"I write unto you, little children, because ye have known the Father."
I preached some time ago a sermon on the whole of these most deep and blessed verses of St. John.
I now wish to speak to those who are of age to be confirmed three separate sermons on three separate parts of these verses. First to those whom St. John calls little children; next, to those whom He calls grown men. To the first I will speak to-day; to the latter, by God's help, next Sunday. And may the Blessed One bring home my weak words to all your hearts!
Now for the meaning of "little children." There are those who will tell you that those words mean merely "weak believers," "babes in grace," and so on. They mean that, no doubt; but they mean much more. They mean, first of all, be sure, what they say. St. John would not have said "little children," if he had not meant little children. Surely God's apostle did not throw about his words at random, so as to leave them open to mistakes, and want some one to step in and tell us that they do not mean their plain, common-sense meaning, but something else. Holy Scripture is too wisely written, and too awful a matter, to be trifled with in that way, and cut and squared to suit our own fancies, and explained away, till its blessed promises are made to mean anything or nothing.
No! By little children, St. John means here children in age,--of course CHRISTIAN children and young people, for he was writing only to Christians. He speaks to those who have been christened, and brought up, more or less, as christened children should be. But, no doubt, when he says little children, he means also all Christian people, whether they be young or old, whose souls are still young, and weak, and unlearned. All, however old they may be, who have not been confirmed--I do not merely mean confirmed by the bishop, but confirmed by God's grace,--all those who have not yet come to a full knowledge of their own sins,--all who have not yet been converted, and turned to God with their whole hearts and wills, who have not yet made their full choice between God and sin,--all who have not yet fought for themselves the battle which no man or angel can fight for them--I mean the battle between their selfishness and their duty--the battle between their love of pleasure and their fear of sin--the battle, in short, between the devil and his temptations to darkness and shame, and God and His promises of light, and strength, and glory,--all who have not been converted to God, to them St. John speaks as little children--people who are not yet strong enough to stand alone, and do their duty on God's side against sin, the world, and the devil. And all of you here who have not yet made up your minds, who have not yet been confirmed in soul,--whether you were confirmed by the bishop or not,--to you I speak this day.
Now, first of all, consider this,--that though St. John calls you "little children," because you are still weak, and your souls have not grown to manhood, yet he does not speak to you as if you were heathens and knew nothing about God; he says, "I have written unto you, little children, because ye have known the Father." Consider that; that was his reason for all that he had written to them before; that they had known the Father, the God who made heaven and earth--the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ--the Father of little children--my Father and your Father, my friends, little as we may behave like what we are, sons of the Almighty God. That was St. John's reason for speaking to little children, because they had already known the Father. So he does not speak to them as if they were heathens; and I dare not speak to you, young people, as if you were heathens, however foolish and sinful some of you may be; I dare not do it, whatever many preachers may do nowadays; not because I should be unfair and hard upon you merely, but because I should lie, and deny the great grace and mercy which God has shewn you, and count the blood of the covenant, with which you were sprinkled at baptism, an unholy thing; and do despite to the spirit of grace which has been struggling in your hearts, trying to lead you out of sin into good, out of light into darkness, ever since you were born. Therefore, as St. John said, I say, I preach this day to you, young people, because you have known your Father in heaven!
But some of you may say to me, 'You put a great honour on us; but we do not see that we have any right to it. You tell us that we have a very noble and awful knowledge--that we know the Father. We are afraid that we do not know Him; we do not even rightly understand of whom or what you preach.'
Well, my young friends, these are very awful words of St. John; such blessed and wonderful words, that if we did not find them in the Bible, it would be madness and insolence to God of us to say such a thing, not merely of little children, but even of the greatest, and wisest, and holiest man who ever lived; but there they are in the Bible--the blessed Lord Himself has told us all, "When ye pray, say, Our Father in heaven;"--and I dare not keep them back because they sound strange. They may SOUND strange, but they ARE NOT strange. Any one who has ever watched a young child's heart, and seen how naturally and at once the little innocent takes in the thought of his Father which is in heaven, knows that it is not a strange thought--that it comes to a little child almost by instinct--that his Father in heaven seems often to be just the thought which fills his heart most completely, has most power over him,--the thought which has been lying ready in his heart all the time, only waiting for some one to awaken it, and put it into words for him; that he will do right when you put him in mind of his Father above the skies sooner than he will for a hundred punishments. For truly says the poet,--
"Heaven lies about us in our infancy, Not in complete forgetfulness, Nor yet in utter nakedness, But trailing clouds of glory do we come, From God who is our home!"
And yet more truly said the Blessed One Himself, "That children's angels always behold the face of our Father which is in heaven;" and that "of such is the kingdom of heaven." Yet you say, some of you, perhaps, 'Whatever knowledge of our Father in heaven we had, or ought to have had, when we were young, we have lost it now. We have forgotten what we learnt at school. We have been what you would call sinful; at all events, we have been thinking all our time about a great many things beside religion, and they have quite put out of our head the thought that God is our Father. So how have we known our Father in heaven?'
Well, then, to answer that,--consider the case of your earthly fathers, the men who begot you and brought you up. Now there might be one of you who had never seen his father since he was born, but all he knows of him is, that his name is so and so, and that he is such and such a sort of man, as the case might be; and that he lives in such and such a place, far away, and that now and then he hears talk of his father, or receives letters or presents from him. Suppose I asked that young man, Do you know your father? would he not answer--would he not have a right to answer, 'Yes, I know him. I never saw him, or was acquainted with him, but I know him well enough; I know who he is, and where to find him, and what sort of a man he is.' That young man might not know his father's face, or love him, or care for him at all. He might have been disobedient to his father; he might have forgotten for years that he had a father at all, and might have lived on his own way, just as if he had no father. But when he was put in mind of it all, would he not say at once, 'Yes, I know my father well enough; his name is so and so, and he lives at such and such a place. I know my father.'
