John the Baptist

A Holy Supper Address by the Rev. James P. Cooper

And John was clothed in camelís hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. (MAT 3:4)

We are taught that those who approach the Holy Supper worthily are those who prepare themselves beforehand by examining themselves for some evil forbidden by the Lord in the Word, repenting of it, and then, with the Lordís help, doing it no longer. If we make the effort to prepare ourselves in this way, then the Lord will be able to be conjoined much more closely to us, for we will have made our affections and desires heavenly, the same as His; and we know that it is a law of the spiritual world that when people have similar loves and affections they are drawn closer to one another.

This same principle of preparation in order to receive the Lord can be seen in many places in the Word, especially in the Christmas story. The prophecies of the Lordís birth begin with the story of Adam and Eve succumbing to the temptation to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and they continue throughout the books of Moses, the histories, and the prophets. It should be clear that the Lord made every effort to make His intentions known so that His people could be prepared to receive Him properly, but we can also see that the Jewish Church ignored all the warnings, preferring to continue on their own way instead. This is why John the Baptist was sent: both his birth and his work served to prepare the way for the Lord, so that those who at heart wanted to hear His teachings would know that the time had come. Through the miracle of Johnís birth to Elizabeth and Zacharias, the great silence was broken, and the people were warned to look for angelic messages once again, especially those announcing the birth of the Messiah. Later, by his work, John served to notify people that it was now time for them to look to the course of their lives, to bring themselves into order so that they might receive the new teachings of the Messiah.

In order to understand how John the Baptist was able to fulfil his role in the Lordís first coming, and to understand his symbolic role in our own states, we need to understand the symbolism of the major events and characteristics of Johnís life. John the Baptist represented the Word, but because of his rough and wild appearance, he especially represented the Word as to its letter, its external stories.

John began preaching in the wilderness of Judea to represent how each of us begins life in something of a spiritual wilderness because of our spiritual ignorance. Like John, all we have is our rough clothing and food, the simple basic truths that were given to us by our parents. Everyone is at first introduced to the Word through its stories about Abraham, Joseph, David, Jonah, and Jesus. Many of the stories involve war, other acts of violence, or vivid descriptions of sin and its punishment. Children particularly love such stories for they are exciting and produce powerful mental images, but as we become adults, we begin to wonder how it can be that stories about Davidís wars with the Philistines can have much to do with "real life." As we become more thoughtful, we wonder how to deal with the apparent contradictions that appear between the Old and New Testaments.

We all, at some point in our lives, wonder at the Scriptures. We question whether or not they are true, whether or not we should guide our lives by them, how they can help us in our times of difficulty. Each time our states are such that we no longer trust or understand the Word, we are back in the wilderness state, and we can only return from it by turning to the basic simple truths that are the foundations of our faith.

We also wonder at the scriptures because they are so unlike what we may think they should be. We expect the Word of God to be elegant, and clear, and powerful, just as the Jews wanted and expected their Messiah, their new king to come in purple robes and with great riches, giving gifts to all the people. But instead, their first warning of the coming King came through a man preaching repentance in the wilderness, dressed in camelís hair clothing, wearing a leather belt, and eating locusts and honey.

John wore camelís hair clothes in order to represent the Divine Truth of the Word in its external, natural form, as it first appears to men, for the natural sense is like a clothing or covering for the internal sense within. His leather belt was used to hold his garment together, and so it represents the external bond that connects and keeps interior things in order. If, whenever we opened a copy of the Word, it was immediately obvious that it was the Word of God, if the Divine Truth shone forth in such a way that no one could question its Divinity, then we would no longer be spiritually free, for if we could clearly see and understand that the Word was the Divine Truth itself, and we did not follow it to the letter, we would profane, we would become spiritual lepers, and that would be far worse than failing to see the Divine within the Scripture as it presently exists and fumbling along without specific guidance.

As Johnís clothing was representative, so was his food, because food represents spiritual nourishment from truths from the Word. The locusts that he ate represent the most general truths (for example, that there is a God, that He created the universe, that He is our Heavenly Father, that the good will be rewarded with eternal life, and so forth), and the wild honey represents the pleasure that one has from knowing these things to be true. That John ate locusts describes our own states when we begin to learn the simplest, most general truths of the Word, and the wild honey stands for the pleasure we feel in making these truths our own. These simple truths form the foundation for our further understanding of spiritual things, and so are extremely important. All the interior things that we will later learn and use to form the spiritual degrees of our mind must rest on these simple, basic truths. All things in the spiritual world must have a foundation in order to continue and subsist. This is another reason why the sense of the letter of the Word is so base and common in its letter, so much so that it is even natural and sensual: it must be so, for it serves as a foundation for all the spiritual and interior truths within. This why John the Baptist ate locusts.

