By J.R. Miller
It is a stupendous moment when a great man is born. The birth of few men through the centuries has meant more to the world than John the Baptist's. Jesus said of him, that of all born of woman there was none greater (see Luke 7:28). The beloved disciple thus describes his coming into the world: "There was a man sent from God, whose name was John" (John 1:6). It was a great moment in history when this man was born.
The neighbors of Elisabeth and her kin folk came and rejoiced with her. The child was circumcised the eighth day, according to the law of the Jews. At that time his name was given to him. The friends who were present would have named him Zacharias, after his father. His mother objected, however, saying that he should be called John. The friends insisted that this was not a family name, and that he ought to be name after his father. They appealed to Zacharias to decide the matter. Then he asked for a writing slate and wrote, "His name is John." Then his speechless tongue was loosed and he spoke in praise to God.
The people were amazed at what had happened. Surely this was no ordinary child, they said. He would be a great man. "What kind of child shall this be?" they asked. They saw that the hand of the Lord was with him. Zacharias, too, the father, was filled with the Holy Spirit, and spoke under the Spirit's power, the words of the great hymn we are now to study. In this song he breathed the holy thoughts which had been pent up in his heart during his months of silence. This hymn is called the Benedictus.
The hymn begins with an ascription of praise to God: "Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel." Then it gives the reason for praise: "He has visited His people." The thought of God paying visits to people in this world is a very beautiful one. There are pleasant stories or traditions of Queen Victoria's visits to peasants' homes in her summer jaunts. But the Bible tells us of stranger things--visits of God Himself to lowly homes on earth. He visited our first parents in the garden of Eden. He visited Abraham and was entertained by him. He visited Jacob at Bethel and at Penuel. He visited Moses in Horeb and at the burning bush. He visited Joshua by the walls of Jericho. But the most wonderful visit that the Lord ever made to this earth--was when Christ came and stayed here more than thirty years.
We must not think, however, that God never comes anymore to visit people. Every time any of His children are in trouble--He comes to help them. They do not see Him, and often do not even know that He has come--for He comes softly and invisibly. When we are in danger, He comes to deliver us. He always comes on gracious and loving errands, and always brings blessing with Him. It is said here that He wrought redemption for His people. They had been long in low estate, and now He was about to visit them with deliverance. The birth of John, was the harbinger of all the blessings of redemption which Jesus Christ was to bring.
So He visits us with marvelous good--though too often we refuse to receive Him or the gracious things He brings to our doors. A Scotch minister heard one day that a poor woman, one of his parishioners, was in great trouble. She could not pay her rent, and the landlord was about to seize her goods. The good pastor hurried away with money to relieve her needs. He knocked at her door--but there was no answer. He went around the little house and knocked at every door--but there was no response from within. Next day he met the woman and told her of his visit. "Why, was it you that knocked so long?" she asked, with a look of grieved shame on her face; "I thought it was the officer come to take my goods, and I had all the doors and windows barred!" So God comes to visit us and bring us relief and blessing, and often we refuse to let Him in. When God visits us, it is always to do us good. We rob ourselves, when we shut Him out.
The Bible from first to last is a book of redemption. The Old Testament is a long story of divine calls preparatory to the gospel, which came at length through Jesus Christ. No sooner were our first parents driven out of Eden, than the promise of redemption was made to them. Then all along the centuries, the promise was repeated, each time becoming a little clearer and fuller. In Noah's family it was fixed in Shem's line. Later it fell in Abraham's posterity, and Isaac became the child of promise. Of Isaac's sons, Jacob was the one in whom the covenant blessing inhered. In Jacob's family of twelve, Judah's descendants were pointed out as the Messianic tribe. Later still in Judah the seed of David was designated as that of which the Christ should come. The twenty-second psalm, the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, and many other passages, foretell the sufferings of the Messiah. Other prophecies delineate His character and life and foretell the victories. Thus on down to Malachi, the prophets all point forward to the coming of the Christ and tell of the blessings He is to bring.
We have the summing up of the work of redemption expressed in a few great phrases. One is salvation from our enemies. The sweetest child, in the most loving home, has enemies who are secretly plotting its destruction. There are people, too, who are enemies of our souls, though meaning us no bodily harm. There are enemies, also, that hide in our hearts--evil thoughts, feelings, tempers, dispositions, passions, and desires. We all have our enemies--who hate us and seek our ruin. We need a deliverer, one who will take care of us, shelter us from the assaults of our foes, and fight our battles for us. In any moment of danger, we may flee to Him for refuge.
Once, when Gustavus Adolphus was marching at the head of his army, a bird was seen in the air, chased by a hawk. The little thing flew lower and lower, the hawk gaining meanwhile, and at last, as the soldiers watched it, it darted down and took refuge in the commander's bosom! So when we are pursued by any enemy--we should always fly into Christ's bosom!
