“I am not the Christ” (John 1:20) That straightforward answer by John in Sunday’s gospel (John 1:6-8, 19-28) should be an easy confession for me to imitate.
But I confess freely that it is not. No, I’ve never said, “I am the Christ” in so many words. Yet the lure of a false Messianism (living as if I have no human limits in my callings in life – especially my public ministry callings) has often troubled me.
It is so easy to race about life as if all hope for the kingdom of God begins and ends with me. I am doing it every time I say “yes” to more tasks and responsibilities without any corresponding “no’s” that would testify to the creaturely finiteness of my energy and stamina (not to mention the finiteness of my skills, knowledge, and wisdom…though it is often even harder for my pride to confess those limits).
As Professor Duetschlander noted in The Theology of the Cross, there is a very fine line between devoting myself to the public ministry for the glory of God and instead functioning to the glory of Gurgel (he didn’t mention my name – so feel free to add your own name if it fits).
My false Messianism could be tracked if anyone were recording which callings (and sub-tasks in those callings) in my life get the greater second-Messiah fervor and where the fervor is not as often present. The fervor tends to be particularly intense wherever pats on the back are administered. “Wow, Rich, I can see how hard you are working! Don’t you ever get tired! You are just always there for us whenever we need you!” The same fervor seldom shows up in tasks that no one will notice or about which few will ever speak a word of praise. I do not recall regular commendations for devoting time to personal Word and prayer. Few have commended me for being a devoted husband or father (though perhaps too often insufficient evidence contributed to that).
Now, allow me to avoid any drunken-man-on-a-donkey over-reaction by disavowing to offer any aid or comfort to treating any God-given calling in life – let alone public ministry – with a 9-5 punch-clock mentality. I don’t want those trying to contact me getting the impression they’ve reached their cable company rather than Grow in Grace. (“Your call is very important to me. Sometime before you die, I may even prove it by getting back to you!”) I’ve prayed my entire ministry that God would enable me to avoid losing zeal for his house so that I do not just go through ministry tasks as a hireling chanting the mantra “Good enough!” in task after task when the effort is far from that!
But the ugliness of the inverse does not make sacred the converse!
So, where’s the middle ground? It’s the sane realization that long before I entered the public ministry God was accomplishing the advance of his Kingdom just fine. And, unless Christ returns quite soon, even after I am worm-food he will continue accomplishing his tasks just fine! It’s the wholesome respect for the reality that all my many callings from God (husband, father, grandfather, friend, ministry peer), especially the calling that alone gives meaning to all the others (child of God) have important tasks that deserve regular, devoted attention even if no one will ever notice or pat me on the back for carrying them out. I am talking about remembering there is no more important task than making space for God’s Spirit to work the daily crucifixion of my old nature and resurrection of my new self as I breath in the true Messiah’s Word and breath out his Word as I pray it back to him.
That is not easy to do! That is why I am so intrigued by how God’s grace enabled John to say what he did with such utter simplicity: “I am not the Christ.” He was the first live-on-tour prophet Israel had heard in 450 years! Thousands of mesmerized followers flocked to hear and see him. Anticipation was at a fever pitch. Yet, he persistently pointed away from himself to the true Messiah.
Where did John get such selfless wisdom? Was he just made of some different stuff than us? No, what we see was precisely the opposite. He was painfully aware that he was not any different than us in our utter neediness (the very thing I so easily try to hide!).
“There came a man sent from God, his name was John” (1:6). John was just “a man.” A flawed man who in Herod’s dungeon would reveal his doubts. A man who in last Sunday’s gospel confessed that he was not worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals, let alone be his prophet. A man whose philosophy of ministry could be summarized by these words: “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30).
But he was “a man” who also knew he was “sent from God”! The God who sent him was first his Savior. Then he was the God who sent him to fill a unique calling. Conscious of being “sent from God,” he raised his voice in the wilderness so that other sinners like him might have hearts in which the way was smooth and straight for their God.
So, it is good for me regularly to remind myself and those I serve: “I am just a man….” In and of myself I am just a man with all that entails. Flawed. Broken from birth. Finite. To ignore my sinfulness and my creaturely limitations finally only hurts those I had hoped to serve when I fail. Or worse. What if I appear to succeed in the attempt to be more than I am? In addition to the deadly-for-me pride that would simultaneously confess and breed, consider the harm I do to those who must step into my public ministry office after me. They are in for some awkward moments when they fail to be able to walk in my shoes (shoes that really didn’t fit me either!).
But thank God there is more to the mantra than “I am just a man!” “I am just a man…sent from God.” It is just such clay jars that God sends! After sending us daily back to his Son’s cross – to our baptism – for death and resurrection, he sends us out as his representatives in multiple directions. Though “just a man,” I’ve been privileged by God’s grace to be sent to multiple godly callings: husband, father, grandfather, friend, public minister, ministry peer (and the list – unique to each of us! – could go on).
“I am not the Christ.” That makes a good confession for us as pastors especially at busy times like Advent and Christmas. But there’s more to confess! “‘So, who am I then?’ you ask, ‘I am only a man – sinful, flawed, and finite. But I am a man sent from God.’”