Sermons Preached on Various Occasions
by James de Koven, D.D.
with an Introduction by Morgan Dix, S.T.D., Rector of Trinity Church, New York
New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1880.
THE GATES OF THE INVISIBLE.
(Preached at Racine College, Ash Wednesday, 1878.)
"He endured, as seeing Him who is invisible."—HEB. xi., part of verse 27.
ST. PAUL is speaking of the faith of Moses. He refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter. He chose rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season. He forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king. He esteemed the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt. He gave up all that could make life happy or beautiful; he bore a burden heavy to be borne of "weary ruling of a disobedient people. But of whatever he gave up, or whatever he did, this was the secret motive: "He endured, as seeing Him who is invisible." Nor Moses alone. The long line of those of whom the world was not worthy, whether in high or low degree, subduing kingdoms, waxing valiant in fight, or made strong out of weakness—in cities and on thrones, in the wilderness and the desert, in quiet home or crowded mart, whatever their labor or suffering for God—had no other stay or strength than this, that they saw Him who is invisible.
To-day, when the Church is arrayed in sackcloth, when she bids us fast and weep if we will hear her voice, when she calls us to the poor measures of self-denial which we substitute for the toils of saints, if we mean anything by it—if we have any idea that it is of any use, if any chord in our hearts answers back to the solemn gloom of Ash-Wednesday, it is worth while to consider the only motive which can make self-denial tolerable, or anything, indeed, but a vain asceticism—seeing Him who is invisible.
"We are surrounded by the visible; it hems us in on every side; the necessary duties of life are occupied with that which we see. Raiment to put on, food to eat, a house to live in, the care of our bodies, the sleep of night, the things which make up the warp and woof of our lives, belong to the visible. Our very intellectual work, so far as it has a practical result, belongs to what we see. To make men more capable of holding their own, of making money, of taking a high place in the world, of building railways, of conducting vast enterprises, nay, of leading armies and guiding states, is only, after all, to make them capable of doing their part well in this visible world. Nay, the things that seem most divine, the skill of painters, the harmony of musicians, the immortal works of historians, philosophers, and poets, are only transitory after all. If they last as long as the world lasts, it will not be for ever. I do not mean but that all these things, the humblest as well as the greatest, may not be made a means of access to the invisible; but this, after all, depends not on the work itself, but on the motive with which it is done. That which elevates it out of the region of the visible is something in itself invisible. It is some great hidden power, like faith, or love, or prayer, or fortitude, or insight, or the blending of them all. In this light, a common household duty done from the love of God, in the history which the angels write of men and life, may have in it a more lasting glory than the dome of St. Peter's, or the Sistine Madonna, or the masses of Mozart, or the plays of Shakespeare.
It is true, too, that there was never an age of the world when the visible seemed to possess such claims upon our thoughts as now. There are two things which chiefly occupy men's minds: the one is material development, the other is the study of nature. To discover new countries; to build vast railways; to make the most of this earth of ours, by mining, by agriculture, by easy methods of transit; to send cultivation and civilization everywhere—these, though noble works and the most engrossing thought of the times, nevertheless belong to the visible. When they are accompanied with a coarse love of wealth, with the heaping up of money for money's sake or the sake of the power that it brings, they degrade almost as much, though in another way, as idleness, or sensuality, or the easy living of those of whom the Latin poet sings: "We are mere ciphers, born to consume the fruits of the earth, mere suitors of Penelope, base and effeminate subjects of Alcinous, to whom it was fair to sleep to the middle of the day, and to lull their cares to rest to the music of the lyre." For work, and toil, and weary days, and wrinkled brows, and vast results, are only one degree better than idleness, if there be not in the labor some higher principle than coarse materialism.
But what shall we say of the study of nature, the passionate love of science, the intense devotion which dredges the sea, and climbs the Andes, and traverses the deserts, and freezes in the arctic zone, or is parched at the hidden sources of the Nile or the Niger? To what end is it? If it be in the spirit of the often-quoted passage of St. Augustine, it is well. Augustine writes: "I asked the earth, and it said, ' I am not He'; and all that is upon it made the same confession. I asked the sea and the depths, and the creeping things that have life, and they answered, t We are not thy God; look thou above us.' I asked the breezes and the gales; and the whole air with its inhabitants said to me, 'Anaximenes is in error; I am not God.' I asked the heaven, the sun, the moon, the stars. 'We, too,' said they, 'are not the God whom thou seekest.' And I said to all the creatures that surround the door of my fleshly senses, 'Ye have said to me of my God, that ye are not He; tell me somewhat of Him.' And with a great voice they exclaimed, 'He made us.'"
