IN appointing this portion of Scripture us the Epistle for the first Sunday in Advent, the Church has instructed us in the thoughts and dispositions which we should cherish at the present season. Carrying back our reflections to that period which preceded the birth of the Saviour, she would prepare us to hail his appearance with joy, by showing the necessity which existed for his coming. Regarding this as the intention of the Church, nothing could be more expressive of the actual state and condition of the world at that time, than the figure by which it is here represented. That was indeed a night--the night of virtue, of piety, of humanity--upon which the Sun of Righteousness arose. Before he appeared, "darkness covered the earth, and gross darkness [16/17] the people." The latter, the chosen nation; favoured with the revelations of four thousand years, possessing the oracles of God, knowing his will, instructed out of the law, making their boast of God, confident that they were guides of the blind, a. light of them which were in darkness, and who indeed did possess the form of knowledge, and of the truth in the law, were yet so far lost to its purity, its strictness, and its spirituality, that instead of obeying that which they knew, and which they affected to teach others, they did, on the contrary, through breaking of the law, dishonour God, insomuch that St. Paul declares of the Jews of that day, that through them the name of God was blasphemed, even among the Gentiles; that their abominations were so great, and being at the same time pretended to be justified by their corrupt and vitious glosses of the law, were so glaringly odious, that they brought dishonour and shame upon him who gave it, and made even the Gentiles to regard his name with abhorrence. Similar to this is the representation of our Saviour, who says, they made the word of God of none effect through their tradition; and he therefore calls them blind guides, blind leaders of the blind, hypocrites who honoured him with their lips, but their heart was far from him.
If this were the situation of those who possessed so great advantages for ascertaining the will of God in his revealed word, we must [17/18] conclude that the Gentiles, those who knew him only by natural religion--only by the visible evidences of his being manifested in the works of the creation, and understood by the things that are made, we mast conclude that they were not less alienated, corrupt, degraded. The same Apostle asserts of them, that they too had perverted the knowledge which they once possessed, and which left them without excuse for their disobedience and their sin; because that when they knew God they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. "Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four footed beasts, and creeping things." The Christian who reads only his Bible, may find in the first chapter of Romans a view of the consequences of this departure from God, and he will there have before him, in a few words, a picture of the Gentile world, which, dark as it is, is merely a faint and general outline of their abomination and excess; and which, from the evidence of their own writers, we might fill up with odious details, and more largely expose. But though such was the state of corruption of blindness, and of sin, both among Jews and Gentiles, though such a night of spiritual and moral darkness prevailed upon the earth, the sun, [18/19] of intellect was shining with a lustre which has never been surpassed, the atmosphere of mind was buoyant and unclouded, and the hale and piercing eye of genius shot far and wide its unobstructed vision. When we reflect upon the learning, the science, the taste of that period; when we think of the elegance and refinement to which language and all the fine arts had attained; when we recall to mind their skilful poets, their unrivalled orators, and their lucid historians; we might for a moment be tempted to hesitate before we applied to such a state of mental splendour, the appellation of night. But, my brethren, the mind may be enlightened, while the heart is depraved; the genius may be aspiring, while the affections are grovelling and debased; and the faculties in the clearness of their perception may soar to heaven, while the whole man, in action and in purpose, is enslaved to the powers of hell. And when we know that so indeed it then was, that the most artful refinement was made the veil to conceal or even to heighten the most odious lusts; that genius employed itself to excuse, or artfully to commend the worst excesses of vice; and that amidst all the mental activity of the Augustan age, the spiritual man was dethroned and degraded; we must weep for the shame of our nature, and be compelled to allow that there could be no deeper or darker night that which so much knowledge had not [19/20] power to reclaim; and that no greater evidence could be given of the necessity of revelation, and of the inability of many to supply its place, than was then exhibited, when in the midst of its highest attainments, the world by wisdom knew not God.
How properly the light of the Gospel, which arose upon that darkness, may be compared to the shining of the day, we may readily perceive in those clear principles of duty and motives of conduct, which Jesus Christ proclaimed; in those precepts of morality so far exceeding all that Jewish scribes, or Grecian, or Roman philosophers had conceived; in that scheme of redemption which provided a remedy for all the sinfulness and disorder of the world; and in that life and immortality which burst in effulgence over the clouded destiny of man.
