Less Is More

Illustration – Lincoln and Douglas – holding his hat and cane

I’m sure you have a picture in your mind of what John the Baptist might have looked and sounded like.
• Dressed in a camel hair robe, living in the desert, eating locusts and honey.
• The wild eyes and bold message.
• Demanding works that demonstrate repentance – baptizing followers in the Jordan river.
• Calling the Pharisees a brood of vipers.
• Condemning King Herod for sleeping with his brother’s wife.

If that’s your picture, it’s an accurate picture, but it comes from the other Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke. The picture John’s Gospel paints reveals another side of John.
John’s Gospel says this: “There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light…. John testifies concerning him. He cries out, saying, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’” (John 1:6-8,15).

Remember, this was before the days of world-wide media, Facebook and YouTube. By all rights, John should have been a tiny localized event who attracted the curious locals and made for an entertaining sideshow. But John was more than a local phenomenon. People traveled miles – from all over Judea and Galilee into the wilderness to hear him preach and many be baptized by him. He caused a stir of national dimensions. And the leaders of the Jews wanted to know who this was who was capturing the imagination of their nation. It had been 400 years since God had sent a prophet; 400 years since any man had stepped up with a message so clearly from God.

John was no respecter of power or fame. He challenged and confronted everyone from the poor farmer to the Roman soldier to the king of Judah.

And he had a following – a large passionate following. And whenever a religious leader has a large following they inevitably assume the trappings of power, success and celebrity. And yet John didn’t. He could have – we see later in the Gospels how the crowds hungered for someone to step out and lead them – to champion the resistance against Rome and take back their country for them. John could have become that man, but he didn’t.

The apostle John, who writes this Gospel, needs to explain. Here was John, who fit all their expectations of a prophet, had an enormous following of his own, and yet willingly, almost eagerly stepped aside when Jesus appeared on the scene. No competition, no leadership struggles. Why? Because John knew who he was and why he came.

The leaders of the Jews sent an investigation committee to ask the question, “Who are you?”
“Are you the Christ?” -- “I am not.”
“Are you Elijah?” – “I am not.”
“The Prophet?” – “No.”
“Well, then, give us some answer to take back to those who sent us.”
And so John began to quote Isaiah, and said, “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”
And then the Pharisees want an answer about where he thinks he gets his authority to go around baptizing people. And John gives this answer: “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”

Did you hear what he was saying? He was waiting, like everyone else for God to show him what – and who – was next. He knows he’s coming, but he doesn’t know who he is. But he doesn’t have to wait long. John tells us,

The very next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”

In fact, in the next three verses, John the Baptist tells his followers that it wasn’t until he baptized Jesus and the spirit came down as a dove, and he heard the voice of God tell him, “This is him” that he fully understood, and then he said, “I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.”

John himself was taken by surprise. Jesus was his cousin – we know that from the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus to Mary, and the birth of John to Elizabeth, her aunt, and we know the two boys grew up cousins and must have known each other. But John didn’t know – really know – who Jesus was until that moment.

But what John did know, without a doubt, was who he was. He had no pretentions of being the Christ, not Elijah, not the Prophet (from Deut. 18). John was the one who came to get the world ready for the Messiah. He was making preparations for a royal visit – leveling the hills, filling in the valleys, preparing hearts. This king will not come without a herald shouting the message, “Get ready for the king’s arrival!”

It’s what happens next that is most remarkable. John writes that “The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God!’ When the two disciple heard him say this, they followed Jesus.”

And that was the beginning – from then on John points his disciples to Jesus. He continues to preach, continues to baptize, but he points them to Jesus. As you can imagine, some of his disciples didn’t like this and tried to stir up a rivalry between John and Jesus, but listen to how John responded:

“A man can receive only what is given him from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become great; I must become less.” (John 3:27-30).

John understood the truth of what Jesus would say in Matthew 10: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

It is our human nature to preserve and increase ourselves. I don’t want to stay where I am – I want promotions, I want recognition, I want success. There’s an old saying: “He who tooteth not his own horn, the same shall not be tooted.” And so we promote ourselves. Nobody puts on their resume, “I am the vice president of a Fortune 500 corporation, but I would rather be an assistant clerk in the mailroom.” People aren’t interested in working their way down the ladder of success. We don’t want others passing us by on the way up while we sit idly by and stagnate in obscurity.

