Essay / Theology

"That Great Antecedent to Bethlehem"

Though it’s slightly unseasonal in the sense that we’re now two days after Christmas, this Christmas sermon by H.C.G. Moule is about the great thing that lies behind Christmas: the Son’s self-consecration to carry out the Father’s will for saving us. It is always the right time to ponder that.

This sermon is from about 1900, and was printed in Chapter 6 in his book The Old Gospel For the New Age. I was going to paraphrase the best parts of it, but the sermon is so well constructed, so carefully balanced, and Moule’s voice is so sweet, that I can’t stand to leave anything out. So I am just providing the full text here. Read more Moule!

The Self-Consecration of the Christ
Preached on Christmas Day, in the University Church, Cambridge

“Then said He, Lo, I have come to do Thy will, O God. –Heb. 10:9

“Then said I, Lo I have come; I delight to do Thy will.” –Ps. 40:7, 8

I invite you this Christmas afternoon to a sursum corda. Habeamus ad Dominum; “Let us hold our hearts up unto the Lord;” let us kneel in recollecting faith at the cradle of the Incarnation; and let us look up from beside it to the heaven of heavens, to ponder a little while that great antecedent to Bethlehem, the Self-Consecration of the Eternal Son to His incarnate life and work.

This lies here before us in the Scriptures of the text, in the New Testament and in the Old. What was the immediate occasion and impulse to the writing of Psalm 40 I do not ask; no certain answer is even remotely possible. But for all who accept without reserve the interpreting authority of the apostolic Scriptures, it is settled by Hebrews 10 that the ultimate purpose of Him who moved the Psalmist to write was to reveal to us the thought and intent of the Christ Himself, in His will to come into the world.

The consciousness of the Psalmist may have been this, or it may have been that, as he took up his harp and sung his wonderful song of joy and conflict. There is nothing to entitle us to assert, as if we knew, that his condition was not purely and directly prophetic; that he did not sing in a rapture of the Spirit, in a state of holy second sight, easily overleaping sense and time. On the other hand there is nothing to entitle us to assert, as if we knew, that such a rapture was then and there upon him. But this we may affirm, if the witness of the Christian Scriptures is adequate for us, that the Psalmist’s Inspirer, moving him to utter what he did, meant, ultimately, to speak an oracle concerning the King Eternal, the Christ of God. So the Scripture, with both its hands, the prophetic and the apostolic, lifts for us here the veil from no less a secret than this. It discloses to us “the mind that was in Christ Jesus,” when, in the eternity which is above our time, He, the Son with the Father, the Son of the Father’s love, the Son “beloved before the foundation of the universe,” willed to come down and to become flesh. It utters to us the thought with which He, being true God, elected to be also true Man. It lets us hear His resolve to come and to do the Father’s will, in saving us.

There on the heights of primal Deity,
Before all worlds, Messiah will’d to part
Himself from glory, and in destined time
So parted for us men, descending thence
With voice of consecration, “Lo I come
To do Thy will.”

How shall we think aright, how shall we speak, of such a thing? Here is a theme, if any, to make us remember the vanity of words without the Spirit, the paltriness of the tinkling of speech where the Lord of love does not give and guide the message. But may He, in His great mercy, not leave us alone with this matter. Then, and only then, something may be attained by our thought which shall indeed be His.

Now what have we in the whole Book of God more wonderful in its kind than this revelation, given us through the Epistle and the Psalm? It comes with all the holy simplicity characteristic of Scripture. Nothing is intruded here of that imaginative or rather fanciful detail with which even a Milton can only spoil the theme of the counsels of Heaven:

In quibbles angel and archangel join,
And God the Father turns a school divine.

All is brief and unrestrained, but all is wonderful. We are suffered to overhear eternal Voices speaking to one another upon the Throne. By implication, we hear One call, as if looking for agency and messenger: “Whom shall I send? Who will go?” And then, from a height no lower, from a glory no less excellent, Another answers: “Lo, I have come!” The answer sounds in the tone of nothing less than Godhead; for it is the utterance of an absolute freewill, issuing in action of absolute wonderfulness and merit. But it is an answer also in the tone of subordination: it gives and yields, it speaks a personal surrender to a personal disposal. He who here “comes to do a will” in some sense not His own, is immeasurably free of exterior constraints to submission. But He submits. And in His submission a divine moral fitness strikes perfect harmony with a divine moral freedom.

