THIRD SUNDAY IN ADVENT.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to preach good tidings to the meek; He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.--ISAIAH lxi. 1.
My friends, I do entreat those of you who wish to get any real good from this sermon, to listen to me carefully all through it. Not that I have to complain of you in general for not attending to me. I thank God, and thank you, that you do listen to what is said in this pulpit. But there are many people who have a bad trick of minding the preacher carefully enough for a minute or two, and then letting their wits wander, and think about something else; and then if any word in the sermon strikes them, waking up suddenly, and thinking again for a little, and then letting their thoughts run wild again; and so on. Whereby it happens that they only recollect a few scraps of the sermon, a word here, and a sentence there, and get into their heads all sorts of mistakes and false notions about the preacher's meaning.
That is not right; that is not worthy of reasonable grown men: that is only pardonable in little scatter-brained children. Men and women should listen steadily, reverently throughout; so, and so only, will they be able to judge of the message which the preacher brings them. Listen to me, therefore, all through this sermon, and may God give you grace to understand it and lay it to heart, for it is the good news of the kingdom of God.
You recollect, I hope, that I have often told you, that the Lord Jesus Christ's words would never pass away; that His prophecies are continually coming true, and being fulfilled over and over again. Now this text is not one of His prophecies, but it is a prophecy about Him; one which He fulfilled, and which He has been fulfilling again and again. He is fulfilling it, as I believe, more than ever, now in these very days.
If you will look at the 61st chapter of Isaiah, you will find this prophecy; and you will find, too, what will surprise you at first, that Isaiah was speaking of himself. He says, "That the Spirit of the Lord was upon HIM"--Isaiah--"because the Lord had appointed HIM to preach good tidings to the meek, to bind up the broken-hearted, and deliverance to the captives, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord." Isaiah must have spoken truly about himself. He could not have meant to tell a falsehood, to say a thing was true of himself which was only true of Jesus, who did not come till 800 years afterwards. And he did speak the truth: you cannot read his prophecies without seeing that the Spirit of the Lord was indeed upon him; that the words which he spoke must have comforted all those who were sorrowing for their sins and the sins of the nation in their time. We know, for a fact, that his prophecies came true; that the Jewish captives were delivered and brought back out of Judaea to Jerusalem again, and that Jerusalem was rebuilt as Isaiah prophesied, and the Jewish nation raised to far greater holiness, and prosperity, and happiness than it had ever been in before. And yet 800 years afterwards the Lord took those very same words to Himself, and said, that HE fulfilled them. He read them aloud once in a Jewish synagogue, out of the book of the prophet Isaiah; and then told the congregation, "This day is the Scripture fulfilled in your ears." And again, as we read in the Gospel for this day, when John the Baptist sent to ask Him if He was really the Christ, He made use of another prophecy of Isaiah, and told John's disciples that He WAS the Christ, because He was fulfilling that prophecy; because He WAS making the deaf hear, and the blind see, and preaching the gospel to the poor. Now, how is that? Could Isaiah be right in applying those words to himself, and yet Christ be right in applying them to Himself? Can a prophecy be fulfilled twice over?
No doubt it can, my friends, and two hundred times over. No prophecy of Scripture is of private interpretation, says St. Peter. That is, it does not apply to any one private, particular thing that is to happen. Every prophecy of Scripture goes on fulfilling itself more and more, as time rolls on and the world grows older. St. Peter tells us the reason why. No prophecy of Scripture is of private interpretation; because it does not come from the will of man, from any invention or discovery of poor short-sighted human beings, who can only judge by what they see around them in their own times: but holy men of old spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. And who is the Holy Spirit? The Spirit of God; the everlasting Spirit; the Spirit who cannot change, for He IS God. The Spirit who searcheth the deep things of God, and teaches them to men. And what are the deep things of God? They are eternal as God is. Eternal laws; everlasting rules which cannot alter. That is the meaning of it all. The Spirit of God is the Spirit which teaches men the laws of God; the unchangeable rules and ordinances by which He governs all heaven and earth, and men, and nations; the laws which come into force, not once only, but always; the laws of God which are working round us now, just as much as they were eighteen hundred years ago, just as much as they were in Isaiah's time. Therefore it is, that I said that these old Jewish prophecies, which were inspired by the Holy Spirit, are coming true now, and will keep on coming true, time after time, in their proper place and order, and whensoever the times are fit for them, even to the end of the world.
