A New Year's Sermon!
1871 and 1872
Archibald G. Brown, Sunday, December 31st, 1871, Stepney Green Tabernacle
"The believers from there, when they heard of us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us. On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage." Acts 28:15
Through the infinite mercy of God, our eyes this morning behold the light of the closing day of another year. Eighteen hundred and seventy-one will have run its course in a few hours, and if God spares us, we hope to greet with song "another year." There is something wonderfully solemn in thus passing these milestones on the road of life. They compel thought in the most careless of us, and the whole world seems hushed as with measured step it draws near the boundary line — crosses it — then leaves it in the rear.
It is in these seasons that we realize the power and pace of time. How resistless its course is, never for a moment halting or slackening in its forward march. Whether we wake or sleep, work or rest, live or die — time moves on the same. For the one to whom it brings liberty, it does not hasten its step — nor does it become tardy for the wretch that is condemned to die. Ignoring all respect of persons — time deals alike with prince and pauper. All are hurried on by its waveless tide at equal rate. It makes no exception. Like the God who gave it birth, and shall decree its death, "None can stay its hand or say: What are you doing?" Willing or unwilling, with brightening hope or deepening gloom, all are swept along the stream of time.
Remarkable as its might — is its speed; and it is not more remarkable than it is deceptive. Marked by its shorter courses, time appears to be slow of step. How long often, is the minute of suspense! How never-ending seem the sleepless hours of the night! How slow it creeps to the watchers of the sick and dying! But do not take time by the minute or the hour — but by the day, and how accelerated its speed becomes. We seem always rising, or retiring to our rest. Measure it by the week, and it is quicker still. How short the interval between the days of worship. Reckon it by the month, and we find that it runs. Note it by the year, and we find that it flies. Bear me witness, friends, that it seems but the other day when we watched the past year gently die, and hailed with holy hymn the birth of this one. As we stood upon the threshold of the present year, far away in the distance seemed its close. But lo! it has arrived, and the months of work and anxiety, joy and grief, are at an end — and we now reckon its life by the hour.
With what feelings shall we close one year and anticipate another? "Mixed!" will be the answer of all of us. Self-reproach will blend with adoring gratitude, and joy will contend with sorrow. Our experience will depend on the view we take.
If we look at it as God's year — then praise, and only praise, will be our employment. If we regard it as our own year — then shame, and only shame, can be the result. The latter view is perhaps best taken in moments of private meditation. There are many matters for humiliation that are best for secret confession and repentance, and would ill suit public worship. Let us alone review our own year — but together commemorate God's year with us.
The text I have selected, expresses I think in the happiest terms, the feelings with which we should look back upon 1871, and look forward to 1872. With thankfulness and courage. The words were uttered under the following circumstances: Paul was being taken to Rome as a prisoner. The journey was made by sea as far as Puteoli, where on landing he was greeted by many of the brethren; and through the courtesy of Julius the centurion, he was allowed to remain a few days. From there they continued the journey on foot. The news of Paul's approach preceded him, and the church of Christ at Rome determined to send a deputation to meet and welcome him. Part met him at Appii Forum, and part at the Three Taverns, both of these being towns that lay in the Appian Way to Rome. This act of kindness greatly cheered the apostle, so he thanked God and took courage, for the future that yet was shrouded in darkness, except that he knew that "bonds and imprisonment awaited him." Let us now, by God's help, make the apostle's words our own; and first,
1. Let us thank God for 1871.Here a difficulty meets us at the very outset; a difficulty not arising from lack of matter — but from a superabundance of material. Thank God for the past year? Where shall we begin, and where shall we leave off? If the mercies of one day exceed our thought and imagination — then how then shall we include a year in our grateful remembrance?
To sing a worthy song (even if we were able) upon every kind of blessing received, would require all our time, indeed, eternity itself. We will therefore be able only to touch each string in the great harp, and trust that it will quiver and vibrate with melody long after this morning's service is concluded.
Should we not thank God that our lives have been preserved another year? I fear that the mercy of spared life is much overlooked. So continuously are the moments given, that we grow prone to look at ourselves more as freeholders than tenants at will. All men expect to live — but few expect to die. We form our plans for weeks and months ahead, as if no sudden stoppage of the machinery of life was within the range of possibility. But let us pause and think.
During the year so nearly closed, tens of thousands have fought the last battle and been laid in the dust. They entered upon it with as little expectation of it being their dying year, as we did. To them, the months spread out as full of expectation, as they do to us. But all was shadowed in a moment. With scarcely a warning, the King of Terrors stood before them. Not life but death, was their portion. Before his glittering axe they fell, and with them a thousand hopes and plans for future happiness. We are spared, and on the last day of the year we are enabled to review its months. O, matchless mercy and long suffering grace!!
