"Glory to God in" the Highest, on earth peace; goodwill towards men. Amen."
TEXT: LUKE i.31, 32. "Behold, . . . thou shalt bring forth a Son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Most High."
THESE were the words of promise spoken by the angel to Mary, that Ho whom she should bear should be called the Son of the Highest; and as this promise is after wards brought into direct connection with the statement that the power of the Highest should overshadow her, Mary had no room to suppose that her son was only to become the Son of God at some future time through some specially great deeds of His own, or by the outpouring of God's grace upon Him. She was made to understand that from His very birth He was to be the Son of God, for from that time she was to call His name Jesus. And it is only in this fact that we grasp the full meaning of our solemn Christmas joy, to-day and always. For if the Saviour of the world had not been different from others at His birth, if the divine nature which we adore in Him had only come down upon Him afterwards, then our special connection with Him would not have begun with His birth; and our joy in His appearing would make less account of His birth (seeing that He was not yet, in that case, the Saviour) than of that moment of His life in which He became filled in a special manner with the power of the Highest. This, then, is the central thought in all that stirs our hearts on these days of solemn festival; that the Saviour was born the Son of God; that the divine power by which He was able to redeem the world dwelt in Him from the beginning of His life; and let this be to-day the subject of our devout meditation. Let Us consider the necessary connection of this truth on the One hand with Our common Christian faith; On the other, with that love through which faith works.
I. We assert first then, that it belongs to the deepest foundations of our Christian faith, (as this very festival bears witness), that we regard Christ as endowed, from the moment of His appearing in this world, with all that was necessary for Him as the Saviour of the world. We are to believe that He was already in Himself the eternal Word, though as yet silent; the Light sent to shine in the darkness, though as yet concealed; distinguished from all sinners by that saving power that dwelt in Him; and separated from the fellowship of sin. This, I admit, is a hard saying. It is so because of the difficulty we find in doing in connection with spiritual things what we are constantly doing in material and natural things -- fully believing in what we cannot clearly imagine and picture to ourselves in all its bearings; and that is what is required of us here. Our own experience contributes to this difficulty. For while there is no question that we know something of an inward union of a divine power with the human soul, because all of us who can glory in belonging to Christ know that in becoming partakers of the Holy Spirit, we become partakers of a divine Being, thus being made one with God; we know also that we could not actually receive this divine gift until full human consciousness had begun in us, and all the mental powers which the Spirit of God should directly and specially control were awakened, so that He could begin this control, and with it His sanctifying work; and otherwise than thus we have never become conscious of Him. But in the case of the Saviour, if we are to think of the divine power being in Him while He was still in man's most imperfect state, -- that of the newborn babe, in whom all the faculties, through which the presence of the higher divine power could be manifested and proved, were still dormant, -- we must conceive of it as having been present without being in any way brought into exercise; and it is just this that we find it difficult to imagine, and therefore hard to believe.
Hence it comes that there have always been Christians who hold an opinion such as I have referred to, -- that not only in the years of the Saviour's childhood, but up to the time when His human faculties attained maturity, He was in no way different and bore within Him nothing different from other children; and that not until He was to enter on the great work to which He was appointed, did the power of God come upon Him and pervade His whole being. And hence it is also that many Christians, though they do not hold this opinion, yet cannot quite heartily join in the child like devotion which, going back to the very beginning of Christ's life, with the full reverence which binds the grateful soul to the Saviour, recognises in the new-born Babe, even in His unconsciousness, the Son of God, in such a sense that He needed to receive nothing new from above, but would become, by the ordinary development of His human soul, the Saviour who, by word and deed, by His life and by His death would both merit and produce that faith which those doubtful Christians themselves cherish; that He was, in short, the Son of the living God, He through whom God would in these last days speak for the last time to men, and after whom we need expect no other. But if these fellow-Christians will only look at things clearly; if they are really in earnest in that faith which brings us here together, then must they not grant that it would be at least as hard for us to give up this faith, on which the festival of to-day is founded, merely because we can no more understand the beginning of the second creation than that of the first or any other beginning? For if in Christ the divine Word did not become flesh so soon as His human eyes opened, what follows? This much is certain, that it is the experience of all without exception that in every one who has appeared on earth, endowed only as the children of