Pomme de Terre United Methodist Church
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"Power and Humility"
Mark 1:4-11

I don’t know about all you sports fans out there, but I am personally THRILLED that the college football season is over. Now, don’t get me wrong. I really LIKE football. Up to a point.

And the point at which it really gets on my nerves, is when the post-season bowls come around.

It’s not enough that there are very good teams playing in most of the bowl games; but we are constantly reminded of how the teams are RANKED, and how a certain bowl or bowls are going to determine the NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP.

And since it’s all a lot of hot air anyway, several schools make lots of noise about THEIR deserving to be the NATIONAL CHAMPIONS. Well, sometimes these noisy schools get trounced and then shut up. But it seems that there’s always going to be some school, or coach, complaining after the bowl games that his team deserves to be the national champion. As if it’s going to make any difference a few months from now.

Where does all this VANITY come from, anyway? Why are we so obsessed? One of my favorite movie critics has an interesting way of expressing his attitude toward a movie. The best that he will ever say about a movie is that it is “very good.”

And do you know what the best was that God had to say about the creation? “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” Now, I think that those are good models to follow. Models of understated humility.

And one of my favorite models, and you’ve probably heard me say this before, is John the Baptist.

In the fourth verse of the opening chapter of the gospel according to Mark, we read, “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

Now, I suppose that he COULD have gone to the city, but he didn’t. That wasn’t his style. The wilderness WAS his style. But maybe it’s worth asking, “If he were alive today, where would he be?”

Because the only clergy anyone pays much attention to are those in the suburbs or on the fringes of the cities, because that is where the really large churches are. But it would appear that John went where the people were NOT.

And what was he DOING out there in the wilderness? What was he PREACHING? Well, it wasn’t feel-good religion. Look really closely at what your Bible tells you: “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Now, ALL of us want that “forgiveness of sins.”

That IS the good news of God’s gracious love. But lots of us want it without any strings. We want a freebie. And John was NOT preaching THAT. Because, what IS repentance? To repent is to TURN from our old ways. To CHANGE the way we’ve been living.

To RENOUNCE our sin. And if we cannot renounce our sin, what GOOD is it going to do us for God to forgive our sin?

So John doesn’t make things easy on himself. He goes to the wilderness instead of the suburbs, and he put DEMANDS on those who would listen to him, instead of letting them off easy.

“And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”

You know, in those days they had no radios, no televisions, no telephones, no newspapers, no websites, no e-mail, not even snail-mail as we know it. So the only way anybody could learn any news was by word of mouth.

And somehow, somebody got EXCITED by what he or she heard from John in the wilderness and told somebody else. And the word spread.

Nowadays we have the benefits of mass advertising; and some churches pump a lot of money into advertising and formal public relations. But John didn’t have that advantage. Individuals needed to become EXCITED enough about John to pass the word on. And apparently they did just that.

So imagine the amount of POWER that this man possesses. “The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him.”

Nowadays, any clergy with that kind of draw usually incorporates him or herself, sells books and tapes, rents huge auditoriums, builds schools and NAMES them after himself, and spends much time on television. Well, you know that routine.

And nowadays, power corrupts. If John were around today, would he be corrupted by his power? Would it go to his head? Would he become so enamored of himself that he would forget the business he was about? I don’t think so. Listen:

“Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.”

And WHY do you suppose that Mark put this passage in here? WHY were John’s wardrobe and diet important? I would suggest this: The details of John’s life tell us that he was incorruptible. His life was one of complete integrity.

EVERYTHING about him suggested his humility. And even if the entire CITY of Jerusalem had been moved out to him, he would not have abused the power he had.

I once heard a seminary professor comment on the evolution of the seminarian. He observed that during the first year or two of seminary, the young clergy person often spoke with high ideals. But by the third year those lofty ideals were more and more replaced with discussions of fringe benefits, and where one should or should not be appointed, and how to make the right moves. Personal power gets in the way of any humility.

But quite frankly, pastors can receive mixed and confusing messages. We WANT to be effective, and we WANT our parishioners to believe that we’re trying to do our best for them; but too often, some of the leaders in the denomination, in their worship of numbers, can make small-church pastors feel like failures.

