SERMON XIV.--CONSIDER THE LILIES OF THE FIELD
(Preached on Easter Day, 1867.)
MATTHEW vi. 26, 28, 29.
Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap,
nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye
not much better than they? . . . And why take ye thought for raiment?
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not,
neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in
all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
What has this text to do with Easter-day? Let us think a while.
Life and death; the battle between life and death; life conquered by
death; and death conquered again by life. Those were the mysteries
over which the men of old time thought, often till their hearts were
They saw that they were alive; and they loved life, and would fain
see good days. They saw, again, that they must die: but would death
conquer life in them? Would they ever live again?
They saw that other things died, or seemed to die, and yet rose and
lived again; and that gave them hope for themselves at times; but
their hopes were very dim, till Christ came, and brought life and
immortality to light.
They saw, I say, that other things died, or seemed to die, and yet
lived again. Light rose out of darkness every morning and lived:
but darkness, as they thought, killed the light at even, till it came
to life again in the morning, and the sun rose once more. The sun
himself--they thought of him as a glorious and life-giving being, who
every morning fought his way up the sky, scattering the dark clouds
with his golden arrows, and reigning for a-while in heaven, pouring
down heat and growth and life: but he too must die. The dark clouds
of evening must cover him. The red glare upon them was his dying
blood. The twilight, which lingered after the sun was gone, was his
bride, the dawn, come to soothe his dying hour. True, he had come to
life again, often and often, morning after morning: but would it be
so for ever? Would not a night come at last, after which he would
never rise again? Would not he be worn out at last, and slain, in
his long daily battle with the kingdom of darkness, which lay below
the world; or with the dragon who tried to devour him, when the
thunder clouds hid him from the sight, or the eclipse seemed to
swallow him up before their eyes?
So, too, they felt about the seasons of the year. The winter came.
The sun grew low and weak. Would he not die? The days grew short
and dark. Would they not cease to be, and eternal night come on the
earth? They had heard dimly of the dark northern land, where it was
always winter, and the night was six months long. Why should it not
be so in their own land in some evil time? Every autumn the rains
and frost came on; the leaves fell; the flowers withered; the birds
fled southward, or died of hunger and cold; the cattle starved in the
field; the very men had much ado to live. Why should not winter
conquer at last, and shut up the sun, the God of light and warmth and
life, for ever in the place of darkness, cold, and death? So thought
the old Syrians of Canaan, and taught the Jewish women to weep, as
they themselves wept every autumn, over Adonai, the Lord, which was
another name for the sun, slain, as they thought, by the winter cold
and rain: and then, when spring-time came, with its sunshine,
flowers, and birds, rejoiced that the sun had come to life again.
So thought the old Greeks, and told how Persephone, the fair maiden
who was the spring-time, was stolen away by the king of darkness who
lived beneath the earth; and how her mother earth would not be
comforted for her loss, but sent barrenness on all the world till her
daughter, the spring, was given back to her, to dwell for six months
in the upper world of light, and six months in the darkness under
So thought our old forefathers; and told how Baldur (the Baal of the
Bible), the god of light and heat, who was likewise the sun, was
slain by treachery, and imprisoned for ever below in hell, the
kingdom of darkness and of cold; and how all things on earth, even
the very trees and stones, wept for his death: yet all their tears
could not bring back from death the god of life: nor any of the gods
unlock the gates which held him in.
And because our forefathers were a sad and earnest folk: because
they lived in a sad and dreary climate, where winter was far longer
and more bitter than it is, thank God, now; therefore all their
thoughts about winter and spring were sad; and they grew to despair,
at last, of life ever conquering death, or light conquering darkness.
An age would come, they said, in which snow should fall from the four
corners of the world, and the winters be three winters long; an evil
age, of murder and adultery, and hatred between brethren, when all
the ties of kin would be rent asunder, and wickedness should triumph
on the earth.
Then should come that dark time which they called the twilight of the
gods. Then the powers of evil would be let loose; the earth would go
to ruin in darkness and in flame. All living things would die. The
very gods would die, fighting to the last against the powers of evil,
till the sun should sink for ever, and the world be a heap of ashes.