men, sin has sooner or later developed. There will be differences; but these, great as they may seem to us, are really slight when we take into account the differences in mental capacity and strength of will; but that the development of sin should ever be wholly wanting, is entirely contradicted by the testimony of our consciousness. And therefore we cannot but believe that so it would have been with the Redeemer Himself if he had been from His birth like other children. Whatever promise the angel had left laid up in the humble soul of Mary, however thoughtfully she might have prepared herself, in childlike and fervent fear of God, to be the mother and nurse of One who was to be called the Son of the Highest; still, if He was only to become this in the future, however faithfully and wisely she might have watched over the tender mind, and kept far from Him the wide-spread poison which, alas, is breathed by every child of man, she would not have been able entirely to guard Him from it; for here we recognise the limit of all, even the most perfect human love and faithfulness and wisdom. And if Christ had been a sinner even in the least degree, could He have been our Saviour? God might have spoken through Him, as through the prophets of the old covenant, who were, like ourselves, sinful men. But would we call ourselves after the name of a prophet -- would we gather together in the name of a prophet, whose work was only a continuation of what had gone before? And in deed, as there can never be little sin anywhere, however little it were thought to be in Him, we could never be sure that this continuation of the old way was the last. And though God might speak more fully by Him, and manifest Himself more clearly through His life than ever before, still all this would come only under the head of law. And whether an external law, written on tables of stone or brass, comes directly down from heaven, or is a human law and given through a man, such a law can never redeem the human race. Even when spoken by the holiest lips, and written with the finger of God, it can only produce a consciousness of sin, from which it provides no deliverance, -- a consciousness which, the more fully we recognise our sin, constrains us the more to cry, "Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" Salvation must consist, before everything, just in this, that we are freed from the consciousness of sin. We must have sinlessness clearly set forth to us; and the Redeemer is this living sinlessness; and only as we make this our own by the most intimate friendship and fellowship with Him, (as all things are common with friends), only so can we partake of the peace and blessedness which are the fruits of redemption.
Could this sinlessness, then, have been manifested to us in the Saviour and have claimed so entire a self-devotion on our part, if He was only at some future time to be filled, in some mysterious way, with the Holy Spirit and with divine power, even though it should be without measure and quite differently from those former prophets? If after this change He was still a man, and the very same man, and had not become a weird, spectral vision, whose history would constantly give us a feeling of repulsion, in spite of our reverence for His nature, still the remembrance of His former life and position could not be effaced, even supposing that after this wonderful, sanctifying change, He were incapable of ever again committing sin. And if He retained the memory of His former sinful state, -- well, let us see, from our own and the most common experience of men, what would follow from that. We feel that it is a sorrowful experience, one which in many respects we would rather leave hidden in silence than communicate, that even the most remote remembrance of former sin which our soul retains, never remains there only as a dead letter, a mere piece of knowledge, as of things that exist and go on apart from us. It remains as something alive, and often casts a stain on our holiest thoughts and actions, even on those in the beginnings of which we were most distinctly conscious of the power of the Holy Spirit; it lives in us to teach us that so long as man walks as sinful man on earth, richly as the grace of God may be poured out on him, his soul can never become so perfectly pure a mirror for that grace as it might have been if its depths had never been penetrated by anything of that poison. Then, if the Saviour was like us in having such memories, His after experience must also have been similar to ours. And do we not know that every sin of which even the slightest stirring remains in the soul will inevitably have the effect, in particular instances, which a besetting sin has habitually, of darkening our understanding, blinding our judgment and swaying it to false conclusions, and making dim and impure our view of the divine will? If, then, the Saviour had retained in His soul the faintest shadow of sin, how could we hope that the words in which He declares to us the will of His and our Father and unfolds our whole relation to Him, were such perfect truth, and rested on so clear and complete an understanding, that men might safely be guided by them for ever? How could we suppose that His whole being was in harmony, His human nature being entirely pervaded by and made one with the Spirit, so that He is the model after which all are to form themselves, the guide in whose footsteps all are to walk; without feeling at the same time that we could never exhaust His truth, even by our most earnest appropriation of it; never, even by the truest obedience, quite attain to His likeness? And yet it was just such a Saviour we needed if we were to feel entirely satisfied, and have no wish for any other to come after Him.
