There come to all of us, from time to time, special seasons for reflection. There are certain breathing spaces in the race, the end of which will bring the rest of death. There are times when we pause, as it were, upon the road of life, and look back, half in sorrow and half, perhaps, in thankfulness, on the way we have been travelling—thinking, sadly enough, of baffled aims and blighted hopes; of the good we might have done, but did not; of the evil we need not have done, but which we did—looking back on the failures, and the falls, and the disappointments, that make the landmarks of most retrospects of life; and looking back, too, on the spots which God’s grace and our co-operation have made the green spots and pleasant places of our memory; and doing all this to the end that, to use the language of Scripture, we may rise like giants to pursue our way along the path that loses itself, as we look, in the clouds that hang about our future—that path of which we know little more than this, that at some hidden point upon it lies an open grave, where we and our hopes and dreams, our hands that toiled, our brains that planned, our hearts that throbbed such various music, shall be hidden away forever.
Such times are good, and such a time has come to us to-day; for to-day the Church begins another of her years. The First Sunday of Advent is the first day of the new ecclesiastical year, and is, consequently, a day to look back on the years that lie behind us, and forward to the years that may be given to us yet. A time to ascertain our position in God’s world, to realise the end which Infinite Wisdom has given us to attain, and the means which Infinite Goodness has placed at our disposal for its attainment; a time to remedy the failures of the past, to set ourselves right in the present, and so prepare to meet, not alone that future over which death stands watchman, and whose ending is the grave, but also that greater, wider, and more awful future, the end of which shall never be.
And how are we to do all this? From what point shall we start, from what principle begin to form a complete system of the philosophy of Christian life? To assign such a starting-point, to determine such a principle, is a task from which the boldest well might shrink. The highest intellect might stand before the problem abashed even as the lowest. Human learning, and human genius, and human taste, the wealth of human intellect and the poetry of human feeling, each — or rather, all united might fail to strike the keynote from which would spring the wondrous harmony of Christian life — might fail to set before us one simple subject which would comprise all necessary teaching in its single self; a subject which would be, at once, the beginning, and the middle, and the end, of that one great wisdom which every one, at the peril of his soul, is bound to master. But what all human resources might fail to do, and might acknowledge without shame its failure, the Church has done with unerring accuracy, by placing before us to-day the picture of the Last Judgment. Let us consider it a little.
The time will come when the world shall have fallen on its last days, and when the shadow of approaching doom shall fall deep and dark upon nature and on the human heart. A time will come when the system of the thousand worlds which wheeled through space at the first bidding of the Almighty, shall begin to give token that their purpose is nearing its completion. There shall be signs in the stars, and the very light of heaven shall grow dim. Rumour shall follow rumour, as shadow follows shadow, when clouds are blown across the troubled sky, raising vague forms of some infinite terror in the hearts of the world’s latest generation. The things that have been used by God as extraordinary chastisements of His people shall become so rife as to lose their strangeness, though they shall not lose their sting, and the very voices of the wind, and the stormy music of the sea, shall begin to speak of some awful doom that is at hand. We cannot picture adequately the awfulness of that Last Advent that men shall keep, when they shall await the coming of Him who came once with tenderest mercy, but whose second coming shall be one of sternest justice. The nearest approach to the sublimity of the subject seems to me to be found in the words of the Evangelist, who, after enumerating some of the signs that shall precede the Judgment, sums up the effect of them in the startling words: “Men shall wither away with fear.”
And then shall come the end. The time will come when the last man shall die, and his body lie unburied on the earth which shall afford a grave no more. A silence deep, but far more awful, than that which preceded the creation, shall fall on the dead world. And that silence how shall it be broken? The angel’s trump of doom shall send its wailing note through all the silent spaces of the world. The graves shall, yawn wide open, the sea give up its dead, and the countless hosts that have peopled all the centuries shall be marshalled together in the valley of judgment.
And we shall be there too. As surely as we stand to-day before the hidden presence of Jesus in the tabernacle, as surely as the heavens bend above us, and the earth sustains our feet, as surely as God liveth, and hath said it, so surely shall we, one day, fall into our place at the bidding of the angel’s trumpet. And what shall be our thoughts in that awful hour?
The bitterest hours that most men know on earth are those hours when their sin has found them out, and when the passions they have indulged turn to a nest of scorpions in their bosoms. When the still small voice of conscience pronounces its unchangeable sentence, when the mists that passion threw around crime are rent asunder and the sinner, in his remorse, becomes loathsome even to himself. But what is even this to the bitterness of the awakening conscience that shall take place before the judgment-seat of Christ? The light of God Himself shall pierce the inmost recesses of the sinner’s heart. “He shall search Jerusalem with lamps.” Concealment shall be possible no more. The smile upon the lip shall no longer hide the treachery of the heart, and the holiness of exterior that came not from virtue, but from hypocrisy, shall be a garment no longer of honour, but of ignominy and shame.
