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PREACHING OF ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST.
[Preached at the Cathedral, Calcutta, Dec. 21, 1823.]
St. John i. 20.
He confessed and denied not, but confessed “ I am not the Christ."
About the middle of the long reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, when all mankind were in hushed and anxious expectation of that Great Deliverer whom both Jewish and Pagan prophecies had foretold as about this time to make his appearance upon earth ; a new and mighty teacher of morality appeared in the wilderness of Judæa. His dress, his voice, his aspect, were the image of austere holiness, and of the then almost forgotten severities of the ancient prophets and penitents. His hair and beard, unshorn, after the pattern of the Nazarites, hung wildly over his breast and shoulders; his half-naked body was macerated with frequent fasting; his raiment was the coarse hair cloth which covered the Arab's tent; his food, the insects of the air and of the field; and his luxury, the honey left by wild bees in the sun-burnt rocks of Arabia Petræa.
He was recognized as John, the son of a Jewish priest, whose birth had, some thirty years before, been announced by repeated miracles ; foretold by an angel, preceded by a miraculous dumbness and followed by a miraculous cure; whose boyhood and youth had, from the first, been strange and solitary, and who had fled from the amusements natural to his age,
and the pursuits appropriate to his station, to the dismal and dangerous retreat of the waste and howling wilderness: till now, in the full vigour of his mind, and sublimed and purified by a life of meditation, he took his station at the ford of Bethabara, and, in words full of power and dignity, called on his countrymen to escape from the wrath to come.
The ford of Bethabara, which he selected for this first appearance, was a place of all others best calculated for the double purpose of a popular teacher and a severe and habitual ascetic. Only six miles from Jericho, and in the high road from Jerusalem and the sea coast to the wealthy cities of Gadara and Aræopolis, a celebrated prophet was, in such a situation, seldom likely to want an audience; while the waters of Jordan, its marshes, and the adjacent wilderness, not only suited his mission as a Baptist, but were favourable also to the austerities and occasional secessions from the world which became the character of one who mourned for the world's transgressions.
Nor was the ford of Bethabara recommended by such considerations only. With St. John and with
the Jews it might, probably, weigh still more, that it was by this very passage, which was regarded as a figurative baptism, that their ancestors under Joshua, (himself, both in name and office, the type of a more illustrious Teacher,) had gone through the stream of Jordan, and, not without a miracle, had entered into their promised Canaan. And, as the scene of Elijah's occasional residence and miracles, as the visible instrument in the cleansing of Naaman, and as the favourite retreat, during the independence of the Israelitish state, of the most popular prophets and their scholars, there is reason to believe that both the river and the lake of Tiberias had acquired a sort of sacred character, and that the pilgrimages which Christians make thither are little more than the relics of a similar practice among the Jews.
The time, moreover, of St. John's appearance was no less favourable to his renown than the station which he had chosen. I have said that all mankind, and not the Jews alone, were at this period in still and anxious expectation of a mighty sovereign and conqueror to be born in the land of Judah ; and I repeat the observation, because there are few facts in history more certain (though many of much less consequence are far more generally attended to,) than that amongst the heathen also, and more particularly in the Roman world, there were extant books of supposed divine authority, and which, so far as we have any account of them, gave an almost similar description of the future Messiah with that which is read to the present day in the prophetic writings of the Old Testament.
I am well aware, indeed, that the work which now bears the name of the Sibylline prophecies, is marked by many strong internal proofs as a forgeryof far later date than the reign of Augustus or Tiberius, and composed when the worship of the cross and the other superstitions of the middle ages, had already made considerable progress. But that books were in existence, under the name of the Sibylline Oracles and the Prophecies of Hydaspes, which spoke many strange and many true things of Christ and of His kingdom, is proved, by the testimony of the most ancient apologists for Christianity, as allowed by the heathen themselves to be ancient and inspired documents, and yet in favour of the Christians. It is in part confirmed by Cicero, who, when, for a political purpose, depreciating the authority of the Sibylline books, observes as a reason why they were not to be followed, that they contained doctrines contrary to the established systems of idolatry and polytheism'. And it is still more confirmed by that well known and remarkable Eclogue of Virgil, which strangely corresponds with the leading chapters of Isaiah, and which, whatever its immediate occasion may have been, and however the flattery of the poet may have led him to apply to one of the Cæ
1 Cic. de Div. lib. i. s. 54.
sarean family expressions of a nobler import, has avowedly borrowed its ornaments and metaphors from traditions or prophecies then actually current among his countrymen .
The subject is one not easily exhausted, and it is one to which I may hereafter recur.
It is important in many respects, not only as, so far as it extends, a confirmation of Christianity, but as presumptive evidence, (when coupled with the prophecy of Balaam, the Epiphany of the Persian Magi, and the many circumstances in the Brahminical creed, which strangely border on our own,) that the coming of Christ was more widely made known, and the manifestation of the Spirit less limited in ancient times than Jews and Christians are apt to believe, and that the mercies of God through His Son, as they were intended for all, so they were made effectual to many, for whom, in the midst of their heathen darkness, our human wisdom would be at a loss to provide security.
But my present reason for mentioning the fact, is to point out the advantages with which the son of Zacharias began his mission, and the facilities which he possessed (had he thought fit to employ those facilities) for assuming any title or character which the wildest ambition might have dictated.
All Judea, in fact, (we learn it from profane as well as from sacred authorities) was excited and alarmed at his appearance. The priests and