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The Precursor.
by H. P. Liddon
from Advent in St. Paul's: 
Sermons Bearing Chiefly on the Two Comings of Our Lord, 
Volume I.  Rivingtons, London, 1889 [Second Edition, Revised]
Sermon III. for the Third Sunday in Advent.
 St. Matt. xi. 10.
For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send My messenger before
Thy face, which shall prepare Thy way before Thee.

IN the Gospels for the two last Sundays in Advent, the figure of St. John the Baptist is only less prominent than that of the coming Saviour. The Gospel for to-day apparently was not appointed on account of the message which the Baptist sent to our Lord out of his prison, but to illustrate the great position which belonged to him in relation to the history of the Redemption and of the world. Our Lord says expressly that in the Baptist the words of Malachi, (Mal. iii. 1.) which had been pondered over so anxiously by every religious Jew for four centuries, had at last their complete fulfilment. “This is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send My messenger before Thy Face, which shall prepare Thy way before Thee.” This explanation of the prophecy followed necessarily from our Lord’s own claim to be the true Messiah. If He was the Messiah, He must., the Jews knew, have had such a forerunner as had been foretold by prophecy; and there was no one who answered to this character so well as St. John, while St. John did altogether answer to it.

Until it was fulfilled, prophecy, from the nature of the case, had a vague sound in the ears of those who heard it. Each prophecy, they thought, might possibly apply to a great many persons. Each of the separate prophecies which, as we Christians see, have their fulfilment in our Lord, or His Redemption, or His Church, might have been previously supposed to apply to very different persons, works, or institutions in the future. To the Jews between Malachi and our Lord, there might have seemed to be much room for free conjecture as to who the Lord’s messenger would be; they generally believed that the Prophet Elijah (St. Matt. xvii. 10; St. John i. 21.) would return to earth and would by doing so realize the prediction. Prophecy ceases to be indefinite; it is explained, or, as we should say, it is clenched by the appearance of its object. When our Lord came, those who received Him ceased to have any doubts on the score of the prophecy of Malachi. The Baptist said of himself that he was not Elijah, when he was questioned on this head by a commission sent to him by the Sanhedrin. He meant that he was not literally that prophet returned to earth from another world. But it was, nevertheless, true that he had come in the stern religious spirit and popular power of Elijah; and so our Lord said that in the Baptist the Jewish expectations about Elijah were fulfilled. “If ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come.” (St. Matt. xi. 14.) It being granted that Jesus was what He claimed to be, it followed that St. John was the messenger sent before His Face to prepare His way before Him.


That our Lord should have had a precursor at all may at first sight seem singular; we may think that He was sufficiently His own herald and introduction, and that He could not well be recommended to the thoughts and hearts of men by one altogether His inferior. The greater may introduce the less, we say to ourselves, not the less the greater. But the arrangement before us is very much in harmony with God’s general providences. God does not seem as a rule to allow any great truth or blessing to burst upon the world without some sort of preparation. it may be urged that prophecy had already been such a preparation; that prophecy had described beforehand Christ’s Person, His Work, His Kingdom; that it had educated the Jewish people to look out for Him, or that it might well have done so; that, if it did not suffice, nothing else would suffice; and that., viewed in the light of prophecy, St. John’s mission seems to want an object, to be an unmeaning repetition of what had already been done. But prophecy itself predicts St. John. Prophecy and the Baptist were both preparations for Christ: prophecy a remote, St. John an immediate preparation. Prophecy educated religious souls among the Jews to look out for a Messiah; St. John pointed Him out to them. St. John’s business was first of all to gain the ear of his countrymen; then to say, “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand;” (St. Matt. iii. 2.) then, “Behold the Lamb of God!” (St. John i. 29.)  St. John, in the kingdom of grace, was like those gifted men in the world of thought or of practical life, who are always just ahead of the masses around them. They have the inspiration, not of supernatural grace, but of natural genius, itself a gift of God, but of a different order of value and power. They are like lofty mountains whose summits the sun has already lit up, at an hour when he has not yet risen upon the plains beneath. Truth has come to them before coming to all; it has come to them as its predestined forerunners. The speculative truth which everybody will recognize ten years hence, they see now. But they are alone on their watch-towers: if they say what they think, it is only to be smiled down as enthusiasts. The practical discovery, of which everybody will proclaim the high importance in another generation, they advocate now; amid the discouraging criticisms of friends who advise them not to risk capital upon a wild venture. The social improvement or public reform, which nobody will think of challenging when at no distant date it has become law or custom, they plead for now, when it is denounced as reaction or revolution, and is universally unpopular. Many such men will occur to our memories in modern English history. They abound in literary, in commercial, in political, in professional life. They seem to illustrate a law of God’s providence. Rarely does He so take us by surprise as to dispense with some similar preparation for that which He is going to teach us or to do for us; there are hints and indications, more or less plain, of His Work and Will. We see the signs of the Son of Man in the course of events, or in the intellectual heavens. We note the streaks of dawn which tell of the coming Day.


