"And she brought forth her first-born son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn."-Luke ii. 7.
In the birth and birthplace of Jesus, there is something beautifully correspondent with his personal fortunes afterward, and also of the fortunes of his gospel, even down to our own age and time. He comes into the world, as it were to the taxing, and there is scant room for him even at that.
A Roman decree having been issued, requiring the people to repair to their native place to be registered for taxation, Joseph and Mary set off for Bethlehem. The khan or inn of the village is full, when they arrive, and, being humble persons, they are obliged to find a place in the stall or stable, where the holy child is born. It so happens, not by any slight of the guests, in which they mock the advent of the child, for he makes his advent only as the child of two very common people. But there is a great concourse and crowd-senators, it may be, landowners, merchants, money-changers, tradesmen, publicans, peddlers, men of all sorts-and the most forward, showiest, best attended, boldest in airs of consequence, take up all the places, till in fact no place is left. What they have secured too it is their conceded right to keep. If the carpenter and his wife are in a plight, people as humble as they can well enough take the stable, when there is nothing better to be had.
So it was, and perhaps it was more fitting to be so; for the great Messiah's errand allows no expectation of patronage, even for his infancy. He comes into the world and finds it preoccupied. A marvelous great world it is, and there is room in it for many things; room for wealth, ambition, pride, show, pleasure; room for trade, society, dissipation; room for powers, kingdoms, armies and their wars; but for him there is the smallest room possible; room in the stable but not in the inn. There he begins to breathe, and at that point introduces himself into his human life as a resident of our world-the greatest and most blessed event, humble as the guise of it may be, that has ever transpired among mortals. If it be a wonder to men's eyes and ears, a wonder even to science itself, when the flaming air-stone pitches into our world, as a stranger newly arrived out of parts unknown in the sky, what shall we think of the more transcendent fact, that the Eternal Son of God is born into the world; that proceeding forth from the Father, not being of our system or sphere, not of the world, he has come as a Holy Thing into it-God manifest in the flesh, the Word made flesh, a new divine man, closeted in humanity, there to abide and work until he has restored the race itself to God! Nor is this wonderful annunciation any the less welcome, or any the less worthy to be celebrated by the hallelujahs of angels and men, that the glorious visitant begins to breathe in a stall. Was there not a certain propriety in such a beginning, considered as the first chapter and symbol of his whole history, as the Saviour and Redeemer of mankind?
But I am anticipating my subject, viz., the very impressive fact that Jesus could not find room in the world, and has never yet been able to find it.
I do not understand, you will observe, that this particular subject is formally stated or asserted in my text. I only conceive that the birth of Jesus most aptly introduces the whole subsequent history of his life, and that both his birth and life as aptly represent the spiritual fortunes of his gospel as a great salvation for the world. And the reason why Jesus can not find room for his gospel is closely analogous to that which he encountered in his birth; viz., that men's hearts are preoccupied. They do not care, in general, to put any indignity on Christ; they would prefer not to do it; but they are filled to the full with their own objects already. It is now as then and then as now; the selfishness and self-accommodation, the coarseness, the want of right sensibility, the crowding, eager state of men, in a world too small for their ambition-all these preoccupy the inn of their affections, leaving only the stable, or some by-place, in their hearts, as little worthy of his occupancy and the glorious errand on which he comes.
