The voice of one crying in the wilderness.
John Baptist is a type of those who resolve, at all risks, to discharge their duty and to deliver the message entrusted to them by God, without one single thought of self, without one transient wish to appear themselves in the matter. There is no indolence here, nor cowardice. There is simply an absence of any ambition to be prominent, and of any desire to hear their name whispered among the crowd. It is enough to be a "voice" — to preach God's Word, and not their own; to pursue some truth which is not to enhance their own reputation; to advocate some cause which is not to redound to their own advantage. Alas 1 how few are such persons; but how precious in proportion to their rarity I If any of us, then, be on the way to the attainment of this high grace, let us be supremely careful that our own selfeffacement be both genuine in itself and be a sacrifice offered to a worthy cause. For if I merely surrender to the first comer, or abdicate in favour of some worse person than myself, the very humility that " should have been for my wealth, becomes to me an occasion of falling." Instances are not uncommon, in every one's circle of acquaintance, where a man has surrendered not his pleasures, or his advantages, but his principles, to some other person's opinion. But if a single person's private opinion be sometimes thus overpowering, what must the combined force of a thousand people's opinion, of "public opinion," be! Every one, it is obvious, has a visual horizon of his own, in the centre of which he lives and moves and has his being; and just so every one has a social circle — "a world" (as the Bible calls it) of his own, amid which he lives, and which reacts too often with fatal influence upon his character. We must, by prayer and watchful circumspection, safeguard this precious grace of humble self-effacement, lest we expend it on unworthy objects.
1. The one thing that is essential in order that we may enter the kingdom of God is that we should be sincere. It was the evident sincerity of John the Baptist which drew around him the sinners of Judea, even rough soldiers and mercenary tax-gatherers. He demands sincerity in return. He could not do with professions unless they were accompanied by fruits worthy of repentance.
2. But there were those who came out to John's baptism in insincerity.
II. It is not necessarily a proof of sincerity that we are keenly interested in the religious movements which are agitating men's minds. It is a better test when we are willing, in all simplicity, to put away those special sins which are hindering us from surrendering ourselves to the rule of God.
"When the tale of bricks is doubled, then comes Moses": this is an apothegm familiar among the Jews even to the present day, and rehearsed in their stories of the past. But Moses came twice; and, the first time, he was abruptly rejected. The "Prophet like unto Moses," promised and at last announced to our sin-enslaved race as the Redeemer, was introduced by a forerunner, who was not accepted any more than his Master. John the Baptist was ultimately beheaded for his reward of fidelity; and the Lord Jesus was crucified. Thus it comes about that Christ's sad history strikes back on John's, and gives it an unexpected interpretation. Very true have proved those words of Heinrich Heine: "Wheresoever a great soul in this world has uttered its thoughts, there always has been Golgotha." Affairs had now reached the last crisis. Pontius Pilate was misgoverning Judea, filling history with extortions and infamies of crime. A new Herod, worthy of the name, was shaming the people with villainous lusts and defections in faith, his desperate morals fitly keeping pace with his downward career in apostasy. Suddenly was heard a voice in the wilderness. There was singular pathos in it, as there is in all human tones that have power. But it had, besides that, a sort of vibrating ring in it which intimated a challenge. Experts say that idiots, even in the midst of a gibbering frolic, will pause abruptly to listen to the sound of a musical instrument; perhaps some vague recollection of primal harmonies in a healthy nature before it was shattered may be awakened at the stir near by; the soul seems seeking to render answer, but only succeeds in giving wistful attention. That was not a loud voice in those days down by the Dead Sea, but all Judea heard it, and up the Jordan it rushed with more than the usual celerity; it certainly in due time reached the villagers in the land of Gennesareth, for some of them journeyed at once towards it — notably, Simon son of Jonas, and John, and James, and Andrew, who were destined to figure in the train of Jesus Christ.
