Reading: Luke 3:1-20
John the Baptist is a rather amazing figure. The people of Judah believe that he is a prophet, and crowds come to him, they repent, and they are baptized. The people who come to hear him preach are of every social class, they are not only of every social class, but they are diverse politically: Herod’s brother Philip comes, Pharisees come, even soldiers and tax collectors come to hear John preach and to be baptized by John. If we jump forward to Luke 20, Jesus answers a question about his authority to preach with a question about John’s baptism, asking whether John’s baptism was of God or a personal whim. Those who asked him this question refused to answer because that question was just as much a trap as the question they asked Jesus — even though John had been executed, the people remembered him as God’s prophet.
There is something about John’s story that is difficult for me to understand — why was John popular? Why did people listen to him preach, why did they seek his advice on how to live their lives? Why did they repent and seek to be baptized? Why did both the leaders of society and the people at the bottom both go to hear him? Why did not only Jews but also Roman soldiers seek his advice?
This is even more confusing when you consider his ministry model; he went out to the wilderness to preach. John preached where the people were not, and where they would have to make a special effort to come to him. None of the gospel accounts gives me a hint as to how people even knew to go out into the wilderness to hear John. When people came to hear his preaching, he wasn’t exactly welcoming, but basically said: “Who invited you?” and proceeded to insult the people who came to him.
Add to this that he was a popular prophet, seen in the same light as the Old Testament prophets, even though when Tax collectors asked him what they should do, he did not suggest they stop collecting taxes, only that they don’t cheat by collecting extra and stealing it for themselves. Not only that, he advised Roman soldiers, the occupying army, not to seek bribes; but he did not condemn them for occupying Judea. John was far more generous to his people’s enemies than he was to the people themselves, yet they still came, listened to him preaching, sought his advice, repented and were Baptized.
To understand why this is confusing to me, imagine if we want to plant a church. Would we choose the strategy of sending a single person to go to Hoosier National forest, send him deep into the trees, have him eating bugs and do nothing to promote his message? If people came to hear him preach, would we suggest that instead of giving a welcome and a blessing, that he say: “who invited you?” as if new people are unwelcome? Would we have him insult the local population? Would we have him treating our national enemies if they could keep their affiliations, and would still be just as acceptable as the rest of us?
If somebody tried that strategy, my first expectation is that nobody would know where to find him; he would preach to the trees. Even if people knew where to find him, and there was a great number of people eager to go and see the forest madman, it is hard to imagine that he could keep a following when he makes the people who come feel unwelcome. “Who invited you?” isn’t something that I would dare say if we found new people sitting in the pews.
As little as this model makes sense, the thing is, it worked. A great crowd of people went to John, and many were baptized. John recognized Jesus, and he introduced Jesus to the crowds. Even though none of the things he did make any sense in my eyes, people heard God’s message, people repented, and people were pointed to Jesus. John accomplished his ministry to the point that we still speak of him even today. How can you get lasting results when you do everything wrong?
Now, I don’t know much about John’s ministry; I really only know what scripture tells me. John didn’t write a spiritual autobiography, and there are many details that the Gospels do not choose to tell us. As much as we remember John, he isn’t exactly the main character; he’s one of the characters who’s role ends in Act 1. If I speculate about John’s prayer life, or I speak of a mystical experience he might have had — I am merely speculating. I know he preached repentance, the coming of the kingdom of heaven, and the coming of Someone bigger than himself; but any question of John’s motivation is pure speculation.
Instead of completely blind speculation, I will do the best I can, and tell the story of a preacher who did something that made absolutely no sense, and yet somehow what he did worked.
How many of you know who Stephen Grellet was? Grellet was born in France in 1773, he was a member of the French Royal guard, but at the time of the French revolution, he was sentenced to death. Grellet became a refugee and immigrated to the United States in 1795.
In 1796, Grellet joined with the Society of Friends and would become one of our most prominent ministers. He preached throughout America, and he also traveled to most of the countries in Europe. He became so well known that he was granted a personal audience with a number of foreign dignitaries including Czar Alexander I and Pope Pius VII. Unlike John the Baptist, his Grellet’s journals were edited together to form an account of his life and ministry after he died; we do have a window into his motivations and life.
Now, the one part of Grellet’s ministry that makes no sense was when he felt that God called him to preach at a logging camp in Pennsylvania. This logging camp was a three-day journey away from him, but he felt God had a message for that place, so he traveled for three days. When he got to the place where he felt God called him nobody was there. There were no tents, only a single log cabin and it appeared that the workers had not used the building for several days. Grellet, after making this journey just to find nobody was there prayed and asked God what he should do. He felt that God told him to preach in the empty building, that it was God’s message and not his.
Grellet responded by walking into the building, and according to the memoir of his ministry, he spoke to the empty room as if there were 200 people in there to hear his message. The sermon was about how sin is a wall, but Jesus tears down that wall and has come to be with us. He then prayed for the lumberjacks, and when he was finished he emotionally collapsed. He looked around, saw that he preached a sermon to an empty room. He saw the dishes that the lumberjacks left behind, and felt like a complete idiot because he traveled three days, one way, to give a sermon to an empty room. He knew what he did made no sense, and was a complete waste of a week, but he took comfort in that he was obedient.
Six years later Stephen Grellet was on a trip to London, and he had a chance meeting with an American out in the streets of London. This American recognized Stephen Grellet as somebody who was influential in his life, even though Stephen didn’t recognize the man. It turns out that this man was a lumberjack, and had gone back to the camp for a tool. When he got there, there was this crazy guy preaching to an empty room. The lumberjack waited until the crazy man had gone before fetching his tool, but while he waited he heard the sermon. He heard about sin’s wall and how Jesus tears it down. Something about this sermon worked on his heart, and he got a Bible. When he got the Bible, he read, and he read about Jesus coming for the one lost sheep and he felt that he was that one sheep. This lumberjack shared his testimony with his lumber-camp, and the whole lumber-camp heard the message that the one lumberjack brought them, and many were inspired by this message.
There were a number of things about Grellet’s journey that makes little sense: he made no appointment, he just spent a week traveling to and from a camp that might not bother to listen to him; when he got there, he found the camp empty and he preached anyways. This seems like a waste of time and energy. It seems a poor strategy. There is a reason that Stephen Grellet felt a fool after preaching his sermon but the important thing is that he was obedient and God worked in ways that Stephen could not see. Somehow God brought the message and the person who needed to hear the message together.
Now, after this story, I still can’t do much more than speculate on John’s motivation, but I have a direction in which to speculate. Our God is a God of miracles. Our best plans will never be as good as obedience. Our best strategies will never succeed better than God’s providence. Sermons in the wilderness can have a very real audience and exactly the audience that needs to hear. John’s sermon is one that we still hear today, “repent for the Kingdom of heaven is near.”