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was universal, to a world of subjects through all the Roman empire. God intended this cension only for the Blessed Virgin and her Son, that Christ might be born where he should. Cæsar meant to fill his coffers : God meant to fulfil his prophecies; and so to fulfil them, that those whom it concerned might not feel the accomplishment. If God had directly commanded the Virgin to go up to Bethlehem, she had seen the intention, and expected the issue ; but that wise moderator of all things, that works his will in us, loves so to do it as may be least with our foresight and acquaintance, and would have us fall under his decrees unawares, that we may so much the more adore the depths of his Providence. Every creature walks blindfold : only he, that dwells in light, sees whither they go.
Doubtless, blessed Mary meant to have been delivered of her divine burden at home; and little thought of changing the place of conception, for another of her birth. That house was honoured by the angel, yea, by the over-shadowing of the Holy Ghost. None could equally satisfy her hopes or desires. It was fit, that he, which made choice of the womb wherein his Son should be conceived, should make choice of the place where his Son should be born. As the work is all his, so will he alone contrive all the circumstances to his own ends.
O the infinite wisdom of God, in casting all his designs ! There needs no other proof of Christ, than Cæsar and Bethlehem; and of Cæsars, than Augustus. His government, his edict, pleads the truth of the Messiah. His government : now was the deep peace of all the world, under that quiet sceptre, which made way for him, who was the Prince of Peace; if wars be a sign of the time of his second coming, peace was a sign of his first. His edict: now was the sceptre departed from Judah; it was the time for Shiloh to come. No power was left in the Jews, but to obey. Augustus is the emperor of the world ; under him, Herod is the king of Judea, Cyrenius is president of Syria. Jewry hath nothing of her own. For Herod, if he were a king, yet he was no Jew; and if he had been a Jew, yet he was no otherwise a king, than tributary and titular. The edict came out from Augustus, was executed by Cyrenius. Herad is no actor in this service. Gain and glory are the ends of this taxation. Each man professed himself a subject, and paid for the privilege of his servitude. Now, their very heads were not their own; but must be paid for, to the head of a foreign state. They, which before stood upon the terms of their immunity, stoop at the last. The proud suggestions of Judas, the Galilean, might shed their blood and swell their stomachs, but could not ease their yoke ; neither was it the meaning of God, that holiness, if they haui been as they pretended, should shelter them from subjection.
A tribute is imposed upon God's free people. This act of bondage brings them liberty. Now, when they seemed most neglected of God, they are blessed with a Redeemer: when they are most pressed with foregn sovereignty, God sends them a King of their own, to whom Cæsar himself must be a subject. The goodness of our God picks out the most needful times of our relief and comfort. Our extremities give him the most glory.
Whither must Joseph and Mary come to be taxed, but unto Bethlehem, David's city? The very place proves their descent. He, that succeeded David in his throne, must succeed him in the place of his birth. So clearly was Bethlehem designed to this honour by the prophets, that even the priests and the scribes could point Herod unto it, and assured him the King of the Jews could be no where else born. Bethlehem, justly the house of bread ; the Bread, that came down from Heaven, is there given to the world : whence should we have the Bread of Life, but from the house of bread ? O holy David, was this the well of Bethlehem, whereof thou didst so thirst to drink of old, when thou saidst, Oh, that one would give me drink of the water of the well of Bethlehem ! Surely that other water, when it was brought thee by thy worthies, thou pouredst it on the ground, and wouldst not drink of it. This was that Living Water, for which thy soul longed, whereof thou saidst elsewhere, As the hart brayeth after the water-brooks, so longeth my soul after thee, O God': my soul thirsteth for God, for the living God.
