SERMON XIV. THE COMFORTER
Eversley. Sunday after Ascension Day. 1868.
St John xv. 26. "When the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me."
Some writers, especially when they are writing hymns, have fallen now-a- days into a habit of writing of the Holy Spirit of God, in a tone of which I dare not say that it is wrong or untrue; but of which I must say, that it is one-sided. And if there are two sides to a matter, it must do us harm to look at only one of them. And I think that it does people harm to hear the Holy Spirit of God, the Holy Ghost, the Comforter, spoken of in terms, not of reverence, but of endearment. For consider: He is the
"Creator-Spirit, by whose aid The world's foundations first were laid,"
the life-giving Spirit of whom it is written, Thou sendest forth Thy Spirit, and things live, and Thou renewest the face of the earth.
But He is the destroying Spirit too; who can, when He will, produce not merely life, but death; who can, and does send earthquakes, storm, and pestilence; of whom Isaiah writes--"All flesh is as grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth; because the Spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it." I think it does people harm to hear this awful and almighty being, I say, spoken of merely as the "sweet Spirit," and "gentle dove"--words which are true, but only true, if we remember other truths, equally true of Him, concerning whom they are spoken. The Spirit of God, it seems to me, is too majestic a being to be talked of hastily as "sweet." Words may be true, and yet it may not be always quite reverent to use them. An earthly sovereign may be full of all human sweetness and tenderness, yet we should not dare to address him as "sweet."
But, indeed, some of this talk about the Holy Spirit is not warranted by Scripture at all. In one of the hymns, for instance, in our hymn-book-- an excellent hymn in other respects, there is a line which speaks of the Holy Spirit as possessing "The brooding of the gentle dove."
Now, this line is really little but pretty sentiment, made up of false uses of Scripture. The Scripture speaks once of the Holy Spirit of God brooding like a bird over its nest. But where? In one of the most mysterious, awful, and important of all texts. "And the earth was without form and void. And the Spirit of God moved (brooded) over the face of the deep." What has this--the magnificent picture of the Life- giving Spirit brooding over the dead world, to bring it into life again, and create from it sea and land, heat and fire, and cattle and creeping things after their kind, and at last man himself, the flower and crown of things;--what has that to do with the brooding of a gentle dove?
But the Holy Spirit is spoken of in Scripture under the likeness of a dove? True, and here is another confusion. The Dove is not the emblem of gentleness in the Bible: but the Lamb. The dove is the emblem of something else, pure and holy, but not of gentleness; and therefore the Holy Spirit is not spoken of in Scripture as brooding as a gentle dove; but very differently, as it seems to me. St Matthew and St John say, that at our Lord's baptism the Holy Spirit was seen, not brooding, but descending from heaven as a dove. To any one who knows anything of doves, who will merely go out into the field or the farm-yard and look at them, and who will use his own eyes, that figure is striking enough, and grand enough. It is the swiftness of the dove, and not its fancied gentleness that is spoken of. The dove appearing, as you may see it again and again, like a speck in the far off sky, rushing down with a swiftness which outstrips the very eagle; returning surely to the very spot from which it set forth, though it may have flown over hundreds of miles of land, and through the very clouds of heaven. It is the sky- cleaving force and swiftness, the unerring instinct of the dove, and not a sentimental gentleness to which Scripture likens that Holy Spirit, which like the rushing mighty wind bloweth whither it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, or whither it goeth;--that Holy Spirit who, when He fell on the apostles, fell in tongues of fire, and shook all the house where they were sitting; that Holy Spirit of whom one of the wisest Christians who ever lived, who knew well enough the work of the Spirit, arguing just as I am now against the fancy of associating the Holy Spirit merely with pretty thoughts of our own, and pleasant feelings of our own, and sentimental raptures of our own, said, "Wouldst thou know the manner of spiritual converse? Of the way in which the Spirit of God works in man? Then it is this: He hath taken me up and dashed me down. Like a lion, I look, that He will break all my bones. From morning till evening, Thou wilt make an end of me."
