Luke 2:1


We now pass from the person of the forerunner to that of his greater Successor. The priest's son was great, but the Virgin's Son was greater. John was a great gift to the world, as every true reformer must be; but a Savior is God's supreme Gift to the children of men. Now, in this narrative before us we learn -

I. HOW THE WILL OF EVEN HEATHEN MONARCHS IS MADE TO FULFIL THE WILL OF GOD. The Divine will, expressed seven centuries before this time by Micah the prophet (Micah 5:2), was that Jesus should be born in Bethlehem. But until a short time before his birth appearances seemed to show that he must be born in Nazareth. When lo! Augustus, the heathen emperor at Rome, demands a census, and the Jewish families must enrol themselves at the tribal cities. This simple circumstance, whose purpose was the levy of men or the levy of money, brought Mary to Bethlehem in time to become, in the appointed place, the mother of the Lord. It surely shows the full command which God has over the wills even of those who are not his worshippers. He is the Sovereign of all men, whether they like it or know it or not. Cyrus was his shepherd, although he did not know God (Isaiah 44:28; Isaiah 45:4); and Augustus orders a census and "keeps books" in subservience to Divine purposes and fulfillment of Divine promises.

II. HOW LITTLE WELCOME DID THE WORLD GIVE ITS NEW-BORN SAVIOR. The birth in Bethlehem was the most important birth which ever took place in our planet. Had the world appreciated the advent, it would have heralded it on every shore; but so little wisdom was there in the world that the precious Child had, so to speak, to steal into the world in a stable and among the cattle. It was humiliating to be born, even had palace halls received him; but how humiliating to be born in the common cattlepen, because there was no room for Mary in the inn! And yet, in thus making his advent, he identified himself not only with the poorest, but also made common cause with the beasts. They, too, have benefited through Christ being born - there is less cruelty to animals in Christian than in other lands; and the religion of love he came to embody and proclaim will yet do more to ameliorate the condition of the beasts. Meanwhile let us notice how sad it is if men have no hospitality to show to Jesus, but still exclude him from their hearts and homes!

III. THE FIRST GOSPEL SERMON WAS PREACHED BY AN ANGEL. The importance of the birth at Bethlehem, if unrecognized by man, is realized by angels. Heavenly hosts cannot be silent about it. They must begin the telling of the glad tidings. If we suppose that the shades of night threw their mantle over Mary when the Babe was born, then it would seem that interested angels looked for an immediate audience to hear the wondrous story. Where shall one be found? The inn is full of sleepers or revellers; they are not fit to hear the message of peace and joy. But outside Bethlehem in the fields are shepherds - humble men, doubtless, and despised as in all ages. Still, they are kind to the sheep - "saviours," in some sense, of the dumb animals they tend and feed - and now in the night watches they are awake and watchful. Here, then, is the angel's audience. Does it not instruct preachers to be content with very humble hearers, and it may be sometimes very few hearers? An audience may be most important, even though few and despised. But we must next notice the message of the angel. Coming with dazzling light, perhaps the Shechinah-glory encircling him, he first scared the poor shepherds. They were "sore afraid." It was needful, therefore, that he should first put to flight their fears, and then proclaim the glad tidings of a Savior's birth, which gospel is intended for all people. The sign also which he gives is that the Babe shall be found in swaddling-clothes and lying in a manger. It is a message about a Savior in apparent weakness but in real power. Such is the gospel. It is a message about a personal Savior, who, in spite of all appearances, is "the Mighty God, the Father of Eternity, and the Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6). We must "preach Christ" unto men if we know what it is to preach the gospel. Again, we must notice the angelic choir. The angel has arranged for a "service of praise" along with his preaching. There is the angel's sermon and then the angels' song. The sermon is short, but its contents are of priceless value. The same may be said of the angels' song. It speaks simply of "glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men in whom he is well pleased" (Revised Version). It must have been a melodious service - such music as heavenly harmony secures; angelic choristers doing their best to interest and elevate a few poor shepherds. Another lesson, surely, to those who would "sing for Jesus." The preaching of the gospel should be backed up by the singing of the gospel. Praise has its part to play as well as preaching and prayer. It was at the praise part of the dedication service in Solomon's temple that The glory of the Lord appeared (2 Chronicles 5:11-14).

IV. THE AUDIENCE PUT THE PREACHING TO AN IMMEDIATE TEST. The shepherds, as soon as the angels passed away, went at once to Bethlehem. They were resolved to see for themselves. There was a risk in this, for the sheep might be endangered in their absence; but they resolve to run the risk if they can see the Savior. "Never venture, never win." Hence they came with haste to Mary, and gaze with rapture on her Child. They see and believe. They are ready to accept this "little Child" as the Savior of the world. A little Child was leading them! Next we find them becoming his witnesses. They tell all who will listen to them what the angel said, and what they consequently had been led to Bethlehem to see. Having found a personal Savior, they cannot but proclaim him to others. One who listened to their story and profited by it was Mary. She pondered their sayings in her heart. The shepherds have become important witnesses for the incarnate Savior. So should all be who have really seen him by the eye of faith. But yet again, the shepherds, like the-angels, burst into praise. "They returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them." This is the real end of gospel preaching when it leads the audience up to praise. Hence this is represented as the chief employment of the redeemed. Experience is only perfected when God is praised.

