SERMON X. THE RACE OF LIFE
JOHN i. 26.
There standeth one among you whom ye know not.
This is a solemn text. It warns us, and yet it comforts us. It tells us that there is a person standing among us so great, that John the Baptist, the greatest of the prophets, was not worthy to unloose his shoes' latchet.
Some of you know who he is. Some of you, perhaps, do not. If you know him, you will be glad to be reminded of him to-day. If you do not know him, I will tell you who he is.
Only bear this in mind, that whether you know him or not, he is standing among us. We have not driven him away, and cannot drive him away. Our not seeing him will not prevent his seeing us. He is always near us; ready, if we ask him, as the Collect bids us, to 'come among us, and with great might succour us.'
For, my friends, this is the meaning of the text, as far as it has to do with us. The noble Collect for to-day tells this, and explains to us what we are to think of the Epistle and the Gospel.
The Epistle tells us that the Lord Jesus Christ is at hand, and that therefore we are to fret about nothing, but make our requests known to him. The Gospel tells us that he stands among us. The Collect tells us what we are to do, because he is at hand, because he stands among us.
And what are we to do?
Recollect my friends, what John the Baptist said, according to St. Matthew, after the words in the text--'He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.'
The Collect asks him to do that--the first half of it at least. To baptize us with the Holy Ghost, lest he should need to baptize us with fire.
For the Collect says, we have all a race to run. We have all a journey to make through life. We have all so to get through this world, that we shall inherit the world to come; so to pass through the things of time (as one of the Collects says) that we finally lose not the things eternal. God has given each of us our powers and character, marked out for each of us our path in life, set each of us our duty to do.
But how shall we make the proper use of our powers?
How shall we keep to our path in life?
How shall we do our duty faithfully?
In short, so as St. Paul puts it--How shall we run our race, so as not to lose, but to win it?
For the Collect says--and we ought to have found it out for ourselves before now--Our sins and wickedness hinder us sorely in running the race which is set before us.
Our sins and wickedness. The Collect speaks of these as two different things; and I believe rightly, for the New Testament speaks of them as two different things. Sin, in the New Testament, means strictly what we call "failings," "defects" a missing the mark, a falling short; as it is written--All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God, that is, of the likeness of a perfect man. 
Thus, stupidity, laziness, cowardice, bad temper, greediness after pleasure--these are strictly speaking what the New Testament calls sins. Wickedness--iniquity--seem to be harder words, and to mean worse offences. They mean the evil things which a man does, not out of the weakness of his mortal nature, but out of his own wicked will, and what the Bible calls the naughtiness of his heart. So wickedness means, not merely open crimes which are punishable by the law, but all which comes out of a man's own wilfulness and perverseness-- injustice (which is the first meaning of iniquity), cunning, falsehood, covetousness, pride, self-conceit, tyranny, cruelty--these seem to be what the Scripture calls wickedness. Of course one cannot draw the line exactly, in any matters so puzzling as questions about our own souls must always be: but on the whole. I think you will find this rule not far wrong -
That all which comes from the weakness of a man's soul, is sin: all which comes from abusing its strength, is wickedness. All which drags a man down, and makes him more like a brute animal, is sin: all which puffs him up, and makes him more like a devil, is wickedness. It is as well to bear this in mind, because a man may have a great horror of sin, and be hard enough, and too hard upon poor sinners; and yet all the time he may be thoroughly, and to his heart's core, a wicked man. The Pharisees of old were so. So they are now. Take you care that you be not like to them. Keep clear of sin: but keep clear of wickedness likewise.
For, says the Collect, both will hinder you in your race: perhaps cause you to break down in it, and never reach the goal at all.
Sin will hinder you, by dragging you back.
Wickedness will hinder you, by putting you altogether out of the right road.
If a man be laden with sins; stupid, lazy, careless, over fond of pleasure;--much more, if he be given up to enjoying himself in bad ways, about which we all know too well--then he is like a man who starts in a race, weak, crippled, over-weighted, or not caring whether he wins or loses; and who therefore lags behind, or grows tired, or looks round, and wants to stop and amuse himself, instead of pushing on stoutly and bravely. And therefore St. Paul bids us lay aside every weight (that is every bad habit which makes us lazy and careless), and the sin which does so easily beset us, and run with patience our appointed race, looking to Jesus, the author of our faith--who stands by to give us faith, confidence, courage to go on-- Jesus, who has compassion on those who are ignorant, and out of the way by no wilfulness of their own; who can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; who can help us, can deliver us, and who will do what he can, and do all he can.
