Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction…
Men and women grow older in this world of ours, and as the years advance they change. Of all the changes that they undergo those of their moral natures are the most painful to watch. The boy changes into the man, and there is something lost which never seems to come back again. It is like the first glow of the morning that passes away — like the bloom on the blossom that never is restored. Your grown-up boy is wise in bad things which he used to know nothing about. His life no longer sounds with a perfectly clear ring, or shines with a perfectly white lustre. He is no longer unspotted. And then when a grown man sees and knows all this either in himself or in another, he is sure also that the change has come somehow from this boy having grown up to manhood in the midst of his fellow-men. Home, school, business, society, politics, human life in general in all its various activities — out of this have come the evil forces that have changed and soiled this life. We all think of ourselves, and in our kinder moments think of our brethren, as victims. We have not cast away the jewel, but we have fallen among thieves, and it has been taken from us. We have not merely been spotted, but "spotted by the world." There is something very sublime, I think, in the Bible conception of "the World" which we are always meeting. The Bible touches us because it seems to know all about this "world" — this total of created things, this cosmos, this aggregate of disorder with purposes of order manifest all through it, this sea of tempest with its tides of law, this mixture of insignificant trifles with the most appalling solemnities, this storehouse of life and activity and influence which we are crowding on and crowded by every day, out of which come the shaping forces of our life, which we call the world. The Bible knows all about it, and so we listen when the Bible speaks. Here, then, we have one fact. Our own experience discovers it. The Bible steps in and describes it. "Lives spotted by the world." The stained lives. Where is the man or woman who does not know what it means? There is the most outward sort of stain — the stain upon the reputation. It is what men see as they pass us, and know us by it for one who has struggled and been worsted. Then there are the stains upon our conduct, the impure and untrue acts which cross and cloud the fair surface of all our best activity. And then, far worst of all, there is the stain upon the heart, of which nobody but the man himself knows anything, but which to him gives all their unhappiness to the other stains, the debased motives, the low desires, the wicked passions of the inner life. These are the stains which we accumulate. They burn to our eyes even if no neighbour sees them. They burn in the still air of the Sabbath even if we do not see them in the week. You would not think for the world that your children should grow up to the same stains that have fastened upon you. You dream for them of a "life unspotted from the world," and the very anxiety of that dream proves how you know that your own life is spotted and stained. And that dream for the children is almost hopeless. At any rate the danger is that you will give it up by and by, and get to expecting and excusing the stains that will come upon them as they grow older. The worst thing about all this staining power of the world is the way in which we come to think of it as inevitable. We practically believe that no man can keep himself unspotted. He must accumulate his stains. It is not true. Men do go through political life as pure and poor as any most tired mechanic lives and works at his bench. And there are merchants who do carry, through all the temptations of business life, the same high standards — hands just as clean, and hearts just as tender, as they have when they pray to God or teach their little children. And social life is lighted up with the lustre of the white, unstained robes of many a pure man or woman who walks through its very midst. But the spots fall so thick that it is easy for men to say, "No one can go there and escape them. It is hopeless to try to keep yourself unspotted from the world"; and then (for that comes instantly), "We are not to blame for the world's spots upon us." I said this was the worst, but there is one worse thing still. When a man comes not merely to tolerate, but to boast of the stains that the world has flung upon him; when he wears his spots as if they were jewels; when he flaunts his unscrupulousness, and his cynicism and his disbelief and his hard-heartedness in your face as the signs and badges of his superiority; when to be innocent and unsuspicious and sensitive seems to be ridiculous and weak; when it is reputable to show that we are men of the world by exhibiting the stains that the world has left upon our reputation, our conduct, and our heart, then we understand how flagrant is the danger; then we see how hard it must be to keep ourselves unspotted from the world. And now, in view of all this, we come to our religion. Bee how intolerant religion is. She starts with what men have declared to be ira. possible. She refuses to bring down her standards. She insists that men must come up to her. No man is thoroughly religious, she declares, unless he does this, which it seems so hard to do, unless he goes through this world untainted, as the sunbeam goes through the mist. There is something sublime in this unsparingness. It almost proves that our religion is Divine, when it undertakes for man so Divine a, task. It could not sustain itself in its great claim to be from God unless it took this high and godlike ground, that whoever named the name of Christ must depart from all iniquity. Our religion is not true unless it have this power in it. We must bring our faith to this test. Unless our Christianity does this for us, it is not the true religion that St. James talked of, and that the Lord Jesus came to reveal and to bestow. Let us be sure of this. We go for our assurance to the first assertion of the real character of Christianity in the life of Jesus. The very principle of the Incarnation, that without which it loses all its value, surely is this, that Christ was Himself the first Christian; that in Him was first displayed the power of that grace by which all who believed in Him were afterwards to be helped and saved. And so the life of Jesus was lived in the closest contact with His fellow-men. He was always "seeing the kingdoms of the world, and all the glory of them," so realising the highest temptations to which our nature is open; always "feeling an hungered," so entering into the lowest enticements that tell upon our human flesh. Tilling ourselves with this idea, then, that the spotlessness of the Saviour's life is the pattern of the spotless life to which we must aspire — if we begin to study it, I think the first thing that strikes us about it is its positiveness. There are two ways of defending a castle; one by shutting yourself up in it, and guarding every loophole; the