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Show Us the Father

Show Us the Father

Show Us The Father

Philip saith unto Him, Lord, shew us the Father, and it sufficeth us. Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known Me, Philip? He that hath seen Me, hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Shew us the Father?   John 14:8, 9.

Great S. Mary’s Church, Advent Sunday, 1868.

The opening of S. John’s Gospel speaks of One, Who has been with God from eternity, Who is God Himself. This Being, so described, the Evangelist calls the Logos—the Divine Reason, the Divine Word. He is the Divine Reason, for He is the expression of God’s will in the creation and government of the Universe. He is the Divine Word, because through His operations alone God reveals Himself, God speaks, as it were, to our finite capacities. This Word of God is His Agent in all His words and works, howsoever and whensoever He manifests Himself. This is no less true of the natural world, than of the spiritual world. All things were created, all things are sustained, through Him. Here is the Evangelist’s starting-point. And having thus with eagle eye swept the whole field of the Universe in one comprehensive glance, he gradually narrows his range of view and concentrates his gaze, until it is fixed on the very focus of light, the visible presence of the Shekinah on earth, the Incarnation of this Word of God.

(1) First, from the material creation he passes to the intellectual and moral creation. Whatsoever of knowledge, whatsoever of wisdom, whatsoever of invention, whatever discernment of physical facts, whatever insight into human affairs, whatever yearning after heavenly truths, has been vouchsafed to mankind in any age—to the savage in the first dawn of intellect and conscience, and to the sage in the full noontide blaze of his heightened faculties—all these, the first germ and the latest development, are the gift, are the indwelling, of the Divine Word. He is ‘the life,’ and He is ‘the light of men.’ The mental and moral growth of individuals and societies and nations alike are due to Him. He originates, He inspires, He developes, He ripens into maturity. His dominion is as complete in the region of mind and spirit, as in the region of physical growth and physical change.

(2) This—the passage from the material to the moral and intellectual world—is the first stage in the Evangelist’s progress towards his goal, the first contraction, the first intensification, of his vision. And then comes another.

This Word of God has indeed illumined and quickened all men and all races in their several degrees, Buddha and Confucius and Zoroaster, Zeno and Pythagoras, Indians and Persians, Babylonians and Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. He has been present in universal history, as He has been present in every individual soul of man. But nevertheless He has specially visited one family, one race. There was a prerogative tribe selected in due time from the rest, a firstfruits of the nations of the earth, a peculiar people consecrated to God. Though there be many tributaries, the main stream of religious history runs in this channel. To this nation the Word of God came as to His own inheritance, spake as to His own household—spake by lawgivers and prophets, by priests and kings, spake in divers stages and divers manners, spake with an intensity and a power and a directness, with a continuity and a fulness, with which He spake to no other nation besides. In neither case was the response equal to the appeal. Among the nations at large ‘the light’ shone ‘in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not:’ to the descendants of Abraham ‘He came as to His own’ vineyard; yet ‘His own received Him not.’ Nevertheless among both—among the nations whom He approached through the avenues of the natural conscience, and among the Israelites to whom He spake in the piercing tones of Inspiration, there were those who did feel His presence, did hear His voice; and these were rescued from their grovelling, material, earthly life, were born anew in Him, were made sons of God through God the Word.

(3) And having thus passed by successive stages first from the physical world to the moral world, from universal nature to universal history, and next from universal history to the records of the one prerogative race, the Evangelist lastly concentrates our thoughts on a single incident in these records, a single link in the chain of the Divine dispensation. He has just directed us to the one conspicuously bright line which traverses the plane of the world’s history; and now he guides our eye along this line, till it is arrested at one intensely brilliant point, in which are concentrated the illuminating rays of the Word of God, which is the focus of the spiritual development of mankind. The Word, Whose voice was not unheard even by Gentiles, Who spoke still more clearly in the writings of the Old Covenant and the career of the chosen people, ‘was made flesh and dwelt among us’—not only spoke through man, but identified Himself with man. The dream of Jewish doctors, who looked forward to the advent of Messiah’s kingdom, the day of redemption when the Divine glory should rest once more on the mercy-seat, was here fulfilled, though they discerned it not. The Shekinah was restored once more to the Temple. The bright light—brighter far than of old—did rest once more over the Sanctuary. The Word of God ‘tabernacled’ among men. ‘And we,’ adds the Evangelist, the beloved disciple, the familiar friend of the Word Incarnate, speaking with the intensity of a strong, unchangeable, personal conviction, ‘we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father.’

Such is the Divine philosophy of creation and history and religion, as sketched by the pen of S. John. He views the Gospel of Christ, the Incarnation of the Son of God, not so much in contrast, as in connexion, with the natural heavenward aspirations of man, with the other religions of the world. The Incarnation is not an isolated fact, not the one only operation of the Divine Word. It is indeed unique, is paramount, does transcend, far transcend, all other operations. The lesson is higher, but still the Teacher is the same. It is the explanation of the past, the culminating point of human history, the consummation of God’s revelation to man. For now first the Divine and the human are united in immediate and inalienable contact. But it does not stand alone; nor does it profess an affinity only with the Jewish dispensation. God has revealed Himself also in nature and in history, in the workings of the individual conscience and in the education of the whole race. The folds of the veil in each case may be more or less dense. But to those who have eyes to read and hearts to understand, though it may partially screen, it cannot conceal, the Divine Presence behind, the awful majesty of the Eternal Father. And I cannot but express my own strong conviction that, if Christian apologists and Christian divines were more ready to accept the teaching of S. John in this respect, and to survey the religions of the world from the commanding ground which he has marked out for them; if, instead of accentuating the contrasts and dwelling only on the follies and wickednesses, they would investigate more diligently and recognise more gladly the elements of the Divine teaching in all, even the more degraded, forms of heathen worship; if they would track out the foot-prints of the Word of God impressed now faintly, and now more vividly, on the sands of universal history, they would find not only that numberless objections to Christianity founded on the partial resemblances, the imperfect graspings after truth, in other religious systems, would melt away in the process, but that a flood of new light would at the same time be shed upon the significance and the power of the Gospel.

It was not however with any intention of dwelling at length on this general question, that I have thus called attention to the main bearing of the opening paragraphs of S. John’s Gospel. But this introduction is the key to the meaning of the whole narrative. Our Lord’s words related therein require to be read by the light of this prologue, if we would enter into their full meaning. They are the utterances not only of Jesus the Deliverer, the Redeemer of His people, the long-expected Christ of Israel; but they are the utterances also of the very Word of God, Who was in the world from the beginning, and now in these last days speaks to men in the flesh.

So it is with the expression in the text. The Master has just foretold to His little band of followers, that He and they must soon part. With this severance in view He bids them cling closer to one another, love one another as brothers. He warns them that He must go alone, that they cannot follow Him. The announcement fills their hearts with dismay. He seeks to allay their sorrow. Let them trust in God. He is going to prepare an abode for them. He will come again, and take them home with Him. ‘Whither I go,’ He adds, ‘ye know, and the way ye know.’ Thomas here breaks in, doubtful and desponding as ever. Half reproachfully he asks, ‘Lord, we know not whither Thou goest, and how can we know the way?’ Then Jesus declares Himself to be the Way, the only Way, to the Father. Knowing Him, they must know the Father. ‘And,’ He adds, ‘henceforth ye know Him, and have seen Him.’

It is not now Thomas, but Philip, who takes up the conversation—a different man and a different temper. In the records of the other Evangelists, Philip the Apostle is a name only. In S. John’s Gospel, he appears as something more than a name, as a well-defined character. Very early tradition represents him in later life residing in Asia Minor, in the same region as the beloved disciple himself. It may be therefore that the Evangelist had local reasons for dwelling on those few incidents in which Philip takes a prominent part. At all events, few though they are, these incidents seem to reveal the man’s character very clearly. His is a precise, careful, matter-of-fact mind. He is wanting in spiritual insight, but he is prompt and ready in action. It may be, as some have thought, that he was the steward of the little company, just as Judas was the treasurer. If so, we have an easy explanation of the fact that our Lord puts to him the question how the five thousand are to be fed. If so, again, we may see how on another occasion some Greeks, when they wish to obtain access to our Lord, would naturally come in contact with him, and address themselves to him first. At all events, whether or not he had a business vocation connected with his discipleship, he had at least a business turn of mind. There is a precision and minuteness in the few sentences ascribed to him by the Evangelist, which cannot be quite accidental. ‘We have found Him, of Whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ ‘Two hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may take a little.’ He is anxious for himself, and he is anxious for others, that everything should be subjected to the faithful testimony of the eyes. In answer to Nathanael’s question in the opening of the Gospel he says eagerly, ‘Come and see.’ In reply to our Lord’s declaration in the text, it is his first impulse to seek ocular proof, ‘Shew us the Father, and it sufficeth us.’ A very ancient tradition relates that this Philip was the disciple who in another Gospel pleads, ‘Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father,’ and is answered by the rebuke, ‘Let the dead bury their dead; but go thou and preach the kingdom of God.’ This tradition is true to character, and I can well believe it true to fact. It is not so much the request, as the temper which dictates the request, that our Lord there rebukes. And such a temper is Philip’s.

‘Only let us see the Father,’ he says, ‘and we ask nothing more. Then there will be no more hesitation, no more vagueness, no more cowardice, no more repining. This will console us, will strengthen us, will inspire us. We shall not shrink from being left alone. We shall bear our severance manfully, cheerfully. We shall be ready to do and to suffer anything. Vouchsafe us one glance, one glance only. We ask nothing more. To see is to believe.’

The demand may be made, and doubtless is made, in many different tempers. There are those who, like Philip, make it in the earnest desire to find a surer standing-ground for their faith, who eagerly wish to dispel the last shadow of doubt, who are prepared to follow up their belief, once confirmed, are ready to live and to die for it. Only they must first be certified, must first have seen. There are others who, consciously or unconsciously, have persuaded themselves that by the mere act of making the demand they have thrown off a load of responsibility, that, until they get an answer, they are free to act as they like, free to live as though there were no Father in Heaven, because they do not see Him. And, lastly, there are some who make it in a temper directly opposed to Philip’s, who demand to be shewn the Father in the same spirit in which Pilate asked to know, ‘What is truth?’ mocking while they interrogate and determined to accept no reply. Or they refuse to make the demand at all, because they have persuaded themselves that it is an absurdity. There is a dark, impenetrable veil, they say, separating the seen from the unseen, the world of sense from the world of spirit. At least there is a dark, impenetrable veil; but whether it conceals anything or nothing, they do not care to ask. It may, or it may not, screen the awful form of an Eternal, loving Father. It may, or it may not, separate us from a life of immortality, a world of spirits, a heaven of bliss. You cannot raise the veil; you cannot see through it. It is easier, better, wiser to desist from the attempt—to rest content to play your little part on this world’s stage creditably and comfortably, and to leave the rest—not to faith, not to God: here would be the old delusion again—but to blind chance, to blank uncertainty.

But in whatever temper men may make the demand—in eagerness or in apathy or in mockery—the fundamental error is still the same. They look for a kind of proof, which the subject does not admit. They appeal to organs which are not cognisant of spiritual things. If it is not by the senses, so neither is it by theological and scientific faculties, that we can apprehend God, can see the Father. These faculties may verify, may explain, may systematize; but they cannot give the insight, cannot create the belief. I doubt whether the most elaborate proofs of the being and attributes of God, the most subtle expositions of the evidences of Christianity, have done very much towards establishing even an intellectual assent. I am quite sure they have been all but powerless in commanding a living, working belief. It is by the Spirit alone that spiritual truths are discerned. ‘Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard … but God hath revealed.’ Every man has this spiritual faculty. He may deal with it, as he may deal with any other faculty. He may enfeeble it by disuse, he may crush it by main force: or he may educate and quicken and intensify it. And according as he does the one or the other, so will be his spiritual insight, his consciousness of the Father’s presence.

And this is the force of our Lord’s reply in the text. ‘Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known Me, Philip? He that hath seen Me, hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Shew us the Father?’ You ask for an external, tangible demonstration which will not, which cannot, be granted to you. You entirely mistake the nature of the knowledge which you seek, of the means by which it is attained. Meanwhile all the elements of this knowledge are open before you. The Father has unveiled His face to you, and you have not seen Him. In His Word throughout all ages, in His Word incarnate in these latter days, He has spoken to you, and you have not heard Him. Now for these three years He has shewn Himself to you twelve men, as He has never shewn Himself before. And this is the end, this is the misapprehension even of those to whom His glory has been most fully and nearly revealed—this dissatisfaction, this blindness, this ignorance, this demand, ‘Shew us the Father?’

To ourselves, as to Philip, the rebuke is addressed. ‘Have I been so long time with you, and hast thou not known Me—not known Me, the Word of God, Whose seal is set on all nature and all history; not known Me, the Incarnate Son, Whose personal ministry is written in the Gospels, and Whose name is stamped on the life of the Church?’

And now on this Advent Day, when once again the great fact in the history of man, the most perfect unveiling of the Father through the Incarnation of the Word, is brought before us; and, starting from this, we are bidden to gaze into the future, and to realise the second more terrible, more glorious coming, when the veil of the Heavenly Temple shall be torn aside for ever, and the awful Presence shall be revealed to us in all His majesty, all His holiness, all His power, all His love, when we shall know, even as we are known—now on this day it is not unfitting that we should ask ourselves, how far our spiritual organs have grown used to the brightness of His presence, in what temper we have made the demand, ‘Shew us the Father,’ and whether we have deserved the rebuke, ‘Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known Me?’

‘Have I been so long time with you in the studies of this place, I, the Word of God, the expression of the Father’s mind?’ Have you busied yourselves with the manifold relations of number and space, and have the order, the simplicity of principles, the variety of results, the inexhaustible combinations, the infinite possibilities, chained and entranced you without striking one chord of religious awe, without inspiring one feeling of reverence towards the mind of the Eternal Word? Or has your time been spent on the investigation of external nature? Have you studied her in her grander developments, traced the motions of the heavenly bodies, the fluctuations of tides, the changes of seasons, followed the many divergent phenomena to the one, grand, comprehensive, all-pervading law, but have you stopped here? Has this law veiled, or has it revealed to you, the Eternal Word, of Whom it is the very sign-manual? Might it not be better, like the untutored barbarian, to see God in the clouds and to hear Him in the winds, than to refuse to see Him in the dynamic laws by which the clouds are shaped and reshaped, and to refuse to hear Him in the acoustic principles which give their voices to the winds? Or has your mind been directed to the investigation of more minute, but not less wonderful, processes of nature—the marvels of the vegetable world, for instance? What has ‘a yellow primrose’ been to you? A yellow primrose only, or something more? Yes, a little more; something of which you may count the stamens and the petals, something of which you may name the class and the genus and the species, of which you may investigate the structure and the functions and the geographical distribution. But has it, or has it not, been to you a revelation of the beauty, the order, the power, the love, of the Eternal Word? ‘By Him all things were made, and without Him was not anything made that was made.’ Has He been so long time with you, and yet have ye not known Him?

Or again; have you traced the intricate subtleties of language, examined its vocabulary and analysed its syntax, speculated on its origin, its development, its decay? And have you seen only adaptations of human organs, only processes of human thought? Have you found no traces of the Father’s presence here? Have you spent hour after hour on the literature of the two greatest nations of antiquity? And have you listened, as though only Greeks and Romans are speaking to you? Have you heard no echo of the Divine Word, sounding above and through the din of human voices; seen no impress of the Divine Mind—blurred and partial though it was—in the philosophic penetration of the one and the legal precision of the other? Have you pored over the long roll of human history—so much lengthened out for you in these later days by the discoveries of the ethnologer and the antiquarian—have you traced the successions of epochs, the divergences of races, mapped out their several provinces in the development of humanity, marked the lines of progress running through the ages, floated on the stream of knowledge and civilisation broadening slowly down? And has all this opened out no revelation of the Word, though the scroll is written over with His name within and without? He is the light and the life of men. These were records of continually enlarged life, of ever-increasing light. ‘Has He been so long time with you, and have ye not known Him?’

I have spoken of the Word in nature, and the Word in history—of the Word in mathematical conceptions, and the Word in human speech. I have done so because to ourselves, as students, these applications of the text seem to appeal with peculiar force. It is here that we should learn to know the Word, and to see the Father. Yet once again I would not be mistaken. Neither philology, nor mathematics, nor nature, nor history will of themselves teach this lesson. But the Spirit will speak through these studies to the spiritually-minded: will quicken them with a higher life; will impart through them a revelation of God.

But to us, and to all alike, the Word of God has spoken in other and clearer tones. He became flesh, and He dwelt among us. He has lived on earth with us in the Gospels, and He lives still by His Spirit with us in the Church. He came to open the grave, to redeem us from sin, to sanctify our lives through His life. He came to quicken our natural yearnings after heaven, to enlighten our imperfect conceptions of deity. He came to bring home to our hearts the all-embracing love of God, Who sent His only-begotten Son to die for us, and to be a propitiation for our sins. He came to shew us, not the Omnipotent, not the Avenger, not the Judge, but the Father.

‘And we have seen His glory’—seen it in the record of those three short years which speak to us in the pages of the Evangelists with a freshness and a force which no time can tarnish or decay; seen it in the long lapse of those eighteen centuries of Christian History, in which He has lived again in the lives of His saints, and died again in the sufferings of His heroes. Has He then been so long time with us, and yet have we not known Him? Do we still ask to be shewn the Father?

