When he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.
[Preached in the Church of St. Giles, Oxford, on the Second Wednesday in Lent, February 29, 1860, as one of a course of Oxford Lent Sermons.]
OFTEN, dear brethren, in reading the life of a good or distinguished man, must we have indulged the wish that we could have witnessed him at the crisis of his career, or when engaged upon the work which has rendered him celebrated. Such a wish is so natural as to be no unfair proof of real interest in the records of the departed. Do we not gratify it as far as possible by visiting the scenes and buildings in which they lived, and by picturing to ourselves the circumstances which surrounded them and which no longer exist? Do we not endeavour to realise the great statesman at his place in the senate, and the great general on the field of victory, and the great Apostle as he speaks from the Areopagus, and the man of heart in his family circle or among his poorer neighbours, and the man of science among his peers or while pursuing his investigations? Each may have many sides to his char-acter, but our interest centres in his leading excellence. Each man may, according to his measure, do with all his might whatsoever his hand findeth to do, but he will most successfully achieve that for which God has given him opportunities and inclination. If his foresight and skill and perseverance is to be brought to light, if the hidden resources of his nature are to be conspicuously manifest, he must be engaged upon his master-work, he must be aiming at the idea which is constantly present to his understanding, and compassing the purpose on which he has unreservedly embarked his affections and which continually shapes his will. Therefore is it that there are particular times, and scenes, and occupations, which we connect with the memory of kings, or statesmen, or philosophers, or philanthropists, or pure and noble and saintly men, who live in our memories and who have passed away. And I ask--it is a solemn question, but I will ask it--what is the one scene, or occupation, or work, which, beyond all others, as illustrating His character or His Redemption, we cherish and dwell upon in the recorded Life of our Lord and Saviour?
Unquestionably in That Life one only end was pursued without faltering or error--the Will of the Eternal Father: "I do always such things as please Him." Doubtless in That Life lesser duties were discharged with all the clear consciousness and nervous purpose of the greatest. Our Lord was equally resolved and collected, whether He closed the book in the synagogue at Nazareth or raised the dead from the rock of Bethany, Doubtless it is difficult and perilous for us who are below Revelation and not above it, to decide upon the relative importance of actions and of words, when, in one sense, an equal interest pervades the whole, since in That Life all, we are sure, is divine and charged with mystery. But we do know at least what seems to touch us most nearly, from its suitableness to our condition, or wants, or yearnings. We know when the Gospel-story makes us pause and hold our breath, and think, "This act of Jesus does not merely raise my wonder or my admiration, it takes my heart captive; it is meant for me." And accordingly I will hazard an answer to my question. Nothing, I believe, from His Nativity to His Ascension, is dearer to the hearts of Christians, or more signally illustrative of the glory and mercy of our blessed Saviour, than the ready, tender, generous welcome He offered again and again, by deed and word, to penitent sinners, who sought and found Him.
Certainly the mystery of His Birth forces upon us more simply the sense of His humiliation; His temptation in the wilderness brings Him into more visible contact with the king of evil. His Soul poured forth in agony in the garden, His Body pierced upon the cross, melt our hearts more constrainingly at the sight of His enduring, His fathomless love; and He Himself said that in being lifted up from the earth He should draw all men unto Him. In the hour of His Resurrection-triumph we realise His victory over death and hell more forcibly. But in wel-coming the penitent He seems to sum up and epitomise the mysteries of His Human Life. When is He more self-humbling than in thus lowering Himself to the wants of sinners? when more intimately conversant with evil than when thus by actual contact He encounters it in its victims? when more divine or more human in His love than amid the strong throes of that sympathy which He pours around the returning sinner? Did He not choose the cross for a tribunal from which He would award pardon to one penitent? Did He not, while angels waited on His Easter-footsteps, hasten in His strength and in His glory to bind up another mourning and broken heart, and to assure a third of His free and full forgiveness? How is He more truly conqueror of death and hell than in rescuing from the grip of Satan and of sin one of His brethren, to turn a heart's heaviness into joy, and to put off its sackcloth, and to gird it with gladness?
