A sermon on John V. 17, by the Rev Samuel Savage Lewis

First given in Dry Drayton for Lent 1873, and nearly every year over the next 17 years until 1890 in Wendry, the year before Lewis’s death.

“It seems to me sometimes, my friends, that we are apt to make light of the advantages to our minds of life in the country, to neglect the silent teaching of nature all around us and to think, vainly to think, that those who live in large cities are to be envied for the greater activity, vivacity and energy of their lives. Nay rather let us pause awhile to notice how God’s work, as seen around us on the surface of this earth which we inhabit, may give some useful lesson to our souls.

By closely watching the changes going on from age to age upon the earth men have themselves seen and have taught others to see the constant growth of this earth. By piercing and sifting its crust readable seconds of its ancient history have been discovered and this part of Cambridgeshire is a good example of my meaning, for here we possess the remains of life vegetable and animal in these successive stages. The coal upon which upon which we are now so keenly feeling our dependence, was stored for us out of the closely packed vegetation of the forests of many centuries ago. As we go back we observe by degrees less of form less of organisation, less of life. And we can reproduce to ourselves, picture in our own minds, with increasing distinctness of certainly the mode in which one stage passed slowly into another by observing how this same crust of the earth is being changed now. Water, frosts, fire – these are the great agencies by means of which changes are being continuously produced upon the earth’s surface. Observes have noticed how the old rocks are broken up by frost which cracks and loosens and crumbles them, always busy at the work of feeling the tops and sides of the great mountains, how the water of the rain is evaporated and drawn up into clouds which partly discharge themselves into the sea again, and partly falling on the land and chiefly on the higher lands in rain and snow, have the task of sweeping these mountain sides – condensing themselves into streams which swift or slow. Draw down the hills and sow the dust of continents to be; how the rivers ultimately deposit by overflow is at their mouths or at the bottom of the sea the soil which the stream lets on the glaciers have brought them from the rocks; how the sea is incessantly employed in gnawing at the base of the cliffs which stand against it like ramparts, and this helps the worldwide conversion of barren stone into fruitful soil; how the mysterious subterranean fires, sometimes with violence, sometimes imperceptibly, lift broad spaces with their waterborne sediment out of the sea, thus giving back again to the land what had been taken from it; how the little coral insect has the skill to build up islands with the solids which it extracts from the liquid waters; and how by such processes the earth is covered with grass for cattle and corn for the service of men and rendered capable of sustaining more of other animal life and fitted for the needs of successive generations of men.

That there has been a continual improvement in the general condition of our globe, that the growth has been not merely a gradual passing from one stage into another, but a regular ascent to a higher stage – no one who thinks over the evidence before us would deny.

Since man has been on the earth, a marvellous new feature has shown itself in the earth’s history. It has been man’s duty to subdue the earth as well as to replenish it – man with knowledge and will subdues and cultivates the earth. No other living creature has made tools for use; no other has cleared the ground or planted or sown it. Man’s works in clearing draining levelling manufacturing leave unmistakeable marks upon the earth. The earth has grown and is still growing to be capable of producing more food supporting more life and of a higher kind. But its Christian function is not here only to make use of nature. Now it is in connection with this movement of growth that we would have you think of God the Creator. The time creation to us – the interesting manifestation of creative power – is to be seen in the gradual development of the world. The works of God above, below, within us and favoured upon happens in his works to show.

Now our faith as Christians, let us always remember, is in the heavenly Father, whom we know through his son Jesus Christ. We cannot believe in mere chance; we will not believe in any other Maker than him, who sent his son Jesus Christ to be our Saviour and Lord.

Of him, order whenever we may see it, speaks to us; for the Righteousness, which is Order in the highest sphere, has naturally for its ally and representative Order in every lower sphere. We rejoice to see the upward tendency of Nature, the manners in which what we simply and rightly call Evil is made to minister to Good, the bright promise with which Nature speaks to the soul of those who observe her carefully and lovingly. We do not allow Nature to make or God for us; but we recognise in the humbler light of Nature in the visible world time says of that spiritual glory, which is to use supremely divine.

