Today we’re going to take up one of the least favourite conversations of Anglicans: Testimony. Witness. Talking about Jesus. The phrase “I believe I’ll testify,” might be one of the most discomfort-inducing sentences that a room full of Canadian Anglicans can hear. It’s going to be emotional. It’s going to be intimate. It’s going to be visceral. It’s going to be personal. There might be tears. But, just like John the Baptist, we’re going to put our own comfort aside and talk about Jesus this morning.
In today’s passage from John’s telling of the Gospel (John 1.6-8, 19-28) we see John’s interaction with the religious establishment of Jerusalem. He’s been attracting a lot of attention with his preaching about the light in the world—the one who is coming—and the need for repentance and washing away of sins. Any time there’s religious enthusiasm outside the control of the establishment, it’s cause for suspicion. (In our own Anglican history, this concern over “enthusiasm” will be reiterated in England in the 16th and 17th centuries.)
At the confrontation detailed in today’s passage, we hear about the priests and Levites coming down to find out just who John is and what he’s up to. They begin by asking him who he thinks he is and John becomes uncustomarily short of words. No, he is not the Messiah. No, he is not a prophet. No, he is not Elijah. It isn’t until they ask John to explain who he is that he begins to share more because John, like a good witness, wants to talk about what he is there to point to, not about himself.
John could, with all of the authority and heritage that matters, claim ground equal to the priests and Levites. John is the son of Zechariah, a priest of the temple in Jerusalem. He is also the son of Elizabeth, meaning that on both sides of his family he is a descendent of Aaron, the high priest and brother of Moses spoken of in Exodus. John could be a man of significant stature, throwing his own social and political weight against the priests and Levites. But, like a good witness—like one with testimony to offer—John is not here to talk about himself. John is here to talk about Jesus!
John claims his voice as the one the prophet spoke of, a voice crying in the wilderness. Isaiah’s call to make straight the way for the Lord gets repeated. John knows that he’s singing a song everyone around him knows. This is a story his people have been telling one another for generations, waiting for the moment when the promises become reality. And now this man, not interested in status, influence, or even a good set of clothes, is telling them that it’s here. When pressed by these men sent by the Pharisees, John goes beyond telling them about what’s coming. He insists that the light he speaks of, the one who is so much greater than him, already stands in their midst but they do not yet recognize him.
Can you imagine? Being told that the God-sent hero for whom your people have waited since time immemorial is, right now, standing in your city and you just don’t know who it is? This one who is coming to baptize the world, not with water but with the Holy Spirit, is here but unknown to most. The one who claims the best connection, the one who knows the most, is the raving man in animal skins who lives out in the hills. The one with the improbable story, repeating the claims of his mother and her cousin, that God really is coming in this generation to turn the world upside down. The voices from the wilderness testifies that mountains are being lowered, valleys are being raised, and that God is already in their midst. What a witness!
In spite of his own heritage and his own credibility as a prophet for his people, John the Baptist consistently points away from himself. John is always pointing toward God. He is retelling the stories of Elizabeth and Mary, urging people to participate as though they are real—because he knows that they are. John is doing everything he can to point people toward the new thing that God is doing in their midst. John is constantly testifying. John is a witness. John is always talking about Jesus. And by his example—he’s top of the list of saints, right behind Mary, the Mother of God—John calls us to do the same.
If we’re going to be like John the Baptist and direct people to God the first step isn’t talking about God. It isn’t getting over our discomfort with the idea of saying personal things about God and how we know God. It isn’t even coming up with a little script that we can use to talk about God. If we’re going to talk about God, if we’re going to point people toward the good news of the Gospel, if we’re going to get personal and talk about Jesus Christ we have to know what God is up to in our own lives. We have to know where we see Jesus before we can point anyone else there. We have to know what our testimony is before we can stand up and say “I believe I’ll testify.”
Take some time today and this week to think about John the Baptist and his time in the wilderness. It’s a bit rough and a little dangerous, but it’s awfully quiet and there isn’t much to distract a person from looking for God. Take some time and look for where God is in your life; find the places where you see and meet Jesus. Take note of them. Write them down. Make a little video on your phone. Do whatever you do, but call out—just to yourself—the places where you meet God.
Then, if you’re feeling brave, share that story of God with another person. Your spouse, your best friend, someone that you trust will take you seriously and receive your story well. Someone who values the things that are important to you. Then, maybe a few weeks from now, over coffee after church, tell one of the other people here where you met God. Offer them just a little bit of testimony about how you know God is working in your life. We all do. After all, that’s part of why we’re here.
Imagine what might happen in the world if we were willing to be honest about when we bump into God. It doesn’t have to be a dramatic confrontation in Bethany alongside baptisms. It doesn’t have to be street-corner shouting with a megaphone. It might be as simple as saying to a friend, “When I got that unexpected phone call that was just what I needed, I thought it was God at work. Happens a lot, you know.” Just like John the Baptist, we can show people where we see God. We can testify. We can talk about Jesus, the One who comes.
Thanks be to God.
With thanks for the title of today's post to the Revd Dr Cleophus J. LaRue and his willingness to share his wisdom and insight on the craft of preaching.