THE THIRD BOOK
How He went out to His life work. How He was baptized and fought a great battle with the Devil, and how John the Baptist died.
I WONDER have you guessed who was this strange prophet of the wilderness who was startling the people, warning them about their sins and telling of the Coming One? Have you forgotten after the angel's visit, how the Blessed Virgin hurried away to that country clergyman's house among the beautiful hills to tell of her great secret to his wife Elizabeth, and that another baby boy was coming to Elizabeth who should by and by prepare the way for Jesus and His Kingdom? Now you know who was the Wilderness Prophet. He was called John the Baptizer. John the Baptist.
The two children, Jesus and John, were born within the same year. We have been learning what we could about the boyhood of Jesus. We know nothing at all about the childhood of this other boy. We think of him growing up an only child. A silent lonely boy without brothers or sisters or playmates, puzzling over the wonderful thing his father had told him, that he was "sent to prepare the way of the Lord." We think of him as a grown man, a lone hermit in the wilderness, wearing his rough robe of camel's hair and feeding on locusts and wild honey that he found in the woods. And all the time thinking of the great future before him and studying what his Bible said about the Great One who was to come. One feels sorry for him—always alone struggling with his thoughts, fighting his doubts, no one to encourage him, no one to praise him. He thought nothing of himself. "I am but a voice crying in the wilderness," he said. He sought nothing for himself, and he got nothing. He was just to hold the door open for others. He was to have no happy companionship with Jesus as others had. When others were rejoicing in the friendship of Jesus he was being murdered in a prison cell. That poor lonely prophet!
But God was with him. He could speak to God in his prayers. And he felt he was doing what God wished him to do, and that is a great comfort to any true man. So he went on preaching to the people and baptizing all who would turn from their sins. So they called him John the Baptizer, John the Baptist.
Now the whole countryside is up and excited. Crowds are coming from everywhere to the banks of the Jordan, men and women, townfolk and countryfolk, traders and tax-gatherers, soldiers and farmers, priests and rabbis, among them a young countryman that nobody knows, but we know Him, coming down the Nazareth road. Day after day He listened and watched them. Then one day, when the baptisms were over and the Baptist stood alone, Jesus alone walked out into the water! In a moment I see the prophet staring, startled and wondering. I hear the sudden question, "Who is it? Who is it?"—"I knew Him not," he says. I suppose he did not know whether the Coming One was already on earth or whether He would come suddenly from Heaven in power and great glory. But in that presence he felt moved to the depth of his being. Some great one surely this was who stood before him! And then—Jesus raised His eyes and looked him straight in the face. And then, in a moment, he knew! He knew! He whom he had dreamed of all those lonely years, straining his ears to catch the coming of His feet, the Christ, the hope of Israel, He is come!
Cannot you feel the intense excitement of the man, the awe and wonder in his heart! "Oh, how could I dare to baptize You. I am but a poor sinful man that should ask You to baptize me." But Jesus bade him go on. The Baptist laid his hands on Him and bowed Him beneath the water. And as He rose from the water a tremendous thing happened—something which neither of these two would ever forget. Suddenly to them both the Heavens opened and a vision like a Dove lighted upon Jesus and a voice was heard by them, a voice from Heaven. "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased!"
So the Lord Jesus entered on His great office and the Baptist knew of a certainty that he had found the Christ. After the Baptism he said solemnly to the people: "One is standing in the midst of you whom ye know not!"
The next time he saw Jesus he cried to those about him: "Behold the Lamb of God!"
How Jesus Fought His Great Battle with the Devil
N OW comes suddenly to us an extraordinary story, a dark, awful story, not easy to understand. Immediately after the Baptism the Bible says, "Then was Jesus led up by the Holy Spirit into the Wilderness to be tempted of the devil!" What can it mean? Try to think.
I see Jesus coming up out of the water all excited over the tremendous thing that had happened—the voice from Heaven, the knowledge of who He was, the thought of the great work for which He had come down from Heaven. Cannot you imagine how at such a time He would want to get away from people to be alone, to think, to make plans. I see Him passing through the crowd on the river bank, wandering away alone up the winding road into the hills, away into the wild desert land amongst the wild beasts. All night long He keeps going, forgetting all around Him, thinking only the wonderful thoughts that were filling His soul and making His plans for the future, when suddenly a horrible thing happens. Evil spirits in the air crowd in on Him, struggling, tempting, tormenting, trying to lead Him wrong! Think of the pure and holy Jesus in such horrible company!
