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PSALM civ. 24, 28-30.
"O Lord, how manifold are Thy works! in wisdom hast Thou made them all: the earth is full of Thy riches. That Thou givest them they gather: Thou openest Thine hand, they are filled with good. Thou hidest Thy face, they are troubled: Thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust. Thou sendest forth Thy spirit, they are created: and Thou renewest the face of the earth."
I had intended to go through this psalm with you in regular order; but things have happened this parish, awful and sad, during the last week, which I was bound not to let slip without trying to bring them home to your hearts, if by any means I could persuade the thoughtless ones among you to be wise and consider your latter end:-- I mean the sad deaths of various of our acquaintances. The death- bell has been tolled in this parish three times, I believe, in one day--a thing which has seldom happened before, and which God grant may never happen again. Within two miles of this church there are now five lying dead. Five human beings, young as well as old, to whom the awful words of the text have been fulfilled: "Thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust." And the very day on which three of these deaths happened was Ascension-day-- the day on which Jesus, the Lord of life, the Conqueror of death, ascended upon high, having led captivity captive, and became the first-fruits of the grave, to send down from the heaven of eternal life the Spirit who is the Giver of life. That was a strange mixture, death seemingly triumphant over Christ's people on the very day on which life triumphed in Jesus Christ Himself. Let us see, though, whether death has not something to do with Ascension-day. Let us see whether a sermon about death is not a fit sermon for the Sunday after Ascension-day. Let us see whether the text has not a message about life and death too--a message which may make us feel that in the midst of life we are in death, and that yet in the midst of death we are in life; that however things may SEEM, yet death has not conquered life, but life has conquered and WILL conquer death, and conquer it most completely at the very moment that we die, and our bodies return to their dust.
Do I speak riddles? I think the text will explain my riddles, for it tells us how life comes, how death comes. Life comes from God: He sends forth His spirit, and things are made, and He renews the face of the earth. We read in the very two verses of the book of Genesis how the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters the creation, and woke all things into life. Therefore the Creed well calls the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of God, that is--the Lord and Giver of life. And the text tells us that He gives life, not only to us who have immortal souls, but to every thing on the face of the earth; for the psalm has been talking all through, not only of men, but of beasts, fishes, trees, and rivers, and rocks, sun and moon. Now, all these things have a life in them. Not a life like ours; but still you speak rightly and wisely when you say, 'That tree is alive, and, That tree is dead. That running water is live water--it is sweet and fresh, but if it is kept standing it begins to putrefy, its life is gone from it, and a sort of death comes over it, and makes it foul, and unwholesome, and unfit to drink.' This is a deep matter, this, how there is a sort of life in every thing, even to the stones under our feet. I do not mean, of course, that stones can think as our life makes us do, or feel as the beasts' life makes them do, or even grow as the trees' life makes them do; but I mean that their life keeps them as they are, without changing or decaying. You hear miners and quarrymen talk very truly of the live rock. That stone, they say, was cut out of the live rock, meaning the rock as it is under ground, sound and hard--as it would be, for aught we know, to the end of time, unless it was taken out of the ground, out of the place where God's Spirit meant it to be, and brought up to the open air and the rain, in which it is not its nature to be. And then you will see that the life of the stone begins to pass from it bit by bit, that it crumbles and peels away, and, in short, decays and is turned again to its dust. Its organisation, as it is called, or life, ends, and then--what? does the stone lie for ever useless? No! And there is the great blessed mystery of how God's Spirit is always bringing life out of death. When the stone is decayed and crumbled down to dust and clay, it makes SOIL--this very soil here, which you plough, is the decayed ruins of ancient hills; the clay which you dig up in the fields was once part of some slate or granite mountains, which were worn away by weather and water, that they might become fruitful earth. Wonderful! but any one who has studied these things can tell you they are true. Any one who has ever lived in mountainous countries ought to have seen the thing happen, ought to know that the land in the mountain valleys is made at first, and kept rich year by year, by the washings from the hills above; and this is the reason why land left dry by rivers and by the sea is generally so rich. Then what becomes of the soil? It begins a new life. The roots of the plants take it up; the salts which they find in it--the staple, as we call them--go to make leaves and seed; the very sand has its use, it feeds the stalks of corn and grass, and makes them stiff. The corn-stalks would never stand upright if they could not get sand from the soil. So what a thousand years ago made part of a mountain, now makes part of a wheat-plant; and in a year more the wheat grain will have been eaten, and the wheat straw perhaps eaten too, and they will have DIED--decayed in the bodies of the animals who have eaten them, and then they will begin a third new life--they will be turned into parts of the animal's body--of a man's body. So that what is now your bone and flesh, may have been once a rock on some hillside a hundred miles away.
