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like them, are familiar to us all ; and why, I say, so often made, except
to give us that one fLxed point for faith to rest upon, while all around
us is changing and disappointing us ? viz. that we are quite sure of
peace in the end, bad as things may now look, if we do but follow the
rule of conscience, avoid sin, and obey God. Hence, St. Paul tells us
that •' he that cometh to God, must believe that He is a reicarder of
them that diligently seek Him.":}: Accordingly, when we witness the
inequalities of the present world, we comfort ourselves by reflecting they
will be put right in another.

Now the restoration of sinners seems to interfere with this con-
fidence ; it seems at first sight, to put bad and good on a level. And
the feeling it excites in the mind is expressed in the parable by the
words, of the text : " These many years do I serve Thee, neither
transgressed I at any time Thy commandment, yet I never have been
welcomed and honoured with that peculiar joy which Thou showest
towards the repentant sinner." This is the expression of an agitated
mind, that fears lest it be cast back upon the wide world, to grope in
the dark without a God to guide and encourage it in its course.

The condescending answer of the Father in the parable is most
instructive. It sanctions the great truth, which seemed in jeopardy,
that it is not the same thing in the end to obey or disobey, expressly
telling us that the Christian penitent is not placed on a footing with
those who have consistently served God from the first. " Son, thou
art ever with Me, and all that I have is thine;" that is, why this sud-
den fear and distrust ? can there be any misconception on your part

• Rom. ii. 11. Ezek. xviii. 20.

* Ps.i. 6 ; xi. 7 ; iviii. 25—27 ; ixxii. 10 ; cxxv. 4. t Heb. xi. 6.


because I welcome your brother 1 do you not yet understand Me ?
Surely you have known Me too long to suppose that you can lose by
his gain. You are in My confidence. I do not make any outward
display of kindness towards you, for it is a thing to be taken for
granted. We give praise and make professions to strangers, not to
friends. You are My heir, all that I have is thine. " O thou of little
faith, wherefore didst thou doubt ?" Who could have thought that it
were deedful to tell to thee truths which thou hast heard all thy Ufe
long ? Thou art ever with Me ; and canst thou really grudge that I
should, by one mere act of rejoicing, show my satisfaction at the sin-
ner's recovery, and should console him with a promise of mercy, who,
before he heard of it, was sinking down under the dread of deserved
punishment? "It was meet that we should make merry and be glad,"
thou as well as thy Father. — Such is our merciful God's answer to His
suspicious servants, who think He cannot pardon the sinner without
withdrawing His favour from them ; and it contains in it both a con-
solation for the perplexed believer not to distrust Him : and again, a
warning to the disobedient, not to suppose that repentance makes all
straight and even, and puts a man in the same place as if he had
never departed from grace given.

But let us now notice the unworthy feeling which appears in the
conduct of the elder brother. " He was angry, and would not go"
into the house. How may this be fulfilled in our own case?

There exists a great deal of infirmity and foolishness even in the
better sort of men. This is not to be wondered at, considering the
original corrupt state of their nature, however it is to be deplored,
repented of, and corrected. Good men are, like Elijah, " jealous for
the Lord God of hosts," and rightly solicitous to see his tokens around
them, the pledges of His unchangeable just government ; but then
they mix with such good feelings undue notions of self-importance, of
which they are not aware. This seemingly was the state of mind
which dictated the complaint of the elder brother.

This will especially happen in the case of those who are in the most
favoured situations in the Church. All places possess their peculiar
temptation. Quietness and peace, those greatest of blessings, constitute
the trial of the Christians who enjoy them. To be cast on the world,
and to see life, (as it is called,) is a vanity, and " drowns " the un-
stable " in destruction and perdition ;" but, while on the one hand, a
religious man may thrive even in the world's pestilent air and on
unwholesome food, so on the other hand, he may become sickly, unless
he guards against it, from the very abundance of privileges vouchsafed
to him in a peaceful lot. The elder brother had always lived at home j


