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 at Racine College, one of the late Sundays after Trinity, 1878.)
"See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is."—EPH. v., 15, 16, 17.
THE text gives three precepts closely connected with one another. The Apostle bids his hearers—1. To walk circumspectly; 2. To understand what the will of the Lord is; 3. To redeem the time, and for the reason that the days are evil. And to do all this he declares is a mark of that true wisdom which is the highest gift and grace of the Spirit of God. Perhaps it may be inferred that the walking circumspectly and the understanding what the will of the Lord is are the two methods, outward and inward, whereby the time is redeemed in an evil day. To walk circumspectly refers evidently to our relations with others. Circumspectly is the self-same word as was used when Herod commanded the wise men to go and search diligently for the young child. St. Paul says in another place, "Walk in wisdom toward them that are without, redeeming the time." Care, diligence, perfection of effort, a prudent watchfulness, a circumspect behavior toward them that are without, is what is commanded. And who are they? "Why, since each one is himself alone, and thus to some degree apart from even the nearest and dearest, wife and children, friends and neighbors, brethren and fellow Christians. Perhaps, too, it may mean that great cloud of witnesses wherewith each struggling soul is encompassed—thrones and dominions, principalities and powers, angels and archangels, prophets and apostles, martyrs and confessors—the vast assembly of the unseen world, who are in the Paradise of God or go forth to minister to the heirs of salvation. But especially are meant that mighty company of the living, who, with the cross of Baptism on their brow, have yet lost purity or zeal or earnestness or faith, and so, though belonging to the Church of God, are in a sense without its influences; or that mightier company still, which, in countless hosts, live and die not knowing of the truth of God, of the life that is to be, of the story of redemption, of the blessed powers of the Church of God, of the Master that bought them with His own precious blood. Walking circumspectly toward them can not simply be the selfish care that they may not lead us astray—though that indeed is meant—but the tender love which, in the Spirit of the Good Shepherd, and by His might, seeks after them that are gone astray until he find them.
But St. Paul also commands us to "understand what the will of the Lord is." If His first injunction refers to the world around us and our behavior toward it, His second refers to the hidden man of the heart. The true wisdom unites the outward and inward—prudent care in dealing with the external world, and the understanding of the mystery hid from ages and from generations, the life of Martha and of Mary—works and faith, activity and contemplation, blended in one life of wisdom and active work.
There are actions which are manifestly good in this life, which have plainly the mark of God's command upon them, concerning which no one ever doubted that they ought to be done, such as mercy, justice, truth, charity, patience, purity, and the worship of God. Such works as these are as ointment poured forth. There are others which have as plainly the mark of God's disapproval upon them. "Of the works of the flesh," St. Paul says, "they are manifest," such as adultery, murder, wrath, strife, heresies, drunkenness, revelings, and such like. There are other actions and states of life which are in themselves indifferent, and the quality of wrhich, so to speak, turns upon something else than their mere outward character. In an allegory much read years ago, but now half forgotten, certain children bear in their hands a cross, and on whatsoever its shadow falls, that they may safely use and enjoy. Like this falling shadow is the understanding, in actions in themselves indifferent, what the will of the Lord is. It is a mark of the deepest wisdom. It is the hidden test of what the real state of our soul is—to go through life in things little and great, in affairs of state and the exigencies of nations, in household duties or in daily business, and to turn all occasions and circumstances into deeds of virtue by understanding what the will of the Lord is. So only can I read aright either Scripture or history, the inspired Word or the uninspired story which it was meant to explain.
