Lay Reader = Isaiah 43:1-7
1But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. 3For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Sheba in exchange for you. 4Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. 5Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; 6I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth— 7everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
We are still in our series for this Lenten season called “Unburdened.” We are asking how much space we need to clear out of our lives so that God has enough room to speak and work. And taking out one pair of socks for Lent isn’t going to make a difference in the overstuffed suitcases of our lives.
On Ash Wednesday we asked who we were trying to impress with our overstuffed lives. Last week we saw that most of our busyness isn’t helpful, and it has a cost. This week we get to think about our purpose. Our higher calling from God. So if busyness is a question of how MUCH we should be doing, this week we are asking WHAT we should be doing.
To ask that question, we’re looking at John the Baptist. If you remember, John was Jesus’ cousin. And he actually became well known several years before Jesus started his ministry. John even baptized Jesus. To give you a sense of John’s impact, there are a few historians who wrote about what we call the first century in the Israel/Palestine area, and they all mention John. Historians knew he was important right from the start. Only one mentions Jesus. John was very well known. His ministry had a large impact.
Given John’s prominence. Given his impact. John’s disciples start to wonder about this Jesus fellow. Why should Jesus’ followers be allowed to take away some of John’s followers? Jesus is just the lesser known cousin. John’s the important one, right? And here’s how John responds.
22After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized. 23John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized 24—John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison. 25Now a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew. 26They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” 27John answered, “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. 28You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.’29He 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. 30He must increase, but I must decrease.” 31The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things. The one who comes from heaven is above all. 32He testifies to what he has seen and heard, yet no one accepts his testimony. 33Whoever has accepted his testimony has certified this, that God is true. 34He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. 35The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands. 36Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.
The Expectation Game
What’s so wrong with telling a kid they’re smart? That’s what an international team of researchers answered when they studied 300 kids between 3 and 5-years-old. The kids were playing a number guessing game, and one group was given no feedback other than whether they got it right or not. The second group was told “you did well this time.” And the third group was told “you’re so smart.”
Then the fun begins. As a side note, if you’re ever in a study about behavior or psychology, I guarantee they’re lying to you about what they’re studying. If you want to have an excuse to lie to hundreds of people as part of your job, run some of these studies. They’re always looking at something else.
And in this study they were wondering about cheating. So the person running the game would come up with a reason they had to leave the room for a minute, and they got the kids to promise not to look at the number guessing cards. They had to promise not to cheat while the person left the room. Now, of course, there were hidden cameras. Told you they were lying.
And here’s what they found out. The kids who weren’t praised and the kids who were told they had done well – a few of them cheated but not too many. But the kids who were told they were smart? They were FAR more likely to cheat when they thought no one was looking. It turns out that when you praise a child for their innate ability or talent – like being smart – they then feel a pressure to perform that can undermine they’re moral fortitude. But giving no praise or praising for effort doesn’t make the same kind of pressure.
In fact, researchers have replicated this by just mentioning to kids that they have a reputation for being smart. Mentioning their reputation, even without reinforcing it during the study, created pressure to perform and cheat.
Have you ever felt pressure to do something you thought was wrong?
Changing the Nation
I have to imagine that John the Baptist faced a similar kind of pressure. His followers certainly felt that pressure according to our text today. But to understand why, let me tell you a little bit about John’s baptism and why he was so important and so famous.
There were a lot of ritual washings in ancient times, and especially in ancient Israel. It was a regular thing you did whenever you needed to enter the presence of God. So the idea of washing away sins, of washing away whatever separates you from God? That idea was very well known.
But that’s not what John was doing. He talked about his baptism as a one time thing. A kind of decision. A permanent change. That was different.
In fact, there was only one similar kind of washing in Judaism at the time. When foreigners wanted to convert to Judaism, they had to spend a lot of time learning the Jewish ways, and the men had to be circumcised, and everyone had to have this one time ritual washing to signify that their old life, their old gods, their old habits were washed away.
So John is basically telling the Jewish people that they need to be re-converted to their own religion. That’s pretty shocking. If I came in this week and said all of you need to be re-baptized, because clearly your earlier one didn’t take. Would you appreciate that?
But John’s baptism DID make an impression. And the people ate it up. They were hungry for change.
So John was the one the people looked to. He was the one who was telling the leaders how they were leading people astray. He was the one who was bringing about change in the nation. He was the catalyst. He was the leader.
