David Livingston & The Everliving Christ
Matthew 28:16-20, Psalm 121, Ps. 139:1-10
Today I want to give focus to the final words that Jesus spoke to his followers, those words are “Remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” To do that I want to tell you a story. It is the story of Scottish Missionary, David Livingstone.
January 14, 1856.
Travel with me to the center of the African continent. The day is January 14. The year is 1856. Livingstone has already been in Africa for 16 years. But on this day he is facing one of the gravest crises of his life.
For 16 years he has traveled through hostile tribes. His life has often been in danger. But so far he has gotten through them safely. But on this day, he is over his head. On the morning of the 14th he writes in his diary,
“I thank God for His great mercies thus far. How soon I shall be called before Him, my righteous judge, I do not know…. On Thy Word alone I lean. The cause is Thine. Thy will be done.” He is resigned to his death. Hostile tribesmen surround him and there is no way out. All day long they dog his steps.
That night, as evening fell, Livingstone again took up his diary to make his last entry for that day, and perhaps the last entry ever. He writes,
“I felt much turmoil in spirit in view of having all my plans for the welfare of this great and teeming population knocked on the head…. But Jesus came and said, “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go therefore and teach all nations…. And Lo I am with you always, even unto the ends of the world.” Livingstone is exhilarated at this repeated revelation. He continues to write.
“That is the word of a gentleman of the most sacred and strictest honour, and there is an end to it. I shall take observations for longitude and latitude tonight, though they may be the last. I feel quite calm now, thank God.”
A thousand times he had placed his finger on that text of scripture. “Lo I am with you always, even to the end of the world.” The truth of that passage was to carry Livingstone through some 30 years in Africa.
The Home Leaving
Let us look at him on the day he sets out as a Missionary. We do not know just when it was that Livingstone first took this verse as his own. But we know that the truth of it was deep upon his mind that morning when he left Glasgow Scotland for the unknown continent.
He was asked by his father, whom he would never see again, to lead the family in worship. The 28-year-old medical doctor picked up the family Bible and read from Psalm 121. Hear some of those words again,
“The Lord is your keeper,
the Lord is your shade at your right hand…
The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and forever more.”
He left the security of home that day with the truth ringing in his ears, “I am with you always. Even to Africa.” So leaving his parental home, he and his wife Mary ventured into the greatest unknown of his day.
Historians tells us that Livingstone was among the loneliest men of all time. He was cut off in the middle of an unexplored continent without hearing a familiar voice, or seeing a familiar face for years at a time. His wife Mary went with him, but she was often sick from the ravages of tropical diseases and she had to return to Scotland while David went on alone. When Mary left she was expecting a child. It would be four long years before David knew if the baby had arrived safely.
Week after week he waited for letters from his wife and family. But the letters never reached him. They were always destroyed in transit. He wrote letters home, but never knew if they arrived at their destination.
He had four children that were growing up thousands of miles away and he did not know how they fared. He loved them deeply. But no letters, no contact, no fellowship.
Friends were unheard from, and another European face was not seen from one year to the next. But Livingstone pressed on to take the Gospel to tribes and nations that Europe had never heard about. Year after year went by without hearing his own language spoken, except by himself.
What drove him on through those years, through the jungles, through the terrible barriers of human loneliness? There was a verse of scripture that he had touched a thousand times. “Lo I am with you always”. That he knew, was the word of a gentleman.
He was cut off from friends, but He was not cut off from the friend that sticks closer than a brother. He could hear the Spirit of God saying to him, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” Though he could not speak of the fellowship of family and church, he knew that his fellowship could continue with His Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.
I Can do Anything
That verse was with him in moments of beginning. It was with him in hours of painful loneliness. It was with him in times of danger. But it was also with him, urging him on to attempt the impossible.
On one occasion Livingstone writes in his diary, “If He be with me, I can do anything, anything, anything!” He is echoing Paul’s words, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Livingstone, in the strength of that word, then went out to do what no other had done before him. He walked 30,000 miles through African jungle and swamp, fording swift rivers and crossing steep mountain ranges. In the process he added a quarter of a million square miles to the maps of the known world. He set out to evangelize an entire continent and though he did not complete it, he opened doors for others to go through. Today Africa is 40% Christian and primarily because Livingstone was a trailblazer for the Kingdom of God.
Always he saw the smoke of the camp fires of a thousand villages who may not yet have heard of the love of God, and so under divine compulsion he made his way to each of them to tell them the world’s best story. He went because there was a passage of scripture that rang in his ears. “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature, and Lo I am with you always, even to the ends of the world.”
