In almost every area of human endeavor it is understood and usually expected that people will make every effort to move upward toward higher and higher levels of standing and status in their various activities. In the world of work as well as in our personal financial condition, the desired direction is always upward.
If a person is laboring away in middle management in their company, their goal is to move up to the executive level. If a person is an assistant principal in a school system, there is every likelihood they would like to move up to become the principal or even the district superintendent someday. If a student made the merit roll in their academic performance with a 3.0 grade point average, they would not be blamed if they set their sights on achieving 4.0 and a spot on the Dean’s List or the honor roll. In almost every area of our lives it is expected that our aspirations will move us in an upward direction.
If you are an associate professor at a university, you are not trying to be demoted to the level of an instructor. Rather, you want to move up to become a full professor with tenure. If you are the second string player on an athletic team you do not want to be returned to the practice squad where you never get into the game. Instead, you want to crack the starting lineup.
The vocabulary of the world in which we live clearly and consistently points in one direction: upward. We talk about achievement, promotion, progress, increases, advancement, elevation and upgrades. What do all of those words have in common? All of them point in the same direction: upward. That is how we are conditioned to think in our society. You are not doing well in whatever you are doing if you are not moving onward and upward.
It is no different in my profession than it is in any other; preachers are often heard talking among themselves about bigger churches and larger memberships. We hope that our budgets will increase. We work so that our programs will expand. We plan ways to improve our churches in every way possible. The truth is, if you belonged to a church where growth and improvement was not occurring you might begin either to look for a new church or for a new pastor. It is pervasive in every area of life that success is measured by how far people are able to move in one direction and in one direction only: upward.
Look at your own life and your own job and measure yourself in this area. If you consistently made less money each year than you did the year before, would you consider yourself to be a success? If you started out with a Cadillac and then moved on to a Chevrolet, would you point to that as a sign of your progress? If you began the year with a balanced budget and ended the year with a significant budget deficit, would you be satisfied and content with that result? Probably not!
Last year the Cleveland Cavaliers were the Eastern Conference champions of the NBA. They played for the NBA championship; and even though they lost, they progressed farther than 30 of the 32 teams in the NBA. Now what would you say about the CAVS if, instead of returning to the NBA finals again this season, they were to miss the playoffs, lose more games than they win and come in last place in their division? In the achievement-oriented culture in which we live these days, we would call that a terrible season. We would wonder what went wrong. We would presume that Lebron wearing that Yankees cap brought bad luck to the Cavaliers.
This is our world – no matter how well you did this year, you hope to do even better next year. When things move backward or downward or even remain the same we wonder what went wrong. In almost every area of human life the desired direction is always the same: upward.
So pervasive is this expectation of moving ever upward that we have fashioned terms by which we define and describe people who fail to show steady and constant progress. We use such terms as “underachiever” or “low performance” or “unproductive.” When these terms are directed at any one of us we know one thing for sure – our work is not being applauded and our performance is not being approved. When our annual evaluation is handed to us, these are not the words we are looking forward to reading.
I recall one year when the Board of Deacons handed me an annual evaluation for my work here as Senior Pastor. I was reading along as they gave me high marks in one area after another. I got an “A” in a certain area of work and an “A” in another area of work, and it went on that way for several pages. Then I turned to a page and saw this “B” staring me in the face. Now a “B” is not a bad grade. “B” is not a failing grade. “B” means better than average in performance. But when you are looking for straight “A”s in your evaluation you are not satisfied even with a “B,”much less an even lower grade. It became my goal to avoid ever getting another “B” in any area of my performance! I do not think that I am alone in my desire to live a life that allows me to move ahead, move up and avoid moving in any downward direction.
Sometimes in our desire to achieve at a higher and higher level we may be tempted into doing some things that are wrong and things we live to regret. Last fall the track star Marion Jones acknowledged that she had, indeed, used banned substances when she competed in the 2000 Olympic Games. She won five medals at the games in Sydney, Australia – three gold medals and two bronze medals. It had long been rumored that she been using steroids or some other performance-enhancing drugs, but for seven years she vehemently denied using any banned substances.
Then she suddenly decided to tell the truth – she had been using those illegal substances. She wanted to achieve her goal of winning Olympic medals. She wanted to come in first place. She wanted to perform better than everybody else on the field. That was the culture in which she operated and that was the idea floating around in her mind.
Now the truth has come out and she has to return all of her medals and have her name removed from the record books. Since one of her races was as part of a relay team, all of her teammates in that race may also be stripped of their medals because of her substance abuse. Our culture drives us to achieve, to advance, to be the best, to come out on top. Sometimes in pursuit of that objective we do things we should not do.