It was no less than four days' journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. How just an excuse might the Blessed Virgin have pleaded for her absence! What woman did ever undertake such a journey, so near her delivery? And, doubtless, Joseph, which was now taught of God to love and honour her, was loth to draw forth a dear wife in so unwieldy a case, into so manifest hazard. But the charge was peremptory; the obedience, exemplary. The desire of an inoffensive observance even of heathenish authority digests all difficulties. We may not take easy occasions, to withdraw our obedience to supreme commands. Yea, how didst thou, O Saviour, by whom Augustus reigned, in the womb of thy mother yield this homage to Augustus! The first lesson, that ever thy example taught us, was obedience,
After many steps, are Joseph and Mary come to Bethlehem, The plight wherein she was would not allow any speed; and the forced leisure of the journey causeth disappointment. The end was worse than the way: there was no rest in the way; there was no room in the inn. It could not be, but that there were many of the kindred of Joseph and Mary at that time in Bethlehem ; for both, there were their ancestors born if not themselves, and thither came up all the cousins of their blood; yet there and then doth the Holy Virgin want room to lay either her head or her burthen, If the house of David had not lost all mercy and good nature, a daughter of David could not, so near the time of her travail, have been destitute of lodging in the city of David.
Little did the Bethlehemites think, what a guest they refused; else they would gladly have opened their doors to him, which was able to open the gates of Heaven to them. Now, their inhospitality is punishment enough to itself. They have lost the honour and happiness of being host to their God.
Even still, o blessed Saviour, thou standest at our doors and knockest. Every motion of thy good Spirit tells us thou art there. Now thou comest in thine own name, and there thou standest, while thy head is full of dew, and thy locks wet with the drops of the night. If we suffer carnal desires and worldly thoughts to take up the lodging of our heart, and revel within us, while thou waitest upon our admission, surely our judgment shall be so much the greater, by how much better we know whom we have excluded, What do we cry shame on the Bethlehemites, whilst we are wilfully more churlish, more unthankful ?
There is no room in my heart, for the wonder at this humility. He, for whom heaven is too strait, whom the heaven of heavens cannot contain, lies in the strait cabin of the womb; and when he would enlarge himself for the world, is not allowed the room of an inn. The many mansions of heaven were at his disposing ; the earth was his and the fulness of it ; yet he suffers himself to be refused of a base cottage, and complaineth not. What measure should discontent us wretched men, when thou, O God, farest thus from thy creatures? How should we learn both to want and abound, from thee, which, abounding with the glory and riches of heaven, wouldst want a lodging in thy first welcome to the earth! Thou camest to thine own, and thy own received thee not : how can it trouble us, to be rejected of the world, which is not ours ? What wonder is it, if thy servants wandered abroad in sheeps' skins and goats' skins, destitute and afficted, when their Lord is denied harbour?
How should all the world blush at this indignity of Bethlehem ? He, that came to save men, is sent for his first lodging to the beasts: the stable is become his inn, the cratch his bed. O strange cradle of that Great King, which heaven itself may envy! () Saviour, thou, that wert both the Maker and Owner of Heaven, of Earth, couldst have made thee a palace without hands, couldst have commanded thee an empty room in those houses which thy creatures had made. When thou didst but bid the angels avoid their first place, they fell down from heaven like lightning; and when, in thy humbled estate, thou didst but say, I am he, who was able to stand before thee? How easy had it been for thee, to have made place for thyself, in the throngs of the stateliest courts! Why wouldst thou be thus homely, but that, by contemning worldly glories, thou mightest teach us to contemn them? that thou mightest sanctify poverty to them, whom thou calledst unto want? that, since thou, which hadst the choice of all earthly conditions, wouldst be born poor and despised, those, which must want out of necessity, might not think their poverty grievous ?
Here was neither friend to entertain, nor servant to attend, nor place wherein to be attended: only the poor beasts gave way to the God of all the World. It is the great mystery of godliness, that God was manifested in the flesh, and seen of angels; but here, which was the top of all wonders, the very beasts might see their Maker. For those spirits to see God in the flesh, it was not so strange, as for the brute creatures to see him, which was the God of Spirits. He, that would be led into the wilderness amongst wild beasts to be tempted, would come into the house of beasts to be born, that from the height of his divine glory his humiliation might be the greater. How can we be abased low enough for thee, O Saviour, that hast thus neglected thyself for us?
