Alfred Barry, Sermons Preached at Westminster Abbey, London: Cassell and Co., 1884.
'Sorrow and sighing shall flee Away.'
"Sorrow and Sighing shall Flee Away."
"The ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away."— Is. xxxv. 10.
I have taken my text from the anthem which is soon to sound in your ears, and to bring home to you, in all the beauty and power of very noble music, what has been deemed to be the natural keynote of thought and feeling for this congregation on this day. The past week has been to us all overshadowed with sorrow and solemnity—the sorrow of a great loss, the solemnity of the presence and the teaching of death; and in that sorrow and solemnity, those who on Monday last saw the concourse of all ranks and classes and sections of English society at the funeral Service, and—what was at last so striking— the stream of people who for hours passed on, only to look at a beloved and honoured grave, will not think it too much to say that all England took part.
It was well that it should be so. Of such tributes it is true that they bless those who give far more than those who receive. But that tribute has now been fully paid; and the time has come, when those who
* Preached on Sunday, January 31st, 1881, the Sunday following the funeral of Dean Stanley.
have the hope of Christian faith should strive to look through sorrow and solemnity to that which lies beyond, and should learn that lesson, as well they may, in the light of such glorious promises as those which breathe and glow in the text.
I. "They shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.'' This in undoubtedly the instinctive ineradicable hope of human nature; for, indeed, it is the one consummation, in which the mind and conscience and heart can find full satisfaction. But is that hope only a glorious, and perhaps in its effects a beneficial, delusion never to be realised? Or is it the earnest of a reality far greater than its highest imagination can conceive? There is the great question. Out of the conflicting and imperfect condition of our actual life— felt more and more painfully, as civilisation deepens thought and sensibility—never certainly more painfully felt than in the literature and philosophy of our own day —that question emerges again and again; and, as it emerges, it receives contradictory answers from the two conflicting voices within the soul, of which from time to time one or other gains a temporary predominance. But the Christian revelation allows no doubt on this matter for a moment. From one end of Holy Scripture to the other, alike in the full light of the Gospel and the glorious anticipations of its dawn, it promises unhesitatingly the fullest realisation of this hope. It is not that it bids us shut our eyes to the darker phases of actual life. On the contrary, it acknowledges and realises them in a tone of truthful and thoughtful sadness, which the old European paganism never knew, and against which the revived paganism of our days protests. But it tells us that they are not the true Law of GocPs
will and of man's nature; that for humanity at large they were not in the beginning, and shall not be in the end; that for any one of us, if he wills, there is a place among the <c ransomed of the Lord;" for whom not only (as here in measure on earth) "joy and gladness shall be obtained/' but, what on earth cannot be, "sorrow and sighing shall quite flee away."
Look at the picture drawn in the chapter from which my text comes, and mark its singular completeness and beauty of promise in all the elements of joy. It deals with every sphere of human life, the outer life of sensation and experience, the physical and emotional nature of man, and his higher spiritual faculty and aspiration. It begins with the outward scenery and circumstances of life; and there, telling how the "desert shall rejoice and blossom like the rose," with the glory, of the strong cedar of Lebanon, and the bright flowers of the plain of Sharon—how "in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert" —it evidently paints to us a condition, in which all that in the visible sphere is barren and weary, painful and dangerous, shall pass away, and the whole outer life shall minister to the happiness of man and his growth to the ordained perfection. Next, it turns to the lower nature of man himself; and for this it takes away the burden of weakness and of fear by the knowledge of a God, who redeems from blight and suffering, in whose presence "the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; the lame man shall leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing." Lastly, it speaks to the spirit of man within, and it sounds for him the yet higher note of hope and continual progress. For the light of God
shows that there is "a highway" through the desert of life, on which "the redeemed can walk" safe from the risk of error, safe from the ravenous beasts of violence without, safe from the taint of uncleanness within; and at the end there is a heavenly Zion of perfection, to which the "ransomed of the Lord shall come with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads." Everywhere there rises higher and higher the tone of confident and hopeful promise. Blight in the outer life, weakness and suffering in the body, discouragement of doubt or danger in the life of the spirit—these things are now, and therefore, even amidst joy and gladness, there is the tear of sorrow and the sound of sighing. But these things shall not be in the end; and therefore, scared like ghosts at the gleam of the dawn, both "sorrow and sighing shall flee away."
II. Such was the bright vision of the prophet; where did he look to see it fulfilled?
Spoken, as it was, at the great crisis of the Assyrian invasion, when at a time of craven fear and desperate councils Isaiah stood out alone as the messenger of "quietness and confidence" in the name of the Lord, it may well have referred first to the all-but-present deliverance from the gigantic power of the enemy by the redeeming arm of the Lord.
