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Sermon XXV:  The Advent Collects II.
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
PS. cxix. 105.
“Thy word is a lantern unto my feet, and a light unto my paths.”

As the first collect in Advent prays generally, that we may walk as in the light, casting away from us the works of darkness, and so may be found ready when our Lord comes to judge the world; so the second collect prays in particular, that we may make a good use of Holy Scripture for that purpose. For the Scriptures of God, and His ministers, are the two great helps, which God has given us in His Church, whereby to know His blessed will. And we remembered the Scriptures last Sunday in our collect, as we shall the ministry, next Sunday. For this has been our petition now for nearly a week; that He Who has given us the Bible would help us so to use it, as that we may live and die in good hope of going to Heaven through Jesus Christ. 

This prayer cannot be well said without due consideration, what Holy Scripture is. The Bible is now become a very cheap and common book; and the most part of us are apt to take it in hand too lightly. But here we are put in mind what it is: it is that which God Himself has caused to be written. This is a great, and an aweful thought. We are told concerning people in the :East, whether Christians or unbelievers, that, on their receiving a letter from their sovereign lord, they reverently kiss the seal, and hold the letter to their forehead, in token of deep veneration and respect. So, and much more, ought we to mind well what we are about in our dealings with the message of the great God of heaven and earth. His message, His word, is Scripture. Every one of our Bibles, however we use it, is as truly and really His especial gift to us, as if, like the two Tables given by Moses, it were graven on stone by the very finger of God, and reached out unto us from the cloud on the top of Sinai. Did you ever really consider this? Did you ever look at your own Bible with this thought? 

Observe the deep and earnest way in which Moses, in the Book of Exodus, speaks of those two Tables of the law. "The tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables.” (Ex. xxxii. 16.) Just the same may we say of every Bible, however ill-used or neglected: it is the work of God, and its contents are the writing of God. You know how you would hold your breath and hearken, if your Lord were to speak from heaven: well, you have His very words in that Book: it is the same, as if He really did speak to you from heaven. In our too familiar use of our Bibles, we are sadly apt to forget this. We take them as matters of course, as being what every body has. Yet three quarters of mankind never saw or heard of a Bible; and for you and me to have the use of one is indeed a mark of God’s distinguishing favour. If we neglect or abuse it, woe unto us! 

The Bible is God’s word written; just as what our Lord spake on earth was God’s word spoken. And why was it written? The collect tells us; “for our learning.” Not surely for a lesson-book, that we might spell and read, and know ‘certain portions of it, and be able to answer questions. Another book far less precious might have done as well for that. And for what sort of learning God’s Holy Scriptures were intended, the collect goes on to explain. It prays that we may first “hear and read” the Scriptures, next that we may “mark them,” thirdly that we may “learn,” and fourthly that we “may inwardly digest them,” not any how, but so as to make sure of “the blessed hope of everlasting life.” Let us turn our thoughts for a little while to each of these four petitions. 

This collect supposes first, that we all hear or read the Holy Scriptures. Most of us, I hope and believe, are by this time able to read them, although I am aware some are not. Some have never had much chance of learning; some, who might have learned long ago, would not take the trouble of doing so; and some out of idle and careless ways, to which they have given themselves up since, have lost what skill in reading they once had. To such as these I would say particularly, that, since they are without one great help towards the knowledge of God’s will, they are the more bound to be very particular in their use of the other help; especially if their disadvantage is at all through their own fault. Since they cannot read, they are the more bound to hear. How may they hear? Perhaps they have some kind friend or kinsman, who is willing sometimes to read to them at home. Perhaps some child of their’s has gone to school, and has gotten him more learning than his parents, and they may, if they will, hear some parts of God’s Book, daily out of the mouth of that little one, before some meal, it may be, or after they have come home from their work. At any rate, there is one place open to them, where, as they very well know, they are sure to hear God’s word, if they will but seek it. Every morning arid evening, you know, certain portions of that Holy word are read in order at Church; and on Sundays more than usual, besides the sermons, in which God’s messengers explain to them, now one text, now another. The doors are not shut against them: they may, if they will, come in and hear God’s word regularly. Do you think it is any excuse for them now, or will be so at the last day, for them to say they are no scholars; they could not read in God’s Book? Nay; the Judge will surely say to them, “If you could not read, you could hear; the Church was at such a distance and you might have attended. You knew not your Master’s will, for want of trying to hear it, and so you did things contrary to it.” I fear such ignorance as this will be no excuse: you must still expect “to be beaten with many stripes.” I go on to the next case; that of those who can not only hear but read. I am afraid that, even now, too many of them go on in such a way that their Bibles, which they leave in dust on their shelves, are even now, in God’s hearing, bearing silent witness against them. They think not at all of it, as they go in and out day after day, and see their Bible, Testament, or Prayer Book, with their other books, in a corner of the room. They take no notice of them, one way or another; and when they do find a little time, to read, instead of their Bibles, they take up some newspaper or anything else which comes in their way, full of nothing but worldly things. They take no notice of their Bibles and good books. But are those books altogether unnoticed? Not so. There are Angels in the room both good and bad, who observe watchfully what Christians do with such treasures. Your good Angel rejoices, when he sees you take your Bible with a devout heart; your enemy rejoices too after his fashion, when he sees you pass it over, and always, or almost always, turn rather to some book of worldly amusement. I hope you will sometimes think of this, especially at holy penitential times, such as this of Advent, or in Lent; when we ought all to be preparing ourselves for Christmas or Easter. 

