WE have tried to feel the pressure of the great wrong of the world, to which we saw that we contributed so much that was unsuspected, through such secret channels, building up the great wrong which we denounce and loathe.
And then we thought we might fling aside all which hindered us, and might go out into the battle, and destroy the ungodly; that we might rally ourselves in the power of the great vision of that sinless humanity which is ours, which was ours, and which is restored to us through Jesus Christ. There is our true nature, we said, there is our true life, let us live in that.
We have seen the vision here and again; and there stands the Lord; and when we see no vision at all He is our pledge still that it is true; that is the standard by which alone we may judge the things of earth, the standard of the stainless man; and there He stands before us defying all the facts of daily experience, asserting still that God created man "very good," good throughout, body, soul, and spirit. And still, through that stainless Flesh which we may take, and that Blood which we may drink, still through the power of Jesus Christ, we may be regenerated and renewed, and may live as conquerors going out to this great victory of good, to destroy all the ungodly that are in the land!
And to-day, how about this song of victory? We were to make our life one song of mercy and judgment, going up in glory and splendour to God's ears. It dies down, I think, into a sort of low wail, such as I have read in this Psalm.
For, though we may have seen the vision, and though we may have dared to say, "Here am I, send me;" though we have felt the glory that might be ours; yet when we sally out to destroy the ungodly, when we give ourselves to this cause, we become aware of the weakness in ourselves. No song of victory is in our lives, no great shout of praise; the rare moments that come and go, showing us the vision only leave us more depressed, and more disheartened than before.
What is it? There is something wrong; there is something that paralyzes us; something that holds us back; something which puts a quiver into the voice as of sobbing. What is it? The stroke of the great guilt of the world is on us, and in us; we, too, are smitten, we are ashamed; we are as those who are under some evil sickness; we dare not fling ourselves out in this glad procession that goes out to slay the ungodly; we dare not take that language on our lips at all. Something is wrong; something is broken; there is a string gone within us; there is impotence, blindness, and we cannot see. What we saw for a moment has gone, and the clouds are thick on us again. There is irresolution in the soul, something is wrong.
"Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my cry come unto Thee." "My heart is smitten down and withered like grass, so that I forget to eat my bread." "I have eaten ashes as it were bread, and mingled my drink with weeping." "And that because of Thine indignation and wrath."
It is the old cry of penitence, the old voice of contrition. We fancied it to be gone; but lo! it is still ours. It is on our lips, and it breaks out again as we face our shame; and that is the cry which shall go up from our hearts to day.
Yet why is it that the cry of penitence, that the language of contrition, are so far from men to-day, so remote, so distant? In the roar and rush of the City how difficult it is to pick up this old language of contrition, and to send out those bitter cries.
Penitence? Penitence? What does it all mean?
Sir Oliver Lodge says that the strong man of to-day does not think much about his sins; he flings them behind him and goes straight forward. He deems it better not to think of what has been bad.
And yet here it is; and here are the cries; and they fill the Bible from end to end, and there must be something real in them. Why are they not ours? Why cannot we say them more sincerely and truly? Why is it?
First, I suppose, it is because this vision of which we have spoken, this vision of a stainless humanity, is always more blurred than we think. Of course, until we have seen that vision we shall have no penitence at all. Until we have really measured man by the light of that vision we can have no shame at all. Only in the light of the vision is penitence possible. It was only when Isaiah saw the glory of the Lord fill the house, and heard the cry of the Seraphim and Cherubim, only then when the doorposts of the house were shaking; only then when he saw the Lord high and lifted up; did he break out, "O woe is me! for I am a man of unclean lips . . . for mine eyes have seen the Lord of Hosts." We must see the vision first, or we shall not know at all what penitence is. Penitence is the condition of a man who measures himself in the light of the vision of the standard of Jesus Christ; then alone does he know to what depths he has fallen.
