“John came baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins. John wore a camel-hair garment with a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Several years ago I had the chance to participate in a weekend seminar with Pastor Mike Bonem. He is the author of the book, Leading from the Second Chair. Mike was then the executive pastor at Second Baptist Church in Houston, TX, one of the largest churches in the country. As the title of the book suggests, Mike’s message that weekend was about how to still be a leader when you aren’t the head honcho. Considering the state of our culture then and now, I struggle to imagine a more countercultural message than the one he was preaching. Nobody aspires to be the runner up. Nobody plans on making it almost to the top, but stopping just short of that. And yet, the very first person we are introduced to in the Gospel of Mark did exactly that, and Jesus called him the greatest man alive. Let’s talk about John the Baptist this morning.
It would have been hard to be John. His whole life he would have carried the weight of being the child of promise. His parents Zechariah and Elizabeth would have told the story of his birth announcement by the angel Gabriel over and over again to anyone who was willing to listen. People would have asked them to tell it repeatedly. In a day before anything like the modern means of entertainment available to us now, stories like this one would have been a staple of quiet evenings spent sitting around a fire with friends.
The trouble with John as far as we are concerned, is that he seems to have occupied an enormous place in the culture of his day, but we know almost nothing about him. I mean, sure, there are several references to him in the Gospels, but a lot of it is repetitive and we don’t learn all that much. We know about his birth, but then kind of like Jesus, he disappears from view until he comes wandering out of the wilderness near the Jordan River telling everyone who will listen to repent of their sins and be baptized as a sign of their repentance.
Then he gets arrested, sits in jail for a while, and is eventually executed there. Quite a life.
And yet, all of the Gospels highlight him and his ministry and all of them do so in a way so as to suggest that he was really significant. Just look at what Mark says about his ministry here. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were coming out to him to confess their sins and be baptized.
Think about that for minute. Keep thinking. Wait until it clicks. John had a ministry that captured the hearts of everyone. Everyone. Usually today if something catches the attention of folks in rural America, urban elites consider it to be beneath them. This goes double for religion. People in cities tend to think themselves entirely more cultured than the country rubes whose lifestyles they struggle to even imagine. And the reverse is true as well. When urbanites get all excited about something, rural folks tend to scoff with derision at the silly things people with so much money and time find to occupy their attention. The two groups are natural rivals and have always been so. Oh, sure, there is some traversing back and forth from one world to the next, but once you’re there, you join the local group and adopt all of their prejudices.
John got the attention of both groups and both groups responded to him in the same way. They agreed that there was something to this John guy and they all went out together to see him. The countryside and the city responded together.
Who has that kind of clout? Someone with more celebrity to them than you or I will ever manage to achieve.
John was a big deal in his day. A really big deal. No, I don’t think you understand yet. He was a REALLY big deal. Maybe it was his location. Perhaps it was his wild clothes and diet. It could have simply been the charisma of his message. There was no ministry bigger than John’s. Everyone looked to him as a prophet; as the first real prophet from God in 400 years. Even the priests and scribes and Pharisees were going out to him to participate in the season of repentance he had initiated among the people. People thought of him in terms of the prophet Elijah who the Scriptures said would prepare the way for the Messiah. The Messiah was coming. He was finally going to show up and overthrow their Roman oppressors and usher in a new golden age for the people of Israel.
But for all of John’s success and celebrity, we don’t ever see any indication that he bought into it. He only ever seemed to have one thing to say: I’m not the guy. I’m just getting you ready for him.
Yeah, but John, you sure seem like the guy. I mean, just look at the way the people are responding to you. If you were to make the subtle shift to say now that you have repented, I can reveal my real self to you, the people are all going to go with you. They believe in you. Just say the word and you could have it all.
“But there is another one coming,” John replies. “One who is more powerful than I am is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the strap of his sandals.” In other words: I’m not the guy. I’m just the warm up act. I’m in the second chair, and I’m not leaving there.
Could you say the same? Jesus is coming and you and I are supposed to be getting the world ready for Him. The church is the warm up act. Yet how easy is it for us to start to think we are the main show. We do it corporately sometimes. We do it individually even more. “Look at me,” we proclaim to the world. Pay attention to me! I’m over here! Look how great I am! Of course, we don’t say that out loud–what kind of fools do you take us to be? But where we seek glory for ourselves of any kind, that’s what we’re doing.
Yet there is one coming who is greater than us. How can we follow John in preparing the way for Him? How can we join him in saying, “I’m in the second chair, and I’m not leaving there”? It isn’t easy or natural to aspire to be the one nobody notices, but there is no higher calling than that. Because the King is coming. Let’s exult in the glory of the second chair, so that when the one who is greater than us arrives, we can be a part of the celebration. Trust me on this one: You’ll be glad you did.