Several times in the Old Testament, God led people to the margins – wilderness. After Moses fell from Pharaoh’s grace, he fled to the wilderness. The Israelites spent forty years in the wilderness. Elijah fleeing Jezebel lived in the wilderness.
In the Gospels, we meet an eccentric man called John the Baptist. He lived in the wilderness eating berries and honey. John didn’t dress like the well groomed Pharisees or scribes but wore camel skin. He was more at home with Legion than with Caiaphas or Gamaliel.
There’s something fascinating about living in the wilderness. Moses saw a burning bush while heading his father in law’s sheep. He met God and found his purpose while living in his place of cowardice. So did Elijah.
Moses and Elijah’s understanding of Yahweh happened in the wilderness. They didn’t learn about God in the comfort of a seminary or school of theology. But fleeing for their lives among thistles and stones.
For that reason, Moses once reminded the oft stubborn Israelites:
Remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not.
However, humility, faithfulness, and obedience, the Israelites had to learn another important lesson (Deuteronomy 8:3), “Know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
Meeting Christ in the Wilderness
The Pharisees and the scribes hated John the Baptist. He didn’t speak like them, dress like them or eat like them. John the Baptist preached in the wilderness while they visited lofty synagogues. He was too pedestrian for their sophisticated theological education.
The problem with sophisticated theological education is it tends to create sects rather than point to Christ. Looking at the Pharisees, it is quite evident that they were more interested in protecting their theological tradition instead of knowing Christ.
Sadducees and Pharisees were always at each other’s throat like Arminians and Calvinists. To such Christ said (Matthew 22:29), “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.”
Their knowledge of hermeneutics and ancient Bible languages failed to help them grow effectively and fruitfully in the knowledge of Jesus Christ, instead, it planted pride and arrogance.
Theology from the wilderness is a theology learned from Christ himself. It is unconventional, it is offensive, and it is disruptive to the status quo. Importantly, it is dependent on Christ and not the craftiness of men.
Therefore, when a person who learned the Good News from the wilderness appears, the self-appointed custodians of the Christian faith are quickly offended. Like a pack of wolves, they attack the intruder defending their theological turf.
John the Baptist did not interfere with the Pharisees’ turf. He remained in the wilderness teaching fellow social outcasts and baptizing them for the repentance of sin.
4 Reasons Theology from the Margins is Countercultural
1. John the Baptist was willing to die for the Truth
The Pharisees and Sadducees sat at the upper echelon of the ancient Hebrew society. They were educated, powerful and wealthy. However, they used theology as a weapon for securing power and controlling people.
John the Baptist separated himself from the political and religious system. Oftentimes when religion and politics are bundled together oppression results. Unlike the Sadducees and Pharisees, John the Baptist pointed out the immorality of Herod Antipas (Matthew 14:1-13).
2. Wilderness taught John the Baptist Humility
John the Baptist separated himself from the world. And never pursued fame and power. When his disciples pointed out that Christ was baptizing more people than him, he famously quipped:
Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.”
3. John the Baptist didn’t try to fit in
John the Baptist was an armchair theologian with a calling from Christ. Born and raised by a father who was a high priest, he traded the comfort of the temple for the uncertainty and pain of the jungle.
When you’re in the wilderness there’s always a temptation to be like ‘them.’ But John understood his purpose. He was a voice calling in the wilderness, not synagogues or streets of Jerusalem. He stayed on his course.
4. John the Baptist understood where to take his doubts
While in prison John the Baptist doubted Christ. Through a messenger, he took his doubts to Christ. Christ did not write a textbook on Christology and send it to John the Baptist.
Christ went about doing his usual business; teaching and healing people. At the end of the day, he said (Luke 7:23), “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard.”
The Voices From Africa
The stories of Moses and Elijah resonate with young men and women in Africa. They don’t have access to seminaries or theological education. But in this theological desert, God is meeting them and revealing himself apart from textbooks.
Western Christian organization say these Africans are living in a theological famine. But like Elijah, it seems God is reminding the world he has preserved for himself a remnant that refuses to bow before Jezebel. It seems, in the wilderness, God kept people with no ambitions to protect.
Is this the new Christendom Philip Jenkins wrote about?