Seek ye the Lord while He may be found, call ye upon Him while He is near: let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts and let him return unto the Lord, and He will have mercy upon him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.--ISAIAH lv. 6, 7.
Some of you, surely, while the first lesson was being read this morning, must have felt the beauty of it; and if you were thoughtful, perplexed, weary, sad at heart, perhaps you felt that it was more than beautiful--that it was full of comfort. And so it should be full of comfort to you, my friends. God meant it to give you comfort. For though it was written and spoken by a man of like passions with ourselves, it was just as truly written and spoken by God, who made heaven and earth. It is true and everlasting, the message which it brings, and like all true and everlasting words, it is the voice of God who cannot change; who makes no difference between Jew and Gentile, between us in England here, and nations which perished hundreds of years ago.
And what is its message? What was God's word to the old Jews, among all their sin, and sorrow, and labour?
Is it the message of a stern judge, saying: "Pay me that thou owest, to the uttermost farthing; and if you cannot do that, fret and torment yourselves in shame and terror here on earth, for all your sins, if, possibly, you may chance to change my mind, and find forgiveness at the last day?"
Is it the message of a proud tyrant, saying: "If you are miserable, and fallen, and sinful, what is that to me? I am perfect, blest, contented with myself, alone in my glory, far away beyond the sight of men, beyond the sun and stars--what are you worms of earth to me?"
Or is it the voice of a loving Father, calling to his self-willed children who have gone proudly and boldly away from their Father's house, and thrown off their Father's government, and said in their conceit: "We are men. Do not we know good and evil? Do we not know what is our interest? Cannot we judge for ourselves, and shift for ourselves, and take care of ourselves? Why are we to be barred from pleasant things here, and profitable things there? We will be our own masters."
To self-willed children who have said thus, and done thus in their foolish hearts, and have found all their conceit, and shrewdness, only lead them into sorrow, and perplexity, and distress.--Who have found that with all their cleverness they could not get the very good things for which they left their Father's house; or if they get them, find no enjoyment in them, but only discontent, and shame, and danger, and a sad self-accusing heart--spending their money for that which does not feed them after all, and labouring hard for things which do not satisfy them; always longing for something more--always finding the pleasure, or the profit, or the honour which a little way off looked so fine, looked quite ugly and worthless, when they come up to it and get hold of it--finding all things full of labour; the eye never satisfied with seeing, or the ear with hearing; the same thing coming over and over again. Each young man starting with gay hopes, as if he were the first man that ever was born, and he was going to do out of hand such fine things as man never did before, and make his own fortune, and set the world to right at once; and then as he grows older, falling into the same weary ruts as his forefathers went dragging on it, every fresh year bringing its own labour and its own sorrow; and dying like them, taking nothing away with him of all he has earned, and crying with his last breath: "That which is crooked cannot be made straight, and that which is wanting cannot be numbered. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun, for all is vanity and vexation of spirit?"
To self-willed children, who have tried their own way ever since they were born, they and their fathers before them, and found it go round in a ring and leave them just where they started in heart and soul, and, on their death-beds, in purse and power also--
To such struggling, dissatisfied beings--such as nine-tenths of the men and women on this earth, alas! are still--comes the word of this loving Father:
"Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters! and he that hath no money, come, buy and eat. Yea, come, buy wine and milk without money, and without price." Why do you fancy that money can give you all you want? Why this labouring and straining after money, as if it was God, as if it made heaven and earth, and all therein? Is money a God? or money's worth? "I am God," saith the Lord, "and beside me there is none else. It is I who give, and not money. It is I who save men, and not money. And I do save, and I do give freely to all. Come, and try my mercy, and see if my word be not true."
This struggling and snarling, like dogs over a bone--what profit comes of it? are you happier? are you wiser? are you better? are you more at peace with your neighbours; more at peace with your own hearts and consciences? If you are, money has not made you so, nor plotting, and scraping, and struggling, and pushing your neighbour down, that you may rise a few inches on his shoulders. No. Hear what the voice of your Father says is the true way to wealth and comfort, after which you all struggle and labour so hard in vain.-- "Hearken diligently unto me, and you shall eat that which is good, and your soul shall delight itself in fatness. Incline your ear and come unto me. Hear, and your soul shall live. And I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies," or rather "the faithful oath which I sware unto David?" And what is this faithful oath which God sware to David.--"Of the fruit of thy body, I will set on thy seat." A promise of a righteous king who should arise in David's family. How far David understood the full meaning of that glorious promise we cannot tell. He thought most probably, at first, that Solomon, his son, was to be the king who would fulfil it. But all through many of his psalms, there are deep and great words about some nobler and more perfect king than Solomon--about one who, as Isaiah says here, would perfectly witness to the people that God was their King; one who would be a perfect leader and commander of the people; a holy one of Israel, who would sit on God's right hand; to hear the good news of whom, the Jews would call nations whom they then did not know of, and for whose sake nations who did not know them would run to them. And dimly David did see this, that God would raise up a true Christ, that is, one truly anointed by God, chosen and sent out by God, to sit on his throne, and be perfectly what David was only in part; a King made perfect by suffering, a King of poor men, a King who bore the sins and carried the iniquities of all His people, from the highest to the lowest. We know who that was. We know clearly what David only knew dimly, what Isaiah only knew a little more clearly. We know who was born of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, ascended into heaven, and now sits at the right hand of God, ever praying for us, ruling the world in righteousness, Jesus the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, to whom all power is given in heaven and earth.
