Many moons ago, I sat down with a church call committee. In the midst of our visitation, I asked them, “What makes your church different than any other organization that seeks to help people? What makes you different than the Salvation Army, or the Rotary Club, or the Knights of Columbus? What sets you apart from all of these other groups that get together and do good things?”
There was silence around the table. No one had an answer.
Now, perhaps you do. Perhaps you know what sets a church apart from those other service organizations, but I don’t want you chiming in just yet. I mean, if you did, this sermon would practically be over and done with, and I don’t want folks to be disappointed with such a short sermon. :-) So, I want to take some time and think through this for a few moments. I want us to think about what might truly set us apart from other service organizations and why folks should consider joining a church as well as supporting service organizations.
And we will start in perhaps an interesting place–with the church’s shortcomings. Some folks might get a bit twitchy about this, and I understand. Usually, you want to talk about your strengths and minimize your weaknesses, but things work a little differently in the Christian faith. You might have figured that out a bit. In fact, St. Paul says this in 2 Corinthians chapter 12, “...But on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. [For] He (God) said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” Think about that for a few. It is a very interesting statement that Paul makes essentially saying that we Christians aren’t called to hide our weaknesses. We are to put them forward for a very particular reason–a reason I will talk about in a little while.
So, let’s talk about some of those shortcomings. Let’s begin with the economic shortfall. I mean, some of you are aware of those websites that rank charities. They base their judgements on how much money is actually spent on charitable functions and then how much goes toward overhead, maintenance, and salaries. The more money you spend on ministry, the higher your rank. Guess where most churches and congregations would actually fall? I mean, look at our own budget as a congregation. Yes, we do quite a bit through our community care fund and extra giving campaigns during the year, but what percentage of our budget goes to ministries outside of ourselves? What percentage is not spent on salaries, building maintenance, and supplies? Being generous, less than 10% of our budget is designated to be given away outside of ourselves. Where do you think that would rank on those charity websites? We definitely would not be getting five stars. In fact, there are many, many more charitable organizations that serve more people and have less overhead than the church. One could argue they do a much better job of it too especially in weeding out those who try to take advantage of the system. We are nowhere near the top when it comes to helping others.
Second shortcoming–we don’t do very well relationally either. I mean, there is nothing to distinguish us from any other social club where people have disagreements; where people get angry with one another; where people refuse to attend meetings because they don’t like what someone said or did; where people ignore each other; where people are content to stay within their own little group and refuse to seek out someone who is a stranger; where people have a difficult time welcoming new ideas and new thoughts–especially if that new person sat in my spot in my pew! In fact, there are many congregations where such things are worse than in other social and charitable organizations!!! Congregations are usually very, very tough places for an outsider to break into–even though we say we follow Jesus who tells us clearly to “Love one another for by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Congregations are oftentimes very tough places to find people who forgive one another. We allow squabbles and misunderstandings to fester and cause strife time and again.
Third shortcoming–we tend to hold our leaders to rigorous standards and expect them to be perfect because they “work for God”, but when they comment on our sinfulness, we are quick to say, “Who are they to tell us what is wrong. They put their pants on just like we do.” And those of us who are leaders oftentimes enjoy our elevated status until we realize we are broken and cannot live up to others’ expectations. And we then wonder why folks get angry with us when we try to let our hair down. In a word, I guess this shortcoming can be wrapped up in the words pride and hypocrisy. Too many times, we embody these words. It is quite unfortunate.
I could keep going with more shortcomings, but I won’t. I won’t because sermons aren’t meant for bashing what is wrong with the church and the world. Sermons aren’t meant for pointing fingers and spreading guilt. Sermons have a very different purpose–just like the church has a very different purpose. They each have a purpose which is embodied in the main figure of our Gospel lesson this morning: John the Baptist.
