I was driving one day when these lyrics caught my attention, dragging it back from whatever planet it was on for the moment. I was startled by the poignancy of the words:
What wisdom puts the prophet in a desert place
Nobody to hear a single word he says?
And what wisdom brings reward from suffering
Where if I want to win I have to lose everything?
How can I make sense of this?
I am living in God’s foolishness
All the money and the power and the cleverness
Of this world, defeated by foolishness
Foolish things shame the kings (Tree63)
I though of John the Baptist and looked him up. It looks like his parents died when he was pretty young, and from there he lived on his own in the desert until he was about 30. He probably ate a lot of rice. I always imagine lonely people eating lots of rice for some reason.
The story doesn’t seem right to me. This man’s reputation preceded him even before he was born. Referencing John’s birth, the book of Luke says,
The neighbors were all filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord’s hand was with him. (Luke 1:65-66)
If I were writing this story, I’m not sure I would have thought to put this great and mighty prophet out in the desert. I would have had him blowing people away as a kid with all his knowledge. I would have put him on Bible Jeopardy. He could have been the Ken Jennings of the New Testament (except for the Mormon part).
But God put him in the wilderness. He spoke to virtually no one, probably knowing all along that he had wonderfully important things to say. He waited, and when it was finally time, he served humbly. He baptized people and “prepared the way” and when Jesus emerged and John’s ministry was eclipsed, he gladly gave it up (John 3:30). It wasn’t long after that he was killed for his boldness. What a weird life.
What hits me hard is that by the world’s standards, John qualified for some very prominent roles. He could have been a traveling preacher, or a televangelist, or some big time prophet. He could have started a YouTube channel or been the figurehead of “John the Baptist Ministries.” It seems like all that potential was wasted. But I suppose it doesn’t really seem that way to me, because I know the end result. That’s the advantage of perspective, but what if I had been living alongside John? Wouldn’t I have been anxious to see him get out of that desert and do something with his life? Common sense demands that a man with something to say get out into the world and say it.
But common sense is much too common sometimes. I wonder if some of my own anxieties about ministry and calling are informed by common sense. I wonder if you can’t measure the legitimacy of real ministry by how foolishly it defies common sense. I wonder if it would help to eat more rice.