Christ's welcome to the penitent, let us observe, is not the first act or step of the sinner's return to God. To contemplate it aright, we must remember that it is possible only in virtue of that astonishing love for man and that divine forbearance towards sinners on the part of our blessed Saviour of which earlier preachers in this course have spoken to you. It implies, moreover--that blessed welcome--a previous voice of the Eternal Spirit, and a submissive recognition of that voice on the part of the sinner who hears it. For sin leaves a twofold scar in the soul of the sinner: it darkens his understanding, and it paralyses his will. "My heart panteth," the awaken-ing sinner cries in the first moments of anguish, and this because "my strength hath failed me,"--mark, brethren, the collapse of will,--"and the sight of mine eyes is gone from me,"--observe the loss of spiritual intelligence. Now the very early movements of repentance imply a partial restoration both of strength and of sight to the darkened and enfeebled soul. The Everlasting Spirit fills the world, not merely to stablish, strengthen, and settle the faithful, not merely to build up and sanctify Christ's own through the sacraments, or ministry, or Scriptures of the Church, but to hover with quickening power and love, with gentle breathing and strong agonising solicita-tions, around souls which, like the prodigal, have wasted their substance, their natural advantages and their spiri-tual endowments, in riotous living, and have "begun to be in want."
A voice sounds from heaven:--the prodigal is of no one age, or sex, or station, or character.
We indeed are familiar with the prodigal as a young man of gentle breeding, and liberal education, and refined associations, who resolutely starts in life with the idea that the world is before him and that he has to enjoy himself. There is the quiet assumption of a knowledge higher than his father's, then the breaking the bonds of authority asunder and casting away its cords from him. The fever of sin succeeds; but excess is probably avoided from considerations of prudence, and grossness is veiled at least by good taste. The prodigal, it may be, reaches a stage of life at which passion has cooled, and the desire of advancement or of gain has taken up in the heart that throne which is no longer held by sensuality. The world speaks of him as a respectable man who it believes was once wild;--but before God he is a harder and more inveterate sinner than ever. He is become a Zacchaeus; he is entirely engrossed by whatever will increase his means or his influence. As his will hardens into an atti-tude of defined resistance to the will of God, his life is coated over by a crystallisation of increasing credit for respectability. Can we wonder that he joins the cry of libertinism or of unbelief,--"with our tongue will we prevail; we are they that ought to speak; who is lord over us?"--whenever it is safe to do so, now that he has reached a point at which he can say in his heart, even of that which he knows to be the work of the Evil One, "Thou God carest not for it?" Truly it is a marvel when the Ephphatha of such a soul is pronounced in heaven, and the scales fall from his eyes as the Eternal Spirit breathes upon him; truly it is a marvel to note his keen, clear sense of his present misery, of his past guilt, of his heavenly Father's loving-kindness and bounty; to see the conviction of sin grow deeper, and stronger, and more constraining, until at length the maxims of the world, and the ridicule of companions, and the strength of habit, and the fever of prejudice, can no longer repress the out-break of that wail of agony, which has sounded and been hushed, and has sounded again in the depths of his soul, even in the days of his deepest degradation, and which now wells up with irresistible strength from the fountain of his agonised spirit to his Father's throne: "I am feeble and sore smitten, I have roared from the very disquietness of my heart. My days are gone like a shadow, and I am withered like grass. Out of the deep have I called unto Thee, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice."
"I thought upon my ways,"--the first symptom of repentance, my brethren, and a partial reversal of the blindness of the impenitent soul. A second follows: "I turned my feet unto Thy testimonies,"--a second symptom, the recovery of force by the paralysed will; or, as the prodigal has it, "I will arise and go to my Father." He will not content himself with praising what he does not mean to imitate, with longing for what he knows is within his reach, with realising the blessedness of God's servants while he despairs of joining their company. That memory of the happy past, of the spiritual plenty of his deserted home, of the fresh joyousness of the days which he spent beneath his father's roof; that keen, strong perception of the nothingness of what the world can offer him, which sets on one side its education and its good taste, and its refinement, and its wealth, and its activity, and its grace of manner, and its affectation of principle, and its hold upon the multitude, and the homage it receives from the press, and the votaries it numbers among the great and the powerful, and pene-trates straight down to the void which opens like a chasm beneath, to that loss of all real peace, real faith, real hope, real love,--to that inner existence, which is only superficially so active because it is at bottom so aimless--to that felt, that miserable, that present banishment from the Face of God, coupled with the torturing memory of His gracious Smile in bygone days, and with the knowledge that thousands are at this moment basking beneath Its warmth and brightness,--all this has not been given him for nothing. Though he be wandering in the streets of Jerusalem with Peter, or mixing with the world's gaiety like the Magdalen, or in the last agony with the thief on the cross, he will arise and go to his Father. He will make an effort, and at the moment; he will seek the home of his early affections; rebel that he is, he will throw himself upon One Whose nature and property it is to have mercy and to forgive; he will turn a deaf ear to the scorn of his companions, to the polished ridicule of the world, to the false prudence of the half-hearted, to the faithless murmurings of his own aching heart; he will not tamper with light which has been vouchsafed that he may obey it, and which may be dimmed or withdrawn if obedience is delayed; he will go to a Father Who is a Father still, even to him, and ease his heart, even if he may not do more, by a full outpouring of its wounds and miseries, by an unreserved and broken-hearted confession: "While I held my tongue, my bones consumed away through my daily complaining. I will acknowledge my sins unto Thee, and mine unrighteousness have I not hid."
