And they shall see His face.
Revelation xxii. 4.
It is related of the greatest of the bishops of Durham that, in his last solemn moments, when the veil of the flesh was even now parting asunder, and the everlasting sanctuary opening before his eyes, he 'expressed it as an awful thing to appear before the Moral Governor of the world1.'
The same thought, which thus accompanied him in his passage to eternity, had dominated his life in time—this consciousness of an Eternal Presence, this sense of a Supreme Righteousness, this conviction of a Divine Order, shaping, guiding, disposing all the intricate vicissitudes of circumstance and all the little lives of men—enshrouded now in a dark atmosphere of mystery, revealing itself only in glimpses through the rolling clouds of material existence, dimly discerned by the dull and partial vision of finite maij,; p. Sr H ,' questioned, doubted, denied by many, yet visible enough even now to the eye of faith, working patiently but working surely, vindicating itself ever and again in the long results of time, but awaiting its complete and final vindication in the absolute issues of eternity; the truth of all truths, the reality of all realities, the one stubborn, steadfast fact, unchangeable while all else is changing; this Presence, this Order, this Righteousness, in the language of Holy Scripture this Word of the Lord which shall outlive the solid earth under foot, and the starry vault overhead. 'They shall perish, but Thou remainest, and they all shall wax old as doth a garment; and as a vesture shalt Thou fold them up, and they shall be changed; but Thou art the same, and Thy years shall not fail.' 'All flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away; but the word of the Lord endureth for ever.'
It is no arbitrary conjecture that this was the dominating idea of Butler's life. Early and late it is alike prominent in his writings. In the preface to his first great work, his volume of Sermons, he speaks of 'the Author and Cause of all things, Who is more intimately present to us than anything else can be, and with Whom we have a nearer and more constant intercourse than we can have with any creature.' In his latest work, his Charge to the Clergy of Durham, he urges the 'yielding ourselves up to the full influence of the Divine Presence;' he bids his hearers ' endeavour to raise up in the hearts' of their people 'such a sense of God as shall be an habitual, ready principle of reverence, love, gratitude, hope, trust, resignation, and obedience;' he recommends the practice of such devotional exercises 'as would be a recollection that we are in the Divine Presence, and contribute to our being in the fear of the Lord all the day long.' Thus his death-bed utterance was the proper sequel to his lifelong thoughts. The same awe-inspiring, soul-subduing, purifying, sanctifying Presence rose before him as hitherto. But the awe, the solemnity was intensified now, when the vision of God by faith might at any moment give place to the vision of God by sight. Not unfitly did one2, writing shortly after his decease, compare him to 'the bright lamps before the shrine,' the clear, steady light of the sanctuary, burning night and day before the Eternal Presence.
In the strength of this belief he had lived, and in the awe of this thought he now died. This conviction it was—this sense of a present Righteousness, confronting him always—which raised him high above the level of his age; keeping him pure amidst the surroundings of a dissolute Court; modest and humble in a generation of much pretentious display; highminded and careless of wealth in a time of gross venality and corruption; firm in the faith amidst a society cankered by scepticism; devout and reverent, where spiritual indifference reigned supreme; candid and thoughtful and temperate, amidst the temptations and the excitements of the religious controversy; careful even for the externals of worship, where such care was vilified as the badge of a degrading superstition. Hence that tremendous seriousness, which is his especial characteristic—that 'awful sense of religion,' that'sacred horror at men's frivolity' in the language of a living essayist8. Hence that transparent sincerity of character, which never fails him. Hence that 'meekness of wisdom,' which he especially urges his clergy to study4, and of which he himself was all unconsciously the brightest example.
And what more seasonable prayer can you offer for him who addresses you now, at this the most momentous crisis of his life, than that he—the latest successor of Butler—may enter upon the duties of his high and responsible office in the same spirit; that the realisation of this great idea, the realisation of this great fact, may be the constant effort of his life; that glimpses of the invisible Righteousness, of the invisible Grace, of the invisible Glory, may be vouchsafed to him; and that the Eternal Presence, thus haunting him night and day, may rebuke, may deter, may guide, may strengthen, may comfort, may illumine, may consecrate and subdue the feeble and wayward impulses of his own heart to God's holy will and purpose!
