Second Sunday after Epiphany, 1864. Strength in Battle.
Isaiah xxviii. 5,6.
THE battle! And what battle? That is one of the texts that must explain themselves. What is that battle which, from the time we wake till the time we sleep, we, and all Christian people, must, of necessity, fight? What is the battle which, from the very beginning of the Christian Church till the last temptation, now occurring at this moment, all who desire to be crowned hereafter, must struggle in, aye, and struggle through, here? What is that battle which, in such millions of phases, in such diversities of character, situation, climate, is even now being contested? Think, at this very moment, while I am speaking, of the millions of temptations going on through the world. Here, the temptations of an evening, a Sunday evening,--GOD'S service idly performed, or not performed at all: further East, the temptations of the close of the day,--prayers idly, thoughtlessly, meaninglessly said, or not said at all: still East; all the temptations of the night,--robbery, murder, impurity: still East; and they are beginning, as I speak to you, to get up at this very moment; yes, just this very moment, how many who call themselves Christians, are hurrying on their clothes without one thought of thankfulness for their safety in the past night, or of desire for the coming day! Further still, and we come to the Isles of the Sea, as the Prophet speaks, in their afternoon: in that Pacific Ocean, where, if late, yet now most truly, missionaries are at work. Can you not fancy a priest, worn out by the heat and fatigue at the four o'clock of an August afternoon, consulting with himself: "I think I have done enough for to-day:--and yet I should like-----"
Ah, my Sisters! On all those who are, at this very instant that I speak, over the whole world, tempted through idleness, self-indulgence, fear, impurity, anger, trouble--bodily or mental--weakness or strength, under-confidence, or over-confidence in themselves; JESU have mercy, and JESU help them!
Well, then: there is the battle. But something more. My Sisters, we are not many here to-night. But yet I think, since the morning, since I last have spoken to you, we have all taken a part in it. Since that time, now about eight hours ago, think, each one of you, whether she has not been tempted to some sin, greater or less; greater or less, but sin still. Ask each her own heart: Did I conquer or not?
"The battle" then is easy to be understood. But how of "the gate"? Which gate? The gate of the LORD, into which the righteous shall enter, or those gates of Hell which shall never prevail against His Church?
Perhaps we may take it in both senses. Here, in this world,--here, while, "the flesh lusteth against the SPIRIT, and the SPIRIT against the flesh, and these are contrary the one to the other, so that ye cannot do the things that ye would," we are, as it were, on the middle ground. "Turned to flight the armies of the aliens:" that is S. Paul's description of the warfare of faith. That means, does it not? that when Satan makes those terrible attacks, attacks which he never does make so fearful as on those that profess the Religious Life, you are not to be content with simple victory. Shall I quote you the words of an earnest Priest of old times?
Thus they run--he was not speaking to Sisters, but I may adapt to you what he said to men:
"You think it hard thus to be kept at the utmost stretch. You think it vexatious that what was a sufficient victory in times past is scarcely, is perhaps not, a victory now. Is that hard? that? What are you reaching forward to? What are you stretching out after? Is it the highest place, the brightest crown, the dearest acceptation? Be it so. But then: is it not to be the hardest, and lowest, and meanest, and (speaking after the manner of men) worst, of all,--your work here?"
But then, there is another sense. The gates may--and it is a clearer meaning--refer to those eternal gales: those gales whereof each one is a several pearl. The battle may be turned to the gate after another fashion. You--as one of your Sisters at this moment--may, when away from here, be engaged in a life-and-death conflict for your patient's soul. Then GOD grant you so to turn the battle, that the soul for which our dear LORD died, may, indeed, enter into those heavenly gates. How can any of you tell, how can the whole, taken together as a body, tell, how that verse, "Man goeth forth to his work and to his labour until the evening," applies to you?
"Turn the battle to the gates." Ah me! it shews this, does it not? how all your efforts can but bring men to the very outside, the extreme outskirts, the simple vestibule of the Kingdom of Heaven. And for that, even, you must fight hard: so, many of you have fought hard; so, some even at this moment, are doing their very best.
Well, then: the battle is to be turned, and that to the gate. Take it in which way you will. To the gate it must be turned. One way or the other. My Sisters, if to my poor old people in the College, I say, and I say truly, that they must be getting on, or must be going back, how much more to you? To them, with every disadvantage of age, ignorance, infirmity, still it is true: but what about those who, like yourselves, have the very prime, the very flower, the very beauty of your lives to give up to Him? You, of all people, cannot stand still. You may seem to stand at the same point? You may. It is something like this. The old-fashioned barometer slowly and with difficulty tells the state of the air. The new instrument, so sensible, so nervously quick, will predict a storm, will prophesy fine weather, long before the old sluggish quicksilver would have sensibly stirred.
All this comes from--what? That we must look back to see. "In that day shall the LORD of Hosts ... be for strength to them that turn the battle to the gate." And notice, in this chapter there is an alternation of the most glorious prophecies, and what modern taste would call the most loathsome denunciations, that even in Isaiah are to be found. Therefore, as I said, my Sisters, it is, that this chapter, and those like this, have, from their very character, so much to do with you. You must be like Jeremiah's figs: the good very good, the evil very naughty, which could not be eaten, they were so evil.
"For strength to them that turn the battle to the gate." And then we cannot but remember Him Who, in His Own human weakness, going forth from the gate, turned our weakness thereby into strength: Him, Who fell beneath the Cross that we might rise above it: Him, Who was bound that we might be free from the bonds of our sins: Him, Who was crowned with thorns that we might attain to the diadem of glory: Him, Whose most blessed Hands and Feet were fastened to the Cross, to the end that our hands might be strengthened to do His work here, that our feet might attain to the blessing promised to those who are good heralds of good tidings.
One thing more. "For strength to them that turn the battle to the gate." S. Francis de Sales, than whom, in modern times, few, perhaps, have known better where true strength lies, has a sermon on that text, "Tell me wherein thy great strength lieth." Some day, perhaps, with GOD'S help, I will give you the sum and substance of what he said to his Sisters: only now it shall suffice to say, that the great strength, as of our dear LORD, so of His loving servants, (and the greater strength, the more loving its exercises,) lay in love. As he tells us, and so truly, the old hymn speaks of love forcing our LORD to be Incarnate, to go through His long, sad life for us. In our hymn-book it is--
"What love of Thine was that which led
To lay our woes upon Thy Head."
But in the Latin it is: which forced or compelled. As--so the great mediaeval writers love to remind us--He, the Omnipotent in all other respects, was subject to His love for poor, wretched, miserable man.
And lastly: (for here also the first clause comes last in sense), when the battle is turned to the gate; when those evil spirits are driven to the place whence they came; when the conqueror--there is an old English word conqueress, and I would rather use that now--when she has returned, or has been called to, her gate--"this is the gate of the LORD, the righteous shall enter into it;" then, indeed, "in that day shall the LORD of Hosts be for a crown of glory, and for a diadem of beauty."
And now to GOD the FATHER, GOD the SON, and GOD the HOLY GHOST, be all honour and glory now and for ever. Amen.