Witnesses to the light

‘There are no final proofs for the existence of God; there are only witnesses.’ Abraham Joshua Heschel. (Listen.)

Like you, like me, John was not the light. Instead, he was sent as a witness to testify to the light which is the life of the world, and he does this in three movements: through his identification with Scripture; through particular activities; and through grounded self-knowledge. Before we hear somebody else’s witness, let’s take a closer look.

First, John is clear about what he is not. I am not the Messiah, I am not Elijah, I am not the prophet like Moses, he tells his inquisitors. Then he quotes Scripture to describe who, in fact, he is. ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.”’ He’s adapting the words of the prophet Isaiah which were first spoken to the exiles in Babylon, and which set out the path for them to return home: not on the main highway around the fertile crescent, but straight through the wilderness, where God would provide.

And what is this wilderness? It is the deserted place, far from town, temple or synagogue. It is also the place far from speech: for that is what the Hebrew word for wilderness, midbar, means. The word suggests silence, and evokes the primordial chaos of Genesis which awaits God’s creative and ordering Word. So when John cries out in the wilderness, he is both speaking and anticipating God’s life-giving Word: the Word which is the light of all people: the Word which is enfleshed in Jesus Christ.

John then names what he does in the wilderness, and acknowledges its limitations. ‘I baptize with water,’ he says, ‘The one on whom you see the Holy Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’

So John’s witness is shaped by his identification with Scripture. It’s achieved through particular activities—being the voice, baptizing—and it has limits, boundaries, and the authority which comes with a grounded self-knowledge. John knows who he is and what he is called to do; and he also knows who and what he is not.

Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, ‘There are no final proofs for the existence of God; there are only witnesses.’ John is one such witness, and we are all called to be witnesses, too. The gospel is clear. Jesus expects those who dwell in the light to speak words which lead others to trust in him and to be united with God (John 19:18-20). Testimony is part of our vocation.

So as people who dwell in the light, we are all called to testify; we are all called to speak God’s life-giving Word. But how do we do this? Well, John’s testimony provides a useful pattern to help us witness to the Christ-light:

  • Identify which Scripture shapes and guides us, even as we adapt it to new circumstances.
  • Identify particular activities we do as witnesses to Christ.
  • Acknowledge our limitations, recognizing not only who and what we are, but who and what we are not.

And so I invite you to ask yourself, What Scripture deeply resonates? What Scripture shapes my life and work?

I invite you to wonder: As a witness to Christ, what do I do? That is, what particular activities do I engage in which are a response to the call of Jesus on my life? Don’t just think about work, but about all the other ways you are active in this world. Loving, forgiving, praying, being with people, making soup, organizing protests: what do you do as a witness to Jesus Christ?

Finally, ask God: What are my limitations? Who or what am I not? And accept with joy the freedom which comes from knowing your own limits.

To give life to this pattern, during the service I interviewed a member of the congregation who has been guided by Isaiah 61 in their life and work. However, this interview is not publicly available. So in its place here are a few words adapted from the testimony I gave at my ordination, and which tell you who and what I am (that is, a pastor-prophet in the mold of Jonah), who and what I am not (that is, I am not nice), and how my witness is expressed through preaching, pastoring and prayer:

I once came across the idea of a ‘life verse’; I rolled my eyes. Straightaway, two verses hit me. One from the Book of Jonah: “It is indeed right for me to be angry, even unto death!” And the other from Psalm 139: “You knit me in my mother’s womb; I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

We all like our pastors to be nice — but I can’t promise you this. For I’ve been fearfully and wonderfully made: as an angry prophet. Now, prophets get angry when God’s love and shalom are disrupted by sin, and when I look around I see this disruption everywhere. Every person on this earth is fearfully and wonderfully made: yet too many people are too often denied their full and God-given humanity.

Women are put down; children are ignored; people with autism are misunderstood; LGBTI+ people are told to change. And when I see this: when I see people being mocked, blocked, and denigrated by the powerful, I get mad. Then I get sad. And this madness and this sadness and my knowledge of my complicity, my own badness, mix with my reading of the Scriptures and prayer. And out of this strange and dark compost emerges new life: sermons and stories and new prayers; a more open heart and a more listening ear: and these are the gifts I share with you as pastor-prophet and friend. (You can find the original testimony here.)

A reflection on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 and John 1:6-8, 19-28 given to Sanctuary on 13 December (Year B Advent 3) © Sanctuary 2020. Image credit: Patrick Fore on Unsplash.

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