To have seen the Father—this is comfort, this is strength, this is joy, this is life. Have we seen Him—not we vaguely, but have you individually, have I individually? To those who have, such language will be felt to be no exaggeration. If only for a moment we have caught His shadow resting on our chamber wall, as He has passed by; if only in a fleeting glance we have arrested the glory streaming from the fringe of His mantle, then this one revelation has been to us a source of infinite satisfaction and strength—better far than months and years of our earthly, selfish, sinning life. When sorrow overclouds, when temptation assails, when sickness prostrates and death closes over us, this and this only—this sense of a Father’s presence—can animate and sustain us, can give us energy to act and courage to bear.

Is it not worth while to strive hard for the attainment of this, worth while to pursue it with something more than the zeal of the athlete in pursuit of victory, or the student in pursuit of knowledge—with something of the desperate, pertinacious, absorbing passion, which the miser devotes to his hordes of gold. Without such earnestness it will not be attained. The loftiest crags are the hardest scaled. And this is the topmost crest of all, whence all the heights of human ambition are dwarfed into insignificance. It is not by listless aspirations, not by decent observance of religious forms, not by dutiful acquiescence in orthodox creeds, not by minute and painful criticism of the Scriptures, that the crown will be won: but by wrestling with the angel of God in prayer, and forcing a blessing from him; by cultivating to the utmost all your faculties of mind and soul, that you may offer to God a less unworthy gift; by sustained and rigorous discipline exerted over your passions, your desires, your sluggish neglects, your perverted activities; by the unreserved surrender of self to Him. So, and so only, may you hope that the Father will unveil Himself before you, will speak with you face to face, as a man speaketh with his friend.

For the young man, who is prepared to do this, who is ready to surrender not this or that desire only, but himself to God, a great work is in store—a work which may well fire the divinest ambition of youth, a work which is only possible at long intervals and in stirring times like the present. This is confessedly a great crisis in the history of the Church, in the history of the world—a crisis full of hopes, and full of fears. Of these hopes, these fears, you young men are the heirs. Our time is passing rapidly; our day is far spent. Something ere the end may perhaps yet be done—something, but very little. On you the future depends. When your call from God may come, what your commission from Him may be, I cannot tell. This is hidden in the depths of His counsels. But the preparation, the discipline, the self-surrender, must begin at once. Even now you must hasten to your Father’s presence, and fall at your Father’s feet. Do this, and wait patiently. The great work, it would seem, of your generation is to reconcile the present and the past. Study therefore the present in the light of the past, and the past in the light of the present; but study both in the light of the Divine Word. See in both, see in all things, the Father’s presence. Take your commission directly from Him. Seek instruction directly from Him. He is the only infallible teacher. I know only too well, that he who speaks to you now has no claims from anything he has done, or anything he has suffered, to be heard on so lofty a theme; but I know this also, that, if he were allowed to indulge one hope only, it would be this; that a chance spark thrown off from his anvil should have burnt into the soul of some young man here present, and lie smouldering there, until hereafter it shall burst out into a flame, which shall rise ever higher and burn ever brighter, when he himself has passed away and is forgotten.

Lightfoot, J. B. (1890). Cambridge Sermons. London; New York: MacMillan and Co. (Public Domain)

What Avantageth It?

What Avantageth It?

What Advantageth It?

If after the manner of men I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantageth it me? If the dead rise not, let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die.  1 Corinthians 15:32.

Trinity College Chapel, 5th Sunday in Lent, 1866.

In an earlier passage of this Epistle S. Paul compares the career of the Apostles to a scene in a Roman amphitheatre. He imagines a vast concourse brought together from all ages and climes; Greek and Barbarian, Roman and Jew, the living and the dead, dwellers on earth and denizens of heaven, the whole universe of sentient beings, assembled in one countless multitude to witness the spectacle prepared for them. Tier beyond tier, they stretch away into the far distance, till the eye loses itself in the dizzy indistinguishable throng, fading at length into a faint haze, a quivering glow, of sentient life. And while they thus broaden out in wedge-like masses into the infinitude of space and time, every face and every eye of this vast multitude is concentrated on the lists below. There at the command of the Omnipotent King, Who presides over the spectacle, drawn forth from the obscurity of the dark prisons where they have been reserved until the given signal, and exposed to the curious gaze of these thronging myriads, the Apostles come forward to do His behest. Chained to the car of Christ, they had swollen the train which attended the victor’s triumphant progress: and now they are condemned to the fate of the vanquished and enslaved. Patriarchs and prophets, priests and kings, have fought in this same arena. But the interest of the combat is intensified, the spectacle has reached its climax, as they—the Apostles—step forth last, naked and defenceless, at the Almighty President’s word, to do battle with the well-trained and well-armed gladiators of the world, or to grapple with the fierce monsters of ignorance and sin. Then indeed this vast amphitheatre is instinct with eager expectation: the eyes of all are bent down on the impending struggle; some with a savage thirst for blood, some with the scorn of an impartial curiosity, some with tender pitiful sympathy. It is a fearful ordeal; to fight against such antagonists, to fight thus unarmed, to fight under the scorching gaze of this multitudinous throng.

So may we venture to draw out the image contained in the Apostle’s words, ‘I think God hath set forth us the Apostles last, as men condemned to death; for we are made a spectacle unto the world, both to angels and to men.’ Nor condemned as common captives or common criminals only, but as the lowest refuse of humanity, the scapegoats of their race and time, too vile to live, fit only for the cruel sports of the arena, if by chance the wrath of the offended powers might be appeased by their destruction; ‘We are made as the filth of the world, as the offscouring of all things.’

Once again, in the words which I have chosen for my text, the Apostle returns to this striking similitude. As he argues against those who doubted or denied the immortality of man, the resurrection from the dead, he appeals to this great, moral spectacle, as the witness of the human conscience to something more real and more enduring than earthly pleasures or pains. ‘Why stand we in jeopardy every hour?’ Is it conceivable that a man should be willing to die daily; to give up all that makes life enjoyable and to be ready to give up life itself; to contend in this arena of a profligate Asiatic capital, a focus and stronghold of heathendom; to stake his life on the issue of an unequal struggle with the savage monsters let loose upon him, with the concentrated force of an ancient and popular superstition, with the selfish zeal of a wealthy and powerful craft, with the ignorant fury of an excited mob; unless he looked through the near considerations of earthly loss and gain, and saw the heavens opening beyond. Why else should he adopt a course so foolish and suicidal? ‘If after the manner of men,’ if regarding only transient mundane interests, ‘I fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantageth it me?’ If this world be all, if heaven be a shadow and hell a fable, then a sane man cannot hesitate for a moment: ‘If the dead rise not, let us cat and drink, for to-morrow we die.’

It is a sublime conception, this amphitheatre of the universe contemplating the struggles and sufferings of a handful of feeble, persecuted outcasts. It would be a bold hyperbole, if the crisis had been less critical, the issues less important. But if, as we believe, this was the turning-point of the world’s history, if Christ indeed came down from heaven to bring life and immortality to light, if to the Apostles was entrusted the greatest work which has ever taxed the courage and the energies of man, then the occasion cannot be held at all unworthy of the image.

But though the work of the Apostles was so far an exceptional work, though the image thus appropriate could not be applied without exaggeration to any less signal contest, yet it may be taken in some measure to describe the career of the benefactors of mankind, the servants of God, in all ages. The concourse is still assembled; the lists are still open. The same fight must be fought; the same antagonists vanquished. And according as the crisis grows in importance, as the strain on the individual combatant increases, as the antagonism gathers strength and fury, as through obloquy and contempt and persecution the heroic champion of God fights his way to the right and to the truth, just so far may it be said of him, that like the Apostles of old he has been ‘set forth as one condemned to death;’ has been ‘made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men.’

But from this vast bewildering concourse of earth and heaven, let us turn to the little amphitheatre which immediately surrounds us, and concentrate our thoughts on the narrow lists in which we ourselves are ‘set forth’ to slay or be slain. Even within these limits the assemblage of spectators is sufficiently large and august to awe and stimulate us. A history of more than three centuries gazes down upon our arena. A gathering of great men, such as probably no other College can shew within the same period—historians, poets, statesmen, scholars, divines, interpreters of law, investigators of truth, preachers of righteousness—a long line of spiritual and intellectual ancestry—witnesses our combats. This may be a matter of honest pride and congratulation; or it may be our deepest humiliation, our darkest reproach. Their name, their lustre, their example, are our inheritance; to drag in the dust, or to crown with fresh glory. In the presence of this silent concourse of the past we are called forth by God to do battle for Him.

One honoured name has been recently withdrawn from the lists of the combatants, and added to the ranks of the spectators. Our grand old Master—our pride and strength—has passed from us to them. It is very hard to realise the change. His vacant stall, our mourning badges, speak to us in vain. We can think of him only as we saw him, not so very many days ago, still buoyant and vigorous and full of life; ‘his eye not dim, nor his natural force abated;’ his step still firm and his carriage erect as ever. All, who observed him of late, rejoiced to see that the shadow which had darkened the last year of his life was passing off. Old studies thrown aside were taken up again. Old interests blunted by sorrow were recovering their keen edge once more. Time seemed only to have mellowed and ripened his character, without decaying his faculties. The screen, which long had hidden his large capacity of affection and strong yearning for sympathy, known to a few and suspected by many more, was falling away. And he, whom all admired and respected, was becoming every day better known and more endeared to all.

By all members of this College far and wide, even by those to whom he was personally unknown, his death will be felt as a personal loss. To us here it has left a sense of vacancy, which before it occurred we could hardly have imagined. So many various interests were linked with his name. So many cherished associations are buried in his grave. His removal seems like a great severance from the past.

Even if he had not risen to any special eminence, still by his unbroken residence of more than fifty years in the College, and by his high position as ruler of our little commonwealth, he would have been so intimately associated with the every-day thoughts and acts, would have occupied so large a space in our memory, that his death must have been deeply felt. But he was recognised by all as no common man. If we are inclined to distrust our own estimate, as the partial expression of College pride, in this instance at least the appeal to a larger public will not reverse our verdict. In his published works he has covered a wider field than any living writer; and those, who have conversed with him in private, record with wonder his familiar acquaintance with the farthest outlying regions of knowledge in its lower as well as in its higher forms. What value will be attached by after-ages to his various literary and scientific works, it would be vain to predict; but this at least we may say, that in his own generation and country he has held the foremost rank, if not in precision, at least in range and vigour of intellect.

And these great powers he consecrated always to the highest ends. He is ever a religious teacher in the truest sense. One strain runs through all his works; one cord threads together his earlier and later writings; the days of his literary life are ‘bound each to each by natural piety.’ The world of matter without, the world of thought within, alike speak to him of the Eternal Creator, the Beneficent Father. These are the strophe and antistrophe of the sublime chorus of Nature; the two witnesses who prophesy before the throne of the God of Revelation. If with the Psalmist he tells how ‘The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament sheweth His handy-work,’ with the Psalmist also he passes on from the outward witness of creation to the inward witness of the heart, ‘The law of the Lord is an undefiled law converting the soul, the testimony of the Lord is sure and giveth wisdom to the simple.’ The evidences of Natural Theology formed the subject of his earliest writing by which he became widely known, his Bridgewater Treatise. And this same chord he struck in his last sermon preached in this Chapel not many days before his fatal accident; when choosing a theme strangely prophetic, as it seems now, of his approaching death, and speaking of Him ‘Who is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending,’ he passed on from the creation of the world to its dissolution; and in words of striking force thus painted the great and final crisis; ‘No mountains sinking under the decrepitude of years or weary rivers ceasing to rejoice in their courses;’ ‘No placid euthanasia silently leading on the dissolution of the natural world.’ ‘But the trumpet shall sound; the struggle shall come. This goodly frame of things shall expire amid the throes and agonies of some fierce and sudden catastrophe. And the same arm that plucked the elements from the dark and troubled slumbers of their chaos shall cast them into their tomb.’

On such subjects he wrote often: sometimes with startling boldness, but always with deep reverence. Indeed his tone seems to rise in solemnity, as his speculations grow more daring; for what nobler passage can be shewn in poet or philosopher or divine, than the majestic language in which, speaking of the ‘waste’ of Creation, he suggests that the other bodies of the universe are ‘rolled into forms of symmetry and order, into masses of light and splendour, by the vast whirl which the original creative energy imparted to the luminous elements out of which they were formed;’ and describes the planets and stars as ‘the lamps which have flown from the potter’s wheel of the Great Worker; the shred-coils which in the working sprang from His mighty lathe; the sparks which darted from His awful anvil when the solar system lay incandescent thereon; the curls of vapour which rose from the great cauldron of Creation when its elements were separated.’

But while the world without will judge him only by his writings, on our gratitude he has other and stronger claims. During the last quarter of a century, in which he has ruled over us, the College has enjoyed almost unexampled prosperity. How far this is due to the greatness of his name and the generosity of his administration, it would not be easy to decide. But after making all allowance for the fond partiality of a recent regret, we may fairly say that as a Master of the College he stands out pre-eminent in the long list of three centuries; as a man of letters, greatest of all since Bentley; as a munificent and patriotic ruler, greatest of all since Nevile; but, as uniting in himself many and various qualifications which combined go far towards realising the ideal head of a religious and learned foundation, the just representative of a famous academic body, greater than these or any of his predecessors. Vast and varied mental powers, untiring energy and extensive knowledge, integrity of character and strictness of example, a wide and generous munificence, a keen interest in University progress, an intense devotion to his own College, a strong sense of duty, a true largeness of heart, a simple Christian faith; the union of these qualities fairly entitles him to the foremost place among the Masters of Trinity.

For he was most truly our own; our own by long residence, our own in all his feelings and interests, our own in his passionate love for the place. He has been heard to say that the sky always seemed to him brighter, when framed by the walls and turrets of our Great Court; and in his dying hours he desired to have the blinds raised, that he might look once more on this familiar scene, so fair and pleasant to his eyes. This touching incident of his last illness is typical of his whole life. All the currents of his being seemed to set towards this one channel. He delighted to connect the incidents of his domestic life with the College. He inspired his private friends with his own enthusiasm for the College. He was very proud of Trinity, and Trinity was very proud of him.

Our own always; not in his triumphs only, but in his sorrows also. I cannot forget—I do not think that any one who saw him can forget—how on this same Sunday a year ago, in the earliest hours of loneliness, in the first flush of grief, he appeared in this Chapel to join his prayers with ours, rightly judging this the fittest place for the weary and heavy-laden, not shrinking from us as from strangers, nor fearing to commit to our sympathies the saddest of all sad sights, an old man’s bereavement and a strong man’s tears.

I have spoken of his College feeling; but College feeling with him was not a proud isolation, a repulsive narrowness. If he represented the College, he represented the University not less truly. His College was to him only the centre and focus from which his interest radiated. As in his last princely bequest to the University, so in all the acts of his academic life, he regarded Trinity College as holding a great trust for the benefit of that larger body of which it forms a part, from which it derives strength, and to which it communicates strength in turn.

He has gone from us, leaving as a legacy his name and his munificence. He has bequeathed to us also his bright example. His race is run: his torch has passed into our hands full burning; to keep ablaze or to quench, as we will. In intellectual eminence we cannot follow him. But the moral qualities, which clustered about his mental power, may be imitated even by the least gifted among us. The unflagging energy which overcame all disadvantages, the manly courage which ever disdained unworthy applause, the simple faith in God through Christ which in him was thrown into stronger relief by his large acquaintance with all branches of human knowledge; such qualities as these are not beyond the reach of any. His example supplies a fresh incentive, as it imposes a fresh responsibility.

The Master’s death occupies the first place in our thoughts. But this is not the only loss we have sustained during the last fortnight. While we were committing his remains to their final resting-place, an older contemporary—a gentle and loving spirit—was passing silently away. He too, though unknown to most of us, had spent the best part of his life in this place, and devoted his freshest energies to the College. He was a scholar, as those bear witness who heard him here, ‘a ripe and good one;’ but he was very much more than a scholar. As a Tutor of this busy College, and as a parish clergyman in his quiet northern home, he was one and unchanged; the same pure, single-hearted, blameless man, humble and childlike, loving and loved by all. His words were the counterpart of his deeds; his books the reflection of his life. In the Rectory of Valehead and the Bishopric of Souls was traced the unconscious portrait of the Vicar of Heversham.

As each successive combatant is withdrawn from the lists, as we lay first one and then another in an honoured grave, the question will rise in our hearts, ‘To what end are these well-fought battles, these hardly-won victories?’ If true life is, as not only the Christian Apostle but even the Stoic philosopher called it, a warfare; if men praise and honour most after death those who in their lifetime grappled with difficulties, conquered unruly passions in themselves, subdued ignorance and vice in others, faced misunderstanding or endured persecution; if we strive by their example to nerve ourselves for the same arena in which they have fought before; should we, or rather can we, refrain from asking for them and for ourselves, ‘What advantageth it?’

To this question the Apostle saw one answer only. It is difficult to conceive any other. If the dead rise not, then these unselfish struggles, these lifelong labours, are mere vanity; then the world’s chief benefactors are its greatest losers. It is folly to forego present advantage, to incur present reproach, to sacrifice this life, if there is no life beyond the grave. Then it were better, like those reckless citizens of Judah, who in the presence of a dangerous foe gave themselves up to feasting and revelry, to live only for the moment and cast no thought beyond; then the motto adopted by them and by pleasure-seekers in every age is after all the golden rule of life; ‘Let us eat and drink; for to-morrow we die.’

