Notes on Sermon preached at PCF, 6 March 2011 “True Greatness” (Luke 7 v 18-35)
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What do you regard as true greatness? Obituaries, biographies and documentaries often class a person as being “truly great” – this is often ascribed to politicians, actors, sportsmen or rock stars! Here Jesus describes a man as being the greatest ever born – then goes onto say that such greatness is eclipsed by His own followers. What an extraordinary assertion! What are we to make of it?
1. True greatness means that you face your doubts
At this stage in the busy Galilean ministry of Jesus, there comes an interruption. Jesus, in a season of healing, deliverance and preaching is interrupted by some disciples of John the Baptist who bring a question from him. Extraordinary though it may seem, it would appear that John is having doubts about Jesus. The man who had been the one whose job it was to prepare the way for the Messiah, who had seen Him receive the Holy Spirit, who had said that “He must become greater, I must become less” was having doubts!
This is one of those areas in church life that is often left not talked about and not discussed. People – even the best and most significant of people – have doubts. For John, things had not turned out how he had expected. The Messiah had not overthrown the religious establishment, had not conquered Rome, and seemed content to let him languish in prison. How many people – often towards the end of their lives – find that things have not turned out how they had hoped, and find themselves wondering: “Did I get this right”. John’s message to Jesus, therefore, is totally understandable, and characteristically blunt. “Are you the one to come, or should we expect someone else?”
John does the right thing. He is not ashamed of his doubt, he sends people honestly and openly to express those doubts to Jesus. It is an example we should follow.
2. True greatness means that you face the facts
Note that the doubts that John expresses have to do with the person of Jesus. When we have doubts you can always trace them back to this issue: “What do we make of Jesus”? And Jesus helps John to deal with his doubts by pointing him to the facts.
The miracles that Jesus was doing were a direct confirmation of the prophecies made about the Messiah, that John and those around him would have known and loved. The facts about Jesus proved that He was the Messiah, and that God was in control, even if events hadn’t turned out the way that John wanted. When faced with the facts, doubt has to go. We are called to live on the basis of facts, not fantasy, in the light of facts, not feeling, and in the light of reality, not perception. The way you deal with doubt is to deal in facts. This means that we should live in the Bible as a fish lives in the sea. It means that we should fill our hearts and minds day after day with the truth about God, the truth about the world and the truth about Jesus.
No one – however significant – is free of doubt. Great people know how to deal with those doubts! The truth sets you free!
3. True greatness means that you face the cost
After the messengers have gone back to John, Jesus engages the crowd with a description of the ministry of John the Baptist. He presents him as a man who paid the price of serving God. Not a reed blown by the wind – one who would bend and adapt to every wind of fashion – and one who had forsaken the comforts of a an existence back in the world. He was also one who had embraced the lonely and frugal life of a prophet, giving himself to nothing but the fulfilling of God’s purpose in his life and through his life. John was a man who paid the price in every way of his ministry. Are we willing to pay the price for what God has called us to do?
4. True greatness means that you face up to who you are
Jesus quotes from the same passage from Isaiah that John quoted himself.
“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’[b]
One of the great features of John’s ministry is that he knew exactly who he was and exactly what he was called to do.
Does that apply to us? Have we embraced who we are , and what God has called us to do, as a Mission Community in Poole?
5. True greatness means that you face opposition
Jesus contrasts the “sinners” who had responded to John and were responding to Him, to the proud self-righteous Pharisees who had resisted John and were now resisting Jesus.
To their horror, the Pharisees found themselves compared with children playing the market place – with Jesus saying, effectively, that if you serve God, as John and Jesus did, you will never win with these people! Either you are mad (John for not eating) or a glutton (Jesus for eating). Those who don’t like your message will never support you and will always oppose you. Opposition is what happens to people who follow God!
6. True greatness means that you face vindication
But opposition is not the end of the story of John and for Jesus. Because as Jesus point out, “wisdom is proved right by all her children”. As the Message has it “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” and the Living Translation says “wisdom is shown to be right by the lives of those who follow it”.
Those who follow God’s purposes for their lives will be vindicated in the wisdom of their lives, and ultimately by God himself. And for Jesus, for John and for us, that is the ultimate reward – to be vindicated by God himself.
John is therefore betrayed as a great man. However there is one more mysterious part about this passage that we have to deal with. Jesus, after giving His ringing endorsement to John, says that “least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he”. What are we to make of this? Is Jesus really saying that weakest saint surpasses John the Baptist in significance, relevance and honour?
Absolutely, yes! Despite his amazing ministry, John did not have the opportunity that we have to point people to the finished work of Calvary. John was not able to invite people to receive the outpoured Holy spirit and all his benefits. John did not have the same perspective on the life of Jesus that we have (hence his confusion). John could not bring people to salvation – he could only point to it as a future possibility.
We have the unsurpassable opportunity to tell people about the finished work of Jesus, to baptise them not only for repentance, but for salvation, to see them receive the all- powerful Holy Spirit. We are a community of people who have a gospel that John never had.
John fulfilled his responsibilities. Will we?