Well, my young friends, and if this would be true of your fathers on earth, it is just as true of your Father in heaven. You have never seen Him--you may have forgotten Him--you may have disobeyed Him-- you may have lived on your own way, as if you had no Father in heaven; still you know that you have a Father in heaven. You pray, surely, sometimes. What do you say? "Our Father which art in heaven." So you have a Father in heaven, else what right have you to use those words,--what right have you to say to God, "Our Father in heaven," if you believe that you have no Father there? That would be only blasphemy and mockery. I can well understand that you have often said those words without thinking of them--without thinking what a blessed, glorious, soul-saving meaning there was in them; but I will not believe that you never once in your whole lives said, "Our Father which art in heaven," without believing them to be true words. What I want is, for you ALWAYS to believe them to be true. Oh young men and young women, boys and girls--believe those words, believe that when you say, "Our Father which art in heaven," you speak God's truth about yourselves; that the evil devil rages when he hears you speak those words, because they are the words which prove that you do not belong to him and to hell, but to God and the kingdom of heaven. Oh, believe those words--behave as if you believed those words, and you shall see what will come of them, through all eternity for ever.
Well, but you will ask, What has all this to do with confirmation? It has all to do with confirmation. Because you are God's children, and know that you are God's children, you are to go and confirm before the bishop your right to be called God's children. You are to go and claim your share in God's kingdom. If you were heir to an estate, you would go and claim your estate from those who held it. You are heirs to an estate--you are heirs to the kingdom of heaven; go to confirmation, and claim that kingdom, say, 'I am a citizen of God's kingdom. Before the bishop and the congregation, here I proclaim the honour which God has put upon me.' If you have a father, you will surely not be ashamed to own him! How much more when the Almighty God of heaven is your Father! You will not be ashamed to own Him? Then go to confirmation; for by doing so you own God for your Father. If you have an earthly father, you will not be ashamed to say, 'I know I ought to honour him and obey him;' how much more when your father is the Almighty God of heaven, who sent His own Son into the world to die for you, who is daily heaping you with blessings body and soul! You will not be ashamed to confess that you ought to honour and obey Him? Then go to confirmation, and say, 'I here take upon myself the vow and promise made for me at my baptism. I am God's child, and therefore I will honour, love, and obey Him. It is my duty; and it shall be my delight henceforward to work for God, to do all the good I can to my life's end, because my Father in heaven loves the good, and has commanded me, poor, weak countryman though I be, to work for Him in well-doing.' So I say, If God is your Father, go and own Him at confirmation. If God is your Father, go and promise to love and obey Him at confirmation; and see if He does not, like a strong and loving Father as He is, confirm you in return,--see if He does not give you strength of heart, and peace of mind, and clear, quiet, pure thoughts, such as a man or woman ought to have who considers that the great God, who made the sky and stars above their heads, is their Father. But, perhaps, there are some of you, young people, who do not wish to be confirmed. And why? Now, look honestly into your own hearts and see the reason. Is it not, after all, because you don't like the TROUBLE? Because you are afraid that being confirmed will force you to think seriously and be religious; and you had rather not take all that trouble yet? Is it not because you do not like to look your ownselves in the face, and see how foolishly you have been living, and how many bad habits you will have to give up, and what a thorough conversion and change you must make, if you are to be confirmed in earnest? Is not this why you do not wish to be confirmed? And what does that all come to? That though you know you are God's children, you do not like to tell people publicly that you are God's children, lest they should expect you to behave like God's children--that is it. Now, young men and young women, think seriously once for all--if you have any common SENSE--I do not say grace, left in you--think! Are you not playing a fearful game? You would not dare to deny your fathers on earth-- to refuse to obey them, because you know well enough that they would punish you--that if you were too old for punishment, your neighbours, at least, would despise you for mean, ungrateful, and rebellious children! But because you cannot SEE God your Father, because you have not some sign or wonder hanging in the sky to frighten you into good behaviour, therefore you are not afraid to turn your backs on him. My friends, it is ill mocking the living God. Mark my words! If a man will not turn He will whet His sword, and make us feel it. You who can be confirmed, and know in your hearts that you ought to be confirmed, and ought to be REALLY converted and confirmed in soul, and make no mockery of it,--mark my words! If you will not be converted and confirmed of your own good will, God, if He has any love left for you, will convert and confirm you against your will. He will let you go your own ways till you find out your own folly. He will bring you low with affliction perhaps, with sickness, with ill-luck, with shame. Some way or other, He will chastise you, again and again, till you are forced to come back to Him, and take His service on you. If He loves you, He will drive you home to your Father's house. You may laugh at my words now, see if you laugh at them when your hairs are grey. Oh, young people, if you wish in after-life to save yourselves shame and sorrow, and perhaps, in the world to come eternal death, come to confirmation, acknowledge God for your Father, promise to come and serve Him faithfully, make those blessed words of the Lord's Prayer, "Our Father in heaven," your glory and your honour, your guide and guard through life, your title-deeds to heaven. You who know that the Great God is your Father, will you be ashamed to own yourselves His sons?