Brethren, are there among you those who have journeyed thus far with the returning prodigal? if so be, you know that here his real difficulties begin. He is going to his Father. It has been remarked that there is no trace in this parable of a Mediator Who is sought, and Who leads the sinner to the Father's presence-chamber. It has been urged in reply that the agency of a Mediator, if not expressed, is implied and understood, both from the evangelic tenderness of the reception, and from the explicit assertions of Scripture elsewhere. And certainly, as when the Apostle speaks of our being justified freely through the Father's grace, we might have supposed that the Father pardoned without Sacrifice or Atonement, if it were not added "through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His Blood," so here the prodigal is received only in virtue of Infinite Merits and Sacred Sorrows, to describe which does not fall within the scope of the parable, though such description is given elsewhere. It is God the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, Who receives the penitent; it is "the Death and Passion of our Saviour Christ, both God and Man," which secures the reception. Nay, more, it is our Saviour, Who, besides announcing to our race the welcome which awaits sinners at the Hands of God, administers that welcome in His own Human Nature, since "God was in Christ reconciling;" ad-ministers it whether in the days of His flesh, or through the ordinances and ministers of His Church; administers it with a love which is as Divine as it is human, and as human as it is Divine.
But there are aspects of our blessed Lord revealed in the New Testament which may inspire the penitent with some anxiety. I do not speak of the Glory which He had with the Father before the world was, or before His Incarnation, as when Isaiah saw It, and cried, "Woe is me! for I am undone: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of Hosts." But even in His earthly life, are there not flashes of that Majesty which, we know, was hidden all along beneath His bruised and broken Form?
Did He not still the tempest and raise the dead? Was He not terrible and majestic even in the very crisis of His utmost humiliation, so that the soldiers who came to take Him went backward and fell to the ground, and Pilate was the more afraid as he marked more closely His awful silence, and the pagan centurion confessed His Divinity, and the heaven was overcast, and the earth shaken, and the rocks rent, when He gave up His Human Soul to His Father? Does not Scripture speak of the wrath of the Lamb, of the judgment-seat of Christ, and of the God of the new covenant as a Consuming Fire
B no less than the Jehovah of the old? When was He, in the days of the apostles, last seen? "I turned," says the beloved disciple, "to see the voice of Him that spake with me. And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks; and in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of Man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle. His head and His hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and His eyes were as a flame of fire; and His feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and His voice as the sound of many waters. And He had in His right hand seven stars: and out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword: and His countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength." And mark, brethren, it is the disciple who had lain on His breast at supper who adds, "when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead." Or else, He is seated upon a white horse, and named Faithful and True, judging and making war in righteousness; and His eyes are as a flame of fire, and on His head are many crowns; and He has a Name written, that no man knows but He Himself, and He is clothed in a vesture dipped in blood: and out of His mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it He should smite the nations: and He rules with a rod of iron, and He treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God: and He has on His vesture and on His thigh a name written, King of kings, and Lord of lords. And consistently with this representation of St. John, St. Paul years before had declared that in His own good time the Redeemer would be "revealed from heaven in flaming fire, taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not His Gospel." Does not the Church, His bride, address her enthroned Lord in accents of trembling supplication, "Remember not, Lord, our offences, nor the offences of our forefathers; neither take Thou vengeance of our sins: spare us, good Lord, spare Thy people, whom Thou hast redeemed with Thy most precious Blood, and be not angry with us for ever?" Can any sin-stained child of man, asks the penitent, approach such a Being as this, and anticipate a welcome? least of all--can I?
