Project Canterbury

Advent Sermons, 1885

By R. W. Church
Sometime Dean of St. Paul's

London: Macmillan and Co., 1901.

Sermon I. Faith amid Changes

"For here we have no continuing city, but we seek one
to come."--HEBREWS xiii. 14.

THESE words sum up what was certainly the Apostolic mind as to the position of Christians in this world. They were members, they could not help being members, as we are, of a vast and powerful and complex association--human society; but with all its great attributes it wanted one--it wanted permanence. "The world passeth away"--is passing away, as we work or speak. "Here we have no continuing city"--we have indeed a city, we have a wonderful and beneficent citizenship, we could not live [2] without it; we owe debts beyond repayment, duties of the loftiest and most sacred kind, to human society; but society is with us and about as to-day, and to-morrow it and we are to be so much farther on in our road to successive changes, by which it becomes something quite different from what it is now, something perhaps which we cannot imagine now; and we disappear from life and the visible world. But though "here we have no continuing city, we do seek one to come." Born amid change--surrounded by change in every form, knowing nothing by experience but change, the subject and the sport of change--the human heart yet distinctly clings to its longing for the unchanging and the eternal. Christians, so thought the Apostle, not only long for it but look for it. "We seek that which is to come;" seek it, believing that we have found it and shall one day reach it.

[3] We do not need Scripture to teach us that we have "here no continuing city"--"that the fashion of this world passeth away"--that nothing "continueth in one stay;" though only Scripture can teach us to seek with hope for that "which is to come." "From the morning till the evening the time is changed, and all things"--the glory of the dawn, the beauty of the sunset, "are soon done before the Lord." In this world of ours, from the first rise of thought, from the first throb of consciousness, no one but has known and owned this inherent necessity of our condition; and human inventiveness and speech have been strained to recognise and record its pressure on the human mind--to evade, perhaps, and disguise the public confession of its inevitable certainty; to express with adequate force the keenness with which it is realised in the individual life. Human pride, knowing it, has tried to [4] defy it; the monuments of these mighty attempts, in Egypt, in Assyria, in India, in China, have survived the centuries: there was once an empire which seemed as solid as the world; there was a city which called itself the Eternal City; and their ruins, like the drifted fragments of a wreck, battered but undestroyed, are the witnesses in our museums, or in desolate places of the earth, to those enormous powers of change over which mortal men once thought to triumph. It is in vain; even the "unchanging East" must go through its revolutions; even the Roman Empire must pass away. [1] The law of unceasing endless change spreads over [5] all present and visible things, the greatest and the least. Change, subtle, imperceptible, universal , is the puzzle and the riddle with which philosophy has to grapple;--have things any being, or is it all a becoming, ending as soon as it has begun, a perpetual flux, like a river never two moments the same? are things but appearances, and shifting forms, and not realities? what, under all these accidents of an ever-moving scene, is the substance and foundation which stands firm and upholds them? Great philosophical systems have risen on the answers to these questions; and on their failure to solve the enigma they have been overthrown and fallen, and added fresh illustrations to the uniformity of change. The fact and the power of change--what is all history but the [6] picture of its vicissitudes and its epochs? What is political wisdom but the recognition of its conquests and the direction of its course? What a monument and evidence is all language of its continuous actions and strange results! How do the commonest and most trivial words which we are obliged to use--"Yesterday, to-day, to-morrow"--"hours and weeks and months and years"--witness, like the mottoes on sundials, to its steady current, which none can check or escape? So thought and interest and the atmosphere of opinion go through the same continuous process of change. Slowly but surely the greatest intellectual revolutions come about. The truths of one age are the questions and doubts of the next, the exploded errors and fallacies of a third. Ideas, modes of argument, assumptions, philosophical methods which governed minds in one century become unintelligible in another. [7] Even the tests of genius alter. Tastes arise and depart--assert their supremacy and then are laughed to scorn. The masterpieces of to-day fall flat and fail to move us to-morrow. These boasted powers of creative and judicial mind--they too are subject to the empire of change. Poetry and all art confess and recall its power, for they are beholden to it for their noblest and most magnificent materials. Their triumphs have been to arrest and embody its momentary and evanescent flow. They have sought in it the source of what is most pathetic, most tender, most inspiring--ideals which it has just shown and then taken away, the light which came once and never again. Indeed, they can bind us by a spell, and cheat us into forgetting that irresistible march of change of which they are the evidence. They were before us, and will outlive us--picture and building and poem; and we, fluctuating [8] between the obstinate certainty of the present moment and the knowledge that all is passing, vanishing, tending "visibly not be;" we, longing for permanence, read into their past and into their future the life which, as it passes, is now our own: like that old man in the poet's story [2] who all his life long had had before him in the refectory at his meals a great picture of the Last Supper, till the picture grew into the reality--

