We saw the newest one. It wasn’t bad. It must have been better than the Jim Carrey one. But even with a bigger budget, even with a longer length, even with new characters, I’m sorry. It couldn’t hold a candle to the first one.
No version will ever defeat that 30 minutes of magic. Do you know what I’m talking about?
If you don’t maybe this clip will give you a clue.
I love that scene. But to be honest, I love other scenes more, like the whole Grinch encounter with little Cindy Lou Who. But I picked that scene because it shows you what every Christmas special has. Along the way somebody changes or maybe several people change. Think about it. Santa changes when it comes to Rudolph. In Charlie Brown, everybody changes when it comes to Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tree. In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge changes. In, It’s a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart’s view of himself changes. Pretty much in every one, folks change.
And these movies and cartoons are getting this one thing right. Jesus’ coming does change people. But his coming doesn’t change folks in exactly the way those Christmas specials tell you. In fact, the changes they celebrate, they’re nice. I’m glad the Grinch’s heart grows three sizes that day. But they miss the point.
When you experience the change, Jesus brings, it does make you better, yes. But to be honest, lots of stuff in life can make you better. What Jesus brings frees you. What Jesus brings frees you to become yourself in ways nothing else in existence can. How does Jesus free you like that? In these words, God shows you the way. Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.
How does Jesus’ coming free you? Here, God tells you. Jesus frees you to become yourself. But here’s the paradox. To do this, Jesus first frees you from thinking of yourself at all. What do I mean?
Look at what happens in this story. Here you have this guy, John the Baptist who has gone off on this freelance religious mission. He’s baptizing everyone and anyone who comes to him. And that’s new. In Jewish tradition, some folks did go through a sort of baptism like John is doing. But only converts did this. If you were born Jewish, you were already covered. You didn’t need to go through something like this.
But John goes out in the desert and throws out thousands of years of religious tradition. And get this. He has no special training, no authorization. He is just going off and doing this baptism thing for everybody. And it’s working. People are going out in droves to get this baptism thing.
So, what do you expect would happen? Since John hadn’t gone to the religious authorities. They go to him. And they ask him. Who the heck do you think you are?
And get this, John get the answer wrong. He doesn’t realize he gets the answer wrong. But he does. They ask him. Are you the Messiah? No he says. So far so good. Well, then are you Elijah? No, John says. Uh-Oh. Uh-Oh.
Now, let’s take a time out for a moment. Just as an FYI. In terms of prophet rankings, the prophet Elijah always had the number one spot. He was number one by a mile. Not only that, later prophets had said that Elijah was coming back. He’d come back to be the herald, the one who announces the coming of the Messiah. And that’s exactly what John is doing.
Still, he is technically right. John is not Elijah literally come back to life. But then these religious leaders go deeper. They ask. Are you the Prophet? Basically, they’re asking a similar question to the one they asked before. This time, though they’re referring to a passage in the Torah, in Deuteronomy about a prophet to come. They’re asking. Are you then that other prophet mentioned in the Torah? And John again says. No.
But do you know what Jesus says later about John? He’ll say this.
“What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written:
“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’
who will prepare your way before you.’
I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John;
Wooah! Not only does Jesus call John a prophet, he quotes the very prophecy that talks about the Elijah type guy, who announces the coming of the Messiah. Not only that. He tells everyone that no greater prophet, no greater human being has ever existed before John. John is the greatest human being ever born, at least until Jesus. But more about that later.
But John gets none of that. He just says this. I’m a voice, just a voice, crying in the wilderness. So, why didn’t John get it? Basically, John wasn’t thinking a whole lot about who he was. He wasn’t thinking little of himself. But he was thinking very little about himself. He just wasn’t that focused on himself at all. And in that very lack of focus lies a key not only to the greatness of John, but to the greatness of life that God yearns each of us to have.
Someone once said to me. If you think you’re a saint, you’re definitely not one. And, ever since I heard that, it’s made so much sense. Saints never think of themselves as saints.
