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And every firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb ; and if thou wilt not redeem it, thou shalt break its neck." — Exodus xiii. 13. I SELECT this sentence for my text despite the somewhat grotesque impression it may produce on your minds at first, nay, because of that very impression ; for I have found that such quaint sentences as this are like nails which help to drive home the principles they illustrate, to fix and retain them in the memory. And, beyond a doubt, these words illustrate a principle which lies at the very foundation of the religious life in all ages. When we first read the words with attention, and suffer our imagination to play freely upon them until it calls up the scenes which they suggest, there is, I admit, a savour of cruelty in them, and of cruelty both to man and to beast. What, we are tempted to ask, what has the poor foal done that its neck should be broken, if its owner cannot redeem it with a lamb? And how should it be a sin if some poor Israelite, too poor either to sacrifice a lamb or to lose the colt of an
382 THE CONSECRATION OF THE FIRSTLINGS, ass, should refuse to obey such an ordinance as this, or to believe that it was imposed on him by the God of all mercy and grace ? Does not God care for oxen ? and for every beast of the stall as well as for the beasts of the field ? Has He not shewn, by the mouth of his prophets and psalmists, how much He cares for them ?
Has He not shewn with what ruth and pity He thinks of the " much cattle " in a doomed city,^ and of the wild beasts driven from the burning forests of Lebanon? 2 Has He not shewn with what compassionate and perennial bounty He takes thought for their needs, causing grass to grow for cattle as well as herbs for the service of man, sending forth springs in mountain and valley that He may give drink to every beast of the field, that even "the wild asses may quench their thirst;" and opening the sluices of heaven that the very trees of the wood may be satisfied ? ^ And if his tender mercies are over all his works, has He not set man above them all, and put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field, the fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea ? Must He not care for him more than for many birds or much cattle? How, then, could the God to whom all his creatures are dear, to whom man is more dear than any other creature, demand a sacrifice which would at once impoverish man and deprive one of his new-born creatures of life ? To this question I might reply that, among the 'Jonah iv. 11. '^ Habakkuk ii. 17 : cojnp. Isaiah xiv. 8. 3 Psalm civ. 10, 11, 14, 16.
THE CONSECRATION OF THE FIRSTLINGS. 383 Israelites, a man who owned a she-ass could hardly be a poor man, since, with them, the ass, though the only beast of burden, was reserved for the use of the wealthy and dignified classes. I might remind you that the ass's colt could be redeemed by the sacrifice of a lamb or a kid ; and that, to a pastoral people, this was no very onerous sacrifice, was indeed only such a sacri-
fice as they were content to make for any traveller of distinction who reached their tent or homestead. I might argue that if it were not cruel of God to devote his birds and beasts to our use, it could hardly be cruel of Him to ordain that we should devote some of them to his service ; and that it does not become those who cheerfully accept this vast and precious gift to grudge any acknowledgment of it which He may demand. I might plead that as God turns to our best use whatever we devote to Him, we possess nothing so truly as that which we bestow on Him, and gain more from that which we lose in his service than from aught else that we call ours. All this is quite true, and yet I shall not now press it upon you. For I am not concerned to deny — I am not sure that I could honestly deny — the apparent, or even the real, harshness and severity of this ordinance. It is only one of many, only a single example of a vast system of ordinances which touched human life at every point, and demanded that not a tithe merely, but more nearly a third, of all that man possessed should be diverted from its natural use, i.e.^ the use it would have been natural for him to make of it, to a religious use.
384 THE CONSECRATION OF THE FIRSTLINGS. And, doubtless, a system which, in addition to many other burdens, demanded the sacrifice of all firstlings, from the firstfruits of all the various crops brought forth by the prolific earth to the firstborn of every beast of the stalls or the fields, must have pressed severely on the often scanty resources of the chosen people. Even the firstborn son of every family was to be dedicated to the service of God, or redeemed from his service by the payment of five shekels — a sum which many a poor Hebrew must have found it hard to raise.
