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The Revealer of the Heart

The Revealer of the Heart

The Revealer of the Heart

The saying of the woman, which testified, He told me all that ever I did.  John 4:39.

Great S. Mary’s Church, 24th Sunday after Trinity, 1874.

It is a common remark that the most momentous revolutions in history have not unfrequently sprung out of incidents altogether disproportionate to the results. This disproportion is nowhere more strongly marked than in the narrative from which the text is taken. A conversation between a Galilean carpenter and a Samaritan peasant-woman on the brink of a well—this certainly is not the occasion which we should have expected to inaugurate a revolution designed to change the religious ideas, and with them the social and political principles, of a whole civilised world. Such conversations were held many times daily over hundreds of wells in Palestine. Yet here, on this one day, at this sixth hour, near this village, Sychar, on the ledge of this particular fountain, went forth the edict, which was destined to be the one critical moment, the one absolute turning-point, in the religious history of mankind. ‘The hour cometh’—not only ‘cometh,’ but ‘now is’—‘when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father.’ Here is the rescission of the old order, and the charter of the new. All the old religions had been ethnic; the new must be cosmopolitan. All the old religions centred about some local sanctuary, worshipped some local power; the new religion should be wide as the overspreading sky itself, should be omnipresent and all-pervading, like the breath of the wind—the symbol of the Spirit—which bloweth where it listeth, which comes we know not whence, and goes we know not whither. Even Judaism itself was (as has been truly said) in some sense ethnic. The object of worship was indeed the One Omnipresent and Almighty, the Eternal ‘I Am;’ but He was worshipped still as a national God, was enshrined still in a national sanctuary. Now even these limitations should cease. The rite of initiation which inducted into the privileges of the nation should be abolished. The laws which formed the constitutional charter of the nation should be abrogated. The solid and stately edifice which was the visible centre of the nation’s hopes, the local bond of the nation’s unity, should be levelled with the dust. The religion of a people, of a tribe, must expand into the religion of mankind. ‘Nor yet at Jerusalem’—this was the most startling paradox, the last intolerable scandal. ‘Neither in this mountain’—not on yonder plateau which crowns these bare overhanging heights of Gerizim, nor on any unauthorized sanctuary like this—not on the stately hill of the Capitol or beneath the cleft-peak of Parnassus or on the steep rock-fortress of the Acropolis or in the sea-girt groves of Delos, or on the brink of the salt-marshes of Ephesus, not amidst the lofty propylaea and the colossal effigies of Memphis or of Thebes—should deity under whatever form or with whatever disguise be worshipped henceforth. So far it was a welcome truth. But this superadded clause, ‘Nor yet at Jerusalem’ spoilt everything. It was an outrage on the keenest hope of the Jew. And yet this unexpected, this unwelcome, this hateful ediet was destined to be the saving of nations.

And on no occasion was the irony of God’s munificence more signally illustrated than here. The recipients of His best treasures of revelation and of grace have rarely been those whom we should have expected beforehand. It was not here to the princes of the Hebrew hierarchy like Caiaphas, or to the leaders of Hebrew thought like Gamaliel, that the announcement was made. It was not to some Alexandrian Jew, like Philo, whose familiarity with the rich stores of Gentile learning might seem to have prepared his mind for a message of such vast import; it was not to some Platonic or Pythagorean philosopher, whose sympathies with the ancient wisdom of the farther East combining with his native Hellenic culture had enlarged his theological horizon, so that he might take in this new idea of a religion of mankind—it was not to any of these that the revelation was first made; but to a simple peasant woman, belonging to an obscure tribe hated and scorned by the Jews, who were themselves the hated and scorned of all the world—to a peasant woman, whose religious ideas shared with the rest of her people were strangely vague and confused, and whose own personal life had been stained by sins of no ambiguous hue. It seemed as if by selecting a degraded Samaritan outcast as the recipient of this gracious message to mankind, the Saviour would declare at the outset, what should be hereafter the destiny of that capacious drag-net which must sweep into its meshes of every kind. For she was the very type of the world of that day—the world which Christ came to teach and to save—whose religion was a vague compromise between the monotheism of the Jew and the pantheism of the philosopher and the idolatry of the pagan, and whose moral principles not only admitted, but even consecrated, sensuality in its most degrading forms.

But there is another very striking feature also in this narrative, which must not pass unnoticed. The intense realism which pervades every line of the Evangelist’s account.

It appears first in the local scenery, which forms the setting of the history. Here by this long, dusty road, running south and north, the traveller must needs pass on his way from Jerusalem to Galilee. Here branching off westward is the narrow valley, which encloses the town of Shechem, shut in between the two parallel ridges of mountains. Here on the southern of the two heights, on this overhanging mountain of Gerizim, is the ruined temple, the sanctuary of the Samaritan race, where their ‘fathers worshipped.’ Here, just where the high road strikes the base of the mountain, is the little village of Askar, the Sychar of the Gospels; here hard by is a deep well, so deep even now that, notwithstanding the accumulated rubbish of ages, travellers have sounded to a depth of eighty or a hundred feet. Here stretching eastward is a sight common enough to our English eyes, but rare indeed among the bare and rocky hills of Palestine—a wide expanse of corn-land, ‘unbroken’ (as it is described by an eye-witness) ‘by boundary or hedge’—these fields which ‘are white already to harvest.’

This realism appears again in the national sentiment and traditions, with which the conversation is saturated. There is the notice of the assignment of land to Joseph, the reputed forefather of the Samaritan race. There is the allusion to the inveterate, internecine feud between the Jews and the Samaritans, which rendered any overtures from the one to the other an astonishing, if not a suspicious, incident. There is the reference to the main question of dispute between the two races—the question respecting the locality of the true sanctuary—the alternative between the mountain of Shechem and the mountain of Jerusalem. There is mention incidentally made of the vague, halting, undetermined theological position of the Samaritans—whose temple was dedicated to the ‘nameless’ God, and whose allegiance (at least at one time) seems to have hovered between the Jehovah of the Pentateuch and the Zeus Hellenius of Antiochus, ‘Ye know not what ye worship.’ There is the underlying assumption of the characteristic Samaritan conception of the Messiah, not (like the Jewish) as a magnificent king, a victorious captain, but as a teacher, a prophet, ‘He will tell us all things’—a conception, to which the Samaritan was almost necessarily limited, because his Scriptures were confined to the Pentateuch, and his Messianic ideas were all gathered from the one passage in Deuteronomy. There is an indication (in the surprise of the disciples) of the social prudery with which the rabbinical teaching had imbued the age, for a maxim of the stricter rabbis forbad any conversation in public with one of the other sex, ‘They marvelled that He talked with a woman.’

It appears, lastly, in the development of the dialogue and in the progress of the event. We have a succession of rapidly shifting scenes, all equally distinct, all equally lifelike. The place, the hour, the persons; the chief Traveller throwing Himself wearily down on the well side; the disciples despatched to the neighbouring village to buy food; the approach of the woman; the conversation commenced; the ever-varying phases of emotion produced by the stranger’s words; the first surprise, ‘Thou, a Jew;’ the surprise exchanged for remonstrance, ‘Sir, the well is deep;’ the prompt desire, the dawning intelligence, ‘Give me this water;’ the parrying of the home-thrust, ‘I have no husband;’ the intermingling of an eager curiosity on a great theological question with a no less eager desire to divert the conversation from an inconvenient personal turn, ‘I perceive that Thou art a prophet;’ the wish to evade the responsibility of a decision upon this question by indefinite postponement: ‘When Messias is come, He will tell us all things;’ the return of the disciples; their shocked feelings at seeing their great rabbi thus forgetting himself; the hurried departure of the woman, her pitcher left behind and her errand unfulfilled; the feminine eagerness to tell the news to her neighbours; the natural exaggeration covering the instinctive reticence, not ‘He told me that I was living a life of shame,’ but ‘He told me all that ever I did.’

And not only is this narrative vivid and truthful in itself—truthful to natural scenery, truthful to local associations and local history, truthful to human life and character; but the allusions to place and circumstance occur in such a way as altogether to exclude the supposition of inventive design. They are not paraded before the reader; they are unexplained by themselves. Without the assistance of travellers we should often be at a loss to account for them. Of this kind is the reference to Gerizim, ‘Sir, I perceive that Thou art a prophet. Our fathers worshipped in this mountain.’ The context contains no indication that any mountain was near; even when mentioned, it is not mentioned by name; but the woman, suddenly looking up, sees the overhanging heights, and they suggest a ready topic, which will divert the unpleasant tenour of the conversation. Similar too is the allusion to the growing corn, ‘Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields, for they are white already to harvest.’ This mention is altogether unexpected, abrupt, inexplicable—inexplicable otherwise than by the actual scenery itself. The Great Teacher’s eye ranges over the vast expanse of cornland, and the vision of the eye starts the lesson from the lips. The scenery does not garnish the discourse; the discourse arises out of the scenery.

What is the inference from all this? Have we here a fictitious narrative, written, as some men would tell us, by a late Christian of Gnostic tendencies, written far away from the scenes themselves, at Alexandria or in Asia Minor, written long after the supposed occurrences, somewhere about the middle of the next century, when two successive devastations under Titus and under Hadrian had harried the land, and the Jewish nation and polity were altogether a thing of the past, when in history, as in theology, old things had passed away and all things had become new.

And what analogy can be produced for such a remarkable phenomenon of literary history as this? ‘The world,’ it is said, ‘is full of works of imagination;’ ‘the singular realism of many,’ we are told, ‘is recognised by all.’ Is this a true description of the world in the early Christian centuries? Is it not the very opposite of a true description? Can even one romance of antiquity be pointed out, which approaches this in its perfect truthfulness of delineation? Even one, which offers anything like the same variety of tests, and which responds to every test applied with anything like the same fidelity? We have specimens of classical romances extant. What are they worth? ‘Singular realism’—is not this the very last expression which would fitly describe them? But was it rather in Christian circles that such a wonderful product of literary genius might have been looked for? In Christian circles of the second century, which (we are reminded again and again) were notoriously careless, uncritical, inappreciative, eagerly devouring the most clumsy forgeries? In Christian circles, whose highest conception of a romance did not rise above the stiff pedantry of the Clementines, or the childish extravagance of the Protevangelium? And who was this anonymous writer, this wonderful genius, this consummate artist—if an artist, a far greater artist than Plato—whose name is nevertheless lost for ever in the greatness of the past?

Is this the probable alternative? Is it even a possible alternative? Or must we not confess that we have here the very record of a true incident, reported by an eye-witness—not, I venture to think, by Him, the chief speaker, nor by her, the chief listener, but directly by the beloved disciple himself, the youthful friend, lingering by his Master’s side as not unnaturally he would linger while the others were despatched to the neighbouring village to purchase food for the common wants, suppressing the fact of his own presence in his after narrative, as characteristically he would suppress it, where the words and the incident told their own tale, and no personal attestation was needed; but listening at the time, silent, thoughtful, bewildered, amazed, and after long years recalling with all that freshness, with which old men will recall the critical moments of their boyhood and youth though the vast intervening space may be blurred and indistinct to the memory—recalling, I say, those strange sayings uttered more than half a century before on the brink of the Samaritan well—the startling announcement, ‘Neither in this mountain nor yet at Jerusalem,’ and the hardly less startling anticipation, ‘The fields are white already to the harvest’—hard sayings, dark enigmas, grievous scandals, when they were at first heard; but now at length grown

Of new significance and fresh result;

now in the light of a lifelong experience, now in this far distant Gentile city of Ephesus, amidst this ever-growing congregation of Gentile Christians, gratefully acknowledged as the manifesto of a new revelation and the charter of a new Church. A true son of Thunder, whose work in life is typified, not by the ceaseless din as of some busy machinery, but by the deafening clap and the vivid flash which, sudden and intermittent, startles the silence of a summer sky.

The context has brought us to the outskirts of Christian evidences. The text itself penetrates to their very core: ‘He told me all that ever I did:’ ‘He tore away the veil of disguise, which I had so carefully wrapped about me. He exposed my secret life; He probed my inmost conscience; He held up a mirror to me, and for the first time I saw myself.’ This unique power of piercing, wounding, exposing, convicting, convincing the conscience is, and ever must be, the most potent testimony to the revelation in Christ.

Christian evidences! How few have the time, have the opportunities, have the capacities, have the training, necessary for a right judgment on the subjects submitted to them! And yet to the many the truth of Christianity is a question not less momentous than to those few. Here then is their evidence. It presupposes no long intellectual discipline; it demands no unusual mental powers; it draws on no rich accumulation of knowledge. It addresses itself to the poor, to the simple, to the ignorant. It appealed to this unlettered Samaritan peasant, with the same directness of aim, as to a Hillel or a Gamaliel; to this shamed and sullied profligate with the same distinctness of articulation as to the most scrupulous, most respectable, most orthodox of Pharisees. ‘He spoke to my conscience; He shewed me my sin; He shewed me myself. He told me all things that ever I did.’

And this is not only the most simple and comprehensive, it is also the most forcible and the most convincing of all kinds of evidence. Let any one test the truth of this by his own past experience. Let him only recall some one rare moment in the past; when the conviction of sin, the revelation of self, was flashed in upon his soul: when suddenly the dishonesty, the hypocrisy, the malice, the avarice, the impurity, the meanness, the sin (whatever it may have been), which he had so long indulged with so much self-complacency, rose up before him with a terrible distinctness of outline, confronting him, as it were, with a second self. Long lapse of time, worldly cares, dissipating interests, indifference, recklessness, may now have confused the memory. But then he could not deceive himself. It was no phantom of a diseased imagination. It was an intensely real, intensely true, experience; it was direct, it was personal, it was absolute. He had seen the exceeding sinfulness of sin; he had been confronted with the great mystery of iniquity. And he could no more doubt the reality of the power, which had revealed it to him, than he could doubt the force of gravitation itself. ‘He told me all things that ever I did. Is not this, yes, is not this the Christ?’

We have been reading lately some speculations on the utility of religion. The honest utterance of a singularly honest mind is always a substantial gain. It goes to increase the store of trustworthy data, on which the judgments of mankind must be built. And in this case the value is enhanced, because the voice speaks to us (as it were) from beyond the grave. But was adequacy, or any approach to adequacy, in the treatment, to be anticipated here? The utility of religion depends on the power of religion. And the power of religion can only be estimated by inward experience. It must ever be a matter of personal testimony. It cannot be weighed and tabulated.

Intrinsically faulty then, because entirely speculative, must be the estimate of one, who (as he himself frankly confesses) never had a faith to lose, who even in these his posthumous utterances is still feeling after a religion, not denying it as a possibility, but relegating it to the cloudland of peradventure, and allowing it, nay even encouraging it, as a salutary play of the imagination.

Hence, in the Essay to which I have referred, I find something said, and not absolutely untruly, about the insufficiency of the fear of future punishment regarded as a moral police. I find a little said, though altogether inadequately, about the influence of a noble ideal in attracting men to virtue. But I find nothing at all on this one point—the power of religion in penetrating, revealing, shaming, purifying, exalting the inner life through the conviction of sin, and the craving after righteousness. And yet every Christian knows that this is after all the most potent, because the most subtle, influence which acts upon his moral being—penetrating into recesses where all others must fail, touching springs of action which none other can reach. He is not ungrateful for external supports. He sees well enough, how very much he owes to the force of law, or of public opinion, as the scaffolding of his moral nature. But he cannot deceive himself. He knows that whole regions of moral life lie far beyond the reach of any such forces. He knows how many an evil thought he puts away, how many an alluring temptation he resists, how many a painful struggle he undergoes, how many a distasteful task he undertakes—not at all because public opinion expects it of him (public opinion knows nothing of all this); not at all because the terror of a future judgment haunts him (the thought is far away from his mind); but because he is conscious of a Presence, pleading with him, admonishing him, alluring him, entreating him, startling him by the heinousness of his sin, reflected in the mirror of a perfect righteousness. He cannot deceive himself. He knows, as certainly as he knows anything, how very far worse he would have been if this voice had been silent, if this Presence had been withdrawn. He sees that he is only one unit among myriads. He reflects that this motive has been far more potent with thousands upon thousands of men than (to his shame) it has been with himself. And reflecting on all this, he feels that he cannot place any bounds to the utility of religion regarded as a moral force. For the mainspring of all this power is the revelation of self through the revelation of God in Christ. ‘He gave me the answer to that twofold question, the question of all questions, ‘Whence?’ and ‘Where?’ He shewed me all the mercy, for He told me all the sin. He convinced me of my greatness, for He convicted me of my meanness. He set before me the image of perfect holiness, embodied in a Man like myself. Then He shewed me my own sinful heart, my own sullied life. It was a contrast of light and darkness. I could not choose but hate the darkness and love the light. And so in my poor, feeble, halting way I am feeling for the light, I am straining after the light. He told me all that ever I did. Is not this the Christ?’

And with this conviction kindling within him, he hurries out into the world. He becomes perforce a missionary and an apologist—a missionary, though not perhaps across the seas or amidst deserts; an apologist, though not in the pulpit or with his pen—but he pleads with the resistless eloquence of a direct personal knowledge; he argues with the overpowering logic of a renewed and purified life. His secret is bursting within him, and he must impart it to others. He arrests, he appeals, he importunes. ‘Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did. Come, see and hear and judge for yourselves. Is not this the Christ?’

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

The Wrath of the Lamb

The Wrath of the Lamb

The Wrath of the Lamb

And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb  Revelation 6:16

Great S. Mary’s Church, 20th Sunday after Trinity, 1873.

This title—the Lamb, the Lamb of God—as applied to our Lord, is found only in the Gospel and the Apocalypse of S. John. Like the designation of the ‘Word of God,’ or the image of the Shechinah, the tabernacle, the glory abiding among men, it is a distinguishing feature which connects these two books, and points to the identification of the disciple of love with the eagle-eyed seer of Patmos. Elsewhere indeed the image is indirectly suggested. But, as a proper name, an absolute and indefeasible title, it occurs in these two books alone.

And, as it links the Gospel with the Apocalypse, so does it also connect the earliest days of Christ’s dispensation with the latest. It is heard first on the lips of the forerunner alone, when the ministry on earth is now to begin; it is echoed last by ten thousand times ten thousand voices of the redeemed, when the ministry in heaven has drawn to a close. Its earlier utterance is the prelude to a life of toil and sorrow and shame and cruel agony: ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, that taketh on Him the sins of the world.’ Its later utterance is the final pæan of victory over death and hell, the triumphant hallelujah of glorified myriads swelled by the universal chorus of heaven and earth and sea, and prolonged into the echoes of eternity; ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.’ ‘Blessing and honour and glory and power be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever.’

In the Gospel, however, the name, twice repeated on one single occasion, is never heard again. In the Apocalypse it is reiterated not far short of thirty times. Every other title of dignity seems to be swallowed up in this. No attribution of strength, and no panegyric of victory, and no outpouring of thanksgiving, and no ascription of praise seems to be complete, unless the homage is offered to the Lamb, the Lamb that was slain.

Some here will recall a famous work of early Flemish art, in which the brothers Van Eyck have attempted to represent the luxuriant imagery of this Apocalyptic vision. All the lines in the picture converge towards a common centre. All the groups are arranged with reference to this one point. Martyrs, virgins, priests, prophets, hermits, pilgrims, holy warriors, righteous judges, kneeling or standing, on foot or on horseback, at rest or in motion—all are gathered or gathering about one prominent figure. On it each eye is gazing, and towards it each footstep moves. These various groups of redeemed and glorified saints stud the outer parts of the picture. More central than these is an inner circle of winged angels, some bearing the instruments of the Passion, some swinging censers, but all with faces upturned towards this one point, all kneeling in adoration of this one figure. Highest of all and directly above it is One of stately mien and majestic visage, seated on a throne, His head crowned with a tiara, His hand raised in the attitude of benediction. It is the Eternal Father Himself, Whom with the unconscious irreverence of his age, which striving to communicate the incommunicable ended only in limiting the illimitable, the artist has represented in a human form. At His feet is a richly jewelled crown ready, it would seem, to descend and encircle the brow of the figure beneath. Immediately below, still hovering over this central figure, is a dove with outstretched wings, the symbol of the Spirit, darting forth rays of light and encircled in clouds of glory. Lowest of all, beneath the feet of the saintly groups and right under the central figure itself, was once a representation of the souls in agony. This part of the picture is now effaced; but we may well imagine that the motive was suggested by the words of the text; that the centre of attraction to the redeemed was a centre of repulsion to the lost; that with cowering limbs and averted eyes they shunned the glory of the Adorable One; that in their mien, in their every gesture and look, they seemed to say to the mountains, ‘Cover us,’ and to the hills, ‘Fall on us.’

