Tag Archives: John the Baptist

Christ Must become Greater, I Must Become Less

In the Gospel of John, chapter 3, John the Baptist makes a stunning statement regarding Jesus, to the chagrin of his own disciples: “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30). This is the attitude that all Christ-followers have, but the question of how we let Jesus become greater and us less in our lives is not always easily answered. And as we do that, does it mean we will lose our own unique identities?

We need three things in order to live lives in which Christ will become greater, and we will become less: The first is humility. The second is obedience to Jesus. And the third is gratitude.

1. Humility

As someone else has said “Humility is not thinking less of ourselves, but thinking of ourselves less.”

Humility is seeing and appraising ourselves accurately – our worth, our abilities, our strengths and weaknesses, our moral, social, and spiritual states, our sins – as much as we can, to both see and have neither an inflated or deflated of the different aspects of our lives. This of course takes work, times of hard self-reflection, and often the help of trusted friends to help us see our blind spots.

For some, this can be a painful process; we are not as gifted as we thought we were, or as strong, or as upright. For others, it can be a difficult process for the opposite reason: we are more loved than we are comfortable with, more capable than we give ourselves credit for.

As the Apostle Paul says in Philippians 2:3, humility is also “valuing others above yourselves.” He doesn’t mean it in an objective sense, or in a comparative sense, but rather to think about the ways we can help, encourage, strengthen, or better others. Paul says this is what Jesus did when He gave up the riches of Heaven, the glory of divinity, and came to earth as a human, and died on the cross – Jesus did it out of His great love for us (Philippians 2:6-8). Ideally, as we follow Christ, we are all doing this for each other, so even though I am ‘valuing others as above myself,’ others are doing that for me. However, we know that in this broken world that won’t always be the case, and we will be hurt, but in that hurt we will be identifying with and connecting with Jesus in a deeper way than we could otherwise.

2. Obedience to Jesus

This is the call to all who would follow Jesus, to all who would find new life and forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God the Father. Obedience to Jesus is not optional: throughout Scripture we see a link between loving Jesus and obeying Him, as He loves and obeys His Father (see John 15:10). And the commands of Jesus overwhelmingly have to do with how we view, treat, and love others – even including our enemies. That’s why when Jesus is asked what the greatest command is, He doesn’t just give it, but connects it to another command, which He says is the second greatest: Love God with all your heart, strength, soul, and mind, and “the second is like it: ‘love your neighbour as yourself'” (Matthew 22:39).

By obeying Jesus, we come to look more and more like Him ourselves, doing the things He did but in our own contexts, our own workplaces and homes and churches and schools. It is “living as if Jesus were living His life through our own.”

 3. Gratitude

Gratitude is the magic ingredient of this recipe. If we value others as better than ourselves but don’t have gratitude, we will quickly become bitter and resentful towards them. If we are obedient to Jesus but don’t have gratitude we will become self-righteous and legalistic. Gratitude – especially for the salvation and work of Jesus in our lives – will prevent both of those from happening.

Gratitude may actually be the hardest of these three, however, as we tend to want to take credit for all the goodness in our lives, and for everything we have (both tangible and non-tangible). It can also be hard to have gratitude when things don’t go the way we want, or when life is a struggle (This has been the case for me in my life). We easily forget, or don’t see at all, the great amount of things to be grateful for. But when we have humility, seeing ourselves accurately, we will see that all of what we have is gift from God – the good things as from Him, and the evil as those things which God will work out for our good (Romans 8:28).

Paul tells us to “give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18),” and elsewhere tells us to present our requests to God, by prayer and petition, and with thanksgiving (Philippians 4:6).

What happens to our Identity?

But if Jesus becomes greater and we become less, does that mean we lose our identities and become robot-clones of Jesus?

No. Paul affirms this when he uses the imagery the Church being the body of Christ. He says each one of us is a part of it, and talks about how each part are not the same, and how each part need each other (1 Corinthians 12). This is the same chapter in which Paul talks about the different gifts the Holy Spirit gives to the Church: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:4-7).

God created you with a unique set of strengths, weaknesses, personality traits, and temperament. And He gave you a unique set of spiritual gifts with which to build up the church and use for His Kingdom and glory.

Conclusion

When we are growing in the three qualities of humility, obedience, and gratitude, we will find that Jesus will become greater in our lives, both in our esteem and love for Him, and in the glory He receives through us. We’ll find that we actually become more ourselves as we become more like Christ; The part of our identity that is formed and molded by sinful brokenness will be healed.

