My spirit shall not always strive with man.--GENESIS vi. 3.
Last Sunday we read in the first lesson of the fall. This Sunday we read of the flood, the first-fruits of the fall.
It is an awful and a fearful story. And yet, if we will look at it by faith in God, it is a most cheerful and hopeful story--a gospel--a good news of salvation--like every other word in the Bible, from beginning to end. Ay, and to my mind, the most hopeful words of all in it, are the very ones which at first sight look most terrible, the words with which my text begins: "And the Lord said, My Spirit shall not always strive with man."
For is it not good news--the good news of all news--the news which every poor soul who is hungering and thirsting after righteousness, longs to hear; and when they hear it, feel it to be the good news-- the only news which can give comfort to fallen and sorrowful men, tied and bound with the chain of their sins, that God's Spirit does strive at all with man? That God is looking after men? That God is yearning over sinners, as the heart of a father yearns over his rebellious child, as the heart of a faithful and loving husband yearns after an unfaithful wife? That God does not take a disgust at us for all our unworthiness, but wills that none should perish, but that all should come to repentance? Oh joyful news! Man may be, as the text says that he was in the time of Noah, so low fallen that he is but flesh like the brutes that perish; the imaginations of his heart may be only evil continually; his spirit may be dead within him, given up to all low and fleshly appetites and passions, anger, and greediness, and filth; and yet the pure and holy Spirit of God condescends to strive and struggle with him, to convince him of sin, and make him discontented and ashamed at his own brutishness, and shake and terrify his soul with the wholesome thought: "I am a sinner--I am wrong--I am living such a life as God never meant me to live--I am not what I ought to be--I have fallen short of what God intended me to be. Surely some evil will come to me from this." Then the Holy Spirit convinces man of righteousness. He shows man that what he has fallen short of is the glory of God; that man was meant to be, as St. Paul says, the likeness and glory of God; to show forth God's glory, and beauty, and righteousness, and love in his own daily life; as a looking-glass, though it is not the sun, still gives an image and likeness of the sun, when the sun shines on it, and shows forth the glory of the sunbeams which are reflected on it.
And then, the Holy Spirit convinces man of judgment. He shows man that God cannot suffer men, or angels, or any other rational spirits and immortal souls, to be unlike Himself; that because He is the only and perfect good, whatsoever is unlike Him must be bad; because He is the only and perfect love, who wills blessings and good to all, whatsoever is unlike Him must be unloving, hating, and hateful--a curse and evil to all around it; because He is the only perfect Maker and Preserver, whatsoever is unlike Him must be in its very nature hurtful, destroying, deadly--a disease which injures this good world, and which He will therefore cut out, burn up, destroy in some way or other, if it will not submit to be cured. For this, my friends, is the meaning of God's judgments on sinners; this is why He sent a flood to drown the world of the ungodly; this is why He destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah; this is why He swept away the nations of Canaan; this is why He destroyed Jerusalem, His own beloved city, and scattered the Jews over the face of the whole earth unto this day; this is why He destroyed heathen Rome of old, and why He has destroyed, from time to time, in every age and country, great nations and mighty cities by earthquake, and famine, and pestilence, and the sword; because He knows that sin is ruin and misery to all; that it is a disease which spreads by infection among fallen men; and that He must cut off the corrupt nation for the sake of preserving mankind, as the surgeon cuts off a diseased limb, that his patient's whole body may not die. But the surgeon will not cut off the limb as long as there is a chance of saving it: he will not cut it off till it is mortified and dead, and certain to infect the whole body with the same death, or till it is so inflamed that it will inflame the whole body also, and burn up the patient's life with fever. Till then he tends it in hope; tries by all means to cure it. And so does the Lord, the Lord Jesus, the great Physician, whom His Father has appointed to heal and cure this poor fallen world. As long as there is hope of curing any man, any nation, any generation of men, so long will his Spirit strive lovingly and hopefully with man. For see the blessed words of the text: "My Spirit shall not always strive with man. This must end. This must end at some time or other. This battle between my Spirit and the wicked and perverse wills of these sinners; this battle between the love and the justice and the purity which I am trying to teach them, and the corruption and the violence with which they are filling the earth." But there is no passion in the Lord, no spite, no sudden rage, like the brute passionate anger of weak man. Our anger, if we are not under the guiding of God's Spirit, conquers our wills, carries us away, makes us say and do on the moment--God forgive us for it--whatsoever our passion prompts us. The Lord's anger does not conquer Him. It does not conquer His patience, His love, His steadfast will for the good of all. Even when it shows itself in the flood and the earthquake; even though it break up the fountains of the great deep, and destroy from off the earth both man and beast, yet it is, and was, and ever will be, the anger of The Lamb--a patient, a merciful, and a loving anger.