And this one figure, which thus gathers into itself the glory of the whole picture; this centre, towards which all things gravitate by an irresistible force; this common object of adoration, to which heaven and earth alike yield homage—what is it? Surely here the painter will lavish all the treasures of his art, and tax all the resources of his brain, to produce some conception, which in elevation of ideal and splendour of colouring, in dignity and pathos and beauty and strength, shall be worthy of its position. But what do we find? We look to this central figure, and our feeling is one of blank disappointment. The object of adoration here is not the calm and stately form, so awful and yet so loving, with arms outstretched to bless and shewing the wounded palms, like the glorified Saviour of Angelico; nor the Crucified One, nailed still to the Cross, but transferred from earth to heaven, and held up in the arms of the Everlasting Father for awe-stricken myriads to adore, as this same subject is treated by Dürer, another great master. There is no power, no beauty, no elevation in the conception here. The artist has fallen into a naked, painful literalism. He seems determined that the adoration of the Lamb shall be the adoration of a lamb; and a lamb he has given us. There is an incongruity, a perversity, a paradox, a bathos, in this treatment which we can hardly explain and cannot forgive.

Yet this literalism, this bathos of treatment, however faulty in itself, does emphasize a leading characteristic of the Apocalyptic vision. The artistic paradox of the painter answers to the moral paradox of the seer. S. John plainly dwells upon this title with affectionate fondness, just because it is incongruous. Nay, he seems bent on enhancing the incongruity by all the accessories which he can gather about it, welcoming every paradox of language and every inversion of metaphor which will give point to his lesson. Though a lamb, it is the shepherd of the flock, leading the sheep to springs of living water and followed by them, wheresoever it goes (7:17, 14:4). Though a slain lamb, it has power over the Book of Life (13:8). Though its blood is crimson, it has a cleansing, bleaching efficacy, washing white the robes of the redeemed (7:14). And altogether, this feeblest, most timid, most gentle, most helpless creature, is an emblem of strength, of power, of victory. Once indeed the Apocalyptic seer stumbles on an image more akin (we might have thought) to the ideas which he wishes to convey—‘Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah.’ Here was a magnificent image, recommended alike by its prophetic prestige, by its historic relations, and by its intrinsic propriety. The monarch of the forest, springing on his prey, would suggest just those conceptions of sovereignty and vengeance and might, with which he would desire to invest the Person of the glorified Lord. Yet it is dropped at once and for ever; and the image of the Lamb replaces it, never again to be relinquished. The mode of transition too is remarkable. ‘One of the elders said unto me … Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah … And I beheld, and, lo … a Lamb as it had been slain.’ This novel contradiction lies at the root of the Gospel. The life of Christ was from first to last a paradox. His weakness was power; His shame was honour; His death was victory. The life of the Church is a paradox also. Among the most distinguished warriors have been the feeble and the foolish and the despised of the world. Again and again her strength has been made perfect in weakness; again and again the things, that are not, have been chosen to confound the things, that are. Thus the lamb, not the lion, is the true symbol of our faith. This is plainly the leading idea in the Apocalypse. Whatever of greatness and whatever of power the seer would ascribe to his risen Lord finds its reason, its justification, its fulfilment in this one title. Is it victorious might? ‘These shall make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them.’ Is it divine illumination? ‘The glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof.’ Is it adoration and worship? ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing.’ Lastly; is it vengeance? ‘Hide us … from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of His wrath is come.’

Here is the climax of the paradox. It is not the wrath of the Lion, but the wrath of the Lamb, which is so terrible in the seer’s vision. In its innocence, in its meekness, in its tenderness, this gentlest of all creatures is endowed with a capacity of retribution, which is denied to the monarch of the forest with all his fierceness and all his might. The old riddle is inverted; and out of sweetness comes forth strength. How then must we read it?

The punishment of the wicked was a theme of terrible fascination with the painters of an earlier age. They taxed all the fertility of a morbid fancy to paint the physical tortures of lost souls. What did they hope to gain by this hideous play of the imagination? Did they think to frighten the vulgar into well-doing? Nay; might not the very familiarity with such horrible conceptions stimulate those passions which they sought to check; just as the public execution of a criminal is said to be a fruitful source of fresh crime? Or did they imagine that they had Scriptural authority for these pictures, even as symbolic imagery? Nay; the strange thing is, that though their representations of heaven are largely taken from the Apocalypse, their representations of hell are the creations of their own brain. It is a remarkable, and it is surely a significant fact, that while the bliss of the redeemed is painted by the Apocalyptic seer with all the varied imagery which an inspired imagination can command, though the picture is repeated again and again with ever-increasing energy of delineation, yet there is no corresponding description of the lost. Once or twice the familiar symbol of the fiery lake is introduced; but it is briefly dismissed again. The Apostle would appeal to spiritual aspirations, rather than to physical terrors. Fear may deter; but fear cannot educate. Love only is the educator of the soul. Hence for the most part a thick veil is drawn over the fate of the lost, which later ages attempted rudely, but vainly, to pluck away. Here and there indeed a glimpse is accorded, only to suggest a wholly different order of ideas. ‘Every eye shall see Him, even they which pierced Him.’ ‘Hide us from the face of Him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.’

It is not physical agony, if we read the interpretation aright; it is the beauty of holiness, it is the splendour of purity, it is the majesty of truth, it is the tenderness of love, which shall be the chief instrument of retribution. It is the blessing spurned, and the opportunity lost, which shall start up from the oblivion of the past, and confront us as God’s angel of vengeance. It is the glory and the goodness, in which we yearn to slake our burning thirst, and lo! the cup is dashed away from our lips. What was it that wrung from those foolish ones in the parable, the mournful hopeless cry, ‘Lord, Lord, open to us?’ Not certainly the howling of wild beasts, nor dread of robbers, nor deadly night-chill, nor menacing storm. As for all these, they had slept securely hitherto, and might sleep on again. It was the awakening and finding that the door was closed, and they were in the darkness without. There was the light streaming through the casement, and the shadow of the bridegroom thrown on the chamber wall—the light which they might not share, and the bridegroom whom they might not greet. Aye, there is in us all a divine appetency, which seeks the light, which yearns for the light. We may slumber on, till it is too late; but then we must awake, and the fierce craving awakes also, and will not be denied, and there is no longer wherewith to satisfy it. So our highest capacities become our fiercest tormentors. It was an impossible prayer, which the hero breathed of old, ‘Kill me, if it be only in the light.’ Light, perfect light, never can be death. Life and light are synonyms in the nomenclature of the Spirit. It is the light felt and yet withheld; it is the darkness rendered visible; the helpless consciousness of spectral forms, which we may realise and yet cannot put away, haunting the gloom, that perplexes and scares and paralyses the soul.

And have we not, even in the experiences of the present, analogies, however faint, which may teach us how the most painful sight hereafter shall be the sight of Him Whom we pierced; and the wrath to come shall indeed be the wrath of the Lamb?

Is it the memory of some base ingratitude, which lies heavy on the soul? A disdainful word has been spoken, a cruel insult has been offered in a moment of irritation to the ‘heart’s best brother,’ the friend of boyhood and youth; and they two have parted asunder, never to meet again on earth. Or was it an act of cold and defiant self-assertion, a display of heartless indifference, which was only half-meant, but which has wrung a mother’s heart? And he was too proud to ask pardon, though a single word would have healed the wound, and the sore is ever festering in him. And then death comes, and in a moment an impassable barrier is reared. What would he not give then, just to unsay that cruel word, or to undo that selfish act? What sacrifice would he not then undergo, if only for a moment the impenetrable veil could be raised, and they could meet face to face as of old, so that he might pour forth a few hurried sentences of sorrow and shame, and hear from those lips the one precious word of forgiveness? But the opportunity is gone for ever. He cannot retrieve the irretrievable. And so the bright vision of the past rises up in vengeance against him, with all its sweet memories, and all its joyful hopes. The wise counsels and the affectionate greetings and the tender solicitudes, the self-denying devotion which was lavished so freely upon him—all these haunt his path, and leave him no rest. Love itself is become his tormentor. Love itself is turned into wrath.

Or again; it is not perhaps wronged affection, it is discarded innocence, which grasps the sword of the avenger, and wields it with both hands. We have read how some fallen one will revisit under cover of darkness the home of her happy childhood, and haunt the doors which are barred to her for ever, and peer stealthily through the windows that she may see the innocent faces gathered, as of old, round the fireside; or we have been taught how in the midst of splendour, after months or years of unrealised shame, some long forgotten strain of music, striking accidentally on the car—so sweet of old, so jarring and discordant now—startles all the ghosts of the past from their graves, and no power can lay them. The conscience rebels and refuses to be drugged any more. These, it may be, are fictions of the poet and the painter; but do they not commend themselves by their absolute truthfulness? This divine paradox of retribution is manifested again and again. Again and again we are bidden to look, for the avenging Lion is there: we lift up our eyes, and ‘lo, a Lamb as it had been slain.’

Yes; purity avenges itself. A man may get to think it a poor, tame, spiritless thing—one of those childish adornments, which he may cast lightly off, when he casts off the child. So he trifles with it; and in a moment of recklessness flings it away. Then comes the terrible revulsion, the sense of its priceless value, and of his own infinite loss. Then is the self-loathing and the remorse, the expulsion and the shame. He is driven forth from the garden, and the gate is barred behind him, and the flaming sword waving to and fro will not permit his return. He has tasted the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and it has cost him the tree of life. The great ideal of innocence, which he has defied, confronts him with its glory, and his eyes cannot bear the sight. All this, or nearly all this, is involved in the noble saying of the Stoic poet, who counts it the most righteous penalty which offended heaven can inflict on the hardened sinner, that he shall behold virtue, and, beholding it, pine away over the sight of his loss. All this, and far more than this, is gathered up in the prophetic vision of the Apocalypse, which is the Christian fulfilment of the Stoic’s dream; ‘Every eye shall see Him, even they which pierced Him.’

Far more than this; for it is possible now to put the vision aside. Experience does not teach us that in this world the intensity of the remorse is always proportionate to the gravity of the sin. A little more trifling, a little fresh indulgence; and the vision will pass away. The innocence had gone before; and now the ideal has vanished out of sight. The man has peace now, if a false security can be called peace. But what, if hereafter the veil should be suddenly plucked away? What, if the scales should fall again from his eyes? What, if the avenger should start on his feet once more, and exact the debt, swollen with the arrears of a long oblivion?

Far more than this; for the heathen poet could only contemplate virtue as a bare abstraction, beautiful indeed in itself, but hardly touching the surface of the heart. Our ideal is a Person—a Person, Who sums up in Himself all things in heaven and earth, all the magnificent teachings of science and all the inspiring lessons of history; but a Person also, Who has entered into human relations with us, Whom we have been permitted to know with our human knowledge, and to love with our human love. This it is, which must invest the sight of Him hereafter with such unspeakable awe to those who have pierced Him. For here—in this one Being—is embodied all the innocence which we have profaned, and all the truth which we have foresworn, and all the glory which we have despised. Here—in this one Man—are concentrated every blessing spurned and every opportunity lost. But above all these, crowning all and glorifying all and solemnising all, is the ideal of absolute love; the love which made its home on earth and lived a human life; the love which died for us on the Cross; the love which we might have made our own, but which we despised and flung away as a broken vessel.

This—can we doubt it—is the wrath of the Lamb. Not that He is changed, but that we are changed. He is the Lamb still. His truth, His righteousness, His purity, His love are eternal. But our perversity has transformed them into avenging angels. And so is fulfilled the saying which was written, ‘With the holy thou shalt be holy … and with the froward thou shalt learn frowardness.’ One sad reproachful look wrung from an Apostle bitter tears of remorseful shame. And how shall we bear that same look intensified a thousandfold and resting upon us—we who have denied Him, we who have pierced Him, we who have crucified Him afresh?

And forgive me, if I delay you a little longer, that I may make some more direct application of the lesson. I would wish more especially to speak of those privileges, which are offered to the majority of you now, and which, if neglected now, must revive and reappear in the avenging vision of the great hereafter. And here I might dwell on the magnificent opportunities of youth, on the glory of consecrating the freshness and the enthusiasm and the impressibility of early manhood to the highest of all sciences. But I abstain, simply because I know that, speaking on such a theme, I should speak to deaf ears. Any language, which I should think of using, would seem exaggerated to you young men now. A time will come, when no words will appear too extravagant for the theme; but this time is yet distant. No young man realises the glorious potentiality of youth, till youth has passed away. Therefore I will turn to other topics, which have a better chance of a hearing. And I would ask your attention chiefly to two privileges, which you enjoy here, and which you are not likely to enjoy so fully hereafter.

1. The first is the opportunity of daily prayer—more especially of daily morning prayer—in your College Chapels. Only think what a powerful instrument of self-discipline (to say nothing else) you neglect, in neglecting this! Only think what a sovereign preservative is here against sloth and all the countless vices which throng in its train! Only reflect on the glorious gain in thus dedicating publicly and solemnly the first-fruits of each day to God—what a tone of moral strength and what a well-spring of spiritual life is here! How then do you shew your appreciation of it? Will the history be this? In your first term you begin your attendance; and for a time you attend with fair regularity. But the effort is slightly irksome to you. You do not reflect that this very fact is highest testimony to its disciplinary value. So you allow yourself a little indulgence, and again a little more; till what was the rule is now the exception, and its efficacy as a moral discipline has almost gone. And meanwhile its spiritual power too is weakened. You find that you can do very well without it; you do not seem to yourself to care very much for it. At first there was a certain sense of dissatisfaction at each fresh relaxation of the rule. But this soon wears off; and it gives you no trouble now. Have you weaned yourself from a superfluous want? Or is it not that you have stunted a divine faculty by disuse?

2. The second privilege, to which I would refer, is the opportunity of uninterrupted solitude. You have never had this opportunity in the same degree before; it is not very likely that you will continue to have it, when your residence here ceases. Your time is now almost absolutely at your own disposal. You have ample leisure to retire into yourself, to interrogate yourself, to learn of yourself. And be assured your most valuable lessons must be learnt here. I feel no temptation to depreciate the blessings of friendship. The friendships formed and cemented here are a chief glory of this place. I should do ill to undervalue the instruction derived from books. Certainly experience does not suggest the need of the warning, which Columba is said to have addressed to a pupil of old, ‘My son, many out of undue love of knowledge have made shipwreck of their souls.’ It may be the temptation of a few; it is not the peril of the many. But, believe it, you can learn from yourselves lessons, more profound, more comprehensive, more abiding than any books or any friendships can teach you. Believe it—for it is truly said—each one of you is greater than he knows. This is even more true of the least gifted undergraduate in these galleries, than of the most gifted. He is far, very far, greater than he knows. Only go down deep enough into yourself, and you will find a Teacher, Whose lessons no printed page and no wise companionship can replace—for you have found there God Himself, God speaking through your individuality, God evoking your special gift, God ordering your special task.

These blessings, and such as these, I ask you to remember to-day. I did not select the text that I might enlarge on the terrors of the unseen world. I have no faith in such a mode of teaching. But I have wished to anticipate the vision of the future, that so we may more fully realise the lesson of the present; that the glory of our divine human Ideal—His holiness, His purity, His righteousness, His mercy, His love—may attract and rivet our gaze; that so beholding and worshipping and growing into the same image, we may be ready to follow Him, whithersoever He goeth, grudging no sacrifice and sparing no toil.

‘And looking upon Jesus as He walked, he saith, Behold the Lamb of God!

‘And the two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus.’

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

The Head and the Body

The Head and the Body

The Head and the Body

That we may grow up into Him in all things, Which is the head, even Christ; from Whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.  Ephesians 4:15, 16.

Great S. Mary’s Church, 22nd Sunday after Trinity, 1870.

My text last Sunday appealed to the secret experience of the individual heart: my text to-day refers to the mutual relations and interdependencies of a vast and varied society. The theme then was necessarily concentrative; the theme now will be essentially diffusive.

I introduced the text as taken from the Epistle to the Ephesians. At the very outset this statement needs amendment; for, if true, it is only partially true.

We know now that the Epistle, which we are accustomed so to designate, was addressed to a much wider circle of readers. As S. Peter later writes to the strangers scattered throughout several districts in Asia Minor, as S. John later still addresses the Divine message to the principal Churches of the Roman province called Asia, so (there is good reason to think) the destination of S. Paul’s letter was not Ephesus only, the metropolis of the region, but all the Christian communities established in the several populous centres—perhaps throughout the province, perhaps extending over a still wider area. This result we may consider to be established by recent investigation and criticism. In the copies used by more than one of the ancient fathers, the words ‘in Ephesus’ were absent from the opening verse. They are wanting in the two oldest MSS which time has spared to us. Plainly these copies were derived from an archetype, in which a blank had been left for the name of the Church and had never been filled in. Another still more ancient writer called this the Epistle to the Laodiceans. Clearly he fell in with a copy addressed, not to Ephesus, but to Laodicea. And, if it be asked, how the common title prevailed, how the Church came to receive this as an Epistle to the Ephesians, the answer is simple. From Ephesus, the most populous city and the most important Church, the political and ecclesiastical metropolis of the region, the most numerous copies would be disseminated; and as some definite title was necessary, Ephesus, occupying this vantage ground, usurped the room and displaced the name of the other Churches in the heading of the Epistle.

The Epistle was an encyclical, a catholic Epistle. This hypothesis, as it is demanded by external testimony, is necessary also to explain the internal character of the letter. Critics had observed that there was an entire absence of all personal and local allusions in it, and they had objected that in a communication written to a Church, with which the Apostle was on the closest and most affectionate terms, in which he had resided three whole years, labouring night and day, this silence was most strange and inexplicable. They were therefore disposed to question the Apostolic authorship. Certainly, if it had been addressed to the individual Church of Ephesus, I do not know how we could explain the absence of all marks of individuality, or what answer could be given to the objection founded thereupon. But criticism has solved the difficulties, which itself created. It has pulled down, only to build up on a broader and stronger basis. It has vindicated the Epistle to S. Paul, but it has denied the claims of Ephesus as the exclusive destination.

Copies then of this circular letter were entrusted to the bearer, Tychicus, who (as you will remember) is charged in the letter itself to deliver orally the special messages, the special information, which S. Paul desired to communicate to each Church severally. Thus one copy would be left at Ephesus, another at Sardis, a third at Thyatira, a fourth at Laodicea, and so with the remaining Churches to which the several transcripts were addressed. Laodicea was the chief city of the district in which the smaller town of Colossæ was situated. The Epistle to the Colossians was despatched at the same time, and by the same messenger, as this circular letter. Hence the Colossians are charged to get and read the copy which was sent to the neighbouring Laodicea. If there was any obscurity in the terms of this brief message, Tychicus, the bearer of both letters, was at hand to clear it up.

This is perhaps one of the most instructive results of Biblical criticism. But I should not have dwelt so long upon the subject merely for the sake of its critical interest. In all S. Paul’s Epistles the subject-matter is determined by the destination. This is especially the case with the letter before us. Its encyclical character explains its main theme—the Church as one, and yet manifold; one, as united in Christ; manifold, as comprising various members, various functions.