The prophet may well have looked forward to the bright day of the ransomed kingdom of Hezekiah—in its outward prosperity and peace, in the removal of physical disease and suffering, in the spiritual light and blessing of the Lord—as one which should bring joy and gladness; he may well have imagined the joyful procession of those who should come up to Zion with the crown of victory on their heads, and from whom the " sorrow and
sighing," the agony of fear and the groan of suffering, should flee away.
Some such shadow of fulfilment there may have been then, in the last gleam of unclouded prosperity which ever fell upon the kingdom of Judah before its sun set in the great captivity. Such shadows of fulfilment may have recurred in the history of man again and again, whenever the light of God's countenance has been hailed, and men have caught it and reflected it back in the moral beauty of righteousness and love. For it is of the essence of the matter that all which is here described is the true law of God's creation, and that, whenever obstructing and degrading influences are even in measure put aside, it must re-assert itself again and again. The sunshine of God is itself unceasing in the radiance which floods our whole universe; let the clouds be scattered, or even broken, and it must of necessity appear. The glory and the usefulness of Nature, the health and strength and beauty of the bodily life, the joy and hopeful energy of the spiritual being—these are God's natural gifts. Man has but to accept the true law of his being, and to fight against all evil which mars its dominion; and in measure these things must be his.
But I have called these mere shadows of fulfilment; for such the prophet clearly esteemed them; such, in reality, they clearly are. Like all the prophets of old, but with a certainty and richness of foresight peculiarly his own, Isaiah unquestionably looked on to the Kingdom of the Messiah, as the one ideal of a perfect manifestation of God and a perfect exaltation of man, which all lesser fulfilments of promise could but imperfectly foreshadow. "Who, indeed, as he surveys even the brightest phases of earthly happiness and glory, can
ever dream of being satisfied with them, as adequate fulfilments of the immortal beauty of this utterance of the prophet?
No! there is but one possibility of adequate fulfilment, in the Kingdom of the Christ, Son of God and Son of man, as Holy Scripture sets Him forth. That fulfilment, you may remember, our Lord claimed for Himself, when to St. John Baptist's disciples, with obvious reference to this passage, He made His miracles of bodily healing (types, as He elsewhere taught, of the healing of the soul) to be. the sign that in Jesus of Nazareth men saw Him that "was to come," and had to look for no other. It is, indeed, an essential characteristic of the Gospel, running through its whole system, that it is emphatically a perfect Redemption, a more than perfect restoration of what, being the true birthright of humanity, was marred, indeed, but never lost. Be it observed, moreover, that in the counsels of God that Redemption was fore-ordained and accepted from the beginning of the world; so that man was never left to the hopeless condemnation and bondage of evil; so that (if I may so express it) it was inevitable, even before our Lord Himself came, that the secret workings of His real but unknown Redemption should come out from time to time, in various degrees of brightness, through the clouds, which overshadowed human life and the outer world as ministering to it. But it is in the actual manifestation of the Kingdom of Christ on earth—revealing the love of God, revealing the true spirituality of man, revealing the unity of God and man in the great Redemption—it is in this, and in this alone, that the prophetic picture is realised in its fulness, and the gleams of light through the clouds
are exchanged for the full unveiled glory of the Sun of Righteousness.
Certainly, if the Kingdom of Christ is what it proclaims itself to be, it must necessarily be (as on the Mount our Master proclaimed it) a Kingdom of blessing, redeeming man from sorrow and sighing to joy and gladness. For what are the two great sources of the sorrow which broods so heavily over life?
There is, first, over our own bodily life, and the world of Nature which subserves it—and it is only with this view of Nature, and the burden under which the creation groans, that we are here concerned—the visible blight of pain and suffering. In Nature's highest beauty there is a haunting sense of imperfection, even to our weak human imagination; there are jarring notes of what is repulsive, foul, terrible, in the great symphony which fills the universe with music. The very forces of Nature, so clearly, as it seems to us, designed to serve the ruling power of humanity, you know how they rebel, to defy it, to wear it out, and to crush it, again and again. In our own frame of body and soul there is in different degrees realised the law of pain, weakness, decay, which culminates in the awful reality of death— the death in which it seems as if suddenly, by one breath of the poison of disease, by one little accident, or by the sure law of gradual decay, this humanity, with all its great capacities, goes out—the death which wrings the souls of those who remain still behind, by the apparent disruption of the ties which are of the noblest and dearest essence of our life. This law of decay, bringing with it, now the sharp pain of body and soul, now the dull weariness and despondency of life, I suppose there is hardly one of us beyond the early days of
youth, who does not understand in some measure; and certainly the acknowledgment of it rings through the human literature of every race and every age.