What shall we say of the words “O God, O my God,” heard as we listen at the sanctuary door? Can it be that even before Incarnation the Coming One could thus address the Sender? Is the eternal Subordination of the Son a warrant for such a thought, under the safeguard of a full concurrent confession of our Redeemer’s proper Godhead? It is hard to put the thought into form without running into inferences, or at least associations, which touch the border of Christian orthodoxy, if they do not cross it. Perhaps we may rather see in the words an anticipation a wonderful prolepsis, in the divine thought of the Speaker. That thought is consistent. He says not, “I go,” but “I come,” or more literally, in the Hebrew, “I have come,” as one who is already in the region to which He wills to descend. In the same sense, surely, He says “O my God,” as if He had already taken on Him the nature in which He was to be able to say, “We know what we worship,” (John 4:24) and to cry “Eli, Eli” from the Cross. It is the Son, submitting and self-consecrating, even upon the throne. It is God the Son of God, giving there this infinite example of the glory of a holy surrender and service, illustrating with the light unapproachable the bliss and perfect freedom of a true Thy will be done.

Many an echo from earth has answered that heavenly Voice. One after another, sinful men in their great need have come to the Son of God, to be accepted by Him and united to Him. They have been made one with Him in the double union of righteousness and of life. They have received His merit, the justification which the “Head, once wounded,” wrought out for the members. But also they have been filled with His Spirit, the Spirit of the Son, “which they that believe on Him receive” out of His immeasurable fulness. And in the power of that uniting and possessing Spirit they have found, in their complete weakness, capacity to tread, in measure, in His steps. Many a human heart in receiving Christ has experienced as fact what seemed once an incredible, or even a repellent, dream, that it is good to be not our own. It has discovered the blessedness of an unreserved submission, and obedience and servitude to the will of God; the sober truth of the old confession, Tibi servire est regnare; the strange but genuine joy involved and conveyed in the full acceptance of that rule of life given us by the Apostle, “Whether we live, we live unto the Lord, and whether we die, we die unto the Lord; whether we live therefore or die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom 14:8). Tersteegen’s hymn, “O allersusste Gottesville,” gives utterance not to his own soul only, but to innumerable others of the past and of this hour:

Thou sweet beloved Will of God,
My anchor-ground, my fortress-hill,
My spirit’s silent fair abode–
In thee I hide me and am still.

Fenelon’s dying whisper, summing up his life, Fiat voluntas tua, is not his only, but that of all true disciples. Guyon’s assurance is as good for us as it was for her two centuries ago:

Yield to the Lord with simple heart,
All that thou hast and all thou art;
Renounce all strength but strength divine,
And peace shall be for ever thine.

But these inmost spiritual joys of the Christian, born out of the depth of a true surrender to the will of God, are not original, but derived. They are all descendants, and, as it were, reverberations of that divine and primal joy of the Son when He said, on the throne, in view of His descent: “Lo, I have come to do Thy will, O My God: I am content to do it; yea, Thy law is within My heart.”

It is a thing indeed for wonder and for worship, to see here the law of holiness and happiness for the disciple found first in its glorious idea within the Godhead itself. The eternal relations of the Holy Trinity make the archetype of all created goodness. Within that secret place where the One is Three and the Three are One, the bliss, the makarotes (1 Tim 1:2) of Godhead, includes the blessedness of surrender; “I delight to do Thy will.”

As we listen from below to this heavenly colloquy of sending and of submission, the Apostle stands beside us with his Philippian Letter, and bids us read its message and there learn in solemn detail what this “Lo, I come,” was to be for Him who uttered it. We open his second chapter and we read how “Christ Jesus looked not upon His own things, but upon the things of others.” “Being as He was in the form of God,” —en morphe theou huparchon— in the reality and glory of the Eternal Nature, “He counted it not a plunderer’s spoil, His equality with God;” He did not deal with that supreme and rightful Dignity as a thing to be used jealousy and for Himself. “He made Himself void by taking on Him Form of Bondservant.” — ekenosen heauton, morphen doulou labon. He entered upon the conditions and experience of human bond-service. He stooped under the yoke of that absolute and obligatory service to the Heavenly Father which is due from the created nature. He came to be Man and also to seem Man —en homoiomati anthropon genomenos— to be Man, undisguised and open. And so being, “He obeyed,” and still obeyed. He carried out the consecration uttered in heaven into all the humble and all the awful experiences of manhood and of earth. He obeyed —mechri thanatou— “to the length of death;” the final submission was rendered when “He hid not His face from shame and spitting,” and stretched forth His hands, and “made His soul an offering for sin,” and died “the death of the Cross.”

Let our Christmas contemplation send us to weigh again that familiar but inexhaustible paragraph of the Philippians. We have heard the fortieth Psalm; it gives us the purpose of the obedient Redeemer, as it was spoken out in the heaven of heavens. St. Paul in the message to Philippi gives us that also. But he goes on instantly to dilate on the Lord’s action upon His purpose. He leads us to see Him in His historical assumption of our nature, as He took it on Him, and with it all its essential relations to the claims of God. He calls us to watch Him walking with men as the Servant of God, till He walks at length in the path of an absolute surrender, to the encounter with human sin, to the bearing of human guilt, to the endurance of the divine sentence –to the shame the horror the agony of “the accursed Tree.”

