Sunday, January 15, 2017

Getting Out of the Way

Scripture Readings: Isaiah 49: 1-7 and John 1: 29-42 Sermon Title: Getting Out of the Way Preached on January 15, 2017 Last Sunday we focused on John the Baptist just as we do today, but this week is different. Last week I was focused on John’s willingness to step forward, and preached a sermon on our need to step forward. Jesus called on John to baptize him in the passage we read from the Gospel of Matthew last week, and just as Jesus called on John, Jesus calls on us to be partners in his ministry as well, so even while John hesitated, not feeling worthy of baptizing Jesus, in stepping forward and answering the call to baptize the Lord in the Jordan, John models a courage that we need to have too. That was the point I was trying to get across last Sunday, but today my focus is quite different, for while last week I was so inspired by John’s courage in stepping forward to baptize Jesus, today I see that here in the Gospel of John, while John the Baptist had the courage to step forward, he also had the wisdom to know when to get out of the way. Last week he stepped forward. This week he steps back, and we must be able to do both possessing the wisdom to know which we should do at any given time: step forward or step back. Not everyone has that kind of wisdom, but people must know how to do both – step forward and step back. There are some people in this world who don’t know when to step forward to speak – but at the same time there are plenty of people who don’t know when to stop speaking. There are some people in this world who don’t know when to act – but there are others who do so much that they micromanage and strangle families or other groups by doing too much. There are some people in this world who don’t know how to accept praise, who have no capacity to receive a compliment, but there are so many others who never step back to give others their due, serving as the president of their own fan club and want all the good news to be about them. There are people who have trouble stepping forward, but there are others who don’t know how to step back, so I’m amazed by John again today because last Sunday we saw how he stepped up to ministry when he was called on, but today we see that he also steps back for when he saw Jesus coming toward him he points away from himself to declare: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” I realize that I don’t always do this, and in fact, it’s frustrating in a way to face the reality that the great successes of this church or any church for that matter, have less to do with the pastor than the congregation. I consider all the greatest successes in my ministry either here at this church or in the church I served before, and I realize that all the high points I can take no credit for. I must step back, pointing away from myself to give credit where credit is due. You might remember this – the church I served outside Atlanta was facing a financial crisis, which the church emerged from going from a massive forecasted budget deficit to a large financial surplus. Dr. Herold Pryor had heard about it somehow and he asked me down in the Fellowship Hall what I had done to achieve such a success. I told him that I was a financial genius, which of course, wasn’t true, because I had no part in this success. The heroes in the story are the small business owners and bankers who knew what to do and the congregation who responded. And we have a similar success to celebrate today. The Stewardship Committee met last Tuesday for a follow up meeting to the recent Stewardship Campaign, and there our church treasurer, Jeff Smith, reported that pledges for this new year exceed last year’s pledges by $70,000. Now who do we thank for that? I know I would like to take credit for it, but this is one of those many times in the life of this church when the pastor has to step back to point to away from himself because the reason for this success has everything to do with the wisdom of the committee, Lee Maddox who made the Stewardship Video, the Confirmation Class who helped him, and all of you – some who pledged for the very first time, others who have always pledged, but this year on average increased your pledge by 15%. So often I focus on work, hard work. You may not believe this about me, but when something goes wrong at the church I want to be the one to fix it. Over the summer, you might remember well those two Sundays when the air conditioner wasn’t working. I was standing back there with the choir ready to enter the sanctuary to begin the worship service, someone came charging up to me reporting how hot it was in the sanctuary, and as soon as I heard that the AC was out I was heading to look at the unit myself. Why? Do I know anything about air conditioners? Hardly, but isn’t the pastor responsible? Shouldn’t the pastor be doing something? Only the problem is, while sometimes what is demanded is stepping forward. Other times, what is demanded of us is getting out of the way. John saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” The strength of this statement comes in knowing that John had followers of his own. We know from all the Gospel accounts that John the Baptist was a figure worthy in stature and that there were plenty who believed he was the Messiah. We