THE BIRTH OF CHRIST, A D ITS EFFECTS.

BY GEORGE CRABBE

Luke ii. 10. " And the angel said unto them. Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people." In dwelling upon the glorious communication of the mercy of God, which at this season we commemorate, I would call your thoughts to the great reformation wrought in the world by the Redeemer's coming, which was announced in the words which I have just read. Whithersoever the religion of Christ was carried, there was carried virtue and restoration to virtue in its principles and operation. We are led by our subject to look backward upon the rise and progress, the birth and perpetual increase, the infant state and wonderful growth of the church of Christ, from the nativity of the

THE BIRTH OP CHRIST, A D ITS EFFECTS. 115 Saviour to the time in which we live. Our Lord, we are informed by St. Luke, sent forth seventy disciples to prepare the way before him as well as the twelve apostles, but we are not to consider these as all who believed in him. Many others heard his divine words, and saw the miracles which he did, but how many soever of these there might be, we are informed by the same evangelist that after the resurrection, when the apostles and brethren were assembled together, the number of disciples was about one hundred and twenty; but

I repeat, we are not to imagine the number of believers was thus bounded; many hundreds were the witnesses of his miracles, the admirers of his wisdom, but they were afraid, they hesitated; they were not willing to encounter the displeasure of their priests and rulers; they kept from the christian assemblies in which was so much danger, and they waited to see what would become of a doctrine so wonderMly introduced, and so powerfully opposed; but by-and-by this infant church, on the preaching of Peter and the other apostles, was increased by three thousand converts, and many priests became obedient to the faith. Peter was sent to the devout centurion, and a man, not a Jew, became a member of the infant church. Philip baptized an officer of Candace, queen of Ethiopia, and some faint rays appeared of that light which was soon to lighten all nations. This I2

116 SERMO XI. was the first stage in the history and progress of the christian church when it was, with shght exceptions, confined to Jews; but now a great event was nigh at hand. Paul, (Saul is his Hebrew name,) a young man of much learning, great natural abilities, and extraordinary zeal, had been a very warm persecutor of the new religion; he kept the garments of those who cast them off that they might have no impediment to their cruelty in stoning the martyr Stephen. He, therefore, encouraged and applauded their act — he did more — he persecuted the church in Jerusalem, and to augment his power, begged for letters of the chief priests to Damascus, that would give him authority to persecute the Christians in that city; but Paul,

though mistaken, was sincere; he believed that he was doing right, and acting in the cause of truth and of the God of truth; so he found mercy — he was made a chosen vessel— an apostle, more enduring, more persevering, more warm, more energetic, and more successful than any other of the teachers of the doctrines of his divine Master. We do not read of his converting one family as that of Cornelius, or one person as the eunuch, but he converted the people of many nations; he founded churches in Europe and in Asia, at Corinth, at Ephesus, and at Galatia, in Thessalonica, in Laodicea, and in many cities not perhaps favoured by his epistles, but instructed by his dis-

THE BIRTH OF CHRIST, A D ITS EFFECTS. 117 courses — Athens, for instance, that seat of earthly wisdom and idolatry. There were added to the church by the preaching of Peter three thousand souls at Jerusalem; by the preaching of Paul great multitudes were converted in all the known world; daily and hourly were added to the happy and chosen people such as should be saved. The scripture, and the writings of the early Fathers, (as they are called) describe the singleness of heart and purpose, the divine joy and gladness, the holy delight and rejoicing of these infant churches, these first Christians; how they lived among unbelievers, how they met in solitude and darkness, how they sang hymns of rejoicing and praise, how they adored the power which had called them from darkness into this marvellous light, and how they loved and obeyed the good apostle as an angel of the Holy One, willing, if it had been possible, to have plucked out their eyes and have given them unto him. I would that I had power

to represent to you their gratitude for the coming of their Saviour upon earth; what they felt when they contemplated the nativity of the Redeemer of men — their unspeakable joy — ^how they communicated it one to another. All earthly considerations were then left; for a season we find there were no poor and rich among them, no high and low, no servant or master, in that brotherhood; then all things were in common, not of ne-