There all alone for forty days, St. Luke says, He was led in the wilderness tempted of the devil. This is too hard for us to understand. Don't you think it means that the devil wanted to spoil His great life plans, to prevent Him from saving and blessing the world? At any rate, Jesus knew that He must face this terrible thing. He was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. So when it was a duty that He ought to face of course He faced it. But it must have been a horrible thing for Him. We can never know how horrible. Think of forty days of such terrible struggle and strain and excitement that He never thought of food, did not even notice that He was hungry. People in intense excitement often forget to eat.
Whether the devil came as a black angel of evil that He could see, we don't know; or whether he came as he sometimes comes to us in our little temptations. Did he ever come to you? Could you see him? No, but you know that he was there trying to make you do wrong. Probably he came like that to Jesus. We don't know. But whether he was visible or not, Jesus says he was the devil. Think of this when you feel the devil tempting you. A real wicked devil. Do not just say, "I feel wicked thoughts and desires," but say, "I am tempted of the devil like our Lord. I ought to rise up and fight him bravely in the strength which our Lord will give me."
Our temptations are small things, so small sometimes that we should be ashamed to let them conquer us; just to tell a lie, to be cross and tempered, to be selfish or disobedient. But these temptations of Jesus must have been something very awful, so awful that I suppose we could not understand them. We are only told a little bit at the end.
After that terrible strain of the forty days Jesus suddenly felt weak and fainting, nearly dying of hunger. And just then the devil whispered, "If You are really the Son of God turn these stones into bread!" Of course He could do it. He was the Lord from Heaven and could do anything. He had all power in Heaven and earth. But He only came to use these powers for us. He would not use them for Himself to make His own struggle easier. You see, He had come down to us on our level as a man, as our brother, and would take no advantage that we could not have. Like an armored knight of old, fighting beside his unarmored peasant soldiers, he puts away his armor and his shield and horse and fights on foot just like themselves. So Jesus would fight the devil just as you and I have to fight him, without any miracle to help us. He was tortured with hunger. His body was craving terribly for food. But Jesus says, "No, I ought not, I will not do this thing." So the devil was beaten that time.
Then the devil tried again. It is said that he took Jesus up to a pinnacle of the temple, the top of the great church steeple, and said to Him: "Now if You throw yourself down in the midst of the crowd below it will show how You trust God to take care of You, and people will see what a wonderful being You are and will follow You in crowds and will do all the good things You want them to do. They are expecting wonderful miracles like that from You. So You will march out in triumph from the temple and escape all the pain and trouble of slowly winning men to follow You."
But Jesus' plan was very different. He wanted to win men not by miracles and wonders but by love; by showing them the affection and pain and self-sacrifice of God. If that would not win them nothing else would. It would be a hard, slow, painful road. It would mean for Himself suffering and death. But He would choose that hard road.
"No," He said, "I ought not, I will not do this thing."
So the devil was beaten again.
Then he tried once more. By his strange evil powers he took Jesus up to an exceeding high mountain and showed Him in a vision all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. A wonderful vision. The whole beautiful world lying before Him in the sunshine with its cities and palaces, its peoples, rich and grand and powerful and all bowing down in worship of God. A vision of the very thing that Jesus wanted. But how should He get it? "All these things I will give You," said the devil, "if You will bow down and worship me."
Then Jesus was angry. "Get away from Me!" He replies. "Get thee behind Me, Satan, for it is written in the Bible, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and Him only shalt thou serve!"
Then the devil fled from Him, beaten again for the last time. Jesus had won all along the line. And behold, angels came and ministered unto Him.
Do you know what I think after reading this story? That maybe the devil is not half as strong as people think. I think he is like a big, cowardly bully that will run away if we fight him. You have seen a big coward bullying a small boy, and the small boy is too frightened to fight him. But sometimes if the small boy gets fierce and hits back, the bully will run away.
I think the devil is like that big bully. Would not it be a proud thing to make him run away? Whenever the devil attacks you to make you do wrong, just think how the Lord Jesus is looking to see whether you are going to be a coward and let him bully you or coax you, or whether you are going to hit back and say "No!" And always remember that Jesus, who fought that awful battle with him long ago, is greatly interested in your little battle with him and always standing by to help you.
