Sermons on the Apocalypse, the Holy Name, and the Proverbs
by John Mason Neale.
London: J.T. Hayes, 1871.
SERMON VIII Preached on the last Sunday after Trinity, 1856. FAINT, YET PURSUING.
"Behold, I come quickly: hold fast that thou hast, that no man take thy crown."--REV. iii. ii.
IT is impossible to approach Advent,--the first Advent we have thus spent together, the first Advent in which we have openly undertaken the especial service of GOD,--without thoughts which this verse seems exactly to express; the two clauses: one of which may well make us tremble, while the other is full of brightness and of hope. Just so I feel with respect to all of you; now more than at other times, because such a season cannot pass over you without doing you either great good or great harm. Each of you has besetting sins to overcome, against which, if she have not made considerable progress by Christmas, she will be much further off from the goal of her hopes, the crown of her struggles, a joyful recompense from her LORD and her GOD. Each of you has some good resolution to cherish, which the coming season has the power of fostering and drawing out, as warm spring weather does the buds and flowers. And, if they are not so drawn out, they will be checked and nipped, if not utterly cut off, before we come to the glorious festival to which we are now beginning to look forward. Then with all these thoughts comes that also,--that if it be so, if any one of you, my dearest Sisters, go back instead of advancing, the fault, it is true, will also be yours, but neither, perhaps, may I be altogether guiltless. So that, on the whole, the approach of any season like Advent, and more especially its approach in a House like this, where we know who will ask the question, "What do ye more than others?" might well make us say, "Who is sufficient for these things? "
But then, on the other hand, if Advent calls us to look on to that fearful day in which the righteous scarcely shall be saved, then the last week of the Church's year invites us to look back. And when I see how GOD has hitherto led you all safely on, not indeed without many falls and weaknesses, but still on--how, having obtained help of GOD we all stand before Him this day--I can also say with S. Paul, "Being confident that He which hath begun a good work in you, will perform it until the day of JESUS CHRIST." And I say to you, in looking back to the last year, and especially to that latter part of it, since we have been more closely knit together, since we have been fixed in this place, "Thou shalt remember all the way which the LORD thy GOD led thee, and humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna"--(Ah, my dear Sisters, you know how often!) "that He might teach thee that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live."
Yes, you all come to this Advent in a far different way from that in which you have approached the Advents of past years. Never before had any of you the responsibility of so many Holy Communions, never before had you so much strength given you by the Body and Blood of Him That is all strength. Since last Advent, several of you have made your first Confessions, have passed through all the shame and misery of preparing for them, have known the blessedness and comfort of being able to forget the things that are behind, and reaching forth to those things that are before; have gone through fire and water, and have been brought out into a wealthy place. And all of you have at least been more regular in Confession--all of you in the very nature of things more regular in prayer--all of you approach this holy season for the first time averring: " As for me and my house, I will serve the LORD." Dearest Sisters, knowing what you each of you know of yourselves, do not you think that I have some reason to be anxious for you all? Every reason indeed, were it not for one thing: --I know that He Whom you serve is able to keep that which you have committed unto Him against that day; and I know that the promise still holds good.
Now listen again to the first part of the text: " Behold I come quickly; hold fast that thou hast." Now, at first sight, this seems one of those disappointing verses, of which I have spoken to you before, where, after some great grace or blessing is pronounced, the duty or consequence of it is so much less--to say it with all reverence--so much poorer, than we might have expected. For example: "Take unto you the whole armour of GOD, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all to"--what? Having done all, to stand; and that is all. "Therefore, seeing that we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we"--what? "We faint not." And now, again: "Behold, I come quickly"--and how might we have expected the verse to conclude? Would it not have been: "And we know that when He shall appear we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is." Would it not have been: "Behold, I come quickly. Even so, come, LORD JESUS?" And yet you see how much less, how much tamer, the exhortation at first sight seems. "Hold fast that thou hast!" What! we might ask, is this all? looking for that blessed hope and the glorious appearing of the great GOD and our Saviour JESUS CHRIST; that appearing, the anticipation of which might enable us to do anything, to endure any labours, to despise any sufferings--is this all? Only to hold fast that we have? Only not to go backward? Yes; but this is not all the sense, as we shall see presently; yet still, in that sense, there is a great lesson for us. Not to go back in anything is to advance most surely. Never to permit ourselves to do less for GOD in any one way than we have ever done, necessitates us to take many and many a step onward; else we cannot hold our own. S. Paul says, They measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise. But this much at least we may do, we may resolve by the grace of the HOLY GHOST never to do less than we have done at the best; and, notwithstanding falls and shortcomings, to resolve on keeping what we have gained, and to remember that most true proverb, "He that, in running, stumbles without falling takes a step quicker."
