Project Canterbury

Sermons on Passages from the Prophets
by the Rev. John Mason Neale

London: J.T. Hayes, 1877.

Sermon XXIV.
Fourth Sunday after Trinity, 1857.
Isaiah xlix. 4.

I SPOKE to you this morning of man's weakness; now let us hear of GOD'S strength. I told you how man needed comfort; now let us see how GOD proves Himself the GOD of all consolation. There would be no use in our looking at ourselves, unless we were afterwards to turn away our eyes to Him; the confession would be a miserable thing indeed on our lips, unless it were followed by the absolution from His. Now we left out one word this morning, which is certainly not the least remarkable in the sentence; and it is, Then. "Then I said, I have laboured for nought." This must surely refer to some time of great discouragement, to some more than ordinary fall, to some occasion above others in which the Prophet, as afterwards the Apostle, found that when he would do good, evil was present with him. Look back then: and what precedes? "The LORD hath said unto me, Thou art My servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified." Yes: the LORD had spoken, but the Prophet, at that time, did not hear: that most sweet and loving voice was true, indeed: true, at the very moment of his greatest despondency, but not audible: "Thou art My servant," GOD said: and that servant thought all his labour in vain; "in whom I will be glorified," said the Captain; and the soldier speaks of spending his strength for nought. Ah, dear Sisters, Isaiah was not the last, by many thousands, who thus mistook GOD'S voice. His mistake is written for our instruction. At the very time when you have felt cast down, discouraged, hopeless, ready to give up, saying with Rebekah, "If it be so, why am I thus?" depend on it that GOD'S words have been the same as of old: "Thou art My servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified." It is as if that dear and gentle LORD, that Strength of all who labour for Him, that Bridegroom of all Virgin-souls, said, said to each of you, "My child, in the days of My Flesh, I came into the world to this very end, that I might be thy Servant. To this purpose I wrought night and clay, by My labours and My prayers, by My miracles and by My sermons, by My journeyings and by My restings also. And lastly, because I could serve thee effectually in no other manner, I ministered to thee on the Cross; and, like a most faithful servant, died for thy sake. Now I have chosen thee for My servant: I have sealed thee for Myself: I have given the grace which led thee to long after My stricter service: I have begun the good work, and it depends on thyself that I should perform it. I know thy many sins, thy many doubts, thy many shortcomings: but I, Who know all things, know also that thou lovest Me. I know all the disobedience of My child, all the rebellion of My servant, all the wanderings of My lamb, all the faithlessness of My bride. But having loved thee with an everlasting love, I will not so give thee up. Thou art troubled and disquieted, but thou art Mine still: thou seemest to be given up to thyself, but I am leading thee through paths which thou hast not known: 'thou art My servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified.'"

They knew well, those great Masters of the Christian Life, those great Saints whom God has raised up from time to time to be the special Doctors of the Church, how often and often His truest servants are ready with this doleful verse of Isaiah; with its beginning, I mean, without ever going on to its end. And therefore, like wise physicians, they have set themselves to cure this disease; like able generals, they have set themselves to meet this attack. And first they shew us, that the book which is above all others our book, the book of our daily sorrows and our daily comforts, of our most usual prayers and praises, of our repentance, and our praise, is full of one great remedy for every temptation to despond. Who are they that, in the book of Psalms, are oftenest mentioned as connected with GOD'S best graces and blessings? You know for yourselves: the true of heart-Over and over again they are counted worthy of some especial blessing: sufficient proof that theirs is a work of no small difficulty. And it is this: the maintaining of that same spirit which led Job to say, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him;" and which must lead you to say, "Though He seem to forsake me, yet will I serve Him." Dearest Sisters, you are the worst possible judges of your own success, either in your own hearts, or in those around you. Leave all that in GOD'S Hands. Let it be, if you will, that you have done no more than Satan would often try to persuade you is the case, What follows? Surely, GOD'S command to Moses: "Wherefore criest thou unto Me? Speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward." There is something to be done at every moment for GOD, better than vain thoughts of how much more you might have done for Him in times past. A Sister's life must always be a beginning again. I have told you before, that, where we read in the Psalms, "And I said, This is my infirmity," it is in reality, "And I said, Now have I begun: this shall be the change of the right hand of the Most High." Every fresh duty is a call to fresh beginning. We need not wait for any marked time or season; need not? we must not. Every one of your Hours of prayer, ought to be, so to speak, a fresh departure. Whatever failures before, they shall not be now. Whatever broken resolutions before, they shall be kept now. And see how, if we really and earnestly did this, we should so feel to be living in GOD'S strength, that we should have no time for discouragement. In a few hours we shall meet here for our night service. What if this night, and every night, we were to resolve, that let our thoughts have wandered, let our affections have been as cold, let our thoughts have been as dead as they may in times past, this night there should be a change, this night it should be, "And I said, Now have I begun?" An hour later, and you will be engaged in your self-examinations. What if you were to resolve, this night and every night, that, let them have been sometimes in time past hurried, careless, negligent, matters of form rather than of spirit, henceforth, and more especially this evening, it shall not be so; that, by the grace of the HOLY GHOST, you will be more real, more resolved to banish everything, however small, that is against GOD'S Will: more determined, in confessing that which is past, to hope and to watch for the future? A little later, and you will have finally commended yourselves to GOD'S care, and will be lying down in His protection. What, if this night and every night, you should resolve that, let whatever other thoughts have intruded there in times past, this night, and henceforth, those beds of yours should be, as it were, sanctuaries, into which no thought, not of your own dear LORD, should be permitted to intrude?

