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PREPARATION FOR DEATH A STATE OF LIFE.
“Thus saith the Lord, Set thine house in order: for thou shalt die, and not live.”
PERHAPS the most awful moment of our lives is when we first feel in danger of death. All our past life then seems to he a cloud of words and shadows; one less real than another, moving and floating round about us, altogether external to the realities of the soul. Not only childhood and youth, happiness and sorrow, eager hopes and disturbing fears, but even our communion with God, our faith in things unseen, our self-knowledge, and our repentance, seem alike to be but visions of the memory. All has become stern, hard, and appalling. The thought of passing out of this kindly and familiar state, from loving faces, partial friends, soothing offices of religion, hopeful persuasions of 312our own peace at last, to go into the world beyond the grave, among souls departed, and the spirits who stand before the presence of our Judge; all things now wound up, all sins weighed and doomed: this is full of unutterable fear. Such is the burst of consciousness which breaks upon the soul, when any great event in life says to us, “Set thine house in order.” It is as if it were the beginning of a new existence; as if we had passed under a colder sky, and into a world where every object has a sharpness of outline almost too severe for sight to bear. Such was the effect of the prophet’s words upon Hezekiah. Even he, a saint of God, was overwhelmed. He “turned his face toward the wall,” and “wept sore.” He said, “He will cut me off with pining sickness: from day even to night wilt Thou make an end of me. I reckoned till morning, that, as a lion, so will He break all my bones: from day even to night wilt Thou make an end of me. Like a crane or a swallow, so did I chatter: I did mourn as a dove: mine eyes fail with looking upward: O Lord, I am oppressed; undertake for me. What shall I say? He hath spoken unto me.”187187 Isaiah xxxviii. 2, 3, 12-15.
If this was the effect upon so great a servant of God, what must be the first breaking and the first realisation of approaching death to us? The first 313feeling which would overwhelm any of us would be fear: fear, that is, of the sight of God, and of the just judgment upon our sins. It is, indeed, true, that to believe in God’s mercy through Christ is a chief act of faith; and that to refuse to trust in Him is a sign either of consent in a temptation to despair, or want of the virtue of faith. It is, moreover, a dishonour to the perfect tenderness of our Lord, not to go to Him with a full trust in His supernatural mercy. All this is most true; and yet they who have realised the thought of death as probable or near, tell us, that with this perfect conviction of faith, there is also a deep emotion of fear, which arises out of a consciousness of what we have been, and what we still are, in the sight of Him whose “eyes are as a flame of fire.” And although it is also true, that “perfect love casteth out fear,” and that it is the very office of faith to extinguish this feeling of alarm which is akin to mistrust; yet, after all, it is absolutely certain that such a feeling does exist, paradoxically, in the soul even of men of great faith and love. With all their perception of the Divine mercy in Christ, they still feel within, the consciousness of great sins and insufficient repentance. Who can judicially pronounce his own repentance sufficient? and who without a sufficient repentance can be free from fear of dying? We talk very 314 boldly of death, and of calm hopes, and willingness to depart, and the like; but when the time really comes, we shall find it something different from our sincere but shallow imaginations. Next to sin, death is the most terrible of all realities; the very instincts of nature shudder at it; the soul of all men, except great saints, must shrink from it. And even they, though filled with the love of God, are fullest of the consciousness of our fallen state at that last and fearful hour.
Let us, then, see what we ought to do when God warns us.
