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 GOOD SHEPHERD..
(Preached at an Ordination in 1863.)
"I am the Good Shepherd: the Good Shepherd giveth His life for the sheep."—ST. JOHN x. 11.
BLESSED and full of comfort is the contemplation of our dear Lord in all the aspects in which He presents Himself to our adoring gaze. There is no one, however, which seems to have such power to cheer and to sustain as the thought of Him as the Good Shepherd.
We think of the quiet fold shielded from storm and from harm, where no foes assail, no ravening beasts can enter, where His watchful eye never sleeps, His protecting love ever defends. We see the flock passing forth in the sunshine of the early morning. He goes before, and they follow. Each tone of His voice they know and heed. By His hand He leads the sorrowing, in His bosom He bears the lambs. Still are the waters, green are the pastures, peaceful the pathway.
There is another vision: who has not seen it? The poor wandering sheep who leaves the fold behind, who cares not for the pleasant pastures, and goes forth alone and unfriended into the weary waste beyond. Darkness and night and storm overtake him. Amid rocks and crags and the gloom of the mountains he stumbles and falls. The shadow of death is over him. But lo! the Shepherd is seeking him. He has left the ninety and nine in the wilderness, that He may find the one that has gone astray. Darkness nor storm nor the gloom of the mountains impedes Him. Tenderly He bends over him, gently He lifts him, lovingly He bears him from the howling waste, from the dreary night, on His shoulders, rejoicing, into the fold again, while the angels sing alleluias.
Loving as all this is, the text reveals to us the Good Shepherd as still more gracious and merciful. He lays down His life for the sheep. And here the analogy fails us; no comparison can adequately express this marvelous love. Before us rises the wondrous reality. "We see the uplifted cross, we behold a bleeding and dying Saviour—the thorn-crowned brow, the pierced hands; the words of mercy sound in our ears. And on that vision, from every land and every clime, from every age and every generation, sin-stricken, heart-broken, penitent souls are gazing, and as they gaze are healed. The revelation of our Blessed Lord as the Good Shepherd is the revelation of Him as the perfect Priest. Whatsoever the Good Shepherd does for the sheep in the fold or out of it, as He lovingly protects them or more lovingly seeks them, is only the type of what our Blessed Lord does, as the great High Priest of our profession, for the flock of His pasture and the sheep of His hand. Let us, then, briefly dwell upon the priestly life of our Lord on earth and in heaven.
Consider, first of all, how long was the preparation for a ministry which, when counted as mortals reckon time, was so brief. Thirty years of preparation for three years of ministerial work. Perfect God as well as perfect man, with all the consciousness of what He was, with the foreknowledge of all that was to come, patiently and meekly He could yet dwell in that humble home at Nazareth and wait for the appointed time. Consider, too, regarded humanly, the character of the preparation. It was life-long. From that hour when angels sang their carols, from that time when aged Simeon uttered his Nunc dimittis, through boyhood and youth unbroken save by that mystical abiding in the Temple when His father and mother sought Him sorrowing. He increased in wisdom and stature, ever advancing onward to the hour that was to come. And surely we may reverently conclude that this must be the example of the best preparation for the priestly life. Marvelous is the power of God's grace. It is confined by no mortal bounds. It overleaps oftentimes even its appointed channels. From every walk in life and every profession, from every age and period of existence, from the very depth of godlessness, from sin and shame, by its transforming and converting power, it may summon those who are bidden to do the work of God. It can change Saul the persecutor into Paul, first of penitents and chief of Apostles. It can transform Augustine the sinner into Augustine the saint. It can make even the thief upon the cross become a preacher of repentance to the dying soul of his impenitent brother. But, true as this is, such cases are the exception; they became what they became not because of what they were, but through the miraculous power of grace in spite of it. It is a narrow and unspiritual theory which believes that worldly employment, and worldly cares, and a life more or less given up to things of earth, with the species of knowledge of men so obtained, are the best preparation for the ministerial life. Wisdom is a gift of God. Counsel, ghostly strength and knowledge, are graces of the Blessed Spirit. They must be given, in all their fullness and in all their power, to the purest heart and the most innocent life. There must be—however much, in this or that age of the Church, the needs of the Church may cause her to forego it—a priestly vocation and a priestly training. Thrice, ay, four times happy, they to whom it has been granted, whether in cloistered shade or quiet home, to pass from boyhood into manhood with the shadow of the priesthood over them. Beautiful is that picture of the German artist which represents the child Jesus in the shop of Joseph, and as with willing hand He saws the wood, guided by some mystical power, it takes the shape of the cross that was to be. So may all good angels guide, so may all blessed influences protect, so may the love of Christ mold and fashion, the early years of those who are to be ambassadors for God. Let mothers, like Hannah of old, bring their first-born to the Temple. Like St. John Baptist, whose feast we have so lately kept, let them be consecrated from earliest infancy, ever let the grace of their Baptism remain unstained, at least by grosser sin; so will the mystical whiteness of the robes of their regeneration be but the earnest of the unsullied purity of their priestly raiment.
