Third Sunday Of Advent: John The Baptist, A Reflection Of Humility
For the past 90 years or so Time magazine has named a particularly influential person “MAN of the Year.” Not too long ago they expanded it to include women and now they call their award “PERSON of the Year.” In 2009 that title went to Bert Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve. The year before it went to Barack Obama. Other “Person’s of the Year” have been Bill Clinton, Pope John Paul II, George W. Bush, and Mohandas Gandi.
Well, if I remember right, about twenty years ago in an attempt to sell even more magazines TIME took their award a step further and named a “Person of the CENTURY.” They developed a list of who they thought were the 100 most significant people of the last hundred years, and then they chose the one they considered to be the absolute GREATEST…the GREATEST PERSON OF THE CENTURY. I don’t guess we’ll be around when TIME does this again…but does anyone remember who their first choice for this award was? I’ll give you a hint. He invented the concept of “a bad hair day.” It was Albert Einstein.
OTHER THAN JESUS—who would you choose as the greatest person of not just the century, but OF ALL TIME?
Perhaps some of you would say your grandfather—because of his great wisdom.
Others might name their favorite president…or a Catholic leader like Fulton Sheen. Or how about the Virgin Mary?
Children might name their dad or their mother
Well, do you know who Jesus would name? And we don’t have to ask because He’s already given us His answer. In Matthew 11:11 Jesus—Who is quite an authority on people—Jesus said, “Amen I say to you, there hath not risen among them that are born of women a greater than John the Baptist ” I mention all this because today, in our gospel readings, John records His testimony of the FIRST WEEK of Jesus’ earthly ministry. And the FIRST person we encounter on that FIRST day is this John the Baptist—the Greatest Person of All Time—according to Jesus.
God chose John for the special privilege of INTRODUCING Jesus to the nation of Israel which meant he also had the difficult task of PREPARING that nation to receive the Messiah. We see the importance of both John and his special calling in the fact that he is mentioned at least 89 times in the New Testament
John was a very different kind of person. In his gospel account Mark tells us he came striding out of the desert wearing a coat made of camel hair with a home-made leather belt around his waist, eating locusts and wild honey—definitely not the kind of guy you would want your daughter to bring home one day. I think with his desert survival skills John would have done well on one of the SURVIVOR reality shows—but he would probably have been one of the first voted off the island because of the things he said. I mean, John wasn’t a people pleaser. He didn’t hesitate to step on people’s toes if need be. He shot from the hip. In fact, his no-holes-barred truth telling is what got John beheaded. Remember, when he preached against the sexual immorality of King Herod? John wasn’t a salesman, who would try to sweet talk you into something. Nor was he a politician, who would try to match his words to the popular opinion of the day. John didn’t care what PEOPLE said or thought about him. All he cared about was pleasing God, so His sole focus was on delivering God’s message.
But in spite of his mode of preaching and his radical diet and dress, John became immensely popular. In his gospel, Luke tells us that “multitudes” went out to hear him preach. Matthew says that people came to hear him from “Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan.” (Matthew 3:5) And these multitudes included all segments of the population—Pharisees, Sadducees, tax collectors, soldiers, the rich, and the poor.
Why do you think John had such broad appeal? I mean, why did the multitudes come? I believe it was because, like Nicodemus, the people of that day longed to hear from God. The prophet Amos had foretold that there would be centuries of “spiritual famine.” Listen as I read Amos 8:11:“Behold the days come, saith the Lord, and I will send forth a famine into the land: not a famine of bread, nor a thirst of water, but of hearing the word of the Lord.”
Word spread that God’s voice could be heard in John’s bold, no-compromise preaching, so like thirsty animals being drawn by the smell of water, people came from everywhere. Everyone sensed that with John’s message, the years of silence had finally ended. Well, when word of this phenomenon reached the ears of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, they sent a deputation to check him out—and that leads us to our text for this morning.
As we look at the life and ministry of John the Baptist, I want us to try and understand what it is that made him such an amazing person. I want us to do this because if Jesus said John was the greatest man ever born…then wouldn’t you agree that he’s the kind of person we should emulate? So what makes John a kind of person we should strive to be? I want to mention two things and the first is…
(1) … John’s ATTITUDE.
You see, in spite of his great popularity, John remained a HUMBLE man and the clearest indication of this was the way he always put Jesus first. Christ pre-eminent. That was John’s attitude. Jesus Christ was always first.
Humility has tremendous value before God. It says in 1 Peter 3:4 that a meek and gentle spirit is extremely precious to God - whether found in a woman or in a man.
A gentle and a quiet spirit is one that is not agitated or in unrest. Some washing machines have what is called an "agitator". It turns one way and then the other way - perpetually. It is never at rest, it is always "agitating"! In the hearts of all who are born of Adam too, there is an "agitator". If anyone rubs them the wrong way, the agitator starts "agitating". But those who are humble and gentle in spirit have got rid of this agitator. They are not offended or hurt, when anyone says or does something to them , or when they don't say or do something that was expected of them. They have put their "agitator" on the cross. Peter says that the beauty of a gentle and a quiet spirit is incorruptible, imperishable! This is the secret of eternal beauty. The world is full of women nowadays who are wanting to look younger. But what is the beauty that is really incorruptible? It is a gentle and a quiet spirit. And this is for men too! This is what will make you really precious to God - if you have a gentle, quiet spirit that is not agitated or offended, that doesn't get into bad moods, that is not grumpy or angry. You need never lose control of yourself at any time either, for the fruit of the Spirit is self-control. Let the world be full of people who have "agitators" but that's not for us Christians any longer. We can get rid of our agitators permanently.
