Sermon from January 9: Not the Messiah

Not the Messiah
Baptism of the Lord; January 9, 2022
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Anxious times encourage us to look for someone to rescue us. It’s no wonder to me that people living under Roman occupation would expect the coming of Messiah. In the anxious 1970s Close Encounters of the Third Kind had aliens come for benign intervention. I wonder if the attack on Congress last year was not, in part at least, an expression of the anxiety of White folks losing their sense of dominance and looking for President Trump to restore it.[1] At any rate, with the firebrand preaching of John the Baptizer and his calls for repentance, it is no wonder that people thought he might be the Messiah they were looking for.

John had rough charisma and a no-nonsense attitude. If he had felt the urge to raise an army to storm the Fortress Antonia or the Praetorium to attempt to seize control of Judea, I’m sure he could have done so. He would not have succeeded in the conquest, but he certainly could have raised an army and tried. If his ego had been larger than his sense of calling, I imagine he would have accepted what people said of him and claimed the title.

But John knew who he was and what was his calling: to prepare the way of the Lord. And so he said, “I am not the Messiah. One more powerful than I is coming; he will baptize you in Holy Spirit and fire.” He said some other things too that portrayed an image of Messiah that people could pin their hopes to: he would clearly sort out the good people from the bad; that is, he would gather the wheat – the good people – into his granary, but the chaff – the bad people – he would burn with unquenchable fire.

We just celebrated Christmas; you know what sort of Messiah God actually sent to the world. Jesus had some pretty harsh things to say to his opponents, but he didn’t call for anybody to be burned. John eventually found himself disappointed in Jesus; he was no longer convinced that Jesus was in fact the Messiah, because Jesus wasn’t doing the sorts of things that John thought the Messiah should do. But let’s keep this thought in mind: even if he was disappointed in Jesus, he didn’t claim the title for himself. He kept an open mind. And didn’t aim to satisfy his own ego.

Well, I struggled what to do with this story specifically for this congregation today. Today is the day we celebrate Jesus’ baptism. Typically I preach a sermon about the meaning of Baptism. Today we also ordain and install the leaders God has called for this new year. Typically I preach a sermon about leadership. The message for us today came into focus on Thursday morning as I visited with our Prayer and Share group.

We talked about the general sense of depression in our society, which is also reflected in our church. A lot of us are sad a lot of the time; winter and COVID and isolation have combined to make even the happiest among us rather pessimistic. We also talked about the anxiety some of us have over the changes in our church that are coming. So I’m going to talk about that today. I don’t want to overdo this, because there is so much more to the Gospel than our church’s leadership issues, but I think it’s the right thing to say today.

Those of you who were part of the Benson Presbyterian Church have a long experience of pastoral transition, and your experience is diverse. You have had happy endings and difficult endings. Those of you who were part of the prior Presbyterian Church of the Master have had very few happy endings. You have seen pastors leave unhappily and pastors forced out. The ending of a pastorate has often meant that many folks have left the church. I understand the anxiety some of you feel.

Here is what I think you need to know about this. First, and foremost, like John, I am not the Messiah. Every pastor you have ever had would say the same: none of us is the Messiah. Whenever someone says that I’m not good enough because I’m not D. C. Davis or Clyde York or Keith Cook or Sara Tonje, I remember that someone no doubt said something like that to D. C., Clyde, Keith, and Sara. None of us is the Messiah. People tend to remember how great someone was and compare the incumbent unfavorably; I wish they didn’t, but they do. I said to the Personnel Committee that if your next Pastor preaches from a manuscript and you compare them unfavorably to the way I preach, I will be very vexed with you.

I have intentionally tried not to cultivate loyalty to me, but to the Lord Jesus and His Church. When I retire, I hope and pray that there is no one who stops participating because “things just aren’t what they were” or something like that. When you became a member, you affirmed that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior. Not Keith Cook, not Sara Tonje, not Bob Keefer, but Jesus Christ. This is Jesus’ Church, not my Church. I am not the Messiah; Jesus is. If you, like John, are a little disappointed in Jesus’ way of being Messiah, then you had best take it up with Jesus, as John did.

By the way, your next Pastor will not be the Messiah either. Just as there are aspects of me and my work that disappoint you, there will be aspects of the next Pastor that disappoint you. Just as you have disappointments in everyone else in your life, and you manage to disappoint people too. Yet one of the things that has been an enormous blessing in my years here is your capacity to let people be who they are. That is why it is natural for you to be a More Light Church: you do not expect people to conform to some prescribed category. You have allowed me to be me, with my gifts and my failings.

And so I will make this prediction, and very confidently: you will get a talented interim pastor to lead you in your transitional work over the next period of time, and you will call a wonderful Pastor. You are a gifted people of God, loving and dedicated, and it is a privilege to be associated with you. And so I urge you to be hopeful: the ministers to follow me will not be the Messiah, any more than I am, but you have the capacity to engage someone as gifted and dedicated as you are. And I predict that you will.

While I’m being so personal, I should say this too: I am retiring because it is the right time in my life to do so and it is the right time in your life to seek a new Pastor. On my last official day I will have been here nine years; I honestly believe it is time for you to have a Pastor educated in a different era. And given my age and Kathleen’s age and our circumstances in life, the time is right for us. If there are rumors of anything else, stamp them out. Consign them to the same hole where you put the ridiculous conspiracy theories that plague our society. You and I have had quite a run together, and we will end it well.

But not yet: I don’t want to dwell on this over the next few months because there is so much yet for us to do together. And this will bring me to the conclusion for this sermon. Jesus is our Messiah, our Lord and Savior, and the Pastor’s job is to represent him. Yet the Pastor is not the only one here who represents Jesus. That is also the calling of our deacons and our ruling elders. I’ve used this line many times and it bears repeating: someone (I don’t recall who) said that the Presbyterian Church is not a representative democracy; it is a representative monarchy. You do not elect elders and deacons to represent you; you elect elders and deacons to represent the Lord Jesus to you. Their task is not to find out what you want and do it. Their task is to discover the will of God and to lead you in doing it.

You will not always like it, but if I know anything about the will of God it is that it doesn’t always suit us. So whenever you’re tempted to grumble about what the Session or the Board of Deacons does, please put a stopper in it until you’ve searched the Bible and the Constitution of the Church. Maybe they are wrong, or maybe you are resisting the will of God. These people being ordained and installed today are, in the grand scheme of things, more important to the future of this Church than is the Pastor.

But they are not the Messiah either. They know that and none of them is doing this for an ego trip. All of us, like John, are pointing to the one who is more powerful than we, whose sandals we are not worthy to untie. He is the one to whom, when he was baptized, the Voice said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am pleased.”

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska


[1] Various sources support my hunch; see, for example, “Racist rage energized rioters,” Omaha World-Herald January 7, 2022, p. A4.