Summary: Churches easily get struck in a rut and decline. John the Baptist serves as a model for vital ministry: focus on Jesus above all else.
Last week we started looking at the ministry of John the Baptist. He was a prophet. He cared for the spiritual health of his nation with all of his heart. He saw clearly what needed to be done and he spoke out what people needed to hear, boldly, without any sugar coating. His boldness was what impressed me in last week’s text.
This week we see another beautiful characteristic of John.
Out of an entire orchestra, do you know what position is the hardest? First violin? Oboe? Bassoon? Solo trumpet? They are all difficult to play really well. But somebody has said the hardest instrument to play is second fiddle.
Everybody wants to play first fiddle, to be in control, to be noticed. But right in the middle of having great ‘success’ as a preaching prophet, at the peak of his ministry, John the Baptist stepped back and said, “Somebody else is coming who is greater than I am, Pay attention to him, not me. He must increase. I must decrease. From now on, I’m going to be second fiddle. It’s not about you and me. It’s all about Jesus.
And it wasn’t that John had a low self-image or self-confidence problems. We saw last week, he was an incredibly strong person and incredibly bold. I believe that he could be so bold and so confident with the crowds precisely because he had his priorities clear. Jesus first, everything else is second.
Our sermon text is written out for you in the bulletin. Would you read it with me?
“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.'” Luke 3:15-17
John pointed the crowds to Jesus. And that is an example for the family of God in all times and in all places.
It’s especially important for folks like us who are members of established churches. On one of the bulletin inserts you’ll find the study notes for today’s sermon. I hope you’ll use them every week, but today especially, look at the diagram on the front of the insert.
Do you see the bell graph, the line that’s shaped like the outline of a bell, or maybe the hairline of a woman with straight, long hair? That line charts the life cycle of many institutions. As the line moves from left to right it measures the progress of time. As it moves up and down it measures the size of the institution.
You start out at the lower left, point A, and the birth of the institution, the beginning of its time. Its size is very small. But what it has is a clear vision, an exciting vision. It may be Steve Jobs and Wozniak in a garage with a vision for building computers. It could be two new Christians who want to share their experience of Christ with others. They are small, but the fire of their vision inspires high creativity and excitement. They don’t need much organization at all because they have their vision. They know where they are going. People are eager to join in. So it grows and moves up to point B
At point “B” the growth requires that policies and structures be developed to hold it all together and help the new people fit in. Have you ever been in a place with a lot of excitement and vision and no organization? It starts to drive you crazy. So to progress they get organized. This makes the vision very productive. New ideas spread the vision in new directions. So it moves to point C.
At point “C” the organization peaks in size with very efficient structures and many different applications of the original vision. A corporation opens new product lines and expands into new markets. A church finds all sorts of good works to do. But as energy is dispersed in many different directions, the core vision becomes less clear. So it moves to point D.
At point “D” the original vision is diffused and fading. The structures begin to carry the institution by themselves. Creativity suffers. People forget why they are here. They focus is now on just keeping the institution going. And that’s not very exciting. Nobody wants to join anymore. Less and less is accomplished.
And, if the institution is not able to find a new vision, it comes to point “E”. More structures are formed to try to keep people on track. The ability to respond to new opportunities and challenges is lost because the structures are blind to anything besides self-perpetuation. Unless the vision is revitalized, the institution dies.