Throughout another year the pendulum of life has given its noiseless beats. Throughout another year the pulse has throbbed without a pause. Throughout another year the silver cord has borne the strain, and the sleep of night has ended in the light of day. Is this no mercy? Shall God have no praise — and shall we accept it without a song? Surely not.
"Strange that a harp of a thousand strings}
Should keep in tune so long!"
During the present year every ticking second has been the last on earth to someone! Yet out of the well-near countless number who have fallen, we have been exempted. Brethren and Sisters, for hearts that beat and eyes that see this day — let us thank God.
But here many of us may add a note, and lift the strain yet higher. Not only has life been spared — but health has been enjoyed. To multitudes, this year has been a living death; yes, death itself has often been desired as a friend. To them it has been appointed to have days of pain and nights of weariness. Slowly the months have dragged along, only noticed and remembered by varying intensity of suffering. Life to such people has been robbed of its charm. Whether the freshness of Spring — the glory of Summer — or the changing tints of Autumn time — it is all one to them. One room has contained all the views they have seen this year, and their only "change" has been to turn on the bed.
I could mention some, even of our own number who, commencing this year in sickness, are still found on its closing day as prostrate as they were at first. They are still at morning saying, "I wish it were evening," and at evening sighing, "I wish it were morning."
It has not been so with us. Passing pains and transient sickness may have fallen to our share — but most of them are now forgotten. They were only noticed through their contrast with our general days. How few Sabbaths have many of us lost through sickness — not half as many as we have lost by our soul's worldliness. Thank God then, that not only has the life current flowed — but it has flowed strongly. Joyously and free from pain has the complex mechanism of this wondrous frame performed its work yet another year. Bless God for health — it is His choicest earthly gift.
Another note will blend in harmony here, namely, prosperity granted. Not only has there been the strength to work — but there has been the work to employ the strength. Perhaps the year was entered with many a dark foreboding thought. Dismal scenes were conjured up in the mind, that had well-near the power of reality in their depressing influence. You saw the shop closed, the business ruined — and yourself and family face to face with poverty or with eating the unsavory bread of charity. Difficulties seemed to be closing in around you, and you prophesied that this year the storm must burst. Well, how is it now? Far better than your brightest hopes — and a very contrast to your darkest fears. God has been Jehovah-Jireh to you. Though often in straits, you have been helped through them all; and though no great luxuries have crowned your table — yet has it never lacked the meal at the appointed hour. Though far from wealthy, you find you can spare something for the poorer brethren, and give your little to the work of God.
Let us seek, dear friends, to have quick eyes in discerning the Lord's hand in our so-called "every day mercies." The smallest comfort grows great in value, when viewed as our Father's gift.
The next string I will touch has sweet music of its own, and it should call forth the deepest "thank God" from every breast. It is home mercy. Home! Home!! Surely, among all the gifts of Heaven, there is none more beautiful, or more worthy of our grateful praise — than a home where kindness, love, and cheerfulness abide. It has been well said that to Adam, Paradise was home — and to the holy among his descendants, home is Paradise. He who has a happy home can never be poor, or lack a theme for grateful song.
"Better than gold is a peaceful home,
Where all the fireside charities come;
The shrine of love and the Heaven of life,
Hallowed by mother, or sister, or wife.
However humble the home may be,
Or tried with sorrow by Heaven's decree,
The blessings that never were bought or sold,
And center there, are better than gold."
And how has it been in the home during the present year? "Thank God" many of you can reply, "it has been well." The same faces that smiled upon you on New Year's day — smiled upon you with as fresh a smile this morning. No gap has been made in the happy circle. The same number gathered round the hearth on Christmas eve, as on the year before. And better even than preserved life — is preserved love and unity, and this you have. The joy of the home has not diminished nor has its charm grown weaker.
Dear friends, if it is so, then I charge you to "thank God." You have such a possession as many would give their all to call their own. There are this morning homes still wrapped in gloom, and a gloom that is deepened by the very season of the year. The little chair that is empty, and the little toys that are treasured, tell their own story. In other homes, a deeper shade than bereavement ever casts, hangs heavily; for if the home is not the source of purest of joys — it is the source of deepest misery! Think of your home with all its mercies, and "thank God" again and again.
As subjects of the realm, we also add to the list national blessings. Only a few weeks ago all England was watching with feverish anxiety at the bed-side of her Prince. Intense was the interest and painful the suspense, as death seemed to be winning in the fight. The sorrow of the palace spread far and wide, until there was national fellowship in grief. Countless were the prayers breathed, that the threatened calamity might be spared the Royal family and the people. These prayers have been heard, and the year closes with a joy at one time almost despaired of. Let us "thank God."
