Life at Its Best
December 11th, 1966 @ 7:30 PM
LIFE AT ITS BEST
Dr. W. A. Criswell
12-11-66 7:30 p.m.
You who listen on radio, WRR, are invited to share with us the reading of God’s Word. In the First Gospel, chapter 2, in Matthew chapter 2, beginning at verse 7 and reading through verse 18, beginning at verse 7 and closing with verse 18. The title of the sermon tonight is Life At Its Best. And we shall follow a contrast here in this story of the birth and childhood of Jesus, in the second chapter of Matthew. And with us in this great auditorium, everybody sharing his Bible with his neighbor who didn’t bring it, all of us reading out loud together, starting at verse 7 through verse 18. Now together:
Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young Child; and when ye have found Him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship Him also.
When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the East, went before them, and it came and stood over where the young Child was.
When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
And when they were come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down, and worshiped Him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto Him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.
And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young Child and His mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.
When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night, and departed into Egypt:
And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called My Son.
Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.
Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying,
In Ramah was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.
And the sermon, as I said, is the reflection of the passage that we have just read together: the dark and violent contrast between the Bethlehem of blood, and of murder, and of envious fear and jealousy [Matthew 2:16-18], and the Bethlehem of God’s golden star [Matthew 2:1-2, 9-11]. There is so much in life that is seamy, and dark, and unhappy, and miserable, and so much in life that is actually vile, and violent, and vicious. And that is most especially seen if you carefully follow the Christmas story. The First Gospel begins it with Herod the Great [Matthew 2:1].
Who was Herod the Great? Herod the Great was possibly the most violently vicious potentate kinglet who ever lived. The Greek word for "pig" is hus, and the Greek word for "son" is huios; and Augustus Caesar said that in Herod’s household it was better and one was safer to be a hus, a pig, than to be a huios a son; for Herod, out of envious jealousy had slain most of his own family, and practically all of his own children. And that is why in the reading of the text, when the wise men came from the East to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is He that is born King of the Jews? We have seen His star in the East, and are come to worship Him" [Matthew 2:2]; and the text says that, "When Herod the king heard that, he was troubled, afraid." But the next clause is most pertinent: "and all Jerusalem with him" [Matthew 2:3]. For they had been in one murderous crisis after another, and when this word came that there had been born a King, ostensibly to take the place of Herod, it not only troubled the potentate himself, but it greatly troubled the populous of the city. And when Herod was sick of his final illness, he shut up in the great Roman hippodrome near Jerusalem, thousands of the leading citizens of Judea, with the final instruction that the soldiers, when the announcement was made of his death, that the soldiers fall upon them and slay them in order that there might be weeping and lamentation in the land when he the king had died. This Herod the king, the story begins with murder and blood.
This slaughter of the babes in Bethlehem [Matthew 2:16] is not mentioned in Josephus, nor is it mentioned anywhere else in secular literature. And often you will hear the question raised "Why should such a thing not be found in the pages of Josephus?" The answer is very clear and very plain: what Herod had done in slaying these babes in Bethlehem was a peccadillo, it was an inconsequential minutiae, it was so small a thing compared with the blood that had flowed from his murderous hand, that no historian bothered to mention it. This is the Christmas story.
Now when I turn the page, I see here the name of Caesar Augustus. Well, who was Octavius Caesar Augustus? I haven’t time to expatiate upon the bloodthirstiness of that Roman emperor – the nephew of Julius Caesar – who came to the imperial lordship of the Roman Empire by unspeakable methods: murder, bloodshed, an iron will and an iron hand. And here in the Christmas story he is called Caesar Augustus. Well, what does Augustus mean? The Greek word is sebaste, and sebaste was a word that was applied alone to God. When you translate the word in Latin it comes out Augustus; Caesar the August, Caesar the god. And he instituted imperial worship, that he in his person and presence was a god. This is just one of the many affronts to the King of Glory, and to the superlative revelation of the Lord, of His truth in the earth. This is the Christmas story; Caesar Augustus. And I haven’t time to speak of these other names that are mentioned in the beginning life of our Lord. Annas and Caiaphas [John 18:12-13, 19-24], were the high priests; unspeakable characters, despicable, sold out to simony, servile sycophants of the Roman yoke; sell the souls of their people for temple revenue. This is the Christmas story. There is a seamy side to life.
