A New Year's Message
What is your life?—James 4:14
James asks a question in the epistle of which he is the author, which question, it seems to me, is exceedingly pertinent for our consideration: "What is your life?" He gives the answer to it, immediately following the question: "It is even a vapor, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away." And preceding the question he gives a picture of this busy life of ours:
Go to now, ye that say, Today or tomorrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain:
Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.
For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that.
Could we have a more appropriate question this first Lord's Day of a new year, into whose early moments we are entering, than this question of James? It suggests the brevity of human life, and certainly that thought needs again and again to be laid faithfully to heart by us, one and all. It is very difficult to realize how soon the earthly life is spent. If this morning and this evening we have had in this church auditorium two thousand people, as a conservative estimate, then, based on the well-known laws of mortality, sixty-six of these people within this church building shall pass into eternity this year, and in ten years almost six hundred of these two thousand people within these walls today will have passed into eternity; and in fifty years, out of these two thousand people far less than one hundred will be left to tell the story of human life. Oh, if we could realize how soon the earthly life is spent, how fast it speeds into the great eternity! It was Augustine who said that he did not know whether to call this earthly life of ours a dying life or a living death. It is both. Each person before me in this auditorium is hurrying along the road that leads to physical death. There is some part in your body this minute decaying, and every beat of that pulse means that you have one less for the earthly existence. Augustine was right when he said that this experience here called human life is a dying life and is a living death, from the cradle to the grave. From the hour of our birth change sets up in these bodies, until the hour of our death, and works its way in human life.
Oh, if we could realize how soon the earthly life is spent—if we could realize it! And yet, if we look around us and see how easy it is for one to pass from time into eternity, we might realize it. The slightest thing, and one is carried away. Do you not recall that Justinian, the emperor of old, went into a newly painted room, and the odor of the paint cost him his life without delay? Do you not remember that one of the popes, Adrian by name, was strangled to death by a fly? Do you not remember that one of the chief consuls lightly struck his foot against furniture in his own house and, despite all the skill of all the mighty physicians who could be brought to his bed, he passed away?
Oh, there are a thousand gates to death! The easiest thing in the world is for you and me to pass from this life into the great beyond. A falling building, a burning house while we sleep, the crash of a mighty aeroplane, a fast-flying train coming into collision with another, a sinking boat on the river or in mid-ocean, a runaway horse, an accidental discharge from a gun—how many the ways to hurry us away from earth into eternity! Is there a more appropriate theme for us, as we start upon another year, than the theme, Life so soon is spent? Let us lay that great fact as we ought to our heart.
Now, James seeks here to impress practical men of old, and practical men of the present time as well, with the brevity of life. He exhorts them to be wise with reference to the supreme thing, and he asks his question, and answers it: "What is your life? It is even a vapor, that appeareth for a little time and then vanisheth away." Many definitions have been given by men through the centuries concerning life. The moralist has tried his hand at answering the question, "What is your life?" And the scientist has tried his hand, and the prophet of God has tried his hand, and the poet has tried his hand, and all classes of men have tried their hands at answering the question, "What is your life?" Shakespeare called it a drama. Sir Walter Raleigh called it a journey. Another great writer called human life a storm at sea in which the vessel sinks. Burke, that mighty orator said: "What shadows we are, and what shadows we pursue!" These moralists and prophets and scientists and literary men and women through the centuries have been giving us their definitions of human life. Now, when we turn to the Bible, we find many definitions of human life. Here is one stated for us in our text by James: "What is your life? It is even a vapor, that appeareth for a little time and then vanisheth away."
Haven't you fixed your eyes on the cloud in the early morning, and dwelt upon it, and beheld its changes, and even as you looked the cloud was dissolved and you saw the cloud no more at all? James is saying that human life is like that. Many are the illustrations and the figures employed in Holy Scripture to set forth the brevity of human life. You will have an interesting study if you will take your pencil and, from first to last in the Bible, mark the statements therein that set forth the brevity of human life. In one place it is compared to foam on the water. How expressive! In another place it is compared to the grass growing up in the morning and flourishing, but cut down in the evening and withered when the nightfall comes. In one place it is compared to an eagle in the swiftness of his flight as he hasteth to his prey. In one place in the Bible human life is compared to a swift ship at sea. Yonder it is, in sight. It is passing, fast passing, faster, faster—a tiny speck—it cannot be seen now. That is human life. These are all Bible figures. Your days, says the Bible, are but as a handbreadth. They are gone in a moment. They are swifter than a post, the man in the olden time who carried the message from king or other important dignitary, carried it fast from this post to that one. Swifter than the post is human life. You hear the clatter of the horse's hoofs, as down the road he comes, bearing the message from one king to another. He passes before you, you see him for a moment, and then he is lost, and the echo itself is lost. He is hurrying to his destination. That is human life. Oh, the brevity of human life! Where will this audience be fifty years from now? By the well-known laws of mortality, not a dozen of you will be here, nor a half dozen. Where will this audience be ten years from now? By the well-known laws of mortality a large percentage of you, will be in eternity. Oh, if you and I could only realize the uncertainty of life! God, help us, that we may be wise men!