But it is not always in this spirit that nature is studied. The miracles of one age become the science of another. Law after law is discovered; what we once thought the direct working of the Father of all proves to be a mighty force, a law whose going out and coming in is changeless as the courses of the seasons or the rising and setting of the sun. Not only are discoveries made, but there seems to stretch before the laborious philosopher a boundless range of discoveries, the end of which we do not see. The voice that seemed to say, "Thus far shalt thou come, and no farther," recedes and recedes. Between us and God appear to come laws, and forces, and powers, the duration and extent of which we can grasp and measure. The visible encroaches on the invisible. What, then, if these laws begin to take to us the place of God? What if we conceive of a primal force behind them all, a law anterior to all other laws, a dull, extended, brute, inanimate power, and substitute this for the personal, living, loving Father of us all—for Him of whom the Psalmist said, "My soul is athirst for God, yea, even for the living God: when shall I come to appear before the presence of God?"
Who can deny that these two are the tendencies of the day—the idolatry of wealth, and power, and mere knowledge, and material resources; and, in the more thoughtful and philosophic, the substitution for the personal Ruler of the universe of a force which, though invisible to the eye, can be grasped by the understanding, comprehended by the intellect, explained by scientific formula, and is incapable of causing or demanding love, or faith, or gratitude, or prayer?
Seeing Him who is invisible. How do we know there is anything beyond what we see? We touch, and feel, and hear, and comprehend; by what arguments can we prove that there is anything more than this? No spirit has passed before us and made the trembling flesh to creep; no angelic visitant has sung "Peace on earth, good will to man"; no transfigured form, with vesture glistening white, has filled us with a vision passing words; no voice has sounded in the ear, saying, "This is my beloved Son, hear Him." Gaze up into heaven as we will, the hosts upon hosts of angelic powers, thrones and dominions, cherubim and seraphim, and above them all the Eternal Triune God, do not reveal themselves to mortal gaze; and sun and moon and stars and heavy leaden clouds alone are manifest. Nay, if there be metaphysical arguments, or any other arguments, on which we depend for the proof of the being and existence of God, it is, after all, a mere matter of reason; and he who is gifted with a greater grasp of intellect has a fairer chance of being religious than the ignorant and uneducated. Nay, if the reason is to decide upon proof, and accept simply because it is satisfied, who shall blame him who rejects what another accepts, and is not satisfied with what convinces and persuades a differently constituted intellect? Of course, I do not wish to undervalue the use of reason, or the value of evidences, or the mighty power of the proofs of Christianity. I only wish to put them in their true position; they rather serve to confirm the faith than to proclaim it.
The invisible must not simply be proven, it must be seen. Consider for a moment. Whatever else is uncertain, we are conscious of our own personal existence; each man knows that he has a something which is his, and no other man's; which distinguishes him at once from the brute creation, and from all other human beings. It is that which he means when he uses the word "I." Years may pass, circumstances may alter, the outward appearance may so change that no one can recognize his identity; childhood may give way to youth, and youth to age; but wherever he is, whatever he is, he remains the same identical person. And this personality resides in what we call the soul. The knife of the anatomist can not discover it; it can not be found in the folds of the brain; it can not be detected in the throbbing pulsations of the heart. It is utterly invisible; it can not be seen or felt or heard. And yet it needs no proof; it has not to be argued about; it admits of no denial. It is, and we know it is. Moreover, we know that this invisible personality is immortal. "We watch some loved one, dearer perhaps than life, drawing nearer and nearer unto death. We hope, and then despair, and hope again. At last they tell us that the end is drawing on; we do not dare to be away; we linger by the bedside, and watch, and pray, and listen to every sound, and count each long-drawn breath. It comes and goes; it grows feebler and more difficult. There is a silence; we hear it again. There is a longer pause—and all is still. The cold, still form of what was once our hope and stay, parent or child, wife or husband, lies before us; but the soul we loved, the personality of the dear one, that which made him what he was—we know it is not there. The dust has returned to the dust as it was, but the spirit is gone to the God who gave it.
