But now thus saith the Lord that created thee, O Jacob, and He that formed thee, O Israel, Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine. When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burnt; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee. For I am the Lord thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Saviour: I gave Egypt for thy ransom, Ethiopia and Seba for thee. Since thou wast precious in my sight, thou hast been honourable, and I have loved thee: therefore will I give men for thee, and peoples for thy life.--ISAIAH xliii. 1-4.
The New Year has now begun; and I am bound to wish you all a happy New Year. But I am sent here to do more than that; to teach you how you may make your own New Year a happy one; or, if not altogether a happy one--for sorrows may and must come in their turn--yet still something better than a happy year, namely, a blessed year; a year on which you will be able to look back this day twelvemonths, and thank God for it; thank God for the tears which you have shed in it, as well as for the joy which you have felt; thank God for the dark days as well as for the light; thank God for what you have lost, as well as what you have found; and be able to say, "Well, this last year, if it has not been a happy year for me, at least it has been a blessed one for me. It has left me a stronger, soberer, wiser, godlier, better man than it found me."
How, then, can you make the New Year a blessed one for yourselves? I know but one way, my friends. The ancient way. The Bible way. The way by which Abraham, and Jacob, and David, and all the holy men of old, and all the saints, and martyrs, and righteous and godly among men, made their lives blessed among themselves, in spite of sorrow, and misfortune, and distress, and persecution, and torture, and death itself; the one only old way of being blessed, which was from the beginning, and will last for ever and ever, through all worlds and eternities; the way of the old saints, which St. Paul sets forth in the eleventh chapter of the Hebrews; and that is, FAITH. Faith, which is the substance of what we hope for, the evidence of things not seen. Faith, of which it is written, that the just shall live by his faith.
But how can faith give you a blessed New Year? In the same way in which it gave the old saints blessed years all their lives through, and is giving them a blessed eternity now and for ever before the face of the Lord Jesus Christ, to which may God in His mercy bring us all likewise.
They trusted in God. They had faith, not in themselves, like too many; not in their own good works, like too many; not in their own faith, in their own frames, and feelings, and assurances, like too many; but they had faith in God. It was faith in God which made one of them, the great prophet Isaiah, write the glorious words which I have chosen for my text this day, to show his countrymen the Jews, even while they were in the very lowest depths of shame, and poverty, and misfortune, that God had not forgotten them; that for those who trusted in Him, a blessed time was surely coming.
And it was faith in God, too, which put it into the minds of the good men who choose these Sunday lessons out of the Bible, to appoint such chapters as these to be read year by year, at the coming in of the new year, for ever. Faith in God, I say, put that into their minds. For those good men trusted in God, that He would not change; that hundreds and thousands of years would make no difference in His love; that the promises made by His Holy Spirit to Isaiah the prophet would stand true for ever and ever. And they trusted in God, too, that what He had spoken by the mouth of His holy apostles was true; that after the blessed Lord came down on earth, there was to be no difference between Jews and Gentiles; that the great and precious promises made by God to the Jews were made also to all the nations of the earth; that all things written in the Old Testament, from the first chapter of Genesis to the last of Malachi, were written not for the Jews only, but for English, French, Italians, Germans, Russians-- for all the nations of the world; that we English were God's people now, just as much, ay, far more, than the old Jews were, and that, therefore, the Old Testament promises, as well as the New Testament ones, were part of our inheritance as members of Christ's Church. And therefore they appointed Old Testament lessons to be read in church, to show us English what our privileges were, what God's covenant and promise to us were. We, as much as the Jews, are called by the name of the Lord who created us. Were we not baptised into His name at that font? Has He not loved us? Has He not heaped us English, for hundreds of years past, with blessings such as He never bestowed on any nation? Has He not given men for us, and nations for our life? While all the nations of the world have been at war, slaying and being slain, has He not kept this fair land of England free and safe from foreign invaders for more than eight hundred years? Since the world was made, perhaps, such a thing was never heard of, such a mercy shown to any nation; that a great and rich country like this should be preserved for eight hundred years from invasion of foreign armies, and all the horrors and miseries of war, which have swept, from time to time, every other nation in the world with the besom of desolation.