Young John the Disciple's Story
A LL this time, while Jesus was away in His terrible struggle with the devil, John the Baptist has been teaching and baptizing by the river with the crowds around him. I suppose he often wondered where Jesus of Nazareth could have gone to. He had not seen Him for a whole six weeks and did not know what had happened to Him. Then one day suddenly he saw Jesus again as He was coming back from that awful wilderness. And so here comes a lovely story of a most interesting week, when the Baptist saw Jesus coming back from the wilderness and when Jesus first met the young comrades who were to be His disciples and apostles in the days to come. It is one of these young comrades himself who told it long afterwards when he was a very old man far away from his native land and wrote it in his new book (the Gospel of St. John). He saw that St. Matthew and St. Mark and St. Luke had not written it in their books and I suppose he felt, "I must surely tell of those wonderful days when I first saw the face of my dear Lord." So in his book that he was writing about Jesus he sketches in his memories of that week after the Temptation. And amongst all his memories one especially stands out, the precious memory of a certain afternoon at four o'clock fifty years before, the hour when he first met his beloved Lord.
He was a young fisherman from the Sea of Galilee and he and a few young comrades had taken a holiday to come and hear John the Baptist. One day as they talked with him, suddenly, down the hill path where He had disappeared six weeks ago, Jesus appeared walking towards them, a very tired Jesus, with the strain of those awful forty days showing on Him and the light of another world in His eyes. The Baptist recognizes Him at once. He had been wondering all the time where He had gone to. Now he eagerly points Him out to his young companions. "Behold the Lamb of God, Who taketh away the sins of the world! This is He that I have been telling you about. I saw the Holy Spirit descending on Him like a dove out of Heaven, and I have seen and bear witness that this is the Son of God."
That was young John the disciple's first sight of Jesus. Could he ever forget it! I call him young John the disciple. Do not confuse him in your minds with John the Baptist.
Then he goes on to tell how the next day in the afternoon he and his comrade Andrew were again talking with the Baptist, talking surely about Jesus, when again on the path below by the river Jesus passed. "There He is again!" cried the Baptist; "the Lamb of God!" And the two young comrades could not resist the sudden craving in their hearts as they saw Jesus going away. Probably the Baptist encouraged them to go after Him. Down the path they followed after Him, shyly, timidly, awkwardly, half hoping, half fearing that He might speak to Him. And Jesus, hearing the footsteps behind Him, turned round and saw them following. He knew their hearts. Kindly, encouragingly He asks them, "What seek ye?" The startled young countrymen hardly know what to say. "Master, where dwellest Thou?" Ah, Jesus knew what they wanted. "Come with Me," He said, and He took them to His poor little lodging and there they stayed all the evening with Him. John remembers so clearly, looking back over half a century. It was about the tenth hour, he says (four o'clock). It always helps us to imagine any remarkable event when we know at what time of the day or night it took place. He remembers the very hour. How could he ever forget!
Think what it meant to be all that evening alone with Jesus, sharing His simple supper, questioning Him, talking to Him easily and naturally as to a friendly comrade not much older than themselves. I think they almost forgot that He was some great person as they told Him of their life in the fishing boats and of the simple thoughts and wishes in their hearts. And I think He told them something of His plans and hopes and enthusiasms for the lovely Kingdom of God that He wanted to found in the world. And I should not wonder if He said to them before they parted: "Would you like to stand by Me some day and help?"
I am thinking of those two, Andrew and John, coming back that night under the starlight, their hearts stirring with wonder and enthusiasm and with a deep, reverent affection for their new friend. Aye, they would follow Him, follow Him to the death if He asked them. The whole world was changed for them that night. Earth was never the same again.
That was how Jesus got His first two comrades. Not by preaching to them and telling them He was God, or frightening them about the fate of sinners, but just by loving them and making friends with them, letting them know Him. Don't you think we should all want to be His friends if we got to know Him like that?
Then St. John's story goes on, "One of us two was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother." So delighted is Andrew over that evening with Jesus that he goes right off to find his brother. "Simon, we have found the Christ!" So he brought him to Jesus. That was how Simon Peter—the rash, blundering, affectionate Peter—came into the group, and in spite of all his faults became one of the truest, dearest friends that Jesus had. I I think surely Andrew was glad that he had brought him. think any of us who had got to know, as Andrew had, what Jesus was really like would want to bring our comrades to know Him.
