St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

As a witness

As a witness

Ser­mon preached at Enmore, 3rd Sunday of Advent, 17th. Decem­ber 2017

Read­ings: Isai­ah 61. 1–4, 8–11; 1 Thes­sa­lo­ni­ans 5.12–28; John 1.6–8; 19–28

Last week we had a taste of Mark’s Gos­pel, read­ing the open­ing verses and being intro­duced to John the Baptist. This Sunday the lec­tion­ary gives us some of the pro­logue to John’s Gos­pel and we read John’s account of the min­istry of John the Baptist. The two John’s are rather dif­fer­ent. Mark’s John wears camel hair, eats locusts and wild honey and is known as the bap­tiser. John the Evan­gel­ist intro­duces him simply as a man sent from God who came as a wit­ness to the light. His primary role is not as a bap­tiser but to be the one who test­i­fies to the light com­ing into the world.

Wit­ness is a word that John is rather fond of and most often he uses it of the wit­ness or testi­mony giv­en to the per­son of Jesus. John uses the noun ‘wit­ness’ 14 times and the verb ‘to wit­ness’ 33 times- far more than any oth­er New Test­a­ment writer. In the fourth Gos­pel, John is the first to bear wit­ness to Jesus. Later in the Gos­pel there will be oth­er wit­nesses to Jesus: the Scrip­tures, God, Jesus’ own works, and his dis­ciples. In chapter 5 in con­ver­sa­tion with his crit­ics after heal­ing a man on the Sab­bath day Jesus declares: “I have a testi­mony great­er than John’s. The works that the Fath­er has giv­en me to com­plete, the very works that I am doing, testi­fy on my behalf that the Fath­er has sent me.”

In the Chris­ti­an world in which I grew up people talked a lot about ‘wit­ness­ing’. It was the term used for shar­ing your faith with oth­ers and there­fore a word which, in my view, had scary con­nota­tions. Wit­ness­ing was some­thing we were meant to do but most of us found dif­fi­cult. These days the word is out of fash­ion but it is a good Bib­lic­al word and one that we prob­ably need to reflect on. In Acts 1, Luke gives us Jesus’ farewell speech to his dis­ciples before his ascen­sion which include the words, “you will receive power when the Holy Spir­it has come upon you and you will be my wit­nesses in Jer­u­s­alem, in all Judea, and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.”

So what does it mean to bear wit­ness? The first thing to note is that the task of a wit­ness is not to draw atten­tion to them­selves. When John is first intro­duced to us in John 1 the Evan­gel­ist makes it clear that John was not the light but only a wit­ness to the light. John under­stood that very clearly. When the reli­gious author­it­ies came to ques­tion him about his iden­tity he was unshake­able in his con­vic­tion of who he was not. Three times he is asked who he is. In reply he declares “I am not the Christ.” “I am not Eli­jah.” “I am not the proph­et.” John denied that he was the anoin­ted one, the Mes­si­ah and denied that he was Eli­jah reborn. There was a wide­spread belief based on a proph­ecy in Mala­chi that Eli­jah would return before the “great and dread­ful day of the Lord.” Jesus actu­ally said on one occa­sion (Matt.11.14) that the com­ing of John the Baptist ful­filled that proph­ecy but John would not claim that title for him­self. Nor would John accept that he was the great proph­et spoken of in Deu­ter­o­nomy 18 who would be like Moses. In the face of John’s deni­als, the reli­gious lead­ers ask in exas­per­a­tion, “What do you say about your­self?” John claims no title except the “voice of one cry­ing in the wil­der­ness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’.” In John’s Gos­pel, Jesus is the great ‘I am’. “I am the bread of life.” “I am the light of the world.” “I am good shep­herd.” “I am the resur­rec­tion and the life.” “I am the way, the truth and the life.” “I am the true vine.” In stark con­trast, John is the great, “I am not.”

Yet, even in his res­ol­ute state­ments about who he is not, who John really is and his pur­pose are insep­ar­able from the Word made flesh, the one who is the true light. John’s iden­tity is bound up with the iden­tity of Jesus. As I men­tioned last week John the Baptist is a famil­i­ar fig­ure in reli­gious art through the ages and he keeps pop­ping up even when least expec­ted. So a num­ber of great paint­ings of the cru­ci­fix­ion have John the Baptist at one side point­ing to Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Can we loc­ate our iden­tity as closely with Jesus? Is the ground of our being that we are loved and known by God? Is our self- regard based on what we have achieved or what we pos­sess or is it groun­ded in the know­ledge that we are loved by the God revealed in Jesus.