And we cannot see this vision in its reality; it is all blurred, while here; and so soon gone. Do we at all measure the amount of demoralisation in ourselves? Do we not go about in mere easy acquiescence at the state of things as it is? As we have said, man is living below himself; the world embodies and expresses an unnatural condition; it is living in a state below the level at which it was made to be; always producing an experience which ought to be alien to it; which does not belong to its true self. Yet we live in it, we all do. We must be rubbing shoulders with it day by day; and by the mere pressure of force and experience we have to settle down to it, to acquiesce in it. We do not expect anything else. We may keep ourselves free by the mercy of God from the grosser sins, but we tolerate them. We know that they are there; they give us no shock of surprise when we see them. We have long ceased to be startled at them. When we walk down Ludgate Hill or along Piccadilly in the evening, at night, we push our way through as quickly as possible, that is all. Of course it is there, and we know it. There is the great world of drink all about us; we keep away from it, but it is part of the habit of men; and our standards and our measures all settle down to the level at which men so live, here in this great city of ours. Our industries are eaten up by lies, and utterly demoralised. Well, there it is; and we may keep ourselves free from the worst of it, and keep our own path fairly clean; but nevertheless there we are in the thick of it; we expect it; we assume it; it is part of the ordinary conditions under which we live. And therefore our life slowly sinks without our knowing it; we have dropped at last to the level at which the mass of men are living; our standards are theirs, and their standards are ours. We take men and facts as we find them; and our measures at last are the measures of the unnatural, sinning man; of man as he is to day. The vision has gone; and there is nothing, we say, particularly wrong; but we ourselves are demoralised, and our tone is lowered more than we know; we are diseased and degraded; our whole life is stricken with a sort of malaria. We are living, as it were, in a vast hospital with men out of health; we ourselves are out of health as they are; we are living as they, and the smell of the hospital is over us. We are not in the health and strength which are normal; and when the vision comes to us and speaks to us of what man might be, of what man is m Jesus Christ, we are as those who are lying on sick beds or couches and are suddenly told to get up and run out and play in the sunshine. How can we? We cannot, we are below ourselves, we have gone down; for after all we live in that solidarity of human nature; all men have sunk, and we have sunk with them; and our conscience is lowered, and our life degraded; we are down with the sickness, the plague is upon us; we are living in a malarial air, and how are we to know how far we have sunk? How are we to apply the measure by which we can know our condition? As we are, we have nothing by which to measure ourselves.
Plato has spoken of our life here on earth as though it were the life of frogs under the water, under the sea, with fishy things, which imagine the water is the upper air. They have always lived down there at the bottom in the mud; and as they see the dim motion working its way down through the sodden water, they say, "this is the air." It is the only standard they have ever had; and they think it is really the living air. And when they see that dim, round, yellow ball which is faintly making its influence felt through those green, stagnant pools, they say, "That is the sun"--and they have never seen anything more than that. What would it be if they were to come up out of the water, and see the real sun in the heavens, and feel the fragrant air and the winds laughing over the fields? Oh then they would know what life meant!
It is the same with us. We have lived under the sodden waters; and the vision that we imagined we saw was really no vision at all; it was only a blurred reflection down there where we live. That, is our life, and therefore there can be no penitence, and no contrition; for we have long ceased to expect anything other than what is.
And then again, there comes that great word to explain our condition; a Christian word, and yet a word which has gone so far off from us all--the Fall.
It makes all the difference whether you think of this state of things as a condition out of which we are emerging and rising by a natural process of development inherent in us, or as a condition into which we have sunk from another nature which we have lost. Sir Oliver Lodge says, "Don't think of your sins, don't bother about them, move forward, think of man as going up; he is travelling upwards, and the sins and wretchedness which have been there, are incidents of what is behind you; leave them there; move on, move on!" This is so nice, and so pleasant. But suppose these sins are not merely the records of a past which we are leaving behind, but signals of a disease which is there; signals of a state into which we have fallen. Suppose that they are signals to show us how far we have fallen below the level at which we should be living. How shall we leave them behind then? For if they are the signals of a disease, if they are proof and evidence of a condition to which we have sunk, then we have got to recover. We have got to go through a cure; there is a process before us. There are bitter drugs; perhaps the sharp knife, an operation may be necessary. We have got to get back into health; and there must be treatment, and effort, and pain perhaps, before we recover our true state.