See how it was with him in. his life. Herod heard the rumor that the Messiah, that is, the king, was born, and it being specially clear that there was no room for two kings in Galilee, raised a slaughter general among the children, that he might be sure of getting this particular one out of the way. Twelve years later when Joseph and his mother turned back to seek the child at Jerusalem, where they had left him, and found him sitting with the doctors of the temple, asking them questions and astonishing their comprehension by his answers; when also his mother, remonstrating with him for remaining behind, hears him say that he "must be about his Father's business," and goes home pondering his strange answer in her heart; how clear is it that they, none of them, have room, even if they would, to take in the conception of his divine childhood, or the history preparing in it. John the Baptist, again, even after he has testified in the Spirit on seeing him approach-"Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world!" and has all but refused to baptize him because of his superior dignity, grows doubtful afterward, yields to misgivings, gets perplexed, like any poor half-seeing sinner, with his mystery, and finally sends to inquire whether he is really the Christ, or whether some other is still to be looked for! is great ministry, wonderful in its dignity and power, wins but the scantiest hospitality; he journeys on foot through many populous towns and by the gates of many palaces, sleeping in desert places of the mountains, as he slept his first night in a manger, not having where to lay his head. Nicodemus, and many others probably in the higher conditions of life, felt the sense of some mysterious dignity in him, and went, even by night, to receive lessons of spiritual instruction from him, yet never took him to his house, and too little conceived him to so much as break silence at his trial by a word of vindication. The learned rabbis could have bid him welcome, if he had come teaching "corban," or the precise mode or merit of baptizing cups, or tithing anise, but when he spoke to them of judgment and mercy and the right of doing good on Sundays, they had no room, in their little theologies, for such a kind of doctrine. His own disciples got but the slenderest conception of his person and mission from his very explicit teachings. They still wanted even the explanations of his parables explained. It was as if the sun had broken out upon a field of moles-there was a wonderful incapacity and weakness in all their apprehensions; he shone too brightly and they could see only the less. The priests, and rabbis, and magistrates, saw enough in him to be afraid of him, or rather of his power over the people. They charged him, before Pilate, with a design to make himself king instead of Cæsar, and when he answered, in effect, that he came only to be king of the truth, Pilate, greatly mystified by his answer, and the more that he had the sense of some strange power in his person, wanted still, like a child, to know what he could mean by the truth? On the whole it can not be said that Christ ever once found room, and a clear receptivity for his person, any where, during his mortal life. Mary and Martha did their best to entertain him and give him a complete hospitality, and yet their hospitality so little conceived him as to assume that being nicely lodged, and complimented with a delicate housewifery, was a matter of much more consequence than it was; even more, a great deal, than to fitly receive the heaven-full of honor and beauty brought into their house in his person. And so it may be truly said of him that he came unto his own, and his own received him not. lie was never accepted as a guest of the world any more than on that first night in the inn. There was not room enough in the world's thought and feeling to hold him, or even to suffer so great a presence, and he was finally expelled by an ecclesiastical murder.
At the descent of the Spirit there was certainly a great opening in the minds of his disciples concerning him, and there has been a slow, irregular, and difficult progress in the faith and perception of mankind since that day, but we shall greatly mistake, if we suppose that Christ has ever found room to spread himself at all in the world, as he had it in his heart to do, when he came into it, and will not fail to do, before his work is done.
Were a man to enter some great cathedral of the old continent, of which there are many hundreds, survey the vaulted arches and the golden tracery above, wander among the forests of pillars on which they rest, listen to the music of choirs and catch the softened light that streams through sainted forms and histories on the windows, observe the company of priests, gorgeously arrayed, chanting, kneeling, crossing themselves, and wheeling in long processions before the great altar loaded with gold and gems; were he to look into the long tiers of side chapels, each a gorgeous temple, with an altar of its own for its princely family, adorned with costliest mosaics, and surrounded, in the niches of the walls, with statues and monumental groups of dead ancestors in the highest forms of art, noting also the living princes at their worship there among their patriarchs and brothers in stone-spectator of a scene so imposing, what but this will his thought be: "surely the infant of the manger has at last found room, and come to be entertained among men with a magnificence worthy of his dignity." But if he looks again, and looks a little farther in-far enough in to see the miserable pride of self and power that lurks under this gorgeous show, the mean ideas of Christ, the superstitions held instead of him, the bigotry, the hatred of the poor, the dismal corruption of life-with how deep a sigh of disappointment will he confess: "alas, the manger was better and a more royal honor!"
So if we speak of what is called Christendom, comprising, as it does, all the most civilized and powerful nations of mankind, those most forward in learning, and science, and art, and commerce, it may well enough seem to us, when we fix. the. name Christendom-Christ-dominion-on these great powers of the earth, that Christ has certainly gotten room, so far, to enter and be glorified in human society. And it is a very great thing, doubtless, for Christ to be so far admitted to his kingly honors-more, however, as a token of what will sometime appear, than as a measure of power already exerted. Still what multitudes of out-lying populations are there that have never heard of him. And the states and populations that acknowledge him,-how unjust are their laws, how intriguing and dishonest their diplomacies, how cruel their wars, what oppressions do they put upon the weak, what persecutions raise against the good, what abuses and distortions of God's truth do they perpetrate, what idolatries and mummeries of superstition do they practice, and, to include all in one general summation, how little of Christ, take them all together, appears to be really in them. Now and then a saint appears, a real Christly man, but the general mass are sharp for money and dull to Christ, and whether sharp or dull, are for the most part extremely ignorant as regards all spiritual knowledge, even if they happen, as men, to be specially intelligent, or practiced much in philosophy. The savor of Christ, in short, is so weak that we can scarcely get the sense of it once in a day. A wind blowing off from his cross might almost be expected to carry as much grace with it-so slight, evanescent, scarcely perceptible, doubtfully real is the evidence shown of a genuine Christly power, even in just those upper tiers of humanity, which are called the Christendom, or Christ-dominion itself.