But after all, "Hold fast that thou hast," is best explained by the latter part of the verse, "That no man take thy crown." The crown then is yours already, only hold it fast. It may well be called "that thou hast," because nothing else is worth having at all. But the very expression, "hold it fast," shows what a struggle you must expect for it. Well then, this verse gives us the great comfort of the season of Advent. If it be a hard struggle, it cannot be a long one. Venerable Bede told us, at All Saints, "For the ineffable and unbounded goodness of GOD has provided this also, that the time for labour and for agony shall not be extended, not long, not enduring, but short, and, so to speak, momentary: that in this brief and little life should be the pain and the labour; that, in the life to come, which is eternal, should be the reward; that the labours should come quickly to an end; but that the reward of endurance should be without end; that after the darkness of this world, they should behold, the most beautiful light." And notice, that the same command is given to two of the seven Churches, and in both cases is joined to the same declaration. To Thyatira it is written, "That which ye have already, hold fast till I come." To Philadelphia, as we have heard, "Behold I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast." Till I come. I wish we had those words constantly in our hearts; a hard struggle to carry on, a hard race to run; but then it is only "Till I come." Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might--because the night is at hand when no man can work--because it is only "Till I come." There is but a short time to do deeds of love; there is but a short time to fight the good fight of faith; there is but a short time to exercise hope. "Behold, I come quickly" ..."So much the more as ye see the day approaching." And now, my dearest Sisters, you must each for yourselves resolve to take some special task in hand this Advent, ay, and resolve further that Christmas shall not find it undone. You have yet time to make up your determination about this before the old year of the Church, whose sands are fast running out, shall have come to an end. For my part, as you all know, I am ready, as I am bound, to help you to the uttermost of my power; but, after all, remember that it is very poor help that any earthly assistance can be. "It is not in me; GOD shall give Pharaoh an answer of peace." "That no man take thy crown." S. Bernard says, "It is well said: thy crown. For to all that have contended here, although in different fights, to all that have run well here, although in different races, a special crown is appropriated; as the Martyrs shall wear a diadem of ruby, the Confessor of gold, so also for Chastity is there a crown of snow-white brilliancy."
And not so only: but as the cunning artificer decks the crown which he has in hand with many and various jewels, according to the riches and the pleasure of him for whom it is made, so each good work done by the elect in this world, forms as it were a separate gem in the diadem of their blessedness on high. Each, therefore, has his crown; as each has his own sorrows and trials in this valley of misery, so each has his own reward and coronation in the Kingdom of Glory: according to that saying, "The heart knoweth his own bitterness, and a stranger doth not intermeddle with his joy." "Hold fast that thou hast" against Satan, against the world, against yourself. Against Satan, whom our King was slain that He might conquer; against the world, which our Saviour was manifested that He might redeem; against yourselves, whose likeness the Infant of Bethlehem took on Himself, whose nature He assumed, to whom He left an example that we might follow His steps. He indeed held fast that He had. He laid His hand on this world to deliver it from the power of the enemy; and not even in death did He relax His grasp, till He had led captivity captive, and received gifts for men. He will hold us fast, never doubt it; if only we have grace and courage to cling to Him in spite of all hindrances, to go with Him in spite of all dangers, to abide with Him in spite of, and through, all temptations. And now, &c.