In some such form as this the storm of doubt and anguish must have torn the minds of those mourners. But the storm is not yet over; the deepest darkness has not yet come. Their brother is dead. Death with his marks, which once seen can never be mistaken, stamps every lineament of that well-known countenance. It is death's colour on the cheek; death's cold stiffness in the limbs; and no hand but his could so close those eyes and make rigid those lips. There is no swoon here! Swathe him then in the garments of the grave; make ready for the funeral; let him be buried for ever out of sight; follow him to the ancestral tomb, and let the other household dead be remembered, and the other sad processions from the home of the living to the home of the lost and gone be recalled, and think that as they never returned, so never can he. Lay the body gently down beside those who have been long sleeping there; look at it; remember the past since childhood; weep and say farewell; return, Martha and Mary, with wrung hearts to your home, and see the empty room and listen for a voice that is no more, and experience a second death in the emptiness, the silence of this changed abode, and let the heaviest burden of all be borne, the deepest sorrow of all be endured—the doubt of a Saviour's love!
Yes, that terrible agony of doubt was there. Other friends came to sympathise with them, and to be present with them at the funeral; but this Friend was absent, and did not send even one comforting message! Of what avail is His coming now? for Lazarus has been dead four days, and corruption is already doing its foul work on his body. Here is "darkness that might be felt!"
Would that we could feel how real all this mysterious sorrow must have been to those sisters—our sisters, with our hearts, affections, and sympathies—that so we may be the more prepared to receive the blessed teaching which this narrative is designed to afford, and have our faith strengthened by seeing how the darkness and perplexity which belong so often to God's providential dealings towards us, may be caused by the deepest workings of that very love which we do not for a time see, and therefore may in our blindness and weakness for a time doubt.
But we must now look at the other portion of this history, which interprets the one we have been considering, and reveals the mind and ways of Jesus, now, as then, to His sorrowing friends.
We read that "when Jesus heard that Lazarus was sick," "he abode two days still in the same place where he then was." But His thoughts and His heart were all the while in Bethany. He saw all that was taking place there. He was cognisant of every groan and tear; yet He did nothing to prevent the progress of the disease, or to lessen the intensity of the sorrow. At the very moment when the sisters watch their brother's last breath, Jesus "said unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead,"
Let us inquire, then, whether we can discover any reasons which could have induced our Lord thus to prolong His stay at Bethabara, and to absent Himself from Bethany. What means this deep calm and quiet at such a time beside the troubled waters of the Jordan?
Now, we must ever remember that the grand end of all our Lord did, was that "God might be glorified thereby,"—that the character of the Father might be revealed in the fullest possible manner in and by Jesus the Son. But in order that this, in the circumstances in which He was then placed, might be accomplished, He had many things to consider; many complex interests pertaining to the kingdom of God to weigh and to reconcile, so as to bring out of them all glory to God in the highest, with good-will to man.
(a.) Jesus had in the first place to consider the good of His beloved friends in Bethany. They were thinking probably of their own comfort only, and of that too as coming but in one way, by the deliverance of Lazarus from sickness or death. But there is something of more importance to immortal beings than mere comfort. Love to souls is a very different sentiment, and manifested in a very different manner, than love to mere animals. To get quit of grief; to have tears dried up and smiles restored; to be delivered from all anxiety, and relieved from the heavy burden of sorrow, never mind how,—this is surely not the highest end which one who, wisely and truly loved, would seek for his brother in adversity? The highest, the best, the enduring and eternal interests of the sufferer must first be considered. His comfort, doubtless, cannot be overlooked, but then it must be such comfort as God can sympathise with and rejoice in; a comfort, therefore, which is in harmony with true spiritual life, and which will strengthen that life unto life eternal. Every other comfort is a delusion, a cheating of the soul, a laughter that must end at last in the experience of a deeper sorrow than before. He who bids us seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, cannot discipline us or aid us to seek any lower good first, because He loves our true and highest good most. Jesus had therefore to consider how He could bring true good, and therefore true comfort in the end, out of this sickness and death, to Martha, Mary, and also to Lazarus. To restore the brother to his sisters—was this best for them, taking into account every circumstance of their history within and without? To restore Lazarus to life—to a world of sin and temptation, again to die—was this the best for him? These were solemn questions, which Divine love and wisdom alone could answer.
(b.) But Jesus had to consider the good of His disciples. For years these simple-minded men had followed Him, and had been educating by Him to become the teachers of the world. HOW then shall this event be best turned to account for the strengthening of their faith, for the enlarging of their spiritual vision of God's glory, as revealed by His Son? But Jesus remembered them also: "I am glad," He said, "for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent that ye may believe."
(c.) Beyond the inner circle of His friends in Bethany and His more immediate followers, there was the multitude of poor, ignorant, fanatical, and unbelieving Jews—the wandering sheep, many of whom, had to be gathered into the fold of this the Good Shepherd. Jesus had their interests also at heart, as is evident from His prayer subsequently at the tomb of Lazarus: "Because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me."
(d.) Nor must we, in contemplating the many objects of love which occupied the thoughts of the Saviour, forget how intimately connected the raising of Lazarus was with His own death. That last great miracle of Divine power and love—almost, if not His last on earth—was to mark the beginning of His own deepest humiliation and sorrow. The hatred of the Jews was at this time so intense, that Thomas was amazed that He should hazard a journey to a place so near Jerusalem as was Bethany. "The Jews of late sought to stone thee; and goest thou thither again?" And so dangerous did this journey seem, that while bravely resolving to accompany Him, Thomas said, "Let us also go, that we may die with him." But this hatred was to be intensified by the display of Christ's glory at the tomb of Lazarus; for we read that "from that day forth they took counsel to put Him to death." The opening of the tomb to bring Lazarus forth was thus the opening of His own to descend thither as "crucified, dead, and buried." The gratitude of Mary for having her brother restored was soon to be unconsciously expressed by her anointing his mighty Restorer for His own burial. No wonder that Jesus paused ere He took this last step which intervened between Himself and the death which should end His work and mission upon earth.
