Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 39


The First Miracle

I. The Glory of the Virgin Mother

Preached January 23, 1853

  Frederick W. Robertson

"This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth his glory; and his disciples believed on him.” - John 2:11


This was the “ beginning, of miracles” which Jesus did, and yet he was now thirty years of age. For thirty years he had done no miracle; and that is itself almost worthy to be called a miracle. That he abstained for thirty years from the exertion of His wonder-working power is as marvellous as that He possessed for three years the power to exert. He was content to live long in deep obscurity. Nazareth, with its quiet valley, was world enough for Him. There was no disposition to rush into publicity-no haste to be known in the world. The quiet consciousness of power which breathes in that expression, “Mine hour is not yet come,” had marked His whole life. He could bide His time. He had the strength to wait.

This was true greatness-the greatness of man, because also the greatness of God: for such is God’s way in all He does, In all the works of God there is a conspicuous absence of haste and hurry. All that He does ripens slowly. Six slow days and nights of creative force before man was made: two thousand years to discipline and form a Jewish people: four thousand years of darkness, and ignorance, and crime, before the fullness of the time had come,when He could send forth His Son-unnumbered acres of war before the thousand years of solid peace can come. Whatever contradicts this Divine plan must pay the price of haste-brief duration. All that is done before the hour is come decays fast. All precocious things ripened before their time, wither before their time: precocious fruit, precocious minds, forced feelings. “He that believeth shall not make haste.”

We shall distribute the various thoughts which this event suggests under two heads.


I. The glory of the Virgin Mother,

II. The glory of the Divine Son.


I. The glory of the Virgin Mother.

In the First Epistle to the Corinthians St Paul speaks of the glory of the woman as of a thing distinct from the glory of the man. They are the two opposite poles of the sphere of humanity. Their provinces are not the same, but different. The qualities which are beautiful as predominant in one are not beautiful when predominant in the other. That which is the glory of the one is not the glory of the other. The glory of her who was highly favored among women, and whom all Christendom has agreed in contemplating as the type and ideal of her sex, was glory in a different order from that in which her Son exhibited the glory of a perfect manhood. A glory different in degree, of course. the one was only human, the other more than human, the Word made flesh; but different in order too: the one manifesting forth her glory-the grace of womanhood; the other manifesting forth His glory-the wisdom and the majesty of manhood, in which God dwelt.

Different orders or kinds of glory. Let us consider tho glory of the Virgin, which is, in other words, the glory of what is womanly in character.

1. Remarkable, first of all, in this respect, is her considerateness. There is gentle, womanly tact in those words,”“They have no wine.” Unselfish thoughtfulness about others’ comforts, not her own: delicate anxiety to save a straitened family from the exposure of their poverty: and moreover, for this is very worthy of observation, carefulness about gross, material things: a sensual thing, we might truly say-wine, the instrument of intoxication: yet see how her feminine tenderness transfigured and sanctified such gross and common things; how that wine which, as used by the revellers of the banquet, might be coarse and sensual, was in her use sanctified, as it was by unselfishness and charity a thing quite heavenly, glorified by the ministry of love.

It was so that in old times, with thoughtful hospitality, Rebekah offered water at the well to Abraham’s way-worn servant. It was so that Martha showed her devotion to her Lord even to excess, being cumbered with much serving. It was so that the women ministered to Christ out of their substance-water, food, money. They took these low things, of earth, and spiritualized them into means of hospitality and devotion,

And this is the glory of womanhood: surely no common glory: surely one which, if she rightly comprehended her place on earth, might enable her to accept its apparent humiliation unrepiningly; the glory of unsensualizing coarse and common things, sensual things, the objects of mere sense, meat and drink and household cares, elevating them, of the spirit in which she ministers them, into something transfigured and sublime.