Nor do we know the immortality of the soul alone. Whether we have the power to analyze its emotions, or are only conscious of them by the longing pain they cause, through hope and fear, love and hate", through every one of its varied desires, the invisible and immortal soul pleads, and longs for, and demands, and knows that it possesses and is possessed by an invisible, eternal, almighty, personal God. Beyond the tangible and the earthly, beyond the real and the material, the personal existing soul, because it is the creation of God and is made in His image, though that image be marred, reaches out to Him who made it. It sees the invisible. And yet this must be noted: it not only sees God, it sees itself. It finds itself polluted, foul, incapable of good, with longings after holiness, and no strength to do right. It has a vision of God's justice, and purity, and righteousness, and knows that it is fallen and lost, and the opposite of all this. Hence, while the belief in God has been as universal as the human race, and there live no people so besotted that they have not in some sort acknowledged Him, false religions and varied misbeliefs have expressed, at the same time, the longings of the soul, and the mists and the darkness which, because of the Fall, have come between it and God.
But this is not all. If it were, then we might be Deists, but could not be Christians. God has answered the longings of the soul. "God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life." "The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth." The Eternal God has revealed Himself to man in the person of Jesus Christ. Brethren, I preach Christ unto you to-day. He has been manifested to take away our sins. He was born, He lived, upon the Cross of Calvary He died for all; He conquered death, He rose again, He ascended into heaven, He lives for evermore. Nor in heaven alone—He lives on earth as well. He is in His Church; it is His Body. He speaks in His priests; He is with them all the day. He is in His Eucharists; they are His Body and Blood. The Lord Jesus Christ, whom the Magdalen touched, and St. John loved, and St. Peter denied, and Pilate crucified, and Roman soldiers spat upon, our Own, our God, is with us now.
Moreover, just as each human soul, because it is made in the image of God, longs for and beholds—though it be but to tremble—the Invisible God, so to every soul whom He calls to holy Baptism the Lord Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Ghost, gives Himself, and, with Himself, the gift of faith. We can believe, and we do believe, and see by faith the Eternal God, in the face of Jesus Christ—now, indeed, through a glass darkly—but behold Him still. As the Apostle says, ""We all with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image, from glory to glory, as by the spirit of the Lord."
Brethren, I say—I appeal to your own consciences to confirm it—that each baptized person before me has seen the Lord Jesus Christ—not with the bodily eye indeed, but with that which sees as clearly, the eye of faith. More than this, I say that he who before me is the least devout, the most unworthy, the most careless, has had this vision. Is there one in this congregation who does not know that at some time or another, once or twice or more—when, I can not tell, but he knows—Christ has stood by him? Did He not call to you? Did He not speak to you? Did He not plead with you? Did He not show you His wounded hands? Did He not stand and wait when you bade Him go away? Was it when your mother or your father died? Was it when you were sick? Was it when you were bidden to Confirmation? Was it before the altar when the Mystical Presence flashed upon you? Was it in the stillness of the night, or at some time when nothing masked it except that He was there? Is it now, perhaps, my child—on this Ash Wednesday—as this Lent begins?
But perhaps you answer, "It is true, but I can not see Him now. Sin, and pleasure, and self-indulgence, and want of prayer, or some dark deed have driven Him away." I answer then, it was for this that the Church appointed the Lenten season. Faith, and prayer, and fasting, and tears, and self-denial, and confession, and kneeling in His courts—these are the Gates of the Invisible. Once, with His help, open them, and within, patient and loving still, your Lord will stand.
The mists that hide that Form, beloved, from you are of your own making. Deeds of faith, and mortifying the flesh, will drive them away, and the Sun of Righteousness appear. Then, when once you really behold the Saviour, in the words of the text, you can and will endure. The temptations of the passions, the assaults of unbelief, the opinion of the world, the snares of the devil—nay, sorrow, calamity, afflictions, poverty, and death—can be borne and resisted, in a strength and power which is not your own. The light of that countenance will illumine all things, and make you strong in your very weakness. Over these daily temptations, these hourly falls, this prayerlessness and weakness and want of love, will come the victory. Nay, as days grow darker, and the gloom increases, when the feet stumble and the valley of the shadow surrounds, with the eye fixed on Him, and an ever clearer vision of His perfections, we shall see Him as He is, and, awaking up after His likeness, shall be satisfied with it.