Then said he to the multitude that came forth.
It is a matter of some interest, even as a memoir of ancient manners, to conceive the various and strikingly marked aspect of the multitude that now fled to John in the desert. There stood the Pharisee, covered from head to heel with the emblems of his sanctity, the haughtiest and most scornful of men; but then, for once, divested of his spiritual influence, and asking, "What shall I dote be saved?" There stood the splendid and voluptuous scribe — the man of affected philosophy, for once feeling that he had a soul to be saved. There stood the grasping and the iron hand of the publican, the common tribute gatherer, laying his accumulated gains before the feet of the prophet, and bowing down to the dust. There stood the moldier, subdued and hardened by the barbarous habits of his life, until he became a merciless murderer, there he stood, flinging down his sword at the feet of the prophet, and imploring to be purified from blood by the waters of baptism. In the midst of these kneeling and humble thousands stood the prophet full of the Holy Ghost, in utter defiance of human power, undaunted by the voice of human authority, and undismayed by the barbarism of the multitude, tendering to all alike the words of judgment: "Ye men of sin, ye splendid voluptuaries, who now cry out for mercy, show not by your words but by your deeds that you have abjured sin; and you, ye haughty despisers of all men's virtue, be ye holy. Ye jealous and persecuting Pharisees, cast off your self-righteous praises, rend the heart and not the garment, be humble, contrite, and holy."
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man left to himself will go to the devil. If he turns away from his sin, it is because of some outside pressure. The attraction of gravitation is seen in souls as well as in all material things. They fall by their own weight. If you see them going upwards, you may be sure that a strong hand or a strong wind has been under them to start them in that direction. Sinners need to be warned of their danger. The responsibility is on us to warn others, and to heed the warnings which come to us. Who has warned you? Whom have you warned?
Waldus, a rich merchant in Lyons, seeing one drop down dead in the streets, went home, and repented, changed his fife, and became a preacher, and was the father and founder of the people called Waldenses. 'Tis good to take warning by others' harms, and by the sight of their death, to look after our own life.
As the mother bird shrieks when the hawk is in the sky, that her young ones may hide themselves under her wings, so God, the Father of men, utters His voice of warning against sinners, that they may rush to His mercy's protection, before the devouring lion of hell overtake them in destruction.
Nor is it difficult to account for this widespread and profound agitation. In the first place, the people were chafing under the yoke of pagan Rome. Remembering that they were Jehovah's covenant-people, their yearning for deliverance naturally took on a religious form. Again, there was at this time among the Jews, and perhaps throughout the East, the expectation, more or less distinct, of one who was to be a heaven-sent deliverer. Hearing of the sanctity of Judea's hermit, how natural that the Jews, weary of bondage and shame, should flock to John in the hope that he was the promised one. Again, there is in asceticism something which is fascinating. It betokens an exceptional, earnest, character; and men are ever moved by the exceptional, especially when it takes the form of terrible moral earnestness. And John was a terribly earnest ascetic. And therefore all Israel flocked to his preaching, feeling the thrall of his magnetism, even as idolatrous Israel centuries before had swayed under stormy Elijah, and as voluptuous Italy centuries afterward bowed before stern Savonarola, and frivolous France centuries still later grew solemn before saintly Lacordaire. Once more, John's message was a message of terror. No soothing words were his, no soporific platitudes. So it was in Assyria when heathen Nineveh robed herself in sackcloth before the denunciation of Hebrew Jonah. So it was in France when awakened Europe wept and groaned before the Tartarean oratory of St. Bernard. So it was in New England when Northampton church-member and and Stockbridge Indian quailed and wailed before the wrathful eloquence of Edwards. How, then, came such persons to the Jordan to listen to the wrathful eloquence of the stern apostle of repentance? Ah, there are times when the proudest, most worldly of natures are stirred to their very depths. There are times when even the Pharisee finds that his rubric is too narrow and icy, and that he has been living a hollow life. There are times when even the Sadducee feels his moral nature asserting itself at cost of every barrier of unbelief and moral petrifaction. There are times when conscience speaks louder than will or passion. Thus did the desert-preacher rightly divide the word of truth, giving to each his appropriate share, not demanding of the publican repentance for the Pharisee's self-righteousness, nor of the Sadducee penitence for the soldier's crime. In this respect, at least, John of the desert was a model preacher. Would God, all the ministers of His word were as faithful!
Fra Rocco, a Dominican, preached a celebrated penitential sermon on one occasion; when all the audience were in terror and fell on their knees, showing every sign of contrition. Then he cried, "All who are truly penitent, hold up your hands!" Every man in the vast multitude held up his hand. Then he said, "Holy Archangel Michael, thou who standest with adamantine sword at the judgment-seat of God, cut me off every hand which has been held up hypocritically." Every hand dropped.
It is related of John Wesley that, preaching to an audience of courtiers and noblemen, he used the "generation of vipers" text, and flung denunciation right and left. "That sermon should have been preached at Newgate," said a displeased courtier to Wesley on passing out. "No," said the fearless apostle; "my text there would have been, 'Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world!'"
"Many have puzzled themselves," says John Newton, " about the origin of evil. I am content to observe that there is evil, and that there is a way of escape from it; and with that I begin and end." One of the most exquisite mechanisms of torture devised, by the Hohenstaufen family, during the height of their despotic control, was a cell which gradually shrunk in upon itself, the walls day by day contracting, till the prisoner was finally crushed in the pressure of their embrace. For a day or so he would perceive no alteration — at first he would doubt the evidence of his senses; but at last the fearful truth would burst upon him that day after day the dimensions of his cell became smaller, and that in its slow but certain contraction he would, if he remained, be finally destroyed. Suppose that a door opened to him, and a voice said: "Escape for your life — now is the time. To-morrow will be too late." Is it likely he would sit down and say, "I do not understand the principle of this complex piece of mechanism. I prefer investigating it, and will stay behind for the purpose"? And yet what does the man around whose heart sin is gradually winding itself closer and closer do but this when he rejects Christ's gospel? Human reason alone tells him that a heart swathed in the bandages of wrath, or pleasure, or passion, can never, until released, be fit for the peace and love of heaven. Experience tells him that the terrible thraldom is every day becoming closer and closer, so that soon he must be crushed in its folds. The gospel tells him, escape for thy life! And why, oh, reader, when thy only thought should be about such escape, wilt thou sit down and speculate upon the causes of thy imprisonment? — causes unto which, when thus confined, thou canst never penetrate. Fly through the open door, and in the omniscience of the next world thou wilt know why sin was permitted for time. Take heed lest, by remaining where thou art, thou findest that for the impenitent sin is the portion for eternity.
The energy of the manner of the late Rowland Hill and the power of his voice are said to have been at times overwhelming. While once preaching at Wotton-under-Edge, his country residence, he was carried away by the impetuous rush of his feelings, and raising himself to his full stature, be exclaimed, "Beware, I am in earnest; men call me an enthusiast, but I am not: mine are words of truth and soberness. When I first came into this part of the country, I was walking on yonder hill; I saw a gravel-pit fall in, and bury three human beings alive. I lifted up my voice for help, so loud, that I was heard in the town below, a distance of a mile: help came and rescued two of the poor sufferers. No one called me an enthusiast then — and when I see eternal destruction ready to fall upon poor sinners, and about to entomb them irrecoverably in an eternal mass of woe, and call on them to escape by repenting and fleeing to Christ, shall I be called an enthusiast? No, sinner, I am not an enthusiast in so doing."
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