Pierre Maury’s last sermon – 1956

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“My times are in thy hand” Psalm 31:15

This is a summary of Pierre Maury’s last sermon, preached in the Reformed Church at Rabat, (Morocco) on Sunday, 8 January 1956, five days before his death[1].

Psalm 90, Hebrews 1: 1-12, 3: 12-15

Four years after Maury’s death Robert C Mackie[2] in 1960[3] said “Pierre Maury’s own death confirmed his radiant assertion of the grace of God. He had been in North Africa, for which the rest of the world is apt to find simple solutions, but which has been such an agony to thoughtful Frenchmen, not least to French Protestants. Pierre Maury had been there because the Reformed Church needed the help he could give, because this was the place of strife to which the grace of God must be brought. No doubt he had been excited, and talked too much, and, above all, listened too much. On the Sunday he preached on the text “My times are in thy hand.” Then he flew home, lay down to rest, and did not move again. Sorrow at the passing of a friend, dismay at the loss of a leader—these we knew. But on the next Sunday over the French radio came his own recorded words: “My times are in thy hand.” Nothing untoward had occurred, nothing to weaken the influence of his life. For his friends, as W.A. Visser‘t Hooft has finely said, there is ‘a sense of continued conversation with Pierre Maury.’ “

Here on this second Sunday of the year how the preacher of the gospel longs to be able to speak straight to the hearts of one and all, forgetting nothing of the present circumstances of each one, of the community, and of the nation. For the beginning of a new year forces upon us the disquieting and magnificent thought of time: the consciousness of our wealth (for we all think we have time, and we think how we shall use it), and of our poverty (for time is what eludes us continually, slipping through our fingers and vanishing).

And how the preacher longs to forget nothing in his heart of what the present time forces so gravely upon our heedlessness. He longs to say to those whom time makes suffer the words which will ease their sufferings. He longs to say to them whom time brings the joy of hope, of the chance of personal, national, human action, the words which sustain the will to do good and encourage devotion to duty. Yes, on this day a minister of God among men desires even more not to speak in the cloistered calm of chapels, or the abstraction of religious dreams, but in the concrete reality of the hour, so that everyone may know that God is a reality, our reality.

But the fact is that in order for us to know it, in order truly to touch our hearts, the preacher must start not from the immediate human situation, but from some old words from a distant past, in an old book. And he must let those words find their way into the hearts of today, and create in them, full as they are of their own present, another present reality. He must let God speak in his own way about our true and real life, which is not that about which we are told in the newspapers, or by our thoughts, or the fortune-tellers, or the forecasters of the future, or our hopes, but that about which he alone can speak. And, talking to us about that true life, he will make us discover that he is talking about what we ourselves call our life. May each one of us, starting this new year before God and with God, discover that all he is and has, those he loves, his family, his country, his time, are here, before and with God, who forgets, neglects and passes in silence over none of them. So may the old prayer of David become our supplication, our thanksgiving, our vow – that is to say our faith for 1956.

Our prayer of supplication. How can this sentence be, first, anything other than a petition – the expression, that is, of an ardent desire, which only our unbelief stifles and paralyses? My times are in thy hand: who among us could say without hesitation or reserve, in full assurance, ‘I know that my times are in thy hand’?: who among us could see without hesitation or reserve, in full assurance, ‘I know that my times are in thy hand’? Who among us believes in God enough never to doubt that his whole life is shared by God, that in everything that happens to him, joys and sorrows, successes and failures, blessings and griefs, God will be as present as we are ourselves? As present as we are to rejoice, to suffer, to struggle, as present as we are to live our own lives. And, much more, who among us believes in God enough never to doubt that his life is led by God, that no event will escape his power and his love, that nothing will be the work of chance, of fate, of men, or of circumstances – or our own work?

