He made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a slave.--PHILIPPIANS ii. 7.
On Christmas-day, 1851 years ago, if we had been at Rome, the great capital city, and mistress of the whole world, we should have seen a strange sight--strange, and yet pleasant. All the courts of law were shut; no war was allowed to be proclaimed, and no criminals punished. The sorrow and the strife of that great city had stopped, in great part, for three days, and all people were giving themselves up to merriment and good cheer--making up quarrels, and giving and receiving presents from house to house. And we should have seen, too, a pleasanter sight than that. For those three days of Christmas-time were days of safety and merriment for the poor slaves-- tens of thousands of whom--men, women, and children--the Romans had brought out of all the countries in the world--many of our forefathers and mothers among them--and kept them there in cruel bondage and shame, worked and fed, bought and sold, like beasts, and not like human beings, not able to call their lives or their bodies their own, forced to endure any shame or sin which their tyrants required of them, and liable any moment to be beaten, tortured, or crucified at the mercy of cruel and foul masters and mistresses. But on that Christmas-day, according to an old custom, they were allowed for once in the whole year to play at being free, to dress in their masters' and mistresses' clothes, to say what they thought of them boldly, without fear of punishment, and to eat and drink at their masters' tables, while their masters and mistresses waited on them. It was an old custom, that, among the heathen Romans, which their forefathers, who were wiser and better than they, had handed down to them. They had forgotten, perhaps, what it meant: but still we may see what it must have meant: That the old forefathers of the Romans had intended to remind their children every year by that custom, that their poor hard-worked slaves were, after all, men and women as much as their masters; that they had hearts and consciences, and sense in them, and a right to speak what they thought, as much as their masters; that they, as much as their masters, could enjoy the good things of God's earth, from which man's tyranny had shut them out; and to remind those cruel masters, by making them once every year wait on their own slaves at table, that they were, after all, equal in the sight of God, and that it was more noble for those who were rich, and called themselves gentlemen, to help others, than to make others slave for them.
I do not mean, of course, that those old heathens understood all this clearly. You will see, by the latter part of my sermon, why they could not understand it clearly. But there must have been some sort of dim, confused suspicion in their minds that it was wrong and cruel to treat human beings like brute beasts, which made them set up that strange old custom of letting their slaves play at being free once every Christmas-tide.
But if on this same day, 1851 years ago, instead of being in the great city of Rome, we had been in the little village of Bethlehem in Judaea, we might have seen a sight stranger still; a sight which we could not have fancied had anything to do with that merrymaking of the slaves at Rome, and yet which had everything to do with it.
We should have seen, in a mean stable, among the oxen and the asses, a poor maiden, with her newborn baby laid in the manger, for want of any better cradle, and by her her husband, a poor carpenter, whom all men thought to be the father of her child. . . . There, in the stable, amid the straw, through the cold winter days and nights, in want of many a comfort which the poorest woman, and the poorest woman's child would need, they stayed there, that young maiden and her newborn babe. That young maiden was the Blessed Virgin Mary, and that poor baby was the Son of God. The Son of God, in whose likeness all men were made at the beginning; the Son of God, who had been ruling the whole world all along; who brought the Jews out of slavery, a thousand years before, and destroyed their cruel tyrants in the Red Sea; the Son of God, who had been all along punishing cruel tyrants and oppressors, and helping the poor out of misery, whenever they called on Him. The Light which lightens every man who comes into the world, was that poor babe. It was He who gives men reason, and conscience, and a tender heart, and delight in what is good, and shame and uneasiness of mind when they do wrong. It was He who had been stirring up, year by year, in those cruel Romans' hearts, the feeling that there was something wrong in grinding down their slaves, and put into their minds the notion of giving them their Christmas rest and freedom. He had been keeping up that good old custom for a witness and a warning that all men were equal in His sight; that all men had a right to liberty of speech and conscience; a right to some fair share in the good things of the earth, which God had given to all men freely to enjoy. But those old Romans would not take the warning. They kept up the custom, but they shut their eyes to the lesson of it. They went on conquering and oppressing all the nations of the earth, and making them their slaves. And now He was come--He Himself, the true Lord of the earth, the true pattern of men. He was come to show men to whom this world belonged: He was come to show men in what true power, true nobleness consisted--not in making others minister to us, but in ministering to them: He was come to set a pattern of what a man should be; He was the Son of Man-- THE MAN of all men--and therefore He had come with good news to all poor slaves, and neglected, hard-worked creatures: He had come to tell them that He cared for them; that He could and would deliver them; that they were God's children, and His brothers, just as much as their Roman masters; and that He was going to bring a terrible time upon the earth--"days of the Son of Man," when He would judge all men, and show who were true men and who were not--such a time as had never been before, or would be again; when that great Roman empire, in spite of all its armies, and its cunning, and its riches, plundered from every nation under heaven, would crumble away and perish shamefully and miserably off the face of the earth, before tribes of poor, untaught, savage men, the brothers and countrymen of those very slaves whom the Romans fancied were so much below them, that they had a right to treat them like the beasts which perish.