other by making it an open centre of operations from which all the surrounding country may be subdued. Is not the last the truest safety? Jesus was never guarding Himself, but always invading the lives of others with His holiness. His life was like an open stream that keeps the sea from flowing up into it by the eager force with which it flows down into the sea. He was so anxious that the world should be saved that therein was His salvation from the world. He laboured so to make the world pure that He never even had to try to be pure Himself. And so we see, by contrast, how many of our attempts at purity fail by their negativeness. A man knows that drink is ruining him, soul and body, and he makes up his mind that he will not drink again. How soon the empty hour grows wearisome. I do think that we break almost all our resolutions not to do wrong, while we keep a large proportion of our resolutions that we will do what is right. Habit, which is the power by which evil rules us, is only strong in a vacant life. And even if we could resist the evil by merely holding out against it, still should we not be like castles protecting themselves, but conquering and enriching no country around their walls? All merely negative purity has something of the taint of the impurity that it resists. The effort not to be frivolous is frivolous itself. The effort not to be selfish is very apt to be only another form of selfishness. So we are sure at once, and we learn it certainly from Christ, that the true spotlessness from the world must come, not negatively, by the garments being drawn back from every worldly contact, but positively by the garments being so essentially, Divinely pure that they fling pollution off, as sunshine, hurrying on its mission to the world, flings back the darkness that tries to stop its way. And what then? Is any such purity as Christ's, so positive, so strong, possible for us? As I said, if our religion cannot help us to it, then our religion fails of its task. Now let me try to show you what the faith of Christ can do for us, if we will let it, to make us so strong that the contaminations of the world cannot affect us. I am sure that there are some of us who have come here, conscious of stains and wounds from the hard conflicts of the week, who do indeed desire to know how they can be stronger and purer.
1. In the first place, Christianity is a religion of the supernatural, and, to any one who is thoroughly in its power, it must bring the presence of a live supernaturalism, and make that the atmosphere of his life. What the poor creature needs who is standing right in the midst of the world's defilements, catching them on every side, is it not just this: the clear, sure certainty of another world, of a spiritual world with spiritual purity for its law? It is very much as if you went out of the pure, sweet, sensitive home-life in which you have been bred, into the lowest, filthiest pollution of the city. Suppose you had to live there a week, a month. What would keep you pure from its defilement? Would it not be the constant sense, the ever-present vision, of that higher realm of life that you had come from, making your present home seem dreadful to you? Would not the very knowledge that such a higher realm of life existed be your strength and protection? Nay, to alter the illustration a little, would not your presence, if you were really radiant with the purity of the better life you came from, exalt and help some poor creature there with the knowledge of the existence and the possibility of better things? And that is just the power of the Incarnation. It opened the spiritual, the supernatural, the eternal. It was as if the clouds were broken above this human valley that we live in, and men saw the Alps above them, and took courage.
2. But this is not enough. No mere sense of the supernatural ever saved a soul. Christ must come nearer to the soul than this before it can really by Him "escape the corruption that is in the world." Then there comes in all the personal relation between the soul and its Saviour. Now we must mount to think what was the purpose of the Incarnation. We must get sight of that Divine pity which saw us in our sins and came to rescue us. We must understand how clear-sighted the Creator is to see and feel the need of every one among His creatures. We must grasp the bewildering thought of a personal love for our single souls. And then all must be emphasised and condensed into the world's tragedy. We must see the Jesus of the Cross on the Cross. And what then? Do you not see? Full of profoundest gratitude the soul looks round to see what it can give to the Saviour in token of its feeling of His love. And it can find nothing. It has nothing to give. And hopeless of finding anything, it simply gives itself. It is its own no longer. It is given away to Christ. It lives His life and not its own. Can you imagine that becoming real to a man and not changing his relation to the temptations that beset him? He feels now with Christ's feeling, and corruption drops away from him as it drops away from Christ. Shame, love, hope, every good passion wakes in the soul. It walks unharmed, because it walks in this new sense of consecration.
3. When I ask somewhat more minutely into the method which Christ uses to keep His servants free from the world's corruption, I seem to come to something like this, which seems, like so much besides in the gospel, at first surprising, and then sublimely natural and reasonable, that it is by a Christlike dedication to the world that Christ really saves us from the world. Do you see what I mean? You go to your Lord, and say, "O Lord, this world is tempting me, and I fear its stains. How shall I escape it? Shall I run away from it?" And the answer comes as unmistakable as if a voice spoke out of the opened sky, "No; go up close to this world, and help it; feel for its wickedness; pity it; sacrifice yourself or it; so shall you be safest from its infection; so shall you be surest not to sacrifice yourself to it." They say the doctors and the nurses are least likely to catch the epidemic. If you have a friend who is dishonest or impure, the surest way to save yourself from him is to try to save him. More pure and more secure in purity than the Pharisee, man or woman, who draws back the spotless skirts from the reach of the poor fallen creature who clutches at them, is the pitying man or woman who in the nearest brotherhood or sisterhood goes close to the wretched sinner and takes him by the baud to lift him. I am not surprised to hear that the man who despises the sinner and gets as far away from him as possible has become, after all, the sharer of his sin. I am surprised if the tender sympathiser who goes to the poor slave of sin, and says, "My brother, my heart bleeds for you; let me help you" — I am surprised if he is not armed by his pity against the contagion of the sin he tries to help, and if he does not save both his brother and himself together.
(Bp. Phillips Brooks.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.