Consider, again, the ministerial life of our Lord on earth. First of all, the character of His preaching. You will search in vain in the Holy Gospels for eloquent sentences, for well-turned periods, for the graces of oratory. Sermons there are there, which move the heart and thrill the soul, and have nerved men before now to martyrdom and death; but it is much to be questioned whether they would have commanded the admiration of a modern congregation. Simple parables, homely illustrations, the calling of things by their right names, the awful warnings of a judgment to come, the stern denunciation of the popular vices of the day; and yet such love for sorrowing, brokenhearted, sin-stricken souls. This was meant to be the model for the preacher's imitation. There was another note of His preaching: not to the rich and honorable of earth, not to those who could pay the highest price for seats in some well-cushioned synagogue, but to the poor the Gospel was preached. Nor to the poor in worldly goods alone: to those whose poverty was poorer still, in that they had lost all which makes life blessed—to publicans and sinners, and to such as that weeping penitent who came behind Him as He sat at meat and washed His feet with her tears. Mark also, in this connection, His loving care for individual souls. Not simply to the gathered multitudes, not merely to the vast concourse which trod upon one another; but, in the midst of them all, His loving eye could single out some one, who more than all the rest called for His assistance. A woman of Canaan, daughter of an accursed race, by her mighty faith, drew His merciful footsteps to the very confines of the promised land. Louder to His ear than the cry of the multitude who accompanied Him was the utterance of that poor, blind man: "Jesus, thou son of David, help me!" As they crowded upon Him and hemmed Him in on every side, amid the press and the throng, He felt the touch of her hand who said, "If I may but touch the hem of His garment, I shall be healed." Nay, in the midst of His own passion and agony, when the sorrows of death compassed Him, and the overflowings of ungodliness made Him afraid, He had warnings for Pilate, and merciful silence for Herod, and tender love for His mother, and pardon for the penitent thief, and a prayer for His murderers, and a glance which wrought repentance in the Apostle that denied Him. Blessed are his ministers, if in this they imitate Him. Work for God more enduring, more availing, has been done by loving, personal, individual dealing with particular souls, than by all eloquent sermons and soul-stirring oratory.
But the crowning act of His priestly life on earth was when He offered up Himself to God a sacrifice for the sins of men. And here we must distinguish between His twofold offices. He was both the victim that was offered, "the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world," and also the Priest who made the offering. The priestly act of offering was made when in the upper room He consecrated bread and wine, offering thus His body and blood in the Holy Eucharist to His Almighty Father, an offering which on the cross of Calvary was consummated and perfected when as a sacrifice He poured forth His precious blood for the sins of the whole world.
As a Priest He descended into hell and preached to the spirits in prison. As a Priest in the glory of His resurrection body He tarried awhile on earth, speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God. As a Priest He gave the blessed pastoral commission, and commanded with threefold command the forgiven St. Peter to feed His sheep and lambs. As a Priest He gave to all His Apostles the power to bind and to loose, and the wondrous promise to be with them always unto the end of the world.
And, crowning all, as a Priest He ascended up on high, and, lifting up His hands in benediction, surrounded by ministering angels, passed through the heavens, entering once for all into the true Holy of Holies, to sprinkle the true Mercy-Seat with the blood of God.
