“I Must Decrease So That He Might Increase”

Pastor Jim Kniseley presented this sermon on December 11, 2011, the Third Sunday in Advent.  The gospel reading is John 1:6-8, 19-28.


Dear Friends in Christ,


The days are growing shorter and shorter and soon we will be at December 21st, the day of the year with the least amount of sunlight.  And then the days start to grow longer and longer until June 21, the day of the year with the most amount of sunlight.  How apropos that today we hear about John the Baptist, the one who declared, “I must decrease so the He might increase.”


John knew his place and his calling from God.  Some thought he might be the Messiah promised by God.  He says emphatically “I am not the Messiah.  I am not the Light that shines in the darkness.”  What a contrast in the Gospel of John to who Jesus is.  This is the Gospel emphasizes the “I AM” statements of Jesus.  Remember back in Genesis, God introduces himself to Moses by saying his name is “I AM”?  Jesus knows this and says “I AM the Light of the World…I AM the Good Shepherd…I AM the Bread of Life.


In John’s Gospel, John is never called the Baptist.  Rather, he is presented as John the Witness.  His primary role is to testify to the light.  


There is a miraculous story of light that comes to us from Western Pennsylvania.  On July 23, 2002, 9 miners became trapped in a flooded mine.  Those injured and desperate men tied themselves together so that the stronger could sustain the weaker ones as they waited to be recused.  It took 5 long days.  No one could believe it when all 9 miners emerged safely from the mine.


On July 30 the people of the small mining community gathered for a worship service to thank God for saving the miner’s lives.  At the service there were 10 miner’s lamps set up on the altar, even though there were only 9 miners.  The pastor said the 10th lamp represented God’s presence, which the miner’s claimed they could feel as they waited to be rescued.  It was this “10th man” they honored as they read Psalm 103, “Praise the Lord…Who redeems your life from the pit.”  It would seem to me that today you and I also gather to celebrate this “10th man”, the one who continuously and eternally rescues us from the pit…


The three appointed lessons for today have something in common: they are all centered on hope.  Isaiah the prophet was called to bring good news to people in Jerusalem who had come back from captivity and were depressed because the rebuilding of the city and their lives was going so slow.  (You can insert here that many people today are highly discouraged because of the severe economic downturn).  To the people in Jerusalem 2500 years ago, Isaiah announces God’s blessings and says the future is bright because God is in charge and has promised to fulfill His blessings.  Isaiah calls for an attitude change.  Don’t be discouraged.  God has chosen you and will not abandon you.  Begin living now as if you believed that God will deliver on his promises and not as if the future is only in your hands.


The second lesson, in a letter written by Paul to the Christian at Thessalonica, says that in this time of waiting until the return of Jesus, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”


These words of hope give me pause to think about something…I have been accused of being too optimistic about life and about the future of the congregations I serve.  In every congregation I’ve served, someone has said to me, “You always see the cup half full, instead of half empty.”  Usually someone adds, “I don’t think you are being a realist.”


I’ve thought about those comments and about the effect my hopeful outlook on life has on folks I’m called to serve and lead. I have these questions:  How do you encourage people and move someone from being hopeless to being hopeful?  How do you move people from a seemingly dire present to a longed for future? 


I personally respond  better to words of encouragement and hope than I do to words of discouragement and failure.  The football  coach could say, “You bunch of losers.  We’re behind 28 to 0 at half-time.  If you don’t start playing better, you deserve to lose!”  I’m sure that would provide motivation to win.  What a positive message… My heart warmed this past week when I met with the Personnel Team and saw that in our proposed Personal Manual that the staff supervisor is expected to give encouraging feedback often as well as giving feedback that leads to change as necessary. 


Sometimes the way we think and treat people is more influenced by how we were raised than by biblical principles.  I remember a reaction I got one day after church in La Canada, California.  During the announcement time, I had called the members of the youth group forward and told them that I was proud of them for a project that they had completed, as I remember, a project that benefited some needy folks in the community.  A member of our church council told me later that I was wrong to say I was proud of our youth.  He said it would lead to vanity and pride fullness.  I’m still amazed, because my parents often told me as I was growing up that they were proud of me and I wanted to continue doing my best to please them…


The thing that people seem to often remember about John the Baptist is that he called the people to repent of their sins.  That’s the vivid picture given to us in the  Gospels of Mark and Matthew.  You are to repent of your sins and then be baptized, he declares.   In Luke repentance is connected to living in a different way.  John says all  are to share with folks in need, tax collectors are to collect no more than is fair, soldiers are told to treat people honestly.    But now consider what the Gospel of John presents to us about John and repentance.  The word repentance isn’t even mentioned in John’s Gospel.  That John baptized is mentioned in passing, but his chief role is to point to Jesus as the Messiah promised by God.  In John’s Gospel, the chief actors are God and Jesus.  Repentance and confession of sins are not prerequisites for the salvation that God will bring.  Amazing.  It is pure grace that John is preaching, not hell, fire and damnation that he is often associated with.


How do you think John the Baptist would respond if told to comment on the Guiding Principles we adopted this year at Resurrection?  I pulled up the explanation to our Guiding Principles on the congregation website yesterday to be sure of what we say: “Guiding Principles are expressions of biblically-based values.  They serve to remind us of who we are to become and of the behaviors we must adopt as we strive to carry out God’s purpose.  They point us in a direction and aid us (individually and collectively) in determining a path, while providing a standard of accountability for decisions made.”


So, how would John the Baptist react to our Guiding Principle #2, “Trust in the Lord”?  Especially our subtext that declares this: “We realize that our limitations are not God’s limitations.  We trust His promises!”  I have no doubt that John would say: that is my whole message in a nutshell.  Trust in God alone.  Quit trying to call the shots for your future and your salvation.  Yes, do your part, but by all means let God do God’s part.


I conclude with a quote from John Killinger in his book, Letting God Bless You.  Permit God to bless you.  Don’t look around and think how hard life is.  Look around and see how filled with mystery and goodness it is.  See how wonderful the world looks when you see that God is at work redeeming it (and encouraging it) so that humility and purity and compassion and longing for justice and peace will all be fulfilled and rewarded in the eternal scheme of things.


To Killinger’s words, I say “Amen!”…if you learn to live this way every day, you will trust in the Lord and believe that your future and the future of this world are in the hands of the One to whom John pointed, Jesus, God’s Messiah.


Come, Lord Jesus, Come!