V. WE SEE HERE A HUMAN SUCCEEDING AN ANGELIC MINISTRY, It does seem strange that such a gospel should not be preached by angels. That they are anxious to do so appears from this narrative. We may be sure that they would esteem it highest honor to proclaim the message of salvation unto man. But after short visits and short sermons, the angels are withdrawn, and these poor shepherds spread the glad tidings, telling in a very humble way what they have seen and heard. It is God's plan, and must be best. It is those who need and have found a Savior who are best adapted to proclaim him to others. A human ministry is more homely and sympathetic and effectual than perhaps any angelic ministry could be. Besides, a human ministry is less cavilled at and objected to than an angelic would be. We thus learn at Bethlehem important lessons about preaching to humble audiences, and out o£ them manufacturing preachers. The angels were doubtless satisfied as they looked down upon the shepherds who had listened so eagerly to their story, and saw them becoming preachers in their turn. To multiply Christ's witnesses is the great work of preachers whether angelic or human. - R.M.E.









A decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.
Was that infant at Bethlehem no more than a subject of the Roman emperor? Was Christianity the mere product of these outward favouring circumstances? Not so. It is true that from these circumstances the fulness of time took its shape and colour. Without that shelter it would not have been, humanly speaking, what now it is. But the spark of life itself was independent of any local or national state. The very characteristic of the life of Christ is that which soared above any such local limit. Therefore it is that He was born, apart from all the stir and turmoil of the world, in a humble stall, in a dark cavern, in a narrow street of an obscure mountain village. Therefore it is that He lived for thirty years in the secluded basin of the unknown, unconsecrated Nazareth; that He passed away without attracting a single word of notice from any contemporary poet or philosopher of that great court, which has made the reign of Caesar Augustus proverbial to all time as the "Augustan age." Born under the empire, there was in Jesus Christ nothing imperial, except the greatness of His birth. Born under the Roman sway, there was nothing in Him Roman except the world-wide dominion of His Spirit. From Caesar Augustus comes out a decree that all the world should be taxed, subdued, civilized, united. All honour to him for it! All vigilance, all exertion, all prudence, be ours to watch and seize all the opportunities that are given to us. But it is from God that there come these flashes of life and light, of goodness and of genius, which belong to no age, but which find their likeness in that Divine Child, which was born, not of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. This, then, is the double principle of which the birth of Christ is the most striking example; external circumstances are something, but they are not everything The inward life is the essential thing; but for its successful growth it needs external circumstance. There are a thousand ways in which this double lesson is forced upon us, but the most striking illustration is still to be found in the contrast of the same double relation to the circumstances of world, century, country, or Church in which we live. And, on the other hand, there is our own separate existence and character with its own work to do — its own special nourishment from God.

(Dean Stanley.)

s: — It was remarkable that the birth of Christ should take place in connection with the process of a great political engagement. Whilst men were moving from all quarters, in response to the decree of Caesar Augustus, the angels of heaven were gathering around the world's greatest event. We need historical landmarks to help our memory of the best things. Blessed is that nation whose political eras are associated with the highest religious experiences.

(J. Parker, D. D.)

Great as are the historic difficulties in which this census is involved, there seem to be good independent grounds for believing that it may have been originally ordered by Sextius Saturinus, that it was begun by Publeius Sulpicius Quirinus, when he was for the first time legate of Syria; and that it was completed during his second term of office. In deference to Jewish prejudices, any infringement of which was the certain signal for violent tumults and insurrections, it was not carried out in the ordinary Roman manner, at each person's place of residence, but, according to Jewish custom, at the town to which their family originally belonged. The Jews still clung to their genealogies and to the memory of long-extinct tribal relations; and though the journey was a weary and distasteful one, the mind of Joseph may well have been consoled by the remembrance of that heroic descent which would now be authoritatively recognized, and by the glow of those Messianic hopes to which the marvellous circumstances of which he was almost the sole depositary would give a tenfold intensity.

(Archdeacon Farrar.)

I. 1. Consider the decree that went forth from the emperor. How important it must have appeared to the Roman authorities!

2. Consider also the scene that night at Bethlehem. Little knew the people who were filling that inn whom they were turning out!

II.

1. Learn that God is working in all the events of life, great or small; bringing out of them issues very different from the issues intended by the actors in those events. Emperors are but officials in God's Temple, and their decrees are but means by which He carries out His.

2. Learn that God's work does not appeal to the outward senses. It is born at lowly Bethlehem rather than in powerful Rome or in self-righteous Jerusalem. Yet it lasts to eternity.