I will not say repent; because, alas for us at such a time, if we have not repented long ago. We are now speaking not of sinners, or careless people, but of those who in the main serve God, and have been long before in the path of eternal life. What they have to do is, to try their repentance, to see whether it be real and true. But this is hardly to be done by any direct measurement of the quantity or vividness of our sorrow for sin. We have no gauge or balance for such experiments. We have to judge, not so much of past feelings as of our present condition. The true test of our repentance, and the exposition of its real character, is our moral habit before God at the time when His warning overtakes us. Let us, therefore, see how we may try this state.315
1. First, we must ask ourselves this question: Is there any one sin, great or small, of the flesh or of the spirit, which we willingly and knowingly commit? This is, in fact, the crisis of our whole spiritual life. We might say, that all Christians may be simply divided into those who do, and those who do not, with will and knowledge, allow themselves in any, even a single sin. To say that we do not so allow ourselves, does not imply any very high state of spiritual advancement, still less does it imply freedom from the commission of all sin. There are sins of ignorance, weakness, strong temptations, sudden assault, which go to make up a heavy account day by day, even against those who neither knowingly nor willingly consent to them. Therefore the state is neither so high as to discourage us, nor so far advanced as to be any great temptation to self-complacency. It is, indeed, the lowest and first step in a converted life. For what conversion of heart can there be, so long as a man willingly commits sin, knowing it to be sin? He thereby plainly declares that sin, as such, is not hateful to him. By consent in one sin, he is guilty of the whole principle of rebellion, of the whole idea of anarchy in God’s kingdom and in his own soul. His will and his heart, with its love and inclination, are still under the power and attraction of evil; and this is virtually equivalent to any form 316or measure of disobedience. It is a fealty and service to the kingdom of darkness. In truth, both sin and holiness have a perfect unity in their several principles; and they are mutually irreconcilable and expulsive of each other. A holy man is not a man who never sins, but who never sins willingly. And a sinner is not a man who never does any thing good, but who willingly does what he knows to be evil. The whole difference lies within the sphere and compass of the will. This is the meaning of St. John’s words, so often mistaken: “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin, for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” St. John does not intend us to understand that the regenerate are those only who never sin: for then their would be no regenerate in this world: because “There is no soul that liveth and sinneth not.” And who “cannot sin,” if even St. Paul might be a castaway? St. John’s meaning is plainly this, that the will of the regenerate is so bent against sin that he does not sin by consent, but, if so be, by ignorance, surprise, infirmity; that is, his will is universally holy. And so, on the other hand, St. James, speaking of the unity of sin, says, “Whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all;” because consent to any sin, as such, is consent to the 317whole principle of sin. In this sense, then, we must question ourselves. Is sin, as such, in its principle hateful to us; and is our will bent universally against it? Is holiness, in its principle, lovely and a delight to us, and does our will, in its intentions and desires, universally embrace it? Are we with our whole soul and strength on God’s side in an evil world? There are many ways of putting this to the test. The sins of infirmity which daily beset us, are they grievous, afflicting, and humbling? When we have fallen, as by an impatient word, a peevish tone, a selfish desire, an unguarded eye, or a fearless thought, do we turn and, if we can, make amends to our fellow sinners, and in all make our instant confession to God? Do we stand in fear in the morning lest we should be overcome? Do we grieve at night if we have been cast down? Do we find our infirmities fewer, or less often committed, or sooner corrected than before?
This is the first scrutiny we must pass upon ourselves; for great and awful is the mystery of the will. Its contents, so to speak, for good or for ill, are infinite. Virtually, it contains our whole state, and is itself our whole character in the sight of God. What a meeting with Him would that be of a heart which still consents to any thing against which the will of God is turned as a flame of fire! 318“Who may abide the day of His coming? and who shall stand when He appeareth? for He is like a refiner’s fire.”188188 Mal. iii. 2. What wonder we fear to die, so long as we know that to meet God is to meet an Almighty will which we habitually slight? This, then, is the first point in which to try ourselves; and it naturally leads us on to another.
2. We must next search and see whether there is any thing in which our heart, in its secret affections, is at variance with the mind of God; for if so, then so far our whole being is at variance with His. We have hitherto been speaking of our will as it shews itself in the acts of our life. Now we are considering it as it exists, if I may so speak, passively in the heart. It is very certain that even in those who fear to consent actively in any sin, there may still exist the inclinations of sin, suspended in the will, and held under the restraint of fear rather than of holy affections. Such people often really desire what God forbids, and dislike what God desires. Though their will does not openly cross His will in act and deed, yet it reigns in them, and within its own sphere is in conscious opposition to the Spirit of God. The way in which this shews itself is by the affections of love and hate, hope and fear, joy and sorrow, which are feelings of the mind. 319Though they be never acted upon, yet they are as real as a thousand acts. We may love what God hates, as the pride of life; or hate what God loves, as crosses and humiliations. So also we may hope for what He wills that we should never enjoy, as earthly happiness or ease in life; and fear what He wills we should endure, as bodily pain, unjust suspicions, and the like; or we may seek our joys where He would have us bestow no care, and sorrow where He would have us without choice or concern. All this implies ill-regulated affections; and what produces so much consciousness of moral opposition as a contrariety of desire and love? What are the affections He blesses and accepts? Love, holiness, purity, meekness, humility, and self-denial, as they exist in sanctified hearts; a hatred of sin, zealous sorrow, humiliation, self-chastisement, as in penitents. Such Christians are truly united to God in will; so that nothing comes amiss to them, nothing is a contradiction to their will. Even crosses are no crosses to them. Sorrows, sickness, failures, disappointment, the hardest trials of the world, such as its false witness and inexorable enmity,—all these, as they come by God’s permissive will, so they are objects of the positive will of His true servants.
