IN publishing, with the permission of the RIGHT REVEREND PRELATE, the following Sermon, the Editor trusts, that he is only extending to others the very great gratification which himself and all who were present derived from hearing it.
The Close, Exeter, Jan.1, 1842.
A SERMON. PSALM cxxxvii. 4.
HOW SHALL WE SING THE LORD'S SONG IN A STRANGE LAND?
THE essential holiness of every part of the service of God; the immense privilege of being allowed either to minister in the name of Christ, or to enjoy the fruits of that ministry; the blessings of an established order of religious observances; and the comfort conveyed to the mind by visible tokens of the prevalence of a pure and spiritual faith: these are subjects for daily thankfulness, which too often escape men's observation, because of their customary recurrence. Those who have lived from their childhood in a Christian country, and have heard the Gospel preached every Lord's day, and have joined in the Church prayers until they know them almost by heart; and have been accustomed to look upon their clergyman as one of themselves, and to follow in the train of his teaching, as a matter of course, are apt to forget what a vast work of grace was necessary to procure for man the enjoyment of these ordinary benefits of a Christian life.
Still more, when these enjoyments and privileges are multiplied so as to represent, in some degree, the blessings bestowed by God upon the angels who worship him in His Holiest of Holies, in His presence-chamber in the third heaven; when the house of God is opened daily for morning and evening prayer; when the Lord's song is sung without ceasing in strains of the purest and holiest melody: then it is that men are tempted most, by a spirit of self-dependence, to doubt the value of these ordinances of grace; to forget the power of continual intercession, and to think lightly of the duty of offering up to God an unceasing tribute of prayer and praise.
It was so with the Jewish people. While the temple stood, with all its visible tokens of the Divine favour and presence; while the courses of the priesthood ceased not day or night to sing the Lord's song in the unbroken succession of their ministry; while the tribes went up thrice in the year to Jerusalem, and joined in the stated services of the law; God's blessings, which had become thus customary, were held in light esteem; and the holiest privileges of their religion were looked upon as duties exacted by an austere taskmaster, and as burdens grievous to be borne. And thus the light of that day, which Abraham was glad to see, the day of the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, was hidden from their eyes; the spiritual meaning of their types was lost upon them; the voice of their prophets was heard in vain; and the prophets themselves were slain for speaking the truth which they had heard from God: the Scriptures perished by neglect, one copy alone remained, and that was hidden; until at length gross darkness covered the face of God's people:--an Egyptian darkness, in which, from the blindness of their spiritual sight, they sought for gods that might be felt and handled, and bowed down to idols of wood and stone.
But, all was lost! They then learnt its value. The ashes of the temple were more honoured than the temple itself. They learned the true character of God's service when they had felt the captivity of Chaldea, under the arrows and axes of iron, and amidst the potteries and the brick-kilns; in the loathsome dungeons, and even in their lonely watchings by the waters of Babylon; they learned at length that God's yoke is easy, and that his burden is light; they felt what it was to be separated from God, and to be shut out from the privileges of His law, and the enjoyments of His temple.
Never was there a strain of melody composed so expressive of the feeling of bereavement; so full of the sense of blessings forfeited and lost, as the words of the 137th psalm. "By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered thee, O Sion. As for our harps, we hanged them up upon the trees that are therein. For they that led us away captive required of us then a song and melody in our heaviness: Sing us one of the songs of Sion. How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning."
I cannot add one word of comment to these touching words lest I should mar their effect. They speak for themselves; for who can hear them without entering into the depth and intensity of the remorse with which the minstrels of Israel mourned, when it was too late, for the lost blessings and privileges of their religion.
How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land, is a thought that comes home to our hearts now that we are about to depart, perhaps to return no more, nor see again our native country, or the Church of our fathers. Now is it that the blessings of our pure religion, and the privileges of our apostolic Church, seem to grow upon our hearts, and to increase in value as the time for losing them draws nigh. We remember our Sion as the disobedient and thankless son remembers his parent, when the voice of her counsel is hushed in death, and the grave has hid her from his sight.
