TEXT: PSALM lxviii.3, 4.
ANY one who had heard our last hymn without knowing the occasion of to-day's festival might suppose that we seemed more like entering on a day of supplication in regard to the future, than on what it really is, a day of thankful remembrance of the great and divine deliverance wrought for us in the immediate past. But can we, or ought we, to separate these? God's kindness and grace always anticipate our will and resolution; and therefore we can only ground each request to Him for blessing and prosperity in the future on our heartfelt sense of gratitude for what we have already received from Him, for the favours of the same kind with which He has loaded and satisfied us. And so, in taking a thoughtful view of the past, the more our eyes are turned to one important point and we feel stirred up to thankfulness towards God, must we not ask ourselves so much the more earnestly whether we are even worthy, by the use which we make of them, to offer thanks for His gifts; whether, by a life tending more to His honour, we deserve to bring into His courts our thanks and praise for His gracious help? Let this, then, be the direction that our common meditations take to-day. Let us go down into the depths of our hearts, and examine ourselves before the Lord, and beseech Him for cleansing, that so our thanks may rise to Him well-pleasing and not in vain.
In those times which we unite with all our brethren of the Fatherland in commemorating to-day, we were firmly persuaded that, especially in order to put far from among us all godless habits which threatened to take root so firmly, to maintain the old foundations of piety and loyalty which were in danger of becoming insecure, and to strengthen anew the natural ties of love which were becoming relaxed by the intrusion of the stranger; -- that for all these reasons it was necessary to wage that perilous warfare. Well then, the more we were convinced of this, the more must it concern us now, in commemorating the divine help given in that struggle, that we be not of those who must melt like wax before the fire at the presence of the Lord; the more careful must we be that our joy is a heartfelt joy before the Lord, and that our whole being, consecrated anew to Him in thankfulness, may be maintained before Him in truth and faithfulness. To ask what is meant by a joy before God, how it is distinguished from the transitory joy of the world or in oneself, would be, unless in so far as each of us is able to answer it or has already answered it for himself, a wide question, too wide for one meditation. I will therefore confine myself to showing what our joy must be free from, if it is to deserve the name of a joy before the Lord.
Three principal points here suggest themselves to me to which I wish to direct your attention: that every joy that is to hold its ground in God's presence must be free; first, from falsehood; secondly, from slothfulness; and thirdly, from vanity.
I. Our joy in the deliverance which God wrought for us is to be free from falsehood. We know that when the war was imminent, of which we are now celebrating the decisive day (though not that day alone), all those whom we hail as brothers and fellow-countrymen were not of one mind on the great matter. If some had for long been waiting and hoping for the moment when their desire to win back with the sword a natural and honourable position should be gratified; there were others who thought that the existing condition of things could be borne, and that it was wiser to put up with it than hastily to stake everything in an uncertain war. Now those who thought and spoke in this way, must always have a claim to our respect, in so far as, after the resolution was taken, though contrary to their opinion, they did all that the Fatherland and the law required of them; because they fairly contributed their share to the common cause. For the first thing at the forming of any great resolution is always that every one should seek to bring his own convictions to bear; the second, that he frankly join in what has finally become the common will. But if the events that followed have not changed the opinion of those our brethren, and yet they feel able to take part in the general joy of an anniversary such as this, we must point out to them that theirs is a different joy from that of the rest, and that it cannot be quite that which the joy before the Lord ought to be. For by himself, perhaps, and in an earthly way, one may rejoice when that which he has done with half conviction or without any conviction comes to a successful issue; but before God he can only be ashamed. For it is not over outward things that we are allowed to rejoice before God, who Himself has no outward part and who makes no account of anything outward, but only of that which is in the heart; we are not to rejoice over consequences and events, but only in the power and deed from which they proceeded. But those persons cannot rejoice in those things, who hold that the influential