There are sharp-corner turnings in human history on this planet. More often than not, those changes are announced by strange and apparently unimportant and isolated events. Not caused by those events, but declared by those events. For instance, on the twenty-eighth of June 1914, in the obscure town of Sarajevo in eastern Europe, an archduke was killed. That event heralded the beginning of the first great war, and the world was to be forever altered. New eras arrive almost unbelievably, and the direction history is about to take is an almost unfathomable mystery. Years ago I came very near the city of Troas, which lies in the northwestern part of Asia. The apostle Paul came to that city and looked back eastward toward Bithynia and Galatia. For so long the center of history had focused there. A vision came to him, he said, urging him to turn westward, toward Macedonia, and so the gospel moved westward up through Europe and out to the new world. Suppose Paul had turned eastward toward the Russian steppes bearing the precious seed of the gospel. What would have been the course of history?
New eras, new ages appear among men, and they do not come by human reckoning but by God’s will. There is an incurable disease among human beings, especially those who at the moment are in power, which convinces them that they will continue in power forever. In Thomas Bailey’s exhaustive work on our United States presidents, entitled Presidential Greatness, he quotes one of our presidents as anticipating the thousandth generation of Americans. What amazing self-assurance! We shall need to bring forth better fruits for our repentance. A German leader’s comment that God is on the side of the nation with the largest battalions should be judged in the light of what happened to him and his armies. God speaks in the language of events, and people find themselves made or broken by the side on which they stand.
Who would have given a plugged nickel in support of what John the Baptist stood for as over against the people who seemed to be in power? Luke seems to be deliberately stating how impossible was the case for this wilderness creature as he recites the time when John appeared in his public ministry. “The fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,” and one immediately is aware of the purple of royalty, the invariably obeyed command of the emperor, armies, palaces, courtiers. “Pontius Pilate, being governor,” and there occurs before the imagination the delegated authority of the second line of government. “Herod being tetrarch,” and one senses the oriental splendor of an iniquitous king and his family moving in great luxury. If the air was foul and stifling in political circles, it was scarcely clearer or fresher in the church. “Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests,” conniving politicians they were, dividing the immense power which went with religious authority. At first blush, you would think the writer has said all that can be said about authority and power and the future. The truth is that when he recites the list of these leaders of state and religion, the writer is only clearing ground for something important to which he wants to get. These rulers with all their fancied authority and regal splendor are a part of the scenery for something really momentous and important. “The Word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness.”
How odd of God to bypass the correct people and to speak to this crank in the wilderness. John did not fit the description of a reliable public figure. He lacked many of the expected features of an acceptable person. First, he was not as affable and social as a normal person should be. He lived in the solitude of the desert. He was a brooding man with strange wheels turning in his head, the fashionable people of Jerusalem said. His dress was odd, to say the least. The word was that he wore camel’s hair, not the refined cloth which we call camel’s, but the actual hair of the camel. Now, every respectable person wore regular cloth. His diet, well, the rumor was that he ate the old food of the poor, locusts mixed with honey from bees. He was “way out.” God marches among us in weird ways and puts the shout of his approach upon strange lips. Many of us are likely to be enraged by those who hear drumbeats, not audible to our ears, but which may be announcement of the future.
I know how distressed many older people are with many young people. What with their strange abruptness and peculiar styles of dress and life and, oh, surely, there is much wrong with them, not least of which is that arrogance which seems to be youth’s disease and from which preceding generations have not been notably spared. At the same time, may it not be that many of these young people have caught hold of a special vision, distorted by their youthful optimism and oversimplification to be sure, but still a splendid vision? Perhaps they have seen accurately too many of the shams and pretenses of their elders, for heaven knows my generation lived so long, so comfortably with so much that was wrong in this country—poverty, hunger, racism, war.
I know as I look at John the Baptist and Elijah and Moses and Paul and, yes, Jesus, that the changes of God seldom come from nice people. So anxious to be proper they cannot be passionate. Now, there is a virtue in preserving the hard-won gains of the community. There must be some stable institutions which house and protect the best insights of the past.
We have in this country a lot of people who claim to be Christians and, in a sense, are, I suppose. But they are as far away from the fresh winds of God as one pole from the other. They want nothing but comfort in their religion. They can think of nothing more important than that something has been done a certain way all along. That kind of congregation dismisses its ministers and rejects the fellowship of its denomination because it does not want to be disturbed or to have mentioned to it what is wrong. Things like civil rights and all that. They want to hear only about peace of mind and the joy of salvation. To have such a mood is not necessarily fickle. Institutions and individuals may not be able to face up and to march boldly toward the future. They may be in love with the past, but they can, by God’s grace and their own effort, serve the things of God; if they will midwife the future, offering deliverance for its ideas, tolerating the awkward business of the future’s birth, they may still serve God. At the same time, the direction of God’s purposes will not wait on our convenience or our agreement. The announcement that something new is about to take place will come. If the church will not trumpet it, the school will. If the school will not, the theater will or a man standing alone will.
God will be heard, and so a man named John in the wilderness was crazy enough to feel called of God, not to be a spokesman for his own small ideas. This is the curse of so many of our pulpits, but a spokesman for the everlasting God must articulate God’s ideas. John was not in the business of echoing the popular cliches and moods of the day. The mighty pressures of God played upon his life. His words were swift and sharp like lightning. Clear and blazing like the noonday desert sun. He was not talking the petty wisdom distilled from the waters of his own observation, little scraps of human shrewdness. He saw mighty events, momentous anticipations of incredible things about to happen. The kairos had come, the moment of truth, of divine invasion was impending. A sharp and radical change was about to take place. There is an expectancy, natural and exciting, which comes to the true person of God. The everlasting God is not prisoner of what has already happened. Something new is about to take place. John saw it clearly. “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” Make his path straight. Every valley shall be exalted. Let low swamps of prejudice and passion and pettiness be lifted. Let cliffs of pride and haughtiness be leveled. Every mountain shall be brought low. This was what we can do. We cannot bring to pass the things God will have happen. We can open up the highways upon which his purposes might move. This our calling.
Words of Gardner Taylor