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by John Keble
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Sermons for Christmas and Epiphany

S. LUKE ii. 18, 19.
"All they that heard it, wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds;
but Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart."

EVERY year, the Church calls us in a manner to Bethlehem, to see the things which have there come to pass; to see the Most High God, the Co-equal and Co-eternal Son of the Father, newly born, a little Infant, taking up no larger space in the world which He made and preserves, than His tender limbs might lie on in the rude and narrow manger; to see Him, a true child of Adam, yet born without spot of sin; to behold His Blessed Mother bending over Him, and performing all the offices of a mother for Him, yet continuing a pure and unspotted Virgin; to hear the carol of the Angels and to see the Glory of the Lord, how it shone upon the quiet and simple shepherds, but was hid altogether as yet from the great ones of the earth. We, I say, my brethren, during this season which has passed, as in many former Christmas seasons, have by God's special. favour been brought within hearing, yea, in a manner, within sight of all these wonders. And whereas those shepherds at Bethlehem, and the neighbours to whom they told their story, could but admire and adore what had happened; we are, from our youth up, instructed in a great part of the meaning of it.  They saw that it was altogether strange, altogether glorious, a kind of Heaven upon earth; but they could not yet know how nearly it concerned themselves and all men. We, by God's mercy, do, or may, know this. "We know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding, that we may know Him that is True: and we are in Him that is True, even in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the True God and Eternal Life." [1 S. John v. 20]  We know this: but the persons who were on the spot, those who came nearest to His cradle when He was born, they did not as yet, the more part of them, know or dream of it. Yet even among them in their ignorance, there were two ways of receiving the Christmas good news; the one right, the other wrong; the one pleasing, the other displeasing, to our God. Some heard it all with mere wonder; all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds." Others, of whom the Blessed Virgin is the type and pattern, 'kept all these things, and pondered them" in their hearts.  As it was then with the witnesses of our Lord's Birth and Ministry, so is it now with all those, to whom, by the Church, He makes His Birth and Ministry known.  Some wonder only; some, by His grace, consider.  As afterwards, when He cast out a devil, from one who was blind and dumb, so that the blind and dumb both spake and saw: the multitude marvelled, and there was an end; but the more serious and considerate among them said, "Is not this the Son of David? "-so now, as often as we read of His coming down to join Himself to Adam's seed, and cast out the Evil spirit which had made men so long blind and dumb in spiritual things, we cannot indeed help wondering; but which of us does more than wonder?  Which of us all, like that blessed Virgin Mother, lays up these things and ponders them in his heart?  We have not now heard of them for the first time.  Last Advent, and many Advents before, we have been told of Christ coming to judge us.  Last Christmas, and many a Christmas before, we have been told of His coming to be made a little Child for us.  Nay, more; as the Apostle says, that by the holy mysteries of our Communion, Jesus Christ is evidently set forth crucified among us; so may we say, that by the customs and ceremonies of Christmas time, He is evidently set forth, Incarnate and born among us; set forth in a manner to strike our very eyes and senses.  Why are the Church bells rung at that time?  Why are hymns and carols sung from door, to door?  Why are not only the Churches, but the very houses and streets dressed up in green boughs?  Why do families gather, and children come home from school?  Why is there especial joy and kindness in men's faces, and words of congratulation on their tongues, when they meet one another at this time of year more especially?  Why, but because it is Christ's Birthday, and we all know that it is so, and have known it from our youth up. More or less, we have all been aware that He was born at this time, and that His Birth brought Glory to God in the Highest, Peace on earth, and goodwill towards men. The shepherds have told us these things; that is, we have been taught them by God's own chosen ministers, whom He ordained to be over us His flock.  And as we heard, we wondered at them; we could not help doing so, if we attended to them at all.  But too commonly alas ! when our wonder had passed away, we thought no more of them.  We thought indeed sometimes of Christmas, and rejoiced in the hope of its coming again, with its many joys and delights.  But it was a mere childish thought; there came not along with it any serious remembrance of God, made .  Man for our salvation; any deep thankfulness for His mercy; any earnest purpose to serve Him better hereafter.  We smile at little children, when they think so much of the carols and evergreens, the mirth and good cheer, of Christmas.  But how are we wiser or more manly than they, if we let the holy thoughts proper to that season pass away out of our minds, and plunge ourselves again without scruple in the cares and diversions of the world?  What a sad, what a shameful appearance shall we make hereafter before Saints and Angels, when the Judge shall demand an account from us of the many Christmas seasons which He has allowed us here on earth, and we shall be forced to confess, that we gave them all up to nothing beside mere mirth and bodily enjoyment, even when we were old enough to know much better !

