Ghost of Christmas Past-A VISIT TO BETHLEHEM
DELIVERED BY C. H. SPURGEON, December 24th, 1854.
"Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us."--Luke 2:15.
Now to Bethlehem as it now is, but to Bethlehem as it once was, I would lead your mediation this evening. Were you to visit the site of that ancient city of Judah as it is at present, you would find little enough to edify your hearts. About six miles south of Jerusalem, on the declivity of a hill, lies a small, irregular village, never at any time considerable either in its extent or because of the wealth of its inhabitants. The only building worthy of notice is a convent. Should your fancy paint, as you approach it, a
courtyard, a stable, or a manger, you would be sorely disappointed on your arrival. Tawdry decorations are all that would greet your eyes,--rather adapted to obliterate than to preserve the sacred interest, with which a Christian would regard the place. You might walk upon the marble floor of a chapel, and gaze on walls bedecked with pictures, and studded with the fantastic dolls and other nicknacks which are usually
found in Popish places of worship. Within a small grotto, you might observe the exact spot that superstition has assigned to the nativity of our Lord; there, a star, composed of silver and precious stones, surrounded by golden lamps, might remind you,
but merely as a parody, of the simple story of the Evangelists. Truly, Bethlehem was ever little, if not the least, among the thousands of Judah, and famous only for its historic
So, beloved, "let us now go even unto Bethlehem" as it was;-let us, if possible, bring the wondrous story of that "Child born" that "Son given", down to our own times. Imagine the event to be occurring just now. I will try to paint the picture for you
with vivid colours, that you may apprehend afresh the great truth, and be impressed, as you ought to be, with the facts concerning the birth of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
I propose now to make A VISIT TO BETHLEHEM, and I want five companions to render the visit instructive; so I would have, first, an aged Jew; next, an ancient Gentile; then, a convinced sinner; then, a young believer; and, last of all, an advanced Christian. Their remarks can scarcely fail to please and profit us. Afterwards, I should like to take a whole family to the manger, let them all look at the Divine Infant, and hear what
each one has to say about him.
I. To begin, then, I WOULD GO TO BETHLEHEM WITH AN AGED JEW.
Come on, my venerable, long-bearded brother; thou art an Israelite, indeed, for thy name is Simeon. Dost thou see the Babe "wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger"?
Yes, he does; and, overpowered by the sight, he clasps the Child in his arms, and exclaims, "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant, depart in peace, according to thy word: for mine eyes have seen thy salvation."
"Here," says this faithful son of Abraham, "is the fulfilment of a thousand prophecies and promises, the hope, the expectation, and the joy of my noble ancestry; here is the Antitype of all those mystic symbols and typical offerings enjoined in the laws of Moses. Thou, O Son of the Highest, art Abraham's promised Seed, the Shiloh whose coming Jacob foretold, great David's greater Son, and Israel's rightful King. Our prophets did herald thy coming in each prophectic page; our bards vied with one another which should chant thy praise in sweetest stanzas; and now, O happy hour, these poor dim eyes do greet thy beauteous form! It is enough,--and more than enough;--O God, I ask not that I may live any longer on earth!" ...
Farewell, venerable Jew, thy talk sounds sweetly in mine ears; may the, day soon dawn when all thy brethren shall return to their fatherland, and there confess our Jesus; as their Messiah and their King!
II. My next companion shall be AN ANCIENT GENTILE.
He is an intelligent man. Do, not ask me any questions concerning his creed. Deeply versed in the works of God in nature, he has glimmering, flickering light enough to detect the moral darkness by which he is surrounded, albeit the truth of the gospel has not yet found an entrance into his heart.
Call him a sceptic, from the heathen point of view, if you please; but his is not a wilful perversion of the heart, it is rather that transition state of the mind wherein false hopes are rejected, but the true hope has not yet been espoused. This Gentile brother is staying at Jerusalem, and we walk and talk together as we bend our steps toward Bethlehem. He has told me what pleasure he feels in reading the Jewish Scriptures, and how he has often longed for the dawn of that day which their seers predict. Now we enter the house,--a star shines brightly in the sky, and hovers over the stable;--we look at the Child, and my comrade exclaims in ecstasy, "a light to promise lighten the Gentile!" "Fair Child of God," says he, "thy birth shall be a joy to all people! Prince of peace, thine shall be a peaceful reign! Kings shall bring presents unto thee; all nations shall serve thee. The poor shall rejoice in thine advent, for justice shall be done to them by thee; and oppressors shall tremble at thy coming, for judgment upon them shall be pronounced by thy lips."
It was refreshing to hear that Gentile quote, from the evangelical prophet, words like these, "The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them."...
