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The Dangers of Fasting (Ash Wednesday)
There are two classes of people to whom Lent brings no blessing those who do not keep it at all, and those who, while they observe it with outward formalities and even with strictness, yet do not keep it in the spirit of true penitence.
I. What a strange picture is here drawn! a nation seemingly most religious, not only fulfilling the ordinances of religion, but delighting in them, and yet absolutely without spiritual life. This character is described in other pails of Isaiah, notably in the first chapter, and is the character which is most difficult to change.
What is the character which Isaiah is describing? We must carefully bear in mind that it is not the conscious hypocrite, but the self-righteous, the self-deceived man who is here brought before us. It is not the man who is wealing the garb of religion in order to deceive his fellow-men, but who all the time knows himself to be a hypocrite. On the contrary, this man is conscious only of virtue, he delights in approaching God, religion is the interest of his life. He is the prototype of the Pharisee in the temple. The Pharisees of our Lord's day, like those Jews in the time of Isaiah, to whom this rebuke is addressed, looked upon the externals of religion as its important part, and entirely ignored its life in the soul.
God demands external worship as the manifestation of the religion of the heart, not as a substitute for it.
II. Jehovah points out what was wrong in the fasting of His people:
1. The motive of their fasting was wrong. They looked upon fasting as constituting a claim upon God, rather than as a help to penitence.
2. The method of their fasting was wrong, as God points out, 'Behold in the day of your fast ye find pleasure, and exact all your labours'.
3. The accompaniment of their fasting was wrong.
III. God proceeds to indicate the manner in which they may make their fasting acceptable to Him and of value to their own soul:
1. Fasting should be accompanied with penitence.
2. Fasting should be associated with almsgiving, that is, with works of charity.
3. Fasting must always be attended by prayer.
We must fast with Christ in the wilderness during Lent if we are to rejoice with Christ in the gladness of Easter Day.
A. G. Mortimer, The Church's Lessons for the Christian Year, part ii. p. 229.
References. LVIII. 1, 2. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxxix. No. 2308. LVIII. 3. F. E. Paget, Studies in the Christian Character, p. 167. LVIII. 3-7. J. G. Rogers, Christian World Pulpit, vol. iii. p. 145. F. W. Farrar, ibid. vol. xxxi. p. 129. S. Pearson, ibid. vol. xii. p. 225. W. Archer Butler, Sermons Doctrinal and Practical (2nd Series), p. 148. T. Dale, Penny Pulpit, No. 2977. W. M. Punshon, Sermons (2nd Series), p. 317. G. Brooks, Outlines of Sermons, p. 262. LVIII. 5. H. J. Wilmot-Buxton, Sunday Lessons for Daily Life, p. 211. LVIII. 6. A. D. Spong, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xli. 1892, p. 78. LVIII. 6, 7. W. M. Punshon, "An Acceptable Fast," Sermons, p. 343.
The Necessity of Selflessness to Charity
I. This whole chapter is an exhortation to charity. The Prophet is urging men to deeds of ministration to sympathy with the poor, compassion for the sorrowful, help for the needy. He says that such a life of sacrifice is of more value than the keeping of sacred days or the attendance at holy festivals. But he says that even this life of sacrifice will have no value unless it is sought for its own sake that is to say, for the sake of the sufferer.
II. Do not think of the glory with which God will recompense you. Let that glory be to you in the rear a thing not before your eyes. Let the only thing before your eyes be the cause of righteousness, the duty to minister, the need to succour man; 'Thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the Lord shall be thy rereward'.
III. In the life for God there is an invitation to personal glory. But the Prophet tells us to put the promise behind our back until we have finished the sacrifice. He bids us forget the glory until we have surrendered the life. He says: 'There is joy in heaven to a sacrificial soul; but I would not have that soul keep the joy of heaven before its eyes. I would have it, when it serves the beggar, forget the golden streets and the pearly gates and the unsetting suns and the crystal rivers and the living fountains. I would have it remember only the claims of love. I would have it remember only the cries of the perishing and the groans of the wounded and the deep inarticulate longings of those who are too feeble to cry, let the glory of the Lord be my rereward.'
G. Matheson, Messages of Hope, p. 53.
References. LVIII. 8. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxx. No. 1793; vol. liii. No. 3028. A. Ainger, Sermons Preached in the Temple Church, p. 268. LVIII. 9, 11. S. Martin, Sermons, p. 169.
The Guidance of the Holy Spirit
In very deed the promise given to God's people by Isaiah of old is fulfilled in the Christian Church; and as we live our lives in union with Jesus, we are called on to live them under the constant guidance of the Holy Spirit of God.
I. Jesus is our Director. Notice how truly His direction supplies our need.
1. The first qualification which a wise director must possess is knowledge a threefold knowledge. ( a ) He who would direct me aright must know clearly what it is that God wills me to be, he must have a clear apprehension of the end of my life. ( b ) He must know the nature of the one he guides. ( c ) He must have a continuous knowledge of the external circumstances of my life.
2. Firmness. Jesus Christ is firm; most tender, most patient, most constant, yet most firm.
3. We need sympathy also in our director; we need one who will feel with us as he guides us along the road which leads to eternal life. For of necessity this road is the Via Crucis , there is no other way which can bring us to the haven where we would be.
II. Notice how He directs us; it is by the ministry of the indwelling Spirit. Who is the Holy Spirit? You know full well that He is the Third Person of the Ever Blessed Trinity. Yet there are many who practically think of the Holy Ghost as simply an Influence coming forth from the Father and the Son. We can put this easily to the test. How often do you offer in your devotions direct adoration to the Holy Ghost? How often do you offer thanksgiving to the Holy Ghost? How often do you offer direct prayer to the Holy Ghost? If direct worship of the Holy Ghost is lacking from our devotions, is it not because the verity of His Divine Personality is not really laid hold on by us?
