The Light of the World
A panorama of the way of Christ
1. Herald in the Wilderness
It is two thousand years since a man came on the stage to play a part in the great drama of human history. He claimed to be the Light of the world, to be the Truth and the Way in which men and women must walk if they want to live in peace and security, with hope and confidence in a future in which existing evils would be finally eradicated. For centuries many have endeavoured to walk in that light, to seek the paths of truth and righteousness that lead to abundant life; yet the aspect of the world, with its brilliantly lit streets and stores of knowledge, is still dark. All the evils of which darkness is a symbol abound, while the good for which light is a symbol is often opposed. That light, neglected and ignored, shines on as it did in those early days of crisis and confusion when the thinking part of the population hardly knew what to do or which way to turn. To them came the voice of a prophet recalling them to a sense of duty. He came to prepare the way, to herald the coming of One greater than himself. It was a period of change, the end of an era when old things were passing away. In what appeared to be wilderness conditions the prophet raised his voice. His words were the introduction to an age of grace and salvation, to light and truth, to a new revealing of God's concern with man by the example and sacrifice of the One he had chosen to be the Light of Men. "The voice of one crying in the wilderness" (John 1.23).
A wilderness is a place, uncultivated, uninhabited by human beings. Nature, untrained by the hand of man, runs riot producing a pathless, tangled tract which leads nowhere and serves no purpose, except as a haunt for those less attractive birds and beasts which shun the light of day. To be lost in a howling wilderness is a grim and depressing experience. Yet the herald of Christ, coming out of his desert abode to make known the approach of One who would be great in history, described himself as one making his proclamation in the wilderness, where there were none to listen or respond to his message. To run around in a pathless waste, shouting out good news to wild, unheeding Nature, seems a deplorable waste of energy. John might well have wondered what he was about, if, after all his youthful discipline, his preaching fell on deaf ears. The society of his day had become decadent, its religion a mere formalism, a lifeless system of creed and ritual. People were confused, groping as the half-blind in a twilit pathless place where there was no order, purpose or fruitfulness. Futility, discouragement and apathy is the general air of a wilderness. In such conditions do peoples exist when there is no vision, no aim, no light, no drive, no knowing what they are doing or where they are going.
A wilderness is not a dead thing. It grows, often in rampant luxury. Its very vigour is often the source of its most ensnaring entanglements. The traveller forced to proceed through its territory has to hack a way through climbers and creepers which snatch at arms and legs. Low branches smack him in the face and jutting stones trip his feet. A wilderness is no exaggerated picture of an affluent, knowledgeable society, undisciplined, without faith and without vision, each man going his or her own way, with a general contempt for law and order and a complete disregard for all that is lovely and of good report. These latter things thrive in a well ordered society, in the full light of day, while the dense underworld which crowds the floor of the wilderness stretches out its vigorous tentacles in a secretive gloom.
Whatever the facade of John's world, to his trained senses it was a wilderness. His was a lone voice crying among a people walking in darkness. He stood at a crossroads in history. A pagan age was dying of it's own corruption. A new one was about to take its place and he hailed it with stirring enthusiasm. Few took him seriously. Like many prophets he created a sensation. Power and intrigue were at hand to silence him. Those who might have benefited by his words plunged heedlessly on to greater perils.
So it has been with most of God's messengers. They have cried in the wilderness to the deaf and the blind that have preferred the entanglements and deceptions of this world. Lonely, discouraged, opposed, they might well doubt both mission and message but for the glorious example of their forerunners who spoke up loud and strong for a better way and a better day. The echoes of those lone voices crying in the wilderness of man's bewilderment come to us out of the past with an urgent message for the present to 'Labour on!'
Go labour on! 'tis not for nought
Thine earthly loss is heavenly gain.
Men heed thee, love thee, praise thee not,
The Master praises—what are men?
Toil on, and in thy toil rejoice.
No toil for Him shall be in vain.
