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THE ETERNALLY PERMANENT AND THE CONSTANTLY FLUCTUATING; OR, A NEW TESTAMENT ECHO
TO AN OLD TESTAMENT ORACLE :
A HOMILY FOR THE FIRST SUNDAY IN THE NEW YEAR :
BY THE LATE REV. RICHARD SMETHAM.
That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been.'—ECCLES.
III. 15. Redeeming the time, because the days are evil.'—EPHESIANS v. 16. ANOTHER year has mingled with those beyond the flood, and a part of the current one has already become a thing of the past. How rapidly one year follows another, all engraving their records upon the great tablet of eternity-records that shall live when suns and moons shall cease to be! Time never wearies or waits. Set in motion by the fiat of the Eternal its roll shall be perpetual until the appearance of the archangel, who shall stand with one foot upon the sea and one upon the land, and “sware by Him that liveth for ever and ever' that Time shall be ó no longer.' Time works many changes in human life. Verily, we all . die daily.' Ever as the river flows, some fragment of our world falls into its sweeping current, and is borne beyond our reach. Man's world has been compared to an island. The waters wear away the stones, the highest cliffs come crumbling down.
Eighteen hundred and seventy-four is written upon many tombstones. By a kind Providence we have been permitted to see some of the opening hours and days of another year; but, perhaps, eighteen hundred and seventy-five may be marked upon my gravestone or upon yours.
We have seen its beginning, but its close may find us in a world where being is not counted by years. Standing upon the grave, speaking as if from the sepulchre of buried ages, I want to say to you a few plain and earnest words upon the right use of time.
VOL. II.-SIXTH SERIES,
We are accustomed to think and speak of time as a mighty destroyer; as having power to overthrow and crush almost all existences. But, after all, time is not really so powerful as we imagine. Time is weak in working essential changes. We can imagine some one, on hearing a statement of this sort, exclaim : Can time be weak? Are not the whole scene of our observation and the whole sphere of our knowledge covered with tokens of its power? Do we not see, on every hand, signs of its destructive force, in the beings, systems, institutions, cities and empires which it is fast reducing to ruins; and in the mementoes of others, which it has long since destroyed ? Where are the mighty nations of ancient history? Where are the generations that have successively tenanted this planet for well-nigh sixty centuries? and where are the great men who appeared in each revolving age, and left the impress of their genius upon all the epochs that have followed ? Has not time carried 'them away as with a flood’? Like clouds upon the wings of the wind, straws upon the ebbing wave, has not time borne them off ? Time weak !' Its hand is upon all things, and all things yield to its touch ; it is the mighty sea that bears all things to our shore, and, anon, bears all away. Such, I can fancy, to be the reflection of some on hearing the statement that time is comparatively powerless.
And yet, contrary though it may seem to our common ideas and feelings, a little thinking upon the subject will convince us that the power of time is seeming rather than real; and that there are high and practical senses in which it may be regarded as impotent. Exactly the reverse of what Lord Bacon said of 'fame' is true of time : 'Fame is like a river that beareth up things light and swollen, and drowns things weighty and solid.' We will try to show that time, like a river, beareth up things weighty and solid, and drowns things light and swollen. "That which hath been is now.'
Our text will apply,
1. To all the elements of material existence.—It is true that the forms of the material world are constantly changing. Islands emerge from the ocean, whilst broad acres once tilled by busy men, and waving with goodly harvest, are entombed beneath the wave. The herbs and flowers and trees of the plantal realm, and the million tribes of air and earth and sea belonging to the animal dominion, have changed many a thousand times since the days of Noah, and are changing every hour. But the elements of which the first types were made are the same. Elementally, that which hath been is now,' the forms only are new, the materials are old. God makes the same atoms serve the
of many species and many generations. The dust beneath our feet has often moved with life and may throb with life again. The raw materials out of which the principle of life constructs its organs and weaves its garments, from age to age, are always here. The physical philosopher tells us, “ Nothing can be put to it, nor anything taken from it.' Could you burn up the globe, and grind the stars to powder, you would neither increase nor diminish aught of the substance of things. Time through all its mighty revolutions cannot destroy a single ato m.
