“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.'” Matthew 3:1-2
They say John the Baptist was a scruffy old coot. Matthew reported, “John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.” Imagining what he might look like if he showed up in Pittsburgh next week, Clarence Jordan guessed, “This guy John was dressed in blue jeans and a leather jacket, and he was living on corn bread and collard greens (The Cotton Patch Version, 1970). Whatever the specifics, Frederick Buechner said, “He wore clothes that even the rummage sale people wouldn’t have handled” (Peculiar Treasures, 1979).
Dressed to prophesy, he would have made Elijah proud. Everything about him pointed to Somebody else. His rustic lifestyle wasn’t only a protest against self-indulgence. It was his way of saying there are more important things in life than hot fudge sundaes, Calvin Klein’s latest, or a big account at Mellon Bank. Indeed, for John the Baptist, his whole reason for being was something else — Somebody else — the Savior!
It all started before he was born. An angel told his mom and dad that he’d “be a joy and delight … he will be great in the sight of the Lord … he will be filled with the Holy Spirit … And he will go on before the Lord … to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (see Luke 1).
In other words, John’s place in God’s providence was to announce the arrival of the Messiah and tell people to get ready for Him.
Even when he was in the womb — that Biblically safe place of full ensoulment and personification — John was psyched about Jesus. I don’t know if his mom (Elizabeth) and His mom (Mary) were getting together for a baby shower. But when the two cousins got together, Elizabeth told Mary, “As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” (Luke 1:39-45).
Though they were related, John and Jesus didn’t hang out together. Except for Jesus showing up in the Temple and blowing away the know-it-alls with what He knew at twelve (Luke 2:4.), we really don’t know what they were doing until about thirty years later. We can only assume they were nurtured in faithful homes by parents who did their best to lead them in paths of righteousness.
As the angel predicted before he was even conceived, John popped up as a street preacher about the same time that Jesus went public.
“When he preached,” Buechner noted, “it was fire and brimstone every time.” John wasn’t one of those if-it-feels-good-whatever-turns-you-on-whatever-you-think-good-humor-pat-on-the-back-of-apostasy-I’ll-agree-with-the-last-person-I-talked-to-many-paths-to-the-top-of-the-mountain-that’s-cool clerics. John wasn’t one of those ecclesiastical show men who say nothing but say it eloquently.
John was more like Peter Marshall, who purportedly concluded one sermon like this, “If God be your God, then follow Him. If not, then go to hell!”
John told the truth as he was told the truth. And sometimes the truth hurts. It often hurts before it heals. But as the old priest said to the young priest in Georges Bernanos’ The Diary of a Country Priest (1937):
… A parish is bound to be dirty. A whole Christian society’s a lot dirtier. You wait for the Judgment Day and see what the angels’ll be sweeping out of even the most saintly monasteries …
… Our Heavenly Father said mankind was the salt of the earth, son, not the honey. And our poor world’s rather like old man Job, stretched out in all his filth, covered with ulcers and sores. Salt stings on an open wound, but saves you from gangrene. Next to your idea of wiping out the Devil comes that other soft notion of being “loved.” Loved for your own sweet selves, of course! A true priest is never loved, get that into your head. And if you must know: the Church doesn’t care a rap whether you’re loved or not, my lad. Try first to be respected and obeyed. What the church needs is discipline. You’ve got to set things straight all the day long.
You’ve got to restore order…
It’s like Frederick Buechner wrote, “a prophet’s quarrel with the world is deep-down a lover’s quarrel. If they didn’t love the world, they probably wouldn’t bother to tell it that it’s going to Hell. They’d just let it go” (Wishful Thinking, 1973). Proverbs 3:11-12 puts it so positively, “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline … because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.” Or as Paul explained, “For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting, and urging you to live lives worthy of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12).
That’s what Paul meant when he wrote about Christians “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Buechner commented (Telling the Truth, 1977):
But to preach the Gospel is not just to tell the truth but to tell the truth in love, and to tell the truth in love means to tell it with concern not only for the truth that is being told but with concern also for the people it is being told to … The preacher must always try to feel what it is like to live inside the skins of the people he is preaching to, to hear the truth as they hear it.
Christians tell the truth no matter how unpleasant it may sound at first because the truth ultimately saves or enables wholeness, happiness, joy, and security. Christianity is the original honesty-is-the-best-policy society. It’s like our closest friends say, “I love you enough to tell you the truth.” The truth is communicated because the truth can prevent people from getting into trouble. That’s why a big part of being compassionate includes an uncompromising commitment to communicating the truth. Or as John Huffman’s daddy used to tell him, “Be uncompromising always, but Christ-like ever.”
John’s preaching was to the point: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near” (Matthew 3:1-2). Paraphrasing John a bit, he said, “Get your act together! Jesus is coming! And you don’t want to get caught with your pants down when He comes back!”
John baptized or marked off people who accepted His message. And that’s when John and Jesus linked up again. John baptized Jesus because, as Jesus said, “It is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 2:13-17). It was the official start of God’s saving ministry in Jesus. It was also another way for our Lord to show us that leaders are not above everybody else. And while the cross would be the ultimate expression of servant leadership, our Lord’s modest birth and lifestyle exemplified the if-you-want-’em-to-bleed- you’ve-got-to-hemorrhage reality of ministry.
