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בס"ד

On Atonement and Acceptance.

A Sermon.

O Father of Mercy! by thy benevolence spared, we are again permitted to enter thy courts, and another year has commenced unto us, that we may again be witnesses of thy truth and glory, which fill the world. Yet have we often sinned in thy presence, and done the evil in thy sight, rebelling against thy will, unmindful of thy holy command. And now we come before thy presence, asking of Thee forgiveness, pardon, and atonement; we crave the suspension of thy wrath and of thy indignation which we have incurred by our sinful deeds. But what excuse can we offer to thy omniscience? Can we allege aught that will avail as a justification in thy tribunal? Alas! we have known thy ways and have wilfully departed from them; we have been taught thy precepts, but our souls have refused to be obedient to their behest. And the record of our transgressions testifies against us, and our iniquity is before our eyes no less than it is known to Thee, to whom all the deeds of man are laid open. Yet, O Father and King! do not cast us out because of our sins, do not forsake thy rebellious children, but forgive according to thy great mercy, as Thou hast borne with our people from Egypt even until now. And let the world be taught that thy faith is yet entire with the sons of thy servants; and let these be made conscious, how great is thy goodness with which Thou watchest over them. Let us also feel the working of thy spirit, that many may be cleansed from iniquity and become repentant seekers of thy goodness, that through them those who are now obdurate may be led to fall down and worship, and to abominate the evil of their ways which is now the idol of their hearts. And through this shall we know that thy presence dwells indeed among us, when we see righteousness spread, and mercy prevail all around us, when many come to pray to whom thy worship is now a stranger, when those fear thee who now follow the path of sin. And let thus the coming Day of Atonement be to us a season of thy renewed love, and be an earnest to us that our spirits have been purified in thy judgment, and that we all have been numbered among those to whom Thou imputest no iniquity, whose transgressions Thou hast forgiven. Amen!

Brethren,

Much had Israel sinned, and the decree of destruction and banishment went forth against them, and the land, which was fertile and smiling in beauty was to be stripped of its fertility and rendered desolate to the eyes of all beholders because of the sins of its inhabitants. The men were doomed to wander forth, and the women were decreed to wear the chains of slavery instead of the ornaments of gold and jewels which were wont to decorate their beautiful limbs; all because the law of the Lord had been neglected, and because the warnings of the pious seers, who had been sent to admonish their brethren, had not been listened to, in the manner becoming messages from the Lord of spirits. Still, amidst all the dreadful denunciations which in those evil days of transgression fell from prophetic lips, there are interspersed words of consolation, which, even at this distant day, fall upon the believing ear like the dewdrops upon the thirsting flower in the calm stillness of the summer night. You know of Jeremiah, brethren; he was the man who more than all others was the messenger of wo and destruction; still even he has consolation in his messages, and speaks of happy changes which are impending, whenever the men of Judah return from their transgression. He knew the dread decree, at that day irrevocable, that Jerusalem must fall,—fall under the irresistible blows of the conquering nations that went to battle under the great Nebuchadnezzar’s lead; fall, because the measure of her iniquity was nearly full to overflowing; but he too saw glorious gleams of light breaking forth athwart the bloom of the impending night, and he beheld Jerusalem redeemed, Zion restored, although under his very eye the men of Chaldea were battering down the lofty walls, and overthrowing fort and tower, and entering the sanctuary with fire and sword, slaying the men without remorse, and the women without pity; dashing, in their fury, the suckling against the rock, and making the tearful mother the sport for their insatiable swords. And still Jeremiah beheld, through all this sorrow a glorious future, a future cloudless as the summer sky in his own lovely Palestine, glorious as the brilliant moon when she rises in splendour above the quiet sleeping landscape, in the midst of the glittering array of the stars of heaven. Ay, it was the returning light of the countenance of the Lord which dawned upon his far-reaching vision; but it was a light to be purchased by the people themselves; for they who had forfeited the favour of the Most High, were themselves to repurchase it by a change of conduct, by a return to obedience. It was this double change, the wickedness of Israel into righteousness, and of the divine wrath into mercy and ever­lasting favour, which stood prominent before Jeremiah’s mental eye, and thus he spoke:

שובו בנים שובבים ארפה משובתיכם הננו אתנו לך כי אתה אלהינו׃ ירמי' ג' כ"ב

“O return, ye backsliding children, I will heal your backslidings! Behold we come unto Thee, for Thou art our God.”—Jeremiah 3:22.