And you are introduced to it yourself, you who are young. You don’t live long in this world and not see it, and not meet it, and not feel it, and not find it, and not be introduced to it, and not be subject. We’ve seen in the development of history, in your lifetime, our lifetime, we have seen the most brazen effrontery of all of the developments in political life, in the advance of blasphemy and atheism, and the denial of God and Christ and the church of our Lord. To slay ministers of the gospel, to imprison priests, to waste the churches of Jesus Christ, to do dishonor to the faith, for the millions and the billions that lie in that atheistic world is an order of the day. In our own life as a nation, we are becoming acclimated to an atmosphere of corruption, greed, men who use high office for their personal enrichment and advancement. Judges that can be bought, congressmen who live unspeakable and despicable lives; there is hardly any vice known to humanity that has not gripped itself and fastened itself like barnacles upon our public servants. And in the personal life of our people, how much of it is sordid, and mean, and hurtful.
Last week, I walked down the streets of New York City with Dr. Alton Reed, the head of our Annuity Board. And having spent several days in our greatest metropolitan area, I said to Dr. Reed, "My impression of this great city; that is one of drinking, and drunkenness, and alcoholism. Bar after bar after bar, beer joint after beer joint after beer joint, saloon after saloon after saloon, club after club after club, and the universal, the universal habit of the people to drink, this has become the American way of life."
I had just remarked to him that, walking down the streets, seeing it over, and over, and over, and over again, I left him and went up to my room at the hotel. And while I was undressing for bed, I turned on the television just for that moment to look at it. And the reason it made such an impression upon me was because of the words that I had just said to my traveling companion. For when I turned on the television, I turned right in the middle of a panel of some of the leading citizens of New York state and this is what they were discussing: that in the city of New York alone there are more than two hundred thousand alcoholics, and in the New York City alone there are more than one million family members that have been destroyed by it, more than one million! Children who have been orphaned, wives who have been widowed, and men who are jobless, because they cannot hold a place to work.
Oh! And the increase, and the augmentation of the statistics of crime, and of violence, and of vice, and of drunkenness in our land is astonishing and vastly increasingly rising. And at Christmas time I see it more than at any other time. If I were looking at a time when men will drink more than any other time, I’d look at it at Christmas. And if I were looking for advertisements to sell liquor, more than any other time I would look for it at Christmas. And if I were seeing these liquor shops and these dispensaries dressed up in all of the regalia of the festive season, I would look for it at Christmas time. It is such a contrast: the story of the nativity of our Lord – the nativity of Jesus, God made flesh [Matthew 1:20-25] – and the sordidness that lies back of desperate depraved human nature.
Now that’s the background for the sermon and I do believe I’ve spent all my time talking about the background. Because I don’t want to talk about that, I want to talk about life at its best, this is the sermon – not that – this is the sermon. You have both in this world; always have been both, is now both always will be both. There is a seamy side, there is a Herod the Great, there is an Augustus, there is an Annas and a Caiaphas, there are the soldiers with their bloody swords, yes, always. But there is also the finest, the best, the godliest, the greatest; there is life at its heavenliest and most celestial, and I want to speak of that.
What would it be to give yourself to the finest and the best? What would it be? What would we seek for? What would we strive for? What would it be, life at its best? Social snobbery? That we might elevate ourselves in the social world? I remember something Ruskin said to his nephew, he wrote his nephew a letter and in it is this sentence, "Prepare yourself for the best society, then don’t enter it." Oh! How many, oh! In Dallas, in every, in the whole earth, are there those who give themselves to social acceptance and acclamation, and they spend their evenings and their days in all of that wheel of social acceptance and social life. The waste of time and talent in that social world is indescribable, and illimitable, and immeasurable. "Prepare yourself to enter, but then don’t." Oh, give yourself to so many things that call and press for an answer! We need you in the church; the poor need you, the lost need you, the mission fields need you. A thousand great, holy, heavenly interests call for you; life at its best, give yourself to that.
Or shall I seek after things; things, the multiplication of material possessions? A man one time – a lawyer he was – a lawyer one time said, "A man is worth exactly what he can earn." And someone hearing him replied, "But sir, if that were true, John Milton would be worth only twenty dollars; for that was the sum he received for Paradise Lost." Wouldn’t it be simple, and wouldn’t it be easy that if things could make us happy, and give us a sense of arriving, of achieving, wouldn’t it be simple? Let’s just get things, let’s add possessions, and then we’ll all be happy. The lie to that is seen in the life of practically every well-to-do person, like that story of the Oriental king who was satiated with life and miserable in himself. And he went to the oracle and asked, "How can I find happiness?" And the oracle replied, "You find the happiest man in the world and wear his shirt, and you will be happy." So the Oriental monarch sent out to the ends of the earth his ambassadors and his emissaries to find the happiest men in the earth; and they came back and reported, "Sir, we have found him; but he has no shirt on his back." Things, things, things! "Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not," says the Word of God [Jeremiah 45:5].
