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Sermons on the Black Letter Days
Or Minor Festivals of the Church of England
by John Mason Neale

London: Joseph Masters, 1872. Third edition.


S. Swithin. July 15.


You all know the common belief about to-day; that, according as it is fine or wet, so will the next six weeks also be. You most probably do not all know the reason of this belief. S. Swithin, who was Bishop of Winchester, gave orders, when he was departing to the LORD, that his body should not be buried in the church, where, even then, it was the custom to lay great people, but in the churchyard, where, he said, the rain and the dews of heaven might fall upon it. His disciples, who had loved him dearly, could not bear that his body should be buried in what they thought a less honourable place; therefore they determined to take up his coffin, and to remove it into the church. They fixed this day; but the rain fell so heavily and so unceasingly both then, and for six weeks afterwards, that they gave up their purpose.

S. Swithin's Day was once a great day here; for the church is called after him. People then came up from far and near to keep his feast; and it was a high holiday. That is now past; but it is curious that still the day should be spoken of by those who care, not for the Saint, but for the weather; by those who are labouring, not as he laboured for the bread that perisheth not, but for that earthly food for which it is also our duty to work. Let us for once do as the world does. Every one to-day is talking of the rain; I will also speak of it now.

Now see how many things we might learn, if we would, from every shower. GOD has made the rain a type to us both of His mercy and of His judgment. Let us see how.

There was no rain in the Garden of Eden. "The LORD GOD," says Moses, "had not caused it to rain upon the earth; but there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground." But some learned men have believed, and I think so too, that till the flood it never rained. Imagine then the terror, when water began to fall from the sky! Where I was travelling this spring, it had snowed for the first time; and the people ran to the churches, thinking that the end of the world was come. Judge then how those must have felt, who could no more imagine water falling from the sky than we can imagine a fall of stones! And see how Moses describes to us the coming on of this rain. "The fountains of the great deep were broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened. And the waters increased and bare up the ark . . . and the waters prevailed, and were increased greatly upon the earth, and the ark went upon the face of the waters . . . and the waters prevailed upon the earth and all the high hills were covered . . . fifteen cubits and upwards did the waters prevail, and the mountains were covered." That is, after the highest mountains, which are about five miles high, were covered, the waters still went on increasing, till they stood twelve yards higher still, and then they began to decrease.

The first thought we have about rain, then, is that of judgment. But notice something else. I have often told you how GOD uses the same thing to save that He had permitted to destroy. As David slew Goliath with his own sword, as Benaiah killed the Egyptian of great stature with his own spear, as Judith cut off the head of Holofernes with his own falchion, so our LORD by death destroyed death, by His crown of thorns changed the curse, "thorns also shall the earth bear unto thee"--by the tree of the Cross atoned for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, in a garden triumphed over the sin that had been committed in a garden. So here; as water destroyed every living thing wherein was the breath of life, so water bore up the ark, and saved those that were in it.

After the flood, GOD made a promise to Noah, that He would no more destroy the earth by water. And He said, "I do set My bow in the cloud; and it shall come to pass when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud; and I will remember My covenant." The plain sense of the words is, that there had never been a rainbow before. Therefore it is that I think that there had never been rain before; for if there had been, there must also, in two thousand years, have been a rainbow. And notice this: the rainbow was the first thing that was at all like a Sacrament. It was an outward and visible sign of a grace or favour given to us. So, you see, in the first account we have of rain, we find judgment and mercy together.

So we do in the second. This was the seventh plague in the land of Egypt--the plague of rain and hail. The judgment is clear enough. "The LORD rained hail upon the land of Egypt. So there was hail, and fire mingled with the hail, very grievous; and the fire ran along upon the ground." But there was mercy also. This was the only plague of which the Egyptians had warning. "Send therefore now," GOD said the day before, "and gather thy cattle, and all thou hast in the field, for upon every man and beast which shall be found in the fields, and shall not be brought home, the hail shall come down upon them, and they shall die." Mercy and truth, you see, met together; any might be saved that would; all that believed GOD'S word, and showed by their deeds that they did believe it, were saved. There is another thing to remember when it rains.

