The Meaning of the Sunset – Charles E. Jefferson (historic sermon 1860-1937)
How many sunsets have you seen during this last week, this last month, this last year? How many have you seen in the last ten years, the last twenty, the last thirty? I do not ask how many have you glanced at, but how many have you gazed upon, paid attention to, pondered? On how many have you held your mind long enough for it to become impressed, for an influence to be diffused through your heart, for a discipline to be exercised upon your spirit? How many sunsets stand out vivid and glorious on the walls of your memory? How many of you can say, that the glory of setting suns is an appreciable factor in the development of your emotional and spiritual life?
It is a lamentable fact, that what is customary soon becomes commonplace. The oft-repeated soon loses its power over us. Repetition seems to sear the heart as if by a red-hot iron. If the sun went down only once in a hundred years what a world-wide commotion the sunset would create! If only once in a hundred years the western sky glowed and burned as though some colossal, celestial glory were about to burst through upon the world; if only once in a hundred years, the clouds along the western horizon took on unwonted brilliancy, flashing with a magnificence leaping” beyond the power of language to express or the ingenuity o the human mind to conceive; if, only once in a century, after the sun went down, an ethereal softness began to steal toward the zenith, and an unspeakable beauty began to flush the upper spaces then the fame of the spectacle would be heralded around the earth, and would give people something to talk about for another hundred years.
If such an event had taken place seventy-five years ago, how enthusiastically we should gather round the old men and women of eighty and eighty-five and ninety, begging them to tell us of the sunset which they saw in the days of their childhood. And how eagerly the reporters would harass these old people for descriptions of the great event of the long ago* And if we knew that there would not be another sunset until twenty-five years from now, some of us would be filled with sadness, saying one to another, “I am afraid I shall not live so long. I fear I shall die before I have seen that thrilling and sublime event.” Young people, however, would stand on the tiptoe of expectation, counting the passing years, reading the poets and historians for descriptions of the last sunset, and preparing their minds and hearts for the great experience awaiting them a quarter of a century from now. If a sunset took place once in a century, everybody would be interested in it, but such is the perversity of human nature that a sunset occurring every day loses its power to charm or thrill, and the majority of human beings now living on our planet pay no more attention to a sunset than do the animals at their feet.
We never rightly value anything which happens every day. We cannot appreciate any blessing which we possess all the time, nor do we appreciate anything which we get for nothing. The only things we value highly are the things which we buy at a great cost. We should all enjoy the sunsets more, if we had to pay an admission fee, if some enterprising showman could curtain off the western sky, and, walling in the edge of the world, should advertise in all the papers: “Beautiful Sunsets every evening next week- best seats ten dollars each; seats in the balcony five and four and three dollars according to location; gallery seats one dollar each” what a scramble there would be to get in! We should all want to go, and the ticket-scalpers would do a booming business. We should save up our money for this great treat, and we should ask one another: “How many times do you expect to go? Which sunsets have you seen this season?” just as we now talk about grand opera. Yes; if It only cost something to see the sunset we should be eager to see it. But because an angel of the Lord stands in the glory of the blazing west, crying, “Ho, ye who thirst for beauty,, come ye to the fountain, come, without money and without price,” we turn on our heel and go away. We do not want things which are free.
And so, every evening of the month, thousands and tens of thousands of our people go from their places of business to their homes with never a glance toward the gorgeous west. They hastily eat their dinner. They return down town, paying for a place in the opera house or theatre in order to see the burning of some cheap chemicals, the dexterous manipulation of a searchlight or a few electric bulbs, ingenious tricks played with the mystery of light, cheap and tawdry flashes in a tin-pan when God’s great masterpiece of light and color hangs unnoticed on the western wall of the world.
