Transcribed by David Price, email firstname.lastname@example.org
SERMONS ON NATIONAL SUBJECTS
I—THE KING OF THE EARTH
FIRST SUNDAY IN ADVENT. [Preached in 1849.]
Behold, thy King cometh unto thee.—MATTHEW xxi. 4.
This Sunday is the first of the four Sundays in Advent. During those four Sundays, our forefathers have advised us to think seriously of the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ—not that we should neglect to think of it at all times. As some of you know, I have preached to you about it often lately. Perhaps before the end of Advent you will all of you, more or less, understand what all that I have said about the cholera, and public distress, and the sins of this nation, and the sins of the labouring people has to do with the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. But I intend, especially in my next four sermons, to speak my whole mind to you about this matter as far as God has shown it to me; taking the Collect, Epistle, and Gospels, for each Sunday in Advent, and explaining them. I am sure I cannot do better; for the more I see of those Collects, Epistles, and Gospels, and the way in which they are arranged, the more I am astonished and delighted at the wisdom with which they are chosen, the wise order in which they follow each other, and fit into each other. It is very fit, too, that we should think of our Lord's coming at this season of the year above all others; because it is the hardest season—the season of most want, and misery, and discontent, when wages are low, and work is scarce, and fuel is dear, and frosts are bitter, and farmers and tradesmen, and gentlemen, too, are at their wits' end to square their accounts, and pay their way. Then is the time that the evils of society come home to us—that our sins, and our sorrows, which, after all, are the punishment of our sins, stare us in the face. Then is the time, if ever, for men's hearts to cry out for a Saviour, who will deliver them out of their miseries and their sins; for a Heavenly King who will rule them in righteousness, and do justice and judgment on the earth, and see that those who are in need and necessity have right; for a Heavenly Counsellor who will guide them into all truth—who will teach them what they are, and whither they are going, and what the Lord requires of them. I say the hard days of winter are a fit time to turn men's hearts to Christ their King—the fittest of all times for a clergyman to get up in his pulpit, as I do now, and tell his people, as I tell you, that Jesus Christ your King has not forgotten you—that He is coming speedily to judge the world, and execute justice and judgment for the meek of the earth.
Now do not be in a hurry, and fancy from what I have just said, that I am one of those who think the end of the world is at hand. It may be, for aught I know. "Of that day and that hour knoweth no man, not even the angels of God, nor the Son, but the Father only." If you wish for my own opinion, I believe that what people commonly call the end of the world, that is, the end of the earth and of mankind on it, is not at hand at all. As far as I can judge from Scripture, and from the history of all nations, the earth is yet young, and mankind in its infancy. Five thousand years hence, our descendants may be looking back on us as foolish barbarians, in comparison with what they know: just as we look back upon the ignorance of people a thousand years ago. And yet I believe that the end of this world, in the real Scripture sense of the word "world," is coming very quickly and very truly—The end of this system of society, of these present ways in religion, and money-making, and conducting ourselves in all the affairs of life, which we English people have got into nowadays. The end of it is coming. It cannot last much longer; for it is destroying itself. It will not last much longer; for Christ and not the devil is the King of the earth. As St. Paul said to his people, so say I to you, "The night is far spent, the day is at hand."
These may seem strange words, but almost every one is saying them, in his own way. One large party among religious people in these days is complaining that Christ has left His Church, and that the cause of Christianity will be ruined and lost, unless some great change takes place. Another large party of religious people say, that the prophecies are on the point of being all fulfilled that the 1260 days, spoken of by the prophet Daniel, are just coining to an end; and that Christ is coming with His saints, to reign openly upon earth for a thousand years. The wisest philosophers and historians of late years have been all foretelling a great and tremendous change in England, and throughout all Europe; and in the meantime, manufacturers and landlords, tradesmen and farmers, artisans and labourers, all say, that there MUST be a change and will be a change. I believe they are all right, every one of them. They put it in their words; I think it better to put it in the Scripture words, and say boldly, "Jesus Christ, the King of the earth, is coming."
But you will ask, "What right have you to stand up and say anything so surprising?" My friends, the world is full of surprising things, and this age above all ages. It was not sixty years ago, that a nobleman was laughed at in the House of Lords for saying that he believed that we should one day see ships go by steam; and now there are steamers on every sea and ocean in the world. Who expected twenty years ago to see the whole face of England covered with these wonderful railroads? Who expected on the 22nd of February last year, that, within a single month, half the nations of Europe, which looked so quiet and secure, would be shaken from top to bottom with revolution and bloodshed—kings and princes vanishing one after the other like a dream—poor men sitting for a day as rulers of kingdoms, and then hurled down again to make room for other rulers as unexpected as themselves? Can anyone consider the last fifty years?— can anyone consider that one last year, 1848, and then not feel that we do live in a most strange and awful time? a time for which nothing is too surprising—a time in which we all ought to be prepared, from the least to the greatest, to see the greatest horrors and the greatest blessings come suddenly upon us, like a thief in the night? So much for Christ's coming being too wonderful a thing to happen just now. Still you are right to ask: "What do you mean by Christ's being our King? what do you mean by His coming to us? What reason have you for supposing that He is coming NOW, rather than at any other time? And if He be coming, what are we to do? What is there we ought to repent of? what is there we ought to amend?"
Well, my friends—it is just these very questions which I hope and trust God will help me to answer to you, in my next few sermons—I am perfectly convinced that we must get them answered and act upon them speedily. I am perfectly convinced that if we go on as most of us are going in England now, the Lord of us all will come in an hour when we are not aware, and cut us asunder in the deepest and most real sense, as He came and cut asunder France, Germany, and Austria only last year, and appoint us our portion with the unbelievers. And I believe that our punishment will be seven times as severe as that of either France, Germany, or Austria, because we have had seven times their privileges and blessings, seven times their Gospel light and Christian knowledge, seven times their freedom and justice in laws and constitution; seven times their wealth, and prosperity, and means of employing our population. Much has been given to England, and of her much will be required. And if you could only see the state of mankind over the greatest part of the globe, how infinitely fewer opportunities they have of knowing God's will than you have, you would feel that to you, poor and struggling as some of you are— to you much has been given, and of you much will be required.
Now first, what do I mean by Christ being our king? I daresay there are some among you who are inclined to think that, when we talk of Christ being a king, that the word king means something very different from its common meaning—and, God knows, that that is true enough. Our blessed Lord took care to make people understand that— how He was not like one of the kings of the nations, how His kingdom was not of this world. But yet the Bible tells us again and again that all good kings, all real kings, are patterns of Christ; and, therefore, that when we talk of Christ being a king, we mean that He is a king in everything that a king ought to be; that He fulfils perfectly all the duties of a king; that He is the pattern which all kings ought to copy. Kings have been in all ages too apt to forget that, and, indeed, so have the people too. We English have forgotten most thoroughly in these days, that Christ is our king, or even a king at all. We talk of Christ being a "spiritual" king, and then we say that that merely means that He is king of Christians' hearts. And when anyone asks what that means, it comes out, that all we mean is, that Christ has a very great influence over the hearts of believing Christians—when He can obtain it; or else that it means that He is king of a very small number of people called the elect, whom He has chosen out, but that He has absolutely nothing to do with the whole rest of the world. And then, when anyone stands up with the Bible in his hand, and says, in the plain words of Scripture: "Christ is not only the king of believers, He is the king of the whole earth; the king of the clouds and the thunder, the king of the land and the cattle, and the trees, and the corn, and to whomsoever He will He giveth them. Christ is not only the king of believers—He is the king of all—the king of the wicked, of the heathen, of those who do not believe Him, who never heard of Him. Christ is not only the king of a few individual persons, one here and one there in every parish, but He is the king of every nation. He is the king of England, by the grace of God, just as much as Queen Victoria is, and ten thousand times more." If any man talks in this way, people stare—think him an enthusiast—ask him what new doctrine this is, and call his words unscriptural, just because they come out of Scripture and not out of men's perversions and twistings of Scripture. Nevertheless Christ is King; really and truly King of Kings and Lord of Lords; and He will make men know it. What He was, that He is and ever will be; there is no change in Him; His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and His dominion endureth throughout all ages, and woe unto those, small or great, who rebel against Him!
But what sort of a king is He? He is a king of law, and order, and justice. He is not selfish, fanciful, self-willed. He said himself that He came not to do His own will, but His Father's. He is a king of gentleness and meekness too: but do not mistake that. There is no weak indulgence in Him. A man may be very meek, and yet stern enough and strong enough. Moses was the meekest of men, we read, and yet He made those who rebelled against him feel that he was not to be trifled with. Korah, Dathan, and Abiram found that to their cost. He would not even spare his own brother Aaron, his own sister Miriam, when they rebelled. And he was right. He showed his love by it; indulgence is not love. It is no sign of meekness, but only of cowardice and carelessness, to be afraid to rebuke sin. Moses knew that he was doing God's work, that he was appointed to make a great nation of those slavish besotted Jews, his countrymen; that he was sent by God with boundless blessings to them; and woe to whoever hindered him from that. Because he loved the Jews, therefore he dared punish those who tempted them to forget the promised land of Canaan, or break God's covenant, in which lay all their hope.
