John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
(Mark 1:4-8 ESV)
On January 9th, 2009, Jama and I moved into a house on Bow Lake, New Hampshire. For those of you Wollongong, NWS (that’s in Australia), the “lakes area” of New Hampshire is about as close to wilderness as you get here in the Northeast US, unless you count in places like Ft. Kent, Maine. Look it up and be amazed.
Here’s the thing about living “out there”. You have to import friends. We just came through the Christmas Season, and I can confidently tell you we had more people over between December 1 and January 1 this year than we did in the entire three years we lived in New Hampshire. And actually, Northwood was only 30 minutes from anywhere. You drive six and a half hours in Maine to get to Ft. Kent.
The point is this. When John started his ministry, started – out in the Wilderness – preaching to… whom? Beats me. It must have been shepherds he ran across out there. It says he was beyond the Jordan. Archeologists tell us that John baptized in a place now called Bethany Beyond-the-Jordan, which is in the country of Jordan, just north of the Dead Sea. That’s a reasonable place as any along the River for the site of John’s baptizing. It is 26 miles from there to Jerusalem. Not a huge trip, but certainly one “out to the wilderness.” It is just about the same distance as from where we lived in New Hampshire to Concord or Portsmouth (the two nearest “cities”).
The really remarkable thing about John’s ministry is that he didn’t go into Jerusalem to do it. He simply stayed out where he was. He didn’t change his habits. He just kept preaching repentance (a hard sell, mind you).
The church today goes where the people are. Actually, it is part of our charter from Jesus to “go” (Matthew 28). But consider this: the contemporary church has done everything it could to advertise. And like the Whos down in Whoville in the Dr. Seuss book, we’ve been yelling at the top of our collective lungs and planted new works in prominent and not-so prominent locations in every city, and still church attendance in the US is shrinking yearly.
I think perhaps the problem is with our message, not our location. John preached the hard sell. But there was something that struck at the heart of the culture of his day in his message. Instead of upsetting people and getting in their face, everyone from farmers to fishermen to political leaders came out to see and be baptized.
John didn’t start a Church. He pointed to the Savior. In our preaching, we always need to remember that our message is the same. The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, as the opening of Mark’s gospel phrases it, is always there: a gospel of repentance for the forgiveness of sins that points to the Savior.