Divine Calls and Warnings
                                                                By Rev. Francis A. Baker

                                                       A Lenten Sermon

 

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“Seek ye the Lord while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near.” (Isaiah 55:6)

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The Wise Man tells us that “all things have their season and in their times all things pass under heaven.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1)  Certainly, it is so in the natural world.  There is a time for the birds to migrate.  “The kite in the air knows her time, the turtle and the swallow and the stork observe the time of their coming.” (Jeremiah 8:7)  There is a time for seeds and shrubs to grow.  Seed-time and harvest do not fail.  There is a busy time and a slack time in the world of commerce.  There is a time for education, a time when the mind is inquisitive and the memory retentive, and it is easy to acquire knowledge; and another time, when the powers of the mind, like the limbs of the body, seem to grow stiff and rigid, and can be employed only with difficulty.  But does this law reach also to the supernatural world?  Has the grace of God also its seasons and its times?  I believe it has; and it is to this fact, so important in its bearing on our salvation, that I wish now to direct your attention.

 

II

 

But you may ask me what I mean by saying that the grace of God has its special times and seasons.  Are not all times alike to God?  Is not God always ready to save the sinner, and to bestow the graces necessary to his salvation?  Undoubtedly He is.  We Catholics, believe that God gives to every man living sufficient grace, that is, He gives him the grace to pray; and if he prays, God is ready to give him other and higher graces, which will carry him on to salvation; but, ordinarily speaking, men do not use this common grace, unless some special and particular grace is given which excites them to do so.  Now, it is of these special graces to which I speak, when I say that they have their times and their seasons.   I  refer  to  those  Divine Calls and Warnings, those Providences, those sacred inspirations, which stir the heart beneath its surface,  and bring it, for a time at least, in conscious contact with the Infinite and Eternal.  These, I say, come and go.  They have a law of their own.  We cannot have them all the time.  We cannot appoint a time, and say we will have them tomorrow, or next year.  They are like the wind that blows; we hear the sound of it, but we cannot tell whence it comes and whither it goes.  They are like the lightning, that shines from the east even unto the west.  They come suddenly, and dart a flash of light upon our path, then they are gone.  They are like the visit of Christ to the two disciples at Emmaus: as soon as their hearts began to burn within them, and they discovered who it was that talked with them, He vanished out of their sight.

 

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III
 

Certainly there are proofs enough that such is the law of God’s dealings with the soul.  If we look back at our own lives, do we not see that we have had our special times when Christ visited us? Our times of grace? Red-letter days in the calendar of our life?  I know God’s grace acts secretly; and often-times when we are under the strongest influence of grace, we are least conscious of it.  But when the time is past and over, and we look back upon it, we can see that there was a Divine influence upon us, especially if we have corresponded to it.  I think each one of us, if he looks back upon the past, will see clearly the times when he has been under the impulse of some unusual movement of the mind, the result of some special grace of God.  Perhaps it came in the shape of some great affliction.  You had a happy home.  The purest of earthly joys was yours – domestic happiness, perfect sympathy in gladness and in sorrow.  But death entered your abode, and the loving voice was silenced, and the kindly eye was closed.  And in that deep grief, in that darkness and loneliness Christ spoke to your sinking heart, saying, “Fear not:” and you came forth out of that affliction with a new strength, with purer aims, with a quietness and peace of heart which only suffering can give.

 

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Or, perhaps, the crisis in your history was your attendance on a “mission.”  You had lived in neglect of religion, almost complete.  Confession was a bugbear to you.  Years of sin and forgetfulness of God had hardened your conscience.  But suddenly all was changed.  You seemed a new man.    Your faith  was  illuminated  with  a  new brilliancy.  Sin had a new horror.  The string of your tongue was loosed, and oh, with what ease, with what fidelity and exactness, you made that dreaded confession!  What comfort you derived from it! And with what energy and determination did you enter on the duties of a Christian life!

 

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V
 

Or, it might have been in less striking ways that grace did its work.  It may have been a book, a word, an interior inspiration, some of the seasons of the holy Church, Holy Communion, some of the lesser changes of life, a fit of sickness, a violent temptation: these may have been the instruments which God made use of, from time to time, to convey special graces to your soul.  Sometimes the aim of these graces was to arouse you out of some deeply-seated habit of sin; sometimes to draw your heart away from the world to heaven; sometimes it was a call to prayer; sometimes a warning of danger; in fine, for some purpose bearing on your salvation, there they are, those visits of grace in your past life, as distinct and unmistakable as any other part of your history.  When we read the Bible story of such saints as Abraham, Moses, and Elias, what strikes us as most wonderful and most beautiful is the familiarity in which they lived with God, how God drew near to them and spoke to them.  Now, such passages have a parallel in the history of each one of us.  There are times in our lives, and not a few such times, when God draws near to the soul, when He confronts it, makes special demands upon it, addresses it no longer in general, but particularly and individually; when He says to the soul, Go and do this, Do not do that, as unmistakably as when He said to Abraham: “Go forth out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and out of they father’s house, and come into the land which I shall show thee.” (Genesis 12:1)