A work like that of St. John’s demands many high qualities; but two beyond others.

Of these the first is courage. It is not every man who has always the courage to publish the advent of truth, even if he anticipates it. In many ages it has been very perilous to do so. It has always been, and is now, more or less difficult. Many a man has fondled truth in his secret soul, comprehending its preciousness to others as well as to himself, yet not daring to proclaim it. If bodily torture or loss of goods be not before his eyes, at least there is probably a hostile block of public opinion, with its coarse weapons of denunciation, and its lighter shafts of ridicule; and he cannot bear that. He shrinks back into himself; he is willing to believe that he is modest, or incapable, or too much before his time, or too much behind it, as the case may be. He does not look his real motives in the face; and we will not be hard on him, unless we can be sure that, in his position, we should do better than he.

That St. John was courageous, it is unnecessary to say. He had no scruple in bidding the most influential classes in the country, the Scribes and Pharisees, when they came to receive his baptism, to repent. They were offended at being asked to imagine that they had anything to repent of. He warned them of the wrath to come. They had no notion that it had anything to do with them, He tore off the veil which concealed their secret ground of confidence. They were not to say within themselves that they were the descendants of Abraham; since God could, if He pleased, raise up new children to the father of the faithful out of the very stones around them. (St. Matt. iii. 7-9.) To say this to men whose genealogy was their all—to whom blood-relationship with Abraham was as precious as is living union with Christ to a Christian — required courage. And to follow it up by insisting that judgment was near; that the axe was laid to the root of the old tree of Jewish national life; and that not to bear moral and spiritual fruit was to be hewn down presently and cast into the fire; (St. Matt. iii. 10.)-this required more courage still.

The Baptist was not less brave in his dealings with the great. He was no court preacher such as there have been from time to time in Europe, who left out of his message all that might offend kingly ears. Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea was living incestuously with the wife of his brother Philip—not Philip the Tetrarch, but another son of Herod the Great, who was spending his days in retirement at Rome. The Baptist did not permit himself to excuse this breach of the Law of God, by the doctrine that kings cannot be expected to observe rules which are binding by God’s ordinance, and in conscience, upon private people. Herod, too, was under a law, whether he acknowledged it or not; and St. John simply told him the truth, which his own conscience echoed. “It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife.” (St. Matt. xiv. 4.) Those few words cost St. John his life. The vicious and sensual woman whose character was involved determined to have her revenge. St. John was thrown into a gloomy fortress on the shores of the Dead Sea, where, after a revel in which the daughter of Herodias again overruled the mind of the weak king, the fearless preacher ended his days by martyrdom. (St. Matt. xiv. 6-10.)

For courage of this description there are two necessary conditions.