And St. Paul, more explicitly than the Psalm, as was fitting, reminds us how the great Consecrator of Himself to the Father’s will thought all the while of man as well as of God. True, the inmost and ruling intention of that wonderful obedience was the doing of the Father’s will as such, the glorification of the Father in the doing of His will. But the context and argument of the Apostle remind us that, under that supreme intention, the thought of “us men and our salvation” was as perfectly present to the exalted Christ as if there had been nothing else to think of upon the throne. For how does St. Paul come, in Philippians 2, to speak of the self-surrender of the Son at all? It is for a purpose as human and as practical as possible. It is to bring it home to the believer that he is to “look not upon his own things but upon the things of others.” This the Apostle presses home upon the souls of his converts, in the true manner of the Gospel, not by an ethical abstract, but by the glorious Christian concrete –by the motive of the love and of the work of Christ.

To look upon the things of others –this, he would have us to understand, as far as ever we can understand it– this was what Christ Jesus did when He dealt as He did with His “Equality,” and took on Him the nature in which He was to serve the will of God, even unto death. He was thinking all the while of us. He looked upon our things. He cared –oh, how greatly did He care! –for us.

I have heard it said of that true scholar and most faithful servant of God, the late Professor Scholefield, whom I still see and hear in his pulpit, as one of the memories of my childhood, that worshipers in his Church of St. Michael, in this town, observed that he never could get through the Nicene Creed, at the Holy Table, without an audible faltering of the voice when he recited the words, “Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven.” Scholefield was by no means a man of effusive and demonstrative emotions. His manner was in fact, on common occasions, somewhat reserved and cold. But he lived near his Lord. He was one who, amidst the necessary publicities of his duty, spent much time alone with Him, meditating closely and deeply upon redeeming love. And so he entered into something of the hidden depth of his Master’s heart and the hidden meaning of this wonderful, “Lo, I have come,” this “taking of the Bondservant’s Form.”

As we stand listening to the voice which thus, even from the divine glory, speaks of surrender and of service, let us take up the Scriptures once more, and recall in shortest summary some of the truths told us by the way through this utterance, “Lo, I have come to do Thy will.”

i. First, the saying, taken in its context, speaks of the exalted place which the sacrificial and atoning Work of our Lord in death holds in the plan of Redemption. The Psalm, interpreted by the Epistle to the Hebrews, puts this into sacred prominence. “I have come.” So speaks the eternal Christ in view of the mystery of His Incarnation: “I have come.” As if to say that He is already on the march, already in the work, already taking genuine Manhood of a mortal Mother, so that the two Natures, whole and perfect, never to be confused, never to be divided, shall meet in ineffable union under one Person, one Christ, that He may be, and may work, in them both. But why does He come, as to the immediate and urgent element of the purpose? What is the aim set in the foreground of the eternal thought, indicated in the Psalm and developed in the Epistle? Is it, immediately, to knit up mankind together into one? Is it, immediately, to redeem the race by Incarnation? It is, immediately, to be “Sacrifice and Offering.” It is to do at last the work which the altar, under the old law, could never do. It is that the Incarnate, being such, “might put away sins by the sacrifice of Himself.” Such was the first ruling purpose of the Self-Consecration of the Son. The Self-Consecrator had in view, above all things, His Death, His Sacrifice, His Expiation, His Propitiation. Psalm, and Hebrews, and Philippians, all, in this matter, gravitate upon the Crucifixion. “A body hast Thou prepared Me.” “He took share and share, with His brethren, in flesh and blood, that by means of death He might destroy him that had the power of death.” “Being the brightness of the Father’s glory, by Himself he purged our sins.” “He became obedient, even to the length of the death of the Cross.”

ii. Secondly, our Scriptures are eloquent of the pain and yet joy of the untold Humiliation of the Lord. They tell us of His willingness to be made like us, with a likeness that should be no trope or figure, but a reality to its depths. They reveal His divinely free consent, in the full light of God, to enter personally within the essential and sinless limitations of humanity. He willed, as Man, to experience what is meant by growth and by development, what it is to weep and to wonder, what it should be to say, “Thy will be done,” not only in heaven, as the Son Eternal, but as the Son of Man, under the olives of Gethsemane. He willed to cry, when the last blackness gathered round the Cross, to Him whose will He was wholly content to do, “Why hast Thou forsaken Me?” He willed to commit the outgoing Human Spirit into His hands, in the awfulness of human death.