But it is no mere pious imagination to declare that its burden is absolutely as nothing in comparison with the burden of spiritual evil, in the blindness, the weakness, the sin of man himself. Look only at the facts of our experience. Conceive all else in Nature and in man's bodily constitution to remain as it is, and only human folly and sin to be swept away. Conceive a world in which all men should be true and righteous, all should be pure and noble, all should be unselfish and loving; in which the cry against oppression and treachery and foulness should be no more heard; and in which the sense of indignation with ourselves, of self-disgust and remorse, should be unknown to the secret chambers of the soul. Can we fail to see that, even under the burden of pain and decay, so far as it still remained, the world would be almost a paradise in itself; and would be so deeply felt and known to be a preparation for heaven, that death itself would lose its bitterest sting, the grave would be felt to be simply a resting place, and even over it "sorrow and sighing would flee away?"
These are the two great clouds which darken our life; and that especially, because they seem to separate us from God alike by the mist of doubt and by the gloom of fear. To "curse God and die" is the temptation of hopeless and (as it seems) undeserved suffering. To refuse to retain God in our knowledge is the inevitable result of sin.
Need I remind you how the Gospel professes to scatter both?
As for the law of suffering and death, the Gospel, in its very revelation of the Cross, hallows it doubly, by overruling it to good for ourselves and by making it a condition and a means of helping the redemption of others. There is "a sorrow," no doubt, "of the world which worketh death." But if sorrow and suffering be to us what the Gospel makes them, is there one of us who has not felt the grace which overrules them to blessing? We know how they force a man to know his true self, by cutting off the pleasures and distractions and idolatries of the outer world, with which the sunshine hours of life strive vainly to satisfy the soul. "We know how, even when they come from the apparent breaking of the dearest earthly ties in estrangement, or enmity, or death, they at once teach us to rest on something better than human love and goodness, and yet show us how "in God to find them worthier to be loved/' and to realise, as we have never done before, the unseen world, which is around us, even now, and the Communion of Saints, which not even death can break. Even when they come to their natural completion in death, we know—for we have seen—how the very consciousness of weakness throws the soul upon the Saviour, and how the sharing the sufferings of Christ has in it a deep mysterious comfort. For in all these ways the experience of ages has shown us that they unquestionably teach us to rest upon God, in and through the Lord Jesus Christ (Himself the Great Sufferer, who consecrated victory through suffering), and make us understand with Jacob in his hour of conversion at Bethel, "The Lord is in this place, and we knew it not. This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven."
So the Gospel deals decisively with the first burden of pain; but still more decisively with the heavier burden of sin. In this lies the very essence of its redemption. What else is signified in the Atonement, which it preaches in every word of teaching, and which, in the Holy Communion of the Blood shed for the remission of sins, it exalts as the highest gift of its grace? "Sin," it cries, "is forgiven." "There is no condemnation to those who are justified in the blood of Jesus Christ." "Why will ye die, seeing I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth? saith the Lord. Turn, and ye shall live." "God is in Christ reconciling the world to Himself; we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled unto God." There is its first message; and it is the only message which can give hope to the sinner in the first hour of repentance, and encouragement to the servant of God, who, in proportion as he conquers sin, knows more and more his sinfulness. But it is not all. "Sin,'' it goes on to say, "shall not have dominion over you." "Ye are sanctified in Christ Jesus. You can conquer sin, if you will, through the grace of God which is given you in Christ." It may need struggle; the flesh may have to be crucified with slowness and pain and shame; the strength of sin may never be wholly vanquished till the end shall come. But sin, and the spiritual death which it brings, need conquer none—not even the simplest and the weakest. This is the second message of the Gospel; and in it is the very secret of the true spiritual life, in which thousands and tens of thousands have risen above the flesh and the world. Yes! If the Kingdom of Christ be what it claims to be, it cannot but be that the promise of the text in it shall be realised, and the
sorrow and sighing of the world's cry to God be exchanged for the song of everlasting gladness from the redeemed.
III. But is that promise actually realised? Remember that, by the very nature of the case, the Kingdom of Christ is seen by us as yet only in the first stages of its conflict against the powers of evil. What it can offer us now is only a true, but imperfect earnest of the future. Has it given, and does it give, that which it thus promises?