But again, we read that the Spirit of God takes of the things of Christ, and shows them unto us. And what are the things of Christ? They must be eternal things, unchangeable things, for Christ is unchangeable--Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever. He is over all, God blessed for ever. To Him all power is given in heaven and earth. He reigns, and He will reign. Do you think He is less a Saviour now, than He was when He spoke those things to John's disciples? Do you think He is less able to hear and to help than He was in John's time? Do you think He used to care about people's bodies then, but that He only cares about their souls now? Do you think that He is less compassionate, and less merciful, as well as less powerful, than He was when He made the blind see, and the lame walk, and the deaf hear, in Judaea of old?
Less powerful! less compassionate! One would have expected that Christ was MORE powerful, MORE compassionate, if that were possible. At least one would expect that His power and compassion would show itself more and more, and make itself felt more and more, year by year, and age by age; more and more healing disease; more and more comforting sorrow; more and still more casting out cunning and evil spirits, till He had put all under His feet. He Himself said it should be so. He always spoke of His own kingdom as a thing which was to grow and increase by laws of its own, men knew not how, but He knew. Like seed cast into the ground, His kingdom was, He said, at first the smallest of all seeds; but it was to grow, and take root, and spread into a mighty tree, He said, till the very birds in the air lodged in the branches of it; and David's words should be fulfilled, "Thou, Lord, shalt save both man and beast." And does not St. Paul speak of His kingdom in the same way, as a kingdom which should grow? that He was to reign till He had put all enemies under His feet? that He would deliver at last the whole creation? the earth on which we stand, the dumb animals around us? For, as St. Paul says, the whole creation is groaning in labour-pangs, waiting to be raised into a higher state. And it shall be raised. The whole creation shall be set free into the glorious liberty of the children of God.
What does that mean? How can I tell you?
This I can tell you, that it cannot mean that Jesus Christ was merciful enough to heal people's bodies at first, but that He has given up doing it now, and will never do it again. "Well, but," some would say, "what does all this come to? You are merely telling us what we knew before--that if any of us are cured from disease, or raised up from a sick bed, it is all the Lord's doing." If you do believe that, really, my friends, happy are you! Many of you, I think, do believe it. The poor are more inclined to believe it, I think, than the rich. But even in the mouths of the poor one often hears words which make one suspect that they do NOT believe it. I am very much afraid that a great many have got into the trick of saying that it was God's mercy that they were cured, and that it pleased the Lord to raise them up from a sick bed, very much as a piece of cant. They say the words by rote, because they have been accustomed to hear them said by others, without thinking of the meaning of them; just as, on the other hand, a great many people curse and swear without thinking of the awful oaths they use. Ay, and often enough the very same persons will say that it was the Lord's mercy they were cured of their sickness; and then, if they get into a passion, pray the very same Lord to do that to the bodies and souls of their neighbours which it is a shame to speak of here. Out of the same mouth proceed blessings and cursings: showing that whether or not they are in earnest in cursing, they are not earnest in blessing.
Again: If people really believed that it was the Lord Jesus Christ who cured their sicknesses for them, they would behave, when they got well, more as the Lord Jesus Christ would wish them to behave. They would show forth their thankfulness not only with their lips, but in their lives. You who believe--you who say--that Christ has cured your sicknesses, show your faith by your works. Live like those who are alive again from the dead; who are not your own, but bought with a price, and bound to work for God with your bodies and your spirits, which are His--then, and then only, can either God or man believe you.
Again: There is a third reason which makes one suspect that people do not mean what they say about this matter. I think too many say, "It has pleased God," merely as an empty form of words, when all they mean is, "What must be, must, and it cannot be helped." Else, why do they say, "It has pleased the Lord to send me sickness?" What is the use of saying, "It has pleased the Lord to cure me," when you say in the same breath, "It has pleased the Lord to make me ill?" I know you will say that, "Of course, whatever happens must be the Lord's will; if it did not please Him it would not happen." I do not care for such words; I will have nothing to do with them. I will neither entangle you nor myself in those endless disputings and questions about freewill and necessity, which never yet have come to any conclusion, and never will, because they are too deep for poor short- sighted human beings like us. "To the law and to the testimony," say I. I will hold to the words of the Bible; what it says, I will say; what it does not say I will not say, to please any man's system of doctrines. And I say from the Bible that we have no more right to say, "It has pleased the Lord to make me sick," than, "It has pleased the Lord to make me a sinner." Scripture everywhere speaks of sickness as a real evil and a curse--a breaking of the health, and order, and strength, and harmony of God's creation. It speaks of madmen as possessed with evil spirits; did THAT please God? The woman who was bowed with a spirit of infirmity, and could not lift herself up--did our Lord say that it had pleased God to make her a wretched cripple? No; he spoke of her as this daughter of Israel, whom Satan had bound, and not God, this eighteen years; and that was His reason for healing her, even on the sabbath-day, because her disease was not the work of God, but of the cruel, disordering, destroying evil spirit which is at enmity with God. That was why Christ cured her. And THAT--for this is the point I have been coming to, step by step--that was the reason why, when John the Baptist sent to ask if Jesus was the Christ, our Lord answered: "Go and show John again those things which ye do see and hear: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them."
