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Sermons by the Late Rev. Cornelius R. Duffie, A.M.
Rector of St. Thomas' Church, New-York.
To which is Prefixed, A Memoir of the Author.

New York: T. and J. Swords, 1829.

Volume One

Sermon VII. The Brevity of Human Life.

[Preached on New-Year's Eve.]

Psalm xc. 9. We bring our years to an end, as it were a tale that is told. Prayer Book Translation.

THE truth of this declaration, my brethren, is as obvious as the comparison by which it is illustrated, is striking and beautiful. What is our own life but the journey of a short day, and its history a record which is comprised in few words, and at last summed up in the monumental marble, in a brief and almost unvarying memorial suggested by the recollections of kindness and affection! What vast numbers sink into the tomb of whose whole lives it would be difficult to form a narrative, which should possess any charm of novelty or of interest! They have terminated, perhaps, a lengthened pilgrimage, but no trace of their memory has impressed itself upon the beaten pathway of existence; and amidst the multitudes [94/95] who were pursuing the same steps to the same destiny, it can only be said of them, they have lived--they are departed. This, my brethren, is the history of most among us--the quickly told tale of the majority of men. "For what is our life? It is even a vapour that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away."

Some, however, have been engaged in scenes of eminence and of interest. They have occupied a large space in the eye of the world. They have figured among its heroes, its statesmen, its scholars. But though their names have been upon the lips of thousands with admiration, yet in the ceaseless progress of things, they too, like the meanest and most obscure of human kind, die and disappear. And mighty and celebrated as they once have been, they bring their years to an end like a tale that is told.

But what to us is the experience of those who fly abroad through the world upon the lips of men; who live in the opinions and upon the breath of the multitude? Let us come nearer home; let us regard our own individual case; let us listen to the language of our own experience; let us attend to the moral which fleeting time and departing seasons are whispering to our own hearts; and what, my brethren, is its import? Hear it, alas! in the same melancholy words. Hear it, and from the vanity of our life, let us learn the vanity of all human things. "We bring [95/96] our years to an end, as it were a tale that is told."

This is the acknowledgment and confession which every review of our life forces upon us; which every closing year, as in quick succession it flees away, and is added to those which have gone before, impresses upon our minds, and which continually is responded by our hearts.

"We bring our years to an end, as it were a tale that is told." Consider, my brethren, the year which is gone. How rapidly has it flown! What a little moment does it seem since we entered upon it! How like a dream has it vanished away! And adding to this departing year all that have preceded it, sum them up in your recollection. It is the work of an instant. Go over them in thought. Are they not the meditation of a brief moment? Do they not pass through the mind like the remembrance of a vision? Do they not affect us only as it were something we had heard or read of others? Are they not like the faint and fading impression of a tale that is told? But if this representation which Scripture gives of the brevity of human life, is one which finds a responsive assent in every bosom; there is another connected with it, which is not less just and true. It relates to its unsatisfactory character, to its weariness, its emptiness, its unhappiness. "Man that is born of a woman, hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery." "We [96/97] are born to trouble as the sparks fly upward." And whatever may be the promise of youth, and the anticipation of early hope, they who reach the appointed term of life will look back upon its course with disappointment, as with wonder and with sorrow; and with the dying patriarch will say, "Few and evil have the days of the years of my life been." My brethren, shall I ask you whether you deem his to have been an unusual experience? An experience different from the lot of other men? A peculiar and unparalleled case? Believe me, it is the experience of all. If you are prepared to speak with candour, will you not allow thus far it has been your experience? Ask of the years that are past. Ask of this year which is now verging to its close. Has it fulfilled its promises? Has it brought with it, as you hoped it would, satisfying, substantial, permanent good? Has happiness been the undeviating companion of its progress? Has joy rested in brightness upon your path? And are all your recollections only of pleasure and delight? Could any gay that such had been the case with them throughout the years that are past; still it would be a fearful truth for them to ponder, that they are bringing those years to an end, as it were a tale that is told. But, alas! there are none who can make the declaration. Even they who give up all for pleasure, the gay, the thoughtless, and the light of heart, even they must tell of hopes [97/98] unsatisfied, of expectations disappointed, of bright and sunny prospects overcast.