John the Baptist was fortunate. He didn’t need to deal with any church hierarchy. But he was quick to admit, in his humility, that there WAS a hierarchy.

“He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.”

And maybe THAT is why John spent his time in the wilderness. Maybe THAT is why his wardrobe was so modest. Many THAT is why his diet was so rustic. Because it didn’t really matter where he lived or what he wore or what he ate.

Because no matter what he did, he would STILL be unworthy to stoop down and untie the thong of the sandals of the one coming after him.

Wouldn’t it be great if all the preachers in the world could get that message? No matter how large their churches become, no matter who large their salaries, no matter how wonderful anybody thinks they are, they will STILL be unworthy of Jesus Christ.

And for all Christians, no matter how many good deeds you do, no matter how much money you contribute, no matter how RIGHTEOUS you or anyone else may think you are, you are STILL unworthy of Jesus Christ.

But the problem with getting that straight is that we too often forget who we’re serving. We get tied up with serving the church, the institution; and we start to develop self-importance.

What we SHOULD be doing is remembering that we are supposed to be serving Jesus Christ; and THEN maybe we can get rid of our self-righteousness.

And John the Baptist tells us WHY and HOW he is unworthy:

“I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

And the importance of that statement is that Jesus brings an entirely new dimension into our lives. Anyone OTHER than Jesus, anyone LESS than Jesus, can only bring a MESSAGE of repentance into our lives.

The baptism with water can only be a symbolic act which we take on faith. But when Jesus truly enters our lives, when we feel HIS baptism, it is a baptism of the Holy Spirit, or, as Matthew renders it, a baptism with fire.

John could baptize with water, just as any clergyperson could baptize with water. But the ultimate baptism for each of us must come from WITHIN our souls as we reach out to experience the saving grace of Jesus Christ. He WILL baptize us with the Holy Spirit.

If we let him. And we CAN experience powerful repentance and forgiveness through the Holy Spirit. If we open ourselves to the Spirit. What I hear John telling us is this: “I can only take you part of the way.

And no matter how far I take you, it can NEVER be as far as Jesus can take you with the Holy Spirit.”

But it takes humility for John to say that.

And so, “In those days Jesus can from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”

Matthew adds something here, not found in Mark: “John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

And it is at this moment that power and humility run head-on. John realizes the limits of his power. He’s been baptizing everybody under the sun. He was many followers. But in the presence of Jesus he realizes not his power but his impotence: “I need to be baptized by you.” John knows he place. He has ALWAYS known his place.

Even when Mary, pregnant with Jesus, went to visit her relative Elizabeth, pregnant with John, “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb.”

But although John is reluctant, Jesus insists on the baptism in order that prophesy should be fulfilled. But Jesus KNOWS John’s power. And he also knows his humility.

John’s humility might even be considered a gift. I know that too often in my life I wish I could immediately take charge of events and immediately have everything my way; I want to be the one is sole control.

If only like John I could humble myself to take the attitude, “I need to be baptized by you.” John knew the limits of his power. Too often, many of us don’t; and we don’t know how to humble ourselves.

We don’t know the feeling of being unworthy to stoop down and untie the thong.

So John baptizes Jesus. “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.”

And I am reminded of the eighth chapter of the book of Genesis. At the end of the forty days of the flood, Noah used the dove to assess the conditions of the water on the earth.

Three times Noah sent out a dove: first, the dove could find no dry land, and returned; second, the dove returned with an olive leaf; and third, the dove returned no more.

And now, as Jesus arises from the waters of baptism, God sends the Spirit like a dove, perhaps again seeking.

“And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Now, by our earthly standards, this verse should strike us as strange. With WHAT is God pleased? What has Jesus DONE that has pleased God? Or is it NECESSARY that he should have done anything? Maybe not.

Maybe it is sufficient that God is RECOGNIZING Jesus as his son. And it is WHO Jesus is rather than WHAT Jesus has done that makes the difference.

And the power of John the Baptist and of Jesus lie not in what they DO, but in who they are and how they recognized themselves. And in THEIR recognition of who they are, they achieve a degree of humility that is uncommon, but should serve as an example for all of us.

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