Yes, there is enough in the providential dealings of our God with all, to give a thankful heart. True, we have all had our sorrows and our disappointments during this year of 1871. Every heart has at some time known its own bitterness; and doubtless, there is scarcely a cheek down which no tear has rolled. But what has been the number of our trials — compared with the multitude of our mercies? And contrasted with our deserts — how light the heaviest trial will become! Join then, every heart, in thanking God. Do not let one soul refuse its tribute of adoring praise. Come all then, even the child of greatest sorrow, and see if there is not hidden in the rough oyster shell of tribulation, a pearl of mercy so exceeding precious, that it reconciles you to its casket.
Thus far you will see we have only been dealing with the gifts of God's LEFT hand. His temporal loving-kindnesses. Let us now view the blessings of His RIGHT hand, and thank Him for His mercies to the soul.
Certainly of these we must place first upon the list — kept from falling. If during the present year we have been saved from bringing any great blot upon your Christian profession, it is all of grace and calls for highest praise. Let none arrogate to himself any of the glory. And can we say, "We have been kept?" I do not mean by this that there has been no coldness, no deadness of heart, no prayerlessness. Far from it. As long as we are in the flesh, and know anything of ourselves, our continued confession must be,
"Prone to wander, Lord I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love!"
But have we been kept from outward and open backsliding? Has there been during the past year a continued if quiet testimony for God? If so, then thank Him. Think, child of God — what if you had fallen? What if the name of Christian had been dragged into the mire by your life? The very thought is agony. O, what anguish of soul would have been yours today; what a Hell would be within the breast. How dark everything would appear; and when restored, for what a time this year would be remembered by you as the "black" year of your life. Surely any Christian might rather wish himself in the grave than live to fall.
But, beloved, thank God, it is not so with you. With no feeling of pride — but only grateful love, you may exclaim, "Having obtained help from God I continue to this day." Our thankfulness may well be intensified by the sad remembrance that some have fallen during the year, and lost their power for testimony. While we mourn for them, we rejoice for ourselves with trembling, for we have been like men carrying gunpowder and working in a forge where sparks are flying on every hand. With a nature like ours, so dangerously quick to sin, and living amid a very shower of fiery temptations — how great the grace that has preserved us thus far. "Thank God."
Along with being kept from falling, we trust most of us can link our spiritual life that has been maintained and increased. The two things do not always go together. It is possible to be free from any great and open fall — and yet have the painful consciousness that inwardly there has been a declension. Great then is the cause for thankfulness, if humbly and in the sight of God, we can express the hope that the inward experience has corresponded with the outward appearance. And can you not venture to say it, dear friend? While blushing for very shame, that you are not a holier or happier Christian than you are, can you nevertheless add, "I never loved my Savior more than now, or yearned for fellowship with Him with a greater longing."
In our catalogue of spiritual mercies demanding thankfulness, we must also write down hallowed seasons. What times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord we have often had in secret during the past months. They have been days of Heaven upon earth, rich with a joy unspeakable and full of glory.
Have there not been seasons with us all when a more than usual light has shone upon the pages of the open Word? Seasons when prayer became so sweet that we could do nothing but pray! Feasts on the road of heavenly fare that have given us strength for many days; sips of the brook gushing from the throne of God that have enabled us to lift up our heads with joy! Surely we have all had such times. We only mourn that, like angels visits, they are few and far between. Nevertheless the remembrance of them lingers with us still, like the perfume of spices and the fragrance of the cedar. These holy moments are Heaven's gifts. We have received them. Let us "thank God."
Last — but chief of all in the list of spiritual blessings, some of you have been converted during year! 1871 found you far from God, an alien from the commonwealth of Israel, without God and without hope in the world. At the commencement of this year "You were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath!" Ephesians 2:1-3. But now, blessed be His name, "old things have passed away, all things have become new." 2 Cor 5.17. No longer an alien from God, you are like "a child at home," and into your spirit has been poured the Spirit of Adoption. Instead of being "without God" — He is now your salvation and your song. Far from being "without Christ" you are now exclaiming "My Beloved is mine and I am His," Song 6.3, and your highest joy flows from the thought of shortly being with Him.
O what a transformation scene has taken place in you since last New Year's day. A change that has filled all Heaven with joy, and inspired fresh songs from angel lips. Dear friend, whoever else may be silent, you must not. The stones of this building might well cry out in judgment if, above all other voices, yours is not heard, crowning the year with "Thank God, Thank God!"
Yet once more and with this group of blessings, I close the review of the year. We have church mercies to thank God for. For five years we have enjoyed, as a church, more than ordinary spiritual prosperity and blessing; and to His praise we say it, this year has not been less full of tokens for good than the four preceding ones. No indeed, we might even say that the last year has been the best. For a fresh work among the unsaved has filled our cup of joy to overflowing, and we have been permitted to have "a feast of ingathering" Exo 23.16, during this closing month.