don’t know how long his ministry was, but just before Jesus stepped onto the scene there were crowds who assembled out by the Jordan and they went, not hoping to see Jesus, they went out there to see John. Now if John has a following already – if he’d already stepped up to ministry in his own right, think about how hard it must have been for him to know that he needed to step back. How many times have you seen it before, that a new King is born, and the first thing he must do is fight the old king who doesn’t know when to get off the throne. That was the case with King David back in the Old Testament – God made the young man the new king, the Prophet Samuel even anointed him, but old King Saul wouldn’t get out of the way. We see it also with parents. So often it’s the case that the father or the mother never takes the step forward, but damage is also caused by that parent who never steps back. Kids know what I’m talking about. I was watching cartoons the other morning, or more accurately, Lily was watching a cartoon and I was thinking about reading the paper but became entranced by the cartoon she was watching, and there was the story of a fairy godmother who couldn’t seem to earn her wings. She had tried to make the dreams of several children come true, but had failed each time. There was a girl who dreamed of becoming a ballerina, but when she got her big chance she froze on stage, and there was a boy who dreamed of being a great skier but on the day of the race he flew off a cliff. This aspiring fairy godmother tried to help them both but failed, and now, in the cartoon that we were watching, she’s trying to help a little girl win a kind of go-cart race. The girl was building the go-cart herself, but to help, the fairy godmother built it for her. Then the girl was practicing, but the fairy godmother stopped her and provided her with a comfortable chair and something cold to drink. Later the girl is steering around a stack of hay bales, which the fairy godmother caused to disappear removing the challenge that this girl wanted to steer around herself – and that’s when I knew this was a cartoon for children that was meant for their parents, because while some parents never take the step forward to provide or protect their children, there are other who never take a step back and go on providing and protecting to such a degree that the child never learns to provide or protect for herself. So, we must look at John here. Jesus was coming toward him and there were so many things that John could have done: he could have been like King Saul who refused to leave the throne, he could have been like this aspiring fairy godmother who wanted to help so badly that he never allowed Jesus to come into his own, he could have been like big ego-ed pastor who wanted to take credit for every success, but instead, “he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”” It’s not me – it’s him. The story goes that years ago, Dr. Bill Williamson preached his last sermon here after serving this church for 22 years, and he began his sermon wearing every stole of the church, but one by one he took them off and gave them back to you, to this congregation, saying, “It is your ministry as it has always been. It is your service, your stole, and so I leave it here with you.” I have a stack of his sermons. Mrs. Wanda Turner gave them to me, and when she did there was a part of me that was offended, and I wondered why it was she was giving me all those old sermons. But to learn anything, don’t you first have to step down, admitting to yourself and whoever else that you don’t know and aren’t the end all and be all. That’s what John does. And when he stepped back there were others who could see Jesus – these first disciples, one of whom was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. What strikes me today is the realization that too many preachers have been too anxious to step forward, so anxious in fact that they may have blocked some from seeing Jesus at all. How many opportunities for real discipleship have I prevented, when someone offered to help and I told him, “No, no, I can do it.” I so badly want to step forward. I so badly want to make a difference and serve this church, that the lesson for me here in this week and last week’s Scripture Lessons is that there is a time to step forward and there is a time to step back. For sometimes, it’s only in stepping back that we can see. It’s only in stepping back that we can be the parents and grandparents our children need us to be. It’s only in letting go that we had make way for the future. It’s only when we stop trying to save the Church and the world that we realize we already have a savior. The way Glenna Mingeldorff put it – she’s a counselor out at the Columbia Counseling Ministries, an organization that our church supports who provides lidding scale counseling to those who need it – she said that sometimes we must stop trying to fill our own cup, for he has already filled it. We must stop trying to be perfect, to be worthy of redemption, to realize that he’s already redeemed us. We must step back from our problems to see him answer our prayers. We struggle to be worthy, to be important, we want to be loved – but step back, because you are already. Amen.

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