But we must take a closer inspection, if we are to see how very little room Christ has yet been able to obtain, and how many things conspire to cramp the efficacy and narrow down the sway of his gospel. Great multitudes, it is well understood, utterly reject him, and stay fast in their sins. They have no time to be religious, or the sacrifices are too great. Some are too poor to have any heart left, and some are too rich-so rich, so filled up with goods, that a camel can as well get through a needle's eye, as Christ get into their love. Some are too much honored to receive him, and some too much want to be. Some are in their passions, some in their pleasures, some in their expectations. Some are too young and wait to give him only the dry remains of life, after the natural freshness is gone. Some are too old and are too much occupied with old recollections and stories of the past forever telling, to have any room longer for his reception. Some are too ignorant, and think they must learn a great deal before they can receive him. Others know too much, having stifled their capacity already in the dry-rot of books and opinions. The great world thus, under sin, even that part of it which is called Christian, is very much like the inn at Bethlehem, preoccupied, crowded full in every part, so that, as the mother of Jesus looked up wistfully to the guest-chambers that cold night, drawing her Holy Thing to her bosom, in like manner Jesus himself stands at the door of these multitudes, knocking vainly, till his head is filled with dew, and his locks are wet with the drops of the night.
So it should be, as you will easily perceive beforehand; for Christianity comes into the world by supposition, just because the world is not ready to receive it. The very problem it proposes is to get room where there is none, to open a heart where there is no heart, to regenerate opposing dispositions, to sweeten soured affections, to beget love where there is selfishness, to institute peace in the elemental war of the soul's disorders. This being true, we can see beforehand that the grand main difficulty of the gospel in restoring, the world, is to get room enough opened for its mighty renovations to work. It will come to be received where there is no receptivity. Mankind will even seem to be shutting it away by a conspiracy of littleness and preoccupied feeling, when formally preparing to receive it.
What shall Constantine, the first convert king do, for example, when he enters the fold, but bring in with him all his regal powers and prerogatives, and wield them for the furtherance of the new religion; never once imagining the fact that, in doing it, he was bringing church and gospel and every thing belonging to Christ, directly into the human keeping and the very nearly insulting patronage of the state. And so the gospel is to be kept in state pupilage, in all the old-world kingdoms, down to the present day-officered, endowed, regulated, by the state supremacy. Spiritual gifts have no place under the political regimen of course. Lay ministries are a disorder. No man comes to minister because he is called of God, or goes because he is sent of God, but he buys a living, or he has it given him, as he might in the army or the post-office. And so the grand, heaven-wide, gospel goes into quarantine, from age to age, getting no room to speak, or smite, or win, or save, beyond what worldly state-craft gives it. Call we this making room for the gospel?
Church-craft meantime has been quite as narrow, quite as sore a limitation as state-craft. Thus instead of that grand, massive, practically educated, character, that Christ proposes to create in the open fields of duty, by sturdy encounter with wrong, by sacrifices of beneficence and the bloodier sacrifices of heroic testimony for the truth, it contrives a finer, saintlier, more superlative, virtue, to be trained in cells and nightly vigils!-poor, unchristly, mean imposture, it turns out to be of course. To give the church the prestige of a monarchy, under one universal head, a primacy is finally created in the bishop of Rome, and now, behold the august father, occupied, as in Christ's name, in blessing rosaries, preparing holy water, receiving the sacred puffs of censers, and submitting his feet to the devout kisses of his people! O how wretched and barren a thing, how very like to a poor mummery of imposture, have these ecclesiastics, contriving thus to add new ornaments and powers, reduced the gospel of heaven's love to men!