The humblest mother of a poor family who is cumbered with much serving, or watching over a hospitality which she is too poor to delegate to others, or toiling for love’s sake in household work, needs no emancipation in God’s sight. It is the prerogative and the glory of her womanhood to consecrate the meanest things by a ministry which is not for self

2. Submission. “Whatsoever He saith unto you, do it.” Here is the true spirit of obedience. Not slavishness, but entire loyalty and perfect trust in a person whom we reverence. She did not comprehend her Son’s strange repulse and mysterious words; but she knew that they were not capricious words, for there was no caprice in Him: she knew that the law which ruled His will was right, and that importunity was useless. So she bade them reverently wait in silence till His time should come.

Here is another distinctive glory of womanhood. In the very outset of the Bible submission is revealed as her peculiar lot and destiny. If you were merely to look at the words as they stand, declaring the results of the Fall, you ,would be inclined to call that vocation of obedience a curse; but in the spirit of Christ it is transformed, like labor, into a blessing. In this passage a twofold blessing stands connected with it. Freedom from all doubt; and prevailing power in prayer.

The first is freedom from all doubt. The Virgin seems to have felt no perplexity at that rebuke and seeming refusal; and yet perplexity and misgiving would seem natural. A more masculine and imperious mind would have been startled; made sullen, or have begun at once to sound the depths of metaphysics, reasoning upon the hardship of a lot which can not realize all it wishes: wondering why such simple blessings are refused, pondering deeply on Divine decrees, ending perhaps in skepticism. Mary was saved from this. She could not understand, but she could trust and wait. Not for one moment did a shade of doubt rest upon her heart. At once and instantly, “Whatsoever He saith unto you, do it.” And so, too, the Syrophenician woman was not driven to speculate on the injustice of her destiny by the seeming harshness of Christ’s reply. She drew closer to her Lord in prayer. Affection and submissiveness saved them both from doubt. True women both.

Now there are whole classes of our fellow-creatures to whom, as a class, the anguish of religious doubt never or rarely comes. Mental doubt rarely touches women. Soldiers and sailors do not doubt. Their religion is remarkable for its simplicity and childlike character. Scarcely ever are religious warriors tormented with skepticism or doubts. And in all, I believe, for the same reason-the habits of feeling to which the long life of obedience trains the soul. Prompt, quick, unquestioning obedience: that is the soil for faith.

I call this, therefore, the glory of womanhood. It is the true glory of human beings to obey. It is her special glory, rising out of the very weakness of her nature-God’s strength made perfect in weakness. England will not soon forget that lesson left her as the bequest of a great life. Her buried Hero’s glory came out of that which was manliest in his character-the Virgin’s spirit of obedience.

The second glory resulting from it is prevailing power with God. Her wish was granted. “What have I to do with thee,” were words that only asserted His own perfect independence. They were not the language of rebuke. As Messiah He gently vindicated His acts from interference, showing the filial relation to be in its first strictness dissolved. But as Son He obeyed, or to speak more properly, complied. Nay, probably His look had said that already, promising more than His words, setting her mind at rest, and granting the favor she desired.

Brethren, the subject of prayer is a deep mystery. To the masculine intellect it is a demonstrable absurdity. For says logic, how can man’s will modify the will of God, or alter the fixed decree? And if it can not, wherein lies the use of prayer? But there is a something mightier than intellect and truer than logic. It is the faith which works by love-the conviction that in this world of mystery, that which can not be put in words, nor defended by argument, may yet be true. The will of Christ was fixed, what could be the use of intercession? and yet the Virgin’s feeling was true; she felt her prayer would prevail.

Here is a grand paradox, which is the paradox of all prayer. The heart hopes that which to reasoning seems impossible. And I believe we never pray aright except when we pray in that feminine childlike spirit which no logic can defend, feeling as if we modified the will of God, though that will is fixed. It is the glory of the spirit that is affectionate and submissive that it, ay and it alone, can pray, because it alone can believe that its prayer will be granted; and it is the glory of that spirit, too, that its prayer will be granted.

