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Sermon XXVI:  The Advent Collects III.
by John Keble
(From four sermons on the collects summing up catechizing 
after the 2nd lesson at the Evening Service.)
found in
Sermons for the Christian Year:  Advent to Christmas Eve
S. MATT. xxii. 3.
"He sent His servants to call them that were bidden to the wedding.”

THAT is, God the Father, having united His Nature to ours for ever by the wonderful mystery of the Incarnation of His Son, sent the Apostles, and through them His ministers of all degrees, to invite all men to partake of so great a blessing. This is that other great help to salvation, over and above Holy Scripture, which our Church mentions in her third collect for Advent; as in the second collect which we used last week, she had made mention of Holy Scripture. There, we acknowledged God’s goodness in causing the Bible to be written for our learning: here, in sending His living messengers, the clergy: and both, to prepare His way against His second Coming. As we cannot be ready for it without the Bible, so neither can we be ready for it, in a general way, without the ministry. We want the written word; we want also the living and spoken word, to bring us to heaven. Even as in old times, before the first Coming of our Lord, His way was to be prepared, partly by the written word of the Old Testament, partly by the Church, the Priests and Levites, who were to offer the appointed sacrifices, and fulfil the other services according to the law. 

The collect indeed does not speak of the old Priests and Levites, generally. It only speaks of one, S. John the Baptist, who came, as you know, immediately before our Saviour. His father, Zacharias, was a priest of the family of Aaron; therefore he too was a priest. For the priesthood among the Jews did not depend, as among us, on the laying on of hands, but went on in the line of Aaron from father to son. S. John the Baptist was also a Prophet; the last of the long line of Prophets, whom God raised up from time to time, to declare His will to His people Israel, as lights shining in a dark place, until Christ, the perfect Day, should dawn. S. John was a prophet, and more than a prophet, because he came nearer to our Lord than any of the rest. He did not only foretell, that Christ would come, but he pointed to Him as being already come. S. John is therefore in many ways a type and pattern of the Christian Ministry in the Church. Our Lord sent S. John as His messenger, to prepare His way before Him on His first Coming. So He sends the Bishops and priests of the Church, to prepare the world for His second Coming. When the Israelites of that time heard of S. John preaching in the wilderness, and came out to see and listen to him, it moved them much, to see and hear things so very unlike the ordinary way of persons going on in the world, “a man clothed with camel’s hair and a leathern girdle about his loins, and his meat locusts and wild honey ;“ all rude and rough, such as one might find in the wilderness: to hear his earnest calls to repentance; to behold the multitudes who came to him to be baptized in the river of Jordan: and what an effect his preaching had on them, making them confess even their most grievous sins. All this they saw with wonder, and of course had a great deal to say and think about it. But S. John would not let them waste their time in thinking of him; he told them, all their thought should be of One mightier than he was, coming after him: and so whatever thoughts people have about clergymen generally, or about this or that clergyman, the only right way of thinking, as you all know if you will but consider, is to regard us, one and all, as messengers sent by our Lord before His Face to give warning of His coming to judgement. This is a serious thought, my brethren; a very serious thought both for us and for you. As the gospel of Christ’s kingdom being preached in all the world is a token that the end will soon come, so the presence of a clergyman, his doing duty, and going about his work in the parish, is a sure sign and pledge from Him who will come to be our Judge; a sign that He will soon be here, and that the inhabitants of that parish will have a strict account to give. Of course, it requires some thought to get this properly into our minds. When S. John began to preach, with his rough unusual garment, it was something so much out of the common, that every one was in a manner awakened by it; they could scarcely help attending to what he should say. But we are used to see, in every place, persons whom we know at first sight to be clergymen, and to take it for granted that there will he such in every parish; it is nothing at all strange to us; therefore we are apt to pass it over without any special thought. Yet when we do attend, to it, we must surely perceive that the presence of a priest is the same kind of warning to us, that the presence of the Baptist was to the Jews of that time. The clerical dress, both in the Church and out of it, may well serve us for the same purpose, that S. John’s raiment and girdle served the people of Judea then. That is, it may put us in mind of God Almighty, of Jesus Christ coming to be our Judge, of our own souls, and of the Last Day. 

