We’re all equal, but some people are more equal than others.
So goes the truism. It’s not far from what John the Baptist says about himself and Jesus here. I’m not concentrating today on the material about showing the fruit of repentance, because I said something about repentance in last Sunday’s sermon about John. Hence today I have chosen to concentrate on the contrasts between John and Jesus.
It’s a mark of John’s humility that when he draws the crowds and the attention, he doesn’t garner the praise for himself. Instead, he fulfils his rôle as the forerunner to the Messiah by pointing to this cousin, who is about to appear on the scene. Preparation for John is Jesus-centred, and as we look at the three ways in which he says that Jesus is superior to him, I pray that John’s example will be one for us as we prepare this Advent for Christmas.
Firstly, Jesus is superior in authority. It may not have been the most watched movie in 1992 among many of our people here, but Wayne’s World, the affectionate spoof of teenage heavy metal fans, provides a way in here. Wayne and his friend Garth get to meet some of their musical heroes, such as Alice Cooper. When they do, they prostrate themselves before them and utter the famous catchphrase of the film, ‘We’re not worthy.’
John’s whole attitude to Jesus is that he, too, is not worthy: he says he is ‘not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals’ (verse 16). Removing a master’s sandals from his feet was ‘one of the most demanding and least liked’ of a first-century slave’s duties. ‘This is like a CEO saying he is not worthy to take out Jesus’ garbage,’ says one commentator.
In other words, as the same commentator continues,
Human beings are not Jesus’ advisers or equals; they are greatly honoured to know him and serve him. John does not draw attention to himself; instead he points to the superior greatness of the one to come. To direct others to Jesus is the call of God’s servant.
None of us, I’m sure, would ever remotely say we are Jesus’ equals. We too would say we’re not worthy. But however much we know that in our hearts, is it not true that sometimes we slip into the habit of being Jesus’ advisers? How many of us have prayed at times, virtually telling Jesus what his will should be? It’s a real test sometimes to change our prayers from requesting that our Lord do something we want to seeking his will and striving to pray in line with that. Yet how often when we look back after having initially being disappointed with his answer do we see that he knew best all along? We are not his advisers, because he as the Son of God has superior authority.
And not only that, we have our subtle ways of drawing attention to ourselves. It is a maxim among preachers that you cannot set out to show yourself as a wonderful preacher and at the same time demonstrate that Jesus is wonderful. We may not be as blatant as the corporations which like to wave their big cheques in front of the cameras on fund-raising telethons like Children In Need or Comic Relief, but we have our little techniques, and some of ours involve the use of money, too. Donations or buying equipment for the church are not always done innocently. Sometimes I have found the donors want to get a message across that they are admirable people. However, when they do, they rob Jesus of his glory, the glory that is rightfully his as the Son of God. John the Baptist would have none of it. Jesus has superior authority, and we should never undermine it.
Secondly, John tells us that Jesus is superior in blessing. Many people have problems conceiving of God as Father, due to bad experiences in their upbringings. I certainly never had a violent or abusive father as some have suffered, but I still found it difficult to think of God as Father in certain ways. Most especially it was a problem to accept that God could give abundant gifts to his children. That was because my parents were never well-off, and could rarely afford the treats for my sister and me that our friends often had. I remember Dad’s agony about buying tickets for my first football matches. I recall friends who had much more spent on them at Christmas. If God was a Father, then, that didn’t mean One who could give heaps of generous blessings.
However, with our children, it’s different. Debbie and I shall never be as affluent as some of their friends’ families are, but whenever Rebekah or Mark complain about something – whether it’s something they don’t have or something they perceive not to be very good – we can reel out a whole list of things they enjoy that we never did as children. Some of that is about economic and social progress, of course, but we won’t complicate young minds with those thoughts yet!
When it comes to John pointing to Jesus, he talks of the blessings that Jesus can give which he can’t: ‘He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire’ (verse 16). Leave aside the ‘fire’ reference for a moment, and think about this: you will know the verse in Matthew where Jesus says how much more your Father in heaven will give good things to those who ask him. When Luke writes that up (admittedly in a different context), Jesus says, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit. In Luke’s Gospel (and, of course, in the New Testament generally!), the gift of the Holy Spirit is a Good Thing. Jesus can bless you like no-one and nothing else in all creation.
That isn’t to say that the gift of the Spirit is simply for some selfish ecstatic bless-up, but it is to say this: what could possibly be better than the presence of the living God at the heart of our lives? That is what Jesus gives.
The other day a friend of mine asked this on Facebook: why do we give presents when it’s Jesus’ birthday, and Jesus is the best gift to the whole world? When I read it, I thought at first, oh Peter, you Puritan! But I know he isn’t the sort who would fail to buy something nice for his wife and children. I think he simply meant to say that there is nothing like the gift of God in our lives. We celebrate the gift of God in human flesh in our midst at Christmas. But beyond that, we celebrate the gift of God who not only lives in our midst but lives within us – the Holy Spirit. There truly is no better gift. Does that put our Christmas in perspective?
And to return to the word ‘fire’, that may sound troubling and perhaps in some sense it is, but that surely simply refers to the work of purging the darkness from us and strengthening us with divine power. After all, when Luke writes his second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, and describes Pentecost, you’ll recall the Spirit comes like tongues of fire. And it certainly isn’t a traumatic experience for the disciples.
No, we have reason to believe all year round – not only at Christmas – that Jesus gives the best gift of all.
Thirdly and finally, Jesus is superior as Judge.
‘His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ (Verse 17)
Well, we were never going to get away with a completely comfortable sermon with John the Baptist on the case. There is no room in his preaching (or that of Jesus) for the idea that everybody goes to heaven. Both of them deny that. It is clear that where we stand with regard to Jesus affects our eternal destiny.
Not that it is a ticket to heaven and we then sit back and wait, of course. For the fire that came with the Spirit purifies those who follow Christ, and also weeds out those who are not serious about the demands of discipleship. Wesley was right: we are saved by the free grace of God in Christ through faith, but true faith shows itself by deeds of love. The division is between those who have a faith in Christ which leads to a changed life, and those who either claim faith but do not change or who deny Christ.
No, that doesn’t cover everyone, because John doesn’t consider here those who don’t get to hear about Christ, but he is dealing with a situation where he is preparing people for Christ and they will encounter him. Hence his focus.
Put it this way: I once heard a man say after many years of marriage that if he still loved his wife the same way today that he loved her on their wedding day, then their marriage would be in trouble. Real love grows and develops.
It is the same with faith in Christ. He draws us to himself, we entrust our lives to him, and that sets us off on a lifetime journey of change. It is only reasonable to look back and ask, “Have I changed? Am I continuing to change, by the grace of God?”
The good news in this part of John’s message is that God is a God of justice. He is so full of love that he draws sinners to himself, but scandalous as forgiveness is, he does not jettison his moral compass. But of course, if we recognise what he has done for us in Christ, then we shall want to change. And this is possible by his Spirit. All of which makes us wheat, not chaff, entirely by his grace.
Overall, then, John has again given us the Advent mixture of warnings and promises as he has made us focus on the superiority of Jesus. In bowing to the superior authority of Jesus, we stop seeking our own glory and have a passion only for his. In welcoming the superiority of his blessing, we find that Jesus fits us for the life of discipleship. And that means we need not fear his superior rank as Judge, for when we are open to the work of his Spirit in our lives, he makes us into wheat, not chaff.
Even among the warnings of John the Baptist, there is Good News.
 Darrell Bock, Luke (IVP New Testament Commentary), p73.
 Op. cit., p73f.
 Op. cit., p74.