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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.]

Second 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.
(for the first part, on the Epistle.
...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.

 On last Sunday the Collect spoke of the Messenger sent before to prepare the way of Christ; and in consequence the Gospel for that day was of Christ bearing testimony to St. John the Baptist, His Messenger; but this Gospel for to-day is of the Baptist bearing testimony to Christ Himself; and with very peculiar fitness for this Sunday, for he was bearing witness to Christ and to His Godhead, just before He Himself appeared, even as it is with us on this day just before we acknowledge His appearing on Christmas Day.  While He was among them, but unknown, not yet manifested; even so is it now: He is among us, but unseen; we wait for His Great Advent.

But there are many points which render this, the appointed Gospel, peculiarly suited to this season, and especially to this day. It is taken from the opening of St. John’s Gospel, in which he is setting forth the Godhead of Christ; and in so doing he adduces this testimony of the Baptist. Because it was to John the Baptist our Lord Himself appealed as the great proof of His authority. “Ye sent unto John,” He said, “and he bare witness unto the truth.” (St. John v. 33.) And when the Jews questioned His mission from God, and His authority, He put this before them, “John the Baptist and his baptism, whence was it? from Heaven, or of men?” (St. Matt. xxi. 25) It was not, He said, that He needed “testimony of men,” for His works proved Him to be of God; but it was because this was the Divine appointment, that John the Baptist should be sent before Him as the messenger and the witness; and therefore it is that the Evangelist, in declaring the Divinity of Christ, thus introduces St. John the Baptist: This is the record, he says, of John, when the Jews sent Priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who art thou?  It was so ordained of God that the testimony should thus be brought :before the sacred nation, that they might be without excuse. “Priests and Levites” in a formal deputation “from Jerusalem.”  It was the Law itself putting the question “Who art thou?”  Art thou the Christ Whom we expect?  But if not, art thou then Elijah, whom the last Prophet Malachi said should come before Him? or if not, art thou that Prophet whom God said to Moses He would raise up from among their brethren, so that being God, yet He should, speak to them as Man?  John the Baptist said in answer, that he was spoken of by Isaiah, the great Prophet of Christ’s kingdom, as the voice of one crying in the wilderness, preparing the way.  He came not to work miracles, as Christ did, and as the other Prophets, but was only a voice.  He was even as the voice of His Church unto the end of the world crying in the wilderness, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, and make His paths straight.”  Here, therefore, in the Gospel for to-day we have the Prophet Isaiah— the great Prophet of Christ’s coming— we have the voice of the messenger John the Baptist, and we have St. John the Evangelist bringing forward these two as his witnesses; what could be more suitable to announce Christmas Day?

When St. John the Baptist had made this announcement to the Jewish Priesthood, they again further inquired of him if he were not the Christ, what was the meaning of his Baptism.  He then explained to them that this was not that Great Baptism which was to be, but nothing more than a baptism of water, signifying the need of washing by confession of sin and repentance, but He that should baptize with the Holy Ghost was already standing among them although they knew it not: He who although coming after him was before him; He whose shoe’s latchet he was not worthy to unloose.  He indeed shall baptize openly with water, but at the same time with the Holy Ghost and with fire.  This declaration in the Gospel for to-day seems to prepare the way for the festival of the Nativity, which, together with Christ’s Birth, celebrates also our own new Birth in Christ by baptism.

These things were done in Bethabara, beyond Jordan, where John. was baptizing; on the banks of that sacred stream where our Lord was Himself baptized, where the heavens were opened, the Dove descended, and the new Birth came in.

Now these considerations on the Epistle and the Gospel will obtain much additional light when we bring out in connexion with them the ancient Collect also for the Day: "O Lord, raise up (we pray Thee) Thy power and come among us, and with great might succour us.” The Collect for last week spoke of the messengers and stewards of Christ’s mysteries; and that for the preceding week of the Holy Scriptures as preparing the way; but the Collect on this day of Christ Himself coming among us with great power to succour us, as sore let and hindered by our sins. In like manner the Epistle and Gospel are entirely of Christ Himself, shedding abroad His peace in the heart, and coming among us, though we see Him not, even as He stood unknown among the Jews of old, “the Lamb that taketh away the sin of the world;" when the friend of the Bridegroom stood, and heard, and rejoiced greatly because of the Bridegroom’s voice. (St. John iii. 29.) And shall not the Bride herself rejoice at hearing of the same?

