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The Crucial Test

The beginning of another year provides an appropriate opportunity to re-assess our spiritual stature. We can do so by applying the test prescribed in the memorable phrase used by John the Baptist as he stepped into the shadows to make way for his Master:

"He must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30).

Looking back over the past year we may each enquire, How have I measured up to that standard? Has 'self or 'Christ' had the ascendancy? The test is a severe yet crucial one in terms of spiritual achievement; for men and women of God are expendable. Their success is not measured by their popularity but by their devotion to the ideal which captivated the great forerunner, whose words, quoted above, were the epitome of his service.

Take a quick look at John's background and office. Mark his eminence in the economy of God. He was the last and the greatest of the Old Covenant prophets, destined to phase out the Old and prepare for the New. He lived where he preached - in the wilderness. Not for him the refinements and comforts of city life. Like Moses he was prepared for high office in the great silences. His pulpit was not to be the temple court; he was to be "the voice of one crying in the wilderness". There he waited, alone with God, eager for the day of his showing unto Israel. At last the word of God came to him, and he came preaching. And what a preacher! He burst on the scene like a mighty tempest, exposing the insipid formalism which had settled upon his nation. Repent! Repent!, he cried, "there cometh after me He that is mightier than I, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose". Multitudes flocked to him; Pharisees and Sadducees, lawyers and scribes, publicans and sinners, rubbed shoulders to listen to this astonishing preacher who had brought a whole nation to the tiptoe of expectation. John had arrived, there was no doubt about that. The seal of divine approval on his mission was there for all to see.

Yet all the time he knew, as his preaching reached its crescendo, that his audience would suddenly melt away. They would turn from him to the Greater than he. Even beloved disciples - John and Andrew among them - left him. He watched them go; he knew they would never return. That was the Baptist's finest hour. A lesser man would have been soured and embittered. Not he. The voice in the wilderness had paved the way for Another. That was his mission. Now, "He must increase, but I must decrease".

One of the greatest hindrances to spiritual usefulness is the projection of self. "0 wretched idol, myself!", bemoaned the saintly Rutherford, "when shall I see thee wholly decourted, and Christ put wholly in thy room?" And how subtle 'self can be! It masquerades under many aliases and lifts its shameless head in our most sacred exercises. None of us is immune from its solicitations. "That was a fine sermon you gave us tonight, Mr Wesley", said a woman to the great preacher at the conclusion of one of his services. "Madam", he replied, "the Devil had already told me so before I stepped down from the pulpit". That is a hazard every spiritually minded preacher will recognize. He will always be watchful of his motives, for, "no man can give at once the impressions that he himself is clever and that Christ is mighty to save" (Denny).

How is it with me as I look into the year ahead? Is the self-effacement which was the hallmark of the Baptist's life and service to be my watchword? Or will self-interest and personal prestige take precedence? For myself and for those whose lives I touch the choice will be crucial. John's pathway of complete self-effacement led to the sacrifice of his all. It reached its low when the Roman soldier entered his cell and severed his head. He had lived in the wilderness, deprived of human society and much else that men hold dear, to prepare himself for his brief unique ministry. But there was no earthly reward. In death as in life John was the exemplar of his own precept, "He must increase, but I must decrease". Will your love and mine stand up to that test?

"Lord Jesus Christ, grow Thou in me,

And all things else recede;

My heart be daily nearer Thee,

From sin be daily freed."