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Sermon for Epiphany
(From the Gospel for the day)
This Sermon on the Gospel for the day, from St. Matthew, showeth how God, of His great faithfulness hath foreseen and ordained all sufferings for the eternal good of each man, in whatever wise they befall us, and whether they be great or small.
Matt. ii. 11.—“And they presented unto him gifts: gold, and frankincense and myrrh.”
NOW consider first the myrrh. It is bitter; and this is a type of the bitterness which must be tasted before a man can find God, when he first turns from the world to God, and all his likings and desires have to be utterly changed. For it is necessary that all which a man has hitherto taken pleasure in possessing should be given up, and this is at first very bitter and very hard work to him. All things must become as bitter to thee as their enjoyment was sweet unto thee. But to this work thou hast need of a full purpose of heart and never-failing diligence. For the greater thy delight in anything has been, the more bitter will it be to give it up, yea the very gall of bitterness.
Now, it may be asked, “How can a man be without appetites and enjoyment so long as he is in this 231present state? I am hungry, and I eat; I am thirsty, I drink; I am weary, I sleep; I am cold, I warm myself; and I cannot possibly find that to be bitter nor barren of natural enjoyment which is the satisfaction of my natural desires. This I cannot alter, so long as nature is nature.” True; but this pleasure, ease, satisfaction, enjoyment, or delight, must not penetrate into the depths of thy heart, nor make up a portion of thy inner life. It must pass away with the things that caused it, and have no abiding place in thee. We must not set our affections thereon, but allow it to come and go, and not repose upon the sense of possession with content or delight in the world or the creature. We must mortify and subdue nature with nature, and the love thereof within us, yea, even the delight that we have in the children of God and good men. These and all other inclinations must be brought under dominion to a higher power; for till this is accomplished, Herod and his servants, which seek after the young child’s life, are not altogether and of a surety dead within thee. Therefore beware that thou do not deceive thyself, but look narrowly to it, how it stands with thee, and do not be too secure, nor live without fear.
But there is yet another myrrh, which far surpasses the first. This is the myrrh which God gives us in the cup of trouble and sorrow, of whatever kind it may be, outward or inward. Ah, if thou couldst but receive this myrrh as from its true source, and drink it with the same love with which God puts it to thy lips, what blessedness would it work in thee! Ah, what a joy and peace and an excellent thing were that! Yes, the very 232least and the very greatest sorrows that God ever suffers to befall thee, proceed from the depths of His unspeakable love; and such great love were better for thee than the highest and best gifts besides that He has given thee or ever could give thee, if thou couldst but see it in this light; yea, however small a suffering light on thee, God—who, as our Lord says, counts the smallest hair that ever fell from thy head, without thy knowing it—God has foreseen it from eternity, and chosen, and purposed, and appointed that it should befall thee. So that if your little finger only aches, if you are cold, if you are hungry or thirsty, if others vex you by their words or deeds, or whatever happens to you that causes you distress or pain, it will all help to fit you for a noble and blessed state; and it has been foreseen and fore-appointed by God that such and such things should happen and come upon you; for all is measured, weighed, and numbered, and cannot be less nor otherwise than it is. That my eyes are now in my head, is as God our Heavenly Father has seen it from eternity; now let them be put out, and let me become blind, or deaf, this also has our Heavenly Father foreseen from eternity, that it ought to come to pass, and had His eternal counsel with respect unto it, and determined it from eternity within Himself. Ought I not, then, to open my inward eyes and ears, and thank my God that His eternal counsel is fulfilled in me? Ought I to grieve at it? I ought to be wonderfully thankful for it! And so also with loss of friends, or property, or reputation, or comfort, or whatever it be that God allots to us, it will all serve to prepare thee, and help thee forward to true peace, if thou 233canst only take it so. Now, sometimes people have said to me: “Master, it is ill with me: I have much suffering and tribulation”; and when I have answered: “It is all as it should be,” they have said, “No, Master, I have deserved it; I have cherished an evil thing in my heart.” Then take blame to thyself; but whether thy pain be deserved or not, believe that it comes from God, and thank Him, and bear it, and resign thyself to it.
