(Preached before the Prince of Wales, at Sandringham, 1866.)
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
It may seem hardly worth while to preach upon this text. Every one thinks that he believes it. Of course -- they say -- we know that God made the world. Teach us something we do not know, not something which we do. Why preach to us about a text which we fully understand, and believe already?
Because, my friends, there are few texts in the Bible more difficult to believe than this, the very first; few texts which we need to repeat to ourselves again and again, in all the chances and changes of this mortal life; lest we should forget it just as we feel we are most sure of it.
We know that it was very difficult for people in olden times to believe it. Else why did all the heathens of old, and why do all heathens now, worship idols?
We know that the old Jews, after it had been revealed to them, found it very difficult to believe it. Else why were they always deserting the worship of God, and worshipping idols and devils, sun, moon, and stars, and all the host of heaven?
We know that the early Christians, in spite of the light of the Gospel and of God's Spirit, found it very difficult to believe it. Doubtless they believed it a thousand times more fully than it had ever been believed before. They would have shrunk with horror from saying that any one but God had made the heavens and the earth. But Christians clung, for many hundred years, even almost up to our own day, to old heathen superstitions, which they would have cast away if their faith had been full, and if they had held with their whole hearts and souls and minds, that there was one God, of whom are all things. They believed that the Devil and evil spirits had power to raise thunderstorms, and blight crops, and change that course of nature of which the Psalmist had said, that all things served God, and continued this day as at the beginning, for God had given them a law which could not be broken. They believed in magic, and astrology, and a hundred other dreams, which all began from secret disbelief that God made the heaven and the earth; till they fancied that the Devil could and would teach men the secrets of nature, and the way to be rich and great, if they would but sell their souls to him. They believed, in a word, the very atheistic lie which Satan told to our blessed Lord, when he said that all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them were his, and to whomsoever he would he gave them -- instead of believing our Lord's answer, 'Get thee behind me, Satan: it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.'
And therefore I tell you here -- as the Church has told Christian people in all ages -- that if any of you have any fancy for such follies, any belief in charms and magic, any belief that you can have your fortunes told by astrologers, gipsies, or such like, you must go back to your Bible, and learn better the first text in it. 'In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.' God's is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, of all things visible and invisible; all the world round us, with its wonderful secrets, is governed, from the sun over our heads, to the smallest blade of grass beneath our feet, by God, and by God alone, and neither evil spirit nor magician has the smallest power over one atom of it; and our fortunes, in likewise, do not depend on the influences of stars or planets, ghosts or spirits, or anything else: but on ourselves, of whom it is written, that God shall judge every man according to his works.
Even now, in these very days, many good people are hardly able, it seems to me, to believe with their whole hearts that God made heaven and earth. They half believe it: but their faith is weak; and when it is tried, they grow frightened, and afraid of truth. This it is which makes so many good people afraid of what is now called Science- -of all new discoveries about the making of this earth, and the powers and virtues of the things about us; afraid of wonders which are become matters of course among us, but of which our forefathers knew little or nothing. They are afraid lest these things should shake people's faith in the Bible, and in Christianity; lest men should give up the good old faith of their forefathers, and fancy that the world is grown too wise to believe in the old doctrines. One cannot blame them, cannot even be surprised at them. So many wonderful truths (for truths they are), of which our fathers never dreamed, are discovered every year, that none can foretell where the movement will stop; what we shall hear next; what we shall have to believe next.
Only, let us take refuge in the text -- 'In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.' All that we see around us, however wonderful; all that has been found out of late, however wonderful; all that will be ever found out, however still more wonderful it may be, is the work of God; of that God who revealed himself to Moses; of that God who led the children of Israel out of their slavery in Egypt; of that God who taught David, in all his trouble and wanderings, to trust in him as his guide and friend; of that God who revealed to the old Prophets the fate of nations, and the laws by which he governs all the kingdoms and people of the earth; of that God, above all, who so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that the world by him might be saved.
This material world which we do see, is as much God's world as the spiritual world we do not see. And, therefore, the one cannot contradict the other; and the true understanding of the one will never hurt our true understanding of the other.
But many good people have another fear, and that, I think, a far more serious one. They are afraid, in consequence of all these wonderful discoveries of science, that people will begin to trust in science, and not in God. And that fear is but too well founded. It is certain that if sinful man can find anything to trust in, instead of God, trust therein he surely will.
The old Jews preferred to trust in idols, rather than God; the Christians of the Middle Age, to their shame, trusted in magic and astrology, rather than God; and after that, some 200 years ago, when men had grown too wise to trust in such superstitions, they certainly did not grow wise enough, most of them, to trust in the living God. They relied, the rulers of the nations especially, in their own wit and cunning, and tried to govern the world and keep it straight, by falsehood and intrigue, envy and jealousy, plotting and party spirit, and the wisdom which cometh not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish, -- that wisdom against which we pray, whenever we sing 'God save the Queen,' -
'Confound their politics,
Frustrate their knavish tricks,
On Thee our hopes we fix,
GOD save the Queen.'