(e.) And, as including all these considerations and many more, His own glory as the Divine Son of God was involved in what was to take place at Bethany. And this, again, involved the destinies of the human race, and the good and comfort of the Church throughout coming ages. Whatever became of Martha or Mary or Lazarus,—though the sisters should weep out their little day of life, and though their brother's sleep should be unbroken till the resurrection morning,—what was all this to the revealing of Jesus as the Saviour of men, and as the "resurrection and the life" of human bodies and of human souls? Inconceivably less in proportion than are the interests of one person to those of the whole universe! And thus you see that while those humble mourners, in the weakness of the flesh, and in their earthly short-sightedness, were thinking only of themselves, Jesus the Saviour of mankind had to think of many persons and of many things, so that every interest might be attended to, and the good of the whole kingdom of God be remembered, while not a hair on the head of Martha, Mary, or Lazarus was forgotten. Oh, blessed Saviour and glorious King! who can thus govern worlds and mould the ages of human history, while His ear is open to the prayers, and His thoughts occupied with the concerns, of the humblest mourners, as if they alone existed in the mighty universe of God!
Before shewing the blessed teaching which sufferers may gather from this twofold picture of mysterious sorrow and of thoughtful love, let us study for a moment the circumstances attending the meeting of Jesus with Martha and Mary. Many of these are deeply interesting and full of instruction; but I confine myself to one point only, the evidence which I cannot but think they afford of the shaken faith of the sisters for a time in the love of Jesus.
Martha was the first to meet Him outside of the town, where in quiet, and undisturbed by the noisy mourners from Jerusalem, and by their sympathising friends, Jesus desired, with His considerate kindness, to probe and heal those sorely wounded hearts. And what was her salutation? "Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died!" What means this? Is it an expression of confidence only in His power? Is it a confession of faith? Or does it not rather evidence unbelief? Does it not imply a sorrowing complaint, uttered, indeed, with reverence, and in such gentle language as was compatible with sincere faith, but still a complaint from a wondering and disappointed because wrung spirit, expressed in language which suggested the additional question asked only in the heart, "And why wert Thou not here?" Jesus reasoned with her. She believes, yet still doubts and questions why He had not come; she trusts Him, yet sees no light with reference to His dealings towards themselves. One thing she will do, however, amidst the darkness—she will cling to Christ as her only hope and refuge! Mary remains in the house. Why? Was it that she had not heard of the arrival of Jesus, or of Martha having gone to meet Him? Or is her heart so torn by distracting thoughts, that for a moment she knows not what to do? She dare not say to Him all she feels. Her keen and sensitive heart is agonised by entertaining for a moment even the bare suspicion of unkindness on His part. She fights against the horrid thought, which, like a demon, torments her, yet she cannot yet quite banish it, and meet Him with the full, unreserved, gushing love which something tells her is His due. But however this may have been, a message from Himself rouses her: "The Master is come, and calleth for thee; and as soon as she heard that, she arose quickly and came unto him." But how did she meet Him! Ah! Martha and she have surely been together pondering over the mystery of His absence, and they have inwardly come to the same conclusion; and so she too fell at the Master's feet, with the same wailing cry from her full heart, "Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died!" As she uttered these words, "Jesus wept!" There are expressions and single words in Scripture which reveal a whole heaven of glory—like the opening in the telescope, which, though but as a pin-point of light, reveals the glory of sun, moon, and stars. What a revelation of love is this—"Jesus wept!" But what mean these tears? They are visibly significant of much sorrow. The cup of the "Man of sorrows" was always full; what caused it thus to run over? Only twice in His life do we read of the Saviour's weeping,—now, when at Bethany, and in a few days afterwards, when entering Jerusalem during the week of His crucifixion. Did Jesus now weep from mere human sympathy with sisters mourning for a dead brother? or did He weep because He mourned their own lost faith in His love to them? We are well aware of the tenacity with which most people cling to the former method of accounting for the Saviour's tears, and what pain it seems to give when the latter view is pressed upon them, as if they were thereby robbed of some special source of comfort in affliction, and left without any other declaration in the Word of God—at all events, without any other incident in the life of Jesus—fitted to inspire confidence in His sympathy. It is not difficult to account for this feeling on our part. For it is much easier to understand tears shed for mere human suffering, than tears shed for human sin. The one kind of sorrow is common, the other is rare. The one is almost instinctive, and necessarily springs from that benevolence which belongs to us as men, but the other can only spring from that love of souls which belongs to us as "partakers of the sufferings of Christ," and from possessing, therefore, a realising sense of the infinite importance of a right or wrong state of being towards God, and from beholding the darkness of evil casting its dread shadows over a dear one's spirit. Hence an atheist can mourn over our loss of friends by death, while the man of God alone can mourn over our loss of God himself by unbelief. Then, again, every person welcomes the sympathy of another in his sorrows; while he might at the same time have no sympathy with the grief experienced by another for his sins. The one might be gladly welcomed as most loving, but the other be proudly rejected as most offensive.