The Churches, to which the letter was addressed, had their several capacities, their distinct interests, their special advantages and their special temptations. The respective messages addressed in the Apocalypse to the Seven Churches enable us to appreciate the different tempers and conditions of these several communities. Side by side were the Church of Smyrna which in spite of poverty was rich, and the Church of Laodicea which boasting of its wealth was miserably poor; side by side, the Church of Ephesus which had left its first love, and the Church of Thyatira whose last works were more than the first; side by side, the Church of Pergamos where prevailed the doctrine of Balaam, the excess of Gentile sensuality, and the Church of Philadelphia where was established the synagogue of Satan, the excess of Jewish formalism.

Addressing these various communities, the Apostle cannot occupy himself with the refutation of individual errors, with the remedy of individual needs. Rather he seeks for some one grand comprehensive theme, which shall correspond to the comprehensive destination of the Epistle. This theme he finds in the idea of the Church as embracing all the Churches, the ideal community regarded as one harmonious whole, but comprising diverse branches, diverse offices, diverse members. Starting from the phenomenon of variety, he arrives at the idea of unity. He seeks the centre of union, the principle of cohesion, in Christ the Head. They all are one body, animated by one spirit; they all acknowledge one faith, into which they have been admitted by one baptism; they all are united in the one Lord, and through Him draw near to the one God and Father of all, Who is above all, and through all, and in all.

This then—the relation of the many to the One, of the Christians and the Churches to Christ and to one another through Christ—is the main theme of the Epistle. In one form or another it will be discerned running through paragraph after paragraph, inspiring alike the doctrinal statements and the practical injunctions; and it culminates in the words of the text.

Under three images especially this relation is developed.

1. The Church is the Bride; Christ is the Bridegroom. Here a special aspect of this connexion is figured. The purity of love, the singleness of devotion, the perfection of obedience, the entire oneness of interests and aims—these are the features especially brought out. ‘They twain shall be one flesh.’ ‘This is a great mystery.’ ‘I speak concerning Christ and the Church.’

2. The Church is a Temple; Christ the Chief Corner-Stone. This again, though a very expressive image, is yet partial. The compactness, the coherence, are prominent in it. The succession of layers, the stratification of the edifice, is also significant. And lastly, the object of the erection, the indwelling of the Spirit, finds its proper place.

3. But far more expressive and more full is the third and remaining image, the image of the text. Christ is the Head; the Church is the Body; each individual is a member, a limb, of the whole. This image supplies what was deficient in the last, the idea of mobility, vigorous life, diffused through the whole from one central, guiding, inspiring, vivifying power, the idea of an internal principle of growth, the idea of infinite variety of conditions, functions, needs, in the several parts, and combined with this the idea of the closest sympathy and interdependency, so that each is sensitive to the action of the other, and each necessary to the well-being of the whole.

The language of the text is not free from exceptional difficulties. Of these, however, I need not speak. They do not affect the significance of the image, either as a whole or in its several parts; and therefore they may well be neglected.

Setting aside these minor points as unimportant, we may paraphrase the passage thus.

The Church of Christ is one colossal being, a single body animated by a single soul. It has not yet attained its maturity; its powers are still undeveloped; its growth still imperfect; it has hardly yet passed its infancy. But grow it will, and grow it must, for growth is the law of its being. And this growth can only be attained in one way. Connexion with the Head is the indispensable condition; obedience to the Head the inseparable accompaniment. As in the human body there is an almost infinite variety of parts—bones, muscles, veins, arteries, nerves; so likewise in the Church you have the same manifold combination of diverse elements—different individuals, different capacities, different communions, different nationalities. Each one of these supplies some distinct want, performs some distinct office, which is necessary to the well-being of the whole. We speak of a good constitution. If a man has a good constitution, we say, he will rally after this or that attack, he will survive this or that wound. What is implied by this? That the setting together of the different parts, which combine to form the body, is harmonious; that the machinery of the human frame, as a whole, works well, works without any jarring or any entanglement; that not only each part has its proper development, but that the relative adjustment of the parts is true; that they preserve their separate independence, and yet respect their mutual interdependence. In like manner the different branches, functions, capacities in the Church work separately, but work for and into each other. They are knit together in one compact whole. Nay, more than this. They cannot exist separately. It is this very connexion that preserves their vitality. It is by adaptation and contact with the neighbouring parts, and through these with the whole body, that each receives that degree and that kind of nutriment which is necessary to sustain it.

But the centre of this cohesion, this correlation, this cooperation, is the Head. Here resides the power which controls, commands, animates, harmonizes the whole. Through orders transmitted from this central government, each part receives its directions, and in obedience thereto fulfils its work. Each acts singly; each performs its own task. The eye sees, and the feet walk, and the hands handle; and, so far as regards the particular action of each, there is no direct connexion between them. It is just because there is a centre of union, to which each severally refers, that the functions of all are directed to some one definite end, and that an adequate result is achieved.

Thus composed, thus united, thus controlled, the body grows—grows towards its ideal limit, the full moral stature, the perfect standard, of which the Person and the Life of Christ are the measure; while, throughout, the pervading element in which it moves, which it breathes, from which it derives sustentation and strength, is love.

This image of the Head and the Body must have had a speaking significance to the Apostle’s contemporaries. To ourselves it presents itself with even greater vividness and force, in the light of later discoveries. The two main points in this relation are summed up in the two prepositions used to describe it in the text—‘into Him’ and ‘from Him.’ There is a concentrative energy tending towards the Head; and there is a diffusive energy spreading from the Head.

The head, the brain, is the initiative centre of our actions; and it is also the receptive centre of our sensations. From it all the various motions of the body are originated; and to it the manifold impressions of the senses are communicated. By two sets of nerves, as by two sets of telegraphic wires, this twofold communication with the head, as the central office, the seat of government in the human frame, is maintained. By the one set, the brain, the thinking, planning, originating power, transmits its orders to the furthest member; the order is received; the muscle contracts; the joint is moved; and the hand holds, or the foot walks. By the other set, the reverse process is carried on; the grasp which presses the hand, the rays which strike the eye, the pulsations which beat on the ear, all these are transmitted to the centre, and the corresponding sensation is thereby and there produced.

Such also is the relation of Christ to the Church. His control guiding the various members, and His sympathy feeling with the various members—these are the functions which this image brings clearly out.

1. There is the controlling power. The direction, the influence, the illuminating, guiding energy of the Eternal Word of God, is infinitely varied and extends throughout mankind. Of this however I do not intend to speak, though in these Epistles of S. Paul it assumes a prominent place. But it is rather the more definite, concentrated form of this control, which the same Word exerts, as the Incarnate Christ, not as the Head only of Universal Nature, but as the Head of the Church specially, that we are led by the text to consider. His teaching, His example, His Incarnation and Passion are the manifestation of the Father’s love, His Resurrection is the manifestation of the Father’s power—these are the outward agency; the Spirit, Which the Father sendeth in His name—this is the invisible medium, through which He controls and enlightens and directs His Church. Thus He communicates the Almighty Will to us. Not veiling but revealing the Father, not interposing between man and God, but reflecting God to man, He acts upon the Church. And it is just according as we, the individual members of His Body, preserve our communication with Him; according as (in the language of the parallel passage in the Epistle to the Colossians) we ‘hold fast the Head,’ that is, according as our life is conformed to His life, our spirit interpenetrated with His Spirit, our being incorporated in His Being, that His orders are duly received, prompt, healthy, vigorous action ensues, and the will of the Father is done. The joint may be dislocated by worldly indulgence and distraction; or the limb may be paralysed by spiritual carelessness. If so, there will be no response, or no adequate response, to the message transmitted. But if the communication is intact, then, by a necessary spiritual law, action must follow, obedience must be complete.

2. But, secondly, the sympathetic office of Christ is suggested by the image. As the natural body, so also the spiritual body has its system of nerves, which communicate the sensations of its lowest, most distant, members to the Head. This entire sympathy of Christ is no after-thought of the Apostle’s, no idle fancy of an overwrought imagination, or outgrowth of unrestrained metaphor. The ‘crucifying of the Son of God afresh’ has its parallel in Christ’s own declarations. No language of S. Paul or of the Epistle to the Hebrews can express this truth more strongly than His own words—recorded (be it observed) not in this instance by S. John, but by the other Evangelists—‘Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye did it unto Me.’ ‘Inasmuch as ye did it not unto one of the least of these, ye did it not unto Me.’ With the humblest member of His body He suffers: with the humblest member also He rejoices.

The image of the human body, as representing a society with its many members and various functions, was not new. The newness consisted in the significance of the Head. This was necessarily so; for the revelation of the Person, Who was the Head, was new. In the familiar apologue, addressed to the Roman crowd, the ‘kingly-crowned head,’ though it may be mentioned, means nothing, adds nothing, to the moral of the story. And if the popular application was defective, the philosophic was equally so. For the Stoic too spoke of society, of the world, of the universe, as one vast body of which individual parts and individual men were members. He went so far as to imagine it animated by one soul. But the image was vague, inarticulate, fruitless. It made no appeal to the experience, none to the heart, none to the consciences of men. He said nothing, could say nothing, of the Head. The body was to him a huge, headless, shapeless trunk, living a sort of unconscious, vegetable life, hanging together by a loose, uncertain, inappreciable bond.

This defect, which attended the popular and the philosophical application alike, was first supplied by the teaching of the Apostles, as it first became possible by the revelation of the Gospel. The Son of Man, the Pattern and Ideal of humanity, the Chief of His race, the Son of God, the Image of the Father, the Incarnation of the Divine Word—He Who centred in Himself both natures, He and He only could claim this place. From Him all the members must draw their inspiration, their strength; to Him all the members must direct their actions, must render their account. To hold fast to Him, to grow into Him, this has been the secret of the highest life. Above all the jarring conflicts of creeds, amid all the distracting forms of Church polity, this presence, this consciousness, this intimate relation, has been the one constant, guiding, inspiring, strengthening, renovating energy. And, in and by His name, lives of unsullied saintliness have been lived, and works of transcendent heroism wrought, by men in different ages, of different Churches, in different lands; because through Him they all alike have grown into a more perfect knowledge of the truth and the perfections of the Eternal Father.

But the image in the text speaks especially of the diversity resulting in unity. It tells of a harmony which comes from the due performance by each several member of its special function, the energetic working of every part in its proper measure or relation—for so it would seem we should translate the words κατʼ ἐνέργειαν ἐν μέτρῳ ἑνὸς ἑκάστου μέρους.

There is an ideal of the Church, which confuses unity with uniformity, which would force every section and every individual into the same mould, which would exact of every age the same work, and is disappointed in not finding what it exacts. This is not the Apostle’s conception. Uniformity would be fatal to the higher harmony which he requires. The unvaried repetition of the same function would be comparatively barren. The richness and the fulness of the result depend on the countless variety of the energies thus working together. ‘All the members have not the same office.’ ‘If they were all one member, where were the body?’

The examples, which the Apostle selects, are necessarily limited to the experience of the infant Church; but the principle is of the widest application. To us, who can look back on a history of eighteen centuries, the image will speak with much fuller significance than to S. Paul’s immediate hearers. We may observe, how each great subdivision of the human race in turn has contributed its special work to the building of the Church; how the intellectual subtlety of the Greek was instrumental in drawing up her creeds and elucidating her doctrines; how the instinct of organization and the respect for order in the Latin moulded and strengthened her political and social life; how the self-devoting enthusiasm of the Celt gave the immediate impulse to her greatest missionary labours; how the truthfulness and stedfastness of the Teuton reformed her corruptions and brought her into harmony with the intellectual and the social acquisitions of a more enlightened age. We might turn from Churches to individuals; and we might point out, how an Origen, an Athanasius, a Benedict of Nursia, a Francis of Assisi, a Luther, each in his generation by his special gift, his special energy, introduced a distinct element, did a distinct work in the Church. Nay, we might even appeal to sects, and shew that however one-sided, however erroneous, each nevertheless has contributed something, has brought into prominence some neglected or half-forgotten aspect of truth. In this and diverse ways we might illustrate the Apostle’s image of ‘the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth.’

But the task would be long. And the time which remains will be better employed in directing the lesson of the image to ourselves.

We here are all members of one body, of a whole compacted of various parts, are members of an University.

An University may be regarded as a Church within a Church, a Church viewed especially from its intellectual side. The name, and the thing alike, imply the same idea as the image of the text—multiplicity and unity—not manifoldness only, but manifoldness resulting in harmony and in oneness.

(1) This is an University of sciences. Such is the original idea of the term. It aims, or it should aim, at teaching every branch of knowledge. Each of us selects, or should select, his own study or studies, as the object of all the energies and powers of his mind. If I venture to urge the lesson of the text in connexion herewith, it is because I feel that these our studies will be pursued most truthfully and most profitably in the spirit there recommended, and that the consecration of the intellect to God thus attained is the highest achievement of man. And by pursuing our studies in the spirit of this image I mean two things; first, that each individually should follow his own pursuit with all his might; and secondly, that there should be no jealousy, no impatience, no contempt, of the studies of others.

I do not think either caution unneeded at the present time. As the sphere of human knowledge enlarges, it becomes more and more necessary, that each should make choice of his pursuit and concentrate himself on this. He should make his choice, and he should believe in his work. No branch of study is contemptible, none is fruitless. Each has its place, each conduces to the well-being of the whole. ‘Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary.’ Not to make a brilliant display, not to satisfy an appetite for diffusive reading, not to dissipate our intellectual energies, but to achieve something, to add something—however little—to the store of human knowledge—this should be the aim of all.

But this caution is not complete without the other. It is not only necessary that we should believe in our own work, but also that we should leave room for the work of others. This conflict between the old studies and the new, between theologians and men of science, between the investigation of the faculties of mind and the investigation of the phenomena of nature, should have no place with us. There is need of all; there is room for all; there must be no jealousy or depreciation of any, for none can be spared. Reason tells us, as S. Paul tells us, that ‘if one member suffer, all the members suffer with it.’ Reason shews us, as S. Paul shews us, a more excellent way, a comprehensive charity in the intellectual as in the social community, which ‘beareth all things, believeth all things.’ Thus bearing and thus believing, content ‘to labour and to wait,’ we shall look forward in faith to the time when the unity to which science, not less than religion, points, shall be attained, when the manifold cords of human knowledge shall be knotted in one, and attached to the throne of Heaven.

(2) But this is not only an University of studies; it is also an University of men. We bring to this place our different trainings, different experiences, different capacities. We each contribute something, and we receive much in turn. Here, if anywhere, the lesson of the text is exhibited in daily life, written in large characters that he may run that reads. This our body is large enough to afford the requisite variety, and small enough to be sensitive throughout to the healthy or unhealthy working of each individual part. A good example is more immediately felt here than elsewhere; a bad example spreads with fatal rapidity. Here, if anywhere, the moral interdependence of the members is close and sympathetic. Here no man can evade responsibility, no man can live to himself. If he is not a centre of light and health, he must become a centre of darkness and disease. He may count many a habit innocent, because he does not trace any immediate evil consequences to his own character. Could he hold it so, if he saw its effect on others? A lavish personal expenditure, for instance, seems to him very allowable, if it does not exceed his means; but extravagance in one calls forth extravagance in others, and the disease thus feeds itself, and his expensive tastes beget a fashion of expenditure which may prove the ruin of many a poorer man, both body and soul. Or he is reckless in his language, talks lightly of moral obligations, talks scoffingly of religious truths or religious men. To himself this does not mean much; it is a random shaft shot idly into the air; but it has lodged in another’s breast, has poisoned his thoughts, has mortally wounded his moral nature. ‘I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.’

It is enough, more than enough, to answer for our own ill deeds. It will be an intolerable, crushing load, if we have to bear also the burden of another’s sins. The curse of one thus misled, thus degraded, thus lost by our carelessness, might well ‘drag to hell a spirit from on high.’ Remember this now. Resolve thus much at least, that through your influence, your example, no member of the body shall suffer. And to render this your resolution effectual, you will not forget that one safe way, and one only, is open; that, if you would do your duty to the members, you—each one of you individually,—must preserve healthy, vigorous, intimate connexion with the Divine Head. So only will you do your several parts. So only will harmonious action ensue. So only will the whole body grow ever more and more to the edifying of itself in love.

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

Wheat in the Barn

Wheat in the Barn

Wheat in the Barn

"Gather the wheat into my barn."—Matthew 13:30.

"GATHER the wheat into my barn." Then the purpose of the Son of man will be accomplished. He sowed good seed, and he shall have his barn filled with it at the last. Be not dispirited, Christ will not be disappointed. "He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied." He went forth weeping, bearing precious seed, but he shall come again rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.

"Gather the wheat into my barn": then Satan’s policy will be unsuccessful. The enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, hopeful that the false wheat would destroy or materially injure the true; but he failed in the end, for the wheat ripened and was ready to be gathered. Christ’s garner shall be filled; the tares shall not choke the wheat. The evil one will be put to shame.

In gathering in the wheat, good angels will be employed: "the angels are the reapers." This casts special scorn upon the great evil angel. He sows the tares, and tries to destroy the harvest; and therefore the good angels are brought in to celebrate his defeat, and to rejoice together with their Lord in the success of the divine husbandry. Satan will make a poor profit out of his meddling; he shall be baulked in all his efforts, and so the threat shall be fulfilled, "Upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat."

By giving the angels work to do, all intelligent creatures, of whose existence we have information, are made to take an interest in the work of grace: whether for malice or for adoration, redemption excites them all. To all, the wonderful works of God are made manifest: for these things were not done in a corner.

We too much forget the angels. Let us not overlook their tender sympathy with us; they behold the Lord rejoicing over our repentance, and they rejoice with him; they are our watchers and the Lord’s messengers of mercy; they bear us up in their hands lest we dash our foot against a stone; and when we come to die, they carry us to the bosom of our Lord. It is one of our joys that we have come to an innumerable company of angels; let us think of them with affection.

At this time I will keep to my text, and preach from it almost word by word. It begins with "but," and that is a word of separation.

Here note that the tares and the wheat will grow together until the time of harvest shall come. It is a great sorrow of heart to some of the wheat to be growing side by side with tares. The ungodly are as thorns and briars to those who fear the Lord. How frequently is the sigh forced forth from the godly heart:—"Woe is me, that I sojourn in Mesech, that I dwell in the tents of Kedar!" A man’s foes are often found within his own household; those who should have been his best helpers are often his worst hinderers: their conversation vexes and torments him. It is of little use to try to escape from them, for the tares are permitted in God’s providence to grow with the wheat, and they will do so until the end. Good men have emigrated to distant lands to found communities in which there should be none but saints, and, alas! sinners have sprung up in their own families. The attempt to weed the ungodly and heretical out of the settlement has led to persecution and other evils, and the whole plan has proved a failure. Others have shut themselves away in hermitages to avoid the temptations of the world, and so have hoped to win the victory by running away: this is not the way of wisdom. The word for this present is,—"Let both grow together"; but there will come a time when a final separation will be made. Then, dear Christian woman, your husband will never persecute you again. Godly sister, your brother will heap no more ridicule upon you. Pious workman, there will be no more jesting and taunting from the ungodly. That "but" will be an iron gate between the god-fearing and the godless: then will the tares be cast into the fire, but the Lord of the harvest will say, "Gather the wheat into my barn."

