A SERMON ON THE NEW YEAR.*
" This year thou shalt die."—Jer. xxviii. 16.
While we are entering upon the threshold of a new year, it may be proper for us to stand and pause, and take a serious view of the occurrences that may happen to us this year, that we may be prepared to meet them. Future contingences are indeed unknown to us; and this ignorance is as agreeable to our present state, and as conducive to our improvement and happiness, as our knowledge of the things which it concerns us to know. But though we cannot predict to ourselves the particular events that may befall us, yet the events of life in general, in a vague indeterminate view, are not so contingent and unknowable as to leave no room for rational suppositions, and probable expectations. There are certain events which regularly
* This sermon was preached at Nassau-Hall, and consequently to a number of young persons, Jan. 1, 1761. Theauthor died the 4th of Feb. following.
happen to us every year, and therefore we may expect them this year. There are others sometimes occur in the compass of a year, and sometimes do not; such are many of the blessings and afflictions of life; of these we should be apprehensive, and prepare for them. And there are events which we know are before us, and we are sure they will occur; but at what particular time they will happen, whether this year or next, whether this day or to-morrow, is to us an utter uncertainty. Such is that interesting event, the close of-the present life, and our entrance into eternity. That we must die, is as certain as that we now live ; but the hour or year when, is kindly and wisely concealed from us, that we may be always ready, and stand in the posture of constant, vigilant expectation, that we may not be surprised. But certainly it becomes us to reflect seriously upon the mere possibility of this event happening this year, and realize to ourselves those important consequences that result from this supposition. The mere possibility of this may justly affect us more than the certain expectation of any other futurity. And it is not only possible, but highly probable, death may meet some of us within the compass of this year. Yes, it is highly probable that if some prophet, like Jeremiah, should open to us the book of the divine decrees, one or other of us would there see our sentence, and the time of its execution fixed. Thus saith the Lord: This year thou shalt die. There are some of us would find it written, " This year thou shalt enjoy a series of prosperity, to try if the goodness of God will lead thee to repentance." Others might read this melancholy line, " This year shall be to thee a series of affliction; this year thou shalt lose thy dearest earthly support and comfort; this year thou shalt pine away with sickness, or agonize with torturing pain, to try if the kind severities of a Father's rod will reduce thee to thy duty." Others, I hope, would read the gracious decree, " This year thy stubborn spirit, after long resistance, shall be sweetly constrained to bow to the despised gospel of Christ; this year thou shalt be born a child of God, and an heir of happiness, which the revolutions of years shall never, never terminate." 0 happy and glorious event! May we hope this mercy is reserved among the secrets of heaven for any thoughtless, impenitent sinner among us! And that the decree will bring forth this year! this year which finds us in a deep sleep, stupidly careless of our everlasting interest, and which, if like the preceding, will be a season of thoughtless impenitence and presumptuous security! Others perhaps would read this tremendous doom, " This year, my spirit, so long resisted, shall cease to strive with thee; this year I will give thee up 'to thine own heart's lusts, and swear in my wrath thou shalt not enter into my rest." O ! dismal sentence ! None can equal it with terror but one, and that is, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire: and the former is an infallible presage of the latter. Others, (O! let our souls dwell upon the thought!) would probably find the doom of the false prophet, Hananiah, pronounced against them: Thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will cast thee from off the face of the earth: this year thou shalt die. This year you may die, for your life is the greatest uncertainty in the world. You have no assurance of another year, another day, or even another moment.
This year you may die, because thousands have died since the last new year's day ; and this year will be of the same kind with the last: the duration of mortals; a time to die. The causes of death, both in the human constitution and in the world without, will exist and operate in this year as well as the last.
This year you may die, though you are young; for the regions of the dead have been crowded with persons of your age; and no age is the least security against the stroke of death.
This year you may die, though you are now in health and vigorous, and your constitution seems to promise a long life; for thousands of such will be hurried into the eternal world this year, as they have been in years that are past. The principles of death may be even now working within you, notwithstanding the seeming firmness of your constitution, and you may be a pale, cold, lifeless corpse sooner than the invalid whose life is apparently near its close.
