John the Baptist was a man crying out in the desert, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight” (Luke 2:3). John must have been captivating to see and hear. Crowds of people trekked far into the desert to see this weird guy who dressed funny and spoke like no one else!
Jesus Himself said of John, “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11). John was used by God in great ways – calling the Israelites back to their Lord, leading people to repentance, baptizing them for the forgiveness of their sins (Mark 1:4), and most importantly, pointing people to the Greater One to follow him.
Of all the things that John said and did, the message that especially stands out to me is that of John 3:30: “He must become greater, I must become less.”
We understand why John said such a thing. His purpose was to make way for Jesus, to prepare people’s hearts for their coming Savior. The crowds that had been clamoring to hear John would soon be doing the same with Jesus. Jesus would shortly be healing and teaching and acting like no one else. John would shortly be banished to a Herodian dungeon and beheaded.
John lost his life because he wasn’t afraid to speak the truth. King Herod Antipas had divorced his wife to marry his brother’s wife, Herodias. Herodias, in turn, divorced Philip, Herod Antipas’ brother. Just to make things even creepier, Herodias was both Herod Antipas’ and Philip’s niece!
John not only preached a message of repentance to the multitudes but to the high and mighty. He wasn’t afraid to speak directly against Herod and Herodias and their adulterous relationship. Surprisingly, Herod was actually interested in listening to John. Herodias, though, wanted John dead. And she got what she wanted. Happy wife, happy life, right? (See Mark 6:14-29.)
John certainly became “less” – not only by stepping aside to make way for Jesus’ ministry, but then languishing in prison until being executed for Herodias’ satisfaction. His words in John 3:30 were clearly fulfilled as his life unfolded.
What might John’s words have to do with us?
Christ must become greater, I must become less.
He must increase in your heart and life, your self-interest must decrease.
John’s words really pop out at me as I think about our culture and life today. We pad our resumes, embellish our accomplishments, craft our personas (both online and in person), and do many similar things to make ourselves appear greater. Our culture further encourages us to do things like these. From Hollywood to the halls of our schools, “me, myself, and I” take center stage.
But is this anything new? A classic definition of human sin is incurvatus in se, curving in on ourselves and away from the Lord and others. Herod and Herodias would fit that definition. You and me, too. We curve in on ourselves in thought, word, and deed. We approach life with a “What’s in it for me?” attitude. We treat relationships as opportunities to get something from others, rather than opportunities to serve and bless them.
One response to this me-centered culture might be to think poorly of ourselves. I’m not as good as _________. I can’t do anything right. I’m worthless.
While it’s true that we have plenty of problems, problems rooted in our sin and the sins that have been committed against us, you and I are not worthless in our Father’s eyes. Instead, God loved the world – and everyone in it! – so that He gave His only Son for you! Despite our manifold sins against Him, our neighbors, and even ourselves, God does not want us to perish but to enjoy eternal life with Him! (John 3:16)
God cares so much about you that He gave everything for you – He gave the perfect gift of His only Son!
So instead of thinking poorly of ourselves, how should we respond to this “me-centered” world?
C.S. Lewis writes about a humble response in his chapter on “The Great Sin” in Mere Christianity:
“Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.
If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realise that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.”
Rick Warren is known for “quoting” C.S. Lewis as saying, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself. It is thinking of yourself less.” While this is actually Warren’s paraphrase rather than Lewis’s own words, I think it’s helpful nonetheless. Humility isn’t labeling yourself a “nobody” or a “failure”. Instead, humility develops as the Lord lifts our hearts and eyes away from ourselves and onto Him and our neighbor.
In Jesus’ eyes, John the baptizer was the greatest man alive! But the “secret” of John’s greatness wasn’t what he said or did. John simply pointed to the greatness of our God. He allowed his disciples to leave him to follow the Lamb of God, who takes away our sin (John 1:35-37). John’s sense of joy was not tied to the masses who came out to see him and be baptized. Instead, he took joy in knowing that his cousin and friend, “the bridegroom”, had arrived (John 3:29). John recognized that the time had come for people to hear Jesus’ voice, rather than his. His calling to introduce the populace to Jesus was concluding. John knew this and even welcomed this.
When John said, “I must decrease”, he was not thinking less of himself. He was thinking of Jesus.
I’ll close with these words which are drawn from St. Patrick’s breastplate, an ancient Irish blessing written in memory of St. Patrick. The words of this blessing are not about you or me, but are 100% about Christ!
I rise today
with the power of Christ’s birth and baptism,
with the power of His crucifixion and burial,
with the power of His resurrection and ascension,
with the power of His return for the final judgment …
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ below me, Christ above me,
Christ to the right of me, Christ to the left of me,
Christ where I lie, Christ where I sit, Christ where I stand,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye which sees me,
Christ in every ear which hears me …
Christ Jesus, You must increase and I must decrease. Forgive me for my self-centeredness. Root out my pride. Fill my thoughts, words and deeds with YOU and Your love. Amen.