I do not deny, then, I do not wish to deny, the apparent, or in some sense the real, severity of this ordinance. It is that severity in which our lesson lies, and by which alone the pure and kindly will of God could have been graven on the hard and stubborn heart of a stiffnecked and mutinous race. Do we not know that in no school are the fees so heavy as in the school of experience ? and that even in this school no lessons are so costly as those which are taught in the highest form, in the class for Ethics and Religion ? We shall neither vindicate this ordinance to the full, nor be true to the lessons we have ourselves learned in the school of experience, by divesting or seeking to divest it of the air of severity and "awful authority" which it wears. We can only justify it in the deepest and noblest way as we recognize the great fundamental principle it was designed to illustrate, remember that no great moral or spiritual principle can be taught or learned save at a heavy cost, and confess that such a principle
THE CONSECRATION OF THE FIRSTLINGS. 385 is worth far more to men than it can possibly cost them, that no price is too high to pay for it. What was the principle of this ordinance, then ? Stating it in general terms, we may say that the consecration of the firstlings implied and taught, that all things are the gift of God, and must be used, if we are really to possess and enjoy them, in accordance with his will. Just as the dedication of the first day of the week hallowed the whole week, and made all time sacred ; just as the dedication of one house in a city hallowed the whole city, and threw its sanctity over every home ~ so the dedication of the firstfruits hallowed the whole-
harvest, and the dedication of the first birth hallowed> the whole family, and implied that the whole round of human life should be holy to the Lord. The moral intention of these ceremonial ordinances was not to purchase exemption from the service of God for the: major part of man's life and time, by a special devotions of a fraction of it ; it was rather, as St. Paul reminds us,, to consecrate all by a special dedication of part : "If the firstfruit is holy, so also is the lump," i.e., the great bulk of the harvest ; " and if the root is holy, so also are the branches." This being the design, the principle, of the Ordinance, was it not worth mastering at any cost of time, or toil, or sacrifice? If men would but learn it; if they would but spend all day every day with God, live with Him in every abode and so transform it into a sanctuary ; if they would but recognize the proofs of his love and bounty in all that they acquire or enjoy, use all they 26
386 THE CONSECRATION OF THE FIRSTLINGS. have in his service and do all they do as unto Him, — would they not rise to their true perfection and blessedness ? Yet, confessedly, this is the general lesson which the consecration of the firstfruits and the firstbornwas intended to teach them, the secret which it was designed to reveal. And hence we may well conclude that it was worth teaching however severely, worth learning at any price. But the Ordinance had also a more special meaning and intention. In a rough rudimentary form, appropriate to so primitive a time and to a race which had the very elements of religion to learn, it affirmed and embodied the principle which the Lord Jesus afterward
detached from its rude framework of outward observance, and expressed in the simple but sublime words : " Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness." No pious and thoughtful Israelite could well fail to see, we at least cannot fail to see, that what the consecration of all firstlings to the service of God really taught was : " Put the service of Godi firsts and keep it first. Hold this aim high above all other aims. Let it rule your whole life in all its provinces and details and ways ; for only thus can you rise into the true and perfect life of man." And that is a lesson which, despite our manifold advantages over the Jew, we all still need to learn, or to learn more fully. For which of us has yet succeeded in keeping this high spiritual aim always before him, and in subordinating to it all sensuous, selfish, and worldly desires ? Which of us does not daily need to repeat the familiar prayer ?—
THE CONSECRATION OF THE FIRSTLINGS. 387
Teach me, my God and King, In all things Thee to see ; And what I do in anything. To do it as for Thee. We admit the beauty of the principle as a principle. We bow to its authority. We confess that it should dominate our whole life, and that we shall never be at peace until it does. But which of us would dare to say that, because he takes all things as from God, he devotes all to God, living with, and for. Him every day and all day long, in a sacred and strengthening communion of obedience and love }
And if we ask why we do not live by a principle the truth and authority of which we confess, and keep that service of God in which our true freedom lies and our true blessedness j^rj^ in all we do, surely the answer must be sought in the severity of the demand it makes upon us. Its seventy on the Jew we have conceded. But if it made no austerer demand on us than on him, we should hardly complain ; we might take his lower place very thankfully. For there are many of us, I am afraid, who are so insensible to our own happiness that we would willingly compound with God ; and if we could meet his claim on us by devoting one day in the week to his service, and one house in the city, and the firstfruits of all our toils and enterprises, and do what we liked zvith the rest, would cheerfully do so much as that for Him. That which irks and yet attracts us, that which makes obedience to his will at once so difficult and so delightful to us, is that his demand on us enters into
388 THE CONSECRATION OF THE FIRSTLINGS. the most secret and interior recesses of the heart, and claims to dominate all our thoughts and all our ways, all our aims, purposes, motives, desires, all passions and affections of the soul. No outward observance wilB satisfy it, no outward sacrifice^ however costly. Nothing" will satisfy it but an inward and complete devotion to the will of God, to the righteousness and charity which are the moving forces of that Will. It is not a tax that we have to pay ; it is a love to which we have to respond. Everywhere, and in all things, He meets us with the invitation and command : " Give me thine Iieart ; Give me thine heart." It is this inward, voluntary, and all-commanding affection which we find it so difficult to compel. For to seek God's kingdom and righteousness first, to love and
serve Him in all we do, involves a rupture with all the urgencies of sense, with all those selfish and worldly aims which, despite our better will, still retain a strong attraction for us. To some of us, the very thought of submission to another, if also a higher, will than our own is repugnant. To others, the difficulty lies in resisting the desire for present ease and comfort, or for immediate gain. And to others, the effort of thought and volition necessary to the stedfast and untiring pursuit of a single aim, however pure and lofty it may be, is almost beyond their power to maintain. But whatever our difficultymay be, whether it spring from self-will or infirmity of will, from love of ease or love of gain, from a careless, sanguine, self-enjoying nature, or from a mind naturally pensive, unenterprising, unhopeful, the Divine demand.
