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A Sermon from Sherborne
The Supremacy of Jesus
The Testimony of John the Baptist a sermon for Evensong at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 1 September 2019 by the Reverend Hugh Bonsey, Associate Priest
‘He must increase, but I must decrease’.
This is the extraordinary and yet wonderful acclamation made by John the Baptist in the Fourth Gospel. These are the last words that the Baptist says in the Gospel. After this, John the Baptist is arrested and imprisoned. His life ends abruptly by being beheaded at the hands of Herod. The once powerful, dramatic ‘voice’ who cries in the wilderness ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’ directs his followers to another voice – the voice of a Shepherd. The first voice will decrease in importance and will soon be silenced for ever. The second voice will increase in stature and importance, and the disciples of this second voice – the voice of the Shepherd – will ‘turn the world upside down’.
This evening’s Second Lesson is an account of the process and reasoning behind this crucial development in the history of the Christian Church. The passage begins with a discussion about purification, presumably about the effectiveness of the baptisms authorized by Jesus and John the Baptist. The important issue for us to consider, is that Jesus could well have been a disciple of John the Baptist before launching into his own ministry. If this is the case, then the success of Jesus breaking away would be influenced enormously by the attitude and actions of John.
In the passage this evening, we can see the process of change taking place, from the perspective of the Fourth Gospel. Earlier in the Gospel, in Chapter 1, (John 1.19-28), John the Baptist is questioned by the priests and Levites from Jerusalem, who ask him to state his identity. John says, ‘I am not the Christ’. The authorities press him further: is he Elijah or one of the prophets? John answers, ‘No.’ Then John proclaims that he a voice who is proclaiming, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’ John goes further and insists that there is one who is coming ‘the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie’. In other words, in his view, John is not worthy even to be a slave of Jesus. Questions have been raised by scholars as to why our passage this evening even exists. Many of the points raised in Chapter 1 are being repeated in Chapter 3. One influential biblical scholar thinks that the second passage here is a ‘doublet’, or ‘second version of a narrative’.
The subject of the rival baptisers and the question of purification gives way to the major focus of John’s proclamation. John introduces the theological claim that everything we humans receive will always come from heaven. John refers to Jesus as ‘the one who comes from heaven’ and who is ‘above all’. Echoing the Prologue of the Gospel, where Jesus as the divine ‘Word’ of God entered the life of humanity, yet ‘the world knew him not’ (John 1.10), John states that the testimony which he has given will not be received by his hearers either. Again, following the Prologue, those who do receive the Word will become ‘children of God’ (John 1.12). In this passage: ‘Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life.’ (John 3.36).
There are two wonderful themes running through this rarely heard passage of Scripture which I commend to you.
The first theme is the sheer sense of joy that the Baptist reports when he turns people’s attention to Jesus, whom he describes as the ‘bridegroom’. He exclaims,
He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. (John 3.29).
John realises that Jesus is the Chosen One, the one sent from heaven. It is Jesus who ‘gives the Spirit without measure’, who is loved by the Father. It is in the person of Jesus, that belief in him, as the one sent from the Father, will result in the gift of eternal life. Here is the joy and fulfilment which John the Baptist is experiencing and proclaiming.
The second theme is dominated by the phrase, ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’ (John 3.30). This is where the crucial change of importance must occur. John the Baptist’s following was very great. If he had continued his ministry (avoiding the political dangers of criticising Herod) he may well have eclipsed Jesus, whose ministry would have diminished and disappeared. So the necessity for Jesus to increase in stature and importance is balanced by the necessity for John to decrease. I am always impressed by the humility of John! He certainly cuts an impressive figure, boldly appearing out of the Judean desert, proclaiming the coming of the Messiah! No wonder he had such a large and loyal following! But when questioned by the religious authorities he spoke the truth, and thereby relegated himself to the sidelines. He spoke the truth about Herod and his marriage to Herodias, and so underwent the ultimate sacrifice.
This wonderful and selfless intent of John the Baptist, wishing to decrease so that his cousin Jesus could increase, is portrayed splendidly in the positioning of their special days in the Church’s Year. The Church has always been adept in placing major feast days at particular places within its Calendar. For me, the increase of Jesus and the decrease of John are nowhere more emphasised than in the dates of Christmas and the day commemorating the Birth of John the Baptist.
We have no way of knowing when Jesus was born, so the Church had the whole year in which to choose a date for his birthday. It chose the old date of the Winter Solstice, which 2000 years ago fell around 25th December when the Roman pagan feast of Saturnalia was held. This decision had two consequences. Firstly, it enabled the Church of overlay the pagan feasting and merriment with its own agenda of celebrating the Birth of Christ, with all the joy and wonder that the feast produced. Secondly, the claim that Jesus was the light of the world, and would increase in importance and stature, was mirrored by the increase of light in the ever lengthening days following the feast.
By contrast, the Birth of John the Baptist was celebrated at around the time of the Summer Solstice, after which the days would shorten and the light would diminish. Of course, we are well aware of such shortening days right now as we experience the ‘drawing in’ of the evenings, and, with the Summer seemingly behind us, many people are looking to the Autumn and the Season of Christmas. The commercial world is already in full swing! In the Abbey our Christmas Carol Service dates are being finalised in fine detail!
So, we have a permanent annual reminder of John’s phrase, ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’ There is a challenge here for ourselves, is there not? What about our own stance in this question about the identity and importance of Jesus? Are there elements in our own lives where we should follow the example of the Baptist and decrease in our lifestyles or sense of self-importance? Should we be people who recognise that in Christ is the source of our redemption, and the possibility and reality of eternal life? If so, should we be people to point the way to Christ, who is the way, the truth and the life? To do so can be very costly, because it can fight against all our natural desires of selfishness and self-fulfilment. Yet, if the follow John the Baptist, and enable Jesus to be Lord of our lives and Lord of all Creation, then the loving purposes of God will be fulfilled, and we will be, truly, citizens of heaven.