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Sermons on National Subjects, 42 - GOD'S COVENANTS

By Charles Kingsley

      I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.--GENESIS ix. 13.

      The text says that God made a covenant with Noah, and with his seed after him--that is, with all mankind; with us who sit here, and our children after us, and with all human beings who will ever live upon the face of the earth. God made a covenant with them. Now, what is a covenant? We say that two men make a covenant with each other when they make a bargain, an agreement; in this way: If you will do this thing, then I will do that; but if you will not do this thing, I will not do that. If you do not keep to our agreement, I am free of it. If I do not do my part of the agreement, you are free. Is not that what we call a covenant--a bargain between two parties, which, if either party breaks it, becomes null and void, and binds neither? Let us see whether God's covenants with man are of this kind.

      Does God say to Noah: "If you and your children are righteous, I will look upon the rainbow, and remember my covenant: but if you and your children are unrighteous, I will not look on the rainbow, and I will break my covenant because you have broken it?" We read no such words; God made no conditions with Noah and his sons. Whether they forgot the covenant or not, God would remember it. It was a covenant of free grace, even as all God's covenants are. Not a bargain, but a promise. "By Myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, that I will not fail David." By Himself He sware to Abraham: "Surely blessing I will bless thee, and multiplying I will multiply thee." That is the form of God's covenants. God swears by Himself--by God who cannot change. If God can change, then His covenant can change. If God can fail Himself, then can He fail His covenant to which He has sworn by Himself. If it had been a mere bargain, like men's bargains, and not a promise out of His absolute love, His free grace, His boundless mercy, would He have sworn by Himself? Nay, rather, He would have sworn by Abraham: "By thy obedience or disobedience I swear to bless thee or curse thee." But He swore by Himself, the absolute, the unchangeable, the Giver whose name is Love.

      Consider now the token of the covenant which God gave to Noah. It was the rainbow. What is the rainbow? Sunlight turned back to our eye, through drops of falling rain. What sign could be more simple? And yet what sign could be more perfect? Noah's sons would fear that another flood was coming, perhaps flood after flood. The token of the rainbow said to them, No. Floods and rain are not to be the custom of this earth. Sunshine is to be the custom of it. Do not fear the clouds and storm and rain; look at the bow in the cloud, in the very rain itself. That is a sign that the sun, though you cannot see it, is shining still. That up above, beyond the cloud, is still sunlight, and warmth, and cloudless blue sky. Believe in God's covenant. Believe that the sun will conquer the clouds, warmth will conquer cold, calm will conquer storm, fair will conquer foul, light will conquer darkness, joy will conquer sorrow, life conquer death, love conquer destruction and the devouring floods; because God is light, God is love, God is life, God is peace and joy eternal and without change, and labours to give life, and joy, and peace, to man and beast and all created things. This was the meaning of the rainbow. Not a sudden or strange token, a miracle, as men call it, like as some voice out of the sky, or fiery comet, might have been; but a regular, orderly, and natural sign, to witness that God is a God of order. Whenever there was a rainy day there might be a rainbow. It came by the same laws by which everything else comes in the world. It was a witness that God who made the world is the friend and preserver of man; that His promises are like the everlasting sunshine which is above the clouds, without spot or fading, without variableness or shadow of turning.

      And do you fancy, my friends, that the new covenant, the covenant which God made with all mankind in the blood of His only-begotten Son, is narrower or weaker than the covenant which He made with Noah, Abraham, and David? He asked no conditions from them. Do you think He asks them from us? He called them by free grace. Do you think He calls us by anything less? He swore by Himself to them. How much more has He sworn by Himself to us? He who was born, and died, and rose again for us, who now sits at the right hand of the Father, very Man of the substance of a human mother, yet very God of very God begotten.

      His covenants of old stood true and faithful, however disobedient and unfaithful men might be; as it is written: "I have sworn once for all by my holiness, that I will not fail David." And those words, the New Testament declares to us, again and again, are true of the new covenant, and fulfilled in the Lord Jesus Christ, into whose name we are baptized. Yes; into whose name we are baptized. There is the sign of the new covenant; of a covenant of free grace. Therefore we can bring our children to be baptized as we were baptized ourselves, before they have done either good or evil, for a sign that God's love is over them, God's kingdom is their inheritance, God's love their everlasting portion.

      But we may fall from grace; and then what good will our baptism be to us? We shall be lost, just as if we had never been baptized.

      My friends, if, though the sun was shining in the sky, you shut your eyes close, and kept out the light, what use would the sunlight be to you? You would stumble, and fall, and come to harm, as certainly as in the darkest night. But would the sun go out of the sky, my friends, because you were unwise enough to shut your eyes to it? The sun would still be there, shining as bright as ever. You would have only to be reasonable and to open your eyes, and you would see your way again as well as ever.

