The Text Says:
Today’s scripture lesson is from the Gospel of John featuring the words of John. If it is possible to capture the beauty and complexity of one’s life this is it: “He must increase, and I must decrease.” Is that not an example of the proper imbalance of life? What does it mean to have your life defined as preparation for another? That is the question for our consideration in today’s worship. Words about John abound. Yet he has only one word: prepare. Along with these magnificent words about increasing and decreasing, that capture the character of Christian ministry. We all must interpret our lives through these words. John understood that the Messiah must increase. All that remains is for us to decrease. The proper imbalance is not self-discovery or realization. It’s not about us. It’s about Christ. Paul too recognized this. “We preach not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor. 4:5). For everyone who dares to decrease so that Christ may increase, God will pour his Spirit upon them without measure.
The Preacher Says:
Before Jesus, there was John the Baptist, who holds a significant place in all four gospels. He was already an established figure, going full-guns, when Jesus appeared for baptism. That’s when John’s struggle began with this “increasing/decreasing” business. The more prominence Jesus is given, the less influence John has. It’s fascinating to observe the interplay between these two cousins. For it holds a lot of promise for where we find ourselves just now. John models the ministry of fading, that sooner or later becomes familiar to all of us. In a culture of shakers-and-movers, fading seems like wimping out. At the very least, it’s a form of courtesy. We revere John the Baptist not because he’s a “Baptist,” but because he’s the “forerunner.” His mission was preparatory. Then in due course, he must step-offstage, yielding the spotlight to his successor. That’s the story-line.
We first meet John as a desert puritan; a fiery prophet in the manner of Amos and Elijah, calling folks to repent. But with one difference: the Old Testament prophets proclaimed a futuristic Messiah. John’s talking about now: “He’s so near I can feel it!” He was such a powerful preacher that many people thought he was the Messiah. But no one can fade with a big ego. So he allowed as how he wasn’t “worthy to stoop down and untie the Messiah’s laces!” Those in the process of fading do so for a reason. Their ebbing occasions another’s flowing. Like the moon playing with the tide, if one part of the ocean doesn’t recede, another part couldn’t surge.
The text is about the second time the two meet. The first time was in utero. This time, all John needed was a glimpse of Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” “It’s about him, not me.” How rare that is in our time! And yet, it’s not so unusual. It’s more dreaded than it should be. People are always doing one or the other are we not? We increase for a time, then inevitably the time comes for us to decrease. Nobody stays in the limelight forever. The day John baptized Jesus in the Jordan, was a unique moment in the sacred story, accompanied by a tailor-made affirmation from heaven, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well‑pleased.” That was John’s signal that his own vocation of preaching was about to taper off. The time had come for him to back away. It’s such a smooth transition it feels surreal. Mark emphasizes John’s magnanimous attitude: “hard but necessary.” That’s the official version. And it strikes me as a bit fictitious!
There’s another side to John that’s more realistic. Again, the Bible argues with itself. There in the same gospel, John was far from ready to do any decreasing for Jesus or anybody else! This is not the “behold‑the‑Lamb‑of God” John; with stout declarations. But a fluctuating, hesitant preacher, with hard questions and real doubts. For John didn’t stop his ministry just because Jesus showed up. Both men’s disciples were more competitive than cooperative because of that ol’ devil “methodology.” John’s followers didn’t like the way Jesus was being the Messiah because it wasn’t their way. People have fought over getting their way more than anything else, except power and money. But all the fighting came from John’s side. He didn’t cotton to the way Jesus did it. No judgment? No “axes laid to the tree roots?” Just grace? How can something that mealy-mouthed save the world? So this man of great faith and stature utters the most glaring statement of disbelief in the Bible: “Are you the one to come, or should we look for another?” (That’s always a good text for a Search Committee by the way!) Are you the one or not? What happened to the Lamb?
Does this less-familiar side of John tarnish his reputation? What about all that noble stuff about “preparing the way?” John’s genuine humanness makes us wince, because it shows that he’s more like us. In light of the total gospel story, John the Baptist ceases to be a plaster saint. This is the much more authentic John: a strange, courageous, conflicted human being with whom we can identify and empathize. Yeah he’s a weird-duck, but a magnetic one. People went way out of their way to hear him. He was more courageous than compassionate; had more guts than grace, a stern, not tolerant demeanor. He had a country-bias and was very much anti‑city; anti-temple. His preaching was revivalistic, deeply moral and sympathetic with the victims of injustice.