he had seen things go on one way, and, as was natural and right, got
attached to them in that one way. But then he could not conceive
that they possibly could go on in any other way ; he thought he under-
stood his Father's ways and principles far more than he did, and when
an occurrence took place, for which he had hitherto met with no pre-
cedent, he lost himself, as being suddenly thrust aside out of the con-
tracted circle in which he had hitherto walked. He was disconcerted,
and angry with his father. And so in religion, we have need to watch
against that narrowness of mind, to which we are tempted by the uni-
formity and tranquillity of God's providence towards us. We should
be on our guard lest we suppose ourselves to have that clear knowledge
of God's ways, as to rely implicitly on our own notions and feelings.
Men attach an undue importance to this or that point in received
opinions or practices, and cannot understand how God's blessing can
be given to modes of acting to which they themselves are unaccus-
tomed. Thus the Jews thought religion would come to an end, if the
Temple were destroyed, whereas, in fact, it has spread abroad and
flourished more marvellously since than ever it did before. In this
perplexity of mind the Church Catholic is our divinely intended guide,
which keeps us from a narrow interpretation of Scripture, from local
prejudices and excitements of the day ; and by its clear-sighted and
consolatory teaching scatters those frightful self-formed visions which
scare us.

But I have not described the extreme state of the infirmity into
which the blessing of peace leads unwary Christians. They become
not only over-confident of their knowledge of God's ways, but positive
in their over-confidence. They do not like to be contradicted in their
opinions, and are generally most attached to the very points which are
most especially of their own devising. They forget that all men are
at best but learners in the school of Divine Truth, and that they them-
selves ought to be ever learning, and that they may be sure of the
truth of their creed, without a like assurance in the details of religious
opinion. They find it a much more comfortable view, much more
agreeable to the indolence of human nature, to give over seeking, and
to believe they had nothing more to find.

A right faith is ever eager and on the watch, with quick eyes and
ears, for tokens of God's will, whether He speak in the way of nature
or of grace. " I will stand upon my watch, and set me upon the tower,
and will watch to see, what He will say unto me, and what I shall an-
swer when I am reproved."* This is that faith by which (as the pro-

* Heb. ii. 1.


phet continues) " the just shall live." The Psalmist also expresses this
expectant temper. " Unto Thee lift I up mine eyes, O Thou that
dwellest in the heavens. Behold, as the eyes of servants look unto
the hand of their masters, and as the eyes of a maiden unto the hand
of her mistress."* But as for those who have long had God's favour
without cloud or storm, so it is, they grow secure. They do not feel
the great gift. They are apt to presume, and so to become irreverent.
The elder brother was too familiar with his Father. Irreverence is the
very opposite temper to faith. " Son, thou art ever with Me, and all
that I have is thine." This most gracious truth was the very cause of
his murmuring. When Christians have but a little, they are thankful ;
they gladly pick up the crumbs from under the table". Give them
much, they soon forget it is much ; and when they find it is not all,
and that for other men too, even penitents, God has some good in store,
straightway they are ofTended. Without denying in words their
own natural unworthiness, and still having real convictions of it
to a certain point, nevertheless, somehow, they have a certain secret
over-regard for themselves ; at least they act as if they thought that
the Christian privileges belonged to them over others, by a sort of fit-
ness. And they like respect to be shown them by the world, and are
jealous of any thing which is likely to interfere with the continuance
of their credit and authority. Perhaps, too, they have pledged them-
selves to certain received opinions, and this is an additional reason for
their being suspicious of what to them is a novelty. Hence such per-
sons are least fitted to deal with difiicult times. God works wondrously
in the world ; and at certain eras His providence puts on a new aspect.
Religion seems to be failing when it is merely changing its form. God
seems for an instant to desert His own appointed instruments, and to
be putting honour upon such as have been framed in express disobe-
dience to His commands. For instance, sometimes He brings about
good by means of wicked men, or seems to bless the efforts of those
who have separated from His Holy Church more thon those of His true
labourers. Here is the trial of the Christian's faith, who, if the fact is
so, must not resist it, lest haply he be found fighting against God, nor
must he quarrel with it after the manner of the elder brother. But he
must take every thing as God's gift, hold fast his principles, not
give them up because appearances are for the moment against them,
but believe all things will come round at length. On the other hand he
must not cease to beg of God, and try to gain the spirit of a sound
mind, the power to separate truth from falsehood, and to try the spirits,

* P«. cxiiu. 1, 2.


the disposition to submit to God's teaching, and the wisdom to act as
the varied course of affairs requires ; in a word, a portion of that Spirit
which rested on the great Apostle, St. Paul.

