Monday, December 12, 2011

God Speaking: Making Christmas Witnesses

Preached on the Third Sunday in Advent, December 11, 2011
Scripture readings: Malachi 3:1-4; John 1:1-8

A husband and wife were taking a walk, and the wife asked her husband if he thought she was still attractive, after all their years together. The husband stopped, and turned, and held her hands, and looked into her face, and answered that the more he looked at her, the prettier she got.

The wife beamed with happiness at the thoughtfulness of her husband and the sweetness of his words. She thanked him for his enduring tenderness and love.

Then they resumed their walk and the husband began to think to himself, “I guess I ought to look at her more often.” (Brian Crane, in “Pickles” comic strip [“Parables, Etc.”, June ‘95])

This tells us a lot about what it means to be a witness in God’s scheme of things. We are only eight verses into the Gospel of John when he begins to talk about the action of being a witness. Witness is one of John’s keys to understanding everything.

So far, leading up to the introduction of the first witness, John has only told us about beauty. John has told us majestic mind-stretching things about God, and God’s connection to everything that he has made. The Word, who has spoken everything into existence, has spoken his own life and light into them. There is nothing in the universe that does not owe its existence to this God speaking himself and God grounding every created thing in his life and light. (John 1:3) What a beautiful thing that is.

Before the beginning, there was nothing but God; but God himself is an everlasting relationship. Relationship is his very nature and so he was never alone, even though there was nothing outside of him. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

It sheds light on the understanding that “God is love.” In a sense it tells us that, from everlasting to everlasting, love is enough. Love is sufficient in itself. It truly can exist by itself, and it needs nothing else.

This love is life-creating, life-giving, life-sustaining. Love underlies all of life. This is what life is for (what life is created for; for love, to give love, and to receive love). To deny this, to resist this, to escape from this is to try to go to a place that does not exist. To seek to be something that is not responsible to God, when all things were made by him, is to seek to leave the world of all things and be nothing. Sin is a state of mind and desire that wants to be on its own without reference to God but (as such) it wants something that cannot exist. In the effort to achieve the impossible it causes great harm. Through sin we hurt others and ourselves, and our world.

When we seek to create our own life without reference to God, we try to overcome a light that cannot be overcome, we bend our minds to thinking and justifying the impossible, and we make ourselves incapable of understanding and comprehending the light. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” Or, as other translations tell us, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not understood it.” (John 1:5)

There is darkness around us and within us, and so there is a special demand for witnesses. John the gospel writer tells us about the witness who was called to introduce the light when it came into the world as one of us. There needed to be a witness because the darkness might make it hard to see how one particular man could be God with us. So John the writer of the Gospel tells us about John, the cousin of Jesus; the John who became known as John the Baptist, or John the Baptizer (because there were no real Baptists in those days, just as there were no Presbyterians or Methodists).

Those of us who have read the stories of the gospels many times can’t help thinking of John the Baptist as a harsh and blunt man. Do good witnesses have to be harsh and blunt? But John, the gospel writer, has only given the Baptist great and beautiful things to be harsh and blunt about, so far.

Surely any parent will understand this. A good parent needs to be a witness to the truth which is a great and beautiful thing. Sometimes a parent has to be harsh and blunt in their witness to such things.

The truth is that the child needs to learn a passion for such beautiful things as goodness and love. A child needs to grow to become a person who is safe to love and who will love others wisely, and justly, and mercifully, and faithfully. So a good parent needs to love the truth and be such a passionate, faithful witness of the truth that their children cannot overcome them. Sometimes a parent, as any lover of goodness, needs to be harsh and blunt.

The word witness, in the Greek, is our root word for martyr. Bearing witness, in God’s scheme of things, is a passion and commitment that is faithful unto death.

In fact witness is part of the beauty of God himself. Remember what John said, “The Word was with God and the Word was God.” God is a great and beautiful Word, and God is always faithful to it.

Love, and life, and light are like great events and stories; and so God is an event worth seeing and a story worth telling. We should expect witness to be important. The word “gospel” means good news, and the news is a message, and a message needs a witness, even when the only witness of the message is God.

Christmas is part of the message. It is the message of the humility of God who left the glory of heaven to become the baby in a carpenter’s family. God became a baby who would grow up to learn the carpenter’s trade and even die on a cross that another carpenter may have sawn and shaped. But, first he was born in a place where animals were kept, and his first bed was a manger, a feed trough for donkeys or other animals.

