|Vol. III, No. 10
Tebeth 5606, January 1846
Short Sermons.—No. 1.
By A Moralizing Layman.
My Dear Readers:—You will find in the 51st Psalm, 12th verse, the following words: “Oh, create for me a new heart, and renew within me the spirit of rectitude.”
And I have selected them as the theme for my present discourse unto you. The entreaty which the text offers is so applicable to every condition of mankind, so forcible in its character, that we may search in vain for its equal throughout that Holy Book which has been given to us for our guide heavenward. Convinced of the sinfulness of our native state, we are sensible of the importance of a reformation, and when we shall have realized the consummation of the desire which it breathes, we shall have achieved all the happiness which we can anticipate in this world of cares and troubles. Paramount to the observance of laws and ordinances is the conviction of the necessity of this change—for there is no efficacy in the repetition of prayers spoken by the undulations of the tongue, whilst our souls fail to carry up to heaven those pure and holy aspirations which there alone find entrance. Let me ask you, my readers, to reflect on the composition of your heart to search into the recesses of that mysterious spring of your impulses, and to draw forth into the glaring brightness of truth all the depravity of its form and substance. Brethren, how vanity and pride, ignorance and unbelief, passion and prejudice, have overrun and absorbed it until no clean spot is visible where all should be purity! and if your conscience can behold with unprejudiced view the corruption with which it teems, your soul, alarmed for its safety, would cry aloud frequently and earnestly, in the words of the text, “Oh, create for me a new heart, and renew within me the spirit of rectitude.”
But, my dear readers, our defects and infirmities are not visible to our own ken, and of the evil of our hearts few of us have cognizance. The delinquencies of our transgressions find extenuation in the force of circumstances, and we smother conscience by an appeal to necessity. Whilst we assert that self-preservation is the first law of nature, we transgress and abrogate every other precept in the fulfilment of this compendium of our moral obligations. Some conceive this to be religion; but I believe it to be the very antithesis.
Where shall we then look for pure faith? Not in a religion based upon fear; whose offerings are rendered as a continued propitiation in appeasing the vengeance of offended laws, and holding its tenure in the hope of obtaining pardon by intercession for daily transgressions; but in a faith based upon a pure love for God, giving to the Creator the whole heart of man, reverencing holy things, obeying his statutes, and pouring forth praises and gratitude for the blessings enjoyed; in a word, loving God for his own sake. Grant that you are constant in your attendance at Synagogue, that you repeat the prayers which the holy men of our nation have dictated, that you make the responses in their proper places, that you conduct yourselves whilst there with decorum and seriousness, but the observance of all these constitutes but a small portion of true religion; for whilst in the holy place your heart and thoughts may be absent, concerned about other and worldly things, and then it is in vain that you would seek to feel that purity and holiness which should be the sole companions of true religion. Doubtless you imagine, when you are engaged in the duties of prayer, that you are animated to it by good and holy impulses, and I would not seek to destroy an illusion so consoling and gratifying; but it might be asked whether some selfish incentive did not exist. Some secret hope for health, for success, for worldly happiness, may, perhaps, be found lurking beneath, colouring your devotion in all its phases, in which the love of God finds no common interest.
Whilst your lecturers from the reading desk would impress upon you the necessity of the observance of laws and precepts, they should also teach that these were but secondary to the great effort of rendering the heart pure and the spirit holy. The first task accomplished, the language of exhortation would no longer be necessary; for the desire to do God’s pleasure would render every action of life a faithful record of the fulfilment of his commandments. It is not my desire to enter into any examination as to what extent the rigid observance of the written laws of God is necessary to constitute true religion; but I believe it to be a safe and orthodox doctrine to conceive that the good of all nations will be blessed. If this be so, the threshold of religion is purity of heart.
When we come, then, to investigate our condition, and find so little innate purity, and ascertain that our souls are constantly seeking after evil: how can we look for the indwelling of the spirit of love except through a revolution in our natures? Covered as we are with the garb of pride, and deceit, and selfishness, there must be a radical change before we can hope to realize holiness and purity. I speak in general terms, for I know not where to look for a single exemption from their influence. Deceit is practised so commonly by all the world that it is but little regarded as a sin. Whilst you are manifesting publicly feelings foreign to your private sentiments, whilst you are sharing pleasure where you secretly feel aversion, whilst you are counterfeiting continually the genuine feelings of your heart, you can surely recognise this chief essential of your nature. And although the smoothness and pleasure of social intercourse are aided by this practice, surely there are none of you who will defend it as a concomitant of religion. As to pride, that is also evident. When I beheld any of you willing to descend to those beneath you in the walks of life, seeking in that sphere for associates and companions, and disregarding the factitious circumstances which have elevated some and depressed others; when I witness the dismantling of that cloak which wraps you in supercilious arrogance above your fellow-creature, whose only crime is misfortune and poverty: then will I hold you guiltless; but if I know human nature, in this respect we are very culpable. But should you prove so far perfect as to be exempt from these engrossing and common sins of deceit and pride: how will you respond to the charge of selfishness? of self-idolatry, which claims the worship of all your thoughts, which extorts schemes from the intellect, having in view self-aggrandizement only, which renders you envious of your neighbour’s prosperity, and males you unwilling to sacrifice your own comfort for the relief of a fellow-being; a feeling which tinges every action of your life, marks every sentence that you utter, and has become the goal of your existence? You may equivocate and seek by speciousness to cover and hide these corrupt spots, but they still have an existence, festering in their corruption; and where they abide no true religion can find a resting-place. I have spoken of these sins, because they are common to us all, and because their existence is incompatible with true holiness; but there are some who have, beyond all these, some darling vice, and space would fail if I undertook to specify the “besetting sin of each one of you.” It were in vain to plead in defence of these evil inclinations, that these defects are inherent in our nature; for, although “we are conceived in sin and shapen in iniquity,” yet the duties enjoined upon us teach us to abandon the paths of wickedness, and seek those of purity and holiness. You cannot urge in the extenuation of crime the early period of its inception.
It is my desire and intention to be very brief, briefer, perhaps, than the nature of the subject demands; but I know that prolix discourses are not popular. I can readily imagine, too, that these remarks will pass by most of you untouched; for it were indeed wonderful, if you could be so conscious of your own state as to perceive at once their application. My object will have been fully accomplished if I can arouse you only in a slight degree to undertake the examination of your own natures. Actuated by a feeling of pure zeal, in behalf of a religion, brought by indifference into the doors of the chamber of death, I wish once again to awaken those pristine feelings, which, in years long past, and now venerated, shed so bright a glory upon the pages of our history. I desire again to renew in your souls the spirit of that love for God and your fellow-creatures, which shall prove a solid foundation and a firm reliance for every hope which you may indulge, every aspiration you may utter. I desire to bring you nearer unto God. And for the present, I bid you farewell.