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Sermon XVII: Cholera, 1866

LUKE vii. 16.

There came a fear on all: and they glorified God, saying, That a great prophet is risen up among us; and, That God hath visited his people.

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You recollect to what the text refers? How the Lord visited His people? By raising to life a widow's son at Nain. That was the result of our Lord's visit to the little town of Nain. It is worth our while to think of that text, and of that word, 'visit,' just now. For we are praying to God to remove the cholera from this land. We are calling it a visitation of God; and saying that God is visiting our sins on us thereby. And we are saying the exact truth. We are using the right and scriptural word.

We know that this cholera comes by no miracle, but by natural causes. We can more or less foretell where it will break out. We know how to prevent its breaking out at all, save in a scattered case here and there. Of this there is no doubt whatsoever in the mind of any well- informed person.

But that does not prevent its being a visitation of God; yea, in most awful and literal earnest, a house-to-house visitation. God uses the powers of nature to do His work: of Him it is written, 'He maketh the winds His angels, and flames of fire His ministers.' And so this minute and invisible cholera-seed is the minister of God, by which He is visiting from house to house, searching out and punishing certain persons who have been guilty, knowingly or not, of the offence of dirt; of filthy and careless habits of living; and especially, as has long been known by well-informed men, of drinking poisoned water. Their sickness, their deaths, are God's judgment on that act of theirs, whereby God says to men,--You shall not drink water unfit for even dumb animals; and if you do, you shall die.

To this view there are two objections. First, the poor people themselves are not in fault, but those who supply poisoned water, and foul dwellings.

True: but only half true. If people demanded good water and good houses, there would soon be a supply of them. But there is not a sufficient supply; because too many of the labouring classes in towns, though they are earning very high wages, are contented to live in a condition unfit for civilized men; and of course, if they are contented so to do, there will be plenty of covetous or careless landlords who will supply the bad article with which they are satisfied; and they will be punished by disease for not having taken care of themselves.

But as for the owners of filthy houses, and the suppliers of poisoned water, be sure that, in His own way and His own time, God will visit them; that when He maketh inquisition for blood, He will assuredly requite upon the guilty persons, whoever they are, the blood of those five or six thousand of her Majesty's subjects who have been foully done to death by cholera in the last two months, as He requited the blood of Naboth, or of any other innocent victim of whom we read in Holy Writ. This outbreak of cholera in London, considering what we now know about it, and have known for twenty years past, is a national shame, scandal, and sin, which, if man cannot and will not punish, God can and will.

But there is another objection, which is far more important and difficult to answer. This cholera has not slain merely fathers and mothers of families, who were more or less responsible for the bad state of their dwellings; but little children, aged widows, and many other persons who cannot be blamed in the least.

True. And we must therefore believe that to them--indeed to all-- this has been a visitation not of anger but of love. We must believe that they are taken away from some evil to come; that God permits the destruction of their bodies, to the saving of their souls. His laws are inexorable; and yet He hateth nothing that He hath made.

And we must believe that this cholera is an instance of the great law, which fulfils itself again and again, and will to the end of the world,--'It is expedient that one die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.'

For the same dirt which produces cholera now and then, is producing always, and all day long, stunted and diseased bodies, drunkenness, recklessness, misery, and sin of all kinds; and the cholera will be a blessing, a cheap price to have paid, for the abolition of the evil spirit of dirt.

And thus much for this very painful subject--of which some of you may say--'What is it to us? We cannot prevent cholera; and, blessed as we are with abundance of the purest water, there is little or no fear of cholera ever coming into our parish.'

That last is true, my friends, and you may thank God for it. Meanwhile, take this lesson at least home with you, and teach it your children day by day--that filthy, careless, and unwholesome habits of living are in the sight of Almighty God so terrible an offence, that He sometimes finds it necessary to visit them with a severity with which He visits hardly any sin; namely, by inflicting capital punishment on thousands of His beloved creatures.

But though we have not had the cholera among us, has God therefore not visited us? That would surely be evil news for us, according to Holy Scripture. For if God do not visit us, then He must be far from us. But the Psalmist cries, 'Go not far from me, O Lord.' His fear is, again and again, not that God should visit him, but that God should desert him. And more, the word which is translated 'to visit,' in Scripture has the sense of seeing to a man, overseeing him, being his bishop. If God do not see to, oversee us, and be our bishop, then He must turn His face from us, which is what the Psalmist beseeches Him again and again not to do; praying, 'Hide not Thy face from me, O Lord,' and crying out of the depths of anxiety and trouble, 'Put thy trust in God, for I shall yet give Him thanks for the light of His countenance;' and again, 'In Thy presence is'-- not death, but--'life; at Thy right hand is fulness of days for evermore.' And again, the Psalmist prays to God to visit him, and visit his thoughts,--'Search me, O Lord, and try the ground of my heart. Search me, and examine my thoughts. Look well if there be any wickedness in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.' Shall we pray that prayer, my friends? Shall we, with the Psalmist, pray God to visit, and, if need be, chasten and correct what He sees wrong in us? Or shall we, with the superstitious, pray to God not to visit us? to keep away from us? to leave its alone? to forget us? If He did answer that foolish prayer, there would be an end of us and all created things; for in God they live and move and have their being-- as it is written, 'When Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled; when Thou takest away their breath, they die, and are turned again to their dust.' But, happily for us, God will not answer that foolish prayer. For it is written, 'If I go up to heaven, Thou art there; if I go down to hell, Thou art there also.' Nowhither can we go from God's presence: nowhither can we flee from His Spirit.