First of all, there must be a firm, definite conviction that certain things are true—worth working for, worth suffering for, worth dying for. Such a conviction is the very foundation-stone of all higher moral life. When all seems hazy, indefinite, uncertain, a mere outline which fades away into the mist, a mere balance of equally poised probabilities, high moral effort is impossible. Men will not work, suffer, die, for a will-of-the-wisp, whether in matters of practical life or in matters of religious belief. And one of the evils which the modern sceptical spirit has inflicted upon this generation is that it has, beyond any other cause, impoverished our moral life. By sapping all earnest conviction as to the truth of the Creed, the trustworthiness of Holy Scripture, the mission and nature of the Christian Church, the Divine and Everlasting Person of Jesus Christ, the reality of the work of the Holy Spirit, the power and grace of the Sacraments, it has eaten out the very heart of Christian courage; it has done even more to damage the moral than the intellectual life of religion. St. John had the most sharply defined convictions, with which he went to work. He knew that a new spiritual society, to be called the Kingdom of God, was on the point of being set up upon the earth. (St. Matt. iii. 2.) He knew that his countrymen must either repent of their many sins against truth and grace, or perish. (St. Luke iii. 8, 9.) He knew that the One central Figure in human history, a Being Who existed while he himself was yet unborn, was on the point of appearing among men. (St. John i. 15-18.) What mattered it to him if Jewish mobs and Roman soldiers, if Scribes and Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians, thought otherwise? He at least must go forward, come what might; his robust conviction was the secret of his courage.

Another condition of such courage is independence. By this I do not mean want of consideration for the feelings or for the convictions of other people. The bravest men are naturally the gentlest and the most considerate; since to be courteous and forbearing towards an opponent you must be conscious of strength. By independence I mean freedom from those motives of self-interest and subservience which at critical moments stay the hand and silence the tongue of ordinary men. St. John had secured his independence from his earliest years. “He was in the deserts till the days of his showing unto Israel.” (St. Luke i. 80.) a He gave no pledges to society, to the world; he looked to it for nothing, he feared nothing that it could do. He lived as what we should call a hermit, in the barren waste which extended along the western shores of the Dead Sea; (Note: The local traditions place the scene of St. John's earlier retirement on the mountains south-west of Jerusalem, near the reputed country home of Zacharias at Ain Karim.) he was clothed, like the ancient prophets, in a camel’s skin; (St. Matt. iii. 4.) he lived upon the wild food which he could gather in the desert. (St. Matt. iii. 4.) And therefore “when Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan,” (St. Matt. iii. 5.) went out unto him, he owed this mass of civilized, wealthy, conceited, deluded people, nothing—absolutely nothing—except the truth. That which he owed he gave, without reserve, because without any fear of personal consequences. "O generation of vipers,” he cried, “who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance.” (St. Matt. iii. 7, 8.) This independence of all social fear, joined to his strong convictions of the truth of his message, made the Baptist, in his weakness, strong with the strength of the truest courage.


A second quality needed for a work like St. John’s is disinterestedness. A man may be brave, but selfish, He may work and endure, yet for himself. St. John was tried in this way, as only those can be tried who have at their command the results of courage and work. The Baptist might, as it seemed, had he so pleased, have become the founder of a religion, or at least of a religious school. Many gifted men have felt the ambition to become something of this kind. They have not felt the extreme responsibility of guiding others, or of dealing with religious truth, at all; most of all of dealing with it, as it were, out of their own heads, and making experiments in it without authority. A new invention in religion has appeared to them to be just as natural, just as legitimate, a thing as a new stroke in political life, or a new work of fiction. They have been conscious of possessing this form of power, and have not seen why they should not make the most of it. St. John the Baptist had among his disciples some who were of this mind about their master. They were anxious that he should be, and should be regarded as being, the founder of a new religious school.  It appears to be highly probable that this feeling prevailed among. them both during his lifetime and afterwards, especially at Ephesus, in the latter part of the Apostolic period, and that one object of the several notices of St. John the Baptist in the fourth Gospel was to counteract it. The disciples of the Baptist could not bear to think that the power and reputation of their beloved teacher would be eclipsed by the rising glory of Jesus of Nazareth; that his ministry would merely be the preface or introduction to that of another, aid not something complete and final in itself. But the Baptist himself had never for one moment yielded to the temptation to make capital in the way of personal influence or consideration out of his popularity. He maintained in face of the multitudes who sought him in the desert, that there came after him One Whose shoe's latchet he was not worthy to unloose; Who would baptize His people, not merely, as he himself did, in the waters of the Jordan, but with the purifying fire of the Eternal Spirit. (Jn. i. 26, 27, 33.)  The Sanhedrin in Jerusalem sent a deputation to ask him formally whether he laid claim to being the promised Messiah.  He made no such claim. He denied it. (Jn. i. 19, 20.) They asked whether he was Elijah who had returned, as the Jews expected, from the dead. He was not. (Jn. i. 21.) They pressed him with the further inquiry whether he was the Prophet of popular expectation; the Prophet whom a common misapprehension of the time saw in the famous prediction of Deuteronomy. (Deut. xviii. 15, 18.) He disclaimed the honour. (Jn. i. 21.) What was he, then? He was a message; only a message; a voice rather than a person; a man whose highest work and glory it was to forget his miserable self in the surpassing greatness of his commission from Heaven. “He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord.” (Jn. i. 23.) They asked why, if this was so, he administered a baptism, which might seem to initiate into a new religion. He explained that his baptism was a mere symbol of repentance; differing thus in its essence from a Christian Sacrament, which is a channel of grace. He was to be followed by One Who would succeed him in the order of human life, but Who had existed when as yet he himself was unborn. “He it is, Who coming after me is preferred before me: for He was before me.” (Jn. i. 15.) The Holy Ghost had taught Him, by a special revelation, Who Jesus was. His business henceforward was to forget himself; to point to the Lamb of God Which taketh away, as Isaiah had described, (Isa. liii. 5-7.) the sin of the world; to lead his own disciples to leave himself for a Master who would be more entirely worthy of their trust. When, at a later date, some of his disciples complained that Jesus baptized and all men came to him, (St. John iii. 26.) St. John replied that this was as it should be. He had never said that he was himself the Christ; they could witness it. He was not the true Bridegroom of the Church; he was only the Bridegroom’s friend, whose business it was to make all ready for the bridal procession, to rejoice in the joy of Another, and to disappear when he had done his part. (St. John iii. 28, 29.) “He must increase,” said the Baptist, speaking of our Lord, “but I must decrease.” (St. John iii. 30.) It was not a complaint; it was not even a regret; it was the simple announcement of a fact. When the Sun was rising, the morning star had performed his task; his blessed task of ushering in the Day.

