"By faith Abraham sojourned in the land of promise as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked for a city, which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God."
In the last sermon which I preached in this church, I said that the Bible is the history of God's ways with mankind, how He has schooled and brought them up until the coming of Christ; that if we read the Bible histories, one after another, in the same order in which God has put them in the Bible, we shall see that they are all regular steps in a line, that each fresh story depends on the story which went before it; and yet, in each fresh history, we shall find God telling men something new--something which they did not know before. And that so the whole Bible, from beginning to end, is one glorious, methodic, and organic tree of life, every part growing out of the others and depending on the others, from the root--that foundation, other than which no man can lay, which is Christ, revealing Himself, though not by name, in that wonderful first chapter of Genesis,--up to the FRUIT, which is the kingdom of Christ, and Gospel of Christ, and the salvation in which we here now stand. I told you that the lesson which God has been teaching men in all ages is faith in God-- that the saints of old were just the men who learnt this lesson of faith. Now this, as we all know, was the secret of Abraham's greatness, that he had faith in God to leave his own country at God's bidding, and become a stranger and a pilgrim on the earth, wandering on in full trust that God would give him another country instead of that which he had left--"a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God." This was what Abraham looked for. Something of what it means we shall see presently.
You remember the story of the tower of Babel? How certain of Noah's family forgot the covenant which God had made with Noah, forgot that God had commanded them to go forth in every direction and fill the earth with human beings, solemnly promising to protect and bless them, and took on themselves to do the very opposite--set up a kingdom of their own fashion, and herded together for selfish safety, instead of going forth to all the quarters of the world in a natural way, according to their families, in their tribes, after their nations, as the eleventh chapter of Genesis says they ought to have done. "Let us build us a city and a tower, and make us a name, lest," they said, "we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole world." Here was one act of disobedience to God's order. But besides this they had fallen into a slavish dread of the powers of nature--they were afraid of another flood. They set to to build a tower, on which they might worship the sun and stars, and the host of heaven, and pray to them to send no more floods and tempests. They thus fell into a slavish fear of the powers of nature, as well as into a selfish and artificial civilisation. In short, they utterly broke the covenant which God had made with Noah. But by miraculously confounding their language, God drove them forth over the face of the whole earth, and so forced them to do that which they ought to have done willingly at first.
Now, we must remember that all this happened in the very country in which Abraham lived. He must have heard of it all--for aught we know he had seen the tower of Babel. So that, for good or for evil, the whole Babel event must have produced a strong effect on the mind of a thoughtful man like Abraham, and raised many strange questionings in his heart, which God alone could answer for him, OR FOR US. Now, what did God mean to teach Abraham by calling him out of his country, and telling him, "I will make of thee a great nation?" I think He meant to shew him, for one thing, that that Babel plan of society was utterly absurd and accursed, certain to come to naught, and so to lead him on to hope for a city which had foundations, and to see that ITS builder and maker must be, not the selfishness or the ambition of men, but the will, and the wisdom, and providence of God.
Let us see how God led Abraham on to understand this--to look for a city which had foundations; in short, to understand what a State and a nation means and ought to be. First, God taught him that he was not to cling coward-like to the place where he was born, but to go out boldly to colonise and subdue the earth, for the great God of heaven would protect and guide him. "Get thee out of thy country and from thy father's house unto a land which I will shew thee. And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse them that curse thee." Again; God taught him what a nation was: "I will make of thee a great nation." As much as to say, 'Never fancy, as those fools at Babel did, that a nation only means a great crowd of people--never fancy that men can make themselves into a nation just by feeding altogether, and breeding altogether, and fighting altogether, as the herds of wild cattle and sheep do, while there is no real union between them.' For what brought those Babel men together? Just what keeps a herd of cattle together--selfishness and fear. Each man thought he would be SAFER, forsooth, in company. Each man thought that if he was in company, he could use his neighbours' wits as well as his own, and have the benefit of his neighbours' strength as well as his own. And that is all true enough; but that does not make a nation. Selfishness can join nothing; it may join a set of men for a time, each for his own ends, just as a joint-stock company is made up; but it will soon split them up again. Each man, in a merely selfish community, will begin, after a time, to play on his own account as well as work on his own account--to oppress and overreach for his own ends as well as to be honest and benevolent for his own ends, for he will find ill-doing far easier, and more natural, in one sense, and a plan that brings in quicker profits, than well-doing; and so this godless, loveless, every-man-for- himself nation, or sham nation rather, this joint-stock company, in which fools expect that universal selfishness will do the work of universal benevolence, will quarrel and break up, crumble to dust again, as Babel did. "But," says God to Abraham, "I will make of thee a great nation. I make nations, and not they themselves." So it is, my friends: this is the lesson which God taught Abraham, the lesson which we English must learn nowadays over again, or smart for it bitterly--that God makes nations. He is King of kings; "by Him kings reign and princes decree judgment." He judges all nations: He nurtureth the nations. This is throughout the teaching of the Psalms. "It is He that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are His people, and the sheep of His pasture;" for this I take to be the true bearing of that glorious national hymn the 100th Psalm, and not merely the old truism that men did not create themselves, when it exhorts ALL nations to praise God because it is He that hath made them nations, and not they themselves. The Psalms set forth the Son of God as the King of all nations. In Him, my friends,--in Him all the nations of the earth are truly blessed.