As a church we must thank God that the spirit of hearing the Word is still maintained, and that He yet gives testimony to the fact that the simplest gospel is the most powerful instrument in attracting as well as converting the masses.
We thank God that love for prayer not only continues but seems to increase in our midst. During this year there have been prayer-meetings as remarkable for their spirit as their numbers. Most devoutly we thank God for them. They are the certain harbingers of greater blessings yet.
During the present year, the work of conversion has been carried on by the Holy Spirit in a large measure, and the number of anxious souls at the present time is greater than at any period during the year.
Why do we mention these facts? For the sake of vain-glorying? No! God is our witness; but simply because, to omit them when counting up the mercies of the year, would be unthankful and unjust to Zion's King. O, members of this church, by every soul won within these walls — by every backsliding saint restored — by every blessing you have yourselves received — I charge you on this dying day of another year, "Thank God." May he accept our praises, and further assist us, as we,
II. Look forward with courage towards 1872.Standing this morning upon the thin boundary line that divides year from year, we have looked back, and lo, the whole history of the past is radiant with the glow of God's tender mercies. While looking, we have thanked God. We now turn our eyes to the time to come. How different the view. Then everything stood out in bold and clear relief. Sharply defined were all the particulars making up the one landscape. Now a thick veil of mist shrouds all in impenetrable gloom. In vain we strain our eyes to pierce the dark curtain. We enter on the year by faith, and not by sight. Imagination may stretch her wings and circle in the mist, transforming its wreaths into fairy land or scenes of terror, as the bias of the mind may prompt; but knowledge of the hidden treasure, we have none. The hand of mercy only clears the darkness as step by step we enter into it!
1872 is yet an uninhabited and unknown land. Every moment brings us nearer to the misty veil. With what feelings shall we enter through? Let our text give the answer. Having thanked God for the past — let us now "take courage" for the future. With the Psalmist, let us sing, "because you have been our help, we will therefore trust under the shadow of your wing." Psalm 36.7.
Doubtless, there are many present who are anticipating the coming year with a dread they would find it difficult to account for, if asked the reason. Although ignorant of the particular forms their troubles may assume, they reckon rightly that they are sure to meet troubles of some sort or another, and the very indefiniteness of them serves to magnify their greatness. Probable bereavement, sickness, or death — and possible loss, disappointment, and grief — cast their shadow on the spirit. They did on Paul. Yet he took courage. I will therefore mention, and only mention, a few thoughts calculated to inspire courage.
Remember, friends, we shall have the same GOD with us in 1872 that we have had in 1871. The change of year, brings no change in Him who is our rock and our defense. The heart touched with the feelings of our infirmities during this year, will be as full of sympathy during next — not one drop will have departed from that bottomless and shoreless ocean. The eye that has been so quick to discern our needs, and like the fiery pillar, has guided us to the close of another period of time — shall not become dim, nor lose its guiding brightness. The arm of power that has at the same time been under and around us — does not lose one atom of its might. The muscles of omnipotence do not grow weary — nor does their natural force abate. "Our God, our help in ages past" may well be "our hope for years to come." Whatever you have found your God to be in days gone past — you shall find Him the same in days to come. With Him there is no variableness or shadow of turning.
Away then with every doubt or fear. March on triumphantly. You do not walk into the unknown alone. You have the companionship of Him whose faithfulness you have proved a thousand times. This is a blessed thought, pregnant with undying song: in every year and every age the saint can say, "The Lord Almighty is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge!" Psalm 46.7. "Lift the strain higher" you blood-bought, blood-washed multitude; so long as breath can utter words, declare "this God is our God forever and ever; He will be our guide, even until death!" Psalm 48.14
Remember also, that the same PROMISES that have been your support in 1871 go with you into 1872. Round about you, like the mountains around Jerusalem, or the chariots of fire around the prophet, are the same "precious promises," that have glittered like stars in your darkest night. "As your days — so shall your strength be!" includes next year also in its wide embrace. "My grace is, sufficient for you!" is limited to no time this side glory. "Ask and you shall receive. Seek and you shall find. Knock and it shall be opened to you!" stand good for any year. Time would fail to tell of all the glittering host of promises that march with you. Look over their serried ranks and "take courage."
Do not forget also, that the same hope which has cheered you this year, accompanies you into the next. Do you say, "What hope?" I reply, the hope of either your going to Jesus — or Jesus coming to you! Come what may, it hastens the time when you will be "forever with the Lord." Beyond care, beyond grief, beyond sickness, beyond death — there shines Heaven. May the Lord bring us all there for Christ's sake. Amen.