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out of Jacob, he did not tell them that a Star should arise far from the posterity of Jacob, at the birth of the Messiah. He, that did put that prophecy into the mouth of Balaam, did also put this illumination into the heart of the Sages. The Spirit of God is free to breathe, where he listeth: many shall come from the east and the west to seek Christ, when the children of the kingdom shall be shut out. Even then, God did not so confine his election to the pale of the Church, as that he did not sometimes look out for special instruments of his glory.
Whither do these Sages come, but to Jerusalem? Where should they hope to hear of the new king, but in the mother city of the kingdom? The conduct of the Star was first only general to Judea: the rest is, for a time, left to inquiry. They were not brought thither for their own sakes, but for Jewry's, for the world's; that they might help to make the Jews inexcusable, and the world faithful. That their tongues therefore might blazon the birth of Christ, they are brought to the head city of Judea, to report and inquire.
Their wisdom could not teach them to imagine, that a King could be born to Judea, of that note and magnificence, that a Star from heaven should publish him to the earth, and that his subjects should not know it; and therefore, as presupposing a common notice, they say, Where is he, that is born King of the Jews? There is much deceit in probabilities; especially when we meddle with spiritual matters: for God uses still to go a way by himself.
If we judge according to reason and appearance, who are so likely to understand heavenly truths, as the profound doctors of the world? These God passes over, and reveals his will to babes. Had these Sages met with the shepherds of the villages near Bethlehem, they had received that intelligence of Christ, which they did vainly seek from the learned scribes of Jerusalem. The greatest clerks are not always the wisest in the affairs of God. These things go not by discourse, but by revelation.
No sooner hath the Star brought them within the noise of Jerusalem, than it is vanished out of sight. God would have their eyes lead them so far, as till their tongues might be set on work, to win the vocal attestation of the chief priests and scribes to the fore-appointed place of our Saviour's nativity. If the Star had carried them directly to Bethlehem, the learned Jews had never searched the truth of those prophecies, wherewith they are since justly convinced. God never withdraws our helps, but for a further advantage. However our hopes seem crossed, where his Name may gain, we cannot complain of loss.
Little did the Sages think this question would have troubled Herod. They had, I fear, concealed their message, if they had suspected this event. Sure, they thought, it might be some Son or grandchild of him, which then held the throne; so as this might win favour from Herod, rather than an unwelcome fear of rivalry. Doubtless, they went first to the court: where else, should they ask for a king?
The more pleasing this news had been, if it had fallen upon He
rod's own loins, the more grievous it was to light upon a stranger. If Herod had not overmuch affected greatness, he had not, upon those indirect terms, aspired to the crown of Jewry: so much the more therefore did it trouble him, to hear the rumour of a successor; and that, not of his own. Settled greatness cannot abide either change or partnership.
If any of his subjects had moved this question, I fear his head had answered it: it is well, that the name of foreigners could excuse these Sages.
Herod could not be brought up among the Jews, and not have heard many and confident reports of a Messiah, that should ere long arise out of Israel; and now, when he hears the fame of a King born, whom a star from heaven signifies and attends, he is nettled with the news. Every thing affrights the guilty. Usurpation is full of jealousies and fear; no less full of projects and imaginations: it makes us think every bush a man, and every man a thief.
Why art thou troubled, O Herod? A King is born; but such a King, as whose sceptre may ever concur with lawful sovereignty; yea such a King, as by whom kings do hold their sceptres, not lose them. If the wise men tell thee of a King, the Star tells thee he is heavenly. Here is good cause of security; none, of fear. The most general enmities and oppositions to good arise from mistakings. If men could but know, how much safety and sweetness there is in all divine truth, it could receive nothing from them, but welcomes and gratulations. Misconceits have been still guilty of all wrongs and persecutions.
But if Herod were troubled, (as tyranny is still suspicious,) why was all Jerusalem troubled with him? Jerusalem, which now might hope for a relaxation of her bonds, for a recovery of her liberty and right? Jerusalem, which now only had cause to lift up her drooping head, in the joy and happiness of a Redeemer? Yet not Herod's court, but even Jerusalem was troubled. So had this miserable city been overtoiled with change, that, now they were settled in a condition quietly evil, they are troubled with the news of better. They had now got a habit of servility; and now they are so acquainted with the yoke, that the very noise of liberty, which they supposed would not come with ease, began to be unwelcome. To turn the causes of joy into sorrow argues extreme dejectedness, and a distemper of judgment no less than desperate.
