BRETHREN, I am going to speak this evening from the fifty-third chapter of the Prophet Isaiah. This is Passion-tide, and we shall do well to dwell on the greatness of that Atonement, which was, as at this time, made for us. I have been speaking to-day about doing your duty, and attending to conscience as the Voice of God, and accepting His Son, made known to us in revelation, and fully revealed in His Church. It has ever been the most restful line of thought to the saints of God to contemplate what God has done for us, rather than our part in the work of salvation, not by way of idle excuse that we have nothing left to do, but by way of boundless gratitude and love to Him for all He has done for us. For we are unprofitable servants at best, and we should undoubtedly have been lost for ever, if Christ had not died for us.
The doctrine of the Atonement comes very closely home to the hearts of all Christians when enlightened by love, not so much in the strict way of a sacrifice, though it is a sacrifice, not as something which has to do with our own efforts, or with the spirit of self-sacrifice in ourselves, but as a constant fountain of peace, though we have done so little, a fountain of constant sweet contentment, to the attentive and listening heart and soul, who looks not to itself and its own efforts, but to the merits of the Cross of Christ. This looking lovingly to the Cross, age after age, has sent people burning with zeal to do the Will of God.
Now, look at this chapter in the Prophet Isaiah. It divides itself into four groups of four verses each. The first group tells us of the neglect and contempt of the unbelieving world. "Who hath believed our report?" There it is at first starting. "Who hath believed?" It is the few rather than the many. Who cares to hear? Not all these superficial unbelievers of the day. They do not accept this report. The question is unanswered--treated with contempt and neglect. It goes on to speak of our Lord as growing up "as a tender plant and as a root out of a dry ground," coining out of ground most unlikely to produce it. "Can any good thing come out of Nazareth," out of that remote, narrow strip of land in Syria? Yet there He grew up in silence, unnoticed by the world. He grew up before the Lord "as a tender plant." If we are truly following Him our circumstances may be just the same. Over and over again the saints of God have grown up before Him like roots out of a dry ground. The choicest saints have grown up in the darkest times, and from the most unlikely corners of the earth, surrounded by unsympathizing friends, despised and made light of by the world, and have gone on simply doing his, or her work, in the way God appointed for them, without sympathy or encouragement. They have grown up without reputation for being good, quite neglected, without any one knowing anything about them. So it was here. Out of a despised land, out of a dry ground, our Blessed Saviour grew up like a tender plant before God.
Brethren, I do not know if there is much of this sort of thing among you now, but I know it used to be so, and more or less it is so in all ages. There are solitary lives, growing up like tender plants before God, longing after higher things, despised by the world around. Let such take heart. They are growing like roots out of a dry ground. Most tender plants come out of ground most unlikely to nourish them. Do not give way for an instant to the temptation to despair of following the high calling which God has given you. Ah, what do you say about Lydia, and the great work she did for God? And God is able to open the hearts of others by His grace, and to help them in the same way. Let no one say "I have no one to help me. No one else cares for this sort of thing. My surroundings are not helpful. I get no help from my friends--this is not the ground to produce a saint, it is so very dry!" Be it so. God likes to show His power in that very way, and I cannot help dwelling upon this. Places most unnoticed, uncared for by the world, are the choicest nursery gardens for God. The most beautiful lives are those most neglected by the world. Let not any one be out of heart about this, and think that they, at least, cannot be like Lydia, and do great things for God, because the surroundings of their lives are unhelpful. The Lord Himself grew up before God as a root out of a dry ground. "When we shall see Him there is no beauty that we shall desire Him. He was despised and rejected of men, a Man of Sorrows and acquainted with grief. . . . He was despised and we esteemed Him not." Dear people, if we want to enter into the true spirit of Passion-tide, and to help England to rise above this wave of unbelief, we must not expect to have it both ways. We must not expect to be made much of, and to be the pets of society, and to do great things for God. The pets of the world are the slaves of the world; the pets of society are the slaves of society. If we want to work for God we must expect the coldness of the world, to be "despised and rejected of men"; that is, of the great men of the world. Not many of the great people took notice of, or cared for our dear Lord. If we want to know the real joy which comes from God, we must know it by walking in the ways of God, which He will make for us. Let Him give you the grace of detachment from all your surroundings--out of dry ground, growing in grace daily, growing up before God, watched by the angels and saints of God; this is the sort of life to make you powerful to help England in her hour of need.