opinion at that time was not the right one, but count that man should have a still greater power of endurance to bear what exasperates him, and to bend still lower under what can only appear to him an external necessity; for such persons rejoice only in the results, not in the deed. But be there few or many such, can the rest of us who are met here to-day to thank God for inclining the hearts of men and nations at that time to refuse any longer to bear dishonourable chains, for inspiring them with courage and hope and loving enthusiasm; -- can we say that ours is a truthful thanksgiving, and can our joy be a joy before the Lord, if those sentiments over which we rejoice have no longer the same power in our hearts? Can we claim this if we are now no longer inspired with the same zeal to restore a social life befitting us and pleasing to God; if we are not striving, with a perseverance worthy of that first enthusiasm, to keep safe and to improve what then through God's blessing came anew into our possession? Can we claim it if we have now become careless about the difference between what is worthy and what is unworthy of man; if we are now turning back, and after the old, evil manner, each seeking his own; each one seeking to gain, out of the treasure won for all, as much as possible for himself: and all no longer united with that first love, each denying himself to seek the common weal? No, in that case our joy is no joy before God, for He is a God of truth; in that case the false spirit must melt before Him like wax; and the empty joy, let it show itself as it will, and put on what pious appearance it will, can only be, for the most part, the pleasure of this world; while the shout of our text, Let the righteous be glad and rejoice before God, when it sounds in the untrue soul, sounds like the cry of the avenger, destroying its joy. Only if the old zeal has not been allowed to cool; only if that is still true with us which we then felt as the most sacred truth of our lives, that a man does not exist for himself, but for the common cause; that to risk life for the brethren is the call of God in the soul, and that not arbitrary power, but the well-knit bonds of justice are the surest supports of piety and spiritual prosperity; only if we feel those convictions as strongly as we then did, are our hearts really rejoicing before God. If it is so with us, we are in a position to think, if not without pain and mourning, at least with feelings purified from base mixture, of what this war has cost us, to remember those who watered the harvest of our joy with their precious blood, and set their seal, by their death, to the faith and strength that inspired us; while this remembrance especially must without doubt cause the untrue heart to melt like wax before God.
II. But our grateful joy before God must also be free from slothfulness. It seems really superfluous to say this; for slothfulness and joy can never harmonize. Joy arouses the spirit, so that it is nothing but strength and life and activity; and this is pre-eminently true of joy before God, for it is ever exciting, ever bringing into action whatever may be specially in our hearts at the same time. But man's perversity has found out how to separate what God has intimately joined, and to join things which according to natural law are opposed to each other. And so there is such a thing as a slothful joy over even so great events as those which we remember on days like this. For the man who only rejoices because we have happily surmounted our miseries, and because the source of manifold calamities is closed; who after this happy turn of affairs would like to repose on the results of those exertions, and now rejoices chiefly that the time of exertion is past, and that now, without the putting forth of such efforts, without interruption to industry (hindrances being successfully cleared away), the prosperity of all, or at least his own must go on as a matter of course; such a man rejoices, if he rejoices at all, with a slothful joy. And of this joy, whatever else we may or may not be able to think of it, we must certainly think and feel that it cannot be a joy before God. In presence of the Eternal we cannot rejoice on account of anything being past; that which is but a concern of the passing moment vanishes at the thought of Him and cannot be joined to that thought. Hence also it comes that we can by no means associate the thought of God with mere pleasures of the senses and rejoice in such pleasures before Him; because the pleasures of sense pass away with every moment, and must be renewed every moment if they are to last. And those who have no better rejoicing to-day than the poor joy that the former distress is past, what means have they of quickening their joy, what makes their condition still something like joy, but the hope of now enjoying the pleasures of life instead of bearing its miseries? And thus the pleasure-seekers, who are slothful as to spiritual concerns, can by no means rejoice before God.
