What shall I return to the Lord
for all his bounty to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation
and call on the name of the Lord, (Psalm 116)
Richard Johnson was an extraordinary Christian servant. An ordained pastor of the Anglican Church, he and his wife Mary travelled with the first fleet to Botany Bay in 1788 and remained in this ministry until he left in 1802. (He is not to be confused with the next pastor to arrive, Samuel Marsden who has been referred to as the “whipping priest.”)
Johnson faithfully took up his duties like baptisms, funerals and conducting services. A colony record from 1792 lists 226 baptisms, 220 marriages and 854 funerals in the colony – almost all taken by Richard Johnson. For health reasons he returned with Mary back to England.
As chaplain in the colony, he was known for his faithful piety, particularly in visiting the poor and needy. Convicts knew that Johnson was one of the only people who went down into the dark and rancid holds of the convict ships to visit with people. In Botany Bay, he was known as a compassionate listener who often shared his provisions with convicts. He even farmed and shared his produce with the needy. God had set deep in Richard Johnson’s heart the certain belief that each person was precious to the Lord Jesus, since the Lord would go to the cross for them.
We know that Richard Johnson first preached on Psalm 116. It was the Sunday that was the week after the 1788 arrival of the fleet, February 3rd. The people gathered in the open air, at a site you can ‘Google’ today. It is the corner of Bligh and Hunter Streets in Sydney.
Knowing the faithful compassion of Richard Johnson’s ministry, we can appreciate how this text guides the convicts, whom he knew to be forlorn and unhappy suffering people.
Psalm 116 reminds the hearer that the Lord is bountiful in so many ways, even when our eyes cannot see. The Lord who has provided for me in the past, will continue to provide for me in the time ahead. So I respond to God in prayer, praise and thanksgiving. I offer myself, my time and my possessions to God’s work in the world. The Lord provides for me and works in and through me because the Lord loves me and has even gone to the cross for me.
The convicts stood on the shores in an unknown place with unknown futures. Their chaplain Richard Johnson preaches to the faithful eyes of their hearts, that they would call upon the name of the Lord God.
At the cusp of 2021, we are facing the uncertainty of the possibility of ‘more of the same,’ just when we had hoped 2020 and the perils of the pandemic were finished.
Richard Johnson invites us also to call on the name of the Lord with thanksgiving for all the Lord’s bounty to us. Then to pray, “Lord speak to us and guide us into ways where we can serve you, for Jesus’ sake.”