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God: "I looked for someone to take a stand for me, and stand in the gap" (Ezekiel 22:30)

Luke 1:44 - Life Begins at Conception.

Trumpet Of The Morn

My text is taken from the gospel according to Mark in chapter 14 and verse sixty-eight.

“And he went out into the porch and the cock crew.”

There are not many cities in the heart of which you may suddenly hear the crowing of a cock. That is one sound I can assure you which is not likely to arouse the guests in any one of Washington’s downtown hotels. One will never hear it in Times Square, nor at Broad and Market in Newark, nor on Peachtree at Five Points in Atlanta, nor along Michigan Boulevard in Chicago, or Wiltshire in Los Angeles, and nor even at Woodward and Michigan.

And yet even to this very day, you may hear it in Jerusalem, because Jerusalem is different. One who was visiting the holy city was enjoying the quiet of his room, when suddenly the silence was pierced by the shrill crowing of a cock. And he immediately thought of a man named Peter for whom the trumpet of the dawn opened the floodgates of memory.

What would it do for some lonely homesick young woman in any of our great cities, in yours or mine, if before the city had yawned itself into action, she were to hear the familiar bugle of the barnyard? In a tide of sudden nostalgia, she would be back home again on the plains of Kansas, among the red barns of a farm in Ohio, or the green hills of Pennsylvania. There is many a young man in the city, bright like night in the daytime, his pulse is racing with the throb of jungle drums and the moan of the saxophone, intoxicated with the lure of the city and in strong temptation, who could be saved were he to hear once again on the heavy night air the lowing of homeward-driven cattle and the calls of the old farmyard.

It is in mysterious and different ways that God calls to men, in mysterious and different ways that he comes to the rescue. He has a hundred ways of plucking at a man’s sleeve. He nudges some, others he taps on the shoulder, to some he comes in music, to some in a picture, to others in a story, or a chance meeting on the street – all of these are used by God who keeps watch over his own.

Last St. Andrew’s Day, a date all Scotsmen remember, I attended the annual banquet of the Baltimore Society and had an emotional experience I shall not soon forget. The Irish flood to Shamrock in March, and the English remembers St. George and the Dragon in June, but to the Scot, the 30th of November is one time when he throws aside his accustomed modesty and forgets that he has always been outnumbered by the English eight to one, for this night is his own.

It is the night of the tartan and the haggis, the night for thoughts of home, a night for memories. The hotel was filled with bagpipe music; the skirl of the pipes indescribably thrilling to the Scot came dancing into every conversation and must have made them wonder who had no Scots blood. There was a full pipe band from York, Pennsylvania, and a good one it was. And there were the old Scottish songs and the Doric, the broad Scots tongue, soft, and kindly, and warm, and there were the kilts and the Glengarrys the Balmorals and the red honest faces of the sons of the land of the mountain and the mist.

My, what memories came back as the drumsticks twirled above the bass drum, and the kettle drums rolled, and our feet tapped out the time to Conquer the North, the Forty Twa, and Highland Laddie. And in memory I saw a battalion of the gardens swinging down from Edinburgh castle onto Princes Street when I was last in Scotland in ’37, the pipes skirling, the kilts swinging with the pride that only Scotsmen can fully know. And I thought of the 51st division left that St. Valerie to cover the retreat to Dunkirk, and their replacements at El Alamein going through the German minefields to the blood-tingling call of the bagpipes, and I thought of home of long ago, and choked back many a lump in my throat.

We sang the old songs, the songs my mother sang, and many an eye was misty. We didn’t say very much because words were useless. We just diverted our eyes and blinked a bit and swallowed hard. Memories, how they come surging back into the heart to make it clean again or to accuse it. To the Scot they will always return to the strains of the pipes.

To some it is in music or in song, to others in the picture or the face of a friend, but to Simon Peter it came in the crowing of a cock. He had followed the master all the way down from the garden on the hill, not too close, for he was still smarting under Christ’s rebuke, the sudden stab with his long dagger, his impulsive gesture of protection that wounded Malchus had been rebuked. Now there was shame, and bewilderment, and with dazed uncomprehending eyes he had watched them tie Christ with ropes, and Peter’s fists clenched, and his knuckles were white, and the veins stood out in his forehead.

They moved down the twisting trail, the swinging lanterns leading the way like giant fireflies among the trees, and the slinking Judas at the head. Not until they were almost out of sight did Peter move, then to stumble blindly after them, twigs lashing his face, his brain in a whirl and all hell raging in his heart. Still some distance behind, he followed them to the high priest’s palace, going in through the gate with John, under the suspicious scrutiny of a servant girl who admitted them and who asked as they brushed past, “Art thou also one of this man’s disciples?” and Peter abruptly and roughly answered, “No I’m not” so that John looked at him strangely, wondering, but said nothing.

Christ, they had already taken to the high priest. Peter wandered over to a brazier of coals placed in the courtyard for the night was cold the breezes that tugged at his robes seemed honed on the snow-capped crags of the towering mountains. He joined the group at the fire and warmed himself at the friendly glow of the coals. There were soldiers in the group, temple guards, and palace servants, who had laid aside their brooms and hung up their keys to take spears and swords to arrest the Nazarene. Their laughter, like their humor, was coarse.

Peter was not paying very much attention however to their conversation, staring with unseeing eyes into the flickering flames, until one of the soldiers nudged him and said, “Thou also art one of them?” It was a question as much as a challenge, but Peter said, “no I’m not.” The minutes dragged slowly by. There was nothing to do but wait, wait for something to happen. What was keeping them so long with Jesus? The group around the fire did not, could not know. It was difficult to get witnesses to agree. Sleepless men with tempers raw and irritated were trying to find some reason that they could submit to Pilate that would justify their demands for the death of Jesus.

But in the courtyard, they did not know, they could only wait. Then a soldier who had just come out of the palace joined the group around the fire. As he greeted his friends in the circle, his eyes fell on Peter. He looked him over very carefully, and Peter feeling the scrutiny of the newcomer, looked round as the soldier asked, “did not I see thee in the garden with him”? Jerking his head in the direction of the palace, and another man chimed in, “why certainly he must be one of the Galileans, his speech betrayeth him – listen to his accent” and the soldier stubbornly went on, “I’m sure I saw him in the garden for my kinsmen Malchus you know was wounded by one of them who drew a sword, and if I’m not mistaken it was this very fellow”.

And then Peter began to bluster. He denied; he used language he had not used for three years. It was vile language. He shouted, “I tell you, I know not the man!” Why they were shocked at his vehemence. They looked at him in amazement, but it was his face that startled them because it was livid, it was distorted; his eyes were blazing, and his mouth was snarling like a cornered animal. There was a shocked silence, a silence so intense that the crowing of a distant cock somewhere sounded like a bugle call.

And immediately Peter remembered Christ’s prophecy: “Before the cock crows twice, thou shalt deny me thrice.” He caught his breath, his face flushed, hot tears came to his eyes. He turned away from the fire and through the mist of tears he saw ahead, some movement on the stairs that led to Pilate’s palace, or it was just at that moment that Christ was being led from the high priest to appear before Pilate. The Lord had heard. He had heard every heart-searing word: he had heard every blistering denial, the foul, filthy fisherman’s oaths, he had heard them all. Christ paused on the stairs. He looked down over the rail, looked right into the eyes of Peter, and the eyes of these two met. But Peter could not look; his tears overflowed and with a mighty sob he turned and ran out under the porch. With great sobs shaking his strong frame, his heart broken within him, the bite of the morning air fanned his cheek.

And in the stillness of the early morning, he heard the crying of the cock. What memories it summoned to him in that bitter hour. He thought long, long thoughts of his highland home in Galilee. Once again he heard a voice that first had said to him, “come after me fishermen and I’ll teach you how to fish for men.” And the last thing that same voice had said was, “before the cock crows twice thou shalt deny me thrice.” Well, the cock had crowed twice. That had been the first time, the time of warning, the time for memory to hold him back, but now he had blundered on, and the second time he remembered too late. He had denied three times. The saving memory had come too late.

Perhaps we have never done justice to that cock crow. Clearer than a Roman bugle it came to Peter, but he did not heed. How could he have forgotten so soon? Of course, there was a tumult within him. He was caught in the toils of passion; a blind rage was in the saddle. Disappointment was eating his soul away; shame and remorse were in a tug of war with resentment and pride. All of heaven was in his sobbing prayer and all of hell was in his heart.

He stood on the porch, the threshold of another life that might have led to an end like that of Judas – at the end of a dangling rope. He was in the vestibule of desperation. Stung by memories, haunted by hopes that once it seemed so possible. And then the bird of dawning spoke, heralding the arrival of a new day. It was a new day, a day of new hope for Peter, for he remembered that the voice that said, “before the crows twice thou shalt deny me thrice” had also said “but I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not.” There was hope then, he was not lost, all was not gone. And he turned back from the porch.

