Melville Scott, The Harmony of the Collects, Epistles, and Gospels, Second Edition, 1903. Public Domain.
EPIPHANY leads on to Lent, for if we have the Epiphany hope “we must purify ourselves even as He is pure.” The vision must be realised in daily life, and in spite of inward sin and outward conditions of trial and difficulty. We address ourselves, therefore, to the conquest of sin. In the three preparation Sundays before Lent our Church instructs us as to the necessity of self-discipline, its possible dangers, and its most fruitful motive.
THE EPISTLE – 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 – CHRISTIAN EFFORT
This Epistle brings before us the absolute necessity of sustained and concentrated effort in the Christian life, under two figures :—
A. The Christian Race.
The Christian life is a race—
(1) As it looks forward to a prize, compared with which all earthly prizes are fading and corruptible, a condition of glory which is fitly represented by the figure of a crown. The Christian runs with the crown ever before him; he runs to win, and as if one alone could receive the prize, and intending to be that one.
(2) As demanding continuous effort.
A very main idea of the race is its length, for it lasts as long as life. It needs, therefore, determination and fixity of purpose that we run “not uncertainly”—by fits and starts. This race is not to the swift, but to the enduring, and demands in the runner the same qualities possessed by the winners of all long races—a self-denial in every indulgence that might lessen the chance of victory, a wise and steady calmness, a shrinking from no exertion, but, above all, a steady perseverance to the end. No bodily race is like this for difficulty. Let the spiritual runner learn from the bodily to run wisely, not wildly, not as certain of victory, but making victory certain.
B. The Christian Wrestling.
(1) Not only does S. Paul say, “I run,” but “I fight.”
The Christian is not only a racer, but a wrestler. As the Christian’s race is the pursuit of holiness, so his wrestling is the conquest of evil. Here we see not so much the length as the severity of the struggle. The Christian must not only run patiently, but fight desperately, with strong and stern determination, with straining effort, with concentrated exertion, with wakeful and vigilant watching for opportunity. Let the spiritual wrestler learn his lesson from the bodily wrestler, and not shrink from the stress of conflict, for no bodily wrestling with flesh and blood is like this wrestling for severity.
(2) The ancient wrestler was also a fighter, and so the Christian must plant his blows where they will tell, and not “as one that beateth the air.” Not the show of fight, not much tossing of the limbs, not many formidable attitudes are wanted, but the reality of it—sin bruised, Satan beaten off, and the real Satans, not extinct Satans, but our besetting sin, vanquished. Hence the need of self-examination and taking ourselves in detail, and of confessing not only our sin, but our sins. Hence the need of self-discipline and self-bracing. We are to acquire mastery over the body—not, that is, of the depraved nature, for that is to be treated worse: it is to be “crucified,” and suffer the penalty of death this is to be enslaved only, lest it hinder the freedom of the soul.
THE GOSPEL – Matthew 20:1-16 – CHRISTIAN TOIL
As the Christian is to be a racer and a wrestler in his own spiritual history, as ever in pursuit of all good, and ever in constant conflict with all evil, so he is to be a toiler and labourer in regard to others. As the Epistle is directed against lives of ease, so the Gospel is against lives of selfishness.
A. The Necessity of Labour.
As Christians, we are called to labour. This is the very system of God’s Church on earth. We are called to enter a vineyard, and labour in a vineyard with others and for others. “To stand idle in the market-place” is bad, but how much worse to stand idle in the vineyard! There is no call to entrance that is not also a call to work; no admittance but on business. The salvation of the individual soul is to be wrought out not in isolation, but in communion with others. Personal religion can only unfold itself in the social sphere, in sympathy of mutual giving and receiving.
B. The Spirit of the Labourers.
The toil of the Christian is to be a labour of love, not of selfishness. He is to race, wrestle, and fight, but not for his own hand, imitating the earnestness of worldly men, but not their worldliness. He may not compare himself with others, lest he spoil his work, and thinking himself the first, become the last. The spirit of the market-place must not be found in the vineyard. Length of service is important; it is no less important to bear the burden and heat of the day; but more important than either length or amount of service is the spirit in which we serve. He who has worked one hour for God is better than he who has worked twelve for himself.
C. The Reward of Labour
Is, in fact, true resemblance to the mind and will of our Master. Just as the reward of learning is knowledge, and the reward of diligence in any art is ability, so the reward of virtue is to be virtuous, and of godliness to be like God. Other rewards there may and will be, but this is the very life eternal, the great reward to be given when even is come and the Master calls His labourers to give them wages (S. John iv. 36). Here is the danger of selfishness, that it makes the labourer unlike his Master, “his evil his Master’s good,” so that he cannot enter into the joy of his Lord. Thus does our Church give her first caution as to the spirit of Lenten discipline.
A prayer most suitable for the opening Sunday of the Lenten season, and marked by deep humiliation and desire.
It contains :—
A. A Confession of Sin.
We confess that we are under punishment, for, though a punishment of love and a discipline for future glory, it still is a punishment, and a just punishment, for our offences. The Christian must make his own the confession of the penitent thief—“We, indeed, justly.”
B. A Prayer for Absolution.
Though punished, and justly punished, we are still “Thy people,” and our merciful deliverance will more turn to the glory of the Godhead, Father, Son, and Spirit, than would our punishment.