Why therefore should true Christians cling with such fondness to the idea of Christ weeping with Martha and Mary, because they lost their brother, and not rather see a far deeper love and a source of far deeper comfort in his tears, because they had, for a moment even, lost their faith? Surely those who know Christ do not depend solely on such a proof as this of the reality of His humanity, and of His sympathy with the affliction of His brethren; nor can that kind of sympathy be the highest which can be afforded by all men whose hearts are not utterly steeled by selfish indifference. Besides, however real Christ's sympathy was with sorrow of every kind, why did He express it on this occasion more than on any other? Nay, why did He weep at the very moment when He purposed, by a miracle of power, to restore the dead brother to his sisters, and in a few minutes to turn their sorrow into joy? Why weep with those whose tears were shed in ignorance only of the coming event which was so soon to dry them? But the Saviour's tears came from a different and a profounder source! They welled out of a heart whose deep and tender love was not trusted in, but doubted even by those whom He loved most deeply and tenderly, and at the very moment too when He was about to pour forth upon them the richest treasure of His love, and to do exceeding abundantly above all they could ask or think. Remember only how He of all men loved; how as a man He longed for His brother's sympathy, and how as a holy Saviour He longed for His brother's good. Remember how earnestly He sought for the one grand result, that of hearty confidence in His goodwill, as the only restorative of humanity fallen and in ruins through the curse of unbelief. Remember, too, how lonely He was in the world; how few understood Him in any degree, or responded even feebly to the constant, boundless outpouring of His affection; and how many returned His good with evil, His love with bitterest hate;—remember all this, and conceive if you can what His feelings must have been when returning to this home of His heart, to this green spot amidst the wilderness of hateful distrust, with His whole soul full of such glorious purposes of love and self-sacrifice, and then at such a time to find his best and dearest friends smitten with the universal blight, fallen to the earth and prostrate in the dust under the crushing burden of unbelief! He does not weep, at first, when Martha addresses him; but when Mary, the loving and confiding—she of all on earth—complains; when faith has failed in even her!—oh, it is too much for His heart! "And thou too!"—"Jesus wept!" Ah! that shadow of death in such a soul as this was infinitely sadder to Him than the dead body of her brother, nay, than the contents of all the festering graveyards of the world! For what is death to sin? and what is the power which can restore by a word the dead body to life, in comparison with that which is required to restore an unbelieving soul to God? It was this unbelief, the most terrible spectacle which earth presents to the eye of a holy and loving Saviour, that made Him weep as He beheld it for a moment, like a demon-power taking possession of His own best beloved. And it was this same essential evil, and this alone, which made Him weep once again as He entered Jerusalem, when He cried, "How often would I have gathered you, but ye would not!"
In perfect accordance with this view, we read that when some of the Jews said, as He walked towards the tomb of Lazarus, "Could not this man, which opened the eyes of the blind, have caused that even this man had not died?" "Jesus therefore again groaning in himself, cometh to the grave." For again the words expressed lost faith in His power, or in His love to "this man." In like manner, when Martha, as if to persuade Him not to attempt impossibilities, reminded Him of the long time in which Lazarus had lain in the grave, saying, "Lord, by this time he stinketh," Jesus sternly rebukes her, "Said I not unto thee, that if thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God?" And tell me, is there not inexpressible comfort in this love which mourns over sin as the greatest loss and the greatest sorrow? I can get many, as I have said, in the world to understand and to feel with me in all my sufferings from loss of wealth, of health, of friends, or of any earthly blessing. Relations, acquaintances, strangers, even enemies, could be found who would do so. But who will so love me as to carry my crushing burden of sin? Who can fully understand its exceeding sinfulness I Who can fathom the depths into which I have fallen, or enter the body of death which imprisons my spirit. One only, the truest, the best, the most loving of all, my Saviour! And His hatred of my sin, and His sorrow for it, is just the measure of His love to me, and of His desire to deliver me, and to make me a partaker of His own blessed rest and peace, through faith and love in His Father and my Father, in His God and my God!
I shall pass by the remaining facts in this narrative, the raising of Lazarus, and the memorable scene when Jesus sat as a guest with the family of Bethany, again restored to one another, and to Himself in love; and when Mary with unutterable thoughts anointed His feet with ointment, and wiped them with the hair of her head. I would rather occupy the space which remains, in gathering from what has been said a few general lessons of importance chiefly to mourners.
My suffering brother or sister! permit me to address you as if personally present with you, seeing your distress, and sharing it as those cannot choose but do who have themselves experienced the darkness of sorrow. Such darkness and perplexity I have known, and I so remember with deepest gratitude the strength and comfort which were then afforded by the revelation of the ways of Christ, as illustrated by this narrative, that I desire to help others as I have been myself helped.
The one grand lesson which it teaches us is, never, in our darkest hour, to lose confidence in the love of Christ towards us, as if He had forgotten to be gracious, and either could not or would not help us. Banish the sinful thought! "Beware lest there should be in any of you the evil heart of unbelief." For such unbelief is the greatest calamity which can befall us. It is, verily, "sorrow's crown of sorrow," Let us rather "hold fast our confidence, which hath a great reward."
Like the family in Bethany, you too, I shall suppose, are visited with a sudden and "mysterious" bereavement. Like them you may pray to Christ, and ask a specific blessing; and like them you may think He has not heard your prayer, nor ever will answer it, because He does not do this at the time or in the manner you wished or anticipated. His thoughts and ways with reference to you may thus be utterly dark—darker than blackest night. Yet the servant of the Lord, "though he walks in darkness, and has no light," must "trust in the Lord, and stay himself upon his God." For the ways of Christ to His suffering friends in Bethany, when absent from them beyond the Jordan, are a revelation of His ways to us now, when He is in glory beyond the tomb. Now, as then, He never forgets us, never overlooks the least circumstance in our history, and never ceases for one moment to have that interest in us which is possible only for such a Brother or Saviour to possess. But now, as then, He has manifold interests to consider; ten thousand times ten thousand complex and crossing consequences to weigh. While we, perhaps, have our thoughts wholly occupied with but one desire, our own individual comfort, our own deliverance from this or that trial, the wise and all-loving Jesus has to provide for much more than this. Our own good and growth in grace—the good of those in sickness—the good of children, relations, friends, yea, it may be of generations yet unborn, who may be affected at this crisis in our family history by what Jesus does or does not,—all this must be considered by Him who loves all, and seeks the good of all, and who alone can trace out the marvellous and endless network of influence by which man is bound to man from place to place and from age to age. No one, therefore, but the Lord of all can decide what is best to be done in the circumstances of each case, in order that most good may be done, and that God may be glorified thereby. He alone knows how this link of "sickness unto death" is connected with other links in the mysterious chain of human history. And if so, then surely it becomes us, poor, ignorant, blind, selfish creatures, to bow before His throne with holy reverence; to yield ourselves and all our concerns meekly and lovingly into His hands, in the full assurance of faith that our interests are there in best and safest keeping; to feel that it is our first duty and noblest privilege to trust Him when we cannot trace Him, being persuaded that He does all things well, and that what we know not now we shall know hereafter.