But what is the case with most of us? How many are happy and at ease in their possessions, 320full of innocent but active thoughts, with plans and aims laid up for many years. They hold fast to friends and home: they delight in the happiness of religion, in its sunny side, in the beauty of worship and the majesty of truth; they love religion, because it is their chief source of joy and comfort: but they have no love for its “clouds and thick darkness,” its discipline of the Cross, and the mysteries of sorrow by which God works in us both perseverance and perfection. Though we love one aspect of God’s will, we have often but little love for the other. Now here is a moral variance between us and Him; a variance which cannot but make us strange to Him, and give to every thought of passing out of life, and going to a direct intuitive vision of His presence, a peculiar quality of fear. Imagine, if we can, before the great white throne, a soul which shrinks from home truths, painful memories of sin, and a sharp discipline of self. Imagine a gentle, amiable heart, without deep convictions of sin or of the Cross, standing before the Word made flesh.
Who does not fear that, if he now were called to stand before God, he would be as the stubble in the blast of the furnace? Surely we ought to fear so long as we are conscious that our will is surrounded by a circle of desires over which self and the world so cast their shadows, as to darken the 321tracings of God’s image upon them. Yet such too often is our state. In the main, we know that we are on the right side; but we suffer our hearts to run to waste in unchastened and wandering affections, which wind about the world, and cling to life with a tenacious hold. What fellowship have you even with those whom you once knew in the flesh, now made perfect? Would you not shrink from their gaze, and from the sanctity of their presence? How, then, can we but tremble at the thought of entering the world unseen? The apparition of one angel would overwhelm us. How, then, could we endure to pass into the presence of all angels and all saints gathered in the heavenly court? Nay, further, what communion has our heart with the spirit of the Cross? And if not with the Cross, what sympathy with Him who was crucified? Must there not, then, be between Him and us a certain though secret variance, a contradiction of the heart, making us shrink from the thought of meeting? But thus far we have been speaking only of a negative fitness, of the absence, that is, of moral unfitness, for our departure.
3. A third test by which to try ourselves is, the positive capacity of our spiritual being for the bliss of heaven. When St. Paul bids us to follow after “holiness, without which no man shall 322see the Lord,”189189 Heb. xii. 14. he surely meant something more than a negative quality. He did not mean, that to be free from the soils of sin, or the opposition of an imperfect will, was a sufficient meetness for the beatific vision. Doubtless he meant by “holiness” to express the active aspirations of a spiritual nature, thirsting for the presence of God, desiring “to depart, and to be with Christ.”190190 Phil. i. 23. How unreal and unintelligible are many of the Psalms in our mouths. They were the utterances of holy souls yearning for union with the true centre and life of their spiritual being. “Like as the hart panteth for the water brooks, so panteth my soul after Thee, O God. My soul is athirst for God, yea, even for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God?”191191 Ps. xlii. 1, 2. “O God, Thou art my God; early will I seek Thee: my soul thirsteth for Thee: my flesh longeth after Thee in a barren and dry land, where no water is.”192192 Ps. lxiii. 1, 2. Even then, when the unseen world was veiled, and the heavenly court was not as yet laid open, they yearned, by a spiritual instinct, for something which the presence of God could alone supply. Much more now that the Word made flesh has sat down in His Father’s throne, angels and principalities being made subject unto Him; now that 323patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs, and saints, are gathered round about Him, and the bliss and glory of His kingdom are revealed. With what ardent desire has the spirit of holiness, in all pure souls, thirsted to “see the King in His beauty.” As the souls under the altar cried, “Lord, how long?” much more have His saints on earth cried, “Make no long tarrying;” wo is me that my sojourn is so long drawn out; “Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly.” This is the voice of true sanctity, of those that “hunger and thirst after righteousness,” and are joined to God by love, as rays hang from the splendour of the sun. But what do we know of these great things? It confounds and overwhelms us so much as to utter, it bewilders and blinds us even to think upon them. These things are for such as delight in God, live in meditation, seek no solace but in prayer, no joy but in worship; are eager for no food but the living bread which is broken at the altar. For these fervent souls, set on fire of heaven, there is nothing on earth but patience, waiting, and desire. Their true home is in God. Their holiness is a fervent aspiration to be unclothed, and to be clothed upon with incorruptible flesh in the kingdom of the resurrection.
