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Sunday December 16, 2018
4:00 pm - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: Fr Spencer

Isaiah 13:6-13
John 3:22-30

Empty Your Cup

“He must increase,” John the Baptist tells his followers, “but I must decrease.”

In today’s reading from St. John’s Gospel, John the Baptist has fulfilled his mission, he’s prepared the way for Our Lord through his preaching and teaching, he’s baptized those seeking repentance and a change of their lives, he’s announced Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” And now he can step aside. Out of the spotlight. So that Jesus can step into it.

“He must increase”, he says, “but I must decrease.”

It’s possible today’s Gospel story came about because the followers of John the Baptist were angry at the growing fame of Jesus. He’s stealing our thunder, they may have thought. He’s taking our boss’s job. Envy is a deeply human feeling, of course. Anxiety too - about the future, about what will become of us. What are we to do if the guy in the camel hair eating locusts and wild honey ISN’T the Messiah? They might have been asking themselves. Who then are we to be?

John, though, he isn’t a proud man - in his camel’s hair shirt with locust bits stuck in his wild tangle of a beard…he knows exactly who he is and what he is to do. He has no envy in his heart as he’s overshadowed and surpassed by Jesus. Not a hint of bitterness infects his spirit.

He has that rare and valuable possession that I know I daily long for.

Serenity.

True and lasting joy and peace.

“He must increase but I must decrease.”

John the Baptist knows who he is. And he knows who Jesus is. And he knows the relation between those two things. There’s a real strength in that knowing. And, for John it is enough. Enough to gracefully step offstage. Enough even to eventually face his own imprisonment and death at the hands of Herod.

“He must increase but I must decrease.”

Our other text tonight continues our whirlwind tour of the prophets that the lectionary gives us in this Advent season.

“Howl ye,” the prophet Isaiah says, “Howl ye for the day of the Lord is at hand. Every man’s heart shall melt. Their faces shall be as flames.”

Melting hearts. Burning faces. Terrifying imagery of judgement designed to waken drowsing spirits and show them the deep-down stakes of their lives.

Melting hearts and burning faces. Burning faces! Quite a different image than the inward strength and serenity of John the Baptist as he steps aside.

I know, in my life, when my sin or my selfishness, my fears or my resentments take hold of me it can feel like my heart is melting, like my face is on fire.

But John the Baptist, in tonight’s lesson, he holds the key to peace and joy in our often chaotic and difficult lives.

“He must increase but I must decrease.”

There’s a well-worn Zen Buddhist story about a proud man (some versions say a university professor). This man he comes to visit an old Zen master to learn about the tradition.

The master serves his guest tea. The old man pours his visitor’s cup full, and then he keeps right on pouring. The cup fills and fills and then flows out and over.

The professor watches the cup overflow, tea spilling out onto the floor, until he no longer can restrain himself. ‘Stop pouring! No more will go in! You’re making a mess!’

The master finally stops pouring the tea and looks his guest in the eye. ‘Like this cup,’ the master says, ‘you also are full of your own thoughts and concerns, opinions and speculations. How can I show you anything unless you first empty your cup?’

We human beings can become so full of our own “stuff” - opinions, speculations, fears, resentments, and - yes- sins, so full that we must empty our cup before it can be filled with the truth and peace of God in Christ. We need to get out of our own way and out of the way of the grace that God is always seeking to bestow upon us.

“He must increase but I must decrease.”

An interesting fact of our Christian calendar is that the feast day of the birth of John the Baptist on June 24th is celebrated when the sun begins to decrease. When the days start to get shorter and darker. And the birthday of Jesus is celebrated, of course, at Christmas, in the bleak midwinter - when the sun begins to increase, when the days begin to brighten and lengthen again.

The Advent season reminds us that the light of Christ has come, and will come, and is always coming into the world. Ready to break forth into our hearts and lives like sunlight through dark and heavy clouds. If we let it.

Let not your hearts be melted by fear or bitterness or sorrow, but rather let them be aflame with the fire of the Holy Spirit.

Let not your faces burn with shame or resentment or sin, but let them be brightened by the light of Christ.

As we approach the great feast of Christmas, join me as we seek to pray for grace and God’s help to empty our cups of all the distracting, distressing “stuff” that overflows them so that we might instead create room for Jesus in our lives, building a manger within our hearts.

We must decrease. He must increase.