In another place you hear God Himself, turning preacher and exhorting humanity with all the pathos of a prophet, as He says: "Oh, that men and women would consider their latter end, that they might be wise!"
Now, these figures, these mighty arguments, these passing illustrations, these great statements in the Bible concerning human life are therein revealed that you and I may lay to heart as we ought the lessons touching human life and its brevity. What effect ought this teaching of the Bible concerning the brevity of human life to have upon us all? A gloomy effect? Not at all, not at all. It is not meant for it to have that effect. In the Bible God utterly forbids any such attitude toward life. What effect should the knowledge of the brevity of life, the uncertainty of life, the ease with which life's little, invisible thread is snapped in sunder—what effect should that doctrine have on you and me and on our fellows around us? Not a gloomy effect, not a depressing effect, not a pessimistic effect, not a morose effect, at all; but there should be wrought within us the most cheerful acquiescence to it all. And, now, why?
First of all, because this earthly scene is not intended as the immortal abode of men and women. When God brought you and me into being, and gave us bodies and minds and souls, He never intended that this earth should be our dwelling place perpetually. Not at all. That is not the great, divine intention in our creation. The earthly scene does not provide an adequate range for the spirit of man. Earth is entirely too little for any human being that God has ever made to stay here forever. Oh, no! God never intended that this world and human life in it should be all there is for us. He meant something far larger and grander than that. If you and I are to live and to suffer and to bleed and to dream and to hope and to aspire, and then to die and fill six feet of earth there in the grave and that be all, O Life, thou dost mock us and the game is not worth the candle! There is too much of suffering and of sorrow and of heartbreak in human life. If these years, forty or sixty or seventy or thirty or twenty, are to be lived by us, and then we are to have but six feet in the earth and no more, the game is not worth the candle. God never intended that this life should be all.
The brevity of life should not at all depress us because we should lay to heart the fact that life's machinery is constantly wearing out. There are men before me who were strong when I first knew them, nearly a score of years ago. They are tottering now. I looked at them this morning, and had a clutch at my heart as I beheld them—and women, too. They were in life's prime when first I began to preach in this city. Strong they were, like strong men to run a race, and there was about their step an elasticity and a strength that made you think of the giant, and there was about their eye the eagle flash, the lightning impression, that made your soul quiver when the eye looked into your eye. It is not so now. Age is telling, with all its wearing power, on these men and women. Life's machinery wears out. It is true with every part of our machinery. This body of ours is destined to decay, and even now, as I remarked a moment ago, decay and change are doing their work in each of our bodies. Somewhere in every body the work of death even now has its plowers out, turning its furrows and marking its desolation. The body wears out. Read the twelfth chapter of Ecclesiastes and see how God's Book pictures the human body as it wears out. See the picture there of the old man, with his teeth gone, and his vision bad, and his shoulders stooped, and his heart timid, afraid of everything that is high, afraid of the grasshopper.
I had an interview of some length with one soon to be eighty and five years of age—eyesight gone, led about by loved ones. In the other years his endurance and strength were very great. Now he is led about by grandchildren and great-grandchildren; eyesight gone, little children read to him, and the people wait on him, as though he were some helpless babe, as, indeed, he is. That is the picture of life for you and me when we are eighty and five, or even less. Life's machinery wears out.
And not only that, but the mind, that regal thing that sits on the throne in the human body, itself is often deteriorated by the eroding waves of time. Not many old men and women are alert in mind. There are some very rare exceptions. The usual thing is that as age comes on and the body is enfeebled and enervated by waste and decay, the mind likewise tumbles and totters from its high dominion and weakens along with the body. It is the rarest thing that the man of seventy-five or eighty can stand forth alert and strong and masterful in mental achievement and in mental assertiveness—a rare thing, indeed! Second childhood generally arrives when such age is reached. The man who before could stand, at life's middle time, at fifty or sixty or sixty-five, a giant and a leader and commander of his fellows, now at seventy-five and eighty talks about the past, dwells in the far gone years. Childhood the second time is his experience. The machinery wears out.
And not only that, but the human affections are beaten upon by the encroaching waves of Time as age advances. Let the man of eighty look around for his friends, for his intimate friends. Where are they? Back yonder, years agone, he stood as one of many, like the great trees in a thickly studded forest. Then, wherever he turned his eyes, there were his friends to salute him, and to wave him glad words of greeting and friendly cheer. Now, at eighty, he looks about him. Where are his friends? The sightless old man with whom I talked said, "Where are my friends, those intimates, those associates, those who were to me as David was to Jonathan, where are they?" And then, after a pause, he said, "Every intimate friend in all the world is gone, and I wait, like the old tree, riven by the lightning of Time." The machinery is worn out.
