Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
For a little over a year now, there’s been a new emphasis on what our church body is all about. The phrase that has been chosen to communicate this emphasis is: Witness, Mercy, Life Together. As we begin our Advent midweek services in this new Church Year, Pastor Nuckols and I will be preaching on the terms and themes of this phrase. Today [tonight], we’ll discuss Christian witness. Next week, we’ll cover mercy. And, in the 3rd and 4th Advent midweek services, we’ll talk about our Christian life together—in joyful communication and confession of the Gospel truth.
All that we do as Christians, of course, revolves around our confession of the Gospel truth, and our witness is no different. In fact, a witness speaks in situations where truth is disputed. If everything is clear, unambiguous, and not in conflict, there is no need for a witness’s testimony. But rarely do we come across such situations, especially in matters of faith. Some people are going to dispute your beliefs because they think they have their own, better answer to life’s predicaments. Others might just dispute them because they have no answers at all, or simply to be difficult or contrarian.
But, a real witness has real answers; true answers upon which one can depend. “Bearing witness,” says Luther, “is nothing but God’s Word spoken by angels or men, and it calls for faith.”
Being a good witness, then, is not just a matter of stating the facts, but also believing them to be real, trustworthy, and true—and having the courage and conviction to stand by them through thick and thin, even when the world is crashing down.
In the opening chapter of the book of Acts, our risen Lord tells His apostles that they will be His witnesses, in Jerusalem, in the nearby regions of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. And suitable witnesses they were, for they had seen and experienced and touched the Lord, had heard what He proclaimed with their own ears.
Here in Advent, however, the great witness is John the Baptist, as we heard in the second lesson a short time ago. This lesson consists in part of a portion of the prologue—that is, the introduction—to the Gospel account written by the other St. John, the apostle. God sent John the Baptist to be a witness giving testimony about the truth of His Son, who has now come into the world to be its light.
John the Baptist’s witness to Jesus as the light of the world, and the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, is the main theme of the middle section of this opening chapter. In fact, the word “witness” appears in our text six times in only 13 verses here in this lesson, and a total of eight times in the first two-thirds of chapter one. Obviously, witness is an important aspect to John the Baptist’s work, or else the evangelist wouldn’t have been inspired to use the word so often.
The witness of John the Baptist is two-fold: First, he bears witness to human sinfulness, which separates man from God. He doesn’t hem and haw and dance around the topic, but in no uncertain terms he names sin for what it is. He tells his hearers that on account of their sin, they are unable to recognize the One who stands among them as their promised Messiah.
Second, and equally important, John’s witness is not about himself. He isn’t the light of the world. He isn’t the Christ. He isn’t Elijah. He isn’t the Prophet—at least, not the Prophet the Jews thought they should be getting if the Messiah was approaching. He give clear witness that he is none of those.
Rather, John is just the voice crying out in the wilderness: Coaxing, cajoling, encouraging, and even threatening all who will listen. They are to prepare the Lord’s way in the bumpy, erratic, uneven ground of their hearts through repentance and a baptism of water. John’s the witness. He’s the truth-teller. He’s the one who stands firm and unwaveringly says what he believes about this man Jesus—that He will be the one who once-and-for-all will take away the sins of the world, not just the temporary removal by the Old Testament sacrifices or by John’s baptism of water.
It’s an interesting word, witness. In our day and age, we usually associate it with someone who gives a legal authority his or her observations, whether in the gathering of information or during a hearing or trial. Occasionally someone will use the word witness in referring to another individual who will validate or corroborate what he or she is claiming to be true. One of blues-rock’s greatest hits, Marvin Gaye’s Can I Get a Witness? was also recorded by bands such as the Rolling Stones and Grand Funk Railroad. In this song, the singer laments how an unfaithful love has harmed him, and he wants someone else—a witness—to agree with his assessment.
Sometimes Christians use the word “witness” wrongly, too, taking it to mean a discussion of how they supposedly made a decision to believe in Jesus. But the truth is: We are far too sinful—too dead in our trespasses—to ever move ourselves toward God or choose to be saved.
If we look to this section of the Bible in the Greek language in which it was first recorded, however, we can make an important discovery about what it really means to be a witness in the Christian faith, and of the Christian faith. Each time we see the word that is rendered as “witness” in our English translations, we see a version of the Greek word that forms the root to our modern word, martyr.
Now, this word for witness certainly existed in the Greek language long before people were persecuted, tortured, and killed for refusing to deny the truth of Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of the world. Yet the fact is that “martyr” in the theological sense has come to mean someone willing to undergo very difficult and painful things—even death—for belief in Christ. Rather than turn away from what he or she believes, those who give a lasting and true witness to Christ in the most difficult situations have this label of honor—martyr—placed upon them by the Church.
That’s not to say that our witness, our unflagging testimony of what is true about who Jesus is and what Jesus has done (and is continually doing) for us requires us to suffer physical pain and temporal death. Quite the opposite, actually. We suffer pain and death and all our other discomforts and problems in this life on account of sin—whether it be our own sin or the sin of others.
But regardless of its origins and causes, this suffering may sometimes or someday get applied to us by others on account of our unwillingness to compromise, hide, or avoid the truth about Jesus. And when that happens, we are called to remain faithful witnesses, and to receive the strength to withstand it—strength which Christ our Lord has promised will be given to all whom He has called as His own.
If you go back and re-read these verses from the opening section of John’s Gospel, replacing the word “witness” with the word “martyr” whenever it appears, you might get a better idea of just what’s at stake when we are called to be witnesses for Christ. Listen for a moment to these sections of our reading:
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a martyr, to be a martyr about the light, that all might believe through him. 8 He was not the light, but came to be a martyr about the light. 1
15 John became a martyr about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’ ” 2
32 And John became a martyr: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I have seen and have been a martyr that this is the Son of God.”3
John was indeed a martyr—both in the witnessing sense and in suffering on account of his witness that Jesus was all those things attributed to him by John, and more: The Light; the eternal, true God; the Creator; the source of life; the only way to adoption for sinners separated from their heavenly Father; the incarnate, glorious One, full of grace and truth; the Lamb of God; the Son of God.
Yet you and I are martyrs, too: Witnesses of the same things about Jesus as were claimed and confessed by John. Witnesses and martyrs not because we have physically observed Jesus’ birth or miracles or His death and resurrection; witnesses and martyrs not because we heard His preaching or walked the dusty roads of Galilee with Him. We are witnesses only in the derived sense, in that our words echo the reliable testimony of John the Baptist and the noble army of martyrs who have gone before us: the patriarchs and prophets; the apostles and evangelists.
Like them, we bear witness; we give testimony. We are martyrs because we—like them—speak not of ourselves, but of Him who alone is rightly confessed as Son of God, Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. Our witness, our martyrdom, is this: Jesus Christ, crucified for you; given for you; poured out—for you!
His grace saves you; His truth comforts you; His Holy Spirit sustains and strengthens you to serve as His witnesses. For that purpose He came; for that reason He—the eternal Word—became flesh and dwelt among us, His Advent witnesses; His Advent martyrs. Amen.