He must increase, but I must decrease

This is the sermon and scripture to go with Year D: Advent 4

Scripture Reading: John 3:22-36 (NRSV)

22 After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized. 23 John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized 24 —John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.

25 Now a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew. 26 They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” 27 John answered, “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. 28 You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.’ 29 He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”

31 The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things. The one who comes from heaven is above all. 32 He testifies to what he has seen and heard, yet no one accepts his testimony. 33 Whoever has accepted his testimony has certifiedthis, that God is true. 34 He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. 35 The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands. 36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.

It is one of my greatest joys in ministry to perform weddings for friends.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lot of work to be the friend of a bridegroom, to be at the shower, and the rehearsal, and prepare the liturgy in a way that’s not too churchy but a little churchy. 

Some of the preparations for one wedding included: Facebook messaging the bridegroom prayers while he was overseas and wasn’t sleeping well in the barracks, hoping for his safe return and assuring him his friends and most importantly bride-to-be were all still here for him. 

Some of the preparations for this wedding included postponing the whole thing because the wedding date had become the due date.  And in that same conversation, assuring the new family that the wedding would still be done and that sometimes babies do happen unexpectedly, out of wedlock, when it seemed impossible, and that’s ok.  (It’s almost Christmas after all).

And as the preparations changed, more talks about Baptism, what it means, and why we don’t need to do it before (or during) the wedding.  Yes, the pre-teen whose adoption they announced at the bridal shower would be included in the wedding, and family prayers in the liturgy even though the paper work wasn’t official yet. 

And that no matter what, God loves this new family, even though the parents had given up on their childhood faith, even though they hadn’t figured out what going to a new church in a new town would be like, even though life had become more complicated, stressful and… full of joy. 

And somewhere in the two years of preparations, this wedding’s liturgy was allowed to have more God stuff, but not too much. 

At the rehearsal we figured out where everyone would be, including the toddling flower girl, we read secular texts and prayed to the Holy God of love and laughter.  The groom played music from his phone while the bride walked down the aisle, you know really sweet things like the Imperial March from Star Wars. 

There were a million details in the wedding preparation that I have probably forgotten, but what I remember most is the question, “what do we do with our hands?”  So, we worked out that the bride would pass her bouquet off at the beginning and they could hold hands, and if she forgot, he would just stand with his hands to his side and I would remind her to pass of the bouquet to the maid of honor before the exchange of vows and rings. 

At the rehearsal, I was the important person who had the processional order, the liturgy, the notes on what to do if someone else forgot what to do, I had the marriage license, phone numbers for the venue, extra tissues and the responsibility to remind us all of the presence of God in the midst of this chaotic and joyful day. 

The next day, at the wedding ceremony and the celebrations afterwards, my presence would continually decrease, and the importance of the bride and bridegroom would increase. 

I expected that the next day, I would be full of anticipation and that when the service was over I would be full of joy and relief.  But it didn’t quite happen that way.  Joy is often found in the most unexpected moments after all. 

The service began, with the groomsmen, groom and me in place.  The bride’s attendants, including their beautiful baby girl, walked down the aisle to the appropriate music and landed exactly in the places we planned.  The bride remembered to hand off her bouquet.   And just as she turned to face the groom, he grabbed her hands and rushed them towards his face and kissed them with his eyes fixed on the face he had to wait 10 more minutes to kiss. 

It was in that moment, I felt sheer joy.  Everything else that I said or did after that, could not have taken from or added to that moment.  My work was complete.  All that was left was to witness to the God who laughed and cried and loved. 

I tell you this story because it brings me joy and because it helps me understand that John the Baptist is the friend of the bridegroom and is the one who in a Jewish wedding would take care of all of the nuptial arrangements before the bridegroom (that’s Jesus) joins his bride (God’s people).[1]  John is doing the prep work. 

Johns life seems to function as a way to prepare people for Jesus’ coming.  When their mothers, Elizabeth and Mary greet each other, John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb, and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and calls Mary Blessed and also blesses the child she is carrying.  John recognizes Jesus and announces his recognition while still in his mother’s womb in Luke’s gospel account.

In the gospel of John, John is said to come from the wilderness, which anticipates Jesus’ 40-day trial in the wilderness and calls to mind the 40 years of “Israel’s’ time of purification in the wilderness following the Exodus from Egypt.”[2]  John’s way of life connects Israel to Jesus.

