And ye shall know that I am the Lord, when I have wrought with you for my name's sake, not according to your wicked ways, nor according to your corrupt doings, O ye house of Israel, saith the Lord God.-- EZEKIEL xx. 44.
In this chapter the prophet Ezekiel argues with his sinful and rebellious countrymen, and puts them in mind of all that God has done for them and with them, from the time when He brought them out of Egypt to that day.
And now comes the old question, What has this to do with us! St. Paul tells us that all things which happened to the old Jews happened for our example. What example can we learn from this chapter?
This, I think, we may learn: Is not the way in which God taught these Jews the same way in which He teaches many a man--perhaps every man? Which of us, when we were young, has not had his teaching from God? The old Catechism which our mothers taught us, was not that a word from God Himself to us? The voice of conscience, which made us happy when we had done right, and uneasy and ashamed when we had gone wrong; was not that a word from God to us? Yes, my friends, those child's feelings of ours about right and wrong, were none other than the voice of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God, the Light which lightens every man who comes into the world. I tell you, every right thought and wish, every longing to be better than you were, which ever came into any one of your hearts, came from Him, the Lord Jesus. It was His word, His voice, His Spirit, speaking to your spirit, just as really as He spoke to His prophet Ezekiel, of whom we have been reading. Think of that. Recollect, never, never forget, that all your good thoughts and feelings are not your own, not your own at all, but the Lord's; that without His light your hearts are nothing but darkness, blind ignorance, and blind selfishness, and blind passions and lusts; that it is He, he Himself, who has been fighting against the darkness in you all your life long. Oh think, then, what your sin has been in putting aside those good thoughts and longings! You were turning your back, you were shutting your doors to the Lord God Himself, very God of very God begotten, by whom all things were made. The Creator came to visit His creature, and His creature shut Him out. The Almighty God pleaded with mortal man, and mortal man bade God go, and come back at a more convenient season! A voice in your heart seemed to say: "Oh, if I could but be a better man! How I wish that I could but give up these bad habits, and mend! I hate and despise myself for being so bad." And then you fancied that that voice was your own voice, that those good thoughts were your own thoughts. If you had really known whose they were; if you had really known, as the Bible tells you, that they were the Word of the Lord, the only-begotten Son of the Father, speaking to your heart, I hardly think that you would have been so ready to say yourself: "Well, then, I will mend; but not just now: some day or other; somehow or other, I hope, I shall be a better man. It will be time enough to make my peace with God when I am growing old." You would not have dared to thrust away the good thoughts, and keep them waiting, while you took your pleasure in a few more years' sin; if you had guessed WHOM you were thrusting away; if you had guessed whom you were keeping waiting.
And, my good friends, has not God been saying to us many a time from our youth up, as He did to the Jews of old: "Do not walk in the statutes of your fathers, nor defile yourselves with their idols?" Do you ask me how? Why, thus. Have you never said to yourself: "How ill my father prospered, because he would do wrong!" Or, again: "See how evil doing brings its own punishment. There is so and so growing rich, by his cheating and his covetousness, and yet, for all his money, I would not change places with him. God forbid that I should have on my mind what he has on his mind!" Why should I make a long story of so simple a matter? Which of us has not felt at times that thought? How much misery has come in this very parish from the ill-doing of the generation who are gone to their account, and from the ill-training which they gave their children?
And what was that but the Word of the Lord Himself speaking to our hearts, and saying to us: "Do not defile yourselves with their idols; do not hurt your souls by hunting after the things which they loved better than they loved Me: money, pleasure, drink, fighting, smuggling, poaching, wantonness, and lust; I am the Lord your God?"
And yet, young people will not listen to that warning voice of God. They see other people, even their own fathers and mothers, punished for their sins; perhaps made poor by their sins, perhaps made unhealthy by their sins, perhaps made miserable and ill-tempered by their sins: and yet they go and fall into, or rather walk open-eyed into, the very same sins which made their parents wretched. Oh, how many a young person sees their home made a complete hell on earth by ungodliness, and the ill-temper and selfishness which come from ungodliness; and, then, as soon as they have a home of their own, set to work to make their own family as miserable as their father's was before them.
But people say often: "How could we help it? We had no chance; we were brought up in bad ways; we had a bad example set us; how can you expect us to be better than our fathers and mothers, and our elder brothers and sisters? If we had had a fair chance, we might have been different: but we had none; and we could not help going the bad way, for we were set in it the day we were born."
