Sermon: Advent Lessons

14 mins read

Editor’s note: The following is extracted from All Saints’ Day and Other Sermons, by Charles Kingsley (published 1878).

Westminster Abbey, First Sunday in Advent, 1873.

Romans vii. 22-25.  “I delight in the law of God after the inward man: but I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.  O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?  I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

This is the first Sunday in Advent.  Today we have prayed that God would give us grace to put away the works of darkness, and put on us the armour of light.  Next Sunday we shall pray that, by true understanding of the Scriptures, we may embrace and hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life.  The Sunday after that the ministers and stewards of God’s mysteries may prepare His way by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just—the next, that His grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us from the sins which hinder us in running the race set before us.  But I do not think that we shall understand those collects, or indeed the meaning of Advent itself, or the reason why we keep the season of Advent year by year, unless we first understand the prayer which we offered up last Sunday, “Stir up, O Lord, the wills of Thy faithful people,”—and we shall understand that prayer just in proportion as we have in us the Spirit of God, or the spirit of the world, which is the spirit of unbelief.

Worldly people say—and say openly, just now—that this prayer is all a dream.  They say God will not stir up men’s wills to do good any more than to do harm.  He leaves men to themselves to get through life as they can.  This Heavenly Father of whom you speak will not give His holy spirit to those who ask Him.  He does not, as one of your Collects says, put into men’s minds good desires—they come to a man entirely from outside a man, from his early teaching, his youthful impressions, as they are called now-a-days.  He does not either give men grace and power to put these desires into practice.  That depends entirely on the natural strength of a man’s character; and that, again, depends principally on the state of his brain.  So, says the world, if you wish your own character to improve, you must improve it yourself, for God will not improve it for you.  But, after all, why should you try to improve? why not be content to be just what you are? you did not make yourself, and you are not responsible for being merely what God has chosen to make you.

This is what worldly men say, or at least what they believe and act on; and this is the reason why there is so little improvement in the world, because men do not ask God to improve their hearts and stir up their wills.  I say, very little improvement.  Men talk loudly of the enlightenment of the age, and the progress of the species, and the spread of civilisation, and so forth: but when I read old books, and compare old times with these, I confess I do not see so much of it as all this hopeful talk would lead me to expect.  Men in general have grown more prudent, more cunning, from long experience.  They have found out that certain sins do not pay—that is, they interfere with people’s comfort and their power of making money, and therefore they prudently avoid them themselves, and put them down by law in other men’s cases.  Men have certainly grown more good-natured, in some countries, in that they dislike more than their ancestors did, to inflict bodily torture on human beings; but they are just as ready, or even more ready, to inflict on those whom they dislike that moral and mental torture which to noble souls is worse than any bodily pain.  As for any real improvement in human nature—where is it?  There is just as much falsehood, cheating, and covetousness, I believe, in the world as ever there was; just as much cant and hypocrisy, and perhaps more; just as much envy, hatred, malice and all uncharitableness.  Is not the condition of the masses in many great cities as degraded and as sad as ever was that of the serfs in the Middle Ages?  Do not the poor still die by tens of thousands of fevers, choleras, and other diseases, which we know perfectly how to prevent, and yet have not the will to prevent?  Is not the adulteration of food just now as scandalous as it is unchecked?  The sins and follies of human nature have been repressed in one direction only to break out another.  And as for open and coarse sin, people complain even now, and I fear with justice, that there is more drunkenness in England at this moment than there ever was.  So much for our boasted improvement.

Look again at the wars of the world.  Five-and-twenty years ago, one used to be told that the human race was grown too wise to go to war any more, and that we were to have an advent of universal peace and plenty, and since then we have seen some seven great wars, the last the most terrible of all,—and ever since, all the nations of Europe have been watching each other in distrust and dread, increasing their armaments, working often night and day at forging improved engines of destruction, wherewith to kill their fellow-men.  Not that I blame that.  It is necessary.  Yes! but the hideous thing is, that it should be necessary.  Does that state of things look much like progress of the human race?  Can we say that mankind is much improved, either in wisdom or in love, while all the nations of Europe are spending millions merely to be ready to fight they know not whom, they know not why?