Ay, and but sixty years ago, in the time of the French war, when almost every other nation in Europe was made desolate with fire, and sword, and war, did not God preserve this land of England, as He never preserved country before, from all the miseries which were sweeping over other nations? Oh, strange and wonderful mercy of God, that at the very time that the gospel was dying out all over Europe, it was being lighted again in England; and that while the knowledge of God was failing elsewhere, it was increasing here! Oh, strange and wonderful mercy of God, who has given to us English, now for one hundred and sixty years and more, those very equal laws, and freedom, and rights of conscience, for which so many other nations of Europe are still crying and struggling in vain, amid slavery, and oppression, and injustice, and heavy burdens, such as we here in England should not endure a week! Oh, strange and wonderful mercy of God, who but three years ago, when all the other nations of Europe were shaken with wars, and riots, and seditions, every man's hand against his neighbour, kept this land of England in perfect peace and quiet by those just laws and government, proving to us the truth of His own promises, that those who seek peace by righteous dealings, shall find it, and that, as Isaiah says, the fruit of justice is quietness and assurance for ever! And last, but not least, my friends, is it not a sign, a sign not to be mistaken, of God's good- will and mercy to us, that now, at this very time of all others, when almost every country in Europe is going to wrack and ruin through the folly and wickedness of their kings and rulers, He should have given us here in England a Queen who is a pattern of goodness and purity, in ruling not only the nation, but her own household, to every wife and mother, from the highest to the lowest; and a Prince whose whole heart seems set on doing good, and on helping the poor, and improving the condition of the labourers? My friends, I say that we are unthankful and unfaithful. We do not thank God a hundredth part enough for the blessings which He has given us. We do not trust Him a hundredth part enough for the blessings which He has in store for us. If some of us here could but see and feel for a single month how people are off abroad; if they could change places with a French, an Italian, a Russian labourer, it would teach them a lesson about God's goodness to England which they would not soon forget. May God grant that we may never have to learn that lesson in that way! God grant that we may never, to cure us of our unthankfulness and want of faith, and godless and unmanly grumbling and complaining, be brought, for a single week, into the same state as some hundred millions of our fellow-creatures are in foreign parts! Oh, my friends, let us thank God for the mercies of the past year! Most truly He has fulfilled to England his promise given by the mouth of the prophet Isaiah: "When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee. For I am the Lord thy God, the Holy One, thy Saviour. Thou hast been precious in my sight, and I have loved thee: therefore will I give men for thee, and peoples for thy life."
Away, then, with discontent and anxiety for the coming year. Or rather, let us be only discontented with ourselves. Let us only be anxious about our own conduct. God cannot change. If anything goes wrong, it will be not because He has left us, but because we have left Him. Is it not written that all things work together for good to those who love God? Then if things do not work together for good in this coming year, it will be because we do not love God. Do not let us say, "I am righteous, but my neighbours are wicked, and therefore I must be miserable;" neither let us lay the blame of our misfortunes on our rulers; let us lay it on ourselves.
What was the word of the Lord to the Jews in a like case: "What means this proverb which you take up, saying, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge? It is not so, O house of Israel. The son shall not die for the iniquity of his father, nor the father for the iniquity of the son. The soul that sinneth, it shall die, saith the Lord."
Oh, my friends, take this to heart solemnly, in the year to come. Our troubles, more of them at least than we fancy, are our own fault, and not our neighbours', or the government's, or anyone's else. And those which are not our own fault directly are so in this way, that they are sent as sharp and wholesome lessons to us; and if we were what we ought to be, we should not want those lessons. Do not fancy that that is a sad and doleful thought to begin the new year with. God forbid! It would be doleful and sad indeed if any one of us, in spite of all his right-doing, might be plunged into any hopeless misery, through the fault of other people, over whom he has no control. But thanks be to the Lord, it is not so. We are His children, and He cares for each and every one of us separately. Each and every one of us has to answer for himself alone, face to face with his God, day by day; every man must bear his own burden; and to every one of us who love God, all things will work together for good. It is, and was, and always will be, as Abraham well knew, far from God to punish the righteous with the wicked. The Judge of all the earth will do right. None of us who repents and turns from the sins he sees round him and in him; none of us who prays for the light and guiding of God's Spirit; none of us who struggles day by day to keep himself unspotted from this evil world, and live as God's son, without scandal or ill-name in the midst of a sinful and perverse generation; none of us who does that, but God's blessing will rest on him. What ruins others will only teach and strengthen him; what brings others to shame, will only bring him to honour, and make his righteousness plain to be seen by all, that God may be glorified in His people. Let the coming year be what it may; to the holy, the humble, the upright, the godly, it will be a blessed year, fulfilling the blessed promises of the Lord, that those who trust in Him shall never be confounded.
Oh, my friends, consider but this one thing, that the Almighty God, who made all heaven and earth, has bid us trust in Him. And when He bids us, is it not a sin, an insult to Him, not to trust Him--not to believe His words to us? "Put thou thy trust in the Lord, and be doing good; dwell in the land," working where He has set thee, "and verily thou shalt be fed." "Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night, nor for the arrow that flieth by day. A thousand shall fall by thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand: but it shall not come nigh thee. Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold and see the reward of the wicked. Because thou hast made the Lord thy refuge, no plague shall come nigh thy dwelling. Thou shalt call upon me, I will answer thee. Because thou hast set thy love on me, I will deliver thee; with long life will I satisfy thee, and show thee my salvation."
My friends, these words are in the book of Psalms. Either they are the most cruel words that ever were spoken on earth to tempt poor wretches into vain security and fearful disappointment, or they are-- what are they?--the sure and everlasting promise of our Father in heaven to us His children. We have only to ask for them, and we shall receive them; to claim them, and they will be fulfilled to us. "For He who spared not His own Son, but freely gave Him for us, will He not with Him likewise freely give us all things," and make, by His fatherly care, and providence, and education, all our new years blessed new years, whether or not they are happy ones?
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