Nor is this all. The nearer sight of Jesus opens upon the soul a fuller revelation of the real character of the past. He had already condemned himself; true--but he had viewed sin in the light of a few present results or apprehended consequences. He had contrasted his famished spirit with their lot who still enjoyed the least share in the bounties of his long-left home. He had faced his too-possible future, "I perish with hunger." So is it generally. "Thy calf, O Samaria, hath cast thee off." Men leave the ways of sin, or rise or resolve to leave them, because sin palls upon them, because they feel that in this world its wages are bitter, and because they foresee, more or less clearly, the terrors of the next. But to draw near that Light in which we see light, by Which the eyes are turned away from beholding vanity, and the heart illumined "with the knowledge of the glory of God in the Face of Jesus Christ," --this is to learn in a measure God's estimate of sin, in itself and in its consequences. It is to exchange the human standard of sin and of holiness for the Divine. It is to see in sin not merely the loss of God's friendship, not merely the forfeiture of all spiritual endowments, not merely the penal servitude which follows upon the departure of the spirit of freedom, not merely the tribulation and anguish of a guilty conscience, the worm which dieth not, the going mourning all the day long; it is to behold in unforgiven, deadly sin, the very death of the soul which harbours it; a death which does not become a resurrection because time passes, and habits change, and friends smile, and passion cools, and the tomb of the soul is bedecked (as of yore the Tuscan sepulchres) with the utensils and imagery of life; a death which lasts, though the natural life of the soul survive vigorous and active in the things of earth, and even though concerning the things of heaven it emulates spiritual vitality in language and bearing, and observance and habit, galvanising for the moment intellect, will, affections, imagination; a death, I say, which lasts,--since there remains but the corpse of a soul from which the spirit has fled, whose every movement is impeded by the cerements which bind it while it jangles its frame and scatters around it its fetid corruption, in acting its ghastly mimicry of life. Absolute, indeed, is the law that "the soul which sinneth it shall die;" and the penitent finds that he is bringing to the Great Restorer not a maimed or blind, or possessed or dumb, but a lifeless spirit; recently dead it may be, like the ruler's daughter, or going forth to burial, like the widow's son, or laid in the grave and stinking, like Lazarus;--yet in any case lifeless to the apprehension of saints and angels, and before the throne of Christ. He looks up imploringly to the Being Whose Face he seeks. But has not sin blasted His image? has it not crucified afresh the Holy Manhood? has it not quenched the Spirit? has it not denied to the great Creator His dominion, to the Almighty Father His authority, to the Universal Monarch His true throne in the heart? has it not spurned His unity by making idols of a hundred passions which have the heart for an altar, and the affections for servants, and the soul and its eternity for a sacrifice? has it not insulted His holiness by dragging a consecrated nature through the mire of passion? has it not ignored His Omnipotence, since the sinner has sinned beneath His very Eye, almost in His bosom? does it not scorn alike His wisdom and His justice? is it not a challenge to His forbearance? does it not, as far as possible, deny God's very existence? The penitent feels this; and here he might trust that his Lord could quicken the dead, and could forgive the insult and the wrong were it not that here he sees a new aspect of sin, to which, my brethren, I invite your earnest attention. He sees that after the will of the sinner is changed, or even when his heart has ceased to beat, the consequences of his sin remain as a fact, as a blot, as a scar in the universe of God, marring its perfection, disturbing its harmonies, destructive of its beauty and of its peace. Peter must have marked the fiendish triumph which hardened the hearts of his tempters in the courtyard, and Magdalen must have known many whom her seductions had banished from the Face of God, and the penitent thief saw, in the moment of his acceptance, a companion, led on perchance to crime by his example and encouragement, dying with the accents of blasphemy on his lips in the very Presence of the All-holy. A child can light the match, and fire the charge of that marvellous artillery which, as we have recently heard, carries destruction to the verge of a distant horizon; but can he control the instruments of death when once the spark is lighted? Even so in the moral world, the penitent comes to Jesus laden, not merely with the tokens of a numbed and deadened soul, not merely with the guilt of a repudiated, an insulted God, but with the consciousness,--the terrible haunting consciousness,--that his sin has spread as widely as his influence, that he has launched forth upon society, upon the Church, and into souls, the bolts of disease and death; that no penitence, however deep, can arrest that wave of impulse which he has given to evil by his example, by his words, by his endeavours, and which will roll on collaterally to far-distant societies of men, and downwards to yet unborn generations, to strengthen Satan's strength, and to increase his resources, while it mocks the helpless anguish of the author of so much misery, who is powerless to arrest that for which he yet knows himself to be responsible. The penitent quivers with this terrible overwhelming perception of the con-sequences of his guilt,--can he, dare he, hope for welcome from his Saviour?
"When he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him."