This is the first sense in which it might be said at the coming of our Saviour, "The night is far spent, the day is at hand." And in the abolition of the darkness of heathenism; in the destruction of the altars of thirty thousand false and opposing divinities; in the freedom of the human mind from the superstition of auguries, and omens, and impious rites; and in the establishment of a pure, a rational, and a spiritual religion, upon the ruins of a senseless creed, and an unholy worship; we might find most abundant reason to celebrate the Advent of the Saviour.
 There is another sense of the words before us, in which even in the days of St. Paul, it might be said, "The night is far spent, and the day is at hand;" the night being sometimes put for duration of the present world, as distinguished from that of the world to come. The meaning then would be, the night of this world is nearly spent--the everlasting day is drawing on.
From the time of the fall of man, and the consequent ruin of all this lower creation, this world was abandoned to be destroyed. An ancient opinion which we find expressed in the Epistle of St. Barnabas, has allotted six thousand years for its continuance in its present state, being one thousand years for every day of the week which was employed in its formation, to which was to succeed the peaceful millenium, or the thousand years of Sabbatical rest. The previous six thousand years were divided into three portions, corresponding to the patriarchal, the legal, and the Gospel dispensations, to each of which was allowed two thousand years. At the close of the second, and the beginning of the last of these dispensations, St. Paul might well assert, "The night is far spent, and the day is at hand." And if we annex this meaning to the words, they might be made to suggest, particularly in our day, when even that last period is drawing to its close, many serious and useful reflections.
That sense, however, in which the words of [21/22] St. Paul appear to have been more evidently intended, and in which I shall now consider them, is in reference to our present life, which is rapidly departing, and to that scene of glory and immortality before us, which to every believer is nigh at hand.
In the Gospel, my brethren, as we all know, another state of being is revealed, infinitely surpassing this in excellency, and eternal in duration; and of the certainty of its enjoyment, we are assured in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. And it is from a comparison of these two states of being, that St. Paul considers the present as the night of our existence; the future as the day of our life; and from the nearness of its approach, deduces motives to holiness and virtue.
To every class and description of men, indeed, it may be declared, their present life is a night; and to all, this is a proper season to suggest the admonition of St. Paul, "The night is far spent, the day is at hand." Beginning with those who are devoted to pleasure, I might admonish them, that this life, which is their all, is a period of delusion, of unreal expectation, of visionary thoughts, and of empty dreams. If ever an hour of seriousness comes over their minds, and such we cannot but deem must sometimes be the case, the frivolous pursuits which form their occupation, and fill up their existence, must, to their own view, be [22/23] strikingly evident. He who has quaffed the first draft from the mantling cup of pleasure, has already tasted ail the sweetness that was there. Every succeeding draught he has found to be more insipid, and in the last, there are the dregs of bitterness. The world, my brethren, possesses no substantial satisfactions, it has no abiding joys. Upon the bright picture that fancy paint before you, you shall hereafter look back and see nothing inscribed but vanity, disappointment, and delusion. You may labour for riches, for honour, for political eminence, or for literary fame, but to the full measure of enjoyment which these had promised, you will never attain. It is in the nature of the aspiring mind, to contemn all of which it is possessed, and in the eager thirst of something yet beyond, to disregard and undervalue all that it has gained. Who was ever satisfied with the enjoyment of his empty dream? And, my brethren, what is our life but a dream, a dream in which man walketh in a vain shadow, and disquieth himself in vain! Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
Turning from the frivolous and the worldly to those who give themselves to vicious indulgence, to works of darkness, to the uncontrolled power and dominion of sin, I might proclaim to them, that their life is indeed a night--not a repose, but a lethargy, of the soul, and in this lethargy of their better powers, and in this night, and [23/24] these deeds of sin, they are engaged in a frightful sacrifice, in a deliberate, but fearful immolation of themselves, and all their powers, and all their hopes, to the prince of the powers of darkness. To them, the day which comes, comes to show them their misery, to flash upon them conviction and condemnation, to consign them to banishment, to despair, and to the blackness of darkness for ever.