No, my good friends, obey the wise man, and clear your minds of cant—man’s pretensions, man’s boastfulness, man’s power of blinding his own eyes to plain facts—above all, to the plain fact that he does not succeed, even in this world of which he fancies himself the master, because he lives without God in the world.  All this saddens, I had almost said, sickens, a thoughtful man, till he turns away from this noisy sham improvement of mankind—the wages of sin, which are death, to St John’s account of the true improvement of mankind, the true progress of the species,—the gift of God which is eternal life.  “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away.  And I saw the Holy City—New Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a great voice out of heaven, saying, Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be with them, and be their God.  And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”

Does that sound much like a general increase of armaments? or like bills for the prevention of pestilence, or of drunkenness,—which, even if they pass, will both probably fail to do the good which they propose?  No.  And if this wicked world is to be mended, then God must stir up the wills of His faithful people, and we must pray without ceasing for ourselves, and for all for whom we are bound to pray, that He would stir them up.  For what we want is not knowledge; we have enough of that, and too much.  Too much; for knowing so much and doing so little, what an account will be required of us at the last day!

No.  It is the will which we want, in a hundred cases.  Take that of pestilential dwelling-houses in our great towns.  Every one knows that they ought to be made healthy; every one knows that they can be made healthy.  But the will to make them healthy is not here, and they are left to breed disease and death.  And so, as in a hundred instances, shallow philosophers are proved, by facts, to be mistaken, when they tell us that man will act up to the best of his knowledge without God’s help.  For that is exactly what man does not.  What is wrong with the world in general, is wrong likewise more or less with you and me, and with all human beings; for after all, the world is made up of human beings; and the sin of the world is nothing save the sins of each and all human beings put together; and the world will be renewed and come right again, just as far and no farther, as each human being is renewed and comes right.  The only sure method, therefore, of setting the world right, is to begin by setting our own little part of the world right—in a word, setting ourselves right.

But if we begin to try, that, we find, is just what we cannot do.  When a man begins to hunger and thirst after righteousness, and, discontented with himself, attempts to improve himself, he soon begins to find a painful truth in many a word of the Bible and the Prayer Book to which he gave little heed, as long as he was contented with himself, and with doing just what pleased him, right or wrong.  He soon finds out that he has no power of himself to help himself, that he is tied and bound with the burden of his sins, and that he cannot, by reason of his frailty, stand upright—that he actually is sore let and hindered by his own sins, from running the race set before him, and doing his duty where God has put him.  All these sayings come home to him as actual facts, most painful facts, but facts which he cannot deny.  He soon finds out the meaning and the truth of that terrible struggle between the good in him and the evil in him, of which St Paul speaks so bitterly in the text.  How, when he tries to do good, evil is present with him.  How he delights in the law of God with his inward mind, and yet finds another law in his body, warring against the law of God, and bringing him into captivity to the law of sin.  How he is crippled by old bad habits, weakened by cowardice, by laziness, by vanity, by general inability of will, till he is ready,—disgusted at himself and his own weakness,—to cry, Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?

Let him but utter that cry honestly.  Let him once find out that he wants something outside himself to help him, to deliver him, to strengthen him, to stir up his weak will, to give him grace and power to do what he knows instead of merely admiring it, and leaving it undone.  Let a man only find out that.  Let him see that he needs a helper, a deliverer, a strengthener—in one word, a Saviour—and he will find one.  I verily believe that, sooner or later, the Lord Jesus Christ will reveal to that man what He revealed to St Paul; that He Himself will deliver him; and that, like St Paul, after crying “O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” he will be able to answer himself, I thank God—God will, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Christ will deliver me from the bonds of my sins, Christ will stir up this weak will of mine, Christ will give me strength and power, faithfully to fulfil all my good desires, because He Himself has put them into my heart not to mock me, not to disappoint me—not to make me wretched with the sight of noble graces and virtues to which I cannot attain, but to fulfil His work in me.  What He has begun in me He will carry on in me.  He has sown the seed in me, and He will make it bear fruit, if only I pray to Him, day by day, for strength to do what I know I ought to do, and cry morning and night to Him, the fount of life, Stir up my will, O Lord, that I may bring forth the fruit of good works, for then by Thee I shall be plentifully rewarded.

So the man gains hope and heart for himself, and so, if he will but think rationally and humbly, he may gain hope and heart for this poor sinful world.  For what has come true for him may come true for any man.  Who is he that God should care more for him than for others?  Who is he that God should help him when he prays, more than He will help His whole church if it will but pray?  He says to himself, all this knowledge of what is right; all these good desires, all these longings after a juster, purer, nobler, happier state of things; there they are up and down the world already, though, alas! they have borne little enough fruit as yet.  Be it so.  But God put them into my heart.  And who save God has put them into the world’s heart?  It was God who sowed the seed in me; surely it is God who has sowed it in other men?  And if God has made it bear even the poorest fruit in me, why should He not make it bear fruit in other men and in all the world?  All they need is that God should stir up their wills, that they may do the good they know, and attain the blessedness after which they long.