This separation must be made; for the growing of the wheat and the tares together on earth has caused much pain and injury, and therefore it will not be continued in a happier world. We can very well suppose that godly men and women might be willing that their unconverted children should dwell with them in heaven: but it cannot be, for God will not have his cleansed ones defiled nor his glorified ones tried by the presence of the unbelieving. The tares must be taken away in order to the perfectness and usefulness of the wheat. Would you have the tares and the wheat heaped up together in the granary in one mass? That would be ill husbandry with a vengeance. They can neither of them be put to appropriate use till thoroughly separated. Even so, mark you, the saved and the unsaved may live together here, but they must not live together in another world. The command is absolute,—"Gather the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn." Sinner, can you hope to enter heaven? You never loved your mother’s God, and is he to endure you in his heavenly courts? You never trusted your father’s Saviour, and yet are you to behold his glory for ever? Are you to go swaggering down the streets of heaven, letting fall an oath, or singing a loose song? Why, you know, you get tired of the worship of God on the Lord’s day; do you think that the Lord will endure unwilling worshippers in the temple above? The Sabbath is a wearisome day to you; how can you hope to enter into the Sabbath of God? You have no taste for heavenly pursuits, and these things would be profaned if you were permitted to partake in them; therefore that word "but" must come in, and you must part from the Lord’s people never to meet again. Can you bear to think of being divided from godly friends for ever and ever?

That separation involves an awful difference of destiny. "Gather the tares in bundles to burn them." I do not dare to draw the picture; but when the bundle is bound up there is no place for it except the fire. God grant that you may never know all the anguish which burning must mean; but may you escape from it at once. It is no trifle which the Lord of love compares to being consumed with fire. I am quite certain that no words of mine can ever set forth its terror. They say that we speak dreadful things about the wrath to come; but I am sure that we understate the case. What must the tender, loving, gracious Jesus have meant by the words, "Gather the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them"? See what a wide distinction between the lot of the Lord’s people and Satan’s people. Burn the wheat? Oh, no; "Gather the wheat into my barn." There let them be happily, safely housed for ever. Oh, the infinite distance between heaven and hell!—the harps and the angels, and the wailing and gnashing of teeth! Who can ever measure the width of that gulf which divides the glorified saint, white-robed and crowned with immortality, from the soul which is driven for ever away from the presence of God, and from the glory of his power? It is a dreadful "but"—that "but" of separation. I pray you, remember that it will interpose between brother and brother,—between mother and child,—between husband and wife. "One shall be taken and the other left." And when that sword shall descend to divide, there shall never be any after union. The separation is eternal. There is no hope or possibility of change in the world to come.

But, says one, "That dreadful ‘but’! Why must there be such a difference?" The answer is, Because there always was a difference. The wheat was sown by the Son of man: the false wheat was sown by the enemy. There was always a difference in character:—the wheat was good, the tares were evil. This difference did not appear at first, but it became more and more apparent as the wheat ripened, and as the tares ripened too. They were totally different plants; and so a regenerate person and an unregenerate person are altogether different beings. I have heard an unregenerate man say that he is quite as good as the godly man; but in so boasting he betrayed his pride. Surely there is as great a difference in God’s sight between the unsaved and the believer as between darkness and light, or between the dead and the living. There is in the one a life which there is not in the other, and the difference is vital and radical. Oh, that you may never trifle with this essential matter, but be really the wheat of the Lord! It is vain to have the name of wheat, we must have the nature of wheat. God will not be mocked: he will not be pleased by our calling ourselves Christians while we are not so. Be not satisfied with church membership; but seek after membership with Christ. Do not talk about faith, but exercise it. Do not boast of experience, but possess it. Be not like the wheat, but be the wheat. No shams and imitations will stand in the last great day: that terrible "but" will roll as a sea of fire between the true and the false. Oh Holy Spirit! let each of us be found transformed by thy power.

II. The second word of our text is "gather,"—that is a word of congregation. What a blessed thing this gathering is! I feel it a great pleasure to gather multitudes together to hear the gospel; and is it not a joy to see a house full of people, on week-days and Sabbath-days, who are willing to leave their homes and to come considerable distances to listen to the gospel? It is a great thing to gather people together for that; but the gathering of the wheat into the barn is a far more wonderful business. Gathering is in itself better than scattering, and I pray that the Lord Jesus may ever exercise his attracting power in this place; for he is no Divider, but "unto him shall the gathering of the people be." Has he not said, "I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me"?

Observe, that the congregation mentioned in our text is selected and assembled by skilled gatherers: "The angels are the reapers." Ministers could not do it, for they do not know all the Lord’s wheat, and they are apt to make mistakes—some by too great leniency, and others by excessive severity. Our poor judgments occasionally shut out saints, and often shut in sinners. The angels will know their Master’s property. They know each saint, for they were present at his birthday. Angels know when sinners repent, and they never forget the persons of the penitents. They have witnessed the lives of those who have believed, and have helped them in their spiritual battles, and so they know them. Yes, angels by a holy instinct discern the Father’s children, and are not to be deceived. They will not fail to gather all the wheat and to leave out every tare.

But they are gathered under a very stringent regulation; for, first of all, according to the parable, the tares, the false wheat, have been taken out, and then the angelic reapers gather nothing but the wheat. The seed of the serpent, fathered by Satan, is thus separated from the seed of the kingdom, owned by Jesus, the promised deliverer. This is the one distinction; and no other is taken into consideration. If the most amiable unconverted persons could stand in the ranks with the saints, the angels would not bear them to heaven, for the mandate is, "Gather the wheat." Could the most honest man be found standing in the centre of the church, with all the members round about him, and with all the ministers entreating that he might be spared, yet if he were not a believer he could not be carried into the divine garner. There is no help for it. The angels have no choice in the matter: the peremptory command is, "Gather the wheat," and they must gather none else.

It will be a gathering from very great distances. Some of the wheat ripens in the South Sea Islands, in China, and in Japan. Some flourishes in France, broad acres grow in the United States: there is scarce a land without a portion of the good grain. Where all God’s wheat grows I cannot tell. There is a remnant, according to the election of grace, among every nation and people; but the angels will gather all the good grain to the same garner.

"Gather the wheat." The saints will be found in all ranks of society. The angels will bring in a few ears from palaces, and great armfuls from cottages! Many will be collected from the lowly cottages of our villages and hamlets, and others will be upraised from the back slums of our great cities to the metropolis of God. From the darkest places angels will bring those children of sweetness and light who seldom beheld the sun, and yet were pure in heart and saw their God. The hidden and obscure shall be brought into the light; for the Lord knoweth them that are his, and his harvestmen will not miss them.

To me it is a charming thought that they will come from all the ages. Let us hope that our first father Adam will be there, and mother Eve, following in the footsteps of their dear son Abel, and trusting in the same sacrifice. We shall meet Abraham and Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses, and David, and Daniel, and all the saints made perfect. What a joy to see the apostles, martyrs, and reformers! I long to see Luther, and Calvin, and Bunyan and Whitefield. I like the rhyme of good old father Ryland:

"They all shall be there, the great and the small,

Poor I shall shake hands with the blessed St. Paul."

I do not know how that will be, but I have not much doubt that we shall have fellowship with all the saints of every age in the general assembly and church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven.

No matter when or where the wheat grew, it shall be gathered into the one barn; gathered never to be scattered; gathered out of all divisions of the visible church, never to be divided again. They grew in different fields. Some flourished on the hillside where Episcopalians grow in all their glory, and others in the lowlier soil, where Baptists multiply, and Methodists flourish; but once the wheat is in the barn none can tell in which field the ears grew. Then, indeed, shall the Master’s prayer have a glorious answer—"That they all may be one." All our errors removed and our mistakes corrected and forgiven, the one Lord, the one faith, and the one baptism will be known of us all, and there will be no more vexings and envyings. What a blessed gathering it will be! What a meeting! The elect of God, the élite of all the centuries, of whom the world was not worthy. I should not like to be away. If there were no hell, it would be hell enough to me to be shut out of such heavenly society. If there were no weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, it would be dreadful enough to miss the presence of the Lord, and the joy of praising him for ever, and the bliss of meeting with all the noblest beings that ever lived. Amid the needful controversies of the age, I, who have been doomed to seem a man of strife, sigh for the blessed rest wherein all spiritual minds shall blend in eternal accord before the throne of God and of the Lamb. Oh that we were all right, that we might be all happily united in one spirit!

In the text there is next a word of designation. I have already trespassed upon that domain. "Gather the wheat." Nothing but "the wheat" must be placed in the Lord’s homestead. Lend me your hearts while I urge you to a searching examination for a minute or two. The wheat was sown of the Lord. Are you sown of the Lord? Friend, if you have any religion, how did you get it? Was it self-sown? If so, it is good for nothing. The true wheat was sown by the Son of man. Are you sown of the Lord? Did the Spirit of God drop eternal life into your bosom? Did it come from that dear hand which was nailed to the cross? Is Jesus your life? Does your life begin and end with him? If so, it is well.

The wheat sown of the Lord is also the object of the Lord’s care. Wheat needs a deal of attention. The farmer would get nothing from it if he did not watch it carefully. Are you under the Lord’s care? Does he keep you? Is that word true to your soul,—"I the Lord do keep it; I will water it every moment: lest any hurt it, I will keep it night and day"? Do you experience such keeping? Make an honest answer, as you love your soul.

Next, wheat is a useful thing, a gift from God for the life of men. The false wheat was of no good to anybody: it could only be eaten of swine, and then it made them stagger like drunken men. Are you one of those who are wholesome in society,—who are like bread to the world, so that if men receive you and your example and your teaching they will be blessed thereby? Judge yourselves whether ye are good or evil in life and influence.

"Gather the wheat." You know that God must put the goodness, the grace, the solidity, and the usefulness into you, or else you will never be wheat fit for angelic gathering. One thing is true of the wheat—that it is the most dependent of all plants. I have never heard of a field of wheat which sprang up, and grew, and ripened without a husbandman’s care. Some ears may appear after a harvest when the corn has shaled out; but I have never heard of plains in America or elsewhere covered with unsown wheat. No, no. There is no wheat where there is no man, and there is no grace where there is no Christ. We owe our very existence to the Father, who is the husbandman.

Yet, dependent as it is, wheat stands in the front rank of honour and esteem; and so do the godly in the judgment of all who are of understanding heart. We are nothing without Christ; but with him we are full of honour. Oh, to be among those by whom the world is preserved, the excellent of the earth in whom the saints delight; God forbid we should be among the base and worthless tares!

Our last head, upon which also I will speak briefly, is a word of destination. "Gather the wheat into my barn." The process of gathering in the wheat will be completed at the day of judgment, but it is going on every day. From hour to hour saints are gathered; they are going heavenward even now. I am so glad to hear as a regular thing that the departed ones from my own dear church have such joy in being harvested. Glory be to God, our people die well. The best thing is to live well, but we are greatly gladdened to hear that the brethren die well; for, full often, that is the most telling witness for vital godliness. Men of the world feel the power of triumphant deaths.

Every hour the saints are being gathered into the barn. That is where they want to be. We feel no pain at the news of ingathering, for we wish to be safely stored up by our Lord. If the wheat that is in the field could speak, every ear would say, "The ultimatum for which we are living and growing is the barn, the granary." For this the frosty night; for this the sunny day; for this the dew and the rain; and for this everything. Every process with the wheat is tending towards the granary. So is it with us; everything is working towards heaven—towards the gathering place—towards the congregation of the righteous—towards the vision of our Redeemer’s face. Our death will cause no jar in our life-music; it will involve no pause or even discord; it is part of a programme, the crowning of our whole history.

To the wheat the barn is the place of security. It dreads no mildew there; it fears no frost, no heat, no drought, no wet, when once in the barn. All its growth-perils are past. It has reached its perfection. It has rewarded the labour of the husbandman, and it is housed. Oh, long-expected day, begin! Oh, brethren, what a blessing it will be when you and I shall have come to our maturity, and Christ shall see in us the travail of his soul!

I delight to think of heaven as his barn; his barn, what must that be? It is but the poverty of language that such an expression has to be used at all concerning the home of our Father, the dwelling of Jesus. Heaven is the palace of the King, but, so far, to us a barn, because it is the place of security, the place of rest for ever. It is the homestead of Christ to which we shall be carried, and for this we are ripening. It is to be thought of with ecstatic joy; for the gathering into the barn involves a harvest home, and I have never heard of men sitting down to cry over an earthly harvest home, nor of their following the sheaves with tears. Nay, they clap their hands, they dance for joy, and shout right lustily. Let us do something like that concerning those who are already housed. With grave, sweet melodies let us sing around their tombs. Let us feel that, surely, the bitterness of death is passed. When we remember their glory, we may rejoice like the travailing woman when her child is born, who "remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world." Another soul begins to sing in heaven: why do you weep, O heirs of immortality? Is the eternal happiness of the righteous the birth which comes of their death-pangs? Then happy are they who die. Is glory the end and outcome of that which fills our home with mourning? If so, thank God for bereavements: thank God for saddest severings. He has promoted our dear ones to the skies! He has blessed them beyond all that we could ask or even think: he has taken them out of this weary world to lie in his own bosom for ever. Blessed be his name if it were for nothing else but this. Would you keep your old father here, full of pain, and broken down with feebleness? Would you shut him out of glory? Would you detain your dear wife here with all her suffering? Would you hold back your husband from the crown immortal? Could you wish your child to descend to earth again from the bliss which now surrounds her? No, no. We wish to be going home ourselves to the heavenly Father’s house and its many mansions; but concerning the departed we rejoice before the Lord as with the joy of harvest. "Wherefore comfort one another with these words."

Spurgeon, C. H. (1882). Farm Sermons. New York: Passmore and Alabaster. (Public Domain)

The Sword of the Word

The Sword of the Word

The Sword of The Word

The word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in His sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of Him with Whom we have to do.  Hebrews 4:12, 13.

Great S. Mary’s Church, 21st Sunday after Trinity, 1870.

Do we want an illustration of the moral truth conveyed in these words? We shall not have to look far for an example. Of all the heroes in Jewish history, none would appear more enviable, as none was more successful or more famous, than David, the triumphant king, the sweet Psalmist of Israel, the man after God’s own heart. We follow him step by step from the obscurity of his youth, till after many dangers and trials, through many vicissitudes, he has forced his way from the sheepfold to the throne. Seated there, he raises the power of his people, and the glory of the monarchy, to a height, which before him none could have foreseen, which after him none was destined to surpass. His success is now culminating. Everywhere respected, everywhere triumphant, honoured by his people and feared by his enemies, in all the consciousness of patriotic zeal, in all the plenitude of undisputed power, he might seem indeed to have attained such happiness as rarely falls to the lot of man. Moreover in his private life the same prosperity attends him. At this very moment he has accomplished a design which lies near to his heart; his well-laid plans have been carried out with secrecy and crowned with success; he is reaping the fruits of his stratagem. Who so proud, who so justly admired and envied as he? And yet at the very crisis of his triumph, in his mid-career of self-felicitation, the blow falls upon him; a sharp, chilling, piercing stroke from an unseen hand, which paralyses his whole being. And from what an unexpected quarter too does it fall! Not by famine or pestilence; not by defeat abroad or by revolution at home; not by loss of reputation, or loss of wealth, or loss of friends; not by disaster of any kind, as men reckon disasters, but by the agony of an awakened conscience. A simple child-like story uttered by a prophet’s lips has wrought the miracle. The Israelite king feels in anguish of spirit the biting edge of a sudden remorse. His very success is his bitterest punishment. The overflowing cup of happiness is become a draught of deadliest poison. His sin has been brought home to him. Henceforth his life is all changed. He is no more hopeful, no more joyous, no more proud and self-reliant. Bowed down with shame and sorrow, he lies prostrate before the throne of grace. ‘Against Thee only have I sinned.’ ‘Cast me not away from Thy presence, and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me.’ ‘O give me the comfort of Thy help again.’ The echo of those few terrible words ever lingers in his ear, ‘Thou art the man.’

Or again; pass from the Old Testament to the New. A very different scene awaits us here. From the captain of Israel we turn to the oppressor of Israel. A Roman governor is seated on his tribunal, protected by his guards and surrounded by the insignia of office. A man of unbridled passions and inhuman cruelty, he holds in his grasp the life and the property of all around him. Hated and feared by others, he knows no fear himself; he has no scruples, no misgivings of any kind. Before him stands a helpless prisoner, rude of speech, and mean in bodily presence, a poor invalid broken by cruel persecution and worn with distracting cares. He utters a few eager words on a strange topic. Do they seem like the dreams of a visionary or a fanatic? Certainly they take no account of the worldly schemes, the tangible advantages, the material pleasures, which absorb that ruler’s thoughts. And yet, the bold reckless tyrant dares not listen, dares not face them. Paul reasons of righteousness, temperance and judgment to come; and Felix trembles.

I have set these two incidents side by side, because they are at once so like and so unlike the one to the other. In time, they are separated by the lapse of many centuries; and diverse forms of thought and usages of society and types of government have come and gone; and mighty nations have arisen and flourished and grown old and passed away meanwhile. In the principal actors also, the central figures in the two pictures, there is a direct contrast. The Israelite king, the devout servant of the one true God, has nothing in common with the reckless procurator, whose religion would have been idolatry, if he had had any religion at all; nothing in common at least, except his proneness to sin and his need of forgiveness. And, lastly, in the results the opposition is still more striking. David is overwhelmed with shame, and humbles himself before God: Felix stops his ears, and hardens his heart. Yet this broad gulf of time is spanned by one eternal power. Amidst all this diversity of circumstances, of persons, of consequences, there is one constant and abiding element; the unseen, but not unfelt, Witness and Judge, Who reveals and Who denounces sin. While all else changes, this alone remains unchangeable. For, though all flesh withereth like grass, and the glory of man falleth away, as the flower thereof, yet the Word of God endureth for ever. This mighty two-edged sword was the weapon wielded alike by Nathan and S. Paul. And, smitten thereby, David repented and Felix trembled.

The Word of God. Much controversy and much misapprehension have gathered about this simple phrase. From all controversy I hope to keep clear. The subject which I have chosen, the power of the Word of God in revealing sin, is deeper and higher and broader than any controverted topic of theology—deeper, for it penetrates into the inmost recesses of the human heart; higher, for it carries us before the throne of God; broader, for it allows no distinction between man and man. All alike fall within its scope.

But, if controversy should be avoided, misapprehension must be corrected. And to the true understanding of the text, the first step will be to discover what is meant by ‘the Word of God.’

In the common language of our own time the Word of God is a synonym for the Scriptures, the Bible, the Record, the written Word. Men are so accustomed to this limitation, that they find it difficult to shake themselves loose from the force of habit. Yet in the Bible itself the expression is not so used; and even in our Church formularies, though the phrase frequently refers to the written Record, it is not limited to this.

Speaking generally, we may say that in the Bible itself the ‘Word of God’ is used as coextensive with Revelation in its widest sense. God’s voice is God’s declaration of Himself. Whensoever and howsoever He makes Himself known, there He speaks. Is it a precept, or a prediction, or a threat, or a promise? Is it a phenomenon of nature, or an act of grace? Is it an ordinary, or an extraordinary, exhibition of His power or His wisdom or His love? Does it speak to the eye by a written scroll, or does it speak to the ear through pulsations of air, or does it speak to the mind or the conscience with an impalpable, inaudible, motionless appeal? Whatever the subject, and whatever the mode of operation, the voice is still the same. In all these alike the Word of God is the agent or the agency, whereby He declares Himself.

Thus the application is comprehensive. Wherever Revelation is—Revelation natural or Revelation special—there is the Word of God. But, with this comprehensive bearing, the conception is two-fold. Sometimes the Word of God is the agent, sometimes the agency or the act. In other language it is sometimes personal, and sometimes impersonal.

1. The Word personal. The direct language of S. John, and the indirect language of S. Paul, apply the expression to a Divine Being, Who became man, and for one brief space lived on earth as man. He was before the worlds; through Him the worlds were created, and are governed. He is the expression of the Father’s power, the Father’s wisdom, the Father’s love. He is the manifestation of God. His agency extends through all time, reaches back into the infinite past, and forward into the infinite future. Through Him is every revelation of God, whether natural or supernatural, whether in the world of sense or in the world of spirit. In His Incarnation, in His life and death and resurrection, the revelation of the Word culminates. Here its scattered rays are gathered into a focus. But it has begun countless ages before, and will continue countless ages after.

