The History of Leith

March 26, 2012

Titanic Sermon

Sermon Preached in South Leith Church, on April 28th, 19i2,
by Rev. William Swan, B.D.
“Those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Sioam fell and slew
them.”—LUKE xiii. 3.
People can usually be trusted to see what is in a line
with their self-interest. What lies beyond, making an
appeal for change of convictions or self-sacrifice, is by no
means so readily considered by the ordinary man. A
Jew could read the signs of the sky because these bore on
comfort or discomfort of a journey. But he could not
see the meaning of the unusual mission of John the
Baptist; he steeled himself against being influenced
by the signs of gracious word and kindly deed which
authenticated the advent of the Messiah. Following
upon a discussion in which Jesus brought out the working
of this principle, two incidents were referred to Him as if
for His opinion to be passed on them. The Jews, like
all other people, eagerly canvassed the meaning of signal
occurrences. With their theory of the divine judgments,
they were in the habit of seeking to elucidate the
crimes, open or secret, which had called them down
While some Galileans were sacrificing in the Temple,
Pilate, moved by some rebelliousness on their part,
mingled their blood with that of the animals they were
offering. Then a tower in Siloam fell, burying in its
ruin eighteen unfortunate folk. Why did such things
happen ? What was the special offence against God that
brought them to pass ? Jesus saw in such lines of
rumination the opportunity for presenting a truer point of
view. ” Think ye that these sufferers were sinners above
all men that dwelt in Jerusalem ? I say unto you : not by
any means.” To expand the compressed thought a little
we may imagine it to be put thus. ” There is no
tremendous difference between them and other people ;
between them and yourselves, for instance. It is really
futile to enquire into such things with a view to apportion5
the exact amount of moral merit or demerit due. A
much more practical thing is to repent You should go
over your own lives to discover where amendment or
change of inward life is needed. Indeed, how could you
face a similar catastrophe?.-‘Except ye repent, ye shall
all likewise perish.” People were so built, Christ taught,
that if only they allowed their consciences to work
unimpeded, their judgments, especially on themselves,
would not only be mainly correct, but also of the utmost
value. Every here and there, the many-volumed history
of mankind has a page torn by the giant hand of a
rude and sudden catastrophe. A great convulsion of
nature occurs, which cannot be anticipated. The earth
trembles and shakes ; or the sea forms itself into a mighty
wave, rolling ruin on some peaceful shore. In such cases
does not man feel that his life has been interfered with as
the colonies of insects might feel, if they were conscious,
while they are exterminated by the heavy tread of his
own casual foot ? Then accidents sometimes happen in
which nature and man unwittingly co-operate. A town
grows up the side of some volcano, tempted by some
advantage in soil or site. The imprisoned giant within
vomits forth the molten lava, and the town, with its
affrighted inhabitants, is embalmed in fire. But other
untoward events take place, in which man is principally
to blame, because he neither keeps adequate watch nor
observes these precautions which he knows nature requires
if he is to escape the dreadful wounds she can
inflict. In such cases man has gained a great victory
over nature ; but whenever he relaxes his vigilance for
a moment, she avenges her defeat. In a railway disaster,
havoc is usually wrought by a mistake with the signalling
apparatus. In the lamentable LOSS OF THE TITANIC,
the greatest steamship in the world, on her maiden
voyage, although we may never be in possession of the
facts which will allow us to speak with certainty, it is
probably true that the unprecedented calamity is due to
the weakness of some important link or links in the long
chain of human agency which controlled the navigation
of the ship. Either the warnings from other vessels that
the ” Titanic ” was about to enter a region packed with
ice were unheeded, or an adequate watch was not set, or
the admonitions of the men in the crow’s nest did not
reach the officer on watch, or they were disregarded by
him,—somewhere among these difficulties the fatal error
is likely to be found. In any case the speed of the
mighty leviathan was much too great for a region secreting
peril everywhere above and below the water line. The
most pathetic thing about the dark event is that, on a
night so favourable for the safe navigation of lifeboats and
small craft, a sufficiency of these was not provided for
every man, woman and child on board. During the past
days, since the news has began to crowd in, every one
listening to me has been forming mental pictures, more
or less vivid, of the awful scene and its dire happenings’
The ocean floor was stretched out in a great level of
calm, with the icebergs as dim mosaics of ghostly white
and shadowy blue. Above and away to the horizon on
all sides the silent stars, twinkling, looked on. The
huge boat, ablaze with light, pushed on its apparently
resistless way. An iceberg looms up, but there is only
time to avoid the shock of the direct impact, and to
receive instead the jarring cut of the knife-edge of ice as
she sheers off. So small does the danger appear to be
that it is said that some few passengers, who happened
to be on the decks, pelted each other with snowballs
made out of the white plumes which the iceberg had shaken
over the doomed craft.” Over two thousand souls were
making the voyage, the great majority of whom must
