Why do we Inquire about Jesus Christ?


Editor's Note:  The text that follows is that of a sermon preached by Joseph Parker (1830-1902) at the City Temple, London, ca. 1890.  Does this text have any interest to those of us living in the 21st century, other than historical?  It is a sermon probably most appropriate to the Christmas season, but worth reading, in my opinion, any time of the year, for these reasons: First, the sermon explains, in a brief but compelling fashion, why one might choose to be a follower of Christ, and what that decision would entail.  Second, a portion of the sermon is directed specifically toward modern day theologians, a salient point being made regarding the need for balancing theological speculation with heartfelt spirituality with the comment, "What I dread amongst you most is not that you will destroy Christ, but that you will patronize him."  Third, and most importantly, we have the words of a Victorian preacher warning today's Christian fundamentalists of the "possibility of destroying Christ more or less unconsciously, by giving false notions of him, by making him a class-redeemer, by setting him apart for sectarian uses, by attaching to him badges and labels, scarves, and memorials, that make him belong to one corner only, by narrowing his words down into denominational shibboleths." One might conclude that Parker's words have never been more timely.  -- DJMc.

 

Here [in Matt. 2:1- 10] would seem to begin the inquiry about Jesus Christ which has never since ceased to be the supreme question of the religious mind. That inquiry, I take it, is more eager and widespread today than ever it was in any period of human history. Still the great subject is - where is Christ, who is Christ, what is Christ? The books that reveal him most profoundly and lovingly to the human mind and heart are books which hold their own today amid the fiercest possible literary competition. All this means something. There is in it a deep and all but tragical mystery; an agony of the heart speaks in this inquiry of the lips. The life of man wants something more than it has yet secured; it tries to evade answers that bring with them severe moral obligations, and yet it recurs to those answers as if they were the only profound and vital replies. It is a great mystery; it is even a sharp pain; it is a dense cloud, and out of it there come, in strange and terrible gleamings, lightnings that might affright and destroy the mind that inquires and wonders.

Matthew 2:1-10 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, {2} Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. {3} When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. {4} And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. {5} And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, {6} And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, art not the least among the princes of Judah: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. {7} Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. {8} And he sent them to Bethlehem, and 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 also. {9} When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. {10} When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

The great inquiry related to that which was essential rather than to that which was accidental. Of course that which was accidental had to come into the inquiry. Certain things had been prophetically written, certain places and times had been specifically indicated, and therefore attention must be directed into those quarters. Still the grave and everlasting inquiry relates to that which is essential and immutable.

The word upon which I would lay the strongest emphasis is the word born. Not upon the word young, not upon the word child. "Young" is a term that lives on for a few days, and then melts out of our sight and becomes age whilst yet we admire its tender bloom. "Child" is a beautiful bud that bursts into a full flower whilst we are looking at it. But born is a historical word: it is the same always, it indicates the revelation of life, the setting up of new ministries and forces in the universe. To be young is to be a child, is to pass through very transitory stages and attractions; but to be born sets up a fact, immortal as God.

We have been born. Our youth has gone like the mist of the morning, our childhood is a hardly remembered sun-spot in our recollection, but our birth hastens to shape itself into a permanent destiny. It is in this light I look upon your dear little children. I do not sneer at babyhood, nor do I say, how can the dear unconscious little infant understand the ordinances of the Church? Life is larger than understanding, life is grander than logic. Are we subjects for the vivisecting instruments of the Aristotles of the ages? Are we not something infinitely and inexpressibly more? When you bring the child here, you bring more than childhood, you bring life, and a creature born - a new creation, a beautiful presence in the universe, great enough for God to take an interest in, small enough for us to smile about, precious enough for Christ to die for.

This interest in childhood should teach us a great deal. Childhood in itself is little, but it is a quantity that is always growing. Let old Pharaoh teach us what to do with children. He said, "These Israelites will be too many for us one day" (Exodus 1). What, then, did he propose in the view of their over-multiplication? To kill off all the men, or all the women? His was a profounder policy: I would God the Church could seize it and apply it to the current questions of our own economy. He said, "Kill the boys, drown them." Am I appalled by the idiot's philosophy? No; but I am struck by the wisdom that sees in childhood, boyhood, a growing power, and that directs its attention to the early life of nations, for they who begin with the adults begin at the wrong end, and they who begin with the little ones begin at the right point, and may achieve profound and permanent success. Do not sneer at the boys. Do not count them for nothing. They will be your successors, they may now be your scholars. For a time they may grieve you and annoy you, and, by an impertinence that is only for the passing day, they may again and again bring momentary annoyance or distress upon you; but it is a grand thing to have to do with them. Let your gentleness make them great. Show yourself so deeply interested in them, by many an inquiry, as to start in their minds the question whether they be not something greater and grander than they appear to be merely for the passing moment.

Pharaoh and Herod directed their attention to young life. If they could have gotten hold of the young life and turned it in their direction they might have built up very bad sovereignties, but it was one of two things with them, either the boys would overcome them or they must overcome the boys. Let me speak words of strong encouragement and genuine comfort to those of you who are young. You cannot tell what you may be yet. Work with a high aim, be moved to noble and pure ambitions. You will have your broad chance in the world. O may every finger you have, and every faculty, be made keen enough and strong enough to seize the chance and turn it as it were into fine gold.