"Make straight the way of the Lord" (John 1.23 NRSV). There was no way through the wilderness, no road upon which wayfarers might travel, sure of their direction and their destination. John, crying in the wilderness of human gloom and perplexity, called upon his hearers to bestir themselves, to get to work, to clear a path, to make a way through the entangling growths which caught and ensnared them into ever deeper perplexities. The way he called upon them to make was no ordinary track serving as a makeshift means of getting nowhere in particular. It was the way of the Lord, the King's highway, which he wanted them to build of strong, enduring substance.
The highways of the world are well known and well named. Far from being temporary structures they have existed from ancient days, carved originally through the waste lands of the earth permanent roads over which history, merchandise and men have travelled on their varied errands to a known destination. John, looking on the world around him, saw it as a wasteland without a highway and without an aim. There was only a confused running around, with no future, no way to anywhere. Such times are ripe for change. A new vision appears to the eyes of men tired of the outworn past. New hope, new ideas will spur people on to enthusiastic endeavours. The foremost will hack a way through the jungle to some new and nobler prospect, and feebler souls will travel on behind in safety and confidence.
The call is a challenge. It is not merely a stimulus to survival but an act of renewal. New work for a new goal is the preparation for a new mode of life. In a personal way, on an individual scale, the call comes at a crisis in life to get up and get going, to get something done, to start out on a new venture. Such pave the way that others looking on may take heart and venture also on a fresh start and some useful work.
Nations have their prophets and their call to cut through the wilderness of waste and confusion to a nobler and better life where even the simple may walk safely. John was clearing a way, casting up a highway for a King, whose advent brought new light and life, new goals and visions to mankind. That age is ending again in the wilderness. Yet once more the voice of the prophet cries out "Make way, cast up a highway! Cut through the entanglements, the snares, the stifling growth, throw out the stones. Prepare the way, not for any earthly title but for our God". "For every valley shall be exalted, every mountain and hill, made low; the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain."
What is this but a blossoming, rejoicing wilderness, a new vision, a new hope, a new life, a new world; the voice of One crying "All things new", "for the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together"? When that which is old is on its last legs, staggering with weakness and confusion, the new, vigorous, glowing with health, is already at the door, and expectant hearts lift up their voice in song.
"Behold the Lamb of God which takes away the sin of the world" (John 1.29). When John saw Jesus walking towards him at the river Jordan, he immediately identified Him as the Lamb of God, whose mission was to take away the sin of the world. John pointed to a person, to one man with a special title that endowed Him with life saving qualities. The nation of Israel were well aware of the Passover lamb by whose blood they had been preserved when the angel of death was abroad over the land of Egypt. Every year each family commemorated that deliverance, but the ritual did not preserve them from the failings, the sicknesses and death common to man. They were still in a wilderness state, groping for a way and a place, subject to Caesar, to all the miseries of foreign rule. Their problems were less moral and physical than national. Freedom from taxation and a hated yoke of government was their chief concern. Yet John, a prophet and a patriot, did not speak of taxes, of sectarianism or of political intolerance. He spoke of sin, enlarging the race of his own people into that of all races. He did not say "Behold a king, a leader, a deliverer", but "Behold the Lamb of God, which takes away the sin of the world". It probably was a disappointing statement after such fiery oratory as had brought the crowds out to be baptized in the swiftly flowing Jordan. Sin would be no more a likeable word then than it is now. Whatever name is given to the misdeeds of men, they are still the root cause of all human tribulation. Man's inhumanity to man has half a dozen substitute names for sin, but it is still the words and actions of depraved human nature which make the race suffer.