Fear puts on a visor of devotion. Herod calls his learned council; and, as not doubting whether the Messiah should be born, he asks where he shall be born. In the disparition of that other light, there is a perpetually fixed star shining in the writings of the phets, that guides the chief priests and scribes directly unto Bethlehem. As yet, envy and prejudice had not blinded the eyes and perverted the hearts of the Jewish teachers: so as now they clearly justify that Christ, whom they afterwards condemn; and, by thus justifying him, condemn themselves in rejecting him. The water that is untroubled yields the visage perfectly. If God had no more witness but from his enemies, we have ground enough of our faith.
Herod feared, but dissembled his fear; as thinking it a shame, that strangers should see there could any power arise under him worthy of his respect or awe. Out of an unwillingness, therefore, to discover the impotency of his passion, he makes little ado of the matter; but only, after a privy inquisition into the time, employs the informers in the search of the person; Go and search diligently for the babe, &c. It was no great journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. How easily might Herod's cruelty have secretly suborned some of his bloody courtiers to this inquiry and execution! If God had not meant to mock him before he found himself mocked of the Wise Men, he had rather sent before their journey, than after their disappointment; but that God, in whose hands all hearts are, did purposely besot him, that he might not find the way to so horrible a mischief.
There is no villainy so great, but it will mask itself under a shew of piety. Herod will also worship the Babe. The courtesy of a false tyrant is death. A crafty hypocrite never means so ill, as when he speaketh fairest.
The Wise Men are upon their way, full of expectation, full of desire. I see no man, either of the city or court, to accompany them. Whether distrust or fear hindered them, I inquire not: but of so many thousand Jews, no one stirs his foot, to see that King of theirs, which strangers came so far to visit.
Yet were not these resolute Sages discouraged with this solitariness and small respect, nor drawn to repent of their journey; as thinking, "What do we come so far, to honour a King, whom no man will acknowledge? What mean we to travel so many hundred miles, to see that, which the inhabitants will not look out to behold?” but cheerfully renew their journey to that place, which the ancient light of prophecy had designed.
And now, behold, God encourages their holy forwardness from heaven, by sending them their first guide; as if he had said, "What need ye care for the neglect of men, when ye see heaven honours the king whom ye seck?" What joy these Sages conceived, when their eyes first beheld the re-appearance of that happy Star, they only can tell, that, after a long and sad night of temptation, have seen the loving countenance of God shining forth upon their souls. If, with obedience and courage, we can follow the calling of God in difficult enterprises, we shall not want supplies of comfort. Let not us be wanting to God; we shall be sure he cannot be wanting
He, that led Israel by a pillar of fire into the Land of Promise, leads the Wise Men by a star to the Promised Seed. All his directions partake of that light, which is in him: for God is light.
This Star moves both slowly and low; as might be fittest for the pace, for the purpose, of these pilgrims. It is the goodness of God, that, in those means wherein we cannot reach him, he descends unto us.
Surely, when the Wise Men saw the Star stand still, they looked about to see what palace there might be near unto that station fit
for the birth of a King; neither could they think that sorry shed was it, which the Star meant to point out; but, finding their guide settled over that base roof, they go in to see what guest it held. They enter, and, O God, what a King do they find! how poor! how contemptible! wrapt in clouts, laid in straw, cradled in the manger, attended with beasts! what a sight was this, after all the glorious promises of that star, after the predictions of prophets, after the magnificence of their expectation!
All their way afforded nothing so despicable, as that Babe, whom they came to worship. But, as those which could not have been Wise Men unless they had known that the greatest glories have arisen from mean beginings, they fall down and worship that Hidden Majesty. This baseness hath bred wonder in them, not contempt. They well knew the Star could not lie. They, which saw his Star afar off in the East, when he lay swaddled in Bethlehem, do also see his royalty further off, in the despised estate of his infancy; a royalty more than human. They well knew, that stars did not use to attend earthly kings; and if their aim had not been higher, what was a Jewish king to Persian strangers? Answerable, therefore, hereunto was their adoration.
