Read LECTURE XXI of The Christian Life Its Course‚ Its Hindrances‚ And Its Helps, free online book, by Thomas Arnold, on ReadCentral.com.

ADVENT SUNDAY.

HEBREWS i.

For some, when they had heard, did provoke: howbeit not all that came out of Egypt by Moses.

I take this verse as my text, rather than those which immediately go before or follow it, because it affords one of the most serious instances of mistranslation that are to be met with in the whole New Testament. For the true translation of the words is this: “For who were they who, when they had heard, did provoke? nay, were they not all who came out of Egypt through Moses?” And then it goes on “And with whom was he grieved forty years? was it not with them that had sinned, whose carcases fell in the wilderness? And to whom sware he that they should not enter into his rest, but to them that believed not?” I call this a serious mistranslation, because it lessens the force of the writer’s comparison. So far from meaning to say that “some, but not all did provoke,” he lays a stress on the universality of the evil: it was not only a few, but the whole people who came out of Egypt, with only the two individual exceptions of Caleb and Joshua. All the rest who were grown up when they came out of Egypt did provoke God; and the carcases of that whole generation, fell in the wilderness.

Had the lesson from the Hebrews been actually chosen for the service of this day, it could hardly have suited it better. For this day is the New-year’s day of the Christian year; and it is probably for this reason that the service of the first day of the common year is confined entirely to the commemoration of our Lord’s circumcision, and takes no notice of the beginning of a new year. It is manifest that it could not do so without confusion: for the first of January is not the beginning of the Christian year, but Advent Sunday; the last Sunday of the Christian year is not Christmas-day, as it would be this year if we reckoned by the common divisions of time; but it is the last Sunday after Trinity. Now, then, we are at the beginning of our year; and well it is that, as our trial is now become shorter by another year, as another division of our lives has passed away, we should fix our eyes on that which makes every year so valuable, the Judgment, for which it ought to be a preparation. In fact, if we observe, we shall see that these Sundays in Advent are much more regarded by the Church as the beginning of a new year, than as a mere prelude to the celebration of the festival of Christmas. That is, Christmas-day is regarded, so to speak, in a two-fold light, as representing both the comings of our Lord, his first coming in the flesh, and his second coming to judgment. When the day actually arrives, it commemorates our Lord’s first coming: and this is the beginning of the Christian year, historically regarded, that is, so far as it is a commemoration of the several events of our Lord’s life on earth. But before it comes, it is regarded as commemorating our Lord’s second coming: and wisely, for his first coming requires now no previous preparation for it; we cannot well put ourselves into the position of those who lived before Christ appeared. But our whole life is, or ought to be, a preparation for his second coming; and it is this state, of which the season of Advent in the Church services is intended to be the representation.

There is something striking in the season of the natural year at which we thus celebrate the beginning of another Christian year. It is a true type of our condition, of the insensible manner in which all the changes of our lives steal upon us, that nature, at this moment, gives no outward signs of beginning: it is a period which does not manifest any striking change in the state of things around us. The Christian Spring begins ere we have reached the half of the natural winter. Nature is not bursting into life, but rather preparing itself for a long period of death. And this is a type of an universal truth, that the signs and warnings which we must look to, must come from within us, not from without: that neither sky nor earth, will arouse us from our deadly slumber, unless we are ourselves aroused already, and more disposed to make warnings for ourselves than to find them.

If this be true of nature, it is true also of all the efforts of man. As nature will give no sign, so man cannot. Let the Church do all that she may; let her keep her solemn anniversaries, and choose out for her services all such passages of Scripture as may be most fitted to impress the lesson which she would teach; still we know that these are alike powerless and unheeded; that unless there be in our own minds something beforehand disposed to profit by them, they are but the words of unavailing affection, vainly spoken to the ears of the dead.

Oh that we would remember this, all of us; that there is no voice in nature, no voice in man, that can really awaken the sleeping soul. That is the work of a far mightier power, to be sought for with most earnest prayers for ourselves and for each other: that the Holy Spirit of God would speak, and would dispose our hearts to hear; that so being awakened from death and our ears being truly opened, all things outward may now join in language which we can hear; and nature, and man, life and death, things present and things to come, may be but the manifold voices of the Spirit of God, all working for us together for good. Till this be so, we speak in vain; our words neither reach our own hearts, nor the hearts of our hearers; they are but recorded in God’s book of judgment, to be brought forward hereafter for the condemnation of us both.

Yet we must still speak; for the Spirit of God, who alone works in us effectually, works also secretly; we know not when, nor how, nor where. But we know, that as the Father worketh hitherto, and the Son worketh hitherto, so the Holy Spirit worketh hitherto, and is still working daily. We know that, every year, he creates in thousands of God’s people that work which alone shall abide for ever. We know that in the year that is just past he has done this; that in the year which is just beginning he will do it. Have we not here, also, many in whom he has wrought this work? may we not hope, and surely believe, that there are many in whom he is even now preparing to work it?