We are set free by Christ's redemption, and are then to serve Him, without fear, in holiness and righteousness. Salvation is not merely deliverance from enemies. That is one side of it. We are to serve Christ. He is our Lord and Master--as well as our Savior. True Christian life is obedience, service. The service is to be "without fear." We are not slaves. Our Savior is not a hard, stern master. He loves us with infinite love, and we are to serve Him in love; not driven by fear--but impelled by affection. It is to be "In holiness and righteousness." We must be holy, keeping our hearts pure, our hands clean, and our lives unspotted from the world. Then we are to serve Him "all the days of our life." It is not an enlistment for a time merely--but forever, when we enter into covenant with Christ.
The greatest thing we who have been redeemed can do--is to tell others, who are not saved, what God has done for us--"to give knowledge of salvation unto His people by the remission of their sins." Forgiveness of sins is the heart of salvation. It is sin that has made all the trouble in this world. It is sin that separates between us and God. Had it not been for sin--there would not have been any need for Christ to die. And we never can be saved until our sins are remitted. Some people talk about salvation, as if they needed only to stop their bad habits and become respectable. But there is no use to do this while our sins still remain unforgiven.
The dwellers on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius make their gardens and build their cottages, set up their home and try to be happy, forgetting that the fires are only sleeping in the great mountain's heart, and any hour may awake and sweep away all that they have built and gathered. That is a picture of the false peace and delusive hope of those who talk about salvation while their sins are not forgiven. They are building over slumbering fires that will surely someday burst out. Let us not rest until we get our sins forever out of the way; and there is no way of doing this but by laying them all on Jesus the Lamb of God. If we do this in reality, by simple faith in Him--they will never trouble us again.
Everywhere in the Bible, in every picture of God, mercy shines. Mercy is the divine quality that gives hope to sinful souls. We could never find salvation in the justice of God alone, nor in His holiness, nor in His power. All hope and grace is "because of the tender mercy of our God."
There is a story of a man who dreams that he is out in an open field, in a fierce, driving storm. He is wildly seeking a refuge. He sees one gate, over which "Holiness" is written. There seems to be shelter inside, and he knocks. The door is opened by one in white garments--but none except the holy can be admitted, and he is not holy. He sees another gate, and tries that; but "Truth" is inscribed above it, and he is not fit to enter. He hastens to a third, which is the palace of "Justice"; but armed sentinels keep the door, and only the righteous can be received. At last, when he is almost in despair, he sees a light shining some distance away and hastens toward it. The door stands wide open, and beautiful angels meet him with welcomes of joy. It is the house of "Mercy," and he is taken in a finds refuge from the storm, with all the joys of love and fellowship. Not one of us can ever find a refuge at any door, except the door of mercy. But here the vilest can find eternal shelter.
The coming of the knowledge of the love and mercy of God, is beautifully represented in the dawning of every day. "The dayspring from on high has visited us." Think of a world without sun, moon, or stars--and we have a picture of the moral world without the divine love and mercy. No light to guide, to cheer, to produce joy and beauty. Then Christ comes. He comes as the dayspring. There were glimmerings of light on the horizon long before He came. The Old Testament times had their gleams of coming day. Like the day, too, this light came from above, down out of the heavens. Then, like the day, His coming changed everything into beauty.
Light blesses the world in many ways. It produces all the life of earth. There would not be a bud, a flower, nor a leaf--but for the sun. Nor would there be any beauty, for the sun paints every lovely thing in nature. Think of Christ as light. His love brooding over us--causes us to live, and nourishes in us every spiritual grace. Every beam of hope--is a ray of His light. What the coming of light is to a prisoner in a darkened dungeon--is the bursting of mercy over a guilty soul. Light gives cheer; and what cheer the gospel gives to the mourner, to the poor, to the troubled! Is it not strange that any will refuse the light? If any would persist in living in a dark cave, far away from the light of the sun, with only dim candles of his own making to pour a few poor flickering gleams upon the gloom--we should consider him insane.
What shall we say of those who persist in living in the darkness of sin, with no light but the candles of earth's false hopes to shine upon their souls? There are many such, too. They turn to every "will-o'-the-wisp" that flashes a little beam, anywhere--rather than to Christ. It is like preferring a tallow candle--to the sun.
The ultimate mission of light is to show us the way through the world of darkness, and "to guide our feet into the way of peace." This is a most beautiful description of what Christ wants to do for us. He first prepared the way of peace. All this world's paths are full of trouble and lead to despair--but Christ built a highway beautiful and safe, which leads to eternal blessedness. It was a most costly road-making; He Himself dies in preparing the way for our feet. Now He comes to us and wants to be our guide and lead us into this way of peace. We never can find our own way, and if we thrust away this blessed guidance--we must go on in darkness forever.
The Christian's way is indeed a "way of peace." It gives peace with God, peace in our own heart because sin is forgiven, and then we have peace amid all this world's trials. Some people think that a Christian life is hard and unpleasant. But really it is the way of sweetest peace. The only truly, deeply, and permanently happy people--are those whose sins are forgiven and now are going with Christ through this world, home.