This meditation is taken from the book The Mystery of Bethlehem by Rev.Herman Hoeksema, originally published by Eerdmans in 1946 and now reprinted by the Reformed Free Publishing Association. This chapter may also be found on Hope PRC's (Redlands, CA) website.
Tidings of Joy
A word of great joy! Can we hear it?
A thing has happened, a word has come to pass, that is very really a cause of great joy.
From heaven appeared an ambassador with the tidings concerning this thing that came to pass, in order that these tidings as a word of great joy might be heard by us and the joy of it might fill our hearts!
Do we hear it? That is the question of chief concern! Do we so hear it that our hearts do indeed leap with great joy, and that we are quite sure it is “this thing,” this “Word” that came to pass in Bethlehem in the fulness of time (more than nineteen hundred years ago) that is the cause, emphatically the sole cause, of this joy that fills our hearts?
O yes, the shepherds did hear the tidings of great joy, for immediately they responded, regardless of the hour of the night, regardless of their being occupied “keeping watch over their flock,” regardless too of the somewhat strange message concerning the swaddling clothes and the manger that were to be a sign unto them. For as soon as the angels that had sung their anthems of praise in the still night had departed from them, they said one to another, “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.” And they went and they saw the “Word,” and they believed, and they made known abroad the “Word” they had seen and heard, and they returned with joy manifested in their praise of the living God!
Yes, they heard the Word of joy! And apparently all the Christian world hears this Word, for who does not celebrate Christmas, and who does not agree that the Christmas season is a time when it is proper to rejoice? Even if it be but for a single day, we forget our burdens and our sorrows. We forget all about the sorrows of the world, of wars and bloodshed and misery, and we rejoice and are glad, when Christmas arrives!
On that day we meet one another with a glad “Merry Christmas” on our lips!
But is our joy kindled in our hearts by the “Word” which was preached by the angel in the field of Bethlehem, and is its reason that Babe that was wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger? Or is it true perhaps that somehow we profane the Word of God concerning this child, changing it into a word of mere man, in order then to rejoice in a thing of this world?
O indeed, let us too go to Bethlehem, and see this “Word” that is come to pass…
But let us be quite sure that it is the Word of God which we see and hear, and in that Word let us rejoice!
* * * * * * *
Tidings of joy I bring you! But as we go to Bethlehem to see the cause of this joy, let us watch and pray, lest our flesh should tempt us to contradict the word of the angel!
For there is in Bethlehem in that night of all nights (for the flesh) no reason why we should rejoice. In fact, if only we are quiet and receptive, if only we do not talk at the manger of the Christ-child so that we may be able to hear the Word of God there, we will hear a humiliating language that can only bring us to our knees in dust and ashes…
Great joy, indeed… but only in the way of the broken heart! This is way of the joy of the Word of God in Bethlehem, the joy that has its cause in the birth of Jesus, God with us, Immanuel.
Jesus was born. Perhaps the evening before Joseph and Mary had arrived in the city of David after a long and wearisome journey. For they had come from Nazareth. (They were Nazarenes, and what good thing ever came thence?) Arriving too late to find lodging in the already overcrowded little town, and finding that even in the inn there was no room for them, they turned to one of the grottos on the outskirts of the city, where passing caravans would stable their animals, in order that they might have shelter against the chill of night at that late season. There, probably that very night, “the days were accomplished that she should be delivered,” the fulness of time had come, “and she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger”!
Great joy? Indeed, but not for the flesh!
What your eyes behold in Bethlehem’s stable is a scene of great misery! In one of the most forsaken spots, of an almost forgotten little town, a child is born under the most abject conditions! A pale mother, just delivered of a child; a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, with a manger for its cradle and a stable for its first home – these are the things you see! A picture of want and misery. If you do not watch and pray, you will feel urged to speak there in that stable, to express your heartfelt sympathy to that mother, and what is worse, you might feel an impulse to act immediately, to call for help, to remove this mother and child from these abject surroundings, and provide a home for them in the city. And thus you would destroy the Word of God that must needs reach your heart, if you would be partaker of the great joy of which the angel spoke!
