Well, Christmas Day has come and gone. We had our Christmas Eve service, of course. We’ve opened the presents and sung the carols. We’ve had our holiday meals. Oh, we still have the trees and the decorations up. Some of us still have family here. Some of us still have leftovers, too.
For the most part, though, there’s a real sense in which we’re on the downside of Christmas. We’ll have one more celebration at New Year’s, and then it will be back to work, back to school, back to our regular routine. Back to our regular church services, too, with our regular songs and regular sermons, rather than songs and sermons that focus on the Christmas story.
Before we leave the Christmas story, though, we need to talk about someone who’s really kind of the forgotten man of the Christmas story. He’s kind of the forgotten man of the gospels, too. His name is John the Baptist.
Some of you have heard of him. Some of you know he’s the one who baptized Jesus in the Jordan River. Some of you even know that he was related to Jesus, that his mother Elizabeth and Jesus’ mother Mary were relatives. But we don’t talk about John the Baptist very much or even think about him very much.
That’s not the fault of the gospel writers. They all mention him. Interestingly, the gospel of John, which we just read, does not specifically say that John baptized Jesus, although it implies that it happened. Luke is the only one to give us John the Baptist’s birth story. The others just talk about John’s ministry.
And it was a pretty important ministry. John is the one who was given the responsibility of preparing the way for Jesus Christ.
John was only about six months older than Jesus. That’s one of those things I know, but I just can’t ever get through my head. It’s like how I know where Colorado is, but I always think of it as being farther north, about where Wyoming is. Do you ever have stuff like that? I know that John the Baptist was only about six months older than Jesus, but I always think of him as a lot older than that for some reason.
People think that John started his ministry about a year before Jesus did. And we can tell that he was pretty successful. Mark tells us that the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Even if we allow that this could be a generalization, there were still obviously a lot of people coming out to see him. They were confessing their sins and John was baptizing them in the Jordan River.
In other words, John the Baptist was a pretty powerful religious figure. People were coming to him, not just to be baptized, but to find out how God thought they should live. He attracted a lot of attention. And some of that attention was from the Jewish religious leaders.
The way John describes it, those religious leaders were not exactly hostile to John, but they were not necessarily on his side, either. Mostly, they wanted to know who he was and what he thought he was doing. And as I look at John’s answers to their questions, I’m struck by how incredibly humble his answers were.
They wanted to know if John was the Messiah, and of course he said no. They wanted to know if he was Elijah or one of the other great prophets. He said no again. Finally, they asked, well then, who are you? And John said, all I am is the voice of one calling in the wilderness. “Make straight the way for the Lord.” There’s someone coming after me who’s so great that I’m not even worthy to untie his sandals.
That’s a pretty awesome statement, you know? As we said, John was pretty great in his day. He was a Really Important Person. He headed a powerful ministry. All these people were coming out to see him and be baptized by him.
It seems like it would’ve been very easy for John to let that go to his head. After all, look at all the religious leaders in our own time who’ve gotten involved in scandals. One of the reasons that’s happened is because of arrogance. When you have people around you telling you how great you are all the time, it’s pretty tempting to believe it. And when we believe we’re greater than we are, it’s easy to start thinking we can do whatever we want, that the rules that apply to other people don’t apply to us because of our greatness. We’ve seen it happen time and time again.
And it would’ve been easy for John to let it happen to him, too. It had to be tempting sometimes. After all, John was human. He was living out in the wilderness. He was wearing clothes made out of camel’s hair. He was eating locusts. When the crowds grew, when his fame spread, it seems like it had to have crossed his mind that he did not have to keep living that way. There’d be people who’d help him move up in life. There must’ve been people who’d have helped him get a better place to live, some nicer clothes, some better food. It must’ve been tempting for John to use his power and his position to move up in the world.
But he never did. He stayed humble. In fact, he stayed so humble that he said he was not even good enough to until Jesus’ sandals.
Did you ever really think about that statement? How low on the social scale would you have to be for it to be your job to until somebody’s shoes for them? It’s pretty much the ultimate servant thing, right? Someone’s sitting or standing there and they want their shoes untied. And so they say “Hey, you. Yeah, you, the nobody over there. Come over here and untie my shoes for me.”
And you go over there, and you have to get down on your knees to be able to do it. Basically, you have to bow down in front someone to untie their shoes. And John the Baptist, the great John the Baptist, is saying he’s not even worthy to do that for Jesus. He’s not even worthy to get down on his knees in front of Jesus, to bow down in front of him, and untie his shoes for him.
And after Jesus came, John kept his humility. In the third chapter of John, we’re told that Jesus and his disciples started baptizing people, and some people told John the Baptist about it, telling him Jesus was stealing his crowds. And John said, that’s okay. It’s how it’s supposed to be. I said all along, I was just the one getting things ready for the Savior. Now that he’s here, John said, “He must become greater, and I must become less.”
Last fall we did a sermon series on the minor prophets. One of the things that struck me, as we were doing that sermon series, is the number of times God was punishing people for their arrogance. They arrogantly decided they since they were God’s chosen people, they did not have to do anything. They thought it did not matter whether they did what God wanted them to do. They thought God owed it to them to help them and to protect them, no matter what they did or did not do. They thought they were home free.
One of the sins that God seems to really dislike is the sin of arrogance. And we can see why. Arrogance leads us into making all kinds of mistakes and to act in all kinds of unloving ways. And a lot of times we don’t mean to. Sometimes our arrogance leads us to do things wrong with the best of intentions. Our arrogance can lead us to believe that our way is the right way, and in fact is the only way. Our arrogance can lead us to get upset with people who disagree with us. Our arrogance can lead us to judge people who do things differently. Our arrogance can also lead us to try too hard, to try to do more than we should, to try to make things happen instead of letting things happen in God’s way and in God’s time. Our arrogance can lead us to start relying on ourselves instead of relying on God. Our arrogance leads us to think everything depends on us when in fact everything depends on God. And of course, there are a lot of other ways our arrogance can get us into trouble, too.
And so, sometimes, we need to take a step back and think of John the Baptist. He was a man who did exactly what God wanted him to do. He did not do any less than God wanted him to do, but he did not do any more, either. He made no claims to his own greatness. In fact, he specifically did not claim any greatness to himself. He simply stayed faithful to God and did what God wanted him to do. And when he had done what God wanted him to do, he was willing to step back, to become less, so that Jesus could take center stage instead.And so, as we prepare to enter into a new year, let’s remember the example of John the Baptist. Let’s try to do exactly what God wants us to do, no more and no less. And let’s stay humble, remembering that all God asks us to do is stay faithful. If we do that, God will take care of the rest.