Please open up to John 1:19-34.
But before we get into the reading, just a quick reminder about the context. The Apostle John is writing his gospel to introduce his readers to who Jesus really is. The rest of the gospels had already been written and circulated for about 30 years by the time John wrote this one and so what we read here is a sort of supplement to them – which is why some of the details that are in the other gospels are left out and other details are added in.
God inspired John to write something different than the other three synoptic gospels – something that would answer different questions and present a clearer picture of Jesus.
We talked last week about how important John the Baptist was during his time. A lot of people around the world had heard of him and had even participated in his baptism of repentance. We talked about the importance of that baptism last week and why it was important for the Apostle John to differentiate him from Jesus because there were still a lot of people confused about who John the Baptist really was and whether or not following Him was what God wanted in order for people to be saved.
The Apostle John wanted to be absolutely clear to everyone who read his gospel about who John the Baptist was and what his role was in the story of salvation. He was important, powerful, popular, divisive, courageous, certainly vital to God’s plan, and definitely prophesied about in the Old Testament – but he wasn’t Jesus. Jesus, as we talked about last week, is “the Word” of God that “became flesh”, the source of all “life” and “light”, the one who gave people the “right to become children of God”, the only one who “has ever seen God” because He “is God” (1:1-18).
But the next, natural question for anyone to ask would be, “What about John the Baptist?” He came out of nowhere, looked like an Old Testament prophet, said he was chosen by God to speak prophecies, was a powerful teacher who challenged the religious establishment, baptized followers and had many disciples, and even died as a martyr. A lot of people following John the Baptist would need to know what makes Jesus better than him?
That’s where we come today. Now, the assumption that the Apostle John seems to make here is that people already know a lot about John the Baptist, which is why he leaves out some details, like the miracles around John’s birth in Luke 1, that him and Jesus are cousins, John’s connection to the prophecies about Elijah in Malachi 4, how he dressed like Elijah was dressed in 2 Kings 1, or how so many of the Jewish people, from the highest to the lowest, had been anticipating and longing (Luke 2:38) for the coming of the Messiah for the past century since the Roman Empire took over the land of Israel (63BC) – and that when John the Baptist came on the scene that Messianic hope was at its absolute peak. He doesn’t even tell the story of John baptizing Jesus because it’s already in the other gospels.
The Apostle John leaves a lot of that out because it’s already in the other gospels, but He gets to the meat of the question: “Then who was John the Baptist anyway?” and the best way to answer that is through John the Baptists’ own testimony.
Who is John the Baptist?
Let’s read from verse 19:
“And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, “’I am not.’ ‘Are you the Prophet?’ And he answered, ‘No.’ So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.’ (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.)”
The Pharisees had come up with four options as to who John the Baptist was. John was either the prophet foretold by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15, essentially a second Moses who knew God “face to face” (Exo 34:11), who could perfectly interpret the Law, and who spoke with the authority of God. Or John was the second coming of the greatest prophet, Elijah, as foretold in Malachi 4:5, who would perform great signs and wonders and challenge the corrupt rulers of the people. Or, John was the Christ, the Messiah himself, a great King and military leader in the line of David who had come to rescue the people from their Roman oppressors. Or, John was a false prophet.
John the Baptist made the whole of the Jewish leadership look and was a source of great embarrassment for them, but they knew he was something special and wanted to pin Him down. Not necessarily to follow Him (as we learn from how they treated Jesus) but to clarify his claim and see if they could disqualify and then get rid of him.
But John, like Jesus, didn’t fall for their games. He refused to take the bait and wouldn’t claim to be something he knew He wasn’t. All he knew was what God had called Him to do: to speak one very specific message: repent and prepare yourself for the coming of the Lord.
Essentially, John was saying, “Don’t look at me. I don’t matter. Stop stereotyping and arguing and trying to wiggle out of what I’m saying by some kind of loophole. Just listen to the message. The significance is not in the speaker but in the message. I’m not talking about me; I’m just the herald to someone greater. I’m not pointing to myself, I’m pointing to Him. I don’t want attention on myself; I want it on what I’m saying. Listen: Repent from your sins, prepare yourself for the coming of the Lord. He’s coming very soon.”
But did they listen? No.
Look at their next question:
“They asked him, ‘Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?’”
Ok, if you’re not going to let us ignore you by pinning you down to disqualify you by claiming to be something you’re not – then we’ll try a different tack. Maybe we can disqualify you by what you’re doing. Then we won’t need to listen to what you’re saying.
Do you see how hard they are working so they don’t have to hear the message of repentance? They can’t argue with the message, but they sure can argue with the man.
Their argument was that since John wasn’t claiming to be a prophet or messiah, and He wasn’t a Jewish leader, and he didn’t work in the temple, then by what right does he baptize people? New, gentile converts to Judaism were baptized as an initiation rite. Part of becoming a Jewish proselyte was to go through the waters of baptism.
But John the Baptist was calling Jews to be baptized! This was new. What religion was he calling them to join? Was he a cult leader? Was he a schismatic? Was he going against the temple and God’s Laws? The Pharisees, who were especially concerned with obeying the Law of Moses as perfectly as possible, would be especially interested. Look at John’s answer in verse 26, “John answered them, ‘I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.’ These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.”
John’s answer is, essentially the same as our own: “I’m just using water to symbolize something that has happened on the inside. I’m just giving people a practical, obvious, public, way to show what has happened in their hearts. I tell people to repent, to realize they are sinners who need cleaning up, and then I use the water to symbolize that they have obeyed the word of God. The cleansing of their bodies in the water shows that they desire the cleansing of their souls.”
But John then takes it one step further with a big “but”. He says, “But I have a surprise for you. The Messiah, the One I’ve been talking about is already here. He is already walking among us. He will be revealed very soon. Stop arguing. Repent. Prepare yourself. Now is the time.” When John the Baptist talks about his unworthiness to carry or even tie Jesus’ “sandals” it points us to something he has skipped. Those words are in Matthew, Mark and Luke and all point to the story of Jesus’ baptism. So at this point, as the Jewish Leaders stand before Him, John the Baptist has already baptized Jesus in the Jordan, has seen the Holy Spirit coming in the form of a dove, has heard the voice of the Father commissioning Jesus’ earthly ministry, and seen Jesus sent for the 40 days of temptation in the desert. And, it seems that the very next day after the Jewish Leaders questioned John, Jesus comes back from the wilderness.
Look at verse 29-34,
“The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John bore witness: ‘I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.’”
And so now we hear from John the Baptist himself who he thinks he is, and who he knows Jesus to be. His whole life was meant to point to the coming Messiah, and when Jesus came, John stepped back. But before he did, he “bore witness” that Jesus was the One he had come to prepare the world for. He said he didn’t know in advance, but when Jesus came for baptism it became absolutely clear. God showed up, God spoke, God showed Him exactly who Jesus was. And so John pointed people to Jesus. When John was preaching he deflected all attention away from himself to his message – and now that He knew who the Christ was he reflected every bit of attention onto Jesus.
That’s what the Apostle John wants everyone who is reading this to know. John the Baptist’s message, witness, and ministry all pointed to Jesus. So if you are following John, now is the time to follow Jesus.
Jars of Clay
There’s something I want to chew on for a bit though here. It must have been very tempting for John the Baptist to try to take some of the credit, to accept some praise, to want to share the spotlight with Jesus. According to chapter 3, even John’s own disciples were jealous on his behalf when Jesus started to gain popularity.
What prevented John from getting puffed up with pride? How did he stay humble?
If you’ve ever done something well, something that you know you couldn’t have done without God, you’ll know it’s not easy to deflect praise. Whether it’s a piece of art you have designed, a successful ministry, having good kids, doing well in a difficult class, learning a skill few people have and then using it to bless others, having the ability to make money, or a great sense of humour, or strong administrative skills, or the ability to be patient and kind during difficult times, you’ll know that when people see you, they automatically want to give you credit – and it can be extremely difficult to reflect that praise back to God. Even when you say, “It wasn’t me, it was God”, they want to give you extra credit for being humble!
So how did John do it? How did he keep his heart in the right place? If I had to guess from what we’ve read and know about John the Baptist it was that he knew who he was and who Jesus is.
Think about when you go out to a restaurant. You sit down at the table, the server comes over and gives you water, takes your order, and then delivers the food. As Canadians it’s our habit to thank everyone for everything all the time, right? A lot of us even thank inanimate objects like ATMs and traffic lights for doing their job. So when the food comes we automatically say thank you, right? What are we thanking the server for? For bringing the food, right?
