THE VOICE OF THE LORD GOD
(Preached also at the Chapel Royal, St. James, Sexagesima Sunday.)
GENESIS iii. 8. And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.
These words would startle us, if we heard them for the first time. I do not know but that they may startle us now, often as we have heard them, if we think seriously over them. That God should appear to mortal man, and speak with mortal man. It is most wonderful. It is utterly unlike anything that we have ever seen, or that any person on earth has seen, for many hundred years. It is a miracle, in every sense of the word.
When one compares man as he was then, weak and ignorant, and yet seemingly so favoured by God, so near to God, with man as he is now, strong and cunning, spreading over the earth and replenishing it; subduing it with railroads and steamships, with agriculture and science, and all strange and crafty inventions, and all the while never visited by any Divine or heavenly appearance, but seemingly left utterly to himself by God, to go his own way and do his own will upon the earth, one asks with wonder, Can we be Adam's children? Can the God who appeared to Adam, be our God likewise, or has God's plan and rule for teaching man changed utterly?
No. He is one God; the same God yesterday, to-day, and for ever. His will and purpose, his care and rule over man, have not changed.
That is a matter of faith. Of the faith which the holy Church commands us to have. But it need not be a blind or unreasonable faith. That our God is the God of Adam; that the same Lord God who taught him teaches us likewise, need not be a mere matter of faith: it may be a matter of reason likewise; a thing which seems reasonable to us, and recommends itself to our mind and conscience as true.
Consider, my friends, a babe when it comes into the world. The first thing of which it is aware is its mother's bosom. The first thing which it does, as its eyes and ears are gradually opened to this world, is to cling to its parents. It holds fast by their hand, it will not leave their side. It is afraid to sleep alone, to go alone. To them it looks up for food and help. Of them it asks questions, and tries to learn from them, to copy them, to do what it sees them doing, even in play; and the parents in return lavish care and tenderness on it, and will not let it out of their sight. But after a while, as the child grows, the parents will not let it be so perpetually with them. It must go to school. It must see its parents only very seldom, perhaps it must be away from them weeks or months. And why? Not that the parents love it less: but that it must learn to take care of itself, to act for itself, to think for itself, or it will never grow up to be a rational human being.
And the parting of the child from the parents does not break the bond of love between them. It learns to love them even better. Neither does it break the bond of obedience. The child is away from its parents' eye. But it learns to obey them behind their back; to do their will of its own will; to ask itself, What would my parents wish me to do, were they here? and so learns, if it will think of it, a more true, deep, honourable and spiritual obedience, than it ever would if its parents were perpetually standing over it, saying, Do this, and do that.
In after life, that child may settle far away from his father's home. He may go up into the temptations and bustle of some great city. He may cross to far lands beyond the sea. But need he love his parents less? need the bond between them be broken, though he may never set eyes on them again? God forbid. He may be settled far away, with children, business, interests of his own; and yet he may be doing all the while his father's will. The lessons of God which he learnt at his mother's knee may be still a lamp to his feet and a light to his path. Amid all the bustle and labour of business, his father's face may still be before his eyes, his father's voice still sound in his ears, bidding him be a worthy son to him still; bidding him not to leave that way wherein he should go, in which his parents trained him long, long since. He may feel that his parents are near him in the spirit, though absent in the flesh. Yes, though they may have passed altogether out of this world, they may be to him present and near at hand; and he may be kept from doing many a wrong thing and encouraged to do many a right one, by the ennobling thought, My father would have had it so, my mother would have had it so, had they been here on earth. And though in this world he may never see them again, he may look forward steadily and longingly to the day when, this life's battle over, he shall meet again in heaven those who gave him life on earth.
My friends, if this be the education which is natural and necessary from our earthly parents, made in God's image, appointed by God's eternal laws for each of us, why should it not be the education which God himself has appointed for mankind? All which is truly human (not sinful or fallen) is an image and pattern of something Divine. May not therefore the training which we find, by the very facts of nature, fit and necessary for our children, be the same as God's training, by which he fashioneth the hearts of the children of men? Therefore we can believe the Bible when it tells us that so it is. That God began the education of man by appearing to him directly, keeping him, as it were, close to his hand, and teaching him by direct and open revelation. That as time went on, God left men more and more to themselves outwardly: but only that he might raise their minds to higher notions of religion--that he might make them live by faith, and not merely by sight; and obey him of their own hearty free will, and not merely from fear or wonder. And therefore, in these days, when miraculous appearances have, as far as we know, entirely ceased, yet God is not changed. He is still as near as ever to men; still caring for them, still teaching them; and his very stopping of all miracles, so far from being a sign of God's anger or neglect, is a part of his gracious plan for the training of his Church.