THE CONSECRATION OF THE FIRSTLINGS. 389 the Christian law, bates no jot of its inexorable severity. From one and all of us it insists on a pure and wholehearted devotion to the will of God, insists that this shall be our supreme aim, and that it shall be stedfastly pursued, pursued at the cost of any sacrifice it may entail. We shall never meet this demand until we are persuaded that the aim is worth the sacrifice, that our chief >end is also our chief good. And by " persuaded " I do not mean convinced, and still less convinced against our will. The arguments which carry weight in the Court of Logic are of little use here. Most of us have long since listened to all that can be alleged, and have yielded to their force. Intellectually, we do not doubt that to put -God first, or, in other words, to put righteousness and •charity first, is the true aim of human life, and the only way in which we can attain our proper perfection and blessedness. And yet, practically, we find it as hard as ever to keep this aim always before us, and to make it supreme. We want so much else than this, so much that
is lower ; and these lower wants are so pressing and imperative that we often permit them to override our supreme aim, or to jostle it out of sight. We want health, for instance ; we want daily work and livelihood : we want position, culture, enjoyment. Are we to sacriiice any or all of these in order to secure a righteous and loving spirit ? Is this an aim so high and noble and satisfying that, to reach it, we should sacrifice whatever may stand between it and us } So long as we move simply in the region of intellectual and ethical speculation, we do not doubt, as I
390 THE CONSECRATION OF THE FIRSTLINGS. have said, what the answer to this question should be. We confess that a spirit at peace with itself, with God, with all the world, is worth all else that the world has to offer or that God Himself can bestow. But in practical life our answer is not so easy, distinct, certain. Here we often permit the nearer aim to shut out that which is more distant, the lower aim to overtop the higher ; and thus we strike a discord which vibrates through our whole nature, or prolong a strife which weakens and debases us, — the old discord, the old strife, between flesh and spirit, between the law of our members and the law of our mind. And that I suppose is why we are so made and our life is so ordered that, as the years pass, we are taught in the most practical and impressive way how unable these lower aims are to satisfy us, and are invited, almost compelled, to seek our own highest good. The chances and changes of mortality, against which we often ignor* antly complain, are God's ministers for our welfare ; they are the schoolmasters, the rod, the discipline which press this lesson home upon our hearts. When health fails us, or life draws visibly to a close ; when work fails
us, or we can no longer do our work with the old alacrity and enjoyment ; when we lose the position for which we have striven, or win it only to find that it lacks the charm with which we had invested it ; when we seize the pleasure we have pursued and it withers in our grasp„ or the very faculty for pleasure decays within us ; when we gain the end we have set before us and our soul remains craving and unsatisfied still, — what is all this but
THE CONSECRATION OF THE FIRSTLINGS. 391 a schooling by which we are taught that the chief aim of the soul must be a good as vast and as enduring as itself? what is it but a long series of practical proofs by which God feelingly persuades us that He has made us for Himself, and that our hearts can know no rest until they rest in Him ? Ah, my brethren, if we were but quick to take his meaning, if we did but trust his love, we should hear his voice in all the changes, losses, and sorrows of life, saying, " Seek first my kingdom and righteousness ; seek your chief good in the sacred and eternal realities in which alone it is to be found." Instead of seeming the messengers of his anger, we should recognize in them the ministers of his mercy. We should feel that He had come out of his place, not to rob or injure or impoverish us, but to hush the discord and compose the strife of our souls, to give us that very power of serving Him and of delighting ourselves in Him for which we often pray. There has been but one man to whom goodness wasnatural, in whose spotless righteousness there was noeffort, no strain. And if even He was made perfect by suffering, by sacrifice, how else can we hope to be delivered from that bondage to a weak and divided nature into which we have fallen, and to become perfect as He was perfect ? And if, for the joy set before Him,
He could delight both to do, and to bear, the will of God, and to have the Divine law graven on his very heart, shall we shrink from the discipline by which that law is impressed on our hearts and we are made partakers of his joy and peace ? 1. 68 FREE BOOKS http://www.scribd.com/doc/21800308/Free-Christian-Books 2. ALL WRITINGS http://www.scribd.com/glennpease/documents?page=1000
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