Hear once again what the Gospel writer John says about this figure of faith, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”
Let’s stop right here. It shouldn’t be too hard to see what John the Baptist’s purpose was. John came to testify to Jesus. John came to point the way to Jesus. John was here not for John’s sake but for Jesus’ sake. The next few verses make this abundantly clear.
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and
Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ 20He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ 21And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ 22Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ 23He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord” ’, as the prophet Isaiah said. 24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ 26John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’
It’s important to realize at this juncture just how influential John was at the time. For nearly 400 years, the Jewish people had waited for God to speak. For the past 400 years the people of Israel hadn’t seen a prophet and were mystified by God’s silence. Suddenly, John the Baptist appeared in what we might consider the armpit of the Judean countryside. He wasn’t preaching and teaching in the cities and towns; he was way out in the middle of nowhere, and people flocked to hear him preach. They recognized that something was going on here. They recognized that John met all the criteria of a prophet in his word, deed and power. God was finally speaking!! And of course, those in power wanted to check this out. They wanted to get the scoop themselves. They wanted to figure out just who this character was and how he was able to draw such crowds. And they tried to pin him down. Are you the Messiah? In the strongest possible terms, John answers, “I am not.” Well then are you one of the important folks of ages past? Are you Elijah? “No.” Are you the Prophet Moses spoke to us about. Again, “No.” Well then, for heaven’s sake, who are you?
“I am the one Isaiah speaks about. I am the one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the pathway of the Lord.”
The Pharisees then ask John, “Well, then why are you baptizing? If you are not all these important people, then why are you engaging in something so important?”
John looks at them and says something very interesting, “ I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”
This is an intriguing answer because it doesn’t seem to offer a compelling reason that John is baptizing. It doesn’t seem to give the Pharisees any satisfaction. John simply states what he is doing–baptizing with water, but then he basically says, “It’s not about me.” It’s not about me. It’s about the one who is standing among you who you do not know. It’s about the one coming after me–the one I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This statement would have floored those around John. I mean, here was a man who was obviously a prophet–the first prophet that had been seen in Israel in 400 years; a prophet who was drawing people from all over the place, and this prophet says, “I am not worthy to be the slave with the lowest job on the social totem pole–the slave that is the lowest slave in the household. I am not worthy to even be this in His presence.”
A man of God; a prophet which Jesus later in the book of John says, “Up until this time there is none greater than John.” Think about that. A man who up until that time there was none greater considers himself unworthy to have the lowest job possible of untying Jesus’ sandals. But such is John’s resolve to point to Jesus. Such is John’s resolve to get out of the way so that the true light of the world can take center stage.
Why? Why would John go to such a length even though he is a prophet? Because John’s job pales in comparison to Jesus’. John’s job is tiny in the scope of things. Sure, John is preparing the way for Jesus, but it is Jesus who is coming to reconcile the world unto God. It is Jesus who is coming to be the sacrifice of atonement. It is Jesus who is God made flesh and dwelling among humanity. God made flesh. The perfect God who comes down to die for His creation. And no human is indeed worthy to untie the sandals of God. Every human is far too broken in comparison to God. Every human is too sinful in comparison to God’s perfection. The best one can do is point to the perfect when one is imperfect and admit, freely confess that we fall far short.
And it is this very thing which makes us different than any other charitable organization. It is this that makes us very different from any social organization. For we do not tout ourselves. We do not point at what we do. We do not say, “We are the best organization around. We do tons of good for our community and people. We get along perfectly without any problems, and we think exactly alike. We have the best preaching and the best worship music and the best programs.” No. We do not do those things at all, for we know that we are not the important ones here. For we, like John, know our imperfections. We know we are not great. We know we are not perfect. We know what we do pales in comparison to what Jesus has done. Our imperfect works are simply means by which we point to Jesus–for it is He who entered into our world to save it.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world may be saved through Him.
And thus, we admit our shortcomings; we admit our imperfections; we show our brokenness, because Jesus came into the world to save broken people–people like you and me. Amen.