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Minor Men With A Major Message: The Man Who Put Christ First

John 1:6-8, 19-34

It seems that a certain associate pastor was assigned to do the children’s sermon in church one Sunday. He began by asking the children a question, always a risky thing to do when dealing with children. He said, “Say, have any of you kids ever heard of John the Baptist?” Silence. Uneasy now and with a gathering sense of alarm, he asked again, “Are you sure you’ve never heard of John the Baptist?” At that point, a little boy in the back of the group shouted out, “I never heard of John the Baptist, but I have heard of Jesus the Presbyterian!” Well, of course, the congregation erupted in laughter and that was the end of the children’s sermon for that week.

Now, most of us have heard of John the Baptist, but I dare say that not many of us have heard of Girolamo Savonarola. He lived in Italy in the late 1400s. His parents would say later that they could tell from early childhood that he was destined for something different in life. He began to study the Bible at an early age. He dedicated himself to living a very austere lifestyle. He ate only the barest amount of food. He slept on the hardest of cots. He was born into a time when the church was filled with corruption, and he decided that his calling was not to preach in cathedrals but to preach at cathedrals. He didn’t live very long. After eight years of speaking out against the wrongs which existed in the church, the religious leaders of that day decided that the church would be better off without him. He was hung; his body was burned; and his remains were tossed into the River Arno.

Now interestingly enough, the judicial board who rendered the death sentence to Savonarola did so with these words: “Even as John the Baptist was killed, so must Savonarola be killed.” Appropriate wording because Savonarola and John the Baptist had a lot in common. Both men never knew the joys of family life. Both lived outside the religious establishment, not in it. Both died for their beliefs at an early age. Both prepared the way for others: John the Baptist for Jesus Christ; Savonarola for Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation.

Somewhere in America today, there is another Savonarola. Somewhere in America today, there is a life being honed razor-sharp and a voice being prepared to speak by the power of the Spirit of God. God does that in every generation, and He will do it in this generation as well. Seldom are such prophets honored. Seldom are they popular. Ofttimes they die tragic and lonely deaths because, while they speak as the voice of God, people hear them as instruments of the devil. Yet perhaps at no time in our nation’s history have we more needed a voice like that of John the Baptist or Girolamo Savonarola. Perhaps at no time in our history have we more needed someone to deliver the bare-fisted, hard-hitting message of God’s power and God’s purity and God’s peace.

I suppose that’s why I am so drawn today to these verses in John chapter 1. Here we encounter the one we call “John the Baptist.” He was a child of the wilderness, reared in barren desert places. He learned lessons from the stones that covered the mountain heights and gained wisdom from the still waters of the Dead Sea. He covered himself in camel’s hair, secured by a leather belt. Never a razor had touched his hair. Never a drop of wine had touched his lips. His diet consisted of locusts and wild honey. He would never have passed a course in public relations. The fine art of tact and diplomacy was beyond him. He was a student at only one school—the school of silence. He was the product of only one teacher—the Spirit of God. But that made all the difference, and consequently, he made all the difference.

Now I am going to trust you sometime to read his whole story in John 1 and 3 and Mark 1 and 6, but you are going to trust me today to tell you what it says. Deal? Here then are two observations I draw from the story of John the Baptist.

First, John was the man who came to Christ first.

He was, of course, the cousin of Jesus, but there is no evidence that John ever met his cousin Jesus before the day when they met on the banks of the Jordan River. But that one encounter was enough to change John. Such a change, in fact, that from that time on he belonged to Christ. That’s what led him to say when he saw Jesus and knew who He was, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” I will confess to you that, when I read these verses in Scripture, I stand in absolute awe—to see this rough-hewn man in camel’s hair, standing on the rim of the desert and proclaiming of the Jesus whom apparently he had met only once, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Do you realize that John was the first man in history to say that, and after he said it, there was really nothing else that needed to be said?

