We are assembled this day to thank God solemnly for the passing away of the cholera from England; and we must surely not forget to thank Him at the same time for the passing away of the fever, which has caused so much expense, sorrow, and death among us. Now I wish to say a very few words to you on this same matter, to show you not only how to be thankful to God, but what to be thankful for. You may say: It is easy enough for us to know what to thank God for in this case. We come to thank Him, as we have just said in the public prayers, for having withdrawn this heavy visitation from us. If so, my friends, what we shall thank Him for depends on what we mean by talking of a visitation from God.
Now I do not know what people may think in this parish, but I suspect that very many all over England do NOT know what to thank God for just now; and are altogether thanking him for the wrong thing--for a thing which, very happily for them, He has NOT done for them, and which, if He had done it for them, would have been worse for them than all the evil which ever happened to them from their youth up until now. To be plain then, many, I am afraid, are thanking God for having gone away and left them. While the cholera was here, they said that God was visiting them; and now that the cholera is over, they consider that God's visit is over too, and are joyful and light of heart thereat. If God's visit is over, my friends, and He is gone away from us; if He is not just as near us now as He was in the height of the cholera, the best thing we can do is to turn to Him with fasting, and weeping, and mourning, and roll ourselves in the dust, and instead of thanking our Father for going away, pray to Him, of his infinite mercy, to condescend to come back again and visit us, even though, as superstitious and ignorant men believe, God's visiting us were sure to bring cholera, or plague, or pestilence, or famine, or some other misery. For I read, that in His presence is life and not death--at His right hand is fulness of joy, and not tribulation and mourning and woe; but if not, it were better to be with God in everlasting agony, than to be in everlasting happiness without God.
Here is a strange confusion--people talking one moment like St. Paul himself, desiring to be with Christ and God for ever, and then in the same breath talking like the Gadarenes of old, when, after Christ had visited them, and judged their sins by driving their unlawful herd of swine into the sea, they answered by beseeching Him to depart out of their coasts.
Why is this confusion?--Because people do not take the trouble to read their Bibles; because they bring their own loose, careless, cant notions with them when they open their Bibles, and settle beforehand what the Bible is to tell them, and then pick and twist texts till they make them mean just what they like and no more. There is no folly, or filth, or tyranny, or blasphemy, which men have not defended out of the Bible by twisting it in this way. The Bible is better written than that, my friends. He that runs may read, if he has sense to read. The wayfaring man, though simple, shall make no such mistake therein, if he has God's Spirit in him--the spirit of faith, which believes that the Bible is God's message to men--the humble spirit, which is willing to listen to that message, however strange or new it may seem to him--the earnest spirit, which reads the Bible really to know what a man shall do to be saved. Look at your Bibles thus, my friends, about this matter. Read all the texts which speak of God's visiting and God's visitation, and you will find all the confusion and strangeness vanish away. For see! The Bible talks of the Lord visiting people in His wrath--visiting them for their sins--visiting them with sore plagues and punishments, about forty times. But the Bible speaks very nearly as often of God's visiting people to bring them blessings and not punishments. The Bible says God visited Sarah and Hannah to give them what they most desired--children. God visited the people of Israel in Egypt to deliver them out of slavery. In the book of Ruth we read how the Lord visited His people in giving them bread. The Psalmist, in the captivity at Babylon, PRAYS God to visit him with His salvation. The prophet Jeremiah says that it was a sign of God's anger against the Jews that He had not visited them; and the prophets promised again and again to their countrymen, how, after their seventy years' captivity in Babylon, the Lord would visit them, and what for?--To bring them back into their own land with joy, and heap them with every blessing--peace and wealth, freedom and righteousness. So it is in the New Testament too. Zacharias praised God: "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He hath visited and redeemed His people; through the tender mercy of our God, whereby the day-spring from on high hath visited us." And that was the reason why I chose Luke vii. 16, for my text--only because it is an example of the same thing. The people, it says, praised God, saying: "A great Prophet is risen up among us, and God hath visited His people." And in the 14th of Acts we read how God visited the Gentiles, not to punish them, but to take out of them a people for His name, namely, Cornelius and his household. And lastly, St. Peter tells Christian people to glorify God in the day of visitation, as I tell you now--whether His visitation comes in the shape of cholera, or fever, or agricultural distress; or whether it comes in the shape of sanitary reform, and plenty of work, and activity in commerce; whether it seems to you good or evil, glorify God for it. Thank Him for it. Bless Him for it. Whether His visitation brings joy or sorrow, it surely brings a blessing with it. Whether God visits in wrath or in love, still God visits. God shows that He lives; God shows us that He has not forgotten us; God shows us that He is near us. Christ shows us that His words are true: "Lo, I am with you alway, even to the end of the world."
