These Thirty Years
October 6th, 1974 @ 10:50 AM
THESE THIRTY YEARS
Dr. W.A. Criswell
James 4:10, 14
10-06-74 10:50 a.m.
As we have assembled in convocation this week, there have been many people who have asked me, “What text are you going to use on your thirtieth anniversary and what subject will you choose?” Well, I turned it over in my mind of course, long and earnestly, and I decided finally since I am preaching through the Book of James and have come to chapter 4, and since he was the pastor of the mother church in Jerusalem and the brother of the Lord, surely he would have a word that would be apropos to somebody who had been a pastor a long time. Therefore, I have decided just to stay with the Book of James and having come to chapter 4, to take a text and a subject from his epistle.
In verse 10 of the fourth chapter he writes, “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He shall lift you up” [James 4:10]. And verse 14, “For what is your life? It is even a vapor, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away” [James 4:14]. For what is your life? It is even an—and the Greek word is—atmos.” And we take the word atmos and add sphere, globe, to it and create our word atmosphere.
“What is your life? It is even an atmos.” It is just visible vapor. It is like a soft cloud that appears in the morning and is gone in the continuing hours of the day. “It appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.” The brevity of life and reading the text, I could not think of any one thing that more impresses my heart as I look back over These Thirty Years than their brevity, their fast fleeting days.
When I was called to the first church of my ministry beyond the seminary, having been graduated from school, I followed a pastor who had been there for fifteen years. And I thought oh, what a long, long ministry did he have. My second pastorate followed an illustrious and dedicated man who had been undershepherd of the flock for twenty-eight years. And I thought then how long, long, long has been the ministry of that illustrious predecessor.
Then called to the pastorate of this First Church in Dallas where George W. Truett had been God’s servant for forty-seven years, and I thought how long, long the ministry of that far famed man. But now beginning a thirty-first year as undershepherd of the flock, I am most impressed with how fleeting they have been, how brief they actually are. “For what is your life? It is even a vapor, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away” [James 4:14].
If life, therefore, is so brief and the years are so fleeting, then I haven’t time for littleness, and for anger, and for tumultuousness, and for ingratitude, and for bitterness and cynicism. Life is too short to hate one another, to do despitefully to each other, to hold remembrances that hurt and destroy. Life is too short to be little, and vain, and hurtful, and ungenerous, and unsympathetic, and recriminatory.
But I have plenty of time for goodness, and for sympathy, and for encouragement, and for helpfulness. I have time and to spare to be kind and thoughtful. There’s plenty of time to remember these who love us and to be good to them. There’s plenty of time in a man’s life to remember his family and to try to love them more.
When Mrs. Criswell and I went to our first church, in that pastorate our only child, Mabel Anne, was born. And being out of the schools, she was a young school teacher, had her degree from the university and her certificate to teach, and I having just been graduated from the school, being so academic, why, we got books and we thought to rear our little baby by the books.
So the book said at that time under no conditions should you hold the baby in your arms when time comes for the child to sleep. And it was unthinkable and does devastating injury to the little child to rock the child to sleep, so you must put the child in the crib, and then though the little thing may cry its heart out, you must not touch it or answer. You must go and leave the child alone and then it will learn in early years discipline, and courage, and fearlessness, and all those fine qualities of life. So that’s what we did. We raised our little girl by the book.
So one night I remember, one night, Mrs. C was at the church at a meeting and I was there at the house, at the parsonage baby-sitting. So Mrs. C, Betty put the little thing to bed and the little thing just cried. She went off to the church. And you know, I got me a rocking chair and I put it out on the front porch in the cool of that evening. And I went to the little crib and I picked up that little crying thing. And I went out on the porch and I held her in my arms and rocked her to sleep, the only time I ever did it.
And as I look back over that, you know, I don’t care what a psychologist says and I don’t care what these authorities on children say. If I had it to do over again, I’d rock her to sleep every night. To take time for the family and to take time for the children, life may be brief and the years fleeting, but there is time and to spare for these who are dear to us. “What is your life? Is it not a vapor that appeareth for a little while, and then vanisheth away” [James 4:14]. And there is time and to spare for God and for God’s work in the earth.
You know, there’s a remarkable thing in the life of the apostle Paul, and I’m going to contrast something he wrote here with something he penned here. There are four Roman prison epistles, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. They were written in a day when Paul was facing martyrdom and I want you to look at what he says.
In Philemon he writes, “Being such an one as Paul the aged. Being such an one as Paul the aged” [Philemon 1:9]. Now the passage you read out of Philippians, “Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended”—to have gotten hold of that for which God got hold of me. I have not arrived. I have not done it yet—“But this one thing I do . . . I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” [Philippians 3:13-14].
What an astonishing thing! He himself writes saying, “Being such an one as Paul the aged” [Philemon 1:9]. Incarcerated, facing execution, yet he writes in the Philippian letter, “I press, I have not got there yet, I have not attained the goal yet, but I press toward the prize of the mark of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” [Philippians 3:13-14]. What an astonishing optimism, time and to spare to do God’s work in the earth. You cannot but be thrilled at the spirit of conquest and triumph of a man of years.