For, though we stifle the voice, it will still make itself heard. Humanity cannot be thus forcibly repressed. A religion or a philosophy, which neglects this elemental instinct of our nature, which holds out no rewards, stands self-condemned. It is an irresistible impulse which leads to the question, ‘What advantageth it?’ which suggests the train of thought, ‘Why stand I in jeopardy every hour?’

And yet a voice equally clear proclaims in still more commanding tones, that self-denial is better than self-indulgence; that it is noble and good to devote ourselves to the advancement of truth and to works of love; that it is noblest and best of all to pursue this course in the teeth of opposition and obloquy, ‘enduring the cross and despising the shame,’ reaping no reward on this side the grave. We cannot call such men fools; we respect and admire them; we desire to be like them; we envy their courage, their perseverance, their lofty self-devotion.

The resurrection of the dead, the life to come, is the only solution of the perplexity, the sole harmonizer of these two conflicting voices. And accordingly, as the human race progressed in culture, as the moral faculties were more fully developed, the doctrine of man’s immortality became more and more prominent.

Yet still it remained a speculative opinion, a vague yearning, a shadowy hope. At length the signal was vouchsafed. The Son of Man rose from the grave. The doubtful hypothesis became an accredited fact, the settled belief of distant nations, the entailed inheritance of successive ages. To the perplexing question, ‘What advantageth it?’ a full and final answer was given, ‘Now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first-fruits of them that slept.’

With this assurance he, whom we mourn to-day, lived and laboured and died. With this assurance we laid him in his grave, looking forward to a joyful resurrection. With this assurance let us all—young and old—now devote ourselves anew to the service of God in Christ, recalling our baptismal pledges and resolving, as far as in us lies, to make this College a Holy Temple of His Spirit in all sound learning and all godly living.

Lightfoot, J. B. (1890). Cambridge Sermons. London; New York: MacMillan and Co. (Public Domain)

The Mirror of God's Glory

The Mirror of God's Glory

The Mirror of God’s Glory

We all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory.  2 Corinthians 3:18.

Trinity College Chapel, 24th Sunday after Trinity, 1875.

A very few words will suffice by way of preface to explain the metaphor here used by S. Paul. He is dwelling on the universality, the freedom, the absence of reserve, in the Christian dispensation as contrasted with the Mosaic. He tells us that the character of the Law is prefigured by an incident which occurred at its promulgation. It is related that when the two tables were renewed and God confirmed His contract with His people, the event was emphasized by a remarkable occurrence. The face of Moses shone with an unwonted light as he descended from the Mount. It was the reflection of the Divine glory still lingering on his countenance, as he went out from the Eternal Presence. This light dazzled, confused, terrified the Israelites. They were afraid to come near him. So he veiled his face. When he returned to the presence of the Lord, he removed the veil. This occurred several times. Each time, as he presented himself before the people, the veil was drawn over his face, so that they saw not the radiance gradually waning on his features. Each time, as he repaired again to the presence of the Eternal Light, it was taken off, that the fading brightness might be renewed from the effulgence of the Divine Glory.

Though the details of this imagery present some difficulties, its main lesson, with which alone we are now concerned, is clear.

The Old Dispensation had a glory of its own. This was signified by the light which glowed on the face of Moses. But the glory of the Old was not comparable to the glory of the New. It was partial, intermittent, transitory. It had its hour, and it waned into darkness. Every word of the text points to some feature in which the superiority of the Gospel was manifested. ‘We all,’ says the Apostle, ‘we all’ gaze on the fuller light of the New Dispensation; all—young and old, high and low, ignorant and learned, priests and people, all without exception and without stint. It was not so then. The people were not admitted to the vision of this glory. The people remained at the foot of the mountain. Moses alone ascended to the height; Moses alone gazed on the Divine effulgence. Of the light itself the Israelites saw nothing. They merely caught a glimpse of the dim, fading reflection, as it rested for a moment on the face of God’s messenger, ere it passed away—a glimpse too bright for their aching eyes, but dark indeed compared with the cloudless, peerless glory of the Eternal Light Himself. But the contrast does not end here. ‘We all,’ continues the Apostle, ‘with open face,’ or more literally, ‘with unveiled face.’ Even this secondary borrowed light, this dim and imperfect reflection was not unobstructed, in the case of the Israelites. They were permitted to look for a moment; and then the veil interposed, the glory was withdrawn. But we—we Christians—gaze unimpeded. No intervening obstacle darkens our view. There is no cessation, and no intermission. Even with Moses it was otherwise. The light came and departed. It faded away and it was renewed again. He went in and went out from the presence of the Lord. But we stand ever before the Eternal Glory: we gaze continually, stedfastly, uninterruptedly. And so the radiance, which lights up our own features, grows ever brighter and brighter, till gradually our whole being is changed; the effulgence of the Eternal Presence takes possession of us: it illumines, glorifies, transforms us wholly into its own likeness. ‘We are changed,’ says the Apostle, ‘changed into the same image, from glory to glory.’

Thus all the expressions are carefully chosen to glorify the Christian Dispensation. One idea alone seems at first sight to jar with the general motive. The Apostle speaks of our ‘seeing in a glass or mirror;’ he declares that we ‘are changed into an image.’ Is not this a qualification, a disparagement, a concession, we are tempted to ask? After all then we see only a reflection; after all we do not behold the very thing itself. After all we are dependent on a darkened, confused, imperfect representation of the Divine Original.

A seeming disparagement, but not really so. There are mirrors and mirrors—mirrors which blur and distort and discolour the image, and mirrors which by the perfect accuracy and polish of their surface reproduce the object with life-like exactness. Let us ask then what S. Paul intended by this glass and this image, which represents the Divine Glory to our sight? How, by what instrumentality, through what medium, is the Invisible God rendered visible to us? His own context furnishes the answer to the question. He speaks of some who are so blinded that they cannot see ‘the light of the glorious Gospel of Christ,’ or, more literally, of ‘the Gospel of the glory of Christ,’ the Gospel, which exhibits, reveals the glory—the bright effulgence, the heavenly radiance, of Christ—Who, continues the Apostle, is the image of God. Here then is the mirror, the Gospel-revelation; here is the image, the Eternal Son; here is the glory, the words, the works, the life, the death, the resurrection, the sovereignty, the personality of Christ. This mirror we are permitted to face; on this image we are told to gaze; from this glory we are bidden to draw ever fresh accessions of light, till we are transformed into the very image itself, and its glory becomes our glory.

Again in this same context the Apostle recurs to the metaphor. Again he describes the Gospel as the light of the knowledge of God which shineth forth in the face of Jesus Christ—in the face, the person, of Jesus Christ. Yes, He has brought the Father near to us: we look upon the face of the Son, and we see the glory of the Father. Thus S. Paul’s idea here is the same as when, in the Epistle to the Colossians, he writes that Christ is ‘the image of the invisible God,’ or as when, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, the Son is called ‘the brightness of the Father’s glory and the expression of His person.’ The Apostle uses the word ‘image’ here as it is used in another passage of the Epistle last quoted, where ‘the very image of the good things to come’ is contrasted with ‘the shadow,’ as the real and true with the unsubstantial and unsatisfying. It is therefore no confused, partial, distorted, inadequate copy, of which the Apostle speaks. It is the very representation of the original itself. ‘He that hath seen Me, hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Shew us the Father?’

It is this thought, which fills the Apostle’s heart with thankfulness, and floods his lips with praise—the thought of God brought near to men, God revealed in all His goodness, all His holiness, all His majesty, all His power, in the Person and Work of Christ; revealed not to a favoured few, not to a priestly caste, not to a philosophical coterie, not to the learned or the wealthy, or the powerful or the privileged, not to the great ones of this world in any guise; but to all without exception and without reserve.

And this revelation of the Invisible Father through the Incarnate Son is as extensive as it is complete. It reaches to all men, even the lowest, and it contains all truth, even the highest. Already the New Jerusalem, is seen by the eye of faith coming down from heaven ablaze with the glory of the Almighty; already the tabernacle of God has descended and is pitched among men; already we are permitted to gaze on the jewelled walls and the gates of pearl, and the pavement of pure gold; to bathe in the brightness of that Eternal City, which knows not either sunlight or moonlight, ‘for the glory of God doth lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof.’ It was not so before. God spoke of old in types and figures; He fenced Himself about with restrictions many and various, restrictions of time, of place, of person, of ceremonial. The symbol of His presence, the glory overshadowing the mercy-seat, was withdrawn from the eye of men; the holy of holies was hidden by a veil. But in Christ all is changed. The veil is suddenly rent in twain from top to bottom. The inmost sanctuary is exposed to view. The true Shekinah, the Person of Christ, shines forth in all the glory of its unapproachable beauty and brightness. And we—we feeble, unworthy, sin-stained, death-stricken men—are suffered, are invited, are entreated, nay, are compelled to come in, and to gaze on the peerless sight, till our own nature is changed by the absorption of its rays, and we are ‘transformed into the same image from glory to glory.’

To look upon the face of Christ—Christ the image of God, Christ the effulgence of His glory, Christ, Whom having seen we have seen the Father also—this is the priceless blessing, as it is also the terrible responsibility, which falls to us Christians.

And this privilege, this duty, is absolutely without limit. There is nothing in heaven or earth; nothing in science or in history or in revelation; nothing of beauty or of goodness or of wisdom or of power; nothing of creative design and adaptation, and nothing of redeeming mercy and love; nothing in the kingdom of nature, and nothing in the kingdom of grace, which does not fall within its range. I say, the kingdom of nature, as well as the kingdom of grace. For ask yourself what S. Paul means, when he speaks of Christ as the image of God. His own language in the Colossian Epistle supplies the answer. He means not only the Incarnate Christ, the Christ of the Gospel, the Christ Who was born of woman and died on the cross; but he means also the pre-incarnate Son, the Eternal Word, Who was with the Father before all time, by Whom He created the universe, through Whom He sustains all nature and directs all history, in Whom alone He is known and can be known to men.

When therefore we are bidden to contemplate the glory of the Eternal Father in the face of Christ, when the Apostle tells us to gaze on the mirror of His Divine perfection, that we may absorb into ourselves the rays of His glory, no limit is placed to the object of our contemplation.

And the fourfold Gospel, as the record of Christ’s sayings and doings, is the mirror in which this image is to be viewed. The birth, the earthly life, the passion, the resurrection of the Eternal Word made flesh—here is the climax of God’s goodness, the very focus of the ineffable glory, which guards the throne of Him ‘Who dwelleth in the light unapproachable, Whom no man hath seen nor can see.’ Here in the gift of His Son, here in the sacrifice of the Cross, is our light, our hope, our life. We look out on the natural world, and we see much which betokens infinite wisdom and power—beneficent adaptation, creative design, wonderful combinations of beauty and utility; but we see much also that perplexes and dismays—the great waste of life and energies (seeds that produce no plants, and plants that yield no fruit), the reciprocal infliction of pain (creature preying upon creature, and itself preyed upon in turn), physical decay and moral corruption—sin and death around and about us everywhere. These things strike the believer with awe, and barb the taunt of the sceptic. But read such facts, as S. Paul read them, in the light of the Gospel. Contemplate the glory of God’s purpose as revealed in the person of Christ. Consider how much is involved in that one act of infinite love; and you will no more question the goodness of your Heavenly Father. Though the awe and the mystery must still remain, you will not doubt (how can you?) that in Christ He has purposed, as S. Paul tells us, to release the whole universe now groaning under the bondage of corruption, to gather in one all things in heaven and earth, and out of discord and rebellion to restore universal harmony and peace.

This then is the very sum and substance of the Gospel. This is the one continuous, progressive, endless lesson of the Christian life—this study, this contemplation, this absorption of the purposes, the attributes, the goodness, the glory of the Father as manifested in the life and works, in the person, of Christ. There is no understanding so mean, and no intellect so untutored, that may not learn its true significance. It is as simple as it is profound. There are depths which the most thoughtful philosopher cannot fathom, but there are heights which the merest child can scale. This is the great glory of Christianity, the glory which filled S. Paul’s heart with thanksgiving. It is open to all; it is adapted to all; it is attainable by all. It is theology brought down from the skies; it is heaven planted upon earth. This it is, because we contemplate the glory of the Father in the face of Christ. This it is, because the Son of Mary, the babe of Bethlehem, is also the Son of God, the Eternal Word. The Infinite is brought within the comprehension of the finite. The far-off is far-off no longer.

This then must be the main business of our lives—the study of the Christ of the Gospels. We are constantly warned against the divorce of religion and morality; and we need the warning. No divorce could be more soul-destroying than this. That which God has joined together—joined by bonds the most sacred, and intimate, and indissoluble—it is the rankest of all heresies, the most profane of all blasphemies, for any man to part asunder. But from any such danger the study of which I speak will save us. For in this image of the Divine Glory doctrine and practice meet in one; in this mirror of the Divine Purpose theology and morality are blended together. It is the spontaneous, unequivocal testimony, even of unbelievers, that no better guidance in life can be taken than the example of Christ; that, if a man would learn how to act in a particular case, he should ask himself how Christ would have acted under like circumstances. Here is the morality. It is the highest experience of all believers, that the realisation of their union with God in Christ is the first and last effort, as it is the supreme blessing, of the spiritual life. Here is the religion.

And this study, to be effective, must be real, must be intense, must be personal. It is not the contemplation of the sentimentalist, or of the critic, or of the artist, or of the poet, or of the dogmatist, that will be of any avail. These may affect the feelings, the taste, the imagination, the reason, the intellect; but they do not probe the heart and conscience, and they do not touch the life. The true study is nothing less than the appropriation of the Divine image; the constant recalling, realising, copying, growing into it; till the Divine fascination of its glory possesses us wholly.

So gazing in this mirror, so studying this image, we ourselves shall be changed. This is the only test of the true mode of contemplation. We ourselves shall be changed and glorified—not changed now, as we shall be changed then, when in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, this corruptible shall put on incorruption and this mortal shall put on immortality; not glorified now, with the incomparable glory which shall be revealed hereafter—but changed nevertheless into the similitude of Christ Who is the image of God; glorified with the glory which He had with the Father before the world was; changed by the purification of our hearts, by the devotion of our spirits, by the renewal of our lives; changed with an ever-deepening change which is a foretaste and an earnest of the great hereafter; changed, as we read that the countenance of that first martyr was changed, when the bystanders looked up and saw his face as it were the face of an angel. For we too, like Stephen, shall have seen the heavens opened; we too shall have gazed upon the Eternal Glory; we too shall have beheld ‘the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God.’

Lightfoot, J. B. (1890). Cambridge Sermons. London; New York: MacMillan and Co. (Public Domain)

The One God and the Gods Many

The One God and the Gods Many

The One God and the Gods Many

‘Though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth, (as there be gods many, and lords many,) but to us there is but one God, the Father, of Whom are all things, and we for (unto) Him.’ 1 Corinthians 8:5.

Trinity College Chapel, 24th Sunday after Trinity, 1873.

We read in the Gospels that on one occasion, when our Lord was plied on all hands with casuistic problems by those who sought to entangle Him in His talk, He Himself confronted His interrogators with one simple, searching question, ‘What think ye of the Christ?’

This question has been repeated again and again by Christian preachers with effect. Speaking to professedly Christian people, they have desired to sound the depths of their convictions, to test the ground of their hopes; and they have seen no better way of attaining this end, than by forcing an answer to the question, often repeated, yet ever fresh, ‘What think ye of Christ?’

But the question which I desire to put this morning, and to which I wish to elicit a reply, is more elementary still. It strikes home to the very foundations, not only of Christianity, but of religious conviction in any sense. Before we ask, ‘What think ye of Christ?’ let us be ready with our reply to the prior question, ‘What think ye of God?’

What think ye of God? Is it novel and startling to be addressed in such language? Does it seem superfluous to put this question in a Christian age, in a Christian country, to a Christian congregation? And now especially—now as we approach our Advent Season, when the services of the Church will strike the keynote of patience and joy and hope; now when our eyes are straining to catch the first glimpse of that bright presence, the glory of the Only-Begotten, the Shekinah once more resting visibly over the mercy-seat of God’s providence; and our ears are intent to arrest the first preluding notes of that angelic strain, announcing the dawn of a new era, when glory shall be to God in the highest—is it not incongruous, is it not cruel, to ask a question which implies this deep misgiving, to interpose this stern demand as a screen before the beatific vision, to interrupt the heavenly harmonies with this jarring, jangling note?

And yet, when, on the one side, the author of a movement, which arrogates the proud title of the philosophy of religion of the future, lays down as his fundamental maxim, that society must be reorganised, without a king and without a God, on the systematic worship of humanity, and by the instrumentality of this new religion, which is the direct negation of theology, proposes to regenerate the world; when, on the other hand, a scientific leader of the day, whose bold epigrammatic utterances are sure to arrest the ear, though they may not convince the mind and cannot satisfy the heart, warns us against this panacea of the positivist, this worship of the Great Being of Humanity, denouncing it in no measured terms as a gross fetichism and a crushing spiritual tyranny, and then calls us to follow him, not that we may throw ourselves, our temptations, our sorrows, our struggles, at the feet of the Everlasting and Loving Father, but that we may assist him in erecting once more an altar to the Unknown and the Unknowable, thus reversing the lesson which the Apostle taught to the bewildered Athenians on Mars’ Hill long ages ago, and signing away by one fatal stroke the glorious acquisitions of eighteen Christian centuries; when discordant voices assail us on all sides, saying, Lo, here is God! or Lo, there! or Lo, He is somewhere or other! or Lo, He is nowhere; then, I say, we have good reason to ask, whether we will suffer ourselves to be diverted from the old and tried paths, or whether, on the other hand, though there be that are called gods many, yet we have, and we have had, but one and the same God, and that God a Father, in Whose all embracing arms we rest in filial trust and hope and love? If the answer of our hearts to this is clear, prompt, unhesitating, then we shall lack nothing. Then in all our joys and all our griefs, in adversity and in prosperity, in youth and age, in health and sickness, living and dying, we shall feel the strength of His sustaining presence. Then ‘though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we shall fear no evil;’ for He will be with us; ‘He is our shepherd;’ ‘His rod and His staff comfort us.’

