And John wore clothing of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. (Matthew 3:4).
This is pretty much the only physical description we get of what John’s life looked like out there in the wilderness. And to me, the camel’s hair and leather belt make a lot of sense. They match the description of Elijah in 2 Kings 1:8, word for word. John was taking up the persona of Elijah, the strange but powerful prophet of old who spoke truth to political leaders and revealed the power of God.
The locusts and wild honey, on the other hand, seem a little less clear. When I took a preaching class that involved reading some essays and sermons by fourth-fifth century theologian St. Augustine and then trying to mimic his preaching style in a sermon of our own, I had a field day with this description of John the Baptist. Augustine liked to find a surplus of meaning in every biblical text, often waxing poetic with allegorical interpretations of the most seemingly ordinary things―interpretations that are interesting but often feel like a bit of a stretch.
So I tried to do likewise. This is what I wrote about the locusts and wild honey (after some similar thoughts about the camel’s hair and leather belt, which I will spare you, for now), in an attempt to sound like Augustine:
Locusts are agents of destruction. But John ate them! You might say, disgusting! You might query, why would John eat locusts? I say to you that John ate locusts to show that in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ, God has defeated every agent of destruction. God has given us victory over everything that tries to destroy us. For if God is for us, who can be against us [Rom 8:31]? John ate locusts as a sign that we are indeed more than conquerors in Christ [Rom 8:37], and that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ [Rom 8:38-9]. Where, oh death, are your plagues, and where, oh grave, is your destruction [Hos 13:14]? God has swallowed up death forever [Is 25:8]. Every kind of destructive agent, every kind of locust, is swallowed up by God’s love and victory. When we trust in God, we too share in this eating of locusts, this destruction of all agents of destruction.
Finally, we see that John ate honey. The people of God were promised, and then given, a land overflowing with milk and honey. And so, the honey is the joy that we have, as people who have been given a new land, the land of salvation and hope and justice and everlasting life in Christ. We too know the joy of Christ and the citizenship in heaven that Christ offers us [Phil 3:20]. John ate this honey. John subsisted on this honey. He did not put his hope in earthly things but in the honey that came from God. May we too subsist on this honey―on the word of God that tastes as sweet as honey in our mouths [Ezekiel 3:3].
Pretending to get into Augustine’s head was fun. And I do think that the stuff I wrote―about God destroying the agents of destruction and about us as humans subsisting on God’s sweet-as-honey words―is true and good. But I would be pretty surprised if my Augustine-impersonating words were really what John’s diet was about.
More likely possibilities? Maybe the gospel writers tell us about John’s food as a way of showing that God provided for John, out there in the wilderness―not unlike how God provided for the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness after God freed them from enslavement; not unlike how God provided for Elijah by sending ravens with bread and meat during a famine (1 Kings 17:6) and then later sent an angel with cake and water while Elijah was hiding from powerful people who were trying to kill him (1 Kings 19:4-8).
Or maybe the writers tell us about John’s food because icky locusts out in the wilderness contrast so sharply with the tasty steaks that powerful political figures like Herod were probably eating in their comfortable palaces. John’s life clashed at every turn with the lives of people like Herod.
Or maybe the writers tell us about John’s food because it just illustrates the fact that John was kind of a weird dude. He was a little out there. Who eats bugs―outside of slightly disconcerting youth group games?
It could be all of the above, and more. But thinking about John the Baptist as kind of a weird dude―the kind who eats bugs―is especially helpful, and challenging, for me, because it makes me think of people I tend to write off as weird. Would I have written off John if I had met him (or heard of him) at the time―described as he is, with his camel’s hair and wild honey and locusts? By the time rumors got back to town, who knows what I would have heard about him. “I heard his tunic is made out of neon pink camel hair. And its cut is so last year’s fashion.” “Oh yeah? I heard he ate seven hundred locusts in one mouthful!” (Chubby bunny anyone? Speaking of youth group games.)
Thinking about John as a weird dude also makes me think of all the effort I’ve expended over the years to try to avoid being written off by other people as too weird. Trying to fit in; noticing how people around me dress and eat and talk and interact, and trying to be the same. I might not always be very good at fitting in, and it’s definitely something I care about a lot less now than I used to―but I have often spent some effort trying, and I often still care.
John didn’t. He kept doing the things he needed to do and saying the things he needed to say, undistracted by worries about what people in the villages might be saying about him. And the people who came out into the wilderness to listen to him were the ones who didn’t write him off because he was weird. The ones who were open to seeing God’s Spirit in strange-looking people who ate funny things.
What words from God might we miss out on when we write off weirdos like John the Baptist? When we listen, instead, only to those who fit our society’s image of a respectable pastor―skinny-jeans-wearing, charming, articulate, social media-savvy, usually-white, usually-male, usually-35-to-70-years-old, usually-middle-to-upper-class, usually-straight-or-pretending-to-be?
Here’s to God’s weirdness, strangeness, and utter other-ness winning out over own own ideas of respectability. And here’s to experiencing more of the freedom of being unapologetically our own weird, unique selves in the process.