118 SERMO XI. cessity but in joy; not to be continued as a custom, binding any, but as a peculiar pleasure, happiness, and comfort, enjoyed by them at that time. This was the state of the early church at the very dawn of Christianity ! The rest of the world yet unbelieving and unconverted, and they ransomed and redeemed — ^the early favoured participators of the glad tidings, that were to be not only glory to the people of Israel, but the enlightening call of the world at large. So far the ew Testament is our chief guide, for the rest we depend upon human authority. Yet we are not left in darkness; from the very times of the apostles are christian and heathen witnesses, who have left us account of what was then doing. We have at this day remaining (as proofs how the gospels and epistles were received) several authentic writings bearing witness of the same truths, and quoting and treating of the books of the ew Testament which we now have — sometimes in the very words of the evangelists, sometimes in their sense and meaning. From this time even to three hundred years was this church striving against the powers of the world, its vices, and prejudices — against the inveterate malice of the Jews, the offended authority of the Romans and the indifference and un-

concern of the wealthy and luxurious of all nations where the glad tidings were carried. The Christians in these times had not churches, not

THE BIKTH OF CHRIST, A D ITS EFFECTS. 119 temples made with hands. What was meant by churches was congregations and assemblies of believers who met as they could by night, chiefly in secret places — ^by river sides — in retirements — in private rooms and retreats inaccessible by, or unknown to, persons in authority. ow all this, as we must judge by the nature of our own hearts, must have been the effect of thorough conversion producing this concord, confidence, and love, patience under persecution, and mutual support, which nothing but the christian spirit could then have produced; they were subject to perpetual executions, imprisonments, and deaths; these gave rise to unexampled instances of fidelity and trust. The Christians of that time were as one family, and each member bound by love to every other; people thus pressed without by power, and thus united within by affection, had a kind and measure of happiness which we should strive to attain, and which could only have been derived from the most stedfast belief that Jesus Christ was risen from the dead, and that they also should rise and be with him. " This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith/^ Such were the circumstances which added to the mutual love of the Christians in those early times, and to that trust which they had in their risen Lord. Among the persecutions there were often especial devastations which befel the early

120 SERMO XL '-: church; one under the emperor ero, who being suspected himself of setting fire to^the'citj of Rome, caused the crime to be laid to the charge of the professors of the new religion, and they were tortured and put to death with the greatest inhumanity. There are nine other of these recorded persecutions; some at the instigation of the unbelieving Jews, others for the refusal of the Christians to submit to certain pagan rites and modes of worship. There were besides persons who accused the churches, not only of rebellion and disobedience, but of atheism and contempt of their gods, and then (as they were obliged to meet in secret places and privately) there were laid to their charge crimes of every description that secrecy and darkness can give birth to. These persecutions made many martyrs, who all died rejoicing, and some with exceeding great joy. There was no doubt among them — scarcely was there fear; many even desired the glory of martyrdom, and all might have avoided it. It was said, " Cast a little salt upon the fire, and no one will hurt you;" but they asked, " What is casting a little salt upon the firel" It is to be understood, was the reply, as joining in the sacrifice of our gods. Then said the Christians, " send us from your altars, and cast us to your flames." ow as these Christians were always in danger, and always had the full assurance of faith that