And the attempted work of science, calling itself theology, is scarcely more equal to its theme. The subject matter outreaches, how visibly, and dwarfs all the. little pomps of the supposed scientific endeavor. What can it do, when trying, in fact, to measure the sea with a spoon! A great question it soon becomes, whether Christian forgiveness covers any but sins committed before baptism; as if the flow of God's great mercies in his Son could be stopped by the date of a baptism, and the sins of his children, afterward, left to be atoned by purgatorial fires! The death of Christ is conceived and taught, for whole centuries, as being a ransom paid to the devil; then, after so many centuries have worn the superstition fairly out, as an offering, or suffering, to appease the wrath of God.. Meantime it is carefully held, to save God's dignity in him, that he does not suffer at all as divine, but is even impassible; so that what he certainly suffers in his moral sensibilities, even because they are perfect-all to make the cross an expression of divine feeling powerful on the heart of sin-subsides into a stifled, unmoved, immovable mercy that, in fact, belongs to the stones. It becomes a great article of opinion also, that God only wants to save a particular number, and that exactly is the number He predestinates. Next, to coincide with this, Christ is shown to have died only for this particular part of mankind. Next to coincide with this, a limited or special grace is affirmed under the same restrictions. Regeneration, again, is wrought by baptism. Repentance subsides into doing penance. And the forgiveness of sins becomes a priestly dispensation.
But the most remarkable thing of all is that, when the old, niggard dogmas of a bigot age and habit give way, and emancipated souls begin to look for a new Christianity and a broader, worthier faith, just there every thing great in the gospel vanishes even more strangely than before. Faith becomes mere opinion, love a natural sentiment, piety itself a blossom on the wild stock of nature. Jesus, the Everlasting Word, dwindles to a mere man. The Holy Spirit is made to be very nearly identical with the laws of the soul. God himself too is, in fact, put under nature, shut in back of nature and required to stay there; the incarnation, the miracles, the Gethsemane, the Calvary, all the flaming glories of the gospel are stifled as extravagances, and the new Christianity, the more liberal, more advanced, belief, turns out to be a discovery that we are living in nature, just as nature makes us live. Salvation there is none, nothing is left for a gospel but development, with a little human help from the very excellent person, Jesus.
Now the blessed Lord wants room, we all agree; we even profess that we ourselves want mightily to be enlarged. Why then is it always turning out, hitherto, that when we try to go deepest, we drag every thing down with us? What, in fact, do we prove but that, when we undertake to shape theologically the glorious mystery of salvation by Christ, we just as much reduce it, or whittle it down, as human thought is narrower and tinier than the grand subject matter attempted.
But saddest of all is the practical depreciation of Christ, or of what he will do as a Saviour, experimentally, from sin. The possibilities of liberty, assurance, a good conscience, a mind entered into rest, are, by one means or another, let down, obscured, or quite taken away. To believe much is enthusiasm, to attempt much, fanaticism. The assumption is, that Christ will, in fact, do only a little for us, just as there is only a little done; when the very sufficient reason is, that there is only a little allowed to be done. As to any common footing with the ancient saints in their inspirations, guidances, and gifts-it is even a kind of presumption to think of it. They had their religion at first hand, we are now a degree farther off. They had the inbirth of God, and knew him by the immediate knowledge of the heart. We only read of him and know about him and operate our minds, alas! how feebly, toward him, under the notions, or notional truths, gotten hold of by our understanding. O it is a very sad picture! Dear Lord Jesus can it never be that better room shall be given thee?
True there is no grace of Christ that will suddenly make us perfect; but there is a grace that will take away all conscious sinning, as long as we sufficiently believe, raising us above the dominating power of sin into a state of divine consciousness, where we are new-charactered, as it were, continually, by the righteousness of God, spreading itself into and over and through the faith, by which we are trusted to his mercy. All this Christ will do. In this state of power and holy endowment, superior to sin, he can, he will establish every soul that makes room wide enough for him to enter and bestow his fullness. He will be a Saviour, in short, just as mighty and complete as we want him to be, just as meager and partial and doubtfully real as we require him to be. O what meaning is there, in this view, in the apostle's invocation-"That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend, with all saints, what is the length, and breadth, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ that passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fullness of God." This heavy, long-drawn sigh, whose wording carries such a weight of promise still-what does it invoke but that Christ may somehow, any how, get fit room, as he never yet has done, in these stunted human hearts.
And this same sigh has been how fit a prayer for all ages. Probably nothing comparatively of the power of Christ, as a gift to the world, has ever yet been seen or realized in it. And a main part of the difficulty is, that Christ is a grace too big for men's thoughts, and of course too big for their faith,-the Eternal Word of God robed in flesh, the humanly manifested love and feeling of God, a free justification for the greatest of sinners and for all sin, a power of victory in the soul that raises it above temptation, supports it in peace, and makes obedience itself its liberty. Such a Christ of salvation fully received, embraced in the plenitude of his gifts-what fires would he kindle, what tongues -of eloquence loosen, what heroic witnessings inspire! But, as yeti the disciples are commonly men of only a little faith, and it is with them according to their faith. They too often almost make a merit of having no merit, and think it even a part of Christian modesty to believe that Christ will do for them, only according to what they miss, or really do not undertake for themselves.
