“Truly, I say to you, among those born of women, there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptizer. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
The words of our Lord cause us to consider what it means to be great. What is greatness? Is it fame, fortune, power, influence? John had none of these things. He never published a book, appeared on Oprah, or on the cover of Time or Newsweek. He was ever Time’s Man of the Year; he never won a Nobel prize, organized a charity, run for political office. He didn’t wear expensive clothes or live in a mansion or drive flashy cars or hang out with the A-list celebrities. The religious leaders thought he was crazy, demon-possessed. He accumulated a following for a while, but then they went off to follow cousin Jesus. He was on the verge of starting a movement, some people even thought he might be the messiah. But then he criticized the bad morals of Herod who was shacking up with his estranged sister-in-law and got himself thrown in prison. Eventually he would die in that prison, his head served up on a silver platter as a reward for a step-daughter’s seductive belly dance.
You call that great? The world wouldn’t. It would laugh in your face. Herod was great. In fact Herod’s father was Herod the Great. People feared him. He had whole towns wiped out. Caesar was great. But John, this wild man of the wilderness eating grasshoppers and digging honey out of rotten trees? Great? Get real. Insane maybe. Novel, perhaps. Interesting, a religious side show, a diversion. But not great. What did he accomplish? Where is his legacy? What did he have to show for his efforts? He didn’t even land in prison for the cause. He confronted Herod about his morals, his private life. Everyone knows that private life doesn’t matter in public office right? Separation of church and state and all that.
Great. Can you imagine calling some street preacher wearing camel’s hair and leather standing on a corner shouting “Repent” and carrying a cardboard sign reading “Be baptized”? Are you going to call that great?
Jesus does. He says that there was not a greater man born of woman.
John had sent his disciples to see Jesus. He gave them a question. Are you the one who was to come? Are you the one we are waiting for, or should be look for another? Over the past 15 years, whenever this reading comes up, I have always preached on the doubting of John in prison, how this great man wobbled just a bit as he contemplated his own future in Herod’s dungeon. A friend of mine pointed me to the preaching of the early church father and also our Lutheran fathers in the Reformation. They didn’t see John as wavering or doubting. Rather they saw John doing what John always did – pointing the way to Jesus. “Behold, the Lamb of God.”
John was giving his disciples a little assignment, sending them out on a field trip. He was in prison. There was nothing much for him to do there, and there was no reason for his disciples to hang around with John. And so he sends his disciples to Jesus with a question, so that they can hear the answer for themselves, in their own ears. He sends them to Jesus. He’s not content with their loyalty; he doesn’t want them hanging around keeping him company. He wants them with Jesus.
That is part of John’s greatness – the greatness of his subservience to Christ. John knew who he was; he knew his place in relation to jesus. He was not the Christ; he was a voice, a forerunner, paving a holy highway for the Lord. “He must increase, and I must decrease,” John once said when all his disciples were flocking to Jesus. “Good! Let them all go to Jesus. That’s where they belong.” And it was with these disciples bearing John’s question on their lips, a question more for them than for John. Let them go to Jesus.
John was a forerunner of Christ in a different sense as well – a forerunner in death as well as life. John’s ministry was marked by the cross as well. The kingdom of heaven advances forcefully, Jesus noted, and forceful men lay hold of it and try to stop its advance. The boldness of John was met with force – religious and political force, the same forces that would eventually crucify Jesus.
“Are you the coming one,” they ask Jesus. Are you the one John spoke about, the one with the winnowing fork in hand, the one who was going to lay the axe to the root of the fruitless tree, the one bringing a baptism for fire and the Spirit? Jesus points out the signs – the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the poor are evangelized. These are the messianic signs right off the pages of the prophet Isaiah. This is the primary purpose of Jesus’ miracles – to show that the age of messiah had come with the coming of Jesus. They point to Jesus as the promised “coming one,” the promised one, the one who comes to save and deliver.
The greatness of John was his message, the Word he preached. Prepare the way of the Lord. John preached without regard for what people thought of him or how high up in the polls he was. He was not some tall piece of grass blown about by the winds of public opinion. John had in mind only one thing – repentance – and he pursued it to the end, calling even Herod to repentance. John was the opposite of the weedy soil in Jesus’ parable, where the good seed gets choked out by the weeds, the “cares ad conerns of this life.” John had not care for what he wore – camel’s hair and a leather were adequate for him. He didn’t live in some pricey neighborhood; the wilderness was his home. He didn’t care what was on his table or in his wine cellar – locusts and wild honey were sufficient for John’s “daily bread.”
That’s the core of John’s greatness – an unwavering reliance on the Word of God. That’s what makes John great, greater than anyone born of woman. He was totally captive to the Word of God he preached. John wasn’t worried about “being relevent,” as so many preachers are today. He didn’t care if his message was “practical” or “meaningful.” The Word creates its own relevance. Repentance is highly relevant in view of the alternatives.
John was a prophet, a proclaimer of the Word. He was more than a prophet, he was himself a prophetic sign in the wilderness. He was Elijah, whom the prophet Malachi said would come before the Lord’s coming. John was the end of the old testament, pointing the way to the new. If you believe that Jesus is the coming Messiah, than you would have to believe that John was Elijah. Both demand faith – “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
John was great, no question about it. Jesus said so. But Jesus also said that the least in the kingdom of God, even the littlest baptized baby, is greater than John. Greater? That’s almost as crazy as calling John “great,” But so it is. To be great in the kingdom of the crucified, beggar king is to be least and lost and lowly and dead to this world. This kind of greatness is nothing that the world admires, much less rewards and seeks after. In fact, it’s a threatening kind of greatness. It challenges the world and our own sinful nature. It’s a continual reminder that we live by the Word – the Word that created us, the Word that redeems us on the cross, the Word that sanctifies us.
You too are great in that greatness that was John’s. Oh, you may not feel great as you are tending to your children or providing for your family or doing the various mundane, mind-numbing tasks of your vocation. You may not feel great when your career goes on ice or you see no apparent return on your investment. Greatness in the kingdom is sometimes grinding on the earthly plane. But great you are. Not in yourselves. In yourselves you are sinners, children of Adam, which is anything but great. But baptized into Jesus’ death and life, joined to Him through faith, having His body and blood in your body, breathing His Spirit, you are great in Jesus, riding the coattails of His death and resurrection.
You may not win a Nobel prize or appear on Oprah or Larry King Live or write a best-selling novel. But you are great in the only greatness that matter on the Last Day – the greatness of Christ crucified for your sins and raised for your justification. You are great in the Lord Jesus.
In the name of Jesus.