 

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And if this be so, the mode in which we receive these divine communications must have a great deal to do with our guilt or innocence before God.  We read in the Book of Judges, that on a certain occasion an angel of the Lord appeared to Manoah and his wife, with a message from on high.  He appeared to them in a human shape, and spoke with a human voice, and they did not know that he was an angel.  It was not until they saw him ascend to heaven in the flame from the altar  that  they  understood  that  they had been talking with one of the heavenly host.  Then they said” “We shall certainly die because we have seen God!” (Judges 13:22)  Now, there is a sense in which this exclamation is neither superstitious nor strange, as the expression, that is, of their anxiety lest in their ignorance they might have treated their heavenly visitor in some unseemly way.  O my brethren, it is no light thing for God to draw near to a human soul.  It is not a light thing for Him to speak to us.  When He speaks we cannot be as if He had not spoken.  “His word shall not return to Him void.”  The relation between the Creator and the creature is such, that the moment He speaks our position is altered.  When He calls we must either follow or refuse to follow; there is no neutrality possible.

 

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VII


Oh, what a thought, that if indeed God has spoken to us often in our past lives, if He has given us special calls and warnings, we must often have resisted Him! There are many of us, I fear, who have altogether too little conscience on this subject.  A man comes to confession after an absence of several years.  He confesses his most prominent sins against the divine commandments, but perhaps he does not even mention his failure to perform each year his Easter duty.  And if the confessor calls his attention to it, he has nothing to say but, “Oh, yes, I neglected that.”  You see, he does not realize at all that God has been calling him from year to year, has met him again and again, and exhorted him to repent, and he has refused.

 

VIII
 

Another man hears a sermon which thoroughly awakens his conscience.  He sees in the clearest light the danger of his besetting sin.  His conscience is stirred, he almost resolves to break off his sin, but he does not quite come to the point, he postpones his conversion, and, after a little time dismisses the subject from his mind.  Now, here again, you see, is a distinct resistance to grace.  The man has not only continued in sin, but has continued in sin is spite of God’s warning.

 

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IX

Again, a person, free from the grosser forms of sin, has some radical fault of character; some fault which is apparent to everyone but himself; a deep obstinacy; a dangerous levity; and inveterate slothfulness; an over-bearing temper; a domineering spirit – faults which are the source of innumerable difficulties – and he is plainly warned of these faults, but refuses to acknowledge them, strengthens himself in his self-deception, and clings to these faults as if they were a necessary part of his character.  What is he doing, but frustrating the designs of God, despising His reproof, and rejecting the grace which was meant to make him so much better, so much happier, so much more useful?

 

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Resisted grace!  What is that but to withstand God to His face, and to say: I will not serve?  To resist grace, what is that but to despise the precious Blood of Christ.  To obtain for us those graces, the Blood of Christ and all His sufferings were given, and without them we should have been left in our sins and miseries; and so to refuse these graces is to make light of Christ’s most bitter Death and Passion.  To resist grace, what is that but to refuse glory.  For each grace of God has a corresponding degree of glory attached to it; and, if we refuse the one, we reject the other.  The truth is, we forget too much God’s personal agency in our salvation.  We are on earth, and God is far away in heaven.  He has indeed left us His Law, and He is coming to judge us at the last day, but He is now a present, watchful, living, speaking God to us.  We forget that “He is not far from every one of us.”  We forget that He is about our path, and about our bed; that He watches us with the eagerness and tenderness of a mother for her child; that He intensely desires our salvation; that He pleads with us, warns us, calls to us, stretches out His Hand to us all the day long.  It is nothing that He Himself tells us He stands at the door and knocks; it is nothing that He calls to us from without, saying: “Open to Me, My love, for My head is with dew, and My locks with the drops of the night;” we open not; we heed Him not; we hear Him not.  Oh! I believe, at the Judgment Day, many a man will be appalled to see how he has treated Christ.  In the description which our Lord has given us of that day, He tells us that the wicked shall say, in answer to His reproofs: “When did we see Thee hungry or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister to Thee?”  So, I believe, many will say: “O Lord, when did we refuse to hear Thee?  When did we shutour hearts to Thy grace?”  And He will answer: “When, at the voice of My preacher, you refused to forsake that sin; when, at the invitation of My Church, you refused to repent and amend; when, at the call of My Spirit, you refused to awake from your sloth, and follow after that perfection I demanded of you.  In rejecting My agents, you have rejected Me.  It was I; I, your God and your Savior; I, your End and Reward, who walked with you on your way through life, who opened to you the Scriptures, and sought to enter in and tarry with you.”