All the myrrhs of bitterness that God gives, are ordered aright, that He may by this means raise men to true greatness. It is for the wholesome exercise of suffering that He has set the forces of nature as it were at war with man. He could just as well and as easily have caused bread to grow as corn, but that it is necessary for man to have his powers exercised in every way. And He has bestowed as much care and thought in the arrangement of each single thing, as the artist does when he is painting a picture, who never draws a single stroke with his pencil without considering how long, how short, and how broad it ought to be; and it must be so and no otherwise, if the picture is to be a perfect masterpiece, and all its bright red and blue colours are to come out. But God takes a thousand times more pains with us than the artist with his picture, by many touches of sorrow, and by many colours of circumstance, to bring man into the form which is the highest and noblest in His sight, if only we received His gifts and myrrh in the right spirit.
There are some, however, who are not content with the myrrh that God gives them, but think fit to give themselves some, and create evils for themselves and sick fancies, and have indeed suffered long and much, 234for they take hold of all things by the wrong end. And they gain little grace from all their pain, because they are building upon stones of their own laying, whether it be penances or abstinence, or prayer or meditation. According to them, God must wait their leisure, and let them do their part first, else no good will come of the work. God hath fixed it in His purpose that He will reward nothing but His own works. In the kingdom of Heaven He will crown nothing to all eternity but His works, and not thine. What He has not wrought in thee, He takes no account of.
In the third place, there is an exceeding bitter myrrh which God gives; namely, inward assaults and inward darkness. When a man is willing to taste this myrrh, and does not put it from him, it wears down flesh and blood, yea, the whole nature; for these inward exercises make the cheek grow pale far sooner than great outward hardships, for God appoints unto his servants cruel fightings and strange dread, and unheard of distresses, which none can understand but he who has felt them. And these men are beset with such a variety of difficulties, so many cups of bitterness are presented to them, that they hardly know which way to turn, or what they ought to do; but God knows right well what He is about. But when the cup is put away, and these feelings are stifled or unheeded, a greater injury is done to the soul than can ever be amended. For no heart can conceive in what surpassing love God giveth us this myrrh; yet this which we ought to receive to our soul’s good, we suffer to pass by us in our sleepy indifference, and nothing comes of it. Then we come and complain: “Alas, Lord! I am so 235dry, and it is so dark within me!” I tell you, dear child, open thy heart to the pain, and it will do thee more good than if thou wert full of feeling and devoutness.
Now men receive this bitter myrrh in two ways; they try to meet it as with their practical sense or with their intellectual subtilty. When it springs from outward circumstances, men wish they had known better, and they would have averted it with their wisdom, and attribute it to outward accidents, to fate, or misfortune, and think they might have taken steps to prevent what has happened, and if they had done so, the means would have succeeded, and the calamity would have been turned aside. They would fain be too wise for God, and teach Him, and master Him, and cannot take things from His hand. The sufferings of such are very sore, and their myrrh is exceeding bitter.
There are others, who having tasted the cup of that bitterness which springs from within, do start back and forthwith seek to break away from it by the exercise of their natural wit and subtilty, and think to quell the strife by dint of reasoning and arguing with themselves. And this kind of trouble often passes away more quickly with simple minds than with those whose reason is more active; for the former follow God more simply, they feel they do not know what to do, and so they trust. But if those of higher powers follow God’s leading, and surrender themselves wholly to Him, their career is far nobler and more blessed, for their reason serves them in all things more freely and excellently.
Now from this myrrh springs a noble branch, which beareth costly frankincense. The frankincense gum 236sends forth a sweet-smelling smoke; so when the fire catches the rod, it curls round it and seeks to set loose the perfume that is contained therein, that it may go forth and spread a fragrant incense around. The fire is nothing else than burning love to God, which is as it were latent in prayer; and love is the frankincense which sends forth the true fragrance of holy devotion. For, as a writer has said: “Prayer is nothing but the going up of the spirit unto God.” And just as the straw exists for the sake of the corn, and is good for nothing in itself but to make a bed whereon to lie, or to manure the earth, so outward prayer is of no profit except in so far as it stirs up the noble flame of devotion in the heart, and when that sweet incense breaks forth and rises up, then it matters little whether the prayer of the lips be uttered or not. In saying this, I except those persons who are bound by the ordinances of the Holy Church to offer up prayers, and those who have vowed to perform acts of devotion, or have been advised thereunto by their spiritual directors.
May Jesus Christ, the King of Glory, help us to make the right use of all the myrrh that God sends us, and to offer up to Him the true incense of devout hearts. Amen!4444In the later editions here follows an exposition of the gold, but it is wanting in the four earliest editions and the best mss.
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