The purpose of my sermon Is to awaken In you the sense of condemnation, the consciousness of sin because of your neglect of this great feast of the Lord.I would have you think of the sunset as a means of grace. Have you ever counted up the means of grace? How long is your list? What have you included? Public worship? Yes. Bible reading? Yes. Prayer? Yes. Is that all? Have you not put down the sunset? That is a means of grace. By all means, put that down. It is a sacrament. It is the visible sign of an invisible grace. It is a symbol for mediating God’s grace to your heart. Put it down in the list of the means of grace; include it, also, in your list of sacraments. Reckon it a page in -your Bible. It is certainly a word ‘of the Lord.’ It is not a word of man. Man cannot speak after that fashion. There are some things- which God allows man to assist Him in making. If God wants a potato or a turnip, a cucumber or a squash, He allows man to help Him in producing it. If God wants a flower-bed or a lawn He allows man to collaborate with Him. But there are some things in which man can have no part When God makes a sunset He says to man: “Now, please step aside; I want to do all this by Myself. You cannot in any way assist Me. This work is completely beyond you. I, alone, can produce a work like this.”
A father allows his little boy to do many things. He lets him run on this errand and on that. Some things he and the boy work at together. But, finally, the father says: “Now my boy, I must do this all by myself. All you can do is to sit down and watch how I do it,” God alone makes the sunset He allows man to run on many an errand, He collaborates with him in many a task, but when evening comes the heavenly Father says; “Now my child, sit down, and see how beautiful I can make a sunset!”
It is a means of grace, it is a holy sacrament, it is a page of the Bible, and yet many of you turn away from it. I know you are ready with excuses. You say you do not live in the right quarter of the town, or you live on the wrong side of the street, or you live in an unfortunate part of the house. If you lived anywhere else than where you do live, you would look at the sunset every evening! And others of you tell me you cannot see the sunset because of your work. Your work is not over until- after sunset, or you are on your way home at sunset and who can see a sunset in the subway or in our narrow streets? Or you are a woman and you must prepare the dinner when the sun is going down, and if you neglected the dinner in order to see the sunset you would have more clouds in the house than there are in the western sky. I know your excuses. They are all plausible, but not one of them is sound. We are all experts in making excuses. Whenever God prepares a feast and asks us to partake of it, we all, with one consent, begin to make excuse, It is not because of where you live, or because of your work that you see so few sunsets. It is because you do not care for them. They do not appeal to you. They do not increase the sum-total of your joy. You can get on well without them and so you do. But if you wanted to see them you would go out of your way, you would plan, you would sacrifice to see them.
The sun sets at different times in different seasons of the year. You are not always at work, not always in the subway, not always in the kitchen when the sun is going down. If you do not live in a home with a western outlook you could walk to Riverside Drive, or you could walk to the end of the street in which you are living, and stay there long enough to see the sun go down. And If you could not do that on any other evening of the week, you could do it on Sunday evening. You could put down the sunset as one of the features of your Sunday worship. Or, If you could not do this on every Sunday evening, you could make it a habit to devote a half -hour every evening to sunsets during your summer vacation. If you only wanted to see the sunset and believed that it had a blessing to impart, and that your life is impoverished because you see so few sunsets, you would make it possible to see more sunsets this year than you have ever seen before.
Let me suggest a few reasons why you ought to give more attention to the sunset:
In the first place, it is a miracle. Many persons are much troubled by the miracles of the New Testament. They cannot believe them. In the first place they never saw them with their own eyes, and not having seen them, they cannot accept them, and, moreover, the idea of a miracle seems to clash with the scientific conception of universal and unchangeable law. For these two reasons many men and women of culture and high intelligence are loath to give credence to the New Testament accounts of miraculous events. Let me suggest to all such persons that you close your New Testament for a season and look at a miracle performed before your eyes. The day of miracles Is not passed. God will perform one for you if you will open your eyes and look. The sunset is a miracle, according to the New Testament idea of a miracle.
There are four words used in the New Testament for the extraordinary deeds of Jesus. The first is “wonder.” They were called wonders because they excited astonishment in the eyes of all beholders. Men were amazed and dumbfounded by what they saw. Now if a miracle is a phenomenon which arouses amazement then the sunset is a miracle. It will surely stir up astonishment in any mind which dwells upon it. It will amaze anybody who picks it to pieces and finds out how it is made. It is a wonder!