have retired to rest before the accident took place. Here
and there would be the customary gambling parties, for
the Lord’s day makes no difference to such; here and
there too, we may be sure, would be those who were
rounding off the day of rest by quiet meditation 01 the
Word of God and reverent devotion. On board were all
classes and conditions, from tha multi-millionaire to the
continental emigrant. Keen business men were in the
ship’s company, and leisured folk, anxious to see the
world in comfort if not in luxury. Wives and children
were on their way to rejoin those who had perseveringly
pioneered a way for them. Who knows whether, among
the great crowd of those with an honest and legitimate
interest in life, there may not have been, lost in the press,
some fugitive fleeing from deeds of treachery and sin ?
The officers and crew were a regiment in themselves, and
we who live out our days in a seaport town can easily
picture to ourselves the homes where fond ones would be
thinking of them and praying for them. Not a few
hearts would be proud that those they loved were on the
largest ship in the world, a ship so well planned that she
might be considered invulnerable against the perils of the
deep. How suddenly everything changed, and with
what an incredulously brief warning 1600 people were
plunged into the icy waters of death ! It is well that no
flashlight photograph can be taken or the mental agony
which must have been endured by those who were
awakened from slumbers of perfect security to realise, at
first slowly, and then with the onrushing force of an
avalanche, that there was but a step betwixt them and
death ! Our sympathies are carried on to a point of
agonising keenness as we think of the hurried surveys of
the past that must have been taken,—as we imagine the
spiritual convulsions which resulted either in frenzied
rebellion against high heaven, or in humble repentance
and sincere clinging to the Cross. It all becomes so
vivid to the mind as we think of the threnodies which
sundered love and unavailing regret were playing on
tensely strung human hearts, that we may be certain that
our own moral fibres will be weakened by it unless our
souls are raised to a permanently higher level of life and
aspiration. For the reason why the preacher has
ventured to handle the matter at all is not merely the
sympathy we naturally feel with the bereaved. Neither
is it because of the questions our intense curiosity would
like the dead to answer, if they could be summoned from
the caverns of the deep in which they are crushed. Nor
is it for the reason that we, and others also, might desire
in certain moods, to cavil at the methods of Providence.
It is because this is one of the SHOCKINGLY VAST THINGS
which occasionally happen and startle the mind of man
out of its moral somnulence. ” Except ye repent, ye
shall all likewise perish.” Whatever else it does or does
not mean, all about it urges us to ask where we stand
ourselves—what is our own state of preparation for the
eventualities of life ? In most of the stories of the disaster
it is asserted that the whole ship’s company, including the
captain and officers, had a firm belief in the unsinkablenessofthe
” Titanic.” The embodiment of all that was
best in the naval architecture of the day—the elaborate
contrivance of bulkheads and.the very hugeness of the
vessel, all doubtless contributed to foster this belief.
Nevertheless the Titanic filled and sank in little over two
hours ! Is this not strikingly parallel to the mistaken
belief with which nearly all of us buoy ourselves up as we
go through life ? Not a few trust in their possessions
to a degree which appears unconscionable when the
inexorable laws of the moral life come into action. Does
such an one not say, ” I am rich and increased in goods,
and have need of nothing ?” The sad reality is that such
things, valuable as they are to the living when rightly
employed, are of no avail whatever to the dying. Another
notion, out of which death quickly knocks the bottom, is
that we can create a goodness of our own here in independence
of God—a goodness which He will accept in
that awful moment when we can no longer pretend even
to ourselves that we stand out of relation to Him. Ought
we not rather to cultivate such a frame of mind here that
when we come to die, we shall be able to hand in our
account with joy and not with fear ? Otherwise, depend
upon it, “pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty
spirit before a fall. It is commonly said also, with some
show of authority, that the watch was not doubled, even
although Marconigram warnings had been received from
other ships. If there is any foundation for this rumour,
then it is probably connected with the obsessing idea of
the invulnerability of the mighty craft. Our idea may
have a benumbing influence on others. If an extra watch
had been set, if speed had been appreciably slackened,
the calamity would have been much lowered in its
magnitude. But there is an aspect of our own lives
which suggests that we have little right to throw the
stories of blame at others who cannot return them with due
interest. The admonitions of parents and friends, the
suggestions of books read and sermons heard, the prayers
of those who love us, the still small voice of conscience
itself—all may be neglected. There are very few moral
disasters, such as vex and grieve tender hearts, which
might not have been turned aside, if only those who
have made shipwreck of their faith had given earnest
heed to the danger signals displayed to them. Be
warned, O unthinking one, in time ! We hear also, with
a strange feeling, that many, even when pressed to do so,
would not leave the ship in the boats. Either they