But what must we confess? Is it not true, that for the most part our love of God is rather 324a conviction of the reason than an affection of the heart? our communion with Him more, an excitement of the emotions than an embrace of the will? our prayers full of conscious effort? our approaches to the altar rather dutiful than fervent? Are we not conscious of more sensible pleasure in reading devout books than in acts of devotion? and still more pleasure in the freer exercise of our thoughts and affections among earthly friends, than in consciousness of the presence of God? Nay, do we not shrink at the thought of beholding the host of angels, and even our own friends now made perfect? And what does this betray, but a great incapacity of the heavenly bliss? How long shall we go on deceiving ourselves? It is not only a life stained with sin and kindled with fires of evil, or a soul drowned in worldly cares and in the depths of sense, or a will braced and strung up to intense worldliness and self-worship, or a mind squandered and lowered by levity and empty trifling; but also a heart which is coldly observant of duty, devout in the conception of the intellect, and fervent in the pictures of the imagination, this, too, is a real incapacity for the state of heavenly rest. We must learn to live here on earth by the measures and qualities of heaven, before the altar, kneeling in our closets, in fellowship with saints and angels, and with the 325ever-blessed Trinity, before we can think to find our bliss in the kingdom of God. His presence, if I may so speak, is the centre of that orb of light and blessedness in which all who love Him live and worship here on earth. The blessed stand at the fountain of light,—we in the outskirts of its glory. If, then, we had our warning now, “Set your house in order,” what should we do? If we were to know that we are going to leave all the easy, hopeful, relaxed devotions of our present life, to stand in the brightness of God’s eternal throne, what should we feel? Should we not shrink at the thought of eternal worship, spotless sanctity, the vision of the blessed, and the majesty of God? Are we meet to behold and to mingle in the awful realities of the Divine presence? Does not the remembrance of our last communion, or of this morning’s prayers, make us tremble at the sense of our unheavenly state? Even though we be consenting in no sin; even though our will be passively subject to the will of God; still are our active affections and the energies of our spiritual being so put forth, and so centred in loving and adoring God, that to die would be not so much a change as an expansion and perfection of our present state? It is the will of God that the capacities of our regenerate life should be here unfolded, that they may be there 326made perfect—should be here matured, that they may be there fulfilled. To be pure from the acts and affections of sin is not holiness. We may be free from sin, and yet may lack all the energies and capacities of heavenly bliss; for what are these but the active perfections of pure and fervent love of God, and of all the new creation in God and for God?
These are some of the questions you must needs both ask and answer when the shadow of death falls upon your dial. Happy and holy are they who can say, “Lord, I am in Thy sight but sin and death. But if, through weakness, I offend, it is a wound which straightway makes my heart to bleed. Thy will is my will; in holy obedience or in holy patience, in life or in death, Thy will be done in me. Thou, in Thy mercy, hast gathered in my heart and my love from this life and from this world, and hast hid them in Thy kingdom. ‘Whom have I in heaven but Thee, and there is none upon earth I desire beside Thee.’ All the thoughts, desires, affections, powers of my soul are set upon Thee, and upon the bliss and fellowship of Thy saints. This is my pilgrimage; that, through the Blood of Thy Son, shall be my rest for ever.”
