Project Canterbury

Through Fire and Water
And Other Sermons, Preached in St. Ignatius' Church, New York
by the Rev. Arthur Ritchie

New York; the Guild of St. Ignatius, 1898.

The Sound of the Lord Cod.

"And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden."--GEN. III., 8.

Dean Stanley in his Sinai and Palestine calls Elijah the prophet "the grandest and most romantic character that Israel ever produced," and if we restrict the matter to Old Testament days no one is likely to gainsay that judgment. In the Acta Sanctorum of the Bollandists, the great prophet is styled Prodigiosus Thesbites, that is the marvellous Tishbite. His whole life is one miraculous romance. He appears on the scene of Israel's history in the days of wicked king Ahab, some 900 years before our Lord. He prophesies that there shall be no rain for three years. At the end of the three years he has that great sacrifice at Mount Carmel, and slays all the prophets of Baal. Then fleeing for his life he is miraculously fed and preserved by God. At last he is caught up by a whirlwind into heaven. Howbeit his biblical story does not end here. He is seen on the mount of the Transfiguration along with Moses, talking with our Lord; and many in the Church have piously believed that he and Enoch are the two witnesses of which St. John speaks in the Revelation, who are to come to the earth in the days of Antichrist, bear their witness for our Lord, be put to death as martyrs, and raised up the third day in order that they may visibly ascend into heaven. It was in that melancholy flight for his life, after he had slain all the prophets of Baal, that Elijah experienced the wonderful vision of the Lord's power and tenderness. The story is full of poetic beauty. The trembling, almost despairing prophet, seems to have been miraculously guided to mount Horeb, that is Sinai, and to have taken refuge in the very cave or "clift of the rock" in which Moses was put five hundred years before, when the vision of the glory of the Most High was vouchsafed him. There Elijah had his soul-satisfying vision likewise. "Behold the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. And it was so when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave." This "still small voice" is literally in the original "the tone of a gentle blowing," as perhaps the soft notes of an aeolian harp. Could anything be more expressive of the tender compassionateness and long-suffering fatherly patience of God than this plaintive sound of a whispering voice? But there was that about it which thrilled the prophet, and made him wrap his face in his mantle when he went out to listen to what the Lord God would say. This is perhaps the most striking of all the sounds of the Lord God in the Bible.

I. Let us however take notice of some of the Others recorded for us in the Old Testament.

i. Naturally one turns from the still small voice which Elijah heard to the vision which Moses had in the same clift in Mount Horeb. The great lawgiver was pressed down with the sense of the responsibility laid upon him to bring all that host of rebellious Israelites through their wanderings in the desert to the promised land. Full of the consciousness of his utter dependence upon Jehovah, and longing for assurance concerning His love and protection, Moses cried "I beseech Thee, shew me Thy glory." And He said, I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before thee, and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy." So He put Moses into a clift of the rock and covered him with His hand while He passed by, for that glory was so great that no man beholding it could live. Then when the brightness of the vision was gone, God took away His hand in order that His servant might see such remainder of that unspeakable radiance as human eyes were capable of looking upon. The sound of the Lord God in Moses" vision seems to have been in the proclamation of the divine mercy and graciousness, a voice no doubt ravishing in sweetness and full of celestial consolation uttering majestic sayings in the hearing of the lawgiver, and giving him courage and zeal to go on with his high vocation unflinching to the end.

2. More terrifying than the voice which Moses hearkened to that day, more awe-compelling than that tone of a gentle blowing to which the enraptured Elijah listened, were the sights and sounds which accompanied the giving of the Law to Israel at Sinai. St. Paul describes the appalling wonders of that day as "blackness and darkness and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and the voice of words; which voice they that heard intreated that the word should not be spoken to them any more." All was terror and direful threatening against impiety and disobedience. Such was the sound of the Lord God at Sinai. And in many places in the Old Testament we have somewhat similar manifestations of the awe-inspiring terribleness of God, His revelations of His will being accompanied with the thunder and lightning, and the blast of that amazing celestial trumpet which strikes fear into every heart.

3. In the passage I have taken for our text we have yet another revelation of the sound of the Lord God. Adam and Eve had just committed their great sin in the matter of the forbidden fruit. As a result of their transgression they had come to know good and evil, as the wily tempter had said they should, with mournful clearness. "The eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked." Then it was that they heard "the voice of the Lord God;" it is more literally the sound of the Lord God, "walking in the garden in the cool of the day." We do not know just what that sound was like, but it must have been one which immediately arrested the attention, and inspired awe, in the certainty that it was caused by the approach of the Almighty. Some commentators have thought it implied a roaring and a crashing among the trees, as if caused by a mighty wind, like that "going in the tops of the mulberry trees," which David and his men were to take for a signal to issue forth and smite the Philistines. It matters not what the nature of the sound in Eden was which proclaimed the coming of the Lord God to judgment. It was sufficiently terrifying, whether it were loud or soft, to make Adam and his wife hide themselves among the trees in their guilty shame.

