Sermon XVII. Thirtieth of January.
The Sermons of Mr. Yorick.
By Laurence Sterne.
London: Printed for W. Strahan, T. Becket and T. Cadell, 1776, volume five, pp. 63-87.
Ezra ix. 6, 7.—And I said, O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift up my face to thee, my God:—for our iniquities are increased over our head, and our trespass is grown up unto the heavens.—Since the days of our fathers have we been in a great trespass unto this day.—
There is not, I believe, throughout all history, an instance of so strange and obstinately corrupt a people as the Jews, of whom Ezra complains;—for though, on one hand—there was never a people that received so many testimonies of God's favour to encourage them to be good—so, on the other hand, there never was a people which so often felt the scourge of their iniquities to dishearten them from doing evil.—Yet neither the one nor the other seemed ever able to make them either the wiser or better;—neither God's blessings, nor his corrections could ever soften them;—they still continued a thankless unthinking people—who profited by no lessons, neither were to be won with mercies, nor terrified with punishments—but were, on every succeeding trial and occasion, extremely disposed, against God, to go astray and act wickedly.
In the words of the text, the prophet's heart overflows with sorrow, upon his reflection of this unworthy part of their character: and the manner of his application to God is so expressive of his humble sense of it, and there is something in the words so full of tenderness and shame for them upon that score, as bespeaks the most paternal, as well as pastoral, concern for them. And he said, O my God! I am ashamed, and blush to lift up my face to thee, my God. No doubt the holy man was confounded to look back upon that long series of so many of God's undeserved mercies to them, of which they had made so bad and ungrateful a use: he considered that they had all the motives that could lay restraints either upon a considerate or a reasonable people; that God had not only created, upheld, and favoured them with all advantages in common with the rest of their fellow-creatures, but had been particularly kind to them; that when they were in the house of bondage, in the most hopeless condition, he had heard their cry, and took compassion upon their afflictions, and, by a chain of great and mighty deliverances, had set them free from the yoke of oppression.—The prophet, no doubt, reflected, at the same time, that, besides this instance of God's goodness in first favouring their miraculous escape, a series of successes not to be accounted for from second causes, and the natural course of events, had crowned their heads in so remarkable a manner as to afford an evident proof, not only of God's general concern, but of his particular providence and attachment to them above all people:—in the wilderness he led them like sheep, and kept them as the apple of his eye; he suffered no man to do them wrong, but reproved even kings for their sake;—that, when they entered into the promised land, no force was able to stand before them;—when in possession, no army was ever able to drive them out;—that nations, greater and mightier than they, were thrust forth from before them—that, in a word, all nature for a time was driven backwards by the hands of God, to serve them, and that even the sun itself had stood still in the midst of Heaven, to secure their victories—that when all these mercies were cast away upon them, and no principle of gratitude or interest could make them an obedient people, God had tried by misfortunes to bring them back;—that when instructions, warnings, invitations, miracles, prophets, and holy guides, had no effect, he at last suffered them to reap the wages of their folly, by letting them fall again into the same state of bondage in Babylon from which he had first raised them. Here it is that Ezra pours out his confession. It is no small aggravation to Ezra's concern to find that even this last trial had no good effect upon their conduct;—that all the alternatives of promises and threats, comforts and afflictions, instead of making them grow the better, made them apparently grow the worse: how could he intercede for them, but with shame and sorrow; and say, as in the text, O my God! I am ashamed, and blush to lift up my face to thee, for our iniquities are increased over our heads, and our trespass is grown up unto the heavens:—since the days of our fathers have we been in a great trespass unto this day!
Thus much for the prophet's humble confession to God for the Jews, for which he had but too just a foundation given by them;—and I know not how I can make a better use of the words, as the occasion of the day led me to the choice of them, than by a serious application of the same sad confession, in regard to ourselves.
Our fathers, like those of the Jews, in Ezra's time,—no doubt have done amiss, and greatly provoked God by their violence;—but if our own iniquities, like theirs, are increased over our heads j—if since the days of our fathers we have been in great trespass ourselves unto this day,—'tis fit this day we should be put in mind of it;—nor can the time and occasion be better employed than in hearing with patience the reproofs which such a parallel will lead me to give.
