Intended for Reading on Lord's-Day, March 17th, 1895,
C. H. SPURGEON,
At the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington
On Lord's-day Evening, March 13th, 1887.
"To make ready a people prepared for the Lord."?Luke 1:17.
John was the herald of Christ; he was to prepare the way for the coming King, but from this text it appears that he was to do more than that. He was not only to make the road ready for the Lord, but he was also "to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." That was a great work, a task in which he would require strength and wisdom greater than his own. He would need that the Spirit of God, who was to be given without measure to the coming One, should also be in a measure within himself, if he should really "make ready a people prepared for the Lord."
This is not at all a usual expression; at first sight, it hardly looks to us like a gospel expression. We sang just now,?
"Just as I am?and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot,
To thee, whose blood can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come."
We sang over and over again those words, "Just as I am," "Just as I am," and we are prone to protest against the idea of being prepared for Christ; we preach constantly that no preparation is needed, but that men are to come to Jesus just as they are. Yet here is John the Baptist set apart "to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."
The fact is, dear friends, that to get men to come to Jesus just as they are, is not an easy thing. To get them to give up the idea of preparing, to get them prepared to come without preparing, to get them ready to come just as they are, this is the hardest part of our work, this is our greatest difficulty. If we came and preached to men the necessity of preparation through so many weeks of fasting during a long Lent, or through so many days of scourging and penitence, they would attend to us at once, for they would be willing enough to make any preparation of that kind; but, when we say to them, "Come just as you are now, with nothing in your hand to buy the mercy of God, with nothing wherewith to demand or to deserve it," men want a great deal of preparing before they will come to that point. Only the grace of God, working mightily through the Word, by the Spirit, will prepare men to come to Christ thus, prepared by being unprepared so far as any fitness of their own is concerned. The only fit state in which they can come is that of sinking themselves, abandoning all idea of helping Christ, and coming in all their natural impotence and guilt, and taking Christ to be their all in all.
Beloved friends, this is the true preparedness of heart for coming to Christ, the preparedness of coming to him just as you are; and it was John's busines thus "to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." That is also my business at this time. May the good Spirit, who dwelt in John the Baptist, work through us also, that some here may be made ready for Christ, "a people prepared for the Lord"! Let us see how John carried out his commission; we shall then be able better to understand the text.
I. First, John made ready "a people prepared for the Lord" BY AROUSING THEIR ATTENTION. The people were asleep; they had fallen into a condition of religious lethargy, when suddenly there stood in their midst a man clothed with camel's hair, and with a leathern girdle about his loins,?a prophet, manifestly, by the boldness and truthfulness of his utterances. He spoke in such a way that the people in general heard of his speaking, and they advertised him by saying the one to the other, "That is a strange man who has begun to preach by the River Jordan, and whose meat is locusts and wild honey."
The whole style of the man set the people wondering and talking; and when they came to listen to him, he did not flatter them, he did not utter mere commonplace truths to them, but with burning earnestness he drove straight at their hearts, and spoke like Elijah, the great prophet of fire, had done in the ages gone by. So he set them thinking. That is a great preparation for coming to Christ just as you are, to be set a-thinking. We have always hope of men when they once begin to think about religion and the things of God. See how the bulk of them hurry on with their eyes tightly shut, rushing fast and yet faster still down to destruction. You cannot make them stop and think. There are thousands of men who would almost sooner be whipped than be made to think. The last thing to which they will ever come of themselves is thoughtfulness. Let me appeal to some here who are still unconverted. Did you ever give the affairs of your soul the benefit of an hour's serious consideration? You have your regular time for stock-taking, those of you who are in business; do you ever take stock of your spiritual estate? I know that you are not such fools as to neglect your ledgers, you cast up your accounts to see whereabouts you are financially; but do you cast up the account between God and your own soul, and look the matter fairly, and squarely in the face? Oh, if we could but bring you to do this, we should feel that you were being prepared for coming to Christ just as you are, for no man will come to Christ while he is utterly careless and thoughtless! Faith is a matter of thought; it requires a mind aroused from slumber, a mind that has taken wing; and John the Baptist did good service for his Master when he startled men into that condition, and so made them consider their ways.
He did more than that, for, having first made them think, he preached to them a Saviour. He told them that One was coming with power to baptize them after a higher sort than his baptism. He cried, "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world," and this message infused into the people a measure of hope. The poor people said, "What shall we do?" for they had a hope that there was something to be gained. Even the tax-gatherers, despised as they were, began to look up, and think that there might be something even for them, so they said to John, "Master, what shall we do?" And the rough Roman soldiers thought, "There may be something for us," so they also asked, "And what shall we do?" John inspired the multitudes with hope.
