Project Canterbury

Advent Sermons, 1885

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

London: Macmillan and Co., 1901.

Sermon IV. Hope

"And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three."--i CORINTHIANS xiii. 13.

"FAITH, hope, charity"; these, in St. Paul's analysis, are the characteristic elements of the Christian mind. In the technical language of the Church they are the three theological virtues in contradistinction to the purely moral ones. They have filled a large space in the philosophy and the poetry of ancient Christendom, as an exhaustive coordination of the distinctive qualities of Christian saintship. St. Paul, as we know, in enumerating them, makes one of them the greatest in order and in nature--"the great- [89] est of these is charity." But it is a first and foremost place among equals. All stand together, as nothing else does, in the front rank of the perfections which make Christian goodness. All are equally indispensable in those who would please God and follow Christ.

The question occurs to us sometimes, more or less consciously, why hope should be ranked so high, placed on a level with faith and charity. We can understand why faith should be so singled out; it is the foundation of the whole structure of religion; it is the bond between the creature and his invisible Maker and God; it is the special title of his acceptance; it is the ground of his self-devotion and obedience, of his highest and noblest ventures. Still more can we understand it of charity; for charity brings us near, in the essential qualities of character, to Him Whom we believe in and worship; [90] charity is the faint and distant likeness of Him Who so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son to save it; charity must last and live and increase, under whatever conditions the regenerate nature exists, the same in substance, however differ-ing in degree, in the humblest penitent on earth and in the adoring saint or seraph in the eternal world. But hope is thought of, at first sight, as a self-regarding quality; something which throws forward its desires into the future, and dwells on what it imagines of happiness for itself. And hope, of all things, is delusive and treacherous; it tempts to security and self-deceit; it tempts us to dreams which cannot be realised, which divert us from the necessary and wholesome realities which do concern us: it is the mother of half the mistakes, half the fruitless wanderings, half the unhappiness of the world. How comes it that such a quality is [91] placed on a level with faith and love? What need of encouragement to what men are only too ready to do of themselves?

But it is not really strange that St. Paul should raise hope to a Christian temper of the first order. St. Paul was a student of Scripture and of the history of his people and of religion in the world. And what is on the surface of the Bible is the way in which from first to last it is one unbroken, persistent call to hope--to look from the past and present to the future. Its contents, we know, are manifold and various; the subjects which it treats are widely different, and it is different in different parts of it in its way of treating them; it is the record of enormous changes, of a great progressive advance in God's dispensations and of man's light and character, of the long and wonderful education of the Law and the Prophets; its story of uninterrupted tendency is strangely [92] chequered in fact; bright and dark succeed one another with the most unexpected turns--lofty faith and the meanest disloyalty, great achievements and unexpected failure, lessons of the purest goodness and most heartfelt devotion, with the falls and sins of saints, blessing and chastisement, the patience of God, and the incorrigible provocations of His people. In spite of all that is wonderful and glorious in it, it sounds like the most disastrous and unpromising of stories; and yet that is not its result. For amid the worst and most miserable conditions there is one element which is never allowed to disappear--the strength of a tenacious and unconquerable hope. Hope, never destroyed, however overthrown, never obscured even amid the storm and dust of ruin, is the prominent characteristic of the Old Testament. All leads back to hope--hope of the loftiest and most assured kind, even after the [93] most fatal defeats, of changes which seem beyond remedy. The last word is always hope. If ever it dies, it revives again, larger, more confident than before. It is implied in the very language and appeals of despair. Hope spreads its colours over the sacred Book, whose outlook and interest is always the future, which looks back to the past only as the ground and pledge of the great things to come. So has St. Paul described the purpose and effect of Scripture, for his words are as true of the New Testament as of the Old. It is to impress upon religion the temper, the obligation of hope. He may be said to have characterised Scripture as, above everything, the Book of Hope. "For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning; that we, through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, might have hope." Over all other voices in the Old Testament, voices of command, entreaty, [94] warning, rebuke, threatening, of triumph and gladness, of sorrow and desolation, rises dominant the voice of consolation, the instant call to hope even against hope, which elevates and strengthens as well as reassures: "Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord's hand double for all her sins."

