Fitting around Jesus

In case you were not aware, 24th June is the Feast of St. John the Baptist. As John the Baptist is such a major figure in Christianity, I think we could make a strong case for observing his feast day with a public holiday on 24th June. Perhaps it could even become the official end of the school year, which would be fitting as John brought the era of the law to an end and heralded the new era of grace.

John, by any stretch of the imagination, was an outstanding man and an outstanding prophet. The charismatic circumstances surrounding his conception and birth indicated that he was no ordinary child. When he did emerge as a prophet, his ministry shook the nation. His preaching and baptising caused earth tremors within the religious establishment. People regarded as too bad for God and too far out on the religious fringe were swept up in the tornado of spiritual renewal that his preaching brought about. And even hated, battle-hardened Roman soldiers sought advice on how to work the truth of his message into their every day military duties.

However, John’s greatest achievement was the one that  effectively signalled the demise of his own ministry. When his cousin Jesus came seeking baptism, the Baptist immediately recognised Him for who He was, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, to use John’s own words. Throughout his ministry, perhaps even throughout his life, John knew that one greater was coming after him. His ministry was not the be all and end all. It was temporary. It was seasonal. When God’s purposes moved on as God’s Son moved into His ministry, John’s outlook was simple: He must increase, I must decrease.

And decrease he did. Criticism of Herod landed him in prison. Shortly afterwards, he was beheaded.

If the greatest prophet had to learn how to decrease – and greatest is how Jesus described him – then I would suggest that there are times and seasons when we need to learn how to decrease.

All our ministries are temporary, whether they last five months or fifty years. They are relevant only as long as they serve God’s purpose. When God “moves on” we have to let go and allow Him to redefine our role in way that fits what He is currently doing.

Unfortunately we are seldom ever taught how to “let go” or how to “move on” to what God is now doing. So what might John advise us?

First of all, I think he might say, “Know who and what you are not” (John 1.18-21). The priests and levites wanted to know if John was Messiah, or Elijah, or the prophet. He was none of those. He wasn’t a pale imitation of a great person of the past nor a wannabe Messiah of the future. He refused to become trapped in the expectations of others. His knowledge of who he was not saved him from the risk of being caught up in the messianic schemes of others and gave him the security to leave centre stage when Jesus arrived.

Secondly, I think John might say, “Find your own voice” (1.22-23). That was how he described himself. The voice of one calling in the desert. He wasn’t an echo! He wasn’t reflecting the opinions or ideas of others, he had something from God. The priests and levites question is still a good one: what do you have to say about yourself? Well, what do you have to say about yourself? Knowing who we are will help us remain strong and secure when what we do changes.

Finally, I think John would say, “Remember – it’s all about Jesus” (John 1.29-31). Sadly, for many, when God begins to do something new their reaction is one of “How will this affect me? What about my ministry?” For John it was different. From the beginning of his ministry he knew he was, to use the cliché, doing himself out of a job. And he was quite satisfied with that. In John 3.29-30, he said his joy was now complete and that Jesus must increase and he must decrease. He was happy to fit around Jesus.

In the end, it is all about Him. It’s not about you or me. It’s not even about the people we serve. It’s not about our ministry. It’s all about Jesus. Whether we are main stage or just a stage hand doesn’t matter, as long as Jesus is centre stage.

John the Baptist. What a man. What a prophet. The one who prepared the way of the Lord. And then stepped aside to make way for the Lord. Trust you will enjoy his feast day.

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What do you say about yourself?

We have probably all experienced those moments where we have been in some kind of group or on some kind of training exercise and the group leader or trainer asks you to introduce yourself. For some reason, I still feel a bit self-conscious sharing the details about my life that are about as revealing as reading about me in a telephone directory or on the electoral roll! I hope that doesn’t mean that in some sort of strange Freudian way I am battling deep identity issues!

John the Baptist was asked that very question. He’d already told the priests and Levites who he wasn’t. He was quite certain about that. I think most people are. We know who we’re not – or at least we know who or what we don’t want to be.

But who do we think we are we? What do we say about ourselves?

John the Baptist’s answer was expressed in biblical and prophetic terms:

John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’” (John 1.23)

John understood himself and what he was doing in terms of his place in God’s unfolding revelation. This understanding was rooted both in his own personal experience, and, more importantly in the scriptures.

We don’t really begin to grasp who we are and what we are meant to be about until we see ourselves in the light of God’s revelation set out in the scriptures. That’s just as important for the church as it is for individual Christians. Peter says we’re a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God (1 Peter 2.9)

Admittedly, John had the advantage of having a godly family who had inside information about the calling on their son’s life. John’s insight and confidence didn’t just come about through a flash of revelation or a surge of spiritual confidence. Underlying these few words from Isaiah spoken in self-explanation lies a whole spiritual matrix of instruction, encouragement, affirmation and godly example.

One wonders what would have happened had John’s parents never told him about his dad’s encounter with the angel Gabriel. You might think that is just speculation, but we have at least one possible instance of this very thing happening in the Bible. Rebekah was told that the elder of her twins would serve the younger, but it seems that Jacob and Esau never really understood or perhaps even heard about that revelation. Ignorance can sometimes be bliss, but in their case it tore the family apart (Genesis 25.23-26).

We might not have had the godly input into our lives from our earliest years in the way that John the Baptist did. We do need to be affirmed and encouraged frequently in our identity in Christ and our purpose as His followers. That’s why we need church. And that’s why we as the church – God’s people – need to encourage one another in our identity and calling as followers of Jesus.

What do you say about yourself?