By J.R. Miller
Mark 1:1-8; Luke 3:1-20
Mark's gospel opens with the title of the book, "The beginning of the gospel." It was not a very promising beginning from an earthly point of view. As we look at the gospel now, it is a great river, whose streams run through all Christian lands and into many portions of heathendom. For centuries men sought in vain for the source of the Nile, at last finding it in the heart of Africa. Just so, if we trace back the streams of the gospel to their source, where will our quest lead us? Back to the heart of God we must go, if we would find the real beginning. It began in the love of God. "God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son." The gospel was, first of all, a thought in the Father's heart, a stirring of the divine compassion. Then it grew into a purpose. All great achievements are first thoughts, then purposes, before they become acts. The gospel was first a feeling of love and pity in the divine heart. This was way back in eternity. Far back in the story of creation, when there was only chaos, we are told that the Spirit of God brooded upon the face of the waters. The words indicate that even then God was thinking of His children yet to be, as He was planning and preparing for their good. His love had no beginning.
John the Baptist was a great character. He had been foretold and his work described by the ancient prophets. Evidently John's life was "a plan of God." He was thought about and his mission mapped out, long before he was born. He came as God's messenger to prepare the way for the Messiah. He is spoken of as "a man sent from God." Every man is a man sent from God. Many forget that God has anything to do with their lives, that He thought of them before they came, or that He had any purpose in making them and sending them into the world. But we do not drift into this world in any accidental way. God thought about us before we were born, then made us, and sent us to do what He had planned for us to do. If only we realized this truth, it would give a new meaning to our life and a new glory to our work.
God's plan for everyone is noble and beautiful. He never made anyone to live a marred and stained life. He never sent any man into this world to be a curse, to hurt other lives, to poison the springs from which people drink, or to scatter ruin and devastation. He made everyone for a beautiful character and a worthy career. But it is possible for us to spoil God's plan for our own lives. We can carry out the divine purpose for us--only by doing God's will day by day as it comes to us.
John was a very humble man. He shrank from human praise and commendation. When they asked him if he were the Messiah, he said he was only "the voice of one crying in the wilderness." He did not care to have his name emblazoned. All he wished to be was a voice proclaiming the divine message. The message was: "Make ready the way of the Lord. Make His paths straight."
There is a picture which shows a hand holding up a cross. The person is not seen--only the hand. It is good to be a hand that holds up the cross. It is good to be a voice that proclaims the Christ. We would all do well to keep ourselves out of sight--and get people to look upon Christ. Too many of us want people to see us, and so project our own personality, that we hide the vision of the Christ that we ought to exalt and honor. We want people to see us, to hear and admire what we say, to love us and honor us. But what can we do for them? What can the teacher do for her scholars, in their sinfulness and need? What can the preacher do for those who are in penitence and sorrow? We would better hide ourselves away--and get people to see Christ. It is enough for us to seek to be only a voice, speaking out clearly to tell men of Christ, while we ourselves remain unseen and unknown. It is enough for us to speak our word or sing our song--and pass out of sight; while the word we speak and the song we sing--lives to bless the world.
The mission of John is described in the words which "the voice" proclaimed: "Prepare the way of the Lord!" Christ wants a way to be made for Him. He wants a way into people's hearts, our own hearts, first of all. Is the guest-chamber ready? He wants to walk with us; but He will accompany us only on paths of holiness and righteousness, in the way of obedience. He will never go with us in any crooked way. If we expect His company with us--we must see that the paths are straight. Enoch walked with God, because He walked in the same way in which God walked.
Then, Christ wants us to make ready the way for Him to other hearts and lives. If we can open a door for Christ into people's lives, we have brought them heaven's best blessing.
One great word summed up the substance of the Baptist's preaching. He preached REPENTANCE. John taught that those who repented must be baptized; but he made it very clear that his baptism did not cleanse the heart, and that those who were baptized with water--must be baptized also with the Holy Spirit. Water is a fitting emblem. It implies that there are stains which need to be cleansed. Yet we know well that water cannot wash off sin's stains. The spot that sin leaves on the little white hand--cannot be removed by any amount of washing. All the water of the ocean, would not make it white. Only the Holy Spirit has power to remove sin's stains. If we truly accept Christ as our Savior, He will wash us in the water of regeneration. We ought to be baptized with water--the Master instituted this ordinance and sacrament--but we first need the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
John's tribute to Jesus as he announced His coming, was very beautiful. He said that he himself was not worthy to perform this lowest of all ministries for the Messiah. As we read these words and think of John's spirit of humility, we must not forget that one night, at the ending of His life, Jesus Himself took water in a basin, and a towel, and washed and wiped the feet of His own disciples. Thus He himself condescended to the place and the task of the lowliest servant. Surely this should rebuke our pride, when we stop to ask whether we are required to perform this or that lowly service for some little one of His.
John's words to those who came to be baptized, were searching. We like to say pleasant things to people, sometimes complimentary things. John had little time for flowers or compliments. He told the people frankly that they were terribly wrong--and must get right, if they would be saved. We talk to people about their splendid ancestry and about the advantages of heredity; John told his hearers that their fine ancestry would amount to nothing, unless their own lives were right. Personal character was the test, he said.
It was solemn warning which he gave in the picture of the ax lying at the root of the tree. An ax meant judgment. The business of an ax is to cut down. The doom of sin was clearly told. But the ax was not active. It was lying quietly beside the tree. There was mercy in the delay. Judgment was waiting, that the people might have time to repent. God is patient. He does not wish to destroy. He wishes men to repent and be saved. He is slow to wrath. He waits to be gracious.
It is encouraging to see how the people seem to have been affected by John's stern preaching. "What shall we do then?" they asked. They seem to have confessed their sinfulness, and to have desired to turn from their evil ways. This should always be the attitude of those who hear voices of warning and calls to repentance. John's answer to the questions of penitence was plain and simple. The man who had two coats--should give one of them to the man beside him who had none. This is the great lesson of love which Jesus taught so often. The publicans who were proverbially unjust, extorting from the people more as taxes than they ought to collect--were touched by the preacher's stern words and asked what they should do. "Begin to be just," he answered. "Exact no more than that which is appointed to you."
These words of John's impress the truth that God wants nothing unreasonable. "He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you--but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8).