By John Percival
"A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you."--EZEKIEL xxxvi. 26.
In the beautiful and suggestive dream of Solomon, which is recorded in the third chapter of the First Book of Kings, God appears to him, saying, "Ask what I shall give thee"; and Solomon's answer is, "O Lord, I am but a child set over this great people, give me, I pray Thee, a hearing heart." And God said to him, "Because thou hast asked this thing, and hast not asked for thyself long life, nor riches; behold, I have done according to thy words. I have given thee a wise and understanding heart, and I have also given thee that which thou hast not asked, both riches and honour." And the record of this vision was clearly meant to indicate that the supreme gift of the wisest of men was the hearing or understanding heart. On the other hand, there is nothing against which our Lord in the Gospels utters stronger warnings than that dulness or deadness of spirit which is described as having eyes that see not, and ears that are dull of hearing, and hearts that do not understand. And in illustration of this we read how, while the crowds throng or press upon Jesus, it is the stricken woman who, with soul sensitive to His influence, feels the virtue come out of Him though she only touches the hem of His garment.
Thus we are warned to beware lest that should come upon us which was the ruin of the Jews, dulness or deadness of spiritual faculty; and we are exhorted to pray for and to cherish the hearing heart, the soul that sees and feels spiritual influences, and is sensitive to every high call. And if your soul is thus open and receptive, it is marvellous how full the world becomes to you of Divine voices. They come upon you unexpected, unsought, sending through your heart some illuminating flash of surprise, so that you wonder at your previous dulness; they strike you with the sudden shock of some new knowledge or insight, and make you feel, as never before, the true nature of your daily conduct or your duty and your relation to other men; or they come as the unresting presence of some new thought, which, once roused, haunts and troubles you with questions which you cannot answer, or feelings which you cannot get rid of.
When the soul is roused in this way we see and feel the hatefulness of any sin that may have tempted or beset us; or we contrast our own life with that of those whose lot is so much harder than ours, and we are struck with shame at our selfishness, or waste, or our indifference to the privation, and sin, and suffering that are all around us in the world.
Or sometimes these Divine voices in our ears bring it home to us how much we are losing out of our life's higher possibilities, if from sinful or selfish habit, from dulness of spirit or lack of sympathy, we cut ourselves off in thought and feeling and interest from the great needs, the great sorrows, the great pulsations of the larger world.
But why, you may ask, do I dwell on all this? It is because these are the true Advent voices for us, coming as they do to rouse us out of narrow preoccupation, to open our eyes to the sinfulness of sin, to make us feel that the self-centred, isolated, self-seeking life is a life of a low type, and to stir us with social and religious interests and enthusiasms.
These calls that come to you, whether invited or not, and that stir your heart, speaking to you out of the multitudinous life of the time you live in, are like the watchmen on the walls of Jerusalem, which never hold their peace day nor night.
This ferment of higher life within us and around us, these voices of the Spirit in us, as it struggles to lift us out of the region of fleshly influences, is renewed in every generation and in every single life. If you hear no such voices, if the phenomena of life make no such impression upon you, if you are deaf to all these calls, and care for none of these things, then it is clear that your soul is not yet awake in you; you are living with a dull or darkened heart. It is a sort of cave life, or subterranean life, you lead in such a case, a life of lower rank and lesser hopes.
Yet these voices from above, that come as the witness of the Divine Spirit with our spirit that we are the children of God, never fail us. They do not belong only to times far off. We are not to think of them merely as enshrined in the Bible and peculiar to it; but as living voices that are speaking to us to-day out of the depths of the Divine life, in which our life is sustained.
