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THE HUMBLING RETROSPECT
(for the close of the year)
‘O Lord, righteousness belongeth unto Thee, but unto us confusion of faces, as at this day.’
It is evidently only true and right that in religious things, as in worldly things, we should—at the end of the year—look matters fairly in the face, and take stock of our spiritual possessions, and see how we stand in our trafficking with the Eternal.
I. Every retrospect must be humbling.—And if any man can look back and not be humble, it can only be because his standard is very low, or his memory very defective.
When we come to look closely at things, I marvel if we do not find that our property in the year consists mainly in failure, shame, and sin; and we should be quite ready to echo Daniel’s words—‘To us belongeth confusion of face, as it is this day.’
In the period of 365 days, if only each day had been marked—as it might and ought to have been—with the smallest possible improvement, how great and clear the progress would be at the close of it!
During all these days, there has not been one which has not had its special mercy. God’s good hand has been everywhere; and His patience with us has been wonderful! And each one could tell of his own special mercy which he has received. And not a few of us would be ready, this day, to place highest in the scale of our mercies some sorrow—so sweet was the comforting, and so good its after-fruits!
How many religious impulses, how many deep convictions, have there been in the past year!
Let me ask you individually, What have you to show, this day, that you have done—this past year—for God? Where is the proof of your spiritual growth? Have you kept even your own intentions and the promises that you yourself made to yourself from time to time? Do you honestly say that you have mastered ‘the sin which doth so easily beset you’:—your temper, your pride, your bodily passions? Could your own room bear witness to more private personal religion? Could your Church testify to a greater love of worship and sacred ordinances? Could the Holy Table of our Communion tell of your growing love to Jesus? Is any one really better because you were ever born? And in your best things was the motive right? Has any one thing proceeded from you—thought, or word, or act,—which came from the pure love of God?
Is this our property in the year? Do I mean that you have done nothing good? God forbid! Far from it. I believe and am sure that you have done much that has been good, very good. Great kindness—much effort—many good works. But that was not ours! God did that. That will be put to His account. There are only two things in which we have property—our sins and our Saviour.
II. Now, let me speak to you about God’s ‘righteousness.’ That ‘righteousness’ is awful! Has He said a word? He will do it. Has He said, ‘The soul that sinneth it shall die’? It shall die! Are you a sinner? You must die. God cannot falsify a word. Only a perfect obedience can satisfy the righteousness of God. He must govern His empire with the strictest justice. No mercy can ever come in to interfere with that justice! That justice must commend itself at the last day to all creation. Every spot of sin must pay its penalty.
Is that all true? I say it is our greatest comfort; it is our only comfort. Our whole salvation rests upon it. ‘The righteousness of God!’
Were He not ‘righteous,’ we should all perish! See! He has made a wonderful compact. Christ represents the world. As your Substitute, Christ died. God accepted the Substitute, and showed His acceptance by His resurrection. Your death, then, your punishment, is over. You have died. You are punished in your Representative Head. Believe it, and it is true. Then a righteous God cannot punish you. Would it be righteous to punish twice? Nay more! He must see you in your Head. Therefore He must see you, poor, vile sinner, righteous. He must be pleased with you. He must love you. He must love you dearly. He must love you as He loves His own Son. He must have you with Him for ever and ever.
Oh! the wonder of wonders, that makes ‘the righteousness of God’ the sinner’s peace; that makes mercy justice, and condemnation a thing impossible!
This ‘righteousness’ belongs to God. He devised it; He made it; it is His property—because He is God. Believe it! make it yours! Christ took your sins, and made them His, and in those sins He died, and so your sins died. They are not yours. They are His. They are not alive, they are dead: they cannot live. There is no resurrection to a dead sin.
It is very pleasant to rest upon the mercy of God; but you will find it a far better thing, and a stronger foundation under you, to rest on His ‘righteousness.’ It is such a rock to lean on!
I do not ask my pardon at God’s hand as a boon. I claim it as a right. ‘God, forgive me— for Thou art righteous!’ This was St. Paul’s own confidence: ‘Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord the Righteous Judge’—because He is ‘righteous’—‘the Righteous Judge shall give me at that day.’ And this is the word of the song of the redeemed—with which they confess—with one heart and one voice—that they owe all their glory and their joy to one source—‘ Just and True are Thy ways, Thou King of Saints!’
III. From ‘the righteousness of God’ let me draw one very practical lesson for the close of the year.
As far as in you lies, be like God. Be you also ‘righteous.’ Close this year righteously.
If you have a debt—discharge it!
If you owe a duty, or an act of love to any one—pay it!
If you have robbed any one—restore it!
If you have said a false word about any one—unsay it!
If you have injured any one—undo it!
Let not the last sun of the year go down on anything that is unrighteous. Be able to say,—for God Himself has provided a way, by which a sinner, bankrupt, bankrupt in everything—can say it, ‘ I have paid all my debts to God and man. I have no account now unsettled for time or for eternity.’