For consider--Man was first put upon this earth, with all things round him new and strange to him; seeing himself weak and unarmed before the wild beasts of the forest, not even sheltered from the cold, as they are; and yet feeling in himself a power of mind, a cunning, a courage, which made him the lord of all the beasts by virtue of his MIND, though they were stronger than he in body. All that we read of Adam and Eve in the Bible is, as we should expect, the history of CHILDREN--children in mind, even when they were full- grown in stature. Innocent as children, but, like children, greedy, fanciful, ready to disobey at the first temptation, for the very silliest of reasons; and disobeying accordingly. Such creatures-- with such wonderful powers lying hid in them, such a glorious future before them; and yet so weak, so wilful, so ignorant, so unable to take care of themselves, liable to be destroyed off the face of the earth by their own folly, or even by the wild beasts around--surely they needed some special and tender care from God to keep them from perishing at the very outset, till they had learned somewhat how to take care of themselves, what their business and duty were upon this earth. They needed it before they fell; they needed it still more, and their children likewise, after they fell: and if they needed it, we may trust God that he afforded it to them.
But again. Whence came this strange notion, which man alone has of all the living things which we see, of RELIGION? What put into the mind of man that strange imagination of beings greater than himself, whom he could not always see, but who might appear to him? What put into his mind the strange imagination that these unseen beings were more or less his masters? That they had made laws for him which he must obey? That he must honour and worship them, and do them service, in order that they might be favourable to him, and help, and bless, and teach him? All nations except a very few savages (and we do not know but that their forefathers had it like the rest of mankind) have had some such notion as this; some idea of religion, and of a moral law of right and wrong.
Where did they get it?
Where, I ask again, did they get it?
My friends, after much thought I answer, there is no explanation of that question so simple, so rational, so probable, as the one which the text gives.
"And they heard the voice of the Lord God."
Some, I know, say that man thought out for himself, in his own reason, the notion of God; that he by searching found out God. But surely that is contrary to all experience. Our experience is, that men left to themselves forget God; lose more and more all thought of God, and the unseen world; believe more and more in nothing but what they can see and taste and handle, and become as the beasts that perish. How then did man, who now is continually forgetting God, contrive to remember God for himself at first? How, unless God himself showed himself to man? I know some will say, that mankind invented for themselves false gods at first, and afterwards cleared and purified their own notions, till they discovered the true God. My friends, there is a homely old proverb which will well apply here. If there had been no gold guineas, there would be no brass ones. If men had not first had a notion of a true God, and then gradually lost it, they would not have invented false gods to supply his place. And whence did they get, I ask again, the notion of gods at all? The simplest answer is in the Bible: God taught them. I can find no better. I do not believe a better will ever be found.
And why not?
Why not? I ask. To say that God cannot appear to men is simply silly; for it is limiting God's Almighty power. He that made man and all heaven and earth, cannot he show himself to man, if he shall so please? To say that God will not appear to man because man is so insignificant, and this earth such a paltry little speck in the heavens, is to limit God's goodness; nay, it is to show that a man knows not what goodness means. What grace, what virtue is there higher than condescension? Then if God be, as he is, perfectly good, must he not be perfectly condescending--ready and willing to stoop to man, and all the more ready and the more willing, the more weak, ignorant, and sinful this man is? In fact, the greater need man has of God, the more certain is it that God will help him in that need.
Yes, my friends, the Bible is the revelation of a God who condescends to men, and therefore descends to men. And the more a man's reason is spiritually enlightened to know the meaning of goodness and holiness and justice and love, the more simple, reasonable, and credible will it seem to him that God at first taught men in the days of their early ignorance, by the only method by which (as far as we can conceive) he could have taught them about himself; namely, by appearing in visible shape, or speaking with audible voice; and just as reasonable and credible, awful and unfathomable mystery though it is, will be the greater news, that that same Lord at last so condescended to man that he was conceived by the Holy Ghost; born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead, and buried; and rose the third day, and ascended into heaven. Credible and reasonable, not indeed to the natural man who looks only at nature, which he can see and hear and handle; but credible and reasonable enough to the spiritual man, whose mind has been enlightened by the Spirit of God, to see that the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal; even justice and love, mercy and condescension, the divine order, and the kingdom of the Living God.