But we have always to bear this in mind, that the Divine voices speak to men with most stirring effect in every generation when they speak to them through the pressing needs of their own day. To the Jews the voice of God came in the inspired language of their deliverers and prophets--in their unceasing warnings, and their impassioned appeals, and their revelations of new truth. To the first generation of Christians these same voices came in the shape of strong Advent hopes. Many things contributed to lift the Apostles and their followers nearer to God than men of ordinary times. They had seen the Lord; they had lived in His presence; they had gone through much tribulation; the tongue of fire had rested on them; the Spirit had taken full possession of them; but we cannot read the New Testament without feeling that the most stirring, the most regenerative influence in their society was the vividness and intensity of their Advent hope. Their expectation of the Lord's return lifted them out of the temptations of the world and above the trials of it. It took hold of their active powers, and made them new men.
Their Advent expectation was not the vague, half mystic, half sentimental movement of the heart, which just touches the lives of so many Christians during our Advent seasons, while it does not really alter any of their earthly concerns.
Christ was very near to the Apostolic Christians. As the eastern sky brightened every morning they felt that it might be the light of His coming; they thought of Him as only hidden from them by the neighbouring cloud. They looked for Him to return at midnight, or at the cock-crowing, or in the noonday, and none could say how soon. And so it came to pass that this expectation made those first believers, those humble followers of Christ, those Galilean fishermen, those obscure provincials, instinct with that great life which lifts men above the world, and constitutes them a new power in it.
Our lives are largely influenced by the thought of slow development; but we miss a great deal of the secret of all higher life if we forget this wonderful exaltation of the poor and ignorant and obscure by this gift of the Spirit and the inspiration of Divine hope. It was not by any method which we could have forecast that those men found out this charm which takes the heart captive and regenerates the life. In their presence we feel the force of the prophet's words, "Not by might nor by power, but by My spirit, saith the Lord."
But then there rises the question, How are these Divine influences to become powerful in us also?
On the one hand, we are conscious that as we live involved or entangled in the worldly life, or in any form of external life around us, the spiritual part of us slumbers or is overlaid. It loses its practical power over our thought, our feeling, and our conduct--our lamp goes out. Whilst on the other hand we are conscious that the special form of Advent expectation which inspired and possessed the first generation of Christians is gone from us past recovery. We see clearly enough as we read the New Testament what that first generation expected, and how the expectation transformed their lives; but we see also that they were mistaken in their hope, and that God's providential plan proved to be far greater than their human conception of it. What, then, are our Advent hopes?
There are two things which we should keep clear in our minds concerning them. One, that they must be based upon our feeling of the living influence of Christ and the working of the Holy Spirit; and the other is that the voices of the Spirit must come to us out of the needs of our own life and of the time we live in if they are to lead us to practical issues. When we look out upon the world and its life we feel that Advent hopes must take some new form if they are to preserve reality and to be fulfilled.
We see decaying faith in some quarters, and selfishness growing where faith decays; we see ignorance and want and all their crop of sin and misery deep-rooted in the life of every city; and the prospect which these things suggest, the problems that meet us as we think of them, might well fill us with misgiving. And they would indeed do so were it not for the fact that the revelation of such things brings with it another revelation also; it seizes on men's souls and stirs them as with a Divine summons. And thus we have these hopeful signs for the future rising around us, even where things look darkest, that the great problems of humanity are felt in our day to be above all things its social and religious problems. And seeing that the aspirations of the time--the feelings, the purposes, the aims, and hopes that lift men--grow out of the needs of the time and the problems of its life, we look forward--we have good ground for looking forward--to a generation of men who shall be distinguished by religious earnestness and by social enthusiasm.
But if this be so, what will your share be in this coming life? The Spirit of God, as we now understand it, comes to us with calls of this kind.
If you would hasten the Advent of Christ in your own soul and in the souls of others, you must discard selfishness, you must rise above self- indulgence, you must prepare to merge yourself in the social life, for the social good; seeing that the growth of this good is the only sure and certain sign of the coming of the Lord. So, then, the Angel of the Advent is thus calling us. The future before you is big with social and religious issues, and the Spirit of Christ is brooding over it, and you and such as you are to be His chosen instruments in helping forward these issues.