It is a very blessed state of mind for a man to get in when he begins to hope that he may be saved. Then he will be prepared to come to Jesus, just as he is, when he feels that he is not shut up to despair. "Oh!" says the poor man, "I need not, after all, be lost; I need not abide for ever under the wrath of God. There is an open door set before me, there is a way of mercy even for me." I wish it were possible that everybody whom I am now addressing had that feeling; it would be part of the making ready of "a people prepared for the Lord" when thought had blossomed into hope.
But John led his hearers on further than that, for they began to expect something as well as to hope for it. They expected that the Christ would speedily come, and they expected some great blessings through the coming of the Messiah. And oh! when men, after hearing the gospel, have great expectations concerning God and his salvation, surely their expectations will not be long disappointed. I remember a man coming one day to see me, and he said that he wished to take a sitting in the Tabernacle. He had been hearing me for some time, and he wanted to take a seat; but he desired to be very honest with me, and not to take a seat except upon a right understanding. I asked, "What is the difficulty, my friend?" "Well," he replied, "the person who sat next to me on Sunday told me that, if I became a regular hearer here, you would expect me to be converted." "Well," I answered, "that is true, I shall expect it." "But," said he, "you do not mean that you will require it of me." "Oh, dear no! "I replied, "nothing of the sort; I do not expect you to convert yourself; but I hope and trust that you will be converted, that is what I mean. I shall expect that God, in his grace, will meet with you and save you." " Oh!" he said, "I hope that, too; only I mean that I could not guarantee it." "Ah!" I said, "I see that you have taken the word 'expect' in the wrong sense; but I think, dear friend, that if you come expecting to be converted, and I preach expecting that you will be converted, it is highly probable that it will soon take place." "Oh!" he exclaimed, "God grant it!" The good brother has long since gone to heaven. A very few weeks after our conversation, he came and told me that the expectation in which we had united had been fulfilled, and he trusted that he had found the Saviour. When people come really expecting a blessing, they will be sure to get it. I do believe that some folk go to hear ministers with the idea that there will be something to find fault with, and, of course, they find that it is so; and when people come to hear another preacher, with the hope and expectation that God will bless them, of course God does bless them. Their expectation is divinely fulfilled. I have always a bright hope that a man will lay hold on Christ when he begins to expect to be saved, for he feels then that the time has come for him to find eternal life. John made ready "a people prepared for the Lord" because, first, he led them to thought; next, he led them to hope; and then he led them to expectation, and this is a high measure of preparation.
John did more than this, for he cried, "Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand," that is to say, he put a pressure of presentness upon the people. A brother, who is an eminent preacher, but who uses rather long words, was explaining to me the benefit of the preaching of Mr. Fullerton and Mr. Smith in his place of worship. He said, "I do not know exactly why these brethren were the means of the conversion of many in my place whom I had never reached, but I perceived that they had the power to precipitate decision." It sounded rather strange, but when I thought it over a little while, I rather liked the expression, "the power to precipitate decision." That is the power that leads men to make up their minds, and say "Yes," or "No," to feel that the decision has to be made at once, and that the putting of it off is impossible because it would be a kind of insanity. Now that is the meaning of what John said, "The kingdom of heaven is at hand! Repent ye! He is coming who wields the axe of divine Justice; bear fruit, or else be cut down. He is coming who uses the great winnowing fan; be the true wheat, or else be blown away." He put the truth so pointedly, and so earnestly, that he did by that means make ready "a people prepared for the Lord."
II. Now, secondly, John made the people ready for Christ BY AWAKENING THEIR CONSCIENCES.
His very first utterance, as I have reminded you, was, "Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." "Repent! Repent ! Repent!" was John's continual cry. This awakened the consciences of his hearers concerning their sin. Preaching repentance meant, "You have sinned; change your mind in reference to that sin. You have sinned; quit the sin, mourn over it, ask forgiveness for it. Repent ye!" Whenever a man brings to the minds of others their sins, when he so does it that they begin to feel that they have sinned, then they are being prepared for the Lord, for no man will come to the Saviour unless he knows that he needs a Saviour; and no man will feel that he needs a Saviour until he feels that he is a sinner. Hence it is a real preparation of men for Christ to convince them of sin.