Understand, please, that if on that occasion John had said, “Behold, the Carpenter of Nazareth, who will set a moral example for all people to follow”—or if he had said, “Behold, the Man who will never write a word but whose words will alter the course of human history”—or if he had said, “Behold, the One whose life will divide history into periods before and after His birth”—or if he had said, “Behold, the One who will die and, by his dying, teach us what love is all about”—if John had said any of those things—and all of them are true—nevertheless, he would have been forgotten and the years would have swept away any memory of the man. But he said so much more than all of these things. He said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” He saw Jesus as both Son of God and Savior of the world. In his encounter with Jesus, he discovered that. Then he announced it, announced it before anyone else ever thought of it, announced it with such power that the whole world still remembers him.

As I look back over my 35 years in ministry, my thoughts dwell first and foremost upon those individuals who have discovered what John the Baptist discovered—that Jesus is the Son of God and the Savior from sin. I think about those people whose lives were lost, twisted, aimless, hopeless, but in whom there is now hope and joy and purpose and purity through the power of the Christ who makes life over again. This is what is of ultimate importance. This is the greatest miracle of them all—lives transformed by the touch of Jesus Christ. That’s the truth that came singing from John’s heart when he said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” That’s the song we Christians have to sing. Humankind is lost in sin. Calvary is the answer to that sin. Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation. “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” John was the first one to say that, and he was the first one to come to the Christ of whom he said it.

But not only did John come to Christ first, but John always put Christ first in his life.

It must be remembered that John was the most popular preacher of his day. The people came from everywhere, crowding out into the wilderness to hear him preach. And yet this popular one, this one who had won so many, this one, when he saw Jesus, then said, “He must increase, and I must decrease. I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.” Now we know from elsewhere in the Gospels that the followers of John did not like it when he said that. They didn’t want John playing second fiddle to anybody. They encouraged him to retract his statement, and if he had, well, he wouldn’t have been the first great man to be brought down by the praise of his friends. He wouldn’t have been the first to be unable to resist evil coming from the fawning mouth of an admirer. He wouldn’t have been the first to compromise his convictions when attacked by compliments. But John never made that mistake. John always put Christ first. He had life, his life, in proper perspective.

Here is a great life principle we learn from John, a life principle you can build into your life: Because John was humble before Christ, he could be courageous before everyone else. I believe it was that life principle which made John the greatest preacher of his day. Here was a preacher who, like a barrage of artillery cannon, shelled the people, pounding their hearts into a receptivity to the Word of God. Here was a preacher who awakened the country which had been sleeping spiritually for decades. Some said he was insane. Others branded him an egotistical maniac. But there were those who began to realize that God was on the march, that only one was in step, and that one was John. He was consumed with his desire to proclaim the good news of God. He carried that message all the way to King Herod. He damned that wicked ruler right to his treacherous face. No one else dared that kind of preaching. But, you see, because John was so often on his knees before Christ, he could walk like a king before everyone else.
I believe that the greatest tragedy in the Christian church today is the cowardice of its pulpit. Most ministers today wouldn’t damn a church mouse, let alone a society and a culture desperately in need of repentance. Dr. Sam Shoemaker, one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, was a preacher whose pulpit always had power. He was an Episcopalian who wore a clerical collar, sometimes jokingly referred to as a “dog collar.” Someone once asked him why he wore the “dog collar,” and he replied, “I wear this ‘dog collar’ to show people that I have a master!” Well, that was the secret of the power of his pulpit. That’s where his courage came from, and that was John’s secret, too. Once we’ve yielded to Jesus Christ, then we never have to yield to anyone else. So John, the man who came to Christ first, was also the man who always put Christ first in his life.

Well …

You remember that I began this sermon by telling you about Girolamo Savonarola. It seems that once when Savonarola decided to go to Florence to speak out against the wrongs of the church and the wrongs of the Florentine society, it was a long journey on foot. He had no food and no money. Some people along the way gave him bits of bread, but it was not enough. When he reached the City of Florence, he was so weak and undernourished that he fainted at the gates of the city. He was roused up by a tap on his shoulder. He would later say that he didn’t know who it was, but it seemed to him to be an angel—but whoever it was gave him a basket of food. He ate and felt his strength return. As he then got up and turned to head into the city, the stranger (or the angel) said to him, “Do not forget the task to which God has sent you.”

Savonarola never forgot.
John the Baptist never forgot.
May we never forget either.

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