The first lesson for this morning's service is of the grandest in the whole Old Testament; grander perhaps than all, except the story of the passage of the Red Sea, and the giving of the Law on Sinai. It follows out the story which you heard in the first lesson for last Sunday afternoon, of the invasion of Judea by the Assyrians. You heard then how this great Assyrian conqueror, Sennacherib, after taking all the fortified towns of Judah, and sweeping the whole country with fire and sword, sent three of his generals up to the very walls of Jerusalem, commanding King Hezekiah to surrender at discretion, and throw himself and his people on Sennacherib's mercy; how proudly and boastfully he taunted the Jews with their weakness; how, like the Russian emperor now, he called in religion as the excuse for his conquests and robberies, saying, as if God's blessings were on them, 'Am I now come up without the Lord against this place to destroy it? The Lord said to me, Go up against this place to destroy it;' while all the time what he really trusted in (as his own words showed) was what the Russian emperors trust in, their own strength and the number of their armies.
Jerusalem was thus in utter need and danger; the vast army of the Assyrians was encamped at Lachish, not more than ten miles off; and however strong the walls of Jerusalem might be, and however advantageously it might stand on its high hill, with lofty rocks and cliffs on three sides of it, yet Hezekiah knew well that no strength of his could stand more than a few days against Sennacherib's army. For these Assyrians had brought the art of war to a greater perfection than any nation of the old world: they lived for war, and studied, it seems, only how to conquer. And they have left behind them very remarkable proofs of what sort of men they were, of which I think it right to tell you all; for they are most instructive, not merely because they prove the truth of Isaiah's account, but because they explain it, and help us in many ways to understand his prophecies. They are a number of sculptures and paintings, representing Sennacherib, his army, and his different conquests, which were painted by his command, in his palace; and having been lately discovered there, among the ruins of Nineveh, have been brought to England, and are now in the British Museum, while copies of many of them are in the Crystal Palace. There we see these terrible Assyrian conquerors defeating their enemies, torturing and slaughtering their prisoners, swimming rivers, beating down castles, sweeping on from land to land like a devouring fire, while over their heads fly fierce spirits who protect and prosper their cruelties, and eagles who trail in their claws the entrails of the slain. The very expression of their faces is frightful for its fierceness; the countenances of a 'bitter and hasty nation,' as the Prophet calls them, whose feet were swift to shed blood. And as for the art of war, and their power of taking walled towns like Jerusalem, you may see them in these pictures battering down and undermining forts and castles, with instruments so well made and powerful, that all other nations who came after them, for more than two thousand years, seem to have been content to copy from them, and hardly to have improved on the old Assyrian engines.
Such, and so terrible, they came up against Jerusalem: to attempt to fight them would have been useless madness; and Hezekiah had but one means of escaping from them, and that was to cast himself and his people upon the boundless mercy, and faithfulness, and power of God.
And Hezekiah had his answer by Isaiah the prophet: and more than an answer. The Lord took the matter into His own hand, and showed Sennacherib which was the stronger, his soldiers and horses and engines, or the Lord God; and so that terrible Assyrian army came utterly to nought, and vanished off the face of the earth.
Now, my friends, has this noble history no lesson in it for us? God forbid! It has a lesson which ought to come nearer to our hearts than to the hearts of any nation: for though we or our forefathers have never been, for nearly three hundred years, in such utter need and danger as Jerusalem was, yet be sure that we might have been so, again and again, had it not been for the mercy of the same God who delivered Jerusalem from the Assyrians. It is now three hundred years ago that the Lord delivered this country from as terrible an invader as Sennacherib himself; when He three times scattered by storms the fleets of the King of Spain, which were coming to lay waste this land with fire and sword: and since then no foreign foe has set foot on English soil, and we almost alone, of all the nations of Europe, have been preserved from those horrors of war, even to speak of which is dreadful! Oh, my friends! we know not half God's goodness to us!
And if you ask me, why God has so blest and favoured this land, I can only answer -- and I am not ashamed or afraid to answer -- I believe it is on account of the Church of England; it is because God has put His name here in a peculiar way, as He did among the Jews of old, and that He is jealous for His Church, and for the special knowledge of His Gospel and His Law, which He has given us in our Prayer-book and in our Church Catechism, lighting therein a candle in England which I believe will never be put out. It is not merely that we are a Protestant country, -- great blessing as that is, -- it is, I believe, that there is something in the Church of England which there is not in Protestant countries abroad, unless perhaps Sweden: for every one of them (except Sweden and ourselves) has suffered, from time to time, invading armies, and the unspeakable horrors of war. In some of them the light of the Gospel has been quenched utterly, and in others it lingers like a candle flickering down into the socket. By horrible persecutions, and murder, and war, and pillage, have those nations been tormented from time to time; and who are we, that we should escape? Certainly from no righteousness of our own. Some may say, It is our great wealth which has made us strong. My friends, believe it not. Look at Spain, which was once the richest of all nations; and did her riches preserve her? Has she not dwindled down into the most miserable and helpless of all nations? Has not her very wealth vanished from her, because she sold herself to work all unrighteousness with greediness?