That is a hard lesson to learn and practise, though not a very difficult one to understand. I will try now to make you understand it--God alone can teach you to practise it. I pray and hope, and I believe too, that He will--that these very hard times are meant to teach people REALLY to believe in God and Jesus Christ, and that they WILL teach people. God knows we need, and thanks be to Him that He DOES know that we need, to be taught to believe in Him. Nothing shows it to me more plainly than the way we talk about God's visitations, as if God was usually away from us, and came to us only just now and then--only on extraordinary occasions. People have gross, heathen, fleshly, materialist notions of God's visitations, as if He was some great earthly king who now and then made a journey about his dominions from place to place, rewarding some and punishing others. God is not in any place, my friends. God is a Spirit. The heaven and the heaven of heavens could not contain Him if He wanted a place to be in, as, glory be to His name, He does not. If He is near us or far from us, it is not that He is near or far from our bodies, as the Queen might be nearer to us in London than in Scotland, which is most people's notion of God's nearness. He is near, not our bodies, but our spirits, our souls, our hearts, our thoughts--as it is written, "The kingdom of God is WITHIN you." Do not fancy that when the cholera was in India, God was nearer India than He was to England, and that as the cholera crawled nearer and nearer, God came nearer and nearer too; and that now the cholera is gone away somewhere or other, God is gone away somewhere or other too, to leave us to our own inventions. God forbid a thousand times! As St. Paul says: "He is not far from any one of us." "In Him we live and move and have our being," cholera or none. Do you think Christ, the King of the earth, is gone away either--that while things go on rightly, and governments, and clergy, and people do right, Christ is there then, filling them all with His Spirit and guiding them all to their duty; but that when evil times come, and rulers are idle, and clergy dumb dogs, and the rich tyrannous, and the poor profligate, and men are crying for work and cannot get it, and every man's hand is against his fellow, and no one knows what to do or think; and on earth is distress of nations with perplexity, men's hearts failing them for fear, and for dread of those things which are coming on the earth--do you think that in such times as those, Christ is the least farther off from us than He was at the best of times?--The least farther off from us now than He was from the apostles at the first Whitsuntide? God forbid!--God forbid a thousand times! He has promised Himself, He that is faithful and true, He that will never deny Himself, though men deny Him, and say He is not here, because their eyes are blinded with love of the world, and covetousness and bigotry, and dread lest He, their Master, should come and find them beating the men-servants and maid-servants, and eating and drinking with the drunken in the high places of the earth, and saying: "Tush! God hath forgotten it"--ay, though men have forgotten Him thus, and-- worse than thus, yet He hath said it--"Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world." Why, evil times are the very times of which Christ used to speak as the "days of the Lord," and the "days of the Son of man." Times when we hear of wars and rumours of wars, and on earth distress of nations with perplexity--what does He tell men to do in them? To go whining about, and say that Christ has left His Church? No! "Then," He says, "when all these things come to pass, then rejoice and lift up your heads, for your redemption draweth nigh."
And yet the Scripture does most certainly speak of the Lord's coming out of His place to visit--of the Son of Man coming, and not coming to men--of His visiting us at one time and not at another. How does that agree with what I have just said? My dear friends, we shall see that it agrees perfectly with what I have said, if we will only just remember that we are not beasts, but men. It may seem a strange thing to have to remind people of, but it is just what they are always forgetting. My friends, we are not animals, we are not spiders to do nothing but spin, or birds only to build nests for ourselves, much less swine to do nothing but dig after roots and fruits, and get what we can out of the clods of the ground. We are the children of the Most High God; we have immortal souls within us; nay, more, we are our souls: our bodies are our husk--our shell--our clothes--our house--changing day by day, and year by year upon us, one day to drop off us till the Resurrection. But WE are our SOULS, and when God visits, it is our souls He visits, not merely our bodies. There is the whole secret. People forget God, and therefore they are glad to fancy that He has forgotten them, and has nothing to do with this world of His which they are misusing for their own selfish ends; and then God in His mercy visits them. He knocks at the door of their hearts, saying: "See! I was close to you all the while." He forces them to see Him and to confess that He is there whether they choose or not. God is not away from the world. He is away from people's hearts, because He has given people free wills, and with free wills the power of keeping Him out of their hearts or letting Him in. And when God visits He forces Himself on our attention. He knocks at the door of our hard hearts so loudly and sharply that He forces all to confess that He is there--all who are not utterly reprobate and spiritually dead. In blessings as well as in curses, God knocks at our hearts. By sudden good fortune, as well as by sudden mishap; by a great deliverance from enemies, by an abundant harvest, as well as by famine and pestilence. Therefore this cholera has been a true visitation of God. The poor had fancied that they might be as dirty, the rich had fancied that they might be as careless, as they chose; in short, that they might break God's laws of cleanliness and brotherly care without His troubling Himself about the matter. And lo! He has visited us; and shown us that He does care about the matter by taking it into His own hands with a vengeance. He who cannot see God's hand in the cholera must be as blind--as blind as who?