The verse just quoted is composed of two parts, namely, the address of the Holy Spirit admonishing the people to repent, and their reply to the mission of mercy. “O return, ye backsliding children, I will heal your backslidings.” Meaning, “however often and grievously you may have offended, however laden with built may be your spirit, however far you may have strayed from the righteous way: come nevertheless freely to the fold of your Father; I am ready to receive you; and if your transgressions have been manifold, I am able to forgive them all, to wipe out all your iniquity from the book of memorial.” In this blessed message we have the entire scheme of repentance unfolded clearly and unequivocally to our admiration, and we behold God the same merciful Being to sinners, which He is to those who have never sinned. Were it that no remedy existed for transgressers, that every sin demanded the absolute condemnation of the offender, how lost would be the whole human family, how utterly hopeless all longing for salvation, which fills the heart of man! “There is no man on earth so righteous who does act well, that he sinneth not;” where then would be those in whom the Lord would detect no guilt? where those who could escape from the torments which are the portion of those who have forgot their God? There would be but one step to despair and utter recklessness on the one side; “We are lost beyond redemption for the smallest evil we have committed,” would be the desperate reflection of those who have fallen; “it is useless for us to look back with regret upon what is past; let us then pluck the roses whilst they bloom, let us dash heedlessly into the whirlpool of dissipation to drown sorrow in the brimming wine­cup, for fear lest the evil hour should reach us before we have tasted our fill;” and on the other, gloomy despondency would follow upon the smallest deviation from right, and the sinner would, in anticipation of the fatal doom that is impending, pass his days in dread of the certain and coming evil. Would this be mercy? could for this end life and reason have been given? And still there can be no line drawn which would separate the consequence of one transgression from that of another. All sinning is a departure from the will of God; every wilful transgression is a rejection of the divine guidance which we have received; consequently, if there were no remedy for sin, every deviation would amount to a forfeiture of mercy, would consign us to destruction, without the possibility of a recovery. They, who know how good the Lord is, will at once recognise the incompatibility of such views with the mercy discoverable in all creation, with the paternal kindness which beams forth from every page of the written word of God. But not such is the spirit of the religion we have received; it breathes forth judgments and retributions; it tells us of a Judge and an Avenger, but it also speaks of mercy and indulgence, of a Father and Saviour. There is judgment for all acts of man, there is retribution for every deed; there is a Judge who sees all that is done; there is an Avenger who metes out the merited doom to those who refuse mercy; but there is mercy even to the sinner, there is indulgence granted that retribution follow not immediately on transgression; there is our Father who waiteth patiently to see whether his children will not listen to his call and come again to his embrace, and there is a Saviour, even our God and Father, who though both Judge and Avenger will readily forgive all, even the long obdurate, if they will only claim his mercy, which is extended to all, from the beginning of all things, even unto this day. Let us be fully impressed with this consoling idea, when we discover that our way has been the road of perdition. That the same Being who punishes, rewards us also, that the same God forgives who is wrathful to sinners, and that we have received the means and choice to obtain either reward or punishment; that we are free to act, and when regretting what has passed, free to come back to the place from which we started, and that there is no insurmountable obstacle opposed to us from any external source, why we could not be as good as we desire to be, as good as any of those whom we consider pious and good.

“Return, ye backsliding children,” is the exclamation of the Lord, unto Israel as a nation, unto Israelites as individuals. All are included in the duties which we owe to God, and all are to be comforted with the promise “I will heal your backslidings.” As a people have we sinned, and as a people should we return; ever since the time we went forth from Egypt, have we striven against the Holy Spirit which guided us; we would not submit to the laws which were laid before us, and we wandered away upon the path of error, till we have become scattered among the gentiles. And deep have been the wounds which our apostasy has caused us! Go to East, you find Jacob’s obdurate sons in dread of the tyrant who makes bitter their life; look to the West, they there too are found a by-word to the nations among whom they live; “sinning Israelites” is their name, because they have forsaken the covenant; in the ice-covered countries of the North they too are found, loaded with the same contumely which they meet with in the land once their own; and far in the regions of the South, you will encounter descendants of the same ancestry bearing their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers. Because the common parents of this people in the days of their prosperity went astray from the law and withdrew themselves from the service of the Lord; and He permitted thre wounds, which the offended religion demanded, to be struck by the gentiles who trod down Judah’s glory as the wild beasts tread down the produce of the vineyard; and to this day the wounds are not healed, because not yet has Israel returned from the dominion of transgression. Still our wounds are not incurable; for the great Physician has promised: “I will heal their backsliding;” and this hope sustains us amidst all our calamities, calamities which our sins have justly merited, and which will draw us at length to seek for healing from the hands of Him who has power to bind up our sores and to staunch the bleeding wounds. Indeed in the Lord is Israel’s salvation; and whenever we seek it as one man, whenever we claim it as a union of brothers, the remedy will not be withheld, and the ransomed of the Lord will return from the lands of their captivity, and dwell in the places which are now waste and desolate, as in the days of old, under Shepherds whom the Lord will raise up, under teachers who will truly instruct the people in the ways of the Everlasting Lord.

