It didn’t end well for John, as the world counts these things. It’s no surprise; when you greet visitors with “You vipers! Who warned you to flee the coming wrath!” chances are you won’t be elected president of your local ministerial association, let alone offered a book deal and a radio show. This isn’t classic church-growth strategy; it’s more like bizarro Dale Carnegie: How to Win Enemies and Influence People to Kill You.
We might say this is because John told the truth; but that doesn’t go far enough. Fact of the matter is, this world doesn’t necessarily mind truthtellers, so long as they keep it within acceptable bounds. You can preach truth all day long and not ruffle anyone’s feathers at all, if you’re careful about it, and a great many preachers do. It’s only when you go from preachin’ to meddlin’, as they say down South, that you’re in for trouble. John was a meddler, in a big way; he spoke the truths the world wanted to avoid.
The world wants to avoid them because it wants to avoid anxiety and pain. You can see it in how we react to the prospect of conflict—it tends to be fight or flight. Someone challenges us, or does something we really don’t like, and we get anxious; if we don’t consciously stop ourselves, we’ll let the anxiety drive us into reacting rather than thinking. We may opt for flight—avoid the conflict; back down, deny, change the subject, pass the buck—or we may choose to fight, to go on the attack and try to win the battle. Similarly, when we face doubt and the struggles in our souls, we tend either to flee—perhaps through denial, or losing faith—or to fight. We may fight our doubt by explaining it away; we may turn our anxiety outward, looking for someone else to blame. What we don’t do when we’re just reacting is deal honestly with the real issue, whatever it is.
When we see something unpleasant, we want to avoid it, or to make it go away. That’s perfectly understandable; but often, it isn’t healthy, and it isn’t right. What’s more, it produces tendencies in our societies, and in our churches, that really aren’t good. We hide our sins and our weaknesses, we deny them or pass the blame, because we fear how others will react if we’re honest; we don’t want to humble ourselves before those we’ve wronged or let down, and admit that we need grace and mercy. We don’t confront those who have wronged us, or who have done something we think is inappropriate or even sinful, because we don’t want to face the conflict; but that anxiety has to go somewhere, so we turn instead to gossip and complain about them to someone else. We cover up our doubts and our struggles, because we think real Christians don’t have those problems. And we don’t tell others about the salvation we have in Jesus Christ, about his love and grace and the price he paid for us, because we’re afraid of what they might say or do.
In short, when we see a problem, when we see an issue, when we see something hard, we look for a way to avoid it—we look for a way around. John shows us, through his whole ministry, that God’s way doesn’t lead around: it leads through. Sometimes speaking the truth, even doing so in love, brings conflict; we would prefer to avoid that conflict, but God leads us through it. Not that we should try to create conflict, but we shouldn’t let the threat of other people doing so dissuade us from speaking the truth or doing what God is calling us to do. As Paul tells Timothy, God has not given us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, love, and self-discipline—the self-discipline and the power to look our fear and our anxiety right in the face, acknowledge them, and then do what they’re telling us not to do, in the love of God.
We see this in John, in his treatment of the Herods. They were a mess of a family in a lot of ways, some of which are on display in Mark 6. Herodias was at this point the wife of Herod Antipas; previously, she had been married to Antipas’ half-brother Herod Philip, until she divorced Philip and Antipas divorced his wife to marry her. What exactly John had said about the whole affair we don’t know, but it’s not hard to see why he felt the need to say something; if you’re calling the nation to repentance, you can’t really ignore that kind of flagrant public sin among the rulers if you want to have any credibility. So, John called out the whole situation, Herod Antipas had him arrested, and ultimately Herodias connived to have him executed.
It’s hard to face much more resistance than that; but even though it cost him his life, John did not back down from speaking the truth. Still, it’s clear that the whole situation rattled him. At the time of our passage from Luke, John is in prison, and he’s starting to wonder if maybe he’s made a mistake; yes, he’s known all his life that most of God’s prophets came to a bad end, but having it happen to him has shaken his faith. But you’ll notice, he doesn’t try to rationalize anything, and he doesn’t just give in to his doubt—he goes to Jesus with it, through his disciples. He moves throughhis doubt, to the Lord; and he is comforted.
That’s how it is, in the wilderness. We see the valley of the shadow of death, and we think we can find a way around it—or maybe even avoid the wilderness altogether. We can certainly find paths that look like they’ll do the trick. The thing about the wilderness, though, is that what looks like an easier way is usually a dead end, or even a trap. The path laid out for us may seem unnecessarily hard, and often seems to be going the wrong direction; but if you leave it for a shortcut, you’ll usually find yourself sooner or later in a blind canyon, or up on a ledge with no way forward and no safe way back.
If we want to make it to the end, we need to trust our Guide; he’s the one who made the way, and he’s been through it before. And more than that, he’s the one who promised to make the way for us in the wilderness, through the desert, and to provide for us along the way so that we can make it through.