This is the Scripture language. Is ours like it? Have we not got to think of a visitation of God as a simple calamity? If a man die suddenly and strangely, he has died by the visitation of God. But if he be saved from death strangely and suddenly, it does not occur to us to call that a visitation, and to say with Scripture, 'The Lord has visited the man with His salvation.' If the cholera comes, or the crops fail, we say,--God is visiting us. If we have an especially healthy year, or a glorious harvest, we never say with Scripture, 'The Lord has visited His people in giving them bread.' Yet Scripture, if it says, 'I will visit their transgressions,' says also that the Lord visited the children of Israel to deliver them out of Egypt. If it talks of death as the visitation of all men, it speaks of God visiting Sarah and Hannah to give them children. If it says, 'I will visit the blood shed in Jezreel,' it says also, 'Thy visitation hath preserved my spirit.' If it says, 'At the time they are visited they shall be cast down,' it says also, 'The Lord shall visit them, and turn away their captivity.'

If we look through Scripture, we find that the words 'visit' and 'visitation' are used about ninety times: that in about fifty of them the meaning of the words is chastisement of some kind or other: in about forty it is mercy and blessing: and that in the New Testament the words never mean anything but mercy and blessing, though we have begun of late years to use them only in the sense of punishment and a curse.

Now, how is this, my friends? How is it that we, who are not under the terrors of the Law, but under the Gospel of grace, have quite lost the Gospel meaning of this word 'visitation,' and take a darker view of it than did even the old Jews under the Law? Have we, whom God hath visited, indeed, in the person of His only-begotten Son Jesus Christ, any right or reason to think worse of a visitation of God than had the Jews of old? God forbid. And yet we do so, I fear; and show daily that we do so by our use of the word: for out of the abundance of the heart man's mouth speaketh. By his words he is justified, and by his words he is condemned; and there is no surer sign of what a man's real belief is, than the sense in which lie naturally, as it were by instinct, uses certain words.

And what is the cause?

Shall I say it? If I do, I blame not you more than I blame myself, more than I blame this generation. But it seems to me that there is a little--or not a little--atheism among us now-a-days; that we are growing to be 'without God in the world.' We are ready enough to believe that God has to do with the next world: but we are not ready to believe that He has to do with this world. We, in this generation, do not believe that in God we live, and move, and have our being. Nay, some object to capital punishment, because (so they say) 'it hurries men into the presence of their Maker;' as if a human being could be in any better or safer place than the presence of his Maker; and as if his being there depended on us, or on any man, and not on God Almighty alone, who is surely not so much less powerful than an earthly monarch, that He cannot keep out of His presence or in it whomsoever He chooses. When we talk of being 'ushered into the presence of God,' we mean dying; as if we were not all in the presence of God at this moment, and all day long. When we say, 'Prepare to meet thy God,' we mean 'Prepare to die;' as if we did not meet our God every time we had the choice between doing a right thing and doing a wrong one--between yielding to our own lusts and tempers, and yielding to the Holy Spirit of God. For if the Holy Spirit of God be, as the Christian faith tells us, God indeed, do we not meet God every time a right, and true, and gracious thought arises in our hearts? But we have all forgotten this, and much more connected with this; and our notion of this world is not that of Holy Scripture--of that grand 104th Psalm, for instance, which sets forth the Spirit of God as the Lord and Giver of life to all creation: but our notion is this--that this world is a machine, which would go on very well by itself, if God would but leave it alone; that if the course of nature, as we atheistically call it, is not interfered with, then suns shine, crops grow, trade flourishes, and all is well, because God does not visit the earth. Ah! blind that we are; blind to the power and glory of God which is around us, giving life and breath to all things,--God, without whom not a sparrow falls to the ground,-- God, who visiteth the earth, and maketh it very plenteous,--God, who giveth to all liberally, and upbraideth not,--God, whose ever- creating and ever-sustaining Spirit is the source, not only of all goodness, virtue, knowledge, but of all life, health, order, fertility. We see not God's witness in His sending rain and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness. And then comes the punishment. Because we will not keep up a wholesome and trustful belief in God in prosperity, we are awakened out of our dream of unbelief, to an unwholesome and mistrustful belief in Him in adversity. Because we will not believe in a God of love and order, we grow to believe in a God of anger and disorder. Because we will not fear a God who sends fruitful seasons, we are grown to dread a God who sends famine and pestilence. Because we will not believe in the Father in heaven, we grow to believe in a destroyer who visits from heaven. But we believe in Him only as the destroyer. We have forgotten that He is the Giver, the Creator, the Redeemer. We look on His visitations as something dark and ugly, instead of rejoicing in the thought of God's presence, as we should, if we had remembered that He was about our path and about our bed, and spying out all our ways, whether for joy or for sorrow. We shrink at the thought of His presence. We look on His visitations as things not to be understood; not to be searched out in childlike humility--and yet in childlike confidence--that we may understand why they are sent, and what useful lesson our Father means us to learn from them: but we look on them as things to be merely prayed against, if by any means God will, as soon as possible, cease to visit us, and leave us to ourselves, for we can earn our own bread comfortably enough, if it were not for His interference and visitations. We are too like the Gadarenes of old, to whom it mattered little that the Lord had restored the madman to health and reason, if He caused their swine to perish in the lake. They were uneasy and terrified at such visitations of God incarnate. He seemed to them a terrible and dangerous Being, and they besought Him to depart out of their coasts.

