WHILE JESUS was still living in Nazareth and working in his carpenter shop, suddenly the news went through all the land that a strange man was preaching in the desert country of Judea, not far from Jerusalem; and that all the people were going out of the cities and villages to hear him.
This man was John, the son of the old priest Zacharias and his wife Elizabeth. You remember that an angel came to Zacharias while he was standing by the altar in the Temple, and told him that he should have a son, and that his name should be John. John had now grown up and was a young man about thirty years old. He had lived out in the desert places away from the cities and their crowds, so that he could be alone and think and pray and listen to the voice of God. And God had spoken to him in the desert and he had told him to preach to the people and tell them how to get ready for the Kingdom of God, which was soon to come.
John was preaching beside the river Jordan, at the foot of the mountains; and from the cities and villages everywhere the people went to listen to his words. John did not look like the men of his time. He had never cut his hair, and it hung upon his shoulders in a long lack mass. His black beard, too, was very long, for it had never been trimmed. His clothing was a skin torn from a beast or a mantle woven from the rough, shaggy hair of the camel, fastened by a leather belt around the waist. He had lived out of doors in the sun and the winds and the rain, so that his face and arms and legs and his bare feet were all brown and hard. He ate for his food the locusts which he could pick up in the fields and the woods and the honey to be found in the hollow trees. When the people looked at him, they thought of the great prophet Elijah, who many hundred years before had gone up to heaven in a chariot of fire near that very place where John was preaching, and they said wonderingly to each other:
“This must be Elijah, the fiery prophet, who has come back to earth.”
A prophet among the Israelites was a man who brought to the people the word which God had given him to speak. The books of the Old Testament, which all the people knew almost by heart, told of many prophets, such as Moses, who brought water for his people by striking the rock; Samuel, whose prayers saved the people from their enemies; Nathan, who spoke bold words to David the king; and Elisha, who had made the bitter waters of a spring sweet, had cured the leper Naaman and wrought many wonderful works. Of all the prophets, they thought Elijah the greatest, and they remembered that in the last book of the Old Testament, the book of the prophet Malachi, it was written :
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great day of the Lord shall come.”
And when the people looked at this strange man who was preaching by the river, they thought that the day of the Lord was surely coming, and that here was the prophet Elijah as had been promised.
John said to the people, in his preaching, that the Kingdom of God was near at hand and that every man must be ready for it. To make themselves ready, they were to confess their sins, to stop doing wrong and to begin to do right. As a sign of their willingness to cease from evil and to serve the Lord, they were baptized by John in the river Jordan. John said to them:
“I baptize you with water, but there is one among you, of your own people, one whom you do not know, who is greater than I, so much above me that I am not worthy to stoop down and tie his shoestrings. He will come soon; and when he comes, he will not baptize with water as I do. He will baptize you with fire and with the Spirit of God.”
He spoke further about this Greater One who was coming so soon, and said:
“He shall deal with the people as the farmer deals with his grain on the threshing floor. He will sweep the floor most carefully; the wheat he will put in his barn and the chaff he will burn up with a fire that cannot be put out.”
The people came to John and said to him:
“What shall we do to make ready for the coming of this Great King?”
John answered them :
“Let everyone do what he can to help those who are in need. If any of you have two coats, give one of them to some poor man that has no garments; and those of you who have wheat and barley, give to those who are hungry something to eat.”
Some of the men who gathered the taxes from the people for the Roman rulers came to John and said:
“What would you have us do to make ready for the coming of the King? Shall we tell the people that they are to pay no more taxes?”
“No,” answered John. “Let the people pay their taxes as before; but see that you do not make them pay more than is right, and do not rob them.”
For many of these tax-collectors (who were called publicans) took from the people more than they had a right to take, and used the people’s money for them-selves. They made themselves rich by robbing the people. Everywhere the people hated these tax-collectors, and called them “sinners.”
The soldiers and policemen came to John and said, “And what shall we do?”
John said to them:
“Do not be harsh and rough with the people. Treat everyone kindly. Be contented with your pay, and do not make the people give you money that you have no right to ask.”
These were some of the many things that John said to the people. All his words came to this: “If you are doing wrong, stop it and begin to do right. Do not be selfish, but love your fellow men and do good to them. And be ready when the King comes to obey him.”
John was called “John the Baptist” because he baptized in the river Jordan all those who promised to follow his teachings.
The leaders of the people in Jerusalem did not believe the words of John and were not baptized by him. They did not know exactly what to think of him, and they sent some priests and others to see him. These men came and asked him:
“Who are you? Are you the Christ, the promised King?”
“No,” answered John, “I am not the Christ.”
“What then?” said they. “Are you Elijah the prophet come to earth again, as some people say you are?”
“No,” answered John again, “I am not Elijah.”
“Well, then,” they said, “tell us who you are, so that we can give an answer to the rulers who have sent us.”
And John said:
“In the book of the prophet Isaiah it is written, `The Voice of him that cries in the desert : prepare ye the way of the Lord, make a straight path before him.’ I am that voice to speak to the people and make them ready for the King, who is even now among you, although you do not know him, and who will soon make himself known.”