Written by Pastor Ed
A Witness Proclamation
December 17, 2017 Advent III
Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11
John 1: 6-8, 19-28
Have you ever started out on a project or endeavour with a particular goal in mind, only to have that project take on a life of its own and end up as something completely different than what you had initially planned? Something along the way shifted, circumstances changed, or new information came into play. And then you begin to wonder what happened.
That happens with sermons sometimes. And it happened with this one! As I was preparing over the past weeks, I had shaped my thoughts around that theme, of how the religious leaders of Jesus’ day had one idea in mind, but then John the Baptist came along and they had to question who he was and how he fit into their idea of a messiah. John himself, while clear that he wasn’t the messiah, but only a messenger, later questioned Jesus in the same way. That’s where I thought I was going.
And then I read some more commentary, and something Karoline Lewis wrote at Workingpreacher.org caught my attention. Karoline teaches preaching at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN and I’ve come to appreciate her commentaries. In her comments for the lectionary today, she focused on the theme of witness, something that has been in the news lately as well. And suddenly, my direction for this sermon changed, perhaps fittingly and I want to give her credit for focusing my thoughts.
The Gospel of John introduces John 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) A witness, someone who testifies to something they have experienced. We often think of it in terms of a courtroom, where witnesses are called to testify to what they saw or heard, or to give their expert opinion on some matter that they know about.
We all play that role at some time, perhaps not in a courtroom, but even in our everyday lives we are often called on, or offer, our view of what took place, something we have experienced, or how it happened. Looking out my office window on to the intersection, I witness all kinds of interesting things, even a few accidents, and have had occasion to tell what I saw.
We also have experiences that happen to us and we often tell about those as well. John, whom we call the Baptist, was sent as a witness to Jesus. But, as with many witnesses these days, not everyone believed what John was saying and so they came to question him. “Who are you?” Now, it would have been quite easy for John to have puffed himself up and taken on a different role, but the writer states emphatically that John “confessed, and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah’” (1: 20)
John was clear, but those around him were not so sure. They had their own expectations and biases, and it would have been easy for John to have either gone along with them, or simply dismissed them and given up. But John maintained his witness both to who he was not, as well as to the light that was coming after him.
Giving witness to something can be risky and scary, especially if you are sharing something that happened to you. We’ve seen that most recently in the women who have come forward as witnesses to sexual assault and harassment. They have been labeled the “Silence Breakers” and named the Person of the Year by Time magazine for their courage in speaking up. They have given voice and testimony to their own experiences, and as has often been the case, their testimony has been questioned and rejected. A friend of mine put something on Facebook that said something to the effect that they don’t believe women who speak up after 40 years. Unfortunately, it’s that kind of attitude that keeps women from speaking up and has kept them in silence for 40 years.
I’ve heard enough testimony over the years and dealt with enough cases of misconduct by pastors to listen carefully to the stories that women, and men sometimes but mostly women, tell. Perhaps, with enough voices speaking up we will come to the place where our first instinct is to believe the testimony given, rather than to discount a person’s own experiences. As Karoline Lewis points out in her comments, “When we say that the experience of others cannot be trusted? Be ready for others to say the same about you.”
Whenever we bear witness to our own experiences, whether negative ones like harassment or assault, or positive experiences like an encounter with God, we open ourselves to scepticism and even ridicule. But like John, and the Silence Breakers, we are called to bear witness and to point to the reality of our experience. And speaking up gives courage and voice to others who may have experiences the same thing. In the last case of misconduct that I consulted in, there was a major discussion as to whether the results of the case should be published in the Mennonite press, which I have always argued for. To quote Karoline Lewis again, “Our witness is then added to the chorus of other voices, so that those who have already testified do not feel alone and so that those who have yet to testify feel empowered.”
We live in a society where sharing our personal experiences with God can also be met with scepticism and even ridicule. When we bear witness to the light of Christ coming into the world, people may question us and wonder just who we think we are. And some, unlike John, have declared themselves to be the saviour of the world, or pointed to someone other than Jesus.
The writers of our worship material gave the theme for the day as “Let it be whole.” To be whole means to be complete and healthy. And the only way to be whole is to live in the light of grace and truth. Many years ago I heard a statement that has stuck with me over the years, that healing can only come when the truth is told. That’s why it is important for the Silence Breakers to speak their truth, and to be believed.
Advent is not just about nice decorations and preparing programs and waiting for Christmas. It is also about preparing ourselves for the one who came as grace and truth, the one who can make us whole by allowing us to bear witness to the truth that can set us free and allow us to live in wholeness and grace. That’s what salvation is all about, and Jesus came to proclaim truth. We too are called to witness to the truth, in our own lives as well as the truth that we witness around us. Only in that way can we be whole and in so doing we empower others to wholeness and life. We too can proclaim comfort to those who are caught in darkness, release to the captives, and the year of the Lord’s favour.
Yes, let us be whole.