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Westminster Sermons, 14 - THE WORD OF GOD

By Charles Kingsley

      PSALM CXIX. 89-96.

      O Lord, Thy word endureth for ever in heaven. Thy truth also remaineth from one generation to another: Thou hast laid the foundation of the earth, and it abideth. They continue this day according to Thine ordinance: for all things serve Thee. If my delight had not been in Thy law, I should have perished in my trouble. I will never forget Thy commandments: for with them Thou hast quickened me. I am Thine, oh save me: for I have sought Thy commandments. The ungodly laid wait for me to destroy me: but I will consider Thy testimonies. I see that all things come to an end: but Thy commandment is exceeding broad.

      This text is of infinite importance, to you, and me, and all mankind. For if the text is not true; if there is not a Word of God, who endures and is settled for ever in heaven: then this world is a miserable and a mad place; and the best thing, it seems to me, that we poor ignorant human beings can do, is to eat and drink, for to morrow we die.

      But that is not the best thing we can do; but the very worst thing. The best thing that we can do, and the only thing worth doing is, to be good, and do good, at all risks and all costs, trusting to the Word of God, who endures for ever in heaven.

      But who is this Word of God? I say who, not what. We often call the Bible the Word of God: and so it is in one sense, because it tells us, from beginning to end, about this other Word of God. It is, so to speak, God's word or message about this Word. But it is plain that the Psalmist is not speaking here of the Bible; for he says--

      "Thy Word endureth for ever in Heaven:" and the Bible is not in heaven, but on earth.

      But in the Bible, usually, this Word of the Lord means not only the message which God sends, but Him by whom God sends it. The Word of God, Word of the Lord, is spoken of again and again, not as a thing, but as a person, a living rational being, who comes to men, and speaks to them, and teaches them; sometimes, seemingly, by actual word of mouth; sometimes again, by putting thoughts into their minds, and words into their mouths.

      Recollect Samuel: how when he was young the Word of the Lord was precious--that is, uncommon, and almost unknown in those days; and how the Lord came and called Samuel, Samuel; and put a word into his mouth against Eli. And so the Lord appeared again in Shiloh; for the Lord revealed Himself to Samuel in Shiloh by The Word of the Lord. In Samuel's case, there was, it seems, an actual voice, which fell on Samuel's ears. In the case of the later prophets, we do not read that they usually heard any actual voice, or saw any actual appearance. It seems that the Word of the Lord who came to them inspired their minds with true thoughts, and inspired their lips to speak those thoughts in noble words, often in regular poetry. But He was The Word of the Lord, nevertheless. Again and again, we read in those grand old prophets, "The Word of the Lord came unto me, saying,"--or again, "The Word which came to Jeremiah from the Lord, saying." It is not the Bible which is meant by such words as these--I am sorry to have to remind a nineteenth century congregation of this fact--but a living being, putting thoughts into the prophets' minds, and words into their mouths, and a divine passion too, into their hearts, which they could not resist; like poor Jeremiah of old, when he was reproached and derided about The Word of the Lord, and said, "I will not make mention of Him, nor speak any more in His name. But He was in my heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not hold my peace."

      But now, what words are these which we read of this same Word of the Lord, in the first chapter of St John's Gospel? "In the beginning was The Word: and The Word was with God, and The Word was God. By Him all things were made, and without Him was not anything made that was made. And in Him was life, and the life was the light of men."

      Thus--as always--the Old Testament and the New, the Psalmist and St John, agree together.

      This is the gospel and good news, which the Psalmist saw in part, but which St John saw fully and perfectly. But because the Psalmist saw it even in part, he saw that The Word of the Lord endured for ever in heaven; and that therefore his only hope of safety was to listen eagerly and reverently for what that Word might choose to say to him.

      But why does the Psalmist seemingly go out of his way, as it were, to say, "Thou hast laid the foundation of the earth, and it abideth. They continue this day according to Thine ordinance, for all things serve Thee"?

      For the very same reason that St John goes, seemingly, out of his way to say, "All things were made by The Word, and without Him was not anything made that was made."

      Why is this?