If smart people feel pressure to cheat, natural leaders can feel the pressure to eliminate rivals to their leadership. So in our text today, John’s followers are asking him to put Jesus in his place.
And how does John respond? “I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.” “I am the friend of the groom, not the groom.” “He must increase, but I must decrease.” John passed the test. He didn’t do what his followers were pressuring him to do. He did what he was actually called to do.
Honoring Your Calling
John knew what he was called to do. If you look in your bulletin you’ll see a piece of art that illustrates John’s calling. Almost every piece of art featuring John shows him the same way as this one. What’s he doing? Pointing to Jesus. That’s it. That’s his calling. Not pointing to himself. Pointing to Jesus.
That’s how many have been talking about Billy Graham this week to honor his passing. He was known for asking people to commit to Jesus with “no reserve, no retreat, no regrets.” Three stories stand out to me out of the MANY from his life. One was in 1953 in Chattanooga, TN. As he saw the ropes the organizers had erected to segregate the audience into white and black, he stormed out and tore down the ropes. He told the organizers to leave the ropes down or they could do the revival without him. In 1953, I guarantee he felt pressure to keep up the status quo of segregation. But he knew his calling.
The second story comes from talking to one of the people who was supporting one of Graham’s crusades. This person was in charge of praying on a very particular schedule. I don’t remember the whole plan, but it started with several minutes of prayer that the hearers would be unimpressed with Billy Graham. That they wouldn’t see him as a great speaker and preacher. Think about that – Billy Graham wanted a prayer team to pray for people to be unimpressed with him. Why? After a few minutes of that prayer, they moved on to praying that people would be impressed with Jesus, not Billy Graham. Man, I love that. Just like John, he knew his calling was to point to Jesus instead of himself.
Third story comes from my personal experience. There had been a crusade in the area of my previous church, and I received a phone call about two days after it was over. The man introduced himself as one of the people working with Billy Graham’s crusade, and he had the information for a man who had made a first-time commitment to Jesus. Their follow-up team had determined that he would probably be a good fit at a Presbyterian church, so he asked if I would invite the man to attend our church to continue his faith journey. I said no, I don’t want your stinking contact info! Oh wait, no, I enthusiastically said yes. And here’s what really impressed me.
The man said, “Thank you! Great! I’ll give you a call in a couple of days to see how that conversation went.” Not only did they go through the effort of connecting people with churches. Not only did they think and pray through what the best fit would be. Not only did they personally call a pastor at the church to make the hand-off. They also did a follow-up call with the pastor to make sure it happened. That’s keeping your eyes on the ball!
We talked last week about removing busyness. But that guy on the phone was pretty busy. The difference is that he was doing it to honor his calling. Just as Billy Graham did. Just as John the Baptist did.
Do you know your calling? Do you know what Jesus has in store for you? If so, how much time do you spend focusing on it? If not, let me give you a place to start.
Some of you have heard this story before, but there are enough who haven’t heard it that it’s worth re-telling. I went to the Hawaii Leadership Practicum during a phase where I was feeling particularly burned out of my ministry. And the leader of that conference, Wayne Cordeiro, was helping us in a lot of different ways. This particular talk he was covering doing ministry as a team. Making sure you’re not doing everything alone. Helping others live out their calling. Stuff like that.
And he said, “You know, half of your job anyone can do. Anyone can answer emails or phone calls. Anyone can fill out paperwork. Forty percent of your job, anyone can do with the proper training. Anyone who has been to seminary can give interesting tidbits from the Bible. But ten percent of your job, only you can do.”
Now at this point, I had my pen ready, right? Not even my pencil, I had my PEN ready. Permanent.
And then he said, “No one else can be husband to your wife. No one else can follow Jesus for you. No one else can be the same parent to your children.”
For me, that started a process that re-ordered much of how I made decisions with my time. That changed my understanding of my calling. I might have said similar things before, but it didn’t really become part of my life until that moment.
Most Important Things
So rather than asking what you need to remove from your life, this week let me ask what’s the most important thing in your life? Not the thing others are pressuring you to do or be. Not the ways you’re pressured to cheat because you’re smart or a leader or whatever.
What’s your calling? What’s your ten percent that only you can do? What’s the most important thing in your life?
And to use Billy Graham’s quote, how can you do that with “no reserve, no retreat, no regrets?” In fact, what can you do to keep the most important thing, the most important thing THIS WEEK? Amen.