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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...It is always the case, in very deep penitence and self abasement, that the Spirit of God visits the soul with comfort.  (for the first part, on the Epistle.) ...


...Now such is the teaching of this mid-Lent Sunday, and it is carried out in the Gospel for the day.  When the Israelites were for forty years in the wilderness they were supported by bread from Heaven; when Moses was for forty days and forty nights in the Mount with God, and did eat nothing, he was sustained by the Presence of God; when Elijah fled into the wilderness, to Mount Horeb, the angel gave him a miraculous cake to eat, [1 Kings xix. 7, 8] and he “went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights into the Mount of God.”  And the meaning of these things was further shown by our Blessed Lord Himself, when, in the wilderness, He fed the people with bread, and then explained to them that such was not the bread they were to think of, but the better Bread Which cometh down from Heaven, Which is His Body.  The circumstance was as follows:


Our Lord had crossed the sea and retired into a desert place apart, together with His disciples, for they had no leisure so much as to eat; but after they had crossed the sea of Galilee for this purpose, and had sat down to rest in the wilderness or mountain, they found that they were followed by a great multitude of people, who, having learnt where they were going, outwent them and arrived in the place of their retirement, bringing with them such as were diseased.  They were, moreover, now gathering in unusual numbers, on account of the approach of the Passover.  And Jesus was moved with compassion at the sight, because they were as sheep having no shepherd, and healed their sick and taught them.


St.  John's account is: Jesus went over the sea of Galilee, which is the sea of Tiberias.  And a great multitude followed Him, because they saw the miracles which He did on them that were diseased.  And Jesus went up into a mountain, and there He sat with His disciples.  And the Passover, a feast of the Jews, was nigh.  Thus forgetting His own weariness and need of retirement, He continued to heal their sick.  Now when it was towards evening in the desert, and He saw great companies still coming, and knew that they had come without food to be with Him, and were in this desert mountain, far from any means of obtaining it, and yet weary and hungry, He was about to feed them with bread from His own Divine creative hands.  But in the saving of our souls He works no miracles, He does nothing, unless man also by faith co-operates and joins with Him.  And, therefore, in order to draw out this faith in the disciples, to induce them to look to Himself, Who openeth His hand and filleth all things living with plenteousness, He began to question them as to what could be done to feed these multitudes in the desert; He asked Philip whence they could buy bread; and then Andrew, the friend and fellow-townsman of Philip, always on the watch for what Christ would do, brings to Him a boy with five barley loaves and two small fishes, intimating that this was all that they had to supply five thousand men.  And indeed the twelve disciples also themselves had been long fasting.  In the account we see as it were St.  Andrew, with the lad by his side, looking up to the countenance of his Divine Master, waiting and wondering to know what He would do.


When Jesus then lifted up His eyes, and saw a great company come unto Him, He saith unto Philip, Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat?  And this He said to prove him, for He Himself knew what He would do.  Philip answered Him, Two hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient for them, that everyone of them may take a little.  One of His disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, saith unto Him, There is a lad here which hath five barley loaves, and two small fishes; but what are they among so many?  And Jesus said, Make the men sit down.  “Five barley loaves and two small fishes;” it was, of course, as a mere nothing, but it was all that He wanted.  This was the very thing which our Blessed Lord desired, that His disciples should do what they could, and then look to Him.  Thus with ourselves it is at the Holy Eucharist; we must first bring bread and offer it up unto Him, that He may convert it into His own Body.  And thus it is in His Providence: man must sow a little seed in faith, and that seed God will multiply.  Nor was it the case only with Philip and Andrew, who brought the loaves, but on the part of all that were present He required faith; there was faith on the part of the twelve disciples who distributed the loaves; there was faith on the part of the multitude who all sat down at His word,—at the table, as it were, prepared for them in the wilderness,—knowing that there was nothing there to eat but what He, the Good Shepherd, would give them.  It is said, in one account, that His compassions were moved because they were as sheep without a shepherd. [St. Mark vi. 34]  It was the fulfilment of the Prophet Ezekiel, “As a shepherd seeketh out his flock in the day that he is among his sheep that are scattered, so will I seek out My sheep;” “I will feed them upon the mountains of Israel,” and” I will cause them to lie down, saith the Lord God." [Ezek. xxxiv. 12. 14, 15.]  All that He requires of them is confidence in Him and obedience to His word.  He feeds them daily by His providence, and this is a pledge that He will feed them also by His marvellous grace.


