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The Penitent Refreshed.

by Isaac Williams

from Sermons on the Epistles and Gospels for the Sundays and Holy Days

throughout the Year, Vol. I. Advent to Whitsuntide 

Rivingtons, London, 1875 [New Edition.]

First part of Sermon XXV. for the Fourth Sunday in Lent.

Gal. iv. 21-31.  St. John vi. 1-14.   


To comfort all that mourn; to appoint unto them that mourn in Zion,

to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning,

the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.ISA. lxi, 2, 3.


WHAT is the one great lesson which the Church teaches us on this Sunday in the middle of Lent?  Shall we not say it is of rest with God amidst the sufferings of this world; of his brethren being received by the true Joseph?  who was “dead and is alive again?” who was “lost and is found?” and eating bread with him in Egypt; of the children of God being fed by Christ with the true bread from Heaven in the wilderness of this world; of the freedom from earthly troubles and bondage, of those who belong to the heavenly Jerusalem?  who are “born after the Spirit?” and are “the children of promise;” in short, as the Collect expresses it, amidst the evils which we worthily deserve, being “mercifully relieved by the comfort of” God’s “grace.”


Now with regard to works of mortification and fasting, these are practised by many who are not Christians, by Jews and heretics, by Hindoos and Mahometans; in what respect, therefore, is the Christian to differ from these? not in omitting those duties which nature itself teaches, and Scripture and the Church enjoins, but in that he is relieved under them, by having his heart in Heaven, and the free Spirit of adoption.  This the Epistle for to-day sets before us.


Tell me, says St. Paul to the Galatians, who were falling back into Judaism, Tell me, ye that desire to be, under the law, do ye not hear the law? Ye think it necessary to fulfil all those Jewish ordinances, because the law enjoins them; attend to me, and I will show you the better and higher wisdom which the law itself contained, if rightly understood.  For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bond-maid, the other by a free-woman.  But he who was of the bond-woman was born after the flesh; but he of the free-woman was by promise.  He had told them that they were the true children of Abraham by faith, and now he shows how this was set forth in the very history of Abraham itself.  For Ishmael, the son of Hagar, the Egyptian bond-woman, was born according to nature, with nothing appertaining to grace and faith in that birth; but he that was of Sarah the free-woman, was born beyond and above nature, when the parents were past the age of having children,—was born by miracle, in consequence of a remarkable faith in God's promises.  Which things are an allegory, i.e. a history which contains within it a mystical meaning.  For these are the two covenants; these two mothers represent the old and the new covenant, the Law and the Gospel; the one from Mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar.  For this Agar is Mount Sinai in Arabia.  The Hagarenes are a people of Arabia, to whom Mount Sinai belonged.  Hagar, their mother, represents the law given from thence, and answereth to Jerusalem, which now is, that earthly Jerusalem that still exists, and is in bondage with her children.  But Jerusalem which is above, the heavenly Jerusalem which walketh on high, the Christian Church which is above the world, the true spouse of Christ:—as "the Son of Man" while on earth was "in Heaven," [St. John iii. 13.] so now, with her Divine Lord, "Jerusalem," while suffering below, is spoken of as being "above:"—she is free; which is the Mother of us all, by whom we are all born unto Christ, having the "free Spirit" of adoption.  And this will explain the allusions throughout the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms, to that mystery of the fruitfulness of the "barren woman" made "to keep house," and to be "a joyful mother of children."  For it is written by the Prophet Isaiah, when describing the Church and the inflowing of the Gentiles, Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not; break forth and cry, thou that travailest not: for the desolate hath many more children than she which hath an husband.  To which St. Paul adds, taking up this spiritual mystery, of a woman by nature childless having by grace children unto God.  Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise. “As it was not nature,” says St. Chrysostom, “but the promise of God which rendered Sarah a mother, so in our regeneration it is not nature, but the Word of God spoken at our Baptism, which makes us His children.”  But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit; even so it is now.  That history of Abraham still continues to speak in mystery; they that are born after the flesh persecute them that were born after the Spirit.  The Jew and the natural man will persecute Christ in His members.  Nevertheless, what saith the Scripture? what is that end to which all these things are tending, as Scripture itself declares?  Cast out the bond-woman and her son; for the son of the bond-woman shall not be heir with the son of the free-woman.  So then, brethren, we are not children of the bond-woman, but of the free.  As our Lord Himself, speaking on the same subject, said to the Jews, “The servant abideth not in the house for ever; but the Son abideth ever.  If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall, be free indeed." [St. John viii. 35, 36]


Now this very beautiful lesson, is most suitable to us in this season of Lent, teaching us that we have not to mourn as they that have no hope: not to be cast down towards the earth as they who have not a Heaven to look up to: not as they who have a servile yoke upon the neck; but rather, as they that bear the Cross after Christ, and are able to fix: their eyes upon Him going before; and thus, by the love of Him constraining them, have ever in tribulation a joy of which the world knoweth not.  And what is the true liberty of the children of God?  It consists in so denying themselves as to be masters of their own will, and thus to find that perfect freedom in the service of Christ, which can only be when our will is lost in His will.  Our will is the will of the flesh “which gendereth to bondage,” which mocks and persecutes that which is of God; this must be cast out; the will of Christ is the Spirit of adoption, which is from above, which cometh by faith, and must rule and abide in us forever.


Christian mortification is of the very greatest moment when it thus deadens our own will; when it is united with devotion; when it quickens our repentance; when it is one with humiliation of ourselves, and partakes in all ways of the sacrifice of Christ.  Then the fruit of it are blessed indeed, but not otherwise.  “Keeping a fast,” says Chrysostom, “does not consist in mere passing the time, but in fulfilling it with good deeds.  Let us ask ourselves, have we become more diligent, have we corrected any defect, have we washed out crimes?  What advantage is it to have completed the fast, if you have done so without works of good?  If another should say, I have fasted the whole forty days; be thou able to say, I had an enemy and I am reconciled; I had a habit of detraction, I have left it off; I was used to profane swearing, but that wicked custom has been corrected by me.  It is no profit to merchants to have passed over great length of sea; but only to have done so with bringing home abundance of produce and much merchandise.  So the length of our fast will be of no profit to us, if we pass through that very time without fruits and carelessly.” [Par. Brev. Dom. Quart. Quadrag.]


Everyone must acknowledge the great wisdom of these words; the Christian must have his set times for fasting and mortifying the flesh, as all other religions, whether false or true, have had; but in him it must always be connected with Christ, never apart from Him, and His Spirit, and His sacrifice; and therefore, always to the humbling and bettering of the heart, to the forgiveness of injuries, and active charities.  And thus it is, that when our Blessed Lord calls upon all that are heavy laden to come to Him that He may give them rest, He invites them to take upon them His yoke, by the practice of meekness and lowliness, after His example; and He promises that they shall find His yoke easy, and His burden light.  Hence it is always the case, in very deep penitence and self abasement, that the Spirit of God visits the soul with comfort.  This David found,—the Prince of Penitents,—when in the fifty-first Psalm, after expressing his sorrows, he says, “Thou shalt make me hear of joy and gladness; that the bones which Thou hast broken may rejoice.” “O give me the comfort of Thy help again, and stablish me with Thy free Spirit.”  It was for the free and princely Spirit, the Spirit of adoption, for which he so earnestly sighed and prayed; and he prayed so earnestly because he felt that by his repentance he should obtain, and had obtained what he earnestly prayed for.


Now such is the teaching of this mid-Lent Sunday, and it is carried out in the Gospel for the day.... 

...(for the second part, on the Gospel