Hope, I say--the temper and virtue answering to and embracing great and worthy things hoped for--elevates and strengthens and inspires. This is why it is one of the great elements of the religious temper; this is why it ranks with faith and charity. It is one of the great and necessary springs of full religious action. There may be a faith almost without hope; a faith which believes on, though it can [95] see nothing; a faith which refuses to be comforted, which will not let the distant picture of better things rise before it, but yet trusts, even in the darkness, to God's truth and goodness. It is the deep and awful faith of him who said, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him"--of the cry, "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" It is the touching and childlike confidence of the prophet--"Although the fig-tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation." But the human spirit can hardly stand long the strain of a hopeless faith; one or other of the elements will assert its supremacy. And hope is the energy and effort of faith; the strong self-awakening from the spells of [96] discouragement and listlessness and despair. What gives its moral value to hope, what makes it a virtue and a duty, is that in its higher forms it is a real act and striving of the will and the moral nature; and if any one thinks that this is an easy process he has yet much to learn of the secrets of his own heart. It is an act, often a difficult act, of choice and will, like the highest forms of courage. It is a refusal to be borne down and cowed and depressed by evil; a refusal, because it is not right, to indulge in the melancholy pleasure, no unreal one, of looking on the dark side of things. It is so that hope plays so great a part in the spiritual life; that it fights with such power on the side of God. For it not only receives, not only welcomes, not only trusts in God's promises, but it throws into them light and reality; they become to it not words but substantial things. It is on our wild and [97] wayward imagination that the forces play both of fear and hope; it is there that we conjure up dangers, that we allow ourselves to faint and be dismayed at the prospect and omens of coming trouble; it is there that we look forward and see all that we have loved and cared for come to nought. And on the other hand, hope, religious hope, is a deliberate counter-appeal to that mighty power which disposes with such mysterious influence of so much of human life. It is an endeavour to subject imagination to truth and reason and God. It is an exercise, it may well be, of self-mastery, to enlist imagination on the side of God, as the ally and enlightener and support of faith; to make it use its charms against dark dreams and terrors. And further, hope is a great instrument of spiritual and moral discipline. "We are saved by hope," says St. Paul. Long waiting, we know now, is God's ap- [98] pointed order for the generations of men. There was a time when men thought that all would soon be over; they mistook God's way. With all the ups and downs of earthly history the world holds on its course, and one after another men are born, and play their part, and die. All kinds of changes, all kinds of fortunes, befall His Church, befall us all who are going through our trial time. And we are often tempted to be tired and depressed, out of heart, and out of patience. Ah! my brethren, shall we answer to God's purpose, Who has bidden us hope, Who has given us ground for hope, so amazing, so blessed? Shall we let it make us what it was meant to make us--cheerful, calm, even-minded, large-hearted, generous? Shall we let its light and its brightness wean us from the dulness and heaviness of an unhopeful temper, rouse us to activity and the zest and gladness of charity, when we [99] are fretted by little troubles, or oppressed by great ones? This is the office of hope; this is what it contributes to Christian excellence. It is not little. If only we hoped in earnest to be what St. Paul and St. John hoped to be; hoped in earnest, as they did, for the future of righteousness and glory which they held up to their disciples and to the generations of the Church, we should know more than we do, not only of their joy, but of their strength and their goodness.
This temper of hopefulness is not only concerned with the great things of hereafter. It has to do with our feelings towards things here. There must often be much in the course of things which interest us now, to distress and alarm us: evils which seem without remedy, defeats which seem final, perplexities through which we cannot see our way, dark and gloomy clouds rising in menace over our familiar world. To hope [100] seems to us then like deluding ourselves; we call it optimism, an instinctive dislike to pain, a determination not to see the cruel truth. And yet how often has it appeared in the upshot of things that if in the darkest times any had been bold enough to hope he would have been amply justified? What must have been the feelings of Christians in the fourth and fifth centuries, when, just as Christianity seemed to have won its way into the Roman Empire, they saw the fierce northern barbarians break into it, and the heathen triumph over religion and civil order? Which would then have seemed the judgment of sober good sense--the despondency which only saw the frightful mischief, or the bold hope which saw in the barbarians the seed of a great Christendom? Yet, who would have been right and who wrong? Or again, in the tenth century, when open wickedness and ignorance filled the high places of the [101] Church, when all seemed so bad and so hopeless that men disposed of their goods as if the end of the world must come with the end of the century, if any one had looked forward, in spite of all, to Christians again recognising their high calling, again preaching peace and charity, and leaving all to follow Christ--to the return of a great intellectual tide of art and of thought, where now all was brutality and darkness--would he not have seemed a dreamer? Yet, who would have been wrong and who right--the dreamer or the despairing? And so of other times of confusion and corruption in the Church, when the powers of evil seemed impregnable, and the attempts of those who dared to cope with them seemed only to issue in disappointment, or new forms of mischief; amid the polished or superstitious godlessness of the fifteenth century, in the angry and heady disputations of the sixteenth, [102] in the tumults and revolutions, the atrocious wars of religion in France and Germany, in the fierce cruelty, the depravity, the plundering greed of the upper classes, the depression and helplessness of the poor, left without guide or friend, the insolent claims, the savage intolerance of rival systems and rival teachers, were there not ample arguments for despair? and would he not have been a bold man who could put his trust in the powers of self-correction and recovery, in the living gifts of the Holy Ghost, and hope that things would not always be as bad as this, that the days of peace and mercy would yet come? And who would, after all abatements, have been right? "It is come," wrote the soberest and also the loftiest of Christian thinkers in the last century, "I know not how, to be taken for granted by many persons, that Christianity is not so much as a subject of inquiry; but that it is now at length [103] discovered to be fictitious." The ominous symptom has not certainly grown less ominous; but could even the calm and large mind of Bishop Butler have embraced the thought that with this, not diminished, perhaps aggravated, there might also come a steady growth of energy and fervour and deepening practical purposes in the Church and religious men, such as certainly he had not seen, nor could look for?