Ralph P. Martin summarized John’s ministry this way (Where the Action Is, 1977):
John the Baptist … sets the people’s expectation astir with his announcement that a great one, more-than-a-prophet, a Bearer of the Holy Spirit, is soon to be seen…
John comes fulfilling two prophecies: (1) he is the “messenger” promised by God as the forerunner of the Messiah, and (2) he appeared “in the wilderness,” where divine revelation was expected … John … baptized his fellow-Jews in anticipation of the coming of God’s rule … The preaching of John called for repentance. That is, he summoned his hearers to a radical change in their way of living. The accompanying promise was the offer of forgiveness from God. In all he was seeking to make ready a people who should greet the deliverer.
Of course, nobody likes to be told what to do; especially when it contradicts volition. So like many good women and men before and after him, John lost his head for the Lord (Matthew 14:1-12).
Fortunately, that wasn’t it for John. For as Jesus promised (Matthew 16:24-25),
If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.
John’s life, ministry, death, and resurrection through faith in Jesus remind us of the most important truth of discipleship:
We’re going to live a lot longer with Jesus than anybody else. So we better make Him our top priority in all things.
Or as Jesus warned after He promised, “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26).
I’ve met a lot of least likely candidates for ministry.
Quite frankly, I think of myself. I did not grow up as an altar boy, though I did a lot of the obligatory stuff like Eagle Scout, God and Country Award, and all of the rest, I also did a lot of unmentionables that remind me of a friend (Tony Campolo) who likes to say, “If you knew all about me, you wouldn’t listen to me. And if I knew all about you, I wouldn’t talk to you.” Or as he also says, “I’m not O.K. You’re not O.K.” I also remember when I hid my grandmother Thelma’s pack of smokes in the bottom of a vase filled with water when I was about twelve and she yelled at me, “You’ll never amount to anything!” I did my best to live up to her expectations for a very long, long time.
Yet the good news is Jesus always offers another chance to get our acts together. He offers another chance to repent, to turn around and change directions and become a part of His team. He’s always calling least likely candidates for ministry like you and me and using us for the advancement of His Kingdom. Or as my friend completes his thought, “I’m not O.K. You’re not O.K. But God says that’s O.K.!”
I think of Verne. He was an old time farmer in Delaware, New Jersey. I was the pastor of his church during my last two years in seminary. He invited me to lunch. I arrived at his farm, walked through about a hundred cats to the front door, sat down, and then watched him put his food into a blender, take out his false teeth, and pray one of the best prayers that I have ever heard.
I think of Bob. He was an oral surgeon. We called him oral Robert. Every Easter Sunday, Bob would get up at sunrise, throw open his bedroom window, and yell to his neighbor, “Barry, Jesus Loves you!” And Barry would yell back, “I know! You keep telling me!” And I cannot begin to estimate the number of people that Bob led to salvation.
I think of Dick. He was a mattress salesman. We called him to be our “Chaplain to the Unchurched” in Kansas City. When asked what that title meant, I’d say, Dick ministers to over half of our membership roll.” He did! And I cannot begin to tell you how many people that former mattress salesman led to heavenly rest and earthly tranquility.
I could go on and on and on. So could you. We’ve met lots of least likely candidates for ministry. If God can use them, He can use us!
Wait a second!
If God can use us, He can use them!
Like John the Baptist, the most outstanding quality of women and men who pray and work to honor Him is they aren’t in it to make a name for themselves. They work and pray to make His Name known for His glory and everybody else’s well-being.
To put it another way, least likely candidates for ministry become likely candidates for ministry when they confess with John the Baptist, “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie … He must become greater. I must become less” (Mark 1; John 3:22.).
Let me put it another way. John the Baptist smelled saved. Faithful women and men smell saved. They talk the talk and walk the walk. What they say (confession), do (conduct), and how they look (countenance) radiate salvation. John Calvin said Christians show the signs of salvation. Martin Luther said, “Good works don’t make a person good, but a good person does good works.” Christians smell saved.
I think of Muretus who was a wandering scholar during the Middle Ages. He was poor. He became ill and was taken off the streets and put into a hospital. The doctors began discussing his illness in Latin because they never dreamed he would understand them. Suggesting he was just a worthless wanderer, they decided to use him for medical experiments. Muretus looked up and said to them in Latin, “Call no man worthless for whom Christ died!”
I think of Tony again who likes to tell people how he often imagines our Lord pulling out his wallet in heaven, showing pictures of you and me to all of the angels, and saying, “That’s my boy! That’s my girl!”
A few years ago, a friend introduced me to a preacher with cerebral palsy. I’ll never forget how that man kept challenging healthy and wealthy Christians, “I’ve got cerebral palsy and God uses me. What’s your problem?” He was saying God uses faithful people regardless of who, what, where, or when. There are no handicapped people in the Kingdom. There are only faithful people in the Kingdom and God uses all of them. But the challenge of his sermon was intense. Essentially, he was saying, “Look at me. I’ve got cerebral palsy. God uses me because I want to be used by Him. How about you? What’s your problem? You’ve got your health. You’ve got your wealth. What’s your problem? Why aren’t you investing more of yourself in the Kingdom? What’s your problem?” It was one of those much-given-much-expected sermons.
I like the way Ron Rand puts it.
I am but one person,
but I am one!
I cannot do everything,
but I can do something!
What I can contribute
I should … and I will!
Jerry Kirk, President of the National Coalition Against Pornography, often proposes this prayer for Christians:
Lord, I will be whatever you want me to be.
Lord, I will go wherever you want me to go.
Lord, I will do whatever you want me to do.
Lord, I will say whatever you want me to say.
Lord, I will give away whatever you want me to give away.
By your grace and by Your Spirit through Jesus Christ our Lord! Amen.
Simply, God uses people who want to be His; even if they smell.

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