Marvel not, then, but admire the crisis in history when Paul and Barnabas were commissioned to say to the Jews who rejected the gospel, "Lo, we turn to the Gentiles." I have consulted the map, and looked, with intense emotion, at the route which Paul and Barnabas took on their first missionary journey. Antioch, the city from which they went forth, is situated directly North of Jerusalem, and there, in no very unequal proportions, they could find both Jews and Gentiles. "To the Jew first," was according to the divine injunction; and, on their own nation rejecting the grace of God, lo, they turned to the Gentiles, with a result immediately following that greatly cheered them, for the Gentiles heard with gladness, and glorified the Word of the Lord.
I think I hear some of you say, "We are not antiquarian enough to appreciate the society of your two venerable companions." Well then, beloved, the three that follow shall be drawn from among yourselves, and it may be that you will discover your own
thoughts expressed in the sketches I am about to add.
III. Next in order is AWAKENED SINNER.
Come here, my sister, I am glad to see you, and I shall have much pleasure in your company to Bethlehem. Why do you start back? Do not be afraid; there is nothing to terrify you here. Come in; come in. With trembling apprehension, my sister advances to the rough crib, where the young Child lies. She looks as if she feared to rejoice, and is beyond measure astonished at herself that she does not faint. She says to me, "And is this, sir, really and truly the great mystery of godliness? Do I, in that manger, behold 'God manifest in the flesh'? I expected to see something very different."
Looking into her face, I clearly perceived that she could scarcely believe for joy. A humble, but not uninteresting visitor to the birthplace of my Lord is this trembling penitent. I wish I could have many like her out of this congregation to-night. You would see how mystery is dissolved in mercy. No flaming sword, turning every way, obstructs your entrance; no ticket of admission is demanded by a surly menial at the door; no favour is shown to rank or title; you may go freely in to see the noblest Child of woman born in the humblest cot wherein infant ever nestled. Nor does a visible tiara of light encircle his brow.
To humble, I assure you, for the fancy of the poet to describe, or the pencil of the artist to sketch,--like a poor man's child, he is wrapped in swaddling clothes, and cradled in a manger. It needs faith to believe what the eye of sense never could discern as you look upon "the Prince of life" in such humble guise.
IV. My fourth companion is A YOUNG BELIEVER.
Well, my brother, you and I have often had sweet communion together concerning the things of the kingdom; "let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us." I mark the sacred cheerfulness of my young friend's countenance as he approaches the incarnate mystery. Often have I heard him discussing curious doctrinal subtleties; but now, with calmness of spirit, he looks on the face of the Divine Child, and says, "Truth is sprung out of the earth, for a woman hath brought forth her Son; and righteousness hath looked down from heaven, for God hath, of a truth, revealed himself in that, Babe."
He looks so wistfully at the young Child, as if a fresh spring of holy gratitude had been opened in his heart. "No vision, no imagination, no myth here," he says, "but a real partaker of our flesh and blood; he has not taken on him the nature of angels, but the seed of Abraham." He pauses to worship, then speaks again, "...O Jesus, Saviour, thou art mercy itself, ---the tender mercy of our God is embodied in thee. Thou art the Truth,---the very Truth which the prophets longed to see, and into which the angels desire to look,---the Truth my soul so long sought for, but never found till I beheld thy face. Once I thought that the Truth was hidden in some profound treatise, or in some learned book; but now I know that it is revealed in thee, O Jesus, my Kinsman, yet thy Father's equal! 'Tis past imagination's utmost stretch to realize what it must be for thee to be thus feeble, thus helpless, thus needing to be fed and waited upon by an earthly mother. For the Wonderful, the mighty God, to stoop thus, is humility profound!"
So spake the young believer, and I liked his speech much, for I saw in him how faith could work by love, and how the end of controversy and argument is reached at Bethlehem, for "without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest
in the flesh."
V. Now I will go to Bethlehem with AN ADVANCED CHRISTIAN
Such an one as Paul the aged, or John the divine; nay, rather with such an one as I might find among the circle of my own church-members.
Calm, peaceful, and benignant, he seems as if his training in the school of Christ, and the sacred anointing of the Holy Spirit, have made him like a child himself, as his character is ripening, and his fitness for the kingdom of heaven is becoming more apparent. Tears glistened in the old man's eyes as he looked with expressive fondness on that "Infant of eternal days." He spake not much, and what he said was not exactly like what any of my other companions had spoken. It was his manner to quote short sentences, with great exactness, from the Word of God. He uttered them slowly, pondered them deeply, and there was much spiritual unction in the accent with which he spake. I will just mention a few of the profitable sentences that he uttered. First he said, "No man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of Man which is in heaven;" and he really appeared to see more in that passage than I had ever seen there;---Jesus, the Son of man, in heaven even while he was on earth! Then he looked at the Child, and said, "The same was in the beginning with God." After that, he uttered these three short sentences in succession, "In the beginning was the Word,"---"all things were made by him," "and the Word was made flesh." He looked as if he realized what a great mystery it was that our Lord Jesus first made all things, and afterwards was himself "made flesh." Then he reverently bent his knee, clasped his hands, and exclaimed, "My Father's gift,---'Behold, what manner of love!'"