      Look at it thus: What an important question it is, whether This Word of God is a being of order; a regular being; a law-abiding being; a being on whose actions men can count; who can be trusted, and depended on, not to alter His own ways, not to deceive us poor mortal men.

      The Psalmist wants to know his way through this world, and his duty in this mortal life. Therefore he must learn the laws and rules of this world. And he has the sense to see, that no one can teach him the rules of the world, but the Ruler of the world, and the Maker of the world.

      Then comes the terrible question--too many, alas! have not got it answered rightly yet--

      But are there any rules at all in the world? Does The Lord manage the world by rules and laws? Or does He let things go by chance and accident, and take no care about them? Is there such a thing as God's Providence: or is there not? To that the Psalmist answers firmly, because he is inspired by the Spirit of God--

      O Lord, Thy Word endureth--is settled--for ever in heaven. In Thee is no carelessness, neglect, slothfulness, nor caprice. Thou hast no variableness, neither shadow of turning. Thou hast laid the foundation of the earth, and it abideth. They continue this day according to Thine ordinance; for all things serve Thee. The world is full of settled and enduring rules and laws; and God keeps to them. The Psalmist looks at the sun, moon and stars over his head, each keeping its settled course, and its settled season: and he sees them all obeying law. He looks at summer and winter, seedtime and harvest: and he sees them obeying law. He looks at birth and growth, at decay and death; and sees them too, obeying law. He looks at the very flowers beneath his feet, and the buds in the woodland, and all the crowd of living things about him, animal, vegetable and mineral: and they too obey law; each after their kind. The world, he says, is full of law. It is a settled world, an orderly world, made and governed by a Lord of order, who makes laws and enforces laws; a Lord whose Word endures for ever in heaven. Therefore--he feels--I can trust that Lord. If He has laws for the beasts and birds, He must have, much more, laws for men. If He has laws for men's bodies, much more has He laws for their souls. What I have to do, is to ask Him to teach me those laws, that I may live.

      But then comes another, and even a more awful question--If I ask Him, will He teach me? Alas! alas! too many have not found the answer yet; too many of those who know most about the Laws of Nature, and reverence those laws most: and all honour to them for so doing; for, even though they know it not, they are preparing the way of the Lord, and making His paths straight. But they have not found the right answer to that question yet. Still there the question is; and you and I, and every soul of man, must get some reasonable answer or other to it, if we wish to be men indeed, men in spirit and in truth; and it is this--

      If I ask this Word of God to teach me His Laws--Will He teach me? Will He hear me? Can He hear: or is He Himself a mere brute force, a law of nature and necessity? And even if not, will He hear? Or is He, too, like those Epicurean gods, of whom our great poet sings--a sad and hopeless song:--

      They lie beside their nectar, and the bolts are hurled
      Far below them in the valleys, and the clouds are lightly curled
      Round their golden houses, girdled with the gleaming world,
      Where they smile in secret, looking over wasted lands,
      Blight and famine, plague and earthquake, roaring deeps and fiery sands,
      Clanging fights, and flaming towns, and sinking ships, and praying hands.

      And praying hands. Oh, my friends, is not the question of all questions for such poor mortal souls as you and me, beset by ignorance and weakness, and passions which are our own worst enemies, and chances and catastrophes which we cannot avert--Is not the question of all questions for such as us--Will this same Word of God--will any unseen being out of the infinite void which surrounds our little speck of a planet, take any notice of our praying hands? Will He hear us, teach us, when we cry? Or is God, and The Word of God, like those old heathen gods? Is He a God who hides Himself, and leaves us to despair and chance: or is He a God who hears, and gives us even a single ray of hope? Is He a gracious God, who will hear every man's tale, however clumsily told, and judge it according to its merits: or even--for that is better than dead silence and carelessness--according to its demerits? Is He a just God? Or has He likes and dislikes, favourites and victims; as human rulers and statesmen, and human parties too, and mobs, are wont to have? May He not, even, like those Epicurean gods, despise men? find a proud satisfaction in deceiving them; or at least letting them deceive themselves?--in playing with their ignorance, and leaving them to reap the fruits of their own childishness?

