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THE CONVERSION OF THE HEATHEN,
TIME AND ETERNITY.
[Preached at Lincoln's Inn, 1823, and at Madras, March 4, 1826.]
2 Cor. iv. 18.
We look not at the things which are seen, but at the things
which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.
THERE is an ancient fable told by the Greek and Roman Churches, which, fable as it is, may for its beauty and singularity well deserve to be remembered, that in one of the earliest persecutions to which the Christian world was exposed, seven Christian youths sought concealment in a lonely cave, and there, by God's appointment, fell into a deep and death-like slumber. They slept, the legend runs, two hundred years, till the greater part of mankind had received the faith of the Gospel, and that Church which they had left a poor and afflicted orphan, had “kings” for her “ nursing fathers, and queens” for her “ nursing mothers.”* They then at length awoke, and entering into their native Ephesus, so altered now that its streets were altogether unknown to them, they cautiously inquired if there were any Christians in the city? “Chris
tians !" was the answer, “ we are all Christians here!” and they heard with a thankful joy the change which, since they left the world, had taken place in the opinions of its inhabitants. On one side they were shown a stately fabric adorned with a gilded cross, and dedicated, as they were told, to the worship of their crucified Master; on another, schools for the public exposition of those Gospels, of which so short a time before, the bare profession was proscribed and deadly. But no fear was now to be entertained of those miseries which had encircled the cradle of Christianity; no danger now of the rack, the lions, or the sword; the emperor and his prefects held the same faith with themselves, and all the wealth of the east, and all the valour and authority of the western world were exerted to protect and endow the professors and the teachers of their religion.
But joyful as these tidings must, at first, have been, their further inquiries are said to have met with answers which very deeply surprised and pained them. They learned that the greater part of those who called themselves by the name of Christ, were strangely regardless of the blessings which Christ had bestowed, and of the obligations which He had laid on His followers. They found that, as the world had become Christian, Christianity itself had become worldly; and wearied and sorrowful they besought of God to lay them asleep again, crying out to those who followed them, “you have shewn us many heathens who have given up
their old idolatry without gaining any thing better in its room; many who are of no religion at all; and many with whom the religion of Christ is no more than a cloak of licentiousness; but where, where are the christians ?” And thus they returned to their cave; and there God had compassion on them, releasing them, once for all, from that world for whose reproof their days had been lengthened, and removing their souls to the society of their ancient friends and pastors, the martyrs and saints of an earlier and a better generation.
The admiration of former times is a feeling at first, perhaps engrafted on our minds by the regrets of those who vainly seek in the evening of life, for the sunny tints which adorned their morning landscape; and who are led to fancy a deterioration in surrounding objects, when the change is in themselves, and the twilight in their own powers of perception. It is probable that, as each age of the individual or the species is subject to its peculiar dangers, so each has its peculiar and compensating advantages: and that the difficulties which, at different periods of the world's duration, have impeded the believer’s progress to Heaven, though in appearance infinitely various, are, in amount, very nearly equal. It is probable that no age is without its sufficient share of offences, of judgments, of graces, and of mercies, and that the corrupted nature of mankind was never otherwise than hostile or indifferent to the means which God has employed to remedy its misery. Had we lived