He can and will strengthen us, freshen us, encourage us, inspirit us, by giving us his Holy Spirit, that we may have spirit and power to run our race, day by day, and tide by tide. And so, if he sees us weak and fainting over our work, he will baptize us with the Holy Ghost.
And yet there are times when he will baptize a sinner not only with the Holy Ghost, but with fire--I am still speaking, mind, of a sinner, not of a wicked man.
And when? When he sees the man sitting down by the roadside to play, with no intention of moving on. I do not say--if he sees the man sitting down to play at all. God forbid! How can a man run his life-long race--how can he even keep up for a week, a day, at doing his best at the full stretch of his power, without stopping to take breath? I cannot, God knows. If any man can--be it so. Some are stronger than others: but be sure of this; that God counts it no sin in a man to stop and take breath. 'Press forward toward the mark of your high calling,' St. Paul says: but he does not forbid a man to refresh and amuse himself harmlessly and rationally, from time to time, with all the pleasant things which God has put into this world. They do refresh us, and they do amuse us, these pleasant things. And God made them, and put them here. Surely he put them here to refresh and amuse us. He did not surely put them here to trap us, and snare us, and tempt us not to run the very race which he himself has set before us? No, no, my friends. He made pleasant things to please us, amusing things to amuse us. Every good gift comes from him.
But if a man thinks of nothing but amusing himself, he is like a horse who stands still in the middle of a journey, and begins feeding. Let him do his day's journey, and feed afterwards; and so get strength for his next day's work. But if he will stand still, and feed; if he will forget that he has any work at all to do; then we shall punish him, to make him go on. And so will God do with us. He will strike us then; and sharply too. Much more, if a man gives himself up to sinful pleasure; if he gives himself up to a loose and profligate life, and, like many a young man, wastes his substance in riotous living, and devours his heavenly Father's gifts with harlots- -then God will strike that man; and all the more sharply the more worth and power there is in the man. The more God has given the man, the sharper will be God's stroke, if he deserves it.
Ask yourselves. Suppose that your horse had plunged into a deep ditch, and was lying there in mire and thorns; would you not strike him, and sharply too, to make him put out his whole strength, and rise, and by one great struggle clear himself?
Of course you would: and the more spirited, the more powerful the animal was, the sharper you would be with him, because the more sure you would be that he could answer to your call if he chose.
Even so does God with us. If he sees us lying down; forgetting utterly that we have any work or duty to do; and wallowing in the mire of fleshly lusts, and thorns of worldly cares, then he will strike; and all the more sharply, the more real worth or power there is in us; that he may rouse us, and force us to exert ourselves and by one great struggle, like the mired horse, clear ourselves out of the sin which besets us, and holds us down, and leap, as it were, once and for all, out of the death of sin, into the life of righteousness.
But much more if there be not merely sin in us, but wickedness; self- will, self-conceit, and rebellion.
For see, my friends. If we were training a young animal, how should we treat it? If it were merely weak, we should strengthen and exercise it. If it were merely ignorant, we should teach it. If it were lazy, we should begin to punish it; but gently, that it might still have confidence, faith in us, and pleasure in its work.
But if we found wickedness in it--vice, as we rightly call it--if it became restive, that is, rebellious and self-willed, then we should punish it indeed. Seldom, perhaps, but very sharply; that it might see clearly that we were the stronger, and that rebellion was of no use at all.
And so does the Lord with us, my friends. If we will not go his way by kindness, he will make us go by severity.