Ah! How we must pray that the psalmist’s text be not only true of David, of this or that great saint, but of us also! I ask you: think of yourselves and of your loved ones, think of your country, think of the world….On whom is your 1956 going to depend? In whose hands rest the mystery of our life in the immediate future, yours and mine? Let us admit it: in the hands of men – men who are powerful and to be feared, unknown men whose coming to strengthen us we long for; in our own hands, which in our naïve, proud and selfish blindness we believe and want to be strong; or in those great anonymous hands we call ‘life’. And that is why we read and shall read our newspapers, we shall study history , in our petty wisdom we shall weigh the likelihoods and possibilities of the future, we shall drug ourselves with hope, and expect miracles of fate! Perhaps, above all this reality, we shall imagine, without understanding and without real trust, some great Unknowable to whom we shall address our incessant ‘Why?’, And before whom our pessimism will make is bow in fatal resignation, and from whom we shall try to snatch all that our liberty claims the right to do, to want and to have. But none of us can say today like a trusting child: ‘My times are in thy hand; I know that and only that. Whatever happens I am perfectly happy that this is so and that I know it to be so.’

Quite simply, therefore let our first act this morning be to pray to God to hear us, and to say to us himself, since we shall ask it with all the faith that we can muster: ‘Thy times, thy days, thy hours, all are in my divine hands.’ And if from this Church, from the heart of each of us, this petition goes up from our real unbelief, our real ignorant, feeble, and sinful lives, I know that God will hear, and that our prayer will be granted.

What will that fulfilment be? It will be our thanksgiving, the thanksgiving of our assurance and our faith. For to the prayer of unbelief for help, God replies with the certainty of faith. For when we speak to God of our true lives, our real weakness, fear, and sin, he gives to us, weak, fearful, and sinful, that unexpected, magnificent, incredible gift: new hearts, new minds, new hope. Yes it is really we, inconceivable as it may be, we who find an ourselves a voice to praise God for holding in his hands what is in store for us, what we shall be and do, our health and our sickness….. and if it is his will, our death.

1956 is not, you see, what its successive days will bring for us to live through. It is not one more year in which we shall grow, mature, and age, in which so much that is unforeseen as well is foreseen will be our lot, and in which we shall be able to hand it all over to God. No! 1956 is the successive gifts that God is going to give us, the successive days he offers us, the trials he will grant and the blessings he will distribute to us; 1956 is God’s acts of love, a year of grace. What does the mystery, the impenetrable mystery, of tomorrow matter? There is no need to deck it with optimistic mirages, no need to darken it with pessimistic fears. The mystery is not, cannot be, and will not be, for those who listen to God, anything but the mystery of grace, unchanging yet always new; the mystery of ‘the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning’, and from whom comes ‘every good gift’ (James 1:17). This morning God assures us of that, because this year is his year, his ‘acceptable time’ (Isa 49:8, 2 Cor 6:2). His word for 1956 is a promise, because 1956 belongs to him.

Oh! I know that we have hardly accepted with joy this message that I announce to you, when everything comes to contradict it: our memories, men’s voices, the voice of the Devil! And I know that some will accuse me of a hard-hearted selfishness which forgets or makes light of all the human suffering that will mark 1956, as it has marked 1955. But I’m not forgetting all that, and I have no more constancy than you have to make me firm in faith. If I say to you nevertheless, as a prayer of thanksgiving, the words of the psalmist, ‘My times are in thy hand,’ it is because, like the psalmist, I receive this prayer of praise from God himself; it is because God does really say it, he assures us of it himself, because it is true, because it is his truth which is the only truth; it is because God himself, in his word, not mine, has come to this service in order to say to us: ‘The times are in my hands’, and in order that we should believe it.

But what will believing it mean? Here, by that inner movement which characterises all true prayer, our prayer becomes a vow. Because our petition is made to God, because our praise hearkens to God, our faith submits itself to God. And this last is the moment of decision of this service, our vow for 1956.

‘My times are in thy hand’, that is to say, ‘I promise that I shall not live 1956 as if I were its master, or its slave, but as thy servant. I shall not take back from thee any of my days. I shall not steal one hour from thee, not one hour of Sunday or weekday, not one hour alone or in the bosom of my family or among other people. I shall have no time for myself, but only for thee. I shall not keep to myself, without thee, the time of my desires, the time of my sins, the time of my despair- any more than the time of my plans, my friendships, all my enmities. I give thee the year which thou givest me. All my times are in thy hand.’