To take away all that is crooked, cruel and unjust is a sublime vocation and one man was chosen for that high office. Could that generation have seen then, as now this age might see, that the selfishness of sin is the evil root of all the world's troubles, they would gladly have plucked it out that the plant of goodness might dispense instead its fruitful blessings. Goodness is not a thing to be jeered at but a Divine alchemy whose mystical properties can transform the heart of man and through him the entire world from a state of hideous jungle to a planet of abounding peace and plenty. The Lamb of God went about doing good. His spirit of compassion, of giving, of simplicity and truth was God's answer to the world's evils of hatred, cruelty, greed, ambition, selfishness and falsehood.
"Behold the Lamb!" Could we have looked on Him as people then looked upon Him we should not have seen the knitted brows, the tight lips, the jutting jaws, the proud spirit of those leaders of men whose blunders have made the angels weep. He was one over whom they sang with joy, innocent as his title implied, benign, a man of peace and prayer, man of moral and spiritual power, the friend of children, of the outcasts of society, of the widows and the weary, of the sick and sorrowing. He walked with dignity, His face serene, His hands full of healing, His voice stronger than the elements, His word laden with wisdom and life. Wherever His penetrating eye fell sin fled before Him. Only a king of that calibre is fit to rule the world. Only His goodness can prevail against the world's sin and wickedness. Only His love has the power to make the human race into one agreeable whole without destroying one vestige of the individual personality. Behold the Lamb of God! He whom saints have followed for twenty centuries will yet take earth's government upon His shoulder.
"What seek you?" (John 1.38) Man, during his chequered history, has sought for many things, for silver and gold, for precious gems, for new continents, for the sources of great rivers, for things long extinct which reveal the primeval nature of the great globe he inhabits. The elixir of life with its promise of eternal youth, the philosopher's stone with its promise easy wealth, the secrets of sea and sky, of life and death are some of those quests which the dedicated have followed with all the tenacity of the knight who sought the Holy Grail.
"But the best courage man has ever shown
Is daring to cut loose and think alone,
To seek for truth as blind men grope for light."
In the days of John, the last of Israel's prophets, centuries of heathen philosophy enclosed the world in a pagan twilight. Such worship of the one true and living God as there had been had deteriorated into mere lip service. The preaching of John had stirred thoughtful minds from their indifference. When he pointed out a Man greater than himself, two young men who were his disciples noted that man and followed Him. Jesus turned and saw them coming after Him. He did not on this occasion ask, whom do you seek, but what? The young men wished to talk with Him, to ask questions, to hear His answers. What they sought was knowledge of a special kind, which they felt He had, a knowledge not to he obtained in the public thoroughfares but in private, so they replied simply, "Master, where do you live?" Graciously they were invited to His lodging place, where they stayed with him one whole day learning from the lips of One who spoke the words of God in the simple language of men and Nature, secrets hidden hitherto from the wise and prudent.
What they discovered in that interview became apparent in their lives in after years. As Jews they sought the King of Israel, and their questions no doubt turned on Israel's future, but as men they sought life. Later in His ministry when men began to forsake Him because His words and deeds were not those of a military leader, He gave these young men a chance to go with them. It was then that one of them revealed the true object of their search in the words "To whom shall we go, you have the words of eternal life."
Knowledge, however ample, falls short of the ultimate. The old passes away as the new makes itself known. Wealth fails to satisfy the heart and health eventually succumbs to the weakness of age and the earth takes back her dust. What then is left to man worthy the seeking that will outlast time and his own feeble frame? What will satisfy the deep places of the heart, uplift his spirit, fortify his mind and make him one forever with the great fountain of life and light which owns and controls the vast, mysterious universe? Men have sought and found many strange inventions, affording a temporary pleasure or producing long-lasting evils. Only one search has found that power which enables man to triumph over both the best and the worst of this world. Those who followed Jesus to his dwelling found it in what He said, "The words I speak to you, they are spirit and they are life." "What seek you?" If life in everlasting measure, there is only one source.
Christ the blessed one gives to all
Wonderful words of life
Brother list to his loving call
All so freely given,
Blessed boon from heaven
Beautiful words! Wonderful words!
Wonderful words of life.