Sermon

John 1:19-28

Are You The Messiah?

By Dr. Philip W. McLarty

If you’d been in the Open Door Service last week, you would have gotten a pretty good dose of John the Baptist. Mostly, we talked about what an unlikely choice he was to announce the coming of the Messiah. For one thing, he didn’t look the part. Mark says,

“Now John was clothed with camel’s hair,
with a leather belt around his waist,
and he ate locusts and wild honey.” (Mark 1:6)

I wish you could have seen the picture I snagged off the Internet. It showed this mangy creature standing out in the middle of a shallow river beckoning a would-be disciple to come and be baptized. He had hair over his shoulders and a long, scruffy beard – like Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies, only not as big! Which is probably a pretty accurate picture of what John the Baptist looked like. Hardly the person you’d expect to announce Jesus’ coming.

Neither did he sound like a herald of Good News. According to Luke, a group of Pharisees came out to the wilderness to meet John. His first words to them were,

“You brood of vipers.
Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come?
Bear fruits that befit repentance …
Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees,
and every tree that does not bear good fruit will be thrown into the fire.” (Lk. 3:7-8)

How would you like to have that printed on your Christmas cards this year?

What we didn’t get around to talking about last Sunday was that John the Baptist had a clear sense of who he was … and who he wasn’t. This is brought out in the text for today, and it’s what I’d like for us to think about this morning. A group of priests and Levites came out into the wilderness to talk with John, and they asked him a simple question, “Who are you?” And he answered, “I am not the Messiah.” (1:19-20)

“I am not the Messiah.” Put that on your refrigerator door. Seriously. Because our ability to know Jesus as the Christ begins with the confession that we are not the Christ. In other words, as long we rely on our own strength and wisdom and resources, we hold Christ at a distance. Only as we recognize our dependence on him – a power greater than ourselves – and confess our need of his grace and love, do we truly experience him as the Lord and Savior of our lives.

Are you familiar with the “Messianic Complex?” That’s where someone goes over the edge and has delusions of grandeur and thinks it’s up to him or her to save the world. Taken to the extreme, the Messianic Complex can land you a bed in a mental hospital. In most cases, it simply leads to a lot of sleepless nights taking yourself too seriously and worrying about situations and circumstances over which you have little, if any, control.

A Messianic complex lies at the heart of each of us. I suppose it’s innate. And it’s reinforced every time parents and grandparents and teachers and friends say things like, “We’re counting on you … don’t let us down, now.” We want to be responsible. We want to do our part. We’ll do whatever it takes not disappoint those we look up to and love. And this can have disastrous results.

Several years ago, I buried a sixteen-year-old boy who drowned in a hunting accident. He and a friend had gone duck hunting on a small lake out from town. He’d taken his father’s shotgun, a special privilege his father had given him when he became an Eagle Scout. It was cold, and he was bundled up warmly. He and his buddy got tired of standing on the bank, so they got into a small fishing boat and paddled out into the middle of the lake. Suddenly, a wind came out of nowhere and swamped the boat. In spite of the heavy clothing, the friend was able to swim to safety. Tim went under and never came up. As it turned out, the reason he drowned was that, in order to swim, he had to use both arms, and he refused to let go of his father’s shotgun.

From earliest childhood we’re taught to be responsible and resourceful, and we’re so rewarded for our achievements that we come to believe that failure is simply not an option.

A classmate of mine committed suicide in 1992. Actually, he was in the class just ahead of me, but, in a small school, who’s counting? He was the Valedictorian of his class. He excelled in college and went on to law school. When he finished, he took the state bar exam and made the highest score on record. He was the first of his class to be picked by a prestigious law firm and, in no time, he was made a full partner. He had it all – good looks, intelligence, charm – but when, through no fault of his own his integrity came under public scrutiny, he broke. The very possibility that he might not succeed was more than he could take.

John told the priests and the Levites,

“I am not the Messiah.
I am but the voice of one crying in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord.'”

If we’re to know who Christ is, we need to clear about who we’re not.

In his book, Friedman’s Fables, psychiatrist Edwin Friedman tells this story. Two men crossed paths on a foot bridge high above a raging river. One could see from a distance that the other had a rope coiled around his waist. As they got closer, the man with the rope began to uncoil the rope, and, when they met, he said, “Pardon me, would you be so kind as to hold the end of this rope for a moment?” It took the other man by surprise and, as any of us would have done, he took the end of the rope and held it in his hand. The other man said, “Thank you,” and then added, “Both hands, now. Be sure and hold on tight.” With that, he leaped over the side of the bridge.

The man standing on the bridge held on with both hands and braced himself for the sudden jerk of the rope. Sure enough, with all his might, he was able to keep the other man from plunging to his death. The question was what to do next? If he let go, the other man would surely die.

