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.
(Preached extempore at Berkeley Chapel, Middletown, Conn., 1861.)
"Neither let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed of serpents."—1 COR. x. 9.
TEMPTING Christ! You straightway think of the scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, who came to Him, asking Him a sign from heaven, tempting Him; or of that evil one who bade him cast Himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, saying, "It is written, He shall give His angels charge concerning Thee: and in their hands they shall bear Thee up, lest at any time Thou dash Thy foot against a stone"; and the answer of our Lord, "It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God."
The sin of the scribes and Pharisees, the sin of the Herodians, the sin of the devil—surely not a sin possible for baptized people, for the children of God! And yet St. Paul, as if anticipating such a thought, declares, "These things are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come," and then in words of solemn warning exclaims, "Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall."
Let us, then, consider the nature of the sin. The tempting of Christ referred to is one of the many murmurings of the children of Israel, as recorded in the twenty-first chapter of the Book of Numbers. "The soul of the people," we read, "was much discouraged because of the way. And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread. And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died."
Now, my brethren, most charitable to your own faults, beware how you too readily condemn the children of Israel! It was a long and weary journey in a sandy desert. There was a short way to the promised land; God took them a long one. To be sure, He spread out a cloud to be a covering from the scorching sun, and gave them fire to be a light, in the night season. Their garments did not fail them, their foot did not swell. The smitten rock followed them, and poured out water for the thirsty. Each night the manna fell from heaven, to feed them with the bread of angels. And yet, looking at all this in an earthly point of view, it had much that might make them murmur. Weary they were night after night. Even bondage seemed better than this perpetual wandering. They had no home or abiding-place; they were houseless wanderers. Bread and water was but poor food for those who had been accustomed to the rich produce of the valley of the Nile, to the leeks and the melons and the cucumbers, to the flesh-pots of Egypt. It was but scanty diet. You who grumble at one poor meal, who shun the cold lap of earth and the rude embrace of the elements, would not you have murmured as well?
And how was this tempting Christ? There is not one word about Him in the narrative. Except the Apostle had said so, with the blinded eye with which we read the Scriptures, we never could have known it. Nor will we understand it now, unless we remember that there never has been any revelation of God to man, from the first recorded in the Book of Genesis to the last that is foretold in that Book of Judgments which closes the Canon, save in and through our Lord Jesus Christ. It was He who talked with Adam. It was He who spake to Abraham. It was He who revealed Himself as the "I Am" to Moses. It was He who was leading the children of Israel with a mighty hand and a stretched-out arm, with great signs and wonders, from the land of bondage to the Canaan of His promise, to the Hill of Zion which He loved. Sore pressed then as the children of Israel might be, hard in a worldly point of view as their condition was, sore tried and distressed and weary as they were, it was Christ who was leading them. It was He who was going before them; they had His promise to cheer them; it was to be but a little while after all, and then should come the stream of Jordan, the land flowing with milk and honey, the hills standing about Jerusalem, and rest and peace. Thus, in murmuring against Moses, they were murmuring against their Leader, against the Jehovah angel who went before them, against the Lord Jesus Christ whom He was. And in murmuring, they were tempting Him, not to sin, for God can not be tempted with evil, but tempting Him to leave them, to cast them off, to punish them, to give them their sinful desire, and to send leanness withal into their souls.
Brethren, these things were written for our ensamples. Do not you commit the same sin? Are not you tempting Christ? You are Christ's servants, His people. You are members of His family, stones in His building, part of the Israel of God. You call yourselves pilgrims; you speak of the world as a wilderness; you fondly look to the heavenly land, to the Jerusalem which is above, which is free, and the mother of us all. You are journeying thither; you speak of God's providence and of His hand leading you. Did you ever think when trial comes, when the way is hard, when luxuries are taken away, when comforts perchance abound not, when, it may be, there is even anxiety for food and raiment—when, then, you are tempted to murmur, did you ever think, my brethren, that you were tempting Christ? Or, when sorrow comes upon you, and grief hard to bear afflicts, when friends forsake or loved ones are taken away, when you do not understand the meaning of the rod, and to your blinded vision it seems as though it could not be for good—when, then, you begin to murmur, remember, brethren, you are tempting Christ.
If this be so of real trials or hardships, which require the thought of Christ's Cross to sustain us—of sorrows which can only be endured through the blessed hope that they make us like unto Him who was made perfect through suffering—what must be said of fancied trials, of discontent, of grumbling, of an unthankful heart in the midst of many mercies? What must this be, beloved, but the most grievous tempting of the Lord?
Nor even thus have we begun to understand the sin of the children of Israel. There was something in the murmuring more than any mere murmuring about their external condition; a deeper want of faith than even a forgetfulness that it was God who was leading them. God fed them with manna to prove them, and to make them know that "man doth not live by bread only, but by every word which proceedeth out of the mouth of God." They drank of that spiritual rock which followed them, and that rock was Christ. And yet they said they had no water; their soul, they declared, loathed that light bread. Brethren, it was a spiritual murmuring as well as a bodily one. It was a loathing of God's ordinances, not simply disgust at earthly meat and drink. It was the despising of the bread of God and the water of life. That smitten rock is a type of Christ smitten on the cross, of that pierced side whence flowed the water and the blood. That manna from heaven, that angels' food, what is it but an image of the broken bread which is the Communion of the Body of Christ; of the wine poured out, which is the Communion of His Blood? And yet what is the feeling which most men have about God's ordinances? How do they regard the blessing of Baptism, the wondrous gift of the Holy Communion? Do I exaggerate when I say it is with a feeling of loathing? First of all, they have made them signs which have nothing signified. They have emptied them of all power. The bread of the Eucharist has literally become light bread, tasteless and insipid. And then they turn their backs on it, they despise it, they go away from it. Analyze their feeling, compare it with the way in which they regard things of earth, and, like the children of Israel, do they not loathe it?