2. The Word impersonal. This is the most frequent, as it is the most obvious, use of the phrase. No longer the agent, but the operation or the agency, is denoted thereby. It is not now the speaker, but the speech, that is intended by the ‘Word of God’—the speech, but still in its comprehensive sense; the utterance which makes itself heard in nature and in history, the utterance which addresses itself to the hearts and consciences of men, not less than the utterance which communicates a special message to the prophet or the Apostle. ‘By the Word of God the heavens were of old, ‘says S. Peter in one passage, and in another, ‘Ye are born again by the Word of God.’ ‘His Word runneth very swiftly. He giveth snow like wool; He scattereth the hoarfrost like ashes … He sendeth out his Word, and melteth them;’ so says the Psalmist, and in the very next verse he adds, ‘He sheweth His Word unto Jacob, His statutes and His judgments unto Israel.’ These two great facts which awed the soul of the modern philosopher—the starry heavens above, and the sense of moral responsibility within—what are they but the two-fold utterance of the Eternal Word of God?

In the text then the expression cannot be said of the written Word, for the usage of the Bible forbids this; neither can it be said of the personal Word, for the context does not encourage this meaning. It follows therefore that we adopt the third and only remaining sense, and understand it here of the operation or influence, which speaks to us from God and of God, which withdraws the veil of the material and sensible, which discloses to us the spiritual and unseen, alike in the phenomena of nature and the phenomena of grace—the same, of which it is written that, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every Word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.’

This Word, so comprehensive, so penetrating, has many functions. It instructs, it consoles, it stimulates, and encourages; but it also accuses and condemns. It addresses the understanding, the affections, the sympathies; but more especially it addresses the conscience. It is this last application to which the text refers. That man despises the Word of God and hardens his heart, as the people of old hardened their hearts in the wilderness, and brings down upon himself the like condemnation, and shuts himself out from the promised rest, who refuses to listen to the voice of right and truth, by whatsoever channel it reaches his ear, whether by the outspoken rebuke of a friend, or the angry taunt of a foe, or the inward workings of his heart, or the accidents of outward circumstances—if only he knows it to be God’s voice—not less surely, not less fatally, than though it were uttered by an accredited messenger from Heaven, or appealed to him in the language, and through the facts, of Holy Scripture.

I spoke just now of the limited sense in which men commonly conceive and speak of the ‘Word of God,’ as not justified by the language of the Scriptures themselves. And yet this usage is only wrong, in so far as it is a limitation. I will not now discuss the more direct theological characteristics of the Bible, which vindicate its claim to this title as most legitimate and most true. I am rather concerned here with the moral power of the Word, for to this the text more directly points. And does not the written Record, the Bible, regarded in this aspect, satisfy the description most fully? It is living and active. Though the record of events transacted in bygone ages and in foreign lands, though the voice and the writing of men who have long since passed away, it is yet no dead letter, but a quick and a quickening spirit. It speaks still, as it has spoken ever, to the hearts and consciences of men; nay, it seems even to gain force and meaning by the lapse of ages. And it is a sharp two-edged sword also. It breaks the skin of social distinctions; it probes the conventional habits of a defective morality; it pierces to the inmost recesses of the soul; it severs, and it lays open.

When therefore we are discussing the language of the text, we should do well to bear in mind that though the Word of God and the Bible are not coextensive and so convertible terms, yet the Bible pre-eminently satisfies the requirements which are demanded of the Word of God in this definition.

And of all the tokens of Inspiration none is more striking, because none is more simple. It is the one evidence which makes no difference between mind and mind, which presupposes no previous special training, asks no laborious investigation or abstruse reasoning. The attestation of miracles requires careful weighing; the fulfilment of prophecy demands historical research; the marvellous oneness and continuity of the Scripture Revelation—manifesting the same increasing purpose throughout, yet manifesting it under various forms and in diverse ages (for the Bible is not a divine book, but a divine library, as it was truly called in times past)—this, which I venture to think the most weighty of all merely intellectual evidences, will not appear without much patient study and some concentration of thought. But here we are moving in a larger room, are breathing a free air. Here is neither Greek nor barbarian, learned nor unlearned, wisdom nor folly. Here is no parable of intricate meaning; ‘Lo, now speakest Thou plainly, and utterest no proverb. Now we believe that Thou camest forth from God.’

We have seen what is implied by the ‘Word of God,’ as used in this passage. Let us turn now to the image, under which its power is described.

The victim bound with cords, helpless, prostrate on the altar; the sacrificial knife gleaming over him for a moment, then plunged into his neck; the convulsed limbs, the relaxing muscles, the quivering heart, the life ebbing out fast with the stream of his blood; the last, panting, throbbing gasp, and all is over. The victim is then separated limb from limb; the secret springs of his exuberant life are laid bare; the complex machinery of his active frame—bones, joints, muscles, arteries—all are seen. There is no concealment, no mystery now.

And is it an idle fancy, if we discern something more in the image than this? Metaphors borrowed from heathen sacrificial rites are familiar to us in S. Paul. The fragrant incense, which perfumes the sacrifice, is the diffusive benevolence of the Christian heart accompanying the surrender of self to God. The libation poured over the head of the victim is the Apostle’s devotion of his own life to perfect the faith and self-sacrifice of his converts. The captives chained to the victor’s car, the triumphal procession winding along the Sacred Way to the temple on the Capitoline Mount, represent the spirits of men subjugated by the power of the Gospel, the triumph of Christ Who ascends up on high and leads captivity captive. May there not then be a similar reference here to certain rites which accompanied a heathen sacrifice? May not the image refer to the inspection of the victim for the purpose of taking omens? The carcase is dissected; the vital parts are laid open; the abode of the passions and affections is exposed to scrutiny. Is the heart healthy and whole? Or is there in some hidden recess a dark plague-spot, the germ of an eating canker, some fatal propensity of pride or malice or indolence or sensuality or selfishness or self-seeking in some other form—unrevealed to those without, unfelt and almost unsuspected even by the victim himself, and yet a terrible omen foreboding ruin to himself, to his family, to the society in which he moves, to the Church of which he is a member, to the country which reckons him as a son. It is well that his heart should be torn open; well that the dark presage should be read in time, while yet all is not lost, while yet the fearful consequences may be averted. This revelation the Word of God will make: piercing, slaying, dissecting, like the sacrificial knife; but unlike it in this, that it heals most completely, where it wounds most deeply; and gives life there only, where first it has killed.

Such I suppose to be the force of the image in the text. But, whether this be so or not, it is clearly intended to suggest two main ideas, revelation and chastisement.

1. The Word of God is essentially a revelation of the secrets of the heart.

And here again we cannot fail to see how the Book, the Record, fulfils this condition of the Word of God. ‘His words,’ said one of the fathers speaking of S. Paul, ‘are not words, but claps of thunder.’ Might we not have added that they are lightning-flashes also, darting through the pitchy darkness, and revealing so suddenly, so unexpectedly, the deepest recesses of selfishness and sin in the human heart? This, which is true of S. Paul, true of the whole Bible, is pre-eminently true of the recorded sayings of Him, Who spake as never man spake, Who is Himself the very Word of God. I cannot attempt to describe this moral power of Holy Scripture in language. I dare not hope to add anything to the image in the text. The joints and the marrow of the human soul and spirit—the most complex interdependencies of passion and thought and purpose and action, and the vital centre and home of the moral life—both these the Word of God probes and severs and lays bare. It is just this dissecting power, this keen penetration of the Scriptural Record, which is its most wonderful moral feature. I have read in other books many wise and beautiful reflections on the relations of God and man, on life and death, on time and eternity, many lofty precepts and salutary rules for the guidance of human conduct, much of all kinds that instructs, improves, elevates. I have read such with deep thankfulness; and I believe that all light, whatever it may be, comes from the great Father of lights. But in no other book, unless its inspiration has been derived from this Book, do I find the same delicate discrimination between the real and the seeming in things moral, the same faculty of piercing through the crust of outward conduct and revealing the hidden springs of action, of stripping off all conventional disguises, of separating mixed motives with their contradictory elements of good and evil. This analysing, dissecting moral power is the logical attribute of the written Word.

2. But the metaphor in the text implies punishment also. The revelation which probes the intricate joints and the inmost marrow of the human soul and spirit, cannot do so without inflicting much bitter anguish. Take the case of one who, after living on for years in a dream-land of self-delusion, is awakened to a sense of his true character. His life perhaps has been one of uncheckered success throughout; he is happy in his friends and his family; he is in easy circumstances; he maintains a high reputation with the world. And meanwhile his outward prosperity and calm have lulled him into a false security: he has come to survey his position and his character with infinite self-satisfaction. Then suddenly an unseen power flashes the truth upon him. He sees his own meanness, his selfishness, his hypocrisy and doubleness of heart. He is stabbed through and through with this new revelation. He is not worse now, he is very far better, than he was before. A converting, purifying influence, like a mighty rushing wind, has passed, or is passing, over him. Yet he was happy then, and now he is utterly wretched. Whence comes this difference? The world has not changed its opinion of him. It holds him upright and virtuous now, as it held him before. Good men seek his company and value his approbation still, as they did before. Is this new feeling then a mere phantom, a temporary mania? No: he knows that it is real; far more real than the haze of self-delusion, in which he has hitherto lived. And yet, if religion were not a true thing, if the distinction of good and evil were only a conventional distinction, a mere trick of education, the accumulated growth of ages, if morality were but a more imposing name for utility, then he would be right to fling these uncomfortable feelings aside, as idle fancies, unsubstantial ghosts, haunting his path and disturbing his peace. But this he dare not, he cannot do. He has felt the cutting edge of the Word of God. It has pierced to the dividing asunder of his inmost soul and spirit.

I have taken an instance of one suddenly awakened in conscience by the power of the Word. Let me exemplify this retributive power exercised under different circumstances and with different results, no longer in correction but in vengeance, no longer for repentance but for remorse. A man is indulging habitually in some sinful course, whether dishonesty or sensuality or some other form of vice. He plunges deeper and deeper in his guilt; he goes on and on, conscious whither he is led. He feels himself falling, falling downward, into the abyss: and his guilty heart keeps its own secret. He dares not reveal himself even to his closest and dearest friend. What account, I ask, is to be given of this state of mind, so truly described as the heaviest of all punishments, worse than the sword of Damocles, worse than the tortures of Phalaris, by the heathen moralist and poet, whose language, expressing as it does the deepest moral truth in the noblest form, the preacher speaking in the name of Christ need not apologize for adopting. It is certainly not the fear of worldly consequences: his guilt may be beyond the reach of punishment, perhaps even of detection. He may have no very distinct sense of right and wrong, and yet he feels somehow that he is despising the right and choosing the wrong. He may not confess God with his tongue or even in his heart, and yet he is conscious that an ever-widening gulf yawns between him and all that is noble and beautiful and good, that is to say, the mind of God; he is dimly conscious that he is alienating himself from God. This is the source of his hidden terror; God is witnessing within him, is denouncing him, is punishing him. He too has felt the cutting edge of the Word.

Are there any here, who have experienced that which I have attempted to describe; into whose soul this keen knife of the Word has pierced, healing with correction or slaying with remorse; who with David have repented, or with Felix have trembled? They will know that this sharp, painful shock cannot be wholly explained by the fear of detection or the dread of consequences; that beyond and above these lower influences a mightier hand wields the weapon. These may poison the barb, but they do not whet its point, nor direct its aim. In lower natures they will be more powerful. A brave man will despise them. It is only when that something which we call conscience whispers its tale in his ear, that the defiant eye is dropped, and the upraised arm sinks by his side, and he feels that the strength has gone out of him. His best ally, his inmost self, has turned against him; this it is, which unnerves, unmans him. ‘Conscience doth make cowards of us all.’

And if conscience is not a mere function of utility, so neither is it an artificial growth of education. Would you object that in the child the distinction of right and wrong seems merged in the idea of obedience or disobedience to external authority; that with the savage the conception of morality appears hardly to rise above the desire of appeasing, or the fear of offending, his fetich? What then: would you go to the child for a clear idea of syllogistic reasoning? To the savage for an adequate definition of scientific induction? And if you would not, then why should you do in the one case, what you would not do in the other? Education does develope; experience does ripen. This is true of the moral consciousness, as it is true of the intellectual reason. But neither education, nor experience, can create. The germ, the faculty, is there, there in the child and in the savage, as in the full-grown civilized man, bound up, we know not how, with the phenomena of our physical nature, influenced by them and influencing them in turn, but heaven-descended and heaven-implanted.

‘Conscience doth make cowards of us all.’ It is said, and said truly. But, if this be all, then its work is imperfect, is worse than useless. ‘Sin revived and I died,’ says S. Paul. But this is only a first stage. Death cannot be the rule of life. ‘God did not give us the spirit of cowardice, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.’

Conscience makes cowards of us; but conscience makes saints and heroes also; saints, for the perfect harmony, perfect guilelessness, perfect gentleness of character which we call saintliness, will only come to those who are ever sensitive to the most subdued tones of the still small voice, which speaks to us alike in the silence of the closet and the turmoil of the streets: heroes, for though there be heroes many, as the world counts heroes, whom ambition or vainglory or self-seeking have made bold and defiant, yet the true hero, the man (as he was painted of old) who is content to live a life of obloquy and die a death of shame, who strives to be just, more than to be called just—as Christians let us add also, to be pure, more than to be called pure—he can only be created by the consciousness of this Higher Presence, can only be sustained by the monitions of this Divine Witness within him. ‘His Word was in my heart as a burning fire.’

Youth and early manhood are the seed-time of the conscience, not less but even more than of the intellect. God’s law, which ordains that a man’s heart shall harden itself by neglect and selfishness and disobedience, till one by one each avenue is closed to His Spirit, and a thick, impervious crust encases the whole—this law, however mysterious as a dispensation, is a plain stubborn fact which daily experience confirms. I do not doubt that with you, young men—not with a few but with many—personal consciousness has winged the arrow and driven the image in the text home to your hearts. At some time or other, in one or more of many ways, the sword has pierced your soul; the Word of God, witnessing in you and against you, has found its way to the vital parts. It has done so, and it will do so again. But this will not last for ever. Instead of the sharp, short pang, which wounds only to heal, a moral numbness, a paralysis ending but in death may creep on at last. Do not therefore resist; do not sear the wound. If you entertain the high ambition, not only to pass through the world in respectability and comfort, not only to achieve a success more or less brilliant, but to do and to suffer, above all to be that which God wills for you, then this His Word speaking through your conscience is your real and only teacher. Honesty and truthfulness are the elements of morality; humility and reverence and purity are its head and crown. For the former the restraints of law and convention, the demands and the sympathies of social life may do not a little; for the latter they will effect almost nothing. These must grow from within. This inward monitor, and this alone, can create and sustain them.

Therefore do not shield yourselves against the cutting double-edge of this Sword of God. Bear the pain, that you may find the cure. ‘He hath torn, and He will heal us; He hath smitten, and He will bind us up.’ Is it not significant, that in the words immediately following on the text—as the sequel and the counterpart to this description of the piercing, revealing, slaying Word of God—we are led at once into the presence of our great High Priest in the heavens, Who is ‘touched with a feeling of our infirmities,’ being tempted like us, though unlike us sinless, and bidden to ‘come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.’

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

Threshing

Threshing

Threshing

"For the fitches are not threshed with a threshing instrument, neither is a cart wheel turned about upon the cummin; but the fitches are beaten out with a staff, and the cummin with a rod. Bread corn is bruised; because he will not ever be threshing it, nor break it with the wheel of his cart, nor bruise it with his horsemen."—Isaiah 28:27, 28.

THE art of husbandry was taught to man by God. He would have starved while he was discovering it, and so the Lord, when he sent him out of the Garden of Eden, gave him a measure of elementary instruction in agriculture, even as the prophet puts it,—"His God doth instruct him to discretion, and doth teach him." God has taught man to plough, to break the clods, to sow the different kinds of grain, and to thresh out the different orders of seeds.

The Eastern husbandman could not thresh by machinery as we do; but still he was ingenious and discreet in that operation. Sometimes a heavy instrument was dragged over the corn to tear out the grain. This is what is intended in the first clause by the "threshing instrument," as also in that passage, "I have made thee a sharp threshing instrument having teeth." When the corn-drag was not used, they often turned the heavy solid wheel of a country cart over the straw. This is alluded to in the next sentence: "Neither is a cart wheel turned about upon the cummin." They had also flails not very unlike our own, and then for still smaller seeds, such as dill and cummin, they used a simple staff or a slender switch. "The fitches are beaten out with a staff, and the cummin with a rod."

This is not the time or place to give a dissertation upon threshing. We find every information upon that subject in proper books; but the meaning of the illustration is this—that as God has taught husband men to distinguish between different kinds of grain in the threshing, so does he in his infinite wisdom deal discreetly with different sorts of men. He does not try us all alike, seeing we are differently constituted. He does not pass us all through the same agony of conviction: we are not all to the same extent threshed with terrors. He does not give us all to endure the same family or bodily affliction; one escapes with only being beaten with a rod, while another feels, as it were, the feet of horses in his heavy tribulations.

Our subject is just this. Threshing: all kinds of seeds need it, all sorts of men need it. Secondly, the threshing is done with discretion, and, thirdly, the threshing will not last for ever; for so the second verse of the text says: "Bread corn is bruised; because he will not ever be threshing it, nor break it with the wheel of his cart, nor bruise it with his horsemen."

I. First, then, we all need threshing. Some have a foolish conceit of themselves that they have no sin; but they deceive themselves, and the truth is not in them. The best of men are men at the best; and being men, they are not perfect, but are still compassed about with infirmity. What is the object of threshing the grain? Is it not to separate it from the straw and the chaff?

About the best of men there is still a measure of chaff. All is not grain that lies upon the threshing-floor. All is not grain even in those golden sheaves which have been brought into our garner so joyfully. Even the wheat is joined to the straw, which was necessary to it at one time. About the kernel of the wheat the husk is wrapped, and this still clings to it even when it lies upon the threshing-floor. About the holiest of men there is something superfluous, something which must be removed. We either sin by omission or by trespass. Either in spirit, or motive, or lack of zeal, or want of discretion, we are faulty. If we escape one error, we usually glide into its opposite. If before an action we are right, we err in the doing of it, or, if not, we become proud after it is over. If sin be shut out at the front door, it tries the back gate, or climbs in at the window, or comes down the chimney. Those who cannot perceive it in themselves are frequently blinded by its smoke. They are so thoroughly in the water that they do not know that it rains. So far as my own observation goes I have found out no man whom the old divines would have called perfectly perfect; the absolutely all-round man is a being whom I expect to see in heaven, but not in this poor fallen world. We all need such cleansing and purging as the threshing-floor is intended to work for us.

Now, threshing is useful in loosening the connection between the good corn and the husk. Of course, if it would slip out easily from its husk, the corn would only need to be shaken. There would be no necessity for a staff or a rod, much less for the feet of horses, or the wheel of a cart to separate it. But there’s the rub: our soul not only lieth in the dust, but "cleaveth" to it. There is a fearful intimacy between fallen human nature and the evil which is in the world; and this compact is not soon broken. In our hearts we hate every false way, and yet we sorrowfully confess, "When I would do good, evil is present with me." Sometimes when our spirit cries out most ardently after God, a holy will is present with us, but how to perform that which is good we find not. Flesh and blood have tendencies and weaknesses which, if not sinful in themselves, yet tend in that direction. Appetites need but slight excitement to germinate into lusts. It is not easy for us to forget our own kindred and our father’s house even when the king doth most greatly desire our beauty. Our alien nature remembers Egypt and the flesh-pots while yet the manna is in our mouths. We were all born in the house of evil, and some of us were nursed upon the lap of iniquity, so that our first companionships were among the heirs of wrath. That which was bred in the bone is hard to get out of the flesh. Threshing is used to loosen our hold of earthly things and break us away from evil. This needs a divine hand, and nothing but the grace of God can make the threshing effectual. Something is done by threshing when the soul ceases to be bound up with its sin, and sin is no longer pleasurable or satisfactory. Still, as the work of threshing is never done till the corn is separated altogether from the husk, so chastening and discipline have never accomplished their design till God’s people give up every form of evil, and abhor all iniquity. When we shake right out of the straw, and have nothing further to do with sin, then the flail will lie quiet. It has taken a good deal of threshing to bring some of us anywhere near that mark, and I am afraid many more heavy blows will be struck before we shall reach the total separation. From a certain sort of sins we are very easily separated by the grace of God early in our spiritual life; but when those are gone, another layer of evils comes into sight, and the work has to be repeated. The complete removal of our connection with sin is a work demanding the divine skill and power of the Holy Ghost, and by him only will it be accomplished.