Again John's story of that wonderful week goes on. He
and Andrew and Peter have to go home to their work.
They have been long enough away and the fishing boats
are waiting for them on the Lake of Galilee. And they
learn with delight that Jesus is starting to go North
to Galilee the next day. He has to stop at the little
town of Cana the day after
Nathaniel would not believe him at first. He was a deeply religious man and knew from his Bible that some Great One should come, but he did not believe much in the wisdom of young Philip. He did not think it at all likely that the great Coming One should come from a carpenter's shop in the valley just over the hill. "Well, come and meet Him at any rate," said Philip. So Nathaniel came and the moment he looked into the eyes of Jesus he felt that strange attraction which all true hearts felt when they met Him. Then Jesus spoke to him as if He knew him already. "But how can You know me?" said Nathaniel. And Jesus answered, "I know all about you, Nathaniel. Before Philip called you, when you were praying under the fig tree this morning, I was looking at you."—"He knows even what I was thinking of this morning," said Nathaniel to himself. "He knows all about me." And in a moment Nathaniel believed on Him utterly. "Master, you are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel."
So already in these few days Jesus had won live eager young comrades who would die for Him if necessary. You will find their full names afterwards in the list of His apostles.
One day lately I went to see this little town of Cana where Nathaniel lived. It is a poor, shabby, ruined little place now, but I loved to look at it and to think of that interesting day long ago when Jesus walked into it with His five young friends.
The Wedding in Cana of Galilee
Y OU remember that Jesus stopped at Cana because He was invited to a wedding. St. John is continuing his story of that wonderful week that he remembered so well, his first week with Jesus. "Now the third day," he says, "there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee and the mother of Jesus was there. And Jesus also was invited and His disciples to the marriage."
I think it must have been a wedding in the family, for I see that the mother of Jesus is managing the wedding feast. Either the bride or the bridegroom was a cousin or relative of Jesus. I like to think of that little village bride with her white veil and the myrtle wreath in her hair, glad and proud because Jesus had come to her wedding. Probably she had known Him from childhood, for her home in Cana was only four miles away from the carpenter's shop at Nazareth. Perhaps she was one of the children to whom He used to tell stories in the carpenter's shop, and now she wanted her great Cousin whom she admired and loved to be present and to see her happiness and to bless her. You might think that Jesus, who was so great and who had such great thoughts and plans in His mind, would not waste time coming to a little country wedding. But Jesus came and I think He liked coming and I think these simple village people liked to have Him with them. Jesus made happiness wherever He came because He was so happy Himself.
You have seen pictures of Jesus with a sad countenance. That is all wrong. Of course He was sad sometimes, because His loving heart felt so deeply the sin and unhappiness around Him. But He could feel also the brightness and happiness of life, the beautiful world, the happy people, the pleasant friendships, the children rejoicing in their play, and the loving Father in Heaven looking on it all and loving it. And He knew that He was come to make all happier and better. He really enjoyed life. Nobody enjoyed life as Jesus did. He enjoyed every bit of it. He delighted in the birds and flowers and the lovely world. He delighted in little children. He enjoyed His friendships and could not bear to be without them. He could laugh pleasantly at weddings. He loved meeting people. He is constantly cheering up sorrowful people. Cheer up, He says over and over again. Cheer up. Be of good cheer!
Why, of course He was happy. The happiest people in
I love to think about Jesus at that country wedding. That He did not think Himself too great to come, that He enjoyed being there, and that they enjoyed having Him. For I think it brings lovely happy thoughts of God for ourselves. Why? Because Jesus was God. So I learn the kindly nature of God. God likes weddings. God likes happiness. Watch Jesus at this wedding, happy, human, natural, sympathizing with the joy of young lovers in their marriage, and say to yourself, That is God, that is how God feels.
God, of course, cares most of all for goodness and nobleness of life, but God is not a sort of high clergyman interested only in our prayers and church services and not caring at all about our pleasures and laughter and games and amusements. He is interested in the birds and the beautiful flowers and the lambs skipping in the field and the children singing in the market-place and the boys and girls at their games and the mother's tender thought for her baby and the shy young bride meeting her bridegroom. God has given us beautiful music. God gave us humor and laughter to make things pleasant. I think He likes to see us laughing. I think that to set a group of people merrily, innocently laughing is doing the will of the Father who is in Heaven.
