A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh.
One of the wonders of Arizona is its petrified forest, or rather, forests, for there are many of them. In a small group of trees recently discovered the sandstone has worn away, leaving exposed huge trees standing like the pillars of some ancient temple. The roots of these trees run into the solid rock. One has been discovered, standing on the summit of a hill, which is the giant of all the petrified forests. It is twenty-seven feet in circumference, with roots embedded in the solid rock. The bark is perfectly preserved in agatized form and is five inches thick. In the rocks about this tree are impressions of branches, leaves, and even cones and fruits. This tree, it is thought, was like the present giant redwoods of California—certainly it must have been the giant of this great forest of prehistoric times. Some years ago some capitalists staked out a mining claim in one of these forests, and undertook to manufacture emery dust by grinding these petrified trees to powder. But it was soon demonstrated that the tree trunks were too hard to lend themselves to a wholesale commercial use. In fact, it is estimated that the hardness of the average piece of petrified wood is seven-tenths that of the diamond.
We have in these petrified trees an illustration of what takes place in the human heart. There are influences all the time at work in the world which if given free play will make the heart as hard as one of these petrified trees, until it will become what Ezekiel calls "the stony heart." We are constantly seeing illustrations of the effect of avarice and greed upon the heart of a man or a woman, until the affections and sympathies seem to be petrified in the soul, and the suffering of others has no more effect than it would have upon a rock. Shakespeare was right when, in the Merchant of Venice, he makes Antonio, speaking of the effect of avarice on the heart of Shylock, declare that a human heart thus petrified is the hardest and most cruel thing in the world. Speaking of the futility of trying to arouse mercy in Shylock's heart, he says:
"You may as well go stand upon the beach,
And bid the main flood bate his usual height;
You may as well use question with the wolf,
Why he hath made the ewe bleat for the lamb;
You may as well forbid the mountain pines
To wag their high tops, and to make no noise,
When they are fretten with the gusts of heaven;
You may as well do anything most hard,
As seek to soften that—than which what's harder?—
But selfishness, which is the great hardener of the heart, does not always take the form of avarice or greed. A self-indulgence which seeks its own comfort with indifference to the comfort of others will soon make the heart as hard as adamant. The natural effect of self-indulgence is to close the eyes and dull the heart so that it cannot see or feel the needs of others. Many a man by his very success thus loses his best self. There is a story of an Italian nobleman who built his enemy into the wall of his castle. He set him there alive, and piled the great stones about him, leaving him there to perish in the heart of the great building. There are thousands of men and women who are doing the same thing with their own souls. They are making money, they are being successful, but they are burying themselves while they are doing it. The heart within them is becoming petrified. They do not enjoy men and women as much, they are not so tender and sympathetic toward their fellows, and have nothing like the hope and faith in God which they had years ago. The heart is changing to stone.
We need to listen to this message as Christians, for there is always the danger that while we are theoretically Christians, and are entirely orthodox in our creed and correct in all the outward and formal services of the church, our hearts will become to a certain extent petrified and indifferent, and we shall lose that vital and tender association with Christ and our brethren which is the very life and soul of Christianity. Dr. J. H. Jowett, the English preacher, in the annual sermon of the London Missionary Society, took for his text those remarkable words of Paul where he says, "Fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ." He sees in these words a window into the heart of the great apostle to the Gentiles. He was so sensitively in touch with Jesus Christ that it put him into tender and sensitive kinship with every man and woman in the world. All the stone had gone out of Paul's heart and his heart was alive to anything that touched his brother with affliction. He cried out: "Who is weak and I am not weak? who is offended and I burn not?" And I must confess that I have been greatly moved with the heart cry of Dr. Jowett as he inquires: "My brethren, are we in this succession? Does the cry of the world's need pierce the heart, and ring even through the fabric of our dreams? Do we 'fill up' our Lord's sufferings, or are we the unsympathetic ministers of a mighty passion? I am amazed how easily I become callous. I am ashamed how small and insensitive is the surface which I present to the needs and sorrows of the world. I so easily become enwrapt in the soft wool of self-indulgences and the cries from far and near cannot reach my easeful soul."
A young missionary who had come home from the foreign field sick, and was anxious to get well that he might go back, was asked by a friend why he wished to return, and the answer was a revelation to the man who asked it "Because I can't sleep for thinking of them!" was the reply. There was a heart with no stone in it. To all that heathen world, with its wicked men and benighted women and groveling children, his heart was as tender and sensitive as a mother's. But how easy it is for us to settle down into a dull and heavy lethargy, until the heart begins to petrify, in our relation to the lost both at home and abroad. How the world would be kindled with flames of divine fire if every Christian heart could be thoroughly quickened into life and sympathy!
Mrs. Josephine Butler, in her Life of Saint Catherine, tells us that Catherine told a friend that the anguish which she experienced in the realization of the sufferings of Christ was the greatest at the moment when she was pleading for the salvation of others. "Promise me that thou wilt save them!" she cried, and, stretching forth her right hand to Jesus, she again implored in agony, "Promise me, dear Lord, that thou wilt save them! O, give me a token that thou wilt!" Then her Lord seemed to clasp her outstretched hand in his, and to give her the promise, and she felt a piercing pain as though a nail had been driven through the palm.