I have thought it right to enlarge upon the conduct of the elder
brother in the parable, because something of his character may per-
chance be found among ourselves. We have long had the inestimable
blessings of peace and quiet. We are unworthy of the least of God's
mercies, much more of the greatest. But with the blessing we have the
trial. Let us then guard against abusing our happy lot, while we have
it, or we may lose it for having abused it. Let us guard against discon-
tent in any shape ; and as we cannot help hearing what goes on in the
world, let us guard, on hearing it, against all intemperate, uncharitable
feelings towards those who differ from us, or oppose us. Let us pray
for our enemies ; let us try to make out men to be as good as they can
fairly and safely be considered; let us rejoice at any symptoms of re-
pentance, or any marks of good principle in those who are on the side
of error. Let us be forgiving. Let us try to be very humble, to un-
derstand our ignorance, and to rely constantly on the enlightening grace

of our Great Teacher. Let us be "slow to speak, slow to wrath ;"

not abandoning our principles, or shrinking from the avowal of them
when seasonable, or going over to the cause of error, or fearing conse-
quences, but acting ever from a sense of duty, not from passion, pride,
jealousy, or an unbelieving dread of the future ; feehng gently, even
when we have reason to act severely. " Son, thou art ever with Me,
and all that I have is thine." What a gracious announcement, if we
could realize it ! and how consolatory, so far as we have reason to hope
that we are following on to know God's will, and living in His faith
and fear ! What should alarm those who have Christ's power, or make
them envious who have Christ's fulness ? How ought we calmly to
regard, and resolutely endure, the petty workings of an evil world,
thinking seriously of nothing but of the souls that are perishing in it !

" I, even I, am He that comforteth you," says Almighty God : " who
art thou, that thou shouldest be afraid of a man that shall die, and of
the son of man which shall be made as grass ? and forgettest the Lord
thy Maker, and hast feared continually every day because of the fury
of the oppressor, as if he were ready to destroy ? And where is the
fury of the oppressor ? I am the Lord thy God, and I have put My
words in thy mouth, and have covered thee in the shadow of Mine hand,
that I may plant the heavens, and lay the foundations of the earth,
and say unto Zion, Thou art My people."*

* Isaiah li. 12—16.
Vol. L— 33



Gen. xvi. 13.
Thou God seest me.

When Hagar fled into the wilderness from the face of her mistress,
she was visited by an Angel, who sent her back ; but, together with
this implied reproof of her impatience, gave her a word of promise to
encourage and console her. In the mixture of humbling and cheer-
ful thoughts thus wrought in her, she recognised the presence of her
Maker and Lord, who ever comes to his servants in a two-fold aspect,
severe because He is holy, yet soothing as abounding in mercy. In
consequence, she called the name of the Lord that spake unto her,
" Thou God seest me."

Such was the condition of man before Christ came, favoured with
some occasional notices of God's regard for individuals, but, for the
most part, instructed merely in His general Providence, as seen in the
course of human affairs. In this respect even the Law was deficient^
though it abounded in proofs that God was a living, all-seeing, all-re-
compensing, God. It was deficient, in comparison of the Gospel, in
evidence of the really existing relation between each soul of man and
its Maker, independently of every thing else in the world. Of Moses,
indeed, it is said, that " the Lord spake unto him face to face, as a
man speaketh unto his friend."* But this was an especial privilege
vouchsafed to him only and some others, as to Hagar, who records it in
the text, not to all the people. But, under the New Covenant, this
distinct regard vouchsafed by Almighty God, to every one of us, is
clearly revealed. It was foretold of the Christian Church " All thy
children shall be taught of the Lord ; and great shall be the peace of

* Exod. xxxiii. U.


thy children."* WTien the Eternal Son came on earth in our flesh
men saw their invisible Maker and Judge. He showed Himself no
longer througli the mere powers of nature, or the maze of human af-
fairs, but in our own likeness. " God, who commanded the lio-ht to
shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to kindle the know-
ledge of His glory in the face of Jesus Christ ;"t that is, in a sensible
form, as a really existing individual being. And, at the same time,
He forthwith began to speak to us as individuals. He, on the one hand,
addressed each of us on the other. Thus it was in some sense a reve-
lation face to face.