Some again, to whom God has given both Bibles and the power of reading them, go near unhappily to throw away the blessing, in that they make it an excuse for not serving God diligently in His Church. They say, “I read what is good at home; what more could I get at Church?” Why; the Book which they profess to honour tells them. By going to Church the Bible promises them they will meet Jesus Christ our Lord, Who has promised to be there, with those who are gathered together. For, being there, they are gathered together in His Name; but He has not promised to put His Name wherever people read their Bibles at home. His Name will not be with them, if they go on undutifully: and surely they do go on undutifully, if when He plainly told them not to “forsake the assembling of themselves together,” they nevertheless neglect their Church. 

Thus we see, that God would have us, according to the collect, diligently hear the Holy Scriptures, all of us; and as many as can, read them also. Next, we pray that we may likewise mark them, that is, attend to what we read and hear. Too well do most of us know, how much reason there is for such a prayer. As it is hard in childhood to fix one’s mind steadily on any thing, so as we grow older, the Evil one is always busy, contriving to make it particularly hard for us to mind what we say when we are praying, or what we read or hear in good books. As it is in our Lord’s parable, “the wicked one cometh, and catcheth away that which is sown in our hearts, lest we should believe and be saved.” Therefore we have great need to pray, that we may not only hear and read, but “mark.” Else the least harm that can happen to us will be, that we shall continue, all our lives long, children in spiritual understanding, never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. But it is more likely, that if we allow ourselves to be inattentive in Church or in our reading of the Bible, we shall soon grow careless of our duty to God altogether. 

But there is something yet, more than marking. We pray that we may “learn.” What is learning? and how is it more than marking? Our school lessons may teach us the difference. Suppose, I tell a boy an interesting story; such an one, for example, as that of Joseph and his brethren; he is sure almost to attend to it, whilst one is speaking or reading it, that is, he is sure to “mark” it. But, unless he is a thoughtful and rather an industrious boy, he is not by any means so sure to “learn” it. He will not get it rightly into his own mind, so as to think of it properly, and be able to repeat it exactly to another person. So it is plain that, in order to learn one’s duty from the Scriptures, one must not only attend to what they say, but treasure it also, and lay it up in our hearts, to be ready for use when the time comes. Having “heard the word,” we must “ keep it.” It must not be let go, as it too easily will be, among the manifold distractions of the world and the flesh, unless we strive and pray to remember and recollect it. 

Yet once again, this good word of God, thus read or heard, marked and learned, must also be “inwardly digested.” Now you know what is meant, when physicians talk of the food which a man eats, being digested. They mean that it agrees with him, nourishes him, is changed, as it ought to be, into the substance of his body. So the word and command-ments of God, made known in Holy Scripture, are inwardly digested, when a man so receives them, as that they shall enter into his temper and character, become, as it were, part of himself. How may that be? There is but one way. We must actually do as God bids us. Even as bodily exercise is needed for bodily digestion, so the practising of the commandments is needed, in order to the Gospel’s being inwardly and spiritually digested. A man may hear, e.g. the eighth commandment, “Thou shalt not steal,” when he comes to Church; he may read it at home in his Bible; he may observe it at the time, and learn it by heart, so as to be able, when asked, both to say and to explain it. But I do not yet know, whether he has inwardly digested it. He must be honest in thought, word and deed, so will the command, as it were, grow into him, and become part of his nature. And it is just the same with all other commandments. Earnest endeavour to keep them, with prayer to God, and diligent use of the sacraments, will make them., in the end, part of a man’s self: so that, as an Angel would not break them, neither will he. This is perfection. It belongs to a better world. But no one can say, how near we may come to it, even in this world, by the right use of the Scriptures, in the several ways which I have now explained to you from the collect. By simply attending to what the Bible teaches, laying it up and practising it, “we may embrace, and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ:” not the false hope of the bad and careless Christian, which he makes out of his own fancies and the whisperings of the Evil one; but the true, the blessed, the unfailing hope; the hope which nothing but true penitence, earnest faith, and dutiful obedience can give. Lord! evermore give us this hope; that our Bibles may be a blessing to us indeed, and not our accusers in the Day of Judgement. If this be really our mind, if we are keeping the commandments, and that with patience, no fear but we shall have comfort enough. The good Saviour, Who means to bring us to heaven and to Himself at last., He will take care that we shall not faint by the way.