We want to be recognized and acknowledged for our accomplishments and rewarded for working hard and sacrificing in the name of our job.

But not John. John, without a second of hesitation, tells his followers, “There is the Lamb of God, follow him.” And with a sense of absolute satisfaction, he confidently says, “He must become great; I must become less.”

I’m not sure how he did it. One thing the Gospel writer said in the very beginning of his introduction was, “There came a man who was sent from God…” And because he was a man, he struggled with the same temptations that tempt you and me. He wasn’t exempt – I’m sure pride camped out on his door just like it does yours and mine.
Pride can be so subtle. All it takes is a nudge to send a twinge of jealousy and envy shooting through you.
• A co-worker who hasn’t been with the company as long as you have gets the promotion you thought you deserved.
• Your sister drives up in a brand new car while you’re still driving the one you’ve had for ten years.
• You’ve always wanted to go on a dream vacation, but the money was never there, and a friend at work comes in one day and says “Guess where we’re going this summer!”

Illust – Temptation to jealousy - “give him good news about his brother”

It made me think of something John wrote in his first epistle: “Don’t love the world’s ways. Don’t love the world’s goods. Love of the world squeezes out love for the Father. Practically everything that goes on in the world – wanting your own way, wanting everything for yourself, wanting to appear important – has nothing to do with the Father. It just isolates you from him. The world and all its wanting, wanting, wanting is on the way out – but whoever does what God wants is set for eternity.” (1 John 2:15-17/The Message)

For all of our talk about following Jesus and seeking the will of God, are we willing to live as boldly and courageously as that verse demands? John was.

Our problem is that we have some pretty deep roots in “the world.” We might talk about being in this world but not of this world, but we would have a pretty tough time drawing the line and making God’s kingdom our permanent citizenship. When Jesus said “any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple” – I’m not sure any of us can really grasp how radical and life-changing that would be. I’m pretty sure John did.

Of all the people in the Bible, John strikes me as being the one who cared less about possessions and fame and success in this world than anyone else. He was totally focused on God and what God had sent him to do.

And when that’s what you care about most, you don’t care about who has more than you, who is more successful than you, who is rising faster than you. John was, in fact, the embodiment of Paul’s words in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

He became less so that Jesus could become more.

That’s my struggle. I’m all about Jesus becoming more, but it’s the “me” that I have trouble with. I still want to hang on to me and mine. And that equation never works. We think we can make it work – we fiddle with the figures and fudge on the percentages – but when Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30) I’m pretty sure “all” means all.

I’m not John the Baptist. I’ve got a wife and a mortgage and bills to pay. I can’t see camping out in Two Rivers Park, wearing a bear skin coat, eating grasshoppers, and getting up with a bullhorn to start telling people to repent for the kingdom of God is at hand and then baptizing them in the Colorado River.

I’m afraid of what my wife would think, what you would think, and I’m pretty sure I know how the newspaper would make me sound. And maybe that’s the problem – that I worry too much about what people think.

But how can I, and how can you, in a practical way, live out this life of dedication and humble servanthood that we see in John? How can we get up tomorrow morning and not be focused on me and mine, but on God’s will and God’s purpose for our life?

It has to begin with the heart. Think about and desire the kind of life Paul describes in Romans 12:1-2: Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

See your life as a living sacrifice to God. It’s not about you, but about glorifying God with your life.

He said “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world.” What is the pattern of this world? Isn’t that what John wrote about – “wanting your own way, wanting everything for yourself, wanting to appear important” (the NIV translates it: “the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does.”) It’s wanting things our way, the hunger for what we don’t have, the pride of what we do have and how we have succeeded.

How do you counteract that? How do you not conform to this world?

Don’t let your possessions possess you – don’t let your house, your cars, your things own you. Don’t always have to have more and bigger and nicer. Don’t worry about what others have and what you don’t. And don’t let your success go to your head and make you think you’re in control of your life.

Paul’s assumption is that we do conform – his appeal is to not do it any longer. That doesn’t happen accidentally and it doesn’t happen overnight. But it begins with an intentional commitment to be transformed – it begins with a decision – a renewing of our mind. And every morning we wake up and lay our life on the altar for God and say – “Today, it’s your will, not mine.”

And Paul says, do that and you’ll figure out what God’s will is for your life – his good, pleasing and perfect will.

And it won’t be long before you’ll echo John’s words, “He must become great; I must become less.”