When S. Paul wrote these words, it was more than ever true, that there were gods many, who claimed the allegiance of men. By the extension of the Roman Empire the barriers between nation and nation had been broken down. There was a general fusion of thought and of practice. With the native merchandise and with the hereditary customs of distant lands, the superstitions and the deities also were imported. Thus indigenous religions and foreign religions were everywhere bidding against each other for popular acceptance. Here it was the grave, stately political worship of ancient Rome; and there it was the artistic, imaginative worship of ancient Greece. Here it was some political conception deified; there it was some power of nature; and there again it was some physical condition of man, not infrequently some vile and degrading passion, whose apotheosis demanded recognition. Here the animal-worship of Egypt presented its credentials; there the star-worship of the farther East clamoured to be heard. Last of all—a creation almost of S. Paul’s own day—the latest and boldest innovation had been made; Roman emperors by virtue of their office had received divine honours in their lifetime, and become gods on their decease. Only the other day a self-indulgent, cowardly weakling like Claudius had been translated to Olympus, and there enthroned as a deity; and he who now wielded the imperial sceptre, destined to develope into a very monster of human wickedness, a proverb and a byword to all generations—tyrant, sensualist, matricide—would, it seemed, in due course take rank as a god with his predecessors. This was the result (it is a serious thought) of the highest civilisation which the world had ever seen—when in intellectual culture, in political organization and material appliances, in the arts of peace and the arts of war, human society seemed to have reached the zenith; and in the pæans of her poets and the eulogies of her orators the unrivalled glories of queenly Rome were extolled with never-ceasing praises—this result, this apotheosis of monstrous human vice, this vile parody of religion, this outrage on common sense and common decency.

Truly there were gods many, whether in heaven or on earth. In this chaos of conflicting claims, where could the devout and reverent mind obtain satisfaction? At what altar, to what God, were prayer and sacrifice to be offered?

The picture of Athens, as given in S. Luke’s narrative, is a type of the state of the whole civilised world at that time. It was delivered over to idols of diverse kinds, some beautiful, some grotesque, some hideous, but idols, phantoms all—mythical heroes and dead tyrants, living animals and living men, human lusts and human ambitions, fire and blood, grove and mountain and storm, sun and star, social institutions and physical endowments—each vying with the other for the adoration of mankind. And some there were, who, notwithstanding this glut of deities, felt that their deepest wants were yet unsatisfied, yearned after a loftier ideal of Divinity; and so when some strange visitation had befallen them, striking home to their hearts and intensifying their religious emotions, vaguely conscious of the promptings within them, and feeling blindly after a more substantial truth, they erected an altar to some yet unrecognised power, dedicating it ‘to an Unknown God.’

To a God yet unknown to them; but, Heaven be thanked, not unknowable to them, or to us. Christ came and revealed; Paul came and preached. On that anonymous altar, which had been reared in the forlorn heart of humanity, he inscribed the missing name—the name of the Eternal Father, the One True God, ‘of Whom are all things, and we unto Him;’ the name of the Eternal Son, the One True Lord, ‘by Whom are all things, and we by Him.’ With an iron pen, in characters indelible, it was graven on the rock for ever. It might indeed have seemed that in the tumultuous clamour of so many voices this new name would have been smothered and have passed away unheeded. It could never have been predicted—no human prescience could have seen so far—that startled by the accents of that unknown name, and scared by the glory of that new light, this multitudinous throng of idols would have vanished out of sight, and hid themselves for ever, with the owls and the bats, in their congenial darkness.

Yet so it was. The blank was filled in. The secret, after which mankind had been groping, was brought to light; the mystery hidden from the ages, revealed. And men saw, and believed. They could not be deceived. Here was the answer to the vague, mysterious questionings within them; here was the satisfaction to the aching, bewildered soul, which panted to slake its thirst in the fountains of Eternal Love.

And by faith they received the truth. From its very nature it could not be apprehended by sight. From its very nature also it was incapable of demonstrative proof. It was not like those mathematical conceptions, which are the primary conditions of thought; it differed wholly from those physical laws, which we establish by processes of extensive induction. Its proof was not external to itself: its evidence was contained in itself, was itself. Its correspondence with the deepest wants, and the loftiest aspirations, of the human heart was its credential; a correspondence as between the wards of a lock and the notches of a key. It claimed to be light; and, if it was light, then it was truth also. This was the simple test. As light it demanded admission. And the verification of its claim was in the result. To those that believed, this was their assurance, that, in their believing, ‘power was given them to become sons of God;’ to those that believed not, this was their condemnation, that ‘the light was come into the world and they loved the darkness rather than the light.’

And now, in these last days, the words of S. Paul are again applicable, though in a different way. There are that are called gods, whether in heaven or on earth, not a few. They too are idols, phantoms, though unlike the idols of old. Graven images, stocks and stones, material, tangible gods, these they are not; but wan, vague, fantastic spectres, haunting the dim twilight of thought, fascinating the imagination of men, and diverting their gaze from the contemplation of the truth.

There is first the God of philosophical deism—the most specious and the least repulsive of all these idols. He is One, Eternal, Omnipotent. He is in some sense Creator and Governor of the Universe. So far, there is truth. But He is not a Father. He is a mere metaphysical conception, a necessity of the intellect but not a satisfaction to the heart. He can hardly be called a Person. If He be a Person, He is at least so distant, so abstract, so incognisable to us, that we can hold no personal relations with Him. He is not a Father—certainly not our Father—not yours and mine. We know nothing of Him: we can only describe Him by negations. We cannot pray to Him, cannot love Him. He does not love us. It is doing violence to this abstract conception to speak of God as love. God has not spoken to us, God has not redeemed us, God has not given us assurance of our immortality. And so, notwithstanding the concession that God exists, that He is One and Eternal, we are still left alone in the world—alone with our struggles and our temptations, alone with our griefs, alone with our sins, alone with all our vague longings, alone with our poor, aching, unsatisfied, human hearts. We are thrown back on our own despair.

From the God of the deist we descend to the God of the pantheist. Nature is God; nature as a spirit, or nature as inanimate energy—this may be doubtful—but nature in some way. There is no God independent of, and external to, nature. And so we ourselves are part of God; not only the spiritual element of our being, but the emotional and the material elements also, our souls, our bodies, our passions, our vices. Yes: our very vices—there is no pausing in the downward series. Sin is an idle word, an empty delusion. The name must henceforth be blotted out of our vocabulary, the idea banished for ever from our conceptions. Our vices—or what we call our vices—not less than our virtues, are processes of the Divine energy, are expressions of the Divine will. And the anathema of the Apostle must be reversed. Be not deceived—the unrighteous, the murderers, the adulterers, and the thieves, and the covetous, and the drunkards, and the extortioners, these inherit the kingdom of God, nay, these are the kingdom of God. They are—it is the inevitable logical consequence of the theory—they are in God and God in them.

I will not stop to enquire what disastrous effect the worship of this God, if it became general, would have on the moral condition of mankind. I seem to see some faint indication of its effects in past history, where some one energy of nature, such as Baal or Astarte, has been held up as an object of adoration. I thankfully acknowledge that the theory is not carried to its strict logical consequences by those who hold it, that it has not been able to stifle the witness of God, the All-Holy, All-Righteous, All-Loving Father, in their heart, that their moral principles rise above their intellectual belief. But I ask you, sons of God, will you exchange the worship of your Heavenly Father for a religion, that confounds the eternal distinction of right and wrong, and orders you to renounce for ever as delusive those ideas, to which you owe (you cannot be mistaken here) whatever is noblest and best, whatever is most exalting and most energizing within you?

From the idol of the pantheist it is one step to the idol of the materialist—I say the idol, for I can no longer say in any sense the God. Law takes the place of Nature. The spectre of a God, which still remained to the pantheist, has now vanished; and the gulf of atheism yawns at our feet. The idea of sin had already been blotted out; the idea of responsibility, by this time reduced to a shadow, now disappears with it. It is idle, senseless now, to talk of morality. At least, if we use the term, we must stamp it with a value wholly different from that for which it has hitherto passed current. Law—inevitable sequence, fatal necessity—is the inexorable tyrant, who reigns autocratic not only in the domain of physical phenomena, but also in the domain of moral purpose and moral action; not influencing, not limiting our conduct only, but all-pervading, omnipotent, absolutely determining that which we call our will, and forcing irresistibly those which we call our actions. All our language, and all our conceptions, must henceforth be changed. It is as foolish to blame a murderer for his crime, as it would be to blame a stone for falling to the ground. These are thy gods, O Israel! Is this light or is it darkness? Interrogate your consciousness; take counsel of your heart, and so give an answer.

And lastly; the positivist offers for our worship his god, which is no God. He sees rightly that man cannot live without religion; and, having blotted God out of the world, he is bound to provide a substitute. So he sets up a new idol; he bids us fall down and worship the Great Being, Humanity. What is this but the final reductio ad absurdum of atheistic speculation? How can we prostrate ourselves before a mere abstract conception, a comprehensive name for the aggregate of beings like ourselves, with our own capricious passions, our own manifold imperfections—some higher and some viler, much viler, than we are? What satisfaction is there for our cravings after an ideal perfection? What power is there here to convince of sin, to redeem from self, to sanctify, to exalt to newness of life? What consolation in our sorrows, what resistance in our temptations, what strength, what hope, what finality?

And now, that we have tried all these gods many, which have a place in the Pantheon of modern speculation, and found them wanting, whither shall we betake ourselves? Shall we close with the advice which has been tendered to us, as the best which in the present chaotic state of opinion we can adopt; and content ourselves with cherishing the most human of man’s emotions by worship at the altar of the Unknown and Unknowable? What altar? What worship? What emotions? If the object of our adoration is unknown, the adoration itself must be blind, capricious, unsteady, worthless. As our conception of God, so will be our worship; and as our worship, so will be our lives. If we deify a bloodthirsty tyrant like Moloch, then his temple will reek with the blood of innocent children: but if we enshrine in our hearts the idea of an All-Loving, All-Holy, All-Righteous God, our Father, then on the altar of a self-denying life we shall offer with filial reverence the sweet incense of holiness and love. It is not a matter of indifference, it is a matter of the utmost moment, what are the theological beliefs of the individual, of the nation, of the age. By their ideas men are most powerfully swayed, and their idea of God is the first and most potent of all.

But you are a Christian. You have never yielded to any of these modern idolatries. You have remained faithful in your allegiance to the God of Revelation. This is well. But have you obscured His glory, have you distorted His image, with unworthy conceptions of your own? Have you indeed seen in Him the Father, the Father of yourself and of all mankind, tender, pitiful, longsuffering (albeit righteous), Who willeth not the death of a sinner, Who would have all men come to the knowledge of the truth? Or have you imposed some narrow restrictions of your own on His Fatherhood? Have you limited His merciful design to an elect few, a small circle to which you yourself belong, and complacently condemned all mankind besides to His eternal wrath? Have you represented the sacrifice of Christ, not as a manifestation of God’s love, but as a thwarting of God’s anger? Have you in your crude, hard, unscriptural definitions practically denied the perfect unity of the Son with the Father in the Eternal Godhead, adoring one as the dispenser of all mercy, and cowering before the other as the fountain of all vengeance and woe?

Not such the lesson of the text. This one confession, ‘We have one God the Father, of Whom are all things and we unto Him,’ is supplemented and explained by yet another confession, ‘We have one Lord Jesus Christ, through Whom are all things and we through Him.’ The Incarnation of the Son is the manifestation of the Father. The life of Christ is the verification of the love of God. In Christ’s words and works, in His Passion and Resurrection, we read the expression of the Father’s will, we trace the lineaments of the Father’s face. And so we no longer adore the Unknown. We know what we worship. We have seen and heard. We may not ignore, and we cannot forget. Henceforth His Fatherly love is an abiding presence with us. Henceforth He is about our path by day and about our bed by night; felt, adored, loved. He is our comfort, our stay, our hope. Holy Father, teach us, strengthen us, command us, use us. Chastise us, if it must be so, that Thou mayest purify us. Kill us, if it must be so, that Thou mayest make us alive. But, whether living or dying, we are Thine. Of Thy love we are assured. In Thine everlasting arms we rest in patience and hope, till the dawn of the final and glorious Advent shall break, and we shall see Thy face, and know Thee as Thou art.

Lightfoot, J. B. (1890). Cambridge Sermons. London; New York: MacMillan and Co. (Public Domain)

Except it Die

Except it Die

Except it Die

That which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die.  1 Corinthians 15:36.

Trinity College Chapel, Sexagesima Sunday, 1873.

There is no one in this congregation who will not be reminded by these words of some one moment—the most solemn in his life. He will recall the time when he joined in the slow-paced procession, and listened to the mournful language of the Psalmist bewailing the shadowiness, the vanity, the futility of human life, and stood over the yawning grave, and shuddered at the sharp rattle of the soil on the coffin-lid, and then looked down and read the brief memorial—the name, the age, the date—all that remained to the eye of the varied activities of an exuberant life. And then he turned away, thinking sadly of the warm heart that had ceased to beat, and the bright smile which would greet him no more, and the never-failing sympathy which henceforth he would invoke in vain.

And yet, in the midst of his deepest grief, all is not grief. Underlying the pain of immediate loss is a hope, an assurance, which thrills him with a feeling of joy, almost of rapture. He has listened, and his heart has responded, to the great pæan of victory which the Apostle sung eighteen centuries ago over the last enemy fallen, and which the Church repeats as each time she consigns a son or a daughter—no longer to the darkness of despair, but to the hope of a joyful resurrection. And as personal experience and suggestive analogy and impassioned remonstrance and vivid imagery all contribute in turn to the force and fulness of the Apostle’s appeal, his heart and mind are wrought into harmony with the magnificent theme, till he joyfully responds to the final Hallelujah, ‘Thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’

‘Through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ It is to the triumph of the Gospel embodied in these last words that I would ask your attention this morning. The description of Christ’s work given by one great Apostle is this; that by His appearing He ‘abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light.’ The thanksgiving to God for Christ’s mission uttered by another is this; that ‘according to His abundant mercy He hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.’ Death vanquished, immortality assured—this, in the language alike of S. Paul and of S. Peter, is the fruit of Christ’s epiphany to the world.

I propose therefore to enquire into the significance of these Apostolic sayings; and I do not know any better starting-point for the thoughts which the subject suggests, than the language of the text, ‘That which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die.’ The difference between death with Christ, and death without Christ, could not possibly have a more striking illustration than in the sentiment which dictated these words. For observe, the Apostle does not speak here merely of death conquered, death annihilated, death put out of sight; but death is retained, is transformed, is exalted into an instrument of God’s merciful purpose. Death is no longer an unknown terror, but a joyful assurance. Death is the necessary condition of a higher life. ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but, if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.’ Christ’s death bore fruit in the life of the whole world. Each man’s death shall bear fruit in his own individual life. But in both cases alike the divine law is the same, ‘Except it die.’ Where there is no death, there can be no life.

All external nature, all human institutions, ourselves, our affections, our fame, our carefully devised plans, our solidly constructed works, all are subject to this inevitable law. It may be a question of days or of centuries; but the end is the same. Decay, dissolution, death—from these there is no appeal. All creation groaning and travailing in pain together, seeking to be delivered from the bondage of corruption—this idea is not the feverish dream of an overwrought religious sensibility; it is the practical experience of every day and every hour. And yet, though the fact is so patent, human feeling, aye and in some sense human conviction, is a persistent struggle against the operation of this law. We will not, we cannot, resign ourselves to it. Life, permanent life, is a craving of our inmost nature; life, not only for our own personality—though this is a primary aspiration of our being—but life also for whatever is noble, whatever is beautiful, whatever is good. We cannot endure the thought that such should perish. It seems to be a denial of its very nature, that it should exist for a brief span and then pass away. Between the experience of actual fact then, and the invincible craving of the spirit, there is apparently a direct antagonism. No compromise, no truce, between the one and the other seems possible. It is only when we fall back on the idea in the text, ‘Except it die,’ that we approach at length to a solution of the problem. Here is the true consolation of humanity amidst the wrecks of an ever-decaying and perishing world. Here is the only reconciliation between the fact without and the yearning within.

I do not know any enigma more perplexing than that the freshness, the enthusiasm, the exuberant vivacity of youth should give way to the dull cold monotony of middle age. It seems as though all that is fairest and most glorious in the human creature were fated by a stern law of his nature to be crushed out at the very moment when it gives the brightest promise; as though the moral life of man were only too faithfully pictured in the growth of the flower or the maturity of the fruit, and ripeness and bloom must be the immediate precursors of corruption and decay. It is a sad thought that the brightness and the buoyancy of youth must be overclouded and weighed down with the cares and the cynicisms and the distrusts of the grown man; that the freedom of youth must be fettered by the self-woven entanglements of maturer age; that the enthusiasm of youth must be numbed and deadened by the freezing moral atmosphere of worldly experience. It is a sad thought, and it would be an intolerable thought, save for the assurance involved in the words, ‘Except it die.’ Only at the cost of youth can the grander acquisitions of mature life be purchased, heavy as the price may seem. Only on the ‘stepping-stones of their dead selves’ can men rise to a higher life, painful and rugged though the path must be.