And such a one is our King, my friends; Jesus Christ the Son of God. Like Moses, says St. Paul, He is faithful in all His office. Therefore He is severe as well as gentle. He was so when on earth. With the poor, the outcast, the neglected, those on whom men trampled, who was gentler than the Lord Jesus? To the proud Pharisee, the canting Scribe, the cunning Herodian, who was sterner than the Lord Jesus? Read that awful 23rd chapter of St. Matthew, and then see how the Saviour, the lamb dumb before His shearers, He of whom it was said "He shall not strive nor cry, nor shall His voice be heard in the streets"—how He could speak when He had occasion. . . . "Woe unto you Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" "Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?"
My friends, those were the words of our King; of Him in whom was neither passion nor selfishness; who loved us even to the death, and endured for us the scourge, the cross, the grave. And believe me, such are His words now; though we do not hear Him, the heaven and the earth hear Him and obey Him. His message is pardon, mercy, deliverance to the sorrowful, and the oppressed, and the neglected; and to the proud, the tyrannical, the self-righteous, the hypocritical, tribulation and anguish, shame and woe.
Because He is the Saviour, therefore He is a consuming fire to all those who try to hinder Him from saving men. Because He is the Son of God, He will sweep out of His Father's kingdom all who offend, and whosoever maketh and loveth a lie. Because He is boundless mercy and love, therefore He will show no mercy to those who try to stop His purposes of love. Because He is the King of men, the enemies of mankind are His enemies; and He will reign till He has put them all under His feet.
SECOND SUNDAY IN ADVENT.
Whatsoever things were written aforetime, were written for our example, that we, through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, might have hope.—ROMANS xv. 4.
"Whatsoever was written aforetime." There is no doubt, I think, that by these words St. Paul means the Bible; that is, the Old Testament, which was the only part of the Bible already written in his time. For it is of the Psalms which he is speaking. He mentions a verse out of the 69th Psalm, "The reproaches of Him that reproached thee fell on me;" which, he says, applies to Christ just as much as it did to David, who wrote it. Christ, he says, pleased not Himself any more than David, but suffered willingly and joyfully for God's sake, because He knew that He was doing God's work. And we, he goes on to say, must do the same; do as Christ did; we must not please ourselves, but every one of us please our brother for his good and edification; that is, in order to build him up, strengthen him, make him wiser, better, more comfortable. For, he says, Christ pleased not Himself, but like David, lived only to help others; and therefore this verse out of David's Psalms, "The reproaches of them that reproached thee fell on me," is a lesson to us; a pattern of what we ought to feel, and do, and suffer. "For whatsoever was written aforetime," all these ancient psalms and prophets, and histories of men and nations who trusted in God, "were written for our example, that we, through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, might have hope."
Yes, my friends, this is true; and the longer you live a life of faith and godliness, the longer you read and study that precious Book of books which God has put so freely into your hands in these days, the more true you will find it. And if it was true of the Old Testament, written before the Lord came down and dwelt among men, how much more must it be true of the New Testament, which was written after His coming by apostles and evangelists, who had far fuller light and knowledge of the Lord than ever David or the old prophets, even in their happiest moments, had. Ah, what a treasure you have, every one of you, in those Bibles of yours, which too many of you read so little! From the first chapter of Genesis to the last of Revelations, it is all written for our example, all profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished for all good works. Ah! friends, friends, is not this the reason why so many of you do not read your Bibles, that you do not wish to be furnished for good works?—do not wish to be men of God, godly and godlike men, but only to be men of the world, caring only for money and pleasure?—some of you, alas! not wishing to be men and women at all, but only a sort of brute beasts with clothes on, given up to filth and folly, like the animals that perish, or rather worse than the animals, for they could be no better if they tried, but you might be. Oh! what might you not be, what are you not already, if you but knew it! Members of Christ, children of God, heirs of the kingdom of heaven, heirs of a hope undying, pure, that will never fade away, having a right given you by the promise and oath of Almighty God himself, to hope for yourselves, for your neighbours, for this poor distracted world, for ever and ever; a right to believe that there is an everlasting day of justice, and peace, and happiness in store for the whole world, and that you, if you will, may have your share in that glorious sunrise which shall never set again. You may have your share in it, each and every one of you; and if you ask why, go to the Scriptures, and there read the promises of God, the grounds of your just hope, for all heaven and earth.
First, of hope for yourselves.—I say first for yourselves, not because a man is right in being selfish, and caring only for his own soul, but because a man must care for his own soul first, if he ever intends to care for others; a man must have hope for himself first, if he is to have hope for others. He may stop there, and turn his religion into a selfish superstition, and spend his life in asking all day long, "Shall I be saved, shall I be damned?" or worse still, in chuckling over his own good fortune, and saying to himself, "I shall be saved, whoever else is damned;" but whether he ends there or not, he must begin there; begin by trying to get himself saved. For if he does not know what is right and good for himself, how can he tell what is right and good for others? If he wishes to bring his neighbours out of their sins, he must surely first have been brought out of his own sins, and so know what forgiveness and sanctification means. If he wishes to make others at peace with God, he must first be at peace with God himself, to know what God's peace is. If he wants to teach others their duty, he must first know his own duty, for all men's duty is one and the same. If he wishes to have hope for the world, he must first have hope for himself, for he is in the world, a part of it, and he must learn what blessings God intends for him, and they will teach him what blessings God has in store for the earth. Faith and hope, like charity, must begin at home. By learning the corruption of our own hearts, we learn the corruption of human nature. By learning what is the only medicine which can cure our own sick hearts, we learn what is the only medicine which can cure human nature. We learn by our own experience, that God is all- forgiving love; that His peace shines bright upon the soul which casts itself utterly on Jesus Christ the Lord for pardon, strength, and safety; that God's Spirit is ready and able to raise us out of all our sin, and sottishness, and weakness, and wilfulness, and selfishness, and renew us into quite new men, different characters from what we used to be; and so, by having hope for ourselves, we learn step by step and year by year to have hope for our friends, for our neighbours, and for the whole world.
For that is another great lesson which the Bible teaches us—hope for the world. Men say to us, "This world has always gone on ill, and will always go on so. Tyrants and knaves and hypocrites have always had the power in it; idlers have always had the enjoyment of it; while the humble, and industrious, and godly, who would not foul their hands with the wicked ways of the world, have been always laughed at, neglected, oppressed, persecuted. The world," they say, "is very bad, and we cannot live in it without giving way a little to its badness, and going the old road."
But he who, through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, has hope, can answer "Yes—and yet no." "Yes—we agree that the world has gone on badly enough: perhaps we think the world worse than it thinks itself; for God's Spirit has taught us to see sin, and shame, and ruin, in many a thing which the world thinks right and reasonable. And yet," says the true Christian man, "although we think the world worse than anyone else thinks it, and are more unhappy than anyone else about all the sin, and injustice, and misery we see in it, we have the very strongest faith—we are perfectly certain—we are as sure as if we saw it coming to pass here before us, that the world will come right at last. For the Bible tells us that the Son of God is the king of the world; that He has been the master and ruler of it from the beginning. He, the Bible tells us, condescended to come down on earth and be born in the likeness of a poor man, and die on the cross for this poor world of His, that He might take away the sins of it." "Behold the Lamb of God," said John the Baptist, "who takes away the sin of the world." How dare we, who call ourselves Christians, we who have been baptized into His name, we who have tasted of His mercy, we who know the might of His love, the converting and renewing power of His Spirit—how dare we doubt but that He WILL take away the sins of the world? Ay; step by step, nation by nation, year by year, the Lord shall conquer; love, and justice, and wisdom shall spread and grow; for He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. He has promised to take away the sins of the world, and He is God, and cannot lie. There is the Christian's hope: let him leave infidels to say "The world always was bad, and it must remain so to the end;" the Christian ought to be able to answer, "The world was bad, and is bad; but for that very reason it will NOT remain so to the end: for the Lord and king of the earth is boundless love, justice, goodness itself, and He will thoroughly purge His floor, and cast out of His kingdom all things that offend, and make in His good time the kingdoms of this world, the kingdoms of God and of His Christ."
"Ah but," someone may say, "that, if it ever happens at all, will not happen till we are dead, and what part or lot shall WE have in it? we who die in the midst of all this sin, and injustice, and distress?" There again the Bible gives us hope: "I believe," says the Creed, "in the resurrection of the flesh." The Bible teaches us to believe, that we, each of us, as human beings, men and women, shall have a share in that glorious day; not merely as ghosts, and disembodied spirits—of which the Bible, thanks be to God, says little or nothing, but as real live human beings, with new bodies of our own, on a new earth, under a new heaven. "Therefore," says David, "my flesh shall rest in hope;" not merely my soul, my ghost, but my flesh. For the Lord, who not only died, but rose again with His body, shall raise our bodies, according to the mighty working by which He subdues all things to Himself; and then the whole manhood of each of us, body, soul, and spirit, shall have one perfect consummation and bliss, in His eternal and everlasting glory.—That is our hope. If that is not a gospel, and good news from heaven to poor distressed creatures in hovels, and on sick beds, to people racked with life-long pain and disease, to people in crowded cities, who never from week's end to week's end look on the green fields and bright sky—if that is not good news, and a dayspring of boundless hope from on high for them, what news can be?