Threshing becomes needful for the sake of our usefulness; for the wheat must come out of the husk to be of service. We can only honour God and bless men by being holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners. O corn of the Lord’s threshing-floor, thou must be beaten and bruised, or perish as a worthless heap! Eminent usefulness usually necessitates eminent affliction.

Unless thus severed from sin, we cannot be gathered into the garner. God’s pure wheat must not be defiled by an admixture of chaff. There shall in no wise enter into heaven anything that defileth, therefore every sort of imperfection must come away from us by some means or other ere we can enter into the state of eternal blessedness and perfection. Yea, even here we cannot have true fellowship with the Father unless we are daily delivered from sin.

Peradventure some of us to-day are lying up on the threshing-floor, suffering from the blows of chastisement. What then? Why, let us rejoice therein; for this testifies to our value in the sight of God. If the wheat were to cry out and say, "The great drag has gone over me, therefore the husbandman has no care for me," we should instantly reply,—The husbandman does not pass the corn-drag over the darnel or the nettles; it is only over the precious wheat that he turns the wheel of his cart, or the feet of his oxen. Because he esteems the wheat, therefore he deals sternly with it and spares it not. Judge not, O believer, that God hates you because he afflicts you; but interpret truly and see that he honours you by every stroke which he lays upon you. Thus saith the Lord, "You only have I known of all the nations of the earth, therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities." Because a full atonement has been made by the Lord Jesus for all his people’s sins, therefore lie will not punish us as a judge; but because we are his dear children, therefore he will chastise us as a father. In love he corrects his own children that he may perfect them in his own image, and make them partakers of his holiness. Is it not written, "I will bring them under the rod of the covenant"? Has he not said, "I have refined thee, but not with silver, I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction"? Therefore do not judge according to the sight of the eyes or the feeling of the flesh, but judge according to faith, and understand that, as threshing is a testimony to the value of the wheat, so affliction is a token of God’s delight in his people.

Remember, however, that as threshing is a sign of the impurity of the wheat, so is affliction an indication of the present imperfection of the Christian. If you were no more connected with evil, you would be no more corrected with sorrow. The sound of a flail is never heard in heaven, for it is not the threshing-floor of the imperfect but the garner of the completely sanctified. The threshing instrument is therefore a humbling token, and so long as we feel it we should humble ourselves under the hand of God, for it is clear that we are not yet free from the straw and the chaff of fallen nature.

On the other hand, the threshing instrument is a prophecy of our future perfection. We are undergoing from the hand of God a discipline which will not fail: we shall by his prudence and wisdom be clean delivered from the husk of sin. We are feeling the blows of the staff, but we are being effectually separated from the evil which has so long surrounded us, and for certain we shall one day be pure and perfect. Every tendency to sin shall be beaten off. "Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him." If, we being evil, yet succeed with our children by our poor, imperfect chastening, how much more shall the Father of spirits cause us to live unto himself by his holy discipline? If the corn could know the necessary uses of the flail, it would invite the thresher to his work; and since we know whereunto tribulation tendeth, let us glory in it, and yield ourselves with cheerfulness to its processes. We need threshing, the threshing proves our value in God’s sight, and while it marks our imperfection, it secures our ultimate cleansing.

II. Secondly, I would remark that God’s threshing is done with great discretion; "for the fitches are not threshed with a threshing instrument." The poor little fitches, a kind of small seed used for flavouring cakes, were not crushed out with a heavy drag, for by such rough usage they would have been broken up and spoiled. "Neither is a cart-wheel turned about upon the cummin": this little seed, perhaps the carraway, would have been ground by so great a weight: it would have been preposterous to treat it in that rough manner. The fitches were soon removed from the stalks by being "beaten out with a staff," and the cummin needed nothing but a touch of a rod. For tender seeds the farmer uses gentle means, and for the hardier grains he reserves the sterner processes. Let us think of this, as it conveys a valuable spiritual lesson.

Reflect, my brother, that your threshing and mine are in God’s hands. Our chastening is not left to servants, much less to enemies; "we are chastened of the Lord!" The Great Husbandman himself personally bids the labourers do this and that, for they know not the time or the way except as divine wisdom shall direct: they would turn the wheel upon the cummin, or attempt to thresh wheat with a staff. I have seen God’s servants trying both these follies; they have crushed the weak and tender, and they have dealt with partiality and softness with those who needed to be sternly rebuked. How roughly some ministers, some elders, some good men and women will go to work with timid, tender souls; yet we need not fear that they will destroy the true-hearted, for, however much they may vex them, the Lord will not leave his chosen in their hands, but will overrule their mistaken severity, and preserve his own from being destroyed thereby. How glad I am of this; for there are many nowadays who would grind the tender ones to powder if they could!

As the Lord has not left us in the power of man, so also he has not left us in the power of the devil. Satan may sift us as wheat, but he shall not thresh us as fitches. He may blow away the chaff from us even with his foul breath, but he shall not have the management of the Lord’s corn: "the Lord preserveth the righteous." Not a stroke in providence is left to chance; the Lord ordains it, and arranges the time, the force, and the place of it. The divine decree leaves nothing uncertain; the jurisdiction of supreme love occupies itself with the smallest events of our daily lives. Whether we bear the teeth of the corn-drag, or men do ride over our heads, or we endure the gentler touches of the divine hand, everything is by appointment, and the appointment is fixed by infallible wisdom. Let this be a mine of comfort to the afflicted.

Next, remark that the instruments used for our threshing are chosen also by the Great Husbandman. The Eastern farmer, according to the text, has several instruments, and so has our God. No form of threshing is pleasant to the seed which bears it; indeed, each one seems to the sufferer to be peculiarly objectionable. We say, "I think I could bear anything but this sad trouble." We cry, "It was not an enemy, then I could have borne it," and so on. Perhaps the tender cummin foolishly fancies that the horse-hoofs would be a less terrible ordeal than the rod, and the fitches might even prefer the wheel to the staff; but happily the matter is left to the choice of One who judges unerringly. What dost thou know about it, poor sufferer? How canst thou judge of what is good for thee? "Ah!" cries a mother, "I would not mind poverty; but to lose my darling child is too terrible!" Another laments, "I could have parted with all my wealth, but to be slandered cuts me to the quick." There is no pleasing us in the matter of chastisement. When I was at school, with my uncle for master, it often happened that he would send me out to find a cane for him. It was not a very pleasant task, and I noticed that I never once succeeded in selecting a stick which was liked by the boy who had to feel it. Either it was too thin, or too stout; and in consequence I was threatened by the sufferers with condign punishment if I did not do better next time. I learned from that experience never to expect God’s children to like the particular rod with which they are chastened. You smile at my simile, but you may smile also at yourself when you find yourself crying, "Any trouble but this, Lord. Any affliction but this." How idle it is to expect a pleasant trial; for it would then be no trial at all. Almost every really useful medicine is unpleasant: almost all effectual surgery is painful: no trial for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous, yet it is the right trial, and none the less right because it is bitter.

Notice, too, that God not only selects the instruments, but he chooses the place. Farmers in the East have large threshing-floors upon which they throw the sheaves of corn or barley, and upon these they turn horses and drags; but near the house door I have often noticed in Italy a much smaller circle of hardened clay or cement, and here I have seen the peasants beating out their garden seeds in a more careful manner than would naturally be used towards the greater heaps upon the larger area. Some saints are not afflicted in the common affairs of life, but they have peculiar sorrow in their innermost spirits: they are beaten on the smaller and more private threshing-floor; but the process is none the less effectual. How foolish are we when we rebel against our Lord’s appointment, and speak as if we had a right to choose our own afflictions! "Should it be according to thy mind?" Should a child select the rod? Should the grain appoint its own thresher? Are not these things to be left to a higher wisdom? Some complain of the time of their trial; it is hard to be crippled in youth, or to be poor in age, or to be widowed when your children are young. Yet in all this there is wisdom. A part of the skill of the physician may lie, not only in writing a prescription, but in arranging the hours at which the medicine shall be taken. One draught may be most useful in the morning, and another may be more beneficial in the evening; and so the Lord knows when it is best for us to drink of the cup which he has prepared for us. I know a dear child of God who is enduring a severe trial in his old age, and I would fain screen him from it because of his feebleness, but our heavenly Father knows best, and there we must leave it. The instrument of the threshing, the place, the measure, the time, the end, are all appointed by infallible love.

It is interesting to notice in the text the limit of this threshing. The husbandman is zealous to beat out the seed, but he is careful not to break it in pieces by too severe a process. His wheel is not to grind, but to thresh; the horses’ feet are not to break, but to separate. He intends to get the cummin out of its husk, but he will not turn a heavy drag upon it utterly to smash it up and destroy it. In the same way the Lord has a measure in all his chastening. Courage, tried friend, you shall be afflicted as you need, but not as you deserve: tribulation shall come as you are able to bear it. As is the strength such shall the affliction be: the wheat may feel the wheel, but the fitches shall bear nothing heavier than a staff. No saint shall be tempted beyond the proper measure, and the limit is fixed by a tenderness which never deals a needless stroke.

It is very easy to talk like this in cool blood, and quite another thing to remember it when the flail is hammering you; yet have I personally realized this truth upon the bed of pain, and in the furnace of mental distress. I thank God at every remembrance of my afflictions; I did not doubt his wisdom then, nor have I had any reason to question it since. Our Great Husbandman understands how to divide us from the husk, and he goes about his work in a way for which he deserves to be adored for ever.

It is a pleasant thought that God’s limit is one beyond which trials never go—

"If trials six be fix’d for men
They shall not suffer seven.
If God appoint afflictions ten
They ne’er can be eleven."

The old law ordained forty stripes save one, and in all our scourgings there always comes in that "save one." When the Lord multiplies our sorrows up to a hundred, it is because ninety-and-nine failed to effect his purpose; but all the powers of earth and hell cannot give us one blow above the settled number. We shall never endure a superfluity of threshing. The Lord never sports with the feelings of his saints. "He does not afflict willingly," and so we may be sure he never gives an unnecessary blow.

The wisdom of the husbandman in limiting his threshing is far exceeded in the wisdom of God by which he sets a limit to our griefs. Some escape with little trouble, and perhaps it is because they are frail and sensitive. The little garden seeds must not be beaten too heavily lest they be injured; those saints who bear about with them a delicate body must not be roughly handled, nor shall they be. Possibly they have a feeble mind also, and that which others would laugh at would be death to them; they shall be kept as the apple of the eye.

If you are free from tribulation never ask for it; that would be a great folly. I did meet with a brother a little while ago who said that he was much perplexed because he had no trouble. I said, "Do not worry about that; but be happy while you may." Only a queer child would beg to be flogged. Certain sweet and shining saints are of such a gentle spirit that the Lord does not expose them to the same treatment as he metes out to others: they do not need it, and they could not bear it; why should they wish for it?

Others, again, are very heavily pressed; but what of that if they are a superior grain, a seed of larger usefulness, intended for higher purposes? Let not such regret that they have to endure a heavier threshing since their use is greater. It is the bread corn that must go under the feet of the horseman and must feel the wheel of the cart; and so the most useful have to pass through the sternest processes. There is not one amongst us but what would say, "I could wish that I were Martin Luther, or that I could play as noble a part as he did." Yes; but in addition to the outward perils of his life, the inward experiences of that remarkable man were such as none of us would wish to feel. He was frequently tormented with Satanic temptations, and driven to the verge of despair. At one hour he rode the whirlwind and the storm, master of all the world, and then after days of fighting with the pope and the devil he would go home to his bed and lie there broken-down and trembling. You see God’s heroes only in the pulpit, or in other public places, you know not what they are before God in secret. You do not know their inner life: else you might discover that the bread corn is bruised, and that those who are most useful in comforting others have to endure frequent sorrow themselves. Envy no man; for you do not know how he may have to be threshed to make him right and keep him so.

Brethren, we see that our God uses discretion in the chastisement of his people; let us use a loving prudence when we have to deal with others in that way. Be gentle as well as firm with your children; and if you have to rebuke your brother do it very tenderly. Do not drive your horses over the tender seed. Recollect that the cummin is beaten out with a staff and not crushed out with a wheel. Take a very light rod. Perhaps it would be as well if you had no rod at all, but left that work to wiser hands. Go you and sow, and leave your elders to thresh.

Next, let us firmly believe in God’s discretion, and be sure that he is doing the right thing by us. Let us not be anxious to be screened from affliction. When we ask that the cup may pass from us let it be with a "nevertheless not as I will." Best of all, let us freely part with our chaff. The likeliest way to escape the flail is to separate from the husk as quickly as possible. "Come ye out from among them." Separate yourselves from sin and sinners, from the world and worldliness, and the process of threshing will all the sooner be completed. God make us wise in this matter!

III. A word or two is all we can afford upon the third head, which is that the threshing will not last for ever.

The threshing will not last all our days even here: "Bread corn is bruised, but he will not always be threshing it." Oh, no. "For a small moment have I forsaken thee, but with great mercies will I gather thee." "He will not always chide, neither will he keep his anger for ever." "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning." Rejoice, ye daughters of sorrow! Be comforted, ye sons of grief! Have hope in God, for you shall yet praise him who is the health of your countenance. The rain does not always fall, nor will the clouds always return. Sorrow and sighing shall flee away. Threshing is not an operation which the corn requires all the year round; for the most part the flail is idle. Bless the Lord, O my soul! The Lord will yet bring home his banished ones.

Above all, tribulation will not last for ever, for we shall soon be gone to another and better world. We shall soon be carried to the land where there are neither threshing-floors nor corn-drags. I sometimes think I hear the herald calling me. His trumpet sounds: "Up and away! Boot and saddle! Up and away! Leave the camp and the battle, and return in triumph." The night is far spent with some of you, but the morning cometh. The daylight breaks above yon hills. The day is coming—the day that shall go no more down for ever. Come, eat your bread with joy, and march onward with a merry heart; for the land which floweth with milk and honey is but a little way before you. Until the day break and the shadows flee away, abide the Great Husbandman’s will, and may the Lord glorify himself in you. Amen.

Spurgeon, C. H. (1882). Farm Sermons. New York: Passmore and Alabaster. (Public Domain)

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)

The Loaded Waggon

The Loaded Waggon

The Loaded Waggon

"Behold, I am pressed under you, as a cart is pressed that is full of sheaves."—Amos 2:13.

WE have been into the corn-fields to glean with Boaz and Ruth; and I trust that the timid and faint-hearted have been encouraged to partake of the handfuls which are let fall on purpose for them by the order of our generous Lord. We go to-day to the gate of the harvest-field with another object—to see the waggon piled up aloft with many sheaves come creaking forth, making ruts along the field. We come with gratitude to God, thanking him for the harvest, blessing him for favourable weather, and praying him to continue the same till the last shock of corn shall be brought in, and the husbandmen everywhere shall shout the "Harvest Home."

What a picture is a waggon loaded with corn of you and of me, as loaded with God’s mercies! From our cradle up till now, every day has added a sheaf of blessing. What could the Lord do for us more than he has done? He has daily loaded us with benefits. Let us adore his goodness, and yield him our cheerful gratitude.

Alas! that such a sign should be capable of another reading. Alas! that while God loadeth us with mercy, we should load him with sin. While he continually heapeth on sheaf after sheaf of favour we also add iniquity unto iniquity, till the weight of our sin becomes intolerable to the Most High, and he cries out by reason of the burden, saying, "I am pressed under you, as a cart is pressed that is full of sheaves."

Our text begins with a "Behold!" and well it may. "Beholds" are put in the Bible as signs are hung out from houses of business, to attract attention. There is something new, important, deeply impressive, or worthy of attention wherever we see a "Behold" in sacred Scripture. I see this "Behold!" standing, as it were, like a maiden upon the steps of the house of wisdom, crying, "Turn in hither, O ye that are wise-hearted, and listen to the voice of God." Let us open our eyes that we may "behold," and may the Spirit make a way through our eyes and ears to our hearts, that repentance and self-abhorrence may take hold upon us, because of our evil conduct towards our gracious God.

It is to be understood before we proceed farther, that our text is only a figure, since God cannot actually be oppressed by man; all the sin that man may commit can never disturb the serenity of the divine perfection, nor cause so much as a wave upon his everlasting calm. He doth but speak to us after the manner of man, and bring down the sublimities and mysteries of heaven to the feebleness and ignorance of earth. He speaketh to us as a great father may talk to his little child. Just as a cart has the axles bent, and as the wheels creak under the excessive load, so the Lord says that under the load of human guilt he is pressed down, until he crieth out, because he can bear no longer the iniquity of those that offend against him. We shall now turn to our first point; may the Holy Ghost make it pointed to our consciences!

The first and most apparent truth in the text is, that sin is very grievous and burdensome to God.

Be astonished, O heavens, and be amazed, O earth, that God should speak of being pressed and weighed down! I do not read anywhere so much as half a suggestion that the whole burden of creation is any weight to the Most High. "He taketh up the isles as a very little thing." Neither sun, nor moon, nor stars, nor all the ponderous orbs which his omnipotence has created, cost him any labour in their sustenance. The heathen picture Atlas as stooping beneath the globe; but the eternal God, who beareth up the pillars of the universe, "fainteth not, neither is weary." Nor do I find even the most distant approach to a suggestion that providence fatigues its Lord. He watches both by night and day; his power goeth forth every moment. ‘Tis he who bringeth forth Mazzaroth in his season and guideth Arcturus with his sons. He beareth up the foundations of the earth! and holdeth the corner-stone thereof. He causeth the dayspring to know its place, and setteth a bound to darkness and the shadow of death. All things are supported by the power of his hand, and there is nothing without him. Just as a moment’s foam subsides into the wave that bears it and is lost for ever, so would the universe depart if the eternal God did not daily sustain it. This incessant working has not diminished his strength, nor is there any failing or thought of failing with him. He worketh all things, and when they are wrought they are as nothing in his sight. But strange, most passing strange, miraculous among miracles, sin burdens God, though the world cannot; and iniquity presses the Most High, though the whole weight of providence is as the small dust of the balance. Ah, ye careless sons of Adam, ye think sin a trifle; and as for you, ye sons of Belial, ye count it sport, and say, "He regardeth not; he seeth not; how doth God know? and if he knoweth he careth not for our sins." Learn ye from the Book of God, that so far from this being the truth, your sins are a grief to him, a burden and a load to him, till, like a cart that is overloaded with sheaves, so is he weighed down with human guilt.

This will be very clear if we meditate for a moment upon what sin is, and what sin does. Sin is the great spoiler of all God’s works. Sin turned an archangel into an arch-fiend, and angels of light into spirits of evil. Sin looked on Eden and withered all its flowers. Ere sin had come the Creator said of the new-made earth, "It is very good"; but when sin had entered, it grieved God at his very heart that he had made such a creature as man. Nothing tarnishes beauty so much as sin, for it mars God’s image and erases his superscription.