And so again with human institutions. Grand philanthropic schemes, powerful organisations for the service of God and the good of mankind, societies banded together on principles of absolute self-devotion, projects carried out by individuals at a sacrifice of everything that men commonly hold dear—all these perish in rapid succession. Not the nobleness of their ideal, nor the devotion of their champions, nor the grandeur of their results, can save them from decay. Corruption comes, not seldom comes earliest in the noblest. They pass away, like the fabled order of the blameless king, lest one good custom—even the best—should corrupt the world. Here again, what is the consolation of mankind for the loss, but the law of progress enunciated in the words, ‘Except it die?’ The institution dies, but the work remains. The example, the inspiration, the idea, develope into a higher life. Over the mangled corpses of dead endeavours and dead institutions—the forlorn hope of history—over the ranks that first scaled the strongholds of ignorance and wrong, humanity presses forward and storms the breach and plants the standard on the surrendered heights.

But these examples, pathetic though they are, will bear no comparison with the death of which the text directly speaks, the dissolution of the natural life of man. We call death a trite theme. Trite it is in one sense. Poets and preachers and moralists and philosophers have spent themselves upon it. Trite it is—trite enough. With every beat of the second’s pendulum, almost with every word that I utter, one human being is passing away into eternity. But worn-out, threadbare, this it is not, and can never be. Its tragic interest only increases with reflection: its strangeness grows stranger with familiarity. Is there one even in this congregation of young men, who passes a week, or a day, without casting at least a transient thought—if it be no more—on the time when he will be severed from all the associations and interests of the present, when the studies and the amusements that have attracted him, and the projects that he has planned, and the companionships that he has formed, will be as though they were not, and he will set forth on his last long journey, stripped of everything, isolated and alone? Can any one, whose affections are warm, look on the face of another with whom his life is bound up—of mother or sister or friend—without sometimes thinking, and trembling to think, that the severance must come at length, may come at any moment, when nothing will remain but the memory of a love which was dear to him as life itself? Death is a theme of never-dying interest to us. It has a fascination for us. We cannot put away the thought, even if we would.

And at the present time especially this theme appeals to us with more than its wonted power. During the few past weeks great men have been falling thick on every side. Names famous in government, famous in science, famous in law, famous in literature, have swelled the obituary of the opening year. And within the narrower sphere of our collegiate life too the awful presence of death has been felt. Only the other day we followed to his grave the mortal remains of the most venerable member of this society. While we were laying him, our oldest brother, in his last resting-place, within the familiar walls of this college which for nearly seventy years had been his home, and winter spread the ground with a timely pall of snow—far away, among strange faces and in a foreign land, another member of this body, one of our youngest graduates, was struck down by a fever caught under a semi-tropical sun among the historic ruins of ancient Sicily; and the hand of death was upon him, though we little suspected it. Letters came expressing his hope of recovery, sketching his plans for the future, providing with characteristic thoughtfulness for the continuance of his interrupted work here. A few hours later the fatal intelligence was flashed to us, that all was over. Then arrived other letters, still in the same strain, still without any foreboding of the end; a voice speaking to us from the very grave, and thus through the irony of circumstances emphasizing with a novel solemnity the uncertainty of human life.

What lesson does all this read to us? Have we here only one illustration more of that cruel commonplace, the instability of life? To the heathen indeed it could not have suggested any less gloomy thought than this; but to you, who read it in the light of Christ’s resurrection, the consolation and the joy and the triumph are there; for the Apostle’s words ring clear in your ears, ‘Except it die.’

If therefore we have learnt in Christ a new estimate of death, if His revelation, without detracting from the solemnity of our conceptions, has yet invested it with a beauty and a peacefulness and a glory unknown before, if in short by inspiring new hopes and pointing out new paths He has drawn its sting—then this is a priceless boon, for which we are bound to offer our perpetual thanksgivings.

And that mankind does owe this inestimable gift to Christ, and to Christ alone, I think it is impossible to deny. An eminent English writer in a famous passage avows his conviction that, if Jesus Christ had taught nothing else but the doctrine of the resurrection and the judgment, ‘He had pronounced a message of inestimable importance, and well worthy of that splendid apparatus of prophecy and miracles with which His mission was introduced and attested: a message in which the wisest of mankind would rejoice to find an answer to their doubts and rest to their enquiries.’ ‘It is idle to say,’ he adds, ‘that a future state had been discovered already; it had been discovered as the Copernican system was; it was one guess among many. He alone discovers who proves.’ I know that exception has been taken to this passage; but I believe the statement to be substantially true. I turn to the Jews, and I find that the very chiefs of the Jewish hierarchy—the high-priests Annas and Caiaphas themselves—belonged to the sect of the Sadducees, which denied the resurrection. I turn to the Gentiles, and I find that a Roman moralist treats the doctrine of another world and a retribution after death as an exploded fable, no longer believed by any but mere children. This may be an exaggeration, as such sweeping statements in all ages are commonly found to be. But we may safely infer from it that even the shadowy conceptions of immortality and judgment, which were handed down in the popular mythology, had very little hold on the consciences of men. It seems hardly too much therefore to say that the doctrine was a discovery revealed in Christ. It is certainly true, that as an assurance, a motive, a power influencing the whole mind and the whole life, this doctrine then first took its proper place in the estimation of mankind. If we would convince ourselves of this, we need only compare the inscriptions on heathen monuments and the dirges of heathen poets—the pervading sadness, the bitterness, the despair, the gloom which not one single ray of hope pierces—with the radiant joy and trust which light up the thoughts and the language of the Christian mourner, even in the moments of his deepest sorrow. All history is a comment on the Apostle’s bold saying, that Christ ‘abolished death and brought life and immortality to light.’

I am well aware that in heathen times men were found, not a few, to meet death with unfaltering step and stedfast eye and unquivering lip. There were heroes then, as there are heroes now. But this is not the point. The conception of death was unchanged. Death was still a stern implacable foe, to be faced and fought. Victory was impossible; but to be vanquished manfully, to succumb without a tear and without a sigh, this at least was within their reach. At best death was to them a negative advantage: it released from trouble, released from suffering, released even from shame. But no joy nor hope attached to it; for it was an end, not a beginning, of life.

But, it may be said, why should not the analogy in the text have suggested to them the true conception of death? Through countless generations seeds were sown and rotted in the ground, and germinated and sprang up into a fresh and more luxuriant life. ‘Except it die’ had been written on the face of creation from the beginning. The analogy which held good for S. Paul should have been equally convincing to those who lived long ages before.

This is to misconceive the Apostle’s meaning. He does not bring forward his analogy to establish his point. His proof of the immortality and the resurrection of man is twofold. It is first and foremost the fact of Christ’s resurrection; and it is secondarily the influence which this belief has had in nerving Christ’s disciples to a life of persistent self-renunciation and suffering. Only when this point is established, does he adduce the analogy to meet an objection raised by his opponents, ‘How are the dead raised?’ Just as the plant, he replies, is developed from the germ of the seed, so also is the heavenly life an outgrowth of the earthly.

It is true that Christian writers have from the very first found in the decay and revival of universal nature types, analogies, evidences (if you will) of man’s immortality. But nevertheless it is most certain that these analogies were only felt after the belief was established by the knowledge of Christ’s resurrection. Suns set and rose before Christ; seeds, decayed in the ground, and plants sprang up before Christ. But what was the impression that these regenerations of nature left on the heathen mind? Why, they appeared not as analogies, not as resemblances, but as contrasts to human destiny. All else seemed to speak of incessant renewal, of continuous life; man alone was born to eternal, irrevocable death. ‘Suns may set and rise again,’ writes one, ‘but we, when our brief day has set, must slumber on through one eternal night.’ ‘Alas! the flowers and the herbs,’ mourns another, ‘when they perish in the garden, revive again afterward and grow for another year; but we, the great and strong and wise of men, when once we die, sleep forgotten in the vaults of earth a long unbroken endless sleep.’ It was the morning ray of Christ’s resurrection which changed the face of external nature, lighting it up with new glories; which smote upon the stern features of the mute colossal image, striking out chords of harmony and endowing it with voices unheard before. The majestic sun in the heavens, the meanest herb under foot, joined now in the universal chorus of praise, proclaiming to man the glad tidings of his immortality.

For just this was wanted to give the assurance which mankind craved. Hitherto it had been a hard struggle between physical appearances on the one hand, and human aspirations and instincts on the other. It was difficult to witness the gradual decay of the mental powers, to watch over the sick-bed and see the bodily frame wasting day by day, to count the pulsations of the heart as they grew fewer and feebler till the last throb was hushed; then to gaze on the relaxed muscles, the glazing eye, the marble brow, the bloodless lip; then to consign the motionless body to the greedy flames of the pyre or the slow putrefaction of the grave, and to know that only a few handfuls of dust remained of what so lately was instinct with volition and energy—to see and to know all this, and still to believe that life could survive the momentous change. But yet there was that within the man which told him that his destiny could not end here. He had capacities, which in this world never attained their proper development or worked out their proper results. He had affections, which were imprisoned and fettered here, and which seemed reserved for a larger scope. He had aspirations, which soared far beyond the limits of his present existence. He could not—do what he would—put away the thought that he had a personal interest in the generations to come; that the future of the world was not, and could not be, indifferent to him. Therefore he was anxious that he should leave a good name behind him, that his fame should linger on the tongues of men: and so by stately mausoleums and heaven-aspiring pyramids, by inscribed tablets and sculptured images, he recorded his stammering protest, that he was still a man among men, that he was still alive. But all was vague, uncertain, faltering.

From this suspense Christ set us free. His resurrection dispelled the mists which shrouded the conceptions of mankind; and where before was an uncertain haze, there burst forth the brightness of the unclouded sun. Truth entered into the lowliest cottage doors. Truth made her home in the hearts of the peasant and the artisan. The feeblest child now grasps the idea of immortality with a firmness which was denied to the strongest intellect and the most patient thought before Christ.

And yet now, after the experience of eighteen centuries, we are asked (as though it were a small thing) to throw aside the miraculous element of revelation, to abandon our belief in the fact of the resurrection, that is, to abandon the Christ of the Gospels, the Christ as we have known Him; and to begin anew from the beginning, to grope our way once more ‘through darkness up to God,’ to seek to discover arguments for the immortality of the soul. What is this but to stultify the experience of history? What is this but to throw mankind back into second childhood? What is this but to return to the state when even with the gifted few, as it has been aptly said, ‘a luminous doubt was the very summit of their attainments, and splendid conjecture the result of their most laborious efforts after truth?’

This we cannot do. Christ has given us the victory, and we will not lightly surrender its fruits. Christ has given us the victory. We know now that death is not annihilation, is not vacancy, is not despair. Death is not an end, but a beginning—a beginning of a regenerate and glorified life. The assurance of our immortality has scared away all the nameless terrors which throng in the train of the king of terrors. One weapon only remained in his hands, and this too has been wrested from him by Christ. The sting of death is sin. This sting Christ has drawn: for He has defeated, and in Himself has enabled us to defeat, even sin. So the last terror is gone. The triumph is complete. Death is swallowed up in victory. And all mankind are bidden to join in the Apostle’s psalm of praise: ‘Thanks be to God that giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’

Lightfoot, J. B. (1890). Cambridge Sermons. London; New York: MacMillan and Co. (Public Domain)

Two Sowings and Two Harvests

Two Sowings and Two Harvests

Two Sowings And Two Harvests

Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.  Galatians 6:7, 8.

Trinity College Chapel, 24th Sunday after Trinity, 1871.

It may be a matter of question, what moral defect in the Galatian Church was prominent in S. Paul’s mind, when he wrote these words, and what therefore is the exact link of thought which connects them with the context. Are they aimed at the stinginess of those, who refused to provide proper support for their spiritual teachers, or to extend their alms to a distant Church suffering from the effects of famine? Or are they rather directed against others, who vaunting themselves as spiritual, and professing to subordinate the letter, the ritual, the law of ordinances to a higher principle, yet nevertheless through carelessness and self-indulgence were sinking into lower depths of license than those whom they branded as ‘carnal?’ Whatever may have been the immediate motive, it is clear that the words have a wider application, and cannot be confined to any one development of the fleshly mind.

This then is the great principle, which the text enunciates. It extends the law of cause and effect, which in the physical world is a matter of common observation, to the domain of the moral and theological, from which men, whether professedly worldly or professedly religious, from diverse motives and by manifold subterfuges attempt to exclude it. It declares that certain courses of action, certain modes of life, entail certain inevitable consequences. It pronounces this to be true in the region of human life, as in the region of external nature, that ‘while the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest shall not cease;’ true that men do not ‘gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles;’ true that, where tares only have been sown, ears of wheat will not be gathered into the garner.

I need hardly remind you with what persistency and in how many various forms our Lord and His Apostles enforce this lesson; that God takes men, if we may so say, at their word, deals with them according to their aims, matches His gifts to their ambitions, bestows on them what they crave and withholds from them what they despise, and thus through and in themselves works out His great purpose of equal retribution. I might point in illustration of this to S. Paul’s picture of the Gentile world in the opening of the Epistle to the Romans—the earliest and most truthful sketch of the philosophy of religious history—where the degradation and decay of the heathen is traced to the wilful perversion of their aims and darkening of their hearts, which refused to listen to the oracle of conscience speaking within them, and to the voices of nature responding to it from without, till at length ‘God gave them over’—the expression is thrice repeated, as if to designate three successive stages in this relinquishment, three successive plunges in their downward course—‘gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to uncleanness,’ ‘gave them over to shameful affections,’ ‘gave them over’ (last of all) ‘to a reprobate mind,’ when the light of the moral sense had been utterly quenched, and they revelled in their sin and shame, and the corruption was hopeless, irretrievable, final. This in S. Paul’s judgment was the outcome of that ‘healthy sensuality’ of the Greek, which a modern writer has recommended to our favourable consideration as an improvement on the morals of the Gospel. Judge for yourselves; I will add no word to prejudice the verdict. Is this health, is it culture, is it light, is it life; or is it, as S. Paul teaches, vileness and corruption, darkness and death?

Or I might turn again for an illustration to the parable of Lazarus and Dives. Consider the answer to the rich man, when the retribution came and the plea for mercy was urged too late. ‘Thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things.’ This is the pivot, on which the moral of the parable turns. They were his good things; the things which were to him the realization of the ends and aims of life, the things on which he had set his heart and for which he had spent his energies. They might not be ‘good things’ in themselves. Some of them might be positively bad, vicious in their processes and dangerous in their results; though for the most part they would have a neutral character, as instruments, advantages, enjoyments, capable of use and capable also of abuse. But to him they represented the ideal of life. He saw nothing beyond, desired nothing beyond. And he had his desire. God granted to him ‘his good things.’ He enjoyed them—enjoyed them to surfeiting. Whether they answered his expectations, whether they did not pall on his palate, did not leave a loathing, a dissatisfied feeling behind, is another matter. The point of the parable is this; that, what he sought for, that he attained; that the seed, which he had sown, had borne its proper fruit in its due season, and that therefore no ground of complaint was left. He had sown to the flesh; and of the flesh he had reaped, in the present, indolence, luxury, magnificence, self-indulgence in its highest and its lowest forms; but in the present and in the future alike spiritual corruption and spiritual death.

In the text two great principles are set the one against the other—flesh and Spirit, darkness and light, life and death. And each man is required to make his election between the two. On whichever alternative his choice may fall, he accepts the disadvantages, as well as the advantages, of that alternative. It would be foolish, as it would be futile, to understate the disadvantages of the nobler choice. In the end it will be found true that the yoke is easy and that the burden is light; but a yoke and a burden it is and will inevitably be. And the assumption of this yoke, the shouldering of this burden, must vex and gall, and may even agonize with its unwonted pressure. Yet, if the child that has been indulged in its every whim, that has submitted to no restraints, has learnt no lesson of self-denial in infancy, may even, as a child, have been less happy, because more selfish, than other children, and when it grows out of infancy into boyhood and gets its first rude lessons of the trials of life, may find its position intolerable; if the young man, who wastes his energies and squanders his means and indulges his passions in the vigour and freshness of youth, and thus gambles away all the splendid possibilities of his maturer age, is not a whit more happy even in his present dissipation than his more sober equals, and finds when it is too late that his future is irretrievably ruined—the means which might have started him fairly in life spent, the intellectual endowments which would have more than compensated the lack of material resources stunted and withered by disuse, the whole fibre of his character, his capacity of endurance, his faculty of concentration, his power of self-restraint, wasted in premature decay; then by analogy—as we look forward, no longer from infancy to boyhood, no longer from early manhood to mature age, but from time to eternity, from the life here to the life beyond, from the brief transitory elements of our existence to the abiding and permanent, or in Apostolic language from the flesh to the Spirit—it is only reasonable, only accordant with the lessons of common experience, that he who has staked his all on the earlier phase of existence, has lived in it and for it alone without one thought of the more serious destiny beyond, should, when this destiny overtakes him, be plunged into the agony and despair of those who find themselves suddenly confronted with a new life, for which they have undergone no discipline, with which they have cultivated no sympathies, to which they have made no sacrifices, which is utterly alien to their tastes and their habits. This analogy will lead us to suspect, that he who is wise for the future is not (in any true sense of the word) unwise for the present; that in S. Paul’s language ‘godliness has promise of the life that now is, as well as of the life to come:’ but, whether it does this or not, it certainly tends to vindicate as inevitable the law which is laid down in the text; that in God’s moral world the harvest reaped shall be as the seed sown, and that every tree shall yield fruit after his kind. Any schemes of salvation, any views of grace, election, assurance, which fail to take into account this essential element, must be wrong. They are futile attempts to set aside the dispensation of Divine Providence. They are a mockery of God.