Amidst all darkness, perplexity, and apparent confusion, remember the certainties which abide unmoved, and "shine aloft as stars." It is certain that "all things work together for the good of those who love God;" that "thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose soul is stayed on thee, because he trusteth in thee;" and that "nothing can separate us from the love of Christ," (His love to us.) It is certain that our Christian dead are in His presence; and that no one knows them or loves them as that Saviour does, who made them with His own hands, and redeemed them with His own blood. It is certain that if we are believers in Christ, we are still united to those departed ones, in labour, in worship, in love, in hope, and in joy; for, "whether we wake or sleep, we live together with Him." It is certain, that if "we are Christ's," "all things are ours, whether life or death, things present or things to come!"
Hold fast, then, O mourner, thy confidence in thy Lord! Have patience, fret not, despair not, and a day shall come to thee like that which came at last to the mourners in Bethany—it may be here, it may not be until we meet Him beyond the bounds of time, yet come it must—when all this earthly history, and all His doings towards us, shall be read in the clear and full light of perfect knowledge; when out of this seeming chaos and confusion the most perfect order will be evolved before our wondering eyes; and when we shall joyfully acknowledge with what majestic grandeur the world has ever been governed by its glorious King! Then, when we hear how He has governed ourselves, and trace the path along which He has led us since childhood, and understand the reasons which induced Him at such a time and in such a way to afflict us;—then, when the ways and thoughts of that mind and heart are laid bare;—and then, too, when we recall our fears, our doubts, our rebellions, our want of confidence in Him, what shall our thoughts and feelings be? When His love and ours, His wisdom and ours, His plans and ours, are thus contrasted, as we sit down at the great supper with our own Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, and every one worthy of our love restored to us for ever, beholding the unveiled face of our Lord in glory; oh, then, it might seem almost essential to our peace to be able to weep bitterly, and repent heartily, for our unworthy suspicions and ungenerous treatment of such a Friend and Saviour! But, blessed be His name! we shall then be able to give Him all He asks, our whole hearts, and, like Mary, kneel at His feet, and there pour forth the sweet fragrance of our gratitude, love, and joy, as we too hear from His lips such words as these uttered amidst the light and glory of the upper sanctuary: "Said I not unto thee, that if thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God!"
THE BEGINNING OF A YEAR.
What will happen during this year to ourselves and to those whom we love? Life or death—health or sickness—joy or sorrow—good or evil? What will the coming twelve months bring to me and mine? What may be—what must be—what ought to be? Such questions, multiplied a hundredfold, or broken up into every variety of anxious inquiry, often fill the heart and mind on the first day of a new year.
Now, is it possible for us to find rest and peace for our spirits as we steadily contemplate the future, with its darkness and light, with all the duties and trials which it contains, and with all that it may and must bring forth? Is there any secret of strength and comfort by which we can with courage and hope encounter all the possibilities of the future? There is. Let us only trust God, and we need not fear anything, but welcome everything!
Let us consider this; and, first of all, understand what is meant by trusting God.
To trust God, remember, is to trust Himself—a living, personal God. It is not to trust to any means whatever whereby He makes Himself known; but to look through them, all, or to go by them all, to the living God himself. This is more than trusting to any truth even revealed in the Bible, for it is trusting the Person who spoke the truth, or of whom the truth is spoken.
To trust God is to trust Him as He is revealed in all the fulness of His glorious character. It is to trust Him as true, and therefore as faithful in keeping every promise, and in fulfilling every threat; as wise, and therefore as never erring in any arrangement made for the well-being of His creatures; as righteous, and therefore as doing right to each and all; as holy, and therefore as hating evil, and loving good; as merciful and therefore as pardoning the guilty through a Redeemer;—it is, in one word, to trust Him "whose name is Love!"—love which shines in every attribute, and is the security for every blessing! Trust and obedience are therefore, from their nature, inseparable.
This trust in God is not common. Nothing, indeed, so common in men's mouths as the phrases, "I trust in God," "I have all my dependence on God," "We have none else to look to but Him," and the like. But, alas! how meaningless often to men's hearts are those sayings in men's mouths! They frequently express confidence only in God's doing what He has never promised to do;—as when a slothful, idle, dissipated man continues in his wickedness, yet "trusts God" will ward off poverty from him, or provide for his family whom he is all the while robbing. Or the words express confidence in what God has positively declared He never will nor can do;—as when an impenitent man, who has no faith in Christ or love to Him, "trusts God will forgive him," or make him happy, or not punish him, should he die as he is. All this, and such like trust, is "vain confidence," trusting a lie, and believing a delusion. Others, again, professing to trust God's word, manifest a total want of trust in His ways, and do not walk in His commandments, nor submit to His corrections, believing neither to be the will of a holy and loving Father. And thus, men who in theory say they trust God, practically have no trust in Him, whatever they may have in themselves, in the world, or in things seen and temporal. But oh the blessedness and the peace of him whose trust is in the Lord!