I will add a few words in conclusion on the subject of the text.  Christian joy in the New Testament will be found to be of this peculiar character; that it is more particularly attached to one kind of suffering, as the last of the Beatitudes explains it, i. e. on being persecuted for righteousness’ sake. It is to this it is added, “Rejoice and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in heaven.” (St. Matt. v. 12.)  And as this being “persecuted for righteousness’ sake” was set forth beyond all in our blessed Lord Himself; so was it after their degree in those who in any way approached Him. Thus was it with the first Christians; they drank of His Cup, and were baptized with His baptism of suffering, and therefore we find to them was held out with regard to these this great crown of rejoicing. It was so especially with these Philippians, whom St. Paul calls upon throughout this Epistle to rejoice in these sufferings.

The reason of this may be that these trials are of all the most severe. The . enmity of the world against real goodness, is, humanly speaking, beyond what we can account for, yet so unavoidable, that even a Heathen Philosopher declared, that if a perfectly good man was to appear in the world, he would be put to a cruel death. It never appears in its own shape; it puts on disguises; it watches opportunities; it will feign to be goodness itself,— all of which we see set forth in the Gospels so forcibly in the history of Christ; where they watched for His halting; waited on His words and actions; and that enmity never let go its hold. This its malignity under specious appearances renders it hard to bear.

Now we are not worthy of this, and probably are not much subject to it; but so far as any person aims at consistent holiness of life, he must be in some measure. “All,” says St. Paul, “who would live godly in Christ Jesus, must suffer persecution.” Although we may not thus suffer ourselves, there may be some one loved and revered by us who does thus suffer. It may be one to whom we feel that we owe even our own soul. A good man must have many such hearts knit to him, because they feel that through God they owe everything to him. To find such an one an object of suspicion and dislike is a severe trial of patience, and at such a time the evangelical call to rejoicing sounds strange to us. Yet even here, if we are knit together with the good in their sufferings, and take them as they do, we may partake also of their joy in God. This shines forth so beautifully in St. Paul’s letters; he called upon others to sympathize with him in his bonds, to be joined with him in his afflictions as he was in theirs, in order that they might both rejoice and be comforted together. Blessed indeed, most blessed union, to be united with the good in their sorrows! bright heavenly light in the darkness of those their troubles in the early Church! greatest joy of all joy on earth when those saints of old were knit together with one another, and with their own suffering Lord, in fellowship of common sorrows!  No joy, no love on earth was equal to that which was so inflamed and heightened by the flames of persecution and the hatred of the world; joy and love that overflowed from Christ’s own Cup. His own sweat of suffering was on that Cup which they drank with Him, and fresh upon it was their Master’s blood ; His last, His best Beatitude.

Nor are these things afar off, and to be read of as some ancient history that concerns us not. Is there no danger of our taking part against some good man unknowingly, when Satan stirs up the world against him because he bears the mark of Christ? When the Pharisees watched our Lord, thirsting for His blood, they knew not why, and spoke against Him with soft tongues, bringing forward plausible charges, misinterpreting His words and actions, and expressing the greatest zeal for righteousness and the Law, were there no good people carried away, do you think, by their dissimulation? Were there not many from want of a true heart, or lukewarmness, or cowardice, borne along to join the great crowd of persecutors against One Who was hated and despised of the world? Were not the whole multitude, which but a few days before received Him with Hosannas, led away by the Chief Priests to cry out, Crucify Him? Among those who then swelled the party of the Chief Priests, there were doubtless many who little thought of what they were doing till it was too late.

When our blessed Lord was crucified it was on the occasion of a great Festival. The city was full of rejoicing. Let our joy at this season be far different from theirs; let it be such as may have fellowship with St. Stephen and the Holy Innocents.