The root of John’s pain came from his expectations. He assumed Jesus would be like himself. Do you find that unusual? We like it, do we not, when others are like us? Why do liberals think God is a liberal? Why do conservatives? I don’t know why everybody can’t be for the Broncos! How do we deal with difference? Cause Jesus was definitely not like John and that puzzled him. Jesus’ arrival was a sign that John’s time was short. He must decrease and yield the platform to somebody else. Those with power and status are loathe to relinquish it. Nobody does it easily. Not parents nor presidents, nor preachers. I’ve had to do it several times. And it’s never easy to say goodbye to something you love. In fact, it has an irrational aspect to it.
So John’s preaching repentance, and crowds come to be baptized. He’s gotta think he’s doing something right! “The Messiah is coming. Hope is on the way. The Christ is near!“ And all of a sudden he found himself in the presence of somebody who’ll do just fine … without him! He who is used to being needed is no longer necessary. So John goes, “Are you the one?” “After all I’ve done, does this Guy have what it takes to do the job? Will he be as committed to God as I am?” But John’s ambivalence about his successor had more to do with his own providence than Jesus’ fitness. It’s about destiny, because every exit is a mini‑death for anybody accustomed to having a prominent place. To just willingly back away, and exit to the wings is a form of dying! Decreasing, fading, whatever you call it, John was about to be martyred with his “head on Herod’s platter.” For that he had courage and conviction galore! John knew how to step aside and die. But how on earth could he step aside and live? In some ways it may be easier to die than to vacate your place.
Facing this achingly-human-John makes Jesus increase all the more. Jesus knew John’s approach wouldn’t work for him. The two were very different personalities with different gifts. But God saw fit to use them both. No one person can do it all. Not even Jesus! God used each of them to complement the other. John was more prophetic; preaching judgment, repentance, and radical conversion. Jesus was more pastoral. His preaching was about love, forgiveness and grace. Both men’s preaching brought hope. John was an evangelist. Jesus was a pastor. Because Jesus didn’t fit the expected mold, John wasn’t sure he could hack it.
When Jesus was a kid, Luke said he “increased … in wisdom and stature and favor with God and man.” Here he fulfils it. When John’s disciples challenged Jesus he could’ve said, “When are ya’ll gonna get it? Stop wasting your time with this rough-hewn- has‑been! If you want to be where the real action is, stick with me.” Nah Jesus too was a big man, with his ego in the proper place. Not for a moment did Jesus even hint of putting John down. Instead he lifted John up, like unto no man before or since. “Look around, what did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed, shaking in the wind? John is as good as it gets!” Jesus showed no sign of impatience with John, no bragging that his way was better, no trace of annoyance that John dared to question him. It’s almost like he expected it.
Jesus always spoke of John in glowing terms; a warm appraisal of God’s prophet; an ally in the work of the kingdom; even though their methodology was light-years apart. God used them both. It’s important that ya’ll understand that before I head back home. Because from politics to corporate power, from parental authority to church leadership, with every leave‑taking we die a little bit. We may think we’re ready for it, but maybe we’re a lot more kin to the honest John than we’ll admit. I completely identify with him. After resigning as your pastor two weeks ago, my role now has become preparatory, like his. And to decrease, so that #37 might increase.
Finally, when Jesus received word that John was dead, he “withdrew in a boat to a lonely place.” He deeply grieved his cousin’s loss. Jesus didn’t compete with John, he praised him, “None born among women are greater.” There’s a lot we can learn in seeing the respect Jesus had for John, whose place he was assuming. You know the only thing worse than a poor loser is a poor winner! Things are different when you’re John‑in‑prison. It’s natural to be ambivalent. We can’t expect to negotiate decreasing without some pain. Every little form of dying hurts. But it need not destroy us. The key, I think is to keep our focus on the larger purpose of God. And the surprises he has in store for all of us. “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard what God has in store for his children.”
One reason to go to church is to get us to the point when the surrender of status in life can be a step forward instead of backward? Maybe Jesus was so understanding with John, because he realized the time would come for him to stand in John’s place. He knew how to fold-up. Could anything be more gracious, than that day from the cross he said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Whew! Even the centurion was amazed! Jesus has bequeathed to us that legacy of grace, sufficient for living or for dying. He frequently taught this. “Those who love their life will lose it and those who lose their lives for my sake will find them.” And “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit” Decreasing and increasing. That is the natural way of the flow of life. So it falls to all of us as individuals and as a congregation that we too learn how to fade away with grace, so that God comes into view.
Prayer: O Lord, we are always concerned about our place in the scheme of things. Freedom is ours, but we try to restrict others. Hope is ours but we prefer guarantees. Joy is ours but we want it now. Peace is ours but we want to hoard it. Love is ours but we can’t believe it. Forgive us for placing our place above your grace; for limiting your goodness by our selfishness and for expecting quick answers to eternal questions. May your grace surround all our comings and goings and may that knowledge guide us in the coming days. Amen.