This is the subject on which I propose now to make a few remarks.
And first, let me observe, it is very difficult, in spite of the revelation
made us in the Gospel, to master the idea of this particular providence
of God. If we allow ourselves to float down the current of the world,
living as other men, gathering up our notions of religion here and there,
as it may be, we have little or no true comprehension of a particular
Providence. We conceive that Almighty God works on a large plan ;
but we cannot realize the wonderful truth that He sees and thinks of
individuals. We cannot believe He is really present every where, that
He is wherever we are, though unseen. For instance, we can under-
stand, or think we understand, that He was present on Mount Sinai, —
or within the Jewish Temple, — or that He clave the ground under
Dathan and Abiram. But we do not in any sufficient sense believe
that He is in like manner " about our path, and about our bed, and spi-
eth out all our ways.":j: We cannot bring ourselves to get fast hold of
the solemn fact that He sees what is going on among ourselves at this
moment ; that this man falls and that man is exalted, at His silent in-
visible appointment. We use, indeed, the prayers of the Church, and
intercede, not only for all conditions of men, but for the King and the
Nobilit}^ and the Court of Parliament, and so on, down to individual
sick people in our own parish ; yet, in spite of all this, we do not bring
home to us the truth of His omniscience. We know He is in heaven,
and forget that He is also on earth. This is the reason why the mul-
titude of men are so profane : they use light words ; they scoff" at re-
ligion ; they allow themselves to be lukewarm and indifferent ; they
take the part of wicked men ; they push forward wicked measures ;
they defend injustice, or cruelty, or sacrilege, or infidelity ; because
they have no grasp of a truth, which nevertheless they have no inten-
tion to deny that God sees them.

There is, indeed, a self-will, and self-deceit, which would sin on evea

» Is. Uv. 13. t 2 Cor. it. 6. t Ps. xxxix. 2.


in God's visible presence. This was the sin of Balaam, who took part
with the enemies of Israel for reward ; and of Zimri, the Son of Salu,
a prince of the Simeonites, on whom Phineas did judgment ; and such
the sin of Saul, of Judas, of Ananias and Sapphira. Alas ! doubtless
such is the sin of many a man now in England, unless human nature
is other than it was aforetime ; alas ! such a sin is in a measure our
own from time to time, as any one may know for certain who is used to
self-examination. Yet, over and above this, certainly there is also a
great deal of profane sinning from our forgetting, not comprehending
that we are in God's presence ; not comprehending or, (in other words)
believing, that He sees and hears and notes down every thing we do.
This again, is often the state in which persons find themselves on fall-
ing into trouble. The world fails them, and they despair, because they
do not realize to themselves the loving-kindness and the presence of
God. They find no comfort in a truth which to them is not a substance
but an opinion. Therefore it was that Hagar, when visited in the wil-
derness by the Angel, called the name of the Lord that spake unto her,
'•Thou God seest me !"' It came as a new Truth to her that, amid her
trouble and her waywardness, the eye of God was upon her. The case
is the same now. Men talk in a general way of the goodness of God,
His benevolence, compassion, and long-suffering ; but they think of it
as of a flood pouring itself out all through the world ; as the light of the
sun, not as the continually repeated action of an intelligent and living
Mind, contemplating whom it visits and intending what it effects. Ac-
cordingly, when they come into trouble, they can but say, " It is all for
the best — God is good :" and the like ; and it all falls as cold comfort
upon them, and dues not lessen their sorrow, because they have not ac-
customed their minds to feel that He is a merciful God, regarding them
individually, and not a mere universal Providence acting by general
laws. And then, perhaps, all of a sudden the true notion breaks on
them, as it did upon Hagar. Some especial Providence, amid their in-
fliction, runs right into their heart ; brings it close home to them, in a
way they never experienced before, that God sees them. And then,
surprised at this, which is a something quite new to them, they go into
the other extreme, in proportion to their former apathy ; and are led to
think that they are especial objects of God's love, more than all other
men. Instead of taking what has happened to them as an evidence of
His particular Providence over all, as revealed in Scripture, they still will
not believe a jot or tittle more than they see ; and, while discovering He
loves them individually, they do not advance one step, on that account,
to the general truth, that He loves other men individually also. Now
had they been all along in the practice of studying Scripture, they