      So it is with holy baptism. In it we were made members of Christ, children of God, inheritors of the kingdom of heaven. God's love is above us and around us, like a warm, bright, life-giving sun. We may shut our eyes to it, but it is there still. We may disbelieve our baptism covenant, but it is true still. We are children of God; and nothing that we can do, no sin, no unfaithfulness of ours, can make us anything else. We can no more become not God's children, than a child can become not his own father's son. But this we can do by sinning, by disbelieving that we are God's children, by behaving as the devil's children when we are God's; we can believe ourselves not God's children when we are; we can try to be what we are not; we can enter into a lie, and into the misery to which all lies lead; we can walk in darkness, and stumble, and fall, when all the while we are children of the light, and have only to open our eyes to walk in the light. Ay, we can shut our eyes to the light so long, that at last we forget that there is any light at all; and that is the gate of hell. We may wrap ourselves up in our selfishness, in selfish pleasures, selfish cunning, selfish covetousness, and selfish pride, till we forget that there is anything better for us than selfishness, till we forget that God is love, and that we His children are meant to be loving even as He is loving; and that also is the gate of hell. And worst and darkest of all, when in that stupid, sinful, loveless state of mind, God's loving Spirit still strives and pleads with us, and tries to awaken us, and terrify us with the sight of the everlasting misery and ruin into which we have thrown ourselves, we may turn those pleadings of God's Spirit, by our own evil wills, into a darker curse than all which have gone before. We may refuse to believe that God is love, and fancy Him as hard, and cruel, and proud, and spiteful, and unloving as we ourselves are. We may refuse, though Scripture, Prayer-book, sacraments, preachers, assure us of it, that God is our Father still; and deny His covenant of baptism, and blaspheme His holy name, by fancying Him our tyrant and taskmaster, who hates us, and willeth the death of a sinner, and has pleasure in the death of him that dieth. And then we may behave according to the lie which we ourselves have invented, and all sorts of inventions of our own to escape God's wrath, when, in reality, it is He who is wishing to turn His wrath away from us; and to win back His favour, when, in reality, it is not we who are out of favour with Him, but He who is out of favour with us, who dread Him and shrink from Him; we may try to deliver ourselves from Him, when all the while it is He, the very God whom we are dreading and flying from, who alone is able and willing to deliver us; and with all our fears, and self-tormentings, and faithless terrors, and blasphemings of God by fancying Him the very opposite to what He has declared Himself, we shall get no peace of conscience, no deliverance from sins, or from the fear of punishment, but only a fearful and fiery looking forward to judgment, which is hell. That is superstition; hell on earth; when men have so utterly forgotten the likeness of God, which He manifested in His Son Jesus Christ, that they look on Him as a stern and dreadful taskmaster, a tyrant, and not a deliverer. Hell on earth, which may and must lead to hell hereafter; a hell of fear, and doubt, and hatred of Him who is all lovely; the hell whereof it is written, that its worst torment is being cast out from the sight of God: unless the hapless sinner opens his eye and believes the covenant of his baptism, and sees that God cannot lie, God cannot change, cannot break His covenant, cannot alter His love; that though he have left his Father's house, and wandered into far countries, and wasted his Father's substance in riotous living, he is still his Father's son, his Father's house is still where it was from the beginning, his Father's heart still what it was from the beginning; and so arises and goes back to his Father's house, confessing that he is no more worthy to be called His son, willing to be only as one of His hired servants; and then--sees not the stern countenance, the cruel punishments which he dreaded: but--"While he was yet afar off, his Father saw him, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him!"

      And if, in our sins, our only hope of comfort, and peace, and strength, lies in remembering our baptismal covenant, and being sure and certain that though we have changed, God has not; that though we are dark, God's love shines bright and clear for ever, how much more when the dark day of affliction comes? Why should I speak of this and that affliction? Each heart knows its own bitterness; each soul has its own sorrow; each man's life has its dark days of storm and tempest, when all his joys seem flown away by some sudden blast of ill-fortune, and the desire of his eyes is taken from him, and all his hopes and plans, all which he intended to do or to enjoy, are hid with blinding mist, so that he cannot see his way before him, and knows not whither to go, and whither to flee for help; when faith in God seems broken up for the moment, when he feels no strength, no will, no purpose, and knows not what to determine, what to do, what to believe, what to care for; when the very earth seems reeling under his feet, and the fountains of the abyss are broken up: then let him think of God's covenant, and take heart; let him think of his baptism, and be at peace. Is the sun's warmth perished out of the sky, because the storm is cold with hail and bitter winds? Is God's love changed, because we cannot feel it in our trouble? Is the sun's light perished out of the sky, because the world is black with cloud and mist? Has God forgotten to give light to suffering souls, because we cannot see our way for a few short days of perplexity?