The second thing about being a wit­ness is that a wit­ness is com­mit­ted. Wit­ness­ing is a leg­al concept. In Jew­ish law the wit­ness of two people was required in order to prove any­thing. To be a wit­ness is to com­mit one­self to a state­ment. Yes, the man I saw rob­bing the bank was very tall and had dark hair. The car that was speed­ing through the red lights was a white Camry. A wit­ness is required to tell plainly and clearly what he or she knows. John knew what was required of him and he faith­fully per­formed it. John the Evan­gel­ist gives us some oth­er faith­ful wit­nesses. In John 9 we have the won­der­ful story of the man born blind who has his sight restored by Jesus. The man is inter­rog­ated by the reli­gious lead­ers about his heal­ing and espe­cially about the heal­er, Jesus. When pressed by them as to what he knows about Jesus he responds with the insight­ful response, “One thing I do know is that once I was blind but now I see.” That is true wit­ness­ing. We are not asked to have the answers to all the deep theo­lo­gic­al ques­tions that life throws at us but we are asked to bear wit­ness to what we know and have experienced.

John’s wit­ness was to declare that Jesus was the light. Verse 9 that our lec­tion­ary omits states that ‘the true light which enlight­ens every­one was com­ing into the world.’ Christ­mas is the fest­iv­al of light. In the 4th Cen­tury Chris­ti­ans in Rome chose the 25th Decem­ber as the day to cel­eb­rate Christ’s nativ­ity because there was already a Roman fest­iv­al on that day in hon­our of the unconquered sun; which after the winter sol­stice began again to increase in light. They con­ver­ted the fest­iv­al into the cel­eb­ra­tion of the nativ­ity of the Son of God, the one who was both light and life. John the evan­gel­ist tells us that the true light which enlight­ens every­one was com­ing into the world but also says that the light shines in the dark­ness but that the dark­ness did not under­stand it. How do we make sense of that appar­ent para­dox? Wil­li­am Temple, the fam­ous Arch­bish­op of Can­ter­bury of the mid twen­ti­eth cen­tury explained it in a way I find help­ful. He wrote, “From the begin­ning the divine light has shone. Always it was com­ing into the world; always it enlightened every per­son alive in their reas­on and conscience…….All that is noble in the non- Chris­ti­an sys­tems of thought, or con­duct or wor­ship, is the work of Christ upon them and with­in them. By the Word of God- that is to say by Jesus Christ – Isai­ah and Pla­to and Buddha and Con­fucius con­ceived and uttered such truths as they declared. There is only one divine light and every per­son in their meas­ure is enlightened by it. Yet, this light is often not recog­nised for what it is. If it were, its fuller shin­ing would always be welcomed.”

John the wit­ness reminds us of the import­ance of point­ing to even the tini­est point of light and say­ing, ‘Behold the Lamb of God.’ To be a fol­low­er of Jesus is to be one who believes that even in the darkest hour, some­where and some­how the light will still be shin­ing. The pas­sage also chal­lenges us to answer the ques­tion asked of John the Baptist: “Who are you?” So let me close by read­ing a poem writ­ten by Diet­rich Bon­hoef­fer while in pris­on shortly before his exe­cu­tion by the S.S. in April 1945.

Who am I?

Who am I? They often tell me/ I stepped from my cell’s confinement/Calmly, cheer­fully, firmly/ Like a squire from his coun­try house./ Who am I? They often tell me/ I used to speak to my warders/Freely and friendly and clearly,/As though it were mine to command/ Who am I? They also tell me /I bore the days of misfortune/Equably, smil­ingly, proudly,/Like one accus­tomed to win.

Am I then really all that which oth­er men tell of?/Or am I only what I myself know of myself?/Restless and long­ing and sick, like a bird in a cage,/Struggling for breath, as though hands were com­press­ing my throat, Yearn­ing for col­ours, for flowers, for the voices of birds/Thirsting for words of kind­ness, for neighbourliness,/ Toss­ing in expect­a­tion of great events,/Powerlessly trem­bling for friends at an infin­ite distance,/Weary and empty at pray­ing, at think­ing, at making,/ Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?

Who am I? This or the other?/ Am I one per­son today and tomor­row anoth­er? /Am I both at once? A hypo­crite before others,/And before myself a con­tempt­ibly woe­be­gone weak­ling? Or is some­thing with­in me still like a beaten army, Flee­ing in dis­order from vic­tory already achieved? 

Who am I? They mock me these lonely ques­tions of mine/ Who­ever I am, Thou know­est, O God, I am thine.


Philip Brad­ford