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SERMON XIII. ASCENSION DAY
Eversley. Chester Cathedral. 1872.
St John viii. 58. "Before Abraham was, I am."
Let us consider these words awhile. They are most fit for our thoughts on this glorious day, on which the Lord Jesus ascended to His Father, and to our Father, to His God, and to our God, that He might be glorified with the glory which He had with the Father before the making of the world. For it is clear that we shall better understand Ascension Day, just as we shall better understand Christmas or Eastertide, the better we understand Who it was who was born at Christmas, suffered and rose at Eastertide, and, as on this day, ascended into heaven. Who, then, was He whose ascent we celebrate? What was that glory which, as far as we can judge of divine things, He resumed as on this day?
Let us think a few minutes, with all humility, not rashly intruding ourselves into the things we have not seen, or meddling with divine matters which are too hard for us, but taking our Lord's words simply as they stand, and where we do not understand them, believing them nevertheless.
Now it is clear that the book of Exodus and our Lord's words speak of the same person. The Old Testament tells of a personage who appeared to Moses in the wilderness, and who called Himself "the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." But this personage also calls Himself "I AM." "I AM THAT I AM:" "and He said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you."
In the New Testament we read of a personage who calls Himself the Son of God, is continually called the Lord, and who tells His disciples to call Him by that name without reproving them, though they and He knew well what it meant--that it meant no less than this, that He, Jesus of Nazareth, poor mortal man as He seemed, was still the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I do not say that the disciples saw that at first, clearly or fully, till after our Lord's resurrection. But there was one moment shortly before His death, when they could have had no doubt who He assumed Himself to be. For the unbelieving Jews had no doubt, and considered Him a blasphemer; and these were His awful and wonderful words,--I do not pretend to understand them--I take them simply as I find them, and believe and adore. "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day, and he saw it, and was glad. Then said the Jews unto Him, Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast Thou seen Abraham?" One cannot blame them for asking that question, for Abraham had been dead then nearly two thousand years. But what is our Lord's solemn answer? "Verily, verily, I say unto you, before Abraham was, I am."
"I Am." The same name by which our Lord God had revealed Himself to Moses in the wilderness, some sixteen hundred years before. If these words were true,--and the Lord prefaces them with Verily, verily, Amen, Amen, which was as solemn an asseveration as any oath could be--then the Lord Jesus Christ is none other than the God of Abraham, the God of Moses, the God of the Jews, the God of the whole universe, past, present, and to come.
Let us think awhile over this wonder of all wonders. The more we think over it, we shall find it not only the wonder of all wonders, but the good news of all good news.
The deepest and soundest philosophers will tell us that there must be an "I Am." That is, as they would say, a self-existent Being; neither made nor created, but who has made and created all things; who is without parts and passions, and is incomprehensible, that is cannot be comprehended, limited, made smaller or weaker, or acted on in any way by any of the things that He has made. So that this self-existing Being whom we call God, would be exactly what He is now, if the whole universe, sun, moon, and stars, were destroyed this moment; and would be exactly what He is now, if there had never been any universe at all, or any thing or being except His own perfect and self-existent Self. For He lives and moves and has His being in nothing. But all things live and move and have their being in Him. He was before all things, and by Him all things consist. And this is the Catholic Faith; and not only that, this is according to sound and right reason. But more: the soundest philosophers will tell you that God must be not merely a self-existent Being, but the "I Am:" that if God is a Spirit, and not merely a name for some powers and laws of brute nature and matter, He must be able to say to Himself, "I Am:" that He must know Himself, that He must be conscious of Himself, of who and what He is, as you and I are conscious of ourselves, and more or less of who and what we are. And this, also, I believe to be true, and rational, and necessary to the Catholic Faith.