So here, the Great Atoner was "despised and rejected of men." "He grew up before God as a tender plant, as a root out of a dry ground." So runs the first group of verses. It tells us of the ingratitude and neglect He continually endured from men.
Then comes the second group of verses, and it tells us what He suffered all this for. For us. He endured all these vicarious sufferings for us, and oh, in Passion-tide, let not any modern theory, any difficulty about vicarious suffering, suggest itself to your minds. The great central comfort of Passiontide--of suffering-tide--is just this, that He suffered for us. You have it as strong as Greek can give it you. "He gave His Life a ransom for many," or, instead of many. But without driving it into one single text, what is the general meaning of all these passages? "The Good Shepherd giveth His Life for the sheep." What does it mean? You need not build your faith on three Greek prepositions, or on a question of scholarship. If He was only a good Man we must believe what He said, and what does He say He gave His Life for? "The Good Shepherd giveth His Life for the sheep." What does He mean? The hireling--the bad shepherd gets off--the Good Shepherd is torn, and the sheep live! "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." What does it mean? My friend is going to die. I give my life instead. I clutch at him and save him; he lives and I die. I throw myself in between him and death. Our Saviour must have meant us to understand this. He died, that we through His death, might live. How else could He have accepted the testimony of S. John Baptist, "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world." He gave His life a ransom for many. It does not depend on one particular passage. He gave Himself for us. He died that we might live. "Surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows." These expressions are heaped one upon another, phrase upon phrase; turn it this way, or that, as you please. "He was wounded for our transgressions. He was bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed. The Lord hath laid on Him the iniquities of us all." The debt we owed, He paid. Whatever penalties were due for us, He endured. He, the Good Shepherd, was born, the sheep are free--we live, because He died. The words are very strong. They could not well be stronger.
It is not enough for us to think of the physical agony He endured for us. Many besides our dear Lord have been crucified, and have suffered quite as bad a death. There is so much besides. He bore the weight of the sins of the whole world. This caused the agony in Gethsemane--this, the drops of bloody sweat. The special burden of the Cross was this, that He was bearing the sins of the whole world. If we have ever been very much troubled by the thought of our sin, and have thought, alas, that we have gone too far from God, and have been tempted to despair and to think that we shall never carry out any good resolutions, it is no use even to try, that is something like the momentous cloud that darkened our dear Lord's vision of His Father on the Cross. The sins of the whole world! Their weight so broke Him down that the people regarded Him as stricken of God like a leper. They thought Him a bad man.
And He had not only this tremendous burden to bear, but also the burden of solitude, the pressure of being misunderstood, being thought self-willed by His friends. There was no sympathy, no help from others. And the saints of God generally have this to endure too. They are spoken of as taking care to have their own way; they are misrepresented, misunderstood. And if we would undertake part, or lot with them, we must make up our minds to endure this reproach, to be regarded as stricken, to follow Him in this also. He was bearing the weight of those sins for us, and the world saw Him, and thought He was a sinner Himself!
Then we come to the next group. "He was taken from prison and from judgment, and who shall declare His generation?" All His work seemed a failure! He was cut off out of the land of the living. His work was done and it seemed a failure. So now, work for God often seems a failure. But what do we see and hear? In Germany, about five years ago, Fichter said that in another five years there would be no more Christians! Reason was to be the only religion for thinking men. But Fichter is dead, and Christ lives in the heart of thousands and thousands! We are constantly told that Christianity is worn out, that there is no more living power in it; but we know well by eighteen hundred years of history that it is not so!
"He was with the rich in His death." They thought to bury Him close under the Cross, but God overruled it. They made His grave with the wicked. They did not know what they were doing, and how they were only carrying out prophecy, and they thought He had died like the wicked, and that they would bury Him close to the Cross, but God overruled it. "He was with the rich in His death."
Then the last group of verses tells us of His reward--the fruit of His death.
