Manuscript: He Must Increase, But I Must Decrease


This is part of an Irish prayer, commonly atttributed to Patrick and named “Patrick’s Breastplate,” the part of the armor that protects the heart. And I’m Irish.

Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

That’s a prayer. Asking for Christ with me, before me, behind me, beneath me, above me, on my right, on my left, when I lie down, when I sit down, when I arise.

Theologically, we believe that God is omnipresent. He’s everywhere, somehow present at the same time everywhere. But I don’t think this prayer is invoking God to be present as if he weren’t before. Patrick wasn’t trying to convince God to be around. This prayer does something different. It speaks a reality that we forget, it invokes not God to be here when he wasn’t but me to be here when I wasn’t. Yes, I’m here. You can see me and hear me. But when I imagine that I’m here without God, I’m kind of living a fantasty; I’m not any less here, but to a significant degree, I’m not living in reality. Christ is with me, Christ is before me, Christ is behind me, Christ is in me. This a great prayer. Sometimes people’s response is, “I know that.” But do you?

I have a habit that some people find humorous, or eccentric, or perhaps some less generous word. I walk to school. That’s between 5 and 6 kilometers. It’s not the best walk, since the majority is on caretera vieja leon, which is usually pretty busy. But I like it, because it’s a good prayer time for me. My preferred ways to pray are to write in my journal or be moving while I’m praying. So I walk for about forty minutes and talk with God, because of course he’s there with me. And I ask God to bless people as I pass them, because, you know, we’re walking together and talking and all.

And then I get to school and it’s almost like I say, “Thanks, catch ya later.” God isn’t any less with me than he was when I was talking with him. But I experience him less. I live less aware of his Presence.  He doesn’t go away, but it’s as if I 

John 3:22 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.”

The first thing to say about John the Baptist is he’s been utterly clear, all along, that he is not the Messiah. He is the messenger. He is the voice calling in the wilderness. To emphasize this, he tells the priests and Levites who ask him, “Are you the one?” “Not only am I not the one, I am not worthy to untie his dirty shoe.” Get this: an ancient Hebrew source says, “A Hebrew slave must not wash the feet of his master nor put his shoes on.” 1st century Hebrew slaves are expected to do everything for their master…except untie the thong of their sandals. I’m assuming because people walked through manure and sewage water and even slaves aren’t that lowly. And recorded saying, ““All services which a slave does for his master, a pupil should do for his teacher with the exception of undoing his shoes.” John the Baptist says of Jesus, “I am not worthy to undo the thong of his sandal.” Do you feel the weight of that? Hebrew slaves don’t have to untie their master’s sandal and John the Baptist says he isn’t worthy to do for Jesus the thing that is beneath a slave to do.

I would call that a “No.”

John has been directing his disciples to Jesus. Jesus walks by and John shouts to his disciples, “Hey, there goes the Lamb of God!” Two of John’s disciples heard this and followed Jesus. Makes sense. One of them was Andrew, who would spend the rest of Jesus’ life on earth following him, being Jesus’ disciple, and the Gospel tells us the first thing Andrew did was find his brother Simon to tell him, “We’ve found the Messiah.”

So when we look at what John says in our passage, “He must increase but I must decrease,” we’ve already got concrete examples of how John carries this out.

We’re going to walk through the passage and then consider some implications.

In verse 22, John tells us that Jesus and his disciples have headed into the Judean countryside, and they are spending time together there and baptizing people, receiving new followers. Notice this, for Jesus to disciple meant, first, that he simply spent time with them. The first two verses of John four clarify that “in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples.”

John continued to baptize, as well, calling people to repentance and directing them toward Jesus, the Lamb of God. Aenon means “springs” or “fountain,” so it’s saying John was baptizing at the springs near Salim. Since John had been baptizing “beyond the Jordan,” meaning east of the Jordan, he’s now moved West and is no longer baptizing folks in that river. We can’t really say how far apart Jesus and John were, because “into the Judean countryside” is like saying, “somewhere around Managua.” It’s also interesting that the Gospel writer tells us, “John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.” That’s a way of marking the chronology of this event. But it’s also striking because it shows that the Apostle John’s readers would have known all about John the Baptist, as this is the only reference to the Baptist’s time in prison. The other three Gospels describe when Herod locked up John and ordered him killed, but the Apostle John has a different focus. We get to see the transition between disciples of John the Baptist and disciples of Jesus.

In verse 25, “a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew.” The question raised may have been which is superior, ceremonial cleansing or baptism. Before John the Baptist, the Jews practiced ceremonial cleansing as laid out in the Law, for everything from washing before meals to purifying themselves after coming in contact with a leper. John describes his ritual as “ a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” And somehow, this debate leads John’s disciples to come talk to him. Really, the underlying motive appears to be jealousy. They go to John and object: “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing and all are going to him.”

I get this. These guys had committed themselves to following John, and John had made a big impact. Everyone was talking about him. Matthew’s Gospel describes that everyone from tax collectors to Roman soldiers were coming out to hear him. And John could preach up a storm. He was…direct. “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee the coming wrath? Bear fruit worthy of repentance!”