I answer boldly, Yes! Look to the first coming of our Lord on the earth, when He declared that the kingdom of heaven was at hand. Note how, in all the three phases of this promise of Isaiah, he asserted its power to bless the whole world. Over the forces of Nature He spake the word of might, to satisfy the hungry with plenty, and to quell the fury of the storm. As His daily work He delighted to lift the burden of disease and bodily affliction from the maimed and the deaf, the halt and the blind; to relax the chill grasp of death, and to defy the corruption of the tomb. Against that last, worst enemy, the deadly power of blindness and sin and unbelief, He brought home to a sinful and unhappy world the light of God's truth, the certainty of His forgiveness, the new life of His grace. What element of joy and gladness could have been wanting to those who accepted His kingdom? Perhaps, in the deep sense of the unceasing conflict against the powers of evil, we are apt to dwell too little on the exceeding joy, like no other joy, of that blessed Life—to Himself the joy of the pure and spotless Son of man, ever in the bosom of the Father, and the joy of the Redeemer of the lost and suffering, whom He called brethren—
to those who are His, so far as they are able to enter into His spirit, the atmosphere of peace and truth, of love and adoration, which breathed from His very presence to them. True, that both for Him and for them there was the hour of darkness, when the conflict of His whole life was gathered up in the agony of the cross, and all seemed gone over the blank desolation of His grave. But this was but for a moment, like the chill dreariness is before the dawn. Then, when the resurrection came to scatter every cloud, note how, amidst some fear, and awe, and perplexity, we are told with emphatic simplicity, "Then were the disciples glad when they saw the Lord" —glad with the promised joy which "no man could take from them" —glad in the peace which, "not as the world giveth," He gave and left to them.
Nor is it possible to read the history and the teaching of the Apostolic Church without noting the radiance of hope and confidence and joy, which it poured on a weary and desponding age, and seemed to assert almost without an effort, against persecution and death, against the weakness and the folly and the sin which it so deeply felt within.
Yes! and at all times it is (thank God!) a matter of daily Christian experience, that, just in proportion as we are really Christ's in heart and soul, with any shadow of the devotion of those early days, the promise is realised again and again to us. There is an inexpressible joy in the fair world of Nature and Humanity, when with Christ we see the hand of God there, alike by knowledge and by faith. There is a deeper joy and peace in the communion with God, perhaps not least felt in the hour of repentance, in the
victorious struggle against pain, in the comfort which wipes away the tears of the mourner, and the sweet calmness which soothes the hour of death. We "taste and see that the Lord is gracious; "we feel—what the blessing of our highest service promises—" the peace of God which passeth all understanding."
These things are no dream, but a reality indeed. We feel sometimes that they are the only reality, in a fleeting and unsubstantial world around us. Still the reality is yet imperfect. Joy and gladness are ours, yet not unchequered; sorrow and sighing are rather kept at bay than driven from us. But, if we believe the word of our Master, we have a sure and certain hope of a perfect future; which, as we ourselves grow older and sit looser to this world, and as we part with those whom we love as our own soul, and whom we reverence as the true followers of Christ now with Him for ever, grows more and more upon us, partly in the sense of an increasing longing, partly in the surer insight of faith. There is a rest in the Lord now, even on earth; there is a yet more blessed rest hereafter in the world unseen; there is a heaven to come, in which alone all the whole scope of promises of the prophetic vision shall be fulfilled. You remember how Holy Scripture accumulates upon it in rich profusion all the images of outward beauty and glory, which the knowledge of this imperfect world can supply, till human language fails, and passes into mystery. You remember how it describes the life of the future, in an identity free from all the weakness, the dishonour, the pain, which cling to this mortal life—-the natural body of humiliation being fashioned like the spiritual body of His glory. You remember how it promises the knitting
together again of all the ties broken on earth, in a mutual knowledge and love, of which here we can know but little. But, above all, you must have felt how the soul lingers over its highest promises of a communion with God in Christ, which shall drive away for ever all sin, all fear, all doubt, and in which we shall go on to all eternity, drinking deeper and deeper of the fountains of Divine love. Then, and then only, shall the glorious words of the text be realised. "Joy and gladness" shall be perfect and everlasting, and "sorrow and sighing shall flee away."
Without the realisation of His peace in the present, and without this sure and certain hope of the future, I hardly see how we can live, I dare not think how we can die. But God grant that our grasp of them may grow firmer and more joyful, through all the changes of this life, and especially in those great crises of struggle or sorrow, in which a lifetime seems gathered up! We shall do so, as we learn better to know and love the Lord Jesus Christ; and find His deliverance with us (as we so often pray that we may find it), "in all time of our tribulation; in all time of our wealth; in the hour of death, and in the day of judgment."
© Southern Cross College, 2004.