That is the lovely happy religion that Jesus wants us to have.
Now an awkward thing happened at the wedding feast. Somebody discovered that the wine had run short, and the poor bride and bridegroom felt that they would be shamed before their friends because they were too poor to provide properly for their feast. A proud, poor Galilean family would feel that deeply. And Jesus knew they would. He belonged to a very poor family Himself and He understood their feelings. In a moment He decided what to do. A week ago, at the Temptation, He had refused to turn stones into bread to relieve His own hunger. Now He would turn water into wine to keep His young friends from being shamed. That is God. That is what God is like.
So He went out and told the servants to put water in the water-pots and with a word He turned that water into wine. And so the wedding feast went on and nobody but the servants knew how narrowly that poor family had escaped being shamed before their friends. Do you think that young bride and bridegroom would ever forget the loving thing their Cousin had done for them at their marriage feast?
But how could Jesus turn water into wine? Of course He could because He was God. Will you be surprised if I say He is always doing it, that I have myself seen Him doing it dozens of times? I remember one day I was travelling through the Rhone valley in Switzerland when the thought came back to me of this miracle at the wedding. It was pouring rain. The slopes of the valley were covered with vines. The water was falling heavily on the vineyards. And I thought how in another month the vine gatherers would come and squeeze out the grapes and find that water turned into wine! That is how God gives wine to the world. That is how God gives bread to the world, when the farmer lays in God's earth his few grains of wheat and goes away to return in the autumn and find each little grain changed into 60 or 100! And stupid people don't stop to think of these wonderful miracles that God is always doing!
I don't know how Jesus turned water into wine at that wedding. And I don't know how God was doing it that day in the Rhone valley and in all the countries where I have seen Him doing it. I just bow my head in wonder at the greatness of God and delight to think that that great God is the loving Friend, as Jesus showed at that little Cana wedding.
When Jesus Was Angry
N OW just a week later comes a very different story. We have been thinking of the tender kindness of Jesus about the feelings of the little bride and her friends. Now a week later we find Him fiercely angry. To understand Him aright you must see that He could be very angry at times.
Soon after that wedding He went up to Jerusalem to the Feast of the Passover, as He probably had gone every year since that time when He was a boy of twelve. There the vast crowd of Jews from every land came back every year to worship God in His holy temple. Jesus loved that house of God. He was very jealous for its honor. You remember how that boy of twelve had called it "My Father's house."
Things were going very badly now in that beautiful temple. The greedy priests and rulers had turned its lovely outer courts into a rough cattle market and were making lots of money out of the sale of cattle for the sacrifices. The shouts of the market, the rattling of money, the bleating of sheep, and the lowing of oxen disturbed even the prayers of the people in church. The priests and rulers were growing rich. They did not care. The people were ashamed of it all, but they were afraid of the priests and could do nothing but grumble and complain. And so the people were being often cheated and the worship of God was being spoiled for the crowds who had come hundreds of miles to pray to God in His holy temple.
Young John, the disciple of Jesus who wrote our Fourth Gospel, was up in Jerusalem at this feast with Jesus, and tells us what he saw one day. The beautiful court was crowded with pilgrims waiting their turn to go into church, and all around were the trampling of cattle and the shouts of the money-changers and the buying and selling and bargaining. And the people standing by vexed and ashamed. Suddenly there is a stir at the gate and everyone turns to see Jesus, the young prophet of Galilee, marching into the court. But not the meek and lowly Jesus of our pictures, not the kindly Jesus of the Cana wedding, but a stern, masterful Jesus, striding in anger through the court like a king coming to chastise misbehaving servants. He whips the cattle out of the court, He flings down the cash desks and scatters the money on the ground. Then He turns fiercely on the priests and rulers. "Take these things hence—make not My Father's house into a cattle yard!" They try to make excuses but He will not listen to them. "Take them away! It is written in your Bible, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer,' but ye have made it a den of robbers!"
Of course the priests were terribly vexed at this. He had openly shamed them before all the people. They hated Him for it, they would never forgive Him, and two years later, at another Passover, they made their wicked plans that He should be crucified. But Jesus did not care. He was too angry to care. They had brought shame upon the holy temple of God.