But how are we to get this hope? The text tells us; through comfort of the Scriptures; through the strengthening and comforting promises, and examples, and rules of God's gracious dealings which we find therein. Through comfort of the Scriptures, but also through patience. Ah, my friends, of that too we must think; we must, as St. James says, "let patience have her perfect work," or else we shall not be perfect ourselves. If we are hasty, self-conceited, covetous, ready to help ourselves by the first means that come to hand; if we are full of hard judgments about our neighbours, and doubts about God's good purpose toward the world; in short, if we are not PATIENT, the Bible will teach us little or nothing. It may make us superstitious, bigoted, fanatical, conceited, pharisaical, but like Jesus Christ the Lord it will not make us, unless we have patience.
And where are we to get patience? God knows it is hard in such a world as this for poor creatures to be patient always. But faith can breed patience, though patience cannot breed itself;—and faith in whom? Faith in our Father in heaven, even in the Almighty God Himself. He calls Himself "the God of Patience and Consolation." Pray for His Holy Spirit, and He will make you patient; pray for His Holy Spirit, and He will console and comfort you. He has promised That Spirit of His, The Spirit of love, trust, and patience—The Comforter—to as many as ask Him. Ask Him now, this day—come to His holy table this day, and ask Him to make you patient; ask Him to take all the hastiness, and pride, and ill-temper, and self-will, and greediness out of you, and to change your wills into the likeness of His will. Then your eyes will be opened to understand His law. Then you will see in the Scriptures a sure promise of hope and glory and redemption for yourself and all the world. Then you will see in the blessed sacrament of the Lord's body and blood, a sure sign and warrant, handed down from land to land, and age to age, from year to year, and from father to son, that these promises shall come true; that hope shall become fact; that not one of the Lord's words shall fail, or pass away, till all be fulfilled.
III—THE KINGDOM OF GOD
THIRD SUNDAY IN ADVENT.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to preach good tidings to the meek; He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.—ISAIAH lxi. 1.
My friends, I do entreat those of you who wish to get any real good from this sermon, to listen to me carefully all through it. Not that I have to complain of you in general for not attending to me. I thank God, and thank you, that you do listen to what is said in this pulpit. But there are many people who have a bad trick of minding the preacher carefully enough for a minute or two, and then letting their wits wander, and think about something else; and then if any word in the sermon strikes them, waking up suddenly, and thinking again for a little, and then letting their thoughts run wild again; and so on. Whereby it happens that they only recollect a few scraps of the sermon, a word here, and a sentence there, and get into their heads all sorts of mistakes and false notions about the preacher's meaning.
That is not right; that is not worthy of reasonable grown men: that is only pardonable in little scatter-brained children. Men and women should listen steadily, reverently throughout; so, and so only, will they be able to judge of the message which the preacher brings them. Listen to me, therefore, all through this sermon, and may God give you grace to understand it and lay it to heart, for it is the good news of the kingdom of God.
You recollect, I hope, that I have often told you, that the Lord Jesus Christ's words would never pass away; that His prophecies are continually coming true, and being fulfilled over and over again. Now this text is not one of His prophecies, but it is a prophecy about Him; one which He fulfilled, and which He has been fulfilling again and again. He is fulfilling it, as I believe, more than ever, now in these very days.
If you will look at the 61st chapter of Isaiah, you will find this prophecy; and you will find, too, what will surprise you at first, that Isaiah was speaking of himself. He says, "That the Spirit of the Lord was upon HIM"—Isaiah—"because the Lord had appointed HIM to preach good tidings to the meek, to bind up the broken-hearted, and deliverance to the captives, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord." Isaiah must have spoken truly about himself. He could not have meant to tell a falsehood, to say a thing was true of himself which was only true of Jesus, who did not come till 800 years afterwards. And he did speak the truth: you cannot read his prophecies without seeing that the Spirit of the Lord was indeed upon him; that the words which he spoke must have comforted all those who were sorrowing for their sins and the sins of the nation in their time. We know, for a fact, that his prophecies came true; that the Jewish captives were delivered and brought back out of Judaea to Jerusalem again, and that Jerusalem was rebuilt as Isaiah prophesied, and the Jewish nation raised to far greater holiness, and prosperity, and happiness than it had ever been in before. And yet 800 years afterwards the Lord took those very same words to Himself, and said, that HE fulfilled them. He read them aloud once in a Jewish synagogue, out of the book of the prophet Isaiah; and then told the congregation, "This day is the Scripture fulfilled in your ears." And again, as we read in the Gospel for this day, when John the Baptist sent to ask Him if He was really the Christ, He made use of another prophecy of Isaiah, and told John's disciples that He WAS the Christ, because He was fulfilling that prophecy; because He WAS making the deaf hear, and the blind see, and preaching the gospel to the poor. Now, how is that? Could Isaiah be right in applying those words to himself, and yet Christ be right in applying them to Himself? Can a prophecy be fulfilled twice over?
No doubt it can, my friends, and two hundred times over. No prophecy of Scripture is of private interpretation, says St. Peter. That is, it does not apply to any one private, particular thing that is to happen. Every prophecy of Scripture goes on fulfilling itself more and more, as time rolls on and the world grows older. St. Peter tells us the reason why. No prophecy of Scripture is of private interpretation; because it does not come from the will of man, from any invention or discovery of poor short-sighted human beings, who can only judge by what they see around them in their own times: but holy men of old spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. And who is the Holy Spirit? The Spirit of God; the everlasting Spirit; the Spirit who cannot change, for He IS God. The Spirit who searcheth the deep things of God, and teaches them to men. And what are the deep things of God? They are eternal as God is. Eternal laws; everlasting rules which cannot alter. That is the meaning of it all. The Spirit of God is the Spirit which teaches men the laws of God; the unchangeable rules and ordinances by which He governs all heaven and earth, and men, and nations; the laws which come into force, not once only, but always; the laws of God which are working round us now, just as much as they were eighteen hundred years ago, just as much as they were in Isaiah's time. Therefore it is, that I said that these old Jewish prophecies, which were inspired by the Holy Spirit, are coming true now, and will keep on coming true, time after time, in their proper place and order, and whensoever the times are fit for them, even to the end of the world.
But again, we read that the Spirit of God takes of the things of Christ, and shows them unto us. And what are the things of Christ? They must be eternal things, unchangeable things, for Christ is unchangeable—Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever. He is over all, God blessed for ever. To Him all power is given in heaven and earth. He reigns, and He will reign. Do you think He is less a Saviour now, than He was when He spoke those things to John's disciples? Do you think He is less able to hear and to help than He was in John's time? Do you think He used to care about people's bodies then, but that He only cares about their souls now? Do you think that He is less compassionate, and less merciful, as well as less powerful, than He was when He made the blind see, and the lame walk, and the deaf hear, in Judaea of old?
Less powerful! less compassionate! One would have expected that Christ was MORE powerful, MORE compassionate, if that were possible. At least one would expect that His power and compassion would show itself more and more, and make itself felt more and more, year by year, and age by age; more and more healing disease; more and more comforting sorrow; more and still more casting out cunning and evil spirits, till He had put all under His feet. He Himself said it should be so. He always spoke of His own kingdom as a thing which was to grow and increase by laws of its own, men knew not how, but He knew. Like seed cast into the ground, His kingdom was, He said, at first the smallest of all seeds; but it was to grow, and take root, and spread into a mighty tree, He said, till the very birds in the air lodged in the branches of it; and David's words should be fulfilled, "Thou, Lord, shalt save both man and beast." And does not St. Paul speak of His kingdom in the same way, as a kingdom which should grow? that He was to reign till He had put all enemies under His feet? that He would deliver at last the whole creation? the earth on which we stand, the dumb animals around us? For, as St. Paul says, the whole creation is groaning in labour-pangs, waiting to be raised into a higher state. And it shall be raised. The whole creation shall be set free into the glorious liberty of the children of God.
What does that mean? How can I tell you?
