A Journey From Faith To Praise
What was the mental and spiritual effect of the Christmas message upon those who first heard it? With simple, unquestioning faith, the shepherds go to find the Babe in Bethlehem. There, “they made known concerning the saying which was told them about this Child. And all they that heard it wondered…But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God…”
Here are four reactions of the human mind and spirit to the wondrous message of Christmastide. Here are faith, wonder, meditation, praise. It is true that one or two of the terms are more definitely applied to some of those mentioned than to others. But the statements, viewed as a whole, and made in connection with one of the first records of the Incarnation, suggest a fourfold attitude with which we ourselves should reverently approach the matchless story of the birth of the Redeemer of mankind.
And it is in this attitude of mind and spirit that we will seek, by God’s help, to view, first of all, the mystery of the Incarnation—the revealed secret of the divine eternal purpose.
Here, if anywhere, is a subject for faith, and for marveling faith. Dr. [David M.] M’Intyre, in his book entitled, “Christ the Lord,” at the opening of his main chapter on the Incarnation, declares that “the glory and burden of our common faith, the rapture and amazement of our adoration, is the mystery of godliness, God manifest in the flesh.” A little later, speaking of the term “In carnation” as “the compression into one word of that signal utterance of the evangelist—‘the Word became flesh’,” he says: “After many pauses and experiments theology singled out this text, and placed it as the chief corner stone of the doctrine of Christ.”
It is this, because we know that by virtue of His perfect deity and perfect humanity He is the only possible Mediator between God and man. And it is, emphatically, a topic for faith, not for understanding; for wonder, not debate. We recall the prolonged and dangerous “pauses and experiments” of the early centuries, before the doctrine so fundamental to our faith was mercifully established, in the providence of God. Discussions were then inevitable; but they issued in a conclusion for faith, not for understanding—faith which was based upon the direct revelations of the Word of God. We do well if we accept them in the spirit of wondering faith.
Yet, though a full understanding of the mystery is so far beyond human comprehension, it as fit a topic for meditation as for marvel. Mary “pondered these things in her heart”; and we may well do the same. The word used is a remarkable one, as if she tried to “piece together,” so to speak, the marvelous occurrences of which she had just heard. This is even more appropriate to the later part of our subject, as we shall see; but the mystery of the Incarnation itself, apart from its wondrous purpose, is one upon which we should meditate with reverential awe.
And this should lead to grateful adoration: our fourth point follows—or should follow—more naturally than perhaps it does. Adoration forms too small a part of Christian devotions. Reverent pondering should lead to adoring praise.
But the aspect of the Incarnation which is especially brought before us in St. Luke’s account is the great humility of the coming of the King of kings: it is St. John who dwells especially upon its majestic mystery. And so we pass to think of the mode of the Incarnation.
Who would have imagined beforehand that, if the purpose of God were to take human flesh He would have chosen to be born in the lowly station and the humble circumstances of which we read especially in this account of St. Luke’s Gospel? Truly, His thoughts are not our thoughts. And how typical it was of the humiliation of the whole earthly course of Him who “was despised and rejected of men,” who “came unto His own, and His own received Him not,” and who (the men of His generation blindly thought) ended His career upon a cross of shame!
This lowly mode of His coming was no barrier to the simple faith of the shepherds; and verily it is no barrier to ours. We know how it enhances the glory of His redeeming work. His manner of coming among men does but add to the marvel of the grace of God. It gives us fresh food for meditation, further ground for adoring praise.
“Ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that ye through His poverty might be rich.” He, “being in the form of God, counted it not a prize to be on an equality with God, but emptied Himself”—“stripped Himself of His glory” (Weymouth)—“taking the form of a servant”; yea, in the issue, He “humbled Himself, becoming obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross.”
For the cradle is but the beginning of the wondrous story. Christmas sets us on the pathway of meditation upon the accomplishment of the redeeming work of God. And so we pass on to think of the purpose of the Incarnation.
The closest connection must ever be maintained, in our faith, between the Incarnation and the atoning work on Calvary. The Saviour came in order to redeem: He did not redeem by coming only. Much of modern teaching has its centre in the Incarnation, not in the Cross.