But people are apt to forget this. And therefore they fall into two mistakes. They think of the Holy Spirit as only a gentle, and what they call a dove-like being; and they forget what a powerful, awful, literally formidable being He is. They lose respect for the Holy Spirit. They trifle with Him; and while they sing hymns about His gentleness and sweetness, they do things which grieve and shock Him; forgetting the awful warning which He, at the very outset of the Christian Church, gave against such taking of liberties with God the Holy Ghost:--how Ananias and Sapphira thought that the Holy Spirit was One whom they might honour with their lips, and more, with their outward actions, but who did not require truth in the inward parts, and did not care for their telling a slight falsehood that they might appear more generous than they really were in the eyes of men; and how the answer of the Holy Spirit of God was that He struck them both dead there and then for a warning to all such triflers, till the end of time.
Another mistake which really pious and good people commit, is, that they think the Holy Spirit of God to be merely, or little beside, certain pleasant frames, and feelings, and comfortable assurances, in their own minds. They do not know that these pleasant frames and feelings really depend principally on their own health: and, then, when they get out of health, or when their brain is overworked, and the pleasant feelings go, they are terrified and disheartened, and complain of spiritual dryness, and cry out that God's Spirit has deserted them, and are afraid that God is angry with them, or even that they have committed the unpardonable sin: not knowing that God is not a man that He should lie, nor a son of man that He should repent; that God is as near them in the darkness as in the light; that whatever their own health, or their own feelings may be, yet still in God they live, and move, and have their being; that to God's Spirit they owe all which raises them above the dumb animals; that nothing can separate them from the love of Him who promised that He would not leave us comfortless, but send to us His Holy Ghost to comfort us, and exalt us to the same place whither He has gone before.
Now, why do I say all this? To take away comfort from you? To make you fear and dread the Spirit of God? God forbid! Who am I, to take away comfort from any human being! I say it to give yon true comfort, to make you trust and love the Holy Spirit utterly, to know Him--His strength and His wisdom as well as His tenderness and gentleness.
You know that afflictions do come--terrible bereavements, sorrows sad and strange. My sermon does not make them come. There they are, God help us all, and too many of them, in this world. But from whom do they come? Who is Lord of life and death? Who is Lord of joy and sorrow? Is not that the question of all questions? And is not the answer the most essential of all answers? It is the Holy Spirit of God; the Spirit who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; the Spirit of the Father who so loved the world that He spared not His only begotten Son; the Spirit of the Son who so loved the world, that He stooped to die for it upon the Cross; the Spirit who is promised to lead you into all truth, that you may know God, and in the knowledge of Him find everlasting life; the Spirit who is the Comforter, and says, I have seen thy ways and will heal thee, I will lead thee also, and restore comforts to thee and to thy mourners. I speak peace to him that is near, and to him that is far off, saith the Lord; and I will heal him. Is it not the most blessed news, that He who takes away, is the very same as He who gives? That He who afflicts is the very same as He who comforts? That He of whom it is written that, "as a lion, so will He break all my bones; from day even to night wilt Thou make an end of me;" is the same as He of whom it is written, "He shall gather the lambs in His arms, and carry them, and shall gently lead those that are with young;" and, again, "as a beast goeth down into the valley, so the Spirit of the Lord caused him to rest?" That He of whom it is written, "Our God is a consuming fire," is the same as He who has said, "When thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned?" That He who brings us into "the valley of the shadow of death," is the same as He of whom it is said, "Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me?" Is not that blessed news? Is it not the news of the Gospel; and the only good news which people will really care for, when they are tormented, not with superstitious fears and doctrines of devils which man's diseased conscience has originated, but tormented with the real sorrows, the rational fears of this stormy human life.