This John did; he brought their sin before them, and then he showed them their need of cleansing, for he stood by the River Jordan, not with a scallop shell, as some depict him, but he stood by the flowing stream, ready to immerse all those who repented. This was practically saying to them, "You need to be washed, you need to be cleansed; and I show you this truth as I baptize you with water unto repentance. Be this a token to you that there is no entering heaven in your filthiness, but you must first be washed. As your bodies are washed with pure water, so must your souls be washed and made clean ere you can enter heaven." This was John's plain teaching by his action as well as by his words.
Then he went very straight to his point of arousing their consciences by telling them of their need of a change of life. He said that it was no use for them to pretend to grieve over the past, and then continue to sin in the same fashion. "Bring forth fruits," said he, "meet for repentance," or, "answerable to amendment of life," as the margin has it. And he took pains to point out what the fruits must be. If they were men of greed, they must become generous, and give to their needy neighbours. If they had been unrighteous and exacting, they must become honest. If they had been domineering, and brutal, and murmuring, they must become contented, and quiet, and gentle.
He not only preached to the multitudes about repentance of sin in general, but he pointed out the precise sin of each class of persons that came to him, and urged them to perform the special duties which they had neglected. Now, brethren, I believe, as I have often said, that there is no sewing with silk thread alone; you must have a needle as well. You need a sharp needle to go first to draw the thread through the material; so you must preach the law, you must denounce sin, and you must individualize, and condemn special sins; and you must be personal, and pointed, or else men will not feel in their consciences what you say to them. Conscience is very apt to get seared as with a hot iron, to lose sensitiveness, so as to be no use at all as a conscience. Some say that conscience is a spark of deity, a divine monitor; it is nothing of the sort, in many a man it is almost extinct, for it does not act at all. The preacher who would "make ready a people prepared for the Lord" must come out with his axe, and lay it to the root of the trees; he must be definite and distinct in indicating this sin and that sin, and crying to all men, "Repent of these sins. Give them up. Get clear from them. Be washed from them; or else, as God lives, when the Christ himself comes, it will not be to save you, but to blow you away with his winnowing fan as the chaff is blown into the fire."
This is "to make ready a people prepared for the Lord" by their being convinced of sin and led to repentance. That, I think, is a second meaning clearly illustrated in the ministry of John the Baptist.
III. But thirdly, John had "to make ready a people prepared for the Lord" BY POINTING OUT THE NATURE OF TRUE RELIGION.
He showed that it did not depend upon external privileges. As soon as ever John began to preach, the men of Jewish race, proud of their pedigree, pressed near; and John, with all the courage that a servant of the Lord could have, said, "Begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham." You see the drift of his preaching, do you not? He says, practically, "Men and women, there is no virtue in your boasted privileges, there is no merit in your religious descent. As for supposing yourselves to be the peculiar people of God, you are not to be saved that way. Say not, We have Abraham to our father." Oh, how many hug that idea, "My father was a Christian." Others say, "Well, I live in a Christian country." They suppose that there is something in the very race from which they have sprung. Away with all such notions, for whatever external privileges you may have had, they are not sufficient to secure salvation for you.
Then came the Pharisees and the Sadducees; they were the religious people of the time, the great observers of all outward propriety, but John taught them that true religion is not the same as official pretension. He called them a "generation of vipers." This was very disrespectful, and very shocking indeed on his part; all the newspapers of the period, if there had been any, would have cried him down for his want of charity, but he wanted those who came to him to understand that true religion was not the same as professing to be religious. It was not making broad the borders of their garments, it was not wearing a text of Scripture as a phylactery between their eyes, it was not making long prayers at the corners of the streets, that would save them; there must be a thorough change of heart. So John spoke right straight out; and this, I believe, is a great way of preparing men for coming to Christ, when you tell them, "It is not your early training, it is not your going to church or chapel, it is not your infant sprinkling and your confirmation, it is not even your adult baptism, nor your saying prayers and reading the Bible, that will save you; but 'ye must be born again.' There must be an inward spiritual change, wrought by the Holy Spirit. You must believe in Jesus Christ, whom God has sent, and you must so believe in him as to be made new creatures in him, or else you cannot be saved." Now, when men realize that all this is true, it startles them out of their false refuges, and makes them ready to flee to the only true refuge, so that it is really the way of making ready "a people prepared for the Lord."