Read a few declarations from God's Word upon the crime of want of trust, and the peace enjoyed when possessing it:—
"Thus saith the Lord, Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the Lord: for he shall be like the heath in the desert, and shall not see when good cometh; but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, in a salt land and not inhabited." "The Lord also will be a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble. And they that know thy name will put their trust in thee: for thou, Lord, hast not forsaken them that seek thee." "Many sorrows shall be to the wicked: but he that trusteth in the Lord, mercy shall compass him about. Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, ye righteous: and shout for joy, all ye that are upright in heart." "What time I am afraid, I will trust in thee. In God I will praise his word, in God I have put my trust; I will not fear what flesh can do unto me....In God have I put my trust: I will not be afraid what man can do unto me." "Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths." "Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee. Trust ye in the Lord for ever: for in the Lord Jehovah is everlasting strength."
Now, this trust in God has been the character of all God's people in every age, and under every dispensation. We who live in these latter days may say of all our spiritual ancestry, "Our fathers trusted thee." They all had faith in the living God, and believed His word to be true, and His ways to be excellent. Abraham did so, when he went forth into the wide world, not knowing whither he went, having but God's word as a staff to lean on; and when he offered up his only son, believing that God was able even to raise him from the dead. Moses did so, when "by faith he forsook Egypt," and preferred "the reproach of Christ," and "endured, as seeing Him who is invisible," Job did so, when deprived of everything but God himself; when he sat in sackcloth and ashes, and bore the glorious testimony in the presence of men and devils, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him," David did so during his whole life, and his sacred songs are anthems of joyful trust, which the Church of God can never cease to sing till faith is lost in sight. And Jehoshaphat did so, when in the presence of the great invading army he addressed his small band with the noble words, "Trust in the Lord your God, so shall ye be established." And Daniel did so, when he entered the den of lions, and came out unscathed, "because he believed in the Lord his God." And Paul did so, when he ended his triumphant life, which he "lived by faith in the Son of God," with the shout of victory, saying, "I know whom I have trusted, and I am persuaded He can keep what I have committed to Him until that day." All the children of God have known, loved, and trusted their Father, and have reflected that holy light which shone with unclouded and faultless lustre in the Firstborn of all the brethren; for Jesus ever held fast His confidence in God until His last cry of faith, "Father, into Thy hands I commit my spirit!"
Begin the year and spend it in this frame of mind. Know God, trust Him, and go on thy way rejoicing, whatever that way may be. Heaven and earth may pass away, but thou art safe, because right.
Do you, for example, fear the future because it is unknown? Trust God, and fear not! This ignorance of coming events which are to affect our own happiness for time or for eternity is very remarkable, especially when contrasted with our minute and accurate knowledge of other things; such as the future movements of the moon and stars,—events which, though revealing the history of immense worlds, are yet to us of far less importance than the malady which may enter our home to-morrow, and close for ever the eyelids of a babe! In proportion, indeed, as the things of each day are to affect us, God has so concealed them, that we know not what one day is to bring forth. And this ignorance is surely intended to accomplish at least one blessed end—that of making us fly to God himself, and look up to Himself for guidance, for protection, and for peace. The feeblest child thereby becomes filled with such assurance of faith, that, whatever is before him, he can say, "Nevertheless I am continually with thee: thou hast holden me by my right hand. Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel, and afterward receive me into glory," How grand, then, is this thought, that whatever may come to the believer out of the mysterious womb of time, or out of the vast recesses of an unknown and immense eternity, nothing can possibly destroy his soul's peace; for nothing can separate him from the love of the ever-present, unchangeable, omnipotent God. The stars of heaven may fall, and the heavens depart as a scroll, and every mountain and island be moved out of its place; but the meekest child of God will be kept in perfect peace on the bosom of his Father, and there rest, untouched by the revolutions of coming ages, as the rainbow reposes on the bosom of the sky, unmoved by "the strong wind which rends the mountains, and breaks in pieces the rocks before the Lord."
Whether, therefore, the year is to bring life or death, poverty or riches, health or sickness to us or to our friends,—all is beyond our knowledge or our will. But, thank God, it is nevertheless within the province of our will to secure to ourselves perfect peace and rest. This sure hope is based on the glorious fact that there is a God—a living God who verily governs the universe; whose kingdom is one of righteousness; whose omnipotence is directed by love; and who, consequently, so administers the affairs of His blessed kingdom, as that all its complex machinery of events move in harmony with the safety and peace of every true child.
Again, Do you fear because of coming duties or trials which you cannot but anticipate? Trust God, and fear not! "Cast thy burden"—however great—"the Lord, and He will sustain thee." Experience tells us that the evils which we once most feared never came, but were purely imaginary, while the things really appointed to us were never anticipated. Let this help us to appreciate God's goodness and wisdom more in commanding us to "take no anxious thought about the morrow," because "sufficient for the day is the evil thereof."
Still you are certain of some duties or trials before you. This sickness, you say, must end in death; or this journey must, if you are in life, be taken to a foreign shore, and last farewells be spoken; or this year you must enter upon this new profession so arduous and so full of risks. And thus each one, with more or less degree of certainty, chalks an imaginary outline of his future course. But supposing all your anticipations to be well-founded, yet, oh! believe that when your day of trial or of duty comes, a Father, if you know Him and trust Him, will come with it. You will have on that dark day a Father's unerring wisdom to guide you, a Father's omnipotent arm to uphold you, a Father's infinite love to soothe you, comfort you, and fully satisfy you. Hear these precious commands and promises:—"fast your confidence, which hath a great reward!" "Be careful for nothing, but in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which passeth understanding, will keep your mind and heart through Christ Jesus!"