One of the greatest Saints of mediaeval times made this resolution: that, whenever he heard the clock strike, he would begin his Christian life all over again, as if he had never commenced it before. With such a constant effort, it is impossible to be discouraged. This is, in the way well pleasing to GOD, "to forget the things that are behind, and to press forward to those which are before."

And surely, above all other times, there is one season at which you should always try to begin over again; and that is, after each Confession. The more need, not only because you then go forth, forgiven and strengthened, to the battle, but because Satan, as he delights to injure and to taint all the means of grace which GOD gives, so out of this blessed Sacrament itself he sometimes tries to raise up a source of discouragement. "I have come so often, I have been forgiven so often, I have resolved so often, and yet I fall as much and as often as ever. What is the use of it? What can be the use of it? It is a profession, rather than a confession, of sin: it is a proof rather that I am serving my own sinful nature, than that I am desiring to serve GOD." Thus the greatest of His servants have said again and again: and that too, at the very moment when GOD was saying to them, "Thou art My servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified." True: their confessions have seemed as sad, as full of falls, as full of sins of omission and commission, now, as last year.

But why? Because their consciences are now so much more tender: because they now see that to be sin which before they could scarcely conceive to be an error; because they now know that to be a duty which before it never entered into their minds to accomplish. So that actually, what ought to be an encouragement oftentimes becomes a source of despondency. Instead of thanking GOD that we see more clearly, even though that sight shews us more of our sins, we think that because those sins seem as many and as sad as ever, we are making no progress, if not actually going back. I was reading a passage the other day, which, speaking of a science very different from that of a Christian life, exactly expresses this. The writer was remarking, that at first sight the science of navigation might be said not to have improved at all in the last two centuries: that more mistakes are entered in the ships' logbooks, more errors detected, reckoning more often miscalculated. And why? Not because sailors cannot now navigate with twenty times as much accuracy as then; but because they attach so much more importance to a trifling mistake, think more of an error of a minute now, than of an hour then,--of a mile now, than of a degree then. It proves, does it not? That the science has gained in depth and accuracy: the very character and number of its mistakes is the surest proof. And so, every earnest servant of God may rest assured it is with him. Whenever you feel tempted to this kind of discouragement, be very sure that there is scarcely one of your Sisters throughout the world who does not often and often suffer from it: "Then I said, I have laboured in vain."

Now you know very well that there are two ways of opposition to every temptation: either open resistance, or flight; and that it is a great part of the science of Saints to know which is best for each particular temptation, and on each especial occasion. There are some that must be met openly, and conquered at once: as, for example, slothfulness and discontent: to fly from them is out of the question. There are others where to fly is the truer victory: as, generally speaking, thoughts of anger and want of charity; always, thoughts, however slight the degree, of impurity. And with this kind, we must put all thoughts of discouragement. My dear Sisters, try to turn away from them, without even attempting to argue with them. Do not allow yourselves to reason whether you have, or have not, cause to be discouraged. Leave all that in GOD'S Hands. "I said I have laboured in vain: I have spent my strength for nought, and in vain: yet, surely, my judgment is with the LORD." If He has accepted you, and you know that He has, what right have you to say that the past has been only a succession of failures? The temptation comes with an appearance of humility; it is Satan transforming himself into an Angel of light; hut it is Satan still, and in only the more dangerous shape. You have no right to undervalue the grace which GOD has given you. You may grieve that you have not made more use of it, that you have not walked more worthy of it, that you have not brought forth the fruit which this heavenly dew would have enabled you to bring forth. But when you go further than this, you are undervaluing, not yourselves, but GOD'S gift; you are making light of His blessings, underrating His love. What, but GOD'S grace, could ever have brought you to a first Confession? What, but GOD'S grace, could ever have enrolled you in the life you now desire to lead, and caused you to give up earthly ties and earthly love for His Love which is better than the life itself? What, but GOD'S grace could give the comfort and blessedness which you find in the Body and Blood of your LORD? Do not undervalue these things. That grace was given you for no merit of your own; but never allow yourselves to be persuaded that it has not been given at all.

