St. John the Baptist
A LL this time, while the Boy Jesus was living His quiet life in the little village of Nazareth, learning to prepare Himself for His Father's work, another boy, only a few months older, was also being trained to help in that work.
This boy was John, the son of the old priest Zacharias, of whom the angel had said that he should be the messenger sent before the King to prepare His way before Him.
It was not an easy life that John led. He had no fine clothes or soft bed or dainty food. Elisabeth, his mother, must have found it hard, too, not to give her only son all the pleasures and treats which boys so much enjoy. But she never thought of pleasing herself. She knew that the boy must be trained to endure hardness, to make him a fit messenger of the King, and she taught him from the very beginning the two great lessons of obedience and self-denial.
As soon as he was old enough he left the comfortable, happy home at Hebron, and far away out in the wilderness he lived his hard life alone, without friends or companions. Robbers there were in those wild, lonely places, but there was nothing they could rob him of. Wild beasts prowled about at nights, but he was brave and fearless, and under the light of the stars he slept as peacefully as if he had been at home. His dress was a rough garment, made of camel's hair, with a leather girdle round his waist, and his food was what the poorest beggars ate—locusts and the honey which the wild bees stored away in the rocks.
But in the loneliness of that hard life the King's messenger learned many things. God seemed very near in the quiet wilderness. God's voice sounded clearly when no other voice was in his ear. Night and day he thought only of the work that lay before him, until his whole heart was filled with the great desire to make the road ready for the King's feet. He knew how full of sin were the hearts of the people to whom the King was coming. He knew how much must be done before that road could be made a royal highway.
It was on the banks of the river Jordan that he began his work. There he stood and preached to the people, a wild, strange figure in his camel's hair coat, and leathern girdle. His face was weather-beaten and sun burnt, his hair was untrimmed, and he wore rough sandals upon his bare feet. His appearance certainly would not draw any one to listen to him. But as soon as he began to speak the people were held spellbound, and crowds gathered round him. The news of this wonderful preacher who spoke such burning words spread from town to town and from village to village, and the people flocked out to the wilderness to hear him.
It seemed a strange message that this wild-looking messenger preached. The King was coming, he told them, the King for whom they had waited so long; but they were not fit to welcome Him.
He did not only say your hearts are evil and you are wicked; he told them exactly what the sins were that were making their hearts so black and unworthy of the King's approach.
There were greedy people who had all they wanted, and never shared what they had with other people. These, he said, must give of their good things to the poor, who had nothing. He told the rough soldiers that they must not be cruel, nor must they take away things by force from defenceless people. Rich and poor alike, he told them plainly what were the many bad things they were doing, and how they must put an end to them before the King came.
There he stood, a lonely man in the midst of a great crowd, one voice on the side of God sounding in the ears of men who were more accustomed to the voice of the Evil One. But he was never afraid. He never thought of himself at all, only of the coming King, and with all his greatness and power he was as humble as a little child.
The people who listened to him began at last to think he was a very great prophet—perhaps even the King Himself; and one day they came and asked him plainly if this was so, if he was indeed the Christ.
"No," answered St. John at once. "I am nothing. I am but the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord." He was but the servant going before; the King was near at hand, whose shoes he was not even worthy to stoop down and unloose.
Now, as St. John preached to the people and told them how bad they were, some of them were very sad at heart, and wanted to live better lives; and then St. John baptized them in the river, to show that they were really sorry. Just as unclean things can be washed in water and made clean again, so it was a sign to show that they wanted their black hearts to be made white.
But one day, as St. John was baptizing, he looked up, and saw the King there, standing among the crowd.
No one knew that this was the King. He had no royal robes, no crown on His head. His hands were roughened with work, and He wore the dress of an ordinary poor peasant. Even St. John himself did not know Him, though something told him that he was in the presence of One mightier and holier than himself. So, when the King drew near and asked to be baptized among the rest, he was not willing to baptize Him at first. "I have need to be baptized of Thee, and comest Thou to me?" he said. He would rather have knelt humbly at His feet. But Jesus wished to set a good example to others; and as the King had made known His will the servant could but obey.
Then it was that St. John, who had not recognized his Lord before, knew indeed that the King was there, for the gates of Heaven were opened wide, and God's Holy Spirit like a dove came down and rested upon Him, while God's voice sounded through the blue, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."
Others besides St. John heard that voice, and, hearing it, left their teacher to follow the great Master. There was never a thought of self in the humble heart of God's messenger, and he was glad that people should leave him to follow the King. "He must increase, but I must decrease," he said. "He must grow greater and greater, while I grow less."
It was quite true. In a few months the messenger's voice was no longer heard on the banks of the Jordan. St. John no longer breathed the free air of the desert. Shut up in a dark dungeon, he waited the pleasure of King Herod Antipas, whose soldiers had seized him and dragged him to the Black Castle which overlooked the sad waters of the Dead Sea.
St. John feared no man. He had not hesitated to tell even a king that he was doing wrong, and so King Herod had determined to silence his accusing voice.
For one long year St. John lived in that dismal dungeon, and when at last the door was opened, it was a door through which he passed into the presence of God.
Suddenly one night, when a gay birthday feast was going on in the palace, a soldier entered the dungeon, carrying in his hands a sword and a golden dish. With one blow the prisoner's head was cut off, and borne away to the banqueting hall.
It was an easy matter to kill the body, but no one could kill the soul of the King's messenger. They could only set it free like a bird from a snare. The servant's work was ended. The voice that had cried aloud to prepare the way of the Lord was silent now, but his words could never die.
Beheaded in a dark dungeon, lonely and friendless, the words spoken by the angel Gabriel before his birth, "He shall be great in the sight of the Lord," had indeed come true.
And the King, the Lord whom St. John served, said of His faithful servant these golden words: "Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist."