THE URGENCY OF THE HOUR
Dr. W. A. Criswell
12-31-67 8:15 a.m.
Being on the radio, I would like to welcome you who are listening and sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. And this is the pastor bringing the morning message. Could I add to the announcement a young student made a moment ago about the service tonight? We shall begin at 7:30 o’clock tonight and the service will continue until after midnight.
About seven years ago, when New Year’s Day fell on Sunday I started preaching at Genesis and went clear through the Bible, preaching until a little after midnight. It was to me, one of the great, great, marvelous preaching experiences of my life. Now, New Year’s Eve falls again on Sunday; and I am going to pick up where I left off last time. We are going to start at the twenty-ninth chapter of the Book of Acts and carry it up to this present hour. It is entitled The Trail of Blood. I entitled the preaching through the Bible The Scarlet Thread Through the Bible; God’s plan of redemption through all of the ages. And tonight it will be entitled The Trail of Blood; the story of God’s people and their witness to the Lord through all of the centuries to this present time. And could I say that having first entitled the message and then made it, could I say that I don’t think there could have been a title more apropos, more descriptive than the one that I gave it before I started to study, The Trail of Blood. All of the martyrs who have been burned at the stake, drowned in the water, tortured on the rack, rotted in dungeons for the spiritual freedom that we enjoy today.
So if you can, you come tonight. Now some of you may get sleepy, stay an hour, then go home. Stay two hours, then go home. Stay three hours and go home. Or go home and go to bed, and then come back for the last hour. However you can work it out, it will be a wonderful evening for us.
Now, I would like to remark on these young people who glorify the Lord. These students are up here on the platform—they look like children to me, and of course, they always sing in the choir. When I think of these young people, and especially these youngsters that are going away to school, of course, I go back in memory to the time when I went to school and was studying to be a preacher. Well, I was seventeen years old when I started preaching; went down to Baylor to get educated for the assignment. And I was called to a little church and in that parish there was an old superannuated Methodist preacher, who had been an old soldier for Jesus for I don’t know how many years and in his age had retired in that little community. I went to see him that we could pray together. And while I was visiting with him, he said something to me that I have never forgotten. He said, “Oh, what I would give for your youth!” Now to me it was a curse; oh, I was so young I couldn’t get anybody to take me seriously. Why, those men in that community would gather around me and just die laughing because I couldn’t vote, I was too young to go to the polls to vote. And I thought, “Oh, oh, if I could just be older; when will I ever get older? Will it ever be that I am older?” Well, my young friend, God takes care of that real soon. Oh, and I think of that old preacher, “Oh, what I would give for your youth!” The Lord be good to you fellows as you get ready for the finest assignment God’s ever given young people in the world, namely, to serve Him; whether it’s in the ministry, whether it’s on the mission field, whether it’s to be a professional man, whether it’s to be a boilermaker and a steam fitter, doesn’t make any difference, just so we are loving Jesus.
Now, the sermon today is in keeping with this hour. This is the last day of the old year; and at midnight tonight we begin the New Year. So the title of the message is The Exigency of the Times. And the text is in the ninth chapter of the Book of John, verse 4: “I must work the works of Him that sent Me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work” [John 9:4]. That’s the King James Version. The Revised Version would pluralize the subject: “We must work the works of Him that sent Me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.” So following the King James Version our Lord said, “I must work the works of Him that sent Me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.” You will find that word “must, I must” often on the lips of our Lord.
When He was a child, twelve years of age and in the temple, when the people sought Him and the parents were looking for Him, He said, “Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?” [Luke 2:49]. Again in the great Galilean ministry, the Gospel of Mark says “From that time Jesus took His disciples and taught them that the Son of Man must suffer, and be killed, and the third day raised from the dead” [Mark 8:31]. Again in the twenty-sixth chapter of the Book of Matthew, when Simon Peter drew out his sword to slay those who had come to arrest the Lord, [the] Lord said to him, “Put the sword back in its scabbard; for how else would the Scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be” [Matthew 26:51-54].
And in His preaching, the Lord would often use that word “must.” In the third chapter of the Gospel of John, the [seventh] verse, “Ye must be born again” [John 3:7]. And then how we are born again in the love and mercy of Jesus, He explains: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness [Numbers 21:8-9], even so must the Son of Man be lifted up” [John 3:14]; the “musts” in the life and language of our Lord. There is one here: “I must work the works of Him that sent Me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work” [John 9:4]. “Must,” of course, is a word of necessity. It is an exigency of God. So I speak then of the necessity of time. “We must work the works of Him that sent Me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work”; the exigency, the necessity of time.
One of the great preachers of the ages was Robert Murray M’Cheyne. He burned himself out when he was 29 years of age. But he lived a thousand lifetimes in those few brief years. Robert Murray M’Cheyne painted on the dial of his watch a setting sun and underneath the words of this text: “The night cometh” [John 9:4].
Time is a gift of God, like matter it is a creation of God. We could not buy it, we do not merit it; it is something from God’s hands. It is alone meaningful to man. That’s one of the strangest phenomena to be observed in human life: time has no meaning whatsoever to anyone except to us who are morally sensitive. Time is nothing to a clod, time is nothing to an acorn, time is nothing to a beast, time is as nothing to a child; only when the child grows into moral consciousness does time have value. It is the blocks, the units, out of which we build our lives. It is inexorable; time moves, the days move, they multiply into weeks, and the weeks into months, and the months into a year, and the years into a lifetime. Nor can any man stay it; it is inexorable. As the stars in their courses move, and as the planets around the sun, they are unfettered, but they never vary. In a thousand million ages, there will not be the shadow of the variation of an infinitesimal part of a second; that is time. It moves, it is unheard, it is irresistible, it is inexorable, it moves on.
A second thing about it: time is elusive; you cannot store it up. That is one of the tragic faults and weaknesses and failures of human life. For example, Felix, the procurator of Judea, when Paul stood before him to preach and he reasoned of righteousness and temperance and judgment to come, Felix trembled under the impact of the convicting power of the Holy Spirit and the delivery of the message of God. But he answered, “Go thy way, when I have a more convenient time I will call for thee” [Acts 24:25]; as though he could store up for himself opportunities and conveniences of seasons. Time is elusive; you cannot grasp it, nor can you hold it, nor can you store it up for some better day or some finer opportunity. It is also irrevocable; when it is gone, it is gone forever.
Oh, ten thousand times have I heard older people cry, “Oh, that I wish I had my life to do over again; or oh that I wish I could have known to do then what I know to do now.” But all of the lament and weeping and agony of our lives cannot recall back any day, any opportunity, that has irrevocably been taken away.
These young people remind me of the day when I gave my life to be a preacher. One of those indelible services that is as livid and as vivid in my memory now as the day when I lived through it. It was at a meeting in the little town in which I grew up, under a tent placed in the middle of the little village. And the minister there, coming to hold a revival meeting. And when the evangelist made appeal for “any there who felt called of God to give their lives in full time service to Jesus, would they come forward;” when he made that appeal, there were two of us who responded. In front of me there walked the brother of the evangelist. He was an old farmer. He fell into the arms of his brother, and I just a boy standing back of him could hear him talk to his evangelist brother. And he was saying to him that God had called him to be a preacher when he was a boy but he had refused God’s call, had spurned God’s open door. But after the passing of these years, and these years, and these years he had finally yielded and surrendered to God’s will for his life and was that day publicly giving his life to be a minister of the gospel, to be a preacher.
Then after the many tears and rejoicing, why, I gave the preacher my hand, that I felt in my heart God’s call to me to be a minister. Well, being a kid, being a little boy, nobody paid any attention to me; and I don’t have any objection to that, we’re just that way. We don’t pay any attention to children, we don’t pay any attention to kids; they’re just things to be put up with. I’ll never forget the feeling I had in my heart when I listened to Homer Martinez, he was a little boy and converted with the family and with others, and he said when he stood in line, being small for his age, when he stood in line and the people came by to shake hands with him, he said, “Not a soul shook hands with him.” He put out his hand and the people didn’t see; put out his hand, or they didn’t notice; put out his hand and they passed him by; not a one shook hands with him, he was too little. He was too small. Oh, those things!