According to Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Worthington’s commentary on Luke, the Baptism John performs is reminiscent of a Jewish practice of a ritual bath that “facilitates the move from impurity to purity.”[3]  At the time, a Jew would do this ritual bath alone, as a private cleansing after “menstruating or childbirth, ejaculation, or contact with a corpse.”[4]  Keep in mind that ritual impurity does is not the same moral impurity.  “Ritual impurity occurs because of normal bodily functions.  Moral impurity occurs because of bad choices people make.  No ritual washing can remove moral impurity; a bath cannot take away [sins]”[5]  That is, until John shifts the meaning of immersion practices. 

For John, baptism is a public act for the repentance of sins and the “community, witnessing the ritual, is placed in the position to hold the baptized person responsible for living the life baptism signals…John’s baptism was not, as far as we know, repeated by individuals… [John also] associates his baptism with the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God; there is an eschatological focus to the ritual.  John’s baptism represented both the atonement of the baptized and their forgiveness in light of the coming Day of Judgement.”[6] 

What John was doing in baptism is what we do in advent to prepare for Christ’s coming.  We repent, we mend relationships and we anticipate with joy the coming of Jesus.  John offers practical instructions in Luke’s gospel which basically amount to ‘love your neighbor’.  I’m going to take some liberties with the text here, but John is saying, if you have 2 warm coats, give one to someone who doesn’t have one.  If you have two sets of winter gloves, give one set to someone who doesn’t have gloves, if you have two pairs of snow boots, give one pair to someone who doesn’t have boots. If you have a piece of bread, break it and give half to someone who doesn’t have bread. 

And that goes for all of the holiday goodies too.  If you have a delicious sugar cookie, and someone else doesn’t, break yours in half and share it.  If you have two candy canes, give one to someone who doesn’t have any.  If you have a bottle of champagne, fill everyone’s glass and make sure no one goes without.  “John does not demand divestment, and he does not glorify poverty; he demands justice and fairness: When one person has two coats while another goes naked, and when one has feasts while another starves, that is unjust.”[7] 

Advent is a call for justice. 

If we, as baptized believers, take seriously what it means to prepare for the coming of Jesus, we should be working for justice and peace. 

As the bride of Christ, we are to be preparing for the big day, the coming of the bridegroom, the return of Christ.  We should be preparing ourselves and caring for our neighbors to make the kind of world (that’s the bride) that Jesus (the bridegroom) would rejoice over.  Forever. 

According to the Jewish Annotated New Testament, the “Bridegroom is a prophetic image of one who rejoices (Isa 62.5; Jer 16.9); in the other Gospels the bridegroom is the symbol of one who is to arrive, after which festivities can begin (Mt 25.1ff.) or the one in whose presence rejoicing takes place (Mt 9.15; Mk 2.9; Lk 5.34).  It also (Rev 18.23) became the symbol of the messiah united with God’s people at the wedding banquet celebrating the new age.  This symbol, like the wedding at Cana, may be an allusion to the Jewish idea of the eschatological banquet, as a metaphor for the joy and abundance that will be experienced in the messianic age (Isa 25.6-8; Exek 34.17-30; see also 4Q521 2, 11 5-13).”[8]

Back to the wedding I told you about earlier. 

Weddings are ceremonies encompass the prep work done by the officiant and the couple, the relationship of the couple prior to the day of the wedding, the beautiful moments during the actual ceremony, and the promises of what the future of their relationship will bring. 

In part of our prep work, the bridegroom wanted to add a line from a childhood baseball movie “The Sandlot” somewhere in the ceremony. 

I declined. 

I told him he could add it to the rehearsal for comic relief if he needed to.  And of course, he did, in multiple places.  So, I figured on the day of the wedding he had it all out of his system. 

I was wrong. 

After he perfectly repeated his vows to his bride, he added the line, “for-eh-ver”.

 It was funny, and sweet, and actually felt appropriate in the moment. 

The role of the friend of the bridegroom, of John the Baptist, of any preacher really, is to point to the bridegroom, and to bear witness to the God who laughed and cried and loved. 

The role of the wedding officiant is to prepare the couple for their future relationship and to remind them that they should love each other as Christ loves the world.

The role of John the Baptist in our advent preparation is to remind us to prepare for the return of Christ, by treating each other justly to bring about a world filled with hope, love, peace, and joy. 


Benediction: May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.  (Rom. 15:13) 


[1] New Interpreters Bible Commentary on John page 558

[2] The Gospel of Luke, Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington III page 81

[3] The Gospel of Luke, Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington III page 82

[4] The Gospel of Luke, Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington III page 82

[5] The Gospel of Luke, Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington III page 83

[6] The Gospel of Luke, Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington III page 83

[7] The Gospel of Luke, Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington III page 89

[8] Jewish Annotated New Testament Editors: Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler page 164

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