Among those born of women no one is greater than John.Luke 7:28
Today, June 24, the Church celebrates the birth of John the Baptist, exactly six months before Christmas Eve. And this is not a coincidence. It is based on the detail in Luke’s Gospel that the angel Gabriel shared with Mary: “Your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren” (Luke 1:36). So, Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy began six months before Mary’s.
Clearly, John the Baptist was and is an important figure in the Christian Church, and worthy of our attention today. In fact, Jesus would go on to say of his relative John that “among those born of women no one is greater than John” (Luke 7:28). But what I think is interesting is that John himself was very humble and never boasted of all that he accomplished. He baptized the Son of God, but only reluctantly. He didn’t even feel worthy to untie the thong of his Lord’s sandals. If he was great, it was because he spent his life pointing to the one who was greater still.
I think that the perfect words to sum up John’s life and ministry are his very last recorded words in the Fourth Gospel: John was speaking of Jesus when he said simply and profoundly:
He must increase, I must decrease.John 3:30
Christ must increase, we must decrease. That is the central focus of John’s life. John was a great and well-known prophet. He had a large following; larger, some suggest, than Jesus. But he knew his place in God’s order of things. He was just a voice. He knew that. “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” (John 1:23). He was just a person who pointed others to the Messiah. He was just a servant of the Most High, unworthy to even untie the thong of the sandals on his feet. “He must increase, I must decrease.”
I have always found it is interesting that in our northern hemisphere, we celebrate John’s birth on one of the longest days of the year, and Christ’s birth is celebrated on one of the shortest days of the year. The days will grow shorter and shorter from here on out, until those dark days of December, when we celebrate the light who came into the world.
This says something important about the life of faith that John led. He allowed his importance to diminish, his preaching to grow quieter, even his days on earth to decrease, so that Christ could increase, so that Christ could be heard and followed and glorified. Christ must increase, I must decrease.
What about us? Can we see our life in the same way? Can we see our life diminishing so that Christ can increase? As the days shorten from now until Christmas, can we allow our own desires and perceived needs to shorten, too? Can we say with John: “Christ must increase, I must decrease.”?
Jesus actually said of John, “I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” (Luke 7:28). The least in the kingdom of God is greater than John? How is this so? Perhaps it is because we are blessed to live in this world after the resurrection of Jesus, and after his ascension and the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. We have something that John longed for, waited for, and died before receiving. How blessed we are. But not for ourselves. This gift is for others. We, too, are called to decrease, as John was.
We can all be great, even greater than John, but not by increasing ourselves. Rather, we become great by humbling ourselves, and by pointing to Jesus, as John did before us. There is no other path, for him or for us, than the path that leads us to follow Jesus, and to decrease more and more so that Christ may increase more and more. May we do this faithfully, and to the glory of God. Amen.