His Father saw the returning prodigal. True, He had seen him all along. He had marked that first disobedience, that first tempest of anger, that act of boyish deceit, that conversation with schoolfellows on forbidden subjects, that joke in church or at sacred things, which won credit for pleasantry and wit, and which escaped notice and punishment. The Father had marked the steady growth of passion, of indulgence, of impatience of restraint, of self-will: He had noted the thoughts and words which soiled the baptismal robe and dimmed the baptismal cross; He knew that first act in which the soul had its unfettered and conscious choice to make between the enemy and Himself, and in which it chose His enemy; and then He had noted how a passing pang of remorse had yielded to a new hardness of heart, which its victim thought spirited and manly; how those feeble prayers were first shortened, and then left off altogether; how those early yearnings for innocence and for God were scorned as the mere poetry and sentiment of childhood, unacquainted as yet with the capacities of man and the prizes of indulgence; how action had become habit, and habit a second nature, justifying sin to itself on the grounds of experience and of precedent, and searing whatever yet was left of love and of tenderness, and of the grace of regeneration. The Father had seen all, since even though His erring children go down to hell He is there also; if they take the wings of the morning, and remain in the uttermost parts of the sea, they are still beneath the Eye Which never slumbers nor sleeps, still in the Hand Which grasps the universe. He knew all the degradation, and the shame, and the disappointment, and the sickening weariness of His "far-off" son; His quick Eye had noted the first symptoms of amendment, His delicate Ear had caught the first faint longing for the home and the peace which had been left; for the unwearied pleading of His own Spirit had framed the very utterance to which He hearkened,--"Thou hast heard the desire of the poor, Thou preparest their heart, and Thine ear hearkeneth thereto." He Who never leaves the sinner, Who, if He withdraws His grace, withdraws not His being and presence, is ever ready to welcome the penitent, though indeed he is "yet a great way off." Mark, then, brethren, the first character of this welcome, the readiness with which it is offered. Our Lord does not keep us in suspense with Joseph's brethren at the court of Pharaoh; He does not make as though He heareth not; these trials are reserved for later stages of service. The 32nd Psalm opens to us the quick sensitiveness of the Heart of Jesus to the yearning of the soul which seeks Him. No sooner has the soul resolved to make its prayer in a time when our Saviour may still be found, mindful of the waterfloods of disease and death in which it may not come nigh Him, sure now of a place to hide it in, to preserve it from trouble, to compass it with songs of deliverance, than He answers from His cross or His throne in human words, "I will inform and teach thee in the way wherein thou shalt go, and I will guide thee with Mine eye." Was it not thus, dear brethren, with the Magdalen? He the Very Purity of God sat at meat in the Pharisee's house, and thither, sinner that she was, she came. The proud Pharisee cared not that she came into his presence, if she only touched him not; he thought not of the ruin of that young and beautiful soul, if she only respected his legal requirements; she may "stand weeping behind" his guests, but he heeds her not. And now she has come near to Jesus, that she, in her impurity, may pour her unguents on His sacred Form,--and she holds her hand. She reads in His Eye, in His mien, in His expression so calm, so awful, so tender, so subduing, more than the Pharisee read there. Into that moment were compressed all the many and long experiences of the returning prodigal. She sees herself, beneath That Eye, as never before--uncomely, loathsome, hideous, vile. She sees that though her attractions are not less fascinating than of old, though the lustre of her eye has not dimmed nor the beauty of her cheek faded, yet that she is a temple of seven devils. She crouches beneath That Eye, but she cannot escape It; if It is mournful It is yet encouraging, if It pierces It yet draws her forward. It rivets her to the earth; she must sink; but there is a place for her, even for her, at His sacred Feet, to hear in His good time the pardoning words, and to offer her meed of service. "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return unto the Lord thy God." "O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself, but in Me is thy help." He does not send her forth; for He is there, even in that banquet-hall, to seek and to save; she brings with her no preparation, no change of habit, no provisions against the criticism and scorn of the world; but she loves, and she sorrows as they sorrow who love, and He Who knows her heart absolves her: "Her sins which are many are forgiven, for she loved much."
