Abstract of a Sermon Preached on Ocober 29, 2000
I have told you often before that we ought to observe not only what the Bible says, but what it says it about. If that isn't clear, what I mean is this: we ought to take particular note of which things the Bible relates, and not only of what it says about them. In the times of which the Bible speaks, there were many millions of things which happened, of which the Bible says not a word. It selects a very few things to record, and passes by the rest, and I say it ought to be a particular study of ours which things the Bible chooses to tell us, of the millions of things which it could have recorded, for there is a purpose in it. In the lives of Bible characters there are many thousands of things which go unnoticed, while we are told a few things only, and some of them seemingly insignificant. Yet we surely believe there is a purpose.
Such is the case with John the Baptist. We know very little about him. Though he was the greatest of men, the Bible gives us only the broadest general description of his life
—-he “was in the deserts till the day of his shewing unto Israel” —-and we know almost nothing of the details, except only this: we know what he ate and what he wore. “And the same John had his raiment of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.”
I say, there is a reason why we are told this. We know a great deal about Moses and Samuel and David and Paul, but little or nothing of what they wore, or what they ate. With John the Baptist, it is just the reverse. Though we know very little else, beyond a general description and a few incidents of his ministry, we are told what he wore and what he ate, and surely the Spirit of God means we should learn something from it. Here is the wardrobe, here is the diet, of a man filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother's womb, and has this nothing to teach us? Filled with God, formed by God, led of God, taught of God, walking with God, caring only to please God, and the result of all this is plain, coarse food, and plain, coarse clothing.
John knew nothing of softness or of luxury. He “was in the deserts,” alone with his God, where he remained uncorrupted by the popular religion of the times, and unspoiled by Society. He neither pampered the flesh nor pandered to the world. He knew only God, and cared only to please God. If he had cared to please the world, he would have worn different clothes. If he had cared to please the flesh, he would have eaten different food.
John was doubtless early an orphan, since his parents were well stricken in years ere he was born. He was doubtless poor, dwelling in the deserts, and having slight means with which to obtain those things to which the city folks are accustomed, but he evidently had as little desire as means. His wardrobe and his diet were utilitarian. Camel's hair, a leather girdle, locusts, and wild honey
—-such things as he could obtain by his own exertions while he remained “in the deserts.” And with such things as fell to his lot he was doubtless content. He no doubt might have obtained softer clothes and tastier food, had he set his heart upon doing so. But he had something better to do. He sought first the kingdom of God. He walked with God. He learned of God. What he wore and what he ate were matters of small concern. And all this marks him as a man worthy to be a prophet of God. Ah! we have known men of another sort, men who demonstrate by their hankering for the good things of the world and the flesh that they are not worthy to be prophets of God. “I'm tired of driving old jalopies. I'm tired of living in substandard housing. I'm tired of wearing hand-me-downs. I'm tired of living on hamburger.” All this and much more also might John the Baptist have said, but he was a man of another spirit. Substandard housing! We know not but that John's only roof was the open sky. He was “in the deserts,” plural, in the desert places. He had “no certain dwelling place.” He may have had a tent, but surely not a house. Hamburger! This would have been luxury twice told for John. Israel in the desert loathed angels' food. John the Baptist in the desert lived on locusts from one year to another, and was content. The variety which we enjoy along with our hamburger would have been luxury ten times over to John.
But to tell you the plain truth, modern wealth and luxury have made the human race so soft and self-indulgent that the diet of John the Baptist would be worse than death to most of us, even if we could substitute something more emotionally inviting for the locusts. We are all immersed in such a profusion of sauces and spices and seasonings and jams and jellies and candies and cakes and creams and custards and cheeses and dressings and pickles and preserves and crackers and chips and dips, that the diet of John the Baptist must appear to be a perfect death. This endless array of dainties and delicacies has become necessity in our eyes
—-to say nothing of the almost infinite variety of meats and vegetables and fruits and grains —-and the godliest among us spend a great portion of their fleeting lives to procure and prepare a daily smorgasbord of luxuries. I heard recently that one third of the American diet consists of “junk food.” They didn't tell us how they define “junk food,” but I suspect that if they defined it as it really ought to be defined, to include such things as all the boxed breakfast cereals which contain more sugar than anything else, they would find that junk food accounts for two thirds or three quarters of the diet of many Americans. A friend and I were travelling some years ago, and decided to read the list of ingredients on some granola bars —-”health food,” you know. We found that they contained thirteen different kinds of sugar —-sucrose and dextrose and fructose and corn syrup and malt syrup, and on and on, beyond what either my memory or my imagination could reproduce.