To the individual Israelites too, the call is addressed: “Return, ye backsliding children.” So soon as you have become conscious that your course of life is not in consonance with the line of duty marked out for you in the law; so soon as your conscience is awakened to compare your own deeds, the result of your own counsels, with the revealed word of God; so soon as your brothers tell you to beware of the consequences of your conduct; so soon as you find that sin has a dwelling-place in your heart: you should pause in your way and return to the path which the Lord has marked out for you, fearlessly, prayerfully, confident of being received in favour. O say not, erring brother! “My backslidings are many, how shall I return? what merits have I to plead in extenuation of my guilt? who is to plead for me before my offended Judge?” Never fear; come only with confidence, with prayer, with humility, and thy Father will be ready with his mercy to shield thee from the consequences of thy own deeds; seek for no merit, neither in thyself nor in any other being, when thou comest to pray; thy own sense of degradation and self-abasement for leaving no righteousness in thy possession, will be sufficient to make thy God listen to thy prayer; and thy humility when thou comest to kneel before the Lord because thou FEELEST thyself sinful, will be all-sufficient, to plead before the dread Judge in the hour when He comes to winnow the chaff from the wheat, to purge mankind from those who pollute the world by the iniquity of their deeds.

Only consider, brethren! that to us there has never been revealed any other idea than individual responsibility and the unbought mercy of God; on the one side we are told: “The soul that sinneth shall die,” since the father is not to suffer for the sins of the son, nor the son for the sins of the father; and on the other hand we are told: “For the Lord thy God is a merciful God,” and “He being merciful forgiveth iniquity and will not destroy, and poureth not forth all his wrath.” The evident meaning of these verses is, that whatever evil man does will fall upon him only; there can be no transfer of responsibility on the one side, nor any assumption of guilt on the other. I am not to suffer for the wrong of any other man, nor can the highest being take upon himself my punishment to free me from iniquity. God does not punish merely to punish, which would evidently be the case if needs some one would be compelled to be punished for any sin before it can be atoned for. God recompenses evil with retribution, either for reformation of the offender, or the improvement of others; we may assert at once, for both objects combined. Now assume that one who is guiltless should bear the consequences of another’s iniquity, how is such proceeding to amend the criminal, or influence to good those who witness the punishment? Evidently as a means of amendment, the party suffering being innocent, it would fail of effecting the least, and as an example to others it could to a certainty not operate, since the only idea which can reconcile us to see punishment inflicted is that we honestly believe that the sufferer has deserved his fate. So then, it is the Bible doctrine, that the soul that sinneth alone shall die; but not absolutely without retrieve, without remedy; for the Lord is not inexorable, He is ready to pardon if we but come forward to claim his mercy; for He will forgive us when we seek Him with all our heart, and with all our soul—that is, if we abhor our conduct, and endeavour to regain his favour by a newly-awakened devotion to his worship, by a faithful conformity to his holy will. In other words, the state of sin is one of death; the way of repentance is the return to life, life in the presence of the Lord, whose are the souls of the living and the dead.