It must be acknowledged, there is no nation which had ever so many extraordinary reasons and supernatural motives to become thankful and virtuous as the Jews had;—yet, at the same time, there is no one which has not sufficient (and setting aside at present the consideration of a future state as a reward for being so)—there is no nation under heaven, which besides the daily blessings of God's providence to them, but have received sufficient blessings and mercies at the hands of God to engage their best services, and the warmest returns of gratitude they can pay:—there has been a time, may be, when they have been delivered from some grievous calamity,—from the rage of pestilence or famine—from the edge and fury of the sword,—from the fate and fall of kingdoms round them;—they may have been preserved, by providential discoveries, from plots and designs against the well-being of their states,—or by critical turns and revolutions in their favour when beginning to sink; by some signal interposition of God's providence; they may have rescued their liberties, and all that was dear to them, from the jaws of some tyrant;—or may have preserved their religion pure and uncorrupted when all other comforts failed them.
If other countries have reason to be thankful to God for any one of these mercies, much more has this of ours, which at one time or other hath received them all,—insomuch that our history, for this last century, has scarce been any thing else but the history of our deliverances, and God's blessings,—and these in so complicated a chain, and with so little interruption—as to be scarce ever vouchsafed to any nation or language besides—except the Jews; and with regard to them, though inferior in the stupendous manner of their working,—yet no way so in the extensive goodness of their effects, and the infinite benevolence which must have wrought them for us.—Here then let us stop—look back a moment, and enquire, as in the case of the Jews, what great effect all this has had upon our lives,—and how far worthy we have lived—of what we have received!
A stranger—when he heard that this island had been so favoured by Heaven,—so happy in our laws and religion,—so flourishing in our trade,—so blessed in our situation and natural products,—and in all of them so often—so visibly, protected by Providence,—would conclude our gratitude and morals had kept pace with our blessings—and he would say,—as we are the most blessed and favoured,—that we must be the most virtuous and religious people upon the face of the earth.
Would to God there was any other reason to incline one to so charitable a belief!—for, without running into any common-place declamation upon the wickedness of the age,—we may say, within the bounds of truth—that we have profited in this respect as little as was possible for the Jews:—that there is as little virtue,—and as little sense of religion, at least as little of the appearance of it, as can he supposed to exist at all, in a country where it is countenanced by the state.—Our forefathers, whatever greater degrees of real virtue they were possessed of—God, who searcheth the heart, best knows;—but this is certain, in their days they had at least—the form of godliness,—and paid this compliment to religion, to wear at least the appearance and outward garb of it.—The public service of God was better frequented,—and in a devout as well as regular manner;—there was no open profaneness in our streets to put piety to the blush,—nor domestic ridicule to make her uneasy, and force her to withdraw.
Religion, though treated with freedom, was still treated with respect; the youth of both sexes kept under greater restraint; good order and good hours were then kept up in most families; and, in a word a greater strictness and sobriety of manners maintained throughout amongst people of all ranks and conditions;—so that vice, however secretly it might be practised,—was ashamed to be seen.
But all this has insensibly been borne down ever since the days of our forefathers' trespass—when, to avoid one extreme, we began to run into another;—so that, instead of any great religion amongst us, you see thousands who are tired even of the form of it, and who have at length thrown the mask of it aside,—as an useless incumbrance.—
But this licentiousness, he would say, may be chiefly owing to a long course of prosperity, which is apt to corrupt men's minds.—God has since this tried you with afflictions;—you have been visited with a long and expensive war:—God has sent, moreover, a pestilence amongst your cattle, which has cut off the flock from the fold,—and left no herd in the stalls.—Surely, he'll say,—two such terrible scourges must have awakened the consciences of the most unthinking part of you, and forced the inhabitants of your lands—from such admonitions—though they failed with the Jews, to have earnt righteousness for themselves.—
I own this is the natural effect,—and one would hope should always be the natural use and improvement from such calamities;—for we often find that numbers, who, in prosperity, seem to forget God, do yet remember him in the day of trouble and distress.—Yet consider this nationally,—we see no such effect from it, in fact, as one would be led to expect from the speculation:—for instance,—with all the devastation, bloodshed, and expense which the war has occasioned, how many converts has it made to frugality -r-to virtue, or even to seriousness itself?—the pestilence amongst our cattle,—though it has distressed and utterly undone so many thousands, yet what one visible alteration has it made in the course of our lives?
