“In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, . . . Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him” (Matthew 3:1, 5).
One of the attractions of preaching in countries like Nepal and Bangladesh is the number of people who will travel long distances under difficult circumstances to hear one’s lessons. On my very first trip to Nepal I met some brothers from the mountains who had come to Katmandu to hear me preach. When I asked where they lived they said, “It is two days walk from our village to the end of the bus route, then a 12 hour ride on the bus to Katmandu.”
Another time I was teaching a seminar in a southern Nepali city. One group could not ride the bus to come in as they had planned because a bridge was closed and the bus could not travel that route. Almost twenty Christians, including two women in their 80’s, walked 16 hours each way to take part in the seminar.
More recently I spoke at a gathering of about 300, some of whom had walked up to three days through the mountains to reach the meeting place. Of course I and those with me had ridden about a day and a half and walked for two more ourselves.
Even with that background I am impressed at Matthew’s simple statement that John preached in the wilderness and huge crowds came from long distances to hear him. There is no record of his having performed miracles to attract attention. We really do not know of any activity by him other than his proclamation of a message of repentance. But vast numbers of people eagerly came. That really gets my attention.
Much research has been done in the past few decades to determine how best to attract people to listen to the Gospel message. We have studied effective orators, the entertainment media, other religious groups – virtually any and every popular example we can find.
Most such studies suggest that changes in our approach, our delivery, our facilities, and other superficial elements of the church’s outreach programs might increase our appeal. However, some do suggest that we need a more palatable message, one that resonates with modern appetites (but see 2 Timothy 4:3-4). Many have followed all of the above advice, with varying results. Only a few seem to garner the kind of success they desire.
John’s was hardly a popular message. He said simply, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” There was no entertainment component, no illustrative material, no variety to stimulate interest. He had a simple, plain, but compelling message. Two things stand out for our enlightenment.
First, John spoke to pressing need. The common people (those who came to listen and follow John) were fully aware of their sinfulness. They desired a good relationship with God, and all too often were not encouraged by the religious leaders and their interpretation of the Covenant. Many of them were banished from the Jewish assembly; the others mostly held in disdain as unworthy of attention. John’s message gave them hope. They could find forgiveness by repenting and trusting God. Nothing else was needed.
Secondly, John offered immediate hope. “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” God has not forgotten us. Yes, it has been almost 2,000 years since Christ walked the earth. Much evil has come to this world. We suffer many tribulations. But God loves us, and God will not abandon us. Jesus is coming (Revelations 22:7), the dead will be raised (1 Thessalonians 4:16), and justice will be done (Galatians 5:7).
The gospel is always relevant and always applicable. If we preach it, they will come.