‘He that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption.’ What is meant, and what is not meant, by sowing to the flesh, it is important for us to discriminate. It does not mean paying proper attention to the bodily health, for the health of the body is a valuable instrument in performing the functions of our spiritual life. It does not mean giving suitable recreation to the faculties of the mind; for only by such recreation can those faculties be kept sound and vigorous, and fulfil their part as ministers to our spiritual nature. It does not mean attending to our profession or employment, and thus providing adequate means for our support in life; for without such means independence is lost, temptations are multiplied, and the free exercise of the spiritual faculty is shackled in a thousand ways. It does not mean checking and stunting the natural affections; for without the affections duly fostered and guided aright the spiritual life must wither and die for want of proper nutrition. These things it is not. But to live for the sake of amusement only, to live that you may gratify pleasures of the sense, to live that you may indulge your ambition, or your love of popularity, or your love of display, or your love of ease, or even your love of knowledge—regarded as a selfish instinct, without one thought of using it for the benefit of others and to the glory of God—to live for any or all of these is to live for this life alone, whatever form your ideal of this life may take. This is sowing to the flesh; this will rear and will reap a harvest of corruption.

The Apostle draws a sharp contrast. He speaks only of the two extremes, the two antagonist elements—flesh and Spirit. But there are whole regions lying between and occupying neutral ground—regions which may be annexed to the one or the other as either becomes more powerful. Let us then interpolate between the two.

‘He that soweth to the intellect, shall of the intellect reap’—first of all, intellectual triumphs. Of this he may be assured. But whether the end shall be corruption, or whether it shall be life eternal, this still remains undetermined. These intellectual acquisitions are our business here. They are our justification, as a Collegiate body. If we fail in these, we have not answered our end; we have pronounced our doom. The salt has lost its savour, and it is henceforth good for nothing but to be cast out and to be trodden under foot of men. But, if so, it is only the more incumbent upon us, to ask, whether in this province we are sowing to the flesh or sowing to the Spirit?

For it is not difficult to see, how intellectual gifts and intellectual activity may minister to the flesh, may sow the seeds of corruption; and when this is the case, the corruption will be all the more deadly, inasmuch as the faculties thus degraded are the nobler. ‘The light of the body is the eye.’ ‘If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!’

For instance, a man may enter upon some intellectual investigation from a corrupt motive. There are some departments of Natural Science which are most noble in themselves, which offer to the physician the largest opportunities for practical usefulness, which open out to the student the widest fields of scientific research. But this man’s motive is neither philanthropy nor science. A worse than idle curiosity prompts him. He approaches the subject with a sullied touch; and it rots and crumbles in his hands. Here then he has sown to the flesh; and according to the sowing will be the harvest. In the bitter retrospect, when the curse has descended upon him and he is driven from the garden of his happy innocence, he will confess in sorrow and shame the intense moral significance of the earliest pages of that oldest book—at once the oldest and the freshest of all books—where the simple test of obedience is the abstaining from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and yet this one prohibition is too stringent for the sinful curiosity which pronounces it ‘pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise.’

Or, again, take a different instance. Past and contemporary literature will furnish only too many examples, where, through the faculty of imagination, the seed has been sown to the flesh, and the inevitable harvest of corruption reaped therefrom. Better—a thousand times better—never to have risen above the dead-level of mediocrity, never to have left any trace on the literature of your country, better to have lived obscure and died forgotten, than once to have prostituted this, the divinest of all intellectual gifts, to minister to the passions of man, and to plant the seeds of corruption in generations yet unborn. Of all possibilities this is the future which we should most deprecate for any man here—worse than the worst reverses of fortune, worse even than the utter degradation of his own personal character, for then at least the evil may perchance die with him, the whole harvest of woe may be reaped by the sower alone.

Cultivate then, as you are bound to do, your choicest intellectual endowments; but so cultivate them, that they may become also your best spiritual instruments; so cultivate them, that you may lay them down a less unworthy offering at the footstool of the Eternal Throne. He, and he only, that soweth to the Spirit, shall of the Spirit reap life eternal.

This spiritual capacity is the crown and glory of human life. To it all other graces, faculties, endowments, lead up. It is their anointed sovereign, their divinely-ordained consummation. Without it the character is mutilated in its most essential part. With unfeigned pity you will have looked on some poor idiot, in whom the light of the intellect has been quenched, whose rude physical health seems a mockery of his mental state, who retains the features and exhibits the gestures of a man, while yet the vacant stare and the inarticulate muttering and the loose gait tell only too plainly that the nobler part of man is not there. With some such sentiment of compassion we may imagine that a higher being will look down on one of us, rich though he may be in all intellectual gifts, lavishly endowed with the powers of reason and the graces of imagination, in whom nevertheless the divinest faculty of all—the spiritual nature—is a dreary hopeless blank, crushed out by worldliness, or wasted away by disuse. His great intellectual capacities seem only to point the contrast, and to flaunt and to mock at the vacancy of this higher part.

But this spiritual faculty, in proportion as it is the most precious, is also the most delicate part of our nature. It demands the most careful tending. It will stand no rude treatment. It soon withers away with neglect. Without self-discipline and without prayer its life cannot be sustained.

Not without self-discipline. I have heard it advanced in conversation and I have seen it stated in sermons, as an axiom which is not open to question, but must at once command belief, that self-denial, if imposed for some immediate beneficent purpose, as for instance to enable us to minister to the wants of others, is an excellent and praiseworthy thing; but that when there is no such end in view, it is morbid, worthless, delusive. But is this so? Does reason or, analogy or experience lend any countenance to this statement? Can the habit of self-denial be formed in any other way than by repeated acts of self-denial? The Apostle is wont to compare the training of the moral and spiritual character to the gymnastic training of the body. Is not the comparison eminently just? It does not do to put off the exercise of self-denial, till there is a distinct demand for self-denial. You can no more deny yourself at pleasure, unless you have undergone a preliminary discipline, than you can put forth the muscular strength and skill requisite for some athletic feat, without the proper physical training. And therefore I say, if you would live the higher life, if you would sow to the Spirit, exercise a stern discipline over yourselves now. Use the rules and the restraints of this place—the fixed hours and the appointed studies—as the instruments of this discipline. It is only by your willing surrender to them that they will be made truly effectual. This do, and conquer sloth, conquer listlessness, conquer indulgence, conquer self.

Not without self-discipline; but also not without prayer. Prayer—the communion of the human spirit with the Divine—is the proper food of the spiritual life. How far this is the daily habit of any member of this congregation, is known to himself alone. But if we turn to our public services, is it hopeful, that, when morning and evening opportunities of common worship are offered to all, so few are found to attend regularly, and so many think it irksome if they are required to attend even now and then? Is it hopeful, that when Sunday after Sunday the Lord’s Table is spread and you are invited to participate in this supreme act of Christian worship—the last command of the dying Saviour, the truest bond of our universal brotherhood, the most intimate communion between the finite and the infinite—so few respond to the call? And yet, if this College is ever to rise to a sense of its highest mission, it must shake off this spiritual lethargy, and throw itself earnestly into this divine life.

It is impossible to watch the tide of vigorous youthful life, as it streams through our antechapel on Sunday evenings, without feeling what untold possibilities of good have been enclosed within the four walls of this building. Here is a vast capacity, an undeveloped spiritual power, which, duly fostered and concentrated, might change the face of society, might revive a Church or regenerate a nation. And yet—it is a painful thought—in a year or two all these elements will be dispersed. This generation too will go forth, as in the parable, on their several ways, ‘one to his farm, another to his merchandise.’ The call will be neglected; the good will remain undone; one more glorious possibility will have passed away. Shall this continue, until the College shall cease to be? Shall generation succeed generation and nothing be done? ‘And He said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord God, Thou knowest.’ ‘Lord, how long?’

Lightfoot, J. B. (1890). Cambridge Sermons. London; New York: MacMillan and Co. (Public Domain)

Purity of Heart

Purity of Heart

Purity of Heart

Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.  S. Matthew 5:8.

Trinity College Chapel, 3rd Sunday after Easter, 1870.

An eminent living writer on ethical and kindred subjects, viewing the matter from without, complains of the misuse which Christians make of the moral teaching of the New Testament. He urges with great cogency that it was ‘not announced or intended, as a complete doctrine of morals;’ that ‘the Gospel always refers to a pre-existing morality and confines its precepts to the particulars in which that morality was to be corrected or superseded by a wider and higher.’ He therefore condemns that exclusiveness, which refuses to accept any moral lessons except such as are enforced by the letter of the Evangelic or Apostolic writings. ‘They contain and were meant to contain,’ he repeats, ‘only a part of the truth; many essential elements of the highest morality are among the things which are not provided for, nor intended to be provided for, in the recorded deliverances of the Founder of Christianity.’

I think that few who have thought over the subject will deny that this statement contains an important truth, though they would wish that the form of expression were somewhat modified. Certainly our Lord and His Apostles do assume an existing code of morals, more or less imperfect. They could hardly have done otherwise. So far as this code satisfied the demands of the highest truth, they held it unnecessary to dwell at length on lessons which were already adequately taught. It was to those points in which it failed, in which any code built merely upon the requirements of society must necessarily fail, that the first teachers of Christianity chiefly directed their attention. And if we would truly understand their meaning, we must place ourselves in their position, we must assume what they assumed, and not attempt to build up their superstructure without any regard to the foundation on which it was laid.

To take an instance of this; the duty to the State, as the writer, whom I have already quoted, observes, and as is well known, ‘held a disproportionate place’ in the ethical teaching of the ancients—so large a place indeed as to be even dangerous to the moral growth of the individual. It is no wonder therefore if our Lord and His Apostles say but little on this subject. What they do say however, shows, as clearly as words can show, that they recognised in all their fulness the claims of public order on the subject. The restlessness of the Jews in Judæa found no countenance in the teaching of our Lord; the restlessness of the Judaic Christians in Rome was denounced in the language of the Apostle of the Gentiles. ‘Render to Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’—this is the answer given in the one case. ‘Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers: the powers that be, are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation’—this is the strong rebuke administered in the other. If therefore politics, strictly so called, do not occupy any space in the sayings of our Lord or in the writings of the Apostles, it is not because their claims are ignored, but because it was rather the ethical function of the Gospel to deepen the foundations, and enforce the sanctions, of morality generally; and only so far to deal with individual elements, as there was some great and signal deficiency in the existing moral standard.

The remark, to which I referred at the commencement, appears to me to be of great importance; and it is the more weighty, because, though having a high apologetic value, it proceeds not from a Christian apologist, but from an external observer, who criticises the ethics of the Gospel with at least a dispassionate freedom.

The fact is that in applying the ethical teaching of the Gospel to ourselves, and indeed throughout the whole domain of Christian practice, we must give free scope to our Christian consciousness. In other words, for regulating the details of our conduct, we must refer to our moral faculty, as refined and heightened by the teaching of the Gospel; we must not expect to find a special precept to meet every special occasion. We must trust to the promise of the Spirit, which Christ has given to His disciples. The pregnant maxim of S. Paul, penetrating as it does into every province in which human judgment can exercise itself, is nowhere more important than here: ‘The letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.’ Act on the literal sense of one of our Lord’s precepts delivered in this Sermon on the Mount, from which my text is taken, ‘Whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain,’ on all occasions, and you will bring confusion on yourself; but receive such precepts as they were intended to be received, as parables or types of the right temper of mind, as corrective of the self-assertion, on which human morality can put no adequate check, which it even tends to foster—in short, take the kernel and not the husk of the precept—and you will produce harmony in your moral being.

I spoke of duties to the State as being assumed rather than enforced in the moral teaching of the New Testament. But it is obvious that this principle of tacit assumption may be and must be applied much further. There are many other valuable elements of morality, on which the Gospel does not lay any special stress, simply because the teaching of common life enforces these with sufficient distinctness, and they therefore do not need such external support. There are some virtues, which a man learns to practise in self-defence. There are others, which society exacts as a condition of membership, having learnt by experience that it cannot hold together without their general recognition. Of the first kind are courage, self-reliance, the assertion of one’s own rights, the sense of personal dignity. In these respects the danger is generally on the side of excess rather than of defect; the tendency is to mere self-will, mere self-assertion, to a stubborn resistance and disregard of the feelings, the weaknesses, the claims of others. Of the second kind is honesty, which, though antagonistic to a man’s natural selfishness, is yet imposed upon him by the imperious law of the community in which he moves and on which he is dependent. Such virtues as these the Gospel does not ignore. On the contrary, it assumes them as the simplest elements of a moral life. And no denunciations are more severe, than those uttered by our Lord against the religious leaders of the people, who notwithstanding their lofty pretensions had not yet mastered these first lessons of morality. But it is not on such points that its efforts are concentrated. The rough teaching of common life would supply what was needed here. The pressure of social constraint would exercise a discipline, the more effective, because constant and inexorable in its demands. This class of virtues society could understand and could enforce.

But beyond and above these lies a whole region of moral life, on which social restraint, whether as law or as public opinion, or in any other form, exercises no effective control at all. And it is just here that the Gospel interposes to supplement and to superadd. If you analyse the ethical teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, you will find that it is almost wholly addressed to supplying this defect. Its moral aim may be said to be twofold; first, to inculcate the value of motive as distinct from the outward act, the realisation; in short, to teach that for the individual himself the goodness or the badness of his conduct is wholly independent of its actual effects, and springs from the inward intention, and from this alone; and, secondly, to emphasize the importance of certain moral elements, to which no appreciable place was assigned in the prevailing ethical code of the day, and which were, and ever are, in imminent danger of being trampled under foot in the race of life, unless borne up by some higher sanction—such as humility, forgiveness, patient endurance, sympathy with poverty and weakness, and the like. Thus the Sermon on the Mount is preeminently corrective and supplementary in its ethical teaching. It is necessarily so. It was addressed, not to the dregs of society, who needed to be instructed in the first principles of morality, but to the disciples, who certainly accepted and practised the best moral teaching of the day, who were destined to be the salt of the earth, and who therefore must aim at a more perfect standard.

And, if you turn to the Beatitudes, you will find that they, one and all, refer to those moral qualities, of which as a rule society takes no cognisance, and to which it offers no rewards, either because it deals only with external acts and cannot reach motives, or because these qualities in themselves are the reverse of obtrusive, and do not press their claims or clamour for recognition. It is on those who suffer patiently and unrepiningly for the right, on those who are gentle or forgiving towards others, on those who are forgetful and depreciatory of self, on those whose study it is to cleanse and purify their hearts, with whom the pursuit of righteousness is a passion, who hunger and thirst after it, impelled as it were by a strong inward craving to follow it on its own account, and regardless of any advantages in the way of reputation, or of influence, which it may accidentally bestow—it is on these, and such as these, that the blessing is pronounced.

Of these Beatitudes, the one which I have taken for my text most strikingly illustrates what has been said. ‘Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.’ It is just here that social morality is signally defective. It will enter its protest against the more flagrant violations of this duty, because they tend to disturb social order, and to introduce confusion into common life. But of purity, in and for itself, it shows in many ways that it takes little or no cognisance. It shows this by the uneven measure of justice which it deals out to the two sexes, by the stern inexorable punishment of such sins in the one, and the almost complete impunity which it offers to the other. It shows it by its worship of the memory of some famous character, brilliant perhaps in literature or in politics, but profligate in life. It shows it by its lavish favours bestowed on some social idol of the day, whose only claim is a winning manner or a brilliant address, whose life is utterly and hopelessly corrupt, in whose heart impurity has gathered around it other demons hateful as itself, selfishness, cruelty, deceit, meanness in all its forms (for impurity always will seek such alliances for protection and sympathy), whose conduct has degraded and ruined many an individual soul, and by their ruin steeped whole households in misery. Of purity of heart social morality does not and cannot take any account. For purity of conduct indeed it professes a formal respect; but not here does it bestow its favours and its rewards.

And in fact no reward, which the world has in its power to bestow, would be at all adequate to meet the case. Material advantages—wealth, pleasure, renown, popularity, influence—these are its best and choicest gifts. But purity of heart seeks not these. Purity of heart breathes another atmosphere, lives in another world, exercises other faculties, pursues other aims. And commensurate with its aims is its reward—not a substantial reward as men regard substantial, but yet very real, because alone satisfying, alone lasting, alone independent of time and circumstance. To the pure in heart, it is given to stand face to face before the Eternal Presence—the veil which shrouds Him from the common eye being withdrawn, and the ineffable glory, which none besides may see, streaming upon them with undimmed splendour. Theirs is the indwelling of the Spirit, that

doth prefer
Before all temples the upright heart and pure.

To them is vouchsafed in their journey through life the presence of the Holy Thing moving with them night and day. In the strength of this presence they ride onward

Shattering all evil customs everywhere;

until they reach their goal and Heaven receives them into its glory; and they are crowned as kings

Far in the spiritual city.

‘Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.’