3. In all Christian ages the especial glory ascribed to the Virgin Mother is purity of heart and life. Implied in the term “Virgin.” Gradually in the history of the Christian Church the recognition of this became idolatry. The works of early Christian art curiously exhibit the progress of this perversion. They show how Mariolatry grew up. The first pictures of the early Christian ages simply represent the woman. By-and-by we find outlines of the mother and the child. In an after-age the Son is seen sitting on a throne, with the mother crowned, but sitting as yet below Him. In an age still later, the crowned mother on a level with the Son. Later still, the mother on a throne above the Son. And lastly, a Romish picture represents the eternal Son in wrath, about to destroy the earth, and the Virgin Intercessor interposing, pleading by significant attitude her maternal rights, and redeeming the world from His vengeance. Such was, in fact, the progress of Virgin-worship. First the woman reverenced for the Son’s sake; then the woman reverenced above the Son, and adored.

Now the question is, How came this to be? for we assume it as a principle that no error has ever spread widely that was not the exaggeration or perversion of a truth. And be assured that the first step towards dislodging error is to understand the truth at which it aims. Never can an error be permanently destroyed by the roots, unless we have planted by its side the truth that is to take its place. Else you will find the falsehood returning forever, growing up again when you thought it cut up root and branch, appearing in the very places where the crushing of it seemed most complete. Wherever there is a deep truth, unrecognized, misunderstood, it will force its way into men’s hearts. It will take pernicious forms if it can not find healthful ones. It will grow as some weeds grow, in noxious forms, ineradicably, because it has a root in human nature.

Else how comes it to pass, after three hundred years of reformation, we find Virgin-worship restoring itself again in this reformed England, where least of all countries we should expect it, and where the remembrance of Romish persecution might have seemed to make its return impossible? How comes it that some of the deepest thinkers of our day, and men of the saintliest lives, are feeling this Virgin-worship a necessity for their souls; for it is the doctrine to which the converts to Romanism cling most tenaciously?

Brethren, I reply, Because the doctrine of the worship of the Virgin has a root in truth, and no mere cutting and uprooting can destroy it: no thunders of Protestant oratory: no platform expositions: no Reformation societies. In one word, no mere negations; nothing but the full liberation of the truth which lies at the root of error can eradicate error.

Surely we ought to have learnt that truth by this time. Recollect how, before Christ’s time, mere negations failed to uproot paganism. Philosophers had disproved it by argument: satirists had covered it with ridicule. It was slain a thousand times, and yet paganism lived on in the hearts of men: and those who gave it up returned to it again in a dying hour, because the disprovers of it had given nothing for the heart to rest on in its place. But when Paul dared to proclaim of paganism what we are proclaiming of Virgin-worship, that paganism stood upon a truth, and taught that truth, paganism. fell forever. The Apostle Paul found in Athens an altar to the unknown God. He did not announce in Athens lectures against heathen priestcraft; nor did he undertake to prove it, in the Areopagus, all a mystery of iniquity, and a system of damnable idolatries-that is the mode in which we set about our controversies; but he disengaged the truth from the error, proclaimed the truth, and left the errors to themselves. The truth grew up, and the errors silently and slowly withered.

I pray you, Christian brethren, do not join those fierce associations which think only of uprooting error. There is a spirit in them which is more of earth than heaven, shortsighted too and self-destructive. They do not make converts to Christ, but only controversialists, and adherents to a party. They compass sea and land to make one proselyte. It matters little whether fierce Romanism. or fierce Protestantism wins the day: but it does matter whether or not in the conflict we lose some precious Christian truth, as well as the very spirit of Christianity.

What lies at the root of this ineradicable Virgin-worship? How comes it that out of so few scripture sentences about her, many of them like this rebuke, depreciatory, learned men and pious men could ever have developed, as they call it, or as it seems to us, tortured and twisted a doctrine of Divine honors to be paid to Mary? Let us set out with the conviction that there must have been some reason for it, some truth of which it is the perversion.

I believe the truth to be this. Before Christ the qualities honored as Divine were peculiarly the virtues of the man: courage, wisdom, truth, strength. But Christ proclaimed the Divine nature of qualities entirely opposite: meekness, obedience, affection, purity. He said that the pure in heart should see God. He pronounced the beatitudes of meekness, and. lowliness, and poverty of spirit. Now observe these were all of the order of graces which are distinctively feminine. And it is the peculiar feature of Christianity that it exalts not strength nor intellect, but gentleness, and lovingness, and virgin purity.