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Preparing the Way of the Lord Today

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What does it look like at your home when you’re having guests over?

At my house, it can sometimes look like a whirlwind of activity with vacuuming and cleaning the bathroom and getting food ready. Sometimes it’s lots of preparations and sometimes it’s just a bit, but we always prepare when we can before our guests arrive.

Isaiah 40:1-5

“Comfort, comfort my people,”
    says your God.
“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.
Tell her that her sad days are gone
    and her sins are pardoned.
Yes, the Lord has punished her twice over
    for all her sins.”

Listen! It’s the voice of someone shouting,
“Clear the way through the wilderness
    for the Lord!
Make a straight highway through the wasteland
    for our God!
Fill in the valleys,
    and level the mountains and hills.
Straighten the curves,
    and smooth out the rough places.
Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
    and all people will see it together.
    The Lord has spoken!”

In Isaiah’s prophecy someone is shouting to prepare the way so that the glory of the Lord will be revealed. He shouts a command to clear the way in the wilderness, to make a straight highway, to level the land by leveling mountains and filling valleys. The imagery that the prophecy is invoking is that of a king going on a journey, and sending one of his servants ahead of him to make sure his way is clear. Kind of like how when the Queen visits Canada, a lot of preparation has to happen before she comes.

And this prophecy, in chapter 40 of Isaiah, is in a unique place in the book of Isaiah. There’s 66 chapters total, and from chapter 1-39 the main theme is God’s displeasure and judgement for Israel’s disobedience. But starting in chapter 40 there is a shift – from 40-66 the main theme is the salvation of God’s people.

And this prophecy of someone shouting to prepare the way was understood by the Jewish rabbinical scholars to point forward to the coming of the Messiah, or saviour, and that a messenger would come ahead of him to prepare the way – which they understood to be the prophet Elijah returned.

John the Baptist

If we jump ahead ~700 years, we read in Luke’s account of the life of Jesus a man named John coming out of the wilderness and preaching to the Israelite people. Let’s read Luke 3:2b-4:

“Then John went from place to place on both sides of the Jordan River, preaching that people should be baptized to show that they had repented of their sins and turned to God to be forgiven. Isaiah had spoken of John when he said, “He is a voice shouting in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming!'”

Luke (and all the Gospel writers) explicitly state that John is the one prophesied about by Isaiah. But notice, his message wasn’t “prepare the way of the Lord;” that was his role. What was his message? He was “preaching that people should be baptized to show that they had repented of their sins and turned to God to be forgiven” (v.3). Matthew records John’s message as “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” And because he preached that people should be baptized he became known as “John the Baptist.”

Have you ever seen those guys holding signs saying “repent!” on them, kind of like Westboro Baptist church? We don’t get them in Winnipeg that much. When I was in Jr. High a guy would hang around outside my school with signs that said “repent” on them and even though I was a Christian I kind of thought he was crazy, or at least that was the general feeling in our school. But John’s way of preparing the way of the Lord was to preach a message of repentance, kind of like modern street preachers. We don’t really like hearing preaching like that, but John gets even harsher – because when people started coming to him to get baptized he says this:

 

“You brood of snakes! Who warned you to flee God’s coming wrath? Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones. Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:7-9).

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He calls his listeners a brood of vipers fleeing the wrath to come like snakes making a hasty exit from a forest fire. His cynical question “who warned you?” was because the religious folk of his day believed that since they were Jews – the chosen people of God – that fact alone would be enough to save them.

But John says their nationality won’t save them, but to “Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God.” Because we will all stand before God as individuals; we can’t point to the faith or goodness of our families.

This calling them to baptism was actually a subversive thing to do in his day. Baptism wasn’t practiced by Jews, but by non-Jews who wished to convert to Judaism (along with circumcision). And John is telling the Jews to get baptized to show the sincerity of their repentance.

And when he warns them saying (v. 9) “Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees” that don’t bear fruit, the crowds ask him “What should we do?

John’s response is incredibly practical yet utterly mundane – “If you have two coats, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry.

Pretty straightforward, eh? Sounds like a lot of Jesus and James’ teachings.

If we’re being honest, we don’t really like that answer. We would prefer an answer that was more spiritual or mystical. Or even if John had stopped with ‘repent and be baptized’ we wouldn’t mind. Yet, this is what God emphasizes over and over throughout all of Scripture: Care for the poor. Stand up against injustice. Welcome the outsider. Love your enemies. Doing these acts of compassion (and others like them) fulfills what Jesus calls the 2nd Greatest Commandment, – “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

The issue here isn’t how many coats we all have (though almost all of us have clothes in our closets we could donate to a clothing bank), but it’s how we care for the poor, and oppressed, and strangers in our society, both through giving to organizations and on a personal level.