Take, for instance, the life of Pharaoh. Banish, if you can, the Calvinistic bias with which from childhood you have read his history. Do not think of him as an impassive agent, preordained to a hardened heart and a death of terror. King over Egypt, with a mighty nation struggling for release and liberty, God's providence presented to him the opportunity for good or for evil. He might have been the deliverer of Israel instead of their oppressor, their benefactor instead of their tyrant. Perhaps it was not clear to him what was the true policy, the true righteousness. God sent to him His servant Moses, to tell him what the will of God was, and, when the word was not heard, judgment and plague and warning. But he would not heed or understand what the will of the Lord was; and so rejected truth, as it ever does, hardened his heart, and God, who is the Personal Truth, acted on and through His slighted word. And so it has ever been in the history of nations and of individuals. They stand now in the very presence of a wondering and waiting world, and now in the quiet stillness of their unobserved lives, with opportunities and occasions presented to them for weal or for woe, for good or for evil, according as they see and perceive in them the will of God's good pleasure, or fail to do so.
Nor does St. Paul leave us without a rule whereby we may be able clearly to discover what God's will is. He says in one place, "Be ye not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God." In another he says, "This is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye abstain from fornication"; and in another, "In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you." Other like passages there are, but St. Paul tells us sufficiently in these that unworldly, pure, thankful, holy living is to have God's will so written in our hearts that we can not fail to see its beckoning hand and hear its warning voice, amid the shadows and the dreams, the din and the noise, the glitter and the grief of this fleeting world.
Such opportunities, the quality of which must be determined simply by seeing in them the will of God, are riches, poverty, sickness, sorrow—a great deal of that which makes our outward circumstances prosperous or adverse. They may indeed be good or evil, as the result of a course of good or evil action which has led to them; but in themselves they tend to our spiritual advantage or disadvantage, according as we find in them and follow the will of God. They soften the heart or harden it, according as they involve the surrender of our wills to His, or the opposite. They are the opportunities of life for ourselves or for others, to be turned into good or resisted for evil.
It is to these occasions that St. Paul refers when he says, "redeeming the time, because the days are evil"; or, as it may otherwise be translated, "buying up for yourselves the fitting opportunity, because the days are evil." The word means to forestall the market, to buy up all the articles in it, to leave nothing for another customer; to leave no chance for wicked men to seize hold of opportunities; to have the spiritual insight, and the ready zeal, and the active effort to use the occasions according to God's will and not according to the will of the world, the will of the flesh, or the will of the devil. But why does the Apostle say, "because the days are evil"? No doubt they were so in St. Paul's time. He was writing to the Christians of Ephesus. There was the evil worship of the great goddess Diana, whose image, as the story went, fell down from heaven. There were luxury and sin and evil and manifold misery. There were sorcerers and magicians; for, though many believed and confessed, and showed their deeds, and burned their magical books, yet doubtless there were many who did not believe in confession and preferred to keep their valuable possessions. The Epistle was written from Rome when St. Paul was imprisoned, in the dreadful times of the accursed Nero. There were cruelty and bloodshed, and iron rule and misery, and unnatural sin and unblushing vice, all over the Roman world. The days, indeed, were evil! Men, before now, in such times, have hurried away from the habitations of men and the wickedness of their fellows, and, in dens and caves of the rock, forlorn and solitary, have poured forth their supplications to an angry God, Some have even dared to rush from the evils of such times as those, by the death of a suicide, into the unknown terrors of another world. But not so St. Paul. Amid the darkness and the gloom he saw afar the light that streamed from Bethlehem, the uplifted cross on Calvary, the dawning brightness of the first Easter morn, the cloud of angels that received his ascending Lord. He knew that by His incarnation, and sacrificial death, and pleaded eucharistic offering, Christ had bought up the opportunities of the world. In His strength, each Christian man could buy them too. If, then, the days were evil, if wicked men were buying up the world's opportunities, if Nero ruled and cruel Rome, if Ephesus were wicked and sin abounded, all the more reason why those who possessed the treasures of redeeming love—one with the Eternal King, the Lord of lords, and rich in Him—should buy up the opportunities which were for sale so cheap in the market of the world. They were to be had for a song. Lust and cruelty and vanity and sin and shame could get them; how much more could devotion and faith and love and charity and patience and resisting unto blood!
