July 5, 2015 Fifth Sunday After Trinity
St. John 3:22-36
There’s a story, possibly true, about a preacher, a certain Dr. Spence. He was a popular preacher and week in and week out his church filled to capacity.
Over the years, his people drifted away and eventually a new young minister arrived at the church across the street and began drawing more and more worshipers to his congregation.
One evening Dr. Spence walked into his sanctuary to conduct a service and saw so few in the pews as to be painful. “Where have all the people gone?” he asked of no one in particular.
An embarrassed silence followed. Finally, one of the elders said, “I think they’ve gone to the church across the street . . . to hear the new minister.”
Dr. Spence pondered those words for what seemed a long time. Then he smiled. “Well, then,” he said, “I think we ought to follow them.” With that, he came down from his pulpit and led his little flock across the street.
What hurt and shame we would avoid if we would only see that the success of another is granted him by God.
When we arrive at the witness sermon in chapter 5 of St. John’s gospel we will find that John the Baptist is one of the witnesses to the divinity of Jesus. No one can be a faithful witness of Christ without humility, for the only true testimony is, “Christ is greater than I.” The Baptist elaborates this idea in colorful ways.
In chapter 1 we heard him say, "It is He who, coming after me, is preferred before me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose” (v. 27).
Our passage for today is the fourth consecutive block of text that speaks of how Jesus is superior to what has gone before. In the opening verses of chapter 2, He supplies new wine far better than that old wine that was the Old Covenant system and makes obsolete the stone jars that contained the water for ritual purification.
In the next section He, as the God-man, reveals that the Jerusalem temple must give way to Him as the meeting place of God and man. Next, He proclaims what His disciples will only grasp later, that the bronze serpent Moses raised in the camp to save his people from poisonous venom was but a harbinger of the saving power Jesus will have when He is raised up on His cross.
Now we learn that Jesus is greater than that final Old Testament prophet, John the Baptist, and the ceremonial purification represented by his baptism. John baptized with water; Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit.
John the Evangelist includes the comment that John the Baptist has not yet been imprisoned to make clear that the events he describes took place before similar happenings reported in the Synoptic Gospels. All of those place those events after the arrest of John the Baptist.
That John has migrated south and, now that Jesus has departed Jerusalem for the Judean countryside, their ministries of baptism overlap for a short period. The author clarifies in the next chapter: It is not Jesus personally but His disciples who are performing the baptisms.
The dispute that arose between John the Baptist’s followers and one or more Jews did not concern his baptism and that of Jesus regarding which was better; rather it involved the merits of John’s baptism, which differed from older Jewish purification rites that hewed closer to those set out in the Old Testament books of the law.
This prophet, come to prepare the way of the Lord, was doing something new, and legalists find something new troubling.
John’s disciples are rattled. From one side comes an attack by traditionalists who challenge the legitimacy and efficacy of their leader’s baptismal rite; from the other arises competition from Jesus of Nazareth and His followers.
Their claim that “all are coming to Him” is clearly an exaggeration born of resentment. Many were still coming to John as well, though likely not as many as before.
We see here the danger of aligning ourselves so closely with a charismatic leader that we lose sight of the reason we followed him in the first place. John is a model of humility and devotion to God. He has already released two of his disciples to follow Jesus.
And still his followers, zealous to defend their master and justify their allegiance to him, are on the edge of choosing him over God . . . the very God of whom John is merely a forerunner.
This lesson should serve as a caution especially to those in megachurches who swoon at the preacher’s prowess in the pulpit. Few in our context of unfettered individualism bear the humility of John the Baptist . . . maybe none.
For us, suffice it to say that neither the archbishop nor the bishops nor the priest is the star. The Father reserved that role for the Son.
John Calvin wrote, “So what should ministers do? . . . People who draw the church to themselves rather than to Christ are guilty of badly violating the marriage which they should have honored.
“And the greater the honor that Christ confers on us by making us the guardians of his bride, the more evil our lack of faithfulness is if we do not endeavor to keep and defend his rights.”
Calvin adds that the minister’s goal is to see Christ exalted, adding, “But anyone who deviates from this goal in the slightest degree is a wicked adulterer and will only corrupt the bride of Christ.”
For my part, I recall Bp. Grote telling us at seminary graduation, “No one is going to come to hear you preach.” I hoped he might be wrong. These days, he looks more and more like a prophet each week.
I give thanks to our gracious Lord for tuning up my humility on a regular basis. I just try to mention to Him occasionally that even humility can be overdone.
A friend’s sympathy can be lethal as a cobra. It can make a man curse the fates, or God Himself, in a cascade of self-pity. It can nourish a sense of injustice and entitlement. John is a man of stronger mind and deeper faith than to stumble into that snare.
John’s answer clanks off our ears at first hearing: “A man can receive nothing unless it is given to him from heaven.” He is responding with an aphorism meaning that the sovereign God above directs and disposes events on earth as He pleases.
Should John covet Jesus’ role or His growing following, John would be bristling against that sovereign God Himself. Like the disciples who follow Jesus, John lacks a full understanding that will come with later revelation.
Unlike them, he shows admirable restraint. He hangs back to see what will unfold. He will not risk trying to assume the position of Messiah-God.
Do recall, my disciples, says John, I have told you all along I am not the Christ, but only His herald. This preacher, living in the wilderness in his hair shirt, eating bugs and wild honey to survive, wears his humility as naturally as his skin. Others will try to make of it a bright, shiny badge of their ministry . . . but not John.
The “friend of the bridegroom” we would call today the “best man.” He functioned as a sort of wedding planner, preparing for the ceremony and overseeing it. John finds happiness not in aspiring to a role God has reserved for His Son but in doing the work assigned to him.
He would have known well the passages in the Hebrew Bible that cast God as bridegroom and His people as His bride.
The best man had another responsibility as well. He guarded the bridal chamber and allowed no false lover to enter. He would open the door in the dark only when he recognized the bridegroom’s voice.
When he heard that voice he opened the door gladly and went away rejoicing. He had completed his solemn duty of bringing bride and bridegroom together on God’s terms. The time had come for him to fade from the scene.
In the Fourth Gospel, the author repeatedly links joy with fulfillment. John’s joy is fulfilled when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. When Jesus speaks to His bride, the church, John knows the contentment that comes with having completed his task of preparing the way.
There’s reason to believe as well that Israel had accepted a provision in the law codes of other nations that forbade the best man to marry the bride at some later date. This would explain Samson’s outrage when, after his wife betrayed him and he cast her aside, his best man married her. Even Samson’s bitter enemies the Philistines understood his grievance.
If such remained the custom in Israel in the first century, John the Baptist would have been saying that he, the best man, could not in any case take the role of bridegroom. The bride of Christ was forbidden him.
John wasn’t as good as some of us at deceiving himself. Take me, for instance. We all know salad is good for us. Rabbit food must be healthy. Ever known a sick rabbit? I am indeed fortunate in that I actually like salad.
I consider it no sacrifice at all when I go out to lunch to order a salad. Many restaurants now have some really good ones. I like to get a salad with hard-boiled egg cut up on it and bacon – real bacon fried and crumbled on top. And lots of grated cheese.
And then I like to shovel on bleu cheese dressing. If there’s a little lettuce and tomato in there, that’s okay, too.
By the time this salad is built and consumed, I might as well have ordered a grease bomb with double cheese on a sesame seed bun with fries on the side . . . but I feel virtuous having ordered the salad.
Why must John decrease and Jesus increase? Because such is the will of God. John will not bottle up resentment and allow it to curdle within him; he will rejoice in his function as an instrument of God’s will. Second banana is no bad gig when the Top Banana is the Lord Himself.
Think back now to that word that figured so prominently in Jesus’ explanation of new birth to Nicodemus, anothen. It is routinely translated “again” in that context: “. . . unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
I told you the word is elsewhere rendered “from above” and suggested we take it in both senses in 3:3: “. . . unless one is born again from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
We come upon it again in v. 31: “He who comes from above . . .” Jesus must increase because only He is from above and so is “above all.” All others are “earthly.” The earth in Greek is ge, from which we derive “geology.
It carries none of the connotation of sinfulness of kosmos, “world.” John the Evangelist is not besmearing John the Baptist but simply noting that, like all other men, he is subject to the limitations of this earth.
He cannot reveal the things of heaven because he has not seen them. He cannot provide rebirth from above. He cannot baptize with the Spirit. Only God can do these things for only God is transcendent.
None but Jesus can declare heavenly things because only Jesus has known them. Yet, we see, “no one receives His testimony.” A caustic assessment? The Evangelist is simply echoing the words of Christ from verse 11.
But this condition is not absolute. Some do receive His testimony and these confirm that Jesus is the exact representation of God and He speaks the very words of God. Down through the ages, God has given revelation through various prophets and each of those received the measure of the Holy Spirit necessary to his prophetic office.
In the case of Christ, however, God “does not give the Spirit by measure.” John the Baptist, we know from chapter 1, had already told of seeing the Spirit descend on Jesus . . . but not that only. He had seen the Spirit remain on Jesus. Our Lord Christ, like none who have come before Him, has unlimited access to the blessing of the Spirit.
To receive the testimony of the Son is to certify the Father as true. To deny the truth of God is to steal as well His glory and majesty.
This perfect correspondence among the Members of the Godhead is a vital tenet of our faith. We often hear, on whatever is the hot-button social issue of the day, that Jesus never addressed it: “Jesus never condemned homosexuality.”
Didn’t He? Did the Father? Because if the Father spoke on a matter, usually through His prophets, we know very well Jesus’ attitude about it. There is no tension, and certainly no contradiction, between Father and Son.
We will find their agreement put most plainly in chapter 10, when Jesus says, “I and My Father are one” (v. 30).
Here, the love motif reappears. “The Father loves the Son.” Even though the Father sends and the Son is sent, even though the Father commands and the Son obeys, their relationship is one of love. To love is to seek the best interest of the other.
And, yes, the cross was in the best interest of the Son for there He attained His greatest glory, performing the one act that could reverse the curse of sin in the creation and reconcile man to his Maker.
This, too, is a concept foreign to much of the world around us, including the church. Jesus gathered great glory in His death . . . because the greatest glory comes in performing God’s will. If He had sought glory for Himself He would have found none. It was His obedience in submitting to death, even death upon a cross, that distinguished Him.
In the relations of the Members of the Godhead we find the paradigm for human relations. Even in the bloody work of redemption love is the impulse for their interaction. So it must be in ours. Because of His love for His Son, God has given Him the Spirit without measure “and has given all things into His hand.”
Now we see in our final verse why that scholar I mentioned last week warned preachers of the danger of making John’s gospel boring. The Evangelist has woven the threads of his message into such a tight strand that when the parts of it are disassembled they may all appear the same.
And . . . just in case you missed it . . . the one who believes in the Son is destined for eternal life, he who does not believe has brought down the wrath of God upon himself.
I’m not bored. I find eternal life more than a little interesting. I pray you aren’t bored, either. John the Baptist had good reason to be humble . . . but not everyone who has reason puts away pride. And if John had bountiful reason, we have more. Amen.