On being a witness


A sermon on John 1:6-8, 19-28

When I was younger, I had a reputation for being very gullible.

Have you heard the one about how the word gullible doesn’t appear in the dictionary?... I believed it the first time someone made me the target of that joke.

In my defense, I have always liked to believe that my tendency to trust what people tell me comes from my own trustworthiness. I represent truth accurately, to the best of my ability, so I assume others are doing the same thing.

Sadly, that trusting nature has had to attend the school of adult reality, and I am much quicker to question debatable “truths” these days. In an era of clickbait headlines, and social media as a news source for the majority of American adults,[1] and talking heads spouting whatever spin will most appeal to their base… skepticism can be a virtue.

I see a useful skepticism at play in today’s gospel story in the questioning that John undergoes at the hands of the priests and Levites sent by the Pharisees. They want to know who he thinks he is, and they interrogate him for a satisfactory answer. It could be that they just need an answer to take back to those who sent them, but the line of their questioning suggests that there is more to it than that.

What they really want to know is what authority he claims for doing what he is doing. "Why … are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” (John 1: 25) they ask. The questioners are not just seeking factual information, they are seeking reinforcement for their skepticism about whether his claims to religious authority are legitimate. By baptizing out in the wilderness, John’s ministry is a challenge to the powers that be, to the priests and Pharisees that claim to be the gatekeepers of access to God. The skepticism of the questioners is not really about truth, it is about control. It’s about finding a way to discredit their opposition.

Probably not an example we want to follow…but I called this skepticism useful a minute ago. That’s because the interrogation, by which the questioners were trying to undermine John’s baptism, actually DID undermine it, in a way…. Just not the way they intended.

Their questions pushed John to explain that his baptism wasn’t really the thing. Jesus was. John’s most important role was not as a baptizer, but as a WITNESS.

Of course, the gospel writer had already told us this when he introduced John. He writes that “(John) came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” (John 1:7-8)

In these two short verses we have a clear answer to the Pharisee’s question of “who is John” – he is a witness, who came to testify.

But even more important than the answer about John’s identity, we have a powerful description of what it means to be a witness. And that is important because witness is our calling as well.

[Pay attention, because this sermon has homework.].

So, what DOES it mean to be a witness, especially in a skeptical world?

First, A WITNESS GIVES TESTIMONY. Verse 7a: “(John) came as a witness to testify to the light.

Testimony is essential to our identity as witnesses. In fact, in the original Greek, the words translated as witness and testify have the same root. They are different forms of the same word. And that makes sense, because the testimony given is what makes the witness a witness.

Which means the CONTENT of our testimony is the most important thing about being a witness. And this passage instructs us in what that content of our witness is:[2]

  • As witnesses along with John, we testify to the LIGHT.

Light is what allows us to see. It’s the way that we know what is true. It’s the beacon that guides us through the fog of so many different claims to truth bombarding us from all directions.

Our testimony is that Jesus is our light, and thus that our faith in him is actually a resource when we feel lost, and a guide to truth in the midst of confusion.

  • As witnesses along with John, we also testify that Jesus is EXALTED, the one whose sandal straps we are not worthy to untie. Hold on to that one, I’ll get back to it in a minute.

Hold on to that one, I’ll get back to it in a minute.

  • Finally, as witnesses along with John we testify that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Now, Lamb of God is a less useful metaphor in our contemporary context than it was in John’s. So, rather than getting sidetracked in an extended discussion of ancient Israel’s sacrificial system, let’s just simplify by calling the lamb a means of forgiveness.

More profound in our context is the testimony that Jesus takes away the sin of the world – SIN in the singular. We aren’t used to thinking about sin that way. We usually think about “sins” – individual acts of commission or omission that violate God’s righteousness and separate us from God’s will. We confess and seek forgiveness for these sins repeatedly, whenever we pray the Lord’s prayer, because they are each unique.

But sin in the singular is a universal understanding. A recognition that there is something broken and wrong in the fundamental structures of our world.

And it is our testimony that Jesus came to take away that fundamental, universal condition of sin.

The content of our testimony is no small thing, and perhaps it’s a bit intimidating. The claims of our testimony are not self-evident, and they might even tug on our own feelings of skepticism.

If so, it is instructive to consider the second lesson from this passage about being witnesses: TESTIMONY CREATES FAITH. Verse 7: “(John) came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.

Testimony is not an end unto itself, testimony has a purpose – it is meant to change people’s minds. Just like a witness in a trial shares their story to convince the jury about the truth of what happened, so our witness is intended to create belief about what God has done through Jesus.

But this can be the most intimidating thing about being a witness, can it not, in our contemporary culture of doubt among competing truths? Being a witness is risky, because people might not believe us. And if we are to testify to the light, so that all might believe… what if they don’t believe?

On the other hand… what if WE DO believe?

Testimony creates belief, and sometimes that includes the belief of the witness. When we tell our own stories of how Jesus has been a light, and been exalted, and taken away the sin of the world… it grows our faith.

Belief is not an on/off switch that we either have or do not have. It is something that expands and deepens through our relationship with the one in whom we believe. And testimony feeds that relationship.

BUT – and this is the final clear instruction about witness in this passage – WE ARE WITNESSES, NOT SAVIORS. Verse 8: “(John) himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”

It is far too easy for us to take the responsibility on ourselves to create faith – whether that means thinking we are responsible for how others respond to our witness, or thinking that we are the source of our own faith. But we are witnesses, not saviors. We aren’t the ones who take away the sin, including the skepticism, whether of the world or of our own hearts.

This is where the testimony that Jesus is EXALTED comes in. Most of us probably feel that John has a leg up on us when it comes to witness, but he was very clear about what he was not: He was not the light; and he was not the Messiah; and he was not even a venerated prophet. He was a voice… crying “make straight the way of the Lord.”

That’s all it takes to be a witness… a voice.

And this is where your homework comes in: I challenge you each to take some time, before the end of the year, to think about your witness.

How does your own story of faith testify to the light, and the exaltation, and the sin-removing power of Jesus?

How does that testimony feed your own faith?

How can you bear witness not to yourself, but to your Savior?

We are all called as witnesses. In our affirmation of our baptismal promises we ask God to help and guide us in “proclaiming the good news of God in Christ through word and deed.” And we make those promises together as a community, so we have each other’s help as well.

In the coming year, I am committed to creating opportunities for you to share your witness.

Maybe you are a writer, and you could write your story for our newsletter, or for the church’s website.

Maybe you would rather stand up here and tell your witness in person.

Maybe you want to turn it into a poem, or a drama, or a song that could enhance our worship or be shared outside these walls.

Maybe you will find the voice to share your story with someone in your life who is longing for the light.

We all have different gifts, so our witness will not look the same. I am not expecting any of you to set-up shop out in the wilderness and start baptizing people like John.

But we each have a voice, and our voices can testify.

And if we meet some skepticism in response… maybe that’s a GOOD thing. When the priests and the Levites interrogated John, trying to challenge his authority, he knew that it wasn’t about him. It was about Jesus.

And their challenge was another chance to witness.

Thanks be to God.

[1] According to a 2016 Pew Research study, 62% of American Adults use social media as a news source. http://www.journalism.org/2016/05/26/news-use-across-social-media-platforms-2016/

[2] The enumeration of the elements of John’s testimony is borrowed from Jan Schnell Rippentrop’s commentary on this passage: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3494.

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