Knowing Who We Are and Who We’re Not: a lesson from John the Baptist

John the Baptist

One of the most gripping commendations Jesus ever offered was about John the Baptist when He said, “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John” (Luke 7:28). There was really no one quite like John, and Jesus recognized that.

Of course, the other part of that statement was this: “yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” John knew who he was and also knew who he wasn’t, and that shaped the way he lived.

At one point in his ministry, John said to a group of his disciples and gathered onlookers: “You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him'” (John 3:28). John knows who he is and knows who he is not.

John the Apostle sets us up for this in the first chapter of his gospel when he says that John the Baptist is not “the Light”:

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. (1:6-8)

Later on, when John is questioned by religious leaders, he knows that he is not the Messiah,  Elijah or the long-awaited Prophet:

Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, ‘I am not the Messiah.’

They asked him, ‘Then who are you? Are you Elijah?’
He said, ‘I am not.’
‘Are you the Prophet?’
He answered, ‘No.’

Finally they said, ‘Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’

John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, ‘I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Make straight the way for the Lord.”‘ (John 1:19-21)

John clearly knew who he was and who he was not.

Not only that, John knew that Jesus was the Messiah, and that he, John, was not Jesus:

  • John was not the light, but, as we read in John 1:9 – “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world” – Jesus is the light
  • John was not the privileged son, but, as we read in John 1:14, “the word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” – Jesus is the One and Only Son.
  • John was not the Messiah, but more than once he exclaimed to his followers when Jesus passed by, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (1:29)

John knew that he was not the awaited one, but that Jesus was the one the world was waiting for.

So, when John the Baptist’s followers come to him feeling out of sorts because Jesus’ ministry is increasing, John is not really bothered. In fact, he knows this is the way things are supposed to be. He knows that all of what he is doing is really about Jesus.

John the Baptist is a powerful example for all of us who follow Jesus. He reminds us that not any one of us is the Messiah, and we should live accordingly. I am not the Messiah. You are not the Messiah. We cannot solve everyone’s problems, be everywhere at once, or be the one to save the world. That was Jesus’ job. Believing this and live out of this belief  is a significant part of our discipleship.

We are not here to replace Jesus, but to display Jesus in our life on earth. The difference seems slight, but it is gargantuan in practice. In our lives we are not trying to be the Messiah, we are trying to direct people to the Messiah.

John the Baptist knew who he was and who he was not, and it set him free to minister as God would have him regardless of the outcome.

Finding Love: Mary

advent-mary.jpg[This is the devotional I wrote for the fourth week of Eastbrook Church‘s Advent 2018 devotional. Join in with the daily journey through Advent here.]

“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed.” (Luke 1:46-48)

“Love is blind.” At least, that is how the saying goes. The phrase means that when love is in play, a person is prone to overlook, or just plain fail to see, the problems within the person being loved. There is some truth to that, but the kind of love we all deeply desire is a love that truthfully sees everything about us and still loves us. Love that is blind – that turns away from reality – is false love, while love that sees – that leans into reality – is real love.

John 3:16 is such a well-known Scripture passage because it describes God’s love as real love. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:16-17). In the midst of a world stuck in the cycle of death, Jesus the Son of God comes to bring liberating life. Even as the world could potentially be condemned because of evil and injustice, God takes a different route by sending Jesus to save the world. Jesus Himself echoes this later when He says, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). We see in Jesus the Messiah that God’s love is an eyes-open love, leaning into the reality of our world and our lives. Jesus shows us just how far God will go to hold us in His loving embrace.

When the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, announcing God’s plan to bring the Messiah to birth through her, Mary was astounded. Her question, “How will this be?”, was both a question about the manner of the Messianic birth since she was a virgin and simultaneously a question about the possibility that something like this could occur in human history. When Gabriel emphasized God’s decisive plan to intervene through Jesus as Messiah, such knowledge eventually leads Mary to erupt with praise: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation” (Luke 1:46-47, 50).

That little word ‘mercy’ is an echo of the Hebrew word hesed, which refers to God’s uniquely steady and faithful love. Mary grasps, and shares with us today, that God sees what is really there in the world and still chooses to love humanity from generation to generation throughout the earth. Mary becomes a picture not only of humble obedience to God’s call, but also boisterous praise of God’s love. As we draw close to Christmas Day, let us join Mary’s wondrous call to praise our God whose love is not blind, but rather eyes-open about us and our world. Let us draw near with anticipation to experience once again   the tenderly tenacious love of God found in Jesus the Messiah.

