Witnesses for Christ
Pastor Jim Kniseley presented this sermon at Trinity and St. Jacob’s on January 15, the Second Sunday after Epiphany. The text is John 1:29-42.
Dear Friends in Christ,
You and I are in the Season of Epiphany. It began with a star that led the Wisemen of old to the infant Jesus. The Church lifts up Evangelizing and Witnessing in this the Season of Light. We Christians unashamedly talk about Jesus to others and we even dare to invite people to “come and see Jesus in our congregations”.
Last week in the gospel reading and in the sermon we talked about John the Baptist. You won’t hear me speak today about him with that name. Why? Because in the gospel of John, which we are using today, he is never called John the Baptist. Rather, he is presented as John the Witness. His primary role is to testify to the Light.
There is a miraculous story of light that comes to us from Western Pennsylvania. Some years ago 9 miners became trapped in a flooded mine. Those injured and desperate men tied themselves together so that the stronger could sustain the weaker ones as they waited to be rescued. It took 5 long days. No one could believe when all miners emerged safely from the mine.
Seven days after they emerged, the people of the small mining community gathered for a worship service to thank God for saving the miners’ lives. At the service there were 10 miner’s lamps on the altar, even though there were only 9 miners. The pastor said that the 10th lamp represented God’s presence, which the miners claimed they could feel as they waited to be rescued. It was this “10th man” they honored as they read Psalm 103, “Praise the Lord…who redeems your life from the pit.” It would seem to me that today you and I also gather to celebrate the “10th man”, the one who continuously and eternally rescues us from the pit.
Let’s get back to John the Witness. We read of his testimony on two successive days. Jewish leaders from Jerusalem want answers from him about who he really is. Does he claim to be the Messiah? John, to his eternal credit, points them to Jesus and gives Jesus all the credit. He says “I saw the Spirit descend on him like a dove”. “He ranks ahead of me in every way”. “He is the Lamb of God.” “He is the Son of God.”
The next day John is walking with 2 of his own disciples and they see Jesus. He said to the disciples, “ There is the Lamb of God.” The most wonderful and amazing thing occurred. These two disciples of John decided to learn more about Jesus. They spent time with Jesus that day and obviously knew he was the real thing. Here’s the evidence: Andrew, who later became an apostle, found his brother Simon and said, “We have found the Messiah”. He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called “Cephas”, which is translated Peter.
So the pattern for witnessing is set here for all succeeding generations of us who call ourselves Christians. We believe, we share that belief, and we invite others “to come and see”.
Could the term “witness” be said of you today? In your Christian walk, are you sharing with others how your faith in Christ has sustained you? When was the last time you invited someone to come to church with you?
In my visiting with many in this congregation I have heard a common worry. We aren’t growing. What can we do?
Perhaps I come as a prophet today. I come from the outside into a congregation that has set patterns and practices. Let me assure you that there is no magic program out there that we can borrow or buy that will bring growth. Fixing up the building will not be the instant fix to growth. Congregations grow when the members individually invite others. Remember the pattern: we believe, we share that belief, and we invite others “to come and see”.
An uncomfortable truth: the guestbook in the back has something to say. The last entry for a visitor to worship was months and months ago. That is not good. You know what? We can change that, starting right away as you invite family and friends “to come and see”.
Our Reformation 500 Team has some plans in the works that I believe will greatly enhance our opportunities for inviting others. We’re going to have events that will be interesting and well-organized enough so that the folks we invite will have a very good impression of how this part of the body of Christ operates. There will be a grand worship service on Reformation Sunday at the end of October. We will have several other congregations participating and this will happen in a place that can hold lots of people. We’re planning a church picnic in late July that will be at a place where we can do worship, have good German food, go swimming and canoeing, and even play horseshoes. Our mid-week services in Lent will be shared among 3 congregations, including a United Methodist Church. We are planning a hymn-fest in early July that should be wonderful.
You know that I have not been the called pastor of rural congregations. Most of my calls have been to congregations in suburban settings. What I learned in each of those settings was how to identify opportunities for reaching out and expanding the congregations. Each setting is different, and what works in one setting may not work in another setting. Here are some things we tried that worked in getting new people involved in the life of the church. I hope that these ideas will spark you to think of what we can do here to reach out to the community:
*In Glendale, CA, we had bus ministry and we sent out teams to invite children to be picked up for Sunday School. Eventually we had 3 buses. Several families chose to follow their children into church life. A highlight was the Sunday we baptized 24 children.
*In San Diego we joined forces with Catholic Charities and the United States Department of Agriculture and became a site for monthly distribution of food for people in need. Hundreds of people came to our church facility for food. We also participated in the winter shelter for the homeless.
*In Fredericksburg we started a Health Ministry. The largest thing we did was put on an annual Health Fair and that attracted hundreds of people and there was always a minimum of 30 different health screenings and vendors. The other thing that folks still talk about is the giant billboard that advertised our Christmas and then Easter worship services. At that time we were still a congregation surrounded by farms, but on Route 3, a major highways connecting Fredericksburg and Culpeper. How did we pay for that giant billboard, which was just 1000 feet from our church property? I phoned the sign company and asked if we could advertise at a greatly reduced price. They said “yes” and all we had to do was pay for printing the large sign. We did this for 3 years. I will always remember what happened after Easter one year. I called to reserve the billboard for Christmas and was told that someone had signed a long-term contract for the sign. That was the bad news. The good news was that the person had been in our church on Easter and was so impressed with our sign that he agreed to give us the space for Christmas at no charge.
So, dear Christian friends: invite, invite, invite! Next Sunday our gospel tells us about the call of the other disciples. I’m going to use the sermon time to remind us of our own calls and to have us do some practicing on how to invite others “to come and see”.
Thanks be to God. Amen!