THE BIRTH OF CHRIST, A D ITS EFFECTS. 121 they should be sustained by their Redeemer in their trials, and received by him in their death;

and as they naturally became endeared to each other by the same sufferings and expectations, and were led to rejoice in that only good and happy prospect which their divine Master had opened to them, it may perhaps be conceived with what joy and holy rapture they united to do honour to the different periods in the life of Christ, and how they celebrated with their whole mind and strength, their whole heart and spirit, the birthday of their Lord and Redeemer. There was another event which made a very strong impression upon the Christians of that day — I mean the total destruction of Jerusalem, and that radical overthrow of the temple that literally one stone was not left upon another. When they read and remembered the prophecy of their Saviour, and then saw before them that dreadful accomplishment of it, and before that generation had passed away, they became as it were doubly assured; they had been warned by their Master to fly, and they fled; they were safe, and Hke Abraham after the destruction of Sodom, could see the whole country, the fire of vrhich went up, as from a furnace. Thus during the first three hundred years the religion of the Christians was going on increasing from many causes, — increasing from persecution, from the prophecies confirmed, from the writings of learned converts afterwards called

122 SERMO XI. fathers, from the courage of the martyrs under torture, from their holy hves and conversation, and from the foUies, wickedness, and profligacy of the pagan superstition. So Christianity flourished, and became of such a body and strength, that the lords of the heathen world found they had no place nor ofiice, nor trust, nor trade, nor occupation,

but if it were lawful and right. Christians were placed in them; every one could trust a Christian's promise. A heathen servant sought a christian master, for he was sure of humane treatment; a heathen master sought a christian servant, for he was sure of honest service. What men thus loved in others, they by degrees sought to become themselves; and when Constantino, the Emperor of Rome, and lord of the civilized world, embraced Christianity, he found all things prepared for the change, for all who thought or cared about religion were of his opinion; and I need not describe how the birth of Christ was then celebrated. When the conqueror of many rivals, and the first christian emperor, openly proclaimed his own conversion, and invited his subjects of all nations to partake of the mercy — from this time, that is, about the year 330, the whole civiHzed world became Christians; the only religion that ever prevailed without force against power, and that (originating among an obscure people in a remote province) travelled on from year to year, from

THE BIRTH OF CHRIST, A D ITS EFFECTS. 123 place to place, from one kingdom to another people, till it had overcome prejudice and the established superstition, and had put down all power and authority, and, like as its divine Master shall do, saw all its enemies under its feet. It is the nativity of this religion, once so persecuted, now so triumphant, the birth of the church of Christ, and of Christ as man, that we are called upon solemnly but joyfully to celebrate. Let us chiefly remember that the sole cause we can have for our joy, like the early Christians, is our faith; we can scarcely be glad on earth, unless we have

expectations in heaven. But all true Christians have these blessed expectations, and they know that unto them a Son was born, unto them a Saviour was given; that he has blotted out the handwriting of ordinances that is against them; that he is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that belie veth; that he was made to be sin for us, who himself knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. These are the true causes of the Christian's joy ; and if you can feel them, and rest your hopes on the happiness they hold out to you, I know not anything I can add, nor anything I need add; you well remember the words in the message of the angel, the glad tidings which are to all people; you well remember that through him we have access by one spirit to the Father, and are no 7

124 SERMO XL more strangers, but fellow-citizens of the household of God, and will recollect the words of the venerable man of God, "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation." But again, I ask why did these early Christians rejoice so sincerely '? Because they sincerely and earnestly believed ; and according to our faith will be our joy. We can surely distinguish such joy from the mere external and assumed kind of rejoicing, that is but little more than merriment and festivity, an agreement to remember a season which has in every age of Christianity been celebrated by some outward

appearances of gladness and mutual congratulation. We can most readily see how far this falls beneath the true and real gladness of heart, the rejoicing of those whose faith is fixed upon the Lord the Saviour, and whose hope of heaven is lively and strong; they alone will possess this true and spiritual joy, who indeed feel their interest in the birth of him who brought light into a world of darkness, and pardon to a race of sinners. Let us not then rest in that poor and fruitless celebration of an event so glorious, and producing so much happiness; let us not be as spectators, but rejoice as sincere believers and partakers of the mercy of that all-interesting message of the angel, " Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people."

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