Once more, Do you fear the future, lest you should sin and depart from God as you have done in the past? Trust God, and fear not! For how did you depart from God before? From want of trust. You lost confidence in your Father's teaching, and leant on your own understanding, or listened to the voice of strangers; you first lost confidence in your Father's love and goodwill to you, and in His power to satisfy all your wants, and to give whatever was best for you out of His rich and inexhaustible treasures, and then you demanded the portion of your goods, and departed from Him, and ceased to pray to Him or to think of Him at all, but gave your heart, soul, and strength to the creature. But you had no peace. You left the cistern of living waters; but the cisterns hewn out by yourselves held no water to assuage your soul's thirst. You found it to be "an evil and a bitter thing" to forsake God. Hear, then, His invitation on the first day of a new year: "Return to the Lord thy God!" Arise, and go to thy Father; "abide" with Him; and never more lose thy confidence in Him as thy strength, thy peace, thy life! Trust His mercy to pardon the past; His grace to help in the present; and His love to fill up thy being at all times. "Fear not: I am with thee: I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness!" Your only strength and safety are in God. Daily seek Him, daily trust Him, and you will daily serve Him.
But perhaps you fear the future lest you should not "redeem the time" as you ought to do to the glory of God? Trust God, and fear not! Lost time is a sad and oppressive thought to the child of God. What might he have done! What might he have been! How might he have improved his talents, and cultivated his spirit, and done good to relations, friends, neighbours, and to the world, had he only redeemed days, hours, minutes, which have been spent in sloth or folly! And not one second can be restored. Shall the future be a similar record to the past? You fear to think of it! But be assured that till the last hour of the best spent life, you will need the atoning blood of Jesus for your innumerable shortcomings as a miserable sinner. The very "light of life" which enables you to know and rejoice in Jesus, will enable you also, in proportion as it burns brightly, to know and to mourn over yourselves. But while there is cause for earnest thoughtfulness about coming time, as a talent to be improved for your own good and God's glory, there is no cause for unbelieving fear, for such "fear hath torment." God does not give you a year to spend; He gives you but a day; nay, not even that, but only the present moment. He divides the talent of time into minutes, fractions, and says to you, "Employ this one for me." Therefore do not concern yourself with what is not yours; but as each day or hour comes, trust God! He is not a hard master, reaping where He does not sow; but is a Father sowing in you, and by you, in order that you, as well as Himself, might reap so that "both sower and reaper might rejoice together." Trust Him for always pointing out to you the path of duty, so that, as a wayfarer, you will never err. Be assured, that when the moment comes in which you must take any step, He will, by some voice in His Word or providence, say to you, "This is the way, walk ye in it!" Be assured, also, that amidst many things undone, or ill done by you, He will still so help you, if sincere, to labour in His cause here, and to improve your time and talents, as to be able hereafter to say, even to you, "Well done, good and faithful servant! enter thou into the joy of thy Lord." "In the name of the Lord, then, let us lift up our banners!" Enter upon the labours and duties of the year with joy I Art thou not a fellow labourer with thy brother saints and angels, yea, even with thy God? Doth not that omnipotent Spirit of light and love, who uniteth all in one, and who hath led the Church of Christ from grace to glory, dwell in thee? Wherefore, then, dost thou dishonour God and His word by unbelieving fear?
Finally, the experience of the past may strengthen your faith in God for the future. You have never trusted Him in vain. He has never failed you in time of need. You have always found His strength sufficient to uphold you, and His wisdom able to arrange for you, and His love inexhaustible in supplying your manifold wants. Ah! had you foreseen, years ago, all the past journey, so often dark and perplexing, which you have since pursued; and also all the duties which have successively claimed your energies for their performance; and all the trials, so many, so varied, which you have had to endure; would you not have sunk down in despair before the spectacle? But you did not foresee what is now past. God in mercy concealed it from you, as He does what is now future. And therefore you did not then, as you cannot now, despair. The Lord has hitherto helped you, and led you through the wilderness, and held you up, and kept you from falling; and so it is that both in your inward and outward state, you are this day a monument of His power, mercy, patience, grace!
And now, in peace of heart, say with Paul, "I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord!" Lord, it is enough! Never separated from Thyself for one moment in our existence, here or anywhere, we can never be separated from the chief object of our affections, from Him who is the fulness of our whole being, the never-failing source of our blessedness and joy. Believing in Thee our Father, we enter another year, and advance along our endless journey, not knowing what a day or an hour may bring forth; but knowing this, as all we care to know, that during every day and hour we are "continually with Thee." A long life on earth may be ours, but neither its labours nor its cares, its temptations nor its trials, shall be able to destroy our peace, because unable to separate us from Thy love. Thy love will give life to every duty, deliverance from every temptation, guidance in every perplexity, and comfort in every trial. Death may come, in what form or in what circumstances, how soon or how late, we cannot tell; but we fear no evil, however dark its shadow, for "Thou art with us." Eternity must come, and may come to us ere the year ends. But whatever things beyond the grave are hidden from us, Thou Thyself, our Father, art revealed! We know Thee, and this is life eternal!
ADVICES ON ENTERING A NEW YEAR.
1. Let a short portion of time be spent each day this year in private prayer, in reading God's Word, and, if possible, some devotional book.
2. Let it be the great work of the year to become better acquainted personally with Jesus Christ as the living and ever-present Friend, Brother, and Saviour.
3. Endeavour to concentrate your efforts to do good upon some definite unselfish work in your family or out of it, which may help others, as it certainly must help yourself.
4. In all things try to live more towards God, seeking His approval of your inner and outer life. The less you talk about yourself or your doings before men, the better for yourself and for them.
5. Aim this year at being a peacemaker between professing Christians; to allay disputes, and to heal breaches among friends and relations; and to make men respect and esteem each other more.
6. Do not leave behind you in the old year guilt unpardoned, but believe in Jesus for the remission of sins; nor enter a new year with sin loved and cherished, but accept of and rely upon His Spirit to sanctify you. Begin the year without enmity to any man on earth, "forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, even so do ye."
