And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon God.
Then shall they begin to say to the mountains. Fall on us; and to the hills, Cover us.
These two passages occur, the one in the first lesson of this morning's service, the other in the second. One or other of them must have been, or must be, the case of you, of me, of every soul of man that lives or has lived since the world began. There must be a time in the existence of every human being when he will fear God. But the great, the infinite difference is, whether we fear him at the beginning of our relations to him, or at the end.
The fear of Moses was felt at the beginning of his knowledge of God. When God revealed himself to him at the bush, it was, so far as we are told, the first time that Moses learnt to know him. The fear of those who say to the mountains, "Fall on us," is felt at the very end of their knowledge of God; for to those who are punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, God is not. So that the two cases in the text are exact instances of the difference of which I spoke, in the most extreme degree. Moses, the greatest of the prophets, fears God at first; those who are cast into hell, fear him at last.
The appearance of God, as described in this passage of Scripture, is an image also of his dealings with us at the beginning of our course, when we fear him with a saving fear. "The bush burned with fire, but the bush was not consumed." God shows his terrors, but he does not, as yet, destroy with them. It is the very opposite to this at last, for then he is expressly said to be a consuming fire.
Moses turned aside to see this great sight, why the bush was not burnt. That sight is the very same which the world has been offering for so many hundreds of years: God's terrors are around it, but, as yet, it is not consumed, because he wills that we should fear him before it is too late.
There is, indeed, this great difference; -- that the signs of God's presence do not now force themselves upon our eyes; so that we may, if we choose, walk on our own way, without turning aside to see and observe them. And thus we do not see God, and do not, therefore, hide our faces for fear of him, but go on, and feel no fear, till the time when we cannot help seeing him. And it may be, that this time will never come till our life, and with it our space of trial, is gone for ever.
Here, then, is our state, that God will manifest himself no more to us in such a way as that we cannot help seeing him. The burning bush will be no more given us as a sign; Christ will no more manifest himself unto the world. And yet, unless we do see him, unless we learn to fear him while he is yet an unconsuming fire, unless we know that he is near, and that the place whereon we stand is holy ground, we shall most certainly see him when he will be a consuming fire, and when we shall join in crying to the mountains, to fall on us, and to the hills, to cover us.
Every person who thinks at all, must, I am sure, be satisfied, that our great want, the great need of our condition, is this one thing -- to realize to ourselves the presence of God. It is a want not at all peculiar to the young. Thoughtfulness, in one sense, is indeed likely to come with advancing years: we are more apt to think at forty than at fifteen; but it by no means follows that we are more apt to think about God. In this matter we are nearly at a level at all times of our life: it is with all of us our one great want, to bring the idea of God, with a living and abiding power, home to our minds.
This is illustrated by a wish ascribed to a great and good man -- Johnson, and which has been noticed with a sneer by unbelievers, a wish that he might see a spirit from the other world, to testify to him of the truth of the resurrection. This has been sneered at, as if it were a confession of the unsatisfactory nature of the evidence which we actually possess: but, in truth, it is a confession only of the weakness which clings to us all, that things unseen, which our reason only assures us to be real, are continually overpowered by things affecting our senses; and, therefore, it was a natural wish that sight might, in a manner, come to the aid of reason; that the eye might see, and the ear might hear, a form and words which belonged to another world. And this wish might arise (I do not say wisely, or that his deliberate judgment would sanction it, but it might arise) in the breast of a good man, and one who would be willing to lay down his life in proof of his belief in Christ's promises. It might arise, not because he felt any doubt, when his mind turned calmly to the subject; not because he was hesitating what should be the main principle of his life; but because his experience had told him, that there are many times in the life of man when the mind does not fully exert itself; when habit and impressions rule us, in a manner, in its stead. And when so many of our impressions must be earthly, and as our impressions colour our habits, is it not natural (I do not say wise, but is it not natural) to desire some one forcible unearthly impression, which might, on the other side, colour our habits, and so influence us at those times when the mind, almost by the necessity of our condition, cannot directly interpose its own deliberate decision as our authority?
No doubt the wish to which I have been alluding is not one which our reason would sanction; but it expresses in a very lively and striking manner a want which is most true and real, although it proposes an impossible remedy. But the question cannot but occur to us, Can it be that our heavenly Father, who knows whereof we are made, should have intended us to live wholly by faith in this world? That is, Can it have been his will that all visible signs of himself should be withdrawn from us; and that we should be left only with the record and the evidence of his mighty works done in our behalf in past times; and with that other evidence of his wisdom and power which is afforded by the wonders of his creation?
