F. W. Boreham, My Christmas Book, Part II, ch. IV
It is an infinite comfort to us ordinary pulpiteers to know that even an Archbishop may sometimes have a bad time! And, on the occasion of which I write, the poor Prelate must have had a very bad time indeed. For—tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon!—none of his hearers knew what he had been talking about! They could make neither head nor tail of it! ‘I have not been able to find one man yet who could discover what it was about’, wrote one of his auditors to a friend. It is certainly most humiliating when our congregations go home and pen such letters for posterity to chuckle over.
And yet the ability of the preacher at this particular service, and the intelligence of his hearers, are alike beyond question. For the preacher was the famous Richard Chenevix Trench, D.D., Professor of Theology at King’s College, Dean of Westminster and Archbishop of Dublin. The sermon was preached in the classical atmosphere of Cambridge University, principally to students and undergraduates. The theme was the Incarnation—’the Word was made flesh’. And the young fellow who wrote the plaintive epistle from which I have quoted was Alfred Ainger, afterwards a distinguished literateur and Master of the Temple. He could make nothing of it. ‘The sermon, I am sorry to say, was universally disappointing. I have not been able to find one man yet who could discover what it was about. It is needless to say I could not. He chose, too, one of the grandest and most profound texts in the New Testament. He talked a great deal about St. Augustine, but any more I cannot tell you.’
Now Christmas is once more knocking at our doors, and many of us, in a few days, will find ourselves preaching on this self-same theme. And we have a wholesome horror of sending our hearers home in the same fearful perplexity. ‘What on earth was the minister talking about?’ All the cards and the carols, the fun and the frolic, the pastimes and the picnics will be turned into dust and ashes, into gall and wormwood, into vanity and vexation of spirit to the poor preacher who suspects that his Christmas congregation returned home in such a mood. His Christmas dinner will almost choke him. There will be no merry Christmas for him!
But let no minister be terrified or intimidated by the Archbishop’s unhappy experience. His ‘bad time’ may help us to enjoy a good one. We must take his text, and wrestle with it bravely. It is just the message for Christmas. There is none like it. ‘Christmas approaches!’ writes James Smetham in his Journal. ‘Christmas approaches, a charmed time for me. I hear its music afar off—the song of the angels, the pealing of the bells, but most of all, the divine song from out the central glory.’ And this divine sentence from the lips of the King will come up every hour with wondrous depth and meaning. ‘The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.’ Yes, it is the ideal Christmas greeting. There is certainly depth and mystery; but there is humanness and tenderness as well.
No man has come within sight of elucidating the stately mystery of Christmas-time until he discovers that, in the birth of the Babe in the manger, God wrote His own divine autobiography. Bethlehem is a superb masterpiece of celestial self-revelation. Almighty God gave us His eternal life-story, inscribed, not with pen and ink, but with flesh and blood.
In contemplating the redemption of the world, God was confronted by a problem worthy of His infinite genius! It is said of Huber, the great Swiss naturalist, that, as a boy, he one day stood with his mother beside an ant-hill. The ants were scurrying everywhere in obvious agitation. ‘They’re afraid of me!’ the boy remarked to his mother.
‘But,’ she replied, ‘you wouldn’t hurt them; you are so fond of them!’
‘Yes,’ answered the boy, ‘but how can I let the ants know that I’m so fond of them—except by becoming an ant?’ There you have the problem in a cameo. How could Almighty God let men know that He was so fond of them—except by becoming a man? And it is the supreme triumph of divine ingenuity that He actually compassed that end.
The word that He ached to speak became flesh. Wren expressed himself in granite; Turner expressed himself in oils; Michelangelo expressed himself in marble; Shakespeare expressed himself in ink; but God selected flesh as the ideal vehicle for self-expression.
The Word was made flesh! The only quality with which God had endowed man, and which He did not Himself possess was—flesh. He therefore selected the hallmark of man’s humanity as the supreme vehicle for the revelation of His love.
Flesh! There is nothing so eloquent. When the soul most aches for expression, one’s speech becomes strangely broken and incoherent. In the crises of life we express ourselves, not in stately diction and exquisitely balanced sentences, but in the awkwardness of the limbs, in the confusion of the face, and in a welter of embarrassment. The twitching of the lips; the pallor of the countenance; the crimsoning of the cheeks; the moistening of the eyes—these tell-tale signals are incomparably more eloquent and incalculably more revealing than any mere words could possibly be. For they are flesh; and flesh is the ideal medium for self- expression. That is why God chose it.
We never understand words until they are ‘made flesh’. Let me illustrate my meaning. Here is a bonny little fellow of six, with sunny face and a glorious shock of golden hair. His father hands him his first spelling book, with the alphabet on the front page, and little two-letter monosyllables following. But he can made nothing of it. Then his mother sits beside him, slips her arm round his shoulders, gently explains the mysterious hieroglyphics, and when, in the person of his mother, the words become flesh, comprehension dawns upon him.
Ten years later he is a perfect bookworm. He reads every adventure story that he can lay his hands on. But again he is mystified. ‘Mother,’ he says, ‘why, in each of these books, is there one of those silly love-stories?’ He is hopelessly out of his depth.
But ten years later still! The greatest word in the language—the word that so bewildered him in his earlier travel stories—the word ‘love’—is made flesh to him in the charming person of a pretty girl. And thus exquisitely incarnated, he once more understands.
We humans understand nothing until it is made flesh. That is why Jesus came. The Word was made flesh—soft flesh, warm flesh, live flesh that throbbed and felt and developed and matured, as all sound and healthy flesh will. And so there grew up, little by little, line upon line, the sweetest idyll in the language—the life of Jesus. And Jesus is God; He is the pronunciation of the unpronounceable Word! I may look upon Him at any stage of His fleshly development—a Babe at Bethlehem, a Boy at Nazareth, a Youth at the Carpenter’s bench, a Man at Galilee—and, under whatever phase I behold him, I say to myself: ‘Almighty God! Almighty God!’ The Word, having been made flesh, has become intelligible and comprehensible at last! God reveals Himself in the beauty and the wonder of the universe; but a million universes would not tell me what Jesus tells me, for, in Jesus, the Word was made flesh! God reveals Himself in prophet and psalmist and apostle and sage; but a million Bibles would not tell me what Jesus tells me, for, in Jesus, the Word was made flesh!
The longer we live, and the more Christmases we spend, the greater grows the glory of the Incarnation. The Manger becomes a casket in which all the jewels of divine revelation glitter with increasing lustre. A little Baby throws out its arms and cries; and, in its outstretched arms and piteous cry, we have a cameo of Calvary. For Golgotha is implicit in Bethlehem; the redemption of the world is wrapped in swaddling clothes; the conquest of the ages has begun!
That is the subtle and sublime significance of Christmas-time; and—come Christmas when it may—in the snow-white robes of winter-time, as it comes to the peoples of the northern world, or in the golden splendour of high summer-time, as it comes to us beneath these Australian skies—it will always and everywhere awaken a responsive chord in hearts that are restless and ill at ease until they have heard the divine Word simply and clearly enunciated at Bethlehem.