Therefore the Lord says: "Yet his days shall be one hundred and twenty years." One hundred and twenty years more he would endure those corrupt and violent sinners, in the hope of correcting them. One hundred and twenty years more would God's Spirit strive with men. One hundred and twenty years more the long-suffering of God, as St. Peter says, would wait, if by any means they would turn and repent. Oh, wonderful love and condescension of God! God waits for man! The Holy One waits for the unholy! The Creator waits for the work of His own hands! The wrathful God, who repents that He has made man upon the earth, waits one hundred and twenty years for the very creatures whom He repents having made! Does this seem strange to us--unlike our notions of God? If it is strange to us, my friends, its being strange is only a proof of how far we have fallen from the likeness of God, wherein man was originally created. If we were more like God, then the accounts of God's long-suffering, and mercy, and repentance, which we read in the Bible, would not be so strange to us. We should understand what God declares of Himself, by seeing the same feelings working in ourselves, which He declares to be working in Himself. And if we were more righteous and more loving, we should understand more how God's will was a loving and a righteous will; how His justice was His mercy, and His mercy His justice, instead of dividing His substance, who is one God, by fancying that His mercy and His justice are two different attributes, which are at times contrary the one to the other.
We read nothing here about God's absolute purposes, and fixed decrees, whereof men talk so often, making a god in their own fallen image, after their own fallen likeness. The Lord, the Word of God, of whom the Bible tells us, does not think it beneath his dignity to say: "It repenteth me that I have made man." Different, truly, from that false god which man makes in his own image. Man is proud, and he fancies that God is proud; man is self-willed and selfish, and he fancies that God is self-willed and selfish; man is arbitrary and obstinate, and determined to have his own way just because it is his own way; and then he fancies that God is arbitrary and obstinate, and determines to have His own way and will, just because it is His own way and will. But wilt thou know, oh vain man, why God will have His own way and will? Because His way is a good way, and His will a loving will; because the Lord knows that His way is the only path of life, and joy, and blessing to man and beast, yes, and to the very hairs of our head, which are all numbered, and to the sparrows, whereof not one falls to the ground without our Father's knowledge; because His will is a loving will, which wills that none should perish, but that all should come and be saved in body, soul, and spirit. He will have His own will done, not because it is His own will, but because it is good, good for men. And if men will change and repent, then will He change and repent also. If man will resist the striving of God's Spirit with him, then will the Lord say: "It repenteth me that I have made that man." But if a man will repent him of the evil, then God will repent Him of the evil also. If a man will let God's Spirit convince him, and will open his ears and hear, and open his eyes and see, and open his heart to take in the loving thoughts and the right thoughts, and the penitent and humble thoughts, which do come to him--you know they do come to you all at times--then the Lord will repent also, as he repents, and repent concerning the evil which He has declared concerning that man. So said the Lord, who cannot change, the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever, the same now that He was in the days of the flood, to Jeremiah the prophet, when He moved him to go down to the potter's house, and watch him there at his work.
And the potter made a vessel--something which would be useful and good for a certain purpose--but the clay was marred in the hand of the potter. He was good and skilful; but there was a fault in the clay. What did he do? Throw the clay away as useless? No. He made it again another vessel. He was determined to make, not anything, but something useful and good. And if the clay, being faulty, failed him once, he would try again. He would change his purpose and plan, but not his right will to make good and useful vessels; them he WOULD make, if not by one way, then by another. And Jeremiah watched him; and as he watched, the Spirit of the Lord came on him, and taught him that that poor potter's way of working with his clay, was a pattern and likeness of the Lord's work on earth. Oh shame, that this great parable should have been twisted by men to make out that God is an arbitrary tyrant, who works by a brute necessity! It taught Jeremiah the very opposite. It taught him what it ought to teach us, that God does change, because man changes, that God's steadfast will is the good of men, and therefore because men change their weak self-willed course, and fall, and seek out many inventions, therefore God changes to follow them, like a good shepherd, tracking and following the lost and wandering sheep up and down, right and left, over hill and dale, if by any means He may find him, and bring him home on His shoulders to the fold, calling upon the angels of God: "Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which I had lost."
This is the likeness of God. The good and loving will of a Father following his wandering children. The likeness of a loving Father repenting that He hath brought into the world sinful children, to be a misery to themselves and all around them, and yet for the same reason loving those children, striving with their wicked wills to the very last, giving them one last chance and time for repentance; as the Lord did to those evil men of the old world, sending to them Noah, a preacher of righteousness, if by any means they would turn from their sins and be saved. Ay, not only preaching to their ears by Noah, but to their hearts by His Spirit; as St. Peter tells us, He Himself, Christ the Lord, went Himself by His Spirit to those very sinners before the flood, and strove to bring them to their reason again. By His Spirit; by the very same one and only Holy Spirit of God, St. Peter says, by which Christ Himself was raised from the dead, did He try to raise the souls of those sinners before the flood, from the death of sin to the life of righteousness: but they would not. They were disobedient. Their wills resisted His will to the last; and then the flood came, and swept them all away.