Then shall the judgments of the world be signally reversed. Then shall be discovered how delusive were the standards by which it measured men and things. Then the worldly prudence whose basis was selfishness, and whose highest ideal was self-interest, shall appear paltry beside that sublime wisdom, which was so far above mere worldly natures that
“We fools esteemed worldly nature sneered at it and called it folly.
their lives folly.” Then shall men and deeds that make a stir in history be found both in true sublimity and true poetry infinitely inferior to the record of some life whose only earthly record was the hiejacet of the churchyard. Then shall be found that things which men had long agreed to call successes, had been signal failures, and that poor souls who were thought to have failed, have succeeded to an extent which it hath never entered the heart of man to conceive. For, in truth, success is a different thing when it is estimated by man, and when it is estimated by God.
And what shall be the subject of the judgment? All the thoughts that men have thought from the first feeling of rapture that rose in the heart of the world’s first father when he looked forth on the fresh beauty of the newly-made world, down to the latest thought of him who shall be last to die; all the words that shall have ever fallen from human lips, in blessing or in cursing, in tenderness or in anger, in seriousness or in sport; all the actions that find a place in the written or unwritten annals of the world that shall be no more; — all shall be made manifest before the countless brotherhood of the human race.
The sinner, in this life, may do his sin in secret. He may seek the lonely places of the world, and may wrap himself around with the darkness of the night. He worships his passion in no open temple with lights and incense. Poor fool, he deems himself too wise for that. He worships his sin in the depths of his own heart which no human eye can penetrate, and he, whose every additional breath of life is a proof, did men but know, of the infinite forbearance of the outraged majesty of heaven, may live his life, and sink into his grave without any one ever knowing what a hypocrite he was. Poor fool, he never cast a thought upon the inevitable hour, in which his sins must be made manifest to the assembled universe.
The sentence shall be uttered, and the elect and the reprobate shall go their different ways to meet no more, while heaven delights, while hell torments, while God Himself reigns on. What a parting shall be there! There are partings even on this side of the grave that are hard to bear. Bitter is the hour when lifelong friends must part to see each other no more save in dreams that memory can make from the dead past. Bitter is the hour when time and circumstances, and what men call fate, send forth on widely diverging paths those who loved each other so well that, each losing each seems to lose some dearer portion of his very self. But what are even partings such as these, to the partings that shall take place when the sentence of the judgment shall have been pronounced? The wicked shall go into their place of torment, never more to see the faces that they loved — never more to hear the voices that made music on their ears, never more to smile beneath the smiles that were the sunshine of their lives — never more to feel the kindly charities of friendship or of love. They shall have lost all that is good, and shall be in everlasting possession of all that is evil; and they shall know that never, as long as God shall be God, shall their torments end.
They shall begin their everlasting punishment with the awful picture of the last judgment graven upon their souls. We, with the picture of the same judgment, commence our new ecclesiastical year. But how wide is the difference? For them the judgment shall be past and shall be irrevocable; for us, it has yet to be. The bitter thoughts it shall have caused in them shall know no ending to their bitterness; but to us the picture can afford a lesson which, if we profit by it, can materially affect our personal share in the world’s final judgment.
What, then, are the lessons which we should draw from the subject which the Church sets before us today? First—we should carry out our manifest intention of making the judgment to come the standard of our lives. We should try to look at things around us in the light of that solemn truth, form our views according to its teaching, and arrange our lives by the lessons it affords. If we resolve to do so, we will find in the last judgment a twofold lesson which will embrace all the necessities of our lives—a lesson on our conduct, as it regards ourselves, and secondly as it regards our neighbour.
First, then, as regards ourselves. The first thing that must strike us, if we look at the world around us by the light of the last judgment, is this, that as we are to be judged not by our high or low position in life, but simply by the work we shall have done, it makes very little matter to us what position in life we hold, provided we do the duties of it well. The world makes vast differences, where none exist, or where, if they exist at all, they are far other than the world supposes. According as thou didst thy work, so, not otherwise, shalt thou be judged. Life is a preparation for the judgment to come if, then, I would prepare for that judgment, I must attend just to one thing, the manner in which I per- form my daily duties.
