When the King Came: Stories from the Four Gospels - George Hodges

The Herald Speaks

All this time, while the King was growing out of boyhood into manhood, the King's herald was in the wilderness.

The little John must have stayed at home till he was as much as twelve years old. His father and mother would not have allowed him to go off alone till he was at least as old as that. It may be that during these years the little King and the little herald met. For their mothers were related, and Mary visited Elisabeth before either of the children was born. Elisabeth may have visited Mary at Nazareth, bringing John with her.

John's father and mother, you remember, were very old. They may have died while the lad was in his tender years. He may have gone to the wild woods because there was nobody at home to look after him. But there was a better reason. He went into the wilderness because he was told to go by a voice which he heard in his soul. Even as a little boy, he heard it calling him and calling him. And as he grew older, he was able to make out what it said.

The voice told him that the King was coming. But that was no secret: many people knew that, and were waiting for him to appear. The voice told him that he, the little John, was to be the herald of the King. But this, too, he knew before. His father and mother had told him many times the beautiful story of the angel at the altar, and of the message which was brought from heaven. He knew that he was to go before the King and prepare his way in the hearts of the people, preaching like Elijah. Then the voice told him to go into the wilderness. Little by little, he came to understand that he was not to be a minister like his father, nor a carpenter like his uncle, nor a fisherman like his cousin, but was to spend a great part of his life as a hermit. He was not to live in a house, nor walk about in the streets of towns, but was to be a man of the woods, living all by himself, under the sky and the trees. Thus he was to prepare himself to be the herald of the King.

For no serious work can be done without preparation. Not even a game of ball can be well played without knowing the game and practicing it often. Not even a school examination can be passed without getting ready for it by hard study. Nobody can be a motorman without learning how, or a soldier without being drilled. Thus the boy John would first study the life of the woods. He would spend his holidays camping among the hills. He would learn how to make a hut, and how to get fire by rubbing sticks together, and how to find food and cook it, and how to see his way where there was no path. He would get acquainted with the habits of the wild bees, so as to know where they kept their honey, and how to take it without getting stung. He would get his mother to teach him how to make grasshopper cake. He would make friends with the wild animals, so that he might live safely in their neighborhood. Thus he would prepare himself to be a hermit.

But that was only the beginning. All his hermit life was meant to prepare him to be the herald of the King. In order to be the herald of a king one must know the king when he appears. And in order to know the King of Glory it was necessary to have a pure heart, and to be accustomed to the presence of God. So years went by, and John still lived in the depths of the woods. He cared little about what he had to eat or to drink, and was not at all particular about his clothes. He devoted himself wholly to God, saying his prayers in the face of the stars and of the sun, feeling and seeing God in the wonderful world about him, and trying in every way to increase in the knowledge and the love of God. And that went on till John was thirty years of age.

Then, one day, the voice which had called him into the woods told him that it was time for him to go out. "Come," said the voice, "and stand beside the river. There speak to all who pass by, saying that the King is coming, and that if they wish to see him they must first make their hearts clean of sin, and as a sign of it they must have their bodies washed in the running water; they must be baptized. And, presently, among the company, you will find the King himself. You will see the Spirit descending upon him."

So John went out and stood beside the river Jordan. There was no bridge, but the stream was shallow and the road ran through the river. People were coming and going, wading across the ford. The wilderness came near the edge of the water, a tangle of tamarisks and willows, and there were stones along the bank, and reeds in the wet places. John was a strange figure, his long hair falling upon his shoulders and his long beard falling upon his breast, a great rough cloak of coarse yellow cloth about him, made of camel's hair, and tied about his waist with a belt of leather. Coming from his long stay in the wild woods, and standing there in his youth and strength with his long staff in his hand, his face browned by the sun and the breeze, and a look in his eyes as of one who had seen God, he was a strange and striking person, and everybody stopped to see and hear him. Day by day, the crowd increased about him.

There were country people going in to market, and city people going out to see their farms. There were soldiers in the uniform of the Roman army, and publicans who collected the Roman taxes: men whom most people hated, for the Romans had conquered the land and held it by force of arms. There were those who came from curiosity, having been told that a wild man was saying wild things at the ford of the Jordan. There were those who came hoping to find a man of God, and finding him indeed; and among them several young fishermen from the Lake of Galilee, of whom we shall hear much again. There were those who were living lives of sin, daily breaking the Ten Commandments. There were messengers from the great people, from the governor and the chief priests, from the leaders of the temple and of the synagogue, Sadducees and Pharisees, to ask John who he was, and to carry back word to their masters. Indeed, outside the crowd, but within hearing, were some of the great people themselves, who had come to see with their own eyes and to hear with their own ears. To all these the herald spoke, in a loud voice, telling them that One whom they knew not stood among them, even the King of Glory; and baptizing all who repented of their sins.