Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Biggest Loser

“Loser” is a word that carries with it a severely negative connotation. However, one television show has turned this word into a victorious affirmation. I’m speaking of the “Biggest Loser.” In that program, overweight individuals set out to lose weight through a rigorous regimen of exercises. Whoever has lost the most weight or become the smallest version of their past self, is named the winner. It is the only example in our culture today that I can think of where less is more, smaller is better, and people work hard in order to achieve the status of a “loser.” In a season where many anticipate gym memberships and losing weight, I can think of no better time to discuss getting into shape spiritually, something that has nothing to do with weight loss but everything to do with self-loss.  Today we are going to listen to four statements that are made from one who understood self-loss from John 3:25-30.

This passage begins at the emergence of a discussion taking place between the disciples of John the Baptist in response to what Jesus was doing in and around the area (read vv. 22-24). With John baptizing in the area and Jesus doing the same nearby, John’s disciples began to “discuss” issues of purification and its relationship to baptism. Given the context of this dialogue, it might be that these followers of John were in a dispute around the issue of whose baptism was more efficacious, the Baptist’s or Jesus’. However, it is also possible that this is not in view. Instead, the discussion may have concerned the clash between John’s practices and other prominent Jewish practices. Lots of people are getting wet for all kinds of reasons. Therefore this small group of disciples begins to have a heated debate on the subject.

The manner in which John’s disciples refer to John reflects incredible honor. “Rabbi,” or “my great one,” would have been an esteemed title for any teacher. However, the manner in which John’s disciples refer to Jesus reveals a hint of jealousy on their part. Notice how impersonal they are in their reference to Christ, “he who was with you…to whom you have testified.” It is not as though His name escaped them or was unknown to them.  Jesus was a big deal! He had already amassed a large gathering and had performed many signs (one of which involving a very large spectacle in the temple that would have been the topic of many discussions in and around Jerusalem). Even John the Baptist had testified to Him. However, what is communicated here is that  John the Baptist and Jesus both had attractive, vibrant ministries and one was becoming more attractive and vibrant that the other.

The exaggerated statement, “all are coming to Him” reveals, once again, the impure jealousy of the disciples of John. Although some of John’s disciples were leaving him and going to Jesus (see 1:35ff), not everyone among the Baptist’s disciples was leaving. However, many were, and the disciples of John, as shown here, are beginning to ask questions. What’s the deal? Are you not as special as we thought? Were you not the first one baptizing? These questions gave John every reason and opportunity to stake his claim, defend his ministry, and tout his experience. Faced with a similar barrage of questions, anyone would be tempted to go to one’s own defense for fear of looking weak, obsolete, or inferior—especially after being egged on by a group of one’s supporters. However, that is not what John does here.

Statement #1 (I am Not in Control)-3:27

Here, instead of running to his own defense or explaining away the mass migration to Jesus, John tells his disciples that he must neither exceed his own calling, nor compare himself with the work of others.  As much as it concerned people responding to a message or calling, John submits that Jesus’ is far superior because the calling associated with Him is from heaven (a circumlocution for the name of God). The reference to Jesus’ superior calling coincides with John’s witness (1:7-9, 15, 26-27, 30). Reminding his disciples of his consistent testimony –Jesus is greater than he is—the Baptist tells his devotees that they should not be surprised that Jesus has attracted a larger following. John ultimately confesses that he is not in control and could not control how people were responding because the God of heaven is at work and moving. God’s sovereignty stands hidden behind all human claims, for a human being does not have anything but what he has received from the Lord. Believing for one second that John could alter the minds of people or attempting to sway them in his direction and away from Jesus would have been to behave in the worst possible arrogance.

Self-Loss Tip #1: Recognize that as far as your life is concerned, you are not in control. It is time for us to shape up by refraining from the tendency we all have of ever believing that we are calling the shots in our life.

