Flannery O’Connor once said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.” Ever see someone with a Mohawk? Someone dressed in Gothic? Dark makeup all over their face. Cape like clothing. In fact there is a couple in northeast Wichita that drive a hearse around as a regular car. The Punk Rock look with all of the fluorescent colors and spiked hair. The fad of tattoos. The body piercing. And then there was John the Baptist. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Mark is the oldest of the four gospels that we have. Mark is the only one of the four writers that calls his writing a “gospel.” He states his theme in the opening sentence, The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. From that point on he defends that stance. But Mark more than any other gospel writer makes Jesus very personal. Mark has no apparent interest in the supernatural birth of Jesus. Mark jumps into the adult life of Christ, but begins with John the baptizer.
The gospel always begins with a messenger, whether it is an angel whispering in Mary’s ear, a parent telling a child a story, or an odd prophet standing waist deep in a river. It is noticeable that John is nowhere near a church! His message is so different and so radical that he must preach it outside the “normal” church. Those who insisted on staying inside the church never heard his message. Only those who were willing to enter the wilderness got to taste his freedom.
It is amazing what words can be heard coming from the wilderness. Herodias was the daughter of Aristobolus, a half brother of Antipas. She had been married to her uncle, Herod Philip, and had borne him a daughter, Salome. Antipas, however, persuaded her to leave her husband and marry him, though he was already married to the daughter of King Aretas (who escaped to her father, and a war ensued). Such a marriage was adulterous and incestuous. Matt 14:6 On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for them and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison. His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother.
I am reminded of what Harry Truman once said, “I never give them hell. I just tell the truth and they think it’s hell.” I reckon every one of us has some idea where our own wilderness lies. A wild, uninhabited region suitable only for pasturage or sparse human occupation. I am sure we have a long list of all the good reasons why we should not go there. We are comfortable where we are. We know the ropes and we know we will be fed. Why should we hunt God anywhere else? Unless there is a voice crying out in the wilderness, the one we cannot quite make out from our distance. If we only listen for God in church, we will miss half of what He is saying.
Look around the birth of Christ at all of the voices crying out. The angels to the shepherds outside of Bethlehem. The wise men that visit the community. The solders that kill all of the first born in the city. The Priest that blesses Jesus’ birth.
And yet for years, until John arrives, there is no voice.
Few revolutions begin inside the Church; most start in the wilderness. An old Arab story goes like this. When I was young, I was fiery – I wanted to awaken everyone.
I prayed to God to give me the strength to change the world. In mid-life I awoke one day and realized my life was half over and I had changed no one. So I prayed to God to give me the strength to change those close around me who so much needed it. Alas, now I am old and my prayer is simpler. God, I ask, please give me the strength to at least change myself.
About 350 years ago a shipload of travelers landed on the northeast coast of America. The first year they established a town site. The next year they elected a town government. The third year the town government planned to build a road five miles westward into the wilderness. In the fourth year the people tried to impeach their town government because they thought it was a waste of public funds to build a road five miles westward into a wilderness. Who needed to go there anyway? Here were people who had the vision to see three thousand miles across an ocean and overcome great hardships to get there. But in just a few years they were not able to see even five miles out of town. They had lost their pioneering vision. With a clear vision of what we can become in Christ, no ocean of difficulty is too great. Without it, we rarely move beyond our current boundaries.