And this so much the more, as we, who minister in the Church of God, whether worthily or unworthily, have a trust in some respects greater than what S. John had; according to the word of Him Who is the Truth: “Among them that are born of women, there hath not risen a greater prophet than John the Baptist, but he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (S. Matt. xi. 11.)  Because the Baptist could only baptize with water unto repentance; but Jesus Christ, Who hath promised to be with him that is least in the kingdom of heaven, He baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. S. John’s baptism was only a sign; but Christ’s Baptism, as the Catechism says, is a real “death unto sin and a new birth unto righteousness.” Again S. John could only point to our Lord, and say, “Behold the Lamb of God:” but every priest in the Church hath power to give the Body and Blood of Christ: which, as the Catechism says again, “are verily and indeed taken and received by the faithful in the Lord’s Supper.” Now this is just what our collect means, when it calls us, after S. Paul, ministers and stewards of the mysteries of Christ. The mysteries are chiefly the two holy Sacraments, and the clergy are stewards of them, because to the clergy they are committed. So far we are more highly trusted than even our Lord’s first messenger, S. John the Baptist. We have our Lord, not to point to at a distance, but actually to give, in His two Sacraments. By these, and by the mysteries of His Word also, we are to prepare and make ready His way; His way, to come among our people, and take them to Himself. If they are disobedient, (as all naturally are) they must be converted; their hearts must be turned; “turned to the wisdom of the just;” turned and changed from their wicked and worldly thoughts to have such thoughts as those have who are truly good and just. In this respect S. John’s preaching was just what ours ought to be. As he had to preach repentance, so have we. Only, whereas he said, “Repent; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand;” we say, “Repent; for the kingdom of heaven is already come: you are already in it, and so much the worse for you, if you are going on in any known sin, or wilfully neglecting any known and plain duty.” Thus our work is the same as S. John’s; to prepare our Lord’s way by preaching of repentance; by turning the hearts’ of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just. 

But now mark, how the collect concludes. It prays that Christ’s ministers may so do their work on earth, that at His second coming we may be found an acceptable people. See here, what is the true measure, the certain test of things going on well in Christ’s Church. It is, our being found acceptable, that is, pleasing in His sight, when He comes again to judge the world. It is not anything which we can now see or judge of. For example, it will not do for any one to pronounce positively that such and such a priest is doing his duty well, that such and such a parish is going on well in God’s sight. All we can properly say is, that so it appears to us; but whether it be so in earnest, God only knows for certain. And He will not, in a general way, let us know, until the general account is given. Now this is an aweful and serious thought for us all, in many ways. A fearful thing it is to consider. While we perhaps are pleasing others and flattering ourselves, that surely we are doing well, that our souls are in the right way, the all-seeing Eye, which is ever upon us, may discern in us some secret sin, growing and growing, and eating out the heart of all our goodness: that while a man is preaching to others and, it may be, doing them much good, he may be giving way to some lurking corruption, which may cause him in the end to be a cast-away. Well may this alarm each one of us for himself, and make us very diligent in prayer and self-examination. And S. Paul, in this week’s Epistle, makes mention of another effect which it ought to have upon us. “Judge nothing,” he says, “before the time, until the Lord come.” Do not be eager and hasty in passing sentence, in saying, “This man is good, I wish I was like him, I should then certainly be saved:” much less can it be right to pass unfavourable sentence upon any; to say, “At any rate, I am not as he is :“ like that unhappy Pharisee, who thanked God that he was so much better than the Publican. The only safe way is, to judge nothing before the time, to look to our own souls very carefully, and to the souls of others also, with whom we are charged, but not to be busy in talking and judging about any. The moment we begin to amuse ourselves with that, we give an advantage and triumph to the enemy. It is just what he wants, that we should be talking instead of doing; minding other people, to whom we can do no good, instead of watching, judging, correcting ourselves. Therefore, my brethren, let us all beseech God, that He would turn the eyes of our hearts inwardly upon our own consciences; that when our Lord shall come in His glory, He may find us not comparing and judging, but repenting and amending: the priests watching, the people obedient. Blessed is that fold, that parish and congregation, which the Great Shepherd and Bishop, when He cometh shall find so doing. O Lord, grant that it may be so with us!