2. For, in truth, His Soul, His Human Soul, was touched with compassion. The Father, you remember, saw and had compassion--the second mark of the great welcome. The world, too, is quick to see; but there is a vast difference between the Spirit of Jesus Christ and the practice of the world in this matter of sin and sinners; a difference which was never more striking, more appalling, than in the age and country in which we live. The world has no mercy for sinners who outrage its propriety. It does not care for secret sin, for sins of thought, and will, and temper, for the mental and moral corruption, which is its own vital atmosphere, and hateful only to the everlasting God. But when sin touches the fabric of society, and the outward consistencies of life, how often is quarter denied to the sinner. The world sees the sinner, certainly; so does our Saviour Christ. But the world sees that outcast woman only to point the finger of warning and of scorn, while in its literature, in its conversation, in its tone of mind, it dallies with the soft luxurious poison of which she is the outward, visible, ulcerated expression. Jesus, our Lord and Master, Who denounces sin, in the teeth of the world, as the greatest and only evil, can afford, precisely because He is Infinite Purity, to be infinitely tender and compassionate to sinners. It is not merely a shepherdless multitude which calls forth the anxious compassion of our holy Saviour; He yearns with a true human love over every soul that wanders from Him, or that has not found Him; He loves and yearns for multitudes, not as viewing them in the mass, like the philanthropist, who weakens his desire by making it general, but because He yearns for the single souls of which multitudes are composed; He sees and loves each separate soul as if it were alone in the world, and as if for it alone He had come to die; "He loved me," cries an Apostle, who calls himself the chief of sinners, "and gave Himself for me." Forget or deny the Church's assertion that He is "perfect God and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting," and you shiver to atoms the hope of the penitent. What but literal union with Godhead could enable a human intellect to survey without error or distraction the race of man? What but a human heart can really calm the fears of the shrinking penitent? Touched with a feeling of our infirmities, and having been in all points tempted like as we are, our Lord and Saviour regards His separate penitents with the tenderest pity. He makes the largest allowances; He measures guilt by responsi-bility, and welcomes the ignorance or compulsion which lessen it; so that when the penitent's self-accusation is most bitter and unsparing, the compassion of our in-dulgent Lord is most touchingly abundant. Think you not that as He hung upon the cross He passed in review all that might be pleaded for the thief that hung beside Him, and for whom He was shedding His Blood--the want of religious instruction, the bad early associates, the weak sense of right and wrong, the provocations of the Roman rule, the evident and repulsive hollowness of the popular religion of the day, a hot natural tempera-ment, or strong animal spirits? These things do not justify; God forbid! the Blood Which flowed from His Wounds alone could cleanse; but these things were not forgotten. "Like as a father pitieth his children, so is the Lord merciful to them that fear Him," even when fear is strange and new to them; for "He knoweth whereof we are made, He remembereth that we are but dust." Think, dear brethren, of His Body stiffening with the deep gashes of the scourge, of His Face defiled with spittle and gore, of His Eyes reddened with weeping, of His Mouth parched with thirst, of the sickening agony of His fainting Spirit, as the blasphemies or mocking of the crowd that surged beneath Him passed before His glazed Eye or fell on His dulled Ear, and the cold drops--the tokens of the death-struggle--gathered on His Brow, and then think of that response to the cry of the thief beside Him, so self-forgetting, so all-forgiving, "To-day shalt thou be with Me in Paradise," and doubt, if you can, the tenderness of the reception which awaits those who truly seek Him now.
3. He ran. Ought he not to have consulted his own insulted authority by waiting for his son's approach? Ought he not to have concealed the pity which filled his heart at the sight of that famished, broken prodigal? Should he not have at least looked stern, and used cold, distant words, to mark his just sense of so much ingra-titude and so much guilt? Might not such judicious severity have taught that young libertine a lesson?
Could it--could any treatment disappoint the prodigal? Was it not all, and more than all, he dared hope for, that he should look once more upon that father's countenance, though from among the slaves that thronged the courts of his palace or tilled his fields? Ah, brethren! you are thinking of a human parent, but the Gospel speaks of the Universal Father. Your criticism might be just, if you had to provide safeguards for the future peace of an earthly family which welcomed a spendthrift child to its deserted bosom. But measure not heaven by earth, nor dream that the love of God, any more than His justice or His power, is dwarfed down to the proportions of the human endowment which faintly shadows it. "Look how high the heaven is in comparison of the earth: so great is His mercy also towards them that fear Him." All in God is infinite, as His power and His justice, so also His mercy and His loving-kindness, and therefore He runs to meet the penitent. He is utterly forgetful of His own dignity; He makes Himself of no reputation; He empties Himself of His glory; He can dispense with appearances; He will go forward to meet that erring child who has turned to seek Him. What, indeed, is this but His very Spirit, Who, when He was rich with the glories of an eternity, for our sakes became poor in human guise, that we, through His poverty, might be rich? Yes, Christ our Lord does indeed run to meet the penitent. He does not say, Learn to pray, learn to keep thy conscience in order, learn to guard thy looks, thy thoughts, thy tongue, ere I receive thee. He does not say, Acquire the ways, the motives, the language, the tone of the Redeemed Family, before I restore thee to thy place among them. He does not say, Bring faith and hope and love in thy heart, and deeds of mercy in thy hand, and words of charity on thy lips; that I may justly rank thee side by side with those who wear My likeness, who serve and love Me. How indeed could the penitent ever be restored, if the Father held this language? How could the penitent recover, without Christ's Aid and Presence, the robe of grace, if the highest saints in His kingdom--ay, they on their thrones in paradise--confess that of themselves they are not suffi-cient to do anything as of themselves, but that all their sufficiency is of God? Believe it, He Who died to save us, asks only for a trustful and a broken heart. Bring this, His own earliest and most blessed gift, and in His own time He will do the rest. The soul must be first reconciled; the havoc of sin must be gradually repaired after reconciliation. In time, Christian temper and purity, and thoughts, and yearnings will be given back to the soul when it is securely harboured within the fold of the Good Shepherd. But while as yet sinners can neither meditate, nor hope, nor pray, nor work; while they lie in their weak-ness and in their misery, longing for strength, mourning over their corruption, there is a welcome from Jesus, Who goes forth to meet, and, if they only will, to bless and to lead them.