Well, my dear friends, God shall judge you, not I. If little is given to a man little is required of him. But not nothing at all; because more than nothing was given him. A little is given to every man; and, therefore, a little is required of every man. And so, he who knew not his Master's will shall be beaten with few stripes. But he will be beaten with some stripes, because he ought to have known something, at least of his Master's will. If you were dumb animals, which can only follow their own lusts and passions, and must be what nature has made them, then your excuse would be good enough; but your excuse is not good now, just because you are men and women, and not dumb beasts, and, therefore, can rise above your natures, and conquer your lusts and passions, as they cannot, and can do what you do not like, because, though you dislike it, you know that it is right. And, therefore, God does not take that excuse which sinners make, that they have had no teaching. But what does he do to them?
Suppose, now, that you had a dog which would not be taught, or broken in, or cured of biting, or made useful, or bearable in any way, what would you do to that dog? I suppose that you would kill it; you would say: "It is an ill-conditioned animal, and there is no making it any better; so the only thing is to put it out of the way, and not let it eat food which might be better spent." Now, does God deal so with sinners? When young people rush headlong into sin, and become a nuisance to themselves and their neighbours, does God kill them at once, that better men may step into their place? No. And why? Just because they are not dumb animals, which cannot be made better, but God's children, who can be made better. If there were really no hope of a sinner repenting and amending, I think God would not leave him long alive to cumber the ground. But there is hope for every one; because God the Father loves all; the loving heart of the Lord Jesus Christ yearns after all; the Holy Spirit, which proceeds from the Father and the Son, strives with the hearts of all; therefore God, in His patience and tender mercy, tries to bring his foolish children to their senses. And how? Often in the very same way, in which Ezekiel says He tried to bring the Jews to their senses, by letting them go on in the road of sin, till they see what an ugly pit that same road ends in. If your child would not believe you when you warned and assured him that the fire would burn him, would it not be the very best way of bringing him to his senses, to tell him: "Very well; go your own way; put your hand into the fire, and see what comes of it; you will not believe me; you will believe your own feelings, when your hand is burnt." So did the Lord to those rebellious Jews when they would go after their fathers' sins. He gave them statutes which were not good, and judgments by which they could not live, to the end that they might know that He was the Lord. God did not make them commit any sins. God forbid! He only took away His Spirit, His light and teaching, from them, and let them go on in the light of their own foolish and bewildered hearts, till their sin bred misery and shame to them, and they were filled with the fruit of their own devices. Then, after all their wealth was gone, and their land was wasted by cruel enemies, and they themselves were carried away captive into Babylon, they began to awake, and say to themselves: "We were wrong after all, and the Lord was right. He knew what was really good for us better than we did. We thought that we could do without Him, disobey Him. But He is the Lord after all. He has been too strong for us; He has punished us. If we had listened to His warnings years ago, we might have been saved all this misery."
Ah, how many a poor foolish creature, in misery and shame, with a guilty conscience and a sad heart, sits down, like the prodigal son, among the swinish bad company into which his sins have brought him, longing to fill his belly with the husks which the swine eat! but he cannot. He tries to forget his sorrow by drinking, by bad company, by gambling, by gossiping, like the fools around him: but he cannot. He finds no more pleasure in sin. He is sick and tired of it. He has had enough of it and too much. He is miserable, and he hardly knows why. But miserable he is. There is a longing, and craving, and hunger at his heart after something better; at least after something different. Then he begins to remember his heavenly Father's house. Old words which he learnt at his mother's knee, good old words out of his Catechism and his Bible, start up strangely in his mind. He had forgotten them, laughed at them, perhaps, in his wild days. But now they come up, he does not know where from, like beautiful ghosts gliding in. And he is ashamed of them; they reproach him, the dear old lessons; and yet they seem pleasant to him, though they make him blush. And at last he says to himself: "Would God that I were a little child again; once more an innocent little child at my mother's knee! I thought myself clever and cunning. I thought I could go my own way and enjoy myself. But I cannot. Perhaps I have been a fool; and the old Sunday books were right after all. At least I am miserable. I thought I was my own master. But perhaps He about whom I used to read in the Sunday books is my Master after all. At least I am not my own master; I am a slave. Perhaps I have been fighting against Him, against the Lord God, all this time, and now He has shown me that He is the stronger of the two. . . . And so the poor man learns in trouble and shame to know, like the Jews of old, who is the Lord.
And when the Lord has drawn a man thus far, does He stop? Not so. He does not leave His work half done. If the work is half done, it is that we stop, not that He stops. Whosoever comes to Him, howsoever confusedly, or clumsily, or even lazily they may come, He will in no wise cast out. He may afflict them still more to cure that confusion and laziness; but He is a physician who never sends a willing patient away, or keeps him waiting for a single hour.
