In 1991, a man by the name of Joel Gregory became pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas. At the time, First Baptist Dallas was considered by some to be the largest Baptist church in the world. The job came with a large salary, a country club membership and even included season tickets to the Dallas Cowboys.
Gregory had clearly arrived. Yet, by the fall of the very next year, Gregory had decided to leave the church. He eventually resigned at a Wednesday night study and immediately walked out the side door into the night.
In essence, what Gregory learned very quickly was that he had made a terrible decision. The opportunity of a large salary, power, fame and prestige had caused him to turn a blind eye to all of the things about the position that he knew were going to be problems.
A short time after leaving the church, Gregory wrote a memoir about his experience there. The book carried a powerful title. It was called Too Great A Temptation.
As I alluded to last week, we find the exact opposite in John the Baptist. John, a relative of Jesus, plays a very important role in the story of both Jesus’ birth story and public ministry. On the one hand, he is significant in the birth story in that he was born at the same time as Jesus and also of miraculous circumstances. John’s parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, were old, without children and with no expectation of having children. In many ways they were the polar opposites of Mary and Joseph. The gospel of Luke interweaves the story of John’s birth with the story of Jesus’ birth and of Elizabeth and Mary thus pregnant together. Their pregnancies were both outside of the norm and both children were born with high expectations.
Jesus was born as the Promised Messiah, the Son of God. John, was born as the one who was to point the way to Jesus. Nonetheless, as John and Jesus began their public ministries, John also proved capable of drawing a crowd, gaining notoriety and gathering followers. Naturally, some wanted to make John more important than he was. Some even wanted to go so far as to suggest that John not Jesus was the long expected Messiah.
Like the story of Joel Gregory, it all had to have been so tempting for John. People listened to him. People found him to be a significant figure. Some saw in him the answer to lots of their questions. Again, it had to have been so difficult for John not to listen to what the people said about him and to claim the power and authority for himself that others seemed so willing to give to him.
The amazing thing about John though is that the moment wasn’t too great for him. Despite all of the things said, it wasn’t too great of a temptation. John instead displayed the ability to rise about it all and as we see in our text for today to be clear that he was not the Messiah, only someone who had come to point the way to the true Messiah.
The question is, can we be like John? Can we resist the temptation that will surely come our way through life’s circumstances and through the affirmation of others who want to make us more important than we are? Can we resist the temptation to live without believing that everything rests on us? Can we find a way to resist the belief that it we don’t fix it or do it then no one else will?
In essence, the question is can we like John resist the Messiah Complex where life becomes more about us than anyone else; even more about us than it is about God?
Today is the third Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Joy. On this Sunday, we ask the question, how do we find joy? Joy is not happiness. Joy is inner peace and contentment that exists not when everything is simple and easy but that is ours even when life is chaotic.
A large part of joy comes when we live with a healthy sense of who we are and who we are not. Joy means knowing the Jesus is Lord, not you or me. Joy happens when we affirm that there is a Messiah and that the Messiah isn’t us. When we give God the power God deserves and when we allow ourselves to find rest in who we really are, then joy is in reach. It happens, when the temptation to see ourselves as more important than we are is not too great of a temptation for us to overcome.
One of the most famous paintings of John the Baptist is by the German artist Matthias Grunewald who lived from the late 1400s to the early 1500s. In his rendering, one of the things that stands out is that John’s index finger is shown to be about two or three sizes larger than his other fingers. In essence, Grunewald was making the critical point that John’s whole life was about pointing toward someone else.
We need to go ahead and admit it. This makes no sense whatsoever in the economy of the world today. But, in the life of faith, this is where joy is found. It happens when we resist the temptation to be the Messiah that we might rest easy in the arms of the one who is the Messiah, Christ the Lord. Amen.