But, then, inevitably – and usually when you have a mouthful of food – they come by again and ask how the food is. And we say, “Oh, it’s so good! It’s amazing!” Now, imagine if the server started to get a big head about it. The owner buys all the food and the chef prepares everything – but who gets to hear everyone “mmming” and “wowing” and “this is so good”? Who gets to hear the thank-yous and watch people smile? It’s the server.
But wouldn’t it be crazy if the server tried to share the credit with the chef? “You’re absolutely welcome for that dish. It was half me, half the chef. Because without me, the food would have just stayed in the kitchen and no one could eat it. So, actually, I should get more of the credit for being the one who allowed you to have such a fine meal. And really, since I’m the one who gave it to you, I’m the one in the fancy suit, I’m the one who listens to you and brings you what you want, and no one else, then I must be the most important person in the room right now. You would go hungry without me. You would starve without me. No one would even know the chef exists without me. The whole restaurant would close if I weren’t here to bring you your food. In fact, I was the one who recommended that meal to you in the first place, so you don’t even get any credit for ordering it! I get all the credit! This whole place revolves around me!”
That’s crazy, right? But that’s what Christians sound like we sound like when we try to share glory with God for something we’ve done. A server, a servant, is just a delivery system for someone else’s greatness. Their whole job is simply not to forget it, drop it, or change it. Regardless of what your gift is – music, art, speaking, generosity, crafts, administration, physical strength, even physical beauty – it is, and you are, merely a delivery system for God’s glory and greatness. He gave it to you as a gift, has used the experiences of your life to hone that gift, and has designed you in such a way that when you use it not only are other people blessed, and not only do you get to receive pleasure from using it, but in doing so He gets glory. We often realize the first two of those and forget the last. We’re happy to use what we have to help people, happy to feel good doing it, but when it comes to who gets the credit, who gets the glory… we often want to steal it, or at least share it, with God. That’s crazy when you really think about it.
Consider 1 Corinthians 4:7 where the amazing apostle Paul said,
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”
The “treasure” is the gospel, and the “power” belongs to God – he’s just the clay jar it was carried in. Throughout the Bible, God is portrayed as a potter and His people the clay (Isa 64:8). In Romans 9:20–21 when Paul is talking to people who complain to God about their lot in life he says,
“But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?”
In other words, he’s the potter, you’re the clay. In this context, the Apostle is talking about saved versus unsaved, but the lesson is still sound. God knows what He’s doing, knows what you’re good for, knows what your strengths and weaknesses are, and knows where you are of best use – because He made you. And if you do things His way and you’ll be a lot better off.
If He wants to make you into a fancy vase that sits on a shelf meant to hold and feed and water some pretty flowers for all to see, but are changed out often, then be content in that. If He wants to make you into a coffee cup that gets filled up and emptied every single day, loved and useful but certainly not fancy or special, then be content in that. If God has designed you to be a cookie jar, full of good and helpful things that you never get to keep but are always meant to be for others, then be content in that. If he wants to make you into a cooking dish that has to face the heat of the flames over and over and over so others can be fed, then be content in that.
Why? Because when you are doing what God has called you to do, using the strength God gives you and returning the glory to Him, He will be there with you and you will know peace and an abundant life. Yes, it may come with difficulty, but you’ll know you’re where you’re supposed to be, and you’ll see God’s hand in your life.
But, if you try to be something you’re not, you’ll be very discontent. If the flower vase gets bored of feeding the flowers and sitting on the shelf and tries to become the coffee mug, it’s going to wonder why it can’t do the job and keeps getting hurt. If the cookie jar gets tired of being generous and decides to try being a cooking dish, it’s going to break and won’t be good to anyone. I hope you see what I mean.
John the Baptist knew the secret to contentedness, peace, fruitfulness, and staying humble before God. He knew who He was and who Jesus is and gave all the glory away. John was the herald, Jesus is the king. John was a mirror, Jesus was the light. John was a voice, Jesus is the message. John baptized with water, Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit. John called people to prepare themselves by repentance from sin, Jesus is the one who conquered sin and death.
John never forgot who he was.
Who is Jesus?
Turn briefly to John 21:1–14. The question, “Who are you?”, which we see twice in our passage today, is asked all over the Gospel of John. In John 5, the Jewish leaders see a man who had been an invalid for 38 years get up and walk, and they ask who would dare perform a miracle on the Sabbath. In chapter 8, after Jesus declares Himself to be “the light of the world” the Jewish authorities ask twice more. In John 9 a group of Pharisees argue about who Jesus is with a man who was healed from blindness. In John 11, after Jesus says He’s “the resurrection and the life”, right before He raises Lazarus from the dead, he asks Martha if she believes Him. In John 18, as Jesus is on trial everyone keeps asking who He is, then Peter denies who he is to Jesus, then Pilate asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Everyone, through the whole book, is asking, “Who are you?”
In John 21:1–14, at the very end of the Gospel during the epilogue we read this,
“After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way. Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, do you have any fish?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off.
When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared ask him, ‘Who are you?’ They knew it was the Lord.”
They had seen Jesus’ miracles, heard His message, saw Him die, met Him as the risen Lord, and saw one more miracle before Jesus serve them breakfast. Finally, at the end of the book they stop asking, “Who are you?” They’ve figured it out.
Conclusion: Who is Jesus? Who Are You? Why do you exist?
My questions to you are simply this: Do you know who Jesus is? Do you know who you are? (and consequently, who you are not?) Do you know why you are here?
Everything hinges on those questions. Who is Jesus? Who are you? Why do you exist? These are questions you must answer.
John the Baptist knows. Who is Jesus? Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the “lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world” (1:29). Who is John? “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’…” (1:23) Who is John not? Moses, Elijah, Jesus, or a false prophet. Why did John exist? “…For this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” (1:31)
I know this. Who is Jesus? My Saviour and my God. Who am I? I am a child and servant of God. Why do I exist? To be a godly husband and father, and as a gift to the church to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph 4:11-16) through preaching, teaching, counselling, and creativity. It’s taken many years, and certainly there have been times of difficulty and doubt, but I can say this: I know Jesus, I who I am, I know who I am not, and I know my purpose.
But I ask you today, do you know who Jesus is? Do you know who you are? And do you know why you exist? If not, you have some soul work to do. And we are here to help you in that journey.
My kids have been in swimming lessons for quite a while. I took them when I was a child, as most people do, but I’m nowhere near as good at swimming as my kids are. Even my littlest, Eowyn, knows more strokes and techniques than I do. To be totally honest, I only ever made it to the third level – which they called “RED” at the time – because I failed it over and over and over. Eventually my mother got tired of paying for me to fail and said, “Well, you won’t die if you fall out of the canoe, so I guess that’s enough.”
Our intention, right now anyway, is to have all of our kids take enough lessons that they will be certified lifeguards and instructors. Ethan has already completed Bronze Cross and has First Aid and CPR, training – which is good, because that allows me to eat as much poutine as I want, with total impunity, knowing if I choke on a cheese curd or keel over with a heart attack, Ethan will be there to save me. Eventually, I will be surrounded with children that will not only be able to save me, but also teach others how to save their poutine loving fathers.
As I’ve watched my children develop in their swimming abilities, I’ve seen them take on bigger and bigger challenges. At the beginning of their training, the instructors have them jump into the shallow end of the pool, always within arms reach, and then hold them up by their tummies to practice their strokes, whispering nice, encouraging words in their ears the whole time. They tread and splash for a few moments and then sit on the side and watch others do the same. It’s very sweet.
However, as the lessons continue, it gets a lot less sweet. My boys, who have been doing this for a while, come home from swimming lessons with some very interesting stories. I’ll ask, “What did you do today, son?” and they will relate quite a grueling regimen of exercises. Long gone are the days of tummy holding and whispered encouragement.
“Well dad, during my three hour class, we started with an hour of book work, memorizing acronym after acronym after acronym, and then moved on to oral and practical quizzes. Then we were told to get in the water and swim 24 laps in under 12 minutes. After that, they told us to tread water in the deep end for five minutes – but THIS time, they dropped a 10 pound weight to the bottom of the deep end and had us retrieve it and then tread water while passing it around to each other. Then it was time to practice some rescues, which means dragging my classmate’s limp bodies out of the pool over and over – and if I didn’t do it perfectly I would have to do it again. And when we finally got them out, it was time for ‘land rescues’ where we practice saving people from choking, bleeding, passing out, having a stroke, and more – sometimes as they attack me! Oh, and by the way, the test is next week and if I make one mistake –their head goes under water, I misdiagnose, or I take my eyes off of them – I fail immediately and have to take the class all over again.”