Do not think that Marion Jones is the only person who has cheated, or lied, or cut corners, or broken the rules in order to get ahead. Some students cheat at school. Some workers cheat on the job. Some politicians cheat in their official offices. They are all driven by the same impulse – they all want to move upward and onward. They all want promotion, advancement, increases, improvements, upgrades and elevation. That is the way things are in almost every area of human life. You will notice, however, that I said this impulse and desire to move onward and upward applies in “almost” every area of our lives. There is, however, one area of life where the desired direction is actually downward, and smaller, and lesser. In our lives as citizens in a capitalist society the direction is upward, but in our role as disciples of Jesus Christ the direction is actually just the opposite.
Listen to these verses and ask yourself in which direction they seem to be pointing:
“He who would be the greatest among you must be the servant of all” (Mark 9:34). “Whoever exalts himself will be abased or humbled, but whoever abases or humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14). That is what Jesus said to the disciples who were already following Him. He went on to tell them, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.”
It does not take long to discover that achievement and advancement in the kingdom of God moves in a different direction from achievement and advancement in our world. While the world in which we live is always urging us to reach higher and attain greater and greater status for ourselves, the Lord seems to pushing us in a different direction. The Lord is challenging us to embrace the principles of humility over haughtiness, service to others over personal status, self-denial over self-gratification and personal sacrifice over personal security. These are the directions that Jesus prefers for His disciples.
This is what John the Baptist was saying in both word and deed in the two passages we read today. In the first passage in John 1:29-37, John sees Jesus passing by and he says to his own disciples; “Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Follow him.” Later, in John 3:22-30, John uses this memorable phrase that ought to come quickly to the lips of every person who enters into a relationship with Jesus Christ: “I must decrease and he must increase.”
John was saying two things to his disciples. The first message was that he could not teach them anything more. He had taken them as far as he could; it was time for them to follow somebody else. John pointed them in the direction of Jesus and told them to follow Him. Later on, when Jesus began His ministry, He too could be seen baptizing people in the Jordan River. Somebody came up to John and said “That man named Jesus that you just baptized the other day is now across the river doing what you are doing, and a lot of people who were coming to you are now following after Him.” At that point, just to make sure that everybody around him understood what was going on, John said, “I must decrease and he must increase.”
This is good advice for disciples of Jesus in every generation; we need to stop following anybody and everybody but Jesus. I may read something about what Oprah or Dr. Phil said; but I am going to follow Jesus. I may have been a follower of some other religion at some earlier point in my life, but from now on I am going to follow
Jesus. I may get a lot of advice from commercial advertisements, or partisan political appeals, or infomercials on TV, but I am determined to follow Jesus.
Not only that, but it is important for me to tell other people not to model their lives after me in any way, shape or form. Do not try to preach like me, or dress like me or do anything like me. Take your eyes off me and follow Jesus. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world; follow Jesus. He is the sinless savior who redeems us from the grip of hell. He is the way, He is the truth, He is the door, He is the light of the world, He is the bread of life. Follow Jesus.
Not only should we follow Jesus and nobody else, but once we start to follow Jesus we need to do what Jesus Himself was willing to do. There are two passages of Scripture I invite you to consider today. The first one is found in Philippians 2:5-11: “Your attitude should be the same as Christ Jesus, Who, being in very nature God, Did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, But made himself nothing, Taking the very nature of a servant, Being made in human likeness, And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled himself and became obedient unto death, Even death on a cross…”
The Greek word that is translated as “your attitude” is the word phroneo and it carries the sense of a mindset or a way of thinking. In essence it says that we should have the same mindset as Christ or we should think in the same way that Christ was thinking in this passage.
Consider the full implications of what is being said here. It begins by saying that Jesus could count equality with God as something He already possessed. Jesus was already co-equal with God in the power and mystery of the Trinity. Jesus is the preexistent person referred to in Genesis 1:26when God said, “Let us make man in our own image and after our likeness.” Jesus is the eternal logos, the eternal truth mentioned in John 1:1-3 that says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” Creation begins with Jesus sitting at God’s right hand. Jesus did not need to be invited into God’s presence; He dwells in the presence of God at all times.
However, when the need arose to redeem humankind from the penalty of their sins and when the only person deemed qualified to do so was Jesus, the sinless Son of God, He freely and willingly gave up His eternal prominence and position in heaven in order to enter into the time and space limitations of human existence.
He gave up glory in order to share our grief and sorrow. He gave up heaven in order to save us from hell. He gave up a place at the right hand of God in order to take our place on a cruel cross. He who knew no sin became sin for us so that our sins could be forgiven.