Here was a new, strange thought given to the world. It was for many ages the thought: no wonder-it was the one great novelty of the revealed religion. How were men to find expression for that idea which was working in them, vague and beautiful, but wanting substance ? the idea of the Divineness of what is pure, above the Divineness of what is strong? Would you have had them say simply, we had forgotten these things; now they are revealed-now we know that love and purity are as Divine as power and reason? My brethren, it is not so that men worship-it is only so that men think. They think about qualities-they worship persons. Worship must have a form. Adoration finds a person, and if it can not find one it will imagine one. Gentleness and purity are words for a philosopher; but a man whose heart wants something to adore will find for himself a gentle one, a pure one, incarnate purity and love, gentleness robed in flesh and blood, before whom his knee may bend, and to whom the homage of his spirit can be given. You can not adore except a person.

What marvel if the early Christian found that the Virgin-mother of our Lord embodied this great idea? What marvel if he filled out and expanded with that idea which was in his heart, the brief sketch given of her in the Gospels, till his imagination had robed the woman of the Bible with the majesty of the mother of God? Can we not feel that it must have been so? Instead of a dry, formal dogma of theology, the Romanist presented an actual woman, endued with every inward grace and beauty, and pierced by sorrows, as a living object of devotion, faith, and hope-a personality instead of an abstraction. Historically speaking, it seems inevitable that the idea could scarcely have been expressed to the world except through an idolatry.

Brethren, it is an idolatry: in modern Romanism a pernicious and most defiling one. The worship of Mary overshadows the worship of the Son. The love given to her is so much taken from Him. Nevertheless, let us not hide from ourselves the eternal truth of the idea that lies beneath the temporary falsehood of the dogma. Overthrow the idolatry; but do it by substituting the truth.

Now the truth which alone can supplant the worship of the Virgin is the perfect humanity of Jesus Christ. I say the perfect humanity: for perfect manhood is a very ambiguous expression. By man we sometimes mean the human race, made up of man and woman, and sometimes we only mean the masculine sex. We have only one word to express both ideas. The language in which the New Testament was written has two. Hence we may make a great mistake. When the Bible speaks of man the human being, we may think that it means man the male creature. When the Bible tells us Jesus Christ was the Son of Man, it uses the word which implies human being: it does not use the word which signifies one of the male sex: it does not dwell on the fact that He was a man: but it earnestly asserts that He was Man. Son of a man He was not. Son of Man He was: for the blood, as it were, of all the race was in His veins.

Now let us see what is implied in this expression Son of Man. It contains in it the doctrine of the incarnation: it means the full humanity of Christ. Lately I tried to bring out one portion of its meaning. I said that He belonged to no particular age, but to every age. He had not the qualities of one clime or race, but that which is common to all climes and all races. He was not the Son of the Jew, nor the Son of the Oriental-He was the Son of Man. He was not the villager of Bethlehem: nor one whose character and mind were the result of a certain training, peculiar to Judea, or peculiar to that century-but He was the Man. This is what St. Paul insists on, when He says that in Him there is neither Jew nor Gentile, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free. A humanity in which there is nothing distinctive, limited, or peculiar, but universal-your nature and mine, the humanity in which we all are brothers, bond or free. Now in that same passage St. Paul uses another very remarkable expression: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female.” That is the other thing implied in His title to the Son of Man. His nature had in it the nature of all nations: but also His heart had in it the blended qualities of both sexes. Our humanity is a whole made tip of two opposite poles of character-the manly and the feminine. In the character of Christ neither was found exclusively, but both in perfect balance. He was the Son of Man-the Human Being-perfect Man.