Drowning in The Deep End
To their credit, my kids rarely complain about the work they are required to do during their classes. They know that what they are learning is important and that it takes dedication and skill to do it right. And of course, my response as a Dad is never to say, “Oh, that’s too bad! I wish they would take it easier on you.” No way, It’s “Good! I hope next week is even harder! That’s building some character! Now drop and give me 20!” (It’s a tough life at my house…)
Now, would any of us here criticize the instructors for being too hard on the students? Sure, we can’t take the toddlers and drop them in the deep end, tied to 10 pound weights, right? That’s not only inappropriate, but probably illegal.
But if we are going to give people the title of “LIFEGUARD” and give them a little piece of paper that says they are “LIFESAVERS”, then I think it’s right that they be rigorously trained and tested!
It’s no different in the Christian faith. I don’t say this lightly, but most Christians do not have a very strong faith. There are a lot of folks in our churches that are content to spend their lives paddling around the shallow end of the pool. They’re like me when it comes to swimming lessons: they think they know enough not to drown, but that’s it.
The problem is that this world isn’t a good place right now for people who don’t know how to swim in the deep end. The issues that are pressing against us are incredibly complex and go far beyond our human ability to contemplate, let alone, attempt to address. We are living in the deep end right now and there are a lot of people who call themselves believers that are struggling to stay afloat. They don’t know what to do when the waves of change crash against them and they are pulled down into the riptide of popular culture. As they sputter and flounder, they do foolish things like trust their emotions and seek wisdom from pagans. They don’t know how to pray or read God’s word and are leaving the church in droves.
It is my deepest desire that we don’t make that mistake. Even our little church out here in the middle of nowhere feels the crash of the waves of change and the pull of popular culture. We can’t avoid it – so we’d best be prepared. Not just for ourselves, but so we can help save others.
When we or someone else at our church gets nailed by crisis – whether that’s crisis of health, finance, or faith – don’t we want to be a group of well trained lifeguards that know our stuff and can jump in and save them? Rather than being like the untrained and useless masses of people that simply stand on the sidelines muttering how they wish they could do something, but not knowing how – or worse, throwing stones at the one that is hurting, hoping it might help.
It is my belief that the issues that strike the deepest part of our hearts are addressed by God in His Word. God may not answer every question that interests us, but He has certainly answered all the ones that we need to know. That’s why we need to know God and His Word. Because we and everyone around us – our children, friends, coworkers, strangers, and enemies – have big questions, and most of us are ill equipped to give any answers.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not talking about having a bunch of pat answers under our belt so we can be the smartest person in the room or win debates with unbelievers. No, far more important is that we need to know these things so we can know God.
The problems of this world, those that happen inside and outside us, make so much more sense when we know in our heart, soul and mind that God is always good and always just. As long as we wonder if God cares about us, wonder if He even sees the problem, wonder if He’s punishing us, wonder if He’s being unfair, unjust or unkind, then we will forever live in fear and doubt. Uncertainty about God creates a life filled with anxiety.
That’s the normal life of the pagan, the atheist, and the immature believer. They live in anxious fear. They always feel insecure. Below their feet is shifting sand. They try to find security in all sorts of places: politics, money, healthcare, military power, personal relationships, new technologies, scientific progress, counsellors, teachers, entertainment, religion… but the problem is that every foundation they try keeps changing! Almost nothing the same as it was 10 years, 100 years, 1000 years ago. So they live in fear. It’s only a matter of time before the next wave hits, their foundation fails again, and they are set adrift on seas that they can neither navigate nor swim.
Have you felt this? All hell breaks loose around you, and you realize that your foundation is uncertain. Life gets very unfair and you realize that the things you thought were going to get you through, simply let you down. That’s life in the deep end. We all feel it, but I don’t want any of you to drown. No believer should live in constant fear that God has forgotten them or is going to abandon them. No believer should be crushed under the weight of this world. No believer should feel like they will drown in their sorrows.
Yes, we will feel the fear. Yes, we will feel the burden. Yes, we will feel the pain of loss. Yes, we will feel the frustration. But when those feelings come, believers have access to something greater, an off switch to the emotional roller coaster. We know that our lives are built on the unchanging Word of our immutable God, who always keeps His promises, and will always see us through.
Habakkuk’s Follow Up Question
Last week we talked about Habakkuk’s first question, “Why does God let bad things happen?” and this week we are going to look back at the conversation to see that Habakkuk isn’t done with his big questions yet. God just dropped a bomb on him saying that his plan to take care of the sin of the nation is to have the people and the cities utterly wiped out by the Babylonian army, and so now we get to the follow up question:
“Are you not from everlasting, O LORD my God, my Holy One? We shall not die. O LORD, you have ordained them as a judgment, and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof. You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?
You make mankind like the fish of the sea, like crawling things that have no ruler. He brings all of them up with a hook; he drags them out with his net; he gathers them in his dragnet; so he rejoices and is glad. Therefore he sacrifices to his net and makes offerings to his dragnet; for by them he lives in luxury, and his food is rich. Is he then to keep on emptying his net and mercilessly killing nations forever?” (Hab. 1:12-17)
There’s a lot of emotion in this section. As I said, these are HUGE questions. They get to the deepest part of humanity’s problem with evil, and seek to understand the most complicated details of God’s plan of salvation.
But I want you to notice something first. I want you to see something critically important. If there’s one thing you get out of this sermon, let this be it: Habakkuk begins his prayer with humility and faith. There is no doubt that Habakkuk believes God is greater and more righteous than he is. He may have no idea what’s happening or why, but his prayer starts in the right place. This is where we must start as well. We must not start our prayers thinking we are equal with God, that we get to argue with His Word, or that can come up with a better plan. We are not there to debate or negotiate. Whenever we come to prayer or study, we must come humbly, or we will have wasted it.
“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6)
Certainly, Habakkuk is BOLD in his prayer, asking huge questions of God, but he does it in a way that is humble and trusting. Look how many titles he uses for God! He uses God’s names, “YAHWEH” and “ELOHIM”, or “LORD” and “God”. He knows He’s addressing the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe! He’s not talking to “the big guy in the sky” or “his buddy Jesus”. He’s not coming to the conversation as an equal. He knows what he’s doing is audacious. He’s asking GOD to explain himself! That’s ridiculous on its face, but such is the God we love and serve to allow us to approach His throne of grace! He is the Father and He wants to talk to his children, but He’s also GOD.
Next he calls God, “My Holy One”, intimating a personal relationship with Someone who is not only unique, but special to Habakkuk’s heart. He calls God his “Rock”, which is a term from Deuteronomy 32:4, which calls God “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.” He sees the Lord as the highest Judge in the highest court, who is perfect in His decisions.
That’s where Habakkuk starts his prayer – on His face before God – and it’s where we must start our prayers. Yes, we can be angry, confused, broken hearted, weeping, pacing, broken, on our knees our shouting aloud. All of those feelings are represented in the prayers of scripture – even the prayers of Jesus. But while we pray, our hearts must be humble.
I believe that if we want answers to big questions, if we want comfort from God in the midst of our trials, then we must come to prayer with the right heart. We start with the belief that God is our unmoveable rock, the worker of our perfection, the upholder of our justice, and the keeper of our faith. It’s personal, and it’s humble.
If we start our prayers thinking that God is weak, out of control, or unfair, then our whole prayer life and relationship with Him will be skewed. Instead of finding comfort, we will be hardening our hearts to Him! But if we come in humbly, knowing who God really is, then even if we have deep hurts, doubts and questions, we’ll at least be in the right place to ask and start to find answers. During these tough times, when questions abound, check your heart before you start to pray.
If you believe in God, then I know you’ve shared these thoughts with Habakkuk. Everyone has. We look at ISIS running around harming more and more people and we say, “God, who is going to stop them?” We look at abortionists and think the same thing. Or pornographers: “They drag their hook through campuses and catch young women and men, gut their souls, and walk away smiling. How long will that last, God?” We look at the global church and see it grow more dysfunctional as it fractures and falls away from the faith of our fathers – and then watch as atheist churches take their place – and wonder how much worse it can get.