But exclusive of the folly and of the sin, and I might add, of the misery, with which the world abounds, this life is aptly called a night, for the ignorance and the blindness which prevail among men. I speak not of that darkness respecting the human destiny which is to be found where revelation has not penetrated; of that ignorance of the true God, and of the worship and obedience which he requires, which prevail in heathen lands; but I speak of that indifference to spiritual things, of that disregard of a future life, which abound in countries called Christian. And whether we take the higher ranks of men, and consider the great absence of all religious feeling, and of all religious intention, which they manifest; or descend to the lower classes, and observe their insensibility to a future world, and to all that constitutes their duty and their hopes; while we confess that theirs is indeed a night, we will wonder at the darkness which still covers the earth; we will wonder that when the clear beams of the [24/25] Sun of Righteousness have been shining for nearly two thousand years, there remains so much willing ignorance of the true end of their being; there is so little regarded or felt of human accountability; so little desire to obtain that which God has promised; so little care to avoid that which he has threatened. Almost universally the god of this world hath blinded their minds; almost universally there is no reference to the life to come; and notwithstanding the wide diffusion and the constant preaching of the Gospel, the mass of men are still deplorably, and it would seem, incurably, benighted; they are living without God--they die without hope.
To all these classes, to the worldly, the sinful, and the willingly ignorant, it is a thought full of admonition, that their night is far spent--the night of their delusion, of their wickedness, and of their most culpable neglect. Life, my brethren, to those who longest enjoy it, is only a momentary period, it passeth away as a watch in the night. Our days are as it were a span long; we bring our years to an end, as it were a tale that is told; and even our strength is but labour and sorrow, so soon passeth it away, and we are gone. To prepare for the day that is coming upon us, the true life, the permanent existence, should be our highest care, as it is our highest wisdom. There is but one probation granted to men, by which to secure the day of immortality. That day is at [25/26] hand; and if our conduct and our lives cannot now bear the light, or stand approved in the view even of human reason, our folly, our wickedness, our blindness, will, in that day, be more conspicuously manifest, and we, as their just reward, must be consigned to everlasting contempt. But to the Christian also, the present life may be compared to a night. And it is so, first, because it is a state of partial knowledge. Blessed with the revelation of God's will, he is possessed of that which is able to make him wise unto salvation, and by diligent study of the sacred word, he has made it a light to his feet, and a lamp to his paths. Still, in the wide spread prospect of the future, which revelation unfolds, there is much that he longs to explore and to understand; much that he can now only faintly conjecture; much relating to the glory of which he is assured; which God has not seen fit to reveal. The weakness of his faculties, or the trial of his faith, may be the reason why no more is disclosed of the things of a future life. But whatever be the cause, this is to him a night in which he knows only in part, a state in which he sees through a glass darkly, in which he walks by faith, and not by sight.
This life is to the Christian a night, because, in the second place, it is a state of imperfect holiness. It is sin which separates the soul from God, and shuts out the light of his countenance; and to those who know the value of communion [26/27] with him, and who desire, above all other things, to enjoy his favour; this is a barrier which makes them long to be delivered from this body of sin and of death. We that are in this tabernacle, said St. Paul, do groan, being burdened; not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon; that mortality might be swallowed up of life. Well, therefore, may that be called a night, in which so often we walk in darkness and have no light; in which God hideth his face, and we are troubled.
To the Christian, this life is, in the third place, a night, because it is a scene of affliction, of suffering, and of trial. Sin is, indeed, the greatest bar to his happiness, but he is not without other sources of inquietude and trouble. In the world ye shall have tribulation, said the Saviour; and whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, is the language of his Apostle. The people of God are called to suffer affliction, for their Master was a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. Often their path is so obscured, that they have only the promises on which to rest, while in this night of their affliction, they cry out with David, Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, and in the deeps.
