The Herald Of Christ
( Originally Published 1895 )
"There was a man sent from God whose name was John." —John i. 6.
JOHN THE BAPTIST IS one of the most interesting characters in the story of mankind. More is told us about his birth and babyhood than concerning almost any other character in the Bible. And after that we know nothing at all until we find him a full-grown man coming out of the desert, preaching in the wilderness, not coming to the towns and cities to find a crowd, but drawing the eager multitudes away from the cities into the desert, by the force of his ideas, the power of his eloquence, and, above all, the spirit of Almighty God upon him, which made those who listened to him believe that he was a messenger from heaven. It would be hard to find anywhere a more striking picture than we have given us in the scripture narrative concerning the ministry of John the Baptist. The desert, the wilderness, his rough camel's-hair raiment, his food of locusts and wild honey, his utter recklessness of personal risk, the atmosphere of intense reality that surrounds him, the perfect genuineness of the man, making him speak to the very last letter the message that God had given him, whether it be to the unthinking crowd of peasants, the rude soldiery, the formal Sadducees, the hypocritical Pharisees, or the guilty Herod on his throne,—all these are characteristics full of the most intense interest. And then in connection with this independence of character his faithful obedience in making way for the coming of Christ, his utter abasement of himself and his pretensions in the presence of Jesus, show him to have been a man of most remarkable spiritual insight and of the noblest character. Indeed no one who studies carefully the story of John the Baptist can refrain from acquiescing in the declaration of Christ that "among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist."
There are some characteristics of the ministry of John which I wish to study with you. The most notable perhaps is its positive character. It was this to which Christ called special attention in a public address to a crowd of people who had listened to his conversation with John's disciples, who had come to see Jesus with a question of their master who was then shut up in prison. After they had gone away with that wonderful answer of Christ as to his Messiahship, " Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see : the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them," he turned to the crowd that thronged about him now, but that only a short time before had gone out into the wilderness of Judea to hear John, and said, " What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind?" Notice the irony of our Lord's question. "What went ye out into the wilderness to see?" that is, "ye took long journeys, ye were at great pains to see John, ye left your homes and went out into the wilderness—for what? to see some frail reed shaken by the wind? to see some weak trimmer to the popular breeze?" The irony of the question is its own sufficient answer. It is as if the Lord had said, "John the Baptist was no reed shaken by the wind, and you went out not expecting to find him such, for if you had so règarded him you would not have gone out to see him."
It is altogether a mistake to suppose that the world is unwilling to hear an intensely earnest and positive religious discussion. There will more people go to hear that than any other kind of discussion whatever. For, after all, the only one thing in which all mankind is interested is the great question of the salvation of the soul. There is that deep down in every heart which leaps up into restless activity in the presence of any special manifestation of religious power. This is at least a latent force of the soul of every man and woman in the world. It is not lost through any lack of cultivation and it does not disappear under any degree of education. And let any special religious manifestation aroused by a positive presentation of the divine message take place, and all classes fly with curious anxiety to behold it. Infidels and skeptics, Pharisees or hypocrites, it matters not, all men fly to behold this phenomenon that at least promises hope for the soul.
After Catherine Booth had been for a while in Paris organizing the Salvation Army among the poor, she hired a fashionable ball-room not far from the grand opera and went there to preach the gospel in the simple, plain, straightforward way that has given the Salvation Army its mighty power. All Paris was stirred. The boulevard without was blocked with carriages bringing ladies dressed as for the opera. Gentlemen in evening dress, gold eyeglasses, glittering diamonds, and all the other necessaries that go to make up a society fop in Paris, accompanied by the jewelled women, painted and powdered and dressed up to the latest fashion, crowded every available seat.
When the Salvationists appeared upon the plat-form opera-glasses came into great requisition, and laughing comments came from all sides. But when Miss Booth knelt to pray silently for a few minutes, in perfect wonder the audience rose and gazed at her. " Is she sick?" asked one lady, and when answered, " She is -praying to God," there were exclamations of wonder at the regardlessness of dress that made her willing to kneel down in the dust. Her subject was, " Has God left Paris?" At first as she spoke, upon the faces of the audience would be a look of amused wonder, fans would be fluttered, glasses in use, and that false simpering smile that is put on like a mask in society, would hide the real heart feelings. But after a while, as the power of God could be felt through the straight yet tender words of the speaker, they would for once forget themselves and be lost in the subject; fans would be folded, glasses forgotten, and the mask would drop, leaving on those faces a look of weary longing, showing that the heart beneath had not been quite deadened by the false joy and empty folly of the Paris world. Some of the ladies, who had not come prepared to weep, were, however, unable to keep back their tears, which washed away the rouge, and as they wiped away the tears they wiped the paint with them, making their handkerchiefs red and their faces pale.