7. If you are the head of the house, resolve to read a portion of God's Word once a-day at least to the family; and either read or offer up, always with them, a short but hearty prayer.
8. Endeavour to keep an account of your income and expenditure, that you may be able to live justly and generously. Give what you can to assist poor relatives, and poor Christians, and the Church of Christ. Try this one year to tax yourself ten per cent, on your free income for such purposes.
Learn to do these things, and many more will the Lord teach thee to know and do; and may the God of love and peace be with thee!
THE CLOSE OF A YEAR.
"Remember all the way the Lord hath led thee" during the past year.
REMEMBER HIS MERCIES.—Calmly review, as far as you can, what God has given you these bygone months.
Have you been blessed with bodily health? If so, consider what a gift it is to be spared the tortures some endure: the restless, feverish nights; the long weary days; the unceasing pain; the no-hope of relief in this world.
Have you been blessed with mental health? If so, think of the mercy of not having been visited with insanity, or of having been freed from the suffering of even mental depression, so touchingly described by the poet as
"A grief without a sigh, void, dark, and drear, A stifled, drowsy, unimpassion'd grief, That finds no natural outlet, no relief, To word, or sigh, or tear;"
Think of the mercy of having been able to enjoy God's beautiful world, and to feel the life in its scenery, its music, and its blue sky, during the summer that has passed, as you walked along the sea-shore, among the woods, across the green fields, up the glen, over the moorlands, or gazed on the glorious landscape from the windy summits of the old hills. Health of body and of mind!—Oh, common, most blessed, yet, alas! how often unnoticed, gifts of God!
Have you received other mercies connected with your temporal well-being? Perhaps at the beginning of the year (as at the beginning, maybe, of many a year before) things looked very dark for you and yours. Yet "hitherto" God has helped you. You may never have had more light on your path than what enabled you to take the next step with safety, but that light has never failed you. God has been pleased thus to discipline many of His people. You may, possibly, remember also peculiar deliverances:—from sickness; from money difficulties; from bodily dangers; with unexpected additions to your means of comfort and of usefulness.
Again, call to remembrance your social mercies, which have come more indirectly through others. Think of the relations and friends who have been spared to you! Begin with your dearest, and pass on from those to others less closely allied, but still most valued, and number them all, if you can. Do any remain whom death threatened to remove during the past year? Have any, have many, been a comfort to you? Have your anxieties regarding the temporal or spiritual well-being of others been lessened? Have beloved ones been given to you during the year—such as a wife, a husband, or a child? If God hath led you in this way during the past year, it ought indeed to be remembered!
And if any of those Christian friends have fallen asleep in Jesus, then it is a great mercy to know most certainly that they are your friends still, and your best friends too; and you should thank God for the happiness which they now enjoy, and which you hope to share with them.
But you have other mercies to remember besides these. Surely much has been done for your spiritual good by your Father in heaven. He has shewn patience, forbearance, and long-suffering towards you; and has been teaching you during these past months by faithful ministers or faithful friends; and has been striving within you to bring you to Himself, and to keep you there. Have you enjoyed no peace in believing, nor gained any victories over self and sin? Have you possessed no more calm and habitual fellowship with God? Have you done no good? Has prayer neither been offered in truth, nor answered in love? Has all been fruitless and dead? Oh, let us beware of the falsehood of denying spiritual mercies bestowed on us by God! "If I should say I know Him not, I should be a liar like unto you," said our Lord. The graces of the Spirit, the least of them, are the earnests of eternal good, the assurances of enjoying the whole fulness of God.
BUT YOU HAVE SORROWS TO REMEMBER. Alas! we are in little danger of forgetting these. The sunny days may come and go unheeded, but the dark ones are all registered. We cannot forget that "the Lord taketh away;" but why do we not as vividly remember that the same Lord "giveth" and that in both cases we have equal cause, did we only see it, to exclaim, "Blessed be the name of the Lord!" I ask not what these sorrows have been. Enough that they are very real to you, or to those who are bound up with you in the bundle of life. It was a weary time to you in the wilderness, and it is well to remember that portion of the way in which you have been led, which was as a dark valley and shadow of death.
AND WHAT OF SIN? That is what makes it so hard for us to remember the past journey. The backslidings and falls in the way; the careless straggling behind; the lazy resting-places; the slow progress; the careless devotions; the misspent days of the Lord; the opportunities lost of doing good to others, or of receiving good ourselves, through procrastination, sloth, and indifference; the manifestation of our unloving and selfish spirit towards our brother, in envy, bad temper, backbiting, jealousy, or unguarded speech; the little done or given for God's work on earth, in charity to the poor, or to "our own flesh" who required assistance;—the everything, in short, which deters memory from looking steadily at what it would if it could blot out for ever from its records! Yet it is of great importance that this portion of the journey should be remembered; although it is not the way in which God led us, but which we chose for ourselves in our ignorance and self-will. Ponder it well! Recall what your conduct has been in avoiding temptation; how you have made use of the means of grace; the days in which you may have lived without God, or if you prayed to Him, when you did so as a form, without any real faith or love; the days in which you have been so presumptuous as to live without "faith in the Son of God," and to meet trials, temptations, and duties, without seeking strength from the Holy Spirit; the Sundays that have come and gone without having been improved, and sermons heard in vain, and public worship joined in outwardly only, without reality; the little help, or possibly great discouragement given to Christian ministers and Christian members by your very coldness; the time lost never to be recalled, and of all that could have been done for the ignorant, the afflicted, the wicked, the sick and dying, for friends and relations, which has been left undone, and never can be done in the other world. Think of what your Master has said, who is to judge you—that "herein is my Father glorified, that ye bring forth much fruit"—that "if any man will be my disciple, let him take up his cross daily, and follow me"—that "many will say in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not eaten and drunk in thy presence? hast thou not taught in our streets? have we not done many wonderful works in thy name? and I will say unto them, I know you not; depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity:"—think of this now, for think of it one day you must: and if you do so with any degree of truthfulness, I am sure you cannot enter another year without pouring out your heart in humble confession, and laying down your burthen at the foot of the cross, crying out, "God be merciful to me a sinner!" "Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving-kindness, and according to thy tender mercies blot out all my transgressions!"