And though one would imagine that the necessary drains of taxes for the one,—and the loss of rents and property from the other, should in some measure have withdrawn the means of gratifying our passions, as we have done;—yet what appearance is there amongst us that it is so?—
What one fashionable folly or extravagance has been checked by it?—Is not there the same luxury and epicurism of entertainments at our tables?—do we not pursue with eagerness the same giddy round of trifling diversions—is not the infection diffused amongst people of all ranks and all ages?—And even grey hairs, whose sober example and manners ought to check the extravagant sallies of the thoughtless, gay, and unexperienced,—too often totter under the same costly ornaments, and join the general riot. Where vanity, like this, governs the heart, even charity will allow us to suppose that a consciousness of their inability to pursue greater excesses, is the only vexation of spirit.—In truth the observation falls in with the main intention of the discourse,—which is not framed to flatter your follies,—but plainly to point them out, and shew you the general corruption of manners, and want of religion, which all men see,—and which the wise and good so much lament.—
But the enquirer will naturally go on, and say that, though this representation does not answer his expectations, undoubtedly we must have profited by these lessons—in other respects;—though we have not approved our understanding in the sight of God, by a virtuous use of our misfortunes, to true wisdom—that we must have improved them, however, to political wisdom; so that he would say, though the English do not appear to be a religious people, they are at least a loyal one;—they have so often felt the scourge of rebellion, and have tasted so much sharp fruit from it, as to have set their teeth on edge for ever.—But, good God! how would he be astonished to find that, though we have been so often tossed to and fro by our own tempestous humours, we were not yet sick of the storm;—that though we solemnly, on every return of this day, lament the guilt of our forefathers in staining their hands in blood, we never once think of our principles and practices which tend the same way:—and though the providence of God has set bounds, that they do not work as much mischief as in days of distraction and desolation, little reason have we to ascribe the merit thereof to our own wisdom; so that, when the whole account is stated betwixt us, there seems nothing to prevent the application of the words in the text;—that our iniquities are increased over our heads, and our trespass is grown up unto the heaven.—Since the days of our fathers have we been in a great trespass unto this day!—and though it is fit and becoming that we weep for them, 'tis much more so that we weep for ourselves, that we lament our own corruptions, and the little advantages we have made of the mercies or chastisements of God, or from the sins and provocations of our forefathers.
This is the fruit we are to gather, in a day of such humiliation; and unless it produces that for us, by a reformation of our manners, and by turning us from the error of our ways, the service of this day is a more senseless insult upon the memories of our ancestors than an honest design to profit by their mistakes and misfortunes and to become wiser and better from our reflections upon them.
Till this is done, it avails little, though we pray fervently to God not to lay their sins to our charge, whilst we have so many remaining of our own.—Unless we are touched for ourselves, how can we expect He should hear our cry? It is the wicked corruption of a people which they are to thank for whatever natural calamities they feel;—this is the very state we are in, which, by disengaging Providence from taking our part, will always leave a people exposed to the whole force of accidents, both from within and without:—and however statesmen may dispute about the causes of the growth or decay of kingdoms, it is for this cause a matter of eternal truth that, as virtue and religion are our only recommendation to God, they are, consequently, the only true basis of our happiness and prosperity on earth. And however we may shelter ourselves under distinctions of party,—that a wicked man is the worst enemy the state has;—and, on the contrary, it will always be found that a virtuous man is the best patriot and the best subject the king has. And though an individual may say, What will my righteousness profit a nation of men? I answer, if it fail of a blessing here (which is not likely), it will have one advantage—it will save thy own soul, and give thee that peace at the last which this world cannot take away. Which God, of his infinite mercy, grant us all. Amen.