Such being the reasons which make this life a night to the Christian, it is no wonder that to him it is a period of longing expectation, as for the dawn of day, and of earnest desire for a better [27/28] state. He finds no pleasure in the trifling pursuits of the men of the world; nor has he any satisfaction in those hidden things of darkness, which he has renounced. His thoughts have been elevated to high and heavenly things. He is crucified to the world, and by patient continuance in well doing, seeks for glory, and honour, and immortality, in that world which is to come; and assured of the reward of eternal life, it is his privilege, in this his night of separation from God, to be ever looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour, Jesus Christ.
To the man who is here described, what message could be more animating, what call to holiness and watchfulness more persuasive or effectual, than the words which the Church addresses to him at this season, "The night is far spent, the day is at hand." Christians, she exclaims, your state of ignorance, of sin, of sorrow, is nearly gone. Now it is high time to awake out of sleep, for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. Ye may have been overcome by temptation, ye may have been sunk in sorrow, ye may have reposed in forgetfulness, but now the coming of the Lord draweth nigh. Awake to your privileges and to your hopes--the day is at hand. Think of the disclosures which await you, and of that better existence upon which you are soon to enter. In a little time, the Messenger [28/29] whom you have looked for, will summons you away. He who has prepared for his people mansions of glory, will come again and receive you unto himself. That blessed consummation of your faith, of your patience, of your obedience, is fast approaching. Count up the days, and the months, and the years, during which you have endeavoured to serve your God; and rejoice that your salvation is so much nearer than when you first believed. Look forward and estimate the days, and the months, and the years, which may yet be yours in your mortal pilgrimage; and triumph that these only separate you from your God. Be faithful unto death, and he will give you a crown of life. If the infirmities of age remind you that your night is indeed far spent, then you may be assured that the time will be short; and even if this be not the case, it is wise to be prepared, for he whom you expect may suddenly come: it may be in the second watch, or in the third watch of your night: wherefore, Christians, let your loins be girded about, and your lights burning, and ye yourselves like unto men that wait for their Lord. Come when he may, if you are acknowledged by him, your true day, your life of immortality and blessedness, will then begin. Oh! who can imagine the glorious disclosures which that day will unfold! Upon your present ignorance, what knowledge will be shed! Upon your sorrow, what joy! Upon your doubts, and fears, and [29/30] uncertain expectations, what realities of blessedness! Sin will be for ever conquered; sorrow and sighing shall flee away; and mortality shall be swallowed up of life. To look back from that day of eternal felicity, to this night of ignorance, of imperfection, and of sorrow; to retrace the weary steps of our pilgrimage, which led us to our eternal home; to behold all the mysteries of the past cleared up, the purposes of God in his providence made plain; to review those dispensations which now we cannot understand; and to see how all things were made to work together for our good; may, perhaps, be one of the employments of heaven, which shall excite our gratitude to God, and prove the truth of his word, who said, "What I do thou knowest not now, but thou shalt know hereafter." This, I say, may be one of the grateful employments of heaven; and from a comparison of this dark, and sinful, and troubled state, with that bright, and holy, and happy life, which will then be enjoyed; we may also derive such a feeling of advantage, and of security, as will greatly heighten all our joy. This, however, is but a small part of what belongs to the day of our existence. There is much more of which we cannot now even conceive. There will be a restoration of pious friends, and an obliteration of sorrows, and a renewal of the visions of early hope.
In that bright and endless day, the eye will [30/31] forget to shed its tears of bitterness, the heart will cease to sigh over its privations and bereavements, and all that is saddening and mournful will be for ever past. Not merely shall we renew all that here we have lost, and realize all that here we have ever imagined, but in that high state of perfection and of glory, the mind will entertain new and unthought of images of delight, which here we cannot estimate nor comprehend. "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him." In his presence there is fulness of joy; at his right hand there are pleasures for evermore. Brethren, these are not the dreams of a slumbering hour. They are the realities of that eternal day, whose dawn is rapidly hastening upon us all. They are yours if you worthily embrace them. Cast away, therefore, the works of darkness, and put upon you the armour of light; and then when this night, which is already far spent, is past, and that day of glory breaks upon your view, ye shall be the children of the light, and in the blissful mansions of heaven shall reign with God for ever and ever.