The New Testament tells us that John preached to many people, and we know that he was preaching to them to prepare the way for the Lord, but it is interesting to note that almost nothing of what he said was recorded. All that we know is that he preached repentance in the face of the coming judgement. He was not calling the people to a new church, to a new doctrine, but he was actually calling them to renew their commitment to life in obedience to the Mosaic law Ė he was challenging them to become good Jews!

In our own lives, the ministry of John the Baptist stands for our attempt to deal with the temptations of the life of faith alone for ourselves. We all are tempted to feel that it is enough to know the truth, and consequently to try to avoid doing what we know to be good. Itís seldom deliberate, though. Usually we avoid charity by finding other things to do instead. We say we are going to call on a sick friend, but something comes up at work thatís less trouble to do, but still gives us an excuse for not going Ė so we donít. We must always be aware of this tendency to avoid what we know we should do, because we will be known to others by what we actually do, not what we say we are going to do. It is a valid observation that in general, we all do just what we love to do, that is, our loves become apparent to others by our activities and choices.

This lesson is made very clear by Johnís teaching about the tree, that any tree that did not produce good fruits would be cut down and cast into the fire. The "fruits" of the tree signify the goods that a man does out of love or charity, while trees represent manís internal states. "Fire" means the lust pertaining to love of self and love of the world, and the "smoke" therefrom means falsity from evil.

Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from our study of John the Baptist and the things that he did to prepare the way for the Lordís coming on earth is that we donít need to wait until we understand every detail of the Writings to begin our own repentance: repentance is the actually the very first state, our introduction to the church. The only doctrine we need to begin repentance are those doctrines John himself represents, the simple, external truths of the letter of the Word Ė stories that we learned in childhood. Learning and understanding more interior truths comes later. There is sufficient depth in the Word for us to learn new things from it to eternity, and the doctrines tell us that the only thing that prevents any person from understanding the deepest secrets of spiritual truth is his own evils. Insofar as anyone shuns evils as sins, the Lord will flow into his mind with an ever growing understanding of spiritual things.

As we prepare ourselves for the sacrament of the Holy Supper, Johnís teachings remind us that our first obligation to the Lord, if we wish to enter heaven, is to bring our own lives into order. We need to compare the course of our lives to the path that had been laid out for us by our Creator and where we deviate from His course, we need to repent of our errors and correct our course. Only then can the Lord can enter our minds and hearts and teach us the new truths. And the miracle is that as we begin to live these new truths, as we cease to do evil and learn to do well, as we bring forth the "fruits" of charity towards others, then we are becoming reborn and regenerated; then for the first time the church is being formed within us, and we can be truly called Christian.

Weíll close today with Johnís simple exhortation for us to live in simple charity and brotherhood, for that is what prepares the way for the Lord to be present with us, to be born into our hearts.

So the people asked him, saying, "What shall we do then?" He answered and said to them, "He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise." Then tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, "Teacher, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Collect no more than what is appointed for you." Likewise the soldiers asked him, saying, "And what shall we do?" So he said to them, "Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages." (Luke 3:10-14) Amen.


First Lesson: MAT 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, {2} and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" {3} For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying: "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ĎPrepare the way of the LORD; Make His paths straight.í" {4} And John himself was clothed in camelís hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. {5} Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him {6} and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins. {7} But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, "Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? {8} "Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, {9} "and do not think to say to yourselves, ĎWe have Abraham as our father.í For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. {10} "And even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. {11} "I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. {12} "His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." Amen.

Second Lesson: TCR 688-9

It is written in Malachi, Behold, I send My messenger, and he shall prepare the way before Me; and the Lord whom ye seek shall suddenly come to His temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye long for. Who will abide the day of His coming, and who will stand when He shall appear? (iii. 1, 2).

And again, Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet, before the great and terrible day of Jehovah comes; lest I come and smite the earth with a curse (iv. 5, 6).

And Zacharias the father, prophesying of his son John, says, Thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Most High; for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to make ready His ways (Luke i. 76).

And the Lord Himself says of this same John, This is he of whom it is written, Behold, I send My angel before Thy face, who shall prepare Thy way before Thee (Luke vii. 27).

From all this it is clear that this John Was the prophet sent to make ready the way of Jehovah God, who should descend into the world and accomplish redemption; and that be made ready that way by baptism, and by announcing the coming of the Lord; and that without such preparation all on earth would have been smitten with a curse and would have perished.

689. The way was prepared by the baptism of John, because by means of that baptism, as shown above, men were introduced into the future church of the Lord, and in heaven were inserted among those who were there looking for and longing for the Messiah; and they were thus guarded by angels, that devils from hell might not break forth and destroy them....

From all this it is clear that unless a way had been made ready for Jehovah when He was descending into the world, by means of baptism, the effect of which in heaven was to close up the hells and guard the Jews against total destruction [they would all have perished].... Amen.


 

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