Today’s post is taken from a funeral sermon by the Rev. Charles Herr, in memory of the Rev. Charles Kisselman Imbrie [1814-1891]. In looking for a sermon that fell on this particular day, this what what was at hand.
I dare say probably none of us have ever heard of Rev. Imbrie. So this sermon affords an interesting exercise: Can we read this sermon without seeing it as hagiographic? Can we read it for the lessons that the pastor presents from the Scripture text, without being distracted by personal references to a man we never knew? And can we read it in personal application, looking to our selves and asking “Has Christ done a similar work in my life?”
Funerals, and funeral sermons, are at once a particularly difficult aspect of any pastor’s ministry and a uniquely powerful opportunity to speak to the most challenging issues of human existence. Nothing can be more important than our standing before a righteous and holy God—whether we are in right relation to Him. And it is death that brings each of us inevitably to face that trial.
At right: Photograph of the Rev. Charles K. Imbrie, from the frontispiece for In Memoriam: Rev. Charles Kisselman Imbrie, D.D. (1891).
Sermon, preached in the First Presbyterian Church, Jersey City, on Sunday evening, November 22, 1891, by the Pastor, the Rev. Charles Herr, in memory of the Rev. Charles Kisselman Imbrie, born on December 15, 1814, died on November 20, 1891.
Before his translation he had this testimony, that he pleased God.— Heb. xi. 5.
A long drive from Geneva of flat, tame miles ends before the towering majesty of Mont Blanc. It is somewhat of a dull road through the genealogical records of Genesis, but when you come to Enoch the road sweeps up into the hills. It is a weary stretch of nobodyism, but at last you meet a man, a monarch, Enoch, of whom it is on record that he walked with God, and for a reward God took him— took him into heaven without the dark process of death. Magnificent man ! Magnificent finish !
It is proper and necessary for us to talk together to-night a little, though very inadequately indeed, of Dr. Imbrie whom we have lost. In truth we cannot keep our minds away from him. We talk of him, because the glory and the sadness absorb all our thoughts. And we do not anticipate anything which will be said at the funeral ceremonies to-morrow, because our feelings are such as no one else, having other relations with Dr. Imbrie, can utter.
In thinking of some starting-place for our thoughts, it seemed to me that there was hardly a more adequately suggestive personage than this Enoch, seventh from Adam, who so early in biblical history reached a point of renown in godliness. As we look at the details of his sparse record, we shall find that they admirably prompt the recollection of the dominant characteristics of our Pastor Emeritus.
1. Enoch pleased God by seeking His heavenly companionship, by finding his happiness in God’s communion. The Genesis record reports him as one who walked with God, which signifies a very intimate, reverent and confidential intercourse.
And when we remember the times in which Enoch lived, that seems a wonderful thing indeed. He lived in the world that Cain had made, the world that was the offspring of selfishness and murder. The religion which controlled men’s actions was one which disowned the claims of God in righteousness. It confessed no sin and guilt. It refused to worship. It laughed at the words of the Almighty. It was an age when the evil thoughts of men’s hearts were far developed toward that height of wickedness which brought on the o’ersweeping flood in the days of Noah, Enoch’s great-grandson. A constituent part of the civilization of that day was a city, the stronghold in ungodly times of luxury and materialism. There were manufactures, the art of man was cultivated to the production of every possible comfort, ingenuity was taxed in ever-new devices to create what might make the world, out of which God had been rejected, bearable to man. It is truly wonderful that at such an early time and in such hard and uncongenial circumstances, Enoch walked with God. Original, peculiar, brave to oppose the religious negations of his fel- low-men, and turning his back with firm self-denial upon their ungodly lusts and luxuries, he walked with God. He is the one point of light in a black expanse.
I am sure we will all agree that it was eminently true of Dr. Imbrie thathe walked with God. His conversation was habitually and deeply with our heavenly Father.
He carried the proof of it upon his face and in his utterance. He did not try to prove it. He did not need to tell any one that he was a man of God. It proved itself. He had the Christ-spirit, the Christ- light, the Christ-speech. It was not peculiar that Moses’ face should shine with the reflection of Divine glory when he came down from the communion of the mount. Every man of God will carry the marks of the ethereal converse upon his face. No servant of the Most High ever had those marks more distinctly, more beautifully, imprinted upon his countenance than Dr. Imbrie. I suppose that he must always have been a very handsome man, of open face and clear fine features. But we know him best for something different from that and deeper than that. He had that which is not natural beauty, and which can make even plainness beautiful,— the outward signals of an inner life lived in the presence of God, lived under His smile, lived under the illumination of His grace.
