Luke 3:7-18 One greater than me.
For the past few months, I have been training our dog, Sox, a purebred boarder Collie, to round up and herd sheep. I have been going out to a place on the Dunnedoo Rd, where a guy by the name of Toby trains dogs for sheep trials. With a few tips and a short demonstration, Sox and I were let lose on the sheep! We actually went quite well…surprisingly. Sox went around and around the sheep, herding them in. Each time Sox and I went out to Toby’s place, Sox got a little better at responding to my commands and rounding up sheep, and I was getting better at being the ‘boss’. In fact, just the other day, when Sox had obeyed every command well, I though to myself… now I’m great, no one could do better.
Well, Sox must have sensed what I was thinking and the next time we went out, she refused to listen to any of my commands, no matter how much I shouted them. After a short time of frustration, from the in the corner of my eye, I saw Toby coming towards me. Sox didn’t she was to busy running amuck. Toby stood next to me, and in a commanding stature and with a pointing glare in his eye, he commanded with a load voice ‘stop, that’ll do! Sox froze. She had just heard the voice of the ‘real’ boss, and I just realized someone greater then me, someone more powerful than me, had come to save the day. I had a misunderstanding about who was the greatest!
John the Baptist was a great man of God. He spoke with authority, with insistence and determination in his words. He was preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin. So great was John that many of the people of Israel came out to hear him and hoped that he may have even been the messiah, Luke records ‘The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ.’
What is greatness to you? What makes someone great? What about a great man or woman of God, what faith or actions might make them great…who comes to mind? Have you ever wondered about yourself, what makes you a great person before God? We often hear of great people doing great things for God. And there are times in our life of discipleship when we are convinced we are doing great.
In the book ‘Faith Like Potatoes’, the author told how he would hand his crop over to the Lord and say ‘Here it is, Lord. Your crop of maize’. And when it was nearly dead from lack of opening rain, he prayed ‘Lord, your crop is dying’, and sure enough, God brought rain to grow the crop. Perhaps a great person before God is someone who has committed their whole life to prayer and giving everything to God for his work, as the potato man. Your prayer life…how great are you?
Being great before God may be seen by us as a verb, an action word, an imperative, as Jesus himself urges ‘For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.’ Perhaps greatness before God is measured by religious commitment; how passionately we say the Creed, how neatly we dress, whether we sing with gusto the latest Christian songs or by the number of church events we turn up to. Look at the greatness of the Pharisees, as Jesus mentioned. They went to every religious event. They knew the scriptures well and adhered to every command of God and kept every day holy, not just the Sabbath. Is that what makes a great Christian? How great are you at being religious…greater than the Pharisees?
Luke records John’s harsh words to the religious and sanctimonious of his time, when they came to him to be baptized, something you’d think would have pleased John, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.’ John was great enough to know that these outwardly religious people were coming to be baptized by him, not because they were repentant and intended to turn from sin, but because they thought their outward action of being baptised would make them great before God, like every other religious act they had fulfilled. They believed to be great before God, or to be righteous, was within their human power; God had set out the ‘way’, be baptized, you just had to tick the boxes.
The error of active righteousness or active greatness before God is riddled throughout the church, just as it was among the Jews in John’s day. Luther called this active greatness before God a theology of glory. It is glorious to us because, like me with training Sox, we mistakenly take ourselves to be the boss. Its glorious because we don’t have to admit sin and daily repent. Its glorious because we are the ones who choose to follow Jesus. Our decision for Christ and our choice to be baptized is what makes us great before God. A self-made greatness, that leaves us uncertain about our personal salvation in times of temptation, despair or doubt.
John was not a prophet of glory. John was a herald and prophet of the cross and of death and new birth. He was only a voice in the desert saying, ‘I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.’ He didn’t promote himself, he promoted the coming Christ as the more powerful one because he is the ‘righteousness of God’; he is the one who will make all humanity, you…me…great before God by his greatness alone, through a baptism of the Holy Spirit and of fire.
John’s baptism cleansed with water, Jesus’ baptism cleanses with the Holy Spirit and fire. For you and for me, for everyone, Jesus was born in a stable as a baby, born to be one with humanity and was baptized in the Jordan with the water and the Spirit. Then he was sent to the cross to die, the baptism of fire, cleansing us of the wrath and judgment of God our Father. A baptism of fire that cleansed and dissipated the Father’s anger over our sin, clearly heard in Jesus words ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me.’ And he raised Jesus to life to live forever as the Son of God who, through baptism, the Holy Spirit and fire, brings many sons to glory.
Baptism, Spirit and the fire of the cross is what makes us great before God. A greatness before God that is given to us by one more powerful than us; a greatness that is received by faith. A greatness that is in God’s hands which leaves us in no doubt about our righteousness before God; in no doubt about our salvation, as Jesus himself said ‘who ever believes and is baptized will be saved.’ And it is precisely in baptism, as John foretold, that we are infused with Jesus, our life becomes his, as St Paul says ‘It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.’
Robert Kolb, a Lutheran pastor and theologian wrote ‘At the cross God meets his human creatures where they are, in the shadow of death…only at the foot of the cross can true human identity be discovered. There, realising whose I am, I realise who I am.’
A great Christian is known by all three witnesses; baptism, Holy Spirit and fire. All three bearing witness to your salvation. Yes, even the fire. The fire of the cross in our life; the fire of suffering and persecution for Christ’s sake; the fire of our own death to self and death to sin, as we daily repent and seek God’s forgiveness and new life in Christ, as St Paul said in Romans 6:11 ‘count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.’
So praise be to God, each one of us can boast in the certainty that we are great Christians before God. All of us have received the three great witnesses, but our boasting is not about ourselves, but about Jesus, the one who is greater, as Stuart Townend writes in ‘How Deep the Father’s Love’; ‘I will not boast in anything: no gifts, no power, no wisdom. But I will boast in Jesus Christ: his death and resurrection.’