That the visitation might be answerable to the homeliness of the place, attendants, provision, who shall come to congratulate his birth, but poor shepherds? The kings of the earth rest at home; and have no summons to attend him, by whom they reign. God hath chosen the weak things of the world, to confound the mighty. In an obscure time (the night) unto obscure men (shepherds) doth God manifest the light of his Son by glorious angels. It is not our meanness, O God, that can exclude us from the best of thy mercies : yea, thus far dost thou respect persons, that thou hast put down the mighty, and exalted them of low degree.
If these shepherds had been snoring in their beds, they had no more seen angels, nor heard news of their Saviour, than their neighbours: their vigilancy is honoured with this heavenly vision.
Those, which are industrious in any calling, are capable of further blessings; whereas the idle are fit for nothing but temptation.
No less than a whole choir of angels are worthy to sing the hymn of glory to God, for the Incarnation of his Son : what joy is enough for us, whose nature he took, and whom he came to restore by his Incarnation ? If we had the tongues of angels, we could not raise this note high enough, to the praise of our glorious Redeemer. · No sooner do the shepherds hear the news of a Saviour, than they run to Bethlehem to seek him. Those, that left their beds to tend their flocks, leave their flocks to inquire after their Saviour. No earthly thing is too dear, to be forsaken for Christ. If we suffer any worldly occasion to stay us from Bethlehem, we care more for our sheep than our souls. It is not possible, that a faithful heart should hear where Christ is, and not labour to the sight, to the fruition, of him. Where art thou, O Saviour, but at home in thine own house, in the assembly of thy saints? where art thou to be found, but in thy word and sacraments? Yea, there thou seekest for us: if there we haste not to seek for thee, we are worthy to want thee ; worthy that our want of thee here should make us want the presence of thy face for ever.
THE SAGES AND THE STAR. The shepherds and the cratch accorded well; yet even they saw nothing, which they might not contemn: neither was there any of those shepherds, that seemed not more like a king, than that King whom they came to see.
But oh the Divine Majesty, that shined in this baseness! There lies the Babe in the stable, crying in the manger, whom the angels came down from heaven to proclaim, whom the Sages come from the East to adore, whom a heavenly Star notifies to the world, that now men might see that heaven, and earth, serves him, that neglected himself.
Those lights, that hang low, are not far secn; but those, which are high placed, are equally seen in the remotest distances. Thy light, O Saviour, was no less than heavenly: The East saw that, which Bethlehem might have seen. Ofttimes, those, which are nearest in place, are farthest off in affection. Large objects, when they are too close to the eye, do so overfill the sense, that they are not discerned.
What a shame is this to Bethlehem! The Sages came out of the East, to worship him, whom that village refused.
The Bethlehemites were Jews; the Wise Men, Gentiles. This first entertainment of Christ was a presage of the sequel. The Gentiles shall come from far to adore Christ, while the Jews reject him.
Those Easterlings were great searchers of the depths of nature; professed philosophers. Them bath God singled out, to the ho nour of the manifestation of Christ. Human learning well improved makes us capable of divine. There is no knowledge, whereof God is not the author. He would never have bestowed any gift, that should lead us away from himself. It is an ignorant conceit, that inquiry into nature should make men atheistic. No man is so apt to see the Star of Christ, as a diligent disciple of phi. losophy.
Doubtless this light was visible unto more; only they followed it, which knew it had more than nature. He is truly wise, that is wise for his own soul. If these Wise Men had been acquainted with all the other stars of heaven, and had not seen the Star of Christ, they had had but light enough to lead them into utter darkness. Philo. sophy, without this star, is but the wisp of error.
These Sages were in a mean, between the angels and the shepherds. God would, in all the ranks of intelligent creatures, have some to be witnesses of his Son.
The angels direct the shepherds; the Star guides the Sages: the duller capacity hath the more clear and powerful helps. The wisdom of our good God proportions the means, unto the disposition of the persons.
Their astronomy had taught them this Star was not ordinary, whether in sight, or in brightness, or in motion. The eyes of nature might well see, that some strange news was portended to the world by it; but that this Star designed the birth of the Messiah, there needed yet another light. If the Star had not besides had the commentary of a revelation from God, it could have led the Wise Men only into a fruitless wonder. Give them to be the offspring of Balaam, yet the true prediction of that false prophet was not enough warrant. If he told them the Messiah should arise as a Star