So the evangelist announced, the evangelist announced that next Sunday afternoon his brother would preach his first sermon. I was there on the front seat in a chair under that tent. Sat there and saw the evangelist introduce his brother who was to deliver his first sermon. And the old farmer stood up and opened the Bible and started out to preach. So far as I know, that was the last sermon that he ever preached. He had sinned away his day of grace and his hour of opportunity. Time is irrevocable; you don’t go back to the days of youth and give your life to God. You don’t go back to the days of youth and prepare yourself for what God calls you to do. If there is anything that you are to do for God, do it now. If there is any preparation you are to make for God, prepare now. If there is any schooling, go to school now. If there is any giving of your life, give God your life now, because someday, time in its irrevocable judgment will take away from you forever the opportunity to do what God has called you to do. We must hasten.
“We must work the works of Him that sent Me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work” [John 9:4]. There is not only the exigency, the necessity of time in this text, in this Word of our Lord, there is the exigency, the necessity of need. The real and fundamental issues of life are always spiritual, never material. The great meaningful, purposeful, flowing of life is in spiritual channels, never in material channels, never. The materialities of life are the things that we see; but they are temporal and pass away. It is the spiritual realities that are not seen that are real and that never pass away. The materialities of life are ephemeral, they are peripheral, they are the scaffolding, they are not the building. The actualities of life, the realities of life, are spiritual and pertain to the soul. Nor is there a greater emptiness than when one gives himself to the materialities, the rewards of this world and this life. I one time heard of a man who was very successful in this world, accumulated a fortune, lived for himself, and the whole course and outreach of his life was for greed, to grasp more and more and more. And someday, as all of us face these actualities, and someday as with us, so with him, the day came when his soul laid bare and naked before God and he faced death and the judgment. And in his last illness he became obsessed with his hands. One of those psychological phenomena that sometimes happens when a man comes to the end of the way, he became obsessed with his hands. Look at his hands, play with his hands, obsess with his hands. And his wife thought that maybe his old friend could somehow help her dying husband, so she called for him. And he came over and sat down by the side of the bed. And as they talked, that playing with the hands and looking at the hands, and the friend said to him, “There’s nothing wrong with your hands. There’s nothing wrong with your hands. Why are you obsessed with your hands?” And the dying man said, “My God, Jim, look! They are so empty.” What does a man hold onto when his soul is laid bare and naked before God? “Where are my bonds? Where are my stocks? Where are my lands? Where are my possessions? Where are these things that I’ve accumulated, to which I’ve given my life? My God, Jim, look: they are so empty.”
These great realities of life are always spiritual. I am speaking of the exigencies and the necessities of our souls’ need. One: we need God! Oh, there are ten thousand things that press upon us every day, I know. But there is actually one everlasting, unvarying, eternal need: we need God. Nor will all of the trappings, or will all of the cheap rewards of this life and this world, ever take the place of that deep, everlasting hunger. There is a restlessness, there is an unsatisfying in the rewards of life that anybody who has achieved any place in it can describe for you. Fame, having attained it, it is dust and ashes; fortune, having achieved it, it’s trash; success, anything this world can give. Our souls hunger for God; we need God.
We need salvation, the forgiveness of sins. Sin, like a serpent, comes out of the miasma and misery and depths of the muck and mire of life and coils around us all. There is no life, there is no you but that feels the pressure like a boa constrictor of the tightening coils of sin, all of us, all of us.
I suppose one of the most famous of all of the sculptured pieces in history is the Greek sculpture piece entitled Laocoön. He, Laocoön, was a priest in Troy; and because he warned the Trojans against bringing in that Trojan horse, Zeus sent two serpents out of the sea. And this sculptured piece—and all of you have seen pictures of it—is of Laocoön, as he ministers at the altar of Apollo with his two sons, one on either side, and those serpents around strangling them to death. And as I look at that famous Greek piece, I think of all humanity, every father and his two sons, strangled to death. We need salvation and the forgiveness of sins. That’s why the gospel, and that’s why Jesus, and that’s why the church.
Happy day, happy day,
When Jesus washed my sins away
He taught me how to watch and pray,
And live rejoicing every day
Happy day, happy day,
When Jesus washed my sins away
[“O Happy Day That Fixed My Choice”; Philip Doddridge]
We not only need God, we not only need the forgiveness of sins, we need strength to serve our Lord. Oh, how we turn to water before the critical, bitter, biting, caustic judgments of the world. It is not easy to be a Christian, to witness for Christ, to serve Jesus. We need God’s strength to do it, to speak it, to live it, to be it.