C. S. Robinson, D. D. .
John the Baptist was a reality. This poor world of ours has been so often trifled with, that it has learned to be satisfied thoroughly only with what is honest and true. There could be no ordinary possibility of mistaking such a man; he was genuine. And he shook that miserable generation of hypocrites as might have been expected. Virgil tells us that when AEneas descended into Hades to visit his father, he came to Charon's ferry across the dark river; as he stepped into the light boat, accustomed to carry only spirits, so heavy a burden of a real and living man made the craft tremble and creek dismally through all the length of its sewed seams. We can presume that the hollow forms of social life in those wretched days were writhed and strained, if not shattered, by an uncompromising reality of manhood like that of John the Baptist at the Jordan. He was a man among the shadows of men. He had an actual "idea." He shook off the shams of religion, and told souls a great deal more about religion itself than they ever knew before. He put himself within the reach of living people, and down on their planes of existence. Only he shred away the veils and tinsels and mockeries of an outward show, and with an unsparing hand tore up the traditions and mere commandments of Pharisees.
Let every man come to God in his own way. God made you on purpose, and me on purpose, and He does not say to you, "Repent, and feel as Deacon A. feels," or, "Repent, and feel as your minister feels," but, "Come just as you are, with your
mind and heart and education and circumstances." You are too apt to feel that your religious experience must be the same as others have; but where will you find analogies for this? Certainly not in nature. God's works do not come from His hand like coins from the mint. It seems as if it were a necessity that each one should be in some sort distinct from every other. No two leaves on the same tree are precisely alike; no two buds on one bush have the same unfolding, nor do they seek to have.
John, too, had a gospel to preach, though at the first sounding of it there was terribleness enough in the tone. John preached the baptism of repentance, but, behold, it was repentance with hope, repentance and the remission of sins. John the Baptist is not a mere historic figure; his ministry represents a great fact which has a prominent place in the spiritual transformation and progress of mankind; his voice of repentance must always be first heard; his call to humiliation must always, in the first instance, bow down the soul; and after the thunder and fire of his ministry will come the still small voice of redeeming and welcoming love. John did not appear before his contemporaries without connection with all the solemn and beautiful past of Jewish history. Though he came from the wilderness, yet, as to the spiritual aspects of his ministry, he came up from the region of holy prophecy, and upon him there rested the benediction of holy men of old. It is something, after all, to feel that, as preachers of repentance and grace, we are not speaking in our own name, or clothing our words with the petty authority of merely personal position; the ages repeat their demands in our voices; the prophets are heard again when we speak in the name of Jesus Christ. John's speech seemed to be regulated by the music of prophecy. This quotation from the Book of Isaiah is like the sounding of a military march, the anthem of those who move on to momentary battle, followed by everlasting triumph. In this prophecy it will be observed that there is the same combination of the human and Divine which is found throughout the whole of the gospel scheme: men are called upon to make straight paths for the Lord, and they are also called upon to work out their own salvation; they are exhorted to prepare the way, as they were commanded to roll away the stone from the door of the sepulchre; and when they have done their little part, there comes the full outflow of the Divine sympathy, power, and love. Nothing can exceed in minuteness and completeness the description which is given in verses 5 and 6. The sixth verse contains the grandest utterance that can possibly be put into human words, "All flesh shall see the salvation of God."
These words, quoted by John the Baptist, had been spoken seven hundred years before by Isaiah. Nearly three hundred years after that, Malachi closed the course of Scripture with these remarkable words: "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet," &c. Then intervened a period of four hundred years, during which the voice of prophecy was mute, and all that was left to guide the Israelite was that of which Malachi reminded him in the previous verses: "Remember ye the law of Moses My servant." And then, when these four hundred years were closed, suddenly, immediately before the Messiah's advent, there appeared in the wilderness a wonderful man, living a life like that of Isaiah and Elias, applying to himself this prophecy of Isaiah, and having applied to him by Christ that of Malachi concerning Elijah. I propose to endeavour to answer these two questions.