Brothers, sisters, do we know anything of what that means, or is it all a dead language to us? Are we being buried in self-indulgence? Are we so lost in having a good time, or so immersed in care for the conditions of this present life, that the sufferings of Christ for the salvation of the world and the lost condition of our fellow men about us do not get into our hearts so that we are conscious of it? May the Spirit of the living God awake us! May the Spirit that aroused Ezekiel's valley of dry bones, the Spirit that first called us to repentance, call us again with an electric call that will awaken and arouse us fully to the life of the Spirit!
But if there be this solemn message to those who have entered upon the Christian life, how solemn is that message to you who have given yourself over to your way and have refused to yield in any way to the persuasions of Christ, who offers to be your Saviour! Is it not true that some of your hearts are not only petrified so that there is no love to God or Christ, but that your ideas of Christ are becoming every year more vague and unreal, so that there is less likelihood that he will become your personal Saviour? Your cold and stony heart affects your vision of Christ, so that Christ seems as hard and helpless as is your own spiritual nature.
A novelist has told the story of an Alpine guide who was engaged to be married to a Swiss girl. A few days before the time set for the wedding the girl started off to visit some relatives living on the other side of the mountain. She laughed a farewell as she ascended the steep hillside and waved a bunch of flowers which she held in her hand as she passed out of sight of her friends. It was the last they ever saw of her. She never returned, and no one knew what had become of her. When her lover heard of her disappearance he set off up the path to seek her, but came back alone with a broken heart. Then he collected building materials, and, refusing all proffered aid, he bore them away up, no one knew where, took supplies of food, and forbade any to trace him to his lonely haunt. When the spring came he returned to the village, took up his place among the guides, and had his share of the mountain-climbing connected with the visitors who came. But although he was an excellent guide he was so morose and sullen that he was never a favorite. Some heavy load seemed to lay upon his heart and crush all joy and hope out of it. Eighteen years passed away, and then the springtime came and he did not appear with the rest of the guides. The old men of the town, who remembered the sad story of his youth, organized a search for him; they traversed glaciers and ice tracks they had never crossed before, till they came to a solitary hut at the edge of a deep crevasse. They knocked at the door, but there was no answer. Then they broke in the door, and found the guide lying upon a couch, cold in death.
Then the secret of his strange life became evident to them. For there, standing by, was the figure of the girl he had loved long years before. The familiar color was in her cheek, the flowers upon her breast; but a peculiar, steely kind of light enveloped her and they thought they saw a vision. At last one of them put forth his hand and touched the ice that formed her coffin. For eighteen years, so the author's fancy pictures, the Swiss guide had lived, unseen by mortal eye, with the image of his betrothed enshrined within a mold of ice.
Though this may be but a grim fancy of fiction, it is strikingly true as an illustration of our theme. For are there not some who hear me to whom Christ is no more than that? Instead of your heart beating in unison with his, and the divine love from his eyes—the love that transformed the life of Zacchæus and which has lost none of its power—streaming into yours, he is void of life and is clothed to your imagination with an icy coffin of speculation and theory. You believe in the historic Christ just the same as you did when you were a child, but the life, the soul, the living divine personality, near enough to touch you with his hand and give you peace—all that is gone. You say beautiful things, it may be, about Christ, and you think of him as a beautiful character, but he is the stone Christ, and there is in him no power to give you good cheer and hope and fill your life with the warmth and courage of immortality.
When Dr. F. E. Clark was last in India he held an interesting religious service in the Taj Mahal, which is the most wonderful tomb in the world. Twenty thousand men worked for twenty-two years on the marvelous building. In it sleep the mortal remains of a dead princess. Dr. Clark and a dozen Christians gathered under the marvelous dome within the tomb, and read the Scripture and sang and prayed. Their words echoed and reechoed and echoed again a hundred times. When they sang, the musical tones were reproduced until it seemed as if a choir of ten thousand angels had taken up the song and was chanting the refrain begun on earth. And yet they had to go away and leave it only a tomb. But suppose they had had the power to have spoken life into that place of death, and brought back the princess to her youth and health and beauty and strength? Thank God, that is what Jesus can do to petrified hearts. He will come into your heart where many beautiful things are buried, and he will bring them again to life and power. He will take away the stony heart and give you a heart of flesh. Do not make the blunder of trying to live the Christian life without the Christian heart. But to obtain the Christian heart you must obey Christ. He knocks at the door. Open the door and let him in. When he walked with the two disciples out to Emmaus he was going on until they begged him to stop and break bread with them. Has he not walked down the street with you many a day until he came to your door, and looked fondly on you, but you did not invite him in? Has he not often come to sit down beside you in the church, and while the sermon has gone on you have felt that he was sitting there, his shoulder touching against yours, but you went home without him? My friend, he alone is able to change this petrified heart into a heart quick with life and love and hope and faith, a life that shall blossom into joy, that shall bear the fruit of peace, and shall be green and flourishing through all the ages of eternity.