And since that false wisdom has failed, and the wisdom of this world, and the rulers of this world, came to nought in the terrible crisis of the French Revolution, eighty years ago, men have been taking up a new idolatry. For as science has spread, they have been trusting in science rather than in the living God, and giving up the old faith that God's judgments are in all the earth, and that he rewards righteousness and punishes iniquity; till too many seem to believe that the world somehow made itself, and that there is no living God ordering and guiding it; but that a man must help himself as he best can in this world, for in God no help is to be found.
And how shall we escape that danger?
I do not think we shall escape it, if we stop short at the text. We must go on from the Old Testament and let the New explain it. We must believe what Moses tells us: but we must ask St. John to show us more than Moses saw. Moses tells us that God created the heavens and the earth; St. John goes further, and tells us what that God is like; how he saw Christ, the Word of God, by whom all things were made, and without whom nothing was made that is made. And what was he like? He was the brightness of his Father's glory, and the express image of his person. And what was that like? was there any darkness in him -- meanness, grudging, cruelty, changeableness, deceit? No. He was full of grace and truth. Grace and truth: that is what Christ is; and therefore that is what God is.
There was another aspect of him, true; and St. John saw that likewise. And so awful was it that he fell at the Lord's feet as he had been dead.
But the Lord was still full of grace and truth; still, however awful he was, he was as full as ever of love, pity, gentleness. He was the Lamb that was slain for the sins of the world, even though that Lamb was in the midst of the throne from which came forth thunderings and lightnings, and judgments against the sins of all the world. Terrible to wrong, and to the doers of wrong: but most loving and merciful to all true penitents, who cast themselves and the burden of their sins before his feet; perfect justice and perfect Love, -- that is God. That is the maker of this world. That is he who in the beginning made heaven and earth. An utterly good God. A God whose mercy is over all his creatures. A God who desires the good of his creatures; who willeth not that one little one should perish; who will have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth; who wages everlasting war against sin and folly, and wrong and misery, and all the ills to which men are heirs; who not only made the world, but loves the world, and who proved that -- what a proof! -- by not sparing his only-begotten Son, but freely giving him for us.
Therefore we can say, not merely, -- I know that a God made the world, but I know what that God is like. I know that he is not merely a great God, a wise God, but a good God; that goodness is his very essence. I know that he is gracious and merciful, long suffering, and of great kindness. I know that he is loving to every man, and that his mercy is over all his works. I know that he upholds those who fall, and lifts up those who are down; I know that he careth for the fatherless and widow, and executes judgment and justice for all those who are oppressed with wrong. I know that he will fulfil the desire of those who call upon him; and will also hear their cry and will help them. I know, in short, that he is a living God, and a loving God; a God in whom men may trust, to whom they may open their hearts, as children to their father: and I am sure that those who come to him he will in no wise cast out; for he himself has said, with human voice upon this earth of ours, -- 'Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.'
In him all can trust. The sick man on his bed can trust in him and say -- In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth; and he is full of grace and truth. This sickness of mine comes by the laws of heaven and earth; and those laws are God's laws. Then even this sickness may be full of grace and truth. It comes by no blind chance, but by the will of him who so loved me, that he stooped to die for me on the Cross. Christ my Lord and God has some gracious and bountiful purpose in it, some lesson for me to learn from it. I will ask him to teach me that lesson; and I trust in him that he will teach me; and that, even for this sickness and this sorrow, I shall have cause to thank him in the world to come. Shall I not trust him who not only made this world, but so loved it that he stooped to die for it upon the Cross?
The labourer and the farmer can trust in him, in the midst of short crops and bad seasons, and say, In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth; and he is full of grace and truth. Frost and blight obey his commands as well as sunshine and plenty. He knows best what ought to be. Shall we not trust in him, who not only made this world, but so loved it, that he stooped to die for it upon the Cross?
The scholar and the man of science, studying the wonders of this earth, can trust in him, and say, In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth; and he is full of grace and truth. Many things puzzle me; and the more I learn the less I find I really know; but I shall know as much as is good for me, and for mankind. God is full of grace, and will not grudge me knowledge; and full of truth, and will not deceive me. And I shall never go far wrong as long as I believe, not only in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible, but in one Lord Jesus Christ, his only- begotten Son, light of light, very God of very God, by whom all things were made, who for us men and our salvation came down, and died, and rose again; whose kingdom shall have no end; who rules over every star and planet, every shower and sunbeam, every plant and animal and stone, every body and every soul of man; who will teach men, in his good time and way, all that they need know, in order to multiply and replenish the earth, and subdue it in this life, and attain everlasting life in the world to come. And for the rest, puzzled though I be, shall I not trust him, who not only made this world, but so loved it, that he stooped to die for it upon the Cross?