There is a remarkable degree of expressiveness in the idea: “Return, ye backsliding children;” the sinner is not beyond the call of the voice of Heaven; nothing that he does places him beyond the pale of divine cognizance, of the Creator’s watchfulness; and wherever he may place himself, there is constantly a whispering in his ear, in the social hours of night, in the pleasant converse of the evening, in the daily time of labour, whether alone in the solitude of the student’s chamber, on the bed of sickness, or amidst the brilliant throng who surround the monarch on his throne—be he the great or the humble—every where he hears the whispering of Goodness reverberating in his ear “Return, return.”—“Come back, erring child,” says the Spirit; “Come back to the Father’s embrace,” says the invisible Guardian; and will we hear? will we follow? Alas! how loving is our God, how forgiving is our Father! but we are obdurate, we feel not that we have offended, that the fruits of our transgression are ripening to our sorrow! Oh! that we would but once listen; how speedily would we then follow the guidance of the Lord, which has never yet failed, how glorious would be our end, when now we are hurrying on to destruction. And then, the Lord calls us his children; his children, though we have been backsliders! and do we not feel sorrowful at the thought that so much love has been, as it were, almost lost upon us ingrates? that blessings, that indulgence, have failed to rivet the bond which in youth bound us to our Father? that we left the road which as children we were taught to travel, though now our reason is enlightened and the labours of our hands have been blessed with an ample increase beyond our expectations? beyond our deserts? But so is man; forgetful of his God, he lives as though he were independent of all beyond himself, trusting in his strength, confident in his own wisdom. Yet let him beware; sunshine lasts not for ever, security does not endure for many days; the hours of trial will approach, despite of his unwillingness to acknowledge the power of the Supreme Disposer of events; and as an Israelite we tell him, that his religion claims him as a servant of God, and that as such he is bound to seek the forgiveness of his Father in heaven by the very means through which Abraham found favour, by faith and obedience; and that through these means he will be accepted, though his deeds have been formerly in opposition to his duty. For we have received the amplest assurance, that we will be forgiven if we alter our wicked course, and return to the path from which we swerved; for our Father is there, even at the diverging roads of life, to take back to his fold whoever repents and returns from transgression in Jacob, as He has promised us through his servants the prophets.

Having thus analyzed the first part of our text, we must elucidate rapidly the other portion, which is: “Behold we come unto Thee, for Thou art our God.” Whoever has studied the history of our people must have observed that much as we have sinned, often as we have been given to idolatry, many as have been our apostacies, even to this day, it cannot be said that we have ever renounced entirely the worship of the Most High. Through all the awful scenes which were witnessed in Palestine during the first and second temples, amidst the horrors of Nebuchadnezzar’s sieges and Titus’s slaughters; during all the butcheries of Hadrian and the massacres of the crusaders; when thousands upon thousands perished with famine and exhaustion in their banishment from Spain and our expulsion from other lands of civilized barbarians, the name of the Lord ONE was the venerated object for whose salvation we yearned in our inmost heart. Had our deeds only equalled our faith, had the belief which we ever felt only influenced us to remain obedient to the every will of God: what a happy commonwealth would we have formed, how beautifully would have stood before the world in spiritual no less than temporal excellence the kingdom of priests for which we were destined. But, we must confess to our shame, that we refused to listen, and the evil, which we yet endure, came upon us in all its overwhelming horrors and fury, and the land of Israel was rendered desolate and was bereft of its rightful inhabitants. Had we been obedient, our Messiah would long since have come to sit upon the throne of David for ever, and to his kingdom there would have been no end; the world would have been redeemed, and we would have been happy as the acknowledged favourites of God, the branch of his planting, the work of his hands through which He is glorified. Nevertheless have we not fallen off altogether; we are smitten, affected with the curse of disobedience, marred in our countenance more than other men; there is neither comeliness nor glory in us that gentiles should desire our society; but with all this we are not placed beyond the reach of redemption, we are children of Israel, recognizable by our descent, by our conduct, by our belief, by the sign of the covenant which we bear in our flesh. Let our sons and daughters leave us, and who sees not the child of Israel marked in their face? Let them swear fealty to another creed, and does not their inward conviction belie the falsehood which they utter with their tongues ? Let them put on the emblems which belong to dissenting religions, and how galling do not the very ornaments which deck them rest on their bosom? Yes we are children of ONE God, and let us differ in many points of observance; let us differ upon points of creed; let us be reformers or adherents of ancient usages; let us come from the far East, or the most distant West: the exclamation Adonay Echad is the universal watchword of the whole household of Jacob; in this all join, from this none are excluded. And go where you will, watch the Jew dying on the frozen snow in a rencontre with Russia’s armies, or led forth to perish by fire for the sake of his faith in ancient Spain; or follow him in the crowd who worship in the house of God at the close of a Day of Atonement, or even in the social circle where friend meets with friend: every where it is the same sublime thought which animates all; it is the unity of God, the saving power of the Father of all.