Are we to go further? Shall we say that He was then consenting also to other limitations? Was He committing Himself to such restrictions of intellectual and, we must add (for this cannot be wholly excluded), of moral insight, as would make it possible that He should share with His brethren not only their fatigues and sorrows, but their illusions and mistakes? Ekenosen heauton, says the Epistle; “He made Himself void.” And the kenosis, “the Exinanition,” became an almost synonym with the Church Fathers for “the days of the flesh” of the humiliated Lord. “He was in truth and nature God,” says the Alexandrian Cyril, “even before the times of the Kenosis; and again, “He became Man and humbled Himself into Kenosis.” Now, did that Kenosis actually imply, what certainly the Fathers little suspected it to do when they used the term, the submission of our Redeemer to share, as a Teacher, the fallibility of men? It is not willingly that I touch that supremely important problem. But its present prominence in Christian thought seems to forbid us, if we approach the region at all, quite to pass it by. Only two suggestions would I offer here, in much humility, but with a deep persuasion that the matter lies close to the vitals of the Faith.

For one thing it would seem to be a grave mistake of thought, when we are dealing with a Humiliation undertaken for a supremely benignant end, accepted in order to the highest benefit of man, to class under its idea a voluntary, a foreseeing consent to be capable of mistakes, and so, inevitably, to be capable of leading others to be mistaken, too. To own that the Lord submitted, in a sublime surrender, to the necessities of weakness and of sorrow, and even that He abnegated awhile the consciousness and exercise of Omniscience –this is one thing. But it is a quite different thing when He is conceived to have consented not to know, as a Teacher, that He did not know –not to be aware whether He was or was not mistaken in whatever He claimed the right to say. Such a consent, if conceivable, would not be easy to explain as part of a benignant purpose, an element in a Humiliation divinely calculated for the illumination of man.

The passage before us, in the Psalm and the Epistle, seems to give intimations just to the contrary of the theory referred to. For it indicates to us, by its previous and its following context, that the Christ in His heavenly glory had already full in view the ancient Ritual, and descended at the Father’s will not only to meet its inevitable defect, but to fulfil its import, as all true and all of God. What He thought of the old Order in the days of His flesh, what He then said and did about the Law and about the Prophets, was thus but the continuation of His thought about them upon the throne.

For another thing, if we seek the true Scriptural import of the Kenosis, the Philippian passage (its original) must be consulted; and it seems to direct us in a line just opposite to that which would make fallibility an element in the Lord’s Humiliation. Ekenosen heauton, morphen doulou labon. If we interpret the Greek phrase by well-recognized rule, we must take the verb and the participle as contributing to give us, from two sides, one fact. “He made Himself void,” not anyhow, but thus –“taking Bond-servant’s Form.” The “Avoidance” was, in fact, just this –the “taking.” It was the assumption of the creaturely Nature, the becoming, in Augustine’s words, “Creature, as He was Man” —quod ad Hominem, Creatura; and the assumption of it in just this respect, that in it He became, by the fact of it, —doulos–Bond-servant. But what is the implication of that unique, absolute, unreserved, unhindered Bond-service of the Incarnate Son? What does it say to us in respect of His capacity to do the Father’s work, and convey His mind, and deliver His message? The absoluteness of this subjection of the perfect BOND-SERVANT gives us warrant not of the precariousness but of the perfection of the conveyance of the SENDER’s mind. “He whom God hath sent speaketh the words of God.”

His own servant Paul was one day to claim authority as messenger just because of the intensity of his slavery. “Let no man trouble me, for I bear in my body the stigmata of the Master, Jesus” (Gal. 4:17). The supreme Bond- servant, the Bearer of the stigmata of the cross, has right then indeed to claim our unreserved, our worshiping silence as He speaks. He, in perfect relation to His Sender, perfectly conveys His Sender’s mind. He says nothing but what his sender bids Him say.

But let us turn from discussion and end where we set out, in faith and in adoration, before the self-consecrating Saviour.

We are keeping the festival of joy. The splendor of God, once poured upon the field of the shepherds, shines for ever upon this day. The great carol of the warrior-angels, the choiring heavenly army, stratia ouranios, sounds on for ever in our winter sky. For us men God is made Man:

Thou art my flesh and bone,
Thou dost my kindred own,
Thou Light of the eternal Morn;
And sitting at Thy feet,
I find it passing sweet
To think that I too was of woman born.

But the roots of our Christian joy are watered with the sorrows and the sacrifices of our Redeemer. They cost him dear. They involved His infinite Humiliation. As we rejoice, let it be with that thought in our souls. Let us bless Him with the love of penitents; let us follow Him with the love of witnessing disciples. “Lo, I have come.” So said the Son of God, in view of His Cradle and of His Cross, as He saw them from above all the heavens. “Lo, I have come to do Thy will.” And we are His. We are, through His grace, in Him. Then be it ours, this day, this Birthday, to say the like, in our little measure, as if we had never said it before, for His sake and in His name. For trial, for humiliation, for the death of self-will, for whatever may be for us the cross, let us His members draw from Him the power to say, “I have come,” and to “delight to do the will of Him that sent us, and to finish His work.”

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