I Look Not Back/His Name was Given by Heaven
Text: Annie Johnson Flint (1866-1932) Tune: Oscar Ahnfelt (1813-1882)
1 I look not back; God knows the fruitless efforts, the wasted hours, the sin, the deep regrets. I leave them all with him who blots the record, and graciously forgives, and then forgets.
2 I look not forward; God sees all the future, the road that, short or long, will lead me home, and he will face with me its ev'ry trial, and bear for me the burdens that may come.
3 I look not round me; then would fears assail me, so wild the tumult of earth's restless seas, so dark the world, so filled with woe and evil, so vain the hope of comfort and of ease.
4 I look not inward; that would make me wretched, for I have naught on which to stay my trust. I only see my failures and offenses, and weak endeavors, crumbling into dust.
5 But I look up into the face of Jesus, for there my heart can rest, my fears are stilled; and there is joy, and love, and light for darkness, and perfect peace, and ev'ry hope fulfilled.
Text: Annie Johnson Flint
We mark secular time now with a calendar that starts on January 1 and ends in December. While the church year fits into that time, it has a rather different sense for time because it knows eternity. The way God fits into human time through the Incarnation of Jesus changes everything. The church year starts as we anticipate the coming of the Christ child. God breaks into our world, our time, to sanctify and make our lives different. We are no longer on a cycle of seasons, going around in a circle; we are on a journey from here to there. Christians knew that as they looked back at the the longing for the Messiah since Eden and the journey from Bethlehem to Golgatha. And now we look forward and see life is always going ahead, not around in an endless circle.
Augustine made that clear in his famous phrase,"I was restless until I rested in thee."
He marked, as we do, that the Christian life is a struggle and a battle with the world, the flesh and the devil. And though we are confident that Christ Jesus gives us the victory, it can be a long haul from here to there. New Year’s Eve we looked back and bid the old year good bye, not wishing to dwell on the past. Now we look forward with hope for a better year and time. Maybe especially in our COVID time—will things be better? We can certainly hope so. But Christ teaches us that we must look up to him for true hope, hope that overcomes the dreary repetition of the same old same old. Regardless of how it feels, time is passing and consequences are arriving as they always have and we are growing older. We will never get the past back.
Thus Christians begin the secular year in Jesus’ Name. January 1, eight days after the birth of Jesus, his circumcision day, is also his naming day. Jesus means Savior. Beginning the secular year in his name, then, means we acknowledge that we need a Savior—to put us in right relationship with eternity. It gives us the courage to live in time with gusto and joy, no matter what. Ecclesiastes wonders that God has put eternity into our hearts. (3:11-13) He has made everything beautiful in its time, so we are called to the things of this world and all its beauties and sorrows. First, to praise God for the beauties, and then to bring God’s eternity to bear on the suffering around us.
Resolve this year not to better yourself by an act of your own will, but by a surrender. Look up into the face of Jesus whose eternity is shining all about you and saving you from the quiet desperation that comes from living in the dark, without the light of Christ pulling you forward. For "there is joy, and love, and light for darkness,/and perfect peace, and ev'ry hope fulfilled."
Annie Johnson Flint had a tough life. She was born on a farm in New Jersey, but her mother died three years later giving birth to her younger sister. Her father died soon after when she was still very young. He willed his children to the Flints who took good care of them. Annie became a teacher after graduation from high school, but very soon rheumatoid arthritis began to ravage her body and finally crippled her so badly she was confined to a wheel chair. The pain kept her from doing much of anything. After some years, she began writing poetry and became a popular Christian poet and hymn writer. Her poem "God Hath Not Promised Skies Always Blue/Unfailing sympathy all our lives through," was on the wall of the bedroom where I rocked my little brother to sleep. I memorized it during that time.
Oscar Ahnfelt wrote the tune "O sälla Land" which was used for Lina Sandell's hymn by the same name which is filled with longing for heaven, the blessed land. It appeared in Swedish Augustana's Hemlandssånger, 1892. How this tune and text came together is not known, but I would guess a Scandinavian American who knew the tune thought it would fit well with Flint's text and published it as a hymn.
The song, “I Look Not Back,” was a favorite of my mother’s who sang it as a solo many times. I can still hear her sweet voice and see her smile as she got to the last stanza, “But I look up into the face of Jesus.” A good way to start the New Year, in the name of Jesus, looking up at him and finding peace and rest there.
See below for another hymn on the Name of Jesus. This one by James Clemens whom I have introduced elsewhere. For one of the greatest of Bach's cantatas for the New Year try the links below.
The only version there is on Youtube!
Bach Cantata BWV 41 Jesu, nun sei gepreiset
A translation of the text