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Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to he partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light.—Colossians i. 13.
One thing is often set against another in the experience of the Christian; and also in the every-day procedure of the providence of God. So fared it with Jacob that night he slept in Bethel. A stone was his pillow, and the cold hard ground his bed; yet, while sleep sealed his eyelids, he had God himself to guard his low-laid head, and dreams such as seldom bless a couch of down. A ladder rose before him in the vision of the night. It rested on earth, and reached to the stars. And forming a highway for a multitude of angels, who ascended and descended in two dazzling streams of light it stood there the bright sign of a redemption which has restored the intercourse between earth and heaven, and opened a path for our return to God.
Now, the scheme of salvation, of which that ladder was a glorious emblem, may be traversed in either of these two ways. In studying it, we may descend by the steps that lead from the cause to the consummation, or, taking the opposite course, we may rise from the consummation to the cause. So—as a matter sometimes of taste, sometimes of judgment—men do in other departments of study. The geographer for example, may follow a river from the lone mountaintops where its waters spring, down into the glen, into which, eager to leave sterility behind, it leaps with a joyous bound; and from thence, after resting awhile in black, deep, swirling pool, resumes its way, here spreading itself out in glassy lake, or there winding like a silver serpent through flowery meadows; until forcing a passage through some rocky gorge, it sweeps out into the plain, to pursue, 'mid shady woods and by lordly tower, through corn-fields, by smiling villages and busy towns, a course that, like the life of man, grows calmer as it nears its end. Or, starting from the sea-beach, he may trace the river upwards; till, passing town and church, tower and mill, scattered hamlet and solitary shepherd's cot, in some mossy well, where the wild deer drink, or mountain rock beneath the eagle's nest, he finds the place of its birth. The botanist, too, who describes a tree, may begin with its fruit; and from this, whether husky shell, or rugged cone, 01 clustering berry, he may pass to the flower; from that to the buds; from those to the branches; from the branches to the stem; and from the stem into the ground, where he lays bare the wide-spread roots, on which—as states depend upon the humbler classes for power, wealth, and worth—the tree depends both for nourishment and support. Or, reversing the plan, with equal justice to his subject, and advantage to his pupils, he may begin at the root and end with the fruit. The inspired writers, in setting forth salvation, adopt sometimes the one course, and sometimes the other. With Paul, for instance, the subject of heaven now introduces Christ, and now from Christ, the Apostle turns to expatiate on the joys of heaven. Here, as on an angel's wing that sheds light on every step, we see him ascending, and there descending the ladder. Taking flight from the cross, he soars upward to the crown; and now, like an eagle sweeping down from the bosom of a golden cloud, he leaves the throne of the Redeemer to alight on the heights of Calvary. As an example of the ascending method, we have that well-known passage in his epistle to the Romans— "For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the first-born among many brethren: moreover, whom he did predestinate, them he also called; and whom he called, them he also justified; and whom he justified, them he also glorified." There we pass from the root to the fruit, from the cause, step by step, to its effects; here again, Paul guides us upward along the stream of blessings to their perennial fountain. He first shows the precious gift, and then reveals the gracious giver; the purchase first, and afterwards the divine Purchaser. From the crown of glory, flashing on the brow of a Magdalene, he turns our dazzled eyes to another crown, a trophy hung upon a cross; a wreath of thorns, armed with long sharp spikes—each, in place of a pearly gem, tipped with a drop of blood. He first introduces us to heaven as our inalienable heritage, and then to the throne and person of him who won heaven for us. He conducts us up to Jesus, that we may fall at his feet with adoring gratitude, and join in spirit the saintly throng who dwell in the full fruition of his presence, and praise him throughout eternity.
The words of my text, and those also of the verse which follows it, are introductory to a sublime description of Jesus Christ—a picture to which, after considering these preliminary verses, we intend to draw your attention. To the eye both of saints and sinners it presents a noble subject. If his great forerunner felt himself unworthy even to loose the latchet of his shoes, how unworthy are these hands to sustain a theme so sacred and sublime. May he who ordaineth strength "out of the mouth of babes and sucklings," without whose aid the strongest are weak, and by whose help the weakest are strong, fulfil among us his own great and gracious promise—" I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me!"
Turning your attention, meanwhile, to the matter of these introductory verses, I remark—
I. Heaven is an Inheritance.
Examples, at once of pride and poverty—how prone are men to attach importance to their own works, and to seek at least some shining points of goodness in them—like grains of gold in a mass of rock! We are loth to believe that those things for which others esteem and love, and praise us, and even, perhaps, crown our brows with laurel, apart from Christ, have no merit; but appear in the sight of the holy and heart-searching God as, to use a Bible phrase, "filthy rags." It is not easy to bring human pride, no, nor human reason, to admit that; to believe that the loveliest, the purest, the most virtuous of womankind, a mother's pride and a household's honor, must be saved, as the vilest outcast is saved—as a brand plucked out of the fire, or he of whom God said, "Take away the filthy garments from him. Behold I have caused thine iniquity to pass from thee, and I will clothe thee with change of raiment."
These feelings arise in part, perhaps, from a secret suspicion, that, if our works be entirely destitute of merit, they must at the same time disincline God to save us, and disqualify us for being saved. But how base, unscriptural, God-dishonoring is this fear! One would think that the parable of the prodigal had been invented to refute it. There, recognizing him from afar, God, under the emblem of an earthly father, runs to embrace his son, all foul and ragged as he is ; he holds him in his arms; he drowns his confession in this great cry of joy, "Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found." Nature herself proves it false by every little child who lifts its hands and prayer to God as " Our Father which art in heaven." What idea has he formed of God who expects less of him than he would expect of any earthly mother? Let her be a queen. She is a mother; and under the impulse of feelings that reign alike in palaces and in cottages, how would that woman spring from her throne to embrace a lost babe; and, weeping tears of joy, press it to her jewelled bosom, though plucked from the foulest ditch, and wrapped in tainted rags? He knows little of human nature, fallen as it is, who fancies any mother turning from the plaintive cry and imploring arms of her offspring because, forsooth, it was restored to her in loathsome attire. And he is still more ignorant of "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" who fancies that, unless man can make out some merit, he will receive no mercy. Blessed be his name, " God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us."