By James H. Snowden
he angels’ song died away in the solemn silence, and the shepherds were left alone. It was a critical hour with them. Would they follow this vision and turn it into victory, or would they let it vanish with the last echo of the song and relapse into the old dull routine? No, they did not let it pass, and life was never the same to them again. “Let us now go,” they said, “even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.” They translated vision into action and presently were climbing the rocky slope to Bethlehem. Had these shepherds not followed up the message their knowledge of their Messiah would have immediately been cut short. We hear divine messages and see heavenly visions enough, but too often we let them fade into forgetfulness and pass into nothingness. A message does us no good until it becomes action, the grandest vision that ever swept through our brain or illuminated our sky leaves no vestige of worth unless it is turned into conduct and character. “Let us now go and see this thing.” We do not know Christ until we see him as our Saviour. Seeing is believing, this is the simplicity of faith, and when we see Christ through the direct vision and personal experience of faith and obedience we are transfigured into his likeness.
“And they came with haste, and found both Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in the manger.” Were they disappointed at the humble mother, wife of a workingman, and at the manger cradle? These did not match the desire and expectation of the Jews. They had long cherished the passionate hope of an earthly prince who would come wearing purple robes and marshaling armies to trample hated oppressors under feet and make Jerusalem the mistress of the world. They would have said that the Christ should be born in a palace and laid on softest down and covered with silken robes. What a surprise was this manger to their thoughts and shock to their feelings. Were ever deep-seated, long-cherished hopes treated with more cruel irony? But God’s ways are not as our ways. Christ was brought into the world at the very point where he could get the deepest strongest hold upon it and most powerfully swing it starward from the dust. He was born among neither the very rich nor the very poor, but in the great middle class at the center of gravity of humanity, by lifting which he would lift the world. Had he come as a pampered child of wealth he would never have got hold of the great heart of humanity; but he came as one of the people, knitting himself into humble relations, growing up among plain folk of the countryside and toiling as a common workingman. And so when he began to preach the common people heard him gladly.
Promise was exactly matched by fulfillment. “Ye shall find a babe,” was the promise of the angel, and now the record reads, “And they found the babe.” When did God ever lead us to expect anything and then disappoint us? He gave us thirst that urges us to find water, and matching this need he has created bubbling springs and sparkling streams. He gave us hunger that seeks bread, and it finds fields of golden grain and orchards of rosy fruit. He gave us minds that seek truth, and they find it; he gave us a craving for love, and heart matches heart. He set eternity in our hearts and gave us deep instincts that reach after the Infinite, hearts that cry, “Shew, us the Father and it sufficeth us.” Shall all lower needs be satisfied and this supreme search and cry of the soul be disappointed and mocked? “And they found the babe,” is the answer to this need and promise. God sends us with all our deep needs and mysterious longings to that cradle in Bethlehem, where they will be exactly and fully matched and satisfied. He that hath seen this Child hath seen the Father.
The shepherds, having seen for themselves, immediately began to make known abroad the saying which was told them concerning the Child. The gospel is a social and expansive blessing and cannot be shut up in the individual heart. We are saved to serve, we are told the good news that we may tell it to others, we get it that we may give it. And the more we give it the more we get it, for this bread multiplies in our own hands as we share it with others, as did the loaves beside the Galilean sea. Great souls have ever grown rich by the lavish prodigality with which they bestowed their gifts on others, and because Jesus gave himself God hath highly exalted him.
First angels and then shepherds: how startling the contrast. Jesus has deep affinities with both: on his divine side he is related to heaven, and on his human side he is related to earth. And the first men he drew to his side were shepherds, representatives of the common people. He did not come as a member of any special class, especially of the upper class. No one can ever save the world by winning over the rich and the great. Society cannot be lifted from the top. Whoever would raise the level of society must get his lever under its foundation stones. Taking hold of the carved cornice will tear the roof off and lift it away from the building, but raising the lowest stone will also push up the spire’s gilded point. He who elevates the peasant will also in time elevate the prince. Jesus did not begin with Cæsar, but with shepherds, and then in three hundred years a Christian Cæsar sat on the throne.
The gospel still works from beneath; going down into the slums of Christian cities; working among the poor and degraded of heathen lands; and seeking the lowest tribes of men from whom have been defaced almost the last vestige of humanity and restoring them to the image of God. Christ is saving the world as a whole. He is not slicing the loaf of society horizontally, cutting off the upper crust, but he is slicing it vertically from top to bottom.
How wonderful is the simplicity and beauty of this gospel that shepherds are drawn by it. It takes some brain to read Plato. Shepherds would not get much out of Sir Isaac Newton, or a child out of Shakespeare, or a sorrowing heart out of Emerson. But every one can get milk and honey for his soul out of the gospel of Jesus. His wonderful words of life have the same sweetness and saving power for shepherd and scholar, peasant and prince. However lowly and unlettered one may be there is wide room for him around the manger of this Child.
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