Life at its best, how would it be? This is the way it will be. First – I shall speak of two things – first, our attitude toward somebody else, toward others; and second, toward God. Life at its best: first, our attitude toward others – you, somebody else – how shall I be? Now I’m not born this way, this is a grace that God must give us; but the scriptural injunction is, "in honor preferring one another" [Romans 12:10]. Not I, but you; exalting you, furthering you, ministering to you, saying good words about you, fine things about you.
In my reading, all you schoolboys know this, but just to remind us, in my reading I recalled what Stanton said about Lincoln, and I’m quoting verbatim: Stanton said, "Lincoln was a low, cunning clown." Again Stanton said, "Lincoln was the original gorilla." Stanton said, and I quote, "Fools go to Africa looking for the anthropoids, when the perfect ape is in Springfield, Illinois." And when Lincoln was elected president of the United States, he appointed that man to his cabinet, Stanton; made him Secretary of War, as you know. And when – and he made a good one – and when Lincoln lay dying, and closed his eyes in the sleep of death, that same Stanton said, and I quote again, "There lies the greatest ruler of men the world has ever known." Lincoln was a great Christian, raised by a Baptist father and mother, and reflected in his life that godly training. If you ever go to his birthplace at Hodgenville in Kentucky, the first thing you’ll see written large on the wall of that memorial marble is this: "All that I am or ever hope to be, I owe to my angel mother." And if you read his second inaugural address, it has more Scripture in it than any sermon you’ll ever read in your life; Lincoln.
All right, the great men that I have thought of in history are like that. Themistocles, the marvelous Greek leader at the battle, the naval battle at Salamis against the Persians, Themistocles was inspired and encouraged by the heroic deeds of his contemporaries. And Thucydides – the greatest, most brilliant historian who ever lived – Thucydides listened to Herodotus, the father of history, as he read his history; and was, the flame of his spirit was set afire by Herodotus. And Demosthenes was stirred up to study and to excel as he listened to the marvelous perorations of Callistratus.
Now again, I’ve copied down these musicians, what they’ve said of each other. Concerning Handel, Haydnn said, "He is the father of us all." Mozart said, "He strikes like a thunderbolt." And Beethoven called him "the monarch of the musical kingdom." And of Haydn, Mozart said to a music critic, "Sir, if you and I both were melted down together, we wouldn’t furnish the material for one Haydn." And of Beethoven, Mozart said, when he heard the young boy, he said, "Listen to that young fellow, listen to him. He’s going to be a great musician in the earth." Isn’t that glorious? Isn’t that glorious? Yet most of us are green-eyed, green-scummed, green-lined with envy and jealousy. Oh! We hate to see our fellows preferred above us and excel us. That’s life at its worst. But life at its best, "How fine, and how noble, and how excellent and I’m happy for you. If God has given you ten talents and I don’t have but one, I praise His name for the endowment and the enrichment that heaven has bestowed upon you." And if there is an office to be elected to, may someone else – if it is of honor – may they succeed in winning it. Takes a lot of praying to do that; takes a whole lot of looking to God to do that, but it is infinitely best. Life at its best: "in honor preferring one another" [Romans 12:10].
Now I must hasten. And before God; how are we before God? Before one another, "I am your servant; if I can help, or be a blessing, or an encouragement, call upon me." Now before God, how shall I be before the Lord? And again, life at its best: this is the commitment that we make to Jesus, "Lord, by Thy grace and in Thy mercy, Thou shalt be above all. First, first, Lord, it shall be Thy will, Thy purpose, and Thy choice." God shall be first; life at its best.
Now I want to take a story out of history, and then I must close. Napoleon Bonaparte had a mother named Letizia, Letizia. And growing up in Corsica, where Letizia lived, and where the son Napoleon lived, there was an uncle who also lived in Corsica. And this uncle – a great uncle of Napoleon, the uncle of Letizia – this uncle gave himself to Jesus, to be a curÃ©, a pastor; and in the providence of life, became the pastor of a little church, a little church nineteen miles out of Florence. And in the providence of life and in the passing of time, Napoleon became the emperor of almost all Europe. And in the way of his political advancement and administration, why, he took his family; one of the members he sat on the throne of Spain, and others he sat in places of administration all over the land. And in those days, when the emperor had the whole continent of Europe in his hand and governed it all, word came to him about this great uncle, who was an obscure pastor in a little church, nineteen miles out of Florence. So Napoleon Bonaparte called his general and gave him twenty men, and said, "You go to my uncle and you bring him back to me. And we shall make a bishop of him at least, or more likely a cardinal, as befits the family of the emperor."
