Mightier Than I Follows Me

This was his message: “After me will come One more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”       Mark 1:7-8

“After me will come One more powerful than I” – very simple words – very ordinary — we have heard them year after year. Yet how important they are for us to listen to and hold tightly to!  Have you ever realized just how much of a wealth of comfort and hope they contain for you and me?

I need to remember them because I don’t stand up here with any more ability than John the Baptist had to change your life, much less to change my own life. But what a joy it is to say with John, “after me comes One more powerful than I”!

After all, when this sermon is done, I’m finished.  I can’t keep talking to you every day of this week – you wouldn’t want it, and I wouldn’t either.  Even then, it wouldn’t really change you that much, except that you would probably really go out of your way to avoid me.  People don’t like nags.

In fact, even when I preach to myself, as I do during the sermon, it doesn’t always have that much effect on me either.  I still go away being pretty much the same person as when I started the sermon.  If that was all there was, then we are indeed in a sorry mess.

Therefore what a wonderful thing it is that I can say to you, “after me comes One more powerful than I”!  In fact, there are Two – no, Three Who come after me, after I am finished here – in fact, while I’m speaking They have already come.

That’s Good News for me, because I am not God, certainly not Jesus Christ, and not even John the Baptist.  There is just no way that I will match the power and force of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, nor come close to John’s fiery warnings by the banks of the Jordan.  And I know just how limited words are to get past the ears, to enter the mind and especially the heart.

That’s because I hit the same wall in you as I do in myself.  It is the wall of human nature. Perhaps you have felt that same frustration – maybe with explaining to a child – even a teenager – something essential, perhaps in the area of morality; or maybe it was in trying to warn and convince someone of a course of action that means pain or danger to them, and they just don’t or won’t or can’t understand.  How strongly you wish you had something more powerful than merely words at a time like that.

But what’s worse is when we do understand the message and agree that our lives need THAT change, need THAT difference. And you go out determined to be different, and you really try, but only end up frustrated. There’s something very, very powerful inside of us that definitely resists and fights against all our intentions, hopes, words, and all the rest.

The Bible says that we have a human nature that hates God, that fights Him, that wants to control Him, that refuses to follow His will. How often are our prayers a subtle manipulation of God, and how offended we are when He decides not to do things the way we think they ought to be done.  How often have we resolved perhaps not to get angry with some people – and it seems that right after we make that decision, the anger rises even faster than ever before. This human nature presents such a wall that words just bounce off it with no harm done to the wall at all.

Perhaps you too find yourself sometimes saying how hopeless it all is. Listen to some of the sayings we use, such as “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” and all the other ways where we declare that we have hit smack against the wall of human nature, and it’s just not going to budge.  In fact, it makes you realize that if this is all there is to Christianity, it would never have gotten out of the first century.

Ah, but listen to John again:  “After me will come One more powerful than I!”  And that’s really what this part of the church year is all about!  Our human tools to convince and to change are so puny and weak that we simply get nowhere, but now comes One – Two – THREE more powerful than us, more powerful than our human nature, more powerful than even Satan’s ability to thwart the message of God.

This church season reminds us that God Himself comes. God Himself comes literally into flesh and blood, God exposes Himself to all the problems and situations of our kind of life.  He didn’t come rich, He came poor, humble, and very HUMAN.  But what is still so special about this time of year is not just HOW He came, but especially THAT HE CAME!
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It means that as He tells us about our sin, as He must and as we need Him to if we are to repent of these rebellions and turn it all over to Him, He comes as One Who was tempted in every respect.  When He calls us to turn away from ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him, He comes as One Who knows the costly price of unwavering obedience.  He comes as One Who wept bitter tears at obstinate hearts, but also as One Who danced at a wedding.

He comes as One Who spoke some of the harshest words in the Bible at those who covered themselves over with an air of “godly” religiosity but who had never stopped long enough to really hear what God’s Word was saying.  But He also comes speaking some of the sweetest words of the Bible, as to the woman taken in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more” [John 8:11]; or to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven” [Mark 2:5].

