Box 04-030 THE KING OF FIGHTING MEN
Oct 10 1920
THE BAPTIST'S BUGLE CALL
(Luke 2: 1-18)
It was some eighteen years after the event described at the close of the previous chapter, that the Herald of the King appeared and announced that the King was coming.
The Coming of the King was expected. The noblest of the prophet had predicted that of the linkage of David a King should arise who would establish a reign of justice and of righteousness upon the earth, of whose government there should be no end. The Psalmist had sung of him: 'He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth.' (Psalm 72:8).
In the lowest depths of national humiliation and calamity, this hope had kept the flame of faith burning. And now the Herald of the King arrived crying, "Make the way ready for the Lord, level the roads for Him."
The heralds of chivalry were pink-cheeked youths with flowing curls. They wore velvet doublets and silken hose; and they pricked forward on their prancing steeds with an air of conscious importance, which must have been amusing to an unromantic onlooker.
The Herald of the King of Kings was of a different breed. He was a tall gaunt man, I fancy, and wore a coarsely woven garment of camel's hair much as an Indian brave wears his blanket. A belt of rawhide gathered it up at the waist and keeps it out of the way of his sandaled feet as he steps along with the swinging stride of the man who has lived in the open, and walks because he is going some place.
And his long Nazarite's hair, destined one day to be clotted with his own life's blood, hangs in rough locks about his sinewy neck.
Born of a long line of temple priests, he had deliberately chosen to seek his God in the solitude of the wilderness. And now with the fire of the prophet in his deep dark eyes, he comes back to the haunts of men to blaze for others the trail, which he himself has found. Taking his place by the banks of the sacred Jordan, he attracted attention by the sheer force of his convictions. For his message was as severely as himself: "Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand."
The common people, tired of the legal quibbles and the bewildering casuistries of the scribes, distinguished with the hypocrisy of the Pharasies, and putting little faith in the elaborate ritual of the priests, flocked to him in crowds and accepted his baptism. Slinking through these throngs, with the future air of men more anxious to hear than to be seen, came some of the religious leaders from Jerusalem. The sight of them made John think of the snakes and other vermin he had seen slipping silently through the tall dry grass of his wilderness home before the sweep of a prairie fire, and he cried out to them in derision, "O brood of vipers, who has warned you to flee from the coming Wrath?"
But the wilderness prophet was not of that class of evangelist, which is content to tickle the ears of an audience by flaying the regular clergy. He concentrated his fire upon the rank and file of his hearers until he moved them, not to tears but to deeds.
So compelling was his demand for repentance that it made them not merely sorry for their sins, but "sorry enough to quit." And that alone is true repentance. The key-word to all his preaching was "Repent." And it fell upon their ears with all the sharpness of the drill sergeant's command, "Right about face."
Equally direct and business-like was the response, and it came from most unexpected quarters.
"What are we to do?" asked the tax gatherers, those outcaste Jews who hired themselves to the Roman tyranny to squeeze the taxes out of their own countrymen, and like the Quislings of the Second World War, were to compensate themselves liberally for the unpleasantness of their task. And the practical reply came back, "Never exact more than your fixed rate."
Then up spoke the soldiers of Rome, who thought it all in the day's work to help out their modest pay by blackmailing wealthy citizens with threats of accusing them of conspiracy against the sovereign power, and by using still shorter and rougher methods of extortion in the case of less influential persons. They also asked, "And what shall we do?" And the pointed answer came, "Don't shake down anybody; and don't 'hold up' anybody."
There was nothing original in the Baptist's call to repentance. It was essentially that of all the great prophets. The Psalmist, sick of his sin, and pouring out his soul to God, had cried, "For thou desirest not sacrifice, else would I give it: though delighest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou not despise." (Psalm 51:15-17).
Isaiah, the aristocrat of the prophetic succession, hews to the line with biting words and says, "To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? Saith the Lord; I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts... bring me no more vain oblations... Wash you, make you clean... cease to do evil, learn to do well." (Isaiah 1:11-17). And Amos, Jeremiah and Hosea echoed the same demand.
The greatness of John did not lie in the originality of his message. His greatness lay in his recognition of his own limitations, and his appreciation of the inadequacy of his own preaching. The throngs that hung upon his words, and the success with which he swayed them, did not make John forget a single moment that he was only the herald. And again and again with unmistakable clearances he proclaimed the arrival of one of such exalted rank and such royal power that he himself was not fit to be his batman.
And when the king himself appeared this hard-hitting sergeant major turned over the command to Him without a thought of rivalry.
Moreover, John heralded the coming into the life of the world, not merely of a great new figure, but of a great new Force.
"I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance; but He that cometh after me is mightier than I: He shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."
There are some sores of the body so contaminated by foulness that no water can wash them clean. They require to be cauterized with fire. So it is with the open sore of sin. It may be placed in a bath of pure and wholesome surroundings; but the self-propagating germs of evil tendencies will still continue to live and thrive. The utmost power of the human will exerted to repentance and self-reformation is capable of resisting their persistent and insidious offensives. Only the indwelling spirit of God burning like a purifying flame within the hearts of men and women is able to make them clean and to keep them clean. And it was this Spirit that the Herald announced that the King would give to men.
1 The Table of contents of Calvin's book can be found with letter W-MCP2-3b.035.
For chapter 1, see Box 04-028.
For chapter 2, see Box 04-029.
For chapter 4, see Box 04-031.
For chapter 5, see Box 04-031.
For chapter 6, see Box 04-033.