We remember now, how from our earliest years our Church has nursed us in her bosom, as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings; how the first prayers which we used were the words of our holy Mother; how the same guardian spirit watched over our growth in grace, confirming the promise of our baptism, and then inviting us to spiritual communion with Christ, and then the thought recurs, how often we have received that blessed sacrament of the body and blood of Christ with thankless hearts! how little we have thought of our vital union with Him in the body of His church; how feebly we have felt that we are in Him and He in us, that we are one with Him and He with us; till the time comes when we are to be severed in the body from our parent stock, to learn the value of our spiritual union with the Church in the hour of partial separation.
We remember now the prayer times of our youth; the frequent services of our school and college chapel, which then we thought it only a duty to attend, but now we remember it as a privilege. All the ministrations of grace of which we have been partakers from our youth up seem to pass before the mind in a moment of time, when we reflect that one blast of the wind will remove us far from the sight of all that we have loved.
We remember how often in former days we have entered such venerable temples as this in which we are now assembled without awe at the thought that this is the house of God and the gate of heaven. We looked upon its clustered columns, and its high overhanging roof, and the' symbol of the Cross traced out in the majestic symmetry of its outline, and its every line converging upward, as if the whole building were hung from heaven rather than based upon the earth: we once looked on these as the mere triumphs of human skill, but now they stand forth as the visible emblems of the majesty of the Church of Christ; as memorials of the self-denying zeal of the men of old; as the temples of the living God; as the glorious tombs of the saints of Christ; as the meeting-place of the spirits of the living with the spirits of the dead; as the peaceful home in which some who are here to-day will be gathered with their fathers! Full of these feelings of reverential love, I am thankful to be allowed to come here this day, to feast my eyes and to feed my mind with the sight of one cathedral more before I go far hence to seek for a place for the temple of the Lord, an habitation for the mighty God of Jacob; in the hope, like David, of finding it "in the wood."
Again, we remember how often we have heard the Lord's song rising to heaven from within such choirs as this, where the priests and minstrels, as in the temple of old, sing to the Lord with a voice of melody, and make a cheerful noise unto the God of Jacob. But we never felt until now the value of the Lord's song, when the question comes home to our hearts, " How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" We learn to feel now, that in that voice of melody which we have heard this day the faithful spirit hears the strains of the minstrelsy of heaven; that such will be the employment of the saints in light, to sing the Lord's song without ceasing, and to praise Him evermore; that such as these, though purer and holier far, will be the anthems of the cherubim and seraphim, and the song of the multitude of the heavenly host who will herald the second coming of the Prince of Peace.
Again, we remember the daily intercession offered up in these houses of prayer for the whole church of Christ. We once wondered at the perseverance of your prayers: when, sometimes, the priests and choristers were the only worshipers, we were tempted to question the value of your daily services; for we had not considered that the cathedral priest is a minister of the Eternal God, dependent not upon the caprice of man, but upon the commandment of Christ, who is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever; that his duty is, to keep the watch of the Lord his God, even when others have forsaken Him. Shall we not, then, remember our Jerusalem, when all is changed around; when the old things are passed away, and all things have become new: when the time-honoured usages of our native country are lost and hidden for a season; and while we are borne along by the tumult of worldly cares, like trees torn up by the roots and hurried down the mountain torrent, shall we not often think of the holy calm which reigns here; of your hours of peaceful prayer; of your harmonious notes of praise; and, remembering your daily intercession, shall we not rejoice to think that prayer is made without ceasing of the Church unto God for us?
"How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" The question leads us to think of the past as well as of the present. For, there was a time when they who planted the Church of Christ in this country, then a wilderness and a strange land, coming from countries where God was worshipped with customary reverence and stated service, were dejected in spirit, as if in doubt whether they would be able to sing the Lord's song in a strange land, as they had heard it sung in their native country. They looked upon the wide forests, and the rude inhabitants of Britain, as we now look upon the woods and the people of New Zealand, as a noble field for Christian enterprise, but one in which we might fear to fail. But, as they went on in obedience to Christ's commandment, and in faith in his promise, so may we be sure that wherever we go, and in the midst of all difficulties, God's presence will be on us, and He will give us rest.