Do not be in a hurry, my friends, and suppose that our Lord meant merely: "Tell John what wonderful miracles I am working." If He had meant that why would He have put in as the last proof that He was the Christ, that He was preaching the gospel to the poor? What wonderful miracle was there in THAT? No: it was as if He had said: "Go and tell John that I am the Christ, because I am the great physician, the healer and deliverer of body and soul: one who will and can cure the loathsome diseases, the uselessness, the misery, the ignorance of the poorest and meanest." He has proved Himself the Christ by showing not only His boundless power, but His boundless love and mercy; and THAT, not only to men's souls, but to their bodies also. To prove Himself the Christ by wonderful and astonishing miracles was exactly what He would not do. He refused, when the Scribes and Pharisees came and asked of Him a sign from heaven to prove that He was Christ-- wanting Him, I suppose, to bring some apparition, or fiery comet, or great voice out of the sky, to astonish them with His power; He told them peremptorily that He would give them no such thing: and yet He said that His mighty works did prove Him to be Christ; He pronounced woe against Chorazin and Bethsaida for not believing Him on account of His mighty works: He told the Scribes and Pharisees that they ought to believe on Him merely for His works' sake. And why would they not believe on Him? Just because they could not see that God's power was shown more in healing and delivering sufferers, than in astonishing and destroying. They could not see that God's perfect likeness shone out in Christ--that He was the express image of the Father, just because He went about doing good, and healing all manner of sicknesses and all manner of infirmities among the people. But so it is, my friends! Jesus is the Saviour, the deliverer, the great physician, the healer of soul and body. Not a pang is felt or a tear shed on earth, but He sorrows over it. Not a human being on earth dies young, but He, as I believe, sorrows over it. What it is which prevents Him healing every sickness, soothing every sorrow, wiping away every tear NOW, we cannot tell. But this we can tell, that it is His will that none should perish. This we CAN tell; that He is willing as ever to heal the sick, to cleanse the leper, to cast out devils, to teach the ignorant, to bind up the broken-hearted. This we CAN tell; that He will go on doing so more and more, year by year, and age by age. This we CAN tell, from Scripture, that Christ is stronger than the devil. This we can tell; that Christ, and all good men, the spirits of just men made perfect, the wise and the great in God's sight, who have left us their books, their sayings, their writings, as precious health-giving heirlooms--have been fighting, and are fighting, and will fight to the end against the devil, and sin, and oppression, and misery, and disease, and everything which spoils and darkens the face of God's good earth. And this we CAN tell; that they will conquer at the last, because Christ is stronger than the devil; good is stronger than evil; light is stronger than darkness; God's Spirit, the giver of life, and health, and order, is stronger than all the evil customs, and ignorance, and carelessness, and cruelty, and superstition, which makes miserable the lives and, as far as we can see, destroys the souls of thousands. Yes, I say, Christ's kingdom is a kingdom of health and deliverance for body and soul; and it will conquer, and it will spread, and it will grow, till the nations of the world have become the kingdoms of God and of His Christ. Christ reigns, and Christ will reign till He has put all His enemies under His feet; and the last of His enemies which shall be destroyed is DEATH. Death is His enemy. He has conquered death by rising from the dead. And the day will come when death will be no more--when sickness and sorrow shall be unknown, and God shall wipe away tears from all eyes. I say it again--never forget it--Christ is King, and His kingdom is a kingdom of health, and life, and deliverance from all evil. It always has been so, from the first time our Lord cured the leper in Galilee; it will be so to the end of the world. And, therefore--to come back to the very place from which I started at the beginning of my sermon--therefore, whenever one of the days of the Lord is at hand, whenever God's kingdom makes a great step forward, this same prophecy in our text is fulfilled in some striking and wonderful way. And I say it is fulfilled now in these days more than it ever has been. Christ is healing the sick, cleansing the leper, giving sight to the blind, raising the dead, and preaching the gospel to the poor, seven times more in these days in which we live than He did when He walked upon earth in Judaea.