Yesterday I was in a doctor’s office getting a flu shot—I hope it works. Clark said he just nearly died last Tuesday. I said, “What was the matter?” He said, “I just had the flu.” Well, it’s going around, so I got a flu shot. And as the nurse—if I were describing damnation and hell this is what I’d do, I’d put a picture there with somebody coming toward me with a needle, that’s my idea, oh! Well, as she said, “Roll up your sleeve”; rolled up my sleeve, take that long needle and start, why, she said, “By the way, I was in a grocery store yesterday,” and she said, “I overheard some teenagers talking. And it made my ears burn what they were saying. They were describing the parties that they were going to have and that they were going to on New Year’s Eve, wild ones. But,” she said, “to my amazement, one of those young men spoke up, and when he was asked ‘What are you going to do on New Year’s Eve?’ he said, ‘I’m going down to the First Baptist Church and listen to Dr. Criswell preach until past midnight.’” And she said, “I couldn’t help but feel, ‘Thank God for the courage of a young teenager like that,’ because,” she said, “it was so different from what the others were planning to do; but he was going to church.”
Strength, to witness for our Lord, and to do and to say what we need to do and to say. You know, we think of great courage in athletics, and great courage in battle, and great courage in other areas of life; there’s not anything in life that begins to take the courage as to stand up for Jesus and be a Christian.
There were two lockers side by side on a university campus, and this locker was one that was used by a big, burly football player. And next to him was a locker used by one of the humble Christian boys on the campus. And this boy carried a Bible with him, a little Bible with him. And that great big football player would make fun him and say, “You sissy, you, carrying a Bible, you sissy, you.” And one day that little fellow took the Bible up in his hand and said, “Here, you carry it for a while”—sissy, gracious! The courage it takes to speak for Jesus and to serve God; that’s the courage that we need.
And God never fails to bless it. Let me tell you something that I read this week. There was a famous senator in the United States Senate by the name of Tolliver, Senator Tolliver; that’s before my day, Senator Tolliver. And he was the son of an old Methodist preacher who lived with his two unmarried daughters. So, the senator sent word to his father and his two sisters that he was coming to see them, and that he was bringing with them as a guest the ambassador of one of the great nations of Europe. So, the two unmarried girls in the home busied themselves getting everything ready for the illustrious ambassador and their brother. And one girl said to the other, “Oh, oh, when the ambassador comes, I hope father doesn’t talk to him about his soul.” And the other sister said, “Well, if he doesn’t do it, it will be the first time he’s ever talked to anybody and hasn’t talked to them about their souls.” So, the brother came, the senator came, and the ambassador was with him; and surely enough, before this day was out, that old Methodist preacher was talking to the ambassador about his soul, much to the horror of those two girls. Oh, what embarrassment! Well, they returned to Washington, the senator and the ambassador, and not long after that the senator received word that his old Methodist preacher father had died. And because the ambassador had been there, why, the senator called the ambassador and said, “My father has died.” And the ambassador said, “I shall go with you to the funeral.”
“Oh, no,” said the senator, “no, it’s a long journey, and you’re not required to do such extremities as that; make the journey, take the time, oh, no.” But the ambassador replied, “Sir, sir, I will be with you. I want to go to the funeral of that godly man.” And he added, “Out of all of the years that I had ever been in America, this is the only man who took any interest in my soul.”
I don’t know why there is a hesitancy on our part, I feel it myself, I don’t know why there is a hesitancy on our part to talk about the things that really matter in life. We talk about the weather, we talk about all of the things of a million minutiae; but it’s not very often that anyone ever has that spiritual commitment to talk to a friend about his soul. We need God’s strength for that. And may the Lord grant it to us, as young people, older people, God’s people; we give our lives for the new day that lies ahead, and the new year that presses upon us tomorrow.
Now, while we sing our song of appeal, somebody you to give himself to Jesus; a family you, coming into the fellowship of the church; a couple you, or one somebody you. While we sing this song, while we make this appeal, would you come and stand by me? “Pastor, today I decide for Jesus and here I am.” On the first note of the first stanza come, down one of these stairways on either side, into the aisle, “Here, pastor, is my hand; I’ve given my heart to God.” Do it now. In a moment when we stand up singing, stand coming. Make it now, do it now, while we stand and while we sing.