Note Johns humility in what he said, “I am the VOICE of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”
“I am no one special, I am just a voice!”
Note how John HUMBLED himself here in the things he did NOT say.
He did NOT say, “I am John, the son of Zacharias the priest.”
He did not say… “An angel foretold my birth….God made it possible for me to be born to elderly parents.”
He did not say… “The Holy Spirit entered my body when I was still in my mother’s womb.”
He did not say, “I am God’s greatest prophet and the Messiah is my cousin.”
He didn’t even say he was a man!
He simply said, “I am but a VOICE.” No claims for himself…just a voice crying out,“Make straight the way of the Lord.”
John was saying this, “I am a nobody; I’m just the road repairman; I am only a voice telling you to get ready for the coming of the King…He is on the way.” In short, John was what every CHRISTIAN ought to be…a VOICE pointing to the King.
The second picture of his humility is in the third chapter of the gospel of John.
Jesus was baptizing up river from John and every day more of John’s multitude were leaving John and going to hear Jesus. When John’s followers asked him how he felt about the dwindling of his multitude, he once again showed his humility. Listen verses 28-30 where John says, “You yourselves do bear me witness, that I said, I am not Christ, but that I am sent before him. He that hath the bride, is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, who standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth with joy because of the bridegroom's voice. This my joy therefore is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.”
Now, In the Old Testament the nation of Israel is repeatedly pictured as the bride and God as the Bridegroom. For example, when Israel left to follow false idols, God used this word picture and charged them with spiritual ADULTERY. This is the picture John had in mind here. He knew that Jesus was God in the flesh which made Israel His rightful bride. So John drew on that word picture when he said he was the FRIEND of the bridegroom…the “shoshben” in Hebrew. Now, according to the different books on the customs of bible times, that I read, the shoshben had a unique place at a Jewish wedding. He was like a combination best man/wedding director. He arranged the wedding. He delivered the invitations and set everything up for the wedding feast. And when all this was done he had one more VERY SPECIAL duty. You see, after the ceremony, it was his job to be the liaison between the bride and the bridegroom. It was his task to guard the bedchamber where the bride waited and let no false lover in. He would only open the door when he heard and recognized the bridegroom’s voice. When he did, he let the groom in and then went away rejoicing for his task was completed. He did not begrudge the bridegroom and the bride their joy. He knew that his only task had been to bring them together and when that was done, he willingly and gladly faded out of the picture.
Do you see the connection? John’s task was to bring the Messiah and Israel together. Once that was done he was happy to fade into obscurity…like the echo of a voice that eventually becomes inaudible. So it was not with ENVY that he said Jesus must increase and he must decrease. It was with the JOYFUL AWARENESS that he had done the job God entrusted him with.
This is one way we should emulate John. We should do everything we can to point people to Jesus. That should be our joy. Anytime people start focusing on US and praising US for what we do…anytime we find ourselves wanting to make sure people notice what WE do for God…we are treading on dangerous territory…because our job is like John’s. We are to point people to Jesus. It’s not about us—EVER.
When your ego is too big, then you’re stealing attention that belongs to Christ. When your ego is involved, think of this word as an acronym because you are Edging God Out. When God gets edged out, you’ll lift yourself up in pride and start to think you deserve credit for what is accomplished in your life. And of course you don’t. Anything done for God, that is the will of God that we accomplish as sinners saved by grace because of God’s power.
Is there any way that you are pridefully trying to grab some of God’s glory? Are you pointing people to Jesus—or to self? If you honestly see some ways that you are INCREASING when you should be DECREASING, focus on Jesus and what He has done for you. As Romans 12:3 says,“think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, as God hath divided to every one the measure of faith.”
The second thing that makes John great, and someone we should emulate, is this:
(2) …His ACTIONS.
I mean, John didn’t just sit around being humble. He ACTED. He did the good work that God had prepared in advance for him to do…specifically—he was faithful to proclaim the message God had given him. I mean his was a VOICE was always crying out in ways that helped people understand Who Jesus was…and what He came to do.
For example, look back at verse 25 where John’s interrogators asked, “If you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet, why do you BAPTIZE?” He answered their question by saying, “The reason I came baptizing with water was so that He—the Christ—the One Whose sandals I am not worthy to untie—I came baptizing with water that HE might be revealed to Israel.” (Vs 25, 31)
Johns baptism was not a Christian baptism.
The Council of Trent (Sess. VII, Canon I. on baptism) anathematized the teaching that the baptism of John had the same effect as the baptism of Christ.