But they will tell you again--and this, too, is surely true--that I Am must be the very name of God, because God alone can say perfectly, "I Am," and no more. You and I dare not, if we think accurately, say of ourselves, "I am." We may say, I am this or that; I am a man; I am an Englishman; but we must not say, "I am;" that is, "I exist of myself." We must say--not I am; but I become, or have become; I was made; I was created; I am growing, changing; I depend for my very existence on God and God's will, and if He willed, I should be nothing and nowhere in a moment. God alone can say, I Am, and there is none beside Me, and never has, nor can be. I exist, absolutely, and simply; because I choose to exist, and get life from nothing; for I Am the Life, and give life to all things. But you may say, What is all this to us? It is very difficult to understand, and dreary, and even awful. Why should we care for it, even if it be true? Yes, my friends; philosophy may be true, and yet be dreary, and awful, and have no gospel and good news in it at all. I believe it never can have; that only in Revelation, and in the Revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, can poor human beings find any gospel and good news at all. And sure I am, that that is an awful thought, a dreary thought, a crushing thought, which makes a man feel as small, and worthless, and helpless, and hopeless, as a grain of dust, or a mote in the sunbeam--that thought of God for ever contained in Himself, and saying for ever to Himself, "I Am, and there is none beside Me."
But the Gospel, the good news of the Old Testament, the Gospel, the good news of the New Testament, is the Revelation of God and God's ways, which began on Christmas Day, and finished on Ascension Day: and what is that? What but this? That God does not merely say to Himself in Majesty, "I Am;" but that He goes out of Himself in Love, and says to men, "I Am." That He is a God who has spoken to poor human beings, and told them who He was; and that He, the I Am, the self-existent One, the Cause of life, of all things, even the Maker and Ruler of the Universe, can stoop to man--and not merely to perfect men, righteous men, holy men, wise men, but to the enslaved, the sinful, the brutish--that He may deliver them, and teach them, and raise them from the death of sin, to His own life of righteousness.
Do you not see the difference, the infinite difference, and the good news in that? Do you not see a whole heaven of new hope and new duty is opened to mankind in that one fact--God has spoken to man. He, the I Am, the Self-Existent, who needs no one, and no thing, has turned aside, as it were, and stooped from the throne of heaven, again and again, during thousands of years, to say to you, and me, and millions of mankind, I Am your God. How do you prosper?--what do you need?--what are you doing?-- for if you are doing justice to yourself and your fellow-men, then fear not that I shall be just to you.
And more. When that I Am, the self-existent God, could not set sinful men right by saying this, then did He stoop once more from the throne of the heavens to do that infinite deed of love, of which it is written, that He who called Himself "I Am," the God of Abraham, was conceived of the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven,--that He might send down the Spirit of the "I Am," the Holy Spirit who proceedeth from the Father and the Son, upon all who ask Him; that they may be holy as God is holy, and perfect as God is perfect. Yes, my dear friends, remember that, and live in the light of that; the gospel of good news of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, very God of very God begotten. Know that God has spoken to you as He spoke to Abraham, and said,--I am the Almighty God, walk before Me, and be thou perfect. Know that He has spoken to you as He spoke to Moses, saying,--I am the Lord thy God, who have brought you, and your fathers before you, out of the spiritual Egypt of heathendom, and ignorance, sin, and wickedness, into the knowledge of the one, true, and righteous God. But know more, that He has spoken to you by the mouth of Jesus Christ, saying,--I am He that died in the form of mortal man upon the cross for you. And, behold, I am alive for evermore; and to me all power is given in heaven and earth.
Yes, my friends, let us lay to heart, even upon this joyful day, the awful warnings of the Epistle to the Hebrews,--God, the I Am, has spoken to us; God, the I Am, is speaking to us now. See that you refuse not Him that speaketh; for if they escaped not who refused Moses that spake on earth, much more shall not we escape if we turn away from Him that speaketh from heaven; wherefore follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord, and have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably, with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire. To those who disobey Him, eternal wrath; to those who love Him, eternal love.
Yes, my friends. Let us believe that, and live in the light of that, with reverence and godly fear, all the year round. But let us specially to-day, as far as our dull feelings and poor imaginations will allow us; let us, I say, adore the ascended Saviour, who rules for ever, a Man in the midst of the throne of the universe, and that Man--oh, wonder of wonders!--slain for us; and let us say with St Paul of old, with all our hearts and minds and souls:--Now to the King of the Ages, immortal, invisible, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, be honour and glory, for ever and ever. Amen!
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