Third Sunday in Advent, 1860.
Pleasant Pictures. Isaiah ii. 12.
CLEARLY an Advent text: when we are looking for, and hasting unto the day of the LORD; that day, the coming of which, "upon" so many, ends its list with that which you have just heard,--pleasant pictures. And truly, the more I think of that clause in all its fulness of meaning, the more it seems to me to fit time, and place, and you, my Sisters. Let us see how.
Pleasant pictures: "pictures of desire," it is in the Hebrew: that is, pleasant or desirable to us. So that this day of the LORD will be upon them to try them--to see if they will stand good when that inquisition shall be made,--whether they are part of the gold and silver that can suffer no damage, yea, rather, that shall be refined; or whether they are of the hay and the stubble which may be destroyed, though the builder be saved, yet so as by fire.
"The Day of the LORD." We are not only, no, nor chiefly, to think of that final day when the Heavens, being on fire, shall be dissolved, and the earth shall melt with fervent heat.
In how many other ways besides that, and till that, does our LORD come!
Now that which first strikes me when I think of you, is this: that the day of your reception as a Sister, is the Day of the LORD, and a most solemn Day of the LORD too, to each of you. For certainly then your own LORD might say to you, as He did to Israel of old: "I came near unto you to try you, and to prove you, whether you would walk in My statutes or no. I came so near, that I gave you a right to address Me by the dearest of names: so near, that, My shadow falling on you, your chains of attachment to this world fell off your hands: so near, that I gave no greater means of grace to any of My elect Saints from the beginning: so near, that if you only persevere to the end, you will be among the hundred and forty and four thousand who are closest to Me." But what pleasant pictures then? Why, I think you each of you know. Did you not, when you first thought of joining a Sisterhood, look on it as a place which must he in its services, in its devotedness, in its holiness, the very antepast of Heaven? Each Sister, in her degree, approaching a Saint: perfect love, unity, concord: no possible misunderstanding; or, if existing one moment, made up the next. A pleasant picture indeed! And any harm in indulging it? Not in itself. Look at our own Surrey hills, when the sun goes down behind them; how glorious is that purple and crimson tint that long lingers over them! Suppose a man were to hear of their beauty, and to set forth to visit them. "Yes," he says, "they are beautiful in their way, certainly: there is, I allow, every loveliness of wood and valley and heathy hill; but those hues which I saw on them at a distance--where are they now? I am bitterly disappointed, and will return." No harm, dearest Sisters, in those pleasant pictures of the past, if they do not make you discontented with the present; if they do not hinder your trying with all your might to realize them so far as you can; even though their perfect realization can only be for that Jerusalem, built as a city that is at unity with itself. But every harm, if, instead of resolving to do your best in yourself against any common fault, and to bear your best with regard to others, you think: "Oh, the case is hopeless here: I will try elsewhere." How your pleasant picture will have been your curse, when it might have been your blessing! "Oh, how far short we all are of what we looked to be, and might have been! Why do we not try more? Why do we not pray more? Why do we not resolve from this moment that what has been hitherto wrong in us shall, this very moment, be checked? There is nothing which is too great for GOD to give--if it were not too great for us to ask."
And then take it in another way: GOD has more than realized some of my warmest and brightest hopes for you. He has enabled you to do Him work which nothing but His grace, and that in no small measure, could have carried you through. It is the lesser things which try you most, and which you most fail in; and, in one sense, I ought to be thankful for this. Suppose that you had none of those little trials and temptations and falls, which, as it is, most easily beset you; and while engaged in ordinary work, could labour together with perfect happiness, and without any temptation. But, when it came to some great thing to be done for GOD'S sake: suppose then that there was a general drawing back, and that that faint-hearted word cannot were the way in which such an offer of work was met? What could I think then, but that we had undertaken a task above our strength:--that GOD, Whose it is to give or to withhold grace, had withheld a sufficiency of it from us? But now it is not so; and it is the argument of Naaman's servants that applies to each of you: "If the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, wouldest thou not have done it? How much rather, then, when he saith to thee,"--this or that small matter, which CHRIST'S ordinary servants think little about.
Ah me! that "pleasant picture" has led more than one to despise that state of life where they were, that Church where GOD has placed them; and, decking out for themselves an ideal Church which they call Rome, to make that their pleasant picture here. And how the Day of the LORD is on that pleasant picture now, it is shutting one's eyes to GOD'S Providence if we will not see. Certainly it is what we ought to notice, how, while here in England, we are beginning, however faintly, yet earnestly, to yearn for the Religious Life, in Italy, convents, so fearfully abused, religious foundations, long eaten up with sloth, are swept away in one fierce destruction: more than four hundred different houses in one week. And certainly it has struck me much, while those terrible judgments of GOD are abroad which must either purify or destroy the Roman Church, to have those fearful threatenings of Isaiah come round in their Advent lessons, which many of her holiest children have explained of the denial of the Chalice.
"The new wine mourneth." "I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in My FATHER'S kingdom," "The vine languisheth"--not, is destroyed or cut down, but languisheth--"they shall not drink wine with a song." And, most remarkably of all, "There is a crying for wine in the streets." And we can hardly fail to say, "This is the finger of GOD,"--when, on the very day on which, six years since, that sad insult was offered to our LORD, that He was not only holy, that He was not only without sin, on that day this year the decree went out against the four hundred monasteries which had been foremost in urging on that decree.
I scarcely know how I have come to look away from our own immediate duties, but that the text so naturally led that way. And now let us come back again, and take the words, no longer in a threatening signification, but in a dear and comforting sense. "The Day of the LORD shall be upon all pleasant pictures." And what meaning is this?
Did you ever see a lovely distant prospect, clear indeed and well denned, but without one ray from the sun to give it life and reality? There is the pleasant picture. Let the sunbeam fall upon it, and then you have the day of the LORD. This, I am sure, you must have noticed, (I have, over and over again,) how, as it were, some particular touch from the HOLY GHOST has fallen all at once upon a passage of Scripture, never so taken by you before, and transfigured it into a beauty which, but for that, it never could have possessed. And so of many and many a dull dry fact in itself, an event which, simply taken, is a mere piece of history; but let that day fall upon it, and what shall it not teach or typify?
But the most glorious sense of all is that in which the mediaeval Saints have taken it. They look on this earth as a collection or series of pleasant pictures, not to be done away with, not to be destroyed at the Last Day; but to be transformed and transfigured into that new heaven and new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness. You know the love of landscape which all the Religious Orders, even the strictest of them, showed; how, even those who allowed no decoration of their churches, yet chose the most beautiful spot for those churches that they could find. And all for this reason; that these earthly beauties were some day to be transmuted into that heavenly glory which yet should be not an absolute alteration, but a transfiguration of them.
That was the more beautiful sense in which, as I told you, the text might be taken. And now, dear Sisters, only this: whether on your pleasant pictures the day of the LORD so come as to separate the earthly from the heavenly, to divide, as I said, the hay and the stubble from the gold and the silver; or whether it so come as only to change the mortal into the immortal, and the earthly into the celestial; the time will come--
"When all the halls of Syon
For aye shall be complete;
And in the land of beauty
All things of beauty meet."
And now to GOD the FATHER, GOD the SON, and GOD the HOLY GHOST, be all honour and glory now and for ever. Amen.