And then--so strangely does God's gift of hope linger in the hearts
of men--they saw, beyond all that, a dim dream of a new heaven and a
new earth in which should dwell righteousness; and of a new sun, more
beautiful than ours; of a woman called "Life," hid safe while all the
world around her was destroyed, fed on the morning dew, preserved to
be the mother of a new and happier race of men. And so to them,
heathens as they were, God whispered that Christ should some day
bring life and immortality to light.
My friends, shall we sneer and laugh at all these dreams, as mere
follies of the heathen? If we do so, we shall not show the spirit of
God, or the mind of Christ. Nor shall we show our knowledge of the
Bible. In it, the spirit of God, who inspired the Bible, does not
laugh at these dreams. It rebukes them sternly whenever they are
immoral, and lead men to do bad and foul deeds, as Ezekiel rebuked
the Jewish women who wept for Thammuz, the dead summer. But that was
because those Jewish women should have known better. They should
have known--what the Old Testament tells us all through--what it was
especially meant to tell the men who lived while it was being
written, just because they had their fancies, and their fears about
summer and winter, and life and death. And what ought they to have
known? What does the Old Testament say? That life will conquer
death, because God, the Lord Jehovah, even Jesus Christ, is Lord of
heaven and earth. From the time that it was written in the Book of
Genesis, that the Lord Jehovah said in his heart, 'I will not again
curse the ground for man's sake: neither will I again smite any more
anything living, as I have done, while the earth remaineth--seed time
and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and
night, shall not cease'--from that time the Jews were bound not to
fear the powers of nature, or the seasons, nor to fear for them; for
they were all in the government of that one good God and Lord, who
cared for men, and loved them, and dealt justly by them, and proved
his love and justice by bringing the children of Israel out of the
land of Egypt.
God treated these heathens, St. Paul says, as we ought to treat our
children. His wrath was revealed from heaven against all ungodliness
and unrighteousness of men. All wilful disobedience and actual sin
he punished, often with terrible severity; but not their childish
mistakes and dreams about how this world was made; just as we should
not punish the fancies of our children. The times of that ignorance,
says St. Paul, he winked at till Christ came, and then he commanded
all men everywhere to repent, and believe in the God who gave them
rain and fruitful seasons, filling their hearts with food and
For he had appointed a day in which he would judge the world in
righteousness by that man whom he had ordained; of which he had given
full assurance to all men, in that he had raised him from the dead.
Some, who were spoilt by false philosophy, mocked when they heard of
the resurrection of the dead: but there were those who had kept
something of the simple childlike faith of their forefathers, and who
were prepared for the kingdom of God; and to them St. Paul's message
came as an answer to the questions of their minds, and a satisfaction
to the longings of their hearts.
The news of Christ,--of Christ raised from the dead to be the life
and the light of the world,--stilled all their fears lest death
should conquer life, and darkness conquer light.
So it was with all the heathen. So it was with our old forefathers,
when they heard and believed the Gospel of Christ. They felt that
(as St. Paul said) they were translated out of the kingdom of
darkness into the kingdom of light, which was the kingdom of his dear
Son; that now the world must look hopeful, cheerful to them; now they
could live in hope of everlasting life; now they need sorrow no more
for those who slept, as if they had no hope: for Christ had
conquered death, and the evil spirit who had the power of death.
Christ had harrowed hell, and burst the bonds of the graves. He, as
man, and yet God, had been through the dark gate, and had returned
through it in triumph, the first-born from the dead; and his
resurrection was an everlasting sign and pledge that all who belonged
to him should rise with him, and death be swallowed up in victory.
'So it pleased the Father,' says St. Paul, 'to gather together in
Christ all things, whether in heaven or in earth.' In him were
fulfilled, and more than fulfilled, the dim longings, the childlike
dreams of heathen poets and sages, and of our own ancestors from whom
we sprung. He is the desire of all nations; for whom all were
longing, though they knew it not. He is the true sun; the sun of
righteousness, who has arisen with healing on his wings, and
translated us from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light.
He is the true Adonai, the Lord for whose death though we may mourn
upon Good Friday, yet we rejoice this day for his resurrection. He
is the true Baldur, the God of light and life, who, though he died by
treachery, and descended into hell, yet needed not, to deliver him,
the tears of all creation, of men or angels, or that any god should
unlock for him the gates of death; for he rose by his own eternal
spirit of light, and saith, 'I am he that was dead, and behold I am
alive for evermore. Amen. And I have the keys of death and hell.'
