The River of God


Thou visitcst the earth and waterest it; Thou greatly enrichest it with the river of God.

Psalm lxv. 9.

Westminster Abbey, June 13, 1881, at the Anniversary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts.

A STREAM whose sources are hidden in the bosom of the eternal hills; which is fed with the pure snows of heaven; a simple mountain rill first; then an impetuous torrent, gathering volume as it descends, foaming and eddying, sweeping trees and rocks down in its course; then a broad river, rolling now through wide meadow lands or sandy deserts, now forced into a narrow and deep channel by jutting rocks, and leaping down in cataracts seaward; holding its course now straight towards its destined goal, and now meandering and returning upon itself, seeming even to retrograde to the unobservant eye; receiving ever and again on the right hand and on the left fresh tributaries which drain the far-off hills on either side; fertilising pastures and corn lands, purifying and watering countless towns and villages, bearing, down on its bosom the precious merchandise of many peoples, giving life and vigour and joy to men; but with all this, whether by crowded cities or through desolate wastes, whether spreading in shallow marshes or imprisoned between barriers of rocks, whether winding its sluggish way over level plains or rushing impetuously onward and forcing a direct channel through all interposing obstacles—still pressing forward, ever forward, with its growing volume of waters, with its increasing freight of treasures and of men, to the far distant boundless ocean, there to lose itself and be absorbed in its kindred element.

In this description I have used no word which might not apply to one of the great rivers of the earth, fed from the Alps or the Andes or the Himalayas. Yet throughout I have had before my mind—and perhaps have suggested to your minds— a heaven-descended river far mightier than these, issuing from beneath the throne of God, flowing down, not without many vicissitudes but still in one triumphant progress and with ever-increasing volume through the ages, till at last it shall lose itself in the ocean of eternity, and the knowledge of God shall cover the earth, as the waters cover the sea. Such a stream is the Church of God—the Church of the patriarchs, the Church in Egypt, the Church of the Wilderness, the Church of the promised land, the Church in Babylon, the Church of the Restoration, the Church of the Dispersion, and lastly of all, when the fulness of time had come, the Church of Christ.

The prophets delighted to portray the spread of God's truth through the instrumentality of His chosen people, as a stream issuing from the sacred rock, a 'fountain coming forth from the House of the Lord,' 'living waters going out from Jerusalem,' a perennial stream, flowing downward and onward, irrigating the earth on either side, healing and refreshing, so that, in Ezekiel's words, 'Everything shall live, whither the river cometh.' A similar metaphor seems to underlie the words of the Psalmist in the text. The image at all events is a very obvious one; and it is fertile in suggestive lessons. One might dwell for instance on the sources from which the stream issues, or on its fructifying and cleansing qualities, or the like. But, omitting these more obvious applications, I purpose confining myself to-day to three points in which this image represents the Church of Christ, and which have a bearing on missionary work. I. There is first of all, the continuity of the stream. The missionary spirit indeed, like everything that is godlike in man, presses forward, acts for the future, hopes for the future, lives in the future. But it draws strength and refreshment from the experience, the examples, the accumulated power and wisdom of the past. Nay, just in proportion as we are animated by this reverence for the past, as we acknowledge our obligations to it, as we feel our connexion with it; in short as we realise this idea of continuity in the Church of Christ, in the same degree will be the truest missionary spirit—wise, zealous, humble, selfdenying, enlightened, enterprising, innovating in the best sense, because conservative in the best sense. The Church of Christ is a tree soaring upwards to heaven, spreading its branches far and wide; but its roots are buried deep below the surface in a dark antiquity. Christian men—above all, Christian missionaries—are the heirs of all the ages.