Why did God fill the whole history so full of wonders, which the Shepherds, His Ministers, tell us of every Christmas?  Not that we, might just wonder at it, and go away, and mind other things, till we find something else to wonder at.  Not so; but that we, like Mary, might keep all these things, and ponder them in our heart.  It is told us more than once of that Blessed Virgin Mother, that favoured one above all, how carefully she practised this duty of devout recollection.  None of all God's dealings were lost upon her.  She carefully attended to them at the time, and treasured them up afterwards with religious care.  When the Angel had left her, and the wonderful Incarnation of the Son of God had taken place in her womb, she began to ponder in her heart what the Angel had said of her cousin Elizabeth, and without losing time set out on her long journey across the mountains to see her.  Whilst others were simply wondering at the shepherds' report of Christmas night, she was keeping it all in store, recollecting it carefully, going over it again and again, that she might lose no part of it.  She was treasuring it up, as a miser might his money, that she might count it all over, and meditate upon it at her leisure.  So again, twelve years afterwards, when that remarkable circumstance happened of our Lord's separating Himself from them in Jerusalem, and staying behind at the Feast of the Passover, we read of His Mother especially, that "she kept all these sayings in her heart."  No hint that He gave was lost upon her.  In the midst of His deep Humiliation, while He was subject to Joseph and herself at Nazareth, and working at that poor trade, she was ever calling to mind the glimpses she had had of His heavenly glory, and the wonderful words which at any time had fallen from Him. He dwelt with them at Nazareth, and was subject unto them. But His Mother was all the while, all those eighteen years, keeping those sayings in her heart. Thus was she, by the grace of God, silently preparing herself, both for His Sufferings and His Glory, and for her own share in both.

So we may often see it to have been with thoughtful and religious persons, for whom God was preparing great and trying changes. They have watched His dealings with them, and so had warning.  The patriarch Jacob was one of this sort; a great observer of God's providential tokens; whereby he came to acknowledge in his old age, so earnestly and devoutly, the God, before Whom his fathers had walked, Who had fed him all his life long to that very day, Who had redeemed him from all evil. And it is particularly mentioned how he observed what Joseph told him of his dreams. He treasured it up in his remembrance, as Mary did the wonders of her Child's birth. Of the Prophet Daniel too, that "man greatly beloved," we read that he "kept the vision in his heart." [Dan. vii. 28]  He thought much of it, as a token from God, though he could not exactly understand it. S. John again, the beloved disciple, appears by his Gospel to have been a diligent watcher of what our Saviour said and did, and so to have come long afterwards to a right understanding of many things, which had been quite dark at the first both to him and the other disciples. More than once he has such sayings as these. "When therefore Jesus was risen from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this unto them; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had said." [S. John ii. 22]  And again on his riding into Jerusalem: "These things understood not His disciples at the first; but, when Jesus was glorified, then remembered they that these things were written of Him, and that that they had done these things unto Him." [S. John xii. 16]  Here we seem to perceive clearly, that S. John also, like the Blessed Virgin, was accustomed to take note of all things which Jesus did, and to ponder them in his heart, long before he could rightly comprehend their meaning.

Putting all together, it is very plain that our gracious Saviour delights in those who mark and recollect His dealings with them; mark them at the time, and recollect them afterwards. They are highly favoured, like blessed Mary; greatly beloved, like the Prophet Daniel; or like S. John, they are disciples whom Jesus loveth.  If we would please Him in earnest, if we would be favoured and beloved, surely we must try to be like them.

