Sermon III. Prepare for Seasons of Grace.
THE Grace of God at all times awaits, forecomes, accompanies, follows, encompasses us. It is within us, and without us. It comes to us through ordinances, and without them. It never fails us, if we never fail It. It is every where, for It is the Holy Spirit, Who is every where, since He is God. It waketh us morning by morning, if we will hearken to It. It speaketh to us in the streets. Silence is Its very voice: the hushed soul ever hears It. We have but to enter into ourselves and It speaks to the heart. We have but to close our senses to the vanities of the world, and we hear It and know Its voice. For through It do we thus close our senses. It is about our path, and about our bed. It is even, through the unwearied mercy of our God, hard to get rid of It. For if we listen not to It, but go contrary to It, It also goes contrary to us, and confronts us, and speaks to us in a voice of loving sternness, and bids us turn back into ourselves, and into the narrow path, and to God, lest we perish. Had It not been very patient, and long-suffering, we had all been long ago in hell. If our souls are alive, through It and in It they live. It is the life of the soul, as the soul is of the body. God upholds the body in life; Himself is the Life of the Soul. If we are not naked in God's sight, It is the Robe which clothes us. When Adam lost it, he became miserably naked, and hid himself. If we are not blind, it is the Light which, streaming down through the windows of Heaven from the Sun of Righteousness, enlightens us. It is all in all to us. It is Light, and Life, and Peace, and Comfort, and Joy, and Fire of Love, for It is the Presence of God in the soul: It is the Comforter, the Father and the Son making Their abode in the soul through the Spirit.
But although Grace is ever around and in those who have not finally rejected It, there are special seasons at which It comes to individuals and to the Church; seasons in which Grace does not only trickle down as the dew, but runs down like a river, sweeping away all the barriers of earthliness, and bearing us onward like a tide; seasons which if we miss, we know not what we lose; the wave has past by, and we who might have been borne upon its crest, and carried safe, are tossing to and fro in a perilous sea. Such seasons, to individuals, are the first drawings of the child's tender soul to God; its first stirrings at the thought that it is not a citizen of this earth, that it belongs to Heaven, to eternity, to God; its first yearning to go forth out of itself to be for ever God's. Such again are the first great solemn acts of God's Providence to it; the first time death comes very near to it, and it sees the earthly close of those it loves, and in it the nothingness of this life, and the reality of the unseen world, and the beauty of Paradise, which seems to open to it, as it follows thither the parting soul it loves. Such again are its first strong upliftings in prayer, and following the drawings of God, and pantings after Communion with Him, as it seeks to rise on, and on, and on, tremblingly, yet aspiringly, if by any means it might reach to God! or its quiet waiting within itself, if so be He would come down to it. Such again are, later, its Confirmation, when it gathers itself for an earnest strife with evil, and in God's Name bids defiance to the powers of the evil one, and anew renounces the evil world with which it is more encompassed, and longs for God's instrengthening Mercy. Such is its first approach to the mysteries of its Saviour's Body and Blood, and its new mode of being, when in this wonderful way, its Saviour first dwelleth in it, and it in Him. Such, if these are unhappily wasted, are the first strong fears of Hell, borne in upon the soul by God, the first time it sees as a handwriting on the wall, "Thou art weighed in the balance, and found wanting;" its first deep dread that it may be for ever severed from God, and be for ever the sport of devils, and their companion. And if God's mercy overcome its wilfulness, such is the first return of the poor prodigal to his Father's house; the first turning of the penitent's soul to God, when it pours out all its miseries at its Saviour's Feet, hides them and itself in His "deep and sorrowful Wounds," and hears, either through His Minister, or sometimes directly from Himself, "Thy sins are forgiven thee," "go and sin no more."
Such to the elder Church, were those great barings of His Almighty Arm, in the chastening of the heathen or their own, or the outpourings of His benefits, or His calls to repentance; the deliverance from Egypt; the wonders by the Red Sea, and in the wilderness, and the entrance into the promised land; the raising up of Judges; the glory in the dedication of the temple; the mighty deeds of Elijah and Elisha; the sending of the Prophets; the repentance under Josiah; the cleansing of the captivity; the Presence of His Son, our Redeemer, in the Flesh.
Such to the Christian Church was that day in which it was first formed, that special outpouring of the Spirit, when a people of the Lord "was borne" at once, and God the Holy Ghost came to dwell in the Church of Christ, never again to depart from it. Such have been the cleansings of persecutions, the inroads of Anti-Christs, the rendings of heretics, the scourges of God, or the endurance and blood of Martyrs; Christ's life in His Saints; His preachers of repentance; every thing whereby He has made known His Presence, and said to His Church when slumbering through ease, "Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light."
