Second Sunday after Epiphany January 15, 2023
130, 341, 346, 344
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Sermon Audio: https://anchor.fm/ministrybymail
Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, through John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ, You once proclaimed salvation. Now grant that we may know this salvation and serve You in holiness and righteousness all the days of our life; through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Then there arose a dispute between some of John’s disciples and the Jews about purification. And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified—behold, He is baptizing, and all are coming to Him!”
John answered and said, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ,’ but, I have been sent before Him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease. He who comes from above is above all; he who is of the earth is earthly and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all. And what He has seen and heard, that He testifies; and no one receives His testimony. He who has received His testimony has certified that God is true. For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God does not give the Spirit by measure. The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand. He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” (NKJV)
Dearly Beloved Fellow Believers,
Loyalty is a quality that is highly valued. We very much appreciate the loyalty of parents who continue to stand by a child who has gotten into trouble. We value the loyalty of friends who will defend us when others speak ill of us. Businesses value customers who are loyal, who aren’t easily lured away by competitors. We especially value the loyalty of a faithful spouse.
But there is such a thing as misplaced loyalty. People are sometimes loyal to friends, family members, and causes in a way that is not justified.
Misplaced loyalty can leave us looking foolish at best. At worst, it can lead us to do things that we shouldn’t do. For example, there was a couple who was supporting a new church in their town. It was a congregation that was small, met in rented facilities, and had no prestige in the community. But the couple supported it because they believed that the truth was being taught there. But then this couple’s son graduated from law school and came back to his hometown to work in a local law firm. He was embarrassed by his parents’ membership in this new little church. He asked them to leave it and join the largest church in their town where many of the well-to-do and prominent people of the town belonged. Sadly, the couple gave in to their son’s pressure and did what he asked.
That couple was loyal to their son. They ordered their lives in a way that they thought would further his career. But their loyalty was misplaced. They gave to their son the kind of loyalty that should be reserved for God, for Jesus Christ.
In our text we have an example of misplaced loyalty. It reminds us and teaches us that there is only one person who merits our highest loyalty. That person is Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior, who alone deserves “OUR HIGHEST LOYALTY.”
The scene opens in our text with a dispute going on between some of the disciples of John the Baptist and those whom the evangelist refers to as “the Jews.” This is John’s way of referring to the religious leaders of the Jews, those who did not accept John’s ministry, nor did they believe in Jesus. The dispute here between them and John’s disciples was about “purification,” which we understand to mean that they were arguing about the validity of John’s baptism as a ceremonial washing for spiritual cleansing.
Somewhere in the conversation it must have come up that Jesus and His disciples were also baptizing, for as soon as the conversation was over, John’s disciples came to him and began to express concern about this. John’s disciples clearly were jealous on their master’s behalf. “All are coming to Him,” they complained. The ministry of Jesus was overtaking and supplanting that of John.
John’s disciples thought that this was unfair. John had testified about Jesus; he had said a good word for Jesus and recommended Him. John’s disciples didn’t think it was right for Jesus to now take away disciples from John. It bothered them that the crowds that once flocked to John were now flocking to Jesus.
These disciples were loyal to John. They called him “Rabbi,” which means “teacher.” They stuck with him, even when many of John’s disciples were beginning to follow Jesus. To them this seemed like the right thing to do. Hadn’t John been a faithful teacher of God’s word? Didn’t he have a commission from God Himself to teach and baptize? Wasn’t he a model of devotion to God? Wasn’t it kind of ungrateful of some of his disciples to leave him and begin to follow another teacher?
Their loyalty to John is a quality that would ordinarily be admirable—to stick with a faithful teacher who has taught you the truth. But theirs was a misplaced loyalty. They were staying with John even when they ought to have been following Jesus. They were resenting the ministry of Jesus when they should have been a part of it. They were continuing to follow the forerunner of the Messiah when they should have been following the Messiah Himself.
This misguided loyalty to John ended up leading some of his disciples astray. After John was put to death by Herod, some of his disciples apparently developed a kind of cult devoted to his memory. We meet up with some of them in the book of Acts. Paul found them in Ephesus. They had received something that they called “John’s baptism,” yet they knew nothing of the Holy Spirit. Apparently they also knew and understood little about Jesus. After Paul instructed them, they were baptized in the name of Jesus. Church history records that a kind of John the Baptist cult continued for several centuries after Christ, people who thought they were being loyal to John by standing apart from the fellowship of Christians.
Misplaced loyalty can also lead us away from Christ. He Himself warned about this when He said, “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.” (Matthew 10:37) We ought to be loyal to our parents, our children, our friends, our employer, but our loyalty to them must never interfere with our loyalty to Christ. There come times when we have to choose: when a friend, a family member, an employer begins to try to interfere with our Christian discipleship. It could be a boss who is pressuring you to do something dishonest. It could be a friend who wants you to lie for him to keep him out of trouble. It may be a family member who discourages you from going to church or studying the Bible. We need to be clear about where our highest loyalty belongs.
And here we have a good example in John the Baptist. We see here that he did nothing whatever to encourage his disciples to continue following him rather than Jesus. Quite the opposite: He goes to some length to explain to them why they should follow Jesus. In fact, John says that if they were really his disciples they would follow Jesus.
John here shows himself a model of Christian discipleship. He was a bold and fearless preacher, a man that could stand up to Herod. But before Jesus he is meek and humble. John worked tirelessly, preaching and baptizing; he let nothing stop him. Yet here he shows us that he was a man without any ambitions of his own. He was the humble and loyal servant of Christ.
John wasn’t flattered by this jealousy of his disciples on his behalf. He says to them, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven.” John’s ministry wasn’t driven by popular success, by the numbers of those who attended his preaching or received his baptism. John’s ministry was from God. And since it was from God, it was also limited by God. Once Christ came on the scene and began His ministry, John’s ministry would begin to wind down. Soon it would come to an end. John knew this and was content with it. “He must increase, but I must decrease,” he said.
John’s disciples needed to understand who John was and who Jesus is, and the great difference between them. John reminds them that from the very beginning he had made it plain that he wasn’t the Christ, but that he was the one sent to prepare the way for the Christ.
He teaches his relationship to Christ with an illustration (which shows what an able teacher he was). John was like the friend of the bridegroom while Jesus was the bridegroom. The bridegroom is the one who has the bride. His friend is there to assist him, to see to it that the wedding should go smoothly. The last thing the friend would want to do is interfere with the relationship between the groom and his bride. For John to want his disciples to stay with him would be like the best man at a wedding trying to win the love of the bride for himself and steal her away from her husband.
John directs his disciples to Jesus because Jesus had greater things to teach them than John himself ever could. “I’m just a man like you,” John was saying. “But Jesus is the Son of God come down from heaven. He has knowledge of heaven and of God and can teach you about them.” If they listened to Jesus and believed in Him they would be doing exactly what God Himself wanted them to do. If they believed in Jesus they would have everlasting life, something John could never give them. John warns them, “he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”
This is why our highest loyalty needs to be given to Christ. He alone is our Savior. He’s the Son of God who came down from heaven to live and die for us. He’s the one who shed His blood for us, endured the agony of the cross for us to take away our sins and reconcile us to God. He’s the one who rose from the dead, the only source of eternal life. Nobody else could ever be to us what Jesus is to us. Nobody else could ever do for us what Jesus has done for us.
There are many in our life to whom we owe a lot. There are many we ought to love, many we ought to serve. But let our highest loyalty always be to Jesus. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.