We look to our own lives and our own problems with sickness, death, trial, temptation, work, finances, relationships, and everything else – and when we finally hit our knees, our prayers sound very much like these words from over 2500 years go. Nothing is new under the sun.
The Bible word used to describe this type of prayer is “Lament”. We would use the term mourn or grieve, and it’s something we’re not very good at as a culture. We tend to run from our problems or pretend they don’t exist, rather than face them and let them break us down. We’ve lost the ability to lament, and it shows in our culture. Jesus lamented, as did many of the faithful in the Bible, and faithful people that have come since. They faced the difficult things in their life and let their hearts break, so they could bring the pieces to the One who could put them back together.
Today, instead, we usually pretend our heart isn’t broken, make excuses for it, pretend to be healthy, or medicate our feelings away. It’s terribly unhealthy. We need to lament things.
Now, lamenting isn’t just feeling sad. “Lamenting” has a more formal meaning and goes beyond emotion. What it means is that we take our heartache TO Someone who will listen, and, hopefully, do something about it. The Bible is full of laments, most often songs – which means they’ve been given some thought and inspiration. A lament isn’t merely raw emotion, but are the well-considered, meditated upon, thoughts of a believer, brought before God.
It’s not that raw, emotional prayers are bad. David’s psalms sometimes seem very raw and emotional, as though they were written in the middle of a battle – and perhaps some of them were – but Habakkuk’s writing here (like many other laments in the Bible) is of incredibly high quality, with well chosen, deeply poetic words.
That doesn’t take away from the heartache. Perhaps it even adds to it. He may have chewed on these thoughts, this prayer, this lament, these questions, for a long time. He prayed these thoughts over and over, finding new, better and and different ways to express his grief to God. And since this is inspired scripture (listen carefully), God HIMSELF was working with Habakkuk on this prayer poem. These are words written by Habakkuk and God given to believers to help us express the intense feelings that we sometimes don’t have words for.
Let’s go through Habakkuk’s prayer verse by verse and take it apart a bit so we can see how much it often reflects the prayers of our own hearts
In verse 13 we see Habakkuk’s follow up question of “Why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” The rest of this section expands on this question. God, how can you use an evil nation like the Babylonians, who are doing more evil than we are to discipline your people? That seems unfair. They get blessed with more land and victory – even though they are worse than us! How can You, the perfect Judge, stand there and allow a greater evil to swallow up a lesser one?
In verse 14-15 Habakkuk uses an illustration that we understand today. He says to God that it almost feels like there’s no accountability in this world. Like we’re all just evolved animals doing whatever we want – that the real rule of life is simply survival of the fittest. The biggest fish rules the pond. Is that how Your world is supposed to work? That doesn’t make sense at all! Aren’t you the God that defends the widow and orphan, helps the helpless, frees the captive? Then why are we living by the law of the jungle right now? The Babylonians are clearly the more evolved and stronger than we are! They are going to chase us, catch us, gut us, eat us and then smile. And are you there… just watching?
In verse 16 Habakkuk keeps arguing his case for why this doesn’t make sense. He points out to God that to make it worse, this wicked nation then turns to give the credit to demons and false gods! Actually, it’s even worse than that. The picture here is of a fisherman catching a fish and then giving worship offerings to HIS NET! He’s giving all the credit for his great victory to his fishing rod. How ridiculous! God, that’s how stupid Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon are! They don’t even know who to thank for their victory! They put their faith in demons and horses and spears rather than the One who Created the Universe! God, you don’t even get the glory! And to make it even WORSE… after they’ve slaughtered us little fish… they will be richer and more comfortable. God, this nation will NEVER turn to you because all the evil plans they come up with are doing so well!
And then verse 17 really strikes home: “Is he then to keep on emptying his net and mercilessly killing nations forever?” I can imagine that there are a lot of people living in in the world right now who have prayed this prayer – and it has echoed through ages past. The persecution and genocide of Christians around the world now, the Jews during World War 2, the African slave trade, the Acadians… and it goes on throughout history.
God how long, exactly, are you going to let this go on? This can’t last forever. It just can’t! Can it? This seems totally backwards. This seems so wrong. Evil is winning and good is losing. The victory is going to demons and fools. You get no glory, no praise, and the faithful are punished. This is so confusing. This is heartbreaking. The pain is excruciating and I don’t know how much longer I can take it. How can you stand it?
In some ways, though we’ve never been through the extreme persecution of some, we’ve all asked that question, right? Do you realize how much differently this prayer would have gone if he wouldn’t have started out humble? These are not accusations. These are big questions, but they are not accusations against God. This is a person with deep hurts and confusion, pouring his heart out to God. I know many of you have been in this situation.
Sitting in the Watchtower
Habakkuk ends his prayer in 2:1 by saying, “I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint.”
“Ok, God. I’ll be quiet now and listen. I’m going to watch for your answer.” We could learn a lot from that. How often do we pray and then forget to listen?!
He trusts that God, His ROCK, won’t let him down, but will make His will known. Habakkuk’s plan is to go to the watchpost, sit in the tower, and wait for what God will do. He knows Babylon is coming and will see them from the tower. He will witness firsthand the fulfilment of prophecy, the justice of God. But, as he watches for what God is doing… he’s also waiting to see what God will do.
Remember last week’s helicopter view of life that God gave him. Now we see Habakkuk choosing to find a higher vantage point where he can watch not only what God is doing, but what He will do. God has given him a bigger perspective of life, and now that’s the lens he’s using to see the world.
God does that sometimes for us too. We come to him in prayer, we lament before him, and He raises us up higher, shows us some scripture or gives us a special message from a friend or a sermon, that allow us to see more of what is happening. And then He gives us a chance to chew on that knowledge for a while.
We are left to meditate on what God has said, and it requires discipline for us not to slide back down to the ground and forget all that God has shown us from higher up. What we must do is choose to climb the tower and wait for God – again – but now from a different perspective. We climb the tower and look out for what God is going to do. How will He work this out for my good and His glory? In what ways will He use this? How can this make me or others more Christ-like? This is God’s plan, and though it hurts, I’m going to watch and wait.
Remember the back story. King Zedekiah sends for Jeremiah to get some advice. Jeremiah says he should surrender to Babylon so that they don’t get slaughtered. That’s God’s GRACE in action! That message was God saying that He would be merciful even as He was punishing them, if they would only accept what He is doing. Yes, they would still go into captivity, but He would do it more gently. All Zedekiah had to do was relent to God.
If Zedekiah were up on the tower with Habakkuk, perhaps he would have made a better decision. Instead, like a fool, he chose to fight against God’s plan. He didn’t have the helicopter view. He wasn’t in the tower. He wasn’t listening to God. He didn’t see God as sovereign. He didn’t believe God was his rock. He didn’t trust God’s plan. Instead, he fought God’s plan and that choice brought terrible pain and misery to everyone around him.
That’s as far as we’re going to get this week. We’ll pick up God’s answer next week, but I want to just remind you of a few things that we’ve learned today.
First, remember that Christians have a responsibility to take their spiritual training seriously. This world is a terribly deep and treacherous pool and we will drown if we don’t make the decision to learn how to swim well and help others. Get into God’s word, stay in prayer, and do the works of a Christian. Yes it’s hard. But as Paul said to Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Tim 4:16)
Second, it is good for us to bring our heartaches to God, but we must make sure that our hearts are in the right place. Don’t start your prayer with a laundry list of requests. Start as Jesus taught you to start your prayers, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” (Mat. 6:9) God is your Father, God is in Heaven, God and his name is to be hallowed (or made high and worshipped exclusively). Start your prayers there.
Third, don’t be afraid of Lamenting. Lamentations are important – it is one of the ways that we show that we are relenting to God’s plan. It is good to bring our grief to God. It is good for us to wait for him because He will come. Isaiah 30:31 says, “They that wait upon the Lord will renew their strength.” And when He does come, trust that He will raise you up to a heavenly perspective of what is happening. And then, when God has shown up, climb the watchtower and wait to see what He will do next.
That’s where I’m going to leave it today.
Just this week we celebrated the birthday of someone that has touched all our lives – though most of us have never heard of him. On December 11th, 1792, Joseph Mohr was born in Salsburg, Austria.