II. I believe that we may rightly regard all of these various manifestations of the presence and power of God among His people as typical of permanent declarations of His relations to them. He no longer outwardly utters the still small voice which so thrilled the soul of Elijah; He does not in our consciousness pass by the cowering Moses, hidden under the protecting hand, and proclaim "The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth;" nor does He thunder from Sinai, nor draw nigh the guilty with an awful tread amid the forest trees. Nevertheless He would remind men that His judgments in these days are not less to be feared by the guilty than they were in old times.

i. The terrors of the giving of the Law on Sinai were for the sake of impressing those wilful and heedless Hebrews with the sense of the divine holiness and power, that they might fear to offend so terrible a God. One cannot cease to marvel that they had so little effect. There never has been a nation to whom such manifestations of God's wrath and fearful power were given. Constantly throughout the history of the chosen people recur similar overwhelming judgments and swift visitations from heaven upon sin; nevertheless the Israelites are ready to murmur afresh the very day after their murmuring fellows have perished by the avenging hand from on high.

There are in our time those who profess not to believe in hell, and all the woe which God says very plainly shall overtake wilful sin after death. I am sure there are many who would be most thankful if they could really convince themselves that there was no such thing as eternal punishment. And it is not perhaps strange that these people manifest no very great concern to avoid wilful sin. They have no vivid consciousness of its frightful consequences. But there are thousands of professing Christians who do believe they will be lost in hell eternally if they are not found among God's elect in the hour of their death, and yet despite all their knowledge of the awful penalties revealed as sure to fall upon sinners they go on carelessly, indifferent to the threatenings of the divine law, doing as they please, and apparently ignoring all that must result from their misdoing.

2. There are many who are fond of saying they can be moved by love but not by threats; that the mercy of God appeals to them as the terrors of the Lord never could. It is the still small voice of the Cross which makes men ashamed, and causes them to put away their sins. Certainly it ought to be so, and God seems to be so long-suffering with us that He will try in every way to win us for Himself. How gentle is the Master's saying, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me." That reminds one of the still small voice, the tone of a gentle blowing, which Elijah heard, and which compelled at once his attention and his loyalty. But is it so with us? Is this soft and pleading sound of the Lord God more successful in winning disciples than the thunders of Sinai? The world scoffs at the meekness and the plaintive entreaties of the Church. It is a religion only fit for women and children; emotion, tenderness, are not virile enough. And even those professing Christians who are so ready to declare that they can be reached by entreaty while they are obdurate under threats, how do they live practically? Is not the sound of the Lord God too often uttered in vain for them?

3. All of us are apt to fancy we should be immensely moved and helped by such a vision of the Lord God as was vouchsafed to Moses in the clift of Horeb. There is about that revelation of the Most High the combination of strength and goodness that is the modern ideal of what religion ought to be. To be sure our modern type would not tolerate the covering hand, It is quite strong, self-possessed and daring enough to do away with all the paraphernalia of reverence and mystery. The Moses of our day cries: "I beseech Thee shew me Thy glory," but he will stand out boldly upon the mountain and calmly survey all that glory, and then if it satisfies his notion of what the divine greatness should be, he will accept the Lord for his God. It looks as if we were coming to some such position as this in these times. The vision vouchsafed to Moses has in it the two requisites of a religion which men say meets the needs of nineteenth century life, it is strong and majestic, full of power, and then it abounds in promises of kindness, protection and unfailing mercy to man's weakness; there is no reverse side of the shield, written over with dire threats and curses. The extraordinary part about this modern conception of the sound of the Lord God is that it does not with all its heralding and the stalwart manhood of its prophets make men live purer and more upright lives. I cannot find that it keeps men from indulging in their lusts as much as they ever did. I cannot find that it does anything more for them than make some of the more ardent among them undertake good works for the improvement of the temporal estate of their poorer neighbours. It may be that that is a matter which pleases the Almighty, yet after all it does not seem a result adequate to the dignity of the sound of the Lord God in Moses' vision. That appeared to echo even up to heaven and not to spend itself altogether upon the surface of our earth.

