My dear friends, here is a solemn lesson to be learnt from this text. What is true of whole nations, and of whole churches, is very often true of single persons -- of each of us.
To most men -- to all baptized Christian men, perhaps -- there comes a day of visitation, a crisis, or turning-point in our lives. A day when Christ sets before us, as he did to those Jews, good and evil, light and darkness, right and wrong, and says, Choose! Choose at once, and choose for ever; for by what you choose this day, by that you must abide till death. If you make a mistake now, you will rue it to the last. If you take the downward road now, you will fall lower and lower upon it henceforth. If you shut your eyes now to the things which belong to your peace, they will be hid from your eyes for ever; and nothing but darkness, ignorance, and confusion will be before you henceforth.
What will become of the man's soul after he dies, I cannot say. Christ is his judge, and not I. He may be saved, yet so as by fire, as St. Paul says. Repentance is open to all men, and forgiveness for those who repent. But from that day, if he chooses wrongly, true repentance will grow harder and harder to him -- perhaps impossible at last. He has made his bed, and he must lie on it. He has chosen the evil, and refused the good; and now the evil must go on getting more and more power over him. He has sold his soul, and now he must pay the price. Again, I say, he may be saved at last. Who am I, to say that God's mercy is not boundless, when the Bible says it is? But one may well say of that man, 'God help him,' for he will not be able to help himself henceforth.
It is an awful thing, my friends, to think that we may fix our own fate in this world, perhaps in the world to come, by one act of wilful folly or sin: but so it is. Just as a man may do one tricky thing about money, which will force him to do another to hide it, and another after that, till he becomes a confirmed rogue in spite of himself. Just as a man may run into debt once, so that he never gets out of debt again; just as a man may take to drink once, and the bad habit grow on him till he is a confirmed drunkard to his dying day. Just as a man may mix in bad company once, and so become entangled as in a net, till he cannot escape his evil companions, and lowers himself to their level day by day, till he becomes as bad as they. Just as a man may be unfaithful to his wife once, and so blunt his conscience till he becomes a thorough profligate, breaking her heart, and ruining his own soul. Just as -- but why should I go on, mentioning ugly examples, which we all know too well, if we will open our own eyes and see the world and mankind as they are? I will say no more, lest I should set you on judging other people, and saying 'There is no hope for them. They are lost.' No; let us rather judge ourselves, as any man can, and will, who dares face fact, and look steadily at what he is, and what he might become. Do we not know that we could, any one of us, sell our own souls, once and for all, if we choose? I know that I could. I know that there are things which I might do, which if I did from that moment forth, I should have no hope, but only a fearful looking forward to judgment and fiery indignation. And have you never felt, when you were tempted to do wrong: 'I dare not do it for my own sake; for if I did this one wickedness, I feel sure that I never should be an honest man again?' If you have felt that, thank God, indeed; for then you have seen the things which belong to your peace; you have known the day of your visitation; and you will be a better man as long as you live, for having fought against that one temptation, and chosen the good, and refused the evil, when God put them unmistakeably before you.
No; the real danger is, lest a man should be as those Jews, and not know the day of his visitation. Ah, that is ruinous indeed, when a man's eyes are blinded as those Jews' eyes were; when a great temptation comes on him, and he thinks it no temptation at all; when hell is opening beneath him, with the devils trying to pluck him down, and heaven opening above him, with God's saints and martyrs beckoning him up, looking with eyes of unutterable pity and anxiety and love on a poor soul; and that poor soul sees neither heaven nor hell, nor anything but his own selfish interest, selfish pleasure, or selfish pride, and snaps at the devil's bait as easily as a silly fish; while the devil, instead of striking to frighten him, lets him play with the bait, and gorge it in peace, fancying that he is well off, when really he is fast hooked for ever, led captive thenceforth from bad to worse by the snare of the devil. Oh miserable blindness, which comes over men sometimes, and keeps them asleep at the very moment that they ought to be most wide awake!
