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Monday, November 16, 2009

John the Baptist

I'm working my way through the gospel of John in my recliner these days. The routine looks something like this -- get out of bed, stumble around for a while while my eyes remember how to focus and about the time I stop bumping into things, I perch myself in my recliner with my Bible and so a little reading (usually about a chapter, maybe two) and spend some time talking to God about stuff. Experience tells me that this time of day -- once I wake up -- is when I'm mentally at my sharpest. (Scary, I know.) So I try to use that time for the most important thing in my life -- connecting with God. I've been working my way through the gospels, and recently got derailed to go read Romans. I finished Romans this weekend, so now I'm back on track in the gospel of John.

I read John 3 this morning, which usually gets me thinking about Nicodemus and his fascinating conversation with Jesus. But today I was struck by the last few verses of the chapter about John the Baptist and his attitude toward Jesus. John's disciples come to him and tell him that Jesus is baptizing people not far away and everyone is flocking to him. I think they expect that John will start a new advertising campaign or ramp up his publicity efforts. But John says, "This is exactly what I wanted. My joy is complete." John sees himself as one who can help people come to know Jesus. When people start flocking to Jesus, John recognizes that he is fulfilling his God-given purpose.

I have served in too many churches where the people suffer from jealousy. We get jealous of the church down the street that is attracting people, and we step back and start throwing rocks. "They're not really preaching the gospel," we say, or "They just use a lot of gimmicks. It won't last." Somehow if people are attracted to Jesus we think there must be something wrong.

Certainly there are churches and preachers out there that water down the gospel, that preach a self-centered message. I'm not saying that we should endorse that. But there are also churches out there preaching Jesus in a biblical way. And guess what? People are attracted to that message. Sometimes it's surprising, but when we preach a high commitment to Jesus, a gospel that costs you your life, a "costly grace" in Dietrich Bonhoeffer's words, people want in. Jesus himself said that he would be lifted up like Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. People flocked to that grotesque bronze statue (see Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-15) in order to be healed of snakebite. Can you imagine the Israelites saying, "Who does Moses think he is? Is he saying that looking at the bronze serpent is the only way to be saved from snakebite? Maybe I like being snakebit. I'm certainly not going to travel all the way to the center of the encampment just to look at a snake statue. That's ridiculous. I have the freedom to make up my own mind." They could certainly say this, and I don't doubt some of them did. It's not so different from people today who look down their noses at churches that say Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. But when they lift Jesus up, those who want the gift of life he offers will come streaming in the doors.

That puts the rest of us in a hard position. We, like John the Baptist, see people flocking to Jesus and deep down it can make us uncomfortable. But John's a good role model for us here -- with John we can say, "He must increase, but I must decrease." I've heard several people at Central recently worried that people have been unkind to me personally through the last few weeks leading up to our vote to leave the ELCA. Others have been concerned that people may leave Central and go looking for other churches. In response to both of these concerns, I side with John the Baptist. If people need to be unkind to me in order to deal with Jesus and the fullness of his message, I'm okay with that. I'm willing to lift him up in hopes that they will be drawn to him. And if people need to leave Central in these days, my prayer is that the turmoil of searching for and finding a new church will open them to the work of Jesus in their lives in a new and powerful way. God can use that unsettled time in their lives. I'm not concerned where they attend worship, as though I got a commission on our membership numbers. Instead, I'm concerned that people come to know him, whatever that takes.

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