Strange, but true! all learned men know that it is true. You, if you think over my words, may see that they are at least reasonable. But still most wonderful! This world works right well, surely. It obeys God's Spirit. Oh, my friends, if we fulfilled our life and our duty as well as the clay which we tread on does,--if we obeyed God's Spirit as surely as the flint does, we should have many a heartache spared us, and many a headache too! To be what God wants us!--to be MEN, to be WOMEN, and therefore to live as children of God, members of Christ, fulfilling our duty in that state to which God has called us, that would be our bliss and glory. Nothing can live in a state in which God did not intend it to live. Suppose a tree could move itself about like an animal, and chose to do so, the tree would wither and die; it would be trying to act contrary to the law which God has given it. Suppose the ox chose to eat meat like the lion, it would fall sick and die; for it would be acting contrary to the law which God's Spirit had made for it--going out of the calling to which God's Word has called it, to eat grass and not flesh, and live thereby. And so with us: if we will do wickedly, when the will of God, as the Scripture tells us, is our sanctification, our holiness; if we will speak lies, when God's law for us is that we should speak truth; if we will bear hatred and ill-will, when God's law for us is, Love as brothers,--you all sprang from one father, Adam,--you were all redeemed by one brother, Jesus Christ; if we will try to live as if there was no God, when God's law for us is, that a man can live like a man only by faith and trust in God;--then we shall DIE, if we break God's laws according to which he intended man to live. Thus it was with Adam; God intended him to obey God, to learn every thing from God. He chose to disobey God, to try and know something of himself, by getting the knowledge of good and evil; and so death passed on him. He became an unnatural man, a BAD man, more or less, and so he became a dead man; and death came into the world, that time at least, by sin, by breaking the law by which man was meant to be a man. As the beasts will die if you give them unnatural food, or in any way prevent their following the laws which God has made for them, so man dies, of necessity. All the world cannot help his dying, because he breaks the laws which God has made for him.
And how does he die? The text tells us, God takes away his breath, and turns His face from him. In His presence, it is written, is life. The moment He withdraws his Spirit, the Spirit of life, from any thing, body or soul, then it dies. It was by SIN came death--by man's becoming unfit for the Spirit of God.
Therefore the body is dead because of sin, says St. Paul, doomed to die, carrying about in it the seeds of death from the very moment it is born. Death has truly passed upon all men!
Most sad; and yet there is hope, and more than hope, there is certain assurance, for us, that though we die, yet shall we live! I have shewn you, in the beginning of my sermon, how nothing that dies perishes to nothing, but begins a new and a higher life. How the stone becomes a plant,--something better and more useful than it was before; the plant passes into an animal--a step higher still. And, therefore, we may be sure that the same rule will hold good about us men and women, that when we die, we shall begin a new and a nobler life, that is, if we have been true MEN; if we have lived fulfilling the law of our kind. St. Paul tells us so positively. He says that nothing comes to life except it first die, then God gives it a new body. He says that even so is the resurrection of the dead,--that we gain a step by dying; that we are sown in corruption, and are raised in incorruption; we are sown in dishonour, and are raised in glory; we are sown in weakness, and are raised in power; we are sown a natural body, and are raised a spiritual body; that as we now are of the earth earthy, after death and the resurrection our new and nobler body will be of the heavens heavenly; so that "when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then death shall be swallowed up in victory." Therefore, I say, Sorrow not for those who sleep as if you had no hope for the dead; for "Christ is risen from the dead, and become the first-fruits of them that slept. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive."
And I say that this has to do with the text--it has to do with Ascension-day. For if we claim our share in Christ,--if we claim our share of our heavenly Father's promise, "to give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him;" then we may certainly hope for our share in Christ's resurrection, our share in Christ's ascension. For, says St. Paul (Rom. viii. 10, 11), "if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, He that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies, by His Spirit that dwelleth in you!" There is a blessed promise! that in that, as in every thing, we shall be made like Christ our Master, the new Adam, who is a life-giving Spirit, that as He was brought to life again by the Spirit of God, so we shall be. And so will be fulfilled in us the glorious rule which the text lays down, "Thou, O God, sendest forth Thy Spirit, and they are created, and Thou dost renew the face of the earth." Fulfilled?--yes, but far more gloriously than ever the old Psalmist expected. Read the Revelations of St. John, chapters xxi. and xxii. for the glory of the renewed earth read the first Epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians, chap. iv. 16-18, for the glorious resurrection and ascension of those who have died trusting in the blessed Lord, who died for them; and then see what a glorious future lies before us--see how death is but the gate of life--see how what holds true of every thing on this earth, down to the flint beneath our feet, holds true ten thousand times of men that to die and to decay is only to pass into a nobler state of life. But remember, that just as we are better than the stone, we may be also worse than the stone. It cannot disobey God's laws, therefore it can enjoy no reward, any more than suffer any punishment. We can disobey--we can fall from our calling--we can cast God's law behind us--we can refuse to do His will, to work out our own salvation; and just because our reward in the life to come will be so glorious, if we fulfil our life and law, the life of faith and the law of love, therefore will our punishment be so horrible, if we neglect the life of faith and trample under foot the law of love. Oh, my friends, choose! Death is before you all. Shall it be the gate of everlasting life and glory, or the gate of everlasting death and misery? Will you claim your glorious inheritance, and be for ever equal to the angels, doing God's will on earth as they in heaven; or will you fall lower than the stones, who, at all events, must do their duty as stones, and not DO God's will at all, but only SUFFER it in eternal woe? You must do one or the other. You cannot be like the stones, without feeling--without joy or sorrow, just because you are immortal spirits, every one of you. You must be either happy or miserable, blessed or disgraced, for ever. I know of no middle path;--do you? Choose before the night comes, in which no man can work. Our life is but a vapour which appears for a little time, then vanishes away. "O Lord, how manifold are Thy works! in wisdom hast Thou made them all: the earth is full of Thy riches. That Thou givest them they gather: Thou openest Thine hand, they are filled with good. Thou hidest Thy face, they are troubled: Thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust. Thou sendest forth Thy Spirit, they are created: and Thou renewest the face of the earth."
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