And this was evident in all his action. The holiest and loveliest graces were the easy and natural features of his daily walk. There were no second-thoughts about him ; he did not need any. The first thought was always the Christ-thought, the heavenly thought. His talk never had need to be revised for any reason of spiritual inadequacy or moral lack. It was always in angelic vein. It was always the talk of a man who kept continuous company with our blessed Lord, and whose lips never for an instant dropped the continuity of their holy habit.
Perhaps no mark of his walk with God was more impressive to us than his prayers at our mid-week gathering. They were always so prompt, so helpful, so heavenly. They bore us all up so confidently, so joyfully to God. They so uttered our unutterable thoughts. They exhibited and interpreted to us the strange and fugitive sensations of our hearts with such ease of saintly power. His prayers were a sublime evidence of his reverent, yet childlike and confident familiarity with God. Their flow, their unlabored elevation, their sweet and even naturalness, their wondrous spirituality, and that amazing quality by which the delicatest thoughts were fixed and the most vanishing feelings caught and uttered in accumulating flow and splendor ; these things showed us, as few things could, that he lived in an attitude of prayer, that his life was spent in God’s presence.
2. Enoch pleased God by the witness which he faithfully bore for Him, for the integrity of his truth against the falsehoods of unrighteous men. Though we have no record of this in Genesis, we can easily understand that his life would necessarily be of this sort. Living a rare saint of God in the midst of a wicked world, his very life would be a testimony. He must have been a martyr in every sense, a witness to the truth and a sufferer for it. We cannot believe that a character of his exceptional sort could have escaped the contumely and enmity of men, who did not even need words to condemn them while his life stood forth in silent but complete accusation. But the apostle Jude has preserved something for us out of the dying testimonies of tradition, which shows that Enoch’s life was not without its vigorous spoken protest against the wickedness of the world. “ Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied, saying, Behold the Lord cometh among His holy myriads to execute judgment upon all, and to convict all the impious concerning all their works of impiety which they impiously did, and concerning all the hard things which impious sinners spoke against Him.”
Dr. Imbrie was every way a witness for God, by life, by act, by word. He was profoundly learned in the Scriptures. I think he could be called a scientific theologian, a man who knew the testimonies of the word of God and was able to bring them together into a consistent and harmonious scheme. There are not many men in our country who can so amply justify that designation.
In all the large and burning questions that came before the Presbyterian Church he was a ready, faithful, courageous and splendidly intelligent witness for the truth of God, as he understood it. And he understood it in the old way, the way made glorious by the singing feet of the generations which echo to us from the past. The struggle connected with the proposed revision of the Confession of Faith saddened his heart deeply, and I somehow feel that he would not have found out how to adjust himself with repose of heart in the new conditions which now seem likely to come to pass. He was a redoubtable antagonist. Those who came forward from time to time with raw ideas and radical departures and sudden enthusiasms of revolution met in him an unconquerable foeman and found their propositions overwhelmed with the condemning testimony of scripture.
He was with us at communion seasons (and perhaps there we shall miss him most), and talked to us so winningly of the love of Christ, and ministered to our fainting souls the comfortable encouragements of Divine grace. He was with us at our prayer-meetings, and spoke upon all the varied subjects which come before us in the round of the year. His address was the glorious feature of the occasion, that for which our souls waited as (or their food. He was with us at protracted meetings, when the duties of the unworldly life in their multitudinous forms of expression,—the obligation and wisdom of early profession, the sinfulness of sin, the misery and despair of the ungodly life, the responsibility and privilege of responding to the redeeming love of God, the deceitful persuasions of Satan,—were declared by him with exceptional and pressing emphasis, with stirring freshness and power. His facility in all these things, his supreme adequacy for every occasion, was the mark of a great and faithful witness for God.
3. Enoch pleased God by his faith. This is asserted in the Epistle to the Hebrews as the explanation of his godly walk. “By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death ; and was not found because he had translated him : for before his translation he had this testimony that he pleased God. But without faith it is impossible to please Him ; for he that cometh to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him.”
Dr. Imbrie believed that God is. He believed it with all his soul. He knew it. To him it was the truest of truths. It was more real to him than anything else in the wide universe.
And he grasped it as a truth that has meaning—a truth to live by. It was not an intellectual tenet; it was a life-faith. He accepted all that it entailed. It involved him in relations of love and duty which he entered into with sincere joy, into which he threw himself with abandonment of soul. This is the only belief in God’s existence which has value and virtue. With so many men that truth, though accepted, lies bedridden in the dormitory of the soul. It does not go like an arrow into their consciences ; it does not plough up their hearts like a coulter ; it does not shake them with its magnificent significance. With Dr. Imbrie it had all these pure and stirring effects. He saw what it meant that God is. He saw that it required the response of his adoration, his obedience, his love. And he gave them with gladness and without reserve.