Another New Testament word for miracle is “sign.” A miracle is an event which points to something, it is a token of something, it is a symbol of something, it is a pledge of something, it is an indication of thought and purpose. It points to something beyond itself. Certainly the sunset does that. It is a signboard painted on the flaming highway of the gorgeous west, pointing to God!
A third word is “power.” The things which Jesus did are sometimes called “powers,” that is, they are displays of power. They give the impression of ‘a power at work beyond the strength of man. The sunset fulfills this idea. The sunset is a power, a display of power, running beyond the reach of human faculty. No man can make the sunset, no set of men can make it. Not all the men of all the earth, with all their talent and all their genius, and making use of all the apparatus and machinery which man’s ingenuity has been able to produce, can create the vast and dazzling splendor of a western sky. A sunset is a power. A display of force running beyond the energy of mankind is a miracle.
A fourth word is “work.” Sometimes the New Testament writers call the deeds of Jesus “signs,” sometimes “signs and wonders,” sometimes “signs and wonders and powers,” and sometimes they con-tent themselves with the word ” works.” A miracle is a work a mighty work; and surely the sunset is a work, a mighty work. It Is something achieved, done, brought to pass. A sunset, then, fulfills every condition of a miracle which the New Testament lays down. Look, then,, at this miracle which God Almighty performs every day before, your eyes. It is not done contrary to law. No law is broken by the formation of the clouds, by the coloring of them, by the movement of them. All the vibrations of the ether, the dancing of the dust-particles, the movements of the air-currents, take place according to law, God achieves the sunset through law. A miracle is not a violation of law. No law is said to have been suspended or broken by the men who wrote the New Testament. All the wonderful deeds of our Lord were ‘done through law!
The sunset is a parable. A parable is a verbal picture used in order to set forth a spiritual truth. All our Lord’s parables are pictures. The Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan, The Foolish Virgins, The Sower, Dives and Lazarus what are they all but unfading pictures, hung in the gallery of the mind, not to be taken down for ever? Our Lord loved to speak in parables, and on some days He spoke in no other way. He loves to speak in parables now. One of His favorite parables is the sunset. It is a picture, setting forth a spiritual truth. The fact which it proclaims is that God is a lover of beauty, God is fond of color, God is an artist. There is no parable recorded in the New Testament which makes that fact so vivid and impressive as the parable which God speaks daily in the sky of the west.
The sunset Is a medicine. Shakespeare says that sleep is a balm for hurt minds. So, also, is a sunset. It is soft and tender and beautiful, and that is what we need at the end of the day. In the morning we are courageous and jubilant, but the cares of the day sap our vitality, and we often come to the evening hour with strength depleted and much of our vim and zest gone. Life which was spangled in the morning becomes in the late afternoon a dingy drab, and so God hangs up a beautiful picture to cheer our heart a bit. Just when the beauty is fading out of life, God gives this great splash of color to create hope and joy again. When we begin to stagger under life’s routine and monotony, God sets the western sky on fire to make the world romantic again.
The New Testament says that sometimes Jesus did His most wonderful cures at sunset. It was when the sun was hovering over the horizon, and the poetry of the dusk was stealing into the air, that the people carried out their sick ones and laid them at His feet. It was when the necromancy of the sunset was at its height, that streams of healing flowed from Him into the exhausted veins of men. Every evening He takes His place on His throne in the west, and e’er the sun goes down we should bring out our weakened faith and shadowed hopes and wounded affections, and lay them at His feet, allowing the glory of the sinking sun to shine around about them, and give us health and strength again.
The sunset is a mystery. Did you ever hear a scientist talk about the mechanism of a sunset? You can read all that up some time for yourselves. My sermons are not scientific lectures. They are not scientific expositions, but sermons, their inner purpose being the purpose of all true sermons the moving of the soul toward God. But if you should hear a physicist talk to you about the sunset, he would surprise you by his declarations. He would tell you that the sunset is made of a few gases, a multitude of drops of vapor, millions of particles of dust, and a handful of sunbeams. He would go on to assure you that the gorgeousness of the sunset is due to atmospheric dust. The earth is tied up in a dust-bag. An ocean of dust flows round our planet several miles deep. The dust particles nearer the earth are large and coarse. But as you ascend they become smaller and smaller, until at last they become microscopic, and in the highest regions they are so small that no instrument can detect them. We know of their existence solely from the effects they produce. If it were not for this dust, the sky would not be blue and the sun would not be golden. If it were not for the dust, the sunset would be shorn of its glory.
