January 2, 2018
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Since New Year's Eve was on a Sunday, by the time 8:30pm rolled around, I was ready to call it a night. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), I was with friends who wouldn't let me retire early. I wasn't the only one flagging before nine, so, to keep the energy up, we decided to play Balderdash. Do you know the game Balderdash? One player reads a clue from a card, and everyone else makes up an answer to the clue. If it's a word, we all make up a definition. If it's an acronym, we all make up what it stands for. If it's a movie title, we all make up a plot description. My favorite category was the names of not-so-famous people.
Was Ted Anderson the first person to play table tennis for twenty-four consecutive hours? Was Ted Anderson the inventor of the cathode ray tube? Was Ted Anderson a dishonest senator from Idaho? Was Ted Anderson the husband of the first female firefighter in New York City? Was Ted Anderson a back-up singer for James Taylor? In Balderdash, there are hundreds of game cards, and on each of them is a different person who has accomplished something notable almost without being noticed. The game wouldn't work if anyone at the table actually knew who any of those people are. Imagine trying to create the game by sorting through a long, long list of accomplishments to pick out the distinctive ones that everyone would recognize as significant even though no one would know who the people actually are.
John the Baptist was wildly famous but almost disappeared into obscurity. Hundreds--perhaps thousands--of people were leaving their homes in the city to travel out to the countryside to hear him preach. He had disciples of his own, people who had given up their career to be with him every day. His message of repentance and renewal was so invigorating that unnumbered multitudes left their familiar religious contexts to seek his strange but captivating method down on the banks of the Jordan River. And, when the religious authorities came to pay him a visit and verify the phenomenon that he had become, he side-stepped stardom as quickly as he had found it.
"Who are you?" they asked. "Are you the Messiah? Are you Elijah? Are you the prophet we've been waiting for? And, at every turn, he denied it. "I'm not like that," he said. "I'm not a great figure that follows that kind of pattern. I'm just out here preaching, crying out that it's time to get ready for something new."
"But baptism is about conversion," they replied. "Why are you trying to convert these people through the waters of baptism if you're not the Messiah or Elijah or the prophet?" And John answered them, "Because this isn't about me. It was never about me. There is one coming after me whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I would not even presume to be his slave. All I am and all I do is about preparing for the one who is to come."
A move like that just doesn't make sense. Human nature is too strong. John had a good thing going. He had a successful ministry. Huge crowds were coming to hear him preach. They would happily have given over their wealth to receive the hope that he offered. He had a steady income stream. He could milk this for long, long time. The local paper would be happy to have him write a weekly column. Maybe he could write a book or two. After a while, he could travel to other parts of the Empire and charge a speaker's fee wherever he went. All he had to do was give these authorities a convincing answer. As Winston famously said to Ray when the Ghostbusters were confronted by Gozer the Gozarian, "When someone asks if you're a god, you say yes!"
But that wasn't John. John was in the real repentance business. John was all about letting go of those things that lead us away from God, dependence on God, knowledge of God, fellowship with God, and that means letting go of ego. John was in it for Jesus even though Jesus hadn't shown up yet. Ironically, that's what he became famous for--for not wanting to be the center of attention. John the Baptist is the perfect setup man, the one whose spotlight is always promised to someone else. Without the one to whom he pointed the crowds, it didn't matter how good his preaching was.
What about us? What will the obscure accomplishment of our ultimately obscure life be? Will we yield center stage as consistently as John did? Whether as lawyer, doctor, athlete, stay-at-home dad, scientist, teacher, or preacher, will we use the attention we receive to show the world ourselves or the one whom we are still getting ready for?