Now the result of all this is that self-indulgence has become the rule of life, in the church as well as the world. The only thing this “junk food” has to recommend it is that it tastes good, and you have to almost prevaricate to call some of it food at all. There is little more food in it than there is in soft drinks or chewing gum or cigarettes
—-though I once knew a goat that ate cigarette butts. But this stuff is much more stimulants than it is food, and if this is not worldliness, it would be hard to tell what is. The constant indulgence in all the most tasty viands which the imagination can put together, such as Adam and Eve in Paradise nor Solomon in all his glory could ever have dreamed of, has the natural effect of making self-indulgence a habit —-a way of life. Self-denial is altogether banished, while men indulge from morn till midnight in every chewy, crunchy, spicy, salty, syrupy, chocolatey, sugary thing which the love of money can devise. We do not contend that this is all sinful —-we expect to have our share of it in heaven —-only that it is dangerous and debilitating. “Every man,” says Paul, “that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things,” —-certainly, therefore, temperate in his eating, and unquestionably so in the eating of dainties and delicacies. But what temperance is this, when those things which ought to be used as occasional treats become the staple of our diet?
We hear frequent reports and statistics concerning the large proportion of Americans who are “overweight,” “obese,” etc., or in plainer English, fat. The reason for this is, self-denial is little known. And oh! how hard it is for people to practice self-denial in quantity, when the most unrestrained and Epicurean self-indulgence is the rule in quality. All the powers of will are weakened by this. The devil is an intelligent being, and he knows how to make us soft and worldly, replacing all our masculine sternness with delicate effeminacy, weakening all our powers of will, and destroying all our propensities to self-denial, by means of a grand profusion of things which we think perfectly innocent. And innocent they may be, but there may be sin enough in it also, if we spend our money for luxuries while the house of God lies waste, and our time and energies to gratify our tongues and our palates, while our souls languish and starve. Self-denial is never thought of, and when God stands in need of a prophet, he can find no materials from which to make one, and must say now as heretofore, “I sought for a man, and found none.” But here the Bible presents to us a man filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother's womb, a prophet and more than a prophet, the greatest of men born of women, who knew nothing whatsoever of the luxury and self-indulgence which have become a way of life to most of us. And with his own rude fare he was content. We will not contend that John never desired any change of diet. We only contend that he was so far content with his lot as not to seek one.
We know that John ate honey also, in addition to his locusts, but we may be sure the honey was a small part of his diet. If he had mixed them half and half he would doubtless have been more dead than alive. Bees can live on honey, but men cannot. And yet in this we see that John was no ascetic. He did not refuse good things because they were good, or he had never touched the honey. He knew how to enjoy the best which nature offers, but he sought first the kingdom of God, and had better things to do with his time and energies than to pamper his palate and his stomach. He was absorbed in prayer and meditation. He ate to live, but did not live to eat. I remember the days I spent in Colorado, a third of a century ago, preaching in a tiny church in a tiny town. I was absorbed in my books, delving into the treasures of my Greek New Testament, diving for pearls in the old men of God, or walking in the mountains and praying, and two or three hours would often slip away past my dinner time, before I would think to eat. A woman in my congregation would come to visit perhaps once a week. I would go to the kitchen and put on the coffee pot
—-for I was a social drinker then —-and we would go to my study and begin to feast our souls on the good things of God. How often the coffee pot boiled dry! —-or nearly dry, for we thought no more about it when the manna was falling from heaven.
Such, we suppose, was John the Baptist. He had a cause for which to live, and a life to spend in that cause, and his energies were not spent in pleasing and pampering the flesh.
And in this simple statement, “the same John had his raiment of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey,” we see also the stability of the man. The habit of his life is described in a single sentence. What he was one year, he was the next. What he was in the deserts, alone with God, that he was also in the limelight, on the public platform, before the eyes of the multitudes. He had no “dress” clothes, in which to shine on the platform. Herod the king “heard him gladly,” and he probably appeared often at court, but even there “John had his raiment of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins.” A higher station did not alter the man, as it has many others.
