Sunday, January 20, 2008

Sermon: "Eye Witnesses"

“Eye Witnesses”

We get another servant text this week. This is one of the primary texts that led me to believe last week that the Servant was meant to be the nation of Israel, for in this text it is explicitly said “Israel, you are my servant.” The rest of the language is also similar to the passage from Isaiah that we read last week.

This week we are hearing God tell the servant
Israel that it is not enough that she is free from captivity and restored to her rightful land. No, God wants all the people, even their captors and the infidels to know God’s saving love. “I shall make you a light to the nations,” says God, “so that my salvation may reach the remotest parts of the earth.” God’s salvation is not just for Israel, but for the whole world, and it is for Israel, the chosen people, to spread the word of their God to all the nations. It is their job as servants of God, as witnesses of God’s power and glory, to tell others what they have seen and heard; to tell the world of the faithfulness of Yahweh. It is their birthright, what they were chosen as the descendant of Abraham to do, says Isaiah. “Yahweh has spoken, who formed me in the womb to be his servant…”

We are all formed in the womb as God’s servants, made to proclaim the glory of God to the nations. From the moment of our birth, we are called to be witnesses to God’s power at work in our world. As we discovered last week, we are also God’s chosen people. God gives us the power of the Holy Spirit to guide us and give us the strength and courage we need to undertake such a daunting endeavor.

Being a witness isn’t always easy. Often doubters scorn and scoff. How many of you heard on NPR the story of the supposed UFO sighting in Stephenville, TX this past week? I have to admit, I’m a bit of a skeptic about UFO’s, though I try to remind myself that UFO just mean “unidentified flying object,” and not ‘alien spaceship.’ Some folks seem to confuse the terms. I certainly believe that people saw something unidentified, just perhaps not alien. Apparently dozens of people saw the same thing in Stephenville though, which, at least to my mind, makes it somewhat more credible. But what I want to point out to you is the fact that none of them tried to keep quiet about what they saw. In all of the interviews, every person said that after their initial shock, they immediately called someone else, anyone else, to come and see what they were seeing. It was too incredible not to share, not to have someone else to talk with about this amazing event they were witnessing.

Even after the experts at the Smithsonian Institute’s astrophysics lab said it was most likely explained by a fairly common atmospheric mirage, some, or even most, people were still convinced of what they saw. Not all were jumping on the alien bandwagon, many just believed it was a secret military aircraft. But no matter what they were convinced it was, they all had to tell somebody. The little local paper was inundated with calls and emails about the event. Everybody had an opinion or a question. The paper contacted several of the eye-witnesses to get their side of the story, just an the interviewer from NPR did. These eye-witnesses were eager to share their story, to tell what they saw and to convince others of its truth.

John the Baptist was an eye-witness of another sort. John saw the Spirit descend upon Jesus, something of his own UFO, you might say. And he could not sit idly by and not tell anyone what he has seen and heard. He had to tell others what he saw and convince them of its truth. He was given this revelation as a gift from God, a gift that he was to share with others. “The revelation does not remain the private possession of John only to nurture his own faith and experience, but becomes the opportunity to address others. Furthermore, John’s witness echoes beyond his own control. Andrew, one of the disciples who abandons John, becomes yet another voice to speak to his brother, Simon.”[i]

And so it goes, he tells another, who tells another, who tells another, and so on. John’s witness cannot keep to itself and be a quiet faith. Ours is a telling faith. We have not been given this revelation to keep it quiet, hidden like a treasured secret. What good does that do us or the world? No, like Isaiah’s servant, we are to be a light to all the nations. As Jesus will later explain in a parable, what good is a light if we hide it under a basket? We ourselves will not be able to see, nor will those who enter our home.

When the disciples, first of John, soon to be of Jesus, ask him a question to get to know a little more about him, his answer is, “Come and see.” In other words, don’t take my word for it, come see for yourselves. Witness with your own eyes. And they do. They see, they really see. Andrew sees. He tells his brother Simon, “We have found the Messiah.” Simon sees, he really sees. He becomes Peter, the rock of the church. They become followers of Jesus, witnessing to all who will hear, sharing what they have seen and heard.

How can we sit idly by and not tell what we have seen and heard in Jesus Christ? Just as was John’ revelation, our own revelation is a gift, a gift that is to be passed on to others so that all may share in the delight. I found myself thinking that this gift of faith that we share is rather like sharing a wonderful book. In my family, when one of us picks up a good book, it is not long before it has been passed around, even mailed half-way across the country to be shared. We’ll email the recommendation to friends we know with similar tastes to pick it up in their library or local bookstore. We want to share our own enjoyment with them and later be able to talk about it, sharing the pleasure of a discussion, discovering new insights and points of view as we talk.

That is why we share the gospel too. So we can discuss it, enjoy it with others, find out their points of view, know the myriad of ways that Jesus shows his love to us and to others. It is a way to let others know that we have found something too good to keep to ourselves. Though it seems that is often what Christians do these days. Now we are often ashamed of our Christian identity and won’t tell others what we know to be true in God’s story. We keep Jesus safely inside our sanctuary doors. Some might say that is where he belongs, inside the church. But Jesus’ was a ministry that wandered about, place to place. Come and see! he says. Everywhere he went, people came to see and went away telling of the amazing things they’d witnessed.

If John hadn’t witnessed and then testified to what he saw, Andrew would not have had anything to tell his brother Simon Peter. If Peter had not heard Andrew’s words and wanted to see for himself, he would not have witnessed the miracles that he saw as a disciple of which he told stories to others. That is how we have the Gospels and the Letters that make up our Bible. They are the written witnesses of those who wanted to share what they had heard and seen of the love of God in Christ Jesus.

It takes a willingness to muster our courage and be willing to take the risk to tell others what we have seen in Jesus Christ. It feels safe to talk about it here, inside these walls, but it is a harsh world beyond them that often does not welcome talk of religion, at least not beyond the status quo. That is why Christians often talk of ministering by example. It somehow seems easier for most of us to demonstrate rather than to speak of Christ’s love. In many cases it can even be more effective to ‘practice what you preach’ as the saying goes.

John was quite bold in his witnessing. He’d shout out, “Look! There goes the Son of God!” Even if we cannot bring ourselves to be quite so bold as individuals, we can be so bold as a community of faith. We can shout, with community services we can shout, with our mission work we can shout, with our facility we can shout, with whatever means we have, we can shout, “Look! Here is the Son of God. Come and see!” And some will come and see, and they will go out and tell others what they have seen. And they will tell others, who will tell others…. to the glory of God. Amen.

[i] Texts for Preaching, Year A. Brueggemann, Couser, Gaventa.

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