 

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XI


And, again, as resistance to grace is a special sin in itself, and a special matter about which we must render an account to God, so, when persisted in, it is the sure road to final impenitence and reprobation.  Let me bring before your mind some of our Lord’s emphatic teaching on this point.

 

Toward the latter part of our Lord’s life, in preaching to His disciples on a certain occasion, He used this parable: “A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none.  And he said to the tiller of the vineyard: Behold, these three years I came seeking fruit on this fig tree and I find none.  Cut it down therefore; why does it take up the ground?  But he answering, said to him: Lord, let it alone this year also, until I dig about it and fertilize it.  And if happily it bear fruit: but if not, then I shall cut it down.” (Luke 13:6-9)  The same lesson which in this parable Christ conveyed to the ear, He addressed about the same time, by a striking action, to the eye.  As He was going from Bethany to Jerusalem, He saw a fig tree by the wayside.  “And he came to it, and found nothing but leaves only, and he said to it: May no fruit grow on thee henceforward forever.  And immediately the fig-tree withered away.  And the disciples seeing it, wondered, saying: How is it presently withered away?” (Matthew 21:19)  The apostles could not fail to connect this action with the parable quoted above, and to understand them both as referring to the rejection of the Jewish people.  For three years He preached to that people, warned them, and instructed them.  Then, at last, when they refused to listen to Him, He withdrew from them His presence, grace, and blessing, and left them to the consequences of their unbelief and hardness of heart; left them to “wither away.” Listen to His lamentation over that guilty city.  It is Palm Sunday.  He is coming to the city in triumph.  The crowds are shouting hosannas.  At last, in His journey He comes to the Mount of Olives, whence the Holy City is full before His view.  He looks at it; He thinks of all He has done to warn that people and convert them; He thinks of the ill success He has met with; He knows that he is going there for the last time, and that in a few days they will fill up the measure of their sins by nailing him to the cross: and, as he looked upon it, He wept over it, and said: “If you had known, and that in this thy day, the things that are for your peace: but now they are hidden from your eyes.  For the days shall come upon you, and your  enemies shall cast a trench about you, and compass you round, and straiten you on every side, and beat you  flat to the ground, and your children who are in you: and they shall not leave in you a stone upon a stone, because you have not known the time of your visitation.” (Luke 19:41-44)  Behold the end! A people resisting grace, until at last grace forsakes them, and they are left to their own impenitence and hardness of heart!  And behold the fearful image of a soul which has resisted grace, until its final reprobation!

 

XII

Yes, my brethren, this is but the fearful image of what passes in many a soul.  What does the Holy Scripture say? “The man that with a stiff neck despises him that reproves him shall suddenly be destroyed: and health shall not follow him.”  (Proverbs 29:1)  God does not desire the death of the wicked.  God never entirely ceases to strive with man.  God never leaves a man altogether destitute of grace.  But then God is not bound to impart special graces; and when He finds that these graces are uniformly rejected, when he meets only a hardened heart and a will obstinately bent on evil, He withholds them, or gives them less frequently.  Meanwhile bad habits increase; sins multiply; the root of sin in the heart becomes deeper and stronger: hearts pass on in sin, and at last death comes.  What kind of a death naturally follows such a life?  What kind of death often, in point of fact, follows such a life?  I will tell you: an impenitent death; the death of the reprobate and the lost.  Perhaps the man dies a sudden death.  He may die in his bed, but die a sudden death for all that; for he may die out of his senses, and unable to do anything whatever toward making his peace with God.  Or, he may die in daring rebellion against God.  It is possible for men to die so.  It is possible for a man who has a deep enmity in his heart to refuse to give it up at the last hour; and it does happen.  It is possible for a man who has dishonest wealth in his possession to clutch it even while his fingers are cold and blue in the last agony; and that does happen.  It is possible for a man who has lived in shameful sins of impurity to refuse to dismiss the partner of his guilt, though in five minutes his soul will be in hell; and that too has happened.

 

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XIII


Or, a man may die in despair.  The devil may bring the fearful catalogue of his sins before his mind, in all their blackness and enormity; the remembrance of bad confessions and broken resolutions may paralyze his will; and the dreadful record of communions made in sacrilege may complete the temptation, and the poor soul turn away from the crucifix, turn away from the priest, and die pouring forth the ravings of despair.