Moreover, sin makes God’s creatures unhappy, and shall not the Lord, therefore, abhor it? God never designed that any creature of his hand should be miserable. He made the creatures on purpose that they should be glad; he gave the birds their song, the flowers their perfume, the air its balm; he gave to day the smiling sun and to night its coronet of stars; for he intended that smiles should be his perpetual worship, and joy the incense of his praise. But sin has made God’s favourite creature a wretch, and brought down God’s offspring, made in his own image, to become naked, and poor, and miserable; and therefore God hateth sin, and is pressed down under it, because it maketh the objects of his love unhappy at their heart.

Moreover, remember that sin attacks God in all his attributes, assails him on his throne, and stabs at his existence. What is sin? Is it not an insult to God’s wisdom? O sinner, God biddeth thee do his will; when thou doest the contrary it is because thou dost as much as say, "I know what is good for me, and God does not know." You do in effect declare that infinite wisdom is in error, and that you, the creature of a day, are the best judge of happiness. Sin impugns God’s goodness; for by sin you declare that God has denied you that which would make you happy, and this is not the part of a good, tender, and loving Father. Sin cuts at the Lord’s wisdom with one hand, and at his goodness with the other.

Sin also abuses the mercy of God. When you, as many of you have done, sin with the higher hand because of his longsuffering towards you; when, because yon have no sickness, no losses, no crosses, therefore you spend your time in revelry and obstinate rebellion,—what is this but taking the mercy which was meant for your good and turning it into mischief? It is no small grief to the loving father to see his substance spent with harlots in riotous living; he cannot endure it that his child should be so degraded as to turn even the mercy which would woo him to repentance into a reason why he should sin the more against him. Besides, let me remind the careless and impenitent that every sin is a defiance of divine power. In effect it is lifting your puny fists against the majesty of heaven, and defying God to destroy you. Every time you sin, you defy the Lord to prove whether he can maintain his law or no. Is this a slight thing, that a worm, the creature of a day, should defy the Lord of ages, the God that filleth and upholdeth all things by the word of his power? Well may he be weary, when he has to bear with such provocations and insults as these! Mention what attribute you will, and sin has blotted it; speak of God in any relationship you choose, and sin has cast a slur upon him. It is evil, only evil, and that continually: in every view of it it must be offensive to the Most High. Sinner, dost thou know that every act of disobedience to God’s law is virtually an act of high treason? What dost thou do but seek to be God thyself, thine own master, thine own lord! Every time thou swervest from his will, it is to put thy will into his place; it is to make thyself a god, and to undeify the Most High. And is this a little offence, to snatch from his brow the crown, and from his hand the sceptre? I tell thee it is such an act that heaven itself could not stand unless it were resented: if this crime were suffered to go unpunished, the wheels of heaven’s commonwealth would be taken from their axles, and the whole frame of moral government would be unhinged. Such a treason against God shall certainly be visited with punishment.

To crown all, sin is an onslaught upon God himself, for sin is atheism of heart. Let his religious profession be what it may, the sinner hath said in his heart, "No God." He wishes that there were no law and no Supreme Ruler. Is this a trifle? To be a Deicide! To desire to put God out of his own world! Is this a thing to be winked at? Can the Most High hear it and not be pressed down beneath its weight? I pray you do not think that I would make a needless outcry against sin and disobedience. It is not in the power of human imagination to exaggerate the evil of sin, nor will it ever be possible for mortal lips, though they should be touched like those of Esaias with a live coal from off the altar, to thunder out the ten-thousandth part of the enormity of the least sin against God. Think, dear friends! We are his creatures, and yet we will not do his will. We are fed by him, the breath in our nostrils he gives us, and yet we spend that breath in murmuring and rebellion.

Once more, we are always in the sight of our omniscient God, and yet the presence of God is not enough to compel us to obedience. Surely if a man should insult law in the very presence of the lawgiver, that were not to be borne with; but this is your case and mine. We must confess, "Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight." We must remember also, that we offend, knowing that we are offending. We do not sin as the Hottentot, or the cannibal. We in England sin against extraordinary light and sevenfold knowledge; and is this a light thing? Can you expect that God shall pass by wilful and deliberate offences? Oh, that these lips had language, that this heart could burn for once! for if I could declare the horrible infamy of sin it would make the blood chill in even a haughty Pharaoh’s veins, and proud Nebuchadnezzar would bow his head in fear. It is indeed a terrible thing to have rebelled against the Most High. The Lord have mercy upon his servants and forgive them.

This is our first point, but I cannot teach you it, God himself must teach it by his Spirit. Oh, that the Holy Ghost may make you feel that sin is exceedingly sinful, so that it is grievous and burdensome to God!

Secondly, some sins are more especially grievous to God. The connection of our text will help you to see the force of this observation.

There is no such thing as a little sin, but still there are degrees of guilt, and it were folly to say that a sinful thought hath in it the same extent of evil as a sinful act. A filthy imagination is sinful—wholly sinful and greatly sinful, but still a filthy act has attained a higher degree of provocation. There are sins which especially provoke God. In the connection of the text we read that licentiousness does this. The Jewish people in the days of Amos seem to have gone to a very high degree of fornication and lechery. This sin is not uncommon in our day; let our midnight streets and our divorce courts be the witness. I say no more. Let each one keep his body pure; for want of chastity is a grievous evil before the Lord.

Oppression, too, according to the prophet, is another great provocation to God. The prophet speaks of selling the poor for a pair of shoes; and some would grind the widow and the orphan, and make the labourer toil for nought. How many business men have no "bowels of compassion." Men form themselves into societies, and then exact an outrageous usury upon loans from the unhappy beings who fall into their hands. Cunning legal quibbles and crafty evasions of just debts often amount to heavy oppression, and are sure to bring down the anger of the Most High.

Then, again, it seems that idolatry and blasphemy are highly offensive to God, and have a high degree of heinousness. He says that the people drank the wine of false gods. If any man sets up his belly, or his gold, or his wealth as his god, and if he lives to these instead of living to the Most High, he hath offended by idolatry. Woe to such, and equal woe to those who adore crosses, sacraments, or images.

Specially is blasphemy a God-provoking sin. For blasphemy there is no excuse. As George Herbert says, "Lust and wine plead a pleasure;" there is gain to be pleaded for avarice, "but the cheap swearer from his open sluice lets his soul run for nought." There is nothing gained by profane talk; there can be no pleasure in cursing; this is offending for offending’s sake, and hence it is a high and crying sin, which makes the Lord grow weary of men. There may be some among you to whom these words may be personal accusations. Do I address the lecherous, or the oppressive, or the profane? Ah, soul, what a mercy God hath borne with thee so long; the time will come, however, when he will say, "Ah, I will ease me of mine adversaries," and how easily will he cast you off and appoint you an awful destruction.

Again, whilst some sins are thus grievous to God for their peculiar heinousness, many men are especially obnoxious to God because of the length of their sin. That grey-headed man, how many times has he provoked the Most High! Why, those who are but lads have cause to count their years and apply their hearts unto wisdom because of the length of time they have lived in rebellion; but what shall I say of you who have been half a century in open war against God—and some of you sixty, seventy, what if I said near upon eighty years? Ah, you have had eighty years of mercies, and returned eighty years of neglect: for eighty years of patience you have rendered eighty years of ingratitude. O God, well mayest thou be wearied by the length and number of man’s sins!

Furthermore, God taketh special note and feeleth an especial weariness of sin that is mixed with obstinacy. Oh how obstinate some men are! They will be damned; there is no helping them; they seem as if they would leap the Alps to reach perdition, and swim through seas of fire that they may destroy their souls. I might tell you cases of men that have been sore sick of fever, ague, and cholera, and they have only recovered their health to return to their sins. Some of them have had troubles in business thick, and threefold: they were once in respectable circumstances, but they spent their living riotously, and they became poor; yet they still struggle on in sin. They are growing poorer every day, most of their clothes have gone to the pawnshop; but they will not turn from the tavern and the brothel. Another child is dead! The wife is sick, and starvation stares the family in the face; but they go on still with a high hand and an outstretched arm. This is obstinacy, indeed. Sinner! God will let thee have thine own way one of these days, and that way will be thine everlasting ruin. God is weary of those who set themselves to do mischief, and, against warnings, and invitations, and entreaties, are determined to go on in sin.

The context seems to tell us that ingratitude is intensely burdensome to God. He tells the people how he brought them out of Egypt; how he cast out the Amorites; how he raised up their sons for prophets, and their young men for Nazarites; and yet they rebelled against him! This was one of the things that pricked my heart when I first came to God as a guilty sinner, not so much the peculiar heinousness of my outward life, as the peculiar mercies that I had enjoyed. How generous God has been to some of us,—some of us who never had a want! God has never cast us into poverty, nor left us to infamy, nor given us up to evil example, but he has kept us moral, and made us love his house even when we did not love him, and all this he has done year after year: and what poor returns we have made! To us, his people, what joy he has given, what deliverances, what love, what comfort, what bliss—and yet we have sinned to his face! Well may he be as a cart that is pressed down, that is full of sheaves.

Let me observe, before I leave this point, that it seems from our text, that the Lord is so pressed, that he even crieth out. Just as the cart when laden with the sheaves, groaneth under the weight, so the Lord crieth out under the load of sin. Have you never heard those accents? "Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth: for the Lord hath spoken, I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me!" Hear again: "Turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?" Better still, hear the lament from the lip of Jesus, soft and gentle as the dew,—"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!" Sinner, God is cut to the heart by thy sin; thy Creator grieves over that which thou laughest at; thy Saviour crieth out in his spirit concerning that which thou thinkest to be a trifle,—"O do not this abominable thing which I hate!" For God’s sake do it not! We often say "for God’s sake," without knowing what we mean; but here see what it means, for the sake of God, that ye grieve not your Creator, that ye cause not the Eternal One himself to cry out by reason of weariness of you. Cease ye, cease ye, from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel? I now leave those two points to pass on very briefly to the next.

While it is true that sin is grievous to the Lord, it magnifies his mercy when we see that he bears the load. As the cart is not said to break, but is pressed only, so is he pressed, and yet he bears. If you and I were in God’s place, should we have borne it? Nay, within a week we should have burned the universe with fire, or trodden it to powder beneath our feet. If the law of heaven were as swift to punish as the law of man, where were we? How easily could he avenge his honour! How many servants wait around him ready to do his bidding! As the Roman consul went out, attended by his lictors carrying the axe, so God is ever attended by his executioners, who are ready to fulfil his sentence. A stone, a tile from a roof, a thunderbolt, a puff of wind, a grain of dust, a whiff of gas, a broken blood-vessel, and all is over, and you are dead, and in the hands of an angry God, Indeed, the Lord has to restrain the servants of his anger, for the heavens cry, "Why should we cover that wretch’s head?" Earth asks, "Why should I yield a harvest to the sinner’s plough?" The lightnings thunder, and say, "Let us smite the rebel," and the seas roar upon the sinner, desiring him as their prey. There is no greater proof of the omnipotence of God than his longsuffering; for it shows the greatest possible power for God to be able to control himself. Sinner, yet Jehovah bears with thee. The angels have been astonished at it; they thought he would strike, but yet he bears with you. Have you ever seen a patient man insulted? He has been met in the street by a villain, who insults him before a mob of boys. He bears it. The fellow spits in his face. He bears it still. The offender strikes him. He endures it quietly. "Give him in charge," says one. "No," says he, "I forgive him all." The fellow knocks him down, and rolls him in the kennel, but he bears it still; yes, and when he rises all covered with mire, he says, "If there be anything that I can do to befriend you, I will do it now." Just at that moment the wretch is arrested by a sheriff’s officer for debt; the man who has been insulted takes out his purse and pays the debt, and says, "You may go free." See, the wretch spits in his face after that! "Now," you say, "let the law have its way with him." Is there any room for patience now? So would it have been with man; it has not been so with God. Though like the cart he is pressed under the load of sheaves, yet like the cart the axle does not break. He bears the load. He bears with impenitent sinners still.

And this brings me to the fourth head, on which I would have your deepest attention. Some of you, I fear, have never seen sin in the light of grieving God, or else you would not wish to grieve him any more. On the other hand some of you feel how bitter a thing evil is, and you wish to be rid of it. This is our fourth head. Not only doth God still bear with sin, but God, in the person of his Son, did bear and take away sin.

These words would have deep meaning if put into the lips of Jesus—"I am pressed under you, as a cart is pressed that is full of sheaves." Here stood the great problem. God must punish sin, and yet he desired to have mercy. How could it be? Lo! Jesus comes to be the substitute for all who trust him. The load of guilt is laid upon his shoulders. See how they pile on him the sheaves of human sin!

"My soul looks back to see
The burdens thou didst bear,
When hanging on the cursed tree,
And hopes her guilt was there."

"The Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all." There they lie, sheaf on sheaf, till he is pressed down like the wain that groaneth as it moves along. "He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief." See him, he did "sweat as it were great drops of blood falling to the ground." Herod mocks him. Pilate jeers him. They have smitten the Prince of Judah upon the cheek. "I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting." They have tied him to the pillar; they are beating him with rods, not this time forty stripes save one, for there is no "save one" with him. "The chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed." See him; like a cart pressed down with sheaves traversing the streets of Jerusalem. Well may ye weep, ye daughters of Jerusalem, though he bids ye dry your tears! Abjects hoot at him as he walks along bowed beneath the load of his own cross, which was the emblem of our sin. They bring him to Golgotha. They throw him on his back, they stretch out his hands and his feet. The accursed iron penetrates the tenderest part of his body, where most the nerves do congregate. They lift up the cross. O bleeding Saviour, thy time of woe is come! They dash it into the socket with cruel force, the nails are tearing through his hands and feet. He hangeth in extremity, for God hath forsaken him; his enemies persecute and take him, for there is none to deliver him. They mock his nakedness; they point at his agonies. They look and stare upon him. With ribald jests they insult his griefs. They make puns upon his prayers. He is now indeed a worm, and no man, crushed till you can scarcely think that divinity dwells within him. Fever parches him; his tongue is dried up like a potsherd, and he cries, "I thirst!" Vinegar is all they yield him. The sun refuses to shine, and the dense midnight of that awful mid-day is a fitting emblem of the tenfold darkness of his soul. Out of that all-encompassing horror he crieth, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Then, indeed, was he pressed down! There was never sorrow like unto his sorrow. All mortal griefs found a reservoir in his heart, and the punishment of human guilt spent itself upon his body and his soul. Shall sin ever be a trifle to me? Shall I laugh at that which made my Saviour groan? Shall I toy and dally with that which stabbed him to the heart? Sinner, wilt thou not give up thy sins for the sake of him who suffered for sin? "Yes," sayest thou, "yes, if I could believe that he suffered for my sake." Wilt thou trust thy soul in his hands at once? Dost thou do so? Then he died for thee and took thy guilt, and carried all thy sorrows, and thou mayest go free, for God is satisfied, and thou art absolved. Christ was burdened that thou mightest be lightened; he was pressed that thou mightest be free. I would I could talk of my precious Master as John would speak, who saw him and bare witness, for he could tell in plaintive tones of the sorrows of Calvary Such as I have I give you; oh that God would give you with it the power, the grace to believe on Jesus at once.

V. For if not, and here is our last point, God will only bear the load of our provocation for a little while; and if we are not in Christ when the end shall come that same load will crush us for ever.

My text is translated by many learned men in a different way from the version before us. According to them it should be read, "I will press you as a cart that is full of sheaves presseth your place." That is, just as a heavy loaded waggon pressed into the soft eastern roads and left deep furrows, so will I crush you, saith God, beneath the load of your sin. This is to be your doom, my hearer, if you are out of Christ: your own deeds are to press upon you. Need we enlarge upon this terror? I think not. It only needs that you should make a personal application of the threatening! Divide yourselves now. Divide yourselves, I say! Answer each one for himself,—Dost thou believe on the Lord Jesus Christ? then the threatening is not thine. But if thou believest not I conjure thee listen to me now as if thou wert the only person here. A Christless soul will ere long be a castaway; he that believeth not in Christ is condemned already, because he believeth not. How wilt thou escape if thou wilt neglect so great salvation? Thus saith the Lord unto thee, "Consider thy ways." By time, by eternity, by life, by death, by heaven, by hell, I do conjure thee believe in him who is able to save unto the uttermost them that come unto him; but if thou believest not in Christ thou shalt die in thy sins.

After death the judgment! Oh! the judgment, the thundering trumpet, the multitude, the books, the great white throne, the "Come, ye blessed," the "Depart, ye cursed!"

After judgment, to a soul that is out of Christ, Hell! Who among us? who among us shall abide with the devouring flame? Who among us? Who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings? I pray that none of us may. But we must unless we fly to Christ. I beseech thee, my dear hearer, fly to Jesus! I may never see thy face again; thine eyes may never look into mine again; but I shake my skirts of thy blood if thou believest not in Christ. My tears entreat thee; my lips persuade thee. God has had patience with thee; let his longsuffering lead thee to repentance. He willeth not the death of any, but that they should turn unto him and live: and this turning lies mainly in trusting Jesus with your soul. Wilt thou believe in Christ? Nay, I know thou wilt not unless the Spirit of God shall constrain thee; but if thou wilt not, it shall not be for want of pleading and entreating. Come, ‘tis mercy’s welcome hour. I pray thee, come. Jesus with pierced hands invites thee, though thou hast long rejected him. He knocks again. His unconquerable love defies thy wickedness. He begs thee to be saved. Sinner, wilt thou have him or no? "Whosoever will, let him come and take of the water of life freely." God help you to come, for the glorious Redeemer’s sake. Amen.

Spurgeon, C. H. (1882). Farm Sermons. New York: Passmore and Alabaster. (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)

Mealtime in the Cornfields

Mealtime in the Cornfields

Mealtime in the Cornfields

"And Boaz said unto her, At mealtime come thou hither, and eat of the bread, and dip thy morsel in the vinegar. And she sat beside the reapers: and he reached her parched corn, and she did eat, and was sufficed, and left."—Ruth 2:14.

WE are going to the cornfields, not so much to glean, as to rest with the reapers and the gleaners, when under some wide-spreading oak they sit down to take refreshment. We hope some timid gleaner will accept our invitation to come and eat with us, and will have confidence enough to dip her morsel in the vinegar. May all of us have courage to feast to the full on our own account, and kindness enough to carry home a portion to our needy friends at home.

I. Our first point of remark is this—that God’s reapers have their mealtimes.

Those who work for God will find him a good master. He cares for oxen, and he has commanded Israel, "Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn." Much more doth he care for his servants who serve him. "He hath given meat unto them that fear him: he will ever be mindful of his covenant." The reapers in Jesus’ fields shall not only receive a blessed reward at the last, but they shall have plenteous comforts by the way. He is pleased to pay his servants twice: first in the labour itself, and a second time in the labour’s sweet results. He gives them such joy and consolation in the service of their Master that it is a sweet employ, and they cry, "We delight to do thy will, O Lord." Heaven is made up of serving God day and night, and a foretaste of heaven is enjoyed in serving God on earth with earnest perseverance.

God has ordained certain mealtimes for his reapers; and he has appointed that one of these shall be when they come together to listen to the Word preached. If God be with ministers they act as the disciples did of old, for they received the loaves and the fishes from the Lord Jesus, and then they handed them to the people. We, of ourselves, cannot feed one soul, much less thousands; but when the Lord is with us we can keep as good a table as Solomon himself, with all his fine flour, and fat oxen, and roebucks, and fallow-deer. When the Lord blesses the provisions of his House, no matter how many thousands there may be, all his poor shall be filled with bread. I hope, beloved, you know what it is to sit under the shadow of the Word with great delight, and find the fruit thereof sweet unto your taste. Where the doctrines of grace are boldly and plainly delivered to you in connection with the other truths of revelation; where Jesus Christ upon his cross is always lifted up; where the work of the Spirit is not forgotten; where the glorious purpose of the Father is never despised, there is sure to be rich provision for the children of God.

