Can I get a witness?
It was probably almost exactly 9 years ago now that Quinn and I were sitting in our little hotel room inPrinceton,New Jerseysaying to one another, “How are we going to tell our family and friends we’re moving toNew Jersey.” Up to that point we really had no clarity around which seminary we would go to. Our preference was to stay on the west coast. But, God had other plans for us and it was on that visit after conversations with the late President Gillespie and Dr. Jacqueline Lapsley as well as experiencing the hospitality of the student body that it suddenly became clear to us. We were moving toNew Jersey. That three day visit to cold snowyNew Jerseywas a hinge point for us, a moment of decision. We all have hinge points. Moments when a decision suddenly, sometimes unexpectedly, becomes clear because of some event, relationship, word spoken or experience.
Last week Jeff preached on the first five verses of John 1:1-18 and today we’re going to focus on verses 6-13 and it is here that we find ourselves at a hinge point. I don’t know if you noticed but in verse 6 the gospel somewhat abruptly shifts from the heavenly realm and divine mysteries of the Word being with God and was God to the earthly. Suddenly we find ourselves not in the midst of the eternal relationship of the Triune God but in a concrete time and place.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. (v.6). The scene has shifted dramatically to first centuryPalestinein amongst the dusty and hot crowds on the banks of the riverJordan. And it was to this time and to this particular place that the Word of God that was with God and was God burst into the world. He was in the world . . . he came to what was his own(vv10-11). As one commentator puts it, “When the Word came to this world he did not come as an alien. He came home.” Jesus the Word of God through whom the world was created leaves the heavenly eternal realm and comes to His home on earth, to His own people, to His own creation and specifically to His own peculiar peopleIsrael. It was this homecoming that is the hinge point of history. It was this shining of light into the darkness that brought about a moment of decision and the clarity needed by which to make that decision.
John’s gospel from the very beginning makes it clear that Jesus’ arrival as the light of the world, as the Word made flesh, creates a hinge point, a moment of decision. “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” Jesus comes home, to where people should have known him, especially the nation ofIsraelwho had been awaiting and watching for. The concept of Jesus coming home to those who should have known him which I expand upon was largely influenced from this source. The coming of God’s anointed their savior, and instead of welcome He is rejected. Where Heshould have been received and welcomed like an intimate friend He was unaccepted.
But, this was not the whole story there were those who responded positively to the Word. “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (vv. 12-13). This is the hinge because, “all who received him, who believed in his name he gave the power to become children of God”. The relationship between God and individual men and women was eternally transformed by grace through faith. It is by believing in the name of Jesus that men and women are given a new status as children of God. Suddenly spiritual change doesn’t come through achievement or merit but by believing in Jesus’ name. Right standing with God doesn’t have anything to do with human religion or us trying to get to God but everything to do with the Word who was with God and is God coming to the world to save the world through the power of His name.
Now we need to unpack this a little. Other translations say that, the Word gave the right to become children of God, instead of power, which is more accurate. It is a new status. Those who believe in His name are no longer outsiders, their insiders; no longer sinners, but saints; no longer outcast, but accepted; no longer lame, but healed; no longer blind, but can see; no longer loser, but chosen; no longer enemy, but child of God. The Word coming home created a moment of decision for those who encountered Him. Would they reject him or would they receive him and believe in His name and in so doing be made into children of God?
This hinge point, the Word becoming flesh, Jesus ministry, death and resurrection creates a moment of decision for us still today. It was and is the turning point by which we can be made into children of God, given a new name, a new status; not by works of our own but by the power of God.
So how are we to receive Him? What does it look like to believe in Jesus’ name? It’s kind of a funny concept to believe in someone’s name. At least it is for 21st century Americans but for 1st century people ofPalestinenames meant a whole lot more than they usually do today. A name was an expression of the whole person. Biblical scholar Leon Morris puts it this way, “To believe in the name of the Word . . . means to trust the person of the Word. . . It is to believe that God is the God revealed in the Word and to put our trust in that God. . . It is not believing that what Jesus says is true, but trusting Jesus as a person.” Believing in this sense is more than intellectually believing that something is true or false, it is trusting in a person or even better entrusting ourselves to a person. The verb “believe” has the same root as the noun faith in the Greek. Believing is the ongoing activity of faith. So the moment of decision that we are faced with when we are encountered by the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ, is the moment of faith.