And now we may see, it seems to me, what the text has to do with
Easter-day. To my mind our Lord is using here the same parable which
St. Paul preaches in his famous chapter which we read in the Burial
Service. Be not anxious, says our Lord, for your life. Is not the
life more than meat? There is an eternal life which depends not on
earthly food, but on the will and word of God your Father; and that
life in you will conquer death. Behold the birds of the air, which
sow not, nor reap, nor gather into barns, to provide against the
winter's need. But do they starve and die? Does not God guide them
far away into foreign climes, and feed them there by his providence,
and bring them back again in spring, as things alive from the dead?
And can he not feed us (if it be his will) with a bread which comes
down from heaven, and with every word which proceedeth out of the
mouth of God?
Consider, again, the lilies of the field. We must take our Lord's
words exactly. He is speaking of the lilies, the bulbous plants
which spring into flower in countless thousands every spring, over
the downs of Eastern lands. All the winter they are dead, unsightly
roots, hidden in the earth. What can come of them? But no sooner
does the sun of spring shine on their graves, than they rise into
sudden life and beauty, as it pleases God, and every seed takes its
own peculiar body. Sown in corruption, they are raised in
incorruption; sown in weakness, they are raised in power; sown in
dishonour, they are raised in glory; delicate, beautiful in colour,
perfuming the air with fragrance; types of immortality, fit for the
crowns of angels. Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow.
For even so is the resurrection of the dead.
Yes, not without a divine providence--yea, a divine inspiration--has
this blessed Easter-tide been fixed, by the Church of all ages, at
the season when the earth shakes off her winter's sleep; when the
birds come back and the flowers begin to bloom; when every seed which
falls into the ground, and dies, and rises again with a new body, is
a witness to us of the resurrection of Christ; and a witness, too,
that we shall rise again; that in us, as in it, life shall conquer
death when every bird which comes back to sing and build among us, is
a witness to us of the resurrection of Christ, and of our
resurrection; and that in us, as in it, joy shall conquer sorrow.
The seed has passed through strange chances and dangers: of a
thousand seeds shed in autumn, scarce one survives to grow in spring.
Be it so. Still there is left, as Scripture says, a remnant, an
elect, to rise again and live.
The birds likewise--they have been through strange chances, dangers,
needs. Far away south to Africa they went--the younger ones by a way
they had never travelled before. Thousands died in their passage
south. Thousands more died in their passage back again this spring,
by hunger and by storm. Be it so. Yet of them is left a seed, a
remnant, an elect, and they are saved, to build once more in their
old homes, and to rejoice in the spring, and pour out their songs to
God who made them.
Some say that the seeds grow by laws of nature; the birds come back
by instinct. Be it so. What Scripture says, and what we should
believe, is this: that the seeds grow by the spirit of God, the Lord
and Giver of life; that the birds come back, and sing, and build by
the spirit of God, the Lord and Giver of life. He works not on them,
things without reason, as he works on us reasonable souls: but he
works on them nevertheless. They obey his call; they do his will;
they show forth his glory; they return to life, they breed, they are
preserved, by the same spirit by which the body of Jesus rose from
the dead; and, therefore, every flower which blossoms, and every bird
which sings, at Easter-tide; everything which, like the seeds, was
dead, and is alive again, which, like the birds, was lost, and is
found, is a type and token of Christ, their Maker, who was dead and
is alive again; who was lost in hell on Easter-eve, and was found
again in heaven for evermore; and the resurrection of the earth from
her winter's sleep commemorates to us, as each blessed Easter-tide
comes round, the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, who made all
the world, and redeemed all mankind, and sanctifieth to eternal life
all the elect people of God: a witness to us that some day life
shall conquer death, light conquer darkness, righteousness conquer
sin, joy conquer grief; when the whole creation, which groaneth and
travaileth in pain until now, shall have brought forth that of which
it travails in labour; even the new heavens and the new earth,
wherein shall be neither sighing nor sorrow, but God shall wipe away
tears from all eyes.