Here again we are brought up short by fear, or even rebellion. Here again we are afraid of praying, and our so-called honesty or our conscious rebellion imposes silence upon us. ‘What is the good of making promises that I shall not keep?’ May God preserve us from this retreat, this refusal to pray. God preserve us from giving the lie to his truth under the pretence of being honest, towards ourselves or towards him. For what he requires of us this morning is not the haughty Pharisaism that starts boasting too soon. All he wants us to do, like the promise he makes to us, is to commit ourselves for today, to make the humble and honest decision that today demands. For our times are in his hand. And we cannot reserve our tomorrows as possibilities of disobedience to him. It is our times of today that he requires of us. ‘The morrow shall take thought for the things of itself’, as Jesus said (Matt 6:34), which means that God in his faithfulness will take care of our unfaithfulnesses. That is why today we must say to him in our prayer of dedication: ‘Our 1956, my 1956, belongs to thee. I belong to thee for 1956.’

Brethren, I have said that the prayer of psalmist can and must be uttered by our unbelieving lips, by our believing lips. But how could I dare to expect prayer to be possible for us, except in a moment of emotion or illusion? How could I dare to put into the mouth of God, Invisible, Inaccessible, those words which turn the words of the prayer into a promise – how could I dare, if I did not know the place, the reality, the Person in whom the prayer becomes possible, in whom God’s word becomes the living word of truth? It is because the Bible, from which these words are taken, bears witness in its entirety to Jesus Christ, that in it men can pray to God and hear the granting of their prayers by God. It is because in it every prayer is, explicitly or implicitly, offered up in the name of Jesus Christ, because in it all God’s promises are yea in Christ (2 Cor 1:20) – it is for this reason that 1956 is a year of grace, and that this service and all the days that are coming are and will be grace. ‘Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever’, ‘the first and the last’ (Heb 13:8, Rev 1:17). He is himself, himself alone, the hand of God, stretched out towards us and over us from afar; but he is also the hand near us, holding and protecting everything: everything past, and everything to come. That is why the Bible says of him that in him  ‘the time is fulfilled’ (Mark 1:15, Gal 4:4). All things lead to him; all things start from him. Apart from him there is nothing. ‘For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things’ (Rom 11:36). But he is here. He is here this morning. And he says to us: ‘Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world’ (Matt 28:20). I am with you for 1956, as I have been with you, whether you knew it or not, in 1955. ‘My times are in thy hand’, which means: Thy life has not only no meaning, but also no reality and no future apart from Jesus Christ. But in him thy life is eternal life: the fullness of life.

That is why this morning, as on every Lord’s Day, in our petitions, our praises and our decisions, we can look only to Jesus Christ, ‘the author and the finisher of our faith’ (Heb 12:2) – the sole object of our faith. And we must realise what it means for us to be in the Christian era.

He holds our past, that is to say, he pardons it. He holds our present, that is to say, he arouses and inspires our faith and our will. He holds our future, that is to say that no one shall pluck us out of his hand (John 10:28). He stands at the threshold of this unknown year: the Master who serves us, the King who calls us, he who is alive for evermore and who gives us his life.

And at his Holy Table, the Table of his presence, he awaits us.                                            Amen.

On New Year’s Eve 1960 Karl Barth preached on this same text – Psalm 31:15 – in Basel prison. He began by saying “I once had a good friend whom I shall never forget. He was a French minister and professor. At the New Year of 1956, just five years ago now, he preached in a reformed church in North Africa on this text: ‘My time is secure in your hands’. It was a very warm, meaty sermon, stirring and alive. When I read it again a day or two ago, I found that it was so good that for a moment I wondered if I should not simply bring it with me and read it to you. It was also this man’s last sermon: five days later, when he had returned to Paris, he died quite unexpectedly. How do I know that today’s is not my last sermon, too? How do you know that it is not the last one that you will be allowed to hear? How do any of us know that we shall still be here in a year, or even in five days? ‘In the midst of life we are surrounded by death.’ ”[4]

[1] Maury, Pierre. Predestination and Other Papers. Translated by Edwin Hudson. London: SCM, 1960, 102-9.

[2] Dr. Mackie, a close friend and colleague of Pierre Maury, was General Secretary of the British SCM, 1929–38, and General Secretary of the World Student Christian Federation, 1938–48. An excellent biography of Robert written by Nansie Blackie: In Love and in Laughter: A Portrait of Robert Blackie was published by Saint Andrews Press, Edinburgh in 1995.

[3] Ibid, 14.

[4] Barth, Karl. Call for God – New Sermons from Basel Prison. Translated by A.T. Mackay. London: SCM, 1967, 40.

 

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