thought the small craft too frail, or they believed that
relieving vessels were bound to arrive before the Titanic
took her final plunge. I take it that this is an apt commentary
on the position of quite a number among us who
cannot bring themselves to believe that such an impalpable
thing as the Gospel can do anything for them
amongst the difficulties of life. Yet those who will put it
honestly to the test will find that the Gospel is the
“power of God unto salvation.” It is marvellous, in all
the reports which have reached us, to find, how LITTLE
beneath the very shadow of death. Not much
shooting of the unmanly is mentioned, and only a few
Chinamen meanly hid in the bottom of the boats. But
what of ourselves ? Are we so brave in face even of
lesser dangers? How do we bear up under trial and
disappointment? When money is lost, when work is
scarce, how do we comfort ourselves? If we do not
acquit ourselves as \ve should in face of many of the
ordinary distresses of life, how about our bearing when
we deal with the greater ? Ought we not, as we never
have done, to wait on the Lord, that we may be of good
courage, so that He may strengthen our feeble and
vacillating hearts? All signal calamities display some
men in an unwonted light. This forms no exception.
Many on the vessel, and on the lifeboats and rafts,
resorted to prayer, to the language of which they had
been strangers for years. We may be tempted to despise
them. But what would be the behaviour of many among
us, prayerless now, in extreme anxiety ? The incident is
one more spontaneous and uncalculated testimony to the
fact that religion is natural to the bosom of man, however
much, in days of carelessness and ease, we may neglect
the instinct. Surely we should pray without ceasing ;
it is imperative* for us, if we are not to fall into the
same condemnation, that we cultivate the habit of prayer.
“Men ought always to pray and not to faint.” Above
the turbid level of misery and despair there rise happenings
which send a thrill of exultant pride through the human
hrart. They represent the high-water mark of sentiment
and resolve. Many who wrought deeds of self-sacrifice
and helpfulness—all bootless, alas, for those for whom
they attempted them—must have gone, without the praise
of the world, to their account. Their names will be
written in heaven. But one rejoices to think that there
were rich and powerful men who might have fought or
bribed their way to a new lease of life who denied themselves
for the sake of the women and children. Queen
Elizabeth would have given millions of money for a
moment of life—they might, it is conceivable—have
accomplished the transaction. They counted not their
lives dear to them. They, too, have laid up treasure in
heaven. There is something more precious than gold.
Love demands different sacrifices in varying circumstances.
One wife had to leave her husband because there were
children ashore to be thought of; another, not so bound,
would not be divided in death from him whom she loved.
If these things add a halo of glory to human affection,
helping us to value the treasure while we have it, they
all act as indices which raise our hearts to the true source
of love ; they bid us link ourselves on to the heart of
God. Then we shall know how triumphantly real was
the glow of feeling which prompted the Apostle to say,
“Who shall separate us from the love of God? Shall
tribulation or distress, or persecution or famine or nakedness
or peril or sword ? . . . Nay in all these things**
we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us.
For I am persuaded that neither life nor death, nor
angles, nor principalities, nor powers, nor height, nor
depth (how7 vividly significant the words in this connection
!) nor any other creature, shall be able to separate
us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our
The survivors are unanimous in their praise of the
discipline and self-forgetf illness of those who manned the
ill-fated ship. It is what we have come to expect of
British sailors. This is one of the noblest products of
discipline—one that forms an excellent preparative for
obedience to the great Captain of our Salvation. One
may say that it will be well for us if we immediately put
ourselves under training to Him. So shall every vagrant
thought and every wandering desire be brought into
captivity to His blessed obedience. Who can possibly
tell of what untold value such a daily training may be for
us in the tmfathomed crisis of life we may yet be called
upon to pass through ? Only so dare we venture that we
shall endure hardness, with quietness, as good soldiers of
Jesus Christ. There were men on board who gavs themselves
to the ministry of music. Oftentimes their labours
had been to wile the weary hours away—theirs to cheer
and enliven more than to comfort or inspire. But in the
last dread moments, when the mighty vessel was slowly
poising herself for her ominous dive into the depths, these
men were lifted to the very height of their art. On the
eternal marge they sank their own hearts in the comforting
of their brethren, and played a well-known tune
which goes with the words, ” Nearer my God to thee.”
Many a fearful breaking heart, doubtless, ” turned again
home” to the Father, wafted by the solemn sounds.
Near they were to God, now they are face to face. Have
the words of the Man of Sorrows any echo in our hearts ?
We are not yet quite obdurate in our hearts against Him
who said, in circumstances similar, ” except ye repent ye
shall all likewise perish.” Then to-day we will not
harden our hearts, as we may have done in other days.
We shall return unto the Lord our God.

source-South Leith Magazine 1912

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