This I can tell you, that it cannot mean that Jesus Christ was merciful enough to heal people's bodies at first, but that He has given up doing it now, and will never do it again. "Well, but," some would say, "what does all this come to? You are merely telling us what we knew before—that if any of us are cured from disease, or raised up from a sick bed, it is all the Lord's doing." If you do believe that, really, my friends, happy are you! Many of you, I think, do believe it. The poor are more inclined to believe it, I think, than the rich. But even in the mouths of the poor one often hears words which make one suspect that they do NOT believe it. I am very much afraid that a great many have got into the trick of saying that it was God's mercy that they were cured, and that it pleased the Lord to raise them up from a sick bed, very much as a piece of cant. They say the words by rote, because they have been accustomed to hear them said by others, without thinking of the meaning of them; just as, on the other hand, a great many people curse and swear without thinking of the awful oaths they use. Ay, and often enough the very same persons will say that it was the Lord's mercy they were cured of their sickness; and then, if they get into a passion, pray the very same Lord to do that to the bodies and souls of their neighbours which it is a shame to speak of here. Out of the same mouth proceed blessings and cursings: showing that whether or not they are in earnest in cursing, they are not earnest in blessing.
Again: If people really believed that it was the Lord Jesus Christ who cured their sicknesses for them, they would behave, when they got well, more as the Lord Jesus Christ would wish them to behave. They would show forth their thankfulness not only with their lips, but in their lives. You who believe—you who say—that Christ has cured your sicknesses, show your faith by your works. Live like those who are alive again from the dead; who are not your own, but bought with a price, and bound to work for God with your bodies and your spirits, which are His—then, and then only, can either God or man believe you.
Again: There is a third reason which makes one suspect that people do not mean what they say about this matter. I think too many say, "It has pleased God," merely as an empty form of words, when all they mean is, "What must be, must, and it cannot be helped." Else, why do they say, "It has pleased the Lord to send me sickness?" What is the use of saying, "It has pleased the Lord to cure me," when you say in the same breath, "It has pleased the Lord to make me ill?" I know you will say that, "Of course, whatever happens must be the Lord's will; if it did not please Him it would not happen." I do not care for such words; I will have nothing to do with them. I will neither entangle you nor myself in those endless disputings and questions about freewill and necessity, which never yet have come to any conclusion, and never will, because they are too deep for poor short- sighted human beings like us. "To the law and to the testimony," say I. I will hold to the words of the Bible; what it says, I will say; what it does not say I will not say, to please any man's system of doctrines. And I say from the Bible that we have no more right to say, "It has pleased the Lord to make me sick," than, "It has pleased the Lord to make me a sinner." Scripture everywhere speaks of sickness as a real evil and a curse—a breaking of the health, and order, and strength, and harmony of God's creation. It speaks of madmen as possessed with evil spirits; did THAT please God? The woman who was bowed with a spirit of infirmity, and could not lift herself up—did our Lord say that it had pleased God to make her a wretched cripple? No; he spoke of her as this daughter of Israel, whom Satan had bound, and not God, this eighteen years; and that was His reason for healing her, even on the sabbath-day, because her disease was not the work of God, but of the cruel, disordering, destroying evil spirit which is at enmity with God. That was why Christ cured her. And THAT—for this is the point I have been coming to, step by step—that was the reason why, when John the Baptist sent to ask if Jesus was the Christ, our Lord answered: "Go and show John again those things which ye do see and hear: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them."
Do not be in a hurry, my friends, and suppose that our Lord meant merely: "Tell John what wonderful miracles I am working." If He had meant that why would He have put in as the last proof that He was the Christ, that He was preaching the gospel to the poor? What wonderful miracle was there in THAT? No: it was as if He had said: "Go and tell John that I am the Christ, because I am the great physician, the healer and deliverer of body and soul: one who will and can cure the loathsome diseases, the uselessness, the misery, the ignorance of the poorest and meanest." He has proved Himself the Christ by showing not only His boundless power, but His boundless love and mercy; and THAT, not only to men's souls, but to their bodies also. To prove Himself the Christ by wonderful and astonishing miracles was exactly what He would not do. He refused, when the Scribes and Pharisees came and asked of Him a sign from heaven to prove that He was Christ— wanting Him, I suppose, to bring some apparition, or fiery comet, or great voice out of the sky, to astonish them with His power; He told them peremptorily that He would give them no such thing: and yet He said that His mighty works did prove Him to be Christ; He pronounced woe against Chorazin and Bethsaida for not believing Him on account of His mighty works: He told the Scribes and Pharisees that they ought to believe on Him merely for His works' sake. And why would they not believe on Him? Just because they could not see that God's power was shown more in healing and delivering sufferers, than in astonishing and destroying. They could not see that God's perfect likeness shone out in Christ—that He was the express image of the Father, just because He went about doing good, and healing all manner of sicknesses and all manner of infirmities among the people. But so it is, my friends! Jesus is the Saviour, the deliverer, the great physician, the healer of soul and body. Not a pang is felt or a tear shed on earth, but He sorrows over it. Not a human being on earth dies young, but He, as I believe, sorrows over it. What it is which prevents Him healing every sickness, soothing every sorrow, wiping away every tear NOW, we cannot tell. But this we can tell, that it is His will that none should perish. This we CAN tell; that He is willing as ever to heal the sick, to cleanse the leper, to cast out devils, to teach the ignorant, to bind up the broken-hearted. This we CAN tell; that He will go on doing so more and more, year by year, and age by age. This we CAN tell, from Scripture, that Christ is stronger than the devil. This we can tell; that Christ, and all good men, the spirits of just men made perfect, the wise and the great in God's sight, who have left us their books, their sayings, their writings, as precious health-giving heirlooms—have been fighting, and are fighting, and will fight to the end against the devil, and sin, and oppression, and misery, and disease, and everything which spoils and darkens the face of God's good earth. And this we CAN tell; that they will conquer at the last, because Christ is stronger than the devil; good is stronger than evil; light is stronger than darkness; God's Spirit, the giver of life, and health, and order, is stronger than all the evil customs, and ignorance, and carelessness, and cruelty, and superstition, which makes miserable the lives and, as far as we can see, destroys the souls of thousands. Yes, I say, Christ's kingdom is a kingdom of health and deliverance for body and soul; and it will conquer, and it will spread, and it will grow, till the nations of the world have become the kingdoms of God and of His Christ. Christ reigns, and Christ will reign till He has put all His enemies under His feet; and the last of His enemies which shall be destroyed is DEATH. Death is His enemy. He has conquered death by rising from the dead. And the day will come when death will be no more—when sickness and sorrow shall be unknown, and God shall wipe away tears from all eyes. I say it again—never forget it—Christ is King, and His kingdom is a kingdom of health, and life, and deliverance from all evil. It always has been so, from the first time our Lord cured the leper in Galilee; it will be so to the end of the world. And, therefore—to come back to the very place from which I started at the beginning of my sermon—therefore, whenever one of the days of the Lord is at hand, whenever God's kingdom makes a great step forward, this same prophecy in our text is fulfilled in some striking and wonderful way. And I say it is fulfilled now in these days more than it ever has been. Christ is healing the sick, cleansing the leper, giving sight to the blind, raising the dead, and preaching the gospel to the poor, seven times more in these days in which we live than He did when He walked upon earth in Judaea.
Do you doubt my words? At all events you confess that the cure of all diseases comes from Christ. Then consider, I beseech you, how many more diseases are cured now than were formerly. One may say that the knowledge of medicine is not one hundred years old. Nothing, my friends, makes me feel more strongly what a wonderful and blessed time we live in, and how Christ is showing forth mighty works among us, than this same sudden miraculous improvement in the art of healing, which has taken place within the memory of man. Any country doctor now knows more, thank God, or ought to know, than the greatest London physicians did two generations ago. New cures for deafness, blindness, lameness, every disease that flesh is heir to, are being discovered year by year. Oh, my friends! you little know what Christ is doing among you, for your bodies as well as for your souls. There is not a parish in England now in which the poorest as well as the richest are not cured yearly of diseases, which, if they had lived a hundred years ago, would have killed them without hope or help. And then, when one looks at these great and blessed plans for what is called sanitary reform, at the sickness and the misery which has been done away with already by attending to them, even though they have only just begun to be put in practice—our hearts must be hard indeed if we do not feel that Christ is revealing to us the gifts of healing far more bountifully and mercifully than even He did to the first apostles.
But you will say, perhaps, the dead are not raised in these days. Oh, my friends! which shows Christ's mercy most, to raise those who are already dead, or to save those alive who are about to die? Those in this church who have read history know as well as I, how in our forefathers' time people died in England by thousands of diseases which are scarcely ever deadly now; ay, of diseases which have now actually vanished out of the land, before the new light of medicine and of civilisation which Christ has revealed to us in these days. For one child who lived and grew up in old times, two live and grow up now. In London alone there are not half as many deaths in proportion to the number of people as there were a hundred years ago. And is not that a mightier work of Christ's power and love than if He had raised a few dead persons to life?