And now one word on a matter which is tormenting the minds of many just now. It is often said that all that I have been saying is contrary to science. That this science and understanding of the world around us, which has improved so marvellously in our days, proves that the apparitions and miracles spoken of in the Bible cannot be true; that God, or the angels of God, can never have walked with man in visible shape.
Now, my friends, I do not believe this. I believe the very contrary. I entreat you to set your minds at rest on this point; and to believe (what is certainly true) there is nothing in this new science to contradict the good old creed, that the Lord God of old appeared to his human children. It would take too much time, of course, to give you my reasons for saying this: and I must therefore ask you to take on trust from me when I tell you solemnly and earnestly that there is nothing in modern science which can, if rightly understood, contradict the glorious words of St. Paul, that God at sundry times and in divers manners spake to the fathers by the prophets, and hath at last spoken unto us by a Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things: by whom also he made the worlds, who is the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholdeth all things by the word of his power: even Jesus Christ, God blessed for ever. Amen.
What then shall we think of these things? Shall we say, 'How much better off were our forefathers than we! Ah, that we were not left to ourselves! Ah, that we lived in the good old times when God and his angels walked with men!'
My friends, what says Solomon the Wise?--'Inquire not why the former times were better than these, for thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this.'
It is very natural for us to think that we could become more easily good men, more certain of going to heaven, if we saw divine apparitions and heard divine voices. A very natural thought. But natural things are not always the best or wisest things. Spiritual things are surely higher and deeper than natural things. It is natural to wish to see Christ, or some heavenly being, with our natural eyes and senses. But it is spiritual and therefore better for our souls, to be content to see him by faith, with the spiritual eyes of our heart and mind, to love him with all our heart and mind and soul, to worship him, to put our whole trust in him, to call upon him, to honour his holy name and his word, and to serve him truly all the days of our life.
Natural, indeed, to wish that we were back again in the old times. But we must recollect that these old times were not good times, but bad times, and for that very reason the Lord took pity on them. That they were times of darkness, and therefore it was that the people who sat in great darkness, and in the valley of the shadow of death, were allowed to see a great light. And that after that, the fulness of time, the very time which the Lord chose that he might be incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and came down upon this earth in human form, was not a good time. On the contrary, the fulness of time, 1863 years ago, was the very wickedest, most faithless, most unjust time that the world had ever seen--a time of which St. Paul said that there were none who did good, no, not one; that adders' poison was under all lips, and all feet swift to shed blood, and that the way of peace none had known.
Better, far better, to live in times like these, in which there is (among Christian nations at least) no great darkness, even though there be no great light; times in which the knowledge of the true God and his Son Jesus Christ is spreading, slowly but surely, over all the earth; and with it, the fruit of the knowledge of the Lord, justice, mercy, charity, fellow-feeling, and a desire to teach and improve all mankind, such as the world never saw before. These are the fruits of the Scriptures of the Lord, and the Sacraments of the Lord, and of the Holy Spirit of the Lord; and if that Holy Spirit be in our hearts, and we yield our hearts to his gracious motions and obey them, then we are really nearer to the Lord Jesus Christ than if we saw him, as Adam did, with our bodily eyes, and yet rebelled against him, as Adam did, in our hearts, and disobeyed him in our actions. Of old the Lord treated men as babes, and showed himself to their bodily eyes, that so they might learn that he was, and that he was near them. But us he treats as grown men, who know that he is, and that he is with us to the end of the world. And if he treats us as men, my friends, let us behave ourselves like men, and not like silly children, who cannot be trusted by themselves for a moment lest they do wrong or come to harm. Let us obey God, not with eye-service, just as long as we fancy that his eye is on us, but with the deeper, more spiritual, more honourable obedience of faith. Let us obey him for obedience' sake, and honour him for very honour's sake, as the young emigrant in foreign lands obeys and honours the parents whom he will never see again on earth; and let us look forward, like him, to the day when him whom we cannot see on earth we may, perhaps, be permitted to see in heaven, as the reward- -and for what higher reward can man wish?--of faith and obedience.