This involves a complete misapprehension of divine revelation. The coming of God in human flesh could of itself have wrought no salvation. Incarnation of itself could not have effaced the effects of the Fall. The most beneficent ministry among the men of one generation could not have similarly benefitted other generations then past or future; nor could such a ministry, and such an example, either atone for human sin, or enable for human victory.
The atonement, as much as the Incarnation, is a topic for faith, not for understanding; for wonder, not debate. Yet it must be an intelligent wonder: it must be based upon the clear teaching of Holy Scripture, not upon latter-day speculations which either ignore or openly deny that teaching. And a marveling faith of this kind will surely find here, too, a subject for heart-pondering, for reverent meditation which issues in adoring praise.
In the atoning work of our Lord (with which we must couple His resurrection as closely as does Holy Writ) we see the culmination of the mystery which was hidden from Mary’s eyes when she pondered these things in her heart. We, though we cannot fully understand, can at least “piece together,” under the light of divine revelation, the various outworkings of the redeeming purpose of God, to a far greater extent than she then could. As it has been said, “she could not as yet understand all that had been said and done, but she received it in faith, and waiting till it should be made clear.” But what she heard from the shepherds did show that her Child was the Messiah, the Centre of Israel’s hope. Here was a topic for meditation, indeed. And what she was to hear from Simeon, not long afterwards, showed her that His light was also to lighten the Gentiles; and even foreshadowed the Cross, in however mysterious terms. “Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also.” We know, as she could scarcely then know, that here was the very method by which He became the Centre of hope for all mankind, and not for Israel only—“a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of God’s people Israel.”
Thus are linked, for our faith and our wonder, our meditation and our praise, the two great fundamental truths of redeeming love. The Incarnate Son made atonement for the sin of man; the slain Lamb took away the sin of the world; the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanseth from all sin; by His death and rising again He has overcome both sin and death, for all who put their trust in Him.
How closely, indeed, are those two great doctrines linked! We have already dwelt upon the fact that Incarnation by itself could have effected no salvation. But it is equally true that no atonement could have been made without it. It was the Incarnation of the Son of God that made atonement possible; it was His death that made it actual; it was His resurrection that guaranteed it as effectual.
It was by the Incarnation that He became—as we saw He is—the only possible Mediator between God and man. He is Mediator, because He, and only He can touch heaven with one hand and Earth with the other; because, with one arm laid firmly on the eternal throne, He stretched out the other to deliver fallen humanity. He, as perfect God and perfect Man, is the one, the only bridge that can span the chasm of separation between God and man which sin has caused. By that bridge alone have we present access to the throne of God, and assurance of future life in the state of final redemption. If He is deprived of either His deity or His humanity, He is bereft of His perfect glory, and we are lost.
Faith, wonder, meditation, praise. Are these the reactions which the wondrous Christmas story evokes in our hearts?
We will not here dwell upon the entirely Christ-less celebrations of a large proportion of the people in a nominally Christian country. What of ourselves? Christmas hymns and Christmas carols are prime favourites in British homes and churches: is it really because of the Christmas message, or because of that swing both of melody and of poetry which seems to distinguish them from the sacred songs of any other season? Or is it merely because of the peculiar appeal of the human associations of the story, which are portrayed with such especial vividness in the record of St. Luke which has been before us today? Let us seek to rise higher than that.
Familiarity has tended too greatly to blunt the edge of our spiritual perception of the marvels which are attached to the Incarnation of our Lord, and to the redeeming work which was the purpose of His Incarnation—the glory and the grace of His Person and of His work. We acquiesce in confessing them, of course; but have we the due sense of wondering, grateful awe? It will be well if we seek, by the light of the divine Spirit, to revive that sense; if we meditate in faith upon the illimitable consequences of the coming of the Son of God in human flesh—reaching, as they appear to do, even farther than the work of redemption for man, which was the central purpose of His coming; well for us, too, if we can find the issue of that meditation in adoring praise.
“The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen.” As it has been beautifully said, in this same connection, “the journey that is begun in faith, will generally end in praise.” We have viewed faith as the first step in the believer’s wondering meditation upon these great mysteries of divine revelation today. Shall not praise be the step which ends the journey of our thoughts?