Now stop and think about this anger of the Lord Jesus. Do you like it? Surely yes. You are proud and glad that He should be angry and that He should do this thing which no one else had the courage to do. It is right to think mostly of Jesus as gentle and kind and loving, but it is right to think also that He could be very angry at times. Several times He was angry at people who were mean and nasty and lying, who could hurt a little child or teach wrong things about God. So if the loving Jesus could be angry it must be right to be angry sometimes. If you saw a big bully beating a little child you ought to be angry. God would expect you to be angry then. I think He would like to see you fighting that bully.
So you see anger sometimes may be noble and good. But our anger is often neither noble nor good. Our anger is often nasty and peevish and ill-tempered. We are angry because someone has injured ourselves, or because we cannot get everything we want. Our anger is often selfish and spiteful and unforgiving. And that is all wrong and hateful and makes the world unhappy.
Now think about the anger of Jesus.
(1) He is never angry about things done to Himself. Men might reject Him, despise Him, mock at Him, spit on Him, nail Him in bitter agony on the Cross. What did He say? "Father, forgive them, they don't know what they are doing!"
(2) His anger, too, is really part of His love. He would be fiercely angry with that bully because He could not bear to see that little child tormented.
(3) But especially remember that His anger is always on the brink of forgiveness. He may be angry with you some day if you are obstinately doing wrong and making people unhappy. But the first sign that you are sorry will touch Him into tenderness and He will take you back into His loving forgiveness again.
Now you see how grand and beautiful is the anger of Jesus. You may be angry as often as you like if you will be angry like Him. But selfish, disagreeable anger about yourself will be very disappointing to Jesus.
Wanderings in Springtime
I DON'T think Jesus stayed long in Jerusalem after the Passover crowds had gone home. He was not happy there. Many Jerusalem people did not like Him. So He went off to the country with some of His disciples and there, for about six months, they moved about quietly among the farmers and the village people. I think they had a lovely time. It was early summer in the country and Jesus loved the country. I think this first year was His brightest, happiest year, as He and His young comrades tramped the country roads enjoying the brown hills and the sound of running streams, talking to the children who played around the cottages, bidding pleasant good-day to the travellers whom they met. They would come on a blind man or a poor leper at a lonely crossroads and heal him. They would rest in a sunny village in the hills when they were tired.
And the country people, who knew the bitter feeling against Him in Jerusalem, would gather around in the evening, and the Master would talk to them and tell them His delightful parable stories, giving them happy thoughts of life and of God's love. And then they would be asked to someone's supper. And one day the woman of the house would have her little boy in hopeless sickness and Jesus would be told of it and lay His healing hands on the little lad and bind that mother's heart to Him for ever. I think that was how Jesus began preaching the Gospel and showing people what God was like. Not so much scolding people and frightening them about their sins, but rather helping them to see the goodness and lovableness of God. I think that is the best way to make bad people good. I think any bad people in His presence would feel sorry and ashamed and would often wish that they were a little bit like Him.
But in the midst of this pleasant time in the Judean
hills He suddenly gets one day a sorrowful message.
"John the Baptist has been arrested by order of King
Herod and is now shut up in the black dungeon of
Machaerus by the Dead Sea." And sorrow fell on Jesus
and His comrades for this cruel treatment of the brave
young prophet. They broke up their summer tour among
the hills. And Jesus saw that the time was come that He
must go forth into public life and begin openly His
great life-work in the
world. So I read, "Now when John was put in prison,
Jesus came North to Galilee" (look in the map),
"preaching the Good News of God and saying, 'The time
is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand, repent ye
and believe the
But before we follow Him to Galilee let us stay for a little to see the last of John the Baptist.
How John the Baptist Died
B EFORE following Jesus to Galilee I think you would like to delay a little while in the South to see the last of John the Baptist.
That was a horrible prison by the gloomy Dead Sea where Herod put his prisoners. Here through the long hot summer days lay the Baptist in his dungeon, accustomed all his life to the free air of heaven. Above him on the slopes was the palace of King Herod. Across the black waters lay the scenes of his boyhood and the wilderness where he had prayed and thought about the coming of Jesus. Now he is lonely and puzzled and disappointed. His great life-work is stopped. He must not preach any more about Jesus. I do not wonder that he sometimes lost heart in that horrible prison.