Oh, if only we could speak to the men and the women standing in the porches of life today. For it is in the porch that danger lies. There is a temptation to turn our backs on the past forever. The uppermost thought may be to get away from it all, to dismiss with a gesture of futility the dream that has haunted us as too lovely ever to come true, far too impractical for us hard-boiled realists. There are many in every city, facing this dangerous hour, standing somewhere in the porch. There are many obstacles that seem to loom up in the path of some who, deep down in their hearts who really want to have a satisfying Christian life and Christian experience.

Some find the church of today unattractive, insipid, ineffective. They are the persons who are keenly aware of the needs of the hour in the social order, a structure that is all out of joint with so much to be done, so much need, so much real distress all around us: juvenile delinquency, malnutrition, crime, sordid living, suffering, bad housing conditions, economic tensions, race bigotries, all these crying out for attention, but the church is rich and comfortable, drowning out the mourning of human derelicts with the hollow music of their praise. Some of them are tempted to turn their backs on the church altogether and go from this porch of real concern into some desperate action without the church at all. In all sympathy, and sharing the impatience that consumes them, I am constrained to plead with them; a church is more easily improved from within than from without.

And there are others on the porch, tempted by the social standards of the pagan city, to conclude that somehow the church is out of step and that the joys of life are to be found elsewhere than in the narrow interpretations of morality in traditional religion. The social customs of our day that pay conventional tribute to religion, but like the fire and the heartthrob of a vital experience, attract many a young man and woman. It is easy, oh it is so easy, to mistake the bright lights and the laughter for happiness. It is so easy to make compromises that purchase a few hours of delight at the cost of a sleepless night and a pillow wet with tears. You may be standing on such a porch even now. Will you listen to the crowing of the cock? Do not turn your back on your heritage, do not repudiate the great name you bear.

Christ has said, “and ye shall be witnesses unto me, ye are witnesses of these things.” You are a witness you see, whether you realize it or not, you are witnessing to something. But to what are you witnessing, that is the important thing. Come and give us the advice and the help and the support of your sympathy. God knows, and he knows the hearts of us all. We want to do his will; we want to do the work he is calling us to do. And if you see it clearly what we ought to do, then come and share your vision with us. We only need to know what we should do, what we can do, and how we can do it.

There are mysteries here of course. In the church there are a great many things we cannot explain. Religious experience cannot always be poured into the cold, unsympathetic molds of speech. You cannot always give feet to the experiences that lie deepest in your heart, they cannot walk into the home of another, they cannot express themselves to the heart of another. There are things that we simply cannot explain. But do not be afraid of mysteries, how God could come into human life in the form of a man – we do not know. We cannot explain. I know not how that Bethlehem’s babe could in the Godhead be. “I only know the manger child has brought God’s life to me. I know not how that Calvary’s cross, a world from sin could free. I only know its matchless love has brought God’s love to me.”

Now while you may beware of the man who tries to explain everything, we must also beware of the man who insists upon having everything explained. There are difficulties in the way, yes, we must honestly confess it. We are not yet matching our faith with our works. We are not doing all we could do. Our greatest difficulty lies not in knowing what is God’s will for our lives, but rather in being willing to do it. That’s my difficulty – is it not yours also? My problems with the Bible are not with the passages that I do not understand, my problems lie with the passages that I understand all too well, the passages that are so clear as to admit of no misunderstanding – there is where my problem lies because they present a way of life, a way of thought, and a way of action that is so clear and so unequivocable that I dare not evade it. But my problem lies in being willing to do what it says – is not that your problem?

So let no one linger on the porch. “You will deny me,” said Jesus to his self-assured disciple, but he promised him that he would hear the bird of dawning crow. And when a man hears that, he cannot linger on the porch; whatever misgivings, or suspicions, or doubts may be tempting your soul now, listen for the call that will summon you back to faith and hope and service.

And the cock crew and Peter remembered. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if today the cock would crow for you and you too would remember not only the vows you once made, but the promises Christ has made to you. And with the return of these memories, there could be the beginning of a new life! And this would be a new day, the day that would usher in a new fellowship with God through Christ, a new dedication of life and heart, a new joy and peace such as you have never known before. It could be today. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if tonight, when you laid you down to sleep, you could thank God that your life began today.

If the has cock has crowed for you, you cannot stay in the porch. Why not stand beside the people who are on Christ’s side, that together, you and we, as people of faith and hope, may face the new day that is dawning, and by God’s help be ready. Watch therefore, for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, whether at even’ or at midnight, or at cock crow.

Let us pray.

And thou may almighty God, in his mercy and in his love, bless us and all who are near and dear to us in our work by day and in our homes by night, and keep us all in his peace through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

  • Message preached by Dr Peter Marshall