II. Our text applies to all the spirits of mankind.-Time has not been able to blot out one of all the vast mass of human minds that God has called into being. Argument, we think, is not wanted to prove that the human souls that ever have been, are now. We are deeply convinced of the soul's immortality. But on what do we base the conviction, that all the souls that ever have lived are living still? Is it on the immateriality of the soul ? As I know nothing of the essence of matter or mind, the word ' immateriality' has no clear, fixed meaning to me. Perhaps we have no right to call any being an immaterial being but the Infinite and Eternal One. Is it in the wunderful things which the human mind has achieved ? I have heard the magnificent deeds of man's genius offered as proof of man's immortality. I have heard it asked : ' Can it be supposed that mind which reasons according to the rules of logic, that can bend the powers of nature by the force of science, that can revel in the sunny fields of poetry, mind that can weigh suns and measure the stars, can cease to be? “Could less than souls immortal thus have done?” As poetry I feel the force of this, as an argument of probability I give it due weight; but as å proof of the soul's immortality it is worth nothing to me, unless it could be proved that all things are immortal that produce a lasting influence.
Do I base my conviction of the soul's immortality on its desire for life? No. For let it be assumed that men have an instinctive longing for a future state, I see not how this can be a proof of such a state, unless it could be first proved that all men's native desires are now realized ; which is by no means the fact. Do I base my convictions on the moral discrepancies of the present state ? I grant, indeed, that on the supposition that there is no hereafter the disorders of the world would seem to reflect much, not only upon the goodness, but even the justice of God ; and that it is only in the belief of a hereafter that the Divine character appears to me in an aspect suited to enlist my confidence and awaken my love. But then might not a certain limited period in the after-life be sufficient for the rectification of all this? Might not the evils connected with the antediluvian, patriarchal and apostolic ages have been adjusted long before this ? and consequently all the souls of these generations have gone out ?
If, then, our conviction of the soul's immortality is not based upon these, upon what does it rest? Upon the testimony of the inspired Prophets, upon the teachings of Christ and His Apostles. There is but one way of knowing how long any creature is to live; and that is by ascertaining the will of Him Who called the creature into being and keeps it in life. Souls are not selfexistent. If God will that man shall exist for ever, there is no power in the universe that can destroy his life. But has He revealed that man shall live for ever ? He has. Christ came forth to testify of this life. He brought 'life and immortalily to light through the Gospel.' "These shall go away into everlasting punishment; but the righteous into life eternal.'
On this testimony of Scripture, therefore, I base my conviction that all the human souls that ever have been are now-that not one of the millions who
spent their short and misty day of life under these heavens is non-existent
The tempests of revolving ages have not extinguished one ; but rather fanned all the sparks of intelligence into ever-brightening flames. All are thinking, feeling, acting still.