3. Learn also how the work of Christ in us is like His work in the world. He has to be born in each one of us.

(Canon Vernon Hutton, M. A.)

Augustus, while sending forth his edicts to the utmost limits of the East, little knew that on his part he was obeying the decrees of the King of kings. God had foretold that the Saviour should be born in Bethlehem. In order that this might be accomplished He made use of Augustus, and through this prince the order was given for the census of the whole people. At the sight of those wars and revolutions that upset the world you feel inclined to imagine that God no longer governs the world or those in it. You are mistaken, God permits that these awful catastrophes should take place, just for the salvation and perfection of this or that person whom the world knows not.

(De Boylesve.)

I. DIVINE POWER IN THE INCARNATION. II. WISDOM

(1)in the time;

(2)place;

(3)circumstances.

III. FAITHFULNESS.

IV. HOLINESS. Hiding His wonders from unbelievers.

V. Love (John 3:16).

(Van Doren.)

1. Caesar Augustus. Son of Octavius and Aria; licentious and treacherous. Superstitious — oft borne to the temple before day, for prayer. Generous, vain, ambitious, warlike, another Louis XIV. Cruel — three hundred senators and two hundred knights murdered with his consent. Defeated at sea, he dragged Neptune's statue into the sea. His daughter Julia, by her infamy, embittered his last days. Reigned 44 years, died aged 76. A long and splendid reign. In Augustus, see man's nothingness, amid earthly splendour. In Mary, see highest destiny, amid earthly meanness.

(Van Doren.)

There is a fine propriety in celebrating once a year the nativity. Our ignorance of the date is no valid objection. We do not hesitate to date our letters and documents Anno Domini 1887, although in doing so we commit an error of at least four years, and perhaps six. The all-important thing here is not the time of the nativity, but the fact of the nativity. And, if one day in every week the Church of Immanuel celebrates the resurrection of her Lord, is it unbecoming that she should one day in every year celebrate that nativity without which there had never been either resurrection or redemption, or even the Church herself? And now let us attend to the story of the birth of Immanuel. More than seven centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ, the prophet Micah gave utterance to the following remarkable prophecy:

Thou, Beth-lehem Ephratah,

Which art little to be among the thousands of Judah,

Out of thee shall One come forth unto me

Who is to be ruler in Israel;

Whose goings forth are from of old,

From everlasting.

That same Almighty God who, through the restlessness of a Persian monarch, had rescued from annihilation the national stock from which His Anointed was to spring, prepared a birthplace for His Anointed through the edict of a Roman emperor. For, when the fulness of the time had come, and the Christ was to be born, Caesar Augustus issued a decree that all the world should be enrolled. And thus a minute prophecy, a thousand times imperilled in the course of seven centuries, was at last minutely accomplished. Oh, who does not feel that a God is here? Who can resist the conviction that this God has had from the beginning His purposes, and actually controls every movement of every human will? Yet there is no reason for supposing that Augustus Caesar, in issuing his decree for a universal census, was conscious that in so doing he was preparing the way for the accomplishment of an ancient prediction. A Roman, he cared nothing for the Hebrews. A pagan, he knew nothing of Messianic prophecies. His issuing a decree of enrolment was nothing unnatural or extraordinary; it was one of the commonest acts of a political ruler, and he himself was one of the most methodical of men. Yet who can doubt that Caesar Augustus, in issuing this decree, was accomplishing a predetermined purpose of the Ancient of Days? Nevertheless, nothing is clearer than this: Caesar Augustus, in publishing this edict, and Joseph and Mary, in visiting Bethlehem in accordance with its requirements, acted as perfectly free, voluntary beings. Now, I have not alluded to this matter for the purpose of attempting to solve a frequently propounded problem — namely, the reconciliation of Divine sovereignty and human freedom. Considered practically in its matter-of-fact aspect, this subject presents no difficulty. It is only when we pry into that domain of infinite problems which God has not opened to us that we become bewildered and lost. Duty, not metaphysics, is our rule for life. Let me conclude with three reflections.

I. THE BIRTH AT BETHLEHEM CONSECRATED AND GLORIFIED ALL INFANCY. AS Athena was fabled to have sprung full-grown and panoplied from the cloven brow of Zeus, so the Christ and Son of God might have descended into humanity an unborn, adult Adam; for the distance between babe and man is infinitely less than the distance between man and God. But, no; He descended into humanity through the avenue of birth and babyhood, coming, like any other infant, under the law of growth, and so consecrating all life from cradle to grave, hallowing birth as well as death. The birth at Bethlehem made babyhood a sacred thing. And so the very infancy of Jesus is a gospel.

II. THE TREATMENT OF THE HOLY FAMILY AT BETHLEHEM'S INN WAS A PROPHECY OF THE WORLD'S TREATMENT OF JESUS CHRIST EVER SINCE. It is, I repeat, a picture of the world's treatment of Jesus Christ ever since. It does not repulse Him; it simply has no room for Him. The world seizes the inn; Christianity must put up with a stable.

(G. D Boardman.)

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