The prophet Malachi said that the Lord is a kind of messenger for himself. The Lord is a messenger about his own relationship with us as his people. “The Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to his Temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come, says the Lord of Hosts (the Lord of the angel armies, the Lord of might).”

Covenant is a message too. Covenant is a message about the relationship that God wants with his people. The manger in Bethlehem and the cross in Jerusalem were always intended to be part of the message of the covenant of the Lord with us.

His death on the cross is part of the covenant not only because it is the sacrifice that gives us forgiveness, grace, and life. His death on the cross is the sign of his faithfulness to us. It is a sign of his passion for his own truth. It is his faithful willingness to be the one who carries out his own truth for our sake.

God makes everything not out of his emptiness of longing for another. God makes everything out of such a great fullness that he can look at what he has made and see the image of himself. His work of creation makes everything he has made into a witness, because that is what God is in his own heart.

John the Baptist, as a witness who came from God, and who was sent by God, is what we are all created to be. We all come into this world for witness, to have a passion for what we see and hear about God, and to have a passion to share it.

John, the writer of this gospel, tells us some important issues about being a witness.

One issue is a problem (or what my Uncle Eddie would like to call a situation). We have that old issue called the darkness.

There is a battle going on. The devil’s temptation of Adam and Eve, to separate them and the rest of the human race from God, was an attempt to overcome God and rob God of his creation.

There is a darkness that wants to be in charge, in the place of God, and get his own way. It is our human nature, as born rebels, to make a world for ourselves where we are in control, and where other people, and the rest of creation, are all our competitors.

In fact nature has fallen with us, and what we see in creation often reflects our sins and our fallenness instead of the image of God. We and the most other living things are all competitors, as if we were all programmed to do everything in our power to tip the balance of creation in our favor. We are all damaged goods that God wants to recreate in his true image.

I guess that means that we, ourselves, are our own worst enemy in being a witness to God and to God’s plan for a new creation. It was the calling of John the Baptist, as the ideal witness, to know that he himself was not the light.

We often live as people who are saying, “Look at me! Look at me!” John the Baptist was shaped by God to get over this and say, “Don’t look at me! Don’t look at me!”

I will tell you that, when my mom was in the hospital and my sisters and I were spending so much time there, and trying so hard to figure things out and do the right things, there were times when I was alarmed to find myself thinking about myself: how tired I was, and how stressed I was. I got angry because I was being forced to be tired and stressed. It made me mad.

I was less capable of being patient with my sisters and understanding of them than they needed me to be. It was a dark around me and within me.

I should have focused more on God. I should have focused more on the fellowship we have with God in the midst of suffering, through Jesus. When I did focus on that, it helped me to be the person I needed to be for my mom and my sisters; or at least I hope so.

Peter, in his first letter (Peter 2:9) calls us to be people of the light: “That you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” We are people of the light, in Christ, but we have some old sympathies with the darkness, and we carry some divided loyalties in our heart.

When fear, and anger, and weariness, and suffering, and injustice create darkness around us, we have trouble seeing the light and understanding the presence and the work of God, even in his partnership with us in Bethlehem and on the cross.

The area where I grew up, in the Sacramento Valley, is prone to floods. I remember two times we evacuated our home because the danger was so real. One time was just before Christmas, when I was thirteen. It was our first year in Live Oak and I remember putting our presents up in the top shelf of the closets in the hopes of keeping them safe before we left our home.

The second time we evacuated was just after Christmas, a few years after I moved to Washtucna. I had gone down to my folks for a late Christmas celebration.

I am not sure where everyone else was but my parents and I left our family home and we went to stay with friends of the family who lived in a neighboring town, on slightly higher ground. These friends had given shelter to a lot of their relatives, and to other friends like us.

There must have been thirty people or more in that house. All I know is that the only room for me to sleep was under their Christmas tree; and so I did, but not very well.

We were away from home for only a couple nights, and then all was well. I wasn’t homeless for long; really not homeless at all. But God left his home in heaven, and stripped himself of his familiar glory, and lived in a world where he was supposed to be the light of the world, and yet that world treated him like a stranger and an enemy. It treated him with misunderstanding and rejection. A storm of darkness constantly swept around him.

Even in his mother’s womb (where a baby almost ready to be born should be surround by safety and shelter) the world conspired against him. The Roman emperor made a decree that uprooted his family from their home and required them to go to a town where Jesus would be born in the place for animals.