Have you forgotten the word of the heavenly messenger: “and this shall be a sign unto you”? Yes indeed, here in the stable you see a sign! You shall find the Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger – that is the sign!
A sign is a Word of God! A sign too of the Word that is come to pass here in Bethlehem! It speaks clearly, as the Word of God always does. The message this God-ordained, divinely-willed and designed, visible token conveys is that there is no room for Him in all the world! Oh, make no mistake. The good people of Bethlehem must not be blamed. This stable and this manger are not of their design. They do not speak directly through this sign. You and I must be the last to condemn them. No, this is God’s sign. He willed it. He designed it. He considered it but proper, and the only proper thing, that His only begotten Son coming into the world should be born in a stable, should be wrapped in swaddling clothes of poverty, should have His bed in a manger! Therefore, this sign is a Word of God! And let us hear it: There is no room for the Son of God in all the world! The world, the flesh, men will not have Him! By nature, you and I hate this Babe!
Yes, but first hear this Word of God, to your shame and condemnation! Ye shall find the Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger!
No room for Him! For consider Who He is, this Child that is the cause of the great joy of which the angel spoke, this Word that is come to pass. He is God come into our world! God, very God, the Eternal, the Infinite, Who is God indeed; the holy and righteous and true One. He came into the world in the Person of His only begotten Son. He came, not at the periphery of things, but into the very heart of our world, in our flesh and blood, for He is of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Judah, of the house of David, of the virgin Mary: the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us!
Oh, it is great joy, indeed, but joy with fear and trembling, and joy only in the way of shame and repentance and humiliation. It is joy indeed, but only after we have heard the Word of God and received it, that in all the world there is no room for God to come down to us! There is no room in Bethlehem, no room in the inn, no room in Jerusalem, the city of the Great King, no room among the nations of the world. No one can, no one will receive Him. There is no room for Him in your and my hearts, as we are by nature!
No room! And that too just because He is God!
Joy? Yes there is joy, but then only in the fact that God did come down to us, and that He will build His own house, and that He will make room for Himself. Do you not remember that long ago we cast Him out to make room for the Prince of this world, and that ever since we denied Him room?
But He came – not because there is still a little room left for Him, but in spite of the fact that there was nowhere a place for Him!
He came by the Wonder of His almighty grace… Joy indeed!
* * * * * * *
Great joy! Yes, but only in the way of shame and humiliation! For, as you stand here at the manger of this child Jesus, remember the word of the angel, the “good tidings of great joy” which he delivered unto you, “unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior!”
The great joy of His coming is that He is a Savior indeed! He is One Who saves. He has the mission to save, the will to save, and the power to save. He accomplishes all the work of salvation alone, without the will of man, yea in spite of the terrible fact that man neither seeks nor desires salvation through Him, that no man will receive Him or give Him room.
Unto you is born a Savior! Consider what it means to save. It is not to work for the uplift of the world, for the building up of man’s character, for the banishment of crime and misery from the face of the earth; it is not to instruct man as to how he may reform himself or work for the improvement of mankind. It is to deliver man from the greatest misery, and to make him heir of the greatest good. But his misery is his sin! And sin means that we are by nature enemies of God, and that we would have none of Him; that we always say “No” to Him and to His good commandments. It implies that we are guilty, and that we can nevermore satisfy the justice of God or pay our debt with Him; that; therefore, we are by nature children of wrath and objects of the righteous judgment of condemnation to everlasting death and desolation in hell! It means too, that we are by nature inclined to hate God and one another, darkened in our understanding, loving the lie, corrupt of heart, perverse of will, and that we are wholly incapable of doing that which is good and always entirely inclined to all evil, so that we will not and cannot will ever to say anything to God other than, “NO!”
Such is sin, and such are we by nature!