We look into the Scriptures and we learn that such was not his will. We were to live by faith, indeed, with, respect to the unseen world, there the sign given was to be for ever only the sign of Christ's resurrection. But yet it was not designed that the evidence of Christ's having redeemed us should be sought for only in the records of the past; he purposed that there should be a living record, a record that might speak to our senses as well as to our reason; that should continually present us with impressions of the reality of Christ's salvation; and so might work upon the habits of our life, as insensibly as the air we breathe. This living witness, which should last till Christ came again, was to be no other than his own body instinct with his own Spirit -- his people, the temple of the Holy Ghost, his holy universal Church.
If we consider for a moment, this would entirely meet the want of which I have been speaking. It is possible, certainly, to look upon the face of nature without being reminded of God; yet it is surely true, that in the outward creation, in the order of the seasons, the laws of the heavenly bodies, the wonderful wisdom and goodness displayed in the constitution of every living thing in its order, there is a tendency at least to impress us with, the thought of God, if nothing else obstructed it. But there is a constant obstruction in the state of man. Looking at men, hearing them, considering them, it is not only possible not to be reminded of God; but their very tendency is to exclude him from our minds, because the moral workmanship which is so predominant in them has assuredly not had God for its author. We all in our dealings with one another, lead each other away from God. We present to each other's view what seems to be a complete world of our own, in which God is not. We see a beginning, a middle, and an end; we see faculties for acquiring knowledge, and for receiving enjoyment; and earth furnishes knowledge to the one and enjoyment to the other. We see desires, and we see the objects to which they are limited; we see that death removes men from all these objects, and consistently with this, we observe, that death is generally regarded as the greatest of all evils. Man's witness, then, as far as it goes, is against the reality of God and of eternity. His life, his language, his desires, his understanding appear, when we look over the world, to refer to no being higher than himself, to no other state of things than that of which sight testifies.
Now, Christ's Church, the living temple of the Holy Ghost, puts in the place of this natural and corrupt man, whose witness is against God, another sort of man, redeemed and regenerate, whose whole being breathes a perpetual witness of God. Consider, again, what we should see in such a Church. We should see a beginning, a middle, but the end is not yet visible; we should see, besides the faculties for knowledge and enjoyment which were receiving their gratification daily, other faculties of both kinds, whose gratification was as yet withheld; we should see desires not limited to any object now visible or attainable. We should see death looked to as the gate by which these hitherto unobtained objects were to be sought for; and we should hear it spoken of, not as the greatest of evils, but as an event solemn, indeed, and painful to nature, but full of blessing and of happiness. We should see love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance; a constitution of nature as manifestly proclaiming its author to be the God of all holiness and loving-kindness, as the wonderful structure of our eyes or hands declares them to be the work of the God of all wisdom and power. We should thus see in all our fellow-men, not only as much, but far more than in the constitution of the lower animals, or of the plants, or of the heavenly bodies, a witness of God and of eternity. Their whole lives would be a witness; their whole conversation would be a witness; their outward and more peculiar acts of worship would then bear their part in harmony with all the rest. Every day would the voices of the Church be heard in its services of prayer and thanksgiving; every day would its members renew their pledges of faithfulness to Christ, and to one another, upon partaking together the memorials of his sacrifice.
What could we desire more than such a living witness as this? What sign in the sky, what momentary appearance of a spirit from the unseen world, could so impress us with the reality of God, as this daily worshipping in his living temple; this daily sight, of more than the Shechinah of old, even of his most Holy Spirit, diffusing on every side light and blessing? And what is now become of this witness? can names, and forms, and ordinances, supply its place? can our unfrequent worship, our most seldom communion, impress on us an image of men living altogether in the presence of God, and in communion with Christ? But before we dwell on this, we may, while considering the design of the true Church of Christ, well understand how such excellent things should be spoken of it, and how it should have been introduced into the Creed itself, following immediately after the mention of the Holy Ghost. That holy universal Church was to be the abiding witness of Christ's love and of Christ's promises; not in its outward forms only, for they by themselves are not a living witness; they cannot meet our want -- to have God and heavenly things made real to us; but in its whole spirit, by which renewed man was to bear as visibly the image of God, as corrupted man had lost it. This was the sure sign that Christ had appointed to abide until his coming again; this sign, as striking as the burning bush, would compel us to observe; would make us sure that the place whereon we stand is holy ground.
Then follows the question: With this sign lost in its most essential points, how can we supply its place? and how can we best avail ourselves of those parts of it which still remain? and how can we each endeavour to build up a partial and most imperfect imitation of it, which may yet, in some sort, serve to supply our great want, and remind us daily of God? This opens a wide field for thought, to those who are willing to follow it; but much of it belongs to other occasions rather than this: the practical part of it, -- the means of most imperfectly supplying the want of God's own appointed sign, a true and living universal Church, shall be the subject of my next Lecture.