"And he was fain invest
The lifeless thing with life from his own soul."

"Here daily do we sit,
And thinking of my brethren, dead, dispersed,
Or changed, or changing, I not seldom gaze
Upon this solemn company unmoved
By shock of circumstance or lapse of years,
Until I cannot but believe that they--
They are in truth the substance, we the shadows."

[9] Such things touch us, as they well may. But what are these to the instances, when we meet them, of the changes of our moral nature--to a life which grows poorer with its years--to the strange declensions of character, the chilling of enthusiasm, the quenching of love, the falls of the strong, the uncharitableness of the good, the failure of a great promise, the shaming of a great past? what are passing years, failing strength, and coming death to the sight of altering and dying goodness?

"Here we have no continuing city." We are all of us under the unalterable necessity in one way or another of change. It is the absolute condition of existing, now and here. How shall we feel about this fact, as certain as death? how shall we meet it, when we no longer merely know it, but imagine and [10] realise it?--no longer merely hear of it by the hearing of the ear, but see it with the inner eye of the living mind. It may impress and affect us in many ways. It may darken or it may brighten life; it may depress and discourage, or it may inspire with boundless hope. We may find in it the highest summons to courage or the excuse for the most enervating sentimentalism. We may bow our heads in sullen despair under the yoke of its necessity; we may cease to strive, and throw up the game in the vain attempt to master or to stem it; or we may see in it more gain than loss, and welcome it charged with infinite possibilities of recovery and advance. We may meet it, thankful that we are born under its dominion and its hopes; or we may meet it with the indifference with which we resign ourselves to what is inevitable; or with the regrets which see in it that which has robbed us of what we [11] most loved and trusted, only a companionship with bereavement, decay, degeneracy; or with irritation at its monotony, its fruitlessness, its aimlessness, its undirected and purposeless course. We may meet it in placid submission to the order of natural law, curbing the restless instincts of the soul for something more and better, without ambition for a more stable and unchequered lot, without aspiration and without repining. We may meet it as fatalists, or as idlers, or as those who said, "Our time is a very shadow that passeth away; let no flower of the spring pass by us; for this is our portion, and our lot is this." There is no escaping from the consciousness of change. From the first, men have met it as wise men or as fools--with mockery and with selfish riotousness, or with the serious thought due to one of the master-facts of human life.

"Here we have no continuing city." How [12] does the Bible teach us to think and feel about this truth, which often comes upon us so unexpectedly, with such piercing force? The Bible, we know, was written that we, "through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, might have hope" in the changes and chances of this mortal life, as well as in its sins, its temptations, its terrible evils. The Bible, which has told us of the presence and victory of our Lord, of the life and immortality which He has brought to light, teaches us abundantly what to think of change, both in its good and its evil, and of that unchanging glory in which it is to be swallowed up. But is there in the Bible any special guiding for judgement, for temper, for self-discipline, for everyday feeling and everyday behaviour, under the disquieting consciousness of change--any ever-ready counter-charm when the stern facts of change present themselves oppressively, insupportably? [13] Doubtless a sentence from the mouth of Christ, an inspiration of an Apostle, can carry strength and comfort to the soul. But we have that, too, which was a source of teaching and a stay to Apostles, and from the words of which, the words of men though taught by the Holy Ghost, even the Son of Man deigned to draw language for His feeling and thought. We have the Book of Psalms, the mirror of the deepest and most varied spiritual experience, the inspirer of the strongest feelings of religious assurance. In the Book of Psalms we may read how the believer in God may learn to feel and to act when he sees the great currents of change sweep by him, and feels himself borne upon their tide.