"He shall see the travail of His Soul, and shall be satisfied. Therefore will I divide Him a portion with the great, and He shall divide the spoil with the strong." That is, the day shall come when He will come again with all His holy angels, and then people shall see Him as He is, and know Him.
"And He bore the sins of many, and made intercession for the transgressors," or, as it is even more beautifully translated, "and shall intercede for the transgressors." And so, at the end of the chapter, He is left, not dead, but living. He died and was buried, and rose again from the dead.
And now, how is all this to come near us? All this has been done for us--it is all the work of the Great Atoner--it is all done. The satisfaction has been made, the ransom has been paid. How are we to lay hold of it and bring it home to ourselves?
First, by faith. "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, to the end that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life!" There it is, you see. You must have faith in Him. But sometimes we are apt to let this slip; to set it aside. Is there nothing to do but believe? If we truly believe in Him, we shall do what He has told us to do. The immediate result of faith in the eunuch S. Philip had been instructing was this: "See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?" In Apostolic times, believing in Jesus meant doing what He has told us to do, and so it included the Sacraments, and the use of the Sacraments as appointed by Christ. We are not saved on account of our faith, but through it. The Sacraments are the ways in which His Atonement comes home to each one of us.
Now, let us see how we stand with regard to the Sacraments. Baptism is the first. In it we were made children of God, members of Christ--members of our dear Lord. Had we died then, Paradise would have been open to us, yes, and heaven itself, but we didn't. How then are we to keep ourselves pure and clean as becomes members of the Blessed Jesus? There is His Own great way--the Holy Communion. Have you begun to think about your Easter Communion, and to prepare for it? It is there that the one perfect sacrifice offered by Him for the whole world is applied to ourselves, to our own souls, and we have our own share in the Atonement. But some of you may say, "I have not communicated for many years, or not since last Easter, and I feel out of it all. I am not going on as well as when I was younger. I wish I was!" Well, Christ has left another means of grace in His Church, and a most blessed means of grace it is! The gift of Absolution through the priesthood in His Church. This is a great way of showing our gratitude to Him, and of obtaining real love to Him, and above all, of realizing His love to us.
Do not let a little sneer, a little contempt, rob you of the cleansing application of the Precious Blood to your own souls; and the full, personal Absolution, after the real Confession, will fit you for your Easter Communion. Passion-tide is not like a picture hung in a gallery for us to go and look at, and to suppose it is very like, and very pathetic, and very touching. It is not like going to the great Passion Play where we saw masses moved to tears, though that may be very good! No, those who are instructed in the real meaning of Passion-tide know that it means that the Blood of Jesus can come to me, as fully now as when the fountain was first opened on Calvary. What is it that keeps me from Christ? All outward means are provided to suit my own individual needs. Why does not the Atonement come home to my own soul? All the means are my own. There is my own Baptism, my own Communion, and, if you will, my own Confession and Absolution, and this last is a very practical means of having the doctrine of the Atonement applied to our own souls. As one lives, and grows old, these doctrines grow more and more precious. We know increasingly that if we had to be saved by our own efforts it would be just as well to give it up at once. But that is not the Christian's point of view. We know that what we have done, and all that we could do is as nothing, that it is only through the merits of Jesus Christ that we can be saved at all. That inexhaustible precious Sacrifice is the source of all our hope, and all Christians can go to it again and again. We feel less and less the substantial worth of any goodness of our own; we feel more and more the preciousness of the Atonement made by Christ. And this line of thought produces an ever increasing restfulness. It is not that we feel sometimes good, and sometimes bad; but we trust only in Christ and all that He has done for us, in His great merits and precious death. Then there would not be such extreme variation in spirits, sometimes thinking we are saved, and sometimes lost. We should be always trustful, always calm, as we think of Him constantly pleading for us before His Father now, and year after year, as Passion-tide after Passion-tide goes round, and we see people getting old around us, and more nervously distrustful, and more melancholy, and undergoing all the manifold sufferings of this world, getting out of spirits, and feeling themselves failing, and that they cannot enjoy things as they used; money and pleasure will not do what they used for them; they feel physically used up--we feel that all this is not so with the spiritual nature. The nearer we get to God the more we see of Him; the more satiated we are with love for Him; the more spiritual power we receive; the more strength comes to us. And all this grows, as year after year in Passion-tide we gain an ever increasing trust in the death of Christ. And whether it is a wet or fine Easter; whether we have a fine service here in London, or a dull one all alone down in the country, this unchanging joy is the same in our hearts, the joy which makes Good Friday indeed good, and Easter Day exceedingly bright, the one thought, He died for me!