This year you may die, though you are full of business, though you have projected many schemes, which may be the work of years to execute, and which afford you many bright and flattering prospects. Death will not consult your leisure, nor be put off till another year, that you may accomplish your designs. Thousands have died before you, and will die this year amidst their golden prospects, and while spinning out their eternal schemes. And what has happened to them may happen to you.
This year you may die, though you have not yet finished your education, nor fixed in life, but are preparing to appear in the world, and perhaps elated with the prospect of the figure you will make in it. Many such abortive students are now in the dust. Many that had passed through a laborious course of preparation for public life, and had inspired their friends, as well as themselves, with high hopes, have been snatched away as they were just stepping upon the stage; and this may be your doom also.
This year you may die, though you are not prepared for it. When death shows you his warrant under the great seal of Heaven, it will be no excuse to plead, " I am not ready." Though the consequences of your dying unprepared will be your everlasting ruin, yet that dreadful consideration will have no weight to delay the execution.
This year you may die, though you deliberately delay your preparation, and put it off to some future time. You may fix upon the next year, or the decline of life, as the season for religion; but that time may not be at your disposal. Others may live to see it, but you may be ingulfed in the boundless ocean of eternity before it arrives, and your time for preparation may be over for ever.
This year you may die, though you are unwilling to admit the thought. Death does not slacken his pace towards you, because you hate him, and are afraid of his approach. Your not realizing your latter end as near, does not remove it to a greater distance. Think of it or not, you must die; your want of thought can be no defence; and you know not how soon you may feel what you cannot bear to think of.
This year you may die, though you strongly hope the contrary, and flatter yourself with the expectation of a length of years. You will not perhaps admit the thought of a short abortive life; but notwithstanding this, you may be a lifeless corpse before this year finishes its revolution.
Thus it appears very possible, that one or other of us may die this year. Nay, it is very probable, as well as possible, if we consider that it is a very uncommon, and almost unprecedented thing, that not one should die in a whole year out of such an assembly as this. More than one have died the year past, who made a part of our assembly last new year's day. Therefore let each of us (for we know not on whom the lot may fall) realize this possibility, this alarming probability, " this year I may die.
And what if you should ? Surely you may be startled at this question : O! the surprising change ! O! the important consequences!
If you die this year, then all your doubts, all the anxieties of blended hopes and fears about your state and character will terminate for ever in full conviction. If you are impenitent sinners, all the artifices of self-flattery will be able to make you hope better things no longer; but the dreadful discovery will flash upon you the resistless blaze of intuitive evidence. You will see, you will feel it to be such. If you lie under the condemnation of the divine law, you will no longer be able to flatter yourselves with better hopes; the execution of the penalty will sadly convince you of the tremendous truth. To dispute it would be to dispute the deepest heart-felt sensations of the most exquisite misery. But, on the other hand, if your fears and doubts are the honest anxieties of a sincere, selfdiffident heart, ever jealous of itself, and afraid of every mistake in a matter of such vast importance, you will meet with the welcome demonstration of your sincerity, and of your being unquestionably the favorites of Heaven. Sensation will afford you conviction, and you will believe what you see. In short, the possibility that this year may may be your last may be joyful tidings to you. If you die this year, this year you shall be in heaven, imparadised in the bosom of God. And is it possible your salvation is so near! Transporting thought!
It* would be easy to enumerate several happy consequences of death with regard to those who have spent their life in preparation for it; and the nearness of death, instead of striking them with terror, may heighten the transports of expectation. It would afford me no small
Eleasure to trace those blessed consequences, and it would e an act of kindness and compassion to the heirs of heaven, many of whom go mourning and trembling even towards the regions of happiness, as though they were going to the place of execution, and anticipate but very little of those infinite pleasures which are so near at hand. But I intend to devote the present hour chiefly to the service of a part, perhaps the greater part, of my hearers, who are in a more dangerous and alarming situation, I mean such who may die this year, and yet are not prepared; such who are as near to hell as they are to death, and consequently stand in need of the most powerful and immediate applications, unless they be undone for ever beyond recovery. To you therefore, my dear brethren, my fellowmortals, my fellow-candidates for eternity, whose everlasting state hangs in a dread suspense, who have a secret conviction that you are not qualified for admission into the kingdom of heaven, and who cannot promise yourselves that you shall not sink into the infernal pit this year, but upon this supposition, which is the most precarious and doubtful in the world, namely, that you shall live out another year; to you I would address myself with affectionate tenderness, and yet with plainness and pungency. And I beg your most solemn attention to an affair of infinite moment, to which you may not have another year to attend.
