We might not think a simple witness means much – but just pointing to Jesus can change someone’s life. It changed mine.
[Audio is from same sermon preached at Trinity Lutheran that morning, due to audio issues at St. Jacob’s…slightly different, but the same message.]
Third Sunday in Advent (Year B) – Sunday, December 14, 2014 – Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11; John 1:6-8,19-28
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
“Just Point” – Pastor Evan Davis
Will you take the stand? You know, I think we can find a Bible in here somewhere…ok, yeah, here we go! I need a witness. To tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you, God! So is there a witness in the house, today? Because I need a testimony! There’ve been like 35 seasons of Law & Order, we’ve all seen at least one episode. We know how courtrooms work. Witnesses come to tell the truth. As Sergeant Joe Friday (of Dragnet) would say, “just the facts, ma’am.” No commentary, just what happened.
In the gospel of John today, we heard John the Evangelist’s take on John the Baptist (not the same person). Except in John’s version, John the Baptist is really John the Witness. Listen again to how he’s described: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.” You should know that in Greek the word “witness” or “testimony” is martyrion, and the verb “to testify” is martyrese…witnesses give testimony…and when that testimony is opposed, they often have become martyrs, those who bear the cost of giving an unpopular witness. But what John the Evangelist really wants us to know about John the Witness is not so much who he is as much as who he is not.
“He himself was NOT the light. Later, people from Jerusalem come ask, “who are you?” John doesn’t deny it, he comes right out and says, “I am not the Messiah.” Not the light, not the Messiah – got it so far? “What then? Are you Elijah?” “I am not.” the prophet? Nope. Well then who are you? What do you say about yourself? Not much, actually. John the Witness does claim to be that voice crying out in the wilderness. But when they try to corner him, and ask him why he’s baptizing with no credentials…since he’s not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the prophet, not the light, John gives just the facts. He simply points to Jesus. “He’s why I’m here, he’s the One who matters, the One coming after me.”
So who are you? You may not feel like, well you may not be, as powerful as Elijah, defying kings and rulers with the word of the Lord. You may not be the Messiah, the one anointed by God to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners, and to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor. You may not be the light that illumines the world.
But you are beloved of God. You are chosen – just as God made you, just as you are, here today. You are not Saviors, but you are witnesses. In John’s gospel, we encounter many people who become witnesses to the true light coming into the world, to Jesus. Think of the woman at the well – just a normal person (and in that day, less than a person…a Samaritan and a woman), with no qualifications, but Jesus comes and has a life-altering talk with her. She becomes a witness. She just goes and tells everyone about it. She says, “come and see a man who told me everything I’ve ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”1 She doesn’t have all the answers about Jesus, about God. She’s not even sure who Jesus is. She just points to him. See Jesus? He’s the one who told me everything I’ve ever done. John says, See Jesus? He’s the Light, the One coming into the world. She’s just a witness, not the light, but think how many people have been brought to faith through her simple willingness to say what she saw.
You might hear the word “witness” and think that’s about trying to preach a sermon. You know, y’all are kind enough to listen to me on Sunday, but my friends and family aren’t looking for me to get wound up and start preaching just anyday. I’m guessing yours aren’t either. You may worry that being a witness means you have to have God figured out. That you have to make sure you say everything right. Or that you have to correct people when they’re wrong. But I’ve got good news for you…Witnesses don’t make the closing arguments. They just say what they saw…heard…experienced. And when we witness to God, we cannot possibly explain the mind of God. We can’t prove that God exists. We can’t prove the absolute truth of our doctrines about God. We can just say what we saw. Just the facts. We can tell about the time when God entered our lives…what it looked like, sounded like, felt like.
God has found me many times and in many places – in the middle of my own temper tantrums of faith, when I’ve made mistakes, and in times when I’ve been at peace. But there’s one time I’ll never forget. After four years of college in which I worshiped maybe 10 or 11 times a year, when I loved God but I wasn’t finding church a very valuable use of my time, in the weeks before and after my graduation God put in my heart the desire to reconnect with church. It was really nothing more than a profound sense of gratitude that welled up within me, for the beautiful things I had learned in such a beautiful place, surrounded by such beautiful people. I decided I was going to try most of the Protestant denominations to see which one I really liked…and I started with the Lutherans, because I knew a couple of really cool Lutherans and so I figured their church had to be pretty great. I went to worship, and this church had such a meaningful and intentional worship service. The pastor preached a good sermon that connected to my life in the world. The Great Thanksgiving, the Communion prayer, grabbed me with imagery and power and feeling. This was an octagonal-shaped church, with the pews surrounding the altar, and so I wasn’t sure when I was supposed to go up for Communion or in what pattern. But, you see, I had a companion in worship that day. I won’t call her old, but an experienced, seasoned member of the church had come and sat next to me. And the whole service, I felt this grace radiating from her, in the way she sang, the way she prayed, in how authentic and true the worship seemed for her. Finally it was time for us to come up, and she got up and extended her hand, and pointed to the Communion table.
Now this lady had just come to church that day like she always did, and probably sat where she always sat, and simply had the grace, the politeness, the hospitality, to direct me where to go for Communion that Sunday. But as she pointed to that table, that table that held the very Body and Blood of Christ our Savior, she was for me John the Witness pointing to the One who was to come, she was the very presence of the Holy Spirit for me, welcoming me, calling me, to an up close and personal encounter with my Lord. I met the Lord that day, through nothing more than an outstretched hand beckoning me to the One who was waiting for me. And as I walked to that Table and knelt at the rail, I felt a moment of total clarity that this was where God was calling me – to this church, to the comfort and humility of grace and forgiveness in Christ’s Body broken and Blood poured out for me.
We don’t know when we’ll be a witness, but I bet you know when someone has been that witness for you. God’s with you every moment of every day, but I’m sure you can tell me when God has used a witness to truly reach you, to grab hold of you through the layers of darkness and denial and busyness and whatever’s going on in your life. You know how powerful that simple witness, just pointing to Christ, can really be.
How powerful are the words of St. Francis: “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” His words were necessary! Use words sometimes, when you have the chance to give your testimony, but we also witness simply by pointing in our actions. We point to God by rejoicing always, every day of our lives, because we have learned to pray without ceasing and to give thanks in all circumstances. We point to God by stopping to pray before meals or to simply sit in the silence in the midst of our busy days. We point to God, in this Advent season, as the rest of the world is off to celebrate Cash-mas, by keeping Christ in Christmas, but as a really cool t-shirt I saw reminded me, here’s how you keep Christ in Christmas: Feed the Hungry, Shelter the Homeless, Welcome Immigrants, Forgive Others, Embrace Outsiders, Share with Those in Need, Advocate for the Powerless, Confront Those Abusing Power, and Value Others’ Religions. We point to Christ in Eric Garner as he died. Humble pointing. Because our God reaches her children with humble prayers, faithful deeds, and outstretched hands pointing to Christ on the Communion Table, in the suffering and dying, in each other, every day. Amen.
1Woman at the well example lifted up by: Karoline Lewis, “Advent as Testimony,” https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3453 (accessed December 13, 2014).