In today’s scripture, John the Baptist is not like most of us: Instead of being unhappy that his own work is declining in popularity, he’s happier than he’s ever been. Why? Because he understands that what matters most isn’t his own personal glory, but Christ’s glory. He understands that in spite of this apparent setback, God is in control and God is working his plan for him and the world. If this is true for John, it’s true for us as well. God is always working his plan for our lives, even in the face of mistakes, failures, and setbacks.
Sermon Text: John 3:22-36
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]
Show of hands… How many in here are rooting for the Broncos? How many are rooting for the Panthers? How many are rooting for the commercials? I am 45, so I’m cheering for the guy who’s very close to my age, Peyton Manning. I’m sentimental; I would love to see him get his long-sought-after second Super Bowl ring before retiring riding and off into the sunset. It would be a storybook ending to his career; it would seal his legacy as one of the best who ever played the game; it would silence all the skeptics who wonder why he wasn’t more effective in the playoffs.
But what if he doesn’t get the storybook ending? What if the Broncos lose? How will Peyton live with the disappointment, the sorrow, the heartbreak, the failure?
How do we handle these things in our own lives? We all want to be happy, after all, yet doesn’t life often seem to put obstacles to happiness in our way? How do we deal with them, while at the same time rejoicing in the Lord always, the way Christians are supposed to?
These are the kinds of questions that John the Baptist, in today’s scripture, can help us answer.
Our scripture begins by describing how Jesus and his disciples are baptizing in one part of Judea and John the Baptist and his disciples are baptizing in another part. So you have two groups, each performing a baptism that symbolized repentance and the forgiveness of sins. We learn in John chapter 4, verse 2, that Jesus was actually overseeing the baptisms; he wasn’t baptizing himself. Regardless, John’s disciples notice that Jesus is attracting a larger crowd than John is; in fact, in verse 26, with some overstatement, John’s disciples complain that everyone is going to Jesus and his disciples to be baptized.
So John’s disciples are looking over their shoulders, comparing themselves with Jesus’ disciples, Anne feeling deeply unhappy that they aren’t measuring up. Oh my goodness, I’m constantly tempted to do this myself! How about you?
When I was in Alpharetta, for example, I was an associate pastor in charge of a contemporary worship service. It was hard to do that in Alpharetta, because our church was surrounded by all these megachurches with budgets the size of the latest Star Wars movie, who could really afford to put on a production every week. One of those churches was Northpoint, Andy Stanley’s church. So I often worried, “How can I measure up to what Andy Stanley’s doing? How can I compete with him? Because if my people don’t like what I do,” I told myself, “they’ll just go a couple miles down the road to his church.” So I put a lot of pressure on myself. Because, you know, it’s all up to me, right? The weight of the world rests on my shoulders. I’m completely responsible for the success or failure of everything that I do.
I must believe this because at the first sign of trouble or adversity in my life I think, “What am I going to do? How am I going to solve this?”
If you’ll recall, I was adopted. And some of you have met Linda, my birth mother. She’s very proud that I’m a pastor. She thinks I’m great, for some reason. But one time, years ago, not long after meeting me, she said, “Brent, I was watching TV. And I heard the best preacher I’ve ever heard.” And this confused me because, well, Billy Graham doesn’t preach anymore, and it’s not like I’m on TV, so who could she be talking about? She said, “He has a church in Alpharetta. You may know him. His name is Andy Stanley.” And I’m like, “I know Andy Stanley! He’s great. Everybody loves Andy Stanley!”
So I know first-hand that kind of jealousy that John’s disciples must have felt!
I finally had to make peace with the fact that I’m not Andy Stanley. I’ll never be Andy Stanley. God didn’t call me to be Andy Stanley. He called me to be Brent White—and it’s hard enough being the best version of that person!
All that to say, I am amazed at John’s response to his disciples, and it’s this response, in verses 27 to 30, that what I want this sermon to focus on. John begins: “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.”
What a remarkable statement about God’s sovereignty! Sovereignty is another way of saying that God is in charge; God is in control. John, here, understands that God is ultimately the one who is responsible for the burgeoning success of Jesus’ ministry; and not only that, he understands that God, not John, is ultimately responsible for this decline in the popularity of his own ministry. This is one reason why John isn’t the least bit stressed out about this development. Because he understands that God is in control.