“Don’t let go,” the man hanging by the rope shouted. “If you let go, I’ll be lost. My life is in your hands.” The man on the bridge tied the rope around his own waist to lessen the strain, then did everything he could think of to save the other man’s life. He tried to pull the man back to the bridge, but he was too heavy. He tried to coax the man to climb the rope, but he wouldn’t try. Finally, he came up with a solution. He told the man to coil the rope around his waist and so, gradually shorten the length until he was within reach of the handrail. But the other man wouldn’t cooperate. He refused even to try. Instead, he just repeated his plea, “Whatever you do, don’t let go!”

Well, not to leave you hanging – if you’ll pardon the pun – the man holding the rope came to a moment of truth: He could only do so much. And so, he said, “It’s up to you. You decide which way this will end. I will become the counterweight. You do the pulling and bring yourself up.”

The other man complained all the more loudly, “You cannot mean what you say … I am your responsibility … Do not do this to me.”

The man on the bridge waited for the other man to do his part. Nothing happened. Finally, he said, “I accept your choice,” and let go of the rope. (pp. 9-15) Well, it’s a great story. It illustrates how we often get trapped into thinking that it’s up to us to do something about the mess other people have gotten themselves into and how, if we’re not careful, that fosters this Messianic complex we carry within us.

You see it all the time: Others put ropes in our hands – responsibilities at home, at work, at school, in the community to solve problems or clean up messes others have made. They tell us in so many ways, “We’re counting on you to help us here. Don’t let us down. You’re our only hope.”

I’m not saying you shouldn’t do your part, only that there comes a time when the most faithful thing you can do is let go of the rope.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. I had an elderly couple in my church years ago whose son was draining their resources. The mother wanted to help him. The father wanted to cut him off.

They asked me for an objective opinion. “How old is your son?” I asked. “Fifty-three,” they said. “And how long has this been going on?” They looked at each other and said, “All his life.”

As it turns out, the son was addicted to alcohol and drugs. He’d been to prison. He’d never kept a job more than a few months. He was a deadbeat. In the latest episode, his parents had given him money, bought him a car and rented and furnished him an apartment. Within a week, he’d spent the money, pawned the furniture and wanted to move in with them. The father was adamant: No more.

All the mother could say was, “But we’re all he has.”

I wish I could tell you that they let go of the rope and stopped enabling their son and his codependent behavior, but they didn’t. As far as I know, they continued to support him until they died.

It’s hard not to be the savior, if you think you can. And that’s the problem. As long we’re determined to rely on our own strength and wisdom and resources, we hold Christ at a distance.

Only as we recognize our dependence on him – a power greater than ourselves – and confess our need of his grace and love, do we truly experience him as the Lord and Savior of our lives.

In a sermon published in the The Christian Century, John Stendahl writes,

“Messianic ambitions for ourselves
and messianic expectations of others
are not just the quaint delusions of people certified as mentally ill.
They are found in us and around us
as we seek too much from others
or wish to be too much to them.
In a song that is at once poignant and cruel, Bob Dylan wrote,
‘You say you’re looking for someone
who’s never weak but always strong
To protect you and defend you
whether you’re right or wrong,
Someone to open each and ev’ry door,
but it ain’t me, babe …
It ain’t me you’re looking for.’

Stendahl concludes:

“We are not, any nor all of us, the Messiah.
That position has already been filled.
To let Jesus be our Christ, our anointed savior and rescuer,
may still entail seeking to be engaged in his saving work and mission –
of course it does –
but it also commands us to humility,
a letting go of our seducing desires
either to rescue or to be rescued by others.
We already have a Messiah, and he ain’t us.” (12/3/02, p. 17f)

Our ability to know Jesus as the Christ begins with the confession that we are not the Christ.

Try this: Take whatever is weighing heavily on your heart today and turn it over to God. It may be a problem at work or a conflict at home; it may be a situation you’re involved with at school or an issue you’re dealing with in the community as a volunteer. It may be an individual – a friend or loved one or member of your family you’re concerned about. Whatever burden you happen to be carrying at the moment, turn it over to God and say to yourself, “I am not the Messiah. I can only do so much. It’s not all up to me.”

I promise, if you’re sincere and you truly turn it over to the Lord, two things will happen: You’ll feel a great sense of relief, as the weight of unrealistic responsibility is lifted. And ironically, by entrusting the individual or the situation to God, you’ll feel a new sense of strength and hope, as the words of Paul ring true for you:

“I can do all things through Christ,
who strengthens me.”

Who are you? Let’s all say it together: “I am not the Messiah.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Copyright 2005 Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.

Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.