Doubtless it was this union of moral qualities in St. John which constituted the secret of his attractive power. Our Lord passed in review the reasons which led men to seek John’s ministry as they did. (St. Matt. xi. 7-9.) What had they gone out into the wilderness for to see? Was it a man who bent pliantly before every gust of popular opinion; who was of one mind at home and of another abroad; vehement with his inferiors or his equals and submissive with the great; plain-spoken when what he taught was generally acceptable and reticent when it was denounced? Was he a “reed shaken with the wind”? Such men do not really help, or guide, or influence their followers; they have evidently no convictions that can be trusted. A reed shaken with the wind may be very graceful, but it is of no sort of use as a support. Were they then looking for a frequenter of the houses of the great; a man who, above all things, was a man of society; whose heart was in it, whose clothes and bearing spoke of it, whose soft raiment and delicate food meant wealth and station? Certainly St. John had relations with the Court, but they were not the relations of a courtier. He went to court, not to get honour, but to proclaim truth. Was it, then, as a prophet that the multitude had sought him? Certainly he was a prophet, and on a level with the greatest of the order. But he was also much more. More on account of his work, which was not merely to foretell Christ, but to point Him out as visibly present; more, too, by reason of the lofty magnificence of his character. Men felt in him what they could not perhaps fully explain to themselves; they felt the power of this union of courage and self-forgetfulness; they felt in it the presence of a new order of things, of a higher conception of life and destiny. In his character, as in his death, St. John was a fit precursor of the Crucified Son of God; the predestined messenger sent before His Face, to prepare His way, in men’s hearts, before Him.


To-day’s Gospel suggests, and in the order of Church services was intended to suggest, one particular lesson.