--as blind as he that cannot see God's hand when there is no cholera; as blind as he who cannot see God's hand in every meal he eats, and every breath he draws; for that man is stone blind--he can be no blinder. The cholera came; everyone ought to see that it did not come by blind chance, but by the will of some wise and righteous Person; for in the first place God gave us fair warning. The cholera came from India at a steady pace. We knew to a month when it would arrive here. And it came, too, by no blind necessity, as if it was forced to take people whether it liked or not. Just as it was in the fever here, so it was in the cholera, "One shall be taken and another left." It took one of a street and left another; took one person in a family and left another: it took the rich man who fancied he was safe, as well as the poor man who did not care whether he was safe or not. The respectable man walking home to his comfortable house, passed by some untrapped drain, and then poisonous gas struck him and he died. The rich physician who had been curing others, could not save himself from the poison of the crowded graveyard which had been allowed to remain at the back of his house. By all sorts of strange and unfathomable judgments the cholera showed itself to be working, not by a blind necessity, but at the will of a thinking Person, of a living God, whose ways are not as our own ways, and His paths are in the great deep. And yet the cholera showed--and this is what I want to make you feel--that it was working at the will of the same God in whom we live and move and have our being, who sends the food we eat, the water in which we wash, the air we breathe, and who has ordained for all these things natural laws, according to which they work, and which He never breaks, nor allows us to break them. For every case of cholera could be traced to some breaking of these laws--foul air--foul food--foul water, or careless and dirty contact with infected persons; so that by this God showed that He and not chance ruled the world, and that he was indeed the living and willing God. He showed at the same time that He was the wise God of order and of law; and that gas and earth, wind and vapour, fulfil His word, without His having to break His laws, or visit us by moving, as people fancy, out of a Heaven where He was, down to an earth, where He was not.
But, lastly, remember what I told you before, that the cholera being a visitation means that God, by it, has been visiting our hearts, knocking loudly at them that He may awaken us, and teach us a lesson. And be sure that in the cholera, and this our own parish fever, there is a lesson for each and every one of us if we will learn it. To the simple poor man, first and foremost, God means by the cholera to teach the simple lesson of cleanliness; to the house-owner He means to teach that each man is his brother's keeper, and responsible for his property not being a nest of disease; to rulers it is intended to teach the lesson that God's laws cannot be put off to suit their laziness, cowardice, or party squabbles. But beside that, to each person, be sure such a visitation as this brings some private lesson. Perhaps it has taught many a widow that she has a Friend stronger and more loving than even the husband whom she has lost by the pestilence--the God of the widow and the fatherless. Perhaps it has taught many a strong man not to trust in his strength and his youth, but in the God who gave them to him. Perhaps it has taught many a man, too, who has expected public authorities to do everything for him, "not to put his trust in princes, nor in any child of man, for there is no help in them," but to hear God's advice, "Help thyself and God will help thee." Perhaps it has stirred up many a benevolent man to find out fresh means for rooting out the miseries of society. Perhaps it has taught many a philosopher new deep truths about the laws of God's world, which may enable him to enlighten and comfort ages yet unborn. Perhaps it has awakened many a slumbering heart, and brought many a careless sinner (for the first time in his life) face to face with God and his own sins. God's judgments are manifold; they are meant to work in different ways on different hearts. But oh! believe and be sure that they are meant to work upon all hearts--that they are not the punishments of a capricious tyrant, but the rod of a loving Father, who is trying to drive us home into His fold, when gentle entreaties and kind deeds have failed to allure us home. Oh my friends! if you wish really to thank God for having preserved you from these pestilences, show your thankfulness by learning the lesson which they bring. God's love has spoken of each and every one of us in the cholera. Be sure He has spoken so harshly only because a gentler tone of voice would have had no effect upon us. Thank Him for His severity. Thank Him for the cholera, the fever. Thank Him for anything which will awaken us to hear the Word of the Lord. But till you have learnt the lessons which these visitations are meant to teach you, there is no use thanking Him for taking them away. And therefore I beseech you solemnly, each and all, before you leave this church, now to pray to God to show you what lesson He means to teach you by this past awful visitation, and also by sparing you and me who are here present, not merely from cholera and fever, but from a thousand mishaps and evils, which we have deserved, and from which only His goodness has kept us. Oh may God stir up your hearts to ask advice of Him this day! and may He in His great mercy so teach us all His will on this day of joy, that we may not need to have it taught us hereafter on some day of sorrow.