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Twenty-Five Village Sermons, 18 - IMPROVEMENT

By Charles Kingsley

      PSALM xcii. 12.

      "The righteous shall flourish like the palm-tree: he shall grow like the cedar in Lebanon. Those that be planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God. They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be fat and flourishing."

      The Bible is always telling Christian people to GO FORWARDS--to grow--to become wiser and stronger, better and better day by day; that they ought to become better, and better, because they can, if they choose, improve. This text tells us so; it says that we shall bring forth more fruit in our old age. Another text tells us that "those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength;" another tells us that we "shall go from strength to strength." Not one of St. Paul's Epistles but talks of growing in grace and in the knowledge of God, of being FILLED with God's Spirit, of having our eyes more and more open to understand God's truth. Not one of St. Paul's Epistles but contains prayers of St. Paul that the men to whom he writes may become holier and wiser. And St. Paul says that he himself needed to go forward--that he wanted fresh strength--that he had to forget what was past, and consider all he had done and felt as nothing, and press forward to the prize of his high calling; that he needed to be daily conquering himself more and more, keeping down his bad feelings, hunting out one bad habit after another, lest, by any means, when he had preached to others, he himself should become a castaway. Therefore, I said rightly, that the Bible is always bidding us go forwards. You cannot read your Bibles without seeing this. What else was the use of St. Paul's Epistles? They were written to Christian men, redeemed men, converted men, most of them better I fear than ever we shall be; and for what? to tell them not be content to remain as they were, to tell them to go forwards, to improve, to be sure that they were only just inside the gate of God's kingdom, and that if they would go on to perfection, they would find strength, and holiness, and blessing, and honour, and happiness, which they as yet did not dream of. "Be ye perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect," said our blessed Lord to all men. "Be ye perfect," says St. Paul to the Corinthians, and the Ephesians, and all to whom he wrote; and so say I to you now in God's name, for Christ's sake, as citizens of God's kingdom, as heirs of everlasting glory, "Be you perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect."

      Now I ask you, my friends, is not this reasonable? It is reasonable, for the Bible always speaks of our souls as living things. It compares them to limbs of a body, to branches of a tree, often to separate plants--as in our Lord's parable of the tares and the wheat. Again, St. Paul tells us that we have been planted in baptism in the likeness of Christ's death; and again, in the first Psalm, which says that the good man shall be like a tree planted by the waterside; and again, in the text of my sermon, which says "that those who are planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God. They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be fat and flourishing."

      Now what does all this mean? It means that the life of our souls is in some respects like the life of a plant; and, therefore, that as plants grow, so our souls are to grow. Why do you plant anything, but in order that it may GROW and become larger, stronger, bear flower and fruit? Be sure God has planted us in His garden, Christ's Church, for no other reason. Consider, again--What is life but a continual growing, or a continual decaying? If a tree does not get larger and stronger, year by year, is not that a sure sign that it is unhealthy, and that decay has begun in it, that it is unsound at heart? And what happens then? It begins to become weaker and smaller, and cankered and choked with scurf and moss till it dies. If a tree is not growing, it is sure in the long run to be dying; and so are our souls. If they are not growing they are dying; if they are not getting better they are getting worse. This is why the Bible compares our souls to trees--not out of a mere pretty fancy of poetry, but for a great, awful, deep, world-wide lesson, that every tree in the fields may be a pattern, a warning, to us thoughtless men, that as that tree is meant to grow, so our souls are meant to grow. As that tree dies unless it grows, so our souls must die unless they grow. Consider that!