Rev. Jas. Vaughan.
‘It is a sad catalogue when we come to make out the moral inventory of life. And I do not wonder we are so slow to do it. And when we attempt it, we like to see it all so falsely coloured, through the medium of our own fancy, and what fond relations and foolish friends talk of us! But we must do it; we must do it accurately; we must do it soon. For if not now, when on a dying bed, God help us! when He comes, it will be too late! There are two codes of law to which we all are subject. There is the moral code, the laws which affect society; and there is the spiritual code, the laws that have more immediate relation to God Himself.’
MERCIES AND FORGIVENESSES
‘Do the Lord our God belong mercies and forgivenesses, though we have rebelled against Him.’
And what is God? A Being Whose essence is love. Pity makes His bosom a home. Gentleness dwells with Him. ‘Judgment is His strange work.’ ‘He waits to be gracious.’ He is a ‘Father’ still; and ‘though we have rebelled against Him,’ to ‘Him belongeth mercies and forgivenesses,’ and they cannot be alienated in that heart from any creature He has ever made!
I. It is a true and beautiful order—‘ mercies and forgivenesses.’— Mercy is the fountain— forgiveness is the stream. The fountain is perennial, and the stream flows on for ever.
‘Mercy’ is—so the word means,—‘Mercy’ is a heart for misery; and the greater the misery, the larger is ‘mercy’s’ scope. And sinners—only sinners—can claim it. For the promises are all to sinners, and the extent of the sin is the argument for the greatness of the pardon—just as the virulence of a disease is the plea for the strength of the antidote. ‘Pardon mine iniquity, for it is great.’
‘And forgiveness.’ It is a free thing. If it could be bought, if it could be deserved, it would cease to be forgiveness. It is the spontaneous action of a self-creating affection. It is mercy’s firstborn!
And see how richly and lavishly God places both in their plurality. ‘To the Lord our God belong mercies and forgivenesses.’
The ‘sins’ are multitudes—the ‘mercies and forgivenesses’ are multitudes. But the last are greater than the former. For the ‘sins’ are legion, but they are finite, because they are man’s sins; ‘the mercies and forgivenesses’ are not finite, they are infinite—for they are God’s ‘mercies and forgivenesses.’
Is not it exactly what we need— unlimited mercies in unnumbered pardons?
II. There can be only one objection to this— Is it just?—It is just. The same mind which planned the mercy has provided for its justice. ‘ He found the ransom.’ And the Substitute paid the penalty, and the punishment is over. So that God does but remit a cancelled debt: ‘Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.’ And so the wise man’s word is true, even to the Great Ruler of the universe: ‘Mercy and truth preserve the King; and His throne is upholden by mercy.’
The means, then, are the simplest, and they are to our hand; and the result is sure. Only believe. Then look up. Then look up, with lowly confidence, and with a faith which smiles through its tears, on those wounds, and on Him Who hangs there. And then look back for your burden; you won’t find it; it is gone!
Rev. Jas. Vaughan.
‘To no other, but to God only, “belongeth mercy.’ If any man has “mercy,” in any degree, it came from God. And His is so infinitely great, above all other, and so incomparable, that all other is not to be named. God’s “mercy” stands out alone. “ To Him belongeth mercy.” ’
THE ELECTRIC TELEGRAPH OF PRAYER
‘At the beginning of the supplications the commandment came forth, and I am come to shew thee.’
What would that ancient, who first caught a faint glimpse of electrical power when he rubbed the amber (ελεκτρον , electrum) on the seashore, and saw the light straws put into motion round it,—what would he think if he were told that cities, two hundred miles apart, could convey messages and receive answers by means of this mysterious power with such rapidity that the three hundred and sixtieth part of a second of time is the only perceptible interval between the sending of the message and its arrival at its destination? So that, if only the wires could be laid, the antipodes would speak with each other in this way as rapidly as by words.
I. There is an electricity more rapid still than this—an electric telegraph between far-distant worlds, which has been long at work, though ‘not many wise’ have known of its existence; or, if they have heard of it, have smiled in supercilious unbelief.
II. Daniel knew how to use it, when, having ‘understood by books the number of the years whereof the Word of the Lord came to Jeremiah the prophet, that He would accomplish seventy years in the desolation of Jerusalem, he set his face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.’ The petitions of that holy and humble man of God sped with speed above that of the vollied lightning—above that of the rapid sunbeam through this lower heaven around our earth, through the second heaven, blazing with those countless stars which require sixty millions of years to revolve round the central sun, to the third heaven,—to the very throne of God.
