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THE BIRTH AT BETHLEHEM.
Few events are regarded by a nation with deeper interest than the birth of a prince, more especially of an heir to the throne. The joy which at first fills the palace soon diffuses itself throughout the land. Bells peal forth their melodious greeting ; illuminations and bonfires express the popular delight; scarcely is there a countenance which does not beam with pleasure; and numerous addresses of congratulation are offered to the happy parents on whom Heaven has conferred the blessing of a child to inherit their honours. Yet, not seldom, such joy is exchanged for sorrowful disappointment. The child of promise is carried to a premature grave; or adverse fortune befals him; or else, instead of diffusing throughout his empire the blessings of a wise and equitable reign, he inflicts upon
his people all the bitter curses of a grinding tyranny:
We have now to speak of a prince, whose birth was declared to be the occasion of joy, not to a single nation only, but to the world—not only to men, but also to angels; a joy which would be succeeded by no disappointment, but would endure for ever.
Some eighteen centuries and a half ago, as a company of shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks by night on the plains of Bethlehem, and perhaps beguiling the dreary monotony of their employment by counting and admiring the beautiful stars which shed on them from the firmament their silvery light, or speaking together of that great event which was then the object of universal expectation—the coming of the long expected Messiah ; suddenly the whole scene became illuminated by a brilliant and more than earthly radiance, and there appeared above them a being so glorious—so diverse from every human form—that they instantly recognised him as an angel from heaven. Their minds were overawed with fear; and no wonder; for men have always regarded with an undefinable dread the appearance of visitants from another world. He addressed them, however, immediately in accents of encouragement. “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” No sooner had he delivered his message, than there appeared with him “a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory
to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will towards men.” To be thus heralded by angels, proclaimed Him to be a being of extraordinary greatness, and the work which he came to accomplish,—to be a work of incalculable importance.
But yet there were some other circumstances which ought not to pass unnoticed, and, when combined with those we have mentioned, prove it to be fraught with most momentous consequences. It had been the theme of prophecy, and the object of expectation for 4,000 years. When the time drew nigh, an angel was sent to announce the birth of one who should be the forerunner of the Messiah. The same messenger subsequently appeared to her for whom was destined the honour of becoming the mother of this distinguished child; and hailing her as highly favoured and blessed among women, he told her that she should conceive and bring forth a son, and call his name Jesus, because he should save his people from their sins, Gal. iv. 4, 5.
I. THE BIRTH OF JESUS WAS AN ACTUAL INCARNATION OF THE Deity. When the shepherds went, in accordance with the direction of the angel, to seek the holy child, they found nothing which was indicative of external greatness, but very much the
His parents were evidently poor; unable to obtain any worthier place for their reception than a stable, perhaps a damp dark cavern, for such in that neighbourhood were the common habitations for cattle. And there he was, very likely sharing that rude lodging with the oxen themselves. The child himself was feeble, helpless, dependent, like any other new-born babe-a child whose body must be nourished like the bodies of others, and whose mind must be developed and educated by just such teachings and just such influences as the minds of all besides. In no respect, save that of subjection to the power of sin, was Jesus Christ as a man different from the rest of mankind. He was susceptible of all the wants and infirmities and sorrows which are incident to humanity; " in all things made like unto his brethren.” And yet he was far more than human. In mysterious union with this nature of ours, there was a nature which was truly and properly divine. He was God as well as man. We do not profess to explain this. We accept it as a matter of simple faith, believing it because it is affirmed by Him who cannot lie. For no doctrine of revelation is there such ample proof as for that of the proper deity of our Lord Jesus Christ. When Isaiah announced his advent it was in terms like these, “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given : and the government shall be upon his shoulder : and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God,
The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace," Isa. ix. 6. “But thou, Beth-lehem Ephratah," says Micah (v. 2), “though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting." Passages both of which represent, as und in the same person, human descent, and yet divine greatness and perfection. When the angel appeared to the Virgin, he said, “ Behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest.” And in order to indicate the greatness of the promised one, and to evidence his freedom from all taint of sin, it was declared that his conception should be accomplished by the immediate operation of divine power. “ The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God," Luke i. 31, 32, 35. Zacharias, addressing his son, the future forerunner of Christ, says, “And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest : for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways." Speaking, let it be observed, under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, he calls the Lord “the Highest.” Of whom could it be said with propriety that he was “the Highest,” save of the Infinite God? Luke i. 76. In the commencement of his gospel, the evangelist John says,
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of
grace and truth,” John i. 14. So the apostle Paul declares it to be the “great mystery of godliness, that God was manifest in the flesh.” These are not a twentieth part of the passages we might adduce, but they are amply sufficient. The tenant of the manger of Bethlehem, then, was the Son of God.