And this plain, simple, straightforward, positive message of man's sin and God's willingness to save through Jesus Christ, had the same effect among the poor in that wicked city of Paris. Mrs. Ballington Booth tells of the first convert Catherine Booth made in a miserable little hall in the poorest part of Paris. She made her way to the back of the hall one evening and sat down be-side -a poor, dissolute working-woman. She put her arms around her and asked if she did not want Jesus as her friend and Savior. And when there was no answer her heart broke, and she looked into the poor woman's face and exclaimed, while her arms were still about her neck, " I love you," while her tears fell upon the hard-worked hands. That melted the heart which no amount of preaching would have broken, and before that night was over the woman had found salvation and peace in the blood of Jesus.
Depend upon it, the same message backed by the Holy Spirit when given by us will have the same effect. I pray God for the spirit of John the Baptist, for the spirit of Catherine Booth, that shall make this gospel message real to us, and give us the courage and faith and love to carry it to the people who are within our reach in these days.
During the ministry of John, which was at-tended by great multitudes, there were some classes whose excitement very much astonished the bold preacher. He was not astonished when the publicans came to him, but when he saw multitudes of Pharisees and Sadducees coming, he exclaimed in wonder, " Ye generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" The Pharisees were mere formalists. They were very strict in fulfilling the letter of the law, but they did not have its spirit. They were selfish and hard-hearted. They would argue a question of tithes as though it were a question of life and death, but they had no mercy for a broken heart and were ready to stone a hungry man who rubbed an ear of grain between his fingers on the Sabbath day. As Frederick W. Robertson says, "They had shrunk away from all goodness and nobleness, and withered into the mummy of a soul." May God have mercy on the religious mummies that are stored up in our churches. If there are any religious mummies in this church, I pray God that his Spirit may arouse them to life.
The Sadducees were materialists. They were the reaction from the Pharisees, just as in a later day such men as Voltaire were a reaction from the Romanism of their time. They saw through the hollow formalities and miserable sham of pharisaism, but they did not see deep enough to behold that these were only counterfeits of the real coin of spiritual possibility. Because they saw that some men were hypocrites and frauds about religion, they blindly said that all is a sham. " There is no life to come—there is neither angel nor spirit. And this glorious thing called man, with his deep thoughts and his great, unsatisfied heart, his sorrows and his loves, godlike and immortal as he seems, is but dust animated for a time, passing into the nothingness out of which he came." That was the creed of the Sadducees, as it is of such men as Ingersoll to-day, who try to feed their hungry souls on dry husks. And what astonished John was that these antagonistic classes, one wedded to its formalism, the other denying every-thing, both crowded around this stern prophet of the wilderness, each seeking to know how "to flee from the wrath to come." The truth is, as Frederick Robertson has well said, no self-righteous formalism or morality will ever satisfy the conscience of man, neither will infidelity give rest to the troubled spirit. It is a great lesson, if we will only study it thoughtfully and earnestly, to watch these two classes going together to John's baptism. Evidently the heart of man, which the moralist tells us is so pure and excellent, will not stand the light of day. The fact is, it is not pure, but corrupted and polluted and restless. If not, what has the Pharisee to do with the symbol of a new life which he goes to John to find. Neither is the clear, unbiased decision of the intellect, of which the materialist has boasted, a satisfactory trust. In the light of day he beholds his intellect warped by an evil life, his heart restless and dark and desolate. If not, why does the Sadducee beside the Jordan tremble like a man with the palsy before John's heart-searching message?
The secret of it all is that neither of them are satisfied. There is a something which both Pharisee and Sadducee want, and they come to see if John can give it to them. How powerfully they must have been aroused and convicted of their sins before they could bring themselves to make this open confession of the hollow mockery of their trust. One can almost imagine himself standing at the water's edge and hearing the confession which is wrung from their poor quivering lips as the hot tears course down their cheeks and their voices are choked with sobs, during that solemn hour when the conviction is forced home upon them that they are poor, lost, condemned sinners before God. " It is a lie." We hear them say : We are not happy, we are miserable and despairing. O prophet of the invisible, tell us, if you can, about that awful other world toward which we hasten. Tell us, if you can, how we may find forgiveness for our sins, how we may make our peace with God."
