Christmas feels like the perfect time for a seminary commencement ceremony. What could be more fitting than to send out a new band of Gospel preachers just as we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ and declare the great announcement of the incarnation?
Commencements also remind us that we have done this all before. Quite regularly, faculty, friends, and graduates assemble to celebrate the completion of academic programs and the fulfillment of educational ambitions. This seems especially meaningful when the programs of study and degrees are those earned by Christian ministers, ready for deployment into the world.
I want to take you back to July 15, 1838, and a very different commencement ceremony, but a ceremony also intended to launch new ministers into the world and into the pulpit. The school was the Harvard Divinity School, the graduating class numbered seven, and only six were present. The commencement speaker was Ralph Waldo Emerson, America’s most famous intellect of that era.
Emerson had, until fairly recently, been a Unitarian minister. But he left the Unitarian ministry in order to fulfill larger intellectual opportunities. It is virtually impossible to imagine a church more broad-minded than the Unitarians, who were explicitly founded upon the heresy of denying the Trinity. But Emerson, the great prophet of intellectual independence, found even the Unitarian ministry too constraining.
Nevertheless, he was invited to deliver the graduation address for the divinity students at Harvard in 1838, and not without controversy. Emerson’s “Divinity School Address” is now remembered as one of the most influential commencement addresses ever delivered to an American audience.
Ralph Waldo Emerson knew the graduates personally, and he addressed them in very personal terms. He pointed to the glory of the ministry: “To this holy office, you propose to devote yourself. I wish you may feel your call in throbs of desire and hope. The office is the first in the world.”
But the most famous passage in Emerson’s “Divinity School Address” includes this striking passage:
Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil. Friends enough you shall find who will hold up to your emulation Wesleys and Oberlins, Saints and Prophets. Thank God for these good men, but say, “I also am a man.” Imitation cannot go above its model. The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity. The inventor did it, because it was natural to him, and so in him it has a charm. In the imitator, something else is natural, and he bereaves himself of his own beauty, to come short of another man’s.
Then, he addressed the graduates with these words:
Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity. Look to it first and only, that fashion, custom, authority, pleasure, and money, are nothing to you, are not bandages over your eyes, that you cannot see, but live with the privilege of the immeasurable mind.
With those words, Emerson was declaring theological independence from every authority and model, including the Bible, the prophets, and the apostles. Do not be imitators, he charged the students, go alone, in your own light, and with their own “immeasurable mind.”
He declared each of the graduates, ready to assume the pulpit, as “a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost.”
I now ask you to look with me at the Prophet Isaiah, chapter 9. Hear now the prophecy:
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone. You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil. For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this (Isa 9:2-7, ESV).
We can scarcely hear these words now without hearing them as set to the majestic music of Handel’s Messiah: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” We declare that of the increase of his government there will indeed be no end and that he sits on the throne of David forever.
This is the great promise of Christmas, as is made clear by both Matthew and Luke as they cite this passage as fulfilled in Christ and in his birth. Unto us a child is born, and we know that the child is God in human flesh, the infant Christ, who has come to save us from our sins.
These graduates assembled before us today stand in and for this Gospel. Their greatest desire is that every person they may meet, beginning with those loved ones in this room, would come to see themselves as sinners and turn to Christ for salvation, knowing that the baby in Bethlehem’s manger is the very Son of God, who came to die on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins, and was raised on the third day by the power of God. Their fervent hope is that you will experience the forgiveness of sins that comes through faith in Christ, knowing that if you will repent of your sins and believe, you will be saved and given the gift of everlasting life.
How do we know these things? Because they have been revealed by God to us. As Jesus said to Simon Peter, “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 16:17).
Look carefully at Isaiah 9, verse 2: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.”
The light shined on them: they did not seek the light, find the light, or devise the light. The light shined on them.
The picture revealed in this passage is stunningly easy to understand. The people were walking in darkness, but have now seen a great light. They were dwelling in deep darkness, but the light has now shone on them.
This is a picture of God’s revelation: the truth is revealed to us as light breaking through the darkness. But it is also a portrait of grace, the sheer unmerited favor of God. We do not deserve the light, but it has shone on us, and we have seen the great light of Christ.
Light is such a powerful metaphor for revelation, understanding, and salvation. It is central to the Bible’s own presentation of the Gospel in both promise and fulfillment. It is also a powerful metaphor for the Gospel ministry. Christian ministers are light-bearers, declaring the light, taking the light, sending the light, letting the light shine.
The minister is rightly depicted as a torch-bearer, taking the light where it is so desperately needed and letting it shine in all its glory. The light is not our own, but it is the gift of God for our salvation. Our task is not to devise the light, but to send it out, take it boldly, and let it shine.
To the graduates arrayed before us, my charge is straightforward: be a torchbearer. Take the light; send the light; defend the light; declare the light; teach the light; preach the light. And let the light of Christ shine, confident that, even as he is our light, he will draw sinners unto himself.
In other words, “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim 4:2).
Every religious system can be categorized in one of two ways: those that look for the light within and those that depend upon a light from without. The logic of the Bible could not be more clear: We are not to look within ourselves, but to preach the revealed word of God, the Holy Scriptures. We are to preach Christ, and not ourselves.
Ralph Waldo Emerson had it wrong. The new minister of Christ’s church is not “a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost.” The minister is not to look within himself, but to look to Christ and preach the word, the very word that the Holy Ghost inspired.
Emerson’s way leads to theological disaster and the abandonment of the Gospel ministry, to a doctrinal collapse into what the Apostle Paul called “another gospel.” Those who go that way lead many to destruction.
The minister of Christ is a torchbearer, not a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost; but this is a greater calling, not lesser. By God’s sheer grace, the light has shone on us. Now we share that light with others.
One of the lesser-known Christmas hymns now is “As With Gladness, Men of Old.” It is sung to the tune shared by the more familiar hymn, “For the Beauty of the Earth.” Pondering light as central to the story of the incarnation of Christ and the visitation of the magi, William Dix was moved in 1858, one year before the establishment of this school, to write these words:
As with gladness men of old
Did the guiding star behold;
As with joy they hailed its light,
Leading onward, beaming bright;
So, most gracious Lord, may we
Evermore be led by Thee.
As with joyful steps they sped,
Savior, to Thy lowly bed,
There to bend the knee before
Thee, whom heav’n and earth adore;
So may we with willing feet
Ever seek Thy mercy seat.
As they offered gifts most rare
At Thy cradle, rude and bare,
So may we with holy joy,
Pure and free from sin’s alloy,
All our costliest treasures bring,
Christ, to Thee, our heav’nly King.
Holy Jesus, ev’ry day
Keep us in the narrow way;
And when earthly things are past,
Bring our ransomed souls at last
Where they need no star to guide,
Where no clouds Thy glory hide.
In the heav’nly country bright
Need they no created light;
Thou its light, its joy, its crown,
Thou its sun which goes not down;
There forever may we sing
Alleluias to our King.
That last stanza is the anthem of the minister as torchbearer for Christ. For the graduates of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, our prayer is urgent. May God use you as torchbearers for the King, and may many come to Christ, trust in Christ, and be taught in Christ through your ministry. Take the torch passed to you now, and run your race with endurance, sharing the light and letting it shine. A world in deep darkness is dying for that light. Take the torch of ministry and carry it boldly and faithfully until your race is done and you pass that torch to yet another. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.
This is an address delivered at the Commencement Ceremony for The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, held December 13, 2013 at 10:00 A.M., EST. The entire ceremony will be live-streamed at www.sbts.edu/live.
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