This year you may die: and should you die this year, you will be for ever cut off from all the pleasures of life. Then farewell, an everlasting farewell to all the mirth and gayety, the tempting amusements and vain delights of youth. Farewell to all the pleasures you derive from the senses, and all the gratifications of appetite. This year the sun may lose its lustre as to you, and all the lovely prospects of nature, may become a dismal blank. To you music may lose all her charms, and die away into everlasting silence; and all the gratifications of the palate may become insipid. When you lie in the cold grave, you will be as dead to such sensations as the clay that covers you. Then farewell to all the pompous but empty pleasures of riches and honors. The pleasures both of enjoyment and expectation from this quarter will fail for ever. But this is not all. If you should die this year, you will have no pleasures, no enjoyments to substitute for those you will lose. Your capacity and eager thirst for happiness will continue, nay, will grow more strong and violent in that improved adult state of your nature. And yet you will have no good, real or imaginary, to satisfy it; and consequently the capacity of happiness will become a capacity of misery, and the privation of pleasure will be positive pain. Can imagination feign any thing more wretched than a creature formed for the enjoyment of the infinite good, pining away for ever with hungry, raging desires, without the least degree of gratification! banished at once from the supreme good, and from all the created enjoyments that were wont to be poorly substituted in his stead! Yet this may be your case in the short compass of the following year. O! what a terrible change ! What a prodigious fall! its deadly poison. In a word, when you leave this state of trial, all the discipline of the present, state, all your advantages for salvation, all the means of grace, and all the encouragements of hope will be for ever removed out of your reach; and consequently all possibility of your salvation will cease for ever; for when the necessary means are taken away, the end becomes utterly impossible. Therefore,
Should you die this year, all your hopes and prospects as to a future life will perish abortive. Several of you now are in a state of education, preparing to enter upon the stage of the world; and you are perhaps often pleasing yourselves with gay and magnificent dreams about the figure you will make upon it. You may be planning many schemes to be accomplished in the several periods of a long life: and are perhaps already anticipating in idea the pleasure, the profit, or the honor you expect to derive from their execution. In these fond hopes your affectionate parents, friends, and teachers concur with generous pleasure. But, alas! in the swift revolution of this beginning year, all the sanguine expectations and pleasing prospects may vanish into smoke. Youth is the season of promise, full of fair blossoms; but these fair blossoms may wither and never produce the expected fruits of maturity. It may perhaps be the design of Heaven, that after all the flattering hopes and projects, and after all the pains and expense of a liberal education, you shall never appear upon the public stage; or that you shall vanish away like a phantom as soon as you make your appearance. Certainly, then, you should extend your prospects beyond the limits of mortality; extend them into that world where you will live to execute them, without the risk of disappointment ! Otherwise,
If you die this year, you will not only be cut off from all the flattering prospects of this life, but from all hope entirely and for ever. If you die in your sins, you will be fixed in an unchangeable state of misery; a state that will admit of no expectation but that of uniform, or rather of ever-growing misery; a state that excludes all hopes of making a figure, except as the monument of the vindictive justice of God, and the deadly effects of sin. How affecting is the idea of a promising youth cut off from the land
If you should die this year, all your hopes of heaven will vanish for ever. No more happiness for you! You have received your portion in this life—a few years of sordid, unsatisfactory happiness; and an entire eternity of misery, permanent, exquisite, consummate misery follows behind! No more intellectual amusements and pleasing studies! no more gentle beams of science! but the blackness of darkness for ever! intense poring upon your hopeless wretchedness! tormenting recollections of your past folly and madness in voluntarily rushing into the pit! No agreeable companion! no sympathizing friend ! no relaxation ! no pleasing exercise! no encouraging prospects! no comforting reviews; no friendly intercourse with heaven ! no token of love! no gift of grace from the Father of mercy! no hope in the future! no relief from the past! no refuge, no escape, at the expense of existence, into the gulf of annihilation! but above, an angry God and a lost heaven! behind, a misspent life and opportunities of salvation irrecoverably lost ! within, a guilty, remorseful conscience, an implacable self-tormentor! around, malignant, enraged ghosts, mutual tormentors ! before, an eternity of hopeless misery, extending infinitely beyond the ken of sight! O, tremendous doom! who can bear the thought ?