Statement #2 (I am Not God)-3:28

John, unlike some of his followers, is not perturbed by the news of Jesus’ growing popularity. For starters, he had always made it abundantly clear that he was not the Christ.  For instance, in John 1:20-23, it states, “and he confessed and did not deny but confessed “I am not the Christ.’…I am a voice of one crying out in the wilderness,’ make straight the way of the Lord.’…” With Jesus’ popularity on the rise and John at the height of his popularity, the issue of John’s relationship to Jesus needed clarification. Here, John succinctly provides this clarity by saying, “by the way, I am not the Messiah, I’m just the messenger for the Messiah.”

The phrase “sent ahead” is used in the OT for messengers sent ahead of a given person (see Gen. 24:7; 32:3; 45:5; 46:28; cf. Ps. 105:17). Indeed, John had prepared the way of the Lord and His ministry, by its very nature was intended to result in people encountering the Christ (Messiah/Anointed One).  Both Jesus and John had been given their roles from heaven and John was content to play his part well. “Act well you part, there the honor lies.”

With my own academic and ministerial career on the up and up it was easy for me to begin developing a higher view of myself than necessary and play the role of a savior. I had spent the years at Liberty studying under amazing professors, serving in student leadership, and even served two summers at a thriving church where I received very practical experience. Having achieved the triple crown of my discipline at university (preacher of the year, the pastoral leadership award, and school of religion valedictorian) you can imagine the confidence I had walking into the church I currently serve. Never mind that there were only 13 people there that first week my soon to be wife and I attended. Never mind that you could not find a bathroom in the sanctuary building. Never mind that the next youngest person in the church was 46 years old. Never mind that my wife and I lived an hour away! I had read the books, aced the program, and achieved greatness and I got it in my head that I could be the savior of this struggling church. Little did I know I would begin a long and arduous journey that would break me of this misplaced confidence in myself.  Sleepless nights and tireless efforts with no observable results soon helped me realize that I could save nothing, no matter how highly I thought of myself. And neither can you. That marriage that is on the frits, that addiction you are trying to hide, that relationship that is broken is beyond your saving capabilities. Only Jesus is suitable for saving your life, because only Jesus is God. In the grand play of life, Jesus not only calls the shots as the director, but is the main event in which the real actions takes place, leaving you and I as a pre-show pointing to the main attraction.

Self-Loss Tip #2: Understand, although it can be hard, that you are not God, Jesus is. It is time that we shape up by getting over ourselves and coming face-to-face with the very real fact that we are NOT GOD.

Statement #3 (I am Not the Center of Attention)-3:29

John next provides a similar comment by means of an illustration. Here, he likens himself to the best man at a wedding, who stands ready to do the bridegroom’s bidding. In the first century, the role of a best man included organizing the details of the wedding and presiding over its success. He would find his greatest joy in watching the ceremony proceed without a problem, and in knowing that the groom and his bride were being united with great rejoicing. In light of the Old Testament background where Israel is depicted as “the bride of God,” John the Baptist is suggesting that Jesus is Israel’s awaited Groom. In keeping with the ancient law, the Baptist as the “best man” would have been forbidden to ever marry the bride. Rather than try and steal the attention that belongs to a bride and groom on their wedding day, John, as a good best man stood on the side and “rejoiced greatly.” Coupled with the noun form of the verb, this literally reads, “rejoices a joy.” This is a Greek tool for communicating a higher degree. In this case, “rejoices greatly fits very well.”

John is ecstatic, not bewildered or threatened that many are responding to the voice of Jesus Christ. He realizes that the ministry, his life, and everything, is about people responding to the Messiah, not him—the groom, not the best man. John’s joy was fulfilled/made complete when he saw people leaving him and heading to Christ!