We know not who these are; still less do we know, what were the occasions which the Holy Spirit so blessed as to work in them his work of life. But this we know, that we are bound to minister all the occasions which we can; we must not spare our labour, although it is God alone who gives the increase. We must speak of life and of death, of Christ and of judgment, not forgetting that we speak often, and shall speak, utterly in vain; yet knowing that it is by these very thoughts, though long unheeded, that God’s Spirit does in his own good time awaken the heart; he takes of the things of Christ and shows them to us; and then, what was before like a book in a strange language we saw the figures, but they conveyed no meaning to our minds becomes, on a sudden, instinct with the language of God, which we hear and understand as readily as if it were our own tongue wherein we were born.

Therefore, we speak and say, that another year has now dawned upon us; and we would remind you, and remember, ourselves, in what words the various Scriptures of this day’s service point out its inestimable value. “Now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.” So says St. Paul in the epistle of this day; and how blessed are all those amongst us who can feel that this is truly said of them! Then, indeed, a new year’s day is a day of rejoicing; we are so much nearer that period when all care, all anxiety, all painful labour will be for ever ended. But there is other language of a different sort, which, it may be, will suit us better. “I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me.” “Their land is full of idols; they worship the work of their own hands, that which their own fingers have made;” which means to us, the work of our own hearts, that which our own fancies and desires have made. “Enter into the rock, and hide thee in the dust, for fear of the Lord, and for the glory of his majesty.” For in the very temple of God, his Church, all manner of profane thoughts and words and works are crowded together; the din of covetousness and worldliness is loud and constant, and will ill abide the day of his coming, who will, a second time, cast out of his temple all that is unclean. And is there not also in us that evil heart of unbelief and disobedience which departs from the living God? are there not here those who are becoming daily hardened through the deceitfulness of sin? How are they passing their time in the wilderness, and with what prospects when they come to the end of it? God said, “I sware in my wrath, that they shall not enter into my rest.” By the way that they came, by the same shall they return; they shall go back to that bondage from which they were once redeemed, and from which they will be redeemed again no more for ever.

These are some of the passages of this day’s service which speaks to us at the beginning of this new Christian year. Let me add to all this language of warning, the language in which God, by his apostle Paul, answers every one of us, if we ask of him in sincerity of heart, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” He answers, “The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying: but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the works thereof.” Now, I grant, that this day, of which the apostle speaks, has never yet shone so brightly, as he had hoped and imagined; clouds have, up to this hour, continually overshadowed it. I mean, that the lives of Christians have hindered them from being the light of the world. It has been a light pale and dim, and therefore the works of darkness have continued to abound. But admit this, and what follows? Is it, or can it be, anything else but a more earnest desire not to be ourselves children of darkness, lest what we see to have happened in part should happen altogether; namely, that the day should never shine on us at all? We see that God’s promises have been in part forfeited; we see that Christ’s kingdom has not been what it was prophesied it should be. Is not this a solemn warning, that for us, too, individually, God’s promises may be forfeited? that all we read in Scripture of light, and life, and glory, and happiness, should really prove to us words only, and no reality? that whereas the promise of salvation has been made to us, we should be in the end, not saved, but lost? If, indeed, God’s kingdom were shining around us, in its full beauty; if every evil thing were driven out of his temple; if we saw nothing but holy lives and happy, the fruits of his Spirit, truth, and love, and joy; then we might be less anxious for ourselves; our course would be far smoother; the very stream would carry us along to the end of our voyage without our labour: what evil thoughts would not be withered, and die long ere they could ripen into action, if the very air which we breathed were of such, keen and heavenly purity! It is because all this is not so, that we have need of so much watchfulness; it is because the faults of every one of us make our brethren’s task harder; because there is not one bad or careless person amongst us who is not a hindrance in his brother’s path, and does not oblige him to exert himself the more. Therefore, because the day is not bright, but overclouded; because it is but too like the night, and too many use it as the night for all works of darkness; let us take the more heed that we do not ourselves so mistake it; let us watch each of us the light within us, lest, indeed, we should wholly stumble; let us put on the Lord Jesus Christ. You know how often I have dwelt on this; how often I have tried to show that Christ is all in all to us; that to put on Christ, is a truer and fuller expression, by far, than if we had been told to put on truth, or holiness, or goodness. It includes all these, with something more, that nothing but itself can give the sense of safety, and joy unspeakable, in feeling ourselves sheltered in our Saviour’s arms, and taken even into himself. Assuredly, if we put on the Lord Jesus Christ, we shall not make provision for the flesh to fulfil the lusts thereof; such a warning would then be wholly unnecessary. Or, if we do not like language thus figurative, let us put it, if we will, into the plainest words that shall express the same meaning; let us call it praying to Christ, thinking of him, hoping in him, earnestly loving him; these, at least, are words without a figure, which all can surely understand. Let us be Christ’s this year that is now beginning; be his servants, be his disciples, be his redeemed in deed; let us live to him, and for him; setting him before us every day to do his will, and to live in his blessing. Then, indeed, if it be his pleasure that we should serve him throughout this year, even to its end, we may repeat, with a deeper feeling of their truth, the words of St. Paul; we may say, when next Advent Sunday shall appear, that now is our salvation nearer than when we became believers.