“He Must Increase, But I Must Decrease”

(Year B, Advent 3, December 17, 2017; Gospel Reading from John 3:22-30)

John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’  The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete.  He must increase, but I must decrease.” John 3:27-30 (ESV)

The Appearance of Christ Before the People,
A. Ivanov, ca. 1837-1857

Last week, I wrote about our mutual unworthiness in comparison with Jesus Christ, and how this provides an example for modern day ministers of the Gospel.  This week, John the Baptist reveals another great truth that all Christians, and especially all would-be ministers should and must keep in mind: “I am not the Christ.”

You might be thinking, “But that’s obvious!  I am the first to admit I’m not perfect, and heaven knows that if John wasn’t worthy to unlace Jesus’ sandals, I’m barely fit to walk the same ground as Him!”  And that’s a fair and rightly humble attitude to take.  But does it marry up to your everyday life?  When you are met with adversity is your first response to pray and give it over to God?  When met with reproof for your actions (never mind if you believe they are right or wrong), do you accept the correction?  In a disagreement, is your first instinct to relinquish the high ground so that the other will not fall into deeper disaster?  I know in my case, the answer is “no, no, and no.”  It is like I know in my head that I am not the Christ, but my actions and attitudes are what I imagine a Chosen King’s should be.  But being the Christ is not merely about perfection or overwhelming Worthiness.  John said, “I am not the Christ” because his followers needed to understand that, for all his good teaching, John was not what he prepared the way for.  We say, “I am not the Christ” because the truth of that statement is painfully and abundantly manifest in our lives.

To be the Christ, as I said, is not just about perfection and the inherent Worthiness of being the very Son of God.  To be the Christ is to trust perfectly in the Father, secure in the perfect love between Father and Son.  To be the Christ is to put the personal will second to the Father’s Will.  To be the Christ is also to be the perfect lover of the souls of men and women.  Setting aside my imperfection and my inherent un-Worthiness as a created being, I find it easy to trust God – but only when things are already in hand.  I can easily subject my own will to His – so long as our wills aren’t that far different.  Finally, I love people – especially those that I know will love me back, and look like the sort of people that it’s okay for me to hang around.

I am not the Christ.  It is only if Christ lives in me that I can claim any part of Him.

John says “I am not the Christ” to emphasize that he is not the Big Thing that his followers are supposed to be looking for.  He goes on to say “my joy is complete.  He must increase, but I must decrease.”  In the words he uses to teach his disciples his role in the First Advent of Jesus Christ, John also gives us the secret to turn the heaviness of the charge “I am not the Christ” into the hope and joy of all the world:  By sacrificing myself – putting my will, wants, and appetites second – I leave room for Jesus to fill my life with His perfection.  But any part of me that I do not give up, that I hold onto tightly, that part of me cannot be transformed and filled with Jesus.  The prescription against the disease of sinful Death is that “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

This reading is for the Third Sunday in Advent.  Advent is one of two seasons of preparation, the other being Lent.  Advent is not overtly penitential in character in the same way that Lent is, but an overarching principle of “making ready” connects the two seasons.  In Advent, we anticipate Jesus’ Second Coming by remembering the first.  We started off this journey talking about the End of the Age.  Last week, we continued by recognizing our unworthiness-made-worthy in God’s call upon our lives, and the call for all of us to be like little Johns the Baptist.  This week we hear again from John, who this time models for us the behaviors and attitudes necessary for our hearts and souls to be made ready for the Lord.  Next week, we will hear the culmination of the first Advent story, and celebrate the realness of the first Christmas while the whole creation groans for the restoration following the Last Christmas, which will be the Day of the Lord.

In response to this reading, and as a preparatory and prayerful meditation looking forward to the celebration of Christ’s Incarnation as a baby boy in a stable, I invite you to join me in praying: “I am not the Christ: He must increase, but I must decrease.”

Grace and peace to all in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

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