I love to watch the TV show Oddities, which follows the Obscura Antiques & Oddities store in Manhattan. The store specializes in unique and downright bizarre merchandise: Art made out of nail clippings … Teddy bears made of belly button lint … Paintings made entirely out of human hair … Taxidermy fighting cats …Mummified cats … Exploded human skulls … Electric chairs. Weird stuff that folks with quirky tastes find perfectly wonderful … And shell out lots of money to obtain.
Based on the way that Christians tend to describe John the Baptist, you’d think that he’d fit right in as an “oddity” … on the same shelf with teddy bears made of belly button lint. Let’s face it … most sermons and Bible studies on John the Baptist tend to start with: “That John the Baptist was one seriously weird dude!” Case in point, Mark Driscoll’s Vintage Jesus study describes John the Baptist as Jesus’ home school cousin complete with an afro and jedi robes. Seriously. It seems you can’t have a sermon or Bible Study on John without beginning with one of the following jokes:
- You wouldn’t bring John the Baptist home to have dinner your mother!
- John the Baptist is so crazy he makes pi seems rational.
- Couldn’t you just picture all those bug legs getting stuck in John’s teeth?!?
- I bet that camel hair isn’t itchy as my 3-piece polyester suit.
Based on the way that we tend to describe John the Baptist, you would think that Clark Griswald’s Cousin Eddie was based on the life of John. And – yes – I’ve been guilty of describing John as being one straightjacket away from the looney bin in the past. And I need to repent of it.
Haven’t we done a disservice to focus so much on John’s more “eccentric” aspects? Who is to say what is “normal,” “eccentric” or “weird” in the eyes of God anyway?
God called plenty of Old Testament prophets to do out-of-the ordinary stuff and they aren’t automatically slapped with the “weird” label. Take Ezekiel for example. In Ezekiel 4, God called the prophet to lie on his side for 390 days and cook with human poop. Another case in point: God called Hosea to marry a prostitute and give his three children offensive names (who wouldn’t want to name their child “No More Mercy” or “Not My People”). How about Jeremiah? … God told Jeremiah to walk around with a yoke meant for two large oxen. Jonah? … You know the bit about the large fish. Daniel and Zechariah had some pretty trippy visions.
Yes … God often called His prophets to do extreme things to demonstrate to hard-hearted, unrepentant people that they needed to repent and turn to God. Sharp tools are often needed to pierce hard hearts. And John was one of God’s sharp (and effective) tools.
There is also practical motivation behind why John did the things that he did. Namely that John was impoverished and lived off the land. Being an itinerant mega church preacher didn’t make much money in John’s time. John was serious about preaching a message of repentance to the nation of Israel and preparing the way for the Messiah and His kingdom. That didn’t leave much time for that bi-vocational plumbing career. So John (and probably John’s followers) did what they needed to do to survive. When you’re doing what it takes to survive, camel hair clothes might be delightful and locusts might be delicious. To this point, many modern bedouins who live where John preached still eat locusts as a common cuisine. When you’re hungry, you eat what’s available.
If anything, John’s diet and personal habits reflected his dedication to the kingdom of God. His personal needs took a backseat to the elevation of God’s glory. Unfortunately, living in poverty and forsaking worldly possessions for the sake of God’s calling also seems strange to many Christians.
Our view of what it means to follow Christ has become way too safe and average. In Luke 9:23, Jesus describes the discipleship process as follows: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” We’ve minimized the punch of this verse. The cross was one of the most horrific means of execution and torture ever devised. Taking up one’s cross means a willingness to deny one’s personal needs and suffer as Christ suffered. The language of discipleship is always couched in the language of servitude and sacrifice for the sake of Jesus. Instead, we throw around phrases like “everyone’s got their cross to bear” (which is not true) and identify our minor personal issues (ranging from tolerating difficult people to sitting through boring worship services) as sacrifices for the calling of Christ.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we’ve lost all connection to having an extraordinary faith. In fact, we’ve lowered the bar as far as what is extraordinary. I recently read a church growth article where the suggestion that church members actually take the time to greet one visitor in a worship service was proclaimed as a “radical idea.” What is the standard for being “radical”? When “doing something crazy for God” now means posting “I love Jesus!” on Facebook, then the concepts of “crazy” and “normal” in our church culture have seriously gotten out of hand. The sad fact is that everyone’s up for “doing something crazy for God” when sacrifice isn’t really required. When the sign-up sheet for living in abject poverty in a different culture for the sake of Jesus goes around in church, very few people are signing up anymore.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying that everyone is called to preach or be a missionary. Not everyone is called to vocational ministry. What I’m saying is this: The standard for attempting extraordinary things for God with extraordinary faith needs to be raised from the current dregs of mediocrity. In the words of the great Baptist missionary William Carey, we need more Christians willing to “expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.”
Have you ever passed up the “weird” to keep being “normal”? I certainly have. Back in college, I had the opportunity to join a Christian club. I was excited about the potential for fellowship with this group … Until I learned that a requirement of the club was going to door-to-door in my dorm to share with people about Jesus. When I found that out, I went incommunicado with the club. I avoided the club members like they were Jehovah’s Witnesses. They’re probably still wondering why I never showed up to the meetings. But my fear was being perceived as “abnormal” or “weird” by my peers. I let my desire to fit in overwhelm my desire to be obedient Christ. As I reflect back on this event, I’m sorrowful in thinking about who didn’t hear about Jesus because I was merely worried about being “normal.”
John’s lifestyle wasn’t “weird” … It reflected his willingness to sacrifice for the sake of the kingdom of God. It should be criminal to label someone who is willing to sacrifice everything for Jesus as a nutcase! To follow Christ means that His needs are greater than my needs, His desires are greater than my desire and His plans are greater than my plans. To follow Christ means minimizing us and maximizing the glory of God. To follow Christ means taking up your cross and imitating our Savior … Even if it means we surrender our lives.
Maybe John the Baptist – this guy who sacrificed it all for the Messiah – would look at us in our Starbucks-friendly, rock and roll driven, theatre seating, 10-minute message, comfy worship services and say: “You guys are the weird ones.”
Stop trying to be so normal and do something weird for Jesus.