The night is far spent, the day is at hand; let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.
Certain commentators would tell us, that St. Paul wrote these words in the expectation that the end of the world, and the second coming of Christ, were very near. The night was far spent, and the day of the Lord at hand. Salvation--deliverance from the destruction impending on the world, was nearer than when his converts first believed. Shortly the Lord would appear in glory, and St. Paul and his converts would be caught up to meet Him in the air.
No doubt St. Paul's words will bear this meaning. No doubt there are many passages in his writings which seem to imply that he thought the end of the world was near; and that Christ would reappear in glory, while he, Paul, was yet alive on the earth. And there are passages; too, which seem to imply that he afterwards altered that opinion, and, no longer expecting to be caught up to meet the Lord in the air, desired to depart himself, and be with Christ, in the consciousness that 'He was ready to be offered up, and the time of his departure was at hand.'
I say that there are passages which seem to imply such a change in St. Paul's opinions. I do not say that they actually imply it. If I had a positive opinion on the matter, I should not be hasty to give it. These questions of 'criticism,' as they are now called, are far less important than men fancy just now. A generation or two hence, it is to be hoped, men will see how very unimportant they are, and will find that they have detracted very little from the authority of Scripture as a whole; and that they have not detracted in the least from the Gospel and good news which Scripture proclaims to men--the news of a perfect God, who will have men to become perfect even as He, their Father in heaven, is perfect; who sent His only begotten Son into the world, that the world through Him might be saved.
In this case, I verily believe, it matters little to us whether St. Paul, when he wrote these words, wrote them under the belief that Christ's second coming was at hand. We must apply to his words the great rule, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation--that is, does not apply exclusively to any one fact or event: but fulfils itself again and again, in a hundred unexpected ways, because he who wrote it was moved by the Holy Spirit, who revealed to him the eternal and ever-working laws of the Kingdom of God. Therefore, I say, the words are true for us at this moment. To us, though we have, as far as I can see, not the least reasonable cause for supposing the end of the world to be more imminent than it was a thousand years ago--to us, nevertheless, and to every generation of men, the night is always far spent, and the day is always at hand.
And this, surely, was in the mind of those who appointed this text to be read as the Epistle for the first Sunday in Advent.
Year after year, though Christ has not returned to judgment; though scoffers have been saying, 'Where is the promise of His coming? for all things continue as they were at the beginning'--Year after year, I say, are the clergy bidden to tell the people that the night is far spent, that the day is at hand; and to tell them so, because it is true. Whatsoever St. Paul meant, or did not mean, by the words, a few years after our Lord's ascension into heaven, they are there, for ever, written by one who was moved by the Holy Ghost; and hence they have an eternal moral and spiritual significance to mankind in every age.
Whatever these words may, or may not have meant to St. Paul when he wrote them first, in the prime of life, we may never know, and we need not know. But we can guess surely enough what they must have meant to him in after years, when he could say--as would to God we all might be able to say--'I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them that love His appearing.'
To him, then, the night would surely mean this mortal life on earth. The day would mean the immortal life to come.
For is not this mortal life, compared with that life to come, as night compared with day? I do not mean to speak evil of it. God forbid that we should do anything but thank God for this life. God forbid that we should say impiously to Him, Why hast thou made me thus? No. God made this mortal life, and therefore, like all things which He has made, it is very good. But there are good nights, and there are bad nights; and there are happy lives, and unhappy ones. But what are they at best? What is the life of the happiest man without the Holy Spirit of God? A night full of pleasant dreams. What is the life of the wisest man? A night of darkness, through which he gropes his way by lanthorn-light, slowly, and with many mistakes and stumbles. When we compare man's vast capabilities with his small deeds; when we think how much he might know,--how little he does know in this mortal life,--can we wonder that the highest spirits in every age have looked on death as a deliverance out of darkness and a dungeon? And if this is life at the best, what is life at the worst? To how many is life a night, not of peace and rest, but of tossing and weariness, pain and sickness, anxiety and misery, till they are ready to cry, When will it be over? When will kind Death come and give me rest? When will the night of this life be spent, and the day of God arise? 'Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice. My soul doth wait for the Lord, more than the sick man who watches for the morning.'
Yes, think,--for it is good at times, however happy one may be oneself, to think--of all the misery and sorrow that there is on earth, and how many there are who would be glad to hear that it was nearly over; glad to hear that the night was far spent, and the day was at hand.
And even the happiest ought to 'know the time.' To know that the night is far spent, and the day at hand. To know, too, that the night at best was not given us, to sleep it all through, from sunset to sunrise. No industrious man does that. Either he works after sunset, and often on through the long hours, and into the short hours, before he goes to rest: or else he rises before daybreak, and gets ready for the labours of the coming day. The latter no man can do in this life. For we all sleep away, more or less, the beginning of our life, in the time of childhood. There is no sin in that--God seems to have ordained that so it should be. But, to sleep away our manhood likewise,--is there no sin in that? As we grow older, must we not awake out of sleep, and set to work, to be ready for the day of God which will dawn on us when we pass out of this mortal life into the world to come?
As we grow older, and as we get our share of the cares, troubles, experiences of life, it is high time to wake out of sleep, and ask Christ to give us light--light enough to see our way through the night of this life, till the everlasting day shall dawn.
