“And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth.” – Luke 1:14
We are now in the Advent season. The words of our text were spoken of John the Baptist, the promised forerunner of the Lord. He is one of the striking figures in the Bible story. His father Zacharias was a priest offering incense in the temple at the very time when a son was promised to him. Elizabeth, his wife, was of the daughters of Aaron. Both were devout, walking in the commandments of the Lord and waiting for the fulfillment of His promise to Israel.
John was given in fulfillment of the prophecies in Isaiah and Malachi. The angel who appeared to Zacharias and spoke the words of our text said: “I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee these glad tidings.” Zacharias doubted the angel’s message and was struck dumb until his son was born. Then his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed and, filled with the Holy Spirit, he spoke the “Benedictus,” “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel…” which we use every Sunday in our worship.
John’s message was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” It was a message that the heart and life should be changed, and that mere formal righteousness would no longer be tolerated. John’s active ministry was very short. He was born six months before the Lord. A single verse, “And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his shewing unto Israel,” covers the whole period between his birth and his ministry, and he was beheaded by Herod some little time before the Lord’s crucifixion. But his short ministry was an active one – calling the people to repent and keep the commandments, and baptizing them in Jordan. He said of himself, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias.” He fulfilled this prophecy. It is the Word itself that prepares the Lord’s way both into the church and into the human mind, bringing joy and gladness.
The Lord said of John, “Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” These words do not imply that John could not attain the kingdom of heaven. They were not spoken of the person of John but of his representative character. John’s mission was to call men to repentance, to the shunning of evil. It is a state through which every regenerating man must pass, but it is not a state of heavenly happiness. It is a state of labor and conflict. In the Word those who are “born of women” are distinguished from those who are born of God: “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” The least of the joys that come from obedience to the commandments from love is greater than the greatest joys that come from obedience from a sense of duty.
Yet the power which John represents is a wonderful power. It is a power which the Lord gives everyone: the power of self-compulsion, the power to put away evil, to cleanse our lives by the precepts of the Word. Early in the Bible the Lord teaches us of this power with which He endows us: “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” This power of dominion is the faculty of looking down upon our feelings, thoughts, and actions, controlling them, choosing among them, and making them useful servants. We are far from true manhood and womanhood if we are driven hither and thither by every whim or inclination, or are mere creatures of our environment and cannot rise above it.
We do not start with a love of the good and true, but we need have no lack of obedience. No one can force himself to love, but he can compel himself to obey. And he who begins with honest though cold obedience will by conscientious discharge of duty gradually come to have and to feel that love which is the gift of God.
John said, “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.” John’s baptism represents reformation, the bringing of the outward life into order. The Lord’s baptism represents regeneration, the creation of a new heart. The first is the removal of evil, the second the implantation of good. This second baptism, being born anew of the spirit, is the fulfillment of the new covenant: “I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts.”
Heaven comes after the victory is won. Because Moses represents obedience to the Law he could lead the children of Israel to the entrance to the Holy Land, but he could not lead them into it. Day by day should find us progressing, preparing more fully a way for the Lord in our hearts and minds.
When John made his proclamation of repentance, the Lord was already in the world. For thirty years He had been among men, but He had lived in private and was unknown to them. He had not entered upon His public ministry. The Lord is present with everyone, whether he knows it or not. “In him we live, and move, and have our being.” But He is present in the interior and subconscious regions of the soul. Before He can come down into the lower and conscious regions a way must be prepared for Him. The Lord makes His advent into our lives when, from a desire for truth, we go to His Word.
When we see our own weaknesses and failings, when we realize that we must look outside of ourselves for knowledge of the way of life, when we see the necessity of a God both to give meaning to the universe and knowledge of the source of life, and when we turn to the Word for knowledge of Him, He will make Himself known to us as the Source of all goodness, wisdom, and happiness.
But our recognition of Him, if it is to last, must be an ever growing one. The world, as well as the individual, advances. The Word declares, “Behold, I make all things new.” The Lord knew that the ideas which His disciples had concerning Him would not forever meet the needs of men. He told them so. He told them that the time would come when the religion built upon the disciples’ concept of Him would have added to it a further revelation. But He also declares that His Word shall endure forever. Not only is it the source of all spiritual knowledge for all men but also for all angels to eternity.
A new Word is neither necessary nor possible, but a new understanding of the Word is. We can increase forever in a deeper understanding of it and in a closer approach to the Lord. Those who love the Word, those who wish to know and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ can now prepare for that deeper advent which the Lord makes through His Second Coming.
The Advent season should mean more and more to us as time goes on. Each year should find us advanced in the knowledge of the Lord and in worship of Him. But He can do this for us only as we read and seek to understand His Word. It is by means of His Word that He comes to us, and as the letter of the Word becomes filled for us with the Divine and heavenly glories of its interior meaning and life, we come to worship the true God in spirit and in truth.
This is the new Advent to us, His coming to us in a new and fuller revelation. There is need of this deeper understanding.
As John said, “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.”