I need not remind you how, throughout the Psalms, we meet the impressive recognition of this aspect of life and the world. They are full of the presence, the greatness, the [14] eventfulness of change--change going on for good or for evil, for joy or for sorrow, in outward circumstances, in the inward life; changes physical, material, political, moral; vicissitudes in the fortunes of men and nations, varying states, perhaps most rapid alternations and successions of feeling in the soul within, in its outlook towards God and things outside it. The writers of the Psalm knew well what change was; they lived under the pressure of great catastrophes, of great failures of hope, of great degeneracies and great disappointments, exposed in their little corner of the earth to the enormous movements round them, ever tempting or troubling them, ever threatening to overwhelm and consume them. And they knew, too, the deeper and more far-reaching changes that come over character and conscience, and man's relations to God, and the varying and never stable scene of man's disobedience. They [15] felt as keenly as any despairing or indulgent Epicurean thinker how fleeting are our moments of life, how wide and restless the processes of change. But in this rush and whirl of the things of sense and time the Psalmist had one fixed point. That fixed point was the sovereignty of God--the true, the just, the holy. That amid the changes and chances of visible things, that in the perpetual running out of time, that amid the alternations of life and death, remaining ever the same. Of that the Psalmists felt as sure as they felt sure of the vicissitudes of which they were the subject. Blinded, dizzied, perplexed, overwhelmed, like men struggling with a storm, not knowing their road or how the Hand was guiding them, far less knowing how to connect their experience with the secrets and the counsels of His righteousness--their trust was absolute and boundless in that Eternal Rule. Alive as the were to [16] change and all its tremendous powers in things below, yet from their thought of change was never absent the thought of the unchanging Master of all changes. In the heights and in the depths, this was the unfailing stay and refuge of their soul--"The Lord is King."

The idea of the sovereignty of God is the counterpart throughout the Psalms, set over against all that is unsatisfying, disastrous, transitory, untrustworthy, not only in man's condition but in the best he can do in it. The Psalms are always the expression of the will to fulfil God's purpose, thought very often of that will baffled; but they always fall back, when that will is baffled, not on despair, but on the conviction that man's "times are in God's hand." That great idea of the sovereignty of God, as philosophical as it is certainly Christian, has perhaps in our days been thrown, by the tendency of [17] opinion and argument, disproportionately into the background. There have been times when it has been made too prominent, at the expense of His other attributes, His justice, His goodness, His loving mercy. It has been urged to justify daring and terrible speculations; and loyalty to it has been though to require the unshrinking acceptance of the most extreme consequences. But in the writers of the Psalms it is no text for speculations or debate; it is a matter of the deepest practical conviction, of the clearest religious insight. It alone would bear the strain of human anxiety. Without it, for them, there would be no religion; certainly no life, no comfort or refuge in religion. With them it means that God is in the midst of us, taking part in all that concerns and interests men; they ask not how--they know that they could not comprehend it; but from the throne of the universe, guiding, ruling, [18] judging men, as He rules the worlds and all that He has made. That great song of the 100th Psalm, which still, as it has so often done, collects the voices of thousands, is the final expression of this faith--"Be ye sure that the Lord He is God: it is He that hath made us, and not we ourselves: we are His people, and the sheep of His pasture . . . . The Lord is gracious; His mercy is everlasting; and His truth endureth from generation to generation." That other Psalm, which from time out of mind in the Church has been the daily invitation to prayer and praise, is the daily witness and acknowledgement of God's kingdom--"O come, let us sing unto the Lord; let us heartily rejoice in the strength of our salvation. . . . In His hand are all the corners of the earth; and the strength of the hills is His also. . . . O come, let us worship and fall down, and kneel before the Lord our Maker." Here is [19] summed up the answer of the Book of Psalms to time and change and death.