And now for the last part of our Lord's witness about Himself. To the poor the gospel is preached. Oh! my friends, is not THAT coming true in our days as it never came true before? Look back only fifty years, and consider the difference between the doctrines which were preached to the poor and the doctrines which are preached to them now. Look round you and see how everywhere earnest and godly ministers have sprung up, of all sects and opinions, as well as of the Church of England, not only to preach the gospel in the pulpit, but to carry it to the sick bedside of the lonely cottage, to the prison, and to those fearful sties, worse than prisons, where in our great cities the heathen poor live crowded together. Look at the teaching which the poor man can get now, compared to what he used to— the sermons, the Bibles, the tracts, the lending libraries, the schools—just consider the hundreds of thousands of pounds which are subscribed every year to educate the children of the poor, and then say whether Christ is not working a mighty work among us in these days. I know that not half as much is done as ought to be done in that way; not half as much as will be done; and what is done will have to be done better than it has been done yet; but still, can anyone in this church who is fifty years old deny that there is a most enormous and blessed improvement which is growing and spreading every year? Can anyone deny that the gospel is preached to the poor now in a way that it never was before within the memory of man?
Now, recollect that this is an Advent sermon—a sermon which proclaims to you that Christ is COME; yes, He is come—come never to leave mankind again! Christ reigns over the earth, and will reign for ever. At certain great and important times in the world's history, like this present time, times which He Himself calls "days of the Lord," He shows forth His power, and the mightiness and mercy of His kingdom, more than at others. But still He is always with us; we have no need to run up and down to look for Christ: to say, Who shall ascend into heaven to bring Him down? Who shall descend into the deep to bring Him up? For the kingdom of God, as He told us Himself, is among us, and within us. Yes, within us. All these wonderful improvements and discoveries, all things beneficial to men which are found out year by year, though they seem to be of men's invention, are really of Christ's revealing, the fruits of the kingdom of God within us, of the Spirit of God, who is teaching men, though they too often will not believe it; though they disclaim God's Spirit and take all the glory to themselves. Truly Christ is among us; and our eyes are held, and we see Him not. That is our English sin—the sin of unbelief, the root of every other sin. Christ works among us, and we will not own Him. Truly, Jesus Christ may well say of us English at this day, There were ten cleansed, but where are the nine? How few are there, who return to give glory to God! Oh, consider what I say; the kingdom of God is among us now; its blessings are growing richer, fuller among us every day. Beware, lest if we refuse to acknowledge that kingdom and Christ the King of it, it be taken away from us, and given to some other nation, who will bring forth the fruits of it, fellow-help and brotherly kindness, purity and sobriety, and all the fruits of the Spirit of God.
IV—A PREPARATION FOR CHRISTMAS
FOURTH SUNDAY IN ADVENT.
Rejoice in the Lord always.—PHILIPPIANS iv. 4.
This is the beginning of the Epistle for to-day, the Sunday before Christmas. We will try to find out why it was chosen for to-day, and what lesson we may learn from it.
Now Christmas-time was always a time of rejoicing among many heathen nations, and long before the Lord Jesus Christ came. That was natural and reasonable enough, if you will consider it. For now the shortest day is past. The sun is just beginning to climb higher and higher in the sky each day, and bring back with him longer sunshine, and shorter darkness, and spring flowers, and summer crops, and a whole new year, with new hopes, new work, new lessons, new blessings. The old year, with all its labours and all its pleasures, and all its sorrows and all its sins, is dying, all but gone. It lies behind us, never to return. The tears which we shed, we never can shed again. The mistakes we made, we have a chance of mending in the year to come. And so the heathens felt, and rejoiced that another year was dying, another year going to be born.
And Christmas was a time of rejoicing too, because the farming work was done. The last year's crop was housed; the next year's wheat was sown; the cattle were safe in yard and stall; and men had time to rest, and draw round the fire in the long winter nights, and make merry over the earnings of the past year, and the hopes and plans of the year to come. And so over all this northern half of the world Christmas was a merry time.
But the poor heathens did not know the Lord. They did not know who to thank for all their Christmas blessings. And so some used to thank the earth for the crops, and the sun for coming back again to lengthen the days, as if the earth and sun moved of themselves. And some used to thank false gods and ancient heroes, who, perhaps, never really lived at all. And some, perhaps the greater number, thanked nothing and no one, but just enjoyed themselves, and took no thought, as too many do now at Christmas-time. So the world went on, Christmas after Christmas; and the times of that ignorance, as St. Paul says, God winked at. But when the fulness of time was come, He sent forth His Son, made of a woman, to be the judge and ruler of the world; and commanded all men everywhere to repent, and turn from all their vanities to serve the living God, who had made heaven and earth, and all things in them.
He did not wish them to give up their Christmas mirth. No: all along He had been trying to teach them by it about His love to them. As St. Paul told them once, God had not left Himself without witness, in that He gave them rain and fruitful seasons, filling their hearts with joy and gladness.
God did not wish them, or us, to give up Christmas mirth. The apostles did not wish it. The great men, true followers of the apostles, who shaped our Prayer-book for us, and sealed it with their life-blood, did not wish it. They did not wish farmers, labourers, servants, masters, to give up one of the old Christmas customs; but to remember who made Christmas, and its blessings; in short, to rejoice in The Lord. Our forefathers had been thanking the wrong persons for Christmas. Henceforward we were to thank the right person, The Lord, and rejoice in Him. Our forefathers had been rejoicing in the sun, and moon, and earth; in wise and valiant kings who had lived ages before; in their own strength, and industry, and cunning. Now they were to rejoice in Him who made sun, and moon, and earth; in Him who sent wise and valiant kings and leaders; in Him who gives all strength, and industry, and cunning; by whose inspiration comes all knowledge of agriculture, and manufacture, and all the arts which raise men above the beasts that perish. So their Christmas joys were to go on, year by year while the world lasted: but they were to go on rightly, and not wrongly. Men were to rejoice in The Lord, and then His blessing would be on them, and the thanks and praise which they offered Him, He would return with interest, in fresh blessings for the coming year.
Therefore, I think, this Epistle was chosen for to-day, the Sunday before Christmas, to show us in whom we are to rejoice; and, therefore, to show us how we are to rejoice. For we must not take the first verse of the Epistle and forget the rest. That would neither be wise nor reverent toward St. Paul, who wrote the whole, and meant the whole to stand together as one discourse; or to the blessed and holy men who chose it for our lesson on this day. Let us go on, then, with the Epistle, line by line, throughout.
"Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice." As much as to say, you cannot rejoice too much, you cannot overdo your happiness, thankfulness, merriment. You do not know half—no, not the thousandth part of God's love and mercy to you, and you never will know. So do not be afraid of being too happy, or think that you honour God by wearing a sour face, when He is heaping blessings on you, and calling on you to smile and sing. But "let your moderation be known unto all men." There is a right and a wrong way of being merry. There is a mirth, which is no mirth; whereof it is written, in the midst of that laughter there is a heaviness, and the end thereof is death. Drunkenness, gluttony, indecent words and jests and actions, these are out of place on Christmas-day, and in the merriment to which the pure and holy Lord Jesus calls you all. They are rejoicing in the flesh and the devil, and not in the Lord at all; and whosoever indulges in them, and fancies them merriment, is keeping the devil's Christmas, and not Jesus Christ's. So let your moderation be known to all men. Be MERRY AND WISE. The fool lets his mirth master him, and carry him away, till he forgets himself, and says and does things of which he is ashamed when he gets up next morning, sick and sad at heart. The wise man remembers that, let the occasion be as joyful a one as it may, "the Lord is at hand." Christ's eye is on him, while he is eating, and drinking, and laughing. He is not afraid of Christ's eye, because, though it is Divine it is a human, loving, smiling eye; rejoicing in the happiness of His poor, hard-worked brothers here below. But he remembers that it is a holy eye, too; an eye which looks with sadness and horror on anything which is wrong; on all drunkenness, quarrelling, indecency; and so on in all his merriment, he is still master of himself. He remembers that his soul is nobler than his body; that his will must be stronger than his appetite; and so he keeps himself in check; he keeps his tongue from evil, and his stomach from sottishness, and though he may be, and ought to be, the merriest of the whole party, yet he takes care to let his moderation, his sobriety, be known and plain to everyone, remembering that the Lord is at hand.
And that man—I will stand surety for him—will be the one who will rise from his bed next morning, best able to carry out the next verse of the Epistle, and "be careful for nothing."
Now that is no easy matter here in England; to rich and poor, Christmas is the time for settling accounts and paying debts. And therefore in England, where living is dear, and everyone, more or less, struggling to pay his way, Christmas is often a very anxious, disturbing time of year. Many a family, for all their economy, cannot clear themselves at the year's end; and though they are able to forget that now and then, thank God, through great part of the year, yet they cannot forget it at Christmas. But, as I said, the man who at Christmas-time will be most able to be careful for nothing, will be the man whose moderation has been known to everyone; for he will, if he has lived the year through in the same temper in which he has spent Christmas, have been moderate in his expenses; he will have kept himself from empty show, and pretending to be richer than he is. He will have kept himself from throwing away his money in drink, and kept his daughters from throwing away money in dress, which is just what too many, in their foolish, godless, indecent hurry to get rid of their own children off their hands do not do.
