Into the Wilderness


I was unsure how to help a group of street-dependent youth relate Matthew 3. I take the Bible stories in order to teach chapter by chapter, but I don’t ever want it to be dry or seem irrelevant to the mostly homeless youth that I work with. Some weeks are more challenging than others. This week, I felt challenged with the material. I finally decided on my approach and prayed it would work.

We watched Matthew 3 on video. It’s a nice video, with word for word NIV narration. Nothing skipped and nothing added. I watched the kids as John the Baptist preached to the Jews in the wilderness, sitting around peacefully seeking after God as a community. I watched the street-youth squirm and express disgust with their mouths and body language as John preached fire and brimstone to the Pharisees. I watched them take in the scene of John begging Jesus to baptize him, only to have Jesus say, “No… It’s right for you to baptize me.” And I think I saw looks of pain as the words from God, “This is my son. In Him I am well pleased,” words I think they may never have heard from their own father. Now it was my turn. Time to make this relevant and attractive.
We reread the first section that describes John the Baptist. I asked the kids, “Who is this guy? What did he behave like?” They correctly saw him as an outcast… some kids even called him homeless. I asked, “Where is he? Why do people go where he is?” They answered, “In the wilderness… in the desert. You go there to get away from people and everything else.” “Right! The Bible doesn’t say, but I’m sure that John the Baptist is escaping from some troubles. He doesn’t fit in. He’s got problems with how things work in his day. He stays out in the wilderness for a reason. Sound familiar?” They nodded.
“Who or what is he running from?” The kids imagined all sorts of answers: the police, his family, people who really bug him, trouble in his own head and thoughts. Answers all too familiar to them. I prompted, “I think the answer is in these people who come talk to him. Who are they?” One young man answered, “They are the religious leaders. They are the pastors and preachers.” “That’s right!” I ask, “How does John the Baptist treat them?” They answer, “He calls them names. He calls them out. He tells them they are going to hell!” I ask, “How does this make you feel?” “We hate that kind of talk. We’ve heard it before. People tell us that all the time. Attitudes like that are why we don’t like church!”
I paused. Then I asked them to look at John the Baptist again. “What was he doing out in the wilderness with people before the Pharisees came?” “He was preaching and baptizing. They were sitting around in the video talking. It was peaceful.” “Exactly!” I said, “John is a peaceful man with a message. And people came from all around to hear it. They sat with one another to share ideas about it. The people responded to the message of repent… to turn back to the right path.” I continued, “John didn’t start yelling until the Pharisees came. Then he told them the truth. They were disrupting what was going on and John wanted them to either change and be a part of get out.”
“Do you ever feel that way about church?” Heads nodded. “I’ll never go back to a church because they scare me with all their damnation talk.” “I understand,” I said. “I was converted by that scary talk when I was 13. And I think it was a real conversion. BUT nothing else really happened in my faith life until I was 35. That’s when I started reading the Bible with friends and God really started working in me.”
Then one kid said, “This is the only church I’ll go to. We’re here with you learning about the Bible.” “Yes, it’s a lot like John the Baptist in the wilderness, isn’t it?” I said this with deep satisfaction and joy welling up inside me. Matthew 3 was relevant and attractive to them! They had gotten the message and here we were, out in the wilderness, about to discuss the baptism of Jesus and those wonderful words: “In you I am well pleased!” It was a good day!
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