Such, again, in a more peaceful way, both to Churches, and us their single members, are, year by year, the seasons of the great Mysteries of the Faith. Heaven, ever "open to all believers," since in our Nature our Lord and our God, Christ Jesus, Man and God, hath entered there, is open wider then, when the seasons come round, wherein by His "Holy Nativity and Circumcision," His "Cross and Passion," His "Precious Death and Burial," His "Glorious Resurrection and Ascension," He wrought and perfected our salvation in earth and Heaven, or by the Coining of the Holy Ghost sealed His gifts in us, which He had wrought for us. There is then a closer Intercommunion between Heaven and earth, when God the Son came down from Heaven to be Man with men, and make our earth a seed-plot for Heaven; or God died, that men might live; or Man, in God, sat on the Right Hand of God.
Year by year He renews His Mysteries of Mercy then. Year by year He is born anew in the hearts which watch by His Sacred Infancy, and long, through the virtue of his Holy Childhood, to become anew as little children. Year by year the cleansing Blood drops from His Cross, healing the wounds of those who sit under Its shadow, or penitently, with the Magdalene, clasp Its foot. Year by year It raises to a new life, hidden with His Own in God, those who, in penitence, have, through His Cross, died to sin. Year by year He lifts to Heaven those who desire, in "heart and mind, thither to ascend, and with Him continually to dwell." Year by year He cometh down to dwell in those who, by His Grace, cleanse their hearts for His In-dwelling, and cast out, more and more, all idols thence, that He Alone, the Lord of the heart, may dwell and reign there.
But although He comes to all alike who look for Him, He doth not come alike to all. He filleth all; but all do not alike contain Him. He, the Same, dwelleth in the Seraphim, on fire with love, and close around His Throne, and in the poorest, weakest penitent; but not in the same way. As is the vessel, so is the "new wine" of the Spirit, which it containeth. All may alike be full, yet all have not the same largeness. As is the longing, so is the Gift. "Open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it." The wider the mouth of the soul is opened by thirsting desire for God, the more largely will He fill it. Our capacity to receive Him, is our longing for Him. The greater the hunger of the soul after Righteousness, the more will He feed and satisfy it Who is our Righteousness.
And so, whenever God would draw near to man, He would have man prepare for that awful nearness. We cannot on the instant change our whole tone of mind. We cannot at one moment jest, the next be devout; at one moment care for earth, the next for Heaven; at one, love the creature for itself, the next, the Creator for Himself; at one, love vanity, at the next, eternity; at one, be scattered abroad amid things passing, and the next, be gathered in one into Him, Who Alone abideth; at one, be filled with the cares and pleasures and good things of this life, at the next, be emptied of self, that we may receive Him Who, as now, emptied Himself, that He might give us His fulness. Nature itself tells us that we cannot pass suddenly from one to another. If we have heavy news to convey, we try to prepare the mind, that they burst not at once upon it. Sudden joy has often taken away life or reason. If a funeral meets your eye suddenly, amid mirth, you feel a sudden shock. If a solemn thought crosses the soul, in laughter, it recovers itself as it can, hastily and confusedly together, and the very disorder of the mind shows that the sudden change is against nature. The soul feels ashamed that it was so relaxed before, so little in the state wherein it would receive the Heavenly Visitant, It seems to have laid aside the dress of the soul, and cannot at once recover it, or go to meet Him. The wise virgins had to "trim their lamps," when the piercing "cry was made"--"Behold the Bridegroom cometh, go ye out to meet Him." The bride, in the Canticles, missed Him, for a time, Whom her soul loved, when unprepared for His coming, "I have put off my coat, how shall I put it on?" "I opened to my Beloved, but my Beloved had withdrawn Himself, and was gone: my soul failed when He spake, I sought Him: but I could not find Him; I called Him, but He gave me no answer."
And this teaching of God in our hearts He enforced in the outward nearness of His visible Presence. When He willed to appear in awe on Mount Sinai, for three days was the congregation to prepare itself. "Go unto the people," He said to Moses, "and sanctify them to-day and to-morrow, and let them wash their clothes, and be ready against the third day; for the third day the Lord will come down, in the sight of all the people, upon Mount Sinai." And the feasts of the Lord were to be "proclaimed in their seasons. "Whether in chastisement or in mercy there is a season of preparation. Whether God would give them flesh to eat in the wilderness, or lead them over Jordan, or take out from among them him who had taken the accursed thing, it is still one word--"Sanctify yourselves against to-morrow." Even to Pharaoh and to Korah it is said "Tomorrow shall this sign be." "To-morrow shall the Lord do this thing in the land;" "to-morrow the Lord shall show who is His." "To-morrow," saith the vision of Samuel to Saul, "shall thou and thy sons be with me."