Sometimes his old disciples came to visit him and tell him the news. All the news that he cared for was news about his Lord. They told him of the crowds that were following Jesus and about His preaching and His miracles, I think they were a little jealous about it, for they dearly loved their brave silent master who used to have these same crowds following him until the day that he pointed away from himself to Jesus. Now they felt the dear old master is neglected and forgotten. Nobody is thinking about him now.
But John was too noble a man to think of such things. One day they talked to him about it. "It is all right," he said. "My day is over. You remember how I told you all along that I am nobody, that I am only the messenger to tell about the Christ. I am like the humble friend of the Bridegroom rejoicing in his success. I am going away into the silence, but in that silence I hear about Him. Therefore I rejoice. He must increase, I must decrease. This my joy, therefore, is fulfilled."
It takes a great and noble man to feel like that. And yet, great and noble as he was there came one day to him in that lonely prison, when he was sick and tired, a horrible fit of doubt and low spirits. He thought Jesus ought to have won the whole country to His side already. The whole nation ought to have been marching in triumph behind Him to found His Kingdom of God on the earth. Jesus seems moving so slowly. And so the awful doubt came to him for a moment and he sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus a question.
Jesus was preaching to the crowds in Galilee when He saw these two tired, sad men coming up to Him. And in a moment the whole trouble comes out. "Master, John the Baptist has sent us to ask, Are you really the Great One who should come or should we look for another?"
Ah, poor John! What an awful state of low spirits he must have got into that he should ask such a question. How horribly ashamed he would be when he thought of it afterwards. But how lovely it was to have Jesus to go to with his question. Jesus understood all about it. He always understands. He knew how that dreary prison would take the heart out of anybody. He did not much blame poor John. He sent back the men with a hopeful message and when they were gone He said to the people, "Among all men born of women there is no one greater than John."
I do hope somebody told poor John of this nice thing, Jesus had said about him just when he was so lonely and so ashamed of himself for having doubted. Don't you like to think of the generous heart of Jesus, the generous heart of God who always understands us and looks for the good in us in spite of our badness?
So I think poor John was comforted even though death was coming near. One day King Herod surprised him with a visit. They got to know each other. This Herod is a queer mixture, a bad cruel man yet with some good in him. I never knew a bad man without some little good in him. Herod had not much good in him. But he liked John and listened to him, and sometimes he felt a bit sorry for his own badness. St. Mark says one of his reasons for keeping John in prison was to save him from the anger of Queen Herodias, who hated him. She was very wicked and had left her real husband to come to live with Herod. And John had openly said to the king, "You are both doing wickedly. It is not right for you to have her." Herodias was fiercely angry about that. She never forgot it and she determined some day to have her revenge on John.
Now make this picture in your minds of her revenge. It is three months later. It is King Herod's birthday and he has gathered to his birthday feast a grand assembly of his lords and captains and chief men of Galilee. The palace hall is blazing with light, and the feasting and drinking and shouting is fast and furious. In the midst of it the queen gives a special treat. She sends in her beautiful daughter Salome to dance and sing and amuse the guests. They are delighted and excited. They are half drunk already. The half-drunken king is so pleased that he swears before them all that he will give her any reward she asks for, even to the half of his kingdom.
Ah, he did not know what he was in for. The girl goes off to consult her mother and then she comes back to the shouting company. And the shouting ceases and they were horrified and sobered as that hard young voice makes its cruel demand. "You swore, O King, that you would give whatever I asked. I want you to give me in this silver dish the head of John the Baptist!"
That was Herodias' revenge on the brave Baptist! She had trapped the king into giving it. I read "the king was exceeding sorry but he was ashamed to break his promise. So he sent and beheaded John in the prison!" And the executioner brought in the bleeding head on the dish and give it to the damsel and the damsel brought it to her mother. Herod never forgot the shame and horror of it. His conscience tormented him all his days. But it was too late then. The awful thing was done. And John's disciples took up his headless body and buried it and went and told Jesus.
That was the end of the brave, silent prophet. So he passed into the great Unseen life after death to watch again for his Lord, till two years afterwards, as we shall read later on, straight from the Cross the triumphant Christ came into that world of the Departed, and there John met again the Lord Who loved him, "the Lamb of God, Who taketh away the sins of the world."
Now you will remember that when John was put in prison Jesus went North to Galilee. In the next chapter I am trying to make you see Galilee and the lake-side where He lived for about a year and a half.