Why is the sun more beautiful on the horizon than it is above our heads? It is because we see it through more air, and that means we see it through more dust; the more dust the greater scope for reflection and refraction, and the operations of all the other principles by which the potential glories of light are unfolded. The sunsets near great cities are usually red, and this is because of the dust. The red waves are longer and stronger than the yellow and orange rays, and much longer than the green and the blue, so that it is oftentimes only the red waves which shoulder their way through the dust-ocean and succeed in reaching the eye. Why is yonder cloud so gloriously white? It is because of the dust-particles in it. They are reflecting the light. Why are its edges gorgeously crimson or purple? It is because of the dust particles which are refracting the light
What a mystery it is that a thing so resplendently beautiful should be made of vibrations, and dust-particles and the movements of vapor. By reflection and refraction, and radiation and absorption, every dust particle obeying one law, and every vibration obeying another law, and every air-current obeying still another law, this stupendous miracle comes to pass.
A sunset is a revelation of God. It reveals His infinite resources. It lights up for us the idea of infinity. A sunset is one of the most transitory of all creations. It is shorter lived than the flower of the field. In the morning the flower grows up; in the evening it is cut down and withered. But a sunset grows up in the evening and is cut down in the evening. Its entire life covers but a few minutes. You have known a child to draw a picture on a slate, and rub it out, draw another and rub it out, draw still 1 another and rub it out. But he soon gets tired and lays down his slate. God draws a sunset and rubs it out, draws another and rubs it out, another and another and another, and rubs them out He has been doing this for thousands of years, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, mil- lions, ten of millions, possibly hundreds of millions of years, every evening of every week of every month of every year. For hundreds of millions of years a sunset, and no two sunsets alike, “since the morning stars sang together and the sons of God shouted for joy.” I have studied sunsets for many years, and I have never seen two alike. One summer I made a record, day after day, of the features of every sunset, and there was not a reproduction or a repetition in the entire series. In the sunset you are certain to get something new. A sunset is like a romance: you never know how it is coming out. You may have seen five hundred sunsets, and the way they concluded; but you cannot tell what God will do with the sun this evening.
You get, also, in the sunset, a revelation of the character of God’s mind. It reveals to you His intelligence, the aesthetic element of His nature. You all, doubtless, have experimented with oil paintings of the impressionist school. You have gone up close to the painting, and held your eye only four or five inches away. There seemed to be no proportion, no perspective, no beauty, no trace of mind, no hint of intelligence, no indication of a lofty end, nothing but gobs of paint. It seemed as though some boys might have smeared the pigments on the canvas in fun, or as though a dog with his tail drenched in paint might have produced just such effects by wagging his tail against the canvas, or as though the wind, saturated with color might, in blowing over the canvas, have deposited these blotches and scabs. Certainly it gives no evidence of an intelligent and rational soul. But now stand back a little farther, still farther. Ah, now! You are at the right focal distance, and you see that it is a painting, it is a picture, it is a landscape a glorious landscape. There is proportion, perspective, outline in it; there are delicate shadings, exquisite gradations in it; and as you look upon the beautiful creation, you feel you stand face to face with the artist’s soul. Only intelligence, skill, and a soul in love with beauty, could ever have created a work like that.
Stand near to a sunset and what do you see? Examine It through the microscope of science and what have you? Vibrations, dust, aqueous vapor, air-currents. That is, all It seems as though these things might have been swept together by the wind, as though it all might be due to a fortuitous concourse of atoms, as though bits of matter might have fallen into a meaningless hodgepodge. But wait! Stand back! Farther back! Now look at it! A picture! Outlines such as no artist ever sketched; cathedrals, minarets, spires, ancient castles, majestic palaces, towers, domes, more majestic than those of which any architect ever dreamed. And colors oh, what colors! Delicate tints, exquisite hues, artistic shadings, bewitching gradations, combinations of lights and shadows such as never entered into the heart of man to conceive. Ah, this is none other than the work of God the work of the Infinite Artist If Moses took off his sandals in the presence of a burning bush, well may we bow our heads and hearts in the presence of a sky all aflame with God!