And is it possible it should be so near to any of us ? Where is the unhappy creature, that we may all drop our tears over him ? Where is he ? Rather, where is he not ? An impenitent sinner is almost everywhere to be found; and that is the wretched creature who stands every moment upon the slippery brink of this horrible precipice; and this year, nay, this hour, for what mortals or angels know, he may be thrown down, ingulfed, and lost for ever. And is this a' safe situation for you, thoughtless, fool-hardy mortals! Does it become you, in such a situation, to be cheerful, merry, and gay, or busy, restless, and laborious in the pursuits of this transitory life ? Does it become you give you such views, and inspire you with such a temper, this is the difficulty. O that I knew how to undertake it with success! I can only give you such directions as appear to me proper and salutary; but it is the almighty power of God alone that can give them force and efficacy.
You must learn to think, to think seriously and solemnly upon your danger, and the necesssity of a speedy escape. You must retire from the crowd, from talk, dissipation, business, and amusement, and converse with yourselves alone, in pensive solitude.
You must learn to think patiently upon subjects the most melancholy and alarming, your present guilt and depravity, and your dreadful doom so near at hand, if you continue in your present condition. The mind, fond of ease, and impatient of such mortifying and painful thoughts, will recoil, and fly off, and seek for refuge in every trifle; but you must arrest and confine it to these disagreeable subjects; you must force upon it this medicinal pain, as you often force your stomach, when your health requires it. There is not any moroseness in this advice; no ill-natured design upon your pleasure and happiness. On the other hand, it is intended to procure you more pleasure and happiness than you can possibly obtain any other way; it is intended to prevent many sorrowful days and years, nay, a complete eternity of misery. The alternative proposed to you is not whether you shall be pensive and serious or not. This is not at all the state of the case; for you must feel the sorrows of repentance; you must be thoughtful and pensive; you must confine your minds to subjects of terror; you must, whether you will or not; it is utterly unavoidable. But the only alternative proposed to your choice is, whether you will voluntarily submit to the kindly, hopeful, medicinal, preventive sorrows of repentance in this state of trial, which will issue in everlasting joy, or be forced to submit to the despairing pangs, and useless, destructive horrors of too late a repentance in the eternal world, which will only torment you, but not save you; which will be your punishment, and not a means of your reformation, or a preparative for happiness. Whether you will confine your thoughts for a time to the contemplation of your present miserable circumstances, while hope even eradicates even the darkest gloom of discouragement, and the gospel opens such bright and inviting prospects beyond those melancholy views that now first present themselves to your thoughts, or whether you will choose to pine away a doleful eternity in sullen, intense, hopeless porings upon your remediless misery, in pale reviews of past folly, and shocking surveys of endless ages of woe before you. This is the true state of the case; and can you be at a loss what choice to make ? Does not the voice of reason, the voice of conscience, of self-interest and self-love, as well as the voice of God, direct you to choose a few serious, sad, solemn, sorrowful, penitent hours now, rather than to invert the choice and to purchase a few hours of presumptuous ease at the expense of a wretched, despairing eternity ? O choose life, that you may live. While you indulge a trifling levity of mind, and a roving dissipation of thought, there is no hope you will ever seriously attend to your most important interest. Hence it is that I have made it so much my endeavor today to make you serious and thoughtful. To enforce this, let me repeat what I think cannot but have some effect, especially as it comes not from the priesthood, but the court, and from a courtier as eminent as England ever boasted.