      To that the Psalmist answers--and I know not how he learnt to answer so, save by the inspiration of the Spirit of God; for I know well that neither flesh and blood, the experience of his own brain, thoughts, and emotions, nor the world around him, either of nature or of man, would ever have revealed that to him--to that he answers confidently, in spite of all appearances--

      Thy truth, O Lord, abideth from one generation to another. Thou art a truthful God, a faithful God, whose word can be taken. A God in whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning; who keepeth His promise for ever; true, as man can be true; and truer than the truest man. And I know it, says he, by experience. God has actually taught me His law: for if my delight had not been in it, I should have perished in my trouble. I will never forget His commandments; for by them He has given me life; has taught me what to do, and enabled me to do it, to prevent the death and ruin of my body, and soul, and spirit.

      Now for the very same reason it is, that St John is so careful, first to tell us that The Word of God made all things; and then to tell us that He is full of grace and truth.

      He tells us that The Word made all things, that we may be sure that He is a God of order, because all things which He has made are full of order; a God who acts by rules and laws which we may trust. He tells us that The Word made all things, that we may be sure that all things, being His handy-work, will bear witness of Him and teach us about Him, and shew forth His glory.

      But he tells us moreover--Oh gospel, and good news for blind and weak humanity!--that The Word's glory is full of grace; gracious; ready to condescend; ready to teach us, and give us light to see our way through this world which He has made.

      He tells us that The Word's glory is full of truth; that He is truthful, accurate, and to be depended on; and will tell us nothing but what is true. That He is a true Word of God, and when He speaks to us of His Father and of our Father, He tells the truth.

      And so do St John and the Psalmist agree in the same gospel, and good news, of the mystery of Christ The Word.

      There is an eternal Being in heaven, who is called The Word of God; because He speaks of, and reveals--that is, unveils and shews--to men, and angels, and archangels, and all created beings, that God whom no man hath seen, or can see; a Word who dwells for ever in the bosom of The Father, in the light which no man can approach unto: but who for ever comes forth from thence to proclaim to all created beings--There is a God, and The Word is His likeness; the brightness of His glory, and the express image of His person. None hath seen the Father at any time: but the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him. None cometh to the Father, but through Him. But he who hath seen Him, hath seen the Father; and He is none other than Jesus Christ our Lord.

      He is The Word of God, who speaks to men God's words, because He speaks not His own words but His Father's, and does not His own will but His Father's who sends Him.

      He speaks to us and to all men, in many ways; and to each according to his needs. To all men, Christ speaks through their consciences, shewing them what is good, and warning them of what is evil; for He is the Light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world. To Christians Christ speaks in many ways--to which, alas, too few give heed--through the Bible, through the sacraments, through sermons, through the thoughts and words of all wise and holy men. To the good He speaks with gracious encouragement; to the wicked with awful severity. To the hypocrites He says at times, "Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?" To the self-satisfied and bigoted He says, "If ye had been blind, ye had had no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth." To the careless and worldly He says, "I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot. Thou sayest, I am rich and increased with goods, I have need of nothing: and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked."

      To those who are ruining themselves by their own folly He says, "Why will ye die? I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord: but rather that he should be converted, and live." To those who are tormented by their own passions He says, "Take My yoke upon you and learn of Me, for I am meek and lowly of heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls." To those who are wearied with the burden of their own sins He says, "Come unto Me, all ye that are weary, and heavy laden, and I will give you rest."

      To those who are struggling, however weakly, to do what is right He says, "I know thy works. Behold, I have set before thee an open door, and none can shut it; for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept My word, and hast not denied My name. Because thou hast kept the word of My patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation."

      And to those who mourn for those whom they have loved and lost He says, "Fear not, I am the first and the last, I am He that liveth, and was dead; and behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death. He that believeth in Me, though he die, yet shall he live; and he that liveth and believeth in Me shall never die."

      For every one of us, according to his character and his needs, Christ speaks a fitting word from God, because He is The Word of God; and every word which He speaks to us is true, and sure, and eternal, according to the laws of God His Father. For He is The Word who endures for ever in heaven; and though heaven and earth may pass away, His words cannot pass away.

