We’ve all heard stories of wedding fails: smashed cakes, ministers not turning up; grooms not turning up.
Perhaps this is one of the worst. Twitter and Jimmy Fallon certainly thought so:
When you think it’s all about you, then it’s easy to make it all about you.
In John’s Gospel, John the Baptist decides very early on that the wedding he is announcing is all about Jesus and not all about himself. The story tells us in chapter 3 that John’s disciples alert him to the fact that Jesus’ crew is baptising as well, and what’s more, his lot is pulling a bigger crowd. What should they do? Up the Instagram wars? Get a TikTok account? Hire a funky, uber-cool new staff member?
None of the above. Instead, John settles their nerves and refocusses their attention with these words:
“The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.”
No wedding fail from John. Not a hint. And not even a hint of resignation that perhaps his day in the sun has been eclipsed and he has to make way for the next bright young thing. His joy is complete! This is the moment he has been waiting for. He wants to see Jesus’s star to shine brighter, and his own star to shine lesser.
And with that the public ministry of John the Baptist disappears from view in John’s Gospel. The writer John goes on to explain exactly why things have to transpire as they do:
He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all.
In other words, to think that Jesus and John are competing for equal air time is a category error. One of them is from below – from the earth. The other is from above – from heaven. It would be somewhat ironic, and a terrible tragedy, if the one from earth thought the whole gig was about his glory and adulation, rather than the glory and adulation of the one who is from heaven.
John the Baptist does not make that mistake. But dare I say it, it’s an easy mistake to make in this “Just Do You” culture that we live in. We are in the age of self-expression and self-fulfilment, and the gospel of Jesus calls us to a life of self-denial. And not self-denial simply for our sakes, but for the sake of Jesus and his heavenly kingdom. He is to increase in our lives and we are to decrease. Everyday. For the rest of our lives.
It’s the ultimate risk of faith isn’t it, to self-deny on a daily basis, and all in the hope that glorifying Jesus now will lead to the most fulfilling and expressive life we could ever experience then. And that is what Jesus calls us to do.
Yet what a challenge that is.
First It is challenge personally. If our default is that life is about our fulfilment and self-expression then Jesus can be a guest at the wedding of our lives as long as he gives really good wedding gifs, is entertaining and funny, and can carve it up on the dance floor.
Sure we will smile and nod and thank him for coming, but the idea that he should control our lives and that he should become more pre-eminent in our decisions, in our character, in our direction, in the life choices we make, in our work and family relationships, in our desires? Sometimes that seems a bridge too far.
It’s not hard to see why a version of the gospel that is about your best life now, or the right for you to express yourself sexually, seems to be the pathway to flourishing. But Jesus is not simply interested in our flourishing in this age, any more than he wants us to show up dressed as the bridegroom at his wedding. He is interested in our flourishing into eternity. And that cannot happen if he is not increasingly increasing in our lives, our will, our desires. Someone or something’s going to increase. Will it be Jesus?
The great joy of course is that Jesus is not seeking to diminish us as he increases. The opposite is in fact the case. Our decreasing as he increases is a paradox. The end result will be a humanity so glorified that if your future self from the age to come were to appear before you right now, you’d be tempted to worship yourself.
Yet the irony is that if we are into self-worship now, our future will be diminished – in fact so diminished as to be invisible. And I can’t help but think of CS Lewis’s Great Divorce at this point, where the inhabitants of hell shrink to almost nothing, so self-absorbed they are.
It’s a challenge in our age of authenticity and wish-fulfilment to seek to increase or at very best hold the line and keep Jesus’ own increase at arms length. Yet John the Baptist’s own commitment speaks to us personally: he must increase, we must decrease.
But second John’s commitment is a challenge corporately. If one thing has been plain in evangelical culture these past few years it is that Jesus has been co-opted by many organisations and movements that claim to be showcasing Jesus, but are in fact big-noting themselves. Jesus becomes a great person to have on board because we can claim all sorts of things under his name that lead to our own – and our organisation’s – exultation and increase.
This is what makes our corporate church strategies for growth such delicate and dangerous operations. Led by the wrong spirit by the wrong people, we can hide the fact that what we claim is all about Jesus is actually all about us.
One of the telling factors will be in leadership. If the leadership of a church or organisation is fairly happy to call YOU to decrease, but show little signs of doing that themselves, then we have a problem.
If in their own lives they are not dying to self, killing off sin, putting others first, shepherding the sheep under their care with love, humility and compassion, choosing to fight in the trenches alongside the people, and generally calling people to be more like Jesus without ever being more like Jesus themselves, then they are competing with the bridegroom at his own wedding.
Such “increasers” are constantly looking at ways to big-note themselves, and struggle to play nice with anyone else. Hence a key feature of this type of leadership is isolationism, a refusal to partner with others in the cause of the gospel unless on their tearms, and a constant air of superciliousness. Such leaders are constantly jealous of the bride being drawn more to the Bridegroom than themselves.
Much of the trauma I have seen in churches these past few years has been a result of those who outsource their “must decrease” to everybody else. And if you’re in such a situation, where the call to “decrease” is being delivered, but not modelled, then it’s probably time to get out of that situation.
Jesus the bridegroom loves his bride too much to let wanna-be-bridegrooms get in the way forever. A day of reckoning will come. That person or organisation is no true friend of the bridegroom.
So what’s it going to be? Decrease day by gentle day now? Or a sudden calamitous decrease when the Bridegroom shows up on his wedding day only to find you trying to smooch his bride?