He the Saviour of a few individual souls only? God forbid! To Him ALL POWER is given in heaven and earth; by Him were all things created, whether in heaven or earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones or dominions, or principalities or powers;--all national life, all forms of government, whether hero-despotisms, republics, or monarchies, aristocracies of birth, or of wealth, or of talent,--all were created by Him and for Him, and He is before all things, and by Him all things CONSIST and hold together. Every thing or institution on earth which has systematic and organic life in it--by HIM it consists--by Him, the Life and the Light who lighteneth every man that cometh into the world. From Him come law, and order, and spiritual energy, and loving fellow-feeling, and patriotism, the spirit of wisdom, and understanding, and prudence-- all, in short, by which a nation consists and holds together. It is not constitutions, and acts of parliament, and social contracts, and rights of the people, and rights of kings, and so on, which make us a nation. These are but the effects, and not the consequences, of the national life. THAT is the one spirit which is shed abroad upon a country, whose builder and maker is God, and which comes down from above--comes down from Christ the King of kings, who has given each nation its peculiar work on this earth, its peculiar circumstances and history to mould and educate it for its work, and its peculiar spirit and national character, wherewith to fulfil the destiny which Christ has appointed for it.
Believe me, my friends, it takes long years, too, and much training from God and from Christ, the King of kings, to make a nation. Everything which is most precious and great is also most slow in growing, and so is a nation. The Scripture compares it everywhere to a tree; and as the tree grows, a people must grow, from small beginnings, perhaps from a single family, increasing on, according to the fixed laws of God's world, for years and hundreds of years, till it becomes a mighty nation, with one Lord, one faith, one work, one Spirit.
But again; God said to Abraham, when He had led him into this far country, "Unto thy seed will I GIVE THIS LAND." This was a great and a new lesson for Abraham, that the earth belonged to that same great invisible God who had promised to guide and protect him, and make him into a nation--that this same God gave the earth to whomsoever He would, and allotted to each people their proper portion of it. "He (said St. Paul on the Areopagus) hath determined the times before appointed for all nations, and the bounds of their habitation, that they may seek after the Lord and find Him." Ah! this must have been a strange and a new feeling to Abraham; but, stranger still, though God had given him this land, he was not to take possession of a single foot of it; the land was already in the hands of a different nation, the people of Canaan; and Abraham was to go wandering about a sojourner, as the text says, in this very land of promise which God had given him, without ever taking possession of his own, simply because it belonged to others already. How this must have taught Abraham that the rights of property were sacred things--things appointed by God; that it was an awful and a heinous sin to make wanton war on other people, to drive them out and take possession of their land; that it was not mere force or mere fancy which gave men a right to a country, but the providence of Almighty God! Now Abraham needed this warning, for the men of Babel seem from the first to have gone on the plan of driving out and conquering the tribes round them. They seem to have set up their city partly from ambition. "Let us make us a name," they said, meaning, 'Let us make ourselves famous and terrible to all the people around us, that we may subdue them.' And we read of Nimrod, who was their first king and the founder of Babel, that he was a mighty hunter before the Lord, that is, as most learned men explain it, a mighty conqueror and tyrant in defiance of God and His laws, as the poet says of him,
"A mighty hunter, and his game was man."
The Jews, indeed, have an old tradition that Nimrod cast Abraham into a fiery furnace for refusing to worship the host of heaven with him. The story is very likely untrue, but still it is of use in shewing what sort of reputation Nimrod left behind him in his own part of the world. We may thus see that Abraham would need warning against these habits of violence, tyranny, and plunder, into which the men of Babel and other tribes were falling. And this was what God meant to teach him by keeping him a stranger and a pilgrim in the very land which God had promised to him for his own. Thus Abraham learnt respect for the rights and properties of his neighbours; thus he learnt to look up in faith to God, not only as his patron and protector, but as the lord and absolute owner of the soil on which he stood.