Some may say, It is our freedom which makes us strong. My friends, believe it not. Freedom is a vast blessing from God, but freedom alone will preserve no nation. How many free nations have fallen into every sort of misery, ay, into bitter slavery, in spite of all their freedom. How many free nations in Europe lie now in bondage, gnawing their tongues for pain, and weary with waiting for the deliverance which does not come? No, my friends, freedom is of little use without something else -- and that is loyalty; reverence for law and obedience to the powers that be, because men believe those powers to be ordained of God; because men believe that Christ is their King, and they His ministers and stewards, and that He it is who appoints all orders and degrees of men in His Holy Church. True freedom can only live with true loyalty and obedience, such as our Prayer-book, our Catechism, our Church of England preaches to us. It is a Church meant for free men, who stand each face to face with their Heavenly Father: but it is a Church meant also for loyal men, who look on the law as the ordinance of God, and on their rulers as the ministers of God; and if our freedom has had anything to do (as no doubt it has) with our prosperity, I believe that we owe the greater part of our freedom to the teaching and the general tone of mind which our Prayer-book has given to us and to our forefathers for now three hundred years.
Not that we have listened to that teaching, or acted up to it: God knows, we have been but too like the Jews in Isaiah's time, who had the Law of God, and yet did every man what was right in his own eyes; we, like them, have been hypocritical; we, like them, have neglected the poor, and the widow, and the orphan; we, like them, have been too apt to pay tithe of mint and anise, and neglect the weightier matters of the law, justice, mercy, and judgment. When we read that awful first chapter of Isaiah, we may well tremble; for all the charges which he brings against the Jews of his time would just as well apply to us; but yet we can trust in the Lord, as Isaiah did, and believe that He will be jealous for His land, and for His name's sake, and not suffer the nations to say of us, 'Where is now their God?' We can trust Him, that if He turn His hand on us, as He did on the Jews of old, and bring us into danger and trouble, yet it will be in love and mercy, that He may purge away our dross, and take away all our alloy, and restore our rulers as at the first, and our counsellors as at the beginning, that we may be called, 'The city of righteousness, the faithful city.' True, we must not fancy that we have any righteousness of our own, that we merit God's favour above other people; our consciences ought to tell us that cannot be; our Bibles tell us that is an empty boast. Did we not hear this morning, 'Bring forth fruits meet for repentance: and think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father; for God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham.' But we may comfort ourselves with the thought that there is One standing among us (though we see Him not) who will, ay, and does, 'baptize us with the Holy Ghost and with fire, whose fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly purge His floor, and gather the wheat into His garner,' for the use of our children after us, and the generations yet unborn, while the chaff, all among us which is empty, and light, and rotten, and useless, He will burn up (thanks be to His holy name) with fire unquenchable, which neither the falsehood and folly of man, nor the malice of the Devil, can put out, but which will purge this land of all its sins.
This is our hope, and this is the cause of our thankfulness. For who but we should be thankful this day that we are Englishmen, members of Christ's Church of England, inhabitants of, perhaps, the only country in Europe which is not now perplexed with fear of change, while men's hearts fail them for dread, and looking for those things which are coming on the earth? a country which has never seen, as all the countries round have seen, a foreign army trampling down their crops, burning their farms, cutting down their trees, plundering their towns, destroying in a day the labour of years, while women are dishonoured, men tortured to make them give up their money, the able-bodied driven from their homes, ruined and wanderers, and the sick and aged left to perish of famine and neglect. My friends, all these things were going on but last year upon the Danube. They are going on now in Asia: even with all the mercy and moderation of our soldiers and sailors, we have not been able to avoid inflicting some of these very miseries upon our own enemies; and yet here we are, going about our business in peace and safety in a land in which we and our forefathers have found, now for many a year, that just laws make a quiet and prosperous people; that the effect of righteousness is peace, and the fruit of righteousness, quietness and assurance for ever; -- a land in which the good are not terrified, the industrious hampered, and the greedy and lawless made eager and restless by expectation of change in government; but every man can boldly and hopefully work in his calling, and 'whatsoever his hand finds to do, do it with all his might,' in fair hope that the money which he earns in his manhood he will be able to enjoy quietly in his old age, and hand it down safely to his children, and his children's children; -- a land which for hundreds of years has not felt the unspeakable horrors of war; a land which even now is safely and peacefully gathering in its harvest, while so many countries lie wasted with fire and sword. Oh, my friends, who made us to differ from others, or what have we that we did not receive? Not to ourselves do we owe our blessings; hardly even to our wise forefathers: but to God Himself, and the Spirit of God which was with them, and is with us still, in spite of all our shortcomings. We owe it to our wise Constitution, to our wise Church, the principle of which is that God is Judge and Christ is King, in peace as well as in war, in times of quiet as well as in times of change; I say, to our wise Constitution and to our wise Church, which teach us that all power is of God; that all men who have power, great or small, are His stewards; that all orders and degrees of men in His Holy Church, from the queen on the throne to the labourer in the harvest-field, are called by God to their ministry and vocation, and are responsible to God for their conduct therein. How then shall we show forth our thankfulness, not only in our lips, but in our lives? How, but by believing that very principle, that very truth which He has taught us, and by which England stands, that we are God's people, and God's servants? He has indeed showed us what is good, and our fathers before us; and what does the Lord require of us in return, but to do the good which He has showed us, to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God?
Oh, my friends, come frankly and joyfully to the Lord's Table this day. Confess your sins and shortcomings to Him, and entreat Him to enable you to live more worthily of your many blessings. Offer to Him the sacrifice of your praise and thankfulness, imperfect though it is, and join with angels and archangels in blessing Him for what He is, and what He has been to you: and then receive your share of His most perfect sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, the bread and the wine which tell you that you are members of His Church; that His body gives you whatsoever life and strength your souls have; that His blood washes out all your sins and shortcomings; that His Spirit shall be renewed in you day by day, to teach you to do the good work which He has prepared already for you, and to walk in the old paths which have led our forefathers, and will lead us too, I trust, safe through the chances and changes of this mortal life, and the fall of mighty kingdoms, towards that perfect City of God which is eternal in the heavens.