The Christ Child and the Emperor – David James Burrell (historic sermon 1844-1926)
“Then Herod…said go and search diligently for the young child: and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him.” -Matthew 2:7-8
The Incarnation was an invasion. God crossed the border into the territory of Earthly Power. No trumpets were heard, no roar of artillery disturbed the quiet of the early morning. A mother sat crooning to an Infant in her arms. That was all; but it was the first note of the onset. What could be more helpless than the pink, dimpled hand that lay upon that mother s breast? Yet that hand was destined to cut the sinews of Roman supremacy and change the currents of history through the ages.
The arrival of the Magi at Jerusalem passing from door to door with the question, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews?” threw the naturally suspicious Herod into a paroxysm of jealous fear. Well might he be troubled; old, feeble, bloody-minded, pursued by conscience, harried by the furies of his mislived past, this usurper, representing Caesar’s authority in Judea, was ill prepared to meet a new disturbance of his provincial rule. And his fear was well grounded, since Jesus was really of the royal line. One can scarcely wonder, knowing how insecure was his hold on power, at the outburst of his wrath in the Slaughter of the Innocents. It was like the scream of a falcon in a dovecote, or the ravaging of a wolf among sheep. The man and the time must be borne in mind. As to the man, a lurid sidelight was thrown upon his character when the Emperor Augustus, on being informed that the infant son of Herod himself had perished in this massacre, observed, “It were better to be one of his swine than one of his children.” As to the time, it makes a great difference whether an event is dated ” B.C.” or “A.D.” This was before Christ. Life was cheap in those days. A placard may be seen on a ruined wall in Pompeii announcing an entertainment thus: “In the Arena a hundred men will fight with ferocious beasts.” Line up the victims. Drag out the dead! Such was Paganism in its Golden Age.
The incident at Bethlehem, however, was a mere preliminary skirmish. The murder of a score of children was an episode of slight consequence in the royal policies of those days. And it failed to accomplish its purpose; for “Joseph arose and took the young child and his mother by night and fled into Egypt.”
The affair was shrewdly planned; but Herod reckoned without God. The futility of the bloody deed is set forth in two masterpieces of recent art. One of them is Holman Hunt’s “Triumph of the Innocents,” in which Joseph and the virgin mother and her Child are represented on their way to Egypt followed by the spirits of the slain innocents; one of them carrying a golden censer while the others come trooping after with palm branches. These are the vanguard of that noble army of martyrs who ever since have followed in his train. The other picture is “The Repose in Egypt” by Merson. It represents the dull-eyed, wondering Sphinx on the verge of the desert, between the world with out hope and the world of progress. It is night. In the arms of the great image the mother reposes with the Child on her bosom; and from his face there radiates a light which penetrates the darkness of the surrounding wastes.
That was indeed a memorable flight, the first strategic move in the long campaign of centuries. It was a retreat preparatory to an advance all along the line.
We do not see the Child and the Emperor face to face again until the Child has grown to manhood. His ministry is under way. He has gone up and down among the villages preaching, working wonders, troubling the corrupt times. His name is on every lip. He enters Jerusalem at length and begins to preach. Herod, desirous of making an end of his influence, presumes to threaten him. His underlings come to Jesus, saying, “Get thee out and depart hence, for Herod will kill thee!” But Jesus sees through the shallow device of the intriguing court. Observe his calm disdain: “Go tell that fox, Behold I cast out devils and do cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I shall be perfected. Tell him, I must walk today and tomorrow and the day following; for it cannot be that a prophet shall perish out of Jerusalem.” And the work goes on.
In vain does the earthworm lift its head against the chariot of the King. “I must walk!” The behest of divine duty is upon Jesus; and who or what shall prevent it? He must accomplish the mighty task which has brought him from heaven to earth. “The kings of the earth do set them selves and the rulers take counsel together saying, Let us break his bands asunder and cast his cords from us! He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh; the Lord shall have them in derision.” This is not the Herod of the massacre, but Herod Antipas, another of a smaller mould, who has been characterized by a distinguished historian as “the meanest thing the world ever saw.”
It is the story of the centuries. “Kindle the fagots! Sharpen the sword! Let loose the lions!” cries Caesar. “We will make an end of the Nazarene and his religion!” But the blood of the martyrs is ever the seed of the Church. The royal standards onward go. “I must walk!” says the Master. “I must walk in majesty upon the heights of Bozrah with garments dyed red. I must walk in the glory of him who cometh from Teman with the pestilence before him.”
“Herod will kill thee,” forsooth. So they said in The Terror, when the streets of Paris were red and slippery with blood of the innocents. The image of the Virgin Mother was torn from its shrine in Notre Dame and supplanted by a notorious woman of the demi-monde, whom the mob worshipped as Goddess of Reason. Through the clash of arms and the shriek of the dying was heard the grim word of Voltaire, “Crush the Nazarene!” But calm over all rose the commanding voice of the Master, “I must walk to day, tomorrow and the day following! I must lead my militant hosts until the tabernacle of God shall come down among men.”
