Cure for the Messiah Complex

December 8th, 2011

John the Baptist is a prominent figure in Advent, showing up each year in at least a couple of the Gospel readings and reappearing in January when we remember the Baptism of the Lord and renew our own baptisms. In listening closely to John the Baptist, one senses deep humility. “I am not the Messiah. I am not Elijah (the greatest of the prophets). I am not the main attraction. The main attraction is coming, and I am not worthy to shine his shoes.”

This humility was not only John’s perception of himself; it is also recorded in the Gospel writer’s description of him: John the Baptist was not the light, but he came to bear witness to the light. It is important that we claim John as a model for our lives, as human beings and as Christians. You are not the Messiah. I am not the Messiah. A messiah is someone who saves, rules, and fixes people. Many in Israel were waiting for a messiah in the first century. Life was difficult, harsh, and oppressive.

John’s entrance into the drama of Advent each year might not seem relevant at first glance, but in fact his is a needed voice. Humility is a misunderstood concept, and it may be helpful to say what it is and what it is not. It is not low self-esteem. We are created in the image of God, and that is good. Humility is not false modesty. We have been endowed with gifts, and they are to be used for the glory of God and the common good. One preacher put it this way: Humility is not thinking less of ourselves. Humility is thinking of ourselves less. Do you catch the difference?

This can be liberating. The congregation that I serve includes lots of folks I would describe as overachievers. I see their names in the newspaper, I hear them being interviewed on television and radio, I write letters of recommendation for them when they are getting ready to go to college. A week does not go by that someone in our congregation is not recognized in his or her profession.

When congratulated they will say, “Oh, it’s nothing,” or, “It’s not as special as it seems,” or, “Yes, oh, but you should see what my brother or sister or neighbor or colleague is doing.” I am talking about other people, but if I am honest, myself as well. One of my seminary professors poked fun at the “I love me” walls that preachers love to have in their offices— degrees, ordination certificates—and I do wonder about how all of this helps us to preach better sermons about humility!

It is all mixed together with the drive to succeed and with ambition, performance, and goals. If we don’t have these hopes for ourselves, we surely have them for our children. There is something constructive about all of this. Objectives are accomplished. Goals are met. Good is done. But there is also a dark side that can be a heavy burden. We begin to think that we are, in fact, the source of light. Sometimes, though, the bulb begins to dim. We might not use the precise language, but we begin to think that we are, in fact, the Messiah. We see other people as problems to be solved; we see daily lives as a series of messes to be cleaned up, dilemmas to be sorted through, damages to be repaired. If you and I don’t take care of it, who will? The symptoms of this dark side are burnout, cynicism, frustration with other people, and paradoxically, selfrejection.

But remember, you and I are not the Messiah. We have limitations and boundaries. Advent comes along each year to give us this dose of humility, when once again we meet John, who helps us to get clear perspective.

Make no mistake. John the Baptist was a person of strength. He attracted people to his project. “Among those born of women,” Jesus says, “no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11). John was not weak. “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?” Jesus asks the disciples who had gone in search of John (Matthew 11:7). “A reed shaken by the wind?” (v.7). The literal meaning was a weather vane that bends with the currents of the wind. John was not weak; he was strong—he could withstand the forces of the winds and the storms—but he was humble. His humility is found precisely in his understanding of who he is and who he is not.

Humility is not weakness, but the awareness of the source of our strength. John reminds us that we are human. I came across the insight that there is a connection between the words humanity, humility, and humor. Each word has a common origin, in our word humus. My grandparents had a humus pile that included soil and leaves and kitchen garbage and probably some things I would not want to mention. It was a mixture of the most organic matter, the compost pile, and it was a rich, fertile place. That says something about us: in our humanity we are always a mixture of many things and out of all of it come life and growth.

Humility and humor are connected in our ability to laugh at ourselves— and sometimes we do have to laugh at ourselves. This is related to our humanity. We have limitations, boundaries; we are finite. Humanity is a reminder of our need to be grounded—again the connection with the earth. It is not accidental that the most fundamental posture of humility is kneeling. This self-awareness prepares the way for something more, something greater: Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Scripture: John 1:6-8, 19-28

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