And not for the preacher only, but for the hearers also, let the same prayer ascend to the throne of heaven. In all the manifold trials, and all the mean vexations of life, this Presence will be your strength and your stay. Whatsoever is truthful, whatsoever is real, whatsoever is abiding in your lives, if there be any antidote to sin, and if there be any anodyne for grief, if there be any consolation, and if there be any grace, you will find it here and here alone—in the ever-present consciousness that you are living face to face with the Eternal God. Not by fitful gusts of religious passion, not by fervid outbursts of sentimental devotion, not by repetition of approved forms, and not by acquiescence in orthodox beliefs, but by the calm, steady, persistent concentration of the soul on this truth, by the intent fixing of the inward eye on the righteousness and the grace of the Eternal Being before Whom you stand, will you redeem your spirits and sanctify your lives. So will your minds be conformed to His mind. So will your faces reflect the brightness of His face. So will you go from strength to strength, till, life's pilgrimage ended, you appeal every one in the eternal Zion, the celestial city, wherein is neither sun nor moon, 'for the glory of God doth lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof.'
Let this, then, be the theme of our meditation this morning. Many thoughts will crowd upon our minds, and struggle for utterance, on a day like this; but we will put them all aside. Not our hopes, not our cares, not our burdens, nothing of joy and nothing of sadness, shall interpose now to shut out or to obscure the glory of the Presence before Whom we stand.
Not our hopes; though one hope starts up and shapes itself perforce before our eyes. It will be the prayer of many hearts to-day that the inauguration of a new episcopate may be marked by the creation of a new see; that Northumberland, which in the centuries long past gave to Durham her bishopric, may receive from Durham her due in return in these latest days; that the New Castle on the Tyne may take its place with the Old Castle on the Wear, as a spiritual fortress strong in the warfare of God.
Not our cares; though at this season one anxiety will press heavily on the minds of all. The dense cloud, which for weeks past has darkened the social atmosphere of these northern counties, still hangs sullenly overhead. God grant that the rift, which already we seem to discern, may widen, till the flooding sunlight scatters the darkness, and a lasting harmony is restored to the relations between the employer and the employed.
Not our burdens; though on one at least in this cathedral the sense of a new responsibility must press to-day with a heavy hand. If indeed this burden had been self-sought or self-imposed, if his thoughts were suffered to dwell on himself and his own incapacity, he might well sink under its crushing weight. But your prayer for him, and his ideal for himself, will shape itself in the words which were spoken to the great Israelite restorer of old,' Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, saith the Lord of Hosts.' Only in this strength before you, as before him, will the great mountain become a plain.
Therefore we will lay down now our hopes and our fears, our every burden, on the steps of the altar; that entering disencumbered into the inmost sanctuary we may fall before the Eternal Presence.
The vision of God is threefold—the vision of Righteousness, the vision of Grace, the vision of Glory.
1. The vision of Righteousness is first in the sequence. Righteousness includes all those attributes which make up the idea of the Supreme Ruler of the universe—perfect justice, perfect truth, perfect purity, perfect moral harmony in all its aspects. Here, then, is the force of Butler's dying words. Ask yourselves, can it be otherwise than 'an awful thing to appear before the Moral Governor of the world'? You have read perhaps the written record of some pure and saintly life, and you are overwhelmed with shame as you look inward and contrast your sullied heart and your self-seeking aims with his innocency and cleanness of heart. You are confronted—you, an avowedly religious person—in your business affairs, with an upright man of the world; and his straightforward honesty is felt by you as a keen reproach to your disingenuousness and evasion, all the keener because he makes no profession of religion. Yes, you know it; this is the very impress of God's attribute on his soul, though God's name may seldom or never pass his lips. And, if these faint rays of the Eternal Light, thus caught and reflected on the blurred mirrors of human hearts and human lives, so sting and pain the organs of your moral vision, what must it not be then, when you shall stand face to face before the ineffable Righteousness, and see Him in His unclouded glory!
It is a vision indeed of awe, transcending all thought; a vision of awe, but a vision also of purification, of renewal, of energy, of power, of life. Therefore enter into His presence now, and cast yourself down before His throne. Therefore dare to ascend into the holy mountain; dare to speak with God amidst the thunders and the lightnings; dare to look upon the face of His righteousness, that descending from the heights you, like the lawgiver of old, may carry with you the reflexion of His brightness, to illumine and to vivify the common associations and the every-day affairs of life.
