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The Spirit Bearing Witness.

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 IV for the Fourth Sunday in Advent.
 Phil. iv. 4-7.    St. John i. 18-29.
Rejoice in the LORD alway: and again I say, Rejoice.—PHIL. iv. 4.

CHRISTMAS is the season of rejoicing. The Church therefore on this Sunday takes up this her solemn note from St. Paul’s affectionate Epistle to his beloved Philippians: Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice.  The Christian’s joy is not of the world, but spiritual and heavenly; and the whole passage proceeds to furnish us with a short and beautiful description of the nature of this joy: “Rejoice,” not in the things of the world which come to naught, but rejoice in the Lord.  And again, this joy differs from any other in its steadfast and enduring nature: “Rejoice in the Lord alway.”  This too is a lesson very seasonable; for Christmas is a time for all to rejoice, under all circumstances of life; but it finds many under outward afflictions of various kinds which might seem to render it no season of rejoicing for them : loss of friends or relations, or sickness, or poverty and worldly reverses, or depression of mind and sorrow for sin, or public calamities and the distresses of the Church. But the darker the night, the more brightly shines the star of Bethlehem. “Rejoice in the Lord alway;" this includes every season of affliction. But the Christian’s joy is peculiarly joy in tribulation: “When I sit in darkness,” says the Prophet Micah, “the Lord shall be a light unto me.” (Micah vii. 8.) And another Prophet: “Although the fig-tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will joy in the God of my salvation.” (Hab. iii. 17, 18.) And we know how much this was the case with the early Christians, when they “sold their possessions, and parting them to all, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart.” (Acts ii. 45, 46.) And when beaten they rejoiced that they were “counted worthy to suffer shame for His Name’s sake.” (Acts v. 41.) “As sorrowful, yet alway rejoicing.” (2 Cor. vi. 10.)

To this is added, Let your moderation be known unto all men.  The rejoicing in spirit, the joy in the Holy Ghost, is in the secret heart a joy which the stranger “intermeddleth not with;" but that without, which is known unto all men, is this moderation ; this is the outer garment seen of men. The Christian will not be earnestly bent on any earthly design or object, but in his dealings with mankind he will be under a sense of the little value of anything in this world; and therefore will show a quiet moderation and evenness of spirit; in possessing as one who possesses not; in suffering as one who suffers not; in doing all things as if he were doing nothing; and all this from having his confidence in God only. If he meets with losses he is not troubled; if visited with prosperity he is not puffed up; if he meets with ill-treatment he is not angry; if despised he is not cast down. And St. Paul here adds the grounds of this “moderation,” viz, his feeling that the time is short: The Lord is at hand. This awakening Advent sound ever and anon occurs throughout the New Testament, as if it were intended to form the one ever-abiding impression on the mind of a Christian. Thus St: James says, “Be ye also patient, stablish your hearts; for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh.”  “Grudge not one against another, the Judge standeth before the door.” And St. Peter, “But the end of all things is at hand; be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer:” This the Christian’s “moderation” of mind, which is “known to all” from his indifference to the things of the world, is connected with a deep sense ever in his mind that “the Lord is at hand.” How it is that the coming of his Lord is so near he knows not, but he receives it in faith, in a full assurance that as Christ has taken such pains to impress upon Christians the suddenness and stillness, the speediness of His coming, that somehow hereafter, when all is accomplished, it will be found to have been so. This heavenly-minded moderation with regard to the things of sight, from a feeling of their fleeting and perishable nature, is not unlike what St. Paul expresses in another place: “But this I say, brethren, the time is short; it remaineth, that both they that have wives be as though they had none; and they that weep as though they wept not; and they that rejoice, as though they rejoiced not; and they that buy, as though they possessed not; for the fashion of this world passeth away.” Thus among the storms of the world the Christian has his soul stayed upon God, and therefore is at peace.