would have been saved from both errors ; — their first, which was bhnd-
ness to a particular Providence altogether ; — their second, which was a
narrow-minded hmiting of it to themselves, as if the world at large were
rejected and reprobate ; for Scripture represents it as the portion of all
men one by one.

I suppose it is scarcely necessary to prove to those who have allowed
their minds to dwell on the Gospels, that the peculiar character of our
Lord's goodness, as displayed therein, is its tenderness and its consider-
ateness. These qualities are the very perfection of kindness between
man and man ; but, from the very extent and complication of the
world's system, and from its Maker's being invisible, our imagination
scarcely succeeds in attributing them to Him, even when our reason is
convinced, and we wish to believe accordingly. His Providence mani-
fests itself in general laws, it moves forward upon the lines of truth
and justice ; it has no respect of persons, rewarding the good and pun-
ishing the bad, not as individuals, but according to their character.
How shall He who is Most Holy direct His love to this man or that for
his own sake, contemplating us one by one, without infringing on his
own perfections ? Or even were the Supreme Being a God of unmixed
benevolence, how, even then, shall the thought of Him come home
to our minds with that constraining power which the kindness of a hu-
man friend exerts over us ? The greatest acknowledgment we can
make of the kindness of a superior, is to say that He acts as if he were
personally interested in us. The mass of benevolent men are kind and
generous, because it is their way to be so, irrespectively of the object
they benefit. Natural temper, a flow of spirits, or a turn of good for-
tune, opens the heart, which pours itself out profusely on friend and
enemy. They scatter benefit as they move along. Now, at first sight,
it is difficult to see how our idea of Almighty God can be divested of
these earthly notions, either that His goodness is imperfect or that it is
fated and necessary ; and wonderful indeed, and adorable is the conde-
scension by which He has met our infirmity. He has met and aided
it in that same Dispensation by which He redeemed our souls. In
order that we may understand that in spite of His mysterious per-
fections He has a separate knowledge and regard for individuals. He
has taken upon Him the thoughts and feelings of our own nature, which
we all understand is capable of such personal attachments. By becom-
ing man. He has cut short the perplexities and the discussions of our
reason on the subject, as if He would grant our objections for argu-
ment's sake, and supersede them by taking our own ground.

The most winning property of our Saviour's mercy, (if it is right so
to speak of it,) is its dependence on time and place, person and circum.


stance ; in other words, its tender discrimination. It regards and con-
sults for each individual as he comes before it. It is called forth by-
some, as it is not by others, it cannot (if I may say so) manifest itself
to every object alike ; it has its particular shade and mode of feeling
for each ; and in some it is so wrapt up, as to seem to depend for its
own happiness on their well-being. This might be illustrated, as is
often done, by our Lord's tender behaviour towards Lazarus and his
sisters, or His tears over Jerusalem ; or by His conduct towards St.
Peter, before and after his denial of Him, or towards St. Thomas when
he doubted, or by His love of His mother, or of St. John. But I will
direct your attention rather to his treatment of the traitor Judas ; both
because it is not so commonly referred to, and, also, because if there
was a being in the whole world whom one might suppose cast out of
His presence as hateful and reprobate, it was he who He foresaw would
betray Him. Yet we shall find that even this wretched man was fol-
lowed and encompassed by His serene though solemn regard till the
very hour he betrayed Him.

Online LibraryJohn Henry NewmanParochial sermons (Volume 1) → online text (page 57 of 76)