Sermon by Rev. Brian Combs

The season of Christmas concludes, not by packing up the ornaments or undecking the halls or dragging the tree out to the curb, but rather by showing up at the river.  At the Jordan, John the Baptizer is encircled by aristocrats who skipped their tee times in Jerusalem, Galilean farmers who left their plows in the field, Bedouin travelers, in such a hurry, they forgot to tie up their camels. People, fifty rows deep, have come to the wilderness in haste to hear a fiery word of truth and to have the filth of their lives washed away.

Here on his last day of ministry before being arrested by Herod, John is at the height of his influence.  He’s the one with ministry experience, the cadre of disciples, and the whispers that he may be God.  Jesus, on his first day of ministry, doesn’t even have a business card to hand out. He’s nothing more than the son of a carpenter from nowhere Nazareth, an impressionable novice trying to figure out how to be the Christ.

In today’s text, with one radical’s mission ending and another rabbi’s beginning, what does John teach Jesus about the practice of ministry?

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Congregational Responses:
If you speak God’s word, people will show up to listen.
If it is ministry, then the Holy Spirit will show up to bless it.
We are already beloved to God before we’ve done anything.

During the Cold War, a Methodist clergyman, according to denominational lore, served faithfully behind the Iron Curtain.  Because of his decades-long ministry among the suffering citizens of Eastern Europe, he was nominated for a prestigious award.  Arriving in Paris for the reception, he was startled at the opulence of the venue.  Inside, the media was gathered with note pad and camera ready, dignitaries were in full regalia, his picture was plastered on the bulletins, and there was a huge engraved plaque with his name on it waiting beneath the spotlight.  After the bishops introduced him and the crowd offered a standing ovation, he stepped to the microphone and said, “In this moment, I feel like the donkey on Palm Sunday.  People are lining the streets shouting ‘Hosanna,’ palm branches are being waved excitedly, even coats are being laid down in front of me.  This huge parade, this grand celebration, the cheering masses, it must all be for me!”

John could have easily gotten seduced and made it all about him.  There in the wilderness, the paparazzi kept angling for the perfect shot to make him the next magazine cover boy, the agents were trying to sign him to an exclusive book deal, the producers were in a bidding war for the movie rights to his autobiography.  And he could have leveraged his fame, traded in his animal skins for a silk suit, and his swapped his bark of insects for a buffet of fine dining.  But he didn’t.

Pointing past himself, embracing the full limitations of his humanity, and genuflecting at the feet of another, John disavows the ministry of me.  In doing so, he teaches Jesus that- even if you’re the Son of God, can walk on water, and multiply the loaves- the real work of God is reserved for the humble.

While chasing followers and likes, and pushing a personal brand is often the temptation of pride, humility is the Christian virtue that leads us back to the water’s edge where baptism decentralizes our egos, washes away our contrived electronic profiles, and leaves naked and clean to our essential selves.  A priesthood of believers that God has already called and claimed as beloved.