There’s an element of last Sunday’s gospel that a preacher would highlight if speaking to fellow preachers. “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie” (Mark 1:7).
Have you considered John the Baptist’s repetition of such words? In every pericope his wilderness voice echoes similar words (see John 1:27 in next Sunday’s gospel; Matthew 3:11, 14; John 3:29; Luke 3:16).
Everything in Scripture deserves Mary-like pondering, but repetition is the Spirit’s highlighting, and this highlighting has our names on it. John’s sobering self-awareness of being unworthy of the most menial servant’s task for the Messiah is a critical safeguard against an imminent danger for public ministers.
Of necessity, the work of public ministry calls us to be as unafraid as John to identify sins that lurk in the hearts and leak out from the lips and lives of our hearers. In a sin-tolerant world there’s intense pressure to become “mute dogs” (Isaiah 56:10) who refuse to bark when souls are endangered.
But unless we’re careful, eagle-eyed attention to others’ sins – especially sins carrying life-shaming consequences – can leave us with a growing blindness to the (usually) more well-hidden wickedness of our hearts. We unwittingly ascend the pastoral pedestal our people too willingly build for us.
Not only does that lead to impatient, condescending law preaching directed toward others, it allows our subtle preacher-popular forms of pride and self-reliance to fester unnoticed by us (though their fruit is noticeable by those we serve even if they can’t diagnose its root).
That’s the perfect time for a sandal-level performance review. There’s not one of us who deserves to be untying Jesus’ shoes. That task of the lowliest slave is too exalted for John, and he speaks for a long line of gospel servants behind him who will at some point come to realize just how utterly true those words are. All our best efforts in ministry don’t diminish that reality. In fact, the much-given-much-expected responsibilities of ministry only sharpen the bitter taste of falling short.
But notice John’s sober self-assessment didn’t hinder him from proclaiming the Messiah in his ministry or delighting in him in his heart. Viewing matters from sandal-level leads us to see the awesomeness of Jesus’ grace. Suddenly we notice that the Messiah does not run loose-sandaled away from us seeking worthier thong-tying replacements. Instead, Jesus – our substitute perfect Servant – lifts up unworthy servants and calls us sons of his Father. Then, grace upon grace, he sends us out in his name to do much more than tying and untying sandal strings.
It’s ironic, but true. The wonder of Christmas cannot be seen except by those who daily stoop with John to view Jesus from sandal level. Thank God that view is even more exhilarating than humbling!
A blessed Christmas to each of you!