And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 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 comes the one more powerful than I, the straps 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 1:4-8
John the Baptist is a bit of an odd one. Can we just say that? If he were alive today and came wandering into our church with his strange way of dressing and bizarre diet most of us would secretly wish he would find another place to worship. More accurately, if we passed him on the street corner, we would write him off as a crazy and ignore him.
He’s not a casual, hang out kind of guy. He’s not a socially comfortable kind of guy. Something tells me he was probably one of those very intense personalities. He’s definitely not your good time guy and no one would mistake him for the go to person you count on to liven up the party. He’s always talking loudly about sin and repentance and some “One” who is coming. John the Baptist marched to the beat of his own drum in his time and it wouldn’t be any different if he lived in ours.
Having said all that, the awkwardness of John the Baptist is part of what I love about him. He’s bold and courageous. He’s focused on Jesus and our need for him. He doesn’t get caught up with what’s socially acceptable or a sense of wanting to be doing what everyone else is doing. And he’s proof that we don’t have to be that either.
In spite of all his awkward weirdness, people are still drawn to him. Mark 1 tells us the whole Judean countryside and all Jerusalem were going out to hear him speak. And more importantly, they were responding and repenting and being baptized. They were hearing his message of the coming Jesus and their need for repentance. They were hearing and they were accepting it.
The church today seems so overly obsessed at times with the desire to be cool and to be seen as a comfortable place for people. Honestly, it feels like much of the time the church in America doesn’t want to be seen as different. It’s as if our fear of being a turn off to some means we end up being compelling to none. The truth of the matter is that sin and repentance and the need for a savior are not very welcoming messages. It’s awkward to talk about our brokenness and the deceitfulness of our hearts. It certainly doesn’t make for great marketing strategies; at least not by worldly standards.
Jesus’ life and message is a constant reminder that selling ourselves, blending in, presenting things in a palatable way isn’t our place. He says some pretty harsh things at times, like declaring that he didn’t come to bring peace but a sword (Matthew 10:34). Or what about in John 6 where Jesus offends the crowds with his words about eating his flesh and drinking his blood? We find such a startling picture there when many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him because of his offensive and hard teaching.
But what we have seemed to lose sight of these days is that it’s these harsh and socially unacceptable parts of the message that make grace so powerful and beautiful. It’s the full story of our sin and need for Jesus that ensures that grace is not viewed as cheap or easily come by. Grace is amazing primarily because of what it cost God to bring it to us.
I love John the Baptist because he makes no apologies for the difficulty of his message. He makes no attempts to look just like the culture so no one feels uncomfortable. He focuses on the One whose sandals he isn’t worthy to untie. He celebrates this One. And he makes no apologies for our need to repent, for the reality of our sin or the lowliness of our position. It’s the awkward, discomfort of the message of sin that makes the truth of the grace-giving Savior so sweet. Without the one we have only a cheap imitation of the other.
Of course there is a place for being “relevant” as the church, although I’m not so sure what that even means any more (it’s beginning to feel like empty banter that makes us church folk feel validated for falling in love with the world). Of course we’re supposed to connect with the culture and not isolate ourselves. And of course we’re called to be “all things to all people” as Paul reminds us. But I fear that at times we confuse the means for the ends. Being all things to all people is so that we might see some saved. It’s so that the gospel might be heard. At the end of the day our relevance, our ability to connect to the culture, our intention of being “all things” is so that all people might hear the awkward message of how sinful we are and how sweet the grace of Jesus is in the face of our dead hearts.
John the Baptist reminds us that we are to be bold and courageous. We are to be unapologetic at the offensiveness of the gospel. Because as hard a truth as it is, it’s a sweeter hope and fuller life than can be found anywhere else. And ultimately, the message of John the Baptist always centers on Jesus:
“After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps 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.”