I MUST DECREASE
TEXT: John 3:25-30; 1 Cor. 3:1-9a
The Gospel text for this morning shows us, I think, the greatness of John the Baptist. If you remember the story, John is Jesus' cousin, born just a few months before Jesus. John's purpose on earth is to prepare the way for Jesus, and John does that by becoming a sort of wild man in the wilderness. The Bible tells us that he wore animal skins and ate locust and wild honey...yum! Having taken the vows of a nazarite, he never touched alcohol and never cut his hair. Imagine bringing this guy home to meet the folks.
He lived in the desert wilderness and called for people to repent of their sins and get ready because the Kingdom of God was going to show up at any minute. When people repented of their sins, he symbolized their new cleanliness by having them step into the Jordan River and baptizing them. And they did come to hear him and they did repent in droves. John was a weird but popular man. Like other popular leaders, John had followers. There were disciples of John the Baptizer that followed him and learned from him.
Then along comes his cousin Jesus. While John is in the wilderness, preaching outdoors, fasting often, and drinking only water, Jesus is taking the more refined route. Jesus is in the cities and towns, teaching in the synagogues, and feasting often enough that the Bible tells us he was accused of being both a glutton and a drunkard. Jesus, too, is attracting followers and disciples who are also calling people to repent and be baptized.
John's disciples begin to get a little testy as they began to feel that Jesus was getting more disciples than John. So they come to John to see what he is going to do about it. John's response? He must become greater, I must become less. He must increase, I must decrease. Now exactly how many religious leaders do you think would be able to have that attitude? Imagine First Church, Big City and Second Church, Big City. They are across the street from each other. First Church has been there since Big City was founded. Second Church is newer, and had some nerve setting up shop across the street. They do things differently over at Second Church and pretty soon the members of First Church are showing up in the pews across the street. Somebody brings it to the attention of the pastor at First Church. What are the odds that First Church pastor is going to say, "He must increase, I must decrease"? Slim is what they are.
The other Gospels don't include these words of John the Baptist. But I think John the Gospel writer includes them because he knows from his own experience what a remarkable statement it is. Most scholars assume that the writer of the Gospel of John is the John who was the disciple of Jesus. John the Disciple is the only one of the twelve closest disciples of Jesus to live out a natural life, and his Gospel is the last of the four to be written. John has had time to think back over his life and the life of Jesus.
I can't help but think that John includes these words because he remembers how his own attitudes were so different. John, his brother James and Peter were the three disciples closest to Jesus. When everyone else was excluded, they were there. When Jesus picked a select group, it was the three of them. And more than once, the three of them fell to discussing among themselves which of them would win out as top disciple. When Jesus finally brought the Kingdom of God, which one of them would be his right hand man? Jesus catches them arguing about it at one point and at another James and John actually send their mother to Jesus to request that when Jesus takes his throne as king that James and John might have just slightly smaller thrones...one to Jesus' left and the other to his right.
In all the time that he traveled with Jesus, John the Disciple was never able to imagine himself decreasing in any way, shape or form. After Jesus' death and resurrection, after Pentecost, when the Disciples finally began to understand what Jesus was really all about, I think John the Disciple heard anew these amazing and humble words of John the Baptist...he must increase, I must decrease. John the Disciple came to understand that this was the whole point, and so he included them in his Gospel.
Lent is the time of the Christian year that we try to understand for ourselves the words, "I must decrease." Ours is a culture that basically knows nothing at all of decrease. The only thing we want to decrease are the piles of snow around our houses and perhaps our waistlines. But the general attitude of our culture is that bigger is better...if having some is good, having more is better. Our goals are to be promoted on our jobs, to build up bank accounts so that we can buy more toys or be free from worry, to develop our cities, to build up our bodies, you name it. How much is enough? We don't know. We never reach it.
And in the middle of all of that stands this one, very odd man...a voice crying in the wilderness, hoping that soon his congregation will dwindle to nothing and that his disciples will begin to follow someone else. In the upside down world of the Kingdom of God, it turns out that the message of John the Baptist is exactly the key to entering eternal life. The paradox of life with God is that in order to grow spiritually, we must shrink until we are nothing at all. Jesus must increase, we must decrease.
Think of it in terms of a jar. Harriet Marshall makes a wonderful cranberry relish. Let's say I go over to her house to get some. I bring a jar so I can take it home, but the jar is full of pickles. Well, I can't put the first bit of cranberry relish in the jar until I first take out the pickles. That's how it works with spiritual growth. When we come to church full of ourselves, there is no room for God. We must decrease in order for God to increase.
I challenge you in this Lenten season to ask yourselves what needs to decrease in your life to make room for God. We talked last week about making time for prayer. It might be that you need to decrease the time you spend in some activities in order that time for God might increase. And by time for God, I don't necessarily mean time for church stuff. There are some people who jam their lives so full of church activities that God can't even get a toe in their jar.