III. Our text will apply to all the general types of human character.Men are, in all leading features, the same to-day as they have ever been. The characters of our day are the counterparts of men who have gone before. Of the great impulses which form character it may be said, “That which hath been is now. All moral character springs from the supreme love of the heart—the strongest liking of the soul. If I had never heard a word that a man had spoken, or seen a single action that he had performed, yet if you could tell me what is the strongest liking of his soul, I would engage to give
the outlines of his character. The strongest love of human souls is for pleasure, or wealth, or news, or power, or ritual; or it is the love of God. And this has been so in all
ages. We need not go beyond the open page of the Bible to find these. Do you require from ancient times a type of the lovers of pleasure that teem around you now? See Herod on his birthday, with his viands and his wine, and his mad excitement under the dance. Do you require a type of the wealth-lovers who throng our streets, and crowd our shops, and fill the temples of commerce ? See the 'rich man’in the Gospel ; and in the dark monologue of his soul hear the voice of the wealthlover of our days : ‘I will pull down my barns, and build greater.' Or do you want a type of the lovers of pomp? See Haman, whose highest idea of human honour seems to have been to wear the royal apparel,' and to ride upon the king's horse through “the street of the city,' to attract the gaze and obtain the plaudits of the thoughtlesz crowd. In the sentiments of this shallow-headed, shallow-hearted man, behold the prevailing idea of the thousands in these times of hollow seeming, who spend their precious time and powers in endeavouring to impress men with their grandeur. Or do you require a type of the inquisitive people of our day? See the Athenians in the days of Paul, who' spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.' Do you require a type of the inordinate lovers of power ? See Sennacherib. In this man see the spirit and the features of the little social aspirants, as well as the political despots of every age. I see the picture of your Napoleons and Nana Sahibs in the grim and bloody figure of Sennacherib. Do you require a type of the lovers of ritual—the Tractarians and Papists of our day? See the old Pharisee making broad his phylacteries. Or do you require a type of those who live and act under the impulse of pure love to God? These the Bible supplies you all the way down from 'righteous Abel' to John the beloved disciple. In reference, then, to all the great types of human character we may say, “That which hath been is now.'
IV. Our text will apply to all the principles of the Divine Government.All the principles by which both the material and moral provinces of God have been controlled from the beginning, are the same now as ever. True,
the forms of the physical world have passed through many transformations, and may pass through many more. But the laws which at first moved the planets, built the hills, painted the flower, spread out the landscape and covered it with beauty and life, are the same that move planets, build hills, paint flowers and spread out landscapes still. So of the moral world. There was once simple Patriarchism, then gorgeous Judaism ; and now we have spiritual Christianity. But the same principles are seen in all. Because of this unalterableness, the physical philosopher can tell of things to come centuries hence ; he can tell to an hour when an eclipse shall take place, when the tide shall rise high in certain places, and when a comet shall again sweep the horizon; and because of this unalterableness, the moral philosopher, too, can predict with unerring certainty that if minds continue under the influence of certain depraved tendencies they will be led to ruin, whilst the theologian can tell that if they yield to the grace of God they shall have ' peace on earth,' and ' in the world to come life everlasting. And it is because of this that good men in all ages have had substantially the same experience. Job can express his religious feeling in the language of David, and Isaiah in the language of Paul, and Wesley in the same language as the simplest of bis followers.
V. Our text will apply, in a subordinate, but still in a very important extent, to the powers of human memory.—Have you ever been thankful for memory? You ought to have been. Memory retains in its grasp much of the past. Suppose all that you did yesterday were a blank to-day, and that all you do to-day would be a blank to-morrow, what a little and uninteresting thing life would be! But we often revive the past. Memory gathers up the fragments,...that nothing be lost.' The path of life through which we have passed, with its thorns and flowers, its hills and dales, its sunshine and its clouds, by the aid of memory we shall rewalk many
many a time. Years cannot rob the soul. It loses nothing by ages, but gains much by every hour. It makes past suns shine again and faded landscapes bloom afresh. Every day widens the domain of memory, and thus enriches the soul with the treasures of the past. The dealings of God towards us we shall never forget. We shall ever remember the years of the right hand of the Most High,' and 'meditate’ upon His works of old. Will the antediluvians, think you, ever forget the deluge? 'Will the Babylonians ever forget that terrible night when the hand appeared, and in solemn silence traced its mysterious characters upon the wall ? That which has been is now' in memory. God's doings have a record. Memory will be vivid in eternity : clothed with light to those who are blessed, but shrouded in darkness and terror to the lost.
VI. Our text will apply to all the conditions of man's well-being.—Look at the conditions of man's physical well-being. Is it not true that on pure air, wholesome food, proper exercise and cleanliness, the health of the human body depends ? If these were neglected three thousand years ago, men suffered, and it is the same to-day. Hence there is moral duty in keep