We are but short-sighted creatures. We see and feel so clearly what is immediate and pressing that we leave out of account all the subtle and complex forces, mighty and ever active, though we do not discern them, that are, perhaps, in the long run more eventful and decisive than anything we can now see. It is almost proverbial how often the prophecies of the wisest and most sagacious--prophecies of evil and of good, calm and deliberate forecasts which seem to rest on [104] unanswerable reasons--are almost ludicrously falsified in the event. It is unsafe to prophesy; it is more than wise, it is our duty, to hope. God's mercy has never deserted us. It has allowed the darkest hours to pass over us, the severest trials, the keenest and bitterest sorrows. His returning mercy has come back, perhaps in a very different form from what we expected; it has not restored what was lost; it has not revived what had perished; but it has given us something to take the place of what is gone. He has varied the conditions of our service. But He has come back to us in mercy; come back to us in His bounty and quickening grace; come back to us in His manifold, His inexhaustible wisdom, bringing new good strangely out of surmised evil, compensating, refashioning, developing, adapting. Surely this is the wonderful experience of our most disappointing and disobedient and yet en- [105] during Christendom. We need not blind ourselves to facts; we have our part to do, and must deal as we may and as we ought with what is dangerous and hurtful. But the God of Hope calls to us out of the darkness; and we are unfaithful to Him if in our distress and fear we shut ours ears to His voice, and dwell despondingly on a future which is in His hands.
But to Christians all that here invites and demands hope is but little to that which is to be when all here shall have been passed and over. It is simply the most literal fact that God has set before us, in another state of being, the most wonderful future, which is within the certain reach of every single one of us: as much, as certainly within our reach, as anything that we know of, which we could obtain to-morrow. This is the plain, clear, certain promise, without which Christianity is a dream and delusion. The [106] life and destiny of each individual man runs up to this; this is what he was made for; for this he has been taught, and has received God's grace, and has been tried, and has played his part in the years of time. It is the barest of commonplaces; and yet, I think, to any one who has tried to open his mind to its reality and certainty, it must have come with a strange and overpowering force--new on every fresh occasion, like nothing else in the world. For it is one thing to look forward to some great general event, the triumph of the saints of God, the final glory of the great company of the redeemed; one thing to look at all this from the outside, as a spectator by the power of imagination and thought: and quite another, when it comes on your mind that you yourself in the far-off ages, you yourself, the very person now on earth, are intended to have your place--your certain and definite place--in [107] all that triumph, in all that blessedness, in all that glory; and yet surely, to any one that will, this is the prospect; this, and nothing less. You may put Christianity aside; you may say that such hopes cannot be for man; but, if you are a Christian, this in its utmost fulness and reality is what you are to hope for. Think of anything you most long for here; you see perhaps the day--weeks or months or years hence--when you shall have the great desire on which you live. So in all sober assurance and serious meaning the New Testament bids us look forward to that future which one day we are to reach. What will be those new conditions of our being, which are one day to be as familiar to man's perfected nature as the conditions of sin and suffering are familiar to him now, we cannot tell. "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man, the things which God [108] hath prepared for them that love Him." How could it be otherwise? How can we imagine that the experience of our short years in this life, strange and wonderful as it is, could be the measure of a state of being in which we are to be brought near to Jesus Christ, and are to share the life of immortality? It is shown in Scripture, in figure and emblem--figure and emblem which blind us with their glory, even while they transport us with rapture; yet only in figure and emblem could such things be presented to the mind of man. But some things are certain, which we can understand even now. Then, at last, we may dare to look forward to being sinless. Think of what you know of your own conscience, your own temptations, your own falls, your own struggles for forgiveness and restoration; and then think what it will be, to have left all that behind. Then, whatever be the [109] functions and employment of that perfect state, whatever work God may have for us to do, we shall have the will and the power to do it as the angels do. The divided service, the broken purpose, the double mind, the treacheries of the will, the blindness of self-deceit, the laggard indolence, all that now mars and cripples our sincerest obedience, will then have been purged away, and in all the fulness of truth we shall know how to serve Him with a whole heart. Again, the greatest and purest and most enduring happiness we can know here is in the exercise of the affections; there, in infinite measure, will be all that calls forth human affections, and there human affections will be raised to new power and strength--transfigured, purified, glorified. And then, in ways we cannot dream of now, we shall be brought near to Him from Whom we have our being, God our Father, the Ever-Blessed [110] and the All-Holy, and Jesus Christ Who loved and saved us, and that Holy Spirit which has been with us all the days of our wandering here. And those strange words shall be fulfilled which promise that "We shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is."