"Ah! my friends! while we laugh, all things are serious round about us: God is serious, who exerciseth patience towards us; Christ is serious, who shed his blood for us ; the Holy Ghost is serious, who striveth against the obstinacy of our hearts; the Holy Scriptures bring to our ears the most serious things in the world; the holy sacraments represent the most serious and awful matters; the whole creation is serious in serving God and us; all that are in heaven and hell are serious;—how then can you be gay?"
I pray you, my brethren, yield an immediate compliance. Do not delay this great affair for another year. You may perhaps have time enough before you to work out your salvation, if you immediately begin to improve it; but, if you loiter, you may perish for want of time: the riches of the world will not be able then to redeem one of those precious hours you now squander away.
Let me now make you one of the most reasonable, salutary, and advantageous proposals that Heaven itself can make to you; and that is, that you endeavor to enter upon this new year as new creatures. Let the old man with his affections and lusts die with the old year. Let the time past of your life more than suffice you to have wrought the will of the flesh. What profit have you then in those things of which you shall now be ashamed ? How shocking the thought that your old guilt should follow into the new year, and haunt you in future times! O begin this year as you would wish to end your life! Begin it so as to give hopes that your time will be so spent as to render death harmless, and ever welcome to you. Let the possibility suggested in my text have due weight with you: This year you may die.
But perhaps some of you may be inverting this consideration, and whispering to yourselves, " This year I may not die," and therefore there is no immediate necessity of preparation for death. But what if you should not die this year, if you still delay the great work for which time is given you ? Alas! if you persist in this, one would think it can give you but little pleasure whether you die this year or not ? What end will your life answer, but to add to your guilt, and increase your punishment ? What safety can another year afford you, when you must die at last? What valuable end do you intend to answer in future life? Do you propose to spend this year as you have your past years? What! in offending your God! abusing his mercies! neglecting the precious seasons of grace! hardening yourselves more and more in impenitence! adding sin to sin, and treasuring up wrath against the day of wrath! Is it worth your while to live for such horrid, preposterous purposes as these ? Can you wish for another year with these views ? Could you venture to pray for it ? Will the prayer bear to be put down in words? Come, put on the hardness of an infernal ghost, that you may be able to support yourselves under the horror of the sound. " Thou supreme Excellence! Thou Author of my being, and all my powers ! Thou Father of all my mercies! Thou righteous Judge of the world! I have spent ten, twenty, or thirty years in displeasing thee and ruining myself; but I am not yet satisfied with the pleasures of such a conduct. Grant me, I pray thee, another year to spend in the same manner. Grant me more mercies to abuse; more time to misspend; more means of grace to neglect and profane." Could you now fall on your knees, and present such petitions to Heaven? Surely you could not. Surely your frame would shudder; nay, would not the heavens gather blackness, and the earth tremble at the sound! But have your temper and practice no language? Language expresses the thoughts and intentions of the mind; and are not the habitual temper and practice a more certain discovery of the thoughts and intentions than mere words? words, which may be spoken without a thought, or in a passion, and which may soon be heartily retracted ? But the temper and practice is a steady and sure rule of judging, and decisive of a man's predominant character ? Therefore, while your temper and practice are agreeable to your prayer; that is, while you are disposed to spend your time that God gives you in sin and impenitence, you are perpetually insulting Heaven with such petitions, and that too in a manner much more expressive and strong than if you should utter them in words. And can you quietly bear the thought of this horrid blasphemy, which you are constantly breathing out against Heaven ? Can you wish and pray for another year for this purpose? What though you should not die this year? Will this exempt you from death in another, or from the punishment of a misspent life ? Alas! no; this will only render you a greater criminal, a more miserable wretch in eternity. One year of sinning will make a dreadful addition to your account.
Therefore conclude, every one for himself, " It is of little importance to me whether I die this year, or not; but the only important point is, that I may make a good use of my future time, whether it be longer or shorter." This, my brethren, is the only way to secure a happy new year: a year of time, that will lead the way to a happy eternity.