Many, very many, must look back upon dark and melancholy spots; upon uncheered, unjoyous, and heart-rending scenes; upon tracts of sorrow, of affliction, and of death; which spread a sadness over all their recollections. And perhaps few, very few, are to be found whose years have not been so different in reality from what they were in prospect, that much as they are attached to life, they would scarcely choose to-live over again their weary existence; to retrace their disappointing and deceitful days.

My brethren, if these things be so, if we bring our years to an end as it were a tale that is told, if our days, which are few, are also evil, if we have but a short time to live, and are full of misery, what effect should these considerations have upon us? What admonitions should the recurrence of such a period as the present suggest--a period which reminds us, as with a voice from other worlds, of the frailty of our hold upon life, of the rapid flight of years, of the approaching end of time, of the hastening on of eternity, which tells us that death is advancing upon us, and dark oblivion is gathering around us! What effect, I say, should these considerations have! What admonition should such a period as this suggest! Some, perhaps, might be inclined to take up the epicurean maxim, and say, While we live let us [98/99] live, let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die. But, my brethren, the Scriptures which God has given us for our learning, the Scriptures which he has made a light to our feet and a lamp to our paths, the sacred Scriptures teach us a wiser and a better lesson. Far from encouraging us to squander these days in folly, because they are brief, or to dissipate them in riot and in sin, because they are unhappy, they give different views. To improve our life, because it is short; to redeem the time, because the days are evil; this is their nobler, their more rational dictate. And however the sacred Scriptures may be spurned, mocked at, or disregarded; however they have been made, in days that happily are well nigh passed away, the butt of the free-thinking, and the jest of the profane; yet the increasing experience of every day, every advance that we make in a true and practical knowledge of the world, every sober estimate and just appreciation of life, must extort from all who are acquainted with the volume of inspiration, and whose opinion is unprejudiced and sincere, the confession, that its views of our state and character, of our duty and our interest, are in accordance with the best suggestions of enlightened reason; that it presents the most wholesome and salutary rules for the regulation of this mortal life; that it opens to the immortal spirit the only fitting scene for the enjoyment of that felicity to which its lofty aspirations and desires [99/100] tend. Yes, my brethren, that abused, that neglected volume is the best friend of man, his safest guide through the mazes of this transitory life, his only unfailing solace and support in death, his conductor, his director, his passport to a blissful immortality. And of all the instructions and monitions which it contains, there is none more explicit, none more rational or more defensible than this, that we should make it our study to employ this perishing, unsatisfying, and uncertain life, with reference to that unending and exalted life which is to succeed, and of the certainty and felicity of which it gives us such full assurance. On the most specious maxims of infidelity, on the most prudential calculations of a selfish and interested philosophy, even on the principles of blank and hopeless atheism, we might maintain the fitness of this injunction, as best securing the visible interest of the present life, health of body, peace of mind, reputation, length of days, cheerful enjoyment of the passing moment, and at the last a tranquil end; and this, even supposing there were no life to come, that all beyond were unreal, an eternal sleep, an unbroken dream, an unwakened repose. Much more, when addressing those who have risen above these vain delusions of the scoffer and the fool, whose credulity will not reach to the denying of a God whom all his works declare, nor to the disbelief of that future existence which the hopes [100/101] and fears of all mankind contemplate and apprehend--much more in addressing them, shall I be bold to vindicate the duty of living to God here, that we may live with him hereafter, and the wisdom of devoting to his service this scanty span of life, that when it is past for ever, as it must quickly be, we may rise to the enjoyment of his presence in the life to come. To this determination, the unsatisfactoriness of life, which we constantly realize, and the brevity of time, the fewness of our days, and their rapid flight, should only serve the more to constrain us. Were our experience different from what it actually and universally is, were our lives filled up with temporal joy, and had we the promise of their lengthened continuance, the case would perhaps be otherwise. But few, uncertain, and full of evil, as are the days of the years of our pilgrimage, brief, unsatisfactory, and coming to an end like a talc that is told, to devote such a life to God, m the hope of thereby being made partakers of a better life to come, though there were hardships, self-denial, pain, misery, and martyrdom, in prospect, would yet be wise; for it would be to surrender what is of little worth, to gain that which is of inestimable value. But, my brethren, the living sacrifice of yourselves which God requires you to make, is a reasonable service. The denial of your passions and evil dispositions, the [101/102] renouncing of your unchristian and unholy tempers, is a bounden duty, and the hopes and the aspirations which he would have you cherish, and by which you are required to be transformed in the renewing of your minds, are those which alone can give peace to your souls, elevation to your character, dignity, value, security, and rational enjoyment, to your existence. To such a devotion and employment of your days, to this dedication of yourselves to God for the remainder of your lives, to a strict and resolute obedience to his commands for all the time to come, let me now persuade you. Neither the knowledge of your duty, nor the power to perform it, will be wanting, if your desires be firm and your prayers sincere. For the grace of God, which bringeth salvation, hath appeared unto all men, teaching them, that denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, they should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in the present world. What encouragement is it to a course like this, that it will banish from your minds all those regrets, those inquietudes, those saddening and gloomy reflections which the shortness of life, and the uncertainty of its possession, must necessarily suggest; that it will give to existence new charms and unwonted hopes; that it will enlighten your darkest days of trouble with celestial consolations, and over the cares and sorrows of declining age, should age be yours, it [102/103] will spread a peace which passeth understanding--a peace which the world can neither give nor take away.