Some there will always be who would have us believe there is no significance in what John ate or wore. Dress and diet are matters of indifference. What then? Does the Bible tell us these things for nothing, or merely to gratify our curiosity? We can hardly believe it.
We shall be told that “the kingdom of God is not meat and drink”
—-that “neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse.” We know it, but the fact remains that “she that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth,” and that “he that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things.” Carnality sees nothing but its right of indulgence. Hyperspirituality can think of nothing but abstinence. The truth lies between them, in temperance. We do not pretend that any kind of food is sinful, but we do suppose it sinful to live in pleasure —-to fare sumptuously every day —-to make our belly our god. Paul speaks of those whose god is their belly, but can anyone imagine that they fared more sumptuously than the whole of America does every day? But put it on a lower ground. Suppose there is nothing sinful in it. The fact remains that it is dangerous and debilitating. As for clothing, costly array is explicitly forbidden in the Bible.
And we remark further that when the Lord comes to commend John, the only specific thing which he mentions concerning him is his coarse clothing. “But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings' houses.” Kings' houses are the epitome of luxury and self-indulgence, and it was not in such an atmosphere that John the Baptist was to be found. He might be seen in the king's house from time to time, but if so it was to preach repentance to the king. And hearing John, the ungodly king was convicted, and “did many things,” but we never read that John “did many things” for the seeing and hearing of Herod. He did not change his ways due to any influence of the king or his court. To please the king, to fit in with his society, this was none of the thought of a prophet of God, and if we had seen John giving up his coarse fare and his rustic clothes, in order to make himself more welcome at the court of Herod, we could only conclude that he was unfit to be a prophet. He was sent to influence others, not to be influenced by them. He was sent to preach, and of “dialogue” with the ungodly he knew nothing.
Here then was a man who was filled with the Holy Ghost from the womb to the tomb, and all some people can learn from this is some kind of speculative Calvinistic tomfoolery. “John didn't have any choice about being godly, and to be sure he couldn't have fallen.” But they learn nothing about the practical life of the man. That lesson they don't care for. Nevertheless, here it is. Here is a man filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother's womb
—-and if that means anything it must mean he was formed and led by the Holy Ghost: the Spirit of God did not fill him merely to put a smile on his face —-and he lived a life of solitude, simplicity, and self-denial. He stayed away from the popular religion of the day. He wore coarse clothes, and ate coarse food. When the spirit of God undertakes to sketch his life in a few words, he says he “was in the deserts till the day of his shewing unto Israel,” and “the same John had his raiment of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.”
Now how would the Spirit of God sketch your life? “She was in the shopping malls at every opportunity, and she was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day. She loved the closet!
—-but cared little enough for the book-shelf.”
We have never dreamed that a man must be as abstemious as John the Baptist was, in order to get to heaven. No, but we contend that modern man must certainly be more temperate than he is, in order to be worth much of anything on earth, and while he is unresistingly drawn into the vortex of modern extravagance and luxury and ease, he is surely unfit to be a prophet of God. Is it too much to ask that the example of the greatest of men born of women
—-filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother's womb —-be seriously considered?
We have no sympathy with either ascetism or monasticism or hyperspirituality. We do not believe in self-denial for self-denial's sake. For Christ's sake, however, we believe in it, and for our own soul's health also. We live in a day in which self-indulgence is a science and a principle and a passion
—-a day in which self-indulgence knows little restraint —-and to flow with the current in such a day as this is worldliness and carnality. Yet the church today does flow with the current. She has utterly forgotten that “she that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth.” She has utterly forgotten the coming judgement of Babylon, “How much she hath glorified herself, and lived deliciously, so much torment and sorrow give her.” She has forgotten the “great gulf” which stood between the rich man and Lazarus in this life, and the solemn word which passed over that gulf when it was eternally “fixed”: “Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things, but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.” She has forgotten the solemn word which Christ himself spoke from heaven, “I know thy poverty, but thou art rich,” and forgotten also the solemn words which he spoke on earth, “Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled.” And again, “But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep.” All this is a perfect dead letter to the modern church, and no wonder the example of John the Baptist is nothing regarded.