After he had spent 16 years in these impossible feats he returned to Glasgow. The university there received him with great pageantry, heaping upon him their highest honours. He stood there before that great crowd, gaunt and haggard as a result of his long exposure to tropical heat. On nearly 30 occasions he has been laid low with fevers and severe illness from the inland swamps. These have left their imprint on his body. His left arm, crushed by a lion attack, hung helplessly by his side.
A hush fell over the crowd as he announced his resolve to return to the land that has already taken its toll of his health. He spoke before the great assembly with these words:
“I return without misgivings and with great gladness. For would you like me to tell you what supported me through all those years of exile among people whose language I could not understand and whose attitude towards me was always uncertain and at times hostile? It was this, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.” On these words I staked everything, and they never failed!”
And Livingstone returned to Africa for his second tour of duty.
Livingstone set out to abolish the slave trade in Africa. As he trudged through those jungles he saw long lines of captives headed for the coast to be sold into slavery. Many of them he freed, but his life long goal was to abolish forever that awful trade in human souls. But he faced vested interests at home and in Africa that fought him all the way. But he would say with intensity, “But if He be with me, I can do anything, anything, anything!”
There were times when his medical supplies were all stolen and for two years this medical missionary had no medicines or surgical supplies. But he went on to bring healing to the bodies and spirits of all he met. For, he would look at this passage again and again. “All Power is given unto me in heaven and in earth, go therefore and make disciples of all nations, and Lo, I am with you.”
It was not, however, easy to be brave. Fighting the external foe can be invigorating. But facing grief is a very different thing.
In the early years his wife bore four children. But in those steaming jungles, illness took its continual toll on the health of his little ones. One of their babies died there. David Livingstone took the little body and buried it in the great unmarked jungle. He wrote in his diary that day,
“Our youngest child, a sweet little girl with blue eyes was taken from us to join the company of the redeemed. We felt her loss keenly.”
But in the loss, he also felt the closer presence of his Divine companion.
He had sent his wife back to Scotland because of continued illness in the children, and because she was expecting another child. But he never found her absence easy to take.
A few years later she joined him so she could work side by side with him in the great task, but she got weaker and weaker until she was unable to go any further. She succumbs to malarial disease and dies. It was the hardest blow of his life. He took up his pen and wrote in his diary.
“O my Mary, my Mary. I loved you when I married you, and the longer I lived with you, I loved you the more…. For the first time in my life I feel willing to die. I am left alone in the world by one whom I felt to be part of myself.”
And yet, even in that crisis, he sensed the continuing presence of God still with him.
In Death (May 1, 1873)
Eleven years after Mary passed away, David Livingstone has come to the end of his own life. Disease and climate have taken their toll. A few years earlier Stanley, the African explorer & journalist, had found him, a mere skeleton of a man. His body wet from malarial fevers and tropical rains. And yet he trudged on. His feet are ulcerated. He is hemorrhaging constantly. Finally, he is unable to walk. His native companions carry his emaciated form while he gives directions to them.
Finally, he can go no further. He is placed in a small hut and there he waits for health to return. It doesn’t. His native friends watch with him round the clock. On May 1st, 1873 in the early morning, one of the bearers looks into the hut. Livingstone is not in bed. Instead there he is, kneeling beside his bed, his hands are clasped together. But he is no longer praying. He has passed away during the night. But up until the very end, Livingstone is practicing the presence of God. His final conversations are with the Eternal Christ who had said, “I am with you, always, even to the end.“ Livingstone went to be forever with the One who had always been with him.
His two loyal friends then cut out his heart and buried it in central Africa. That was where his heart had always been. They then transported his body 1000 miles to the coast to be sent in state back to England, which would be interred in Westminster Abbey.
David Livingstone staked his life on the truth of a promise; the promise that the Resurrected Christ would be with him forever. One of the very last entries in his diary, as he lies dying is memorable. He writes:
“God will keep His word, He will keep His word. The Gracious One, full of grace and truth, no doubt about it, He will keep His word and it will be alright. Doubt here is inadmissible, surely”
The promise was kept!
On his 60th and last birthday, a month before his death, he picked up pen and diary and wrote once more, “My Jesus, my King, my life, my all, I again dedicate my whole self to Thee.”
Livingstone has been gone for almost 150 years. But the truth he lived and died by is as current as this very moment. The resurrected Jesus continues with each one of us! God is with us!
Suffering, loneliness, grief, danger or loss may take their toll. Great opportunities may arise; great crises may present themselves to us. Can I let you know that the promise is ours as well as Livingstone’s.
For wherever we may find ourselves, God will be there.
Whenever the crises of life and death meet us, God will be there
Whatever comes our way, God will be there!
(I am indebted to Australian preacher Frank Boreham for much of the information about the great missionary’s life.)