First, when we are christened, and after that day by day, if we ask him--and often when we ask him not--he gives us the gentle baptism of his Holy Spirit, freshening, strengthening, encouraging, inspiriting. But if we will not go on well for that; if we will rebel, and try our own way, and rush out of God's road after this and that, in pride and self-will, as if we were our own masters; then, my friends--then will God baptize us with fire, and strike with a blow which goes nigh to cut a man in two. Very seldom he strikes; for he is pitiful, and of tender mercy: but with a rod as of fire, of which it is written, that it is sharper than a two-edged sword, and pierces through the joints and marrow. Very seldom: but very sharply, that there may be no mistake about what the blow means, and that the man may know, however cunning, or proud, or self-righteous he may be, that God is the Lord, God is his Master, and will be obeyed; and woe to him, if he obey him not. And what can a man do then, but writhe in the bitterness of his soul, and get back into God's highway as fast as he can, in fear and trembling lest the next blow cut him in asunder? And so, by the bitterness of disappointment, or bereavement, or sickness, or poverty, or worst of all, of shame, will the Lord baptize the man with fire.
But all in love, my friends; and all for the man's good. Does God LIKE to punish his creatures? LIKE to torment them? Some think that he does, and say that he finds what they call 'satisfaction' in punishing. I think that they mistake the devil for God. No, my friends; what does he say himself? 'Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked; and not rather that he should turn from his ways, and live?' Surely he has not. If he had, do you think that he would have sent us into this world at all? I do not. And I trust and hope that you will not. Believe that even when he cuts us to the heart's core, and baptizes us with fire, he does it only out of his eternal love, that he may help and deliver us all the more speedily.
For God's sake--for Christ's sake--for your own sake--keep that in mind, that Christ's will, and therefore God's will, is to help and deliver us; that he stands by us, and comes among us, for that very purpose. Consider St. Paul's parable, in which he talks of us as men running a race, and of Christ as the judge who looks on to see how we run. But for what purpose does Christ look on? To catch us out, as we say? To mark down every fault of ours, and punish wherever he has an opportunity or a reason? Does he stand there spying, frowning, fault-finding, accusing every man in his turn, extreme to watch what is done amiss? If an earthly judge did that, we should call him-- what he would be--an ill-conditioned man. But dare we fancy anything ill-conditioned in God? God forbid! His conditions are altogether good, and his will a good will to men; and therefore, say the Epistle and the Collect, we ought not to be terrified, but to rejoice, at the thought that the Lord is looking on. However badly we are running our race, yet if we are trying to move forward at all, we ought to rejoice that God in Christ is looking on.
Why? Because he is looking on, not to torment, but to help. Because he loves us better than we love ourselves. Because he is more anxious for us to get safely through this world than we are ourselves.
Will you understand that, and believe that, once for all, my friends?--That God is not AGAINST you, but FOR you, in the struggles of life; that he WANTS you to get through safe; WANTS you to succeed; WANTS you to win; and that therefore he will help you, and hear your cry.
And therefore when you find yourselves wrong, utterly wrong, do not cry to this man or that man, 'Do YOU help me; do you set me a little more right, before God comes and finds me in the wrong, and punishes me.' Cry to God himself, to Christ himself; ask HIM to lift you up, ask him to set you right. Do not be like St. Peter before his conversion, and cry, 'Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord; wait a little, till I have risen up, and washed off my stains, and made myself somewhat fit to be seen.'--No. Cry, 'Come quickly, O Lord--at once, just because I am a sinful man; just because I am sore let and hindered in running my race by my own sins and wickedness; because I am lazy and stupid; because I am perverse and vicious, THEREFORE raise up thy power, and come to me, thy miserable creature, thy lost child, and with thy great might succour me. Lift me up for I have fallen very low; deliver me, for I have plunged out of thy sound and safe highway into deep mire, where no ground is. Help myself I cannot, and if thou help me not, I am undone.'
Do so. Pray so. Let your sins and wickedness be to you not a reason for hiding from Christ who stands by; but a reason, the reason of all reasons, for crying to Christ who stands by.
And then, whether he deliver you by kind means or by sharp ones, deliver you he will; and set your feet on firm ground, and order your goings, that you may run with patience the race which is set before you along the road of life, and the pathway of God's commandments, wherein there is no death.
This, my friends, is one of the meanings of Advent. This is the meaning of the Collect, the Epistle, and the Gospel.--That God in Christ stands by us, ready to help and deliver us; and that if we cry to him even out of the lowest depth, he will hear our voice. And that then, when he has once put us into the right road again, and sees us going bravely along it to the best of the power which he has given us, he will fulfil to us his eternal promise, 'Thy sins--and not only thy sins, but thine iniquities--I will remember no more.'
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