What John says here about God’s sovereignty isn’t unique to John the Baptist. James 1:17: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” So whenever something good happens to you, you don’t get to say, “Didn’t I do this great thing?” you acknowledge that God gave you all the gifts you needed in order to do this great thing. Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 4:7, Paul asks: “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?”
So tonight, speaking of the Super Bowl, you’ll see a lot of boastful behavior when someone’s some players make a big play—you’ll see showboating. But you’ll probably also see at some point an athlete, when they make a big play, point to heaven, or kneel in prayer, or do something to acknowledge that the real credit belongs to God—who gave this player his amazing body, and his amazing talent, and placed him a particular family, in a particular place, at a particular time, so that he could develop these gifts and become an NFL player. I’m not saying the player contributes nothing toward his success on the field, but it’s only a tiny fraction of one percent of what God has contributed to enable him to score the game-winning touchdown or kick the game-winning field goal or catch the game-winning interception. And it’s so good for us to recognize that!
For one thing, it should give us great peace of mind. I read a blog post this past week by a Christian thinker named Anne Kennedy who was complaining about Christians who frequently say things like, “God told me to do this.” Or “I feel like the Lord is leading me to do that.” She complains that this language can easily be abused by Christians, and she cited, for instance, the local prosperity gospel preacher Creflo Dollar, who said, “God told me that I need a $65 million private jet.” Let me say that I don’t completely buy in to what she says. For one thing, as an ordained United Methodist pastor, I certainly felt called by God to go into ministry. And there have been many times in my life when I feel as if I’ve been zapped by a lightning bolt when God needed to get my attention. So I have a strong sense that sometimes God is speaking to me, although I wouldn’t begin to argue that this “word” from God, if you want to call it that, holds the same authority as God’s Word that is the Bible.
And that was Kennedy’s point: God doesn’t have to speak to us in this personal way because he’s already spoken to us—and speaks to us—through the Bible. That’s God’s Word, and that’s what guides our lives.
For me, it doesn’t have to be one or the other. But even if, every once in a while, we have this strong sense that God is telling us, or leading us, to do some specific thing, it’s safe to say that the vast majority of time we don’t receive specific instructions or guidance. Often when we’re making major life decisions, the “best course of action” or the “right thing to do” isn’t nearly so clear. Yet, like John the Baptist, we remember God’s sovereignty, we remember that God is in control. We remember that God’s plan for our lives isn’t sidetracked by our failure to do one thing or another. Why? Because, with his foreknowledge, he’s already accounted for all of our actions—both good and bad, both faithful and unfaithful—and worked all of them into his plan for us. Even when we mess things up and sin, we can be confident that God can and will redeem our actions and use them for good. Because God is in control.
John’s words here also mean that we have peace even in the midst of the storms of life. Paul, for example, had this kind of peace when he wrote his letter to the Philippians. Here Paul was, languishing in prison under harsh, brutal conditions. He thought he might die in prison. From an outsider’s perspective it must have seemed as if his ministry had gotten badly off course. How could he be the “apostle to the Gentiles” and go on these missionary journeys if he couldn’t even get out of prison? We would see this imprisonment as a major setback. Not Paul. He writes, “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.” For one thing, he says, he’s been able to spread the gospel among the Roman soldiers who are holding him captive. Plus, when other Christians in the area saw Paul’s courageous example, he writes, they became bolder about sharing their faith—so the gospel is spreading one way or another.
Success or failure isn’t up to Paul; the weight of the world isn’t on his shoulders. Paul isn’t ultimately responsible for seeing to it that God’s plans for the world come to pass. God can do that just fine without Paul. God doesn’t need Paul’s help.
My boys and I have been binge-watching the new Flash TV series—about the superhero who runs really fast. It’s an awesome show—a lot of fun! The Flash is the alter-ego of a forensic scientist named Barry Allen. When Barry was 12 years old, his mother was murdered and his father was wrongly convicted of the crime. In one episode, the Flash figures out a way to travel back in time and prevent his mother from being murdered—which would thereby spare his father from life in prison.