If such was the preparation for the type and shadow, what .for the Reality? If such for the outward visible symbols and tokens of God's Presence, what for His inward actual In-dwelling? If such for the miraculous sustenance of the body, what for the Food of the soul? If such for the entrance into the temporary land of rest, the visible Canaan, for "carnal ordinances" and animal sacrifices, and rites which cleansed not the conscience, what when the soul itself is to become the resting-place of God, to keep the Feast where the Sacrifice is "the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world;" to be cleansed by its Saviour's Blood, to have Christ, as it were, new-horn within it! If such the entrance into the type of Heaven, what when Heaven and earth are united in one! And so an Apostle's voice warns us, "Let a man examine himself,'' sift himself, "and so let him eat of that Bread and drink of that Cup." And God has taught the Church to place longer seasons of preparation before the greater Mysteries of the Faith. So now, when after three weeks of expectation, that Blessed Feast of His Birth in the flesh for us, is all but dawning upon us, has she given us a Vigil, that the body being lightened by fasting, the soul may, with the shepherds, better watch. So, on the night of the darkness of this world, there may shine a light from heaven, and not Angels' voices now, but His own, may say, in our inmost souls, "fear not; for unto you is born this day a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. "" Sanctify yourselves," said God, by Joshua, "for to-morrow the Lord will do wonders among you." Wonderful things indeed did He, as ye know. Nature trembled before its God; the waters, contrary to their nature, stood on an heap. "Jordan was driven back" at the approach of the Ark of the Presence of God. Yet what was their "to-morrow" to ours? what their wonders to those by which God has wrought our salvation? Faint shadows of the True Ineffable Substance! Great was it that water should forget its nature, the "sun stand still" in his course, strong walls fall down at the sound of a trumpet, and the "Lord hearken to the voice of a man." It was an aweful Presence of God. It shook the hearts of the idolaters, and of God's own people, not for one day only, but for their whole lives. "They feared Joshua, as they feared Moses, all the days of his life." We should stand in awe if we saw the like. Yet after a while, things were as though they had never been. "The waters of Jordan returned unto their place, and flowed over all their banks as they did before." Sun and moon held their courses as heretofore, and shall do so until "the sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood, in the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord." Not so when, as now, God became Man. Greater are the miracles of God's Humility than the miracles of His Power. He, God, the Word, "became Flesh," became as one of His creatures, when He put forth His Love. His creatures obeyed His word; they changed their order, but for a time only; they became as they had not been, they became again as they had been. The Eternal, Unchangeable Word could not change. The "Godhead" was not changed into flesh. The Divine Person of the Word is what It was; yet hath It united with It that which It had not. "He took the Manhood into God," and that (the Church teacheth) "never to be divided." He Who, as at this time, was born among us, is as truly Man as He is truly God; "Very Man," as born of His human Mother; "Very God, "as being everlastingly Begotten, of the Everlasting Father: His Person, as before, Divine, but in that Person (as it was not before), our human nature united with His Divine. Yea, since He hath so willed, He can no more cease to be Man, than He can cease to be God. God He ever was, by Nature, Man He willed to become, through the everlasting "Love wherewith He loved us," which is His Nature, for "God is Love;" HE is everlastingly what He everlastingly willed to be. Through all eternity shall all the Heavenly Hosts, who never fell, with us adore Him Who, Very God, "for us men and for our salvation became" and is "Very Man."
Well, then, might the Apostle cry out--"Oh, the depth of the riches both of the Wisdom and Knowledge of God; "Depth as unfathomable as His own Nature, which is Infinite! Well may we take to ourselves the words of Holy Scripture, "Sanctify yourselves, for to-morrow the Lord will do wonders among you." For, as to-morrow, He, Whose Name is Wonderful, the Wonderful Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace, is "born for us, to us given," as a babe, in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. Yea, and by a nearer birth, He is born in childlike hearts, or hearts which would be as little children; for the Apostle says, "I travail in birth of you, until Christ be formed in you." He is born in us when He is formed in us. He formeth Himself in us, by renewing His Image and Likeness on us. He reneweth His own Likeness in us, by stamping upon us the seal of His Spirit. He becometh "one Spirit" with us, "for Scripture saith, "he who is joined unto the Lord is one spirit." He Who took flesh in the Virgin's womb, and dwelt among us, will dwell anew in these our houses of clay. "His Holy Spirit," if we pray for It, "will come upon" us, and "the Power of the Highest will overshadow" us; He will take from us our hearts of stone, and give us hearts of flesh; He, the Son of God, by Nature, will make us more and more sons of God, by Grace; Himself, the Son of God, dwelling in us, by the Spirit, and we in Him.