And he will be the man who will be in the best humour, and have the clearest brain, to kneel down when he gets up to his daily work, and "in everything, by prayer and supplication, make his requests known to God." And then, whether he can make both ends meet or not, whether he can begin next year free from debt or not, still "the peace of God will keep his heart." He may be unable to clear himself, but still he will know that he has a loving and merciful Father in heaven, who has allowed distress and difficulty to come on him only as a lesson and an education. That this distress came because God chose, and that when God chooses it will go away—and that till then—considering that the Lord God sent it—it had better NOT go away. He will believe that God's gracious promises stand true—that the Lord will never let those who trust in Him be confounded and brought to shame—that He will let none of us be tempted beyond what we are able, but will always with the temptation make a way for us to escape, that we may be able to bear it. And so the peace of God which passes understanding, will keep that man's mind. And in whom? "In Jesus Christ." Now what did St. Paul mean by putting in the Lord Jesus Christ's name there? what is the meaning of "in Jesus Christ"? This is what it means; it means what Christmas-day means. A man may say, "Your sermon promises fine things, but I am miserable and poor; it promises a holy and noble rejoicing to everyone, but I am unholy and mean. It promises peace from God, and I am sure I am not at peace: I am always fretting and quarrelling; I quarrel with my wife, my children, and my neighbours, and they quarrel with me; and worst of all," says the poor man, "I quarrel with myself. I am full of discontented, angry, sulky, anxious, unhappy thoughts; my heart is dark and sad and restless within me—would God I were peaceful, but I am not: look in my face and see!"
True, my friend, but on Christmas-day the Son of God was born into the world, a man like you.
"Well," says the poor man, "but what has that to do with my anxiety and my ill-temper?"
It would take the whole year through, my friend, to show you all that it has to do with you and your unhappiness. All the Lessons, Epistles, and Gospels of the year are set out to show you what it has to do with you. But in the meanwhile, before Christmas-day comes, consider this one thing: Why are you anxious? Because you do not know what is to happen to you? Then Christmas-day is a witness to you, that whatsoever happens to you, happens to you by the will and rule of Jesus Christ, The perfect man; think of that. THE PERFECT MAN—who understands men's hearts and wants, and all that is good for them, and has all the wisdom and power to give us what is good, which we want ourselves. And what makes you unhappy, my friends? Is it not at heart just this one thing—you are unhappy because you are not pleased with yourselves? And you are not pleased with yourselves because you know you ought not to be pleased with yourselves; and you know you ought not to be pleased with yourselves, because you know, in the bottom of your hearts, that God is not pleased with you? What cure, what comfort for such thoughts can we find?—This.
The child who was born in a manger on Christmas-day, and grew up in poverty, and had not where to lay his head, went through all shame and sorrow to which man is heir. He, Jesus, the poor child of Bethlehem, is Lord and King of heaven and earth. He will feel for us; He will understand our temptations; He has been poor himself, that He might feel for the poor; He has been evil spoken of, that He might feel for those whose tempers are sorely tried. He bore the sins and felt the miseries of the whole world, that He might feel for us when we are wearied with the burden of life, and confounded by the remembrance of our own sins.
Oh, my friends, consider only Who was born into the world on Christmas-day; and that thought alone will be enough to fill you with rejoicing and hope for yourselves and all the world, and with the peace of God which passes understanding, the peace which the angels proclaimed to the shepherds on the first Christmas night—"On earth peace, and good will toward men"—and if God wills us good, my friend; what matter who wishes us evil?
He made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a slave.—PHILIPPIANS ii. 7.
On Christmas-day, 1851 years ago, if we had been at Rome, the great capital city, and mistress of the whole world, we should have seen a strange sight—strange, and yet pleasant. All the courts of law were shut; no war was allowed to be proclaimed, and no criminals punished. The sorrow and the strife of that great city had stopped, in great part, for three days, and all people were giving themselves up to merriment and good cheer—making up quarrels, and giving and receiving presents from house to house. And we should have seen, too, a pleasanter sight than that. For those three days of Christmas-time were days of safety and merriment for the poor slaves— tens of thousands of whom—men, women, and children—the Romans had brought out of all the countries in the world—many of our forefathers and mothers among them—and kept them there in cruel bondage and shame, worked and fed, bought and sold, like beasts, and not like human beings, not able to call their lives or their bodies their own, forced to endure any shame or sin which their tyrants required of them, and liable any moment to be beaten, tortured, or crucified at the mercy of cruel and foul masters and mistresses. But on that Christmas-day, according to an old custom, they were allowed for once in the whole year to play at being free, to dress in their masters' and mistresses' clothes, to say what they thought of them boldly, without fear of punishment, and to eat and drink at their masters' tables, while their masters and mistresses waited on them. It was an old custom, that, among the heathen Romans, which their forefathers, who were wiser and better than they, had handed down to them. They had forgotten, perhaps, what it meant: but still we may see what it must have meant: That the old forefathers of the Romans had intended to remind their children every year by that custom, that their poor hard-worked slaves were, after all, men and women as much as their masters; that they had hearts and consciences, and sense in them, and a right to speak what they thought, as much as their masters; that they, as much as their masters, could enjoy the good things of God's earth, from which man's tyranny had shut them out; and to remind those cruel masters, by making them once every year wait on their own slaves at table, that they were, after all, equal in the sight of God, and that it was more noble for those who were rich, and called themselves gentlemen, to help others, than to make others slave for them.
I do not mean, of course, that those old heathens understood all this clearly. You will see, by the latter part of my sermon, why they could not understand it clearly. But there must have been some sort of dim, confused suspicion in their minds that it was wrong and cruel to treat human beings like brute beasts, which made them set up that strange old custom of letting their slaves play at being free once every Christmas-tide.
But if on this same day, 1851 years ago, instead of being in the great city of Rome, we had been in the little village of Bethlehem in Judaea, we might have seen a sight stranger still; a sight which we could not have fancied had anything to do with that merrymaking of the slaves at Rome, and yet which had everything to do with it.
We should have seen, in a mean stable, among the oxen and the asses, a poor maiden, with her newborn baby laid in the manger, for want of any better cradle, and by her her husband, a poor carpenter, whom all men thought to be the father of her child. . . . There, in the stable, amid the straw, through the cold winter days and nights, in want of many a comfort which the poorest woman, and the poorest woman's child would need, they stayed there, that young maiden and her newborn babe. That young maiden was the Blessed Virgin Mary, and that poor baby was the Son of God. The Son of God, in whose likeness all men were made at the beginning; the Son of God, who had been ruling the whole world all along; who brought the Jews out of slavery, a thousand years before, and destroyed their cruel tyrants in the Red Sea; the Son of God, who had been all along punishing cruel tyrants and oppressors, and helping the poor out of misery, whenever they called on Him. The Light which lightens every man who comes into the world, was that poor babe. It was He who gives men reason, and conscience, and a tender heart, and delight in what is good, and shame and uneasiness of mind when they do wrong. It was He who had been stirring up, year by year, in those cruel Romans' hearts, the feeling that there was something wrong in grinding down their slaves, and put into their minds the notion of giving them their Christmas rest and freedom. He had been keeping up that good old custom for a witness and a warning that all men were equal in His sight; that all men had a right to liberty of speech and conscience; a right to some fair share in the good things of the earth, which God had given to all men freely to enjoy. But those old Romans would not take the warning. They kept up the custom, but they shut their eyes to the lesson of it. They went on conquering and oppressing all the nations of the earth, and making them their slaves. And now He was come—He Himself, the true Lord of the earth, the true pattern of men. He was come to show men to whom this world belonged: He was come to show men in what true power, true nobleness consisted—not in making others minister to us, but in ministering to them: He was come to set a pattern of what a man should be; He was the Son of Man— THE MAN of all men—and therefore He had come with good news to all poor slaves, and neglected, hard-worked creatures: He had come to tell them that He cared for them; that He could and would deliver them; that they were God's children, and His brothers, just as much as their Roman masters; and that He was going to bring a terrible time upon the earth—"days of the Son of Man," when He would judge all men, and show who were true men and who were not—such a time as had never been before, or would be again; when that great Roman empire, in spite of all its armies, and its cunning, and its riches, plundered from every nation under heaven, would crumble away and perish shamefully and miserably off the face of the earth, before tribes of poor, untaught, savage men, the brothers and countrymen of those very slaves whom the Romans fancied were so much below them, that they had a right to treat them like the beasts which perish.
That was the message which that little child lying in the manger there at Bethlehem, had been sent out from God to preach. Do you not see now what it had to do with that strange merrymaking of the poor slaves in Rome, which I showed you at the beginning of my sermon?
If you do not, I must remind you of the song, which, St. Luke says, the shepherds in Judaea heard the angels sing, on this night 1851 years ago. That song tells us the meaning of that babe's coming. That song tells us what that babe's coming had to do with the poor slaves of Rome, and with all poor creatures who have suffered and sorrowed on this earth, before or since.
"Glory to God in the highest," they sang, "and on earth peace, good will to men."