'Knowing the time;'--the time of this our mortal life. How soon it will be over, at the longest! How short the time seems since we were young! How quickly it has gone! How every year, as we grow older seems to go more and more quickly, and there is less time to do what we want, to think seriously, to improve ourselves. So soon, and it will be over, and we shall have no time at all, for we shall be in eternity. And what then? What then? That depends on what now. On what we are doing now. Are we letting our short span of life slip away in sleep; fancying ourselves all the while wide awake, as we do in dreams--till we wake really; and find that it is daylight, and that all our best dreams were nothing but useless fancy? How many dream away their lives! Some upon gain, some upon pleasure, some upon petty self-interest, petty quarrels, petty ambitions, petty squabbles and jealousies about this person and that, which are no more worthy to take up a reasonable human being's time and thoughts than so many dreams would be. Some, too, dream away their lives in sin, in works of darkness which they are forced for shame and safety to hide, lest they should come to the light and be exposed. So people dream their lives away, and go about their daily business as men who walk in their sleep, wandering about with their eyes open, and yet seeing nothing of what is really around them. Seeing nothing: though they think that they see, and know their own interest, and are shrewd enough to find their way about this world. But they know nothing--nothing of the very world with which they pride themselves they are so thoroughly acquainted. None know less of the world than those who pride themselves on being men of the world. For the true light, which shines all round them, they do not see, and therefore they do not see the truth of things by that light. If they did, then they would see that of which now they do not even dream.
They would see that God was around them, about their path and about their bed, and spying out all their ways; and in the light of His presence, they dare not be frivolous, dare not be ignorant, dare not be mean, dare not be spiteful, dare not be unclean.
They would see that Christ was around them, knocking at the door of their hearts, that He may enter in, and dwell there, and give them peace; crying to their restless, fretful, confused, unhappy souls, 'Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn of Me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.'
They would see that Duty was around them. Duty--the only thing really worth living for. The only thing which will really pay a man, either for this life or the next. The only thing which will give a man rest and peace, manly and quiet thoughts, a good conscience and a stout heart, in the midst of hard labour, anxiety, sorrow and disappointment: because he feels at least that he is doing his duty; that he is obeying God and Christ, that he is working with them, and for them, and that, therefore, they are working with him, and for him. God, Christ, and Duty--these, and more, will a man see if he will awake out of sleep, and consider where he is, by the light of God's Holy Spirit.
Then will that man feel that he must cast away the works of darkness; whether of the darkness of foul and base sins; or the darkness of envy, spite, and revenge; or the mere darkness of ignorance and silliness, thoughtlessness and frivolity. He must cast them away, he will see. They will not succeed--they are not safe--in such a serious world as this. The term of this mortal life is too short, and too awfully important, to be spent in such dreams as these. The man is too awfully near to God, and to Christ, to dare to play the fool in their Divine presence. This earth looks to him, now that he sees it in the true light, one great temple of God, in which he dare not, for very shame, misbehave himself. He must cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life; lest, when Christ comes in His glory to judge the quick and the dead, he be found asleep, dreaming, useless, unfit for the eternal world to come.
Then let him awake, and cry to Christ for light: and Christ will give him light--enough, at least, to see his way through the darkness of this life, to that eternal life of which it is written, 'They need no candle there, nor light of the sun: for the Lord God and the Lamb are the light thereof.' And he will find that the armour of light is an armour indeed. A defence against all enemies, a helmet for his head, and breastplate for his heart, against all that can really harm his mind our soul.
If a man, in the struggle of life, sees God, and Christ, and Duty, all around him, that thought will be a helmet for his head. It will keep his brain and mind clear, quiet, prudent to perceive and know what things he ought to do. It will give him that Divine wisdom, of which Solomon says, in his Proverbs, that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord.
The light will give him, I say, judgment and wisdom to perceive what he ought to do; and it will give him, too, grace and power faithfully to fulfil the same. For it will be a breastplate to his heart. It will keep his heart sound, as well as his head. It will save him from breaking his good resolutions, and from deserting his duty out of cowardice, or out of passion. The light of Christ will keep his heart pure, unselfish, forgiving; ready to hope all things, believe all things, endure all things, by that Divine charity which God will pour into his soul.
For when he looks at things in the light of Christ, what does he see? Christ hanging on the cross, praying for His murderers, dying for the sins of the whole world. And what does the light which streams from that cross show him of Christ? That the likeness of Christ is summed up in one word--self-sacrificing love. What does the light which streams from that cross show him of the world and mankind, in spite of all their sins? That they belong to Him who died for them, and bought them with His own most precious blood.
'Beloved, herein is love indeed. Not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation of our sins.'
'Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.'
After that sight a man cannot hate; cannot revenge. He must forgive; he must love. From hence he is in the light, and sees his duty and his path through life. 'For he that hateth his brother walketh in darkness, and knoweth not whither he goeth: because darkness has blinded his eyes. But he that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is no occasion of stumbling in him. For he who dwelleth in love, dwelleth in God, and God in him.'
Therefore cast away the works of darkness, and put you on the armour of light, and be good men and true.
For of this the Holy Ghost prophesies by the mouth of St. Paul, and of all apostles and prophets. Not of times and seasons, which God the Father has kept in His own hand: not of that day and hour of which no man knows; no, not the Angels in heaven, neither the Son; but the Father only: not of these does the Holy Ghost testify to men. Not of chronology, past or future: but of holiness; because he is a Holy Spirit.
For this purpose God, the Holy Father, sent His Son into the world. For this God, the Holy Son, died upon the cross. For this God, the Holy Ghost--proceeding from both the Father and the Son--inspired prophets and apostles; that they might teach men to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armour of light; and become holy, as God is holy; pure, as God is pure; true, as God is true; and good, as God is good.