There are now two short counsels which it may be well to add.327
1. The first is, that we strive always so to I live, as to be akin to the state of just men made perfect. This is to live in fellowship with God, and in the communion of saints. If we live for, or in, this world, so as to sympathise with it, we cannot be fit to die. A life of sense, or of imagination, or of intellect, withdraws the affections from the sanctity and peace of God. We may live a life of almsdeeds, or in vivid imaginative communion with all the members of Christ’s mystical body, or in active intellectual fellowship with all saints from the beginning; and yet have no communion with God. For the seat of this is a holy will; and the bands of it are holy affections of repentance and love, of joy and abasement. The chief end and prayer of our lives ought to be, that we may so pass out of the sphere of sense, imagination, and intellect, into the region of the will, that our whole spiritual being may, as far as sin and dust can, be united to the purities and worship of heaven; that as the children of this world are bound in sympathy to the world, so we may be knit by a mighty and transforming sympathy to the new creation of God. This, if we would die well, must be not the ultimate, but the habitual state of our hearts. Blessed are they who have a fervent will, set on fire of God; to whom this world, and all things in it, 328are cheap and pale; and their only ardent desire is for the eternal years. For them all things are more real as life draws on. What is passing away is but shadow and decay: their treasures and joys are yet to come. The things they love most, and live in with greatest delight, are but foretastes and reflections; though most real, still but shadows of good things yet to come. Even the sanctuary and the altar, and the mysteries upon the altar, are but the beginning of joy. God’s love, God’s will, God’s holiness; the glory, the rest, the beauty of His presence; the illumination of the soul, its purity, its peace; what are all these but anticipations of the perfect bliss of heaven? If the beginnings are beatific, what shall the fulness be? if they are blissful in faith, what shall they be in vision? O happy life, in unity and in continuity with the perfect joy! O that we may live in it altogether! Let us come down upon the water, for it will bear us up; let us not fear to walk where He walked; above all, when we walk with Him.
Even if the duties and works of life be upon us, let us not be cast down. In the midst of all we may have our chiefest love in heaven. The busiest may live ready to die. If the substance and heart of our spiritual life be “hid with Christ in God,” all duties and works of our lot are but occasions either of obedience or of patience, and therein of 329our perfection. Let this, then, be one counsel: to live habitually in that state in which, if we should depart, we should pass from a lower to a higher condition of the same spiritual order; from faith to sight; from the first faint tastes of uncreated peace, to the overflow of the eternal fountain.
2. And the other counsel is, that we often rehearse in life the last preparation we should make in death. We know not whether we shall have time for the last dressing of our soul, when God calls us to His presence. A sudden death may cut us away in an hour; a wandering mind, or the distractions of pain, or the weight and burden of our mere mortality, may take our last hours or days out of our control. It is good, therefore, in times of health to try to realise our last passage; to see ourselves upon our bed of death; and to surround ourselves with all the probable images and sights of our last hour; with the objects and the words, even with the very looks which may be fixed upon us then. Joseph made his sepulchre in his garden, in the midst of his most familiar scenes. And he had his reward; for that tomb became a pledge of his election. It will be good for us to set apart some day, as the day of the departure of a sainted friend, or the day of our own birth by nature or by baptism, and to spend it as if it were our last, praying God to forgive our stains of soul and body, the sins of 330all our thoughts and of all our senses. And also to approach the holy Sacrament at some certain season, as if we were receiving it upon our bed of death. This will make death a benign and familiar thought. And it may be that God, in His tender mercy, will accept these our timely preparations as if they were our last; and draw over our whole life the spirit of a holy fear, and of a continual readiness to die. Alas! it is no good sign that Christians should so fear to see His face. If heaven be the presence of our Lord, and if death be the passage to His throne, our fears betray how little we know of heavenly blessedness, and how little capacity we have for the fruition of its peace. Let us, then, try, day by day, so to live, that if we were to die, we should but pass out of the conflict and clouds of this earthly trial, into the fulfilment of our most kindled and ardent longings. And, further, let us each one seek, not by high imaginations or by excited emotions, but by deepening in ourselves, and praying God to increase in us ever more and more, both zeal and sorrow, the grace to live the life and to die the death of a perfect and fervent penitent.331
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