At the moment when first the voice of God is heard ringing in the ears of the Syrian ShepherdChief in Ur of Chaldees,' Get thee out of thy country,' the history of our spiritual race begins. Abraham, the father of the faithful, is the human founder of the divine society which we call the Church of God— may I not say, the Church of Christ—Christ anticipated, if not Christ realised; for to Abraham first was given the promise of a chosen seed; he first rejoiced to see Messiah's day; 'and he saw it'—however dimly—* saw it and was glad.' He too was the first missionary, for he went forth in the same spirit in which all brave and true missionaries have gone forth ever since—went forth' having none inheritance, not so much as to set his foot on'—went forth, 'not knowing whither he went' This idea of continuity in the Church, this sense of an inheritance in the past, with all its priceless lessons—its warnings, its encouragements, its endowments of strength and its provocations to zeal—is set vividly before our eyes in the image of a mighty river, the Nile or the Euphrates, the Ganges or the Amazon, growing from a little rill or cascade—the same and not the same, at its source and at its mingling with the limitless ocean.

2. But secondly; the course of the river, in its vicissitudes, has also its lesson for us. The present time is confessedly a crisis fraught with manifold anxieties. If there are many bright gleams (and are there not many ?) it is no less true that dark clouds overhang the horizon, threatening at any moment to deluge the Church of Christ. At such a crisis what lessons does the image of the river, interpreted by the history of the past, suggest? Do they tend to dismay or to encouragement, to despair or to hope? To this question there is one clear and decisive answer. The river has its eddies and its backcurrents; it has its retrograde movements and its meandering channels, when it seems even to recede from its goal; it buries itself perhaps underground, or it loses itself in marshy swamps; it is hemmed in between some rocky heights, some iron gates, which threaten to close in upon it, and scatter its waters and obstruct its course for ever. If we saw only one short reach of its course, we should prophesy its failure in reaching its destination. But we know that despite all obstructions, despite all treacherous appearances, it must flow onward and downward, must empty itself into the ocean. Whatever partial aberrations there may be, its general course is one and the same. This is the law of its being. And so also with the Church of God. Do you seek a parallel to the stagnant marshes of the mighty river [whose course I have been tracing]? Take the period of the Judges, when every man did what was right in his own eyes, when the law of God is almost lost to view for many generations, when there seemed to be no continuous stream of living water, but only patches of swamp thinly covering the surface of the ground here and there. Do you ask again for a counterpart to the narrow rock-bound channel—the intrusive barriers on the right hand and on the left? Look at the closing period of the Jewish monarchy. Here is Israel well-nigh crushed between two mighty heathen empires—Egypt and Babylon—the two greatest powers which the world had then seen. Again and again they appear clashing together, like those fabled rocks of Greek story. And Israel, one would suppose, must perish. The Church of God must be crushed and annihilated, or at least so dispersed that it never can unite again. The truth of God must evaporate, because there is no channel left for its transmission to after ages. Well, we know the result, as a matter of history. We ought to know, and we ought to feel, independently of history, that the truth cannot perish, that the Church of God cannot fail. This is a spiritual law, as the other was a physical law. It must survive. It must flow ever onward and onward, till it reaches the ocean of the Eternal Truth. I have taken my instances from remote ages; but does not the image apply equally well to more recent times? Look at the Church of England during a great part of the last century. Have we not here the very state of things symbolized by the river lost in marshy ground—its purity, its vigour, its swiftness, its very life apparently gone; and the waters which should have quickened and refreshed, lying stagnant and corrupt. Yet all the while across these marshy flats a keen spiritual eye might have observed here and there trickling runnels, and here and there more copious streams, which had not lost their life, had not lost their freshness and their savour, which were all tending in the same direction and would at length unite and give to the river its proper volume and force. They did at length unite. The river of the English Church flowed a mighty river again. We have witnessed during the last sixty years an outburst of religious zeal, whether manifested in missionary enterprise abroad or in Church extension at home, to which it would be difficult to find a parallel for many centuries past in Western Christendom. Is not this full of encouragement and hope—this sudden transition from almost utter stagnation to keen and vigorous life? Who shall despair, when he witnesses these things? But times change rapidly; peoples and churches live fast; a new crisis has come. The Church is now hemmed in between two mountain barriers, which approach ever nearer and nearer and threaten to close in upon her course. This is true to a certain extent of the Church of England; it is still more true of the Churches on the Continent. On the one hand there is a superstitious regard for the forms rather than the spirit of the past, a retrograde yearning after doctrines and practices which a larger knowledge and a wider experience had discarded, a reluctance to accept the results for which science or learning claims a recognition. On the other there is a sceptical dislike of all received truth, because it is received, a growing materialism which is indifferent to spiritual things, which shuts out the thought of the life beyond the grave, which is impatient of any theological statement, careless of any religious belief, which is without God in the world. Materialism on the one hand, formalism on the other—these are the rocks which hem in the river of God. Does not past experience suggest the hope, that though for the time the channel is straitened and the navigation is perilous, yet the waters may flow deeper for this temporary restraint; so that, when the river emerges once more, it may be found healthier, purer, swifter, for the discipline. Nay, are there not signs that this will be so? Are not men led on all sides by the anxieties of the times to ask themselves searching questions as to the meaning, the reality, of their Christian profession—questions which only the perplexity of such a crisis could have called forth?