So what are we to base this decision of faith on in the year 2012? Most of us have not had face to face encounters with Jesus. Unlike, the disciples we don’t literally have him standing in front of us inviting us to come follow after Him. At this point, let’s return to verse 6, to the man sent from God, whose name is John and who came to testify to the light.
The other gospels begin with this same John and they call him John the Baptist but John’s gospel (no relation just the same first name), clearly emphasizes another aspect of John’s identity and character. John’s defining characteristic is not his crazy outfit of camel fur or strange diet of bugs and honey. It is his testimony. God sent him to testify, to point to the coming of Christ. He is a witness because he testifies to the light.
Last month I had jury duty and this time around by the luck of the draw I was one of the 18 chosen to be in the box and questioned right off as part of the selection process for the jurors. It was a domestic violence case and we were asked questions by the judge about our experiences with domestic violence and law enforcement. These questions were to try and determine if we could hear witness testimony with a clear mind so that we could evaluate and determine truthfrom that testimony. When it came time for the attorneys to start kicking people off the island, it became very clear to me that one of the keys for staying on the jury was whether or not you could objectively hear the witnesses’ testimonies. I got kicked off, pastors have too much baggage, but I did learn a lesson. Testimony matters. It’s a big deal. In fact in a court of law establishing what truly happened can depend upon the testimony of a single person. Witness testimony isn’t just important in courts, it’s important in matters of faith too.
John’s gospel makes sure we understand just how important it is more than any other. In fact the noun witness and the verb witness and testify, which are interchangeable, are used 47 times compared to a total of six times in Matthew, Mark and Luke combined. And here in verse six we hear the first three uses. John came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. God sent John for this purpose that through his testimony people might come to believe in the name of Jesus. Testimony can be the hinge upon which the decision of faith is made.
And just like direct encounters with the true Light Himself testimonies to the light can cause the same reaction: rejection or reception, disbelief or faith. Does this mean that a person’s testimony to the Light is as powerful as the Light itself ? Was John as a witness as powerful as Jesus? Absolutely not.
The key is to distinguish John the Baptist the person as a witness from the content of his witness. John the Baptist as a witness had no power at all to move people to a decision of faith, let alone empower them to make a decision of faith. However, the content of his testimony, the content of his witness had the power to transform the world because the content of his witness was the Light, Jesus Christ Himself. He testified to the true Light, which enlightens everyone.
Okay let’s pause and screw are heads back on because I know that this intro to the gospel of John can make your head spin. The point is this. John the Baptist was an ordinary dude, but what made his witness extraordinary was it’s content, which was Jesus, the eternal Word of God! Theologian Karl Barth uses an analogy of a reflector like the ones on roads to explain John the Baptist’s witness.
A reflector by itself has no power to illuminate; it remains in darkness. Human witness is like a reflector. It is only Jesus who is the light that can bring light from the reflector. Without Jesus there is no light. Without Jesus John would have had no witness, he would have had nothing to testify to.
Human witness is totally dependent on Jesus’ own self-testimony. The Word came into the world. Jesus came home, and in coming home testified to the grace and truth of God in the most explicit and clear way that there has ever been. Jesus himself was a witness sent by God, to reveal to us all that God’s love has no bounds, will go to the depths of hell and shatter the chains of sin and death so that we might receive adoption as God’s own children by believing in His name through faith. Human testimony to the Light has power because the light of Christ literally shines through it. Jesus Christ himself testifies through human testimony.