1. By what right, and in what sense, are these two prophecies, the one originally spoken by Isaiah of himself, and the other distinctly marking out a particular man Elias, referred to John the Baptist? And —
2. In what sense was John the forerunner of the Redeemer, preparing His way before Him?
I. Now, to understand on what principle these words are applicable to John, we must carry along with us the leading principle of prophecy. It is not merely a prediction of separate events, but far rather an announcement of principles; through the interpretation of the present the prophets predicted the future; for the announcement of every principle connected with a fact is a prediction of all future events that shall occur under similar circumstances. For instance, the astronomer, in the announcement of the eclipse, has so plainly discovered the principles that regulate it as to be able to foretell without a doubt the very moment of its return. Thus it was that our Lord and the prophets applied their prophecy. The prophet Malachi uses the name of Elijah, and says, "Before another great and dreadful day come, another man shall rise up in the same spirit as Elijah." Our blessed Lord applies this prophecy to John the Baptist. He told men that "Elias truly shall first come and restore all things," but that the Elias that was to come was not the Elias they had expected, but one in the spirit and power of Elias, who should turn the hearts of the fathers, &c. He thus reminded them that what the prophet meant was not a resurrection of the man, but of his spirit.
II. In the next place we return an answer to the second question proposed — In what sense was John the forerunner, &c. The expression of the prophet a figurative one. In Eastern countries, when a monarch desired to pay a visit to a distant part of his dominions, he was accustomed to send his messengers before him to demand of the inhabitants of every part through which he was to pass that they should make his road easy by filling valleys and cutting through hills. Precisely in the same way was John the Baptist to prepare the way for Christ. He came proclaiming a King, declaring the conditions without which the kingdom could not come, and without which the King could not reign. The first of these conditions was this: he prepared the way for Christ by declaring private righteousness preparatory to public reformation. "Change yourselves, or to you at least no kingdom of God can come."
2. John prepared the way for the advent of the Messiah by a simple assertion that right is right, and wrong, wrong.
3. The Baptist prepared the way for the Messiah by teaching simple truths, falling back upon first principles. Observe that all this was to prepare the way for Christ — it was not Christ. Yet in all ages the baptism of John in the laver of duty must precede the baptism of Christ in the laver of self-sacrifice.
JOHN THE BAPTIST.
"Also of John a calling and a crying
Rang in Bethabara till strength was spent,
Cared not for counsel, stayed not for replying,
John had one message for the world — REPENT.
John, than which man a sadder or a greater
Not till this day has been of woman born;
John, like some iron peak by the Creator
Fired with the red glow of the rushing morn.
Thus, when the sun shall rise and overcome it,
Stands in his shining desolate and bare,
Yet not the less the inexorable summit
Flamed him his signal to the upper air."
The way of the Lord should be prepared in our hearts. If we would have the Lord come to us in our Sabbath worship, we must think of Him in our week-day work. As it often is now, when the Sabbath comes, the gathered rubbish of a whole week must be cleared away. The way of the Lord is blocked up by the remembrance of the week's cares, h man brings his business right up to the borders of the Sabbath, and, of course, the Sabbath itself is full of it. Boxes and barrels, bales, dry goods, groceries and hardware, remain over in the mind from the week's work and worry. Now, a man has no more right to take these things with him in his thoughts, than to leave his goods exposed for display and sale in his store. If it were not for disturbing others, he might just as well take his ledgers and invoices with him to church, and be making out his bills and checking off his goods while there, as to be doing these things in his thought all day. He might just as well wheel his boxes and bales right into the aisle, as to have them present to mental vision all the time. Jesus drove out the traders from the temple with a scourge of cords. But if He should come into our modern churches and drive out all who in their thoughts have brought money, and merchandise, and trade into the house of God, He would leave some very small congregations. If all the business that is planned in church were really transacted there, it would make that a busier place than ever the Jewish Temple was in the days of the Passover. If we would enjoy the Sabbath as a day of rest and communion with God, we must drive these money-changers of our thought out from the sacred temple of our hearts, and let those hearts be again the temples of the Holy Ghost. We must prepare for the day, not merely by laying aside our work, but by excluding it from our hearts, that God may come and dwell there. Thus, in all things, we must prepare for God's work. We must lay our plans for it, and shape our affairs for it. The Lord comes to reign, if He comes at all. We must so prepare the way that He can come and can reign. There must be forethought as well as good will; preparation as well as diligence. It is true the Lord sometimes comes suddenly to His temple. But when He thus comes, "Who shall abide the day of His coming? for He shall be like a refiner's fire."