 

Or, on the contrary, he may die in presumption, in self-deceit.  He may indeed go through the form of a confession, may receive the sacraments, and cheat himself into thinking it is all right, and be all the time a hypocrite, turning from his sins, not because he hates them, but because he can no longer enjoy them; and may receive the absolution of the priest only to hear it reversed the moment he gets into the presence of the unerring Judge, before whom are open all the secrets of the heart.

 

Death in some such form is, I say, the natural end of neglect of divine calls and warnings; and such a death is, in point of fact, not infrequently the actual end of such a course.  “For,” says the apostle, “the earth that drinks in the rain, which comes often upon it, and brings forth herbs useful for them by whom it is tilled, receives blessing from God.  But that which brings forth thorns and briers, is rejected, and very near to a curse, whose end is to be burnt.” (Hebrews 6:7,8)

 

XIV

And, O my brethren, if this is so, you who are putting off your conversion, putting off your return to God, to what a risk are you exposing your salvation!  You say you will go to your confession at some other time.  You are young; you imagine it will be easier in coming years; you think your passions will be weaker, your temptations less.  But you are deceiving yourselves.  You are counting on that which you do not know will ever be yours.  You cannot promise yourself another year.  How many who were here a year ago are now numbered with the dead!  Some of them as young as you are, and who a year ago felt as you do now.  You count on special graces, and you have no right to count on them.  You are deceiving yourselves, my brethren, you are deceiving yourselves.  The freeness and abundance of grace, the cheapness of grace, if I  may so express myself, deceives you.  God invites, and seems to plead and to beseech you to be saved, and you think it will always be so.  You think a time is coming when God will save you in spite of yourselves.  You know that you are not now on the road to heaven, you know that you are living in sin, but you think somehow God will interfere and make it right.  We are told in the gospel that there was at Jerusalem a pool, around which usually lay a great multitude of sick and afflicted people, waiting for the moving of the water; for an angel came down at certain times and troubled the water, and whoever stepped in first after the troubling of the water was healed.  So it is with slothful, negligent, procrastinating Christians.  They lie in their sins, waiting for some aid which will raise them to their feet, and make them whole without any effort of their own.  Vain hope!  They will die in their sins.  “You shall seek me,” said Christ, “and you shall die in your sins.” (John 8:21)  These fearful words are addressed to you, O despiser of God’s grace; to you, O young man, who defers conversion; to you, lover of pleasure, who will not break with your idols; to you, O drunkard, who will not throw away the intoxicating glass; to you, O avaricious man, who is getting rich by fraud or by the blood of souls.  “You shall die in your sins.”   That is the end to which you are tending.  As you have despised God, so He will despise you.  You shall seek Him, but you shall not find Him.  You shall call upon Him, but He will not hear.  At your dying hour, everything will fail you.  Prayer will die on your lips, unused to pray.  Your mind, so long accustomed to love sin, will find it hard to turn from it with true contrition.  The priest, ah! The priest cannot save you.  He can only help you, can only give you the consolations of religion if you are rightly disposed.  And how can you dispose yourself at that dreadful hour, when your mind is filled with a fearful looking for of judgment, when all your sins, and all the graces you have rejected, rise up before your guilty conscience?  Oh! Meet this danger.  Do not run this risk.  Resist no longer the grace of God.  Behold, now once more God calls you to His fear.  Behold, the days have come “to do penance, and to redeem your sins.”  God by His Holy Church makes you another offer.  “Turn unto me, and I will turn unto you,” says the Lord.  “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unjust man his thoughts, and let him return to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him.”  (Isaiah 55:7)  “Today, then, if you will hear His voice, harden not your hearts.”  Resolve to prepare for your Easter confession.  If you came last Easter and have persevered, bless God, and come now.  If you have fallen away, see where the error was, and learn a deeper humility, and make a stronger purpose, and come again.

 

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And, oh! If you have stayed away in former years, and are purposing to stay away this Easter, too – or if you are too negligent to have formed any purpose; if you are just floating on, heedless and careless, then know, that for all these things God will bring you into judgment, that the severest part of your account will be for graces resisted and rejected; and that you are preparing for yourselves the retribution threatened in those dreadful words: “Because I called and you refused: I stretched out My Hand; and there was none that regarded.  You have despised all my counsel, and have neglected my reproofs.  I also will laugh in your destruction: and will mock, when that shall come upon you which you feared.  When sudden calamity shall fall upon you, and destruction as a tempest shall be at hand: when tribulation and distress shall come upon you: Then they shall call upon Me, and I will not hear: they shall rise in the morning, and shall not find Me: because they hated instruction, and received not the fear of the Lord, nor consented to My counsel, but despised all My reproof.  Therefore they shall eat the fruit of their own way, and shall be filled with their own devices.” (Proverbs 1:24-31)

 

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