His childhood was one that was filled with strife and shame. He was his mother’s third illegitimate child. His father was soldier who deserted from the army and fled when he learned that his mother was pregnant with him. His mother, Ann, had to face the consequences alone.
One of the consequences she had to face was a fine. She had a little income from her boarding house and knitting, but it would take a year’s wages to pay her fine. In a bid to help his reputation, the town’s executioner, who was hated by everyone, said he would pay the fine for her… if he could be the child’s godfather. Unfortunately this only meant more humiliation for the boy. He would be ostracized wherever he went and no school would accept him. No employer would hire him. No one would teach him a trade.
One thing Joseph could do was sing. One day a Benedictine monk and choirmaster overheard him singing as he played games on the steps of the monastery. The monk obtained his mother’s permission to train the lad as a singer, and Mohr blossomed under his care. By twelve years old he was well on his way to mastering the organ, guitar and violin. Despite his social disadvantage, he held his own among the elite students, always placing near the top of the class.
He continued his training and eventually decided to become a priest. However, because his father had deserted him, he needed a special dispensation from the pope before he could be ordained. The pope agreed and Joseph entered the priesthood at twenty-three.
One Christmas Eve, in 1818, in the newly constructed Church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, nestled in Austrian Alps, Father Joseph Mohr sat preparing for the midnight service. He was distraught because the church organ was broken, ruining prospects for that evening’s carefully planned music.
Father Joseph prayed and sat down in front of his desk. Out of nowhere a new song came into his mind, one that could be sung without the organ. He hastily wrote out the words that flooded into his mind and rushed over to his organist, Franz Gruber, and explained that though Franz wouldn’t be playing, he needed him to compose a simple tune for this new song.
That night, playing his guitar and accompanied by one other person, Joseph sang for the first time: “Silent Night, Holy Night, all is calm, all is bright. Round yon virgin, mother and child. Holy infant, tender and mild. Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace.”
Shortly after, Joseph was telling the story of the near-disaster of Christmas Eve to the organ repair main, who took a copy of the text and tune and spread it through all through Austria. The charming little song seemed perfect for the snow-clad region, and perfect for the Christian heart. Soon folks singers throughout the area had taken up the tune, even using it to drum up business to sell gloves at local fairs and festivals.
Soon, even the king and queen were singing the song after it was sung during a royal performance, assuring the carol’s fame.
Silent Night has been translated into well over a hundred languages and is one of the most beloved songs of the holiday season.
Here’s why I tell you this story today: Silent Night, Holy Night… one of the most beautiful, meaningful and peaceful songs we sing each year… came from very unpeaceful circumstance. Were it not for a broken home and a broken organ, we wouldn’t have Silent Night. It was because God knows how to bring beauty out of chaos, joy out of shame, peace out of frustration, hope from hopelessness, that we are able to sing that song each year.
That’s what God does. Turn with me to Luke 1:26 and let’s read the story of the birth announcement of Jesus Christ. As we read, I want you to look for how much disquiet there is. I want you to see how God took a life at peace – Mary’s Life – and turned it upside down on purpose.
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” (Luke 1:26-45)
Here’s where I want to park today. This is Mary’s Song, historically called The Magnificat. Let’s read it together:
“And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.” (Luke 1:46-56)
All at once, Mary’s life is turned upside down. An angel comes out of nowhere, which is terrifying enough, but his message is even more troubling – she’s going to have a baby. All her plans are put on hold. Her child will be the Messiah – which is amazing – but it’s also going to seriously change everything in her life. Mary, out of her love and trust for God, believes what will happen and responds with “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” From that moment, her life will never be the same.
This baby, even at the moment of conception, was causing a stir. Her reputation around town is shot because now she is with child but without a husband. Her fiancé, Joseph, is so troubled by the news that he is about to dump her until God miraculously intervenes. Mary must have been so happy to hear that there was another woman, and she was a relative, that also had her life turned topsy-turvy by God. She packs quickly and leaves town – albeit under a cloud of neighbourly suspicion – to be with Elizabeth, lend support and be supported.
Neither Mary nor Elizabeth were people who were angry about their circumstance. They must have had health concerns, social concerns, relational concerns, and a hundred other questions about how this would all work out, but we get no indication of any sadness, frustration or anger with God at their circumstances. No, what we see are two women that love God and trust His will.
Mary was a woman who put her faith into action. She responded to Gabriel with simple obedience: “let it be to me according to your word”, and then “hurried off” to go to the woman that Gabriel mentioned. Quick to trust, quick to obey.
Now, I’m not going to concentrate on all the troubled things that Mary must have gone through – rejection, fear, gossip, etc. – because, instead, I want to talk about the young woman who loved God and was excited for her Saviour.
The Magnificat is a worship song all about God helping and raising up the meek, humble, hungry and in need. It’s a song about God blessing His people in weird and wonderful ways, beyond what they would have ever considered or prayed for. She sings about how, even though she is young, poor, obscure, and meek, God has chosen her to be the bearer of something precious. And as she sings, her message expands to remind everyone who would read or sing this song that that is how God most often works!
“Looked on my Humble State”
She says “My soul magnifies the Lord”… that’s where we get the word Magnificat… because God had given to her something that she never felt she deserved nor expected. God looked at her “humble state” and didn’t think less of her as others would have, but instead blessed her.
She “rejoices” in what God has chosen to do to her, even though she knew it would be frought with difficulty. She knew that God’s plan, though confusing and difficult at the time, would end up being better than anything she ever could have asked for.
God doesn’t see people the way we do. When we have a job to do, a position to fill, are looking for help, a partner, a friend, a spouse, or anyone else – we look for the best. Why settle for second best? When we buy something we read consumer reports to see which is the best product. We cheer for our team and want them to win, so they can win the cup, so they can be the best. We train our children and want them to be stronger, faster, smarter, kinder, wealthier, more generous, more everything, than we are.
Many of us hold ourselves to the same kinds of standards. We want to be the best at something – or everything – and we feel inferior if we’re not. We have this strange, internal drive, to have the best, be the best, and be surrounded by the best.
God doesn’t do that – at all. He wasn’t looking for the best, most comfortable, richest, family to send Jesus to. He wasn’t looking for a place with the best health care, least risk, and highest probability for advancement. He wasn’t trying to find a dad with a doctorate and a mom with a master’s degree. God’s number one requirement was that the father and mother be faithful. He didn’t want the best by our standards. He wanted a trusting, willing, obedient, humble people that He knew would allow Him to work through them. Not self-minded, strong, prideful people who think they knew better.
God had decided to do something special, something unique, something beyond anyone’s capacity to plan or understand – and He wanted someone who would be willing to carry it out. He asked young Mary to be integral to the plan, knowing it would cause her great upheaval, but wanting to bless her and the whole world through her work. She agreed, and the Holy Spirit conceived Jesus within her.
I find her attitude is truly amazing. In our days, unplanned pregnancies are more often seen as inconveniences, rather than opportunities for blessing. Many times, surprise babies, aren’t seen as good news, but instead something to be dealt with, figured out, and even discarded. God blesses a woman with the opportunity to bring forth a new life, a new person, a new being, brimming with potential for great things – and too many women don’t see the potential, they only see the problem, and they murder the child. It’s awful. Babies are always good news.
At no point did it ever occur to Mary that the trouble she would face because of this unplanned pregnancy wouldn’t be worth it. Instead, we get a song of praise for God’s willingness to bless someone like her with such a great responsibility.
Her perspective was one of faith. She knew God is larger, smarter, mightier and holier than she is. She didn’t see God’s request to care for a baby as an inconvenience, but as His special gift to her. She knew that it was going to be a tough road, but she also knew that her obedience would allow the blessing of all people. All she had to do would be to obey and trust Him.
Mary Knew God Uses Humble People
So, where did this trust come from? She knew God. The next section of the Magnificat, from verses 50-55, shows that Mary wasn’t just a simple farm-girl with no knowledge of God, but was someone who knew who God well and was well acquainted with his resume.
When God asked her to do something, she knew Who was speaking and what He had done in the past. She trusted Him, but it wasn’t a blind faith – it was based on the evidence of all that God had done with her people.
She knew that when people “fear him”, meaning hold Him in reverence and humbly obey His word, that God does mighty things through them. She knew that God is merciful to those who trust Him and wrathful against those who make their own way. She knew her history. She knew that there had been generations that had completely fallen away from God and suffered, and those that turned to Him and prospered. As a student of her own history, she knew what side she wanted to be on, and knew that God would follow through.