Brethren, it is a fearful thought, that as the children of Israel were punished, so are you. God sent fiery serpents among them, which bit them! How aptly does it describe the state of those who love the world and loathe God's ordinances! Sin-stung! serpent-bitten! poisoned with venom! dragged down to earth, groveling in the dust, unable to look up and behold the height of heaven! In the gallery of the Vatican stands a wondrous statue. It represents one struggling in the embrace of a serpent. Each nerve is strained, each muscle is bent; each limb, each feature reveals the agonizing but unavailing effort. It is one intense struggle to be free. But here there is no struggle, no effort. Around the willing captive the serpent of sin winds its coils, nearer and nearer, closer and closer, tighter and tighter, with its clammy touch and slimy folds, enfolding, binding, and crushing the unresisting victim.
My brethren, have I described any one before me? Is there one here of whose condition this is no untrue or overdrawn picture? Is there one here who has yet the grace left to know that this is indeed his own state?
Remember the children of Israel, beloved. When they were bitten, from the depths of their anguish they cried unto God. Moses set up a fiery serpent on a pole in the midst of the dead and the dying, and every one who looked upon it was healed. First they prayed, then they gazed, then they lived. Do I need to explain the antitype? Better let the words of Him who spake as never man spake unfold it. "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life." Jesus uplifted on the cross, Christ crucified on Calvary, a bleeding and a dying Saviour! The Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world, the smitten rock of ages, the sight of Him alone can save, alone can heal.
First of all, my brother, from the depth of your misery, from your knowledge that it is misery, and yet from that knowledge, most oppressive of all, that you do not feel it to be misery; from the very consciousness that you are not fit to pray, that you know not how to pray, that you can not pray—still, pray. Pray to Him to pray for you; pray to Him to give you a broken and contrite heart; pray to Him to lift up your eyes unto that Hill of Calvary whence alone cometh your help; and He will hear and answer you.
Then, like the children of Israel, must you gaze in faith on your crucified Lord. And here I do not wish to say vague words which have no definite meaning. I desire to point out the way to some one, if I may. You can not gaze upon the Cross of Christ, and be healed, except you repent. If you cling to willful sin, if there is one indulged, permitted habit which you refuse to give up, the sight of that Cross will be hid from you. Nothing hides it from you so much as willful sin. It is a cloud between you and it, hiding that loving face, that pierced and bleeding frame. Next, you must gaze in faith—a faith which God's preventing grace will surely give to him who prays for it; a faith that feels, and knows, and believes, that from that pierced side flows forth the water and the blood in living streams to wash the sin away; faith in that all-sufficient atonement, faith in that blessed sacrifice, once offered for the sins of the world, and perpetually renewed and commemorated in God's Church and in His Sacraments unto the end of time.
Nor do I wish here to be vague or indefinite. There is a Calvary, to which the baptized but fallen Christian, who prays, and repents, and believes, is bidden. There is a sight of Christ crucified given to the faithful, which alone is healing, alone is life-giving. It is in that very Sacramental Bread from which the sinner turns with loathing. There is Christ present, not visible to the eye, not to be appreciated by the senses, not in any carnal or material fashion, but truly, really there—Priest and sacrifice, ready to forgive, ready to pardon, ready to help. To come to the Holy Communion, beloved, in faith and penitence, is to come to Christ. It is to kneel at His feet, to have His hand laid upon you, to be sprinkled with His blood, to be fed with Himself. Oh! did we believe this, could we turn away from it so readily, could we come to it so carelessly, could we desire it so seldom, could we esteem it so lightly?
O my brethren, let us take good heed, lest we too, in the very midst of Jerusalem, are tempting Christ! Thus have I shown you, beloved, the two ways in which, like the children of Israel of old, we may tempt our Lord Jesus Christ: first, by murmuring at His providential guidance, by discontent at the trials and difficulties He sends; and, secondly, by despising His Sacraments and ordinances. The one is the common sin of the daily life of many; the other the prevailing error of the day.
Want of faith, beloved, is the root of the sin in both cases. Let even him that thinketh he standeth, pray, "Lord, increase my faith." Then will he endure as seeing Him who is invisible; then will trial, trouble, and sorrow be but marks of His Cross, tokens of His presence, the loving chastening of a Father. Then will the Church be to him indeed the Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem; then will he see in it the innumerable company of the angels, the names of those which are written in heaven, the spirits of just men made perfect; and, above all, speaking in its Sacraments, giving blessing in its ordinances, will he behold Jesus, the Mediator of the new Covenant, covering him with the blood of sprinkling, which speaketh better things than that of Abel.