God the Holy Ghost is in us. Why? To lead us as our indwelling Guide. 'Let Thy loving Spirit lead me forth into the land of righteousness.' Such was the ancient cry, and that cry has been answered in an arresting manner in the Church of God. Speaking to His Apostles on the night of His betrayal, Christ uses these words about the Holy Ghost: 'He dwelleth with you and shall be in you'. Of old He was with them, guiding them from without, but now He is in us, guiding us from within; and this is the essential condition of all true Christian liberty, that we are taught by an indwelling Teacher, and guided by an indwelling Guide.
How does He guide us? Not by sensible visions and signs. (1) He guides us first by His action on our minds; He instils into them holy thoughts; He reveals truth after truth, each of which calls for moral correspondence. (2) He acts not only on our minds, but on our hearts. (3) He acts upon our wills. (4) He guides us by acting upon our conscience.
III. Practical rules to help you in living this guided life:
1. We must obey our Lord's calls promptly.
2. Our Lord's calls must be fully responded to.
3. When Christ calls, we must respond perseveringly.
George Body, The Guided Life, p. 3.
A Watered Garden
'A watered garden.' There is too much music in these two words; we could have done with one of them. 'A garden' beautiful; 'Watered' music in itself, but 'a watered garden,' both things together and both things in our possession, and we ourselves representing that dual wealth. Who can handle a Psalm so magnificent, so majestic?
I. Yet even this text may give us pause, may lead us to the asking of some piercing questions. The further such questions penetrate the soul the better for the soul's health. 'A watered garden:' cannot a garden water itself? No. That is the answer, definite, cold discouraging, encouraging, as we may take the term. Is it not enough to be a garden? what matter about the sunshine? who cares about the rain or the dew? Is it not enough to be a garden, a geometric form, pearled and diamonded with many a flower? The king's gardens cannot do without rain; Solomon's parterres wither away but for the morning dew and the summer shower. We need something from without. We are always reminded that there is no one world; you may write it up and sneer at the other worlds, and enclose yourselves in little square cages in which there is no room for an altar; you can do this; but again and again the Lord of the vineyard cometh to seek fruit, and if we have not supplicated His sunshine and His rain, His morning dew, we shall have no fruit for Him when He comes to visit His own land.
Cannot a man sustain himself by his own resources? He cannot. If any man has tried to do so he will be the loudest in his confirmation of my reply. We soon exhaust ourselves, we want the other man, the other hand to touch, the other eyes to look into, the other voice to fill the dull vacancy of our solitude. Is it not enough to be a man? What do you mean by being a man? A figure is not a man, a corpse is not a man; a mere personality, if it could be detached from all other personalities, would not be a man. We cannot live upon stature or figure or aught that our hand can hold. Life is deeper; there is a sanctuary of life, a well far away, where spring water bubbles and gurgles and flashes out in the sunlight like a great gospel preached to the thirst of man. You think you can do with your own resources; let us test your foolish argument for one moment, if we may dignify it by the name of argument.
II. Self-sustenance is not the law of the body; why should it be the law of the mind? Let us reason from the lower to the higher. Every day every man has to go out of himself to keep himself going. If he would study that simple philosophy, he would soon begin to pray. But he will not: he is led captive by Satan at his will. Who can believe that the body not living upon its own resources proves to the soul that it has resources enough within itself? The mind is not sustained by itself. You have books; lay them down, be your own book. You cannot. You need some other man to write you a book, and sometimes to explain it to you. You have libraries. What are libraries but wheatfields for the mind? If I ask you in the autumn, What do you want with all these golden growths, all these purple riches and vegetable and fruit? you say, We require all these things for the sustenance of the body. And what do you want with all these libraries, and museums, and academies, and colleges, and schools of every name and degree? These are the wheatfields which the soul reaps, and it needs them every one, for the soul is bigger than literature. The soul lives by friction with some other soul. God is fire. To come into happy attrition with Him, or contact, or friction, who can tell what may come out of that soul touching soul, man praying to God? Prayer is a kind of friction if truly wise and honest, and out of that friction come sparks to lighten the night and put out the common sun.
III. As we do not leave a garden to take care of itself, neither should we leave ourselves to ourselves.
God waits to give us every one more water, more sustenance, more sunshine. What we might be if we would enjoy our privileges! Into what great distance we might have entered the sanctuary if we had really cared to be at the upper and inner altar that we might be blessed by its sacrifices! Oh that thou hadst hearkened unto me! then had thy peace flowed as a river and thy righteousness had been as the waves of the sea. A branch cannot bear fruit except it abide in the vine, and the Vine is Christ, and except we be in Christ our souls cannot receive the true culture or the true nourishment.
Joseph Parker, City Temple Pulpit, vol. ii. p. 194.
References. LVIII. 11. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xiii. No. 736. LVIII. 12. J. Marshall Lang, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlviii. 1895, p. 38. W, Ince, A Retrospect of Progress in the Church of England During the Nineteenth Century, Sermon. LVIII. 13. C. Holland, Gleanings from a Ministry of Fifty Years, p. 233. F. E. Paget, Helps and Hindrances to the Christian Life, vol. ii. p. 171. LVIII. 13, 14. H. D. M. Spence, Voices and Silences, p. 259. G. E. Jelf, Plain Sermons on Sunday Observance, p. 39. R. F. Horton, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lviii. 1900, p. 49. H. Ward Beecher, Sermons (4th Series), p. 264. "Plain Sermons" by contributors to the Tracts for the Times, vol. ix. p. 267. LIX. 1, 2. R. A. Suckling, Sermons Plain and Practical, p. 122. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xli. No. 2411.
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Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Isaiah 58". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 8 / Ordinary 13