Not a few here will doubtless remember how an eloquent living preacher6 in a striking image employs the distant view of the towers of your own Durham— of my own Durham—seen from the neighbourhood of the busy northern capital only in the clearer atmosphere of Sundays—as an emblem of these glimpses of the Eternal Presence, these intervals of Sabbatical repose and contemplation, when the furnaces and pits cease for the time to pour forth their lurid smoke, and in the unclouded sky the towers of the celestial Zion reveal themselves to the eye of faith. Let this local image give point to our thoughts to-day. 'Unto Thee lift I up mine eyes, O Thou that dwellest in the heavens. Behold, even as the eyes of servants look unto the hand of their masters, and as the eyes of a maiden unto the hand of her mistress, even so our eyes wait upon the Lord our God.'
2. But the vision of Righteousness is succeeded by the vision of Grace. When Butler in his dying moments had expressed his awe at appearing face to face before the Moral Governor of the world, his chaplain, we are told, spoke to him of 'the blood which cleanseth from all sin.' 'Ah, this is comfortable,' he replied; and with these words on his lips he gave up his soul to God. The sequence is a necessary sequence. He only has access to the Eternal Love, who has stood face to face with the Eternal Righteousness. He only, who has learned to feel the awe, will be taught to know the grace. The righteous Judge, the Moral Governor of the world, is a loving Father also, is your Father and mine. This is the central lesson of Christianity. Of this He has given us absolute assurance in the life, the death, the words and the works of Christ. The Incarnation of the Son is the mirror of the Father's love. What witness need we more? Happy he who shall realise this fact in all its significance and fulness! Happy he on whom the light of the glory of the Gospel of Christ, Who is the image of God, shall shine; he who shall—
Gaze one moment on the Face, Whose beauty
Wakes the world's great hymn;
Feel it one unutterable moment
Bent in love o'er him;
In that look feel heaven, earth, men, and angels,
Distant grow and dim;
In that look feel heaven, earth, men, and angels,
Nearer grow through Him8.
Yes, it is so indeed. All our interests in life, the highest and the lowest alike, abandoned, merged, forgotten in God's love, will come back to us with a distinctness, an intensity, a force, unknown and unsuspected before. Each several outline and each particular hue will stand out in the light of His Grace. Thus we are bidden to lose our souls only that we may find them again. We are charged to give up houses, and brethren, and sisters, and father, and mother, and wife, and children, and lands—all that is lovely and precious in our eyes—to give up all to God, only that we may receive them back from Him a hundredfold, even now in this present time. Our affections, our friendships, our hopes, our business and our pleasure, our intellectual pursuits and our artistic tastes—all our cherished opportunities and all our fondest aims, must be brought to the sanctuary and bathed in the glory of His Presence, that we may take them to us again, baptized and regenerate, purer, higher, more real, more abiding far than before. APPENDIX.
3. And thus the vision of love melts into the vision of Glory. So we reach the third and final stage in our progress. This is the crowning promise of the Apocalyptic vision, 'They shall see His face.' The vision is only inchoate now; we catch only glimpses at rare intervals, revealed in the workings of nature and the processes of history, revealed in the lives of God's saints and heroes, revealed above all in the record of the written Word and in the Incarnation of the Divine Son. But then no veil of the flesh shall
dim the vision; no imperfection of the mirror shall
blur the image; for we shall see Him face to face—
shall see Him as He is—the perfect truth, the perfect
righteousness, the perfect purity, the perfect love, the
perfect light. And we shall gaze with unblenching
eye, and our visage shall be changed. Not now with
transient gleam of radiance, as on the lawgiver of old,
shall the light be reflected from us; but, resting upon
us with its own ineffable glory, the awful effluence—
Shall flood our being round, and take our lives
Of this final goal of our aspirations, of this crowning mystery of our being, the mind is helpless to conceive, and the tongue refuses to tell. Silent contemplation, and wondering awe, and fervent thanksgiving alone befit the theme. Even the inspired lips of an Apostle are hushed before it. 'Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be; but we know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is' —we shall see Him as He is.