In reading this text one is struck with the power of one life to rouse a world. Observe who gather around this young child. Wise men from the east, kings, chief priests and scribes of the people, and elsewhere we hear of the interest of shepherds who were keeping their flocks by night. A strange thing for these old Persian astrologers to come four months from their homes to see one who was born - not king of the Persians, then their journey would have admitted an easy explication - but king of the Jews - why should these Oriental star-gazers be interested in Jewish history to this extent? There is more in the question than appears on the surface. This king of the Jews is not king of the Jews only, but he is the king who springs out of the Jews to be the king of all men. He will choose his own name presently. Our fathers called us what they pleased without consulting us: not a man was asked what name he would bear: his name is the finger-mark of a power he can neither understand nor resist, but there comes a time when every man may make himself a name, may by his spirit and his actions build up an appellation which will endure through all eternity. When Jesus Christ comes to speak of himself he will explain this Persian eagerness. He will call himself the Son of Man. He will broaden away from his birth-point until he covers the whole area of human nature, answering every throbbing pain, anticipating every distressed prayer, and giving answers greater than any questions that ever could be framed.

Herein is the explanation of all kinds of people wanting to know about Jesus Christ. Philosophy calls in to see what he is. Kings pause a moment on their royal processions to ask questions about him, chief priests and scribes of the people betake themselves to literary research and religious investigation that they may be able to answer popular inquiries concerning this unnameable Man. And all kinds of poor people want to know where he is, that they may speak to him a prayer that has come back from every door, a bruised bird that could find no space for its flying.

We have read in the seventy-second psalm of the first Solomon, type of a greater, who shall have dominion from sea to sea and from the river to the ends of the earth - why? Heard ye the sweet answer?

For he shall deliver the poor and the needy and him that hath no helper.
This is not a painted majesty, a gilded dominion, a great comet-like blaze of transient splendor: it is a monarchy built on beneficence. He who makes it his supreme business in life to help the poor and the needy, the woman and the child, the far off and the destitute, the misunderstood and the friendless - nothing can hinder him putting on his head crown upon crown until other kings look petty beside his majesty.

It is thus that Jesus Christ will reign. Not by force of chariots and multitudinousness of horses, not by the grandeur of his earth-state, but by that loving sympathy which understands everybody, by that infinite beneficence that stops not at donations of the hand but gives all the blood of its heart. Hereon ye may build the Christian argument, and naught will be able to overthrow it. They will be able to ask you difficult questions about miracles and mysteries of every kind, they will be able to puzzle you with grammatical inquiries, they may lose you altogether in historical and archaeological investigations and references: your heads may become bewildered there - you stand to this grand sovereign fact, let him be king who can do most for men. Here you have the key which explains the inrushing upon Christ of all the nations and climates of the world.

Yet one cannot but be struck with the different purposes of the inquiry. The Magians said, "We have come to worship him," - literally to do homage to him. Trust the men who can do homage to anything, out of and greater than themselves. Always set a high price upon reverence. Veneration is the basis of all noble and tender and beneficent character. I would distrust the man who has proved himself destitute of veneration. It does us good to bend the knee to an object which we suppose to be greater than we are ourselves. We have all seen the poor superstitious creatures, as we deem them, on the continent of Europe, coming into the churches for a moment and bowing and genuflecting after a manner which we could not understand. I never could mock that service. I have thought I have seen upon the peasant's face a tenderer expression, a more glowing solemnity because of that little service in the house of God. There are men who are greater in blasphemy than in reverence, and the world over they never had anything good to say of men, and they never did anything for men worthy of a moment's remembrance. Why have we come into Christ's house this morning? If we have come to worship him, we shall retire from the house larger and better men: the small critical function with which we might have distressed ourselves in passing through the service will be suspended, and in our hearts there will glow a fire of new love. By so much as we have bent the knee lovingly and loyally to the Son of Man have we thrown off the worst part of ourselves, and taken upon us part of that which constitutes his beauty and strength.

Herod's purpose was not to worship him: he said it was to worship - he lied. Can men lie about religious things? Yes. Can men say worship when they mean destroy? They say it every day. Can men be found who will put up a church for Christ and yet not know what they are building? Alas, it is not only possible, it is the saddest fact of our business, that we build temples, and curse the stones as we put them together. We set up ministers, not with songs but sometimes with profanities. There is a possibility of destroying Christ, under the guise of worshipping him, and there is a further possibility of destroying Christ more or less unconsciously, by giving false notions of him, by making him a class-redeemer, by setting him apart for sectarian uses, by attaching to him badges and labels, scarves, and memorials, that make him belong to one corner only, by narrowing his words down into denominational shibboleths - by a thousand such ways we destroy Christ's influence in the world. Know ye that Christ is a Sun which cannot be touched and also a light which plays with loving familiarity upon the one-paned cottage of the poor man and upon the stately palaces of royalty and wealth? He is a Sun not to be clipped by your instruments or rearranged by your eager fingers, and he is a light that will bless you, but never be trifled with.