      But how does a tree grow? How are our souls to grow? Now here, again, we shall understand heavenly things best by taking and considering the pattern from among earthly things which the Bible gives us--the tree, I mean. A tree grows in two ways. Its roots take up food from the ground, its leaves take up food from the air. Its roots are its mouth, we may say, and its leaves are its lungs. Thus the tree draws nourishment from the earth beneath and from the heaven above; and so must our souls, my friends, if they are to live and grow, they must have food both from earth and from heaven. And this is what I mean--Why has God given us senses, eyes, and ears, and understanding? That by them we may feed our souls with things which we see and hear, things which are going on in the world round us. We must read, and we must listen, and we must watch people and their sayings and doings, and what becomes of them, and we must try and act, and practise what is right for ourselves; and so we shall, by using our eyes and ears and our bodies, get practice, and experience, and knowledge, from the world round us--such as Solomon gives us in his Proverbs--and so our eyes, and ears, and understandings, are to be to us like roots, by which we may feed our souls with earthly learning and experience. But is this enough? No, surely. Consider, again, God's example which He has given us--a tree. If you keep stripping all the leaves off a tree, as fast as they grow, what becomes of it? It dies, because without leaves it cannot get nourishment from the air, and the rain, and the sunlight. Again, if you shut up a tree where it can get neither rain, air, nor light, what happens? the tree certainly dies, though it may be planted in the very richest soil, and have the very strongest roots; and why? because it can get no food from the sky above. So with our souls, my friends. If we get no food from above, our souls will die, though we have all the wit, and learning, and experience, in the world. We must be fed, and strengthened, and satisfied, with the grace of God from above--with the Spirit of God. Consider how the Bible speaks of God's Spirit as the breath of God; for the very word SPIRIT means, originally, breath, or air, or gas, or a breeze of wind, shewing us that as without the airs of heaven the tree would become stunted and cankered, so our souls will without the fresh, purifying breath of God's Spirit. Again, God's Spirit is often spoken of in Scripture as dew and rain. His grace or favour, we read, is as dew on the grass; and again, that God shall come unto us as the rain, as the first and latter rain upon the earth; and again, speaking of the outpourings of God's Spirit on His Church, the Psalmist says that "He shall come down as the rain upon the mown grass, as showers that water the earth;" and to shew us that as the tree puts forth buds, and leaves, and tender wood, when it drinks in the dew and rains, so our hearts will become tender, and bud out into good thoughts and wise resolves, when God's Spirit fills them with His grace.

      But again; the Scripture tells us again and again that our souls want light from above; and we all know by experience that the trees and plants which grow on earth want the light of the sun to make them grow. So, doubtless, here again the Scripture example of a tree will hold good. Now what does the sunlight do for the tree? It does every thing, for without light, the soil, and air, and rain, are all useless. It stirs up the sap, it hardens the wood, it brings out the blossom, it colours the leaves and the flowers, it ripens the fruit. The light is the life of the tree;--and is there not one, my friends, of whom these words are written--that He is the Life, and that He is the Light--that He is the Sun of Righteousness and the bright and morning Star--that He is the light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world--that in Him was life, and the life was the light of men? Do you not know of whom I speak? Even of Him that was born at Bethlehem and died on the cross, who now sits at God's right hand, praying for us, offering to us His body and His blood;--Jesus the Son of God, He is the Light and the Life. From Him alone our light must come, from Him alone our life must come, now and for ever. Oh, think seriously of this--and think, too, how a short time before He died on earth He spoke of Himself as the Bread of life--the living Bread which comes down from heaven; how He declared to men, that unless they eat His flesh and drink His blood, they have no life in them. And, lastly, consider this, how the same night that He was betrayed, He took bread, and when He had given thanks, He brake it, and said, "Take, eat; this is my body, which is given for you; this do in remembrance of me." And how, likewise, He took the cup, and when He had blessed it, He gave it to them, saying, "Drink ye all of this, for this is the new covenant in my blood, which is shed for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins; this do, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me." Oh, consider these words, my friends--to you all and every one they were spoken. "Drink ye ALL of this," said the Blessed One; and will you refuse to drink it? He offers you the bread of life, the sign and the pledge of His body, which shall feed your souls with everlasting strength and life; and will you refuse what the Son of God offers you, what He bought for you with His death? God forbid, my friends! This is your blessed right and privilege--the right and the privilege of every one of you--to come freely and boldly to that holy table, and there to remember your Saviour. At that table to confess your Saviour before men--at that table to shew that you really believe that Jesus Christ died for you--at that table to claim your share in the strength of His body, in the pardon of His blood, which cleanses from all sin--and at that table to receive what you claim, to receive at that table the wine, as a sign from Christ Himself, that His blood has washed away your sins; and the bread, as a sign that His body and His spirit are really feeding your spirits, that your souls are strengthened and refreshed by the body and blood of Christ, as your bodies are with the bread and wine. I have shewn you that your souls must be fed from heaven,-- that the Lord's Supper is a sign to you that they ARE fed from heaven. You pray to God, I hope, many of you, that He would give you His Holy Spirit, that He would change, and renew, and strengthen your souls--you pray God to do this, I hope--Well, then, there is the answer to your prayers. There your souls WILL be renewed and strengthened--there you will claim your share in Christ, who alone can renew and strengthen them. The bread which is there broken is the communion, the sharing, of the body of Christ; the cup which is there blessed is the communion of the blood of Christ: to that heavenly treat, to that spiritual food of your souls, Jesus Himself invites you, He who is the life of men. Do not let it be said at the last day of any one of you, that when the Son of God Himself invites you, you would not come to Him that you might have life.

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