(Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity, Morning.)
2 Kings xix.15-19. And Hezekiah prayed before the Lord, and said, O Lord God of Israel, which dwellest between the cherubims, thou art the Lord, even thou alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; thou hast made heaven and earth. Lord, bow down thine ear, and hear: open, Lord, thine eyes, and see: and hear the words of Sennacherib, which hath sent him to reproach the living God. Of a truth, Lord, the kings of Assyria have destroyed the nations and their lands, and have cast their gods into the fire: for they were no gods, but the work of men's hands, wood and stone: therefore they have destroyed them. Now, therefore, O Lord our God, I beseech thee, save thou us out of his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that thou art the Lord God, even thou only.
This noble story, which we read in Church every year, seems to have had a great hold on the minds of the Jews. They plainly thought it a very important story. For it is told three times over in the Bible: first in the Book of Kings, then in the Book of Chronicles, and again in that of the Prophet Isaiah. Indeed, many chapters of Isaiah's prophecies speak altogether of this invasion of the Assyrians and their destruction. But what has this story to do with us, you may ask? There are no miracles in our day. We can expect no angels to fight for our armies. We must fight for ourselves.
True, my friends: but the lesson of these old stories, the moral of them stands good for ever. And I am thankful that this very story is appointed to be read publicly in church once a year, to put us in mind of many things, which all men are too apt to forget.
For instance: to learn one lesson out of many which this chapter may teach us. We are too apt to think that peace and prosperity are the only signs of God's favour. That if a nation be religious, it is certain to thrive and be happy. But it is not so. We find from history that the times in which nations have shewn most nobleness, most courage, most righteousness, most faith in God, have been times of trouble, and danger, and terror. When nations have been invaded, persecuted, trampled under foot by tyrants, then all the good which was in them has again and again shewed itself. Then to the astonishment of the world they have become greater than themselves, and done deeds which win them glory for ever. Then they are truly purged in the fire of affliction, that whatever dross and trash is in their hearts may be burnt out, and the pure gold left.
So it was with the Jews in Hezekiah's time. So again in the time of the Maccabees. So with the old Greeks, when the great Kings of Persia tried to enslave them. So with the old Romans, when the Carthaginians set upon them. So it was with us English, three hundred years ago, when for a time the whole world seemed against us, because we alone were standing up for the Gospel and the Bible against the Pope of Rome. Then the king of Spain, who was then as terrible a conqueror and devourer of nations, as the Assyrians of old, sent against us the Great Armada. Then was England in greater danger than she had ever been before, or has been since.
And what came of it? That that dreadful danger brought out more faith, more courage, than perhaps has ever been among us since. That when we seemed weakest we were strongest. That while all the nations of Europe were looking on to see us devoured up by those Spaniards, our laws and liberties taken from us, the Popish Inquisition set up in England, and England made a Spanish province, what they did see was, the people of this little island rising as one man, to fight for themselves on earth, while the tempests of God fought for them from heaven; and all that mighty fleet of the King of Spain routed and scattered, till not one man in a hundred ever saw their native country again.
And in England, after that terrible trial had passed over us, there rose up the best and noblest time which she had ever yet beheld.
Yes, my friends, three hundred years ago we went through just such a fiery trial as the Jews went through in Hezekiah's time; and God grant that we may never forget that lesson.
But what is true of whole nations, is often true also of each single person; of you and me.
To almost every man, at least once in his life, comes a time of trial -- what we call a crisis. A time when God purges the man, and tries him in the fire, and burns up the dross in him, that the pure sterling gold only may be left.
To some people it comes in the shape of some terrible loss, or affliction. To others it comes in the shape of some great temptation. Nay, if we will consider, it comes to us all, perhaps often, in that shape. A man is brought to a point where he must choose between right and wrong. God puts him where the two roads part. One way turns off to the broad road, which leads to destruction: the other way turns off to the narrow road which leads to life. The man would be glad to go both ways at once, and do right and wrong too: but it so happens that he cannot. Then he would be glad to go neither way, and stay where he is: but he cannot. He must move on. He must do something. Perhaps he is asked a question which he does not wish to answer: but he must. It would be well worth his while to tell a lie. It would be very safe for him, profitable for him; while it would be very dangerous for him to tell the truth. He might ruin himself once and for all, by being an honest man. Now which shall he do? He would be glad to do both, glad to do neither: but choose he must; speak he must. He must either lie or tell the truth. Then comes the trial, whether he believes in God and in Christ, or whether he does not. If he only believes, as too many do without knowing it, in a dead God, a God far away, he will lie. If he only believes, as too many do without knowing it, in a dead Christ, a Christ who bore his sins on the cross eighteen hundred years ago, but since then has had nothing to do with him to speak of, as far as he knows -- then he will lie. And that is the God and the Christ which most people believe in: and therefore when the time of trial comes, they fall away, and do and say things of which they ought to be ashamed, because their trust is not in God, but in man.
But if that man believes in the living God, and believes that he lives, and moves, and has his being in God, he cannot lie. As it is written, 'he that is born of God, sinneth not, for his seed remaineth in him, and that wicked one toucheth him not.' He will say, Whatever happens, I must obey God, and not man. The Lord is on my side, therefore I will not fear what man can do to me.
And what is the seed which remains in that man, and keeps him from playing the coward? Christ himself, the seed and Son of God. If he believes in the living Christ; if he believes that Christ is really his master, his teacher, who is watching over him, training him, from his cradle to his grave; -- if he believes that Christ is dwelling in him, that whatever wish to do right he has comes from Christ, whatever sense of honour and honesty he has comes from Christ; then it will seem to him a dreadful thing to lie, to play the hypocrite, or the coward; to sin against his own better feelings. It will be sinning against Christ himself.
Remember the great Martin Luther, when he stood on one side, a poor monk standing up for the Bible and the Gospel, and against him were arrayed the Pope and the Emperor, cardinals, bishops, and almost all the princes in Europe; and his friends wanted him to hold his tongue, or to say Yes and No at once; in short, to smooth over the matter in some way. -- What conceit, said many, of one poor monk standing up against all the world; and what folly, too! He would certainly be burnt alive. But Luther could not hold his tongue. He was afraid enough, no doubt. He disliked being burnt as much as other men. But he felt he must speak God's truth then or never. He must bear witness for Christ's free gospel, against Pope, Emperor, all the devils in hell, if need be, or else hereafter for ever hold his peace. He must play the honest man that day, or be a hypocrite and a rogue for ever. His friends said to him, 'If you go to the Council, Duke George will have you burnt.' He answered, 'If it snowed Duke Georges nine days together, I must go.' They said, 'If you go into that town, you will never leave it alive.' He said, 'If there were as many devils in the town as there are tiles on the houses, I must go.' And he went, Bible in hand, and said, 'Here I stand; I can do no otherwise. God help me!' He went, and he conquered.
And so it will be with you, my friends, if you will believe in the living God, and in the living Christ; then, when temptation comes, you will be able to stand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. And you will feel yourselves better men from that day forward. You will feel that you have made one great step upward; you will look back upon that time of temptation and perplexity as the beginning of a new life; as a sign to you that Christ is with you, and in you, training you and shaping your character, till he makes you, at last, somewhat like himself; somewhat of the stature of a true man; somewhat like what he has bidden you to be, 'perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.'