(Twenty-first Sunday after Trinity.)
Psalm xxxii. 1-7. Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile. When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: my moisture is turned into the drought of summer. I acknowledge my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin. For this shall every one that is godly pray unto thee in a time when thou mayest be found: surely in the floods of great waters they shall not come nigh unto him. Thou art my hiding place; thou shalt preserve me from trouble; thou shall compass me about with songs of deliverance.
The collect for to-day is a very beautiful one. There is something musical in the sound of the very words; so musical, that it is sung as an anthem in many churches. Let us think a little over it. 'Grant, we beseech thee, merciful Lord, to thy faithful people pardon and peace; that they may be cleansed from all their sins, and serve thee with a quiet mind, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.' That is a noble prayer; and a prayer for each and every one of us, every day. I say for every day. It is not like the fifty-first psalm, the prayer of a man who has committed some black and dreadful crime; who fears lest God should take his Holy Spirit from him, and leave him to remorse and horror; who feels that he needs to be utterly changed, and have a new heart created within him. It is not a prayer of that kind. It is rather the prayer of a man who is weary with the burden of sinful mortality; who finds it very hard work to do his duty, even tolerably well; who is dissatisfied with himself, and ashamed of himself, not about one great fault, but about many little faults; and who wants to be cleansed from them; who is tempted to be fretful, anxious, out of heart, because things go wrong; and because he feels it partly his own fault that things go wrong; and who, therefore, wants peace, that he may serve God with a quiet mind. Now then, dear friends, did I not speak truth, when I said, this is a prayer for every one of us, and for every day? For which of us does his duty as he ought? I take for granted, we are all trying to do our duty, better or worse: but I take for granted, too, that the more we try to do our duty, the more dissatisfied with ourselves we are; and the more we find we have sins without number to be cleansed from. For the more we try to do our duty, the higher notion we get of what our duty is; the more we do, the more we feel we ought to do; and the more we feel that we leave undone a great many things which we ought to do, and do a great many things which we ought not to do, and that there is no health in us: but a great deal of disease and weakness;--disease of soul, in the way of conceit, pride, selfishness, temper, obstinacy; weakness, in the way of laziness, fearfulness, and very often of sheer stupidity; we do not see, or rather will not take the trouble to see, what we ought to do, and how to do it. And therefore, we must be, or rather ought to be, dissatisfied with ourselves; and our consciences accuse us when we lie down at night, of a hundred petty miserable mistakes, which we ought to have avoided. We are continually knowing what is right, and doing what is wrong, till we get deservedly angry with ourselves; and think at times, that God must be deservedly angry with us; that we are such poor paltry creatures that he can only look on us with dislike and contempt: and even worse; that, perhaps, he does not care to see us mend; that our struggles to do right are of no value in his eyes: but that he has sternly left us to ourselves, to struggle through life, right or wrong, as best we may; and to be punished at last, for all that we have done amiss.
Such thoughts will cross our minds. They have crossed the minds of all mankind since the first man's conscience awoke, and he discovered that he was not a brute animal, by finding in himself that awful thought, which no brute animal can have--'I have done wrong.' And therefore the consciences of men will cry for pardon, just in proportion as they are worthy of the name of men, and not merely a superior sort of animals; and therefore just in proportion as our souls are alive in us, alive with the feeling of duty, of justice, of purity, of love, of a just and orderly God above--just in that proportion shall we be tormented by the difference between what we are, and what we ought to be; and the sense of sin, and the longing for pardon, will be more keen in us; and we shall have no rest till the sins are got rid of, and the pardon sure. That is the price we pay for having immortal souls. It is a heavy price truly: but it is well worth the paying, if it be only paid aright. If that tormenting feeling of being continually wrong in this life, ends by making us continually right for ever in the world to come; if Christ be formed in us at last; if out of our sinful and mortal manhood a sinless and immortal manhood is born;--then shall we, like the mother over her new-born babe, forget our anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world.
But, again, besides pardon, we want peace. Who does not know that state of mind in which, perhaps, without any great reason in reality, one has no peace? When everything seems to go wrong with a man. When he suspects everybody to be against him. When little troubles, which he could bear easily enough at other times, seem quite intolerable to him. When he is troubled with vain regrets about the past--'Ah, if I had done this and that!' and vain fears for the future, conjuring up in his mind all sorts of bad luck which may, but most probably never will, happen; and yet from off which he cannot turn his mind. Who does not know this frame of mind?