But now we must inquire whether there may not be found some slothful ones even among those who are conscious of a genuine sympathy with the acts of that time, the remembrance of which kindles our joy to enthusiasm to-day. We shall all, at least, be able to distinguish between two different positions. Besides the many who, in taking part, each according to his circumstances, in the efforts of that time, were laid hold of in a natural way by the common ardour; there were others in whom this sympathy was only a transient impulse, and who showed themselves at that time capable of doing and bearing what they would not have thought possible before, nor perhaps would think possible now. But even then, how every fluctuation of events was mirrored in their uncertain feelings; so that whenever affairs took an unfavourable turn they were full of dread about what was to follow, and inclined beforehand to throw the blame of the misfortune on those who had urged them on; and how much more must a feeling produced in so superficial a way, being only the effect of one momentous hour and without force in itself, have become, since that time, thoroughly deadened! And from all who only participated in those great deeds in this way, we can certainly expect to-day only a faint and dull kind of joy, that is nothing more than the dreamy remembrance of an unwonted state of mind in which they found themselves for a time, about which they know neither whence it arose nor whither it has vanished; only they know right well that they could not now rise to it again. The very core of their hearts takes shape from the slothfulness and impotence of their own souls, and can neither now nor ever send forth a living shoot of joy. If they desire to rejoice with us, it is only from the contagion of our joy; so that theirs is only a pale reflection of the lively joy of those in whom that first zeal was a true and living sentiment, and in whom still abides, as a steady and unchanging principle, the strength by which they laid hold of the slothful souls and carried them along with them. To those steadfast souls alone belongs not only their own joy, but that of the others, and they alone can truly rejoice before God, the living God who controls our doings as well as animates and inspires us; but those slothful ones would attempt in vain to appear before God with their soulless joy, when the thought of Him is not even able to keep their cold hearts steadfast. We can rejoice before Him only when we feel in ourselves an ever active power for good; feel it as His gift, flowing out to us from Him, as the effect of His Spirit in us. Yes, only when we are going forward in the work which we then undertook; only when each of us is constantly presenting anew to those who wish to sink down in indolent repose, the picture of what is right in God's sight and pleasing to men, ever bringing before them what is still lacking in us, how many enemies there still are to be conquered by the power of faith and love; only when we are of this mind can we rejoice together before God for all His good gifts, and so also for that great day. And it is only such joy that can be called a joy from the heart, as the heart is the source of life and activity in man, and of all the feelings that move him and pass over from him to others. Hence if it is the wicked who melt like wax before the Lord, it seems as if we must say that the slothful are wicked; at least if they cannot stand even before us, without being constantly steeled anew by the pervading strength of others, still less will their joy be able to stand before the thought of God. For what is lifeless and slothful fears and shuns life, as falsehood fears and shuns the truth.
III. Finally, our joy must be free from all vanity. That is to say, there are two ways of looking at human affairs. On the one side we really feel that all earthly and perishable things are nothing in themselves, that all not only originate from the Eternal, but are continually and actually carried on and upheld by Him, and can only live and move and have their being in Him. If we thus consider and feel about any thing that concerns us, then we think of it in God, and we cannot fail to have in our hearts true joy in the Lord. On the other hand, the Eternal does none of His works directly before our eyes, but does everything in connection with the affairs of men by means of men and the influence of external nature. Therefore individual men and individual events always justly attract our attention. And in studying them we are led on from each individual to another connected with him, from each later event to one that preceded it; but the more we allow ourselves to separate this way of looking at things from the former, and please and satisfy ourselves with thus arranging facts in a circle, the more does our whole mind and character become tainted with vanity, and it is only pleasure or pain about transitory things that stirs our spirit. If, therefore, the joy that we feel to-day is to be a joy that will stand before God, it must not be joy in what this or that individual has done; it must not go back on -- I will not say, any merit of our own but not even on the merit of other individuals. For if we are to rejoice before the Lord, we can only rejoice in the deed which He the Lord accomplished among us. And if we rejoice in our own work, we are no longer rejoicing before Him, and so our sense of the Eternal becomes weakened, and that which the Lord wrought is changed for us into a vain and unintelligible play of earthly powers and acts and sufferings; indeed, the more we look into it in this way the more we believe that we see in events only that sport of chance by which man is always punished when he forgets God. And how vain a thing is joy of this kind! how little power of lasting there is in it! and how every human merit, even that which we sought thus unselfishly to exalt, melts away, when we reflect how often it would not have been earned at all, if some outward circumstance, that no one could control, had turned out differently! But certainly, be it said for our comfort, if any set of events is fitted to cure us of the vanity of a false joy like this, those great events are so. He who wishes to rejoice in human judgment and intelligence, in perfect art and skilfully calculated plans, must seek for himself some other subject. For about this, the opposite feeling is much too general for such ideas; the feeling that there is no single person of whom it could be said that it was his doing; no single event, not even the special one we commemorate to-day, after the occurrence of which it could be said that now all was safe. Rather, if we look at details and study man's part in the matter, the heroes and directors of the war themselves will not deny, that even the most brilliant deeds were accompanied by mistakes, and that as God brought all about for the best, He caused even those mistakes to prove a blessing. So that here very specially it is clear to us all that the glory is due to God alone, and here we can most easily resist all vainglorious joy. And so we come back to what we began with.