Brethren, what shall I say of His priestly life in heaven? We do .not realize it as we ought. At the right hand of His Father, in that very glorified body in which He rose, with brow still marked with the impress of the thorny crown, with hands and feet still bearing the mark of the cruel nails, with unceasing intercession, He presents in some mystical way His body and His blood once offered, and pleads the merits of His atoning sacrifice. The world may scoff and rage and crucify Him afresh, it may slight Him and reject Him, and—O most cruel apostasy!—deny the very sacrifice that He offered; yet far away, beyond these voices, that ceaseless pleading, that unwearying intercession of love, goes up for all. Nay, still as of old He remembers each individual soul; not one escapes His notice; not one is forgotten. It matters not how poor, how humble, how lost, how degraded, how ruined—for him still the Saviour prays. Around Him swell the alleluias of the angels. The four and twenty elders cast their crowns before His throne; the hymn of the redeemed rises and falls in sweetest melody; but in the midst of all our dear Master remembers each one of us—our trials, our temptations, our troubles, our sorrows, our sins, our falls, our struggles: He prays, He pleads, He entreats for all.
In His merciful love, our Lord has not left us without an outward, visible mark of all this. He has not left it simply for faith to realize, but, in compassion to our frail humanity has, as it were, made it tangible and visible to us. The Church is the body of Christ. A visible body, she ever does on earth what He does in heaven. Her acts manifested to the outward eye are the acts of her invisible Head. His ceaseless intercession, His unending sacrifice, His merciful love, His eternal priesthood, are displayed here below in her perpetual prayers, her life-giving Eucharist, her zeal for souls; in the office and work and power of her priesthood.
Brethren, the great truth which I would enforce upon you is, that the priesthood of Christ in heaven and the wondrous blessings which flow from it are, by the merciful gift of our ascended Lord, given to mortal man in the Church of God, in and through the office and the work of the priest of God. Not because of what they are—nay, in spite of what they are; not through any power or merit or virtue of their own; not because they are called of men, or elected by man, or honored with the charge of this or that congregation; but because, having been called by God's grace, they are set apart after His Divine appointment by the laying on of apostolic hands. In what an awful but most blessed light does such a view as this present the solemn service in which we are now about to engage! He who ministers in your midst, who in the opinion of those over him, by his diligence in an inferior order, has purchased to himself a good degree, is to be admitted to the lofty office of a priest of God. Before this a minister of the sanctuary, he is to become that which is infinitely higher—a priest of the altar.
Henceforth, in his official acts—and weigh it well, beloved—what he does according to God's law and the rule of the Church—we have sure warrant of Scripture for saying so—Christ the Lord, the great High Priest, will do in and through him. His it will be to pronounce to you the solemn words of absolution; his, to lift his hands in benediction; his, to guide, to warn, to instruct, with a power never before vouchsafed him; his, in the awful Sacrament of the altar, to plead the mystical sacrifice of our Lord, in blessed commemoration.
O my brethren, strive to look at it in this light. Frail and weak, as like his brethren he must be, he has Christ's promise with him, Christ's presence over him, Christ's love helping him; and his priestly acts, if you be humble, and he be worthy, will surely lead you onward, step by step, to the haven of peace.
Blessed is that priest who realizes his high vocation; blessed is that congregation who humbly and reverently follow his wise instructions.
My brother, of all the words of counsel which might be given you, of all the words of comfort in the trials of your labor for God, which the blessed hope of acceptance hereafter bestows, there is but one word of encouragement which I would mention. As the faithful and earnest priest shall stand at the last great day to be judged by Him whose commission he has borne; as the thought of all he was and all he might have been overwhelms him; as, humbly hoping, yet fearing, he scarcely dares to lift his gaze to the brightness of that countenance, whom not having seen he loved, as he waits in awful expectancy for the judgment to be pronounced on him—lo! a glorious band approaches him. White are the robes they wear, washed clean in a Saviour's blood; beauteous the palm-branches of victory they carry. But, in the midst of their celestial radiance, he recalls each well-remembered one—little children, upon whose brow he has sprinkled the life-giving wave, early called to their Father's home; sorrowing penitents he has counseled, now no longer sorrowing; sinners he has lovingly warned, now accepted servants; the sick by whose bedside he has prayed, now for ever free from pain and anguish. They take him by the hand, they surround him with love; with notes of unheard-of melody, they lead him to the foot of the Throne. They crown him with a diadem of beauty, while more blissful than all fall on his ear the words of the Master: Well done, good and faithful servant; enter thou into the joy of thy Lord."
In that day of dread, in that hour of waiting, in that awful Presence, before the throne of God, in the glory of the Saviour's countenance, my brother, may this be your thrice-blessed portion.