The voice of him that cries in the wilderness, Prepare you the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.…
We ought to read here, not "the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord," but rather, "the voice of one crying, Prepare ye in the wilderness the way of the Lord." Now, "the voice of one crying in the wilderness" — if you read so — will have a sufficiently direct application to John Baptist and to few men besides. But "the voice of one crying, Prepare a highway in the wilderness," is no more exclusively applicable to him than to John Calvin or John Knox or John Ruskin. It is applicable to everybody who does anything for the world, especially in its waste places and its worst places, in the way of improvement. It is applicable to Copernicus, Bacon, James Watt. Above all, it is applicable to Christ Himself. It is an anticipation of better and still better times for all mankind.
1. Does it matter at all to us who can have no hope of seeing it in our time, who have certainly, as it would seem, to live out our lives in a condition of things in which not so much the presence of improvement as the need of it is conspicuous? To this question, I think, there are two answers, both of which, for religious minds at any rate, have some weight.
(1) Our idea of God, of a Divine order in the world, is very much our whole stock-in-trade in the matter of religion. The question with us, as regards religion, is, how much we can see of God in what is not God, and in what seems opposed to God? Is that which we see of Him, though it must be little, yet enough to give us feeling, emotion, to fill our minds, not with a thousand anxieties and alarms about things clean and unclean, but to fill them to overflowing with reverence, all that constitutes the mysterious life of a spirit conversing with that unutterable Spirit behind the veil? Second to this even, though of infinite importance, is the question whether we shall devour widows' houses and for a pretence make long prayers, or meditate upon the Good Samaritan, and go and do likewise. It obviously, then, concerns very much our idea of God, our experience of Him, what we see or feel of Him, our stock-in-trade in the matter of religion, what notion we form and entertain of the future destiny of mankind We know that the past has not been all that could be wished. Plenty of desert in that backward view. Will the future be better? Evidently that is a matter which must go to shape our idea of God, of a Divine order of the world. This is to look at the whole instead of a small part, and form some conclusion or other about the whole. It does matter a good deal to us, therefore, though we are not to live to see it, that, if it is possible or right to entertain it, we should entertain the belief that the endless ages that are yet to come will exhibit the Divine order as beneficent and beautiful in a way in which past ages and our own age have had scanty experience of it.
(2) Another answer to the question, What does it matter to us what the future of mankind may be? is obviously this: It is not so much a duty as an instinct for man to live for posterity. We are all of one stock. With reference to this instinct and this satisfaction, the case is plain as regards the future being other and better than the past or the present. We have all something to do, and can do something for posterity. We have the conviction or the hope in doing this, that it is not going to be in vain.
2. "Prepare ye in the wilderness a highway for our God." In this, possibly, rather than in any other form, there comes the Divine call to those in every age, and especially in this age, to whom the Divine order is most of a reality and a power. Personal piety — you must have that, say the professors of ecclesiastical pedagogy — before entering upon this or that work, It is quite true: personal piety you must have to be fit to live, not to say to teach others or help others to live well. But if you have piety enough to have any satisfaction in helping to leave the world a little better than you have found it, then that is enough of a qualification and commission for taking part in work which will occupy your whole life. This general view of the Divine order and of the demands which it makes upon those who are most conscious of the reality of it suggests one or two reflections.
(1) In regard to the fulfilment of the Divine order, it often happens that, while weaker agencies at work in forwarding it are recognised, greater ones, even the greatest of all, escape notice. Since the Divine order is not always clear, it must often happen, in the case of lives of good men and even great men devoted to the advancement of it, that efforts to advance it have other results than those who made them contemplated — great results which they did not expect, no results where they expected great results.
(2) As it is often not the mightier but the weaker agencies at work in furthering the Divine order that are recognised and appreciated, so in the case of men who are more or less consciously devoted to the advancement of it, there is often a failure of insight; and they are found working for issues which they did not anticipate, both in the way of failure and in the way of success. In regard to the Divine order embracing the life of all that is, has been, shall be, the clearest sighted of mankind see through a glass darkly. Constantine was agreed that the triumph of the Christian faith was assured by his making it the religion of the State, though John Wesley had afterwards some reason, in his time, for thinking perhaps that more harm was done to it by that event than by all the Christian persecutions. The Christian world, all but a small part of it, was certain that the devil had broken loose in the Reformation in Germany, and few people who heard it did not devoutly believe that Luther's mother was a witch. John Baptist himself is not so remarkable for what he knew as for what he did not know of his own life-work and its effects. I mean, as regards the eternal order, in which he was no doubt a devout and a brave believer. As a forerunner he was nothing of a foreseer. Not only are the greater agencies at work in furthering the Divine order least recognised among the mass of men, but even among choice spirits devoted to the furthering of that order, misunderstanding as to the results of their own activity and the activity of others is more common than insight. Thus stands the case as regards one class of agencies at work in furthering the Divine order. That which is valued in regard to it is the old ecclesiastical machinery, creak and groan and rattle as it may. In the meantime, discredited to some extent by its association with enlightenment not always orthodox, the spirit of humanity enters from the outside into the religious world, to the creation of new social conditions for whole communities.
(3) What promise there is in this of a better era both for the Church and for the world is better seen as yet by the world, perhaps, than by the Church. The importance of the fact cannot at any rate be overrated. Nothing is so common in religious circles, among good people, as lamentation. The good old times of religion are no more. That is their complaint.
(4) In the meantime, religious people who are so much disposed to complain of the good old times passing away are helping to prepare for times infinitely better than the good old times, in ways of which they are as far as possible from conceiving. They are deepening dissatisfaction with the life, even the religious life of the day, by their lamentations. That is one thing — a negative sort of thing. More positive is the effect of their keeping in their own view and that of others a certain high ideal of life, though it be not the highest of all.
(J. Service, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.