His family was uprooted more than once. They had to run away to Egypt for a while. And Jesus was often on the road during the time of his ministry. He could truthfully say that he had no place to lay his head. (Matthew 8:20)

His own neighbors misunderstood him and, once, they were so mad at him that they tried to throw him over the cliff where their town was built. In the end, the leaders of the truest religion in the world and the empire that prided itself on giving the world its best laws and finest justice conspired to kill the one who had created them.

This was no accident. It was part of the plan, but God did not have to force the world to treat him this way. He was meeting the darkness on its own terms and winning on his own terms.

On the cross God saluted the nature of the darkness that opposes God and lives in each one of us as sin. In the strange plan of God, the solution was for God to allow himself to be the victim of the darkness. The solution was to free us from our sins and darkness by carrying them upon his shoulders on the cross. But that sacrifice began in Bethlehem.

That is how we have received our salvation and our freedom in Christ. That is how God, in Jesus, created a new life for us.

The old problem of the darkness is that we don’t want a God who works that way. That is a hard way. The darkness wants to find some easier way of its own devising.

The way of God’s choosing means that we can find life no other way. It is the way of humility and smallness. God’s way may very well even take us the opposite way of what this world calls success. Jesus says we must be willing to take up crosses of our own, in order to follow him.

We want to tell the world, “Look at me!” But we don’t want the world to watch us become humble and small, unless we find a way to brag about it and use our humility to get our way.

We don’t want to look at him on the cross if it requires us to become his kind of witness; passionately faithful unto death. If we would only look at him more often, perhaps we would see that this humility and passion were part of his beauty, and we would want to be like him; but only so we could say, with all our heart, “Look at him!”

We don’t complain about having to look at him in a manger, if we can only think about the baby and not a real manger, or the danger that baby was in. But we don’t really want the way of the cross. The fact is that the two are the same. The manger was only a type of cross that was suitable for the needs a baby whose strategy was to grow up and carry a cross. We need to look at him more.

But the manger and the cross make us witnesses in another way. In one way, God came into our world to confront the darkness and set our lives free from it. In another way we can truly say that the manger and the cross reclaim this world as holy ground. God left his home, and came to us here, in order to make this world a home as well.

God entered the place where babies are conceived and take shape within their mothers, to make that place holy ground. God entered childhood with all its play, and with all its learning, and with all its questions, into holy ground for us. It is through him that we know childhood and growing up are not only difficult and risky but also beautiful and holy.

God entered families to make them holy, and when Joseph died, as he likely did in Jesus’ teenage years, Jesus became the breadwinner and the caregiver of the family. He was the man of the house (almost the father) until his sisters and brothers grew up and found their own places in the world. Jesus made work, and parenthood, and family holy.

Jesus was born in a world of need to make the needs of others holy. Jesus entered the world of grief and death in order to make them holy ground as well. Jesus wept when he confronted grief and death. (John 11:35) Then Jesus died and rose from the dead to make them the holy ground of our mysterious birth into a new life.

We can tell Jesus that he didn’t take the way we would have chosen but, the truth is, that he is with us on our way. Through the miracle of his birth, Jesus makes our ground his ground and makes his home with us. That is his way. That is his story. We are here to become witnesses of this.

Even in a court of law, witnesses may have to be patient, but patience is a daily requirement for those who are born into this world to be witnesses. God, as our witness, is patient. When God shows himself to us, he tells us his message over, and over, and over, and over and over again; like parents and teachers do with children. They do this well when they have gotten a vision of goodness deep enough within their hearts that they become passionate witnesses.

We need a vision of the Lord that works like that. We need a vision that will help us stop trying to be the light and enable us to give our witness to the light that became flesh in Bethlehem.

We will stop saying, “Look at me!” We look at him more often.


  1. Hello, Pastor Dennis: I read your preach and I understood every word. It is, however, difficult to me to comment, because my English is not adequate.
    I agree that Love is , or should be, in our lives. Love to each other, love to GOD!
    “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life., John 3:16
    And I always, in my prayers, beg for Gog to make me humble, in order I could be a good witness of His Holy power on me: I hope to be a good witness so when friends, or co-workers evaluate my behavior they can say to themselves: “Well, she’s different, because God rules her life”! – (Is that presumption, vanity… Pastor?)
    I have to myself that I am a sinner, and I ask for forgiveness…but I do have to be repentant first!
    I try to have goodness deep within my heart so I can be a good witness.

    God Bless you, Pastor Dennis.
    Isabel /BlueShell

  2. It is not presumption or vanity that give us the desire for God to rule our lives or to want others to see that he does. I think a true love for God and others makes us aware and helps us see clearly so that we have both humility and joy. God Bless you Isabel!