This was a sermon I delivered on Sunday 19th March 2017 at Camelon Parish Church. The text was John 3: 22-36. The translation quoted is the New Living Translation.
John the Baptist was a pretty big deal in Judea. He’d been baptising people all over the region for some time by now, we don’t know exactly how long, and he’d built up a decent following, attracted the attention of the Jewish leaders, and had what those in business might term a good customer base. He was, in our terms, a success with fame, adoration and the first century equivalent of an entourage of hangers on (that’s a bit unfair on his disciples, who were there to learn, but it’s just a modern equivalence).
Suddenly, onto the scene bursts Jesus – young, charismatic and at least as radical as John himself. John, of course, has already said that Jesus is greater than him, and that John was just there to “prepare the way” for Jesus. However, when John’s disciples come running to him saying,
“Rabbi, that guy you said was the Messiah is here as well and he’s also baptising people! They’re all going to him instead of to us!”
There is a clear inference. Their question is “Our fame and adoration is being taken by this man Jesus; what are you going to do about it?”
And it’s a good question. What is this man who has built up a following and a reputation going to do now Jesus is around, taking followers from him in their droves?
John knew who Jesus was, that was the whole point in his own ministry. But would we have been surprised to see John go over to him and say “I know you’re the Messiah, but could you at least leave something for me? I’ve done all this work, for you, and now you’re taking away from everything I’ve built up for myself. Fair’s fair, Jesus!”. Maybe that’s how we would have reacted as well if we had worked hard for such a long time, only to see the fruits of our labour taken from us, our status diminished, our work becoming unneeded.
Not John, though. He turns to his disciples, who do appear to be thinking in those terms and tells them, “This is how it must be. He becomes greater and greater and I become less and less.”
It’s an astonishing reaction by John, who describes himself as being the best man, simply glad to stand with the groom and hear him take his vows. John’s time in the spotlight is over, and he is delighted about it, more than happy to step aside and let Jesus take centre stage.
Our culture is defined by status. Who remembers or has seen that old sketch from The Frost Report (and no, I’m clearly not old enough to have seen it first time around), the one with Ronnie’s Barker and Corbett, and John Cleese as three people of various social standings? “I look down on him because… I look up to him because…”? Every member of the trio defining themselves by social class, belongings, money and many other human constructs in order to try to lift themselves up to a higher standing; your worth being made clear by whether or not you look down on or up to other people.
We do this, most of us have those we look up to and most have those we look down on. Some, of course, look down on everyone or believe themselves to be worthy of being looked down upon by everyone else, but we still position ourselves in this way.
Jesus understood this. On many occasions, when he spoke he referred to the greatest of my brothers and sisters, or the least of my brothers and sisters. His audience at the time knew what he meant, just as we do when we hear those words, because we all put ourselves within that spectrum of greatest to least. Jesus, however, didn’t see us in those terms. When he used them it was always to raise up the supposed “least of these”, to give them worth and an equal standing in his eyes. By using these terms, Jesus went on to remind us that there is, in reality, no such thing as the greatest or least of us, just us. We’re all his brothers and sisters who he wants to look out for each other instead of constantly looking after number one.
John was not looking after number one. John was in a position which had brought him fame and followers, but John was also a man who slept in the desert, wore a hairskin shirt and ate locusts and wild honey. John had status, but he didn’t care one bit about that status. He was the Ronnie Corbett in that Frost Report sketch. Whilst Ronnie Barker and John Cleese were looking up or down, Corbett, as the working man, gave us his catchphrase,
“I know my place”
John knew his place. Not in the Upstairs Downstairs way of knowing your place in terms of social standing, but knowing his place next to Jesus. Knowing that, regardless of any earthly status, Jesus is far greater that any and all of us.
The writer and speaker Jeff Lucas tells a story of his first time preaching at Spring Harvest, the largest Christian conference in Europe. It was in the Butlins camp in Minehead, Somerset, and he delivered the evening address in a huge tent filled with around 3,500 people. The following morning he was walking around the camp and he could feel people looking at him as he went past, saying things like “look, that’s Jeff Lucas!” or “it’s that guy from last night!”. Suddenly he found himself walking a little taller and prouder. This increased when a lady came up to him at the book stall with a copy of his book and asked if he could sign it for her. “Of course!” he said, happily producing a pen from his jacket pocket and, for the first time in his life, signing an autograph.
He walked around for the rest of the morning smiling and waving, pen at the ready for any other drive-by autograph hunters, until he got back to his chalet for lunch, half expecting a red carpet reception and line of people there to greet him.
As he stepped into the chalet he had a tangible, almost audible sense of God speaking to him. And God was saying this,
“Famous for a day at Butlins, are we?”
Suddenly he felt a bit daft. You see, he had been up on a stage the previous evening pointing people to Jesus, then spent the morning pointing the way to himself, and he realised this. He realised that all of his work, everything he was doing, was worth nothing if it was for his own glorification.
The writer of Ecclesiastes asked “What do people get for all their hard work under the sun?” and went on to say “We don’t remember what happened in the past, and in future generations, no one will remember what we do now.”
(Ecclesiastes 1: 3 & 11)
So, what do we get for all our hard work? If we can’t bask in the limelight, enjoy our own accomplishments and if nobody will remember what we’ve done in the future, what is the point of it all.
And this is where John the Baptist steps in with his answer. “I am not the Messiah. I am only here to prepare the way for him.” John’s work and ministry were never about himself. John never intended to enjoy the fruits of his own labour because the fruits of his labour were all intended for Jesus. Jesus, who is “greater than anybody else”. Jesus who “has come from heaven”. Jesus who “is sent by God and speaks God’s words”.
While we spend our lives presenting an image of ourselves to the world based on how hard we work, how popular we are, what we own, what our social standing is, how caring or generous we are, how often we can be seen at Church and a whole load of other ways; John is presenting an image of Jesus in everything he does.
We know almost nothing about John the Baptist, when you really examine it. We have a story of his conception, we know he baptised, what he wore and ate, how he died and what he said about Jesus. However, we don’t know how his ministry started, how many disciples he had or how they came to follow him, why people flocked to be baptised by him, or the vast majority of what he taught. His work and life are, largely, forgotten, as he would have been himself had he not devoted himself to preparing the way for and pointing the way to Jesus.
He became less and Jesus became greater.
John’s lasting impact is as a small part in the Jesus story. Not a man who is remembered for his own sake, but as a part of something much greater than he is. The same can be said of Jesus’ disciples, of Mary mother of Jesus, of Paul, of Mary Magdalene, of the Gospel writers and of countless men and women down the ages who have laid aside self interest and self promotion in order to present Jesus to the world. They won’t care how well they are still remembered, but because of them we can know Him.
And that is worth working for.