But Isaiah, though he knew Him only dimly, still knew Him. He did not know that the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, would take on Himself the form of a poor man, and be called the son of the carpenter. Such boundless love and condescension in the Son of God he never could have fancied for himself, and God had not chosen to reveal it to him; or to anyone else in those days. But this he did see, that the Lord Jesus, He whom he calls the Holy One of Israel, was near the Jews in his time; that He was watching over them, mourning over their sins, arguing with them, and calling them to return to Him with most human love and tenderness, as a husband to the woman whom he loves in spite of her unfaithfulness to him. As he says to his sinful and distressed country in the chapter before this: "Thy Maker is thy husband: the Lord of Hosts is His name, and thy Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel, the Lord of the whole earth shall He be called. For the Lord hath called thee as a woman forsaken and grieved in spirit. For a small moment have I forsaken thee, but with great mercies will I gather thee. In a little anger I hid my face from thee for a moment, but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord thy Redeemer."
This, then, Isaiah knew--that the heart of the Holy Lord pitied and yearned after those poor sinful Jews, as a husband's after a foolish and sinful wife. And how much more should we believe the same, how much more should we believe that His heart pities and yearns for all foolish and sinful people here in England now! We who know a thousand times more than Isaiah knew of His love, His pity, His condescension, which led Him to sacrifice Himself upon the cross for us? Surely, surely, if Isaiah had a right to say to those Jews, "Seek the Lord while He may be found," I have a thousand times as much right to say it to you. If Isaiah had a right to say to those Jews, "Let the wicked forsake his ways and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord, and He will have mercy upon him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon," then I have a right to say it to you.
Free mercy, utter pardon, pardon for all, even for the worst. And what is the argument which Isaiah uses to make his countrymen repent? Is it "Repent, or you shall be damned: Repent because God's wrath and curse is against you. The Lord hates you and despises you, and you must crawl to His feet like beaten hounds, and entreat Him not to strike you into hell as He intends"? Not so; it was because God loved the Jews, that they were to repent. It is because God loves you that you must repent. "Incline your ear," saith the Lord, "and come unto me, hear, and your soul shall live; and you shall eat that which is good, and your soul shall delight itself in fatness." Yes, God is love. God's delight and glory is to give; in spite of all our sins He gives and gives, sending rain and fruitful seasons to just and unjust, to fill their hearts with joy and gladness; and all the while men fancy that it is not God that gives, but they who take. God has not left Himself, as St. Paul says, without a witness; every fruitful shower and quickening gleam of sunshine cries to us--See! God is love: He is the giver. And men will not hear that voice. They say in their hearts, "The Lord is far away above the skies; He does not care for us: we must help ourselves, each man to what he can get off this earth; nay, even, when we are hard put to it for a living, we must break God's laws to keep ourselves alive, and so steal from God's table the very good things which He offers us freely."
But some will say: "He does not give freely; we must work and struggle. Why do you mock poor hard-worked creatures with such words as these?"
Ask that question of God, my friends, and not of me. Isaiah said that those who hearkened to God diligently should eat what is good. The Lord Jesus Christ Himself said the same--that if we seek first the kingdom of God and His justice, all other things should be added to them. He did not mean us to be idle, God forbid! but this He meant, that if we, each in his business and calling, put steadily before ourselves what is right, what God would wish us, His subjects, to be in His Kingdom--if instead of making our first thought in every business we take in hand, "What will suit my interest best, what will raise most money, what will give me most pleasure?" we said to ourselves all day long, "What will be most right, and just, and merciful for us to do; what will be most pleasing to a God who is love and justice itself? what will do most good to my neighbour as well as myself?" then all things would go well with us. Then we should be prosperous and joyful. Then our plans would succeed and our labour bring forth real profit to us, because they would be according to the will of God: we should be fellow-workers with Jesus Christ in the great work of doing good to this poor distracted world, and His help and blessing would be with us.
And if you ask me, how can this come to pass, I must answer, as Isaiah does in this same chapter: "The Lord's ways are not as our ways, nor His thoughts as our thoughts, but higher than ours, as the heavens are above the earth." But if we do turn to God, and repent each man of us of his selfishness, his unfaithfulness, his hard- heartedness, his covetousness, his self-will, his ungodliness--then God's blessing, as Isaiah says, will come down on us, and spring up among us, we know not how or whence, like the rain and snow, which comes down from heaven and waters the earth, and makes it bud and bring forth to give seed to the sower and bread to the eater. So shall be the Lord's word, which goes out of His mouth; it will not return to Him void, but will accomplish what He pleases, and prosper in that whereto He sends it. He will teach us and guide us in the right way. He will put His word into the mouths of true teachers to show us our duty. He will pour out His spirit upon us, to make us love our duty. In one way and another, we know not how, we shall be taught what is good for England, good for each parish, good for each family. And wealth, peace, and prosperity for rich and poor will be the fruit of obeying the word of God, and giving up our hearts to be led by His spirit. As it was to be in Judaea, of old, if they repented, so will it be with us. They should go forth with joy and do their work in peace. The hills should break before them into singing, and all the trees of the field should clap their hands; instead of thorns should come up timber-trees: instead of briers, garden-shrubs. The whole cultivation of the country was to improve, and be to the Lord for a name, and a sign for ever that the true way to wealth and prosperity is the way of God, justice, mercy to each other, and obedience to the will of Him who made heaven and earth, trees and fruitful fields, rain and sunshine, and gives the blessings of them freely to His children of mankind, in proportion as they look up to Him as a loving Father, and return to him day by day, with childlike repentance, and full desire to amend their lives according to His holy word.