3. I have spoken of the continuity of the stream, as reflected in the history of the Church. I have dwelt on its diversified course, as suggesting lessons of patience and of hope. Let me ask your attention to yet a third point suggested by the analogy of a great river and intimately connected with this day's anniversary. How is this stream fed? What accessions does it receive? What are its tributaries f

From all quarters of the heavens these streams pour in to the main channel. Falling direct from lofty mountain heights here, draining broad table lands there, flowing through barren rocks and rich meadows and sandy plains, from the right hand and from the left they issue to swell the bulk of the rolling "tide. At first, as they join the main stream, they betray their separate sources. They have their own colour, their own swiftness; and they seem almost to keep their own channel. At length the fusion is complete. They have mingled their waters with the main stream; they are lost in it. But meanwhile—and this is what I ask you especially to mark—they have communicated to it their own characteristics, their purifying or fertilizing qualities. And thus, strengthening and strengthened, giving something and receiving much more, they roll down in one broad, irresistible, ever-flowing stream, bearing on their breast the natives of divers climes and the t produce of many soils, sweeping their rich argosies of men and treasures onward towards the one far-off ocean which is their common goal.

The tributaries of the mighty river. Are we not reminded by this word of another image under which the same truth is prefigured by Psalmist and Prophet —the nations of the earth gathered together from the four winds of heaven to the Holy City, and pouring in each its special products, its choicest gifts, as a tribute, to the treasury of the God of Israel. One offers its finely woven fabrics; another its elaborately chased vessels and intricate carvings; another its costly perfumes; another its ivory, its rare woods, its precious metals.

Do we ask what is the counterpart to all this in the history of the Christian Church? Has not each great nation in succession, as it was gathered into the fold of Christ, given some fresh accession of strength to the Church; emphasized some doctrinal truth or developed some practical capacity or fostered some religious sentiment; and thus in some way or other contributed to the more complete understanding or the more effective working of the faith once delivered to the saints? Look at the earliest of these great tributaries to the stream of Christian History. Reflect how much the Church owes to the special capacities and opportunities of the Greek people. A language wider in its range and more subtle in its distinctions than any which the world has ever heard—a language moreover which was already the medium of communication throughout the civilised world—becomes the vehicle for spreading the Gospel. A race gifted with a special capacity of philosophic thought is exercised upon the writings of the Apostles and Evangelists, and draws up those creeds and formularies which are the heritage of the Church to this day. This is the tribute of the Greek to the sanctuary of God. And next the Latin race also offers its choicest products at the same altar. Here is a marvellous capacity of practical organization, a genius for making and administering laws such as no other nation has possessed. No common tribute this to pay into the sacred treasury. Observe too that in the Divine Providence the tributaries flowed into the main stream in due order. The Church wanted the systematic statement of the doctrines first as the basis, and then the practical organization for giving them effect. I have spoken of the two great nations of the ancient world. But let us come nearer home, and ask what special offerings were poured into the Divine treasury by the two great races which to this day make up the population of the united kingdom— the Celtic race in Ireland, Wales, and the Highlands —the Teutonic race which is the staple of the people of England. No ignoble gift was the offering either of Teuton or of Celt. The Teuton, besides his innate reverence for the obligations of family life, laid on the altar of God, as his choicest offering, a fearless love of truth and a manly determination to abide by it, which emboldened the heroes of the reformation to think for themselves, to throw off the fetters of medievalism and to breathe the pure air of the Gospel again. Not less costly, though different