It might mean decreasing spending on things for yourself so that you can increase giving to others. John Wesley tells of how ashamed he felt when he saw a woman out in the cold and snow with no coat. He would have helped her, except that his money had been spent on a painting for his home and he had nothing left to give. He was mortified.
"He must increase, I must decrease." What does that mean for you? Sometimes it has to do with outward things like time, money, energy, or other resources. But sometimes it has to do with inward things. Sometimes we are so full of our own plans for our lives that we have no room for what God might want. Sometimes we are so sure of what God's children look like that God cannot show us half of them.
Sometimes we are so full of our own ideas of how things should be that when God comes to our jar with new joys and wonders, the Holy Spirit can only sigh and pass on to a jar whose lid is not sealed quite so tightly. Sometimes we are so concerned over what will become of us...we are so frightened of being empty that we never give God a chance. God can't fill a jar that is already full of something else. "He must increase, I must decrease."
Now that does not mean that there is no place for human effort. John the Baptist had an incredibly important task to do. But John could well have been a bigger problem than he was a help, if he didn't realize that the work he was doing was not about him. If John had been threatened by Jesus' popularity; if John had been worried that Jesus didn't do things the way John did things and had decided to compete with Jesus, the cause of both Jesus and John would have suffered.
But John didn't compete. John didn't think that Jesus had it wrong for feasting in the cities just because God had instructed John to fast in the wilderness. There was more than one way to get the message out, and it was the message not the form that counted. John knew that both of them had work to do, that the work belonged to God and was about God, and that his own work was about finished.
Think of it in terms of a snowplow. Especially this past week, all of us take off our hats and salute those who clear the roads. We would be in deep trouble...no pun intended...if it were not for the snowplows. But we would be in just as big a mess if, once the plows had finished their work, they stayed out on the roads. They would be in the way, cause accidents, and be a general nuisance. By not getting out of the way when their job is done, they would hamper the very thing they were trying to help...the smooth flow of traffic. In modern life in the north we absolutely need snowplows. We also need them to get out of the way when their part of the task is done.
John the Baptist was like the snowplow. His job was to prepare the way and then get out of the way of Jesus. God needed him and used him in a mighty way. But the success of the whole enterprise was dependent on John's attitude being right. If he had slipped over into thinking that this was about him rather than being about Jesus, all his good would have been undone. It is the same with us as individuals; it is the same with us as a church.
God forbid that any good that happens here at St. John's be seen as anything other than work done by God for God. It is done THROUGH us, yes. We are a vital link. God has this weird preference for using human beings...faulty as we are...for God's work. God loves us and chooses us, and the more I look at myself, the more I question God's sanity. But the fact remains that, like the snowplow, we play a vital role in making the Kingdom of God manifest on earth as it is in heaven. But also, like the snowplow, we have to get ourselves out of the way so that once we have done our part, God can get through.
In the church we have to quit worrying about whether we have more members or staff or whatever than the church down the street and simply ask if the way is clear for Jesus. Ideally the church has a revolving door...people come in, receive nourishment and healing from God and then go out again...transformed by the Holy Spirit to do God's work in the world. The church should be like the training center of a large company that has a constant turnover of people because once they are trained, they are deployed in service around the world.
But so often the church clears the way and then stays out there on the road, making it difficult for people to see where they are going and impeding the flow of traffic. One of my deep convictions about the role of large churches is that they should reach out to help strengthen the ministries of smaller churches around them. I talked about this once at a Conference meeting in Florida. I talked about large churches not just hosting big events that small churches could attend, but sending people out to do ministry in the smaller churches themselves. The pastor of a church with a couple thousand members responded, "Oh, we could never do that. I need all the people I have at our church." That, to me, is a snowplow that won't get out of the road.
I was proud of the large church I just came from in Florida. With 3,000 members in a University town, we were rich in all sorts of resources, including human resources. Soon we had sent out several of our fine lay speakers to become pastors of tiny churches around Gainesville that otherwise would have no pastor. Those pastors came back to us and said they had no music for their worship services. We put out a call and other members of the congregation left and became their pianists and organists. Someone else went out to be a Sunday School Superintendent. How easy it would be to hoard the resources for ourselves...to collect all the people and all the talent so that our own church can increase. No. "He must increase, I must decrease."
It does not matter what else happens or doesn't happen, the job of the church is to make disciples and send them out in service to the world. If we make disciples and collect them in a lovely box with a steeple and pews, we have mangled the work of Christ. Plow the road and get out of the way. We have got to make the space for God. We have got to make room in the jar of our lives for God and we have got to clear the path in our worship, in our structure, and in our mission so that our Lord and Savior can come riding through the gates. He must increase, I must decrease. We must decrease -- all of us. Plow the street and get out of the way. The King is coming!
(c) 2001, Anne Robertson
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