St. Thomas Aquinas also answered that
[T]he whole teaching and work of John was in preparation for Christ: just as it is the duty of the servant and of the under-craftsman to prepare the matter for the form which is accomplished by the head-craftsman. Now grace was to be conferred on men through Christ, according to John 1:17: “Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Therefore the baptism of John did not confer grace, but only prepared the way for grace; and this in three ways: first, by John’s teaching, which led men to faith in Christ; secondly, by accustoming men to the rite of Christ’s baptism; thirdly, by penance, preparing men to receive the effect of Christ’s baptism.
Now—these religious leaders asked this question because in their minds water baptism was something Gentiles did….Gentiles converting to Judaism. Being baptized was a way for these non-Jews—these pagans to admit and repent of their sins. But John was baptizing everyone—even the JEWS! He was saying that they were just as bad as the pagans in the world. And we have to understand how shocking this would have been to them. John was challenging the Jewish concept that every descendant of Abraham was already in God’s kingdom. Listen to what he said to them in Luke 3:7-8, “He said therefore to the multitudes that went forth to be baptized by him: Ye offspring of vipers, who hath shewed you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of penance; and do not begin to say, We have Abraham for our father. For I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” So John’s actions were shocking to the Jewish establishment. His message raised eyebrows for he was saying as Paul would later, that “ALL have sinned, and do need the glory of God.”
But that’s not all John did. He didn’t just tell his listeners that they were sinners. No—he also told them that our Loving God had come in the flesh—come to do something about our sin. When our Lord walked by, John said, “Look, there He is! That Man is the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world. This is the One I was talking about. I baptize with water but He will baptize with the Holy Spirit.”
Now—this delegation would have understood the phrase “lamb of God” Back then, every Jew would have understood the concept of a SACRIFICIAL LAMB. They had learned about it first from the story of Abraham going up the mountain to sacrifice his son. As they hiked up that mountain Abraham told Isaac that God would provide Himself a lamb to die in his son’s place and God did. Israel had also known about the sacrificial lamb as a result of the institution of the Passover—when the blood of an innocent lamb was put on the doorpost of their homes to keep the death angel away. And—they knew that every day in the services of the temple lambs and goats were sacrificed for sins. They knew that in every instance those sacrifices meant the death of an innocent substitute in place for the one who had sinned. So—they would have understood that John was proclaiming the shocking message that the Messiah would be the Lamb of God—come to die for our sins. After all, he was echoing Isaiah’s prophesy, saying that the temple sacrifices were to be fulfilled in the Messiah—Jesus—Who would bear our sin.
“Surely he hath borne our infirmities and carried our sorrows: and we have thought him as it were a leper, and as one struck by God and afflicted. But he was wounded for our iniquities, he was bruised for our sins: the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and by his bruises we are healed.” (Is 53:4-5)
I like to think that as John said this about Jesus…as he identified Him as the sin-bearing Lamb…I like to think that the flocks of lambs that were driven up to the walls of Jerusalem each year to serve a sacrificial lambs for the Passover were passing by. This is not far-fetched because the Passover feast was not far off (John 2:12-13) so perhaps John was led to refer to Jesus in this fashion…because those lambs walking by showed vividly that Jesus was able to deliver from death those who believed in Him.
I read an illustration that was very graphic but it really gripped my heart. A young man worked in a slaughter house, putting to death cattle, hogs, chickens, turkeys; you name it he did it. One day he was told to slaughter a lamb. The young man said,
“Usually I would just slit the throat of the beast and it would fall to the ground. I’ve never killed a lamb. And, I would usually have to chase down the animal to be killed. They were all very skittish; probably because of the smell of death and blood. But you know, this little lamb just walked right up to me and nudged my hand with his head. I gritted my teeth and stuck to my routine. Grabbing under the chin of the lamb, I put the knife to his throat, and pulled hard and swift. The cut was deep, severing it’s throat, and blood sprayed everywhere. I let go of the animal and it staggered as if it were drunk. With it’s blood all over my hands, I dropped the knife in disbelief, and what happened next changed my life completely as a Christian. The lamb did not fall to it’s knees gasping for breath. The little lamb staggered back to me and nudged my bloody hand for the second time with his nose, and started to lick the blood from my hands! I could not believe what I was experiencing! It made me think of how Christ endured His suffering and painful death for me on Calvary, washing my sins away with His precious blood. Something wet started splashing on the ground, and it was coming from my face. I was weeping. I quit that job, that day.”
That day this young man understood what John was saying—that Jesus, the Messiah, is the Lamb of God—Who because of His great love for you and me…allowed Himself to be crucified.
Whenever St. John the Baptist had the chance he told people the basic Gospel message, that they were sinners who needed to repent…and that the Messiah had come…come to die so their sins could be washed away.
As I told you when I began, Jesus said that no one was better than John the Baptist—that in essence he was the Greatest Man of All Time. But did you ALSO know that in a very real sense the “contest” for this title is not over? In Matthew 11:11 Jesus said, “Amen I say to you, there hath not risen among them that are born of women a greater than John the Baptist … and then Jesus said, “…yet he that is the lesser in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” If we embrace John’s attitude and actions…if we humble ourselves and do all we can to help people understand Who Jesus is and What He has done, God can do even greater things through us!