So this general went down to Italy and to this little place of less than a hundred souls – nineteen miles out of Florence – and stood before the house of the curÃ©, the pastor of the tiny church. And he came with his gold braid, and lace, and a white plume in his soldier’s hat, and with his twenty men he called for that old pastor to appear before him and gave him the compliments of the great emperor. And then announced to him that it was below the dignity of a kinsman of the great emperor to be the pastor of such a little church, and that he had come to bestow upon him any bishopric that he chose in France or Italy. And the old pastor replied, "No, I have found my place with my people, and I shall not leave them." And the general, as he pressed the appeal, said, "Then we shall make you a cardinal." And the man refused, "No, I shall stay with my people." And the general said, "Then I and my men shall take you by force." And the old man replied, "But it would hardly do to take an old man such as I am, and by force take him to Paris, and there dispose of me in some place. Why, you could not do that." And the general hesitated, and finally depressed and disappointed turned away, and returned and made the report to the emperor Napoleon.
In the passing of time, as you know, the household of emperor Napoleon fell upon tragic disaster: death, exile, suicide, indescribable unhappiness, and finally the emperor himself, on the little rocky English island of St. Helena in the South Pacific, there to remain exiled until he died. Haven’t you seen the picture of the emperor Napoleon, standing on the shore of St. Helena’s island, with his hands behind his back, gazing out across the troubled sea? In those days, an emissary came to the emperor and said, "Sir, tell us, tell us, what was the happiest moment in your life?" And Napoleon replied, "Sir, I never had a happy moment in my life." And while the emperor was standing on that rocky shore of St. Helena waiting to die, news came that that old uncle had been translated to heaven from that little handful of a hundred souls at the ripe old age of ninety-five and had fallen asleep in the Lord. You tell me, who found life at its best? An emperor who has the world in his hand and who says, "But I never had a happy moment in my life," or the old aged pastor who knew no other thing than to serve Jesus, ministering to a little congregation of less than a hundred souls?
This is life at its best: given to God, serving the Lord, whose names are written in heaven [Luke 10:20]. And where the world ever hears of us, or a historian ever mentions us, or contemporary society ever accepts us, is altogether immaterial, beside the point, no significance or pertinence; it is that God knows us, He call us by our names [John 10:3]. He has written us large in the Book of Life [Revelation 20:12, 15]. This is life at its best.
Well, every time I get up to preach, I think I’ve got a little short sermon this time, and we’re going to get done before that clock goes off the radio. And surely enough I preach half again as long then, as I do any other time. Isn’t that something? Isn’t that something? But the Lord has been so good to me, God bless the testimony, and to you.
Now Lee Roy, while we sing us a song, while we heist us a tune, somebody to give himself to Jesus tonight, come and stand by me. In this balcony round, on this lower floor, into the aisle and down here to the front, come, make it now. If you’re in that topmost balcony, there’s time and to spare to come down one of those stairwells, and here to the front. And we’ll have a prayer together, and we’ll give ourselves to Jesus together, and we’ll ask God to remake us in His image, in His glory, in His precious likeness. Or to put your life in the fellowship of the church, however God shall press the appeal to your soul, make it now. Come now, do it now, while we stand and while we sing.
dark contrast between the Bethlehem of blood, murder and jealousy and the
Bethlehem of God’s golden star
1. Herod the Great and
2. Annas and Caiaphas
B. So much of life
violent, sordid, unworthy
our own national government an atmosphere of corruption and greed
3. In personal
life of our own people
a. Walking down streets
of New York City – bar after bar
b. More than 200,000 alcoholics
in New York City alone
4. Rise in crime, vice
and drunkenness, especially at Christmas
II. Life at its best in personal
A. Social snobbery –
B. Financial success; acquisition
of material possessions – John Milton
C. Happiness in things(Jeremiah 45:5)
monarch seeking happiness consults oracle
III. Life at its best – our attitude toward
A. In honor preferring
one another (Romans 12:10)
1. Stanton speaking
B. Rejoicing in the
pre-eminence of others
1. Great men in
IV. Life at its best – our attitude before
A. Commitment made that
God will be first
uncle, a humble pastor
B. Given to God, serving