Long indeed has our holy religion struggled with the obduracy of our hearts; long has she striven in vain for an absolute victory; but conquered she has never been. She has had to hide her face because of the assault of adverse circumstances which opposed her progress; but she has marched onward, slow indeed, though not less sure of victory. The house of Israel has not yet returned with a firm heart to the Lord, or else it would not have fallen to the lot of the humble individual who addresses you now, to call you to repentance. But to doubt of the ultimate result, of the happy issue of this contest of truth against error, would be to despair of the justice and truth of God. Many may fall off, and leave the fold where Israel is received; but there will always be enough, though they be few, to bear aloft the banner which is to wave as the signal for a regenerated world.—The world will be regenerated, and with the rest of mankind, Israel will not be lost, the star of Jacob will not set for ever to be blotted out from under the heaven. But without repentance neither can our nation nor individuals be accepted; it is, therefore, but reasonable to conclude that at a time sooner or later, but a time sure to arrive, the houses of Israel and of Judah will unite to call as one man on the Lord their God, and that then his wrath will be turned aside and He will have mercy on his land and his people. It will be at that day that the call of the Spirit: “Return, ye backsliding children” will be answered by the repentant voice of the newly-redeemed nation: “Behold we come unto thee, for Thou art our God;” long since we have heard the call which thy mercy addressed to us, long we have refused to hear, long we have loved our idols better than Thee, long we have preferred following the inclination of our hearts to obeying thy law. But now we feel the unworthiness of our conduct, we are ashamed of our backsliding, and we are here come back to thy embrace, for Thou art as ever our God. And let history be witness, let thy own wisdom testify, whether we have ever been totally lost to thy worship; and we are again in thy presence to follow thy guidance as in the day when we went out from Egypt; for then Thou wert alone, “no stranger god was with Thee,” and now again Thou alone hast redeemed us, unaided by any other power, from the grasp of sin, from the tyranny of cruel oppressions.

This is the idea which Jeremiah held out in his dark days, when foolish idolatry was the practice of the men and women of Israel. Then their power was broken, and they felt the truth of the word of God. Changes innumerable have since passed over Israel; and still the name of the Lord is the tower of strength to which we cling in all our sorrows. Is it not then a holy consolation which we justly experience amidst all our trials? a confidence which cannot be shaken, that nothing can destroy the structure of our faith?—And this noble thought should then urge every sinner to come forward and purify himself according to the law of God, to forsake the iniquity in his hands, and to render his soul free from the taint of deadly sin, seeing that for thousands of years the religion of Israel has proved its efficacy, knowing that the God who proclaimed it is sure to punish those who neglect its precepts.—Let us, brethren, feel the full force of this consideration, let us all, who have experienced the woful weight of transgression, come to the foot of the throne of Mercy to ask for healing, for that balm which has never yet failed of restoring the health which had been destroyed by indulgence in transgression and sin. And how goodly will it be when the Lord, at our appearing in his presence, grants us his approbation, and says mercifully: “I will heal your backsliding.” O! such a moment of bliss far outweighs all joys of existence, and such a lot can only be accorded to those who have not sinned, or those who have sincerely repented of every sin they have committed. Sinless none of us can claim to be; but repentant all can become; the door is open wide to all who may wish to enter, and the Hand is stretched forth to draw up from the depth of the pool of sin all who desire to be washed by the water of purification. This is the spirit of godliness which is never exhausted; it flows for ever, even from the first hour of the creation till the consummation of every thing. It is ours, if we claim it, it is for all men who desire it; let it then be our endeavour to profit by the approaching Day of Atonement; to let it make a deep and lasting impression on the minds of all; that we may leave the house of God purified and improved, better men, better Israelites, better servants of the Lord than when we entered to pray. So that, be our days cut short in the bloom of youth, or prolonged to a green old age, we may be fit for the kingdom of heaven, to dwell joyfully among the saints, till the day of the resurrection, when all that is mortal will become endued with everlasting life, when death shall be swallowed up for ever, and no tear of sorrow bedew any more the cheek of the sons of man. Amen.

Friday, Tishry 7th, September 20th, 5606.