Oh, you and I were not made to stay here. That is not God's design for us, and we should accept cheerfully His plan about it. Then, too, we should accept the fact of the brevity of life cheerfully, without repining because God has prepared and is preparing for us the true home, the real abiding place, for all His friends. This life here is but a little probationary period. God never meant, I repeat, that it should be perpetual, that it should be final here. A little probationary period is allowed us here, but the real home, the real dwelling place where the conditions are adapted and designed for us in all their fulness and glory by the Master of life Himself, such dwelling place is not here at all, but yonder. "I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also." Do you object to that? I do not. Oh, thanks be unto God, this world is not all! Thanks be unto God, a perfect land is being prepared by the Master of life for His friends!
What effect then should all this doctrine of the brevity of life have on us? Why, we should just meet life here like it ought to be met—as a great privilege, a great trust, a great opportunity. God put us here, in time and on earth, for a few years at the most. He put us here for some wise and beneficent purpose. Then let us relate ourselves to life like we ought. Let us do with life what we ought. Let us accept this great dower from God, this mighty trust from our Maker, and use it, not abuse it. That is the way for us to look at life.
If in this life we honestly seek to fulfill God's purposes for us, then when the time comes for us to embark from time into eternity we can serenely put forth for the farther shore, which is the Land of Light and Life and Love, the land where the rainbow never fades, where tears never flow, the land from which ignorance and hate and sin and death are forever banished. There we shall be greeted by those whom we have loved long since and lost awhile. There we shall be welcomed by Him who redeemed us with His own precious blood. There our very souls will be ravished by the music of heaven's perfect harmonies.
God has that country for His people, for His friends. I want to go there, when He has finished His program with me here. But, wait. I shall not go there unless I am rightly related to the Lord Jesus Christ. I shall not go to that land unless I am rightly related to Jesus Christ. Neither will you go there unless you are rightly related to Jesus, unless you can truly say: "The Lord's will I accept as the program for my life." Whoever humbly and honestly accepts the Lord's will as the program for his life shall go there, blessed be His name! And when the little earthly day is done, beyond the sunset and the night, we shall live with Him forever.
Oh, the destiny, the eternal destiny, that is being determined now by you and for you! And you are determining it. You are determining it. If your heart says, "Lord Jesus, Light of the world, Saviour of sinners, rightful Master of mankind, the one Mediator between God and sinners, Lord Jesus, I take Thee to be my Saviour, my refuge, my righteousness, my Master, my Redeemer and my Guide," then indeed you will win. You will sing the triumph song. You will walk the streets of gold. You will be crowned with the fadeless crown of life.
What then will you do with Jesus? Will you choose Him as the Lord and Master of your life? On this first day, as we start another year, won't you do that greatest thing possible for a human being—say "Yes," in truth, from your deepest heart to the call of Jesus? Listen to Him now. "Boast not thyself of tomorrow; for thou knowest not what a day may bring forth." Listen to Him now. "If ye hear His voice, harden not your heart." Listen to Him now. "Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in Him; and He shall bring it to pass."
Are you ready and willing tonight to make the highest choice any human being can make—the choice of Jesus to be the Master of your life, the forgiving Saviour, who will put away your sins and make your standing safe and right in the sight of God? Will you thus decide for Jesus? Won't you thus decide for Jesus? Based on the well-known laws of mortality, out of the estimate—two thousand people who have passed within these walls today, sixty-six will have died before next New Year's Day. Will you be one of those sixty-six? Will you, young man, be one of those sixty-six? And, gentle girl, to whom life is so fair and sweet, will you be one of those sixty-six? And, man with the gray about your temples, will you be one of the sixty-six? Greetings and congratulations, hearty and heaven high, if you, being one of those sixty-six, are rightly related to God; for then you will enter before the rest of your comrades into the land where conditions are perfect, and happiness is absolutely and eternally satisfied. Are you ready tonight to say: "I pray the prayer of the publican, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner'?" Are you ready tonight to say: "I cast myself, by a definite and deliberate choice, on Jesus, who says, 'He that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out'?" Here is a brother's hand to greet you, and a brother's heart to bid you Godspeed if you take that supreme step. The angels of God will rejoice. The Son of God who died for you will be made glad, and you will be able to answer back to the author of our text and say: "My life is no longer a vapor but it is an eternal possession which I have committed unto Christ who will keep it—and perfect it against that Great Day."
What, then, will you do with your life? The answer is with you.