Sure, it was an actual Angel had shown up to tell her what was going on – but remember that Zechariah, the old man who had walked with God a long time, and who was a priest, standing in the Holy of Holies, failed the faith test and was struck mute. Mary was a girl who knew God. Look at verse 50-52,
“And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate…”
Mary is looking backwards and forwards at the same time. Her child was the same One who had flooded the world, stopped the son, and conquered armies. He’s the God who raises weak but faithful people up out of obscurity so He can demonstrate his power through them.
- He was the God who brought Nebuchadnezzar, the king of the world, to his knees.
- He’s the God that made Pharaoh obey by raising up the slave-child was doomed to die the moment he was born.
- He raised up Esther, a Jewish handmaiden and child of the exile, to become the Queen who would save her people from the evil Haaman.
- He raised up David, the youngest of his brothers, hated by King Saul, to be the greatest king of Israel.
- He raised up young, timid Gideon, the man who we first read of cowering in a pit, afraid of his enemies, to lead a small army to conquer the massive Midianite army.
Over and over we read how God uses meek but faithful people to accomplish amazing things for His Glory. It’s his preferred method, because then He gets the glory and praise. And Mary knew, instinctively, because she had a right view of her place in the world, that she was now one in the long line of people that God has “exalted out of a humble estate” and used to “full the hungry with good things” and “help” His people.
And therefore she knew, because the Angel Gabriel had told her, that God was about to do it again. He would use her son, who would be the Son of God, to save the world. And she got to be a part of it.
Let’s get to the application today. There are two questions that I’d like you to consider.
First, how do you see accidental, unforeseen, inconvenient things like unplanned pregnancies, needful people, distractions and interruptions? Do you see them negatively because they don’t fit into your plan, or do you see them through the lens of being potential, God-ordained moments full of opportunity to obey God and bless others?
Joseph Mohr was seen as an inconvenience by his father, and the rest of society. He was kept outside because of the circumstances of his birth. God saw something different and sent one of His servants to train him for ministry. Then Joseph used the inconvenience of the broken organ as an opportunity to write Silent Night.
Mary and Joseph were terribly inconvenienced by God’s plan for them – but out of it came the greatest blessing in the world.
Is there something that God is looking to bless you with – that has come in the form of an accident or an inconvenience? Will you embrace it and allow God to bless you with strange miracles and large responsibilities? Will you trust that He knows you better than you know yourself, knows the future better than you do, and has the strength and resources to see you through – if you’d be willing to trust Him?
And second, how well do you know God, His word, and His deeds? I would argue that your knowledge of God is about equal to your trust in Him.
If you want to know how God works and what God wants to do in your life, then I encourage you to read what God has done, read what Jesus did, and what His Spirit has done through His church for centuries. Read what kind of people He uses, and what He has done through them. Then, when you understand who He is, what He’s done, and the kind of heart He prefers to use, will you trust Him when He asks you to do something with Him.
Every now and again I have the wonderful privilege of speaking to a group of AWANA children. Here’s a talk I gave recently (based on this previous post).
Background is Important
Cartoons wouldn’t be the same without the background, would they? You’d see the characters doing things, but you wouldn’t know where they were. Why is that guy doing that? Where did that come from? Are they in outer space? Are they in a restaurant? Are they at someone’s house? It’s important to have the background so you can understand what’s happening in the story.
Have you ever thought of that? The importance of the background? We love looking at the main characters, but the background is pretty important, isn’t it? I would say that it is just as important as what’s happening in the story!
Camera’s that Face Us
Well, here’s the problem today – there are a lot of people who want to be the main character in the story, they want to be the superhero, the funny guy, the important person – but they don’t want to be the background. The Bible calls that pride. People who refuse to be in the background, and let other people be up front, are prideful.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. How many of you have a camera, or maybe an iPod with a camera? On a regular camera, the lens – the part that takes the picture – faces outward, away from you. But iPhone or iPod, has a camera that faces you! It’s a camera built for one job – so you can take pictures of yourself! Did you know there is such a thing as a Selfie Stick, so you can take a picture of yourself from far away? You don’t even need to have anyone else around! Now you don’t need to take pretty pictures of sunsets and cool cars and friends and nature and bugs and stuff – now you can take pictures of yourself and show everyone how cool you are.
That feeds our pride. We don’t just a picture of something. We don’t even want to be people in a picture anymore. We want to be the picture. It’s called a “selfie”, right? That’s pretty close to “selfish”, isn’t it?
And it’s all a way of saying, “I don’t want to be in the background. The background isn’t important. I want to be the main character. I want to be who everyone sees. The background Only losers are part of the background.”
But here’s something that you’re not going to hear from anyone other than a Christian teacher – everyone else will tell you to try to be the main character – only a Christian teacher will say this. Are you listening?
Life is better in the background. (Tweet this quote.)
It’s All About Jesus
That’s how God designed the world. There is one main character, Jesus Christ. He’s the whole story and everyone else is in the background. Even the people who take pictures of themselves and get a million hits on their YouTube video, who are rich and famous and everyone knows their name… they’re all background. And the more they try to be in the front, the more they try to take the place of Jesus, the more miserable they become, and the further they get from God, and who God created them to be.
Why? Because God designed people to worship Him, bring Him glory, sing to Jesus, talk about Jesus, and take care of each other in Jesus name. Jesus is the main character.
John the Baptist
The best example from the Bible I can think of – of a person who knew this and lived it – is John the Baptist. Have you heard of Him? He was a really cool guy. There’s two things you need to know about him. First, he ate bugs. And second, he had a special job. He was chosen to be God’s megaphone, He was the announcer to Jesus, the person whose job it was to tell everyone that Jesus was coming!
He was chosen before he was born to do this. An angel told his father that “many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord.” And though his life was going to be special, he knew that he was never meant to be the main character.
I Must Become Less and Less
I want to read you a story from the life of John the Baptist found in the Gospel of John 4:26-30 which shows that John lived in the background so Jesus could be the main character.
“…John’s disciples came to him and said, ‘Rabbi, the man you met on the other side of the Jordan River, the one you identified as the Messiah, is also baptizing people. And everybody is going to him instead of coming to us.’”
Do you see what happened there? A bunch of John the Baptist’s followers were worried because more people were following Jesus than John! People were talking about Jesus more than John. “Oh no John! Jesus is more popular than you! More people are going to see Him! People like Him more!”.
In other words, “Oh no John! You’re in the background! What are you going to do? Jesus is more special than you! You need to do something to get back into everyone’s view! You don’t want to be in the background, do you?”
Now let me read to you what John the Baptist said to them: “John replied, ‘No one can receive anything unless God gives it from heaven. You yourselves know how plainly I told you, ‘I am not the Messiah. I am only here to prepare the way for him.’ It is the bridegroom who marries the bride, and the best man is simply glad to stand with him and hear his vows. Therefore, I am filled with joy at his success. He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.”
If there is one line that John the Baptist lived by it was that one: “[Jesus] must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.” John new what life is all about, and where he would be most happy – and that was when He was lifting up Jesus’ name, giving Jesus all the praise, and letting others see Jesus. He knew that life was better in the background, because Jesus is the main character.
Missing the Point
Let me ask you a question, but first let me tell you a story:
Imagine you took a friend to the movies. You pay for their ticket, get the popcorn, give them the 3D glasses, pick the seat, and get ready for the movie. So you’re sitting there – ready to go – and what comes on first? The movie trailers right? The little previews to show you what kind of movies are going to be coming soon.
Now imagine if your friend watches the movie trailer for three minutes, gets up, and leaves the theatre. You think he’s going to the bathroom, but as you wait you realize he’s not coming back. Now it’s half way through the movie – it’s been an hour and your friend isn’t coming back. So what do you do? Well, you eat all the popcorn, and you drink your drink – and then you drink their drink – and the movie is so good that you don’t leave until the movie is over. And you realize – your friend never came back!
So you rush down the stairs and into the foyer looking for your friend – they’re not there. So you rush outside and there’s your friend, sitting on the steps waiting for the car to come and get him.
What would you say? “Where were you?! Where did you go?!” And then your friend replies – “Well, I watched that little movie and I liked it, so I left. I thought that was why we came. That was such a good movie! It’s a shame it was only 3 minutes long. I’m just so glad we came today. And I’ve been sitting outside thinking about that little 3 minute movie for this whole time.”