Now in the 14th chapter of Genesis there is an account of Abraham's being called on to put in practice what he had learnt, and, by doing so, learning a fresh lesson. We read of four kings making war against five kings, against Chedorlaomer, king of Elam or Persia, who had been following the ways of Nimrod and the men of Babel, and conquering these foreign kings and making them serve him. We read of Chedorlaomer and four other kings coming down and wantonly ravaging and destroying other countries, besides the five kings who had rebelled against them, and at last carrying off captive the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Lot, Abraham's nephew. We read then how Abraham armed his trained servants, born in his own house, three hundred and eighteen men, and pursued after these tyrants and plunderers, and with his small force completely overthrew that great army. Now that was a sign and a lesson to Abraham, as much as to say, 'See the fruits of having the great God of heaven and earth for your protector and your guide,--see the fruits of having men round you, not hirelings, keeping in your company just to see what they can get by it, but born in your own house, who love and trust you, whom you can love and trust,--see how the favour of God, and reverence for those family ties and duties which He has appointed, make you and your little band of faithful men superior to these great mobs of selfish, godless, unjust robbers,--see how hundreds of these slaves ran away before one man, who feels that he is a member of a family, and has a just cause for fighting, and that God and his brethren are with him.'
Here, you see, was another hint to Abraham of what it was and who it was that made a great nation.
And now some of you may say, 'This is a strange sermon. You have as yet said nothing of Christ, nothing of the Holy Spirit, nothing of grace, redemption, sanctification. What kind of sermon is this?'
My friends, do not be too sure that I have not been preaching Christ to you, and Christ's Spirit to you, and Christ's redemption too, most truly in this sermon, although I have mentioned none of them by name. There are times for ornamenting the house, there are times for repairing the wall, there are times, too, for thoroughly examining the foundation, because, if that be not sound, it is little matter what fine work is built up upon it; and there are times when, as David says, the foundations of the earth are out of course, when men have forgotten sadly the very first principles of society and religion.
And, surely, men are doing so in these days; men are forgetting that other foundation can no man lay save that which IS laid, which is Christ; they laugh at the thought of a city, that is, a state and form of government, "not made with hands, eternal in the heavens;" they have forgotten that St. Paul tells them in the Hebrews that we HAVE "a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God," a kingdom which cannot be moved. Yes, men who call themselves learned and worldly wise, and good men too, alas! who fancy that they are preaching God's gospel, go about and tell men, 'The men of Babel were right after all. What have nations to do with God and religion? Nations are merely earthly, carnal things, that were only invented by sinful men themselves, to preserve their bodies and goods, and make trading easy. Religion has only to do with a man's private opinions, his single soul; the government has nothing to do with the Church: a Christian has nothing to do with politics.' And so these men most unwittingly open a door to all sorts of covetousness and meanness in the nation, and all sorts of trickery and cowardice in the government. Tell a man that his business has nothing to do with God, and you cannot wonder if he acts without thinking of God. If you tell a nation that it is selfishness which makes it prosperous, of course you must expect it to be selfish. If you tell us Englishmen that the duties of a citizen are not duties to God, but only duties to the constable and the tax-gatherer, what wonder if men believe you and become undutiful to God in their citizenship? No, my friends, once for all, as sure as God made Abraham a great nation, so if we English are a great nation, God has made us so--as sure as God gave Abraham the land of Canaan for his possession, so did HE give us this land of England, when He brought our Saxon forefathers out of the wild barren north, and drove out before them nations greater and mightier than they, and gave them great and goodly cities which they builded not, and wells digged which they digged not, farms and gardens which they planted not, that we too might fear the Lord our God, and serve Him, and swear by His name;--as sure as He commanded Abraham to respect the property of his neighbours, so has He commanded us;--as sure as God taught Abraham that the nation which was to grow from him owed a duty to God, and could be only strong by faith in God, so it is with us: we, English people, owe a duty to God, and are to deal among ourselves, and with foreign countries, by faith in God, and in the fear of God, "seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness," sure that then all other things--victory, health, commerce, art, and science--will be added to us, as the first Lesson says. For this is your wisdom and understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people! For what nation is grown so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as these laws, this gospel, which God sets before us day by day?--us, Englishmen!
And I say that these are proper thoughts for this place. This is not a mere preaching-house, where you may learn every man to save his own soul; this is a far nobler place; this building belongs to the National Church of England, and we worship here, not merely as men, but as men of England, citizens of a Christian country, come here to learn not merely how to save ourselves, but how to help towards the saving of our families, our parish, and our nation; and therefore we must know what a country and a nation mean, and what is the meaning of that glorious and divine word, "a citizen;" that by learning what it is to be a citizen of England, we may go on to learn fully what it is to be a citizen of the kingdom of God.
For this is part of the whole counsel of God, which He reveals in His Holy Bible; and this also we must not, and dare not, shun declaring in these days.