So Barry wrestles with the question: Should he do it, or shouldn’t he?
The thing is, if these tragic events hadn’t happened to him, he’d have never known the love and support of the foster family that took him in. He wouldn’t have gone into law enforcement. He’d have never become the Flash. He wouldn’t have known all these wonderful friends that he’s made. If even one small event had been different in his life, he’d have been a different person. His father, whom he visits in prison, tries to convince him not to do it—for all these reasons and more.
And his father is right: going back in time in order to “fix” the past is a terrible idea! If time travel were possible, we Christians should never want to do that. Why? Because we understand that God has used the past to shape us into better people and to create a better future for us—all according to his plan!
The writer of Hebrews says that because we’re God’s children through faith in Christ, God our Father disciplines us as a parent does—and God uses adversity in our lives to do so. In his book God in the Dock, C.S. Lewis writes about this. He uses the word “punishment” instead of discipline, but he means exactly the same thing: he doesn’t mean God’s mad at us, and he’s using adversity to punish us; he means that God is disciplining us through adversity. Lewis writes:
I used to think it was a “cruel” doctrine to say that troubles and sorrows were “punishments” [or discipline]. But I find in practice that when you are in trouble, the moment you regard it as a “punishment,” it becomes easier to bear. If you think of this world as a place intended simply for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable: think of it as a place of training and correction and it’s not so bad.
That’s exactly right. The world is not intended simply for our happiness. If you think so, you’re going to be disappointed. It’s a place, Lewis says, that God uses for our training and correction. And God doesn’t do this because he’s cruel and enjoys making us miserable: He does it so that we can be happy—truly happy. One of our biggest problems in life is we don’t know how to be happy. And instead of turning to God’s Word, and figuring it out, we strike out on our own. And we make ourselves miserable.
Ironically, many people suspect that if they follow Christ, well… that’s a recipe for unhappiness—that Christ will spoil all their fun.
Did you see the headlines from last November about ESPN analyst and Heisman-winning quarterback Tim Tebow? He was dating a former Miss USA, a beautiful fashion model named Olivia Culpo. She broke up with him, her friends told the media, because he was choosing to be faithful to God by not having premarital sex with her. And of course the newspapers and the tabloids reported it as if he were some kind of freak because why wouldn’t he want to have sex with this hot model.
As if I didn’t already admire Tim Tebow, this makes me admire him even more!
But reading between the lines of these media reports, the message is clear: those crazy Christians, like Tim Tebow, aren’t allowed to have any fun! God doesn’t want them—doesn’t want us—to be happy!
And you could look at the life of John the Baptist and come to that conclusion, if you want. Right? God calls him to live in the wilderness, dress in uncomfortable clothing, eat locusts and honey… And then just when he’s starting to become really popular, that’s when someone else steals his spotlight—and the people abandon him for someone else. To outside observers, John’s mission in life looks like a failure. Weeks after the events in today’s scripture, John gets arrested. And because of his faithfulness to God, he gets beheaded.
Here’s someone who does everything God calls him to do… and look how he ends up!
And yet… Look at the words of John the Baptist in verses 29 and 30: “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 compares himself to a “best man” at a wedding: His only interest is in attending to the needs of the bridegroom—who is Jesus. Making sure the bridegroom has everything he needs on his wedding day. If the best man does his job well, no one will even notice him. Why? Because everyone’s looking at the bride and groom—as they dash through a crowd of well-wishers throwing rice, as they get in the limo and drive away, as they leave for their honeymoon. Nobody even glances back to notice the best man. Because his job yeast to bring attention to himself. His job was to make sure the bride and groom received all the attention. Now that that’s happened, he’s happy. He’s completely satisfied. In fact, John says, “My joy is now complete.”
If your joy is complete, that means you’ve never been happier. You are completely satisfied. You are perfectly content. You want nothing more than what you have. You have everything you need.
You think God doesn’t want you to be happy? Are you kidding? God wants you to be as happy as John the Baptist: which is to say, happier than you’ve ever been! So follow John’s example!
Christ must increase; we must decrease. Amen?
 Philippians 1:12 ESV
 Hebrews 12:6
 C.S. Lewis, “Money Trouble,” in The C.S. Lewis Bible, NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 1123.