So that they brought forth the sick into the streets, and laid them on beds and couches…
Our text shows —
I. THE POWER THERE MAY BE IN COMPARATIVE TRIFLES. As a metaphor few figures are more frequently used in the Scriptures than that of the "shadow." Sometimes it is suggestive of blessing, as "the shadow of a great rock in a weary land," or "the shadow of the Almighty"; sometimes the opposite, as "the shadow of death." A shadow! What is more insignificant? Intangible and unsubstantial, is it not the veriest trifle? Yet how solemnly impressive it is.
1. The most irresistible forces of the world in nature are those that we can neither see nor hear. The earthquake's tread makes us tremble, and so does the roar of the hurricane. How appalling the thunder and lightning; but how far inferior are they in either benign or blasting influence to the quieter, subtler force of electricity, gravitation, heat, or light.
2. In science and civilisation the quieter forces have counted most. The grandest discoveries have usually emerged from some by-way of accident. The most thrilling pages of history are but chronicles of events that have nearly all turned on the pivot of some trivial circumstance. Mohammedanism was the product of a spider's web woven behind the fleeing prophet and deceiving his pursuers. The battle of Waterloo was suspended upon the co-operation of Blucher, whose life escaped the enemy's sword by the simple circumstance of wearing the cap of a common soldier, and for the reason that the clasp of his own helmet had broken.
3. Just so it is in religion. Are we not astonished often to find that the little things we say and do tell more radically and widely than some of our most demonstrative actions? Then, too, the very constancy of those trifles tells. Repeated blows of a little hammer may be more effective than the single downfall of the ponderous sledge. The clock strikes at intervals, the ticking is momentary; we hear the one, we do not notice the other; yet the hour stroke comes not if the ticking fails.
II. AS NO SHADOW CAN BE CAST WITHOUT LIGHT, OUR TEXT ILLUSTRATES THE ESSENTIAL PLACE CHRIST HOLDS IN ALL TRUE RELIGION, IN THE WORLD AND IN THE SOUL. If the sun be clouded, or the atmosphere hazy, no distinct shadows can be east. The sun must shine out to make shadows. So the distinctness of shadows of grace indicate the strong or feeble shining of the "Sun of Righteousness."
1. Nationalities like Italy and Russia and South America tell us of "the cloudy and dark day." England and America, on the other hand, bourgeoned with beauty, tell of the sun shining warmly and clearly from a gospel sky.
2. As in the world, so in the soul. Saul of Tarsus, "breathing out threatenings and slaughter," stands in striking contrast with Paul, the singing pilgrim in the dungeon of Philippi, and the same man near martyrdom exclaiming, "I am now ready to be offered up," etc. Whence came the difference? Ah! Christ commenced shining upon him near that Damascene gate, and the light grew brighter and sweeter and clearer every day, so that he shouted, "I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me." Peter and James and John exclaimed on a glory-lit summit, "It is good to be here!" because "Jesus in the midst" was the centre of the glory. Shadows of noble action and happy feeling can come from those only who are wont to bask in the light of "One above the brightness of the sun."
III. EVERY ONE EXERTS AN INFLUENCE, QUIET BUT REAL, UNCONSCIOUS BUT A FACT. Every one casts a shadow. The ghost of Banquo no more persistently refuses to "down at the bidding" of Macbeth than the ghostly shadow of the person or thing on which the sun is falling refuses to disappear. A man may simply stand still in a thoroughfare, he will soon find all eyes upon him, and all excitement about him. Every act, word, look, attitude, is a moral dynamic upon those around us. They are forces with which we are building or destroying. A whisper has often been clothed with the attribute of thunder. Unconsciousness of it is no argument against the fact. Peter was not thinking of the shadow he threw; much less how eagerly the sick sought it. So lasting is the influence that it lingers behind when the living have passed away. "He being dead yet speaketh." "No man liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself." How startling the warning to the worker of wickedness, while the good may take its lessons of perpetual encouragement. "The evil that men do," and the good, too, "lives after them." This is true of great lives; it is equally true of the humblest. The intoning of Niagara can be heard farther away, but the rippling of the rill is just as real and sweeter. Mont Blanc witnesses to Divine power, but not more effectually than the violet tells us of the Divine skill and goodness by its beauty and fragrance. The eagle may soar higher, but the little canary has a sweeter song. As I mark the trivial act of the poor widow dropping her two mites, unconscious that any eye was watching, and then remember what a sermon that lowly act has been preaching to the world from that day to this; then am I ready to express the deep conviction that a shadow of influence beyond conception clings to the most obscure person; and often the humblest act. How this fact shows the dignity and importance of human life, and with what tremendous responsibility it invests it!
IV. THE SOMBRE AND EMPTY CHARACTER OF SOME KINDS OF RELIGION; only a shadow. The shadow is dark and intangible; alas if our religion be "only that and nothing more"! Pity that any should get but a gloomy, and so a false, impression of religion from the representation we give them. It has been said that "every one lives for a funeral"; but can we not wait for the funeral till life is over? Must we see it every day? "We meet such people," says a writer, "every day, and they have always some new distress for us. Their sweetest smile is suggestive of the neuralgia, and their most cordial greeting depresses like an east wind. They go home at night like an undertaker to a funeral, and children cease singing, and wives refrain from smiles. They go abroad in the morning like a Scotch mist from the Highlands, to drizzle discontent in the street and market-place. They enter the house of God to render its songs of praise requiems, and its oil of joy ice water; and their religious light shines before men as heaven's sunshine through stained glass, and the priest at the shrine looks like a variegated ghost, and the reverend worshippers like brindled hobgoblins. A croaking raven is the device on their shields — a coffin with cross-bones the blazon on their banner." Surely such a religious spirit and demeanour argue a wrong idea altogether of God and of truth. Peevish, morose, severe, fault-finding and censorious Christians are guilty, though they may not mean it, of dishonouring their Lord arid defaming the Church by the cheat of a shadow. True religion is sweet as the light, joyous as childhood, and benevolent as love. So the Scriptures represent it, and true hearts have ever felt it.
V. THE REAL BENEVOLENCE AND CHEER THERE IS, OR OUGHT TO BE, IN GENUINE RELIGION. Peter's shadow was eagerly sought by the sick ones or their friends, not because it was a shadow, but because to them it was the symbol of healing and cheer. So on whatever threshold the shadow of a Christian falls, in whatever company he moves, his coming should start a smile of pleasure; a manifest benison should beam in his face. "Good-will to men" was the cradle song over the Saviour, and it should be perpetuated as an echo in the life of every child of God. Heaven, as represented to us, is all joy, and earth should resemble heaven as far as sin and suffering will allow, by the prevalence of an atmosphere of cheerfulness over it. There are those whose presence is like the ripple of water by the wayside, or the shadow of groves on a hot day like an oasis in a vast sandy desert, or the singing of the nightingale in the darkness.
(J. M. McNulty, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Insomuch that they brought forth the sick into the streets, and laid them on beds and couches, that at the least the shadow of Peter passing by might overshadow some of them.