This, as no one denies, is what Scripture invites us to believe and to hope. These are no idle exaggerations of rhetoric or fancy; they are the bare words of truth and soberness. It is what we are living for, unless we are living in vain. And with such things before us, with such things showed to us, can we wonder that the Apostle places hope, the temper that embraces this and rejoices in this, on a level with faith and charity? Have such things been told us for nothing? Are they things to be without a meaning to us? Have we, as we have, the power, in some degree at least, of realising them, of projecting our very self, our character, our [111] feelings, our conscious being into this amazing future, reserved and waiting for us; of imagining how we shall feel there; and can we have been meant to live as if those things were not? Is it not simply a duty to hope; a sin against God's high goodness, a crime against the order of His teaching, not to hope? Is it not a duty, in solemn and quiet self-recollection, to put before our thoughts that unbroken and continuous line, which joins this very present moment with that hour which certainly is to arrive, when we must be changed, when we may be changed into the spotless blessedness of the saints of God? You--you yourself--with your trouble, your temptations, your sin, small or great, your conscious weakness, your insensibility and ignorance; yet you yourself are one of those of whom, if you will, all this wondrous future will, must, come true. There is no blessedness of the soul of man, no rest from [112] weariness, no refreshment after toil, no opening of the eyes to beauty never seen by mortal eye, no delight in goodness, no rejoicing in perfect love, no ineffable sense of the sweetness and tenderness of God's mercy--none of these that may not be hoped for; hoped for with all the warrant of the Almighty's promise, by each soul here present, with its identity unbroken, with that individual character which makes it what it is. And is that great hope to be practically all a blank to us?

It is not to be told how much we lose of strength, of gladness and enlargement of heart, of power to do God's service cheerfully and happily, by not realising and dwelling on the great hopes "set before us." We let ourselves be blinded, fretted, disheartened by the present, because we will not look up and see what is as certain as the present, in the not very distant future. Many of us, to-day, [113] remember with more or less regret that this is the last Sunday of the year; that another year has gone out of our tale of days. Its days are gone and will never come back; nor that which they brought, and took away with them; the pleasant times which those days gave us, the glad meetings, the sunny holidays, are gone; gone, with the happiness which its days wrecked, with the health that they have broken, with the old friends, the lives, some of them noble and precious ones, which they have taken with them into the past. Here, as at a deathbed, we feel the close of all earthly things, the inevitableness and the drawing near of death. With us the natural thing is to look back to the past; the word that naturally rises to our lips is, "Another year gone." It is natural with us: with St. Paul it is just as natural to reflect, "Now is our salvation nearer than when we first believed. The night is far [114] spent, the day is at hand." It is the last Sunday, and that must give us much to think of. But it is not only, it is not chiefly that. About us are the songs, and the joy, and the innocent gladness of Christmas. About us, as we are reminded to-day, are the "bright beams of light which God casts upon His Church" [1]--bright indeed to us now, but only the faint quivering of the dawn of that Eternal Day. We, at least, if we are not Christians in vain, can join the stern and awful thoughts that accompany the lapse of time--awful enough, indeed, to make the boldest anxious--with the deep and chastened sense of realities beyond it, certain, final, ineffable, over which time has no power, which are warranted to men. We can pass on to the great hope which from end to end fills the Bible--the hope which ennobles and gladdens our mortal life; such [115] a hope as carried St. Paul in strength and joy through the long "daily dying" of his Apostleship, and burst forth in such impassioned yet most reasonable conviction--"For I count," he says, "that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us.... For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

[1] Collect for St. John the Evangelist's Day.


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