      Yes; Christ The Word speaks to all: but most of all to children: to the children, of whom He said--"Suffer the little children to come to me, and forbid them not;"--of whom He said to grown-up people, not--Except these children be converted and become as you--He left that message for the Pharisees of His own time, and of every age and creed: but--Except you grown people be converted and become as little children, you, and not they, shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven.

      Let us tell children that--that Christ Himself is speaking to them. That The Word of God is educating them. That the Light who lightens every man who comes into the world is labouring to enlighten them, their intellect and memory, their emotions and their consciences. Let that be the ground of all our education of children. Then it will matter little to us who teaches them what is miscalled secular knowledge. For we shall tell our children--In it, too, Christ is teaching you. The understanding by which you understand the world about you is Christ's gift. The world which you are to understand is Christ's world; for He laid the foundation of the earth, and it abideth. The physical laws of the universe are Christ's laws; for all things serve Him, and continue this day according to His ordinance. Every natural object is a result of Christ's will, and its organization a product of Christ's mind; for without Him was not anything made that was made. The whole course of events, great and small, is Christ's providence; for to Him all power is given in heaven and earth. So far, therefore, from being afraid to teach our children Natural Science, we shall hold it a sacred duty to teach it; for it is the will and mind of Christ, The Word of God.

      And as for morality--we shall be ready to teach that, as far as the prudential and paying virtues are concerned, as boldly and on the very same grounds as the merest Utilitarian. For we shall teach honesty, courtesy, decency, self-restraint, patience, foresight, on the warrant of the Bible; which is, that Christ has made the world so well, that sooner or later every wise and just act rewards itself, every foolish and unjust act punishes itself, by the very constitution of nature and society, which again are laid down by Christ. But what of the nobler, the non- prudential, and non-paying virtues?--call them rather graces.--Them we shall teach our children--as I believe we can only teach them rationally and logically, either to children or to grown-up people--by pointing them to Christ upon His cross, and saying to them, "Behold your God!"

      For so we shall be able to train them in the orthodox doctrine of morals, which is--

      That there is nothing good in man which is not first in God.

      We shall be able to make them comprehend what we mean when we tell them that they are members of Christ, and must live the Life of Christ; that they are children of God, and as such must imitate their Father, and become perfect, even as their Father in heaven is perfect.

      For we shall say--The pure and perfect graces, the disinterested virtues, the unselfish virtues--obedience, mercy, chivalry, beneficence, magnanimity, heroism,--in one word, self-sacrifice--beautiful these are: but are they necessary? are they mere ornaments? or are they sacred duties? The duty which dares and suffers for the thing it ought to do; the love which dares and suffers for the thing it loves; the unselfish spirit which looks for no reward:--why should these dwell in man? To that we shall answer--Because they dwell for ever in God. If we are asked--Why are they beautiful in man? we shall answer--Because they are the very beauty and glory of God; the glory which the Incarnate Word of God manifested to men, when He hung on the cross of Calvary; and was more utterly then, if possible, than ever, The Word of God: because He then declared most utterly to men the character and essence of God. Love which is not content--as what true love is?--to be a passive sentiment, a self-contained possibility, but which must go out of itself, pitying, yearning, agonizing, to seek, to struggle, to suffer, and, if need be, to die for the creature which it loves, even if that creature love it not again.

      We need not say this to children. We need only point them to Christ upon His cross, and trust Christ to say it to them, in their heart of hearts, through instincts too deep for words. All we need say to our children is--"Behold your God! He it is who inspires you with every dutiful, generous, and unselfish impulse you have ever felt; for they are the fruits of His Spirit. By that Spirit He was once unselfish even to the death. By that Spirit He will enable you to carry out in action, as He did, the unselfish instincts which He has given you; and to live the noble life, the heroic life, the life of self-sacrifice; the life of God; the life of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; and therefore the only life fit for those who are baptized into that Holy Name."

      This is the ground and method on which we should educate our children; for it is the ground and method on which The Word of God is educating us.

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