John the Baptist
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.”