Recently the Pope made a guy named Oscar Romero, a saint. And about twenty years ago, I visited the rooms where Oscar Romero used to live. At the time, he was serving as archbishop of El Salvador, a nation torn apart by a brutal civil war. But do you know where he lived? He lived in this little apartment on the campus of a church hospital, the Hospital of Divine Providence. He could have lived in a palace in the center of the city, but he didn’t. But if you had asked him why he lived in this apartment, he wouldn’t have given you some answer about solidarity with the poor, like he was making some grand statement. No, he would have just told you he liked it there. It was quiet. Romero never thought of himself as anything all that special. Still that doesn’t change the fact that his witness and faith touched the life of his country, and countless people around world, including me. Sheesh, I have his picture on my office wall. But when Romero was alive, if you had told him that 50 years after his death as a martyr, a Presbyterian preacher would have a poster of him on his wall. He wouldn’t have believed it. But the fact that Romero didn’t think so much about himself actually freed him to become the very saint he has become. And in John you see that same thing happening.
For after John has denied that he is anything special, the religious authorities get to the point. So then, if you’re not anything special, why are you doing this baptism thing? And what does John say? He simply says. That’s just what I do. I baptize.
Do you realize how gutsy this is? He tells the religious establishment of the entire nation. I don’t have to give you any answer at all. If this is what I feel called to do, I’m going to do it, end of story. And John won’t stop being bold. He’ll call out the highest leader in Palestine for sleeping with his brother’s wife. In fact, that move eventually ends up getting him killed. But how can John be that bold, that gutsy? That has to do with what he continues to say.
For John doesn’t end it there with those words on baptism. He keeps going. He tells them. Whatever authority I have to rewrite the rules of our religion, it pales in comparison to who is coming. That one could be standing around you right now, in fact And, that one, I’m not even worthy to untie his sandals.
In John’s day, the lowliest work you could do was untying someone’s sandals. And when it comes to Jesus, he says. I’m not even worthy enough for that. But in those very words, you find the key to John’s freedom, and to yours.
Why did John not think a lot about himself? He was thinking so much about Jesus, the one to come. And, the more he thought about Jesus, the less he thought about himself. And let’s be honest. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing?
After all, how much time do you spend thinking about yourself? How many times do you find yourselves a little anxious what some other person is thinking or feeling about you? How do I look? Did I say the wrong thing? Is that person upset with me? What are they going to think if I do this or don’t do this?
And don’t tell me. Well, I’m my own person. I don’t let other people set my agenda. Guaranteed, if you’re saying that, you’re thinking about how good or impressive it looks to say something like that. Whether you realize it or not, you’re always playing before an audience, maybe an audience that includes people that aren’t even alive anymore. But they still rent space in your head. And that audience can capture you like nothing else. It limits you from becoming who you really, truly are.
But in John, you see someone who doesn’t have that audience hanging around in his head. He is playing only before an audience of One. And that frees him to not get intimidated when the religious leaders call him out. It frees him to challenge the highest power in the land. It frees him from himself, from his self-obsessions, his insecurities, his fears, all those things that trip you up in the world. And get this, he doesn’t even know fully why Jesus is coming, what Jesus will do.
And for that reason, Jesus says as great as John is, the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he. What does Jesus mean? He is saying that now greatness comes through him, through Jesus, through Jesus’ love for you, through Jesus’ laying down his life for you, through Jesus’ giving up everything for you, to make you great. And when you get that, how deeply, how profoundly, how infinitely God loves you, it frees you from you. It frees you from worrying about what others think, from that audience in your head. It narrows that audience to One, to One who loves you more than you can imagine. And in that love, you become free, free from fears, from insecurities, free to be yourself more and more every day, until Jesus completes that beautiful work making you, you. That is the change Jesus brings. That is the light that comes to you that no darkness can overcome. That is the light of Christmas. This is the bright and morning star. So, live in that light, and let it free you. Let it cast all the fear and darkness away.