And then, if the man have a truly human, truly reasonable heart in him—he feels that he can pray for others as well as for himself.  He feels that he must pray for them, and cry,—Thou alone canst make men strong to do the right thing, and Thou wilt make them.  Stir up their wills, O Lord!  Thou canst not mean that all the good seed which is sown about the world should die and wither, and bring no fruit to perfection.  Surely Thy word will not return to Thee void, but be like the rain which comes down from heaven, and gives seed to the sower and bread to the eater.  Oh, strengthen such as stand, and comfort and help the weak-hearted, and raise up them that fall, and, finally, beat down Satan and all the powers of evil under our feet, and pour out thy spirit on all flesh, that so their Father’s name may be hallowed, His kingdom come, His will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  And so will come the one and only true progress of the human race—which is, that all men should become faithful and obedient citizens of the holy city, the kingdom of God, which is the Church of Christ.  To which may God in His mercy bring us all, and our children after us.  Amen.

This, then, is the lesson why we are met together this Advent day.  We are met to pray that God would so help us by His grace and mercy that we may bring forth the fruit of good works, and that when our Lord Jesus Christ shall come in His glorious majesty to judge the quick and the dead, we, and our descendants after us, may be found an acceptable people in His sight.

We are met to pray, in a National Church, for the whole nation of England, that all orders and degrees therein may, each in his place and station, help forward the hallowing of God’s name, the coming of His kingdom, the doing of His will on earth.  We are met to pray for the Queen and all that are in authority, that these Advent collects may be fulfilled in them, and by them, for the good of the whole people; for the ministers and stewards of Christ’s mysteries, that the same collects may be fulfilled by them and in them, till they turn the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; for the Commons of this nation, that each man may he delivered, by God’s grace and mercy, from the special sin which besets him in this faithless and worldly generation and hinders him from running the race of duty which is set before him, and get strength from God so to live that in that dread day he may meet his Judge and King, not in terror and in shame, but in loyalty and in humble hope.

But more—we are here to worship God in Christ, both God and man.  To confess that without Him we can do nothing, that unless He enlighten our understandings we are dark, unless He stir up our wills we are powerless for good.  To confess that though we have forgotten Him, yet He has not forgotten us.  That He is the same gracious and generous Giver and Saviour.  That though we deny Him He cannot deny Himself.  That He is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever as when He came to visit this earth in great humility.  That the Lord is King, though the earth be moved.  He sitteth upon His throne, be the nations never so unquiet.  We are here to declare to ourselves and all men, and the whole universe, that we at least believe that the heavens and earth are full of His glory.  We are here to declare that, whether or not the kings of the earth are wise enough, or the judges of it learned enough, to acknowledge Christ for their king, we at least will worship the Son lest He be angry, and so we perish from the right way; for if His wrath be kindled, yea but a little, then blessed are they, and they only, who put their trust in Him.  We are here to join our songs with angels round the throne, and with those pure and mighty beings who, in some central sanctuary of the universe, cry for ever, “Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for Thou hast created all things, and for Thy pleasure they are and were created.”

We do so in ancient words, ancient music, ancient ceremonies, for a token that Christ’s rule and glory is an ancient rule and an eternal glory; that it is no new discovery of our own, and depends not on our own passing notions and feelings about it, but is like Christ, the same now as in the days of our forefathers, the same as it was fifteen hundred years ago, the same as it has been since the day that He stooped to be born of the Virgin Mary, the same that it will be till He shall come in His glory to judge the quick and the dead.  Therefore we delight in the ancient ceremonial, as like as we can make it, to that of the earlier and purer ages of the Church, when Christianity was still, as it were, fresh from the hand of its Creator, ere yet it had been debased and defiled by the idolatrous innovations of the Church of Rome.  For so we confess ourselves bound by links of gratitude to the Apostles, and the successors of the Apostles, and to all which has been best, purest, and truest in the ages since.  So we confess that we worship the same God-man of whom Apostles preached, of whom fathers philosophised, and for whom martyrs died.  That we believe, like them, that He alone is King of kings and Lord of lords; that there is no progress, civilization, or salvation in this life or the life to come, but through His undeserved mercy and His strengthening grace; that He has reigned from the creation of the world, reigns now, and will reign unto that last dread day, when He shall have put all enemies under His feet, and delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father, that God may be all in all.  Unto which day may He in His mercy bring us all through faith and good works: Amen.

Charles Kingsley

Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.

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