Our generation needs the sunset. We need the refining influence of its quiet, unsurpassable beauty. We are growing coarse, civilization is brutalizing the heart. We love the blaze and bang of things. “Let us have a good time,” says one man to another. “What shall we do?” “Let us go to Coney Island.” That would be the answer given by tens of thousands of people in New York. A good time is time spent amid a lot of cheap attractions, the glare of lights, the blare of noise, enjoying things which are of the earth earthy. “Let us have a good time!” “What shall we do? ” “Let us go to a big hotel, and have a fine dinner, where the music is like the music at a circus, and where omen dance all the time you eat.” The heart is becoming benumbed by the deadening influences of modern life. How few people there are who can have a good time by themselves: who can sit enraptured in the presence of the ineffable tenderness and ethereal loveliness of the sky!
We need the sunset for consolation. We need to be comforted. In his famous hymn, Reginald Hebet speaks of a country in which “every prospect pleases and only man is vile.” Yes, Nature is everywhere and always beautiful. Look over a landscape from any hilltop. Beautiful! Stand on the prairie and look toward the horizon. Beautiful! The mountains are beautiful and so are the hills. The rivers are beautiful and so are the lakes. The ocean is beautiful; there is one beauty in the silence of the central sea, and there is another beauty near the shore where the tide beats itself into spray on the rocks, and the spray catches the sunbeams and holds them as if loath to let them go. Look into the heavens at morning, at noon, and at evening nothing but beauty the whole day long! Look again at night. The beauty has changed only in this that it has been raised to a higher power. “Every prospect pleases.” Every view delights the eye. Every look rejoices the heart. “Only man is vile.” It is man who breaks down our faith, darkens our hope, tramples the life out of our love. It is man who makes us doubt the goodness of God. It would be easy to believe in God if it were not for men.
Let us, then, spend more time with Nature. The trouble with us is that we spend too much time with men. We get the daily paper between us and the setting sun. Every evening the streets are filled with newsboys. Everybody wants the last edition. We read it at sunset. Go into the elevated trains everybody is reading the evening edition. Go into the subway, everybody reading. Nobody thinking of the sunset, nobody thinking of God, and so we get feverish and despondent and our hearts are filled with bitter feelings, all because we think too much about men. Let us get God’s evening edition. He publishes an extra every hour of the day, but the evening edition is the best of all. It is the one which He prints in purple and gold. In this one He gives us fresh assurances of His love. It would be well for all of us if we read the newspapers less, and paid more attention to God’s last edition which He flings down to us every evening from the printing presses of the sky.
Let us, then, come back to the idea with which we started. The sunset is a word of God. He gives some things to our mouth, other things He gives to our ears, other things He gives to our eyes. He gives music to our ears. Music is one of the languages of the heart. You cannot remain in a room in which music is being played without your mood being affected. You may be reading, or working, or listening to a conversation, but underneath it all that music will be speaking to your heart, and the currents of your emotional life will be changed. Color is another language of the heart Just as music reaches the heart through the ear so does color reach the heart through the eye. It changes one’s mood. We cannot remain unaltered in the presence of color. Beauty does not allow us to remain what we were. God, through the colors of the western sky will bring us, if we let Him, into the tranquility and sweetness of a Ghostlike mood. Man cannot live by bread alone, but by every word which proceedeth from the mouth of God, and one of His great words is the sunset. “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge. There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard. Their line is out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun.”
“Day is dying in the west;
Heaven is touching earth with
Wait and worship while the night
Sets her evening lamps alight
Through all the sky,”
“Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts!
Heaven and earth are full of Thee;
Heaven and earth are praising Thee,
Lord Most High!”