We all like comfort. But what kind of comfort do we not merely like but need? Merely to be comfortable?--To be free from pain, anxiety, sorrow?- -To have only pleasant faces round us, and pleasant things said to us? If we want that comfort, we shall very seldom have it. It will be very seldom good for us to have it. The comfort which poor human beings want in such a world as this, is not the comfort of ease, but the comfort of strength. The comforter whom we need is not one who will merely say kind things, but give help--help to the weary and heavy laden heart which has no time to rest. We need not the sunny and smiling face, but the strong and helping arm. For we may be in that state that smiles are shocking to us, and mere kindness,--though we may be grateful for it--of no more comfort to us than sweet music to a drowning man. We may be miserable, and unable to help being miserable, and unwilling to help it too. We do not wish to flee from our sorrow, we do not wish to forget our sorrow. We dare not; it is so awful, so heartrending, so plain spoken, that God, the master and tutor of our hearts must wish us to face it and endure it. Our Father has given us the cup--shall we not drink it? But who will help us to drink the bitter cup? Who will be the comforter, and give us not mere kind words, but strength? Who will give us the faith to say with Job, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him?" Who will give us the firm reason to look steadily at our grief, and learn the lesson it was meant to teach? Who will give us the temperate will, to keep sober and calm amid the shocks and changes of mortal life? Above all, I may say--Who will lead us into all truth? How much is our sorrow increased-- how much of it is caused by simple ignorance! Why has our anxiety come? How are we to look at it? What are we to do? Oh, that we had a comforter who would lead us into all truth:--not make us infallible, or all knowing, but lead us into truth; at least put us in the way of truth, put things in their true light to us, and give us sound and rational views of life and duty. Oh, for a comforter who would give us the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and ghostly strength, the spirit of knowledge and true godliness, and fill us with that spirit of God's holy fear, which would make us not superstitious, not slavish, not anxious, but simply obedient, loyal and resigned.
If we had such a Comforter as that, could we not take evil from his hands, as well as good? We have had fathers of our flesh who corrected us, and we gave them reverence. They chastised us, but we loved and trusted them, because we knew that they loved and trusted us--chastised us to make us better--chastised us because they trusted us to become better. But if we can find a Father of our spirits, of our souls, shall we not rather be in subjection to Him and live? If He sent us a Comforter, to comfort and guide, and inspire, and strengthen us, shall we not say of that Comforter--"Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him."
If we had such a Comforter as that, we should not care, if He seemed at times stern, as well as kind; we could endure rebuke and chastisement from Him, if we could only get from Him wisdom to understand the rebuke, and courage to bear the chastisement. Where is that Comforter? God answers:--That Comforter am I, the God of heaven and earth. There are comforters on earth who can help thee with wise words and noble counsel, can be strong as man, and tender as woman. Then God can be more strong than man, and more tender than woman likewise. And when the strong arm of man supports thee no longer, yet under thee are the everlasting arms of God.
Oh, blessed news, that God Himself is the Comforter. Blessed news, that He who strikes will also heal: that He who gives the cup of sorrow, will also give the strength to drink it. Blessed news, that chastisement is not punishment, but the education of a Father. Blessed news, that our whole duty is the duty of a child--of the Son who said in His own agony, "Father, not my will, but thine be done." Blessed news, that our Comforter is the Spirit who comforted Christ the Son Himself; who proceeds both from the Father and from the Son; and who will therefore testify to us both of the Father and the Son, and tell us that in Christ we are indeed, really and literally, the children of God who may cry to Him, "Father," with full understanding of all that that royal word contains. Blessed, too, to find that in the power of the Divine Majesty, we can acknowledge the unity, and know and feel that the Father, Son and Holy Ghost are all one in love to the creatures whom they have made-- their glory equal, for the glory of each and all is perfect charity, and their majesty co-eternal, because it is a perfect majesty; whose justice is mercy, whose power is goodness, its very sternness love, love which gives hope and counsel, and help and strength, and the true life which this world's death cannot destroy.
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