It would have been wiser, surely, in those Gadarenes, and better for them, had they cried--'Lord, what wilt Thou have us to do? We see that Thou art a Being of infinite power, for mercy, and for punishment likewise. And Thou art the very Being whom we want, to teach us our duty, and to make us do it. Tell us what we ought to do, and help us, and, if need be, compel us to do it, and so to prosper indeed.' And so should we pray in the case of this cholera. We may ask God to take it away: but we are bound to ask God also, why He has sent it. Till then we have no reason to suppose that He will take it away; we have no reason to suppose that it will be merciful in Him to take it away, till He has taught us why it was sent. This question of cholera has come now to a crisis, in which we must either learn why cholera comes, or incur, I hold, lasting disgrace and guilt. And--if I may dare to hint at the counsels of God--it seems as if the Almighty Lord had no mind to relieve us of that disgrace and guilt.

For months past we have been praying that this cholera should not enter England, and our prayers have not been heard. In spite of them the cholera has come; and has slain thousands, and seems likely to slay thousands more. What plainer proof can there be to those who believe in the providence of God, and the rule of Jesus Christ our Lord, than that we are meant to learn some wholesome lesson from it, which we have not learnt yet? It cannot be that God means us to learn the physical cause of cholera, for that we have known these twenty years. Foul lodging, foul food, and, above all, natural and physical, foul water; there is no doubt of the cause. But why cannot we save English people from the curse and destruction which all this foulness brings? That is the question. That is our national scandal, shame, and sin at this moment. Perhaps the Lord wills that we should learn that; learn what is the moral and spiritual cause of our own miserable weakness, negligence, hardness of heart, which, sinning against light and knowledge, has caused the death of thousands of innocent souls. God grant that we may learn that lesson. God grant that He may put into the hearts and minds of some man or men, the wisdom and courage to deliver us from such scandals for the future.

But I have little hope that that will happen, till we get rid of our secret atheism; till we give up the notion that God only visits now and then, to disorder and destroy His own handiwork, and take back the old scriptural notion, that God is visiting all day long for ever, to give order and life to His own work, to set it right whenever it goes wrong, and re-create it whenever it decays. Till then we can expect only explanations of cholera and of God's other visitations of affliction, which are so superstitious, so irrational, so little connected with the matter in hand, that they would be ridiculous, were they not somewhat blasphemous. But when men arise in this land who believe truly in an ever-present God of order, revealed in His Son Jesus Christ; when men shall arise in this land, who will believe that faith with their whole hearts, and will live and die for it and by it; acting as if they really believed that in God we live, and move, and have our being; as if they really believed that they were in the kingdom and rule of Christ,--a rule of awful severity, and yet of perfect love,--a rule, meanwhile, which men can understand, and are meant to understand, that they may not only obey the laws of God, but know the mind of God, and copy the dealings of God, and do the will of God; and when men arise in this land, who have that holy faith in their hearts, and courage to act upon it, then cholera will vanish away, and the physical and moral causes of a hundred other evils which torment poor human beings through no anger of God, but simply through their own folly, and greediness, and ignorance.

All these shall vanish away, in the day when the knowledge of the Lord shall cover the land, and men shall say, in spirit and in truth, as Christ their Lord has said before,--'Sacrifice and burnt-offering thou wouldest not. Then said I, Lo, I come. In the volume of the book it is written of Me, that I should do the will of God.' And in those days shall be fulfilled once more, the text which says,--'That the people glorified God, saying, A great Prophet, even Christ the Lord Himself, hath risen up among us, and God hath visited His people.'

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Charles Kingsley