Let us look in this connection at the great and weighty words of the Saviour Himself -- words that so essentially distinguish Him from all the sons of earth: "I and my Father are one"; "He that hath seen Me, hath seen the Father." Let us reflect that these words contain, at the same time, the measure of our own union with Him; which, though we are brought into it by faith, is, as an effective reality, only to be attained to by degrees, according to His prayer for us, that we should be one with Him; from which it necessarily follows, that He who sees us sees Him. How can we take these words but in their full sense, as they stand? And how, in the case we have supposed, could the Saviour have used such words, without thereby appearing, as one who was either deluding himself with a vain fancy, or who, lest his hearers should apprehend his words too slightly, had, even with the best intentions, chosen expressions stronger than was consistent with truth, and so deluded with false hopes those who took His words in their exact meaning? Certainly, He must have given this impression, if, while He thus spoke, there had been about Him even the slightest taint of sin. For how could he, in whom remained the very faintest trace of sin, say that he was one with the Father, with Him who is the Father of Lights, Him who alone is good and pure, and to whom each one comes near only in proportion as he becomes a partaker in His goodness and purity? If those words of His are true, -- if there is a fellowship between Him and us which is an outcome of His oneness with the Father, the Word of God must have been in Him from the very beginning of His life, and have protected Him from all that had even the most distant likeness to sin: it must have guarded every development of His natural human powers, -- so guarded them that His very senses remained pure; waiting, as it were, till that indwelling divine power should gradually come into visible action, and seeking to be nothing but instruments of that power. Only if it was thus with Him from the beginning of His life could He justly say this of Himself.
And, finally, let us think of the holiness of Him before whom we come short, through sin, of all the approval that we should have had from Him; and that therefore we needed a helper, for whose sake this holy God could count and declare pure the whole human family; and who should, in His perfect purity, represent us all before His Father. Oh, even the faintest breath of corruption and sin cannot be hidden from this holy God; and if anything is impure in His sight, even in the smallest point, that may escape all other eyes, then the whole is impure. And thus our faith in the Saviour's mediation with the Father, -- our faith that we see in Him the image of the heavenly Father and the brightness of His glory, our faith in the completeness and perfection of His teaching, and its perpetual application, as well as in the sufficiency and unquestionable character of His commandments, -- our faith in all these respects depends on the fact that He came into this world as already the eternal Word, who was made flesh, -- as the light from above that shone into the darkness.
II. Let us consider, secondly, that if we do not take this view of the Saviour, the pure and unfeigned love of which He is the source, lacks its true motive. For both the spotless purity of true Christian love, and its breadth, in which it embraces the whole human race, depends on this; that He, for whose sake we thus love, and apart from whom such a love would certainly not be striven after, is such as He is here described to us.
Undeniably one of the strangest phenomena of the human soul is the conflict between two feelings, both lying deep in the noblest part of our nature, and yet constantly opposed to each other: our love to our fellows on the one side, and our pure sense of right and wrong, of good and evil, on the other. We may hate and oppose some fault ever so strongly, and yet if we find that fault in one to whom we have already become bound in love, how much we are inclined to excuse it, and to take a more lenient view even of what is most odious.
Does some human form or character attract our love? then, the more devoted our soul is to good and truth, the more readily is it seized with repulsion when we perceive the stirrings of sin or the breaking out of sensual corruption and foolish conceits, -- a repulsion that only too easily passes over into passion, and checks our love. Now, if we always mixed only with each other, having no other object of love than those who were sinners like ourselves, should we be capable of any other than this troubled kind of love -- a love always disturbing our noblest instincts? And could we, even in that case, be willing that our moral sense should be incapable of such emotions? -- emotions that cause us, even in a passing way, to pronounce harsh and cutting judgments on those we love, or actually to oppose them with something like enmity. No; we could not give up our noble and vigorous indignation against all that is opposed to the divine will. And hence, it follows that we could just as little love ourselves rightly as our brethren. For even the allowable and necessary love that we bear to ourselves is modified in the same way. The more strict a man is with himself, the more clearly the voice of the divine will speaks in him; just so much the oftener is he found in a state of transition and wavering between undisturbed satisfaction in the progress of which he is conscious, and the noblest scorn of himself. And it cannot be required of us to love even those nearest to us more than ourselves, or in quite another sense and manner. Indeed, to a man who loves and judges himself after this strict fashion, there can be but few, even among those who are most highly esteemed, and who seem the best and noblest, about whom his opinion and feeling will not have to vary as often as about himself, that is, if he is closely enough associated with them to have their inner life clearly revealed to him. This trial, then, is common to all! For we cannot but feel that a dark shadow thus broods over all human love, by which the pure light is clouded and broken, and the blessedness of our love is marred.