When we really realize this, we dare think of His coming again in great glory, we dare look forward to the Judgment Day, and on to heaven beyond!
We ought, each one of us, to be growing in this spirit of even trustfulness and hopefulness, for we know there is nothing of our own to trust in, but only the merits of Christ. And this spirit would be growing in each one of us, if we did not shrink from availing ourselves of all the helps He has provided for us in His Church. We should be able to say, "The Precious Blood of Christ cleanses me from all sin. It is mine. It marks my soul."
In Egypt during the plagues each Israelite could sit down calmly, knowing the mark of blood was on his door, and that the angel of death would respect that mark. No matter if it was only a hovel, the angel saw that mark on the door, and it was enough.
And now, each one of us, who has his, or her, heart sprinkled with the Precious Blood of Christ is known by God and by the angels, and has this precious doctrine of the Atonement brought home to themselves.
Do not let Passion-tide come and go this year, as if the Atonement was a distant thing--was no particular application to yourself, but try and bring it home in this way to your own soul, and you will find an ever increasing and abiding peace.
He gave up all, and died for me; the very least we can do is to give up ourselves entirely to Him. Do not go and use this means of grace selfishly, in order that we may say, "Oh, I feel so happy; I am cleansed from all my sins!" But what must follow? We must give ourselves to Him. Let this one act be our chief devotional exercise this Passion-tide--to reconsecrate ourselves, for the rest of our lives to His service.
While accepting and resting on the thoughts of His sacrifice, there is this other thought. One more year is gone; we do not know how many more are coming to us. Oh, let us consecrate ourselves more and more to Him! It is little to talk about, after all He has done, if I give up my whole soul to Him, to serve and to love Him, more and more.
But what will be the result? Surely like Lydia, whose heart was opened by the Lord (and to the Lord), we may hope to do great things for Him, particularly now, in helping to put away this Jezebelism and unbelief. Each man, and each woman, whose trustfulness and happiness rest only on the thought of His great sacrifice, and not on any merits or goodness of their own, could find no better prayer for Passion-tide than this: "What have I to do--What is my part, O God? Thou Who hast spared me to see another Passion-tide, and hast kept me in the true faith, increase my strength, and teach me how to work for Thee!"
And Passion-tide, in spite of our wasted life, in spite of the sins which caused His blood to flow, will be a very happy time to us, for it won my throne and my crown for me, and above all, it won me Himself. He, out of His great love, has given me Himself, and all my friends in Paradise He won for me too, and I am not lost yet, and He has granted me another Passion-tide, in which to learn afresh the greatness of His love! Oh, may the rest of my life be dedicated to Him, in whatever way He may direct!
Some of you are young, and you may feel that what I have been saying involves a good deal, and that you cannot toss up your business in the world and give yourself up to good works. But that is not what I have been saying. Look at our Lord's Prayer for you in the 17th chapter of S. John: "I pray not that Thou wouldest take them out of the world, but that Thou wouldest keep them from the evil."
It may be hard to live for Him where you are placed, it may be a case of "a root out of a dry ground," but still you can grow up before Him. He wants you. I cannot help repeating this. If you have ever so little of the consciousness of the love of Christ for your soul and the knowledge of His Presence with you all will be easy. This is the joy I want you all to know and share. This is the special joy of Passion-tide. It is sad, if you like, it is very terrible to think that our sin caused Him to suffer so, but there is in all such a look of love, and such words of love, that they must bring joy to our hearts. "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
You know, then, how to get all these benefits applied to yourselves individually. So may you all be made ready for your Easter Communion, and plead there the Eucharistic Sacrifice.
He has paid all the debt owing for your sins! Oh, dear people, if you go thus, and have all the benefits of that precious Atonement applied to your own souls, don't be selfish! Do, oh do, in some way or other, make a fresh dedication of yourselves to Him, a dedication of your life, for ever and ever!