6 The brightness of the Father's glory, and the express image of his person,” had shrouded the splendours of his infinite majesty beneath the veil of that human form, and there was incarnate deity. And not only does he assume our mortal Aesh, he assumes it in circumstances of the utmost lowliness. Had he willed it, the costliest palace might have been prepared for his reception, and high born princes might have been appointed to hail his advent, and to form his retinue. But instead, he prefers the manger of Bethlehem, and “does not abhor the Virgin's womb."
JI. THE BIRTH OF JESUS WAS THE FULFILMENT OF LONGCHERISHED EXPECTATIONS. Thoughtful minds aniongst other people than the Jews were, at the time of Christ's appearance, deeply conscious of the poverty and worthlessness of their best systems, and were longing for some teacher from heaven, who should dispel the darkness in which they were involved, and explain to them those mysteries of existence by which they were so hopelessly perplexed. That visit of the Magi to Bethlehem, to which we have already adverted, may be cited in proof of the existence of such an expectation beyond the limits of Judea. We do not stay to inquire how the persuasion first arose in their minds, whether it sprang from their consciousness of need, or from their intercourse with Jews, or from their study of the Jewish scriptures, or from express revelation. We only dwell upon the fact that the persuasion did exist, as showing that Christ was the desire of the Gentiles, as well as of the Jews. On the best grounds, however, Israel was looking for a deliverer. God had promised by his inspired servants, the prophets, that he would raise up for them a king under whose beneficent reign they should enjoy the most inestimable blessings. Amidst fallen fortunes and deep degeneracy, and whilst pining away in exile, they ever clung with fond expectation to the promise of the Messiah. That was the star of their national hope, and it kept them many a time from sinking in despair. And now the time was at hand. Groaning beneath the Roman yoke, they felt that if ever such a deliverer was needed, it was now. There was, besides, one prophecy, that of Daniel, which expressly specified that period as the period of his advent. All classes were looking for him. The anticipations of some were earthly and grovelling. They desired and expected nothing more than a leader who should trample their foes beneath their feet, and restore the ancient glory of their race. Others; such for instance as the aged Simeon, and Anna, and perhaps the shepherds of Bethlehem, were “waiting," with purer and more spiritual, though still with very indefinite views, i for the consolation of Israel." Great prominence, then, was given, in the respective announcements of the birth of Jesus, to the fact that he was the promised Messiah. It was implied in what the angel said to Mary, “ And the Lord shall give unto him the throne of his father David.” So Zacharias understood it. “ And hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David ; as he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began." Then, too, the angel described him to the shepherds as a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” It was revealed also to Simeon that he should not “ see death till he had seen the Lord's Christ," and the aged saint was led by the Spirit to the temple at the very time when the parents of Jesus took him thither, to do for him
according to the custom of the law. It was indeed news to those waiting Israelites that Christ was born. And not less are they tidings of great joy to us; for the “day of Christ” is the brightest era of the church's history-a day of glorious light and of unspeakable privilege.
III. THE BIRTH OF JESUS EVINCED IN THE MOST REMARK
ABLE MANNER THE DIVINE CONDESCENSION TOWARDS MAN
KIND. “Will God in very deed dwell with men on the earth ?” was the wondering and awe-struck exclamation of Solomon at the dedication of the temple at Jerusalem. He might well deem it an almost incredible thing that a Being so great, and so holy, should hold communion with creatures so inferior and so polluted as we are.
But it is a truth. God has ever dwelt with men, instructing them, guiding them, receiving their worship, and conferring upon them the most invaluable blessings. Could Solomon, however, have thought, that God would become incarnate, how much greater, how inexpressible would have been his astonishment! “ It is the greatest glory of this lower world,” says Maclaurin, “ that its Creator was for a while its inhabitant. A poor
landlord thinks it a lasting honour to his cottage that he has once lodged a prince or an emperor. With how much more reason may our poor cottage, this earth, be proud of it that the Lord of glory was its tenant from his birth to his death! Yea, that he rejoiced in the habitable parts of it before it had a beginning. It was the glory of the world that he who formed it dwelt upon it; of the air, that he breathed it; of the sun, that it shone upon him; of the ground, that it bore him; of the sea, that it nourished him ; of the waters, that they refreshed him; of us men, that he lived and died among us, yea, that he lived and died for us; that he assumed our flesh and blood, and carried it to the highest heavens, where it shines, the eternal ornament and wonder of the creation of God.” IV. THE BIRTH OF JESUS WAS PREPARATORY TO ATONE
The angel announced to the shepherds “a Saviour;" and to Mary it was said, “ Thou shalt call his name Jesus : for he shall save his people from their sins.” The world needed a Saviour, for erery man is a transgressor. Men may be intelligent, amiable, upright; they may fulfil to the perfect satisfaction of all who know them every social and relative duty; but, notwithstanding, they are sinners. The law of God demands a perfect obedience, the conformity to its requitements of all the thoughts of the heart, as well as of all the utterances of the lips, and all the actions of the life. And unless there be such a perfect obedience, we must be condemned. “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are
MENT FOR HUMAN GUILT.