If sin be a signal of disease, then at once we know where we are when we come to penitence. We have got to move up and back again to our true state through a process which is painful and bitter and hard enough, and very slow, and very miserable, and often very weary. And that is what is meant by contrition and penitence and all the discipline put before us in these great Psalms.
And then we come to that other great word, Pain. We look out and we see the world sinning; yes sinning, but it is also in pain. But that pain may be the very road by which we are travelling back to God. We see a new light in pain, for the Cross has taken it up with all its wretchedness, and has turned it into penitence. Pain is the remedy; the knife is in; the bitter effort is being made; pain is the only remedy for all the misery of the world. And we will take it on ourselves and pass into it. Man is the great sinner. Man is, too, the great penitent. A true Man came here and took into Himself all this life of pain. He opened His Body to the wounds of the nails and the spear; He laid Himself down under the great tribulation, here is the true Man, the perfect Penitent for ever and for ever, Jesus Christ. It is the image of Jesus Christ which is the pledge to us of the truth of our sinless humanity, and it is the image of One hanging upon the Cross. "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" It is a cry of pain and penitence which goes up from His worn desolate soul. "O God," He is saying for us, "have mercy upon them." Here is the offering which God will accept--the broken and contrite heart. Such is the only way in which a man will lift himself out of the degradation into which he has sunk.
And we must travel this road. We had thought that we were going to fling ourselves out in some great glorious procession, and we find ourselves instead with Christ, and Christ hangs there! Yes, we too must suffer, for only through suffering will holiness be recaptured; that is why we ask you to take these words of the Psalmist on your lips.
We watch this suffering life of man, and the very depth of the woe is in some sense a comfort, for it shows how much God is doing.
And we here, in our little day, what shall we say and do? We look for no vision of light and glory; we dare not think that we shall see here before our eyes the sinless humanity. No. That is far away ahead. Enormous ages of sin and wrong lie behind us, and therefore there is a long, long work of remedy and recovery and restoration through pain and infinite sorrow before us. But the work is being done; Christ has taken it on Himself, and therefore we will not ask to see the vision accomplished. We shall be sure that long after we are dead the work will still be going on, and that some day there will be here, on this earth, a better England, and a purer London. These green fields of ours shall be filled with happy folk, and the streets and lanes of this City shall be crowded with girls and boys at play, and people will move about in sweet and ordered fellowship; there will be gladness and joy, and all the air will be filled with song, and the sound of merry bells. Yes, it will all be. God is pledged to it; Christ is working it; it will come.
But now, for us? Enough if we can in some small measure take our part in that pain, in that sorrow and contrition. Enough for us to suffer now, to bow under the great yoke, to bear a little of the austere discipline of the Cross. For then we are part and parcel of that great penitence which goes up century after century from the heart of man; we are included then in the sufferings of Jesus Christ the Eternal Penitent, Who for ever dies, and lives again. Enough for us if just in our day we have done something to kill a little of the sin in us; enough for us if we can endure, and hope, and believe, and trust, and rely on this that God is sure.
We shall learn then where we stand, how low down we are. We shall see the vision of Isaiah, and through the light of that vision we shall learn to say, "Woe is me! I know it now, I am a man of unclean lips, for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts." I should not have known myself if I had not seen the King; the very sight of my sin, the very knowledge of my unclean lips is a proof that God has been near me, that He was there. I have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts; I could not have known my sin but in the light of the vision; and therefore every new knowledge I gain of my sin is a new proof to me that God has been very near, that the doorposts have shaken with His coming, that the cries of the Seraphim and Cherubim have been very close. The lower I go in my knowledge of myself, the higher I rise in my confidence in God.
And this penitence, and this contrition goes up as a great offering before God, and has a claim upon Him; and I know that I shall be revived and restored, that even now the Angel of the Lord is flying from the Altar, and has touched my lips with the live coal, and they are clean! Therefore it is that at last I can do something to serve the Lord; therefore it is that when He asks, "Who shall I send? "we can dare to answer, "Here am I, send me!"