The Psalmists realised that they had "no continuing city" in a way which is far beyond any experience of ours. They knew a state of society which could rely on nothing settled; which was liable at any moment, as is the case still in parts of the world, to be tormented and torn to pieces by insolent and lawless wickedness, to be shaken to its foundations by some frenzy or fashion of false religion, to be crushed down into utter ruin by some alien conqueror. They believed that they were the people of God and had His promises; and yet what they saw was, these promises unfulfilled, recalled, reversed; apparently passing away into nothingness. They, the "people of God's holiness," saw in the midst of them, trampling on all right and holiness, "the bloodthirsty and deceitful man." They, the elect of the Lord of Hosts, [20] saw the enemy and the avenger" master amid the ruins of God's holy place, and for generation after generation felt themselves the slaves and spoil of the heathen. What wonder that the voice of defeat and humiliation sounds with such tragic repetition in the Book of Psalms. "Hath God indeed forgotten to be gracious? and will He shut up His loving-kindness in displeasure?" But what is the other side of this? It is that, with perhaps one and that only an apparent exception [3], the voice of unalloyed and uncomforted despair is never heard there. With the wail torn from the heart by shame and agony comes next moment the remembrance of hat Eternal King of mercy and righteousness, Whose kingdom endures from end to end, while empires rise and fall, and Whose ear hears with equal certainty the cry of the poor and the blasphemy of the [21] cruel. In spite of the daily evidence of experience, the wicked flourishing like a green bay-tree, the power of the oppressor, the tongue of the slanderer and the busy mocker; in spite of the long delay, the agonised appeal "How long?"--"Why standest Thou so far off, O Lord, and hidest Thy face in the needful time of trouble?"--in spite of all, the foundation stands sure and unshaken by any accidents of mortal condition: "Thou art set in the throne that judgest right. The Lord shall endure for ever; He hath also prepared his seat for judgement. The Lord also will be a defence for the oppressed; even a refuge in due time of trouble. And they that know Thy name will put their trust in Thee; for Thou, Lord, has never failed them that seek Thee."

And so with the transitoriness of the lives and generations of men; nowhere is a keener sense shown of it than in the Psalms. "Man [22] walketh in a vain shadow, and disquieteth himself in vain: he heapeth up riches,, and cannot tell who shall gather them." "Man being in honour hath no understanding, but is compared to the beasts that perish." "Thou turnest man to destruction; again Thou sayest, Come again, ye children of men; for a thousand years in Thy sight are but as yesterday, seeing that is past as a watch in the night." "As soon as Thou scatterest them they are even as a sleep, and fade away suddenly like the grass. . . . For when Thou art angry all our days are gone; we bring our years to an end, as it were a tale that is told." What is there to comfort and compensate for this dreary prospect? Nothing but the unlimited trust in God's power and goodness and ever watchful care. "My days are gone like a shadow, and I am withered like grass"--there is the consciousness which must come to all men [23] sooner or later--a consciousness in the Psalmist's case that these great changes in his lot were not undeserved by a sinner--"and that because of Thine indignation and wrath, for Thou hast taken me up and cast me down." The great revelation of forgiveness and life and immortality was yet to come; but the Psalmist's faith in the Eternal King of the World never wavered. "The days of man are but as grass, for he flourisheth as a flower of the field. For as soon as the wind goeth over it, it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more. But the merciful goodness of the Lord endureth for ever and ever upon them that fear Him, and His righteousness upon children's children." "When the breath of man goeth forth he shall turn again to his earth; and then all his thoughts perish." The waste, the throwing away of human souls, of human thoughts, of human affections, is there any-[24]thing more strangely perplexing in the ruin of death? But the answer is at hand. "Blessed is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, and whose hope is in the Lord his God; Who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that therein is; Who keepeth his promise for ever." Men died and were buried, and their children after them. They knew that they must die and be as though they had never been. They walked like shadows in the midst of shadows round them. They felt to the full the swift shortness of life; how soon it was over, how awful its inevitable changes. Yet they did not faint. They knew that over them was the ever continuous rule of Him Who made heaven and earth and all things in the. They doubted not that He keepeth His promise for ever. And so with change and mortality in them and round them, written even on the solid earth and the distant [25] heavens, they broke into the exulting song, "Thou, Lord, in the beginning hast laid the foundation of the earth: and the heavens are the work of Thine hands. They shall perish, but Thou shalt endure; they all shall wax old as a garment, and as a vesture shalt Thou change them, and they shall be changed: but Thou art the same, and Thy years shall not fail. The children of Thy servants shall continue, and their seed shall sstand fsat in Thy sight."