While John set forth this matter negatively, putting down all the wrong hopes of his hearers, he was exceedingly plain in telling them that the way of salvation would involve them in the necessity of being right before God. "There," said he, "the proof of a tree's life is its fruit, and the evidence of your new life will be your good works. 'Now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees; therefore, every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.'" Unless our religion makes us holy, it has not done anything for us that is really worth doing. Unless we hate sin, and love righteousness, our religion is a sham and a lie. John stated that truth very plainly; and that is the way to drive men to Christ.
He told them also that the trial of a life would be by its weight as well as by its fruit. "Look," said he, "at the heap that lies on the threshing-floor. He that hath the fan in his hand begins to winnow it; that which is light and chaffy is blown away, that which has wheat in it remains on the floor. So," said he, "there must be weight about your religion?stability, reality, sincerity. There must be heart-work in it, it must be no pretence; it must be true from beginning to end, or else it shall no more avail you than a heap of chaff would avail the husbandman when it is blown into the fire."
Then John taught his hearers that Christ himself would be the great Trier of human hearts; not ministers or fellow-professors, but, Christ himself. When men feel this to be true, then they begin to say to themselves, "There is more required than we at present possess. There is more demanded than we can ever manufacture of ourselves. Let us go to him that hath it, and ask him for it. Let us go to Christ, who hath grace to bestow upon the poor and needy."
This, then, is the way to make ready "a people prepared for the Lord," by pointing out to them the nature of true religion; that is what I have tried to do, dear hearer. When you know that you cannot save yourself, you sing?
"Not the labours of my hands
Can fulfil thy law's demands:
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears for ever flow,
All for sin could not atone:"
and then you are ready to finish the verse by singing?
"Thou must save, and thou alone."
IV. Now I shall close my discourse by noticing a fourth way in which John made ready "a people prepared for the Lord." He did it BY DECLARING THE GRACE AND POWER OF JESUS CHRIST.
My brethren, if I were to preach to you merely to arouse your attention, to awaken your consciences to a sense of sin, or simply to show you the nature of true religion, yet you would not be prepared for Christ unless also you knew something about him, something about his suitableness and his power to save you. So, John preached Jesus Christ as a mighty and glorious Saviour on whom the Spirit rested. He says that, when he baptized our Lord, as Jesus came up out of the water, "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him. And I knew him not: but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost." John boldly preached, and told the people that the Spirit of God rested upon Jesus Christ, yea, abode upon him. Now, this would lead them to him, and this should lead you to him. Whatever there is, poor souls, that you need to make you holy and perfect, Christ has it, for the Spirit of God rests on him, and abides in him without measure. It you want the grace of penitence, Christ has it to give you. If you want the grace of supplication, he has it to give you. If you want the grace of faith, he has it. If you want the grace of holiness, he has it. "It pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell," "and of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace." John taught this to his hearers, and I teach it to you. There is nothing wanted between hell-gate and heaven-gate but what is in Christ, nothing wanted for the biggest sinner out of hell to make him the biggest saint in heaven but what Christ has, nothing wanted in any hour of temptation, in any time of depression, nothing wanted in any moment of sickness, or in the article of death itself, but what it is in Christ, and there for you if you trust him. If you are willing to have it, it is freely presented to you. He who makes you willing to receive is certainly willing to give. If he has emptied you, and prepared you to receive of his fulness, do not think that he will refuse you when you come to him for it. He hath said, "Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out." Last Sunday morning, I blew the great trumpet in the hope of startling some to Christ; on this occasion, I would ring the little silver bell with a gentle noise in the hope that some may, by that means, be made willing to come to Christ. My hearer, thou canst want nothing which Christ does not possess; all thy requirements are fully met in him. The Spirit of God dwells in him as a fulness, and as an abiding fulness; therefore, do but believe in him, and even that faith he will give thee, do but trust him, and thou art saved, and fully supplied in him who can meet all the necessities of thy case. Now, brethren, John taught the people this, that they might be ready for Christ, "a people prepared for the Lord," for, when men begin to see what a Christ Christ is, what a Saviour the Saviour is, then they are ready to come to him; and I pray that many of you may so come to him even now.
John also told his hearers that the Christ whom he preached was able to baptise them with the Holy Ghost. "See," says he, "I only plunge you in the flowing stream, I can do nothing more for you than dip you in this River Jordan, on profession of your repentance of sin; but this Saviour, this Christ of God, can immerse you into the Spirit of God. He can give you of his power to fill you; you can be baptized into the Holy Ghost by him:" Dost thou hear this, sinner? Jesus Christ can come and give thee the Holy Spirit in such measure that thou shalt be baptized into him?
"Plunged in the Godhead's deepest sea,
And lost in his immensity."