"He ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him." At length, then, they met. The penitent can find no words: in his shame and his weakness he is silent before that astonishing Love, he cannot face the rebuke of that open-handed Compassion. "How shall I give thee up, Ephraim? how shall I deliver thee, Israel? how shall I make thee as Admah? how shall I set thee as Zeboim? My heart is turned within Me, My repentings are kindled together. I will not execute the fierceness of Mine anger, I will not return to destroy Ephraim: for I am God, and not man; the Holy One in the midst of thee." The very heavens are not clean in the sight of the Holy One, and His angels He has charged with folly, yet He clasps to His very Bosom the sin-stained and the lost of earth. The angels worship in trembling and afar off, but the Being Whom they adore draws the sinner with cords of a man, with bands of love, as if that sinner were His only child, ay, His equal and associate. This it is to be laid on the shoulders of the Good Shepherd, while He bids His angels rejoice that He has found the sheep that He had lost This it is to be found by His holy Church, who by her ministers sweeps the house of the world diligently till the lost silver be recovered, and then calls on the citizens of heaven, her friends and neighbours, to partake her joy. This it is to feel, after the darkness and the death of sin, the first keen sense of unspeakable delight at being quickened together with Christ, at sitting together with Him in the heavenly places of His Church. Oh moment never to be forgotten by those who have ex-perienced it, never to be remembered but with thankful-ness and awe! Oh moment of sensible nearness to God, of heaven-sent love, of hope which had no future in the blessedness of the present, of faith which was all but sight, how canst thou ever perish from the heart that has experienced thee! Doubtless ever since the penitent has loved and prayed, and laboured and resolved: but how comparatively feeble seem his resolutions, how small his toils, how few and lifeless his prayers, how cold his love, when he recalls the strength, the promise, the anticipa-tions, the superhuman force (as it seemed) of that first sense of what it is to be seen and pitied, and met and embraced by a deserted God,--while attendant angels chaunt into the entranced ear the will of the Almighty Saviour,--"I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely: for Mine anger is turned away from him. I will be as the dew unto Israel: he shall grow as the lily, and cast forth his roots as Lebanon. His branches shall spread, and his beauty shall be as the olive-tree, and his smell as Lebanon." Think not that you can gauge that intertwining of the human spirit with the Everlasting God by your earthly theories of a physical reaction or of peculiarities of temperament. There are other things both in earth and in heaven than are dreamt of by a materialised philosophy, which lives in what it sees, which diligently maps out the earth and the stars, and interprets history, and analyses thought, but which lives and dies in ignorance of the truest and greatest subject of human observation and research,--the wonders of the kingdom of grace and of the love of God.
"He fell on his neck and kissed him." Oh too tender Father, hast Thou then forgotten all,--how haughtily this child demanded his portion, how contemptuously, how ungratefully he quitted Thee? Is it nothing that he has wasted his substance, enfeebled his body, stained his soul, dishonoured Thy name, spurned Thy love, mocked Thy sorrow? Has it escaped Thee that only the extremity of his misery, only the fear of a lingering and painful death first turned his thoughts towards Thee; and that if he had prospered in sin, he would have spurned Thee for ever? Yes, it is even so. That penitent, who has nothing to offer and nothing to plead, is in the embrace of his Saviour. The Arms which were stretched upon the tree that they might compass a redeemed world, are flung around that single soul with intense and passionate affec-tion. No true penitent has missed that embrace, that felt experience of the love of Christ which kindles in his soul a love, strong to quicken its deadness and to cleanse its stains. It is His embrace--the Arms are His--the print of the nails is there; it is His divine and heart-subduing welcome, Who died for all, even for the vilest and the most perverse, and the hardest and the foulest sinners "that they who live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto Him that died for them and rose again."