‘Thou who hast given one eye to see’ again the growth and development of a human being from childhood to growth and from youth to manhood and womanhood are what we call natural. But are we to be debarred from yielding to the resistless instinct which impels us to recognise a full-grown human being as a wonderful work of God? The thing is before us and the more thoroughly we understand if, the more wonderful it seems to us. It is a wonderful work of God, revealing something of the Creator’s mind to us. Think not only of the physical form of a man, but of his moral being, of his affections, will and conscience. We are taught that God is the Father of our spirits – we cannot describe how; but we may be quite sure that we should not believe it to more purpose, if God caused every human being, in some unimaginable way, to start full-grown into life that we do now, if we dwell on what God has been declared to us to be, and on what man is. When a man has grown through trails and thoughtfulness and Christian-like submission into a rarely perfect Christian, we think of him as God’s work surely with more faith and meaning than if he had been ready-made what he is in some odd and surprising manner. We reverently feel and confess that he bother whom we see and love is a son and creature of our Father and Creator.

And so, me thinks, by looking as it actually is, with all its forces, laws and processes, and at the same time bearing in mind God our Father, we shall best understand the nature and glory of Creation. The world is more interesting and admirable now than it was millions of years ago. If the study of it suggests irresistibly the idea of gradual growth and progress, let us ask ourselves whether that idea does not fall in well with the faith and hope of a Christian. What but thankfulness deep thankfulness should it prompt in our hearts, if we find that God has in these later days been admonishing us, teaching us, forcing upon us more spiritual thoughts of things around us, this the researches of service.

Let us hear God saying to us “I your Father am working hitherto. Age after age, year after year, the Creator has been at work, patiently but increasingly bringing the world forward to its present condition. Having wrought hitherto he will continue to work and bids us look both backwards and forwards. If we have learnt from the past what he has done, we may expect that he will create new wonders in the future. Whatever he does, he is our Father and he will reveal his Fatherly glory.

Sons and daughters of toil! Ye who day by day are breadwinners by the sweat of the brow and the labours of the hand, think of God also as working, “My Father worketh”, says St. John, and feels your own life cheered, brightened and ennobled, feel that in honest labour – in giving cheerfully the fair day’s work for the fair day’s wage with good will doing service ye too may be fellow-workers with God and bear no mean past in sustaining the great harmony of life, which ever funds our earth. Once more God bids us listen to his voice.

In this life we poor mortal sinful men have each our appointed day of work, each our appointed field of work. And let us not murmur If the day see long and our post in the field horrible; may rather let us take warning by that city clerk who when he complained to his master of the lowness of his desk was answered. Very well, then I must look for a shorter clerk. Rather than murmur at ‘the lowness of our desk’, let us find our highest ambition in the daily practice of that humble self-denial, that practical love to our neighbour, which is the best proof of faith in Him the great master Husbandman who is here in our midst even now working in our hearts.

We are it seems to me too much like a deaf man who is watching some skilful musician as plays deftly on the harp, and cannot understand why the harper touches now long a long string and then directly after a very short one, now sweeps the whole instrument with artful fingers and then acts but one calmer of it in quivering motion. Wait we but a little while work we God’s own time and the ear now deaf to Nature’s simple day shall be unstopped and we shall amid the brightness and beauty of the better land acknowledge with grateful astonishment the perfect harmony, the wondrous melody of God’s operations and see how the Lord puzzles of our present life find an explanation in that beyond the grave where these will be neither servant nor master but Christ our Elder Brother will be all and in all.

May we have the eyes of loving intelligent children to behold all that he is pleased to show us. Let us look around us in the mind of the sons of God, not doubting that the heaven and the earth the seed, time and the harvest are his, being sure that every work of his must be wonderful and worthy of study, but remembering also that God’s fatherhood to us and his sonship to him are greater things than the natural principles of this present life, and that whilst it is good to know the Laws of Nature, it is better 10,000 times better to know or do the gracious will of him who is above Nature.