And now see how our dear LORD Himself suffered from this temptation. Two of the assaults of Satan began, "If Thou be the Son of GOD." And the Church has always held that this was a temptation to our LORD'S Human Soul to doubt its union with the Eternal Word. How this should be, that our LORD should permit His Manhood thus to be tempted, is not only beyond our powers, but probably beyond that of the Archangels, fully to understand. But in it He vouchsafed for our sakes to tread the same path, that of discouragement, that He knew so many of His people would be afterwards called to pass. "If you were the true child of God," Satan still says, "such and such a thing-would not happen; you would not so often fall; by this time you could have no doubts, by this time your progress would be beyond all question." When this happens, dearest Sisters, think of the Incarnate SON of GOD in the wilderness, and meet your tempter as He met His, with, "Get thee behind me, Satan!"

"Yet surely my judgment is with the LORD, and my reward with my GOD." What judgment? That, which He Who sees all things, Who knows us better than we know ourselves, Who can perceive true love amidst so many falls, true resolution amidst so much backsliding,--that judgment which even now He is making of us. The prophet thought all was wrong, all hopeless, all discouragement: and GOD'S judgment was, "Thou art My servant, O Israel, in whom I will he glorified." And notice that very epithet, "Israel." For when was the name first given? When Jacob had power as a prince over GOD and man, and prevailed. Isaiah, in his own judgment, was labouring for nought, spending his strength in vain: in GOD'S, he was the victorious prince, the chosen servant, the instrument of His Master's glory.

See how exactly this answers to that saying of S. Paul: "With me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man's judgment: yea, I judge not mine own self. For I know nothing by myself; yet am I not hereby justified: but He That judgeth me is the LORD. Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the LORD come, Who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of GOD." He would say that those who have here doubted and trembled as to their acceptance, and thought they were no true servants of the LORD, shall then have all their doubts driven away for ever, shall have that praise, "Well done, good and faithful servant."

And again: S. Paul says, "Whether we be afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation." And. my dear Sisters, that is one reason why GOD permits any temptation to happen to you: that you may be the better able to comfort, that you may be the more ready to sympathise. All such temptations are privileges, if we only take them rightly: not only helps to ourselves, but helps to our helping others: part of the training of Sisters more especially. If you were without what those so often are tried with, who are serving GOD in the same way, would it be any the better sign of His love to you, or of your progress to Him? I think not indeed.

And then comes the happy and concluding clause. "And my work with my GOD." Special difficulties I have always told you that you must expect; special comfort hereafter, not I, but the HOLY GHOST Himself tells you, you will have. Here, as I see you struggling, each with her own difficulties and discouragements, this is the happy anticipation, that some day, if GOD of His infinite goodness grant me a place in His kingdom, I shall see their most blessed end. We shall not forget these things there, dearest Sisters: we shall remember, as Moses says, all the way by which the LORD our GOD led us: we shall call to mind how, again and again, you were strengthened with His Body and Blood Whom then you will behold in His Beauty; we shall recollect these Sunday evenings, in which we first worshipped Him under His dearest of Names, and then spoke of His strength or our own difficulties; of these Sunday evenings, when that shall be fulfilled of which Venerable Bede writes in his hymn:--

"Then, then that Sunday shall ensue,
Thd day whose end no eye shall view,
When this our flesh, from sin made free,
Shall put on immortality."

Shall we ever see those things, my own dear Sisters? Shall we ever look back upon these cares, and troubles, and dangers, as we now look forward to that glory and that happiness? Shall we ever say, in the fullest sense of the words, "Surely goodness and mercy have followed me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the House of the LORD for ever?" Is not the very thought sufficient to enable us to lay aside every weight, to resolve on any effort, to despise any self denial? GOD grant that we all,--you, and our absent Sisters, and myself, not one wanting of the full number, not one failing in the completed work,--may one day, of our dear LORD'S great goodness, receive the comfort of them that now mourn in Sion, the beauty for the ashes, the oil of joy for the mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness!

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

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