But in the Gospel of John, John the Baptist has one message: go to Jesus. That’s the Lamb of God. I’m not him, I’m just pointing you to him. John needs to correct his disciples now, who are apparently jealous on his behalf (and maybe their own):

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.”

There are few statements in the Bible that better capture our position with Jesus than this. First of all, I’m not the Messiah. So true. Neither are you. Agreed? Good. John says, “I have been sent ahead of him.” And here is the relationship he sees: He who has the bride is the bridegroom. Jesus is the bridegroom. Jesus uses this same analogy about himself in Mark 2, when people scold him that the Pharisees and John’s disciples are fasting but his disciples aren’t: The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.”

So Jesus is the bridegroom and there’s a big wedding on. So what does the friend of the bridegroom do? He rejoices! 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. John has his joy fulfilled. I love this answer to “Rabbi, remember that guy? The one you talked about? He’s baptizing [which he wasn’t] and people are going to him!”

Have you ever tried your best to teach something and realized “they aren’t getting it?” I know a bunch of you have. I have. John doesn’t say, “Idiots! Haven’t you been listening? What have I been saying this whole time?” No, he says, “my joy is fulfilled!” Jesus says in the 15th chapter of this Gospel, “I have said these things so that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete.” John the Baptist’s joy is complete!

John concludes, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” My joy is fulfilled; he must increase, but I must decrease.” Do you hear any sadness in that? John is completing his work, his calling. His moment to be the center of attention, to preach, to baptize, is passing, and Jesus’ public ministry is beginning. IN fact, the other three Gospels all say some variation of this: Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.John’s arrest is Jesus’ moment to begin preaching the Kingdom of God and the good news. But in this moment, we get a response very similar to Simeon when he holds the baby Jesus, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation.”

That’s our passage. Let’s talk about some implications.

He must increase, but I must decrease.

John’s specific calling was to prepare the people for Jesus. “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.” John’s task is nearing its end. John must step back out of the center of attention so that Jesus can step into it.

Though I am sometimes wary of spiritualizing a literal truth, I think that we can appropriate John’s statement. Going back to the Irish prayer we began with, Christ is in me and before me and behind me.

Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

That’s both a reminder and a request. May Christ be in the heart of every man who thinks of me. May thinking of me be a moment to think of Christ. And may Jesus Christ so increase in me that when someone speaks of me, their words turn to Him.

And because Jesus is always present, Christ is in every eye that seems me, and every ear that hears me.

So how does Jesus increase and we decrease?

1.We lead people to Jesus, not to us.

That’s a tricky line, because they are paying attention to us. But if they aren’t getting more of Jesus, if we are increasing, then we’ve lost the point and might even be leading in the wrong direction.
2. We rejoice in him.

John the Baptist isn’t fighting this, he’s embracing it. He’s rejoicing in it. The friend of the groom is not having a fit that the attention isn’t on him nor that the bride isn’t for him. He is rejoicing that the bridegroom has come.

What does it mean that we must decrease? I don’t think it means that we hide and withdraw and try never to be noticed again. I don’t think we become less than we are. In John’s case, it was time for him to transition roles. For everything there is a season. We, in whatever stage of life we’re in now, are praying for Jesus who is Christ to increase in us, and everything that isn’t him to decrease in us. And rejoicing does this. When I truly rejoice in God, when I consciously remember and thank him, then the small, selfish part of me recedes. God is filing me up more and there just isn’t as much room for that.

3Next, Jesus increases in us and we decrease when we let people know that it’s God’s strength, and not ours, God’s goodness, and not ours.

Paul writes For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 7But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” II Cor 4:7 I know you’ve heard this from me before, but you’re probably going to keep on hearing it as long as I’m up here preaching: we are here by God’s grace and we communicate that grace when we let others see how truly messed up we are. Now I know it’s a little unfair that I have more material than most in this area, but we all get to play the cards we’re dealt. God increases in us when we recognize, to others—and more importantly, to ourselves—that it’s God in us, not some power or kindness or love we just summon up within ourselves. In fact, I’d say that when I call others’ attention to this, it helps me also remember and believe this is true.

4. Finally, as I was reflecting on how we seek to have Jesus increase in us and let ourselves decrease, another famous prayer came to mind. When we talk about things that need to decrease in us, that part of me that resists God because it wants to be in control, it wants to be the center and get the glory, we’re talking about something that would kill us. The wages of sin are death. Scripture uses some other words for that: die, crucify, put to death. That’s what we need, because those things are death in us. If I went the other way, I must increase but he must decrease, that would destroy me. Grace means God has us, even when we fail, and he is faithful to help us. Perhaps the most important think for us in cooperating with God that he might increase and I decrease is simply believing that the true me, the me that God made and intends, the most fully alive me, is the one in which God does increases. The real question of faith is whether we believe God that he will make us fully alive or if we believe our ego that screams and yells not to die.

So listen to this prayer as a prayer of belief: Help us to believe that this is what we truly want, so that God will increase in us.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.