Such is the course of life, my brethren, and such the rewards, to which the religion of the Gospel calls you. But it is only by pursuing the former, that the latter can be attained; and the time in which our resolution is to be taken, and our happiness secured, is during the continuance of this fleeting probation, during the continuance of this spared but uncertain life. My brethren, how plain is your duty! how self-evident your advantage in complying with it! That it is neglected continually, almost universally, is what we have ever to wonder at and to lament. But that this may no longer be the case, let the present solemn hour be appealed to to furnish new motives, which, by God's grace, will effectually excite you to his service. (Standing, as we now do, in this interval of time, on this narrow point between the years that are gone and the years to come, (to some, it may be, not years, but only months, or weeks, or days,) let us reflect how much of our life has already been permitted, rapidly, insensibly, to glide away unimproved; that while sins, negligences, and ignorances, have been every day accumulating, accumulating perhaps to a fearful and terrifying extent, there is nothing done, there has been nothing seriously attempted, there has by some been nothing [103/104] designed, as preparatory to the life to come. Meanwhile your probation is passing away. For no single hour are we certain of its continuance; and the day of reckoning may be at hand.

Yes, my brethren, the year which is closing upon you, may be the last, to some before me it most probably will be the last, whose termination they shall ever behold. To-morrow's dawn, as it rises upon the world, leading on a period charged with the fates and destinies of multitudes, may bring for you the fiat, This year thou shalt die. We may fancy this will not be so. We may dream of many days, of convenient seasons, of opportunities of repentance yet to come, and regarding the long-suffering of God, may go on to sin because grace abounds. So have others dreamed. So have others done. They have gone to their dread account. The grave which contains them, reveals no secrets. And this closing' hour of the closing year, speaks only in silence to our hearts. But could the grave unfold its doors, and give leave to those whom it has hidden in its mouldering caverns, to rise and stand before you, to utter their voice of truth, or could you listen to the accents full of meaning of this

"Pale, faded year, whose dying hour hath come,"

how would its admonition fall heavily upon your hearts, and rest in sadness upon your spirits!

[105] "Oh! there are crowds that with a joyous brow,
"Welcomed its birth; whose mirthful voices
"Now are hushed in the long silence of the tomb."

With many it shall be so again. With you it may. Defer not that preparation which you have already so often deferred. Once more postponed, the error may be fatal. Nobly resolve now to commence the work. Let the beginning of a new year be to you the beginning of a new life. Cultivate from henceforth, daily cultivate, the favour of God.' Believe in his Son. Take his word for your guide. Put on the ornaments of a Christian temper, and live a Christian life. Grow in grace, and in meetness for the inheritance of the saints in light. And then, when your earthly course is finished, when you shall bring your years to an end, as it were a tale that is told, you may quit the world in peace, looking for that blessed hope of an immortal life, of which the Gospel assures you, and for the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ, who shall admit you to its joyful, its triumphant, its unfading possession.

Which may he grant us all, who died for us all, Jesus Christ our Lord.

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