It is not for me to anticipate a subject which has been assigned to another by dwelling on the gifts which crowned the welcome--the robe or stole of innocence, the ring of espousal to the heavenly Bridegroom, the sandals which suggest and assist obedience, the fatted calf, the Eucharistic Feast. Only let me insist upon the blessed truth, that for all who have sinned and will seek their Saviour there is a good hope, nay, a certainty, of being received by Him. Moreover, these welcomes of our Lord to penitents are in all time the really great events of the Kingdom of Grace. They are no mere luxury or ornament of the age of the Apostles, designed to help the infant Church through the early struggles of its otherwise precarious existence. They are the reiterated products of the influence of the Holy Spirit, and of the intercession of our Lord. The world abounds in every age with every type of the prodigal. In every age Christ our Lord wel-comes the Magdalen and Zacchaeus, and Peter and the dying thief. Silently but surely the blessed word goes forward, while the world toils or sleeps without suspecting it. The wind bloweth where it listeth; and while here and there men are startled by the manifest tokens of a Heavenly Visitant, by companions in whose lives "old things have passed away, and all things have become new," yet on the whole, whence it cometh and whither it goeth, men care not to inquire. Still the blessed work goes forward. It was for this end that Christ our Lord laid aside His glory, and lay as an Infant in the manger, and encountered the fiend in the desert, and lived a Life of holy poverty, and conversed familiarly with publicans and sinners. It was that He might thus "see of the travail of His Soul and be satisfied" that He poured forth that Soul in agony, and gave Himself up to His enemies, and stood silent before His judges, and wore the robe of mockery, and endured the spitting and the scourge, and sank beneath His Cross, and rested not till the work was accomplished, and the cup of bitterness was emptied to the dregs.
For this end, that He might welcome penitents, He has pleaded before His Father for eighteen hundred years; for this He has filled His Church with the gift of sympathy, with humble, and Christ-like, and loving hearts, and has, moreover, "given power and commandment to His ministers to declare and pronounce to His people, being penitent, the absolution and remission of their sins;" for this, and this alone, He forbears, as you heard last Friday, to wind up the world's history, and to perfect the number of His elect. This welcome it is which is the living expression of His love, the full explanation of His long-suffering. Are there here any who would fain be His, but who tremble at the thought of facing Him? Dear brethren, defraud not your Saviour of the earnings of His Passion; frustrate not His providences of mercy towards yourselves. See how your own life, read rightly, points to one only end. It is years since you left Him, if, indeed, you ever served Him at all. Be it so. But why couldest thou not escape from the tender reproach-ful glance of that mourning mother? Why was that companion suddenly cut off in the prime of his days? Why was that scheme from which so much was hoped of success and of distinction suddenly converted into a disappointment? Why didst thou lie upon a bed of pain, tossing in agony of body and restlessness of soul; impatient of the company of others, yet miserable when alone; unable to bear the present, yet still more unable to look the future in the face? Why, when life seemed so bright, was thy sky overclouded on that day of heart-broken agony, when the partner of thy joys, or the first-born of thy body, was laid in the dust? For those who serve God, the sorrows which are traced as a handwriting upon the wall of life admit of many interpretations; but for the sinner who is yet "afar off," the warning they utter is continuously, unvaryingly, awfully one. "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return unto the Lord, and He will have mercy upon him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon." This Lent may be the accepted time, the day of salvation, to many here in the counsels of eternity. Scheme not for your future, attempt no terms with God: it is surely enough, should He bid a sinner live in His household as a hired servant among the lowest and the last, according to the desire of the penitent, if only there may be still a place within. Leave what remains to Him, but seek Him without delay. "Come unto Me,"--they are His own blessed words,--come unto Me Who have taken flesh and shed My Blood for sinners; unto Me Whose delights are with the sons of men, unto Me with Whom there is mercy and plenteous redemption, unto Me Who wait to save to the uttermost those who take Me at My word; come unto Me, as I rule from My throne, as I hang upon My cross; come to be cleansed by My Blood, and sanctified by My Spirit, and changed into My likeness; come unto Me, all, whoever ye be that travail and are heavy laden with the load and misery of your sins, and I--Who alone can do it--"I will give you rest."