True, a great deal of this may depend on ill-health; and will pass away as the man's bodily condition gets better. We know, in the same way, that the strange anxiety which comes over us in sleepless nights, comes from bodily causes. That is merely because, the circulation of our blood being quickened, our brain becomes more active; and because we are lying alone in the silent darkness, with nothing to listen to or look at, we cannot turn our attention away from the thoughts which get possession of us and torment us. That is only bodily; and yet it may be very useful to our souls. As we lie awake, our own past lives, our own past mistakes and sins, and God's past blessings and mercies, too, may rise up before us with clearness, and teach us more than a hundred sermons; and we may find, with David, that our reins chasten us in the night-season. 'When I am in heaviness, I will think upon God; when my heart is vexed, I will complain. Thou holdest mine eyes waking. . . . I have considered the days of old, and the years that are past. I call to remembrance my song, and in the night I commune with my own heart, and search out my spirits. Will the Lord absent himself for ever, and will he be no more intreated? Is his mercy clean gone for ever: and is his promise come utterly to an end for evermore? Hath God forgotten to be gracious: and will he shut up his loving-kindness in displeasure? And I said it is mine own infirmity. But I will remember the years of the right hand of the Most Highest.' These sleepless hours taught the Psalmist somewhat; and they may teach us likewise. And so, again, with these sad and fretful frames of mind. Even if they do partly come from our bodies, they have a real effect, which cannot be mistaken, on our souls; and they may have a good effect on us, if we choose. I believe that we shall find, that even if they do come from ill health and weak nerves, what starts them is--that we are dissatisfied with ourselves. We feel something wrong, not merely in our bodies, but in our souls, our characters; and then we try to lay the blame on the world around us, and shift it off ourselves; saying in our hearts, 'I should do very well, if other people, and things about me, would only let me:' but the more we try to shift off the blame, the less peace we have. Nothing mends matters less than throwing the blame on others. That is plain. Other people we cannot mend; they must mend themselves. Circumstances about us we cannot mend; God must mend them. So, as long as we throw the blame on them, we cannot return to a cheerful and hopeful frame of mind. But the moment we throw the blame on ourselves, that moment we can have hope, that moment we can become cheerful again; for whatsoever else we cannot mend, we can at least mend ourselves. Now a man may forget this in health. He may be put out and unhappy for a while: but when his good spirits return, he does not know why. Things have not improved; but, somehow, they do not affect him as they did before. Now this is not wrong. God forbid! In such a world as this, one is glad to see a man rid of sadness by any means which is not wrong. Better anything than that a poor soul should fret himself to death.
But it may be very good for a man now and then not to forget; to be kept low, whether by ill health or by any other cause, till he faces fairly his own state, and finds out honestly what does fret him and torment him.
And then, I believe, his experience will generally be like David's.-- 'As long as I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my groaning all the day long.'
Think over these words, I beg you. I chose them for my text, just because they seem to me to contain all that I wish you to understand. As long as the Psalmist held his peace--as long as he did not confess his sin to God--all seemed to go wrong with him. He fretted his very heart away. The moment that he made a clean breast to God, peace and cheerfulness came back to him.
This psalm may speak of some really great sin which he had committed. But that makes all the more strongly for us. For if he got forgiveness for a great sin, by merely confessing it, how much more may we hope to be forgiven, for the comparatively little sins of which I am now speaking? Surely there is forgiveness for them. Surely we, Christians, are not worse off than the old Jews. God forbid! What does the Bible tell us? If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. And again, if we walk in the light; that is, if we look honestly at our own hearts, and confess honestly to God what we see wrong there; then we have fellowship one with another; all our frettings and grudgings against our fellow-men pass away; and the blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all sin. God forbid again! For what is the message of the Absolution, whether general in the church, or private by the sick-bed, but this-- that there is continual forgiveness for those who really confess and repent? God forbid again! For what is the message of the Holy Communion, but that we really are forgiven, really helped by God not to do the like again; that the stains and scars of our daily misdoings are truly healed by God's grace; and power given us to lead a healthier life, the longer we persevere in the struggle after God.
Therefore, instead of proudly laying the blame of our unhappiness on our fellow-men, much less on God and his providence, let us cast ourselves, in every hour of shame or of sadness, on the boundless love of him who hateth nothing that he hath made; who so loved the world that he spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all. How shall he not with him freely give us all things? Let us open our weary hearts to him who watches with tender interest, as of a father watching the growth of his child, over every struggle of ours from worse to better; and so we shall have our reward. The more we trust to the love of God, the more shall we feel his love-- feel that we are pardoned--feel that we are at peace. We may not grow more cheerful as we grow older; but we shall grow more peaceful. Sadder men, it may be; but wiser men also; caring less and less for pleasure; caring even less and less for mere happiness: but finding a lasting comfort in the knowledge that we are doing our life's work not altogether ill, under the smile of Almighty God; aware more and more of our own weakness, and of our own failings: but trusting that God will take the will for the deed, and forgive us what we have left undone, and accept what we have done, for the sake of Christ, in whom, and not in our own poor paltry selves, he looks upon us as his adopted children.
Only let us remember to ask for pardon and to ask for peace, that we may use them as the collect bids us;--To ask for pardon, not merely that we may escape punishment; not even to escape punishment at all, if punishment be wholesome for us, as it often is: but that we may be cleansed from our sins; that we may not be left to our own weakness and our own bad habits, to grow more and more useless, more and more unhappy, day by day, but that we may be cleansed from them; and grow purer, nobler, juster, stronger, more worthy of our place in God's kingdom, as our years roll by. Let us remember to ask for peace, not merely to get rid of unpleasant thoughts, or unpleasant people, or unpleasant circumstances; and then sit down and say, Soul, take thine ease, eat and drink, for thou hast much goods laid up for many years: but let us ask for peace, that we may serve God with a quiet mind; that we may get rid of the impatient, cowardly, discontented, hopeless heart, which will not let a man go about his business like a man; and get, instead of it, by the inspiration of God's Holy Spirit, the calm, contented, brave, hopeful heart, in the strength of which a man can work with a will wherever God may put him, even amidst vexation, confusion, disappointment, slander, and persecution; and, in his place and calling, serve the Lord, who served him when he died for him, and who serves him, and all his people, now and for ever in heaven.
So shall we have real pardon, and real peace. A pardon which will make us really better; and a peace which will make us really more useful. And to be good and to be useful were the two ends for which God sent us into the world at all.
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