There was in Him the woman-heart as well as the manly brain-all that was most manly, and all that was most womanly, Remember what He was in life: recollect His stern iron hardness in the temptation of the desert: recollect the calmness that never quailed in all the uproars of the people, the truth that never faltered, the strict severe integrity which characterized the Witness of the Truth: recollect the justice that never gave way to weak feeling-which let the rich young ruler go his way to perish if he would-which paid the tribute-money-which held the balance fair between the persecuted woman and her accuser, but did not suffer itself to be betrayed by sympathy into any feeble tenderness-the justice that rebuked Peter with indignation, and pronounced the doom of Jerusalem unswervingly. Here is one side or pole of human character-surely not the feminine side. Now look at the other. Recollect the twice-recorded tears, which a man would have been ashamed to show, and which are never beautiful in man except when joined with strength like His: and recollect the sympathy craved and yearned for as well as given-the shrinking from solitude in prayer-the trembling of a sorrow unto death-the considerate care which provided bread for the multitude, and said to the tired disciples, as with a sister’s rather than a brother’s thoughtfulness, “Come ye apart into the desert and rest a while.” This is the other side or pole of human character-surely not the masculine.

When we have learnt and felt what is meant by Divine humanity in Christ, and when we have believed it, not in a one-sided way, but in all its fullness, then we are safe from Mariolatry-because we do not want it: we have the truth which Mariolatry labors to express, and, laboring ignorantly, falls into idolatry. But so long as the male was looked upon as the only type of God, and the masculine virtues as the only glory of His character, so long the truth was yet unrevealed. This was the state of heathenism. And so long as Christ was only felt as the Divine Man, and not the Divine Humanity, so long the world had only a one-sided truth.

One-half of our nature, the sterner portion of it, only was felt to be of God and in God. The other half, the tenderer and the purer qualities of our souls, were felt as earthly. This was the state of Romanism. from which men tried to escape by Mariolatry. And if men had not learned that this side of our nature too was made divine in Christ, what possible escape was there for them, but to look to the Virgin Mary as the incarnation of the purer and lovelier elements of God’s character, reserving to her Son the sterner and the more masculine ?

Can we not understand, too, how it came to pass that the mother was placed above the Son, and adored more? Christianity had proclaimed meekness, purity, obedience, as more Divine than strength and wisdom. What wonder if she who was gazed on as the type of purity should be reckoned more near to God than He who had come through misconception to be looked on chiefly as the type of Strength and Justice ?

There is a spirit abroad which is leading men to Rome. Do not call that the spirit of the Devil. It is the desire and hope to find there in its tenderness, and its beauty, and its devotion, a home for those feelings of awe, and contemplation, and love, for which our stern Protestantism finds no shelter. Let us acknowledge that what they worship is indeed deserving of all adoration: only let us say that what they worship ignorantly is Christ. Whom they ignorantly worship let us declare unto them: Christ their unknown God, worshipped at an idol-altar.Do not let us satisfy ourselves by saying as a watchword, “Christ, not Mary:” say rather, “in Christ all that they find in Mary.” The mother in the Son, the womanly in the soul of Christ. Divine honor to the feminine side of His character, joyful and unvarying acknowledgment that in Christ there is a revelation of the Divineness of submission, and love, and purity, and long-suffering, just as there was before in the name of the Lord of Hosts a revelation of the Divineness of courage, and strength, and heroism, and manliness.

Therefore it is we do not sympathize with those coarse expositions which aim at doing exclusive honor to the Son of God by degrading the life and character of the Virgin. Just as the Romanist has loved to represent all connection with her as mysterious and immaculate, so has the Protestant been disposed to vulgarize her to the level of the commonest humanity, and exaggerate into rebukes the reverent expressions to her in which Jesus merely asserted His Divine independence.

Rather reverence, not her, but that idea and type which Christianity has given in her-the type of Christian womanhood; which was not realized in her, which never was and never will be realized in one single woman-which remains ever a Divine Idea, after which each living woman is to strive.

And when I say reverence that idea or type, I am but pointing to the relation between the mother and the Son, and asking men to reverence that which He reverenced. Think we that there is no meaning hidden in the mystery that the Son of God was the Virgin’s Son? To Him through life there remained the early recollections of a pure mother. Blessed beyond all common blessedness is the man who can look back to that. God has given to him a talisman which will carry him triumphant through many a temptation. To other men purity may be a name; to him it has been once a reality. “Faith in all things high beats with his blood.” He may be tempted: he may err: but there will be a light from home shining forever on his path inextinguishably. By the grace of God, degraded he can not be.