Not only did he empty Himself and give up eternity, but He further humbled Himself and took on the form of a servant. He went from the highest place to the lowest place. He went from the throne room of heaven to the dusty roads of this world where he lived out 33 years of life serving the needs of others. Then, as if being a servant was not enough, He also became a substitute for us on the cross. He became obedient unto death. The Son of God with nail prints in his hands. The King of kings now has a crown of thorns on his brow. The bright and morning star, the fairest of ten thousand, the lily of the valley, the rose of Sharon now had a spear thrust into His side by a Roman soldier.
That was the mind, the attitude, the phroneo of Christ; He was wounded for our transgressions. He was bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed (Isaiah 53:5). He who counted equality with God as a part of His biographical sketch was willing to give all of that up and empty Himself for our sake.
Now look at Jesus from another angle as He sits with His disciples around a table in the upper room in Jerusalem on the night before He is put to death. In John 13:1-17 we find the story of Jesus getting on His knees to wash the feet of His disciples. When Peter protested and said that he was not worthy to have Jesus wash His feet, Jesus answered, “If I do not wash your feet you have no part with me.” Hearing that, Peter said, “Lord, not just my feet, but my hands and my head as well.” Then Jesus told them the point He was trying to make; “No servant is greater than his master. If I am willing to wash your feet then you ought to be willing to wash each other’s feet.”
The issue here is not entirely about washing feet; the issue here is about the humility that ought to be the characteristic of every Christian. Unlike our impulses in the secular world which are designed to promote and advance ourselves, when it comes to life inside the church, every one of us ought to be saying, “I need to decrease so Christ can increase.” There needs to be less and less of us so that people can see more and more of Him. We ought to get out of the way in our constant search for glory and attention so that the word of God can be heard, so the Son of God can be seen, and so the name of God can be praised.
Sometimes in our church life we bring the outside world with us and seek to turn the church into a place of personal influence. In fact, there are some people who actually have very little influence in the outside world, so they try to compensate for that by coming into the church and looking for a position from which they can start giving orders and start “being in charge.” Some people come to the church so they can be seen. Some people come to church in order to pursue and advance their own personal program and their own private agenda. Most fights and problems in the church start at this very point; with somebody who is more interested in lifting themselves up than they are in lifting up Christ.
That kind of discipleship points in the wrong direction. We do not come to church so we can be in charge; we come to church so we can serve. Christ said that He came “to serve and not to be served, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Christ is the only one that should be lifted up in the church. Everybody else ought to decrease so that Christ can increase. There is one good reason for that; nothing happens when we lift up ourselves. Nobody gets saved when we lift up ourselves. Nobody gets healed when we lift up ourselves. Nobody gets strengthened in the face of life’s challenges when we lift up ourselves. There is absolutely no benefit to anybody when people come to church in order to lift up themselves.
On the other hand, when we lift up Christ He can make things happen. Christ can change people’s lives. Christ can guide people’s steps. Christ can dry people’s tears. Christ can deliver people’s souls from death and the grave. Christ can escort people into life everlasting. Christ himself said, “If I be lifted up from the earth I will draw all men unto me” (John 12:32).
There is somebody here who can testify as to what happened when Christ was lifted up. There is somebody hose life is different, and whose burdens are lighter, and whose path is brighter, and whose song is sweeter, and whose hope is stronger all because somebody lifted up the name of Jesus and you invited him into your life.
Let me challenge everybody in this church to follow the example of John the Baptist. Let’s tell everybody we know that they should follow Jesus, because He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Not only that, but let’s follow John’s lead in one more thing. Let’s all agree that when we come to church we will do all we can to decrease so that Christ can increase. Lift up the name of Jesus. Sing praises to the name of Jesus. Let there be less and less of us so there can be more and more of Jesus. That is the best direction that any disciple can follow.
Unlike Marion Jones, when you are willing to empty yourself and practice humility and servanthood and resist the impulse to achieve at all costs, there is a blessing waiting for you down the road. Remember how Philippians 2:5-11 ends. It does not end with Christ being emptied and humbling himself. It ends with this declaration:
“Therefore, God has given him a name, That is above every name, That at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, And every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is lord, To the glory of God the Father.”
When you humble yourself now, He will elevate you later on. When you refuse to spend all of your life pursuing self-advancement he will advance you to places you could never have imagined and never achieved on your own. Do not follow the impulses of this world and be driven by the pressure to achieve more and more, sometimes at any cost. Instead, let Jesus lead you into a life of service and self-sacrifice and into a life where you decrease so that He can increase. You will never be sorry that you let Jesus become your leader. ?