Neither did they lift up empty hands to him, whom they worshipped; but presented him with the most precious commodities of their country, gold, incense, myrrh; not as thinking to enrich him with these, but by way of homage acknowledging him the Lord of these. If these Sages had been kings, and had offered a princely weight of gold, the Blessed Virgin had not needed, in her purification, to have offered two young pigeons, as the sign of her penury. As God loves not empty hands, so he measures fulness by the affection. Let it be gold, or incense, or myrrh, that we offer him, it cannot but please him, who doth not use to ask how much, but how good. Matthew ii.
THERE could be no impurity in the Son of God: and if the best substance of a pure virgin carried in it any taint of Adam, that was scoured away by sanctification in the womb; and yet, the son would be circumcised, and the mother purified. He, that came to be sin for us, would in our persons be legally unclean; that, by satisfying the law, he might take away our uncleanness. Though he were exempted from the common condition of our birth, yet he would not deliver himself from those ordinary rites, that implied the weakness and blemishes of humanity. He would fulfil one law, to abrogate it; another, to satisfy it. He, that was above the law, would come under the law, to free us from the law. Not a day would be changed; either in the circumcision of Christ, or the purification of Mary.
Here was neither convenience of place, nor of necessaries, for so painful a work, in the stable of Bethlehem; yet he, that made and
gave the law, will rather keep it with difficulty, than transgress it with case.
Why wouldst thou, O Blessed Saviour, suffer that sacred foreskin to be cut off, but that, by the power of thy circumcision, the same might be done to our souls, that was done to thy body? We cannot be therefore thine, if our hearts be uncircumcised. Do thou that in us, which was done to thee for us; cut off the superfluity of our maliciousness, that we may be holy in and by thee, which for us wert content to be legally impure.
There was shame in thy birth; there was pain in thy circumcision. After a contemptible welcome into the world, that a sharp razor should pass through thy skin for our sakes, (which can hardly endure to bleed for our own,) it was the praise of thy wonderful mercy, in so early humiliation. What pain or contempt should we refuse for thee, that hast made no spare of thyself for us?
Now is Bethlehem left with too much honour. There is Christ born, adored, circumcised.
No sooner is the Blessed Virgin either able or allowed to walk, than she travels to Jerusalem; to perform her holy rites for herself, for her Son; to purify herself, to present her Son. She goes not to her own house at Nazareth; she goes to God's house at Jerusalem. If purifying were a shadow, yet thanksgiving is a substance. Those whom God hath blessed with fruit of body and safety of deliverance, if they make not their first journey to the temple of God, they partake more of the unthankfulness of Eve than Mary's devotion.
Her forty days therefore were no sooner out, than Mary comes up to the holy city. The rumour of a new king born at Bethlehem was yet fresh at Jerusalem, since the report of the Wise Men; and what good news had this been for any pickthank to carry to the court?"Here is the Babe, whom the Star signified, whom the Sages inquired for, whom the angels proclaimed, whom the shepherds talked of, whom the scribes and high priests notified, whom Herod seeks after." Yet, unto that Jerusalem which was troubled at the report of his birth is Christ come, and all tongues are so locked up, that he, which sent from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to seek him, finds him not, who, as to countermine Herod, is come from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. Dangers, that are aloof off and but possible, may not hinder us from the duty of our devotion. God saw it not yet time, to let loose the fury of his adversaries; whom he holds up like some eager mastiffs, and then only lets go, when they shall most shame themselves and glorify him.
Well might the Blessed Virgin haye wrangled with the law, and challenged an immunity from all ceremonies of purification. "What should I need purging, which did not conceive in sin? This is for those mothers, whose births are unclean: mine is from God, which is purity itself. The law of Moses reaches only to those women, which have conceived seed: I conceived not this seed, but the Holy Ghost in me. The law extends to the mothers of those sons, which are under the law: mine is above. it." But, as one that