      For this is the gospel, this is the message which we have received from God, to preach to every sad and desolate heart on earth, that God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all. That God is love, and in Him there is no cruelty at all. That God is one, and in Him there is no change at all. And therefore, we all, the most ignorant of us as well as the wisest, the most sinful of us as well as the holiest, the saddest and most wretched of us as well as the happiest, have a right to join in that Litany which is offered up here thrice every week during the time of Lent, and to call upon God to deliver us and all mankind, not merely because we wish to be delivered from evil, but because God wishes to deliver us from evil. If we pray that Litany in any dark dread of God, in doubt of His love and goodwill towards us, like terrified slaves crying out to a hard taskmaster, and entreating him not to torment them, we do not pray that Litany aright; we do not pray it at all. For it asks God not to leave us alone, but to come to us; not to stop punishing us, but actually Himself to deliver us, to defend us, to set us free. Therefore it begins by calling on God the Father, because He is our Father; on God the Son, because He has already redeemed and bought us for His own; on God the Holy Spirit, because He has been striving with our wilful hearts from our youth up till now, lovingly desiring to teach us, to change us, to sanctify us. Therefore it calls on the holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, three Persons and one God, because the Son does not love us better than the Father does, or than the Holy Spirit does, but in the life and death of the Man Christ Jesus, whom we call on to deliver us by His birth, His baptism, His death, His resurrection, by all that His manhood did and suffered here on earth, in His life and death, I say, were shown forth bodily the glory, and condescension, and love, and goodwill of the fulness of the Godhead, of all three Persons of the one and undivided Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Therefore we may pray boldly to Him to spare us, because we know that we are already His people, already redeemed with his most precious blood, already declared by holy baptism to be bound to Him in an everlasting covenant. Therefore we may pray boldly to Him not to be angry with us for ever, because we know that He desires to bless us for ever, if we will only let Him; if we will only let His love have free course, and not shut our hearts to it, and turn our backs upon it. Therefore we can ask Him to deliver us in all time of our tribulation and misery; in all time of the still more dangerous temptations which wealth and prosperity bring with them; in the hour of death, whether of our own death or the death of those we love; in the day of judgment, whereof it is written: "It is God who justifieth us, who is he that condemneth? It is Christ who died, yea rather who is risen again, who even now maketh intercession for us." To that boundless love of God which He showed forth in the life of Christ Jesus; to that utter and perfect will to deliver us, which God showed forth in the death of Christ Jesus, when the Father spared not His only-begotten Son, but freely gave Him for us; to that boundless love we may trust ourselves, our fortunes, our families, our bodies, our souls, the souls of those we love. Trusting in that great love, we may pray in that Litany for deliverance; to be delivered from distress and accidents, from all sins which drag us down, and make us miserable, ashamed, confused, terrified, selfish, hateful, and hating each other. We may pray to be delivered from evil, because God is righteousness, and hates evil. We may pray to be delivered from our sins, because God is righteousness, and hates our sins. We may pray for the Queen, her ministers, her parliament, because God's love and care is over them; for all orders and ranks of men, whether laymen or clergymen, high or low, in God's holy church; for all who are afflicted and desolate; for all who are wandering in ignorance, and mistakes, and sin; ay, for all mankind, for God loves them all, the Son of God has bought them all with His most precious blood. And however dark, and sad, and sinful the world may seem around us; however dark, and sad, and sinful our own hearts may be within us, we may find comfort in that Litany, and pour out in it our sorrows and our fears, if we begin only as it begins, with the thought of God who is righteousness, God who is love, God who is the Deliverer. And then, as the rainbow reflects the sunbeams for a sign and token that the sun is shining, though we see it not; so will that blessed Litany, with its sacred name of God, its calls to Him who was born of the Virgin Mary, and crucified under Pontius Pilate; its entreaties to God to deliver us, because He is a deliverer; to hear us, and send us good, because He is a good Lord Himself; its remembrances of the noble works which God did in our fathers' days, and in the old time before them; its noble declaration that God does not despise the sighing of a contrite heart, nor the desire of a humble spirit, and that it is the very glory of His name to turn from us those evils which we most justly have deserved--that Litany, I say, will be like a rainbow declaring to our dark and stormy hearts that the sun is shining still above the clouds; that over and above us, and all mankind, and all the changes and chances of this mortal life, is the still bright sunshine, the life-giving warmth of the Sun of Righteousness, the absolute eternal love of our Father who is in heaven, who, as he has declared by the mouth of His only-begotten Son, is perfect in this, that He does not deal with us after our sins, nor reward us according to our iniquities, but is good to the unthankful and the evil, sending His rain alike upon the just and on the unjust, and making His sun to shine alike upon the evil and the good.

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