This will make thee to be really his, and make thee truly to live unto him. The very fulness of grace, then, is with Christ, and he is prepared to give it; and this should make men prepared to receive it. Did not the poor prodigal son say of the provision in his father's house, "There is bread enough and to spare"? It was partly that which made him go to his father's house; and we may say of the Spirit who is in Christ, "There is enough and to spare for every poor sinner who comes to him;" therefore, come along with thee, be prepared at once to come and receive the Saviour.
Lastly, John said in his preaching, "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world." He pointed out Christ as the Sin-bearer, bearing human guilt in his own person. That is the master-key which lets men into the kingdom of heaven. Oh! how I do delight to preach Christ as the Substitute, Christ as the atoning sacrifice; and when you have heard Christ preached in that way, it makes you ready, "a people prepared for the Lord." How can men come to Christ if they do not know what Christ has done for them? If you do not understand that he suffered in your stead, the Just for the unjust, to bring you to God, how can you come to Christ? But when you have learned that holy and blessed doctrine of Christ's propitiation for human sin, why, then, methinks, you will leap at the very sound of it, and say, "Yes, I will take this propitiation to be a sacrifice for me. Blessed Lamb of God,?
"'My faith would lay her hand
On that dear head of thine,
While like a penitent I stand
And there confess my sin.'"
John's preaching Christ was the best way of making ready "a people prepared for the Lord," and there is no better way of preparing you to come to Jesus. Oh, that God would grant to some of you that "precipitation of decision" of which my learned friend spoke! Oh, that in some lives the turning-point might be reached to-night, the happy moment when they should decide for Christ! Lord, decide them! My friend, you have come to the cross-roads; peradventure, to-night, if you reject the Saviour, it will be your last rejection of him, and it will finally seal your doom; and I am sure, with no peradventure whatever, that if this night you look to Jesus, and trust to his finished work, you shall be saved, and saved for ever.
Here is a text for you: "Whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved." Is not that a wonderful "whosoever"? "Whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord" in believing prayer, asking mercy, trusting Christ for mercy, "shall be saved." "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved." "He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life." Most of you know these texts by heart; grip them as with hooks of steel. If you say that you are hungry, and I put a loaf of bread in front of you, will you sit and look at it all night? If I meet you in a week's time, will you still complain that you are hungry, while there is the bread in front of you still untouched? You deserve to be hungry if that is the case, you deserve to be famished to death if, the bread being there, you will not have it. Take it, and eat it. "May I have it?" asks one. Thou art commanded to have it; this is not a matter that is left to thy option. "The times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men everywhere to repent." Our Lord himself said, "Repent ye, and believe the gospel." It is, therefore, a gospel command that thou shouldest repent and believe, and truly thou mayest obey a command given by the Lord himself. There is no question about thy permission to obey it; then, obey it at once, and take Christ to thyself.
"You do not know me," says a sorrowing one away there in the corner, "you do not know me, sir; else you would not talk so." I do not need to know you; but if you were the devil's own, if you would but come to Christ, you should be at once and for ever Christ's own. Though thou wert sunk almost into hell by a life of horrible crime, yet if thou wilt now come and repent of thy sin, and lay hold on Christ, thou shalt be saved. I do not know how to use language that shall be stronger than that; but do not think that I will withdraw it, or qualify it. If I did know how to speak in broader terms even than those I have used, I would so speak. Ye guiltiest of the guilty, you most condemned of all the condemned, for whom the hottest hell would be your due place, yet come away, and look to Christ, and you shall live, for none are too vile for him to cleanse, none are too guilty for him to pardon. Oh, that you would believe in Jesus while yet the gospel bell rings out, "mercy, mercy, mercy!"! God help you to do so, for the Lord Jesus Christ's sake! Amen.
HYMNS FROM "OUR OWN HYMN BOOK"?546, 549, 419.
Luke 1:5-17, and 3:1-18
Chapter l. Verses 5, 6. There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia; and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.
You have here a very interesting couple, Zacharias and Elisabeth, a priest with a wife. I have often marvelled why the Church of Rome should think it wrong that priests should be married, when it is evident that the priests under the law were so. The priests had grown so numerous that there was not room for them all to work at the Temple at one time; they were divided into twenty-four courses, and Zacharias would, therefore, come up to Jerusalem for a fortnight to take his share of the service.