And how, then, shall we prepare to meet Him? How to receive Him? In the same way, wherein He cometh to us. And how cometh He? In great humility, as a little child. He cometh to give us of His Majesty, but only if we receive His Humility; He cometh to be born in us, but only if we, in Him, die to the world; He Who "dwelleth in the Highest Heaven, and inhabiteth Eternity," cometh to dwell in us, but only if we be of a "contrite and humble spirit," "to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones." He cometh to give us of His Divine Nature, if first we seek to have our human hearts purified as a mansion prepared for Himself, and cleansed by His Holy Spirit; even as the Holy Spirit first overshadowed His Mother, and "therefore," Scripture saith, "that Holy Thing which shall be born of thee shall he called the Son of God." As He saith, "To them that received Him gave He power to become the sons of God."
"Sanctify yourselves," saith God, that is, "separate yourselves from things unholy, that ye may be separated unto Me, and I may hallow you, and make you holy." We cannot hallow ourselves; but we can, by His Grace, put off things unholy. We cannot fit ourselves for His In-dwelling; but we can, through Him, cast out all idols from our hearts, His Temple, that they offend not His Holy Eyes. We cannot fill ourselves; but we can, by His Goodness, empty ourselves of all, "the lusts of the flesh, the lust of the eye, the pride of life;" all which "is not of the Father, but is of the world," that He may give us of His Fulness, We cannot give to ourselves Him, the True Bread from Heaven, nor create in ourselves hunger after Him, our Righteousness; but we can abstain, through His gracious aid, from filling our bellies with the swine-husks, this world's goods, and vanities, and accursed pleasures, which make men loathe, as "light bread," "the Manna Which cometh down from Heaven."
This is indeed "a night much to be observed unto the Lord," a night full of light, in which "Light shone on us that walked in darkness, and dwelt in the land of the shadow of death;" a Light, unto which that created light, and the very "glory of the Lord," which shone round about the shepherds, is but darkness. Light Which, if we follow It, shall lead us to the land of everlasting light and glory; Light "Which shall shine in the darkness of our hearts," "more and more until the perfect day;" Light whereof "the day star" only shall arise in our hearts here, but which shall "transform us from glory to glory,--as by the Spirit of the Lord," until we come to the full, loving glory of our Sun of Righteousness; Light, the Effluence of Him Who is "Light of Light," and Who "came," as now, "a Light into the world, that whosoever believeth in Him should not abide in darkness."
Oh then, if we "have been sometime darkness," seek we now to be "light in the Lord." Let us now "cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armour of light." Let us follow on after Him, Who saith, "I am the Light of the world; he that followed! Me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of Life;" a Light which shall "guide our feet into the way of peace." For He Himself, as Man, is the Way to Himself as God; He, our Light here, is the Way to "that Light Which no man can approach unto" the Light of the Bliss-giving Countenance of God.
In that Light we could not endure any remaining darkness in ourselves. One spot of this world's darkness would mar the Beauty and Glory of Heaven. Seek we then out this night, if as yet we have not, by the Light of His Word, and His own Enlightening Spirit, some dark spot, some corner of our heart, that it may receive His Light. Let us not, in any thing, be of those who "hate the light, and come not unto the light, lest their deeds should be reproved." Shrink we not back, from any pain it may cost us, to admit that "burning and shining light" into our hearts, sore as it may be to see our own "darkness, which may be felt," our own vileness, and filthiness, and deformity, and how, in that light, our best deeds become "as filthy rags," our very light, becomes darkness.
"Wondrous things" indeed hath He "done among us" on the morrow; not done among us only, but been among us; not among us only, but with us; "GOD with us," by His Union with our nature; "GOD with us," by His Indwelling in ourselves. And what shall we bring Him? Oh! wondrous exchange! We need but bring Him our sorrows, and miseries, and sins,--cast them down at His Feet, in His manger-cradle, and, through His Grace, leave them there, and He will forthwith clothe us with some portion of His Holiness, and give us of His Joy. We need but bring Him of our emptiness, and He will give us of His Fulness; bring Him broken hearts, and He will re-make them, and bind them up, that they may be re-made, as vessels of His Glory, to contain Himself; feed us with His Body, which He now took, that It might be broken for us; wash us with His Blood, Which He shed for the remission of our sins; gladden us with the "new Wine" of His Spirit, so that we should go forth out of ourselves, new born as little children in His Holy Childhood, dying in His Death, living, by His Life in us, to rise again, through His Resurrection, Who is our Resurrection and our Life, on that glorious Morrow which setteth not, the Morrow of His Eternity, and Rest, and Joy, and Peace, into which His Redeemed shall enter, the Joy of their Lord. To which He, of His mercy, bring us sinners, He, our Only Saviour and Redeemer.