And will not even the limited experience of many here witness that such a quest so rewarded is no mere poetical fiction, no idle play of the imagination, but an eminently deep religious truth, of great practical moment to us all? Have you not felt, that according as you have allowed any sullying influence to stain your heart, and to dim its purity, just in the same degree your spiritual vision has become clouded over, the scales have thickened upon it, and the Eternal Presence has withdrawn Himself in a veil of mist, and you have looked in vain and have not found, and your greatest, truest joy and comfort and hope has vanished from you? Was it deceit? Was it selfishness? Was it pride? Was it impurity in a stricter sense, indulgence in tainted thoughts or indulgence in forbidden deeds? Cannot you trace the process, if you will give it a moment’s reflection, how the cloud gathered and darkened, till the light is wholly shut out, except that now and then in your clearer moments it flashes in upon you with a painful brightness, piercing through the screen of clouds and revealing to you the depth of your degradation and loss? Or on the other hand can you not bear witness, how each stedfast determination to put away the accursed thing, each renewed effort to cleanse and purify your heart, has brought with it a fresh accession of light, has given you a keener vision of the spiritual world, has removed a film from your eye and a load from your spirit, has brought you joy and lightness of heart, because it has placed you nearer to God and to the glory of His presence?

And, if this is so; if this intimate knowledge of the highest truths is vouchsafed, not to acute powers of reasoning, not to vast stores of information, not to critical sagacity or theological attainments, not to poetical genius or scientific culture, not to any or to all of these, but to purity of heart alone, then surely this should be the one paramount aim of our lives, which we should pursue with the unswerving zeal and enthusiasm of a master passion. If the task is great, the reward is great also. A stern and rigorous self-discipline is the first condition of success. This indeed is not a fashionable doctrine. It is the fashion of the day to assert the claims of individual liberty in extravagant terms, and yet to ignore, or almost ignore, self-discipline, self-renunciation, without which the liberty of the individual becomes intolerable to himself and to society. Remember that the most perfect self-command is the truest freedom; that the Apostle of Liberty himself sets the example of keeping his body in subjection. Do not therefore be led away by any commonplaces about liberty; but assert your legitimate command over yourself and keep it. The discipline which you enforce upon yourself is a thousand times more effective, than the discipline imposed from without. Provide yourself with healthy occupations. With healthy recreations for the body, if you will; but, still more, with healthy studies and ideas for the mind; and, above all, with healthy affections and sympathies for the heart. Seek what is healthy in all things: seek what is fresh and simple and transparently pure and guileless. Avoid all taint of corruptness. Experience has taught you how difficult it is to dislodge a corrupt idea from your heart, when it has once found a place there; how will it recur again and again, even though your better nature revolts against it and you give it no encouragement. There is a fatal vitality about such elements of corruptness. You can recall what is noble and elevating only with an effort; what is sullied and degrading will present itself unbidden to your thought. The law of the moral world is analogous to the law of the physical. Disease spreads apace by contact; health has no such spontaneous power of diffusing itself. Therefore it is of vital importance to shun any tainting influence, as a plague-spot: to shun it in your intellectual studies, and to shun it in your social life. To cultivate self-control, to give yourself healthy employment, and to avoid corrupting associations—these three are conditions of success in the great quest to which you have bound yourself. But another still remains. Cultivate your spiritual faculties by prayer and meditation. The higher parts of our nature, because the most subtle, are also the most sensitive. If our intellectual capacities become enfeebled and ultimately paralyzed by neglect or misuse, much more our spiritual. Here again I appeal to your own experience. Can you not bear witness how very soon carelessness and indifference in spiritual matters tells upon your spiritual nature, how very soon a torpor creeps over it, if you neglect your daily prayers, or if you go through your religious duties in a perfunctory, heartless way; how very soon your whole view of things changes, and you begin tacitly to ignore the importance of spiritual life, perhaps half-consciously to argue with yourself that it may be a mere delusion, an idle fancy, after all? It is just because our spiritual nature is so highly wrought, that it will not suffer any trifling or any neglect. A true instinct leads the poet to represent his pure and blameless knight as laying his lance against the chapel door, and entering and kneeling in prayer, when he starts on the quest which is rewarded with the Eternal Vision of Glory.

Do this, and you will not fail. You will dedicate to God the sacrifice which pleases Him best—the freewill offering of the freshness and purity of early manhood: and He in turn will vouchsafe to you the one blessing which is the fulfilment of your truest aspirations, the crown of human bliss—the vision of Himself in unclouded glory. ‘Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.’

Lightfoot, J. B. (1890). Cambridge Sermons. London; New York: MacMillan and Co. (Public Domain)

The Conqueror from Edom

The Conqueror from Edom

The Conqueror From Edom

Who is this that cometh from Edom, with dyed garments from Bozrah?  Isaiah 63:1.

Trinity College Chapel, 3rd Sunday in Lent, 1868.

The feud between Edom and Israel had been long and bitter. The descendants of the brothers Jacob and Esau, living as near neighbours, viewed each other with no brotherly or neighbourly eye. The conflict began at a very early date. When the Israelites, set free from Egypt and traversing the desert, asked permission to pass through the territory of the Edomites, the request was churlishly refused. In vain did they plead that they would do no injury to person or property; that they would avoid fields and vineyards and keep to the highway; that they would even pay for the water which they might drink. ‘Edom refused to give Israel passage through his border; wherefore Israel turned away from him.’

This rude and unbrotherly repulse was neither forgotten nor forgiven. Established in the land of promise, the Israelites appear very frequently at war, very rarely in alliance, with the Edomites. ‘Who will lead me into the strong city? Who will bring me into Edom? Wilt not Thou, O God, go forth with our hosts?’ This is the climax of the Psalmist’s prayer—repeated in two different psalms—when Israel is engaged in a fierce contest with this brother tribe.

And this hereditary feud continued to the latest days of Israel, now smouldering treacherously and now bursting out into flames—a feud far worse than the generous antagonism of declared enemies. For there is always a wretched meanness, a low malice, an exaggeration of bitterness—arising out of the false position—in the quarrels of those, whom God and nature have intended to be friends. It is when two peoples of the same race and language go to war, when a nation is divided against itself by civil dissensions, when members of one family fall out, that the worst passions of man’s nature have full play.

But it was in the day of Israel’s deepest sorrow, that Edom’s iniquity reached its climax. When their sharpest pang overtook the Israelites, when their enemies beleaguered them, when their palaces were rifled and their walls thrown down, when their sons and their daughters were swept away into captivity, some change might have been looked for in the attitude of the Edomites. Surely now the moment was come, when past injuries and long-embittered feuds should be forgotten, when the true fraternal love should well up in their hearts, when brother once more should run to meet brother, and embrace him and fall on his neck and kiss him. But, unlike his forefather, Edom had now no tenderness, no compassion for Israel’s sorrow. With a fiendish glee he looked on at the catastrophe. The great Babylonian conqueror was delivering him from a dangerous enemy, a troublesome neighbour—a troublesome brother, it might be said, but what cared he for this? Who made him his brother’s keeper? It was this heartless display of cruel satisfaction, which called forth the bitter cry for vengeance from the exiles on the banks of the Euphrates, interrupting so strangely the plaintive elegy of the mourners: ‘Remember the children of Edom, O Lord, in the day of Jerusalem; how they said, Down with it, down with it, even to the ground.’

Then it was, in the hour of Israel’s humiliation, that Edom ‘stood on the other side;’ that ‘in the day that the stranger carried away captive Israel’s forces and foreigners entered into his gates,’ Edom was ‘even as one of them;’ that ‘in the day of their destruction’ Edom ‘rejoiced over the children of Judah,’ and ‘in the day of distress spake proudly;’ that Edom ‘stood in the cross-way to cut off them that did escape.’

It was for this, that the prophet Obadiah predicted a terrible vengeance on this unfeeling race. ‘The day of the Lord is near upon all the heathen: as thou hast done, it shall be done unto thee: thy reward shall return upon thine own head.’ ‘The house of Jacob shall be a fire, and the house of Joseph a flame, and the house of Esau for stubble, and they shall kindle in them, and devour them.’ It was for this that the two great prophets of the fall and captivity, the one an exile on the banks of the Chebar, the other lingering still among the ruins of the holy city, Ezekiel and Jeremiah, the strophe and antistrophe of the same tragedy, ‘deep answering deep’ (as it has been said) ‘across the Assyrian desert,’ join in denouncing God’s judgment on the offending Edom.

And in this chorus of inspired utterances, early and late, the voice of the Evangelic prophet is not silent. Raising his eyes, he sees approaching from the south-eastern frontier, from the direction of Edom, and of Bozrah the capital of Edom, a sublime form, as of some mighty hero, advancing with majestic step, and clad in the scarlet robes of a victorious captain. Awed at the sight, he asks, ‘Who is this that cometh from Edom, with dyed garments from Bozrah? This that is glorious in His apparel, travelling in the greatness of His strength?’ A voice replies, ‘I am He that speaketh in righteousness, mighty to save.’ It is the just and upright judge, the terrible avenger, the powerful and saving ally, the triumphant king, the Lord Jehovah Himself. As the sublime form approaches, the prophet sees that His scarlet robes are reeking with purple stains. Again he asks, ‘Wherefore art Thou red in Thine apparel, and Thy garments like him that treadeth the wine-fat?’ Again the voice replies to his question. The winepress is the visitation of God’s wrath: the purple stains are the blood of slaughtered enemies, trampled and crushed under foot by His heavy judgments. ‘I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with Me: for I will tread them in Mine anger, and trample them in My fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon My garments, and I will stain all My raiment. For the day of vengeance is in Mine heart, and the year of My redeemed is come.’

This then is the force of the passage. It is a prophetic announcement of Israel’s triumph at the moment of Israel’s deepest humiliation; a prophetic denunciation of vengeance on Israel’s enemies, when those enemies were proudly triumphing over their prostrate foe. The chief offender, the bitterest and most insolent foe, is Edom, Israel’s brother Edom. In the day of vengeance Edom’s punishment shall be the greatest, because her crime was so unnatural, her hostility so uncalled for. Though the horizon is now so dark and stormy, though all hope seems to have vanished, though Israel stands alone among the nations, while her enemies are many and strong and unscrupulous, yet there is One Whose arm is all powerful, One Whose aid is never invoked and never rendered in vain, One Who will silence all insolence and crush all opposition, the never-failing ally of Israel, the Lord Jehovah Himself. This reliance on God alone in the absence of all human aid is the leading idea of the passage. Again and again it is reiterated, ‘I have trodden the winepress alone. Of the people there was none with Me. I looked, and there was none to help; I wondered that there was none to uphold. Therefore Mine own arm brought salvation unto Me!’

And yet in contrast to the feebleness and prostration of Israel, Edom possessed just those advantages which seemed calculated to secure success in her enterprises, and impunity in her insolence. In two most important respects Edom was favourably circumstanced among the nations around. Her position was strong, and her inhabitants were sagacious.

Edom was strong. Her fortresses were almost impregnable with the appliances of ancient warfare. The most famous of her strongholds, the rock-bound city of Petra, the wonder of modern travellers, is only accessible by one narrow gorge, which is easily defended. The strength of Edom is more than once celebrated by the Israelite prophets. ‘Thou that dwellest in the clefts of the rocks,’ ‘thou exaltest thyself as the eagle, thou settest thy nest among the stars.’ ‘Who will lead me into the strong city? Who will bring me into Edom?’

But Edom was not only strong, Edom was wise also. The wisdom of Edom was proverbial. When the sacred historian wishes to extol the wisdom of Solomon, he cannot do so better than by saying that it ‘excels the wisdom of all the children of the East country,’ that is, of these Edomites. ‘Shall I not in that day,’ writes Obadiah again, ‘destroy the wise men out of Edom, and understanding out of the mount of Esau?’ ‘Concerning Edom,’ says Jeremiah also, ‘thus saith the Lord of Hosts; is wisdom no more in Teman? Is counsel perished from the prudent? Is their wisdom vanished?’ In this land also seems to be laid the scene of that marvellous book, in which human and divine wisdom are confronted, and the perplexing problems of human life are discussed with such profound intuition. The interlocutors of the Book of Job are chiefly, if not solely, Edomites. And still after the lapse of centuries this nation seems to have retained its character. From Idumea came ‘that fox,’ the second Herod—the crafty son of a crafty father—retaining the peculiar gift of his race, though degrading it into an instrument of licentiousness and cruelty.

Against these advantages of Edom combined, against the strength of the strong and the wisdom of the wise, Israel, fallen and desolate, had one hope, one ally only. But her faith in this ally rides triumphant over all present disasters and all dark forebodings. The prophet’s voice assures her of complete victory; and the later history of the nation is the answer to this appeal.

I have explained the passage thus at length, because from very early times it has suffered much from misinterpretation. It has been supposed that the prophet’s words refer immediately to the scene on Calvary; that the figure seen approaching is our Lord Himself; that the solitary treading of the winepress represents His submission to the Father’s wrath endured for our redemption. I think it will be plain from what has been said, that this view does not at all meet the requirements of the context. I think it will be seen, also, that the image of treading the winepress, till the garments of the treader are drenched with the blood of the crushed grape-clusters, must signify, not the endurance of punishment, but the infliction of punishment. And, if so, we need not stop here to enquire whether in any proper or natural sense our Blessed Lord could be said to endure the Father’s wrath when He ended a life of self-devotion by this sublime act of self-sacrifice, which was the fulfilment of His Father’s will.

Far different is the lesson which the text sets forth. It is the lesson of dependence on God’s help, in desertion and loneliness, against enemies the most powerful and sagacious, amid circumstances the most adverse, despite all the calculations of human foresight. In some respects we cannot apply the prophet’s words to ourselves without limitation or correction. The Gospel has supplanted the Law. The Israel after the spirit has taken the place of the Israel after the flesh. The prophet’s utterance expresses the indignant cry of an outraged people demanding justice on their enemies, the indomitable enthusiasm of a nation yearning for the restitution of its national life by the mighty arm of the national and yet omnipresent, omnipotent God. To ourselves all men are fellow-countrymen, are brothers in Christ. A larger, more comprehensive, more spiritual conception of God’s triumphs is vouchsafed in the Gospel. Our vision is enlarged; our point of view is changed; but the main lesson of the passage—the heroism of loneliness, the trust in God, the assurance of victory—has the same binding force now as then.

It may be that the interpretation of the passage, to which I have already referred, has led other Churches besides our own to select this passage in place of one of the Epistles in Passion Week. But, whatever motives may have influenced the choice, it is very appropriate for that solemn season. I do not mean only that, as speaking of a redemption, it may be taken to have a Messianic reference, but that it sets forth the very lesson, of which the scene on Calvary was the most signal manifestation ever held out to a sinning, suffering world. The Passion and Death of Christ were preeminently the victory of loneliness through faith in the power of the unseen God. He, Who had gathered about Him admiring multitudes in Galilee, Who had been accompanied from village to village, and from city to city, by eager and attentive throngs, now at length in the hour of deepest trial, in the face of cruel sufferings and ignominious death, was abandoned by all. Loneliness, entire loneliness, only the more painful by contrast with the crowded audiences and the enthusiastic welcomes of the past, was the keenest pang of that painful crisis. In the agony of Gethsemane His nearest and best beloved disciples could not even watch with Him for a single hour. At the moment of His betrayal one and all ‘forsook Him and fled.’ And so the cruel taunts of the Roman soldiers, the insolent ribaldry of the Jewish mob, the cold injustice of Pilate, the bigoted hatred of Caiaphas, were encountered and endured without one friendly eye to gladden Him or one friendly voice to console Him; till at length, when His sufferings had reached their climax, and the agony of death was upon Him, even the Father Himself seemed for the moment to have veiled His face, and in anguish of spirit He cried, ‘My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?’ In that awful solitude the triumph over the enemies of God was complete—the triumph over sin, over the world, the flesh, and the devil. For then, when He was all alone, the Almighty Conqueror drew near, with arm upraised to maintain the righteous cause, even as of old He was seen in the prophet’s vision approaching from Edom. ‘I looked and there was none to help.’ ‘Who is this that cometh? This that is glorious in His apparel, travelling in the greatness of His strength?’ ‘I am He that speaketh in righteousness, mighty to save.’

And so also it must be with us. Our most heroic achievements, our most signal victories, must be wrought in solitude. With God, and God alone, on our side, we must fight, and we must conquer. There is indeed a solitude, which is due to our own faults, which arises from a cold or churlish disposition, from our imperfect sympathy, from our indolence or our selfishness. We not unfrequently hear persons complain that they are misunderstood or neglected, that no one seems to care for them, that they are very lonely in the world; when they have taken no pains to consult the well-being, or win the affections, of others. It is not of this loneliness that I speak.

But there is also the loneliness of a great moral purpose. A man steps forward as the advocate of some forgotten truth, or the champion of some neglected cause. Or he devotes himself to the reform of some flagrant social abuse, or to the amelioration of some degraded class. The truth, the justice, the expediency, of his cause seem to him very manifest. He sets about his work with high hopes. He feels confident of enlisting the sympathies, and securing the aid, of all honest and fair-judging men. He forecasts a complete and speedy triumph. But his bright anticipations soon fade into the sickly light of experience. He encounters prejudice, ignorance, misunderstanding, the inertia of habit and the obstinacy of self-interest, secret obloquy and open antagonism, a thousand unforeseen difficulties lying across his path. Each fresh effort seems to start some new form of opposition. At length, worn out and desponding, he begins to ask himself, whether it is worth while persevering at so much cost, whether he is bound by any obligation to so vast a self-sacrifice, whether success is not wholly beyond his reach, whether he may not be wrong and others right after all, for who is he against so many? Then is the trial of his heroism: then is the discipline of his faith. In this hour of loneliness the prophetic vision will be his comfort and stay. He sees the form of the Almighty Conqueror, emerging from the moral confusion of his soul, from the gloom of distraction and despair. He feels that, though alone, he is not alone. He knows that his victory is secure. He, Who speaks in righteousness, will maintain the righteous cause. He, Who is mighty to save, will rescue him from the perplexity of his position. ‘I looked, and there was none to help; and I wondered that there was none to uphold: therefore Mine own arm brought salvation unto Me.’