How beautiful is the literal fulfi1ment of the Prophet, the Shepherd among His sheep, feeding them on the mountains of Israel as they looked up to His hand!  Now there was much grass in the place.  So the men sat down, in number about five thousand.  And Jesus took the loaves; and when He had given thanks, He distributed to the disciples, and the disciples to them that were set down; and likewise of the fishes, as much as they would.  “As much as they would” out of “two small fishes;” to such great riches did this their poverty through faith abound! When they were filled, He said unto His disciples, Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost.  His words shall not return unto Him void; [Isa. lv. 11] nothing shall be lost of His Divine gifts.  Therefore they gathered them together, and filled twelve baskets with the fragments of the five barley loaves, which remained over and above unto them that had eaten.  Then those men, when they had seen the miracle that Jesus did, said, This is of a truth that Prophet that should come into the world.


But now, as our Lord is the Shepherd of His people in a spiritual sense, in that He feeds their souls unto everlasting life, so every thoughtful person does of course know and consider what our Lord intended by thus feeding His people in the wilderness, as He had done by the manna of old.  It must have been something worthy of “the Prophet that should come.”  The meaning is well expressed by an holy teacher, “He takes occasion from this their want, and from the approaching Passover, to give His disciples an emblem of the miraculous Passover which He is preparing for His Church.” [Quesnel, ad loc.]


But although our Blessed Lord did, no doubt, by this miracle intend to teach us of the Sacrament of His Body and Blood, which He was about to give at the Passover for the life of the world; yet over and above this lesson, the Church of all ages, by fixing this as the Gospel for this Sunday, would represent to us spiritual refreshment from the grace of Christ in the midst of mortification.  The anointing of the Holy One, which speaketh of joy and gladness, goeth forth from His Cross.


In the book of the Revelation, when Christ had warned the Church of Pergamos of the doctrine of Balaam, the stumbling-block to God's children, and of the lusts of the flesh, He added, “to him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna.” [Rev. ii. 17]  Now, without stopping to dwell upon this most heavenly subject, what this hidden manna may signify, for the Spirit of God can alone reveal it to the soul, beyond what eye, or ear, or thought of man can understand: for it is “the hidden manna,” not like that which lay on the ground in the sight and gathering of all, but like that manna which was laid up in the Ark, and preserved unseen in the sanctuary of God; it belongs to that life which is “hid with Christ in God.”  But though it be itself the secret of God, yet there is something appertaining to it, and leading to it, which all of us may know and understand after his degree, who keep right this season of repentance.


A mortified spirit is always a cheerful spirit; there is something in fasting which disposes the heart to peaceful resignation; he that overcometh himself, even in this life was imparted to him some share of the hidden manna.  And, again, what fills the heart with peace more than prayer? it disposes to peace with God and peace with man; and even this has something in it of “the hidden manna.”  And almsgiving likewise, if accompanied with self-denial, receives of God in good thoughts far more than it gives to His poor.  I do not mean to say that this is the true and full meaning of the hidden manna of which Christ speaks, for that may signify something too high and heavenly for us now to speak of; but it is of the same Divine nature, an earnest and pledge of that unspeakable Gift, shed abroad in the heart by the Spirit of God.


But this is not all.  For what does mortification signify, out deadening the motions of the flesh? and what gives rise to discontent, to ill-temper, and all unhappiness, but the unmortified desires of the flesh?  Envy, for instance; what a torment is it to its possessor! envious thoughts will constantly arise and cross his path, and on every occasion disquiet and distress him.  What then if during this season of Lent he should constantly bring such thoughts before the All-seeing eye of God in prayer and humiliation, considering that they are nothing but the vile leprosy of the devil, the awakening in his heart of the worm that dieth not, and how grievous in the sight of that God Whose Name is Love?  If such a sin were thus carefully mortified and cast out by the aid of God's good Spirit, will not that mind be more cheerful and at peace, which has unbosomed itself of such a serpent?  And is not there, even in this, a pledge to him of the truth of those words, that he that overcometh shall partake of that hidden manna?


So likewise with any other besetting sin.  Is it covetousness?  This is a hard matter, for it spreads so many roots into the heart.  But it is to be overcome by restitution of goods unjustly gotten, or of unfair advantages taken, and by giving to the poor.  And no doubt it is a fact which any one may know from experience, that an action of this kind does put a stop to worldly anxieties, disposes to resignation in God's providence, and brings about the path a ray of sunshine, as it were, from the other world.  Such things prove to everyone that Scripture must be true which holds out such promises to these duties.


In short, this Sunday speaks of the refreshments and consolations which God in every way vouchsafes to sincere repentance, reminding us of His gracious promise, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  It is as in the parable, where the bowels of the father are yearning for his son while he sees him returning from afar off, and is about to go forth to meet him.  And as in the Prophet, where God laments over the adulteries of Israel in falling away from Him, and adds,


“Behold I will hedge up thy way with thorns, and make a wall, that she shall not find her paths.” “I will give her the valley of Achor for a door of hope;” that is, the very place of bitter desolation and repentance, where Achan confessed his sin and was slain, shall open to her the way to better things.  “Behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak comfortably unto her.” [Hos. ii. 6. 15. 14]