Over the course of the last two years, my wife and I have been in 10 weddings either as a bridesmaid, groomsman, mistress of ceremonies, or officiator. I am always interested in what the best man has to say about the groom in his speech at the reception. It is the one time the best man is allowed to take center stage and yet, even still, the main attraction is often the look on the grooms face and his reaction to what is being said. Similarly, John’s life and ministry was intended to point all attention and focus to Jesus. In this he found incredible joy and no cause for worry or shame. However too often in our lives, the platforms God gives us at our jobs, or in our families, or among our friends are used for selfish gain instead of pointing people to Jesus. Too often our source of joy is how many people are looking at us, instead of looking at Him. In essence, we become guilty of trying to steal the people’s attention for ourselves which is no better than the best man trying to run off with the bride at the wedding reception! In the grand play of life, Jesus is not only the director calling the shots and the main action that takes place on the stage; He is the lead role who receives all of the attention from the audience and from the minor roles around Him.

Self-Loss tip #3: Give focus to Jesus as the groom instead of trying to steal people’s attention from where it is supposed to be. It is time that we shape up by quitting this obsession with the sound of our own voices and begin tuning people around us into the sound of the only voice that saves.

Statement #4 (I am Not Trending)-3:30

John correctly perceives that his ministry is shrinking. This is not merely a personal issue. Instead, the transition from the Baptist to Jesus represents a crucial salvation-historical watershed from the Old Testament prophetic era to that of the Messianic era. In other words, the time for looking ahead to Jesus was coming to a close and the time for the emergence of the Messiah was at hand. Therefore, John concludes, in a most reflective tone, that it necessarily follows that Christ must increase while he must decrease.

One translation of this verb for “increase” says “to increase in status or become more important, to enjoy greater respect of honor.” Similarly, its inverse, “decrease,” means “to cause something to have less status or rank.” 

John finds his satisfaction in wholeheartedly embracing God’s will and the supremacy it assigns to Jesus Christ. John’s language is reminiscent of the increase and decrease of light from heavenly bodies. The more radiantly the sun begins to shine in the morning, the more John’s star would grow faint.

One of the shows my wife and I like to watch is The Voice. At the live results show, they will often talk about how an artist is trending on twitter or on Itunes. This means that a specific performance is being downloaded by huge number of viewers or is receiving superfluous mention in social media. The artist wants to be trending because that means their popularity is growing. In the case of Jesus and John the Baptist, Jesus was trending, and would continue to trend throughout His ministry. Some might even make the case that He continues to trend as His kingdom grows throughout the world. However, Jesus’ growth of popularity necessarily meant that John’s popularity and influence was depreciating. Similarly, our lives must be spent make ourselves smaller and Jesus bigger. What it is that we broadcast should only result in Jesus becoming more and more popular in our corner of the world. In the grand play of life, Jesus is not only the director calling the shots, the main action that takes place on the stage, and the lead role who receives all of the attention; He is the name on the billboard that draws the masses to Himself.

Self-loss Step #4: Instead of broadcasting yourself and your will to the world around you, choose to use yourself as a channel of God to broadcast Jesus Christ and His will in order that He might trend in the lives of those around you.

So What?

I challenge and compel you by the word of God and in light of John’s example to adopt a “self-loss” program this year that includes these realizations. Post them on a mirror, in your car, on a frequently opened door, and write them on the tablet of your heart. “I am not in control.” “I am not God.” “I am not the center of attention.” “I am not trending.” Recognize that Jesus is in control; He is God; He is the center of attention; and He should be the one trending in popularity. Today’s Christians have a real obsession with self as demonstrated by the questions they ask and cures they seek. “How can I be a better husband or wife?” “How can I manage my money better?” “How can I know the best decision in this particular situation?” “How am I supposed to fix this or that?”-- Here is the dirty little secret. YOU CAN’T! And no three or four-step process will provide you with the salvation you need in any of these areas. But Jesus can! He is a great husband. He manages everything well. He knows all things. He fixes all kinds of problems. Instead of focusing this year on becoming a better version of ourselves, perhaps we need to focus on becoming a smaller version of ourselves in order that Jesus can become a bigger influence. John the Baptist, understood this, and in response became the biggest loser. And so I say, with all due respect, as someone who has learned this lesson the hard way, step aside, move out of the way, and let God move. He must increase, and you and I must decrease.