If we choose to derive our joy rather from outward than inward causes, from results rather than from sentiments, vanity will inevitably come into play; each individual may then take credit for one thing or another, and follow out endlessly the traces of what he has contributed to the work, and each may seek out one among those who have done the largest share, and make an idol of him, and give him the glory: for if vanity is once aroused it can make everything take what form it pleases. But if in our joy our thoughts are turned to God and to the powers which He stirred up at that time, we are constrained to take an opposite view, and we have the clearest perception that not only the will but the accomplishment of it came from God. Then we understand that it was in His counsel that the events which took place were determined; and we also feel that we defraud ourselves of the purest joy, if, on a day like this, we give the slightest place to vainglorious boasting. No, let all empty show disappear from among us! It is only joy before God that endures; while the joy of vanity is disposed of with that godlessness of character that melts like wax before God. For gratitude and confidence are inseparable companions. If we take credit to ourselves and to each other for the great things God has done, we can also cherish no confidence but in human strength and human counsel. And let us only ask if things are now in such a position, through what then took place, that such a confidence would satisfy us? When we look fairly at our needs, our wishes, our hopes, must we not still acknowledge that human help is useless, and that it is the Lord alone on whom we can rely? And therefore it is only from joy before God, far from all self-applause, that the right confidence can proceed; a confidence, not that He will always in time of need again order events for our profit and glory; but that He will not with draw His Spirit from us; that He who at that time drew out among us so much self-sacrificing love, so much pure loyalty and faith, will preserve to us this treasure, and be ever re-animating it in us by the power of His Spirit. It will not be a confidence that, after the outward enemies are conquered, we may let things take their course, until a time comes when there shall again be need to fight; but that the Lord will keep the hearts of His people together in a living unity; that He will keep their spiritual eyes clear to see what is right; that He will work as effectually among us in time of peace as He did, to His own glory, in time of danger. It will be the confidence that the Lord is with the humble hearts; that He never forsakes those who have no reliance on themselves; that He will never suffer His glory to perish among those who glory in nothing but His strength; and that a permanent and inexhaustible power of enjoyment is the portion of those who in all things rejoice in God alone.
Let us then cleanse our hearts from falsity, from slothfulness, from vanity! for we feel that if these are overcome a pure and imperishable joy before God will naturally spring up in our hearts. For this purpose the holy table of the Lord is spread among us to-day. Join all of you in spirit with those who will partake of it to-day. If we are one with Him, who alone among those born of woman could say, I am the way and the truth; if we are pervaded by the spirit of Him whose motto was, The Father worketh, and I work; if we are one with Him who was entirely possessed with the conviction that it became Him to do the Father's will, and that He lived in God and God in Him; then we shall be ever drawing closer to the eternal, imperishable life, to freedom from all vanity, and ever becoming more worthy of the great things which the Lord Jesus has done for us. Amen.
Yea, Lord, to Thee be brought praise and honour! Thou didst raise us up when we were crushed and had almost perished! It is Thy will to make us again a vessel unto honour, after we were despised and seemed like a vessel of wrath; Thou alone hast done it, to Thee let all our hearts be devoted! Rule Thou in our hearts as Thou hast outwardly ruled among us. Make us by Thy Spirit more and more a people to Thy praise, a royal and priestly nation; govern us by Thy word and Spirit that we may be ever be coming worthier of that highest name which we bear, the name that comes to us from Thy Son. Amen.