I will take one more example. It is not now the loneliness of a great purpose which must be worked out without the sympathy of others, but the loneliness of a sinful temptation, which must be fought and conquered in the secrecy of our own heart. For the struggle with temptation, whatever form our special temptation may take, must be, in most cases and at most seasons, of this kind. The companionship of friends, the experience and advice of wise counsellors, the precepts gathered from books, may do something: but at best it will be very little. Our own temptation depends too much on our character, has too great individuality, is too much part of ourselves, to be communicated absolutely and unreservedly to others, even if it were right so to communicate it. The fight must be fought in solitude. The combat must be single-handed. Against the subtle disguises under which our foe seeks to ensnare and ruin us, against the sudden surprises by which he would strike us down unawares, against the harassing doubts which tempt us to elude the combat, whispering that expediency alone has value and that sin is no sin, against the despair of a protracted and wearisome struggle with our worst self, we must fight alone. Alone and yet not alone. We shall have the consciousness of an Almighty Presence, encouraging, sustaining, strengthening us; the vision of the Lord of Hosts, Who triumphs over all opposition, and tramples down all temptation under foot, as the purple clusters are crushed in the winepress. ‘I looked, and there was none to help; and I wondered that there was none to uphold: therefore Mine own arm brought salvation unto Me.’

In the lonely championship of right and truth against foes without, in the lonely struggle against temptation and trial within, may this consciousness, this vision, be vouchsafed to us—the vision of Him, Who is glorious in His apparel, Who travels in the greatness of His strength; the consciousness of Him, Who speaketh in righteousness, and is mighty to save.

Lightfoot, J. B. (1890). Cambridge Sermons. London; New York: MacMillan and Co. (Public Domain)

Esau

Esau

Esau

And when Esau heard the words of his father, he cried with a great and exceeding bitter cry, and said unto his father, Bless me, even me also, O my father.  Genesis 27:34.

Trinity College Chapel, 24th Sunday after Trinity, 1861.

It is to be feared that even those who are most ready to confess that all Holy Scripture was written for our learning, do yet practically derive very little instruction from large portions of the Old Testament History. There are certain broad features indeed which we can scarcely mistake. When the flagrant sinner is struck down by divine vengeance in the midst of his crimes, or when blessings are showered on the faithful servant of God, the lesson is too plain to escape us. The history of David or of Ahab cannot be misread. But there are other parts of Holy Scripture which appear to us very perplexing and unintelligible, which we are disposed perhaps to give up in despair. We cannot understand for instance why in certain cases grave sins are dealt with so lightly, or slight offences visited with so heavy a punishment. We feel that our measure of right and wrong would have been very different; that we should have established another law of retribution. There are many reasons for this. It arises in part no doubt because we are judging of past ages by the conventional standard of good and evil in our own, and are therefore unwilling to view some of the more current and respectable sins in their true light. But it is still more due to the circumstance, that the point which decides the true character of the action frequently does not lie on the surface of the narrative, and that it requires more pains perhaps than we are disposed to give, in order to appreciate its moral significance. And yet it is just those lessons requiring the most study to master which are the most valuable, when once learnt. For they not only give us the broad features of God’s dealings with His creatures. They bring out the finer lines in the portraiture of good and evil. They develope the faint shadows of the picture. They discriminate between the real and the seeming. And thus they bring home to us our true position in the sight of God. They pluck off the mask, which we have worn to ourselves as well as to others. They penetrate the inmost depths of our spirit. And thus ‘the word of God is’ indeed ‘quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword,’ a very ‘discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.’

And it happens very frequently in such cases—where the lesson conveyed does not appear at once on the face of the narrative, and where consequently there is a danger of our passing it over in a careless reading—that our attention is arrested by some casual but pointed allusion to it in the writings of an Apostle or Evangelist, or in the words of our Blessed Lord Himself. And thus the light of the New Testament is shed upon the Old. The narrative assumes a new aspect. We at length recognise its importance. We are led to study it afresh, and each time we read it we are more fully impressed with the depth of the lesson it conveys.

The instances of Balaam and of Esau both illustrate the truth of what I have been saying. They are in many respects parallel. The difficulty is much the same in either case. We are at a loss to account for the extreme severity, as we are disposed to regard it, with which the offender is treated in the sacred narrative. Both alike are referred to in the New Testament. ‘The way of Balaam the son of Bosor’ is a by-word for disobedience and ungodliness. The ‘profane’ Esau, ‘who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright’, is the very picture and type of the hopelessly and irrevocably fallen.

Yet this is certainly not the estimate we should have formed by ourselves. Our first impression of Balaam is of one, who—if he fell short of the highest perfection, if his duty to God was not all in all to him—yet at all events cannot be said to have gone very far wrong. We read of his consulting God in all he does. We find him acting as God commands him to act. We marvel at his subsequent history, and we are perplexed at the language which Scripture holds regarding him. So again with Esau. We have a sort of feeling that he too, like Balaam, is somewhat hardly dealt with. We are not sure that we should have given the preference to his brother Jacob—nay, we more than suspect that we should have reversed the judgment: that, instead of depriving him of the blessing, we should even have restored him the birthright. We have a lurking regard for his rough, impetuous, simple character, for his undesigning and generous spirit. The treachery which is practised upon him, and the success which attends his brother’s plots, enlist our sympathies in his favour. It is only when we have examined the narratives more closely, giving them more thought and trying to divest ourselves of our prejudices, that we see their history in its true light. Then at length we acknowledge the justice of God’s rebuke of Balaam; and we cease to marvel at his fall, because we can now see that, when he acted aright, he acted from fear and not from love. Then at length we discover the superiority of Jacob; and we wonder no more that Esau was deprived of the blessing and rejected as a profane person: for we see that Jacob—though amidst many imperfections, despite many grievous sins—did place his reliance on God; did look to Him, as the Giver of all good things; did live for more than the passing moment. In short Jacob was spiritually minded; while Esau—with much in him to like, and something to admire—was careless and indifferent to all higher things, influenced only by passing impulses and momentary impressions, without foresight, without reflection, the type of that hopeless class of men, whose maxim is, ‘Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die’.

To this latter narrative, the history of Esau, I will ask your attention for a few moments this morning. I know of no sadder story. I can imagine none. If the character of Esau had been less attractive, his fall would have excited less pity. If his prospects had not been so brilliant, his fate would have been less terrible. But it is the combination of these two circumstances in the narrative—the ruin of a character which we are disposed to admire, and the unspeakable value of the birthright and the blessing which he recklessly threw away—that gives the interest to the story, and rivets our attention to the lesson which it contains. The destruction of so many bright hopes, the dissipation of so many glorious visions, the hopeless and irrevocable ruin of one so simple and honest and open-hearted—what can be more touching than this? And hence it is that we seem to hear ringing sharply above the most piercing shrieks of pain, and the loudest wailings of grief, that one exceeding bitter cry, uttered in the agony of despair, ‘Bless me, even me also, O my father.’

And perhaps it may be that the narrative comes home with peculiar force to ourselves, that we are conscious of some crisis in our own lives, or recall some incident in the career of others whom we have known and loved, which reminds us only too painfully of the fate of Esau, and gives point to the lesson. Is it so with any of us? May it not be so in some degree or other with most or all of us? Or is it a mere form that we bewail our manifold sins and wickednesses; that we confess the remembrance of them to be grievous unto us, the burden intolerable? Have we not each our special temptation, our besetting sin? And it may be that at one time or other this has culminated in some act, more heinous than we had supposed possible—some breach of the law of love, or of truth, or of purity, according to our special temptation—one act which has seemed to shut us out from the presence of God, and to leave us to darkness and despair. And then at length we have learnt in our bitter anguish to measure the exceeding great value of that heavenly birthright, which as sons of God we have inherited only to spurn and to set at naught, and—in remorse, if not in penitence—have striven by the importunity of our cries to arrest the blessing, ere it has passed away from us for ever.

I need scarcely dwell on the character of Esau, as it is painted in the sacred narrative. Making allowance for the rude habits of the patriarchal age, he is not essentially different in character from a very large number among ourselves. He has just the same virtues, and just the same faults. He is the father’s favourite son. He is born to great hopes. He has brilliant prospects before him. His career is in his own hands. His lot may well be envied by others. But all is thrown away upon him. He is reckless of his opportunities. He is insensible to his blessings. He loses everything by one desperate act of folly. He finds out too late the value of what he has lost. He would give anything to recover it, when recovering it is hopeless. And yet his character is far from utterly vicious. Of such a man we might say, that he is no one’s enemy but his own. If his bad passions are strong, his impulses for good are strong also. If he is reckless and undisciplined, he is simple and honest and open-hearted. He is in short not so very much worse—perhaps not at all worse—than a great number, who are admired and loved among ourselves, and whose manifest faults are forgiven for the sake of many rough virtues and generous affections.

Nor do I think that the guilt of Esau will seem so much deeper in comparison with that which we may incur, when we consider the nature of the privilege which he despised, of the blessing which he threw away. True it is that the promise which pertained to Esau—the promise given to Abraham and renewed to Isaac—was something more than the possession of lands and flocks and houses; that his birthright implied more than mere rank or wealth or earthly power. He knew that by virtue of his birthright he was destined to be the father of the chosen seed; that in him all the families of the earth should be blessed; that from his race as concerning the flesh Christ was to come, the Redeemer of the whole world. This he knew, or might have known. This inheritance he bartered for a morsel of meat. For this he is condemned and branded as a profane person.

It was no common offence then of which Esau was guilty. It was perhaps as great an offence as in his position he could have committed. Yet it is not greater than that which we shall commit, if like him we despise our birthright. For have we not an inheritance more precious still—we who are heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ—a name more glorious than his, for it is a name better than of sons and of daughters? If he might have been the father of Messiah’s race, how much greater is our privilege, to whom is accorded a far more intimate, because a spiritual, relationship? ‘Whosoever shall do the will of My Father Which is in heaven, the same is My brother and sister and mother.’ Are we tempted for some worldly consideration, for some momentary advantage, for wealth or popularity or fame or ease or pleasure, to barter away this brilliant inheritance? Is not the price we give as ruinous, the exchange we get as worthless, as it was with Esau?

There are two circumstances however in the story of Esau, which it may be well to dwell on more at length: for from these we may derive the most valuable lesson. Yet at first sight they only perplex us. They seem not only to palliate the guilt, but almost to obliterate the offence. They lead us to look upon him as the victim rather than the culprit, as sinned against rather than sinning. The first of these is the circumstance that he is surprised into selling his birthright. It is a momentary, unpremeditated act; he falls into a snare laid for him; we feel disposed therefore not to judge him too harshly: we cannot regard his offence as very heinous. In the second place, though the loss of the birthright was certainly his own act, whatever excuse we may make for it, yet he was deprived of the blessing by no fault of his. By no reasonable foresight could he have prevented it. He made some efforts at least to obtain that blessing. He did not throw it away. He was robbed of it. Surely this can not be laid to his charge. Of this at least he is innocent.

In considering the first of these points, let us ask ourselves what is meant by being surprised into such and such a sinful act—what leads to it, what state of mind it supposes, how it comes about? In a certain sense indeed Esau is surprised into selling his birthright. He returns from the field hungry and faint. He asks for food. His brother will not give it him except at the price of his birthright. He yields. ‘Behold,’ he says, ‘I am at the point to die: and what profit shall this birthright do to me?’ But is this yielding an isolated act? Does it not show a defective character? Does it not betoken a certain spiritual depravity, a low, worldly view of his position? He ‘despised his birthright,’ We are told, and therefore he is branded as ‘a profane person.’

For indeed surprise would be utterly powerless, unless the character were previously undermined. And so it is no excuse for a sinful act; it is scarcely in any degree a palliation. It is rather a revelation of secret depravity in a man, hidden successfully from his neighbours, ignored by, but not unknown to, himself. After the flagrant deed is committed, others may be at a loss to account for it. It is unexplained to them by anything in his previous career. But to himself it is clear enough. To him it is not an isolated act, but one link in a long chain of evil. He has been aware all along that he was sinking into sin. He has thrust away the troublesome thought, but he has been aware of it. He has taken no measure, it may be, of the growth of his guilt. It has ripened into grievous sin unnoticed. In no other sense can it have been a surprise to him. For all the while the seed was there, and had taken root, and the noxious plant was growing; and he knew it, and he hid it from others, and he would not confess it perhaps even to himself.

Is it an act of sensuality into which he has been betrayed? One act perhaps, which has poisoned the fountains of his spiritual life, which has bound his outward existence with heavy chains which he cannot shake off. The temptation took him unawares, we say. He was startled into sin. But is this the whole account of the matter? Is it natural, is it reasonable, that this should be so? Who shall dare to trace the secret history of that man’s soul, to lay open the hidden springs of his guilt? Who shall venture to say what forbidden thoughts he has admitted, perhaps welcomed, how recklessly he has lingered on the border line of good and evil, how longingly he has hovered about the accursed thing, before he dared to touch it?

Or again, is it a palpable breach of truth or honesty? He has committed some act of fraud or treachery, which has destroyed his good name for ever. How came this to pass? Were there no antecedents in his career which led naturally to that result? Had he not contracted a habit, for instance, of saying less or more than he meant, of expressing an enthusiasm or an interest which he did not feel, of paring down the truth to fit it into some conventional mould, of suppressing a little here or exaggerating a little there? Or if he fell, not from moral cowardice or from the desire to please, but from greed of gain, were there not here also insidious influences at work? There are many cases, where the question of right is doubtful. These he has decided in his own favour. There are others, where, if he investigated, he might find that he was defrauding his neighbour. These he will not enquire into. He will not be dishonest knowingly, but he will take no pains to find whether he is so or not. These are the beginnings of his guilt. By these a fraudulent habit is created. By degrees he goes on from bad to worse. He avails himself of his superior cunning; he defrauds his neighbour in little things where he is sure of escaping observation. By this time he has ceased to respect honesty as a thing to be prized in itself. To him it is so much capital to trade upon—and for this purpose the semblance is as good as the reality. Hitherto he has preserved his reputation before the world. But at length he is surprised, as we say, into some flagrant act of dishonesty. Society lays him under a ban. His character is irrecoverably lost.

And so it was with Esau. It was not that one act of selling his birthright which constituted his guilt. That was but the revelation of his true character, the summing up, as it were, of his depravity.

But fearful as is the lesson which this incident suggests, it is not half so fearful as that which we derive from his subsequent fate. He bartered away his birthright, but how was it with the blessing? It was by no act of his own that he lost this. There is nothing in the narrative which leads us to such a supposition. There was no unholy traffic here, no profane contempt here. He did not drive the blessing away. It went in spite of him. The key to this difficulty is found in the allusion in the Epistle to the Hebrews. The loss of the blessing is there represented as the inevitable consequence of the sale of his birthright. ‘Ye know that afterwards, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected.’ His fate up to a certain point was in his own hands. After that it was placed beyond his reach. So it was with Esau, and so it is always with the downward course of guilt. We may wade for a time amidst the shallows of sin, feeling our footing and heedless of danger. A single step more places us at the mercy of the waves, and we are swept away into the ocean of ruin. When we read of God’s hardening the sinner’s heart, we are perhaps startled at the phrase, yet there is no doubt that it represents a fearful moral truth. The sinner after a time ceases to be his own master. He has coiled a chain about him, which binds him hand and foot. He is dragged helplessly down. There is no more terrible passage in classical literature than that in which the Roman poet describes the guilty man trembling in his secret soul, as he sees himself falling, falling headlong, unheeded and unsuspected by those nearest to him. With a true moral insight he regards this state as the just retribution of offended heaven—the heaviest punishment which can be inflicted on the most heinous guilt. Such indeed it is. Translating it into the language of Scripture we should say, that God has hardened such a man’s heart. Surely we need not call to our aid the terrors of an unseen world—however true those terrors may be—to deter us from the path of guilt. The thought that our hearts also may be hardened, that we too may shut ourselves out from the presence of God, should be sufficient to check us in our downward career.

And even supposing this deadness should not pervade our whole spiritual being, may not the yielding to our special temptation, the indulgence in our favourite sin, stiffen and paralyse some limb or other of our moral frame? Do we not every now and then see an instance of this? We are brought in contact with some one, who, thoroughly conscientious in most things, keenly sensitive on many points of duty, is yet hardened in some one point of his moral constitution, seems dead to some moral virtue. Yet such cases are exceptional. It is the tendency of this paralysis to spread. It seizes on one limb first, but presently it extends to all. The moral frame, like the bodily, is compacted and knit together in a marvellous way. There is a wonderful sympathy between limb and limb. ‘Whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it.’

In what I have said, I have been speaking the language of warning, and not the language of despair. Despair is no word of the Christian’s vocabulary. So long as there is any heavenward aspiration, any loathing of sin, any yearning after better things, however slight, however feeble, there is still hope. Cherish these higher feelings. Quench not the Spirit, though it flicker faintly and lowly. From these few sparks a bright flame may be kindled, which shall cheer your heart, and throw a light upon your path, and guide you home to your heavenly rest.

Lightfoot, J. B. (1890). Cambridge Sermons. London; New York: MacMillan and Co. (Public Domain)


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