Glory to God in the highest. That little babe, lying in the manger among the cattle, was showing what was the very highest glory of the great God who had made heaven and earth. Not to show His power and His majesty, but to show His condescension and His love. To stoop, to condescend, to have mercy, to forgive, that is the highest glory of God. That is the noblest, the most Godlike thing for God or man. And God showed that when He sent down His only-begotten Son—not to strike the world to atoms with a touch, not to hurl sinners into everlasting flame, but to be born of a village maiden, to take on Himself all the shame and weakness and sorrow, to which man is heir, even to death itself; to make Himself of no reputation, and take on Himself the form of a slave, and forgive sinners, and heal the sick, and comfort the outcast and despised, that He might show what God was like—show forth to men, as a poor maiden's son, the brightness of God's glory, and the express likeness of His person.
"And on earth peace" they sang. Men had been quarrelling and fighting then, and men are quarrelling and fighting now. That little babe in the manger was come to show them how and why they were all to be at peace with each other. For what causes all the war and quarrelling in the world, but selfishness? Selfishness breeds pride, passion, spite, revenge, covetousness, oppression. The strong care for themselves, and try to help themselves at the expense of the weak, by force and tyranny; the weak care for themselves in their turn, and try to help themselves at the expense of the strong, by cunning and cheating. No one will condescend, give way, sacrifice his own interest for his neighbour's, and hence come wars between nations, quarrels in families, spite and grudges between neighbours. But in the example of that little child of Bethlehem, Jesus Christ the Lord, God was saying to men, "Acquaint yourselves with Me, and be at peace." God is not selfish; it is our selfishness which has made us unlike God. God so loved the sinful world, that He gave His only- begotten Son for it. Is that an action like ours? The Son of God so obeyed His Father, and so loved this world, that He made Himself of no reputation, and took on Him the likeness of a slave, and became obedient to death, even to the most fearful and shameful of all deaths, the death of the cross; not for Himself, but for those who did not know Him, hated Him, killed Him. In short, He sacrificed Himself for us. That is God's likeness. Self-sacrifice. Jesus Christ, the babe of Bethlehem, proved Himself the Son of God, and the express likeness of the Father, by sacrificing Himself for us. Sacrifice yourselves then for each other! Give up your own pride, your own selfishness, your own interest for each other, and you will be all at peace at once.
But the angels sang, "Good will toward men." Without that their song would not have been complete. For we are all ready to say, at such words as I have been speaking, "Ah! pleasant enough, and pretty enough, if they were but possible; but they are not possible. It is in the nature of man to be selfish. Men have gone on warring, grudging, struggling, competing, oppressing, cheating from the beginning, and they will do so to the end."
Yes, it is not in the NATURE of man to do otherwise. In as far as man yields to his nature, and is like the selfish brute beasts, it is not possible for him to do anything but go on quarrelling, and competing, and cheating to the last. But what man's nature cannot do, God's grace can. God's good will is toward you. He loves you, He wills—and if He wills, what is too hard for Him?—He wills to raise you out of this selfish, quarrelsome life of sin, into a loving, brotherly, peaceful life of righteousness. His spirit, the spirit of love by which He made and guides all heaven and earth, the spirit of love in which He gave His only Son for you, the spirit of love in which His Son Jesus Christ sacrificed Himself for you, and took on Himself a meaner state than any of you can ever have—the likeness of a slave—that spirit is promised to you, and ready for you. That little baby in the manger at Bethlehem—God sacrificing Himself for you in the spirit of love—is a sign that that spirit of love is the spirit of God, and therefore the only right spirit for you and me, who are men and women made in the image of God. That babe in the manger at Bethlehem is a sign to you and me, that God will freely give us that spirit of love if we ask for it. For He would not have set us that example, if He had not meant us to follow it, and He would not ask us to follow it, if He did not intend to give us the means of following it. Therefore, my friends, it is written, Ask and ye shall receive. If your heavenly Father spared not His own Son, but freely gave Him for you, will He not with Him likewise freely give you all things? Oh! ask and you shall receive. However poor, ignorant, sinful you may be, God's promises are ready for you, signed and sealed by the bread and wine on that table, the memorial of Jesus, the babe of Bethlehem. Ask, and you shall receive! Comfort from sorrow, peaceful assurance of God's good will toward you, deliverance from your sins, and a share in the likeness of Him who on this day made Himself of no reputation, and took on Him the form of a slave.
FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT.
I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection.—1 COR. ix. 27.
In the Collect for this day we have just been praying to God, to give us grace to use such abstinence, that our flesh being subdued to our spirit, we may follow His godly motions.
Now we ought to have meant something when we said these words. What did we mean by them? Perhaps some of us did not understand them. They could not be expected to mean anything by them. But it is a sad thing, a very sad thing, that people will come to church Sunday after Sunday, and repeat by rote words which they do not understand, words by which they therefore mean nothing, and yet never care or try to understand them.
What are the words there for, except to be understood? All of you call people foolish, who submit to have prayers read in their churches in a foreign language, which none, at least of the poor, can understand. But what right have you to call them foolish, if you, whose Prayer-books are written in English, take no trouble to find out the meaning of them? Would to Heaven that you would try to find out the meaning of the Prayer-book! Would to Heaven that the day would come, when anyone in this parish who was puzzled by any doctrine of religion, or by any text in the Bible, or word in the Prayer-book, would come confidently to me, and ask me to explain it to him! God knows, I should think it an honour and a pleasure, as well as a duty. I should think no time better spent than in answering your questions. I do beseech you to ask me, every one of you, when and where you like, any questions about religion which come into your minds. Why am I put in this parish, except to teach you? and how can I teach you better, than by answering your questions? As it is, I am disheartened, and all but hopeless, at times, about the state of this parish, and the work I am trying to do here; because, though you will come and hear me, thank God, willingly enough, you do not seem yet to have gained confidence enough in me, or to have learnt to care sufficiently about the best things, to ask questions of me about them. My dear friends, if you wanted to get information about anything you really cared for, you would ask questions enough. If you wanted to know some way to a place on earth you would ask it; why not ask your way to things better than this earth can give? But whether or not you will question me I must go on preaching to you, though whether or not you care to listen is more, alas! than I can tell.
But listen to me, now, I beseech you, while I try to explain to you the meaning of the words which you have been just using in this Collect. You have asked God to give you grace to use abstinence. Now what is the meaning of abstinence? Abstinence means abstaining, refraining, keeping back of your own will from doing something which you might do. Take an example. When a man for his health's sake, or his purse's sake, or any other good reason, drinks less liquor than he might if he chose, he abstains from liquor. He uses abstinence about liquor. There are other things in which a man may abstain. Indeed, he may abstain from doing anything he likes. He may abstain from eating too much; from lying in bed too long; from reading too much; from taking too much pleasure; from making money; from spending money; from right things; from wrong things; from things which are neither right nor wrong; on all these he may use abstinence. He may abstain for many reasons; for good ones, or for bad ones. A miser will abstain from all sorts of comforts to hoard up money. A superstitious man may abstain from comforts, because he thinks God grudges them to him, or because he thinks God is pleased by the unhappiness of His creatures, or because he has been taught, poor wretch, that if he makes himself uncomfortable in this life, he shall have more comfort, more honour, more reason for pride and self- glorification, in the life to come. Or a man may abstain from one pleasure, just to be able to enjoy another all the more; as some great gamblers drink nothing but water, in order to keep their heads clear for cheating. All these are poor reasons; some of them base, some of them wicked reasons for abstaining from anything. Therefore, abstinence is not a good thing in itself; for if a thing is good in itself, it can never be wrong. Love is good in itself, and, therefore, you cannot love anyone for a bad reason. Justice is good in itself, pity is good in itself, and, therefore, you can never be wrong in being just or pitiful.
But abstinence is not a good thing in itself. If it were, we should all be bound to abstain always from everything pleasant, and make ourselves as miserable and uncomfortable as possible, as some superstitious persons used to do in old times. Abstinence is only good when it is used for a good reason. If a man abstains from pleasure himself, to save up for his children; if he abstains from over eating and over drinking, to keep his mind clear and quiet; if he abstains from sleep and ease, in order to have time to see his business properly done; if he abstains from spending money on himself, in order to spend it for others; if he abstains from any habit, however harmless or pleasant, because he finds it lead him towards what is wrong, and put him into temptation; then he does right; then he is doing God's work; then he may expect God's blessing; then he is trying to do what we all prayed God to help us to do, when we said, "Give us grace to use such abstinence;" then he is doing, more or less, what St. Paul says he did, "Keeping his body under, and bringing it into subjection."
