The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
Text: John 3:22-30
“He must increase, but I must decrease.”
[To watch the video of this sermon, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-hhVZP8xki8&feature=em-upload_owner]
This is one of the most profound revelations offered in Scripture, but it’s not one we pay attention to very often. It is spoken by John the Baptist after his disciples report to him that Jesus is now baptizing. They’re indignant about this. Who does he think he is, this young upstart, this guy from Nazareth who suddenly thinks he’s the Messiah? There’s a petulant tone in the words of John’s disciples: “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” Like elementary school tattle-tales, they think that Jesus is moving in on John’s territory, stealing the limelight.
So John has to remind them – remember, I told you this is the one about whom I was speaking. I’m just the best man. Jesus is the groom. He’s the one you should pay attention to. He must increase, but I must decrease.
Yikes – not something we Americans like to hear. Waddya mean I must decrease? What are you saying? That in order for Jesus to grow, I have to somehow become diminished? No way! Not me! I worked hard for what I am and what I’ve done and what I own. Don’t tell me I need to decrease. No sir.
That, my friends, is what we call the Ego. It’s that voice in our head that demands its own way, craves attention, to feel noticed and important. You probably know some 2-year-olds like this, right? And you probably know adults like this, too, don’t you? There is always drama around them getting what they want. At that the age of two everything is about me-me-me. Of course, having a healthy sense of self-identity is a natural part of human development. It’s what helps us survive as a species. The problem is when that 2-year-old is never taught to mature out of the little-tyrant phase and become a compassionate, empathetic adult. When the spoiled Veruca Salt is never disciplined in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, then the brat becomes a monster. That attachment to ego is what leads to anger, jealousy, violence and even war when the ego overtakes entire tribes and nations.
More and more we are seeing this exaggerated Ego magnified through the voices of our politicians, in the rhetoric about certain forms of foreign policy, and in the advertisements that do everything they can to appeal to all the egos running around seeking to puff themselves up.
And if you were very honest with yourself, you could admit that sometimes the 2-year-old tyrant rises up in you in certain circumstances, right? I know it rises up in me. Just ask my husband. ;-)
But what John realized, is that the “I” that gives us the sense of self is actually an illusion. In fact, nearly every major religious teacher – from Buddha to Jesus to Muhammed to Guru Nanak to the Dalai Lama – has reiterated this teaching – that your ego is not real. It’s not you. It’s a projection of your reptilian mind writ large upon your mind’s inner screen. Your ego is not what is true.
What’s true is, well . . Truth (with a capital T). This Truth is the great I AM, the Divine, the God in whom both John and Jesus were baptizing. This God, this Truth is trying to help you understand that you are, in fact, connected to something bigger than your own ego. So if we can learn to discipline this little tyrant, to have it decrease, then we make room in ourselves for God’s Truth to increase in us. And that Truth is what leads to the growth of contentment, generosity, forgiveness, and the desire to care for God’s Creation.
The word for increase is very much rooted in God’s Creation, in the natural world. The word is auxano, where we get the word “augment.” It means to grow larger, to increase in size and number, to flourish. It’s a word that is used many times in the New Testament to describe growing – “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow,” (Matthew 6:28). The mustard seed is described using this word, growing into a huge bush (Luke 13:19). And the seed that falls on good soil in the parable grows to yield a hundred fold (Mark 4:8).
And the word is also used to describe faith – how it grows among a whole group of people, like in the book of Acts where the number of followers of Christ increases – like seeds sprouting up in good soil (Act 6:7). And auxano is also how faith grows inside of us, like a budding flower. In fact, even Jesus was described using this word auxano when Luke talks about Jesus as a young boy and then a young man growing and increasing in spirit (Luke 1:80, 2:40).
Paul tells us that the seed is planted and watered, but it is God who makes the seed of faith grow (1 Corinthians 3:6-7). It’s a mystery how this works. We can study science all we want; we can try to replicate the biological processes by which growth happens. But the reality is that when life first arose on this planet, that moment is something that can never truly be repeated. Because it was a moment of the Divine Truth. Anything we do now as human beings with our sophisticated technology is mere child’s play compared with that original genesis of life, that calling of life into existence. And any tricks we can pull off with bioengineering and genetic engineering are only possible because of that original moment of Divine Truth and Love that called life into existence.