How then does the Lord deal with such a man? Does He drive him further? Not if he will go without being driven. You would call it cruel to drive a beast on with blows, when it was willing to be led peaceably. And be sure God is not more cruel than man. As soon as we are willing to be led, He will take His rod off from us, and lead us tenderly enough. For I have known God do this to a man, and a sinful man as ever trod this earth. I have known such a man brought into utter misery and shame of heart, and heavy affliction in outward matters, till his spirit was utterly broken, and he was ready to say: "I am a beast and a fool. I am not worth the bread I eat. Let me lie down and die." And then, when the Lord had driven that man so far, I have seen, I who speak to you now, how the Lord turned and looked on that man as he turned and looked on Peter, and brought his poor soul to life again, as He brought Peter's, by a loving smile, and not an angry frown. I have seen the Lord heap that man with all manner of unexpected blessings, and pay him back sevenfold for all his affliction, and raise him up, body and soul, and satisfy him with good things, so that his youth was renewed like the eagle's. And so the man's conversion to God, though it was begun by God's chastisements and afflictions, was brought to perfection by God's mercy and bounty; and it happened to that man, as Ezekiel prophesied that it would happen to the Jews, that not fear and dread, but honour, gratitude, and that noble shame of which no man need be ashamed, brought him home to God at last. "And you shall remember your ways, and all your doings wherein ye have been defiled: and you shall loathe yourselves in your own sight for all the evils which you have committed. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I have wrought with you for my name's sake, not according to your wicked ways, nor according to your corrupt doings, O house of Israel, saith the Lord God."
You see that God's mercy to them would not make them conceited or careless. It would increase their shame and confusion when they found out what sort of a Lord He was against whom they had been rebellious; long-suffering and of tender mercy, returning good for evil to His disobedient children. That feeling would awake in them more shame and more confusion than ever: but it would be a noble shame, a happy confusion, and tears of joy and gratitude, not of bitterness. Such a shame, such a confusion, such tears, as the blessed Magdalene's when she knelt at the Lord's feet, and found that, instead of bating her and thrusting her away for all her sins, He told her to go in peace, pardoned and happy. Then she knew the Lord; she found out His character--His name; for she found out that His name was love. Oh, my friends, this is the great secret; the only knowledge worth living for, because it is the only knowledge which will enable you to live worthily--to know the Lord. That knowledge will enable you to live a life which will last, and grow, and prosper for ever, beyond the grave, and death, and judgment, and eternities of eternities. As the Lord Himself said, when He was upon earth, "This is eternal life, to know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent." Therefore there is no use my warning you against sin, and telling you, do not do this, and do not do that, unless I tell you at the same time who is the Lord. For till you know that The Good God is the Lord, you will have no real, sound, heartfelt reason for giving up your sins; and what is more, you will not be able to give them up. You may alter your sort of sins from fear of this and that; but the root of sin will be there still; and if it cannot bear one sort of fruit it will bear another. If you dare not drink or riot, you may become covetous and griping; if you dare not give way to young men's sins, you will take to old men's sins instead; if you dare not commit open sins you will commit secret ones in your thoughts. Sin is much too stout a plant to be kept from bearing some sort of fruit. As long as it is not rooted up the root will breed death in you of some sort or other; and the only feeling which can root up sin is to know that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is your Lord, and that your Lord condescended to die upon the cross for you; that you must be the Lord's, and are not your own, but bought with the price of His most precious blood, that you may glorify God with your body and your soul, which are His.
Just so, the blessed St. Augustine found that he could never conquer his own sins by arguing with himself, or by any other means, till he got to know God, and to see that God was the Lord. And when his spirit was utterly broken; when he saw himself, in spite of all his wonderful cleverness and learning, to have been a fool and blind all along, though people round him were flattering him, and running after him to hear his learning; then the old words which he learnt at his mother's knee came up in his mind, and he knew that God was the Lord after all, and that God had been watching him, guiding him, letting him go wrong only to show him the folly of going wrong, caring for him even when He left him to himself and his sins, and the sad ways of his sins; bearing with him, pleading with his conscience, alluring him back to the only true happiness, as a loving father with a rebellious and self-willed child. And then, when St. Augustine had found out at last that God was his Lord, who had been taking the charge of him all through his heathen youth, he became a changed man. He was able to conquer his sins; for God conquered them for him. He was able to give up the profligate life which he had been leading; not from fear of punishment, but from the Spirit of God--the spirit of gratitude, honour, trust, and love toward God, which made him abide in God, and God abide in him. To that blessed state may God of His great mercy bring us all. To it He will bring us all unless we rebel and set up our foolish and selfish will against His loving and wise will. And if He does bring us to it, it is little matter whether He brings us to it through joy or through sorrow, through honour or through shame, through the garden of Eden, or through the valley of the shadow of death. For, my dear friends, what matter how bitter the medicine is, if it does but save our lives?