Next we come to Gideon's story. GOD commanded him to deliver Israel from Midian. He was slow to believe, and asked for two signs. The first was that he should put a fleece out at night, and that the dews, which in that country are heavier than with us, should be upon that fleece only; while all the ground should be dry. The second was that the dew should come down upon all the ground, while the fleece only was dry. These things are a type. The fleece meant the Jews. While the knowledge of GOD belonged to the Jews, then the rest of the world was without it; now that the kingdom of GOD is spread all over the earth, the Jews only are left without it. Here is judgment and mercy again: where the dew fell, mercy; where the dew fell not, judgment. And there is another sense, which David explains to us in one of the Psalms which you heard last night. As the dew fell on the fleece of wool, without hurting or corrupting it, so our LORD JESUS CHRIST descended into the womb of S. Mary, she remaining a most pure virgin both before and after His birth. Now we go on again to Job. Elihu was speaking to Job and to his three friends. He begins in the thirty-second chapter. At the end of the thirty-sixth he mentions the rain. Any one who will read that and the next chapter will see that, as he was talking, a storm came on. First, he says, " He maketh small the drops of water; they pour down rain according to the vapour thereof/' Then the storm grows blacker: he says, " With clouds He covereth the light, and commands it not to shine by the cloud that cometh betwixt." Then we have the thunder. " GOD/' says Elihu, " thundereth marvellously with His voice: great things doeth He, which we cannot comprehend." Still the storm continues: " Also by watering He wearieth the thick cloud; He scattereth the bright cloud." Then it begins to pass off: "The wind," he says, "passeth and scattereth them." After this, there is some glorious appearance in the sky; for Elihu goes on, "Gold cometh out of the north;" that is, a bright light, yellow as gold; "with GOD is terrible majesty." And immediately it follows, "Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said, Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?" That storm went before the presence of GOD, and when it was past, He spoke. Here we have judgment and mercy also: judgment, for GOD judges Job for his boastings, and for his thinking that he had been hardly used; mercy, for He restored to him health and riches, and state, and all that he had before.

Take another example. The kings of Judah, Israel, and Edom, went out to battle against the king of Moab. They marched through the desert, and were ready to perish with thirst. Elisha, who was there, commanded them to make ditches all round the camp. "For thus saith the LORD; Ye shall not see wind, neither shall ye see rain; yet that valley shall be filled with water." The rain, therefore, fell at a distance; for it goes on, "In the morning, when the meat offering was offered,--behold, there came water by the way of Edom, and the country was filled with water." But the Moabites, seeing the sun shining redly upon it, took it for blood, and thought that the three kings had fought with each other, and came out hastily to the spoil, and were delivered into the hands of the Israelites. Thus there was mercy for the people of GOD, who were saved from dying by thirst; but judgment for His enemies, who were cut to pieces.

One thing only further: I mean the parable which our LORD spake concerning the rain. "Whosoever heareth these sayings of Mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not; for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth these sayings of Mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it." That is the great thing after all,--the only really great thing,--the only thing that truly matters, whether we are keeping His sayings and doing them, or not. If we could only remember that, whenever we see it rain, happy should we be indeed!

And now I have given you something to think about for these forty days, if the old saying is true, and we have a wet season. This will be more profitable than complaining and lamenting, as every one is so apt to do, for the hay or the crops. GOD knows best what we really need; and we should all do well if we could truly make such an answer as an old shepherd once did. A traveller going by, said, "What sort of weather shall we have to-day?" "Whatever weather I like," said the shepherd. "Whatever weather you like? Why, how can that be?" "Because it will be whatever GOD pleases; and what He pleases, that I like." This is the same thing as saying, like the Three Holy Children, "O ye showers and dews, bless ye the LORD; praise Him and magnify Him for ever." And it will be the likely way to make us say with David, "Thou visitest the earth and blessest it: Thou makest it very plenteous. Thou waterest her furrows, Thou sendest rain into the little valleys thereof: Thou makest it soft with the drops of rain, and blessest the increase of it. Thou crownest the year with Thy go'odness: and Thy clouds drop fatness. They shall drop upon the dwellings of the wilderness: and the little hills shall rejoice on every side. The folds shall be full of sheep: the valleys also shall stand so thick with corn, that they shall laugh and sing."

And now to GOD the FATHER, GOD the SON, and GOD the HOLY GHOST, be all honour and glory for ever. Amen.

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