But, my brethren, how is it to-day? Are the times evil now? It matters not to inquire whether they are better or worse than a century ago. In every period there are those who fix their eyes on the sin and desolation which always abound, and cry with the mediaeval hymn-writer :
"The world is very evil, the times are waxing late;
Be sober and keep vigil, the Judge is at the gate";
and there are others who catch a glimpse of the Paradise that is to be, the happy sabbatical time, and see already the first dawnings of the morning light. And both are right. In all periods the times are evil and good. There are two currents, the one toward regeneration, the other toward destruction; and the true character of an age is the resultant of them both. Nor is it possible, or it is at least most difficult, amid the changes of the time, for those who live in it to determine accurately what this resultant is.
However this may be, there is evil enough, and the cry of sin and misery goes up to heaven. I will not enumerate particulars: you have only to go to your newspapers, or cast a glance over the past, to perceive it. Only, one thing I would say: however great this evil is, however it cries to Heaven, however hopeless the case may be, however we may feel that we must sink helpless at the load, the opportunities of good are exactly measured by the opportunities of evil. The words of the text sound on the ear with redoubled meaning, in proportion as we realize the evil of the time. "Buy up for yourselves the fitting opportunity!" But there is a meaning in the words of the text full of comfort and of guidance. The English version translates the words, "redeeming the time, because the days are evil." The word indeed means to buy up for one's self, to forestall the market; but it has a deeper meaning. The self-same word is used to express the redeeming love of our own dear Lord. St. Paul uses the same word when he declares, "Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law." In another place he declares, in the fullness of time, "God sent forth His Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons." He says to the Corinthian Christians, "Ye are bought with a price." When he would describe the terrible heresies that were to distress the Church, he tells of those who "privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them." The solemn hymn in the Revelation uses a form of the same word when it cries, "Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for Thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by Thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation."
When the Apostle bids us "redeem the time," by the very word he uses he connects the act with the cross of Jesus. It must be an act like that which, on the cruel cross, bore the weight of the world's evil, and thus spoiled principalities and powers. It must be one with it. It must be the fully filling up, in the words of the Apostle, of the lacking measure of the sufferings of Christ in the flesh, for His Body's sake, the Church. It must derive its power from "the one sacrifice, once offered." It must therefore involve self-surrender, self-denial, faith, hope, charity. It must be connected, in some mysterious way, with that eucharistic offering whereby in every age "we do show forth the Lord's death till He come." It must add a point and meaning to that offering and presenting of ourselves, body, soul, and spirit, to be a living sacrifice with Christ and in Christ, to the Eternal Father. It must fulfill in us St. Paul's own words of himself: "I am crucified with Christ"; "and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me." The cross that is signed upon the brow in Holy Baptism, and traced in loving memory all our life long, typifies the deep spiritual connection which exists between all efforts for good, all our conquests over evil, and that blessed Sacrifice "once offered for us men and for our salvation."
Yet, in conclusion, there is one word more of counsel in the text. Redeeming or buying up the fitting opportunity: The word seems to denote an opportunity presented to be bought, if we will, but quickly passing away. It seems to be, as it were, in the sale of the auctioneer, an occasion which is going—is going—and, even as we hesitate, is gone. It seems to imply that there must be readiness, quickness, aptness to seize the favorable moment, or the chance will be gone. All this agrees with the observation of the thoughtful. Opportunities come; we do not perceive them, or we tarry or hesitate, and they pass away. Often it happens, too, that a lost opportunity is a last opportunity! The greatest thinker of the English Church—whose writings are, in these troublous times and in the midst of the many controversies of the day, if one will study them, a comfort and a help both for what they teach and the tone of thought they give—the great Bishop Butler, when the rector of a country parish in England, placed a sun-dial on the tower of his church with the legend on it, "Ut hora sic vita "—"As is the hour, so is the life."
Brethren, in the name of Christ, in the shortness of life, in the passing of time, in the shadow of the grave, in the thought of the judgment, I ask you—What are your opportunities, in the world, in the church, at home, abroad, in things little, in things great? The voice calls, the apostle pleads, the days are evil, the opportunities are many. They are passing away! Ah! remember his words, "As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith."