Below is a copy of the sermon I preached on Sunday, December 11, in Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia. You can find a podcast of this sermon on the Cove Podbean page. You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church information.
If you find this sermon meaningful, please consider supporting this ministry by sending an offering to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.
And when John heard in prison about the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is coming or is there another?” And Jesus answered and said to them, “Go, announce to John what you hear and see: blind see and lame walk, lepers are made clean and deaf hear and dead are raised and poor are having good news brought to them, and blessed are those who might not be scandalized my me.”
And when they left, Jesus began to say to the crowd concerning John, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at: a reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see: a person in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft things are in the houses of the king. But what did you go out to see: a prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet. He is the one of whom it has been written: Behold I’m sending my messenger before your face who will make ready your way before you. Amen, I say to you, among those born of women, no one has arisen who is greater than John the Baptist. But the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than him.”
Anyway, it was a real pleasure to have her here with us, because Abby and I have something in common that I’m not sure anyone here knows. But I can tell you right here and now, it sure has nothing to do with music. As I was told Friday evening, I have no talent. No, the only thing I can play is the radio. You see, what we share is an connection with a sport called cross country. But I want you to notice that I said connection, because Abby is a really talented runner and me, well, not so much. But that didn’t stop me from being the cross country coach at Brewbaker Academy in 1978 and 1979.
Of course, how I became a coach was a little odd, because when it comes to long-distance running, and that’s what cross country is, I don’t have any talent there either. In fact, I was never on any cross country team, although, if you counted the distance I ran between 1978 and 1957, I think there’s at least 3, 3½ miles there. No, I became Brewbaker’s cross country coach because I taught history, and at that school, all history teachers had to coach something. And so I was given cross country, the one sport I think they assumed I couldn’t screw up. But I really didn’t care about why, I was delighted to be the coach, and I use that term in the broadest sense, because it meant my ten month teaching contract was $8,400 instead of just $8,000.
But of course, there was a problem. Since I’d never been a cross country runner, before I became the coach, I needed to learn something about the sport. Of course, I had the coaching part down. It’s running, right? I mean, how hard could it be to coach running? And so every practice, I told my boys to run and to meet me at the Krispy Cream Donut Shop when they were done. I think that’s called giving them motivation. And so I was good with the mechanics. And the rules, man, how hard could they be. Unless they had to hop for a mile or run backwards or something like that, I’d been chased enough to have running down.
It was the scoring that I didn’t know, and yes, there’s scoring to cross country running. You see, when one team runs against another, only the top five on each team count and their score is based on their position vis-à-vis the other five. And so, the one who comes in first gets one point, second, two, third, three all the way down to tenth and he gets ten, with the low score winning. And so, at a two-team meet, the best score you can get is 15 and the worst, 40. In fact, a score of 15-40 is considered a sweep. And in my first year as coach, we were swept at every meet. I guess they were a little too motivated by all those donuts. But at least my boys were clean, because they’d been swept. Not one of them cracked the top five, not once.
And I’ll tell you, I mention all this not just because of Abby Cowher or my lack of talent as a coach. You see, I think Jesus is saying the same kind of thing about us at the end of the passage we just read. Let me explain.
Now do y’all remember what’s going on here? John’s been cooling his heels in prison from before Jesus was baptized, and he sent some of his disciples to find out whether Jesus was the one he’d preached about, you know, the guy with the ax and the winnowing shovel and the one who would baptize with Holy Spirit and fire. Well, evidently what John had heard about Jesus wasn’t making his heart race, and so he just wanted to know if the real Christ was behind curtain number one or two. And when they came, Jesus simply told them what he’d been doing, you know, healing the blind and the lame and the deaf, cleaning up lepers, raising the dead, and preaching to the poor; which was pretty much want he’d already said that he came to do when he read from Isaiah. And so that’s what Jesus told them and they left. But just so that no one would think he was dissing John, he talked about who John was and what he did and how he was like the one who’d been prophesied. And you know, he kind of brought it home when he said, “Amen, I say to you, among those born of women, no one has arisen who is greater than John the Baptist.” Now that’s pretty dramatic, something that anyone would want on their resume. In fact, I remember a minister telling us way back when I was in high school (I was dating his daughter instead of running cross country) that he believed that John the Baptist was the second most important person in human history. High praise, right? I’d hire that man.
But remember, Jesus didn’t stop with how great John was. I mean, after saying that there had never been anyone greater than John, Jesus said, “But the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than him.” Wow. You see, according to Jesus, for as great as John was, all those who are in God’s kingdom, you know, who are under God’s rule, in other words, us; we are all greater than John the Baptist. In other words, if he were running cross country, John would be swept major league, because we’d all finish in front of him.
And even though when you first think about it, that seems kind of ridiculous, it really does make sense. I mean, just compare John and us. Now as it related to the stuff that’s really important, and I’m not talking about either his wardrobe or diet, man, we’d come out ahead. And let me give you three examples of what I’m talking about.
And so, using some good cross country images, even though he may have been the fastest human being in his time, we’d sweep him, because in spite of his greatness, we can understand and feel and do things that were beyond him on his best day. And since we’ve come back to cross country, I’ve got to tell you, things changed for me at Brewbaker Academy. Remember how I told you that we were swept in every meet my first year? Well that didn’t happen the next year. Although my natural modesty causes me to feel uncomfortable saying this, in my second year, we had more wins than Brewbaker had had in it’s history. You see, in 1979, we won two meets, because the Brewbaker coach started to take his job seriously and we worked really hard and we started eating only the glazed and not the jelly-filled. But what I think really did the trick was that we scheduled Cape Henry Academy twice and they were really bad. And because of that, 15–40 wasn’t the only score I saw.