Together with this primary principle of simple faith, as the corner-stone on which we must build our Church, we learn the duty of care and fore-thought in sowing the seed of the Gospel. They who first planted in England a new branch of the vine of Christ, took care to fence it round, that the wild boar of the forest might not trample it down. Our cathedral precincts were the fenced and guarded vineyards of the Lord, the stationary camp of the soldiers of the Cross, the rallying point of the baffled and disheartened pastors: the fold of the shepherdless and scattered sheep. Here it was that the Gospel, when driven from the field, gathered strength within its own fastnesses, to go forth again in the name of the Lord of Hosts to fight the battles of the Cross against the giant forms of pagan superstition.
Here, too, the young were taught to prove the weapons of their future warfare against the strongholds of Satan, to discipline themselves by prayer and fasting, and self-denial, that they might take up their cross and follow Christ.
And here the aged priests treasured up their stores of spiritual experience and learning, as reservoirs for the supply of a thirsty land, where there was no water of life; and from time to time they dug new wells in the wilderness around; and stationed a priest at each to draw for the people, because the well of God's truth is deep, and the people had not wherewith to draw; and thus the whole land at length was fed; and the churches of England were like Isaac's well of Rehoboth, for the Lord had "made room" for all, that whosoever would might drink of the water of life freely.
Within the cathedral precincts the bishop held the council of his presbyters, as a central organ, to act as the moral heart of man, in feeling for the wants of the whole body, and, as the natural heart, in circulating the life's blood throughout the extremities. This was the centre upon which the whole system hung, compacted by that which every joint supplied; by the due subordination of its priests, its deacons, and its choristers,-all governed by one head; all subject to one rule of faith; all devoted to the service of one Lord and Master; all blessed with the same spiritual privileges of communion and prayer.
Here, too, the hungry were fed, and the naked were clothed, and the sick were healed. And thus there flowed back continually from the cathedral gates, a stream of grateful witnesses, to tell, in their own distant neighbourhoods, what great things the ministers of Christ had done for them in their Master's name; and thus the witness of the Gospel was spread throughout the land, as Christ's message came to John in the prison. "The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear; and blessed is he whosoever shall not be offended in me."
"How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" This is no longer a disheartening thought, but one full of comfort, and hope, and promise. For we have a sure foundation on which to build our Church, on the simple faith in Christ's promise, that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. To the believer no land is strange, for the time is come when the true worshiper may worship the Father everywhere in spirit and in truth. And, though we have to leave these glorious temples of our native Church, to find in the wild woods our school of architecture, and to worship God under the open canopy of heaven, or under the shade of overarching trees, or in the tabernacle, which as of old must be the forerunner of the temple; yet, looking to the noble work which God has done in old time by the hands of our forefathers; and remembering that, when those works had their beginning, no doubt the builders trembled for their insufficiency, both of spirit to plant the Gospel, and of means to build up the temple; and yet the Gospel was planted, so that now it has grown into a great tree; and the foundations of the house of God were laid, and it has risen to be the venerable pile which we see around us. Why, then, should our hearts faint within us, when we go forth to sow the seed, and to lay the corner stone of the Church of Christ in the most distant of the islands of the sea? God's promise is sure to those who build in faith upon the foundation of Christ.
I speak as to men who know the blessings of their own cathedral ministry, who love the Lord's song, and value the daily intercession of the Church, and reverence even the goodly stones in which the visible ordinances of grace are here enshrined. Pray for us, that in the strange land to which we are called, we also may find in time the same spiritual comfort, and the same visible and outward aids to spiritual devotion. May we have both the spirit to preach the Gospel, and the strength to arise and build the temple of the Lord! May we also have our cathedral church, in which we may sing the Lord's song with a voice of melody! And may God grant, that from that central reservoir we may pour forth streams of living water, to feed the sheep whom God has given to our care; there may the young be taught, and the servant of Christ be trained up for his ministry; there may the books of the holy fathers of the Church minister to the godly learning of every succeeding generation; there may the elders of the church sit in council for the public good; and here may the ordinances of daily prayer and weekly Communions shadow forth the unwearied service of the angels of God; there, too, may the hungry be fed, and the naked clothed, and the sick healed; and, above all, there may the poor have the Gospel preached unto them!
Brethren, pray for us!