And so it comes to pass, my brethren, that our gospel fails, hitherto, of all its due honors, because we so poorly represent the worth and largeness of it. What multitudes are there, under the name of disciples, who maintain a Christian figure scarcely up to the line of common respect-penurious, little, mean, sordid, foul in their imaginations, low-minded, coarse-minded every way. Until Christ gets room in the higher spaces of their feeling, and their consciousness gets ennobled by a worthier and fuller reception, it must be so. Others are inconstant, falling away so feebly as to put a weak look on the gospel itself; as if it were only able to kindle a flare in the passions, not to establish a durable character. This too must be so, till Christ is fully enough received to be the head of their new capacity and growth. Multitudes, again, are not made happy as they should be, wear a long-faced, weary, dissatisfied, legally constrained look, any thing but a look of courage and joy and blessed contentation. Yes, and for the simple reason that there is nothing so wretched, so very close to starvation, as a little, doubtfully received grace. True joy comes by hearts'-full and when there is room enough given for Christ to flood the feeling, the peace becomes a river-never till then.
Discordant opinions and strifes of doctrines endlessly propagated are another scandal. And since heads are little and many, full of fractious and gaunt notions, all horning or hoofing each other, as hungry beasts in their stall, what wonder is it if they raise a clatter of much discord? No, the true hospitality is that of the heart, and if only the grand heart-world of the race were set open to the full entertainment of Jesus, there would be what a chiming of peace and unity in the common love.
Why, again, since Christianity undertakes to convert the world, does it seem to almost or quite fail in the slow progress it makes? Because, I answer, Christ gets no room; as yet, to work, and be the fire in men's hearts he is able to be. We undertake for him as by statecraft and churchcraft and priestcraft. We raise monasteries for him in one age, military crusades in another. Raymond Lull, representing a large class of teachers, undertook to make the gospel so logical that he could bring down all men of all nations, without a peradventure, before it. Some in our day are going to carry every thing by steam-ships and commerce; some by science and the schooling of heathen children; some by preaching agents adequately backed by missionary boards; some by tracts and books. But the work, however fitly ordered as respects the machinery, lingers, and will and must linger, till Christ gets room to be a more complete inspiration in his followers. They give him the stable when they ought to be giving him the inn, put him in the lot of weakness, keep him back from his victories, shut him down under the world, making his gospel, thus, such a secondary, doubtfully real, affair, that it has to be always debating in the evidences, instead of being its own evidence, and marching forward in its own mighty power.
But what most of all grieves me, in such a review, is, that Christ himself has so great wrong to endure, in the slowness and low faith of so many ages. Why, if I had a friend, who was always making me to appear weaker and meaner than I am, putting the flattest construction possible on my words and sayings, professing still, in his own low conduct, to represent my ideas and principles, protesting the great advantage he gets, from being much with me, in just those things where he is most utterly unlike me-I could not bear him even for one week, I should denounce him utterly, blowing all terms of connection with him. And yet Christ has a patience large enough to bear us still; for he came to bear even our sin, and he will not start from his burden, even if he should not be soon through with it.
All the sooner, brethren, ought we to come to the heart so long and patiently grieving for us. Is it not time, dear friends, that Christ our Master should begin to be fitly represented by his people-received in his true grandeur and fullness as the Lord of Life and Saviour of all mankind; able to save to, the uttermost; a grace all victorious; light, peace, liberty, and power; wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. Be it yours then so to make room for him, even according to the greatness of his power-length, breadth, depth, height. Be no more straitened in your own bowels, stretch yourselves to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. Expect to be all that he will make you, and that you may be, open your whole heart to him broad as the sea. Give him all the widest spaces of your feeling-guest-chambers opened by your loving hospitality. Challenge for him his right to be now received by his disciples, as he never yet has been. Tell what changes and wondrous new creations will appear, when he finally breaks full-orbed on human experience-his true second coming in power and great glory. For this great consummation it is that every thing is preparing, and if there be voices and calls chiming through the spaces round us, which, for deafness, we have all these ages failed to hear, what is their burden but this-Lift up your heads, O ye gates, and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall come in.