You'll find below the manuscript I prepared for my first sermon as pastor. (I wasn't able to use it in the pulpit because my printer wasn't working, and I thought to just use my laptop--but right when I was about to start, it decided to restart and install updates.) So it was my first time preaching without any notes whatsoever.
So let me ask you a question: who was more important—John the Baptist or Jesus? This is a real easy one, right? But how do you think the people who lived in Jesus’ time would have answered? It depends on who you asked—obviously, if you asked one of the early Christians, they would say, Jesus. But most likely, if you asked anyone else, they would say John the Baptist. In fact, they might not even have heard of Jesus.
Remember: there was no local news channel, no facebook or twitter—so the only way people could find out about important public figures was from word of mouth—and that’s a pretty slow method of spreading information. And so, although we can’t know exactly, since there aren’t extensive records, it appears that Christianity grew pretty slowly at first, and was only a small religious sect for at least the first couple generations after Jesus lived. And the evidence that we do have indicates most likely Jesus’ cousin John was a more important and influential figure in his time than was Jesus was.
You may remember that in the book of Acts, some early Christians met up with a group who were loyal to John and had been baptized by him, but didn’t even know about Jesus. And even the ancient historian Josephus, who would have been just a generation or so after Jesus—appears to know a great deal more about John and particularly his political significance than he knows about Jesus—whom he refers to offhand as having started some small religious sect.
John was the real superstar—and unlike Jesus, who was never popular with the political leaders of the day, JB had won the respect and protection of Herod Antipas the Tetrarch. You may remember Herod had John thrown in prison because John criticized Herod for marrying his brother’s ex-wife. But in spite of it, Herod had great respect for John as a prophet and liked to listen to him. Not to mention the fact that John had such a huge following—Josephus says Herod was afraid of John because his followers were so many and so loyal, all John had to do was say the word and they would start a rebellion. And remember the Pharisees—when they asked Jesus where his authority came from, turned it around and asked them where John’s authority came from—and they were afraid to speak against John and deny his authority came from God—even though he had already been executed—lest the people start a riot and rebel against them.
Take a minute and consider how much John had going for him—if he played his cards right, he could have gone very far, become very influential. He had the ear of the most powerful man among the Jewish people at that time—he had a significant following—if he had really wanted to succeed and use his influence to effect some changes—he probably could have done it. All it would have taken was a little compromise—just back off on the moral criticisms a bit—have a more tolerant attitude—maybe John and Herod could have worked something out.
As I think about John and how he could have chosen that path—it brings to my mind the presidential election going on right now. I don’t know if you watched the vice presidential debates earlier this week—but one of the best questions, I thought, that the moderator asked the two candidates, was about a young, decorated war hero who had told her, he was sickened by the nasty tone of both major parties in this campaign. And so she basically asked them, what do you have to say for yourself? Aren’t you ashamed? And neither candidate had a good answer. It is all too clear that every major politician in our country today is willing to throw out the window things like honesty and respect—they are all willing to make whatever compromise of integrity is necessary in order to succeed. Winning at any cost is the name of the game.
John the Baptist chose a very different path. And it wasn’t just that he stuck to his guns and continued to criticize Herod’s immoral marriage—even though it eventually cost him his life. John set aside his ego, his personal ambitions and chose the way of humility when he recognized and publicly proclaimed that his cousin Jesus was an even greater prophet than he himself. And that, in fact, Jesus was more than just another prophet—John recognized that Jesus was a unique person with a very special purpose—sent by God to bring about something new, something powerful and life-changing—and John may not have known everything that that was going to mean, but he knew that it was something greater even than his own vision.
And so with supreme humility John compares himself with the best man at the wedding—he is not the star of the show—and he is willing to step into the background and even disappear so that his cousin Jesus can shine the more brightly.
I want to share with you this poem about humility that I read as a teenager that has stuck with me over the years, by a 17th century philosopher named Thomas Browne. It compares the soul to a seashell and imagines God as a kind of hermit crab who wants to live and dwell in a nice empty shell. (It’s kind of old-timey language, but hopefully you’ll understand it.)
‘If thou could'st empty all thyself of self, like to a shell dishabited, then might He find thee on the ocean shelf, and say "This is not dead," and fill thee with Himself instead. But thou art all replete with very thou and hast such shrewd activity, that when He comes He says, "This is enow unto itself— 'twere better let it be, it is so small and full, there is no room for Me.’
Now, the author of this poem was probably addressing the individual, but this applies to churches, too. Some churches are so “replete with themselves” and filled with “shrewd activity” there is no room for God. Some churches are driven not so much by the Spirit of God as they are driven by pride and competing egos. Some churches are so bent on getting done the things they want to accomplish, they don’t have the first idea of what it means to submit to Christ. And this is not because they’re bad people, but because this is part of corrupt human nature—that we all have this tendency to get wrapped up in ourselves and forget about God.
Those of us that are involved in the church need to be intentional in cultivating the attitude of John the Baptist and remembering that Jesus, and none of us, is supposed to be the star of this show. In fact, in order for the presence and the power of Christ to increase among us, we must decrease—we must deflate our egos, let go of our cherished ambitions. We must become less so that Christ may become more.
Now, Keystone has gotten really good at decreasing—and maybe you’re thinking, if this church becomes any less than what it is now, there’s not going to be any church left.
But it is precisely because this congregation has been so profoundly humbled that there is such an opportunity here—this large, beautiful building is like the empty shell in the poem. I would guess this is probably the lowest point the church has ever reached in terms of attendance—but I believe God has brought you all to this point, and now, me, too—and Brandon—with a purpose in mind. God has allowed this church to be emptied—literally—to become less and less—but I believe all this emptying and decreasing attendance, decreasing activity—has happened in order to make room for something—and just like John the Baptist, none of us know at this point exactly what that something is going to look like and what it’s going to mean—but I know it is something greater than my own vision and imagination.
One of the real strengths of this little community we have here now, this faithful remnant, is that I can tell y’all are an unpretentious group. This is not a church of loud, flashy personalities. Y’all are not about trying to impress anyone or prove anything. And that’s a very good thing. That is a blessing and a gift. As I said before, you already seem to have a pretty good of idea of how to become less. So we will continue to make room for Jesus here in our midst and we will appreciate the present emptiness of this church—because it is an expectant emptiness, a kind of quiet humility that is not anxious, but confident, knowing God can bring about something in the midst of us that none of us could accomplish or even imagine on our own. And we will thank God this place is not so busy, and not so full of merely human activities so as to distract us from welcoming that new something that is coming into our midst called gospel and grace.
‘If thou could'st empty all thyself of self, like to a shell dishabited, then might He find thee on the ocean shelf, and say "This is not dead," and fill thee with Himself instead.’