Because we are such we must, as we stand in the stable of Bethlehem to see the thing that is come to pass, again hear the Word of God coming to us through the sign: “Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger”!
No room for Him! To Him we say, “No!” For Him we have no place! Him we receive not! Him we intend to kill!
Let us confess it and be ashamed! Here in the stable there is no place for our self-righteousness, only for self-abasement in dust and ashes! Be not afraid that with this confession of our total corruption and incapability to receive Him, we will forfeit the joy of which the angel spoke to the shepherds. On the contrary, only in this way of deep humiliation can the great joy be attained.
For He is a Savior! He is not dependent upon our “Yes,” but He is mighty to turn our “No” into the “Yes” of grace! He saves from the guilt of sin and makes us partakers of an everlasting righteousness. He saves from the dominion of sin and changes our darkness into light, our death into life, our shame into everlasting, heavenly glory!
Unto you is born this day One that is a Savior indeed! Great joy!
* * * * * * *
Unto you! Wonderful gospel!
It was necessary indeed that the spoken Word of God should accompany the Word become flesh. Without it, the wonder of the Incarnation would not have been recognized. For that Child in the manger is the Wonder of all wonders: God is come in the flesh, the Eternal One has come into time, the Infinite One dwells within the limits of the human nature, the Lord has become Servant. But of this wonder nothing is to be seen by the natural eye. It is the flesh, not the Son of God; it is the servant, not the Lord of all; it is the finite, not the infinite that is visible in the manger.
Therefore, it was necessary that the spoken Word, the gospel of Christ, should accompany the coming of our Savior!
Unto you! Blessed shepherds! We are inclined to say that you were privileged to directly and personally be addressed by God’s own ambassador from heaven! Unto you I bring good tidings of great joy! Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord! How glorious to hear this word of joy addressed directly to them! What a strong ground of assurance they had in this Word of God to them! Perhaps we feel that we have reason to envy them, and that we too would like to hear this gospel from the mouth of a heavenly ambassador addressed personally to us, “unto you!”
Truly, blessed they were!
But do not forget that a more glorious gospel, a far greater realization of the gospel of joy, is ours! For the Christ Who once was a babe in the manger has revealed unto us the Father, has atoned for our sins on the accursed tree, has been raised from the dead, is exalted at the right hand of God, has returned in the Spirit, and is preached among us in all the fulness of the blessings of salvation that there are in Him!
Unto you! O indeed, even unto you this gospel of joy is proclaimed! It is proclaimed indeed not by an angel from heaven but by the Savior Himself! For it is He Who speaks through His Word; and it is Himself Who speaks to us by His Spirit!
Good tidings of great joy! Unto you!
Blessed are they that hear!
Herman Hoeksema (1886-1965) was born in Groningen, the Netherlands on March 13, 1886 and passed away in Grand Rapids, MI on September 2, 1965. He attended the Theological School of the Christian Reformed Church and was ordained into the minitry in September of 1915.
"H.H." is considered one of the founding "fathers" of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America. He and his consistory (Eastern Ave. Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI) were suspended and deposed from their offices in 1924-1925 because of their opposition to the "Three Points of Common Grace" adopted by the Christian Reformed Church in the Synod of Kalamazoo, MI in 1924. He, together with Rev. George M. Ophoff, Rev. H. Danhof and their consistories continued in office in the "Protesting Christian Reformed Church" which shortly thereafter were named the "Protestant Reformed Churches in America."
Herman Hoeksema served as pastor in the 14th Street Christian Reformed Church in Holland, MI (1915-1920), Eastern Ave. Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI (1920-1924), and First Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, MI (1924-1964), He taught in the Seminary of the Protestant Reformed Churches from its founding and retired in 1964.
For an enlarged biography, see: Herman Hoeksema: Theologian and Reformer
Notes: You may also find many sermons of "H.H." at the RFPA website. And you may find copies in print of an entire set of "H.H.'s" catechism sermons here.