But, must we not as Christians refuse to accept such a position? Is it not unfeigned love to which the Bible calls us? Could the disciples of the Lord be known by their love to each other, if that love were only more or less different, in some indefinite way, from that natural, but, alas, so unsatisfying love which is found in all sound-hearted men? Well, then, how are we to attain to a different kind of love to others, and, therefore, also to ourselves? If we acknowledge Christ as having had the divine nature united in Him with the human from the beginning, so that, in our love to Him, love to our neighbour and love to the will of the heavenly Father are most perfectly the same thing; then we have at least One to whom our hearts can cling in entirely pure and unalloyed love. And only on the same assumption can His love to us be pure and unsullied. For the fact that He does not find the divine will living and reigning in us, forms no impediment to His love; it only stamps it with the special impress of helpful sympathy. And as we, remembering the voice from heaven, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased," live in the firm confidence that if we can in real truth say, by faith, "I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me," God regards us not as we are in ourselves, but only in this union with Christ, making us sharers in the good pleasure which He has in His Son; so, just as the result of this faith, the circle of our pure and unfeigned love becomes enlarged, and embraces all whom we know to be in union with Christ. Then whatever of human corruption we still find in our brethren appears to us to be taken away and annulled in Christ, and can only excite in us such a love as that with which He has loved us, -- a love that seeks to promote the life of Christ in them, so that it may become strong enough entirely to overcome the sin, whose occasional appearances will only remind us that the happiness we find in unalloyed love is a gift which we have received from above, and which could become ours through One alone. Here then, is a love very different from that natural kind! We may say of it, "Old things are passed away; behold, all is become new." But only through Christ, and for His sake, can we thus love. That uncertain, imperfect love can do nothing to wards purifying itself. One must be given to us, who directly both claims and creates pure love. Only so could the imperfect put on perfection; our love to others is only a truly sanctified love when it is a result of our love to Him, and a reflection of His love to us.
But if Christ was not One who gave us the impression of perfectly pure love, without the slightest suspicion of an imperfection in the beloved object, then we must always have remained in the old incomplete condition, and nothing better would have fallen to our lot. For if what we explained before is true, that even Christ, if at any time whatever in His human life there were motions of sin in Him, was not in a position to obliterate the remembrance and the living traces of them, then what follows? Glorious as He might appear to us afterwards in His public life, in His holy proclamation of the kingdom of God, in the courage and the certainty with which He invited men to Him and promised them refreshment and rest, as the greatest of the children of men, the choicest and greatest instrument pf God; yet hew could we restrain ourselves from striving to detect the traces of sin that we knew must exist? Indeed, the less we succeeded in finding out any definite imperfections or defects in His life, just the more surely would we assume that there were hidden defects under all that excellence that we are accustomed especially to laud and praise. And whether we were always obliged to do no more than assume, or had actually discovered individual instances, it would be all the same so far as love is concerned. We might love Him infinitely more than we love all others, we might cling to Him with a reverence to which nothing else could be compared, but still it would be an impure, a tainted love; it would not be different from our love towards other men, and therefore could not change and sanctify that love.