So runs the Parable of Progress: “For the kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field: which indeed is the least of all seeds; but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree.”
The next meeting of Christ and Caesar was on the last day of the public ministry, when Jesus was teaching in Solomon’s Porch. The Herodians, representing the Roman Government in the Jewish Sanhedrin, sent a delegation to ensnare him. They said, “Master, we know that thou teachest truth and regardest not the person of men; tell us, therefore, what thinkest thou, Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar or not?” Observe again the calm disdain: “Why tempt ye me, ye mask-wearers? Show me the tribute money.” They gave him a penny; and he said, “Whose is this image and superscription?” They answered, “Caesar s.” Then said he, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar s and unto God the things that are God s.”
This was “diplomacy” at its highest and best; an illustration of the truth that “peace hath its victories no less renowned than war.” The conference on this occasion was of immeasurable importance not only because the parties concerned were the authorities of earth and heaven, but because of the great principle which was evolved from it.
Once and again the world powers have met, in what are technically known as “conventions,” for the distribution of spoils or the division of territory. Such was the Convention of 1572, when Catherine de Medici and the Duke of Alva met on the borders of Spain to divide between them the Continent of Europe for the inquisition of faith. Conventions of like character have been held by the so-called Great Powers in recent years for the partition of China, of the Dark Continent, of Korea. For the most part, however, they have left out Christ, the King who sits supreme over all.
In the brief and inconspicuous “convention” in Solomon s Porch a principle was laid down which formulated for all time the right relations of civil and ecclesiastical authority. In the proposition, “Render unto Cesar the things which are Caesar s and unto God the things which are God s,” the fact is fairly stated that Church and State are co-ordinate powers; that they are interdependent, yet independent each of the other, since they proceed along distinct lines; that they rest on mutual support and are entitled to loyal following, since both alike are ordained of God.
The last meeting of Christ and Caesar was in the judgment hall. “And Pilate saith unto Jesus, Art thou a king? He answered, Thou sayest it; to this end was I born and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness of the truth. And Pilate brought Jesus forth and sat down in the judgment seat in the place that is called Gabbatha; and he said, Behold your king! But they cried out, Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him! Pilate saith unto them, Shall I crucify your king? They answered, We have no king but Caesar. Then delivered he him unto them to be crucified. And Pilate wrote a title and put it on the cross, Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”
Thus the issue was fairly drawn; they would have no king but Caesar. And Jesus submitted. He bowed his head to the powers that be. For three mortal hours, hung up between heaven and earth, he bore the shame and agony; then with a fluttering sigh yielded up the ghost.
Defeat! Manifest defeat! Nay; he did but stoop to conquer. Had he not said, “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit”? Wait. Today, tomorrow and the day following, and then he will be perfected! He breaks the bands of death and ascends on high, taking captivity captive. The veil is drawn and, lo, yonder he sits upon his throne high and lifted up, saying, “Fear not; I am he that liveth and was dead, and, behold, I am alive forevermore!” Alive? Ay, witness the nineteen centuries of Christian progress. He is alive, as no other historic personage is alive, in the councils of nations and of men. As the white plume of Henry of Navarre was ever to be seen in the forefront of battle, so are the presence and power of Jesus manifest in the conflicts of the ages.
And now at the end of the years we stand again at the watch-tower calling, “Watchman, what of the night?”
And the watchman answers, “The night lingers, but the shadows flee!”
“And what of Cesar?”
“An empty name!”
“What of Rome and the Great Powers?”
“One by one they flourish and are gone!”
“What of the Church?”
“Glorious things of thee are spoken, Zion, city of our God !”
“And, watchman, what of Christ?”
“He goeth forth conquering and to conquer! The head that once was crowned with thorns is crowned with glory now. His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom and his dominion is for ever and ever.”
The end should have been seen from the beginning. It is vain to fight against God. The Child sits upon his throne of power and the hearts of the mightiest are in his hands as the rivers of water. He came to establish his kingdom on earth; and he will not forbear until he reigns universally.
Can we read history in the light of the Incarnation? If not, the lines are blurred before our eyes. The logic of events is as meaningless as were the scars and fissures on the rocks until a scientist came, saying, “Once upon a time a glacier passed this way.” So the philosophy of history clears up when men look toward Bethlehem and say, “Behold, the invasion!” In the light of that stupendous event we are able not only to read old chronicles, but to discern the signs of the times. All the incidents of these nineteen centuries array themselves in lines converging toward the final conquest of the world by Christ.
What then? The part of reason is manifestly to fall in with the advance. The silver trumpet calls. The Rider on the white horse leads his militant host to victory. Armageddon is near. Gog and Magog to the fray! It is Christ against Caesar. It is truth against error. It is light against darkness. It is freedom against tyranny. It is the Golden Age against the dark ages. It is heaven against hell.
Where do we stand? Under what King, the Child or the Emperor?