Not one little brown and withered leaf falls to the ground on one of the November days but the shape of the plant is changed; so there is not one little act of yours, one whispered prayer that His kingdom may come, but becomes a factor in the world's redemption. If I can only place one little golden brick in the pavement of the Lord's highway, I will place it there, that coming generations may walk thereon to the heavenly city.
Strangely, too, the movements of science, art, and commerce seem to wait on ministerial life. Printing had just been invented in time to give the Bible to the people in the period of the Reformation. The magnetic needle was applied to navigation to send that Bible and its preachers to all lands. The spirit of exploration, which has sought out every island, and is now engaged in revealing the character of Central Africa and the steppes of Asia; the study of all languages; the preparation of grammars and lexicons; the knowledge of the currents of the air and the water, of the powers of steam and electricity — all these are so many voices crying, "Prepare ye the way of the Lord!" They are so many indications that when man will carry God's message all the power of Omnipotence waits on his service.
How shall we picture John the Baptist to ourselves? Great painters, greater than the world seems likely to see again, have exercised their fancy upon his face, his figure, his actions. We must put out of our minds, I fear, at once, many of the loveliest of them all; those in which Raffaelle and others have depicted the child John, in his camel's hair raiments, with a child's cross in his hand, worshipping the Infant Christ. There is also one exquisite picture, by Annibale Caracci, if I recollect rightly, in which the blessed Babe is lying asleep, and the blessed virgin signs to St. John, pressing forward to adore Him, not to waken his sleeping Lord and God. But such imaginations, beautiful as they are, and true in a heavenly and spiritual sense, are not historic fact. For St. John the Baptist said himself, "I knew Him not." The best picture of him which I can recollect is the great one by Guido, of the magnificent lad sitting on the rock, half clad in his camel's-hair robe, his stalwart hand lifted up to denounce he hardly knows what, save that things are going all wrong, utterly wrong to him; his beautiful mouth open to preach he hardly knows what, save that he has a message from God, of which he is half conscious as yet — that he is a forerunner, a prophet, a foreteller of something and some one which is to come, and which yet is very near at hand. The wild rocks are around him, the clear sky is over him, and nothing more. There, aloft and in the mountains, alone with nature and with God, he preaches to a generation sunk in covetousness, superstition, party-spirit, and the rest of the seven devils which brought on the fall of his native land, and which will bring on the fall of every land on earth, preaches to them, I say, what? The most common, let me say boldly, the most vulgar — in the good sense of the old word — the most vulgar morality. He tells them that an awful ruin was coming unless they repented and mended. How fearfully true his words were the next fifty years proved. The axe, he said, was laid to the root of the tree; and the axe was the heathen Roman, even them master of the land. But God, not the Roman Caesar only, was laying the axe. The people, the farming class, came to him with, "What shall we do? ': He has nothing but plain morality for them. The publicans, the renegades who were farming the taxes of the Roman conquerers, and making their base profit out of their countrymen's slavery, came to him, "Master, what shall we do?" He does not tell them not to be publicans. He does not tell his countrymen to rebel, though he must have been sorely tempted to do it. All he says is, "Make the bad and base arrangement as good as you can; exact no more," &c. The soldiers, poor fellows, came to him. Whether they were Herod's mercenaries, or real gallant Roman soldiers, we are not told. Either had unlimited power under a military despotism, in an anarchic and half-enslaved country; but whichever they were, he has the same answer to them of common morality, "You are what you are; you are where you are. Do what you have to do as well as you can. Do no violence to any man," &c. Ah, wise politician, ah, clear and rational spirit, who knows and tells others to do the duty which lies nearest them; who sees (as old Greek Hesiod says) how much bigger the half is than the whole; who, in the hour of his country's deepest degradation, had Divine courage to say, " Our deliverance lies, not in rebellion, but in doing right." But he has sterner words. Pharisees, the separatists, the religious men, who think themselves holier than any one else; and Sadducees, materialist men of the world, who sneer at the unseen, the unknown, the heroic, came to him. And for Pharisee and Sadducee — for the man who prides himself on believing more than his neighbours, and for the man who prides himself on believing less — he has the same answer. Both are exclusive, inhuman, while they are pretending to be more than human. He knew them well, for he was born and bred among them, and he forestalls our Lord's words to them, "O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? "
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