On Thursday next, being St. Thomas’s Day, this Cathedral will be the scene of an Ordination. The Bishop of London, as chief pastor of the Diocese, will publicly give ministerial character and power to a number of young men who are to do Christ’s work in this great centre of human life. This proceeding will be mentioned the next morning in all the newspapers, simply because it involves legal consequences to a great many persons. The Church being in this country connected with the State, an Ordination has the necessary effect of putting ordained persons in a new relation towards the law of the land; they acquire by it rights and privileges on the one hand, and on the other they incur liabilities and are responsible for duties which did not belong to them before. This legal transfer, then, of a number of young men from the lay to the clerical estate is a fact of public and social importance, and as such it is mentioned in the newspapers. But to a believing Christian an Ordination means a great deal more; since his eyes are opened to see more than meets the natural sight. (1 Cor. ii. 14.) He is conscious of witnessing an event in the history of the Kingdom of Heaven upon earth. To him an Ordination, if valid, as being administered by those who can do so without presumption, is of exactly the same value in an Established Church where it has great legal meaning, and in a Disestablished Church where it has none. Christ, the only Source of ministerial authority, is before the eyes of the believer, acting and speaking through His chief Minister.  Christ, Who at the first gave ministerial power to His Apostles, is as good as His Word in being still with their successors, and in making their acts His own. How much depends upon each Ordination! How much to those who are ordained! How much to those whom they are to feed and teach, until Christ calls them to their account! Each one of them is, as to-day’s Collect (Advent 3) reminds us, to be a precursor of His Second Coming; to prepare and make ready His way by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, that at His Second Coming to judge the world we may be found an acceptable people in His sight. Will they be this? Who knows, you say, the real history of a soul; what it has been in the past, what it is likely to be in the time to come? Certainly, who knows? But this at least we do know; we may do something towards settling the question. We may pray for the newly ordained. We may show interest in them. We may make them feel that we expect much at their hands; that we esteem them highly in love for their works’ sake. (1 Thess. v. 13.)  We may discourage and frown down the cowardly disposition to which men sometimes yield, to drug their own consciences, and seek a transient popularity by denying the commission which Christ has given them. “Like priest, like people.” Yes, but also, “Like people, like priest.” Expect a man to be courageous, and you have done something to make him so. If he hints to you that he doubts the truth of half the Creed which he has undertaken to teach in the Name of Christ, do not compliment him on his liberality; since he is, in truth, at once weak and worse than weak, and it would be better for him and for you if he had never entered into the sacred engagements of Holy Orders at all. Expect a noble, truthful, independent bearing in him; expect him to be above the reach of the lower motives of self-interest which control the mass of men, and you will have helped him to become what you wish to see him. Expect disinterestedness in him, and you have made it difficult for him to be selfish. Form a high ideal of his mission and work, and let him know that you have formed it; you will have done him a service for which he will one day thank you, and which will return in blessings on yourselves.

During the past fortnight” few men have occupied a more prominent place in the public thought than those accomplished physicians, whose anxious duty it has been to watch, hour by hour, over a life bound up with the future destinies of this country, at the bedside of the Prince of Wales. No doubt these distinguished men have been sustained, under the pressure of so severe a physical and mental strain, first of all and chiefly, by a sense of duty to their patient, their Sovereign, and their God. But do you suppose that they have not also been invigorated by knowing that the eyes and expectation of the whole country have been steadily fixed upon them; and that, while the result of their work is in the truest sense in higher Hands than theirs, their skill and perseverance is a matter of great concern to millions of Englishmen? Nor is it otherwise with the clergy. A sacred profession may, indeed, be reasonably expected to be more entirely under the control of the highest motives of duty than a secular one. But clergymen are, nevertheless, not a little dependent upon those to whom they minister even for that moral power which makes their ministry effective. St. Paul was never ashamed to own, even profusely, how much he owed to the generous sympathy of those whom he had won to Jesus Christ; and if you would see in the clergy of our own time something of the lofty character of St. John the Baptist, of his courage and his disinterestedness, you should remember, my lay brethren, that you are in a certain very real, although limited sense, responsible for their attaining it.

Indeed, all of us, who know any truth, and who, knowing it, owe it to others, are, whether we will or not, in our several degrees in the position of the Baptist. We have our responsibilities; even though, as it seems to us, we live in the social desert and eat locusts and wild honey. We have around us those to whom we ought to point out the Crucified Lamb of God, if we have found Him ourselves; and the nearness of His eternal Kingdom, if we know how near it is. God grant us for this work something of St. John’s spirit; of his courage and his simple devotion to the work in hand; of his freedom from thoughts of self. The end may be nearer than we think. What manner of men it will find us to be will depend in no slight degree on the degree in which we have been Christ’s messengers to those around us,—in any case by example, perhaps by precept.