What would you think? You’d think they were crazy, right?! You missed the movie! You missed the whole point of being here! You missed out on the real move, the whole experience, the whole reason for coming to the theatre! Why would you think the little trailer was the whole movie?! Why would you leave before the movie even starts?!”
It’s All About Jesus
Well you know what? That’s what we do when we forget that this life is all about Jesus! He’s the reason the whole universe exists. He’s the reason we exist. He designed you! He’s the greatest Saviour. He’s the one who makes everything work. He’s the highest authority – the biggest boss – the king of kings. He’s the one that loves people most. He’s the one who is worshipped and adored. He’s the one who knows everything and is perfectly wise. He’s the one that died on the cross to save everyone from their sin so they could be with Him forever.
And that’s why Christians make such a big deal of Jesus. We’re happy to live in the background because we know it’s all about Jesus. And when we try to take his place – and let our pride get out of hand, thinking that we’re the main character – we get frustrated, sad and lost.
It’s all about Jesus.
Jesus is the movie, we’re just the trailer.
Jesus is the hockey game,we’re just the pregame show.
Jesus is the message, we’re just the phone.
Jesus the letter, we’re just the envelope.
Jesus is the power, we’re just the bulb.
Jesus is the light, we’re just the mirror.
Jesus is the internet, we’re just the computer.
Jesus is the picture, we’re just the frame.
It’s all about Jesus.
Do you know what this is? It’s quite famous and has been around for over 100 years. Millions and millions of people have seen this, probably including yourself. Now can you identify it? Of course you can. Interesting isn’t it? When people go to the Louvre in Paris, not too many even see the frame, do they?
Brad Paisley has a song called “Mona Lisa” which is all about a man who knows that when him and his girl walk into a room, no one is looking at him – and he’s ok with that. In fact, he’s not just ok with it, he’s thankful. The chorus goes, “I feel like the frame that gets to hold the Mona Lisa and I don’t care if that’s all I ever do.”
John the Baptist could have written that. He’s willing to be the frame that few people remember, so that people can see Jesus. And in his life is a message for all of us.
We live in a world consumed with a lust for fame. We have “Reality TV” shows that turn regular people (not really that regular, actually) into celebrities. Almost everyone has a camera phone and can immediately upload any moment of their life so their “followers” can see and immediately comment on what they are doing or eating. People on YouTube are all looking for how they can become the next viral sensation by doing something funny or dangerous. We have dozens of magazines dedicated to following celebrities – what they wear, where they vacation, what their family is doing, who they are dating. We are a society of fame junkies willing to do almost anything – even lewd, offensive or idiotic things – trading pieces of their soul so they can get the attention of strangers for only moments. And when the fame starts to slip, they do even more lewd, even more offensive, more damaging and more idiotic things to keep it.
But living to pursue fame – wanting to be the Mona Lisa so much that you won’t accept being the frame – destroys people. It destroys relationships and lives.
Yes, You Have a Pride Problem Too
Some might be tuning out thinking that you don’t have “a desire to be famous”, but we all struggle with the root problem – which is pride.
- There are some who have a messiah complex, wanting to help and fix everyone and everything around you, feeling guilty when you can’t help – and that’s a pride problem because your trying to do Jesus’ job.
- Some want to be known as the completely self-reliant, able to stand on your own, even able to dole out your riches to the less fortunate –you are the one who feeds people, you sustain the world by your own power and might – and that’s a pride problem because you’re trying to be God.
- Some want to be the Creator, the one who is so clever and smart and wonderful and creative. You want them to come to have your cooking, your art, your writing, your poetry, your garden, your lawn. You want people to look to you to as the fount beauty and joy. You want to be Jesus.
- Some want to be the final authority. You want to have control, know everything that’s going on, have a say on everything that happens, and it all must run through you. And when someone doesn’t ask what you want you get mad because you’re not getting your say. God help anyone who would disagree with you. You want authority over people, telling them what is best – and that’s Jesus’ job.
- Some want to be worshipped and adored, so you perform, and dress up, and put on your signature scent, place yourself at the centre of attention. You want what belongs to Jesus alone.
- Some want to be the fount of all wisdom and knowledge, above all in their intelligence and opinion. You know you’re smarter, more educated and wiser than anyone else, and so everyone should come to you with their questions. In other words, you want to be prayed to, and you want to answer those prayers with your own mind. You want to be Jesus.
And every one of those things are ways that we live life trying to be the Mona Lisa and not the frame. And we can learn a lot about that from John the Baptist about how important it is that we learn to accept life as the frame.
A Life Set Apart
John had known his role since birth. His father Zechariah had been told by an angel, while standing in the temple of God, that John would be set aside for a great work. The angel said,
“And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” (Luke 1:14-17)
For his entire life, by God’s decree, John was to be limited. From birth there would be things that he wasn’t allowed to do. His life would be different, and the way he lived it would reflect that. He wouldn’t be allowed to do the things that others could do. He wouldn’t live the way others lived. He would be powerfully used by God, filled with the Holy Spirit, great in word and deed, but only when he submitted himself to God. He committed himself to never drinking wine, and as an adult, went even further to committing himself to living as an Essene – a Jewish sect with strict rules about living simply and following God wholeheartedly. They lived in the deserts, made oaths of loyalty to God and one another, to hate wickedness and love truth, obey the elders, be honest with each other and be fiercely loyal to the exact words of scriptures. A new follower wasn’t even allowed to eat until he took the oaths.
They would sell what they had and give it to a common storehouse, spend their days working and studying the scriptures and other important books, and most didn’t have a family. If you broke with the laws, you were expelled from the group which usually meant you would starve to death in the desert.
John chose to live with this group not because he was an extremist or a fanatic, but so that he could concentrate on God and the mission God gave him. He gave up everything for the sake of the call.
Submitting To the Word of God
And it wasn’t just in His life that John the Baptist submitted himself to God. He also limited his message to only speaking what God wanted him to say. When he confronted Herod, it wasn’t by his own words, but by the words of God. He was a powerful, influential preacher, with a strong message, but the message wasn’t his – it was given to him.
He placed himself under the Word of God, and that gave him the strength and conviction to proclaim such a hard message to so many different groups. He knew the words of scripture, and knew God’s requirements of His people. And therefore, not in his own voice, and not by his own wisdom, and not in his own anger, but with God’s, he stood before the Pharisees and Sadducees – the religious elite of his day – and call them a “brood of vipers” who needed to repent of their sin. He stood before the crowds and commanded them to give up their comfort to care for one another. He stood before the powerful tax collectors and commanded them to be honest in their work. He stood before armed Roman Soldiers and told them not to steal and lie, and to be content with their wages. Knowing his message was not his own, but was from God, was why he could stand before King Herod and say, “You were married to one woman, lusted after another man’s wife, divorced your own, and took his. That’s sin and you need to repent!”
They weren’t his words, but were the words of God. Not because he was a prophet, but simply because he had studied the scriptures and was willing to open his mouth against sin.
We are sorely lacking in both those categories today. We lack people who understand the scriptures well enough to actually know what they say, and we lack people with the courage and conviction to actually stand up and tell people what it says. We care too much for our own opinions and our own comfort. We worry too much about what people will think, and not enough about what God thinks. And so many believers, and many churches, are quiet, weak, afraid and defeated.
Let’s talk application. There are of similarities between how John the Baptist lived, and how we are meant to live. We talked about this last week, so I’m not going to rehash it, but let’s remember that we too have a high calling and are meant to live differently.
Listen to what Peter writes to the church in 1 Peter 2:9-12:
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”
He uses very specific language to describe who Christians are and how Christians should live. We are “chosen”, “royal”, and “holy”. That means we are like John the Baptist — set apart, different than the world. God picked us, you and me, to be His own people – a special group of His own choosing. Just like John the Baptist, before we were born, we were set apart to be His. (Rom 8:29)
The Apostle Peter then tells us why we have been set apart – “that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you”. Same mission, same message, as John the Baptist. Not our words, His words. Our mission isn’t to promote ourselves and share our message, but to promote Jesus and share His message. We are not to “proclaim the excellencies” of our way of life, our church, or even our faith – but to proclaim the glory and excellencies of God.
- We are the medium, He is the message.
- We’re the envelope, He’s the letter.
- We’re the radio, He’s the signal.
- We’re the web-browser, He’s the internet.
- We’re the frame, He’s the Mona Lisa.
If people are seeing only us, then we’re not doing it right.