As we retire from that manger and stable, that aged Christian puts his hand on my shoulder, and says, "Young man, I have often been to Bethlehem; it was a much-loved haunt, of mine before thou wast born, and one sweet lesson I have learnt there which I
should like to pass on to thee. The Infinite became finite; the Almighty consented to become weak; he, that upheld all things by the word of his power, willingly became helpless; he, that spake all worlds into existence, resigned for a while even the power
of speech. In all these things, he fulfilled the will of his Father; so be not thou afraid, nor surprised with any amazement, if thou shouldst be dealt with in like manner, for his Father is also thy Father....
Thus, then, beloved, I have endeavoured to carry out my purpose of going to Bethlehem with five separate companions,--all representative persons. Alas, that some of you are not represented by any one of these characters! "Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by?" Care ye not for this blessed nativity which marked of old "the fulness of time"? If ye die without a knowledge of this mystery, your lives will indeed be a fearful
blank, and your eternal portion will be truly terrible.
VI. Give me your earnest attention, a little longer, while I try to change the line of meditation. It may please God that, while I attempt to CONDUCT A WHOLE FAMILY TO BETHLEHEM, some hearts, which have thus far resisted all my appeals, may yet yield to the Lord Jesus Christ.
A familiar picture will serve my purpose. Imagine this to be the evening of Christmas-day, and that a Christian father has all his household gathered with him around the fire. Desirous of blending instruction with pleasure, he proposes that "the birth of Christ" shall be the subject of their conversation, that every one of the children shall say something about it, and he will preach them a short sermon on each of their remarks. He calls Mary, their servant, into the room, and when all are comfortably seated they commence.
(1) After a simple sketch of the facts, the father turns to his youngest boy, and asks, "What have you to say, Willy?" The little fellow, who is just old enough to go to the
Sunday-school, repeats two lines that he has learned to sing there,---many of you, no doubt, know them,---
"Jesus Christ, my Lord and Saviour, Once became a child like me."
"Good, my dear," says the father,--"once became a child like me." Yes; Jesus was born into the world as other little babies are born. He was as little, as delicate, as weak, as other infants, and needed to be nursed as they do.
(2) "Now, John," said the father, addressing a lad rather older, "what, have you to say?" "Well, father," said John, "if Jesus Christ was like us in some things, I do not think he could have had so many comforts as we have;--not such a nice nursery, nor such a snug bed. Was he not disturbed by the horses, and cows, and camels? It seems to me shocking that he had to live in a stable."
"That is a very proper remark, John," said his father. "We ought all of us to think how our blessed Lord cast in his lot with the poor. When those wise men came from the East, I daresay they were surprised, at first, to find that Jesus was a poor man's child; yet they fell down and worshipped him, and they opened their treasury, and presented to him very costly gifts,--gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. Ah! when the Son of God made that great stoop from heaven to earth, he passed the glittering palaces of kings, and the marble halls of the rich and the noble, and took up his abode in the lodgings of poverty. Still, he was 'born King of the Jews.' Now, John, did you ever read of a child being born a king before? Of course, you never did; children have been born princes, and heirs to a throne, but no other than Jesus was ever born a king. The poverty of our
Saviour's circumstances is like a foil which sets off the glorious dignity of his person. You have read of good kings, such as David, and Hezekiah, and Josiah; yet, if they had not been kings, we should never have heard of them; but it was quite otherwise with Jesus, Christ. He was possessed of more true greatness in a stable than any other king ever possessed in a palace; but do not imagine it was only in his childhood that Jesus was the Kinsmen of the poor. When he grew up to be a man, he said, 'The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.' Do you know, my children, that our comforts were purchased at the expense of his suffering? 'He became poor that we, through his poverty, might be rich.' We ought, therefore, to thank and praise the blessed Jesus every time we remember how much worse off he was in this world than we are."...
"To close up now," said the father, glancing round with animated expression upon his household, "I suppose you will expect a few words from me. ...We have all thought it wonderful that the God of glory should stoop so low; but we shall one day think it more wonderful that the Man of sorrows should be exalted so high. Earth could find no place too base for him; heaven will scarcely find a place lofty enough for him. Then there is just this one thing to be said about Jesus Christ, he is 'the same yesterday, and today, and for ever.' We may change with circumstances, Jesus never did, and never will. When we look at him in the manger, we may say, 'He is the Wonderful, the Counsellor, the mighty God.'
And when we see him exalted to his Father's right hand, we may exclaim, 'Behold the Man!'
*The accompanying Sermon is substantially the same as I preached
on the Sunday evening before Christmas-day. Some of my members
expressed their regret that the reporter was not present. I am
not myself aware that there is any novelty, except in the
arrangement. As for the truths themselves, they are the simple
old facts in which the saints of all generations rejoice. Of
course, it is not in my power to reproduce the exact words I
then employed, but, with just the difference between the
effusion of one's pen and the utterance of one's tongue, I now
publish it, and pray God to own it with his gracious
blessing.--C. H. S.