That was the message which that little child lying in the manger there at Bethlehem, had been sent out from God to preach. Do you not see now what it had to do with that strange merrymaking of the poor slaves in Rome, which I showed you at the beginning of my sermon?
If you do not, I must remind you of the song, which, St. Luke says, the shepherds in Judaea heard the angels sing, on this night 1851 years ago. That song tells us the meaning of that babe's coming. That song tells us what that babe's coming had to do with the poor slaves of Rome, and with all poor creatures who have suffered and sorrowed on this earth, before or since.
"Glory to God in the highest," they sang, "and on earth peace, good will to men."
Glory to God in the highest. That little babe, lying in the manger among the cattle, was showing what was the very highest glory of the great God who had made heaven and earth. Not to show His power and His majesty, but to show His condescension and His love. To stoop, to condescend, to have mercy, to forgive, that is the highest glory of God. That is the noblest, the most Godlike thing for God or man. And God showed that when He sent down His only-begotten Son--not to strike the world to atoms with a touch, not to hurl sinners into everlasting flame, but to be born of a village maiden, to take on Himself all the shame and weakness and sorrow, to which man is heir, even to death itself; to make Himself of no reputation, and take on Himself the form of a slave, and forgive sinners, and heal the sick, and comfort the outcast and despised, that He might show what God was like--show forth to men, as a poor maiden's son, the brightness of God's glory, and the express likeness of His person.
"And on earth peace" they sang. Men had been quarrelling and fighting then, and men are quarrelling and fighting now. That little babe in the manger was come to show them how and why they were all to be at peace with each other. For what causes all the war and quarrelling in the world, but selfishness? Selfishness breeds pride, passion, spite, revenge, covetousness, oppression. The strong care for themselves, and try to help themselves at the expense of the weak, by force and tyranny; the weak care for themselves in their turn, and try to help themselves at the expense of the strong, by cunning and cheating. No one will condescend, give way, sacrifice his own interest for his neighbour's, and hence come wars between nations, quarrels in families, spite and grudges between neighbours. But in the example of that little child of Bethlehem, Jesus Christ the Lord, God was saying to men, "Acquaint yourselves with Me, and be at peace." God is not selfish; it is our selfishness which has made us unlike God. God so loved the sinful world, that He gave His only- begotten Son for it. Is that an action like ours? The Son of God so obeyed His Father, and so loved this world, that He made Himself of no reputation, and took on Him the likeness of a slave, and became obedient to death, even to the most fearful and shameful of all deaths, the death of the cross; not for Himself, but for those who did not know Him, hated Him, killed Him. In short, He sacrificed Himself for us. That is God's likeness. Self-sacrifice. Jesus Christ, the babe of Bethlehem, proved Himself the Son of God, and the express likeness of the Father, by sacrificing Himself for us. Sacrifice yourselves then for each other! Give up your own pride, your own selfishness, your own interest for each other, and you will be all at peace at once.
But the angels sang, "Good will toward men." Without that their song would not have been complete. For we are all ready to say, at such words as I have been speaking, "Ah! pleasant enough, and pretty enough, if they were but possible; but they are not possible. It is in the nature of man to be selfish. Men have gone on warring, grudging, struggling, competing, oppressing, cheating from the beginning, and they will do so to the end."
Yes, it is not in the NATURE of man to do otherwise. In as far as man yields to his nature, and is like the selfish brute beasts, it is not possible for him to do anything but go on quarrelling, and competing, and cheating to the last. But what man's nature cannot do, God's grace can. God's good will is toward you. He loves you, He wills--and if He wills, what is too hard for Him?--He wills to raise you out of this selfish, quarrelsome life of sin, into a loving, brotherly, peaceful life of righteousness. His spirit, the spirit of love by which He made and guides all heaven and earth, the spirit of love in which He gave His only Son for you, the spirit of love in which His Son Jesus Christ sacrificed Himself for you, and took on Himself a meaner state than any of you can ever have--the likeness of a slave--that spirit is promised to you, and ready for you. That little baby in the manger at Bethlehem--God sacrificing Himself for you in the spirit of love--is a sign that that spirit of love is the spirit of God, and therefore the only right spirit for you and me, who are men and women made in the image of God. That babe in the manger at Bethlehem is a sign to you and me, that God will freely give us that spirit of love if we ask for it. For He would not have set us that example, if He had not meant us to follow it, and He would not ask us to follow it, if He did not intend to give us the means of following it. Therefore, my friends, it is written, Ask and ye shall receive. If your heavenly Father spared not His own Son, but freely gave Him for you, will He not with Him likewise freely give you all things? Oh! ask and you shall receive. However poor, ignorant, sinful you may be, God's promises are ready for you, signed and sealed by the bread and wine on that table, the memorial of Jesus, the babe of Bethlehem. Ask, and you shall receive! Comfort from sorrow, peaceful assurance of God's good will toward you, deliverance from your sins, and a share in the likeness of Him who on this day made Himself of no reputation, and took on Him the form of a slave.