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Sermon XV: The Earthquake

(Preached October 11, 1863.)

PSALM xlvi. 1, 2.

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea.

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No one, my friends, wishes less than I, to frighten you, or to take a dark and gloomy view of this world, or of God's dealings with men. But when God Himself speaks, men are bound to take heed, even though the message be an awful one. And last week's earthquake was an awful message, reminding all reasonable souls how frail man is, how frail his strongest works, how frail this seemingly solid earth on which we stand; what a thin crust there is between us and the nether fires, how utterly it depends on God's mercy that we do not, like Korah, Dathan, and Abiram of old, go down alive into the pit.

What do we know of earthquakes? We know that they are connected with burning mountains; that the eruption of a burning mountain is generally preceded by, and accompanied with, violent earthquakes. Indeed, the burning mountains seem to be outlets, by which the earthquake force is carried off. We know that these burning mountains give out immense volumes of steam. We know that the expanding power of steam is by far the strongest force in the world; and, therefore, it is supposed reasonably, that earthquakes are caused by steam underground.

We know concerning earthquakes two things: first, that they are quite uncertain in their effects; secondly, quite uncertain in their occurrence.

No one can tell what harm an earthquake will, or will not, do. There are three kinds. One which raises the ground up perpendicularly, and sets it down again--which is the least hurtful; one which sets it rolling in waves, like the waves of the sea--which is more hurtful; and one, the most terrible of all, which gives the ground a spinning motion, so that things thrown down by it fall twisted from right to left, or left to right. But what kind of earthquake will take place, no one can tell.

Moreover, a very slight earthquake may do fearful damage. People who only read of them, fancy that an earthquake, to destroy man and his works, must literally turn the earth upside down; that the ground must open, swallowing up houses, vomiting fire and water; that rocks must be cast into the sea, and hills rise where valleys were before. Such awful things have happened, and will happen again: but it does not need them to lay a land utterly waste. A very slight shock--a shock only a little stronger than was felt last Wednesday morning, might have--one hardly dare think of what it might have done in a country like this, where houses are thinly built because we have no fear of earthquakes. Every manufactory and mill throughout the iron districts (where the shock was felt most) might have toppled to the earth in a moment. Whole rows of houses, hastily and thinly built, might have crumbled down like packs of cards; and hundreds of thousands of sleeping human beings might have been buried in the ruins, without time for a prayer or a cry.

A little more--a very little more--and all that or more might have happened; millions' worth of property might have been destroyed in a few seconds, and the prosperity and civilization of England have been thrown back for a whole generation. There is absolutely no reason whatever, I tell you, save the mercy of God, why that, or worse, should not have happened; and it is only of the Lord's mercies that we were not consumed.

Next, earthquakes are utterly uncertain as to time. No one knows when they are coming. They give no warning. Even in those unhappy countries in which they are most common there may not be a shock for months or years; and then a sudden shock may hurl down whole towns. Or there may be many, thirty or forty a-day for weeks, as there happened in a part of South America a few years ago, when day after day, week after week, terrible shocks went on with a perpetual underground roar, as if brass and iron were crashing and clanging under the feet, till the people were half mad with the continual noise and continual anxiety, expecting every moment one shock, stronger than the rest, to swallow them up. It is impossible, I say, to calculate when they will come. They are altogether in the hand of God,--His messengers, whose time and place He alone knows, and He alone directs.

Our having had one last week is no reason for our not having another this week, or any day this week; and no reason, happily, against our having no more for one hundred years. It is in God's hands, and in God's hands we must leave it.

All we can say is, that when one comes, it is likely to be least severe in this part of England, and most severe (like this last) in the coal and iron districts of the west and north-west, where it is easy to see that earthquakes were once common, by the cracks, twists and settlements in the rocks, and the lava streams, poured out from fiery vents (probably under water) which pierce the rocks in many places. Beyond that we know nothing, and can only say,--It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed.

Why do I say these things? To frighten you? No, but to warn you. When you say to yourselves,--Earthquakes are so uncommon and so harmless in England that there is no need to think of them, you say on the whole what is true. It has been, as yet, God's will that earthquakes should be uncommon and slight in England; and therefore we have a reasonable ground of belief that such will be His will for the future. Certainly He does not wish us to fold our hands, and say, there is no use in building or improving the country, if an earthquake may come and destroy it at any moment. If there be an evil which man can neither prevent or foresee, then, if he be a wise man, he will go on as if that evil would never happen. We ever must work on in hope and in faith in God's goodness, without tormenting and weakening ourselves by fears about what may happen.

But when God gives to a whole country a distinct and solemn warning, especially after giving that country an enormous bounty in an abundant harvest, He surely means that country to take the warning. And, if I dare so judge, He means us perhaps to think of the earthquake, and somewhat in this way.

There is hardly any country in the world in which man's labour has been so successful as in England. Owing to our having no earthquakes, no really destructive storms,--and, thank God, no foreign invading armies,--the wealth of England has gone on increasing steadily and surely for centuries past, to a degree unexampled. We have never had to rebuild whole towns after an earthquake. We have never seen (except in small patches) whole districts of fertile land ruined by the sea or by floods. We have never seen every mill and house in a country blown down by a hurricane, and the crops mown off the ground by the mere force of the wind, as has happened again and again in our West India Islands. Most blessed of all, we have never seen a foreign army burning our villages, sacking our towns, carrying off our corn and cattle, and driving us into the woods to starve. From all these horrors, which have, one or other of them, fallen on almost every nation upon earth, God has of His great mercy preserved us. Ours is not the common lot of humanity. We English do not know the sorrows which average men and women go through, and have been going through, alas! ever since Adam fell. We have been an exception, a favoured and peculiar people, allowed to thrive and fatten quietly and safely for hundreds of years.

