Advent 3 B: Sacred Leadership

John 1:6-8, 19-28

Dear Partner in Preaching,

Oh, for a few more folks like John the Baptist these days!

That was my overriding reaction when I read of John’s unusual, even odd, and certainly negative “confession.”

John the Baptist’s role in the Fourth Gospel is a little different than it is in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Starting with the fact that he’s not actually identified as John the Baptist. Yes, he baptizes. But while in the Synoptics he baptizes Jesus, he does not do so in this account. Instead, his primary role is to witness. As it says, in what can feel like a misplaced verse in the prologue – although I think it clarifies John and his role – John “came as a witness to the light, so that all might believe through him.” And, even here, in these opening verses, there is an immediate disclaimer: “He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”

Why such concern? Perhaps it’s because of the ongoing importance of the community of those who continued to follow John the Baptist? Each Gospel writer seems to want to make clear that John was important, but not as important as Jesus, and so employs John to clarify his subordinate role.

Perhaps. But I think there’s more. Because here’s the thing: I think it’s really, really easy to forget that leadership is always in service to something else, something larger, grander, and more important than yourself. Make no mistake. John is a leader. Why else would the religious authorities come out to question him. He was a leader, an influencer, and therefore a potential ally or threat, and so they come out to interrogate him, perhaps to challenge him, perhaps to woo him, or perhaps to discredit him.

And none of this bothers him in the least, because he knows who he is. And he knows who he’s not. He’s not the light. He is the one pointing to the light, crying in the wilderness, serving first, foremost, and finally as a witness. John knows who he is, and that includes knowing who he’s not.

Which is why I wish there were more leaders like him right now. More folks who didn’t imagine that everything revolved around them. More leaders who recognized that the office they hold is not set up to serve them, but that they hold that office to serve others. More folks who understood who they are… and who they’re not.

Make no mistake, this isn’t a problem limited to one field. Pastors and politicians, educators and law enforcement officers, health professionals, sales associates, and students – the temptation to forget that we are always called to serve others is present for all equally, though perhaps the greater the power or influence associated with a position the greater the temptation to forget that the best kind of leadership – perhaps the only kind of true leadership – is servant leadership. Nor is this inclination to want be at the center instead of pointing to the center limited to one political party or church tradition. The kind of servant leadership John embodies can be a model to all.

So perhaps you’re wondering what all this has to do with preaching. It’s good advice, certainly, but is it good news?

Fair question. Here’s a thought in response. In one of my favorite books, The Art of Possibility, Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, suggest that it’s possible to “lead from any chair’ (pp. 66-77). Their analogy is from an orchestra, where there is a “first chair” – the leader of the violin section, for instance – and “second chair” and then all the other chairs. They give example after example, in contrast, of folks who lead their sections – in music, business, education, and life – from a variety of places. In short, anyone can lead from anywhere in an organization. And the keys to leading from any chair is the fundamental commitment to the organization, the idea, the group of which one is part rather than simply to one’s own role.

Which means every single person you preach to this Sunday, Dear Partner, has the chance to exercise what I would call “sacred leadership,” offering vision, passion, commitment, and energy in service to something beyond themselves – their family, congregation, school, committee, team, movement, whatever. And toward this end, John offers a striking example and may encourage ourselves and our folks to put our faith into action by pointing to and participating in something larger than themselves. And we are free to do this – to give ourselves away in service rather than try to establish ourselves via power and influence – precisely because our worth and value isn’t something that has to be earned or proved but rather has already been given to us as a gift from Jesus, the one to whom John points.

What a Christmas gift, dear Partner, that we have the opportunity to give! Really, two gifts. First, the reminder that when God came to us in the flesh of Jesus, God was, among other things, saying that we were worth it. That we are worth noticing, caring for, and honoring. God didn’t urge us to climb up to where God is but instead came down to us, to where we are, both to honor us and to be with us. Second, that gift of divine accommodation, to borrow a phrase from John Calvin, sets us free from worrying about establishing our worth and value and sets us loose to care for others, to make sure they also know they are valued and loved and can work to fulfill their potential and make a difference in the world.

“Who are you?” they asked. And he confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” “Then who are you?… What do you say about yourself?” “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord!’”

There is something incredibly empowering about knowing who you are…and who you aren’t, Dear Partner, and I’m grateful to you for giving that gift to your folks. The world needs them, just as the world needs you. Blessings on your proclamation.

Yours in Christ,