John the Baptist was a witness to the Light in a particular time and place. He is arguably the first in the New Testament to testify to the Light, but he was not the last. There were other witnesses like John: Paul, Timothy, Timothy’s grandmother Lois and mother Eunice, Phoebe and Silas who all in a particular time and place to particular people testified to the Light. None of them were special or powerful in and of themselves. They were just reflectors of the true light that enlightens the hearts of everyone. The gospel of John itself is a testimony to the Light. In fact all of Holy Scripture is a testimony to the true Light. God’s written Word testifies to the Word made flesh Jesus Christ. But, these were not the last; there are still those who testify to the light. And, Holy Scripture still is an active and alive testimony to the light.
There were witnesses like a young Albanian girl who early on felt the call of God and was sent to serve the poor ofCalcuttaor a Baptist preacher in the South who could not stay silent in the face of the horrors of racism. Mother Teresa and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. testified to the Light. And, though they were people who did amazing things, their testimony had power because they bore witness to the true light with their whole lives.
I am sure that we all can think of people who have testified to the light for us. Earlier I asked what do we base a decision of faith on in the 21st century? How do we choose to receive Jesus and entrust ourselves to One who we haven’t seen, heard or touched? The answer lies in the witness of the people of God and God’s Holy Scripture. The followers of Christ whocontinually put their faith in the name of Jesus are together and individually witnesses. As a church we are to testify to the light in our words and actions with all that we are wherever we are, and we are to do the same individually when we are scattered in our homes, schools, work and play.
I believe in the name of Jesus because of the testimony of real people like my sister Carrie, my friend Jonathan, Pastor Tom, Jack, Quinn, Dr. Guder and countless youth. They each have reflected the true light upon me and in so doing Christ transformed and continues to transform me into a child of God. I believe in the name of Jesus because as those people pointed me to Christ, I began to open up God’s Word and when I did and do I hear not the testimony of manbut the Word Himself testifying to the awesome wonders of God and amazing grace that callsme home, that has given me a new name, child of God.
Who have been the people who have testified to the light in your life? Thank God for them, but also realize that it was not them who changed your life. It was the Risen Lord, the Word, Jesus Christ whom you encountered through their witness, it was God’s grace and truth that shone upon your heart. They surely played a role, in fact that is the amazing privilege and honor that being a child of God brings. As children of God, Christ makes ordinary human beings, sinnersin fact, into fellow laborers in His work.
And if you want to know this Jesus, I’ve been talking about. If you desire to entrust yourself to Him but you’re not quite sure who He is or what He’s done for you and for this world, then just ask God, Can I get a witness? Say a little pray, God, can I get a witness to testify to your grace and truth, to show me who you are? Because, God will send you one. They’re all around you this morning, they’re at work, at school, on the bus and under overpasses.
You see when the true Light of the world shines on us, it not only calls us to faith but sends us out in faith. Jesus the light of the world was sent to the world and He sends out his disciples, like you and me, to be God’s reflectors in the world to light it up with the light of Christ. We can do it with our words and our actions. We are called to do it with both. It is a serious charge and responsibility but remember we’re just reflectors. The power of our witness isn’t if you talk good, just ask Moses, or got it all together. The power of our testimony is thecontent; it is Jesus Christ himself shining through us. He has accomplished salvation not us. It seems almost counter intuitive but the harder we try to make our witness relevant or powerful we may actually be doing more harm than good because the role of a witness is to point past themselves to the true light of the world whose name gives the right to become children of God. A true witness assumes the attitude modeled by John the Baptist when he says, “He must increase and I must decrease” (3:30). This verse was under the painting of the crucifixion when you came in this morning and it is John the Baptist to stands to Jesus’ right pointing definitively to Christ. To testify to the true light is to point beyond ourselves to Christ. When we do this the love of Christ increases in us as well as in our testimony.
So may Christ increase in each of us so that our speech and actions our very lives point to Christ. May we testify to the light so that others as well as ourselves might be faced with a decision of faith, to entrust ourselves to God’s grace and mercy, and to receive anew Christ into our lives. Amen.