This hits home to me as I watch more and more ministry and secular leaders flame out around us. We all know about the people who are disqualifying themselves though sexual sin by having affairs, getting caught with porn, or doing foolish things like taking digital-pictures of themselves in compromising positions and hoping it never gets seen. And we know about the ones who are disqualifying themselves because of their love for money and they get caught with their hands in the cookie jar. We’re seeing that in industry, government and in the church. But one sin that seems to fly under the radar, and is just as disqualifying as money or sex for the Christian minister….
Some of you know who Mark Driscoll is and others of you don’t. He is mega-church pastor from Seattle Washington who has had a very dramatic effect on my life. I’ve been listening to his sermons for my entire career, subscribe to his blog, follow him on facebook, listen to his conferences, have bought almost all his books, and listen to his podcasts. I’ve jokingly called him my “patron saint” because of the effect he’s had on my life and ministry.
He’s known for his strong, straightforward, biblical leadership and preaching style. He’s edgy, media savvy, incredibly intelligent, has a near-photographic memory and can recall large portions of books and scripture at will, is evangelistically minded, biblically driven, and totally sold out to Jesus. A sermon that would take me 20 hours to prepare only takes him 2 hours.
But in the past 2 months, I’ve watched as Driscoll’s ministry has latterly fallen apart in front of him and the rest of the world. He and his church were rebuked and then removed from the church network that he started. He had to cancel the conference he started. His books have been pulled from shelves. He’s been accused and brought up on official charges by dozens of pastors that he’s worked with in the past, and who currently work for him. And just in the past week, he’s been asked to step down as pastor of the church for an indefinite period of time.
Now, I’m not going to stand up here and claim that I know what’s going on in a church 4500 kilometers away. I only know the details that I’ve seen in the news and from statements released by Driscoll and the church. But what seems very clear is that his fall didn’t come because of sexual or financial sin, but because of pride.
The accusations that have been leveled at Driscoll are all about him getting too big in his own mind and then harming those around who challenged him.. I have no doubt that he places himself under the authority of Jesus, but what caused such huge controversy and destruction in his ministry, is his huge ego. He wasn’t held accountable enough by the people around him, his pride inflated, and he started to believe he was the whole show. He lashed out verbally against his elders, fellow pastors, and other people online. He used his amazing intellect and speaking ability to crush the spirits of people around him with insults. He plagiarized people’s work calling it his own, misappropriated church funds, and consolidated power so he couldn’t be questioned. His conduct has been called “ungodly and disqualifying” and “spiritually abusive” – but it wasn’t sex or money that got him – it was his prideful character. (Sources: 1 2 3 4)
Over and over and over God says in scripture that “pride goes before destruction.” (Prov 16:8; 16:5; Jeremiah 20:23; James 4:6). On the list in proverbs of things that God hates, number one is “haughty [prideful] eyes.” (Prov 16:16) And right now, because of his unchecked pride, Driscoll is sitting at home, his church in agony, his ministry crumbling, the people around him broken hearted, and his church, his followers, and people like me are bewildered and depressed.
Yes, I Have a Pride Problem Too
And this hits me extra hard because pride is a daily struggle for me too. I fear that one day I too will be disqualified – not because I’m going to cheat on my wife or steal from the offering plate, but because of my character. That list I gave you of ways that you can be prideful are all problems for me. I struggle with all of those.
I fight against accountability too much. I spend too much time thinking about what others think of me. I am drawn to puff myself up through social media. I like it far too much when people “like” and “share” the things that I post online. I think too much about who will hear me, how far my voice will carry, how cool and creative I’m being, and not nearly enough about what God thinks of what I’m saying and doing. I spend way too much time thinking about success and not even close to enough time considering whether I am being obedient in the moment.
And, if left unchecked, if left unaccountable, if not brought under the Lordship of Jesus, if not held accountable by the elders, the church and my wife, and without God’s daily provision of grace, humility and self-control, I will one day lose my ministry. I will lose my voice. I will lose my testimony. I will be like so many of the kings in the bible who start out ok, but don’t finish well. I know that. And it scares me all the time.
But it’s not just ministers that run this risk, is it? It’s everybody. You’ve heard it before – “Character is king.” This is a mistake we all make – to care too much about what we are like on the outside, and not enough about who we are on the inside. This isn’t a new message, but it is an important one – character is king and pride kills our character.
He Must Increase But I Must Decrease
At one point John’s disciples came to him concerned that Jesus was making more disciples and baptizing more people than he was. This is when many people would panic. John’s ministry was shrinking! Someone else was getting the glory! John’s fame was decreasing! There’s a new guy down the street and everyone’s going to Him! John, John, what are we going to do? You’ll be out of a job!
“And they came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.’ John answered, ‘A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.’” (John 3:26-30)
If there is one line that summarizes the life and ministry of John the Baptist, that’s it: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” And it was the reason that he was so mightily used. That’s why he could live simply and stay committed to God’s will.
He lived to bring glory to the Son of God. “He must increase, but I must decrease.” He was sent to “prepare the way” for Jesus, and He lived that way. He knew he wasn’t the main show – he was the opening act. He wasn’t the movie he was the trailer. He wasn’t the meal, he was the appetizer.
The Gospels all introduce John as the forerunner, the one who “prepared the way”. He is there to gather a crowd, get them warmed up, introduce Jesus, kick off His full-time ministry, pass along some of His followers, and then get out of the way. His job wasn’t to be on stage – it was to prepare the stage for someone else. That’s what we’re here for too.
And when people started to think he was the Christ, he made absolutely sure they knew he wasn’t. In Luke 3:15-16 it says,
“As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, ‘I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.'”
When people started to admire him for being such a great frame, he always pointed them back to the picture. “Don’t look at me – look at Him! If you’re looking at me, you’re going to miss everything!”
Imagine flying a friend to Paris, getting a cab to the Louvre, standing in line, fighting the huge crowd to get to front, finally getting to the viewing spot, and only being allowed your 15 second glance before you are shuffled off so others can see. – And then you go outside for some fresh air and ask your friend, “So, what did you think of the Mona Lisa?”. How hard would you smack them if their answer was, “Oh, I have no idea! I didn’t even see it. I was too busy looking at the pretty frame around it.”?
Now let’s get even more ridiculous. Imagine taking your friend, flying to Paris, getting your cab to the Louvre, fighting the crowd and getting to the front only to find that the curator has decided to take down the Mona Lisa and leave the frame. Would you be upset? Of course you would! No one comes to see the frame!
And here’s the unpopular message that you need to be told: Your life will be better if you realize that you are the frame and Jesus is the picture. If you get that confused, and try to live to be the Mona Lisa, you are going to be miserable.
There are too many people living today who refuse to be the frame – they want the glory that only God deserves. They want to be the Saviour, they want to be the Word, they want to be the Creator, they want to be the final authority, they want to be worshipped, they want to be the one that sustains the world with their own might, they want to be the fount of knowledge. They want to be Jesus. But living and trying to be Jesus is not only a miserable way to live – it’s foolish! You’ll never outshine God. He will always be the greatest! One day, the scriptures promise that every knee will bow – yours included! And worse, it’s demonic. It’s pride! It’s the path to destruction!
If you ever feel indispensable, remember John the Baptist. Our lives will be infinitely better if we figure out that it’s not about me, or you, or our church, or our plans – it’s about Jesus. We exist to follow Him, worship Him, obey Him, serve Him, and bring glory to Him. He’s the only one worthy of it. I’m not, you’re not, no one is.
And if that bugs you, then you have a pride problem. If it bugs you that you’re not the centre, you’re not getting your way, you’re not getting what you want, you’re not who everyone turns to, you’re not in charge, you’re not the focus – then you’ve got a pride problem – and it’s going to lead to your destruction.
In John 1:19-23 it says,
“…when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, “I am not.’ ‘Are you the Prophet?’ And he answered, ‘No.’ So they said to him, ‘Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.’”
That’s our answer too. John was content with his role. “No, don’t think I’m something special – I’m not Elijah. No, I’m not the Messiah. I’m not some great prophet. You know what I am? I’m just a voice yelling a message – Jesus is coming. That’s what I am. Don’t concentrate on me, you should be worried about Jesus.”
That’s what our lives should say too, in everything we do – whether that’s at work, or at home, at school, playing with our kids or grandkids, it should all point to Jesus. That’s why Paul can say in Colossians 3:7,
“And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”