But what if that very security tempts us to forget God? Is it not so? Are we not--I am sure I am--too apt to take God's blessings for granted, without thanking Him for them, or remembering really that He gave them, and that He can take them away? Do we not take good fortune for granted? Do we not take for granted that if we build a house it will endure for ever; that if we buy a piece of land it will be called by our name long years hence; that if we amass wealth we shall hand it down safely to our children? Of course we think we shall prosper. We say to ourselves, To-morrow shall be as to-day, and yet more abundant.

Nothing can happen to England, is, I fear, the feeling of Englishmen. Carnal security is the national sin to which we are tempted, because we have not now for forty years felt anything like national distress; and Britain says, like Babylon of old, the lady of kingdoms to whom foreigners so often compare her,--'I shall be a lady for ever; I am, there is none beside me. I shall never sit as a widow, nor know the loss of children.'

What, too, if that same security and prosperity tempts us--as foreigners justly complain of us--to set our hearts on material wealth; to believe that our life, and the life of Britain, depends on the abundance of the things which she possesses? To say--Corn and cattle, coal and iron, house and land, shipping and rail-roads, these make up Great Britain. While she has these she will endure for ever.

Ah, my friends--to people in such a temptation, is it wonderful that a good God should send a warning unmistakeable, though only a warning; most terrible, though mercifully harmless; a warning which says, in a voice which the dullest can hear--Endure for ever? The solid ground on which you stand cannot do that. Safe? Nothing on earth is safe for a moment, save in the long-suffering and tender mercy of Him of whom are all things, and by whom are all things, without whom not a sparrow falls to the ground. Is the wealth of Britain, then, what she can see and handle? The towns she builds, the roads she makes, the manufactures and goods she produces? One touch of the finger of God, and that might be all rolled into a heap of ruins, and the labour of years scattered in the dust. You trust in the sure solid earth? You shall feel it, if but for once, reel and quiver under your feet, and learn that it is not solid at all, or sure at all; that there is nothing solid, sure, or to be depended on, but the mercy of the living God; and that your solid-seeming earth on which you build is nothing less than a mine, which may bubble, and heave, and burst beneath your feet, charged for ever with an explosive force, as much more terrible than that gunpowder which you have invented to kill each other withal, as the works of God are greater than the works of man. Safe, truly! It is of God's mercy from day to day and hour to hour that we are not consumed.

This, surely, or something like this, is what the earthquake says to us. It speaks to us most gently, and yet most awfully, of a day in which the heavens may pass away with a great noise, and the elements may melt with fervent heat, and the earth and the works which are therein may be burnt up. It tells us that this is no impossible fancy: that the fires imprisoned below our feet can, and may, burst up and destroy mankind and the works of man in one great catastrophe, to which the earthquake of Lisbon in 1755--when 60,000 persons were killed, crushed, drowned, or swallowed up in a few minutes--would be a merely paltry accident.

And it bids us think, as St. Peter bids us: 'When therefore all these things are dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in holy conversation and godliness?'

What manner of persons?

Remember, that if an earthquake destroyed all England, or the whole world; if this earth on which we live crumbled to dust, and were blotted out of the number of the stars, there is one thing which earthquake, and fire, and all the forces of nature cannot destroy, and that is--the human race.

We should still be. We should still endure. Not, indeed, in flesh and blood: but in some state or other; each of us the same as now, our characters, our feelings, our goodness or our badness; our immortal spirits and very selves, unchanged, ready to receive, and certain to receive, the reward of the deeds done in the body, whether they be good or evil. Yes, we should still endure, and God and Christ would still endure. But as our Saviour, or as our Judge? That is a very awful thought.

One day or other, sooner or later, each of us shall stand before the judgment-seat of Christ, stripped of all we ever had, ever saw, ever touched, ever even imagined to ourselves, alone with our own consciences, alone with our own deserts. What shall we be saying to ourselves then?

Shall we be saying--I have lost all: The world is gone--the world, in which were set all my hopes, all my wishes; the world in which were all my pleasures, all my treasures; the world, which was the only thing I cared for, though it warned me not to trust in it, as it trembled beneath my feet? But the world is gone, and now I have nothing left!

Or, shall we be saying,--The world is gone? Then let it go. It was not a home. I took its good things as thankfully as I could. I took its sorrows and troubles as patiently as I could. But I have not set my heart on the world. My treasure, my riches, were not of the world. My peace was a peace which the world did not give, and could not take away. And now the world is gone, I keep my peace, I keep my treasure still. My peace is where it was, in my own heart. My peace is what it was: my faith in God,--faith that my sins are forgiven me for Christ's sake: my faith that God my Father loves me, and cares for me; and that nothing,--height or depth, or time or space, or life or death, can part me from His love: my faith that I have not been quite useless in the world; that I have tried to do my duty in my place; and that the good which I have done, little as it has been, will not go forgotten by that merciful God, by whose help it was done, who rewards all men according to the works which He gives them heart to perform. And my treasure is where it was--in my heart; and what it was,--the Holy Spirit of God, the spirit of goodness, of faith and truth, of mercy and justice, of love to God and love to man, which is everlasting life itself. That I have. That time cannot abate, nor death abolish, nor the world, nor the destruction of the world, nor of all worlds, can take away.

Choose, my friends, which of these two frames of mind would you rather be in when the great day of the Lord comes, foretold by that earthquake, and by all earthquakes that ever were.

Will you be then like those whom St. John saw calling on the mountains to fall on them, and the hills to hide them from the wrath of Him that sat on the throne, and from the anger of the Lamb?

Or will you be like him who saith--God is my hope and strength, my present help in trouble. Therefore will I not fear, though the earth be shaken, and though the mountains be carried into the depth of the sea?

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Charles Kingsley