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Perseverance Found in Humility.
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 XVIII. for the Sunday called Septuagesima.
 I Cor. ix 24.    St. Matt. xx. 1-16.

But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.--

ST.  MATT.  xix. 30.

THIS memorable saying of our Lord’s occurs both before and after the parable which forms the Gospel for to-day; and seems, therefore, to furnish us with a key to the purport of that parable.  It meets, also, with a singular illustration in the Epistle, which affords, us a short account of one who was last and least; yet, as it were, first and greatest of all.  For the parable, at the very time it was uttered, was about to meet with a strange and awful fulfilment among those Apostles themselves who heard it.  Judas Iscariot was among the first that were called, yet he became the last of all.  And there was another called to be an Apostle long after, the others, even as “one born after due time,” yet was “not behind the very chiefest of Apostles;” nay, “laboured more abundantly than they all.”  With what beautiful harmony then, with what appropriate instruction does the Epistle introduce the example of St. Paul.  We catch, therein, a glimpse of him in the midst of his heavenward race; as amidst that Apostolic company he was the last called into the vineyard, so he always studied to be the last of all and the servant of all, in condescension to the infirmities of others, in lowly submission to sufferings and reproaches, in the mean estimate of himself, and constant sense of his own unworthiness; but laboured to be the first of all in earnest zeal in the service of his Master, and unwearied burning love for the souls of men.


Know ye not, he says, that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize?  So run, that ye may obtain.  In those heathen games so much esteemed in Greece, with which these Corinthians were so familiar, they all ran who were in the lists, but one only, out of all, received the prize.  St. Paul does not mean to say that this is the case in the Christian race for eternity, that one only receives the prize out of so many; the best divines, as St. Augustin [In Ps. xxxix. 11.] and St. Chrysostom [In 1 Cor. ad. loc.],  caution us against understanding it thus: for it is, on the contrary, a crown which all may obtain; but what St. Paul here intends is, that as they witnessed, in those games, the great earnestness with which each one contended, as if to outstrip all others in the race; so must it be with us.  “Strive,” says our Lord, “to enter in at the strait gate.”  This His expression, “ strive,” means “ contend earnestly,” like those in the games; and St. Paul’s description is like an explanation of that our Lord’s saying, “Strive to enter in,” as taking the Kingdom by violence.  And the Apostle proceeds, still more closely: And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things.  The expression, “Striveth for the mastery,” being the very same word, translated “Strive;” which our Lord uses.  Whoever enters upon those contests, practises self-control or continence in all things; he keeps aloof from sensual indulgences; he eats and drinks exactly so much as is most conducive to the object he has in view; he engages not, or very sparingly, in the business or pursuits of life; he exercises himself, at all times, for the one end to which he is devoted.  In exhorting Timothy to “endure hardship,” St. Paul adduces the same example—“And if a man strive for the mastery, he is not crowned except “he strive lawfully.” [2 Tim. ii. 5]


Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; they undergo all this for a crown which was a mere chaplet of green laurel leaves; such was the prize of the victors in those games; but we an incorruptible, the crown which is an eternal weight of glory in the Heavens.  Set together, in the balance, these two prizes, and then consider what men do to gain an earthly object, the attainment of which is so uncertain, its value so imaginary, and which in itself is so fading and transient.


I therefore, says St. Paul, so run, not as uncertainly; not as one living without purpose and at random, but having always the true end of my course in view, the salvation of others, the glory of God, the one great object of life.  Or this expression, rendered, “not as uncertainly,” might signify, “not,” as one practising and training, “out of sight” and in secret, but as running in the sight of all; “a spectacle to angels and to men,” in the great race which is set before us.  So fight I, not as one that beateth the air; I contend as one in a true battle, not as a mere teacher of others, beating the air in a mock contest, but as one who has an enemy to bruise and struggle with, that is, my own body; or, as St. Chrysostom says, one who has Satan to contend with.  But I keep under my body and bring it into subjection.  The literal meaning here is, as a wrestler or a combatant in true warfare, I beat down my enemy with real blows and drag him captive, knowing full well that if I do not he will overcome and enslave me, and that the contest is for life and death.  Lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway; should be found wanting in the trial, and rejected.


Alas, my brethren, how different is it wont to be with us in these days! all interests, in what we witness around us, are supposed to be real and substantial but the things of God and eternity.


And now let us proceed to the parable which, under a figure altogether different, would impress on us the same, lesson of earnest diligence and perseverance....


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


...Let us now again return to the Epistle for to-day, and pause to consider the remarkable example of St. Paul, as there set forth, for our imitation and warranty.  Not his supernatural call, not his miraculous conversion, not his labours in preaching the Gospel to the whole world, not all his imprisonments, and trials, and suffering, even unto death, not his being taken up into Paradise and hearing unspeakable words, not the abundance of the revelations which were given him, could save St. Paul from working out his own salvation, with fear and trembling, unto the last; and, especially, could not relieve him from the necessity of mortifying the flesh.  Nor did he do this with the view of obtaining any great meritorious sanctity or perfection above others, but in order that he might not be a “castaway.”  It was this, his persevering humiliation unto the last, which kept him above others in grace and goodness; if he had presumed he would have fallen below them.


One of the greatest saints of old times,—one, perhaps, most like to St. Paul himself in his labours,—in speaking of this passage [St. Chrys. in 1 Cor., Hom. xxiii.], exclaims, “If even Paul thus feared, what shall we say?” and I think such a reflection must force itself on every thoughtful mind, in these days, in a manner so painful as almost to occasion a feeling of despair; for the best of men now alive, when he compares himself with St. Paul, must indeed feel as if he were one of those who had been “standing idle in the market-place all the day.”  What healing medicine, what antidote can be found against such a sense of despondency?  It will be found in this parable.  For what if it be the case that all our life has been hitherto wasted and lost, yet even now, although it be at the ninth or eleventh hour, there is a call into the vineyard from Him Who “will not break the bruised reed, nor quench the smoking flax;” and Who has Himself assured us, that there is more joy in Heaven over one sinner that repenteth, than over ninety and nine just persons who need no repentance.