Thursday, December 24, 2009

Sermon of the Week: Henry Scougal "On the Nativity of our Savior"

Should believers celebrate Christmas? This question has long divided Reformed Christians. The continental reformers were more willing to observe “Christian year” elements (including Christmas) as long as they did not contradict the gospel, while the English reformers were generally less tolerant of keeping unbiblical “holy days.”

Henry Scougal (1650-78) was a Scottish Puritan who defended the proper celebration of Christ’s birth. In his Christmas Day sermon “On the Nativity of our Savior” (text: Psalm 2:11), Scougal begins by noting that “the observation of festivals” has been “one of the balls of contention which have been tossed so hotly in the religious debates of this unhappy age.”

Though acknowledging “the abuses of this solemnity,” he makes it his work in this sermon “to persuade you to such a deportment on this festival, as may best suit with the holy life of that Person, whose nativity we commemorate.”

Scougal’s exposition of his text falls under two heads:

First, there is an exhortation to cheerfulness and joy. Scripture does not teach “that men ought always to be sad, under the notion of being serious; for cheerfulness enlightens the mind, and encourages the heart, and raiseth the soul (as it were) to breathe in a purer air….”

Christian joy, however, is not just “a levity of spirit.” Scougal notes, “we would not have a man’s whole life become a sport.” Real joy “springs from the sense of divine goodness” and “our sincerity in his service.”

Second, Scougal defines the right boundaries for cheerfulness and joy: “Rejoice we may, but it must be with trembling.”

“Hell is certainly in our creed, as well as heaven; and as the fear of it is ordinarily the first step of converion, so it may be of use to quicken us and push us forward all along, through our journey towards heaven.”

He then moves on to application under three heads:

1.  The excellency of the person who was born:

First, then, He was no common person whose birth occasions our joy. If we but fix our eyes on his human nature, and consider those excellencies that were obvious to the eyes of the world, we shall yet acknowledge, that never such a person appeared on the face of the earth….

He was God as well as man; and by communication of properties it may be said, that he whom we now behold in a cradle, has his throne in the heaven, and filleth all things by his immensity; that he who is wrapped in swaddling clothes, is now clothed in infinite glory; and he whom we find in a stable among beasts, is the same with him encircled with millions of angels; in a word, that great Person, whose nativity we celebrate, is divinely embodied, God made flesh. This union of the divine and human nature is a mystery great enough to confound our understanding, but not to trouble or shake our faith, who know many things to be, which we cannot know how they are, and are not able to give any account of the union betwixt the soul and the body, or of the parts of nature among themselves, which yet we never call in question….

2.  The design of his birth:

In a Word, CHRIST came into the world to advance the glory of GOD, and the happiness of the earth, by restoring us to the favor of our Maker, and a conformity to him. And certainly if we-have any sense of the evil of sin, or the misery of hell,-of the beauty of holiness, or the glory of heaven; it must needs be a matter of great joy to celebrate the birth of Him who loth deliver us from the one, and give us assurance of the other.

3.  The circumstances of it:

It remaineth that we yet speak of the nativity which we celebrate; and many things present themselves full of comfort and instruction. We shall only observe our SAVIOUR's coming into the world after that manner which did best suit with his design. Indeed, when a man should hear of the SON of GOD's coming down from heaven into the lower world, he would be apt to think that his ap­pearance would be with the greatest splendor and mag­nificence, and that the glory of heaven should continually attend his -person; at least, that all the Princes in the world should be summoned to attend his reception, and that the heaven should bow at his presence, and the earth tremble at the approach of his Majesty, and that all the clouds should clap together in an universal thunder, to welcome his appearance; but instead of all this pomp and grandeur, he slips into the world, is born in a village, discovered by some poor shepherds, and found by them in a stable, and such a homely cradle as that afforded, only attended by his poor mother, who, though of royal blood, had nothing but goodness to make her eminent; and his education was answerable to his obscure birth, and his whole life, a course of humility and self-denial. Now certainly this far best agrees with the design of his appearance, who came not on so mean an errand as to dazzle the eyes of mankind with the appearance of his glory, nor to amaze them with the terribleness of his majesty, much less to make a show of the riches and gal­lantry of the world among them, but to "bring life and immortality," and lead men to eternal happiness. In order to which it was necessary, that by his example as well as doctrine, he should disparage the vanities of the world, and bring them out of that credit and esteem they had gotten among foolish men.

Finally, Scougal ends with exhortation to proper observance of Christmas. Some take “the solemn anniversary, as if it were indeed a drunken Bacchus, and not a holy Jesus, whom they worshipped. What! because GOD became man, must we become beasts? Or think we to honor that Child with dissoluteness, who came to the world on designs of holiness."

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