again. “When I was a child I spake as a child, I thought as a child, I understood as a child.” Youth must learn its lessons, for age cannot go back to youth. The cherubim guard the way. No man has ever had the same experience with precisely the same shade of sentiment and feeling the second time. That emotion which came to you as you stood on some mountain peak and viewed the splendid landscape will never return.
The tender grace of a day that is dead
Will never come back to you.
You call that home your Eden where love is the presiding Deity. Death enters. The scene is changed. There can be no return.
Then comes the mist and the weeping rain
And life is never the same again.
Out of the struggle comes victory with its thrill and its joy. Innocency is the happiness of ignorance—ignorance of danger and power which comes from conquest; ignorance of nature and the thrill of discovering its laws so that man, knowing the laws, can make the whole universe to be his servitor. From the standpoint of modern man Eden is insipid; from the standpoint of history and all the developments of the race, Eden is impossible. Humanity has ever gone forward through stress and strain and struggle, through tears and groans and battles. Whatever progress has been made has come through coöperation with the laws which God has ordained. Let us understand that not innocence but blessedness is the end of our existence. Blessedness is woven of fiery experiences. Its aureole is a fiery crown. It is victory through struggle. It is peace through pain. It is the song in the prison.
There can be no development, no progress apart from the experiences of the wilderness. The garden does not make men. It is in the wilderness with its thorns and briers where men grow. The world’s sufferers are the world’s leaders. Blessing and bleeding go together. It is only blood that heals.
Is this a hard price to pay for progress? It is a pain-racked world. The stars, however, do not come out until it is night. The soul can never have the great and blessed experience of forgiveness without the torment of conscience and the pain of repentance. God made us as we are and the world as it is.
There are only three things that can be said: One is that fate or a blind unconscious governs the world. If so it be, we can only accept the philosophy of Omar Khayyám. We must submit for there is nothing else to be done. A mechanical universe takes no account of either man or mountain. Or we may believe that a devil governs the world. If that be so, we can only look upon the mighty power in whose grip we find ourselves as some tremendous invisible Frankenstein who is crushing out the hearts and lives of men, women and children without aim or end. 0r, finally, there is the revelation of God in Christ, or as Van Dyke expresses it “the human life of God,” who Himself is love and therefore one who cannot go contrary to His nature.
Every cloud that spreads above
And veileth love, itself is love.
I can read upon the pages of history that pain has been the redemptive power in the universe; that all progress has been made by way of Gethsemanes and Calvaries. Self-sacrifice is at the root of all that is fairest and best among the sons of men. It alone has given to us an undying literature. If the Hebrew race had not pierced its heart with the terrible griefs of life, the Psalms would not have been written. If Dante had not walked the solitary path of exile and climbed the lonely stairs, there would have been no Divine Comedy. Tasso polished his cantos in prison. Paul wrote his mighty epistles from his jail. John Bunyan saw the heavens opened when he wrote his immortal Pilgrim’s Progress in his Bedford prison.
God is love. Therefore in all that He says and does he is but expressing his nature. Pain is not an accident. If the program is big enough—and it is—then we may not cry out against a God of love for requiring from us our small part of pain involved in the great redemptive ministry of suffering. If the individual alone were involved there could be no explanation, no harmony of law and love. But if the individual is related to society and the world, if the Divine program contemplates the redemption of the human race, then we can accept without moan whatever agony may be our portion. It is all just and all love. That is the meaning of the cross. It means to say that God could not redeem man save through agony. Your tears and my tears are somehow “filling up that which is behind the sufferings of Christ.” It is a God of love who banishes us from our Eden.
Pay your price like a man. Make your contribution without a moan. Accept the cross which may be laid upon you, if only so be it is love which places it there. The old hymn tells the story:
By the thorn-road and none other,
Is the Mount of Vision won.
Tread it without shrinking, brother,
Jesus trod it, press thou on.
There is no glory without the gloom; no harmony without discord, no peace without struggle, no joy without pain.
I know that somewhere beyond the stars
Is a love that is better than Fate.
When the night unlocks her bars
I shall see Him—and I will wait.