Often, too, our gracious Lord appoints us mealtimes in our private readings and meditations. Here it is that his "paths drop fatness." Nothing can be more fattening to the soul of the believer than feeding upon the Word, and digesting it by frequent meditation. No wonder that men grow so slowly when they meditate so little. Cattle must chew the cud; it is not that which they crop with their teeth, but that which is masticated, and digested by rumination, that nourishes them. We must take the truth, and turn it over and over again in the inward parts of our spirit, and so shall we extract suitable nourishment therefrom. My brethren, is not meditation the land of Goshen to you? If men once said, "There is corn in Egypt," may they not always say that the finest of the wheat is to be found in secret prayer? Private devotion is a land which floweth with milk and honey; a paradise yielding all manner of fruits; a banqueting house of choice wines. Ahasuerus might make a great feast, but all his hundred and twenty provinces could not furnish such dainties as meditation offers to the spiritual mind. Where can we feed and lie down in green pastures in so sweet a sense as we do in our musings on the Word? Meditation distils the quintessence of joy from the Scriptures, and gladdens our mouth with a sweetness which excels the virgin honey. Your retired periods and occasions of prayer should be to you refreshing seasons, in which, like the reapers at noonday, you sit with the Master and enjoy his generous provisions. The Shepherd of Salisbury Plain was wont to say that when he was lonely, and his wallet was empty, his Bible was to him meat, and drink, and company too: he is not the only man who has found a fulness in the Word when all else has been empty. During the battle of Waterloo a godly soldier, mortally wounded, was carried by his comrade into the rear, and being placed with his back propped up against a tree, he besought his friend to open his knapsack and take out the Bible which he had carried in it. "Read to me," he said, "one verse before I close my eyes in death." His comrade read him that verse: "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you;" and there, fresh from the whistling of the bullets, and the roll of the drum, and the tempest of human conflict, that believing spirit enjoyed such holy calm that ere he fell asleep in the arms of Jesus he said, "Yes, I have a peace with God which passeth all understanding, which keeps my heart and mind through Jesus Christ." Saints most surely enjoy delightful mealtimes when they are alone in meditation.

Let us not forget that there is one specially ordained mealtime which ought to occur at least once in the week—I mean the Supper of the Lord. There you have literally, as well as spiritually, a meal. The table is richly spread, it has upon it both bread and wine; and looking at what these symbolize, we have before us a table richer than that which kings could furnish. There we have the flesh and the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, whereof if a man eat he shall never hunger and never thirst, for that bread shall be unto him everlasting life. Oh! the sweet seasons we have known at the Lord’s Supper. If some of you knew the enjoyment of feeding upon Christ in that ordinance you would chide yourselves for not having united with the Church in fellowship. In keeping the Master’s commandments there is "great reward," and consequently in neglecting them there is great loss of reward. Christ is not so tied to the sacramental table as to be always found of those who partake thereat, but still it is "in the way" that we may expect the Lord to meet with us. "If ye love me, keep my commandments," is a sentence of touching power. Sitting at this table, our soul has mounted up from the emblem to the reality; we have eaten bread in the kingdom of God, and have leaned our head upon Jesus’ bosom. "He brought me to the banqueting-house, and his banner over me was love."

Besides these regular mealtimes, there are others which God gives us, at seasons when, perhaps, we little expect them. You have been walking the street, and suddenly you have felt a holy flowing out of your soul toward God; or in the middle of business your heart has been melted with love and made to dance for joy, even as the brooks, which have been bound with winter’s ice, leap to feel the touch of spring. You have been groaning, dull, and earthbound; but the sweet love of Jesus has enwrapped your heart when you scarce thought of it, and your spirit, all free, and all on fire, has rejoiced before the Lord with timbrel and dance, like Miriam of old. I have had times occasionally in preaching when I would fain have kept on far beyond the appointed hour, for my overflowing soul has been like a vessel wanting vent. Seasons, too, we have had on our sick beds, when we would have been content to be sick always if we could have had our bed so well made by tender love, and our head so softly pillowed on condescending grace.

Our blessed Redeemer comes to us in the morning, and wakes us up by dropping sweet thoughts upon our souls; we know not how they came, but it is as if, when the dew was visiting the flowers, a few drops had taken pity upon us. In the cool eventide, too, as we have gone to our beds, our meditation of him has been sweet; and, in the night watches, when we tossed to and fro, and could not sleep, he has been pleased to become our song in the night.

God’s reapers find it hard work to reap; but they gain a blessed solace when in one way or another they sit down and eat of their Master’s rich provisions; then, with renewed strength, they rise with sharpened sickle, to reap again in the noontide heat.

Let me observe that, while these mealtimes come we know not exactly when, there are certain seasons when we may expect them. The Eastern reapers generally sit down under the shelter of a tree, or a booth, to take refreshment during the heat of the day. And certain I am, that when trouble, affliction, persecution, and bereavement, become the most painful to us, it is then that the Lord hands out to us the sweetest comforts. We must work till the hot sun forces the sweat from our faces, and then we may look for repose; we must bear the burden and heat of the day before we can expect to be invited to those choice meals which the Lord prepares for true labourers. When thy day of trouble is hottest, then the love of Jesus shall be sweetest.

Again, these mealtimes frequently occur before a trial. Elijah must be entertained beneath a juniper tree, for he is to go a forty-days’ journey in the strength of that meat. You may suspect some danger nigh when your delights are overflowing. If you see a ship taking in great quantities of provision, it is probably bound for a distant port, and when God gives you extraordinary seasons of communion with Jesus, you may look for long leagues of tempestuous sea. Sweet cordials prepare for stern conflicts.

Times of refreshing also occur after trouble or arduous service. Christ was tempted of the devil, and afterwards angels came and ministered unto him. Jacob wrestled with God, and afterwards, at Mahanaim, hosts of angels met him. Abraham fought with the kings, and returned from their slaughter, and then it was that Melchisedec refreshed him with bread and wine. After conflict, content; after battle, banquet. When thou hast waited on thy Lord, then thou shalt sit down, and thy Master will gird himself and wait upon thee.

Let worldlings say what they will about the hardness of religion, we do not find it so. We own that reaping for Christ has its difficulties and troubles; but still the bread which we eat is of heavenly sweetness, and the wine which we drink is crushed from celestial clusters—

"I would not change my bless’d estate
For all the world calls good or great;
And while my faith can keep her hold,
I envy not the sinner’s gold."

II. Follow me while we turn to a second point. To these meals the gleaner is affectionately invited. That is to say, the poor, trembling stranger who has not strength enough to reap, who has no right to be in the field except the right of charity—the poor, trembling sinner, conscious of his own demerit, and feeling but little hope and little joy, is invited to the feast of love.

In the text the gleaner is invited to come. "At mealtime, come thou hither." We trust none of you will be kept away from the place of holy feasting by any shame on account of your dress, or your personal character, or your poverty; nay, nor even on account of your physical infirmities. "At mealtime come thou hither." I knew a deaf woman who could never hear a sound, and yet she was always in the House of God, and when asked why, her reply was that a friend found her the text, and then God was pleased to give her many a sweet thought upon it while she sat with his people; besides, she felt that as a believer she ought to honour God by her presence in his courts, and by confessing her union with his people; and, better still, she always liked to be in the best of company, and as the presence of God was there, and the holy angels, and the saints of the Most High, whether she could hear or no, she would go. If such persons find pleasure in coming, we who can hear should never stay away. Though we feel our unworthiness, we ought to be desirous to be laid in the House of God, as the sick were at the pool of Bethesda, hoping that the waters may be stirred, and that we may step in and be healed. Trembling soul, never let the temptations of the devil keep thee from the assembly of worshippers; "at mealtime come thou hither."

Moreover, she was bidden not only to come but to eat. Whatever there is sweet and comfortable in the Word of God, ye that are of a broken and contrite spirit are invited to partake of it. "Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners"—sinners such as you are. "In due time Christ died for the ungodly"—such ungodly ones as you feel yourselves to be. You desire to be Christ’s. You may be Christ’s. You are saying in your heart, "O that I could eat the children’s bread!" You may eat it. You say, "I have no right." But the Lord gives you the invitation! Come without any other right than the right of his invitation.

"Let not conscience make you linger,
Nor of fitness fondly dream."

But since he bids you "come," take him at his word; and if there be a promise, believe it; if there be an encouraging word, accept it, and let the sweetness of it be yours.

Note further, that she was not only invited to eat the bread, but to dip her morsel in the vinegar. We must not look upon this as being some sour stuff. No doubt there are crabbed souls in the church, who always dip their morsel in the sourest imaginable vinegar, and with a grim liberality invite others to share their misery with them; but the vinegar in my text is altogether another thing. This was either a compound of various juices expressed from fruits, or else it was that weak kind of wine mingled with water which is still commonly used in the harvest-fields of Italy and the warmer parts of the world—a drink not exceedingly strong, but good enough to impart a relish to the food. It was, to use the only word which will give the meaning, a sauce, which the Orientals used with their bread. As we use butter, or as they on other occasions used oil, so in the harvest-field, believing it to have cooling properties, they used what is here called "vinegar." Beloved, the Lord’s reapers have sauce with their bread; they have not merely doctrines, but the holy unction which is the essence of doctrines; they have not merely truths, but a hallowed delight accompanies the truths. Take, for instance, the doctrine of election, which is like the bread; there is a sauce to dip it in. When I can say, "He loved me before the foundations of the world," the personal enjoyment of my interest in the truth becomes a sauce into which I dip my morsel. And you, poor gleaner, are invited to dip your morsel in it too. I used to hear people sing that hymn of Toplady’s, which begins—

"A debtor to mercy alone,
Of covenant mercy I sing;
Nor fear, with thy righteousness on,
My person and offering to bring."

The hymn rises to its climax in the lines—

"Yes, I to the end shall endure,
As sure as the earnest is given;
More happy, but not more secure,
The glorified spirits in heaven."

I used to think I should never be able to sing that hymn. It was the sauce, you know. I might manage to eat some of the plain bread, but I could not dip it in that sauce. It was too high doctrine, too sweet, too consoling. But I thank God I have since ventured to dip my morsel in it, and now I hardly like my bread without it. I would have every trembling sinner partake of the comfortable parts of God’s Word, even those which cavillers call "High Doctrine." Let him believe the simpler truth first, and then dip it in the sweet doctrine and be happy in the Lord.

I think I see the gleaner half prepared to come, for she is very hungry, and she has nothing with her; but she begins to say, "I have no right to come, for I am not a reaper; I do nothing for Christ; I am only a selfish gleaner; I am not a reaper." Ah! but thou art invited to come. Make no questions about it. Boaz bids thee; take thou his invitation, and approach at once. "But," you say," I am such a poor gleaner; though my labour is all for myself, yet it is little I win by it; I get a few thoughts while the sermon is being preached, but I lose them before I reach home." I know you do, poor weak-handed woman. But still, Jesus invites thee. Come! Take thou the sweet promise as he presents it to thee, and let no bashfulness of thine send thee home hungry. "But," you say, "I am a stranger; you do not know my sins, my sinfulness, and the waywardness of my heart." But Jesus does, and yet he invites you. He knows you are but a Moabitess, a stranger from the commonwealth of Israel; but he bids you come. Is not that enough? "But," you say, "I owe so much to him already; it is so good of him to spare my forfeited life, and so tender of him to let me hear the gospel preached at all; I cannot have the presumption to be an intruder, and sit with the reapers." Oh! but he bids you. There is more presumption in your doubting than there could be in your believing. He bids you. Will you refuse Boaz? Shall Jesus’ lips give the invitation, and will you say him nay? Come, now, come. Remember that the little which Ruth could eat did not make Boaz any the poorer; and all that thou wantest will make Christ none the less glorious or full of grace. Are thy necessities large? His supplies are larger. Dost thou require great mercy? He is a great Saviour. I tell thee that his mercy is no more to be exhausted than the sea is to be drained. Come at once. There is enough for thee, and Boaz will not be impoverished by thy feasting to the full. Moreover, let me tell thee a secret—Jesus loves thee; therefore is it that he would have thee feed at his table. If thou art now a longing, trembling sinner, willing to be saved, but conscious that thou deservest it not, Jesus loves thee, and he will take more delight in seeing thee eat than thou wilt take in the eating. Let the sweet love he feels in his soul toward thee draw thee to him. And what is more—but this is a great secret, and must only be whispered in your ear—he intends to be married to you; and when you are married to him, why, the fields will be yours; for, of course, if you are his spouse, you are joint proprietor with him. Is it not so? Doth not the wife share with the husband? All those promises which are "yea and amen in Christ" shall be yours; nay, they all are yours now, for "the man is next of kin unto you," and ere long he will take you unto himself for ever, espousing you in faithfulness, and truth, and righteousness. Will you not eat of your own? "Oh! but," says one, "how can it be? I am a stranger." Yes, a stranger; but Jesus Christ loves the stranger. "A publican, a sinner;" but he is "the friend of publicans and sinners." "An outcast;" but he "gathereth together the outcasts of Israel." "A stray sheep;" but the shepherd "leaves the ninety and nine" to seek it. "A lost piece of money;" but he "sweeps the house" to find thee. "A prodigal son;" but he sets the bells a-ringing when he knows that thou wilt return. Come, Ruth! Come, trembling gleaner! Jesus invites thee: accept the invitation. "At mealtime come thou hither, and eat of the bread, and dip thy morsel in the vinegar."

III. Now, thirdly—and here is a very sweet point in the narrative—Boaz reached her the parched corn. She did "come and eat". Where did she sit? Note well that she "sat beside the reapers." She did not feel that she was one of them, but she "sat beside" them. Just like some of you who do not come to the Lord’s Supper, but sit and look on. You are sitting "beside the reapers." You fear that you are not the people of God; still you love them, and therefore sit beside them. If there is a good thing to be had, and you cannot get it, you will sit as near as you can to those who do get it. "She sat beside the reapers."

And while she was sitting there, what happened? Did she stretch forth her hand and take the food herself? No, it is written, "He reached her the parched corn." Ah! that is it. None but the Lord of the harvest can hand out the choicest refreshments of spiritual minds. I give the invitation in my Master’s name, and I hope I give it earnestly, affectionately, sincerely; but I know very well that at my poor bidding none will come till the Spirit draws. No trembling heart will accept divine refreshing at my hand; unless the King himself comes near, and reaches the parched corn to each chosen guest, none will receive it. How does he do this? By his gracious Spirit, he first of all inspires your faith. You are afraid to think that it can be true that such a sinner as you are can ever be "accepted in the Beloved"; he breathes upon you, and your faint hope becomes an expectancy, and that expectation buds and blossoms into an appropriating faith, which says, "Yes, my beloved is mine, and his desire is toward me."

Having done this, the Saviour does more; he sheds abroad the love of God in your heart. The love of Christ is like sweet perfume in a box. Now, he who put the perfume in the box is the only person that knows how to take off the lid. He, with his own skilful hand, opens the secret blessing, and sheds abroad the love of God in the soul.

But Jesus does more than this: he reaches the parched corn with his own hand, when he gives us close communion with himself. Do not think that this is a dream; I tell you there is such a thing as speaking with Christ to-day. As certainly as I can talk with my dearest friend, or find solace in the company of my beloved wife, so surely may I speak with Jesus, and find intense delight in the company of Immanuel. It is not a fiction. We do not worship a far-off Saviour; he is a God nigh at hand. His word is in our mouth and in our heart, and we do to-day walk with him as the elect did of old, and commune with him as his apostles did on earth; not after the flesh, it is true, but after a real and spiritual fashion.

Yet once more let me add, the Lord Jesus is pleased to reach the parched corn, in the best sense, when the Spirit gives us the infallible witness within, that we are "born of God". A man may know that he is a Christian beyond all question. Philip de Morny, who lived in the time of Prince Henry of Navarre, was wont to say that the Holy Spirit had made his own salvation to him as clear a point as a problem demonstrated in Euclid. You know with what mathematical precision the scholar of geometry solves a problem or proves a proposition, and with as absolute a precision, as certainly as twice two are four, we may "know that we have passed from death unto life." The sun in the heavens is not more clear to the eye than his present salvation to an assured believer; such a man could as soon doubt his own existence as suspect his possession of eternal life.

Now let the prayer be breathed by poor Ruth, who is trembling yonder. Lord, reach me the parched corn! "Show me a token for good." "Deal bountifully with thy servant." "Draw me, we will run after thee." Lord, send thy love into my heart!

"Come, Holy Spirit, heavenly Dove,
With all thy quickening powers,
Come, shed abroad a Saviour’s love,
And that shall kindle ours."

There is no getting at Christ except by Christ revealing himself to us.

IV. And now the last point. After Boaz had reached the parched corn, we are told that "she did eat, and was sufficed, and left." So shall it be with every Ruth. Sooner or later every penitent shall become a believer, every mourner a singer. There may be a space of deep conviction, and a period of much hesitation; but there shall come a season when the soul decides for the Lord, and cries, "If I perish, I perish. I will go as I am to Jesus. I will not play the fool any longer with my buts and ifs, but since he bids me believe that he died for me, I will believe it, and will trust his cross for my salvation." Whenever you shall be privileged to do this, you shall be "satisfied." "She did eat, and was sufficed." Your head shall be satisfied with the precious truth which Christ reveals; your heart shall be content with Jesus, as the altogether lovely object of affection; your hope shall be filled, for whom have you in heaven but Christ? Your desire shall be satiated, for what can even your desire hunger for more than "to know Christ, and to be found in him." You shall find Jesus charm your conscience, till it is at perfect peace; he shall content your judgment, till you know the certainty of his teachings; he shall supply your memory with recollections of what he did, and gratify your imagination with the prospects of what he is yet to do.

"She was sufficed, and left." Some of us have had deep draughts of love; we have thought that we could take in all of Christ, but when we have done our best, we have had to leave a vast remainder. We have sat down with a ravenous appetite at the table of the Lord’s love, and said, "Nothing but the infinite can ever satisfy me," and that infinite has been granted us. I have felt that I am such a great sinner that nothing short of an infinite atonement could wash my sin away, and no doubt you have felt the same; but we have had our sin removed, and found merit enough and to spare in Jesus; we have had our hunger relieved, and found a redundance remaining for others who are in a similar case. There are certain sweet things in the word of God which you and I have not enjoyed yet, and which we cannot enjoy yet; and these we are obliged to leave for a while, till we are better prepared to receive them. Did not our Lord say, "I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now"? There is a special knowledge to which we have not attained, a place of intimate fellowship with Christ which we have not yet occupied. There are heights of communion which as yet our feet have not climbed—virgin snows of the mountain of God untrodden by the foot of man. There is yet a beyond, and there will be for ever.

A verse or two further on we are told what Ruth did with her leavings. It is very wrong, I believe, at feasts to carry anything home with you; but she was not under any such regulation, for that which was left she took home and gave to Naomi. So it shall be even with you, poor tremblers, who think you have no right to a morsel for yourselves; you shall be allowed to eat, and when you are quite sufficed, you shall have courage to bear away a portion to others who are hungering at home. I am always pleased to find the young believer beginning to pocket something for others. When you hear a sermon you think, "My poor mother cannot get out to-day; how I wish she could have been here, for that sentence would have comforted her. If I forget everything else, I will tell her that." Cultivate an unselfish spirit. Seek to love as you have been loved. Remember that "the law and the prophets" are fulfilled in this, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and your neighbour as yourself. How can you love your neighbour as yourself if you do not love his soul? You have loved your own soul; through grace you have been led to lay hold on Jesus; love your neighbour’s soul, and never be satisfied till you see him in the enjoyment of those things which are the charm of your life and the joy of your spirit. Take home your gleanings for those you love who cannot glean for themselves.

I do not know how to give you an invitation to Christ more pleasantly, but I would with my whole heart cry, "Come and welcome to Jesus." I pray my Lord and Master to reach a handful of parched corn of comfort to you if you are a trembling sinner, and I also beg him to make you eat till you are fully sufficed.

Spurgeon, C. H. (1882). Farm Sermons. New York: Passmore and Alabaster. (Public Domain)


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