He comes as One Who saw suffering and reached out His hand to heal, to strengthen, to bless.   He comes as One Who saw death and stretched out His hands in order to give life.  He comes as One Who shredded death’s power and then sat down on the throne of majesty so that He could bend the powers of the universe for the sake of His People – for the sake of you and me – for the sake of our continuing work on this earth.

This is He Who comes after me.  As with John the Baptist, I also must point to Jesus and to our constant desperate need of Him.  As with John, I also must identify the rebellions so that the Savior can wash them away forever.  But if Jesus did not come after me, then all this is useless – in fact, it can cause utter despair.  So I rejoice, knowing that like John, Jesus comes after me, too.

But there is much more! because this isn’t just me, it is also you – Jesus comes after you!  Have you ever shared something about Jesus?  Perhaps you also know how very fragile such communication is – so very puny which words can seem to be!  And the promise that John makes, that holds true for me – also holds true for you.

You are never alone in your witness.  As you speak according to His Word and according to His will, Jesus is there in your midst, and He Who greater than you follows your words, crumbling the wall of human nature, making even hesitant, puny words penetrate the mind and heart – JESUS follows you!

But Jesus isn’t the only One Who is mightier than you and me, the Holy Spirit also comes. We really have to be careful, because we don’t often think of the Holy Spirit as Someone who is constantly coming.  So often we think of His coming in Holy Baptism as a one-time event which happened long ago – but then we have forgotten Martin Luther’s admonition to “daily renew our Baptism.”  Daily we find that this One Who is mightier than you or me comes, working with a power which we just do not have.

And because of Baptism Someone else comes – God the Father. This is not fatherhood in some Creator-of-all-things sense, but in that powerful and highly unique concept of how He has adopted us, etched our names into the palms of His hands, placed us on the same level in His regard as His beloved only-begotten Son.  Yes, the God of all things comes now, touching our lives touching our words, touching our worlds, first as our Creator, but also and more wonderfully as our adopting Father.

If these Three do not come to give your words and my words, your actions and my actions, depth of meaning, then we will merely hit a wall which remains unshaken.  If these Three do not come, then we are doomed to frustration and failure even when we try to work on ourselves. The only way that the wall of human nature is going to be penetrated is that Someone mightier than you and I must come.

And that’s the Good News of Christmas and Epiphany.  Jesus has come indeed – He has come into our world, our daily lives.  That’s the Good News of Baptism, where Jesus has made us a part of His Body, so that the hand or foot or tongue can’t go anywhere without Jesus being involved.  That’s the Good News of Holy Communion, because in visible, physical evidence is the statement that Jesus has indeed come – He’s right here, right now. That’s the Good News of our worship together right now – Jesus is using our mouths and our voices, our praise and our prayers to share with each other that Jesus is in our midst precisely as promised.

However, there is always the danger that we can reject Him.  Some had had Jesus literally in front of their faces and rejected Him fully.  Others only wanted Jesus in a certain way, to meet only certain needs – He was a good healer, or a good feeder of multitudes, or a captivating speaker.  And so the warning comes that as Jesus comes today to penetrate your wall of human nature, to touch your heart and mind, do not reject but rejoice in the work that the Holy Spirit and Jesus are doing inside of you.  The Jesus Who comes after me and you, Who has done so much and given so much for me and you – look again at the wonderful blessings touching your life, because HE COMES.

Today as John the Baptist proclaims the coming of Jesus, let us hear again his powerful words: “He Who comes after me is mightier than I,” then see again the Fulfillment of such a promise, standing in front of us In flesh and blood in Christmas, in Holy Communion, and in His holy People; and realize again the Mighty One Who makes our words and deed penetrate the walls of human nature around us and in us as God works His Glory through us.

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