“Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, while Annas and Caiaphas were high priests, the word of God came to John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.” (Luke 3:1-2)
As Luke begins his narrative of the life and ministry of Jesus, he does so by laying out the political and religious hierarchy in the Roman world in general and Palestine in particular. Rome, now at the height of its power, boasted rulers who would in a generation be worshipped as gods and who always ruled with an iron fist, crushing any and all who opposed them. Their local magistrates saw to it that the will of the emperor was carried out without question or hesitation. Regional puppet kings, such as Herod, were mere vassals, under whose capricious rule the people often suffered greatly. Religiously speaking, the Sadducees, little more than political opportunist courting the favor of Rome, held power in the Sanhedrin and assisted in keeping order among the local Jewish citizenry, wielding their power through force and religious intimidation.
However, it was to none of these power structures that the word of the Lord came. God found a solitary voice in one who would have perhaps, on the surface anyway, seemed a most unlikely candidate to begin a movement to prepare a people for the coming of the Lord. To say that John the Baptist was a rustic is putting it mildly. Living on locusts and wild honey, he was a man in isolation until the time his prophetic stewardship began, culminating in his public acknowledgement of the Messiah and ending in his untimely death at the brutal hand of Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great who had ordered the slaughter of all the newborn around the region of Bethlehem some three decades prior. No marketing agent or branding specialist today would have recommended John as the “face” of the company. He was uncouth and unconventional, and yet it was to his lone voice that the entire nation of Israel, and even Roman soldiers, responded, renouncing their sins and being baptized.
It would seem as though God was going out of His way to let us know by operating in such a manner that He is wholly unconcerned about making any kind of fashionable impression, demonstrating that His voice is able to reach through to open hearts despite the distractions of modern society and even above the cacophony of its blustering noise. It shows us that what gets the press and makes the cover of magazines is wholly irrelevant in the economy of God who instead chooses to use the discarded, unlikely candidates on the margins of society to get His work done.
“For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. (1 Corinthians 1:26-29)
John’s voice brought a nation to its knees at the throne of God, while all the mechanisms of human government and religious pretense completely missed out on the message. In fact, both John and Jesus demonstrated the ineptitude of human systems in dealing with someone sent my God. Even today, our press goes back and forth between confusion and mockery in trying to decipher what it is the Church of Jesus Christ is saying to today’s culture. To be sure, we don’t always get it right, and often the criticisms are somewhat warranted, but there is no doubt that when it comes to spiritual things, the talking heads of this world are just as clueless today as they were in first century Palestine. And yet, God is doing such great things in the world through His simple servants.
While we see some diminishing of the Church’s influence in North America, great and unprecedented things are happening the world over. Thousands are coming to Christ is Muslim nations through massive crusades, some of which are conducted by good friends of mine who testify of the miracle working power of God confirming the message of the gospel. In fact, so many Muslims are coming to Christ though dreams and visions that the director of Voice of the Martyrs recently said that his first question to Muslims he meets is, “Have you had any dreams or visions lately?” Muslims believe God speaks to men through dreams, and God seems to have no difficulty in revealing Himself to them in that way. It is said that the underground Church in China could, in a few years, overtake the American Church in regard to numbers. Again, God by-passes the religious and political structures of this world to reach hungry hearts, even in the face of the most severe persecution.
To me, this is all very encouraging for several reasons. Too often we in the Church can become overly discouraged when we see the direction our society is going. We look at Europe which left behind its Christian heritage decades ago, and we wonder if we are sliding down the same path to total and complete spiritual bankruptcy. We see the declining numbers in church attendance and wonder if we’ve lost the ability to prove ourselves relevant to a culture more interested in pleasure than piety. We hear the vociferous voices of atheism which in recent years have seen a revival of interest in their writings through celebrity scientists like Richard Dawkins and wonder if there is a corresponding voice in the Church which can stand toe to toe with them in public debate.
The good news is that, yes, God has competent voices speaking on His behalf in all of these forums, and truth does not cease to be relevant simply because our culture has decided that it conflicts with their preferred lifestyle choices. While the world threatens that we must change or else, they forget that the Bible has risen up time and again to outlive its pallbearers. But even more encouraging is the realization that it is not up to us to find the latest, most creative way to persuade a skeptical constituency that God still matters. While it is right and good that we make every effort to present the gospel in compelling and winsome ways, we need to remember that God always has his spokesmen preparing in some desert, just waiting for their green light from God. He will always have a voice, and what’s more, it will always reach those in our world whose hearts thirst for reality, no matter how unlikely the messenger.