Allow me now to put what I have to say in a practical form:—
1. When you review your mercies, consider how you are affected by them. It is easy, I know, to say, and to say so far truly, "Thank God for them!" Yet the whole spirit in which they are possessed may be intensely selfish. We may have been seeking our life in them to the very exclusion of God from our hearts, forgetting that "a man's life," says our Lord, "consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth." What things? Any creature things whatever! To make these our life, that is, our happiness, or to esteem them as essential to our happiness, is, as our Lord adds, for a man "to lay up treasures for himself, and not to be rich towards God." This is that "covetousness which is idolatry,"—the worship of Self, through what ministers to Self.
2. As you remember your sorrows, remember not only how you were sustained and comforted under them, but, what is of incomparably more importance, consider how far you have been realising God's purpose in sending them. That purpose may have been to perfect you by trial; or to prove your loyalty to Him; or to prevent evil in yourselves and others. But never forget that the lesson of all lessons is, that we or others should find life, and life eternal—that is, as I have said, life in the knowledge and in the love of God, which will satisfy and endure for ever; or, if this is already found by us, that we should possess it "more abundantly." Now, whatever tends to make us realise that what we often call and think to be "our life" is yet no life—that money, friends, or earthly enjoyments cannot fill the immortal soul, or be its portion for ever;—whatever awakes us from this dream and dispels the delusion, and makes us know the excellence and reality of true life in God, must be a blessing of the highest and richest kind. Yet what has such a tendency to do all this as sorrow, and the very trials which we so much deplore? The pain is no doubt great—often agony—a very cutting off a right hand, or plucking out a right eye; but the gain intended by the operation is incalculable and endless. Yet, what if all the good is lost through our blindness, ignorance, hardness of heart, pride, self-will, and unbelief? Alas! alas! if we too "go away sorrowful" from Christ when He threatens to take away our "much riches," though He does so in order only through this very discipline to induce us to follow Himself, and by the cross to gain life eternal! Alas! when it can be said of us, "Yet the Lord hath not given you an heart to perceive, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, unto this day; that ye might know that I am the Lord your God." And what is their punishment? "They have forsaken the Lord, they have provoked the Holy One of Israel to anger, they are gone away backward. Why should ye be stricken any more? Ye will revolt more and more!" What a real loss of friends would this be! For by separating ourselves through unbelief from Christ, we thereby for ever separate ourselves from our friends in Christ, if they are with Him!
Ye who have experienced comfort from good in affliction, bless God! "O Lord, my strength, my fortress, and my refuge in the day of affliction!" "Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless His holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits." Let the remembrance of the past, also, strengthen your faith for the future. As you "let your requests be made known to God with prayers and supplication," do not forget the "thanksgiving" for this will help you henceforth to "be careful for nothing." He who has led you out of Egypt, through "the depths," and across the desert, will never leave you nor forsake you.
3. As you remember your sins, consider how very ignorant you are of their number or their heinousness. But if you could enumerate each sinful thought, word, and action committed during the past year and during your past life, there is something in you worse than sins, and that is sin itself, the evil heart, the wrong mind, out of which sins proceed; for the corrupt tree is worse than any definite quantity of fruit which it has produced; the ever-flowing bitter fountain is worse than any definite quantity of water which has come from it. But whatever you have been or done in time past, what do you intend to be and to do now? Is it your intention to continue in sin? However dreadful the thought is, yet many, if such is your real intention, will sympathise with you. For many do continue in sin, and resolve to do so, for the present at least. Will you, then, permit the year to close, and with an unconcerned eye behold all its sin and sins added to those of other impenitent years, finally sealed up for judgment? How will you then stand the reading of your autobiography? Read over any page now, peruse the life of any day, and ask, Has this been the life of one who believes there is a God to whom he is responsible? Point out one solitary proof, and such as you think Christ will accept, in all these twelve chapters of the past year, of a heart which loved God, or had one mark of a sincere though an imperfect follower of Jesus Christ. And if you cannot do so, will you permit the volume to close for ever without a cry for mercy, without imploring God to wipe out or destroy in the atoning blood of Jesus these pages, which cry "Guilty" in every line? Will you not resolve rather, through the grace given to every honest man who wishes it, to begin and write a new volume, which shall witness to a changed life, and be inscribed no longer with all that is selfish, and of the earth earthy—"without God or Christ in the world." Let it be so, I beseech of you, my reader. Have done, now and for ever, with this shocking mutiny against your God. End the weary, shameful strife. Be, then, at peace with God, and remember that for you, if you believe in Jesus, there is free pardon, restoration to favour, a new heart, a new life, which is now life eternal.
And for you who have long given up sin as a master—who know that while the "flesh wars against the spirit, the spirit wars against the flesh," thank God and take courage! "Sin shall not have dominion over you; for ye are not under the law, but under grace." Hear the words of our invincible Leader, "Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world;" "Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world."
This year we may die. Let this mere possibility lead us to redeem with greater earnestness what remains of life to the service of our God; so that when the next year dawns upon this world it will find us, if we are in the other world, remembering our mercies before God's throne, our sorrows for ever vanished, and our sins for ever blotted out; but that if we are still here, it will see us living more worthy of our mercies, finding true good in our sorrows, and obtaining the victory over our sins!