And we shall be like them, if, with prayer and good desires, we set ourselves to keep His ways in our heart, when He has any how made them known to us. "Blessed," says the holy Psalmist, "is the man whose strength is in Thee, in whose heart are Thy ways." [Ps. lxxxiv 5.]  "Blessed is he, who is not only stricken at the time with awe and wonder, when in any way Thou shewest Thyself to him, but who also lays it up in his mind and memory, loves to think of it, when he is alone; withdraws himself, as he best may, from common and worldly things, to meditate upon it." And this will be chiefly in regard of two sorts of things: the one, solemn times like this of Christmas, when God permits and invites us to see more and more of His great work of salvation for the whole world: the other, His special providences over ourselves, often, very often, secret to all but ourselves, yet so clearly and so awefully marked, that we, whom they concern, cannot possibly doubt of their meaning. For example; too many an one of us before now has been set on some evil purpose, has made up his mind, perhaps, to venture it, has even taken the first step; when something which men would call an accident, little or great, has taken place and stopped him effectually in it. If he considers, he cannot doubt that this was God's merciful Hand, staying him when on the way to everlasting damnation.  Balaam is an instance of this. He had set out on a journey which he knew in his heart displeased God, when his ass, after proving once or twice unusually restive, fell under him. This was just the sort of thing, which in ordinary life would be treated as a chance that happened to him; and so Balaam dealt with it.  But the Lord opened his eyes, and he saw the Angel of the Lord standing in the way with his sword drawn in his hand. Balaam's heart still went after his covetousness, therefore he was not really the better even for this fearful revelation: but well may we learn from what happened to him how deeply our Lord would have us think of all the providential circumstances that happen to us; how He would have us discern His hand in them, especially when they are So ordered, as to stay us in any course or purpose of sin.

The beginning of a new year is a time when nature herself, and common sense and feeling, set us on thoughts of this kind: how we have dealt in the year gone by with Christ's holy times and special remembrances of His Presence; and again, how we have dealt with His special tokens and particular providences in regard of ourselves and our friends.  In both, our Lord has shewed us His loving wonders.  Have we just wondered at them and so forgotten them? or have we kept them like Mary, to the best of our power; and pondered them over and over in our heart? 

This last year, like former years, has had its Christmas, its Easter and its Whitsuntide, its Lent and its Advent, its Fasts and Feasts; and we, if we have at all gone along with the Church in her services, have had the wonders of each time duly set in their order before us.  Some of us may perhaps remember, whether at this time last January we made any serious vows, had any contrite self-accusing thoughts; whether or no we had at that time any misgivings about ourselves, any searchings and stirrings of heart, such as, it then seemed to us, we could never forget. We can tell, whether we had such thoughts, and we can tell, alas! whether we have remembered them, whether we have profited by them or no.  We may remember perhaps, if we will try, what good resolutions we then made, to overcome, by God's grace, the remnant of our old sins; to break off such and such evil habits, which we felt ashamed for God to know of; to do right, and persevere in doing it, whatever other persons might say; and never to be ashamed of Jesus Christ and of His Words. We may recollect that last New Year's Day we had some such thoughts as I have now said: and we of course know, how well we have attended to them.  If we have failed, let us now with all our might prepare ourselves to do better; it is not too late; by His undeserved mercy we are yet in this world, not where we deserve to be; it is not too late.  Only remember, Whatever good desires and holy vows God shall now put into your hearts—remember to keep them there, and to ponder them over.

So again with regard to special interferences of Providence.  I make no question at all, but that every man who now hears me has had occasion, within the last twelvemonth, to admire and adore God's merciful Arm, stretched out either to smite or save himself or some one dear to him. I make no question, but that if we had watched, we might be able to tell of many gracious hints, many low but plain whisperings of God's ever-present Spirit, which have come to us since the beginning of last year, making a great difference to us for good or for evil; for good, if we marked and obeyed: for evil, if we neglected them.  Well! Whatever has been our past behaviour, here, by His great mercy we are; spared, while so many no worse than ourselves have been taken; and our good God is still going on with His silent whisperings to our conscience, as well as with His open warnings and tokens in His Church.  What shall we do this year?  Shall we neglect, or merely wonder, or keep it all, and ponder it in our heart, and try, by His grace, to live accordingly?  One or the other we must do: and we had need be careful which we do, for it will very likely determine our lot for ever.  Consideration or carelessness now, may make us happy or wretched to all Eternity.