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.

Of course it is possible to intervene and renew the vision. The institution doesn’t have to die. The church of Jesus Christ has been in business now for 2000 years. It has had a lot of ups and downs. Each generation has had to rediscover Jesus Christ for themselves and work out new ways of living the eternal gospel that suit their age. Things have had to change, some old structures are left behind and new structures are formed. But the core vision of Jesus Christ is dynamite. If we can keep that vision clear, we are here to be disciples of Jesus Christ, all will be well. But it is a constant battle to keep the vision clear.

Do you see us as a congregation somewhere on that line? Where do you think we are now? Are we at point A, B, C, D, or E? Write an “X” on the spot on the bell graph where you think we are today.

I’ll give you a hint. Church consultant, Herb Miller, recently reported that in the United States today, 85% of churches are either holding steady on a plateau or declining. Only 15% are growing. And I’m sure that most of those that are growing have been started in the last 10 years. And they are growing because their vision is still clear.

And this is the point where we need to go back to that ornery prophet out in the wilderness, John the Baptist and listen again to his message. He was so powerful because he had his vision so clear. He lived for one purpose and one purpose only, to point people to Jesus.

And why Jesus? In verse 16 of our sermon text for this morning, John gave three reasons why people needed to look at Jesus rather than himself. And if we have these three clear in our mind we will never have trouble with vision.

First, he said that Jesus was more powerful than John. That seems obvious. But do we really believe that? When someone is struggling, I find it so easy to talk to them about coming to worship or joining a class, things they would do with us. And I’m a deep believer in the church and the power of what happens when we fellowship and worship together. And for some minor neuroses being with nice people will do the trick.

But watch as we go through the gospel of Luke in coming months what power Jesus has. He had the power to turn really messed up people around. He had the power to heal the most wounded hearts. He had the power to set the hearts of his disciples on fire so that they turned the world upside down. If we want that power, we need to look at Jesus.

Second, John said that Christ is far more worthy than John was. Churches so easily get caught up with trying to impress the world with what good people we are. We can do community service so that people will see it and think we are nice and then the nice people will want to join us. We come to church on our best behavior so that everybody will think we are nice and worthy we are.

That sounds good, but it can be so destructive. Compared to Christ, our hearts are so unworthy. He sacrificed the comforts of home and family to serve the most broken people of his world, day after day. He risked the anger of the most powerful people in his world so that the truth of God could be heard. He went all the way to death on the cross, a horrible torture to take the punishment for our sins upon himself. Can any of us dare to compare ourselves to that?

I don’t know that people are going to see my life and be so impressed that they will turn their own lives around. But nobody can take a serious look at Jesus without being changed. Nobody can. And if you haven’t been changed you haven’t yet really looked.

The Apostle Paul was probably the greatest missionary of all time. He had his priorities as clear as John did. In his first letter to the church at Corinth, chapter he talked about how he first preached among them. He said, in 1 Corinthians 2:2 “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” This was a brilliant scholar and a man living an incredible lifestyle of service to others. But he determined to talk about nothing but Christ crucified.

When we focus on how beautiful Jesus is, wonderful things happen. It puts our eyes on the one model for humanity who will never let us down, who will never allow us to be complacent or feel we have arrived. And it takes the pressure off of us to make people think we have it all together. It breeds a humility that makes it much easier for broken and hurting people to worship beside us. It sets us free to be able to open up about our struggles and work together on growing. Jesus is the one who is worthy of all our praise. It’s not about us.

And the third comparison that John made between himself and Jesus was that John baptized people with water while Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit. Jesus can touch our hearts deeper than any human can.

We have so many good religious traditions and sacraments that we do together, our observances of special seasons in the church year, the different elements of each worship service. But none of them can bring true spiritual life. It is through the Spirit of Jesus in our hearts that life comes. Without the Holy Spirit every church ritual is dead. With the Holy Spirit all of life becomes a living sacrament.

Why are we here this morning? Are we here to see our friends? To take up a collection to pay the heating bill? To get a little emotional pick-me-up for the coming week? To pass on our values to our children so that they’ll keep the institution going? When all is said and done, none of those are really that important. We are here to seek Jesus Christ.

He is the one with the real power. He is the one whose example is truly worthy. He is the one whose Spirit can bring life to all that we do. AMEN