Old Caleb was eighty-five years of age when he came to Joshua and said, “Give me this mountain” [Joshua 14:12], referring to Hebron, and Hebron was possessed and occupied by the Anakim, the children of Anak, the giants of Canaan. But at eighty-five years of age in a bounding persuasion that God was with him, old Caleb said, “Give to me this mountain” [Joshua 14:12]. And he took it. Forty years had not diminished his confidence in the Lord. Forty years in the wilderness had not lessened his faith in the Lord. Forty years in the wilderness journeys had not taken away his youthful zeal. “Give me this mountain” [Joshua 14:12].
At eighty Tennyson wrote “Crossing the Bar.” At eighty years of age, Goethe wrote the immortal Faust. At eighty-five years of age, Gladstone was prime minister of Great Britain. At eighty-five years of age, Verdi wrote the immortal, “Ave Maria.” At eighty-seven years of age Michelangelo performed his greatest miracle of work, the erection of the great dome of St. Peter’s. And at ninety-eight Titian painted the glorious historical portrayal of the Battle of Lepanto.
There is something about the spirit of conquest, and optimism, and upwardness, and onwardness, and God-wardness that when it appears in a man’s life heartens and encourages the whole earth. If there’s any one thing that I could say characterizes the generation in which we live, and the world in which we find our life and lot, it is negativism. It is hopelessness and helplessness. It is sheer despair. The whole academic university community, and that includes Christendom also, has been pervaded in the miasmic hopeless philosophy of the existentialist. There’s no purpose. There’s no reason. There’s no outreach. There’s no better tomorrow. There’s no reason.
One of the great professors of our university said, “We face one of two things, either extinction or meaninglessness.” Some of the people that I read after follow the doleful prediction and characterization of one our great poets who said that life is nothing but a puppet show. There’s a little fellow who comes out and blows a trumpet and goes back in again. And when we wait for something new, another little fellow comes out and blows the trumpet and goes back in, again and the cycle goes on endlessly.
The great modern historian Arnold Toynbee said that we live in a post-Christian era and civilization, and our culture is dying, and on its ashes there will arise another, and so the cycle goes on meaninglessly forever. Another one of our great historians says that the story of mankind is like a series of elephants, this one with his trunk holding the tail of that one, and so the endless circle.
This is modern philosophical historical reaction to the world in which we live. It is a spirit of negativism. It’s a spirit of despair. It’s a spirit of meaninglessness. It’s a spirit of abysmal hopelessness. Is that Christian? O God, to the Christian, to the Christian, the poet says for us we are moving to that great far-off time, the consummation of the age! To the Christian, life is not just waves beating upon the endless shores of time, but life, history, is a mighty river majestically moving to the great purposive consummation of the age, the coming of the kingdom of God.
To the Christian, life and history is not scattered and meaningless but it is a straight line from God’s creation to God’s consummation when Jesus shall come again. And there’s time and to spare to do God’s meaningful work in the earth and in our individual life and in our dear church. Watching, waiting, working till the Lord shall say, “It is enough. It is enough.”
An old farmer plowing was visited by his pastor, and while they conversed the pastor asked the old weather beaten farmer, “If you knew that in thirty minutes Jesus would come again, what would you do?” And the old farmer replied, he said, “Pastor, if I knew that Jesus was coming again in thirty minutes I’d finish plowing this furrow to the end of the row.”
While He delays, while He tarries, working, and when He comes may He find us with our sleeves rolled up, our coats off, our faces to the future, our hearts radiant with the persuasion that God has some mighty thing for us in every tomorrow until we see Him face to face [Revelation 22:3-5]. Ah, the assignments God hath laid upon us!
There is never but one generation between us and paganism, downright heathenism. Every generation must be won to Christ. Every boy and girl must be taught in the faith. Every family must be introduced to the blessed Jesus. And until the Lord shall come, may He find us busy, working with hearts lifted up in optimism and triumph. And may it be that when He looks at you and your family when He comes, there’ll be joy and gladness to receive Him.
“Look, Lord, we’re all saved. We’re all in the fold. Not a one in the circle of my home and family will be missing. We’re all ready, Lord, any day, any time, any hour, come blessed Jesus. And until that glorious consummation, here I am, Lord, working for Thee.” Just as wrote Paul the aged [Philemon 1:9], facing execution, still “pressing toward the prize of the mark of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” [Philippians 3:14].
In this moment that we sing our song of appeal, in the balcony round, you a family, on this lower floor you, just somebody one, make the decision now in your heart, and when we stand in a moment to sing, stand coming down that stairway, walking down that aisle. As the Spirit shall press the appeal to your heart, answer with your life. “Pastor, we’re all coming today. This is my wife. These are our children. We all are coming.” Or just you, “I am coming, pastor. I made the decision for God, and here I am [Romans 10:8-13]. Here I come.” Do it now. On the first note of the first stanza, come. Angels will attend you in the way. God Himself opens His arms to receive you, while we stand and while we sing.