Today we are celebrating another life that has been called into existence. We have another young seed in our midst. Wade is being brought to the font where he will be watered by the drops of baptism and raised in the midst of this good soil, this garden that is United in Christ.
But it is God who will increase his faith. Only God can do that. And again, it’s a mystery how it works. Just like with the science of biology, the growth of faith is also a mystery. We can study theology and anthropology all we want. I spend an entire semester with students reading about the theories of why and how human beings are religious. But the reality is that when faith first arose among human beings, that is something that can never be duplicated by humans. Because it was a moment of the Divine Truth. And while seminaries teach pastors and lay leaders about how to create the processes by which spiritual growth happens – and I will be looking forward to being part of that educational process – the reality is that it is God who calls faith into existence.
This is not to say that human beings have no part in the extent to which faith grows. And this is where John’s words become so important. “He must increase, but I must decrease.” He’s talking about the process by which we work on whittling down our own egos, removing the rocks from the garden - selfish thoughts, words and deeds - so that the mind, words and actions of Christ can fill us. Buddhists call it the Buddha nature. Hindus call it Atman, the in-dwelling of God. Muslims call it submission – that’s what Islam means “to submit” to God. I must decrease, so that God can increase within me.
And that’s one of the reasons why being involved in a faith community is so important. I know, I know, you can experience God on the golf course and in your hunting blind. I experience God out there too. But there are some key things that the community of Christ does that you cannot get out there on your own. And one of them is the confrontation with this Truth that can help you bring your Ego into check. And to engage in those practices that help to discipline that two-year-old in order for him or her to relax and trust that things will be taken care of, if you just let go of your own selfishness.
Prayer is one of those practices. Many people think prayer is like giving the big Santa Claus in the sky our wish list. This is incorrect. Prayer is a way to decrease our ego so that Christ can increase in us. For example, the Living Lutheran magazine this month (June 2016) has an article entitled “Religion – good for our health and well-being,” by Megan Brandsrud that tells of a couple who had tried for seven years to get pregnant. Through prayer and Christian counseling, they realized that something was getting in the way of their marriage – their own egos. It took many years of work to decrease their own egos so that there could be room in their spiritual selves for a child. “It surprised both of us that by asking God to take the lead in healing our marriage and rebuilding trust how quickly strides were made in both areas,” the wife said. “Without prayer and faith in God being there and directing our steps, we would be a long way from where we are now.” And where they are now is with, fittingly, a two-year old little boy, who they are now raising in the faith. Just like Justin and Nicole are raising their little boy in the faith.
“He must increase, but I must decrease.”
As I am nearing the end of my time with you as your pastor, there are some things that I want you to remember during the transition to calling your new pastor. One of those things is this: no matter who is standing in this pulpit, don’t stay away from your pew.
It will be very tempting to say to yourself: Well, I’ll wait to come back until the next pastor comes. Or I don’t feel like going to church since there isn’t a pastor there. When you hear that voice – that’s your Ego talking. And that’s the time to recognize your ego for what it is and to discipline it the same as you would any two-year-old.
Because while the pastor is important, that is not what church is about. If it were, then the pastor’s ego is a problem! Instead it is the practices of baptism and communion and learning and reading the Bible and praying and healing – these are the practices of faith, and these won’t change. And your ego needs to be submitted to these practices so that it can decrease while God increases within you. Now is not the time to stay away from church. In fact, this is exactly the time when you need to make sure you are in church, doing the work of the Body of Christ to prepare yourself for your next pastor. Just like that couple made the intentional decision to pray and go to weekly worship and Christian counseling – this is the time to make sure you engage in a regular discipline of attending worship, praying and asking God to direct your steps – individually and as a congregation.
Besides, this child we are baptizing is counting on you. You are making a commitment to him, just like his parents are making a commitment, to be here for him. To make sure he has a church to go to, and a Bible to read and a class to attend to learn about Jesus. Our youth are counting on you to make sure they’re little egos are decreasing so that God’s Truth is increasing in them. Your spouse is counting on you. Your co-worker is counting on you. Your enemy is counting on you. Your community is counting on you. The world is counting on you to decrease so that Jesus Christ may increase.
For more reading on how to decrease your ego and work towards peace, see Eckhart Tolle’s book A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. New York: Plume, Penguin Group. 2005.