III. As he began his prayer on earth, a summons from the Almighty Word came forth—the waiting angel received ‘the commandment,’ and before the short prayer was ended, Gabriel stood by his dear ‘fellow-servant,’ to show him the things that should be hereafter. Blessed Christian! who hast such a means of communication with that glorious world, and that gracious King, always near and with thy reach! Christian mother! your child, the son of your prayers and your tears, of whom your heart has been so full as you have been lying awake in the silent night, rejoice— you cannot speak to your child,— you cannot warn him of the snares ‘of a world that lieth in wickedness,’— you cannot unseal his inward ear, even if he could hear your voice. But you can in a second, yea, in less time than thought could clothe itself in words, you can speak to Him, Who, if He speaks, will speak not to the ear, but to the heart and conscience and affections of your child and hold him back from evil—and keep him in temptation, when all the words even of a mother, and all the chains that man could forge to bind him, would be as tow before the fire, or green withes on Sampson’s arms.
—Rev. Canon Champneys.
THE MESSIAH CUT OFF
‘Seventy weeks are determined upon thy people and upon thy holy city, to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the Most Holy.’
The leaders of the new school of criticism agree that this is a prophecy fulfilled only in Christ.
I. Let us look at this marvellous prophecy.—The words are vague enough to be indefinite, and yet they are so marvellously definite too, that we can apply them only to that one death—the only death in history which fulfils them. The cutting off of this Prince is the central point of the prophecy. Notice what this cutting off is to bring. It is ‘to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness.’ Is there any death in all history, but one, of which you can say all that? Try these words on Socrates, on Confucius, on Zoroaster. It is a difficult thing to fit the event to the prophecy, but the marvellous terms of this prophecy do it. Mark this, that there was not a single human being who could understand these words: not even Peter, James, and John could see how that death of their Master should bring in everlasting righteousness. We think that if they had not been slow of heart, these disciples might have understood it better. But at the critical moment they all forsook Him and fled, and on the day of His glorious resurrection they were saying, ‘We trusted that it had been He Which should have redeemed Israel.’ Even the women, who were last at His cross and first at His sepulchre, were inspired by love rather than by faith. Did not the fact of their bringing spices for His embalming show that their faith in Him was gone? From their present point of view the prophecy was reversed. Sin had made an end of Him, transgression had finished Him. His crucifixion seemed the final triumph of iniquity. Does it relieve this gloom at all to speak of His perfect holiness and purity? Nay, rather, so much the blacker is the crime, so much the more hideous the triumph of iniquity. ‘Anointing the Most Holy!’ The coronation of hellish hate and iniquity rather! No wonder that Unitarians make so little of the death of Christ on the Cross. They only see sin making an end of a good man, and what sort of gospel is that? But wait till the resurrection, and you see the seeming Victim become the Victor. The death on Calvary was not the end—it was only the dark passage to light and life. From the darkness He issues forth in triumph, with the banner of salvation in His hand. We understand all the prophecy of the text now—all stands luminous in the light of the risen Sun of Righteousness. Reading the story of the Cross in this light it is no longer the darkest event in all the world’s history, but it fills us with the hope of the ultimate triumph of righteousness.
His loving voice comes to each of us, ‘Thou canst love Me, Who hast died for thee.’
II. It seemed that God had deserted the innocent Sufferer.—‘In all our afflictions He was afflicted.’ That is true, but there is something more. ‘He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities.’ Jesus not only suffers with, but suffers for us. It meant that He finished our transgressions and made an end of our sins. But do you point me to the history of the world to-day, nineteen centuries since that crucifixion? Does that look like making an end of sin? Is this prophecy half fulfilled? In one sense it is; in another sense not quite yet; and in a third sense, scarcely at all.
(1) Jesus, Son of God, was also the Son of Man, the representative of humanity, and He bears the transgression of humanity, and dies the death of humanity. In His person, as our representative, He has made an end of sin. This is an important fulfilment of the prophecy, and we can point to the Lamb of God Who taketh away the sin of the world.
But it takes two to make a bargain! The representative must be accepted by humanity. His constituents, let us call them, as soon as they are united to Him by loyalty of heart, have their sins blotted out. There is no condemnation to them who are in Christ Jesus. But there must be a bond between, so that His grace may flow into you. Your heart must be open to His, as His is all the time to you.
(2) Is there not still sin in us? Yes, the prophecy of making an end of sin is only in part fulfilled; but a time is coming, and for some of us coming soon, when we shall be entirely free. We are perfect in our purpose, though not in our life. All true Christians make an end of sin in purpose—they are eager to have every sin destroyed. Though conscious of great weakness, yet the purpose is pure. If you are not willing to be made free from every sin, you are still in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity, and on the road to death. What a terrible thing to choose sin and let Him go! Rather let us welcome this great salvation to our hearts and lives.
(3) The final fulfilment will be in the time coming. The advance seems slow to the bringing in of everlasting righteousness, but this is God’s method. If we stagger not at the æons which elapsed before the evolution of things terrestrial, whystagger at the millions of years in the evolution of things spiritual? ‘One day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.’ ‘But the day of the Lord will come.’ Then shall the great words of this prophecy be completely fulfilled.
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Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Daniel 9". Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the First Week of Advent