And what throws men into that sleep? What makes them do in one minute something which curses all their lives afterwards? Love of pleasure? Yes: that is a common curse enough, as we all know. But a worse snare than even that is pride and self-conceit. That was what ruined those old Jews. That was what blinded their eyes. They had made up their minds that they saw; therefore they were blind: that they could not go wrong; therefore they went utterly and horribly wrong thenceforth: that they alone of all people knew and kept God's law; therefore they crucified the Son of God himself for fulfilling their law. They were taken unawares, because they were asleep in vain security.
And so with us. By conceit and carelessness, we may ruin ourselves in a moment, once and for all. When a man has made up his mind that he is quite worldly-wise; that no one can take him in; that he thoroughly understands his own interest; then is that man ripe and ready to commit some enormous folly, which may bring him to ruin.
When a man has made up his mind that he knows all doctrines, and is fully instructed in religion, and can afford to look down on all who differ from him; then is that man ripe and ready for doing something plainly wrong and wicked, which will blunt his conscience from that day forth, and teach him to call evil good, and good evil more and more; till, in the midst of all his fine religious professions, he knows not plain right from plain wrong -- full of the form of godliness, but denying the power of it in scandal of his every-day life.
Yes, my friends, our only safeguard is humility. Be not high- minded, but fear. Avoid every appearance of evil. Believe that in every temptation heaven and hell may be at stake: and that the only way to be safe is to do nothing wilfully wrong at all, for you never know how far downward one wilful sin may lead you. The devil is not simple enough to let you see the bottom of his pitfall: but it is so deep, nevertheless, that he who falls in, may never get out again.
And do not say in your hearts about this thing and that, 'Well, it is wrong: but it is such a little matter.' A little draught may give a great cold; and a great cold grow to a deadly decline. A little sin may grow to a great bad habit; and a great bad habit may kill both body and soul in hell. A little bait may take a great fish; and the devil fishes with a very fine line, and is not going to let you see his hook. The only way to be safe is to avoid all appearance of evil, lest when you fancy yourself most completely your own master, you find yourself the slave of sin.
Oh, may God give us all the spirit of watchfulness and godly fear! Of watchfulness, lest sin overtake us unawares; and of godly fear, that we may have strength to say with Joseph, 'How can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?' Of watchfulness, too, not only against sin, but for God; of godly fear, not only fear of God's anger, but fear of God's love.
Do you ask what I mean? This, my friends; that as we cannot tell at any moment what danger may be coming on us, so we cannot tell at any moment what blessing from God may be coming on us. Those Jews, in the day of their visitation, were blind, and they rejected Christ: but recollect, that it was Christ whom they rejected; that Christ was there, not in anger, but in love; not to judge, but to save; that the power of the Lord was present, not to destroy, but to heal them. They would have none of him. True; but they might have had him if they had chosen. They denied him; but he could not deny himself. He was there to teach and to save, as he comes to teach and to save every man.
Therefore, I say, be watchful. Believe that Christ is looking for you always, and expect to meet him at any moment. I do not mean in visible form, in vision or apparition. No. He comes, not by observation, that a man may say, 'Lo, here; and lo, there;' but he comes within you, to your hearts, with the still, small voice, which softens a man and sobers him for a moment, and makes him yearn after good, and say in his heart, 'Ah, that I were as when I was a child upon my mother's knee.' Oh! listen to that softening, sobering voice. Through very small things it may speak to you: but it is Christ himself who speaks. Whenever your heart is softened to affection toward parent, or child, or your fellowman, then Christ is speaking to you, and showing you the things which belong to your peace. Whenever the feeling of justice, and righteous horror of all meanness rises strong in you, then Christ is speaking to you. Whenever your heart burns within you with admiration of some noble action, then Christ is speaking to you. Whenever a chance word in sermons or in books touches your conscience, and reproves you, then Christ is speaking to you. Oh turn not a deaf ear to those instincts. They may be the very turning-points of your lives. One such godly motion, one such pure inspiration of the Spirit of God listened to humbly, and obeyed heartily, may be the means of putting you into the right path thenceforward, that you may go on and grow in strength and wisdom, and favour with God and man; till you become again, in the world to come, what you were when you were carried home from the baptismal font, a little child, pure from all spot of sin.