My brother, that picture is not overdrawn; it is easy enough in the midst of health and strength and a thousand blessings and pleasures given you of God, but for which you have never thanked him, to draw the coat of your self-righteousness about you and quiet your fears. But when you shall come to front the everlasting God, and look the splendor of his judgments in the face, your self-righteousness will shrivel into tatters of filthy rags, such as Jesus describes in the book of Rev-elation. Oh, believe me, no skepticism, how-ever logical its philosophy may seem to you, will soothe your conscience or rock it to rest with an everlasting lullaby. No agnosticism or worldliness can soothe the undying worm, nor quench the in-ward fire that smolders in the restless soul. Only through faith in Christ, the manifested love of God, can the soul find peace.
In conclusion, there are three or four characteristics of the ministry of John the Baptist which are of peculiar interest to us this evening, because they illustrate our own duty at this moment. John was said to be a voice crying in the wilderness. He was a voice of protest against the sins of his time. He was a voice loud and clear, unequivocal, attracting the attention of men not to himself so much as to their own sins and the coming of Christ, the Savior. We too are to be voices crying in the wilderness. We are not to be partakers of other men's sins by remaining silent in the presence of iniquity, and we are to attract attention in every possible way to Christ, the Savior of sinners.
Again, John was a witness. He came to be a witness for the Lord Jesus Christ. And we are assured by Christ himself that he expects all his disciples to be witnesses for him. " Ye are my witnesses," says the Savior. How often we hear the phrase, " the cause of Christ." That is a legal phrase. When you utter it or hear it thoughtfully, a court room presents itself before your imagination, the judge sits on the bench, the jury are in their places, the lawyers are there to plead, but if it is an honest court, the issue depends more upon the witnesses than anybody else. Now the Lord Jesus Christ has a cause which is being tried in this world. He is plaintiff in the suit which has been pending for nearly nineteen hundred years, and though it has been settled by millions of people in that time, it is still pending for millions more. He claims the race of mankind as his, because he redeemed it by his own blood. He claims all human hearts as his, because he died for them. Ministers of the gospel are only attorneys to prosecute his claim. I am here to-night not to present my own claim but the claim of my Master. And every Christian, old or young, is subpenaed as a witness in the cause of Christ. And we must testify whether we wish to or not. We are bearing witness one way or the other even while we are silent. We are in court all the time. The jury is watching us. The stenographers are taking down our evidence. The Savior is looking and listening, and a great record is being kept in heaven. O my brother, what kind of evidence are you giving for the Lord Jesus? How important it is that every one of us, not only with our lips but by our daily living, shall bear witness to the truth of God's word. He says that "being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." Are we so living that we have that peace? Is that loving and grateful acceptance of Christ the end with us of all worry and trouble? Are we going about from day to day "rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation"? If not, we are false witnesses and do not sustain the cause of our Lord. Again he says, "My grace is sufficient for thee." If this is true, then in poverty and loss of health and grief we should be able to look up into the face of our Heavenly Father and say with cheerfulness, " Thy will be done." Let us bring it close home to our hearts on this last night of \the old year, and ask ourselves what kind of witnesses for Christ we have been this past year.
Then again, John came to prepare the way of the Lord, to make ready for the coming of Jesus Christ. John C. Fremont was called the great pathfinder, because he found a way over the Rocky Mountains and the Sierras into California, which was followed by the long wagon trains that came after him. John the Baptist was a pathfinder for Christ. Fremont only found the way over the mountains and around the rugged places. John was a representative of those who are to pull down the hills and build up the valleys and make a high-way for the coming of the King. Does not this illustrate our duty at this very moment in relation to Christ? We are to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus into this community. If there is a person in our family who is not converted, then we are to seek in every way we can to open up a path for Christ into that heart. If there is a non-Christian family living on the block with us or about whom we know, then we must seek to invent some method by which we may build a path into that family for the Savior. We must use our friendships, our business relations, and all the associations we have with our fellow-men as so many suspension bridges over which Jesus Christ may walk into their hearts and lives. What nobler, grander work can any man do than that? What a glorious thing it is to go about among men in this world, making friends, living in the spirit of kindness and love, in an atmosphere of such grace and Christly sympathy and brotherhood that we win men's hearts, and when we have won them introduce them to the Savior, who has made it possible for us to have this gracious and kindly spirit! What intense interest such a purpose adds to all human associations ! Friendship, already glorious, becomes divine when it means not only the bond between two human souls, but the bringing of the friend also into fellowship with the Lord Jesus. Human love, the most glorious thing there is on earth, becomes more divine and precious than anything merely earthly when it is a golden chain that leads the loved one to Christ.