Testify

The Second Sunday After Epiphany
John 1:29-42
Testify
“And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
He was not doing anything in particular when the small band of men began to approach. He was just simply walking, on his way to somewhere, a destination that he would unfortunately never reach. And as the men got closer, he knew that there was definitely going to be trouble. After pushing, insulting, and provoking him, the young men began to ask him questions including whether or not he was a Christian, and after bravely saying yes, they grabbed him and held him captive as they hurriedly built a fire. Finally, when the fire was raging, they once again asked the young man whether or not he was a Christian, and there, gazing into the wild flames, he mustered only a whisper, yes. Then, after severely burning him, the small band of men left him for dead on the edge of a desert in the Sudan.
He never did meet death though. In fact, it was just a few weeks later that a clergy colleague of mine encountered this incredible and nameless young man, this Christian, in a far off refugee camp after he had dragged himself, alone and on the edge of death, across the Sudanese wasteland. It was there that my colleague heard this man's horrific story. It was there that this man, this Christian, became an example, a guide, an inspiration, a symbol of hope for many people who had nothing of the sort for far too long. It was there that this nameless man, that scarred body, extremely broken, mutilated, burnt, became a true testament, a walking testament which continues to transform the lives of many.
I could not get this incredible story out of my head as I was preparing for today's sermon. As I struggled with it, I believe that this story brought me to a message that I had not ever really heard from this morning's Gospel lesson. You see, after a while that story and this morning's Gospel began to serve as kind of reminders for me, and collectively, I began to hear in the words of these two accounts a serious call for all of us today. Today's Gospel calls us to testify. Now, keep in mind that I am a cradle Episcopalian, and so even as that particular choice of words comes out of my mouth, I do confess that I feel a slight cringe go through my body. Also, because I have grown up in both this religious and geographic setting, I feel comfortable saying that I know most of you probably began to cringe and squirm in your pews as I said it also! I urge you though, to just hang in there with me this morning, because that very thing, our reaction, is precisely the point.
You see this morning's Gospel lesson is a bit different from our usual lessons in that the focus is not totally on Jesus. I mean, of course, ultimately the point of any Gospel is Jesus, but at least in this morning's reading, Jesus is not the one doing the teaching or even much of the talking. It is John the Baptist who gets all the attention today. As I contemplated John I began to see in this most appropriate symbol of Baptism, an interesting call for each of us. I began to see a call for us to refocus on the fulfillment of our own Baptismal vows, and in particular to testify. Have you ever noticed how John the Baptist, especially in this morning's Gospel, but almost always as well, is constantly pointing to Jesus? He is pointing the way to Jesus. He is pointing others to Jesus. He is constantly testifying. And, so, that is the message that I heard for all of us in this morning's Gospel as well. The message that we receive when we focus on the example of John the Baptist. Testify.
It occurred to me that this is a very timely and important calling for us today, especially for us as Episcopalians. I do not know how many of you are aware of this, but for years now research has shown that we are steadily decreasing in numbers year after year, and not only the Episcopal Church, but Christianity as a whole, at least here in the U.S. The truth is, that the church we love so much, our way, our home, is dying, and I cannot help but to think that that is due at least in some part to our general lack of willingness or our open resistance to actively leading others to Christ. In part, we are dying because we are too uncomfortable with sharing our own spiritual stories with others, and telling who God is and what God has done in our lives. Whether it is because we are reacting against the aggressive evangelical attempts of other denominations, our well intentioned desire to be welcoming and accommodating has back fired, or it just simply is not a part of our culture, the fact is that we are going to have to change our ways, if not for the self serving yet extremely important reason that we are losing our church, then for the sheer reality that we as disciples of Christ are indeed called to and have in reality vowed to spread the word, message, and truth of Jesus Christ our Savior.
Now, I realize that all of this is probably coming off pretty hard this morning, but try not to hear this message in the wrong way. Because the message that today's Gospel spoke to me this week and the message that I give to you today is not calling us to go out and become extremists or religious fanatics. Though I started this sermon out with a story about a kind of modern day martyr, this message is not necessarily calling us to go out and die for our beliefs. Actually, the message for today is really pretty simple. Today's Gospel calls us to share who we are. It calls us to be open.
Some of you may remember that a while back, when Fr. Howard named me as one of your Associate Rectors, he presented me with a framed quote that is attributed to St. Francis, which is very special to me. It is very special to me, because, unbeknownst to Fr. Howard at the time, that quote was one that I had strongly identified with and used for guidance throughout my life. So it was quite fitting then as a gift, but I also find it quite fitting to share with you today for another reason. The quote says, “Preach the Gospel at all times, use words if necessary.” I thought about that quote while I was preparing for this morning, and I realized for the first time that, though I am very fond of it, I think, if I might be so bold, that I would add something to this famous quote. I would like it to say, “Preach the Gospel at all times, do not be afraid to use words when necessary,” because all in all I think most of us do a pretty good job of trying to live out the Gospel by example, but the reality is that we certainly are very uncomfortable when it comes to using our words.
You see, the truth is that John the Baptist and our anonymous Sudanese Brother were able to point to God only because they were able to humble themselves before the Lord. They were able to take themselves out of the way so that God could be above all things in their lives. In doing this, in pointing to Christ, in testifying, they were able to successfully bring and lead others to God. This too is our calling today, to point others toward God. To step aside, let God take the lead, and gently help others to find the way. Perhaps our stories are not as dramatic as theirs, but at the end of the day we are not so different. The truth is that we are all here in this place, at Ascension, our home, because our relationship with God is central to our lives. It is a part of us. We are here because we have already placed, or perhaps it is better said, we are constantly trying to place God before ourselves, to place Him above all else. The difference, however, may just be our willingness to open up and share that special piece of ourselves with others, with the people we meet, with our loved ones, with those that cross our path. The difference is our inclination to hesitate when we are called or are presented with the opportunity to share about who we are. Christians. So, what I would like for you all to hear today is that this Gospel calls us to change that. It calls us to share. Where have we, and where do we continually miss the opportunities to point to God in our daily lives? Where do we miss the chance to share? When confronted with the chance to proclaim Christ as our Savior, do we boldly say, yes, we do believe, or are we much more comfortable with just simply letting that opportunity pass us by?
As we continue to worship together today, and as we go out into the world charged with the responsibility of sharing the Good News and love of God, I want to suggest that we consider those questions. And, as we do so, let us also remember and hold the two persons that I have spoken of today as personal examples, as guides for us along the way, so that we too, one day might be able to stand as firmly as they did, gazing into the fire, wading in the water, and to testify to the awesome truth and love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord and Savior.
“And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
Amen.

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