Zacharias and Elisabeth were notable for excellence of character: "They were both righteous before God." Not only did they stand high in the esteem of men, but the great God, who reads the hearts of all, and sees how they live in secret, reckoned them to be righteous: "They were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments"?that is, in the moral precepts of the law?"and ordinances"?that is, in the ceremonial rites?"of the Lord blameless."
7?9. And they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years. And it came to pass, that while he executed the priest's office before God in the order of his course, according to the custom of the priest's office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord.
Certain offices of the priest were considered to be more honourable than others; and so, to prevent any jealousy, they cast lots as to which they should take in turn. It fell to the lot of Zacharias to burn incense; this did not happen by chance. "The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord;" and there was a special reason why this good man should stand at the altar at this particular time.
10. And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense.
While he, in the inner shrine, was burning incense, the multitudes in the outer courts were engaging in prayer. I think that is a very beautiful symbol,?the priest unseen, like the Lord Jesus Christ in the Holy of Holies above, and the mass of the people engaged in prayer while the unseen priest is offering the sacred perfume before the altar of Jehovah.
11, 12. And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him.
He was a good man, yet he was troubled at the sight of an angel. Consciousness of sin, even in an outwardly blameless man, makes us all tremble in the presence of anything heavenly. This bright spirit had come fresh from the courts of God; he was a courtier of the heavenly Temple, and he had come down on a sudden with a sweet and cheering message for the earthly priest; but the priest was troubled, and fear fell upon him." Brethren, we cannot know much of heaven here below, because it would cause us trembling; we are as yet unfit for all the glories of that upper state. Good John Berridge wrote,?
"And now they range the heavenly plains,
And sing their hymns in melting strains;
And now their souls begin to prove
The heights and depths of Jesus' love.
"Ah! Lord, with tardy steps I creep,
And sometimes sing, and sometimes weep;
Yet strip me of this house of clay,
And I will sing as loud as they."
Yes, and so will we; we will be as much at home as the happy saints, who dwell in light, when once we are delivered from this hampering flesh and blood.
13. But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard;
The best quietus to fear is answered prayer. If God has heard thee, be not thou again afraid.
13. And thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John.
"The grace" or "the gift of God", so the name "John" signifies; and it is a sweet name for anyone to bear: "Thou shalt call his name John." I do not think the prayer alluded to here was so much a prayer for a son; if so, methinks that Zacharias had long ago left off praying it, and now his old prayers are heard, after he had discontinued them. I think that it alludes rather to his prayer for the coming of the Christ, the appearance of the Messiah; that prayer was heard, as we shall see further on.
14, 15. And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth. For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink;
I do not say that it is the duty of every man to drink neither wine nor strong drink, but I beg every man to notice that if anyone was to he peculiarly consecrated to a holy calling, it was always to be so: "He shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink." If there be nothing defiling about wine or strong drink, there is certainly nothing sanctifying about it; and the tendency seems to lie the other way, else it is a strange thing that men dedicated to God were so continually bidden to drink neither wine nor strong drink.
15?17. And he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb. And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
In the third chapter of this Gospel, you will find the record of John beginning to fulfil this prophecy concerning himself.
Chapter iii. Verses 1?7. Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abiline, Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests, 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; as it is written in the book of the words of Esaias the prophet, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. 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?
Does not John the Baptist speak like Elijah? Here are no honeyed phrases to delight the popular ear. The prophet of the wilderness talks like one who is all on fire with zeal for God, and indignation against evil.
8?11. Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore which 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.
John was wonderfully practical in his advocacy of a holy charity and benevolence. His words cut against all greed, all hoarding, all hardening of the heart towards our fellow-men.
12, 13. Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do? And he said unto them, Exact no more than that which is appointed you.
They were accustomed to gather the taxes unfairly, and to increase the rates by oppressing the people, getting, perhaps, twice or even ten times more out of them than they could legally claim. John speaks to the point, does he not?
14. And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man,
Those rough Roman soldiers, as they had conquered the country, were very apt to treat the people as though they were their slaves; so John says to them, "Do violence to no man,"?
14. Neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.
"With your rations, your allowances," so it runs. They were very apt to be contending for an increase in their pay, and to drag civilians before the courts with false accusations unless they chose to give them bribes to let them go. John does not mince matters with any of his hearers; he speaks with wonderful plainness and courage, and therein proves himself to be a true herald of his Master.
15?18. And as the people were in expectation, and all men mused in their hearts of John, whether he were the Christ, or not; John answered, saying unto them all, I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire: whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and will gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable. And many other things in his exhortation preached he unto the people.