I remember going to a church for an interview, and was put off by what they said about the church down the street: “they’re our competitors,” they said. I was taken aback. Are we really competing with other churches? Aren’t we competing against Satan?
I doubt that Kensington Church, Woodside Bible Church, or any of the mega-churches in our area thinks of Starr as competition, but it’s hard sometimes not to be envious of the big crowds going to these churches. I hear reports from our members who visit mega-churches that their children go to, or when they go on vacation, and it’s incredible to imagine. Tickets to go to worship? Police officers on Sunday morning for crowd control? Sunday schools with electronic wristbands to match up parent and child?
The disciples of John the Baptist look on Jesus’s crowds with a similar envy.
- John 3:26: They 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.”
John’s followers see Jesus as a competitor. They’re all offering the same product—baptism—but Jesus’s brand is trending. Trivia question here: was this baptism in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit? Unlikely.
The fullness of Jesus’s nature had yet to be revealed, and the miracle of Pentecost was yet to come. The origins of baptism might be found in the ritual cleansing of Jewish priests before and after their ritual duties. In Leviticus, God instructs the faithful to cleanse themselves after touching a corpse or a leper. As Gentiles converted to Judaism, priests broadened the rite’s meaning, and performed baptism, along with circumcision, to bring converts into the community.
John the Baptist extended that ministry to Jews who desired a deeper covenant with God, who wanted to be symbolically cleansed from sin. His baptism, and that of Jesus’s followers, was a ritual of spiritual purification. But it lacked the meaning we attach to baptism, of putting on Christ, being buried with him in death and rising with him in new life; thus it was a prefiguration of Christian baptism.
And this is true of John’s entire ministry. Just as John’s baptism was like a foreshadow of Christian baptism, John’s ministry was a foreshadow of Christ’s ministry, lacking the fullness of what Christ would bring to us through his teaching, his miracles, and the great ministry of his passion, death, and resurrection. Therefore, people are now flocking to Jesus.
Jesus is “in”; John is “out.” Jesus’s parking lot is full; John’s has a few lonely cars. Jesus’s pews are packed; John’s are gathering dust. Jesus is trending, and John is on the way out.
But what’s amazing about John is that John reacts, not with dismay, but with joy. He tells his followers, this is the way it should be.
- John 3:29: He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice.
On a wedding day, all eyes are on the bride and groom. It’s always struck me as odd, the idea that on this day people should have bridesmaids and groomsmen attending to their every need, people whose sole function is to look after the bride and groom.
It must be a strange job to be a designer of bridesmaid’s dresses, because they are the only dresses whose function is to look kind of ugly.
Think about it; no one buys a bridesmaid dress to wear as a regular evening gown. Their function is to be kind of plain. The bridesmaid exists to make the bride look better. The groomsman exists to make the groom look better.
I remember on my wedding day, my maid of honor, Kim Kavazanjian, who is now a pastor in Miami. I made Kim wear the most awful pink dress. But Kim spend hours with me selecting the perfect shade of lipstick, and then, at the wedding, she ran around with the lipstick, making sure every bridesmaid had the correct shade. She thought of every detail, from learning to bustle my train to making sure all the wedding gifts got back to our apartment. Her entire being was taken over in service to the bride and groom.
And this is who we are called to be as ministers of Christ. You and I are here, we exist, to serve him; to make him look good; to turn the eyes of all to him.
For this reason, I am thankful for the Woodsides and the Kensingtons and all the ministries that exist. There are so many lost people out there in need of Christ. If other ministries are helping people to know the Lord, then I rejoice.
After all, Starr Presbyterian Church does not exist for ourselves.
Today, we celebrate one hundred and sixty-eight years of ministry in this place. That’s about one thousand communion services on this corner. Hundreds of baptisms. Dozens of pastors.
None of it matters except insofar as we have pointed to Christ.
- John 3:30: He must increase, but I must decrease.
Each of us longs to be loved, to be worshiped; to be the bride. But that is not who we are called to be. We are called to be ministers of Christ, each of us. Did you know that you are a minister? You may not be a pastor, but all God’s people are ministers, because we each have a ministry. Maybe it’s caring for people in need; maybe it’s preparing the communion. Maybe it’s lighting the candles before service, or ordering the flowers, or playing with the band.
And for each of us, our ministry extends beyond these doors. To the work we do in our community and families, the words we say, our actions—may they point beyond ourselves to Christ. May our words and deeds reflect him, proclaim him, honor him. May we exist to turn all eyes towards the bridegroom.
There’s a song by MercyMe: “so long self, well it’s been fun, but I have found somebody else, so long, self There’s just no room for two, So you are gonna have to move, So long, self Don’t take this wrong but you are wrong for me, farewell Oh well, goodbye, don’t cry, so long self.” The songwriter said he wanted to make it a cheerful, upbeat song, because so often Christians talk of humility almost with obligation or sadness, but it’s actually a moment of great joy. We’re happier serving others than serving ourselves, because it’s what we were made to do. We were made to be the bridesmaids, not the bride.
So let this be your prayer, and mine: So long, self. May I decrease, and may he increase in me. And may it be a prayer of joy. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.