And so the first work of the heavenly Workman was marred in the making by no fault of His, but by the fault of what He made. He made men persons, rational beings with wills, that they might be willingly like Him: but they used those wills to be unlike Him, to rebel against Him, and to fill the earth with violence and corruption. And so, for the good of all mankind to come, He had to sweep them all away. But of that same sinful clay He made another vessel, as it seemed good to Him; even Noah and his Sons, whom He saved that He might carry on the race of the Sons of God unto this day.
And after that again, my friends, in a day more dark and evil still, when the earth was again corrupt before God, and filled with violence; when all flesh had corrupted His way upon the earth, so that, as St. Paul said of them, there was none that did good, no not one: then the same Lord, when He saw that all the world lay in wickedness, and that the clay of human-kind was marred in the hands of the potter, then did He cast away that clay as reprobate and useless, and destroy mankind off the face of the earth? Not so. Then, when there was none to help, His own arm brought salvation, and His own righteousness sustained Him; He trod the wine-press alone, and of the people there was none with Him. His own righteousness sustained Him. His perfectly good and righteous will never failed Him for a moment; man He would save, and man He saved. If none else could do it, He would do it Himself. He would bring salvation with His own arm. He would fulfil His Father's will, which is that none should perish; He would be made flesh, and dwell among men, that man might behold the likeness of God the Father, full of grace and truth, and see what they were meant to be. Then, in Him, in Jesus who wept over Jerusalem, was fully revealed and shown the likeness and glory of the Lord; the Lord in whose image man was made; who walked and spoke with Adam in the garden; who was not ashamed to say that it repented Him that He had made man; whom Ezekiel saw upon His throne, and as it were upon the throne the appearance of the likeness of a man; whom Daniel saw, and knew him to be the Son of Man. Not a man, then, of flesh and blood; but the Eternal Word of God, in whose image man was made, who could be loving and merciful, long-suffering and repenting Him of the evil, but never of the good. He came, and He swept away, as He had told the Apostles that He would do, by such afflictions as man had never seen since the beginning of the world until then, that Roman world with all its devilish systems and maxims, whereby the nations were kept down in slavery and sin; and He founded a new heaven and a new earth, wherein dwell righteousness, even this Holy Catholic Church, to which we all belong this day.
Yes, my friends, this is our gospel, our good news, that there is a God whose Spirit strives with sinners to change them into His own likeness. A God who is no dark, obstinate, inexorable Fate, whose arbitrary decrees must come to pass; but a loving and merciful God, long-suffering, and who repenteth Him of the evil; who repents Him of the evil which is in man, and hates it, and has sworn to Himself to fight against it, till He has put all enemies under His foot, and cast out of His kingdom all things which offend. Who repents Him of the evil in man: but who will never again repent Him of having made man, for then He would repent of having become man; He would repent of having been conceived of the Holy Ghost; He would repent of having been born of the Virgin Mary; He would repent of having been crucified, dead, and buried; He would repent of having risen from the dead, and ascended up into heaven in His man's body, and soul, and spirit; He would repent of sitting on the right hand of God; He would repent of coming to judge the quick and the dead; He would repent of having done His Father's will on earth, even as He did it from all eternity in the bosom of the Father. For He is a man; and even as the reasonable soul and body are one man, so God and man are one Christ. As man, He did His Father's will in Judaea of old; as man, He will judge the world; as man He rules it now; as man, St. John saw Him fifty years after He ascended to heaven, and His eyes were like a flame of fire, and His hair like fine wool, and He was girt under the bosom with a golden girdle, and His voice was like the sound of many waters; as man, He said: "Fear not: I am the first and the last; I am He that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of death and hell." Yes. This is the gospel, the good news for fallen man, that there is a Man in the midst of the throne of God, to whom all power is given in heaven and earth; that the fate of the world, and all that is therein--the fate of suns and stars--the fate of kings and nations--the fate of every publican and harlot, and heathen and outcast--the fate of all who are in death and hell, depends alike upon the sacred heart of Jesus; the heart which groaned at the tomb of Lazarus His friend; the heart which wept over Jerusalem; the heart which said to the blessed Magdalene, the woman who was a sinner: "Go in peace; thy sins are forgiven thee;" the heart which now yearns after every sinful and wandering soul in His church, and all over the earth of God, crying to you all: "Why will ye die? Have I any pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord, and not rather that he should turn from his wickedness and live? Come unto me, all ye that are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest." Oh, my friends, wonderful as my words are--as wonderful to me who speak them as they can be to you who hear them--yet they are true. True; for on that table stand the bread and wine whereof He Himself said, standing upon this very earth which He Himself had made: "This is my body which is given for you; this cup is the new covenant in my blood, which I will give for the life of the world."