He digged deep into this truth of truths. He felt it so fully and so intelligently that he became not merely a servant of God, but a son. The utmost that a large number of Christians realize in their religious experience is just that they are pardoned criminals. But Dr. Imbrie entered into the higher and sweeter relationship. He took God’s word for his adoption into the heavenly family, he under-stood the testimony of the Holy Spirit in his soul, and gave convincing evidence of his faith by acting out in all his life the spirit of a son. He was sweetly constrained to all happiness of temper and all gladness of service by the fact that he was an accepted and beloved child of the Heavenly Father. In his heart sprung up and lived the graces that belong to that relationship—confidence, serenity, love, courage, assurance.
And he believed that God rewards those who diligently seek Him. This is evident, because he devoted himself to the attainment of those rewards, and those only. He wanted nothing except what came from the hand of God. That which supported him in the patience and joyfulness of his daily walk, that which inspired his unrequired yet uninterrupted faithfulness in the service of this Church, that which fortified his exhaustless activity in every direction of usefulness, was not the hope of reward from men, not even their good opinion or their grateful word. Before the face of his unseen master he lived ; for Him he did all this; to Him alone he stood or fell.
The wholesome and serene sweetness of his mind amid many cares and trials shows to what comforts his heart was turned. No one would ever have judged from his words or manner that he had quite the full measure of human griefs and burdens, if indeed he had not a little more than the common share. The pain and loneliness that came to him from his wife’s death only six months ago were absolutely undiscoverable to any except those to whom he was willing to utter them in words. I have never known any one who could more thoroughly make his own the declaration of the Apostle Paul: “ None of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God.”
And how has Dr. Imbrie been rewarded ?
I. By blessedness here.
He pleased God—and behold the consequences in his revered and beautiful life—“ honor, love, obedience, troops of friends.” A face upon which were written the peace and grace of the Saviour. Lips which moved with delight to the motive of this ancient German hymn, which was his favorite :
Fairest Lord Jesus ! Ruler of all nature !
O Thou, of God and Man the Son !
Thee will I cherish, Thee will I honor,
Thee, my soul’s glory, joy and crown.
Fair are the meadows, fairer still the woodlands,
Robed in the blooming garb of Spring :
Jesus is fairer, Jesus is purer,
Who makes the woful heart to sing.
Fair is the sunshine, fairer still the moonlight,
And all the twinkling starry host;
Jesus shines brighter, Jesus shines purer,
Than all the angels heaven can boast.
And above all, he had the sweet heart, glad in the inward testimony that he pleased God and having secret springs of heavenly joy and satisfaction.
Such are some of the rewards that God bestows in this world. Is anything else to be named beside them ? Is anything else desirable without them ? Can riches compare with the rewards of God’s favor ? Dr. Imbrie never wanted anything, for he was a child of the Father ; but he never was rich. He did not need to be. No man needs to be. Avaunt the despicable materialism which weighs men by their purses and strives for wealth as the chief good ! The greatest thing in the world is to be a Christlike man, a God-inhabited soul.
2. Then God rewarded him with death. Strange reward, say you ? Oh, no !
Enoch was not—for God took him. His translation was supernatural. But many saints die not much dissimilarly. Dr. Imbrie’s death was such. It was just as little to him as translation was to Enoch. His death-bed was a sublime spectacle of faith. I suppose that most of us, if we should undertake to imagine an ideal picture of a believer’s closing hours, would illustrate them with expressions of confidence and hope, with triumphant utterances of fearlessness, with emotional testimonies and rapt prayers of faith. But though he had clearness and vigor of faculty, there was quiet in Dr. Imbrie’s room. No audible prayer; no last messages of warning or appeal ; no ejaculations of high confidence broke the tender hush. He had left nothing undone or unsaid in his holy life that needed fuller witness from his death-bed. His faith did not need to encourage itself with outward asseveration. Perfect self-control, self-restraint, rest, peace.
3. Last of all, best of all, fulfillment of all, heaven ! As the gray line of light on the morning sky is the pledge of the shining sun and the risen day, as the blade above the soil is the earnest of the waving corn-field and the plentiful granary, so are these first rewards of service here the foretokens and prelibations of eternal joys. We know that our beloved Pastor and friend inherits the precious promises of God in the Scriptures.
They are before the throne of God and serve Him day and night in His temple. And the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.