I have always been intrigued by the character of John the Baptist. He is an astonishing bridge character who links the Old Testament era with the New.
Jesus said of John: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11:11).
He has the privilege of being the end point of the signpost that directs our attention to Jesus, but he died before the cross, resurrection or Pentecost, so missed out on seeing the final destination reached by Jesus.
John is the ultimate first responder, a pioneer whose ministry was radical and looked beyond the curve. No one was like him and no one had a message like him.
“Clear the path, remove the obstacles, throw away the junk, get ready to encounter God in a fresh and dynamic way.”
John knew his place. He was the warm-up man, the supporting act who was getting the people ready form the main act to turn up on stage.
The odd thing is that support acts are normally more junior and less well-known than the main act they are supporting. By contrast John was six months older than Jesus, was hugely popular and had attracted a large following of disciples.
In addition, John was related to the star attraction. Six months is enough time for a young cousin to be annoying, especially if it seems that they are more attractive, wise, strong or popular than we are.
Yet John is happy to be in the supporting role. He sees this as his mission.
“A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah 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 greater; I must become less.
The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all." (John 3:27–31)
This kind of humility is the stuff of true greatness.
A humble servant of Jesus does not need to be the centre of attention. They are instead happy to train the spotlight on Jesus.
A humble preacher does not become intoxicated by their own words but absorbed by the words of another.
Humble preachers are not full of themselves but are full of Christ.
What might that mean in practice in our sermons?
Maybe it means leaving a little more room for Jesus to shine in our sermons.
After all people have not come to hear us but him.
I have been enjoying reading through the sermons of Augustine, even after 1,500 years they speak with a certain resonance. In his sermon on John the Baptist from the text, Matthew 11:2–11, he says:
“People we’re getting the wrong idea about his greatness, and he put himself in his place. He didn’t want to be magnified by the words of men, because he had grasped the Word of God.” (Augustine sermon 66)