Luke 3:15-20

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison. Luke 3:15-20

We don’t often realize this but it is true – no one, since the resurrection, follows Jesus directly. We all follow others who are following Jesus. If that were not the case, there wouldn’t be thousands of Christian denominations around the world. Instead, someone like Martin Luther had his ideas which were opposed by someone like John Calvin and suddenly you have Christ Presbyterian just down the street from Faith Lutheran. Like it or not, that’s the way it is.

And that is, in fact, the way it has always been.

Even in the very first century, church historians have long recognized the various strands within the Christian movement. John the Baptizer had his followers as did Peter, Mary Magdalene, and others. That is part of the reason why there were several different accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus. Some of those accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) stood the test of time. They were quoted and re-quoted and supported by enough influential church leaders that they became the accepted books we read today. They too are the result of people following people who are following Jesus.

There is a great deal of mystery in all of this but you can well imagine that there was also a great deal of in-fighting and jockeying for position. Even from the very beginning. Knowing this, we ought to notice how clearly the gospel writers all (especially in John) emphasize John’s insistence that he was only a witness, a forerunner, to Jesus, the true Messiah.

We ought also notice the price that John paid. John was not self-serving. He did what he felt called by God to do. To announce the arrival of the Messiah. And to speak truth to power, even if such truth-telling ultimately cost him his life. (As it would also, in time, cost Jesus his life.)

Knowing that we follow others who are following Jesus ought to give us a sense of humility in our discipleship. No one is perfect. No one but God can see all sides of anything. We all have something valuable to share and we all have the ability (and the need) to learn from others. What we ought never do is cast our particular ideas into concrete. Hence the need to be continually reminded that faith is not certainty.

I think of all of this often whenever I go to work. Our Lutheran congregation sits right next door to a Jewish synagogue. They, unlike us, hire armed guards for protection every time they gather for worship. Their very real history of oppression, discrimination, and genocide includes the vicious anti-Jewish writings of Martin Luther. Though we have denounced those words, our own namesake contributed to a narrative that led to the Holocaust. We must see that it never happens again.

Let us pray: Dear Lord, John pointed beyond himself to you. May his humility and courage be our model lest we make everything about us, casting stones at others from inside the glass houses in which we live. Save us from the temptations to idolatry and the cults of personality which detract us from the truth. Baptize us with the Holy Spirit and fire. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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