Reflect:

  • What difference does it make to you that God loves you—no matter what, just as you are?
  • Who in your life needs to hear that God loves them…absolutely and completely? How and when will you tell them?

A Prayer for the fourth Sunday of Advent (from the Revised Common Lectionary):

O God of Elizabeth and Mary,
you visited your servants with news of the world’s redemption
in the coming of the Savior.
Make our hearts leap with joy,
and fill our mouths with songs of praise,
that we may announce glad tidings of peace,
and welcome the Christ in our midst. Amen.

Join in with the daily Advent devotional here.

I am Loved Beyond Measure (message at Elmbrook Church)

Game Changer.pngThis past weekend I had the chance to speak at Elmbrook Church as part of their summer “Game Changer” series. Returning to Elmbrook is always a joy for me because my first full-time vocational ministry role was as Elmbrook’s College Pastor with The Ave (2003-08).

This series allows speakers to share Scriptural truths that were “game changers” in their lives. For me, growing in my understanding of God’s love changed me from the inside out and has continued to transform the way I think about God, myself, and others. Some aspects of this message were derived from a weekend in a series we did at Eastbrook entitled “Who Am I?”  However, I always find that preaching is an experience of three-way communication between God, a congregation and a preacher that makes the preaching event always unique.

You can watch the message below:

 

Also, my dear friend Mike from Kettlebrook Church in West Bend opened Scripture with Eastbrook as part of our “Great Prayers of the Bible” series while I was away. You can watch his message here as well:

I Am Loved Beyond Measure

“What’s love got to do with it?”

“All you need is love!”

“I wanna know what love is.”

“I will always love you.”

Any number of songs within our culture talk about the power of love in our lives. When we are loved we find a deeper meaning in our lives. Often, being loved and loving others helps us find out what is most important in life, and even to discover who we are.

In our current series at Eastbrook Church, “Who Am I?“, we are exploring biblical answers to questions about our identity as human beings. This past weekend I explored how knowing and experiencing the love of God shapes our sense of personal identity. I referenced a wide variety of Scripture passages, as well as a few nods of the head to Kevin Durant, Mother Teresa, and the movie Arrival.

You can view the message video and an expanded sermon outline below. You can follow the entire series at our web-site, through the Eastbrook app, or through our audio podcast.

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Wide: Changed with People (discussion questions)

Jesus Changes Everything Series Gfx_ThumbHere are the discussion questions that accompany my message, “Wide: Changed with People,” which is the third part of our series “Jesus Changes Everything” at Eastbrook Church.

  1. Answer one of the following questions:
    • Who do you find it most difficult to love? Why?
    • When have you felt most loved in your life? Why was that?
  1. This week in our series, “Jesus Changes Everything,” we look at various Scripture passages in order to better understand what it means to love people like God. Whether you are on your own or with a small group, begin your study in prayer and ask God to draw you into His truth and life.
  1. In Matthew 22:37-40, Jesus summarizes all the commandments of God with the call to love God with all of who we are and our neighbor as ourselves. In 1 John 4:9, the Apostle John tells us that God showed His love among us by sending His Son into the world. What do you think it means to learn about love from Jesus?
  1. Take a moment to read Matthew 4:1-11. Before His public ministry, the devil tests Jesus to accomplish God’s purposes in a manner that was not God’s way. What were the main temptations placed before Jesus? How did He resist these temptations?
  1. In contrast to the devil’s temptation, we want to learn how Jesus actually exhibits God’s love to the world. One way to do this would be to read through one of the Gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John) and highlight or write down notes on how you see Jesus relating to people. For the sake of this study, let’s just look at four chapters of the Gospel of John. Read through each of these chapters and identify specific characteristics of Jesus’ love for others:
    • John 3:1-21 – Jesus with Nicodemus, the religious teachers
    • John 4:1-38 – Jesus with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well
    • John 5:1-15 – Jesus with the invalid at the Bethesda Pool
    • John 9:1-41 – Jesus with the man born blind and the religious leaders
  1. Stepping back from everything you just read, what do you notice most about Jesus’ love for others?
  1. What is one specific way that you need to grow in love that looks like Jesus’ love for people? If you are with a small group, discuss that with one another and then take extended time to pray about what you share. If you are studying on your own, write it down, pray about it, and share this with someone during the next few days.