Do you doubt my words? At all events you confess that the cure of all diseases comes from Christ. Then consider, I beseech you, how many more diseases are cured now than were formerly. One may say that the knowledge of medicine is not one hundred years old. Nothing, my friends, makes me feel more strongly what a wonderful and blessed time we live in, and how Christ is showing forth mighty works among us, than this same sudden miraculous improvement in the art of healing, which has taken place within the memory of man. Any country doctor now knows more, thank God, or ought to know, than the greatest London physicians did two generations ago. New cures for deafness, blindness, lameness, every disease that flesh is heir to, are being discovered year by year. Oh, my friends! you little know what Christ is doing among you, for your bodies as well as for your souls. There is not a parish in England now in which the poorest as well as the richest are not cured yearly of diseases, which, if they had lived a hundred years ago, would have killed them without hope or help. And then, when one looks at these great and blessed plans for what is called sanitary reform, at the sickness and the misery which has been done away with already by attending to them, even though they have only just begun to be put in practice--our hearts must be hard indeed if we do not feel that Christ is revealing to us the gifts of healing far more bountifully and mercifully than even He did to the first apostles.
But you will say, perhaps, the dead are not raised in these days. Oh, my friends! which shows Christ's mercy most, to raise those who are already dead, or to save those alive who are about to die? Those in this church who have read history know as well as I, how in our forefathers' time people died in England by thousands of diseases which are scarcely ever deadly now; ay, of diseases which have now actually vanished out of the land, before the new light of medicine and of civilisation which Christ has revealed to us in these days. For one child who lived and grew up in old times, two live and grow up now. In London alone there are not half as many deaths in proportion to the number of people as there were a hundred years ago. And is not that a mightier work of Christ's power and love than if He had raised a few dead persons to life?
And now for the last part of our Lord's witness about Himself. To the poor the gospel is preached. Oh! my friends, is not THAT coming true in our days as it never came true before? Look back only fifty years, and consider the difference between the doctrines which were preached to the poor and the doctrines which are preached to them now. Look round you and see how everywhere earnest and godly ministers have sprung up, of all sects and opinions, as well as of the Church of England, not only to preach the gospel in the pulpit, but to carry it to the sick bedside of the lonely cottage, to the prison, and to those fearful sties, worse than prisons, where in our great cities the heathen poor live crowded together. Look at the teaching which the poor man can get now, compared to what he used to-- the sermons, the Bibles, the tracts, the lending libraries, the schools--just consider the hundreds of thousands of pounds which are subscribed every year to educate the children of the poor, and then say whether Christ is not working a mighty work among us in these days. I know that not half as much is done as ought to be done in that way; not half as much as will be done; and what is done will have to be done better than it has been done yet; but still, can anyone in this church who is fifty years old deny that there is a most enormous and blessed improvement which is growing and spreading every year? Can anyone deny that the gospel is preached to the poor now in a way that it never was before within the memory of man?
Now, recollect that this is an Advent sermon--a sermon which proclaims to you that Christ is COME; yes, He is come--come never to leave mankind again! Christ reigns over the earth, and will reign for ever. At certain great and important times in the world's history, like this present time, times which He Himself calls "days of the Lord," He shows forth His power, and the mightiness and mercy of His kingdom, more than at others. But still He is always with us; we have no need to run up and down to look for Christ: to say, Who shall ascend into heaven to bring Him down? Who shall descend into the deep to bring Him up? For the kingdom of God, as He told us Himself, is among us, and within us. Yes, within us. All these wonderful improvements and discoveries, all things beneficial to men which are found out year by year, though they seem to be of men's invention, are really of Christ's revealing, the fruits of the kingdom of God within us, of the Spirit of God, who is teaching men, though they too often will not believe it; though they disclaim God's Spirit and take all the glory to themselves. Truly Christ is among us; and our eyes are held, and we see Him not. That is our English sin--the sin of unbelief, the root of every other sin. Christ works among us, and we will not own Him. Truly, Jesus Christ may well say of us English at this day, There were ten cleansed, but where are the nine? How few are there, who return to give glory to God! Oh, consider what I say; the kingdom of God is among us now; its blessings are growing richer, fuller among us every day. Beware, lest if we refuse to acknowledge that kingdom and Christ the King of it, it be taken away from us, and given to some other nation, who will bring forth the fruits of it, fellow-help and brotherly kindness, purity and sobriety, and all the fruits of the Spirit of God.
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