4. I believe we shall learn something more practical and something very needful for our own souls by meditating upon the sound of the Lord God which guilty Adam and his wife heard in the garden in the cool of the day. It is a sound, a consciousness of God's presence and nearness which makes one tremble because he is ashamed of himself, and causes him to wish to hide because he realizes that he is naked. The essence of true religion is the personal relation of the soul, as an individual, to God. We like to lose ourselves in the vagueness of humanity when we hear the threatenings of God, even as a man in a thunderstorm consoles himself with the thought that he is only one of thousands of people exposed to peril from the lightning's bolt, and he has countless chances of escape. We like to forget our personal liability in magnificent speculations concerning the destiny of the race and the wonders which the Church is eventually going to bring to pass in the world, and somehow we fancy we are rather altruistic because our own personal salvation is not dwelt upon in the zeal of our endeavours on behalf of our neighbours. To my thinking there is something very fine and very impressive in the picture which the inspired writer sets before us of the guilty pair cowering among the trees while the Almighty directs His steps to their hiding place; they conscious of nothing but their guilt in His presence, He apparently oblivious of all the rest of His universe that He may deal directly and personally with those two souls. And we, because we are one and all of us sinners, even as our first parents that day, would do well to concentrate our attention often upon the sound of the approach of the Lord God to pass judgment upon our souls.

III. Yet how can one do this practically? It is rare that there is any natural consciousness of the coming of our Judge to call us to account for the actions of every day life. We must make the conditions for ourselves, and if we strive to do this we shall find ourselves helped in wonderful degree by spiritual apprehension of the divine approach.

i. I think we can train our souls to recognition of God's continual judgment by dwelling frequently on our responsibility for our lives. The priest of the Church may be living uprightly and purely. He may never be guilty of any of the grosser sins of the flesh; he may be fair, honest, and truthful in all his dealings; temperate in his ways, gentle of speech, unselfish, patient, prayerful. He is a very good man, people say; if any one is sure of heaven hereafter, he is. Perhaps in his easy-going self-complacency he may even think so himself, until at last his eyes are opened to the truth. It may come to him gradually, dawning little by little upon his spiritual consciousness as he advances in life; or perhaps all at once, as by the lightning's flash, it is revealed to him that he has been entrusted with a great commission, as a shepherd of God's flock. That for every sheep and lamb committed to his charge he must one day give account, and that for everyone that is lost through any fault of his, he shall bear the blame. Is their any responsibility in human life comparable to that of the priest of God? I think the responsibility of parents comes very near to it. How many fathers and mothers realize day by day that they have been entrusted by God with the duty of bringing up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, and if those children fail to glorify Him through any fault of their parents, the parents shall be punished for that fault at the last day. Nevertheless though priest and parents seem to have peculiar responsibility, there is no child of man who is not in his own way and degree responsible for his life. How many of us ever realize this? O young men, who think you are not in any danger of hell because you do not drink or gamble or live sensuously, what are you doing for God? How are you furthering His glory and spreading abroad His kingdom? Can you suppose He created you and left you to be altogether indifferent to such matters, to take the ground that they were none of your concern? Surely He did not so. O young women, who think that because you belong to this or that benevolent society, and because you attend Church regularly, and say your prayers, and are not morally low in any way, you are quite safe. Have you no responsibilities which ought to make you tremble? Is it nothing that you have been given time and money and ability to work for God, power to cheer and help others, to promote purity in your sphere of influence, to uphold the Church and Christian principles? As it is you are giving up yourselves to debasing reading, to unbecoming forms of amusement; you are wasting time and money on selfish pleasures and vanities.

As we advance in years our responsibilities increase. Older people are answerable for their fidelity in their several spheres of life, for their influence upon the young, for their devotion to religion, their care and regularity in using the sacraments, their discipleship in Christ under all its aspects. Do not let us forget that we have callings, and that God is going to require of every one of us account at the last day.

2. Secondly we may perfect in ourselves the recognition of the presence of the Lord by bringing home to ourselves over and over again the sense of our failures. We may have succeeded fairly well as the world counts success, yet in the divine eyesight we are grievous failures indeed. When we have got to the point of admitting this frankly to ourselves, we are in much the same position as our first parents in the garden of Eden directly after their sin. We know that we deserve the divine wrath, and our only hope is in the divine mercy. It is good to reach that consciousness in life. After we have reached it we can no longer go on our way with uplifted head and self-satisfied sense of our own importance; but with downcast spirit, never forgetting out deep unworthiness, eager to make such reparation for the past as we can by deep penitence and hearty contrition, zealous to secure more and more of the heavenly help and sustenance which are ever to be found at God's holy board, thankful with ever growing thankfulness that one has been permitted to hear the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and by that sound to be led into the only way which can give hope of salvation in the awful day of judgment.

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