What a simple rule this is — and, like most simple things, how effective It is against all specious delusions. There are, in the world of Christians, and I speak now of those who think seriously about the business of salvation, two classes who are fixed at the opposite poles of a great delusion. One class I shall call the slaves of the past: the other consists of the dreamers about the future. The former seat themselves, as it were, with folded hands, amid the ruins of their past lives, and think that because their own sins or the sins of others have made their past what they call a failure, therefore they have no more present work in the world. They have a lurking idea, which they dare not express, because its expression would be blasphemy, that God Almighty has made a mistake in allowing them to continue living on, when they see perfectly well that the world has no more work suited to them. The latter class — the dreamers about the future — believe that their work, the only work that it is worth their while to do, lies in some distant future, which, by some strange mistake, has not come yet, and which, in the case of such people, seldom comes at all. These people, with uplifted hands and eyes strained upon some future more or less distant, are so absorbed in the vision of something that can only be done hereafter, that they quite overlook the things that ought to be done now. The result in both cases is the same. The present is neglected under one pretence or the other the pretence of overwhelming sorrow for the past, or the pretence of great schemes for the future. Both are delusions alike, and for both the remedy is the same. Find it in the truth, that, not according to thy vain regrets, nor according to thy dreamy visions, but according to thy works, those works you are doing at this present moment, shall your judgment be.
Let me not be misunderstood. It is not my purpose to advise you to regard neither your past nor your future. There are few persons, indeed, who will not find in their past something which it is highly desirable to remember and to regret. There are fewer still who might not, without incurring the charge of undue ambition, aspire to wider usefulness in the future. God forbid that I should say a word against either; but God equally forbid that I should not give my testimony against any contemplation either of the past or of the future, the effect of which would be to draw away that attention from the present which is absolutely necessary. By all means repent of the past, by all means aspire to higher things in the future, but do so profitably, not foolishly, and let your test be this: if your thoughts about the past, or your dreams about the future, have the effect of making you more careful, more punctual, more perfect in the performance of your present daily duties, then by all means think those thoughts, and dream those dreams; but if, on the contrary, they have the effect of making you think that your present duties are not worth the doing, or not worth the doing well, then let no sentimentality that is apt to connect itself with thoughts about our spiritual past, or dreams about our spiritual future, induce you to believe that they are anything better than a delusion and a snare.
Sanctity consists in the right performance of everyday duties. We are apt to draw a wide distinction between the lives of those whom we call “the saints,” and the lives of ordinary Christians like ourselves; and a wide distinction there undoubtedly is. But let not the distinction blind us to the common likeness that must exist between the greatest of God’s saints and our poor weak selves, if we are to hope for heaven. If we ever come to be saved it will only be because we, too, shall be saints. If you ask me how this is to be, I do not tell you to go fall into ecstasies, to see visions, to work miracles. No; these things are found in the lives of saints, but these things do not make their sanctity. I tell you to aim at that which all who are saints have had in common with each other, and which we, if we hope to be saved, must have in common with them—faithful performance of the commonplace duties of daily life. Such is the first lesson we should draw from the contemplation of that Judgment in which every man shall be judged according to his works.
The second lesson regards our conduct to our neighbour, and is no less useful and no less necessary.
The Judge, at the last Judgment, shall be our Blessed Lord. And why? Because to Him, and to Him alone, has it been given to judge the living and the dead. And when we consider what will be the subject-matter of that judgment, that it will comprise not alone the words and actions of men, but also the hidden secrets of their thoughts, the motives which prompted them, the circumstances which coloured them, the end for which they were done, we see, at once, that to no wisdom less than Infinite could such an office be justly committed. And all of us with one voice confess that Christ, and Christ alone, is the Judge of the living and the dead. Yes; we say it in words, but do we acknowledge it in our conduct?
There is no more difficult task on earth than to judge rightly of a single action of another. For, to judge rightly we should know not merely the outward shell of the act, so to speak, but the inner kernel the motive, the end, the hidden circumstances — all which must of necessity enter in to the formation of a just judgment. Now these things in their completeness we have absolutely no means of knowing. How, then, can we judge? Yet, though no office is so difficult, none so far beyond the range of human powers, there is no office into which we thrust ourselves so often, and with so little regard to prudence or decency. There are many things which men will readily acknowledge they cannot do, but few, indeed, act as if they doubted their perfect competency to be their neighbour’s judge. They are always ready to intrude themselves into an office that was never meant for them, and, by judging their neighbour, say to our Blessed Lord, by their acts, what they dare not say in words: “Yes, Lord, Thou art appointed Judge of men, but in this particular case you must abdicate your functions, stand aside and let me pronounce the judgment.”
This is precisely what one does when he pronounces one of those flippant judgments that are so common in the world. Remember that Christ is the Judge, not we; and that to His infinite mercy and infinite justice we may safely leave our neighbour’s conduct and our own.
These, then, are the two rules of life to begin our ecclesiastical year. Be solicitous about your own daily duties—be not solicitous about the judgment that awaits the actions of your neighbour. Perform well the actions of your daily lives; do them for God, and the doing of them will make you saints. To your neighbour be a neighbour, in the widest sense of Christian charity, but never seek to be his judge. These two principles give you a summary of the duties of the Christian life. You can make of them two wings that will carry you to heaven. And if these shall have been the rule of your lives, the trumpet of the Judgment shall one day summon you to hear the blessed sentence: “Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess ye the kingdom prepared for you from all eternity.” Amen.