To this the Epistle adds in fuller explanation, Be careful for nothing. “Be careful :“ it is the same word which our Lord uses when He says, “Take no thought,” i. e. be not careful, “for the morrow,” “what shall we eat, or what shall we drink, or wherewithal shall we be clothed.” And here St. Paul’s command includes everything: “Be careful for nothing.” There is no subject therefore whatever of any kind on which we are to be anxious; and indeed such anxiety is sinful, for it implies a want of faith. What then are we to do in the many troubles which beset our path each day of our lives? In addition to those greater afflictions and misfortunes which from time to time seem to bring a cloud over our existence, and sometimes of long continuance, there are also lesser cares daily occurring to all, and which with some eat out the very heart, and leave no power or inclination for anything better. The occurrence of these troubles cannot be helped; in what therefore is the remedy? St. Paul here tells us, “Be careful for nothing, but in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God.”  Now trouble does not spring from the ground; there is some object and good purpose for the troubles which are planted so thick like thorns around our dwelling-places on earth.  The reason is this: that such may be made subjects and occasions of prayer to God: God would have us at all times looking to Him; our faces always turned, not like the beasts to the ground, but towards Heaven.  And if any one wishes to know on any occasion why this or that little matter of trouble occurs to him,—some difficulty perhaps, some regret, some ill treatment, some loss or reproach, or bodily pain,—of this he may be assured, that it comes to him from God, in order to induce him to pray.  If we had nothing to trouble us, we should have nothing to desire; and if we had nothing to desire, we should have nothing to pray for.  It is prayer which hallows all the lesser concerns and accidents of life.  Many cares are actually sinful in their very nature, such as those which arise from envy or covetousness; now these by prayer are destroyed. Some are not in their nature sinful, but may by prayer be rendered means of grace and steps to Heaven.  Even so great a saint as St. Paul himself had a distressing thorn; and the consequence of this thorn was, that he prayed earnestly and often with respect to it; and thus he found it became to him such an abundant occasion of grace, that he no longer wished for it to be removed, but, On the contrary, rejoiced in it; for “when I am weak,” he said, “then am I strong.” “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities.”  To pray for the greatest and best of all things— for eternal life, for acceptance of God, and forgiveness of sins—is of course what we ought to do according to the true value and importance of such things; but what we need is, to be continually and at all times urged to prayer; and this is the object and use of all the lesser inconveniences and thorns of life.

And here we may observe in this instance of St. Paul, that his prayer with regard to that thorn which troubled him became soon mingled with thanksgiving. This is another point which he mentions in this passage we are considering. “By prayer,” he says, “and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God.”  Now it is certain that the prayer of faith is always heard and answered of God; and he that prays in faith comes sooner or later to feel assured of this, and to know that his prayer is answered: it may be not in the way which he first desired and thought of; yet doubtless in the best of all ways.  And therefore thanksgiving with his prayers— thanksgiving for the past as well as requests for future mercies—are but the expression of this faith. Thanksgiving for past blessings is the best pledge and plea we can offer for future hopes.  Thanksgiving opens and disposes the heart to God; and by acknowledging Him as the Author of all the good we have received, induces us to look to Him the more in prayer.  And thus it is that in the Psalms prayers and thanksgivings are so blended together: the most earnest prayer is often lost in the end. in thanksgiving.  This of itself shows the effect of prayer, how it disposes us to lose ourselves in the sense of God’s goodness.

St. Paul then proceeds to mention what will be the blessed result of thus living in prayer. And the peace of God, he says, which passeth tall understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds. Peace passing the comprehension of man; that great gift “which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.” (Rev. ii. 17.) Thus St. Paul to the Corinthians, speaking of “the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him,” (1 Cor. ii. 9.) such as “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man ;“ yet he says, “God hath revealed them to us by His Spirit.” It is that unspeakable gift which Christ describes as peculiarly His own, unlike anything of the world. “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give unto you. Not as the world giveth give I unto you.” It is that which the Spirit of God brings, and is spoken of as the hidden manna. This peace, St. Paul here says, “shall keep your hearts and minds,” that is, your affections and your thoughts; it shall “keep” them. The word “keep” is much more strong and expressive in the Greek than it sounds in our English version; it means, shall watch over and guard, like a garrison at watch in the country of an enemy. What is it which thus keeps guard in a good man, not only over his words and actions, but also over his heart and thoughts, so that he is not taken by surprise, and allows no opening to the enemy—it is Peace. Nothing expresses more forcibly the abiding character at all times of a good Christian than this; the peace of God in his heart keeps watch. If he has not the loves and desires of men of the world, it is because all such would discompose, are not in harmony and unison with, the vision of peace which is within him. He throws them off; they touch him not because his heart is guarded and garrisoned by this peace within. For this reason, when St. Paul comes to describe the love of God in the soul in his account of charity, he speaks of nothing else but of these things in the heart and thoughts over which such love keeps watch, as that it envies not, seeks not its own, behaves not unseemly, and the like, because the love, of God, which is the peace incomprehensible, is shed abroad in the heart. And all this is the fruit of the Christian faith, through Christ Who hath made our peace with God, and is the Prince of Peace; it is abiding in Him; and therefore St. Paul says, “This peace shall keep your hearts and minds through Jesus Christ;” or, more literally, “in Jesus Christ;” it is making Him the sanctuary of our thoughts, our refuge, our stronghold.  It is the life hid with Christ in God.

Now I think we cannot fail to see how very suitable this short passage of the Epistle is for this last Sunday in Advent; but perhaps we may not at first perceive why the appointed Gospel is selected by our Church for this season—the account of the Jews sending to John the Baptist to inquire of him whether he were the Christ....

(for the second part, on the Gospel and Collect)