"Here we have no continuing city" any more than they had. But we know, with a distinctness which all of them had not, of a "city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God"--a "house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens." But where is that passionate, delighted, triumphant faith of those men of old? What have we of their joy and gladness at the very thought of God, even amid the tumults of the nations and the overthrows of [26] life, and the certainty that at the best they too must soon "follow the generation of their fathers?" Where is that assurance which they had that "to the godly there ariseth light in the darkness? He shall never be moved; he will not be afraid of any evil tidings, for His heart standeth fast and believeth in the Lord." Where is that "fearful joy" with which they' responded even to the terrors of the world? "The floods are risen, O Lord, the floods have lift up their voice; the floods life up their waves." "The Lord sitteth above the water-flood, and the Lord remaineth a King for ever. . . . The Lord shall give His people the blessing of peace." As surely as they were as we are, in the experience of life, so surely had they this lofty, burning faith, this never-failing, abundant hope. "What reward shall I give unto the Lord for all the benefits which He hath done unto me? I will receive [27] the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord." And so they cast themselves into the arms of God, and were blessed--Oh that we could catch something of that faith and hope, as day by day we repeat again and again their wonderful words. This life of ours, locked and dovetailed into the vast framework of social existence, seems so solid that it needs an effort of imagination to think of it shaken. But that effort of imagination Scripture bids us make. It bids us think of ourselves in totally new conditions, in utterly altered relations to all around us; how strange, how awful, we know not, nor ever shall know here. It bids us think of this world itself, passing through endless phases, till the day of its doom. Search as we will, we can find nothing to rest upon, nothing that will endure the real trial, but the faith of the Psalmists in the eternal kingdom of God--[28] the faith of the Psalmists lit up by the "grace and truth that came by Jesus Christ." May God grant us the heart to have this faith--the faith of men--of men who are not afraid to face their circumstances, who know the greatness of their venture, who are not afraid to trust God, because their hearts go up to Him in longing and self-surrender. "Truly God is loving unto Israel, even unto such as are of a clean heart. Whom have I in heaven but Thee? My flesh and my heart faileth; but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever."

[1] "So fails, so languishes, grows dim and dies,
All that this world is proud of. From their spheres
The stars of human glory are cast down:
Perish the roses and the flowers of kings,
Princes, and emperors, and the crowns and palms
Of all the mighty . . . .
The vast Frame
Of Social nature changes ever more
Her organs and her members, with decay
Restless, and restless generation, powers
And functions dying and produced at need;--
And by this law the mighty whole subsists."

Excursus: The Churchyard among the Mountains.

[2] Wordsworth's Lines on a Portrait, note. The story is there, and in Lord Mahon's history, told of Sir D. Wilkie in the Escurial. In the later editions of Rogers's Italy M. Rogers tells it of himself, in a monastery at Padua. Mr. Wordsworth observes (Prose Works, iii, 171) that this wants explanation. Lord Houghton has told the story in some fine stanzas--A Spanish Anecdote, ii. 281.

[3] Psalm lxxxviii.

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