And this is how we ‘prepare the way of the Lord’ to come into our own lives today. It’s turning away from our sins & being baptized, and ‘proving that we’ve done that by the way we live,’ as John says. He gets to the root of things, and shows us that God is not impressed with a religion that doesn’t “bear fruit” (another term we read a lot and are exhorted to do throughout Scripture).

Then Luke includes some specific examples to flesh it out a bit more – some tax collectors and soldiers ask Jesus what they should do.

Tax collectors were Jews, but they worked for Rome collecting taxes, and often took more than they were supposed to for their own benefit. They were pretty hated by other Jews as traitors. (The NLT adds that they’re “corrupt” to help explain it, but that’s not in the original Greek.) John’s      reply to them is super basic and obvious: “Only collect what you’re supposed to.”

The soldiers were most likely Jewish too working for the religious system or even for the tax collectors – when they ask him what they should do John again answers with pretty obvious advice: “Don’t bully people, don’t extort people, and don’t make false accusations about them.”

Notice what John doesn’t say – he doesn’t tell them to leave their jobs, he doesn’t tell them to leave the world they live in and know and join him in the desert, but to live with integrity within their chosen profession. Each job in life has its own temptations, and those who’ve turned their lives to God will resist those temptations. So we don’t unethically cut corners if it means we’ll save money; we don’t cheat on our exams or not cite our sources if it means a better grade. We don’t abuse our privileges or steal from our employers. These are some of the things he would say to us.

Jesus of Wrath

Well, the people are amazed at John’s teaching. They haven’t had a prophet in Israel for over 400 years, and they wonder if he could Messiah they’ve been waiting for who would free them from Roman occupation. John quickly shuts down that idea, and in stereotypical Old Testament prophet form, warns of impending judgement. Talking about Jesus, he says:

“I baptize you with water; but someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not even worthy to be his slave and untie the straps of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He is ready to separate the chaff from the wheat with his winnowing fork. Then he will clean up the threshing area, gathering the wheat into his barn but burning the chaff with never-ending fire.”

This doesn’t really sound like the Jesus we know and read about, does it? This judgment and wrath that Jesus is ready to bring is not what we like to hear, but if we want an accurate and faithful picture of who Jesus is we must include it.

While on earth Jesus emphasized loving others in practical ways – even our enemies – and he even died on the cross out of love so that humans could gain forgiveness of their sins with God. but when he returns he will put an end to evil forever. Chapter 19 of the book of Revelation, about the apocalypse and return of Jesus, describes him this way:

“His eyes were like flames of fire, and on his head were many crowns... He wore a robe dipped in blood, and his title was the Word of God... From his mouth came a sharp sword to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron rod. He will release the fierce wrath of GodOn his robe at his thigh was written this title: King of all kings and Lord of all lords.”

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This language and this image of Jesus emphasizes the divine hostility that God has towards all evil. And I think it’s okay that we don’t feel comfortable with it.

Good News?

Back to John the Baptist. Notice how Luke ends this passage: “John used many such warnings as he announced the good news to the people.

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Okay, but with all this judgment talk, how can Luke call it “Good News”?

It’s not good news because Jesus will “burn the chaff with never ending fire,” that’s actually sad. But it’s good news because with the coming (and more so the second coming) of Jesus there is a definite end of evil. It will last for a time, and then will be utterly swept away. And, it’s good news because forgiveness is possible; the tragedy of sin and the consequences of sin that we see all around us and within us are not irreversible.

And this is something to be joyful about, and is why we light the pink candle, “joy,” on the third week of Advent.

The Challenge

In this passage there’s a very clear challenge for us this morning; repent of our sins and turn to God for forgiveness, with baptism, and live in a way that proves we’ve done it. All of this ‘prepares the way of the Lord’ to come into our own lives and into our communities.

But I wonder how John might respond if he showed up here this morning, and we asked him “What shall we do?” like the people 2000 years ago did. What would he say to the students and teachers, and the accountants, the doctors and nurses, the engineers and IT professionals, the dentists and carpenters, and even to the pastors? What would he say to you & me?

 “Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God… Care for the poor around you. Live with integrity in your jobs and vocations.

John’s answer to them back then is ultimately the same answer that he would give us today too.

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