We have thus seen how this view of the Saviour affects the purity of true Christian love; let us next consider how on this it also necessarily depends that this love shall be universal; embracing, like Christ's salvation, the whole human race. It is true we usually regard it as an instinct of human nature, quite independent of the appearing of Christ, and as a precept dictated by human reason, that wherever we see a human being we should enter into relations of giving and receiving love. But we do not always remember that this only came to us first through Christ, and that it is one of the sad and ruinous results of sin that it confines and limits love in the human heart. And where, before the Son of God appeared, were the men -- where does history refer to any such? -- who so much as thought of requiring universal and unrestricted love either from themselves or others -- not to speak of really feeling it and acting on it? Such a conception could hardly take shape even in a few of the souls who devoted themselves to quiet meditation, and it passed away without becoming a living impulse in any direction; nor would it have shown itself more powerfully even in themselves if they had gone back to active life. For was not love everywhere confined to those who were related in language and race, so that to all beyond those limits there was a feeling, if not of hostility, at least of indifference? And indeed this was quite natural. Because reason itself, which demanded a universal fellowship of love, declared by that very demand that such a love ought to be natural to the human race, and that there would also be natural dissimilarities of all kinds in all the greater sections of the race, in virtue of which some would be more able to give and others be obliged to receive. But it was easier for every one to carry on this interchange of giving and receiving with those who spoke his own language. And therefore it seemed most fitting that every one should remain among his own people, and so it came to pass that out of this separation grew strife and hatred whenever the separate districts became embroiled either through the faults of individuals or by the pressure of human needs. And seeing that this state of things still exists everywhere in some degree, men not having yet fully embraced in heart the one Shepherd of the one flock, we know by experience that no human wisdom, wherever it might appear, no softening of manners that might be brought about in the course of time, could set us free from this limitation of love. But if men ceased to think that each community could find in itself all that was needful for its well-being, -- imperfection still existing everywhere, though everywhere also some germ of goodness and truth, -- and if the news were announced that the Dayspring from on high had somewhere appeared, a pure light that could and would dispel all darkness; -- if, on the one hand, men's hearts, wearied with imperfection, turned to that perfect light; and on the other, the Saviour, equal with the Father in love to the whole human race, inspired those who believed in Him as the Son of God with the conviction that in bringing Him and His peace to men they gave them something that could be obtained nowhere else; and if the love of Christ constrained them to carry the good news ever further and further, then the partition wall would fall, and hearts would be filled with a universal love, a love of which we catch glimmerings through the darkness of earthly strife that, alas! still sur rounds us; a love that, working outward from the heart, is ever becoming more victorious over that strife. And where indeed was that narrowing and isolating race-prejudice keener and stronger than just where our Lord was born? The nation who regarded all other nations as unclean, and avoided intercourse with them; who interpreted the Word of God as laying down the precept, Thou shalt love thy brother, and hate thine enemy; a people who, utterly failing to recognise that the narrowing laws under which they lived were only meant to keep them together till the light of the world should appear, imagined that God was their peculiar property, -- such a people could not of themselves have produced, nurtured, and instructed Him who is the Fountain of universal love. Had the Word of God not dwelt in Him from the beginning, guarding and protecting Him, how could He have escaped sharing in those narrowing ideas, rooted as they were in the whole life of the nation, and hallowed by all their traditions from the most ancient times?
Or are we to believe that He did not escape? that His disciples were the first to get above those prejudices -- they who had nothing but what they received from Him, and who so often failed to understand what He wished to communicate to them; they who afterwards only spoke and acted by the Spirit, who could not do otherwise than take of the things of Christ and show them to them? No, this we cannot believe; for the disciple was not above his Master, and they were constrained almost against their will, by the Lord's command, to preach the gospel to Samaritans and heathen, and to hold fellowship with them. But He, through the divine Word that dwelt in Him from the beginning, was safe from the influence of all those narrowing habits of thought; He was through His oneness with the Father the Author of a universal love, which, founded on the eternally planned union of all men, indicates the incarnation, in His person, of the divine power which can effect that union.
And now, in conclusion: without that faith which we have briefly denned, without that love which we have faintly pictured, what would redemption be worth to us? where would be the sanctification, where the righteousness which Christ was to be made, and has been made to us? If there is to be through Him glory to God in heaven; if through Him is to be glorified the spiritual creative power of the universal Creator, who has called the human race to something very different from their present imperfect state; if peace is to be established on earth through Him before whom all discord and hatred are constantly giving way, that all may become one in love; if an unmixed goodwill is to be possible to us -- and without that no salvation is to be thought of, -- then there must be a truly divine person as a Saviour, on whom our eyes can rest; One of whom it is true, from the beginning of His life, that in Him the Word was made flesh. And we have a sacred right to greet Him, even in the infant form in which He first appeared on earth, with holy reverence, not as He who was only to become the Saviour of men, but as being then actually such; not as He in whom the Father was afterwards to be glorified, but as already, though not manifestly, glorifying Him, and as He who was one with Him from the beginning.
This festival of the Saviour's infancy, which we all celebrate, is very specially the beautiful and joyful festival of the children. When we think of Him who for their sakes also took flesh and blood like them, our eyes rest on them with tender interest, while we lovingly promise them the blessedness that is to be found in faith and loyalty towards the Saviour. Let us then hold fast this truth, that, while He did indeed become a child like others, because He was to be like us in all things except sin; the divine power through which He was able to be the Saviour of the world must have been in Him, living and active, though concealed, from the beginning. Let us maintain that only in connection with this faith can that word which He spoke out of a loving heart towards the young have its complete fulfilment: "Of such is the kingdom of heaven." Amen.