Then there are other men who do not come to worship Christ, and who certainly do not come to destroy him - who simply come to speculate upon him. They make him an intellectual puzzle. He is the mystery of the day to them, they must say something about him, he is an enigma they cannot afford wholly to ignore, and it is heartbreaking to hear the chaff they pour forth without one grain of wheat in the innumerable bushels. And sadder still to hear the patronage they offer the Son of God. Have you heard how they speak about him? With measured approbation, with a fine critical discrimination as to his properties, and qualities, and place in human history. It makes me sad to hear how they damn him with faint praise. They say he had the inspiration of genius, they allow that he was an excellent character, perhaps a little too amiable now and then. He had wondrous prevision, he saw a great deal more than many of his contemporaries saw. He was a very excellent man in all his purposes; his motives were unquestionably good. If he is not more than that, he is the crowning hypocrisy of history. What I dread amongst you most is not that you will destroy Christ, but that you will patronize Him. You who laid the hand upon the fat bullock and said "Good," will put the same paw upon the Son of God and say "Not bad." He will resist such patronage, and denounce it, and decline it, and return it to rest upon those who gave it. It will be a curse that they can never survive.

Jesus Christ is nothing to me if he is not the Saviour of the world. I never heard persons in moments of great agony or distress speak about the inspiration of genius being upon Christ. I have heard them say so when they were doing well: I have heard them speak thus about Christ when they were parenthetically interposing, "No more, thank you," about their fat dinner. But when I have seen them doubled up with great distress, and thrust into dark corners and carrying burdens that break the back, and shuddering under clouds that may be laden with death darts, I have heard a whimper that would have disgraced a dog. You will know what Jesus Christ is most and best when you are in greatest need of such service as he can render.

You find, too, very different results flowing from these inquiries. Herod was troubled, but the wise men rejoiced with exceeding great joy. This is a summary of today's experience. It is one of two things with this Christ in the life. He is either the source of your keenest troubles, or he is the beginning and the end of your supremest joys. The good always trouble the bad. The honest clerk troubles you who are not honest. You hate that young man: he is good to look upon, he is pleasant to speak to, he is most companionable, many an attraction attaches to his method and ways amongst men, but his honesty is a continual judgment upon your dishonesty. If you were to hear that he dropped down dead, it would only be a hypocrite's sigh that would answer the announcement. It is a law of the universe, if we may judge by its being a law of society, that the bad are always troubled by the good, the generous giver is a daily trouble to the penurious man: he finds motives for his generosity, he attributes his liberality to false inspirations, he wonders he could not be more prudent, careful, and thoughtful: all the while in his heart he hates the man who by contrast throws him into very cold and distant shadow.

On the other hand, no man has given such joy to the world as Jesus Christ has given. He carries all his disciples up to the point of bliss. Such have been the feelings of Christian men that a new language has had to be invented for the expression of their lofty and sacred emotions. Religion, say you, has a cant of its own: it is only a cant to those who have not been fired to the same intensity of zeal, and brought to the same nobility of sacrificial temper. When the Christian man shouts, "Praise the Lord, Amen, Hallelujah," he utters a fool's language to those who have never been in his temper. It is a foreign tongue to them, which they can only answer by foolish mocking. But there are times in the religious experience when only such a word as Hallelujah - Hallelujah - a word not to be explained in smaller terms - expresses the dominant feeling of the excited and grateful soul.

Have you seen Christ's star in the east? That is a sight which we may never behold; but we may see a greater sight than that. We may see Himself. It is only the accidental that drops off - such words as young, child, Bethlehem, star - fall away into their proper insignificance, but such words as born, King, Christ, Redeemer, sin, salvation - abide with a most indestructible permanence in human recollection. It will be a happy day when we are more eager to see Christ than we are to see any symbol of Him that could be found, either in the heavens or on the earth. I do not want you, as my fellow-students of this Word, to care about baptism and the Lord's supper, and the Sabbath-day, and the church built with hands - except as these may lead you further into the inner sanctuary where is enthroned Christ himself.

If I found men now earnestly searching the heavens with the most scientifically constructed telescopes that they might find a star resembling what the Persian sages saw, that they, too, might follow its guiding light to some distant Bethlehem, I would say to them, "Christ is not here nor there: he is not to be found in sign or symbol now, except in some low and momentarily convenient sense. He himself is with us: he is to be found in our consciousness, he is to be the answer to our sin, he is to be the satisfaction of our hunger, he is to be the light of our intellectual firmament, he is to be the glory of our spiritual hope."

What, then, is our supreme anxiety today? Is it to see the star or to see the Saviour? Is it to make a prophetical calculation of years and months, or to go out of the heart searching for One who is the answer to sin and the balm for its cruel wounding? If you say, "Sirs, I would see Jesus," (John 12:21) you will find him in the Holy Scriptures, you will find him in every Christian's experience, in proportion as it is enlarged and true; yea, you will find him in the very question itself, for no man ever asked that question with the sincerity and earnestness of fire, without the answer beginning the moment the question ended.



 

 

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