For, see, the Collect does not say, "Give us grace to use abstinence," as if abstinence were a good thing in itself, but "to use such abstinence, that"—to use a certain kind of abstinence, and that for a certain purpose, and that purpose a good one; such abstinence that our flesh may be subdued to our spirit; that our flesh, the animal, bodily nature which is in us, loving ease and pleasure, may not be our master, but our servant; so that we may not follow blindly our own appetites, and do just what we like, as brute beasts which have no understanding. And our flesh is to be subdued to our spirit for a certain purpose; not because our flesh is bad, and our spirit good; not in order that we may puff ourselves up and admire ourselves, and say, as the philosophers among the heathen used, "What a strong-minded, sober, self-restraining man I am! How fine it is to be able to look down on my neighbours, who cannot help being fond of enjoying themselves, and cannot help caring for this world's good things. I am above all that. I want nothing, and I feel nothing, and nothing can make me glad or sorry. I am master of my own mind, and own no law but my own will." The Collect gives us the true and only reason, for which it is right to subdue our appetites; which is, that we may keep our minds clear and strong enough to listen to the voice of God within our hearts and reasons; to obey the motions of God's Spirit in us; not to make our bodies our masters, but to live as God's servants.
This is St. Paul's meaning, when he speaks of keeping under his body, and bringing it into subjection. The exact word which he uses, however, is a much stronger one than merely "keeping under;" it means simply, to beat a man's face black and blue; and his reason for using such a strong word about the matter is, to show us that he thought no labour too hard, no training too sharp, which teaches us how to restrain ourselves, and keep our appetites and passions in manful and godly control.
Now, a few verses before my text, St. Paul takes an example from foot-racers. "These foot-racers," he says, "heathens though they are, and only trying to win a worthless prize, the petty honour of a crown of leaves, see what trouble they take; how they exercise their limbs; how careful and temperate they are in eating and drinking, how much pain and fatigue they go through to get themselves into perfect training for a race. How much more trouble ought we to take to make ourselves fit to do God's work? For these foot-racers do all this only to gain a garland which will wither in a week; but we, to gain a garland which will never fade away; a garland of holiness, and righteousness, and purity, and the likeness of Jesus Christ."
The next example of abstinence which St. Paul takes, is from the prize-fighters, who were very numerous and very famous, in the country in which the Corinthians lived. "I fight," he says, "not like one who beats the air;" that is, not like a man who is only brandishing his hands and sparring in jest, but like a man who knows that he has a fight to fight in hard earnest; a terrible lifelong fight against sin, the world, and the devil; "and, therefore," he says, "I do as these fighters do." They, poor savage and brutal heathens as they are, go through a long and painful training. Their very practice is not play; it is grim earnest. They stand up to strike, and be struck, and are bruised and disfigured as a matter of course, in order that they may learn not to flinch from pain, or lose their tempers, or turn cowards, when they have to fight. "And so do I," says St. Paul; "they, poor men, submit to painful and disagreeable things to make them brave in their paltry battles. I submit to painful and disagreeable things, to make me brave in the great battle which I have to fight against sin, and ignorance, and heathendom." "Therefore," he says, in another place, "I take pleasure in afflictions, in persecutions, in necessities, in distresses;" and that not because those things were pleasant, they were just as unpleasant to him as to anyone else; but because they taught him to bear, taught him to be brave; taught him, in short, to become a perfect man of God.
This is St. Paul's account of his own training: in the Epistle for to-day we have another account of it; a description of the life which he led, and which he was content to lead—"in much suffering, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labours, in watching, in fastings"—and an account, too, of the temper which he had learnt to show amid such a life of vexation, and suffering, and shame, and danger—"approving himself in all things the minister of God, by pureness, by wisdom, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the spirit of holiness, by love unfeigned;" "as dying, and behold we live; as chastened, and not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing all things."—In all things proving himself a true messenger from God, by being able to dare and to endure for God's sake, what no man ever would have dared and endured for his own sake.
"But"—someone may say—"St. Paul was an apostle; he had a great work to do in the world; he had to turn the heathen to God; and it is likely enough that he required to train himself, and keep strict watch over all his habits, and ways of thinking and behaving, lest he should grow selfish, lazy, cowardly, covetous, fond of ease and amusement. He had, of course, to lead a life of strange suffering and danger; and he had therefore to train himself for it. But what need have we to do as St. Paul did?"
Just as much need, my good friends, if you could see it.
Which of us has not to lead a life of suffering? We shall each and all of us, have our full share of trouble before we die, doubt it not.
And which of us has not to lead a life of danger? I do not mean bodily danger; of that, there is little enough—perhaps too little— in England now; but of danger to our hearts, minds, characters? Oh, my friends, I pity those who do not think themselves in danger every day of their lives, for the less danger they see around them, the more danger there is. There is not only the common danger of temptation, but over and above it, the worse danger of not knowing temptation when it comes. Who will be most likely to walk into pits and mires upon the moor—the man who knows that they are there around him, or the man who goes on careless and light of heart, fancying that it is all smooth ground? Woe to you, young people, if you fancy that you are to have no woe! Danger to you, young people, if you fancy yourselves in no danger!
"This is sad and dreary news"—some of you may say. Ay, my friends, it would be sad and dreary news indeed; and this earth would be a very sad and dreary place; and life with all its troubles and temptations, would not be worth having, if it were not for the blessed news which the Gospel for this day brings us. That makes up for all the sadness of the Epistle; that gives us hope; that tells us of one who has been through life, and through death too, yet without sin. That tells us of one who has endured a thousand times more temptation than we ever shall, a thousand times more trouble than we ever shall, and yet has conquered it all; and that He who has thus been through all our temptations, borne all our weaknesses, is our King, our Saviour, who loves us, who teaches us, who has promised us His Holy Spirit, to make us like Himself, strong, brave, and patient, to endure all that man or devil, or our own low animal tempers and lusts, can do to hurt us. The Gospel for this day tells us how He went and was alone in the wilderness with the wild beasts, and yet trusted in God, His Father and ours, to keep Him safe. How He went without food forty days and nights, and yet in His extreme hunger, refused to do the least self-willed or selfish thing to get Himself food. Is that no lesson, no message of hope for the poor man who is tempted by hunger to steal, or tempted by need to do a mean and selfish thing, to hear that the Lord Jesus Christ, who bore need and hunger far worse than his, understands all his temptations, and feels for him, and pities him, and has promised him God's Spirit to make him strong, as He himself was?
Is it no comfort to young people who are tempted to vanity, and display, and self-willed conceited longings, tempted to despise the advice of their parents and elders, and set up for themselves, and choose their own way—Is it no good news, I say, for them to hear that their Lord and Saviour was tempted to it also, and conquered it?—That He will teach them to answer the temptation as He did, when He refused even to let angels hold Him over the temple, up between earth and heaven, for a sign and a wonder to all the Jews, because God His Father had not bidden Him to do it, and therefore He would not tempt the Lord His God?
Is it no good news, again, to those who are tempted to do perhaps one little outward wrong thing, to yield on some small point to the ways of the world, in order to help themselves on in life, to hear that their Lord and Saviour conquered that temptation too?—That he refused all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them, when the devil offered them, because he knew that the devil could not give them to Him; that all wealth, and power, and glory belonged to God, and was to be got only by serving Him?
Oh do you all, young people especially, think of this. As you grow up and go out into life, you will be tempted in a hundred different ways, by things which are pleasant—everyone knows that they are pleasant enough—but wrong. One will be tempted to be vain of dress; another to be self-conceited; another to be lazy and idle; another to be extravagant and roving; another to be over fond of amusement; another to be over fond of money; another to be over fond of liquor; another to go wrong, as too many young men and young women do, and bring themselves, and those with whom they keep company, and whom they ought, if they really love them, to respect and honour, down into sin and shame. You will all be tempted, and you will all be troubled; one by poverty, one by sickness, one by the burden of a family, one by being laughed at for trying to do right. But remember, oh remember, whenever a temptation comes upon you, that the blessed Jesus has been through it all, and conquered all, and that His will is, that you shall be holy and pure like Him, and that, therefore, if you but ask Him, He will give you strength to keep pure. When you are tempted, pray to Him: the struggle in your own minds will, no doubt, be very great; it will be very hard work for you—sin looks so pleasant on the outside! Poor souls, it is a sad struggle for you! Many a poor young fellow, who goes wrong, deserves rather to be pitied than to be punished. Well then, if no man else will pity him, Jesus, the Man of all men, will. Pray to Him! Cry aloud to Him! Ask Him to make you stout-hearted, patient, really manful, to fight against temptation. Ask Him to give you strength of mind to fight against all bad habits. Ask Him to open your eyes to see when you are in danger. Ask Him to help you to keep out of the way of temptation. Ask Him, in short, to give you grace to use such abstinence that your flesh may be subdued to your spirit. And then you will not follow, as the beasts do, just what seems pleasant to your flesh; no, you will be able to obey Christ's godly motions, that is, to do, as well as to love, the good desires which He puts into your hearts. You will do not merely what is pleasant, but what is right; you will not be your own slaves, you will be your own masters, and God's loyal and obedient sons; you will not be, as too many are, mere animals going about in the shape of men, but truly men at heart, who are not afraid of pain, poverty, shame, trouble, or death itself, when they are in the right path, about the work to which God has called them.