St Luke iii.2, 3, 7, 9-14. "The Word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness. And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. . . . Then said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance. . . . And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire. And the people asked him saying, What shall we do then? He answereth and saith unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise. Then came also publicans to be baptized unto them, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do? And he said, Exact no more than that which is appointed you. And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely, and be content with your wages."
This is St John Baptist's day. Let me say a very few words -- where many might be said -- about one of the noblest personages who ever has appeared on this earth.
Our blessed Lord said, "Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist, notwithstanding, he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he." These are serious words; for which of us dare to say that we are greater than John the Baptist?
But let us at least think a while what John the Baptist was like. So we shall gain at least the sight of an ideal man. It is not the highest ideal. Our Lord tells us that plainly; and we, as Christians, should know that it is not. The ideal man is our Lord Christ Himself, and none other. Still, he that has not mounted the lower step of the heavenly stair, has certainly not mounted the higher; and therefore, if we have not attained to the likeness of John the Baptist, still more, we have not attained to the likeness of Christ. What, then, was John the Baptist like? What picture of him and his character can we form to ourselves in our own imaginations? for that is all we have to picture him by -- helped -- always remember that -- by the Holy Spirit of God, who helps the imagination, the poetic and dramatic faculty of men; just as much as He helps the logical and argumentative faculty to see things and men as they really are, by the spirit of love, which also is the spirit of true understanding.
How, then, 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 raiment, 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 awaken his sleeping Lord and God. But such imaginations, beautiful as they are, and true in a heavenly and spiritual sense, which therefore is true eternally for you, and me, and all mankind, are not historic fact. For St John the Baptist said himself, "and I knew him not."
He may have been, we must almost say, he must have been, brought up with or near our Lord. He may have seen in Him such a child (we must believe that), as he never saw before. He knew Him at least to be a princely child, of David's royal line. But he was not conscious of who and what He was, till the mysterious inner voice, of whom he gives only the darkest hints, said to him, "Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, the same is He which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. And I saw and bare record that this is the Son of God." But what manner of man was St John the Baptist in the meantime? Painters have tried their hands at drawing him, and we thank them. Pictures, says St Augustine, are the books of the unlearned. And, my friends, when great painters paint, they are the books of the too-learned likewise. They bring us back, bring us home, by one glance at a human face, a human figure, a human scene of action, out of our philosophies, and criticisms, and doctrines, which narrow our hearts, without widening our heads, to the deeper facts of humanity, and therefore to the deeper facts of theology likewise. But what picture of St John the Baptist shall we choose whereby to represent him to ourselves, as the forerunner of the incarnate God?
The best which I can recollect is the great picture by Guido -- ah, that he had painted always as wisely and as well -- 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 round him, the clear sky is over him, and nothing more. He, the gentleman born, the clergyman born -- for you must recollect who and what St John the Baptist was, and that he was neither democrat nor vulgar demagogue, nor flatterer of ignorant mobs, but a man of an ancestry as ancient and illustrious as it was civilised, and bound by long ties of duty, of patriotism, of religion, and of the temple worship of God: -- he, the noble and the priest, has thrown off -- not in discontent and desperation, but in hope and awe -- all his family privileges, all that seems to make life worth having; and there aloft and in the mountains, alone with nature and with God, feeding on locusts and wild honey and whatsoever God shall send, and clothed in skins, he, like Elijah of old, renews not merely the habits, but the spirit and power of Elijah, and preaches to a generation sunk in covetousness and 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 old sense of the 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 then master of the land. But God, not the Roman Caesar merely, was laying the axe. And He was a good God, who only wanted goodness, which He would preserve; not badness, which He would destroy. Therefore men must not merely repent and do penance, they must bring forth fruits meet for penance; do right instead of doing wrong, lest they be found barren trees, and be cut down, and cast into that everlasting fire of God, which, thanks be to His Holy name, burns for ever -- unquenchable by all men's politics, and systems, and political or other economies, to destroy out of God's Kingdom all that offendeth and whatsoever loveth and maketh a lie -- oppressors, quacks, cheats, hypocrites, and the rest.
The people -- the farming class -- came to him with "What shall we do?" The young priest and nobleman, in his garment of camel's hair, has nothing but plain morality for them. "He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise." The publicans, the renegades, who were farming the taxes of the Roman conquerors, 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 than that which is appointed you. The soldiers, poor fellows, come 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 it as well as you can. Do no violence to any man, neither accuse any man falsely, and be content with your wages.
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, come 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 exclusives, 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?"
At last his preaching of common morality is put to the highest test. The king -- the tyrant as we should call him -- the Herod of the day, an usurper, neither a son of David, nor a king chosen by the people, tries to patronize him. The old spirit of his forefather Aaron, of his forefather Phineas, the spirit of Levi, which (rightly understood), is the Spirit of God, flashes up in the young priestly prophet, in the old form of common morality. "It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife." We know the rest; how, at the request of Herodias' daughter, Herod sent and beheaded John in prison, and how she took his head in a charger and brought it to her mother. Great painters have shown us again and again the last act -- outwardly hideous, but really beautiful -- of St John's heroic drama, in a picture of the lovely dancing girl with the prophet's head in a charger -- a dreadful picture; and yet one which needed to be painted, for it was a terrible fact, and is still, and will be till this wicked world's end, a matter for pity and tears rather than for indignation. The most perfect representations, certainly the most tragical I know of it, are those which are remarkable, not for their expression, but for their want of expression -- the young girl in brocade and jewels, with the gory head in her hands, thinking of nothing out of those wide vacant foolish eyes, save the triumph of self-satisfied vanity; for the spite and revenge is not in her, but in her wicked mother. She is just the very creature, who, if she had been better trained, and taught what John the Baptist really was, might have reverenced him, worshipped him, and ministered unto him. Alas! alas! how do the follies of poor humanity repeat themselves in every age. The butterfly has killed the lion, without after all meaning much harm. Ah, that such human butterflies would take warning by the fate of Herodias' daughter, and see how mere vanity will lead, if indulged too long and too freely, to awful crime.
One knows the old stories, -- how Herod, and Herodias, and the vain foolish girl fell into disgrace with the Emperor, and were banished into Provence, and died in want and misery. One knows too the old legends, how Herodias' daughter reappears in South Europe -- even in old German legends -- as the witch-goddess, fair and ruinous, sweeping for ever through wood and wold at night with her troop of fiends, tempting the traveller to dance with them till he dies; a name for ever accursed through its own vanity rather than its own deliberate sin, from which may God preserve us all, men as well as women. So two women, one wicked and one vain, did all they could to destroy one of the noblest human beings who ever walked this earth. And what did they do? They did not prevent his being the forerunner and prophet of the incarnate Son of God. They did not prevent his being the master and teacher of the blessed Apostle St John, who was his spiritual son and heir. They did not prevent his teaching all men and women, to whom God gives grace to understand him, that the true repentance, the true conversion, the true deliverance from the wrath to come, the true entrance into the kingdom of heaven, the true way to Christ and to God, is common morality.
And now let us bless God's holy name for all His servants departed in His faith and fear, and especially for His servant St John the Baptist, beseeching Him to give us grace, so to follow his doctrine and holy life, that we may truly repent after his preaching and after his example. May the Lord forgive our exceeding cowardice, and help us constantly to speak the truth, boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth's sake; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.