A Witness to the Light

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“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light” (John 1:6-8).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
This Sunday could easily have been called “John the Baptist Sunday.” But I’m quite certain that John would have objected. John was the forerunner of Christ, not the Christ. He was a witness to the light, not the Light. He was a voice, preaching Christ, the light of the world. He was a finger, pointing people to Jesus, and saying, “There He is, the One you’ve been waiting for—the Lamb of God.”
Ancient Christian art depicts John with an overly large mouth and a hyper-extended index finger pointing to Jesus. A big mouth and a pointing finger—that was John. Now, in our culture, such an image doesn’t seem very flattering, does it? As children, most of us were taught that it is impolite to point. Having a big mouth isn’t any better. It means you don’t know when to keep quiet. But for John the Baptist that picture is an accurate description. John was a witness—a mouth with a voice, a finger pointing to someone else.
Witness is one of those weighty words in John’s Gospel. It doesn’t mean quite the same thing as the way we sometimes use it for the activity of declaring the Gospel to another. Witness here means “an authoritative eyewitness,” one who tells exactly what he has seen and heard—like someone who testifies in court.
Scripture says that every matter must be established by at least two or three witnesses for it to be considered true. St. John does even better. In his Gospel, he lines up seven witnesses that testify that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God: John the Baptist, the Holy Scriptures, the works that the Father does through Jesus, Jesus Himself, the Holy Spirit, the apostles, and finally, St. John’s own Gospel.
John the Baptist was the first of these witnesses. His testimony was so that others would believe through him. Note that word! Through him, that is, through his testimony, not in him. John was an instrument, not the object. John’s testimony was not so that people would believe in John, but so that through John all people would believe in Christ. His message was not “follow me,” but “follow Him.” Remember: “He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.”
The problem is that we tend to confuse the witness with his testimony. We often pay more attention to the messenger than to the message. One occasionally hears of the congregation that tries to get rid of its pastor for no other reason than he doesn’t tell funny stories, or write amusing bulletin announcements. Or just as disturbing, we hear of people who only choose a church based upon the personality of the pastor, or his ability to pack a crowd into the church with his entertaining sermons. But the messenger should never overshadow the message. We must not confuse the witness with his testimony.
As we have just been hearing in our adult Bible study on 2 Corinthians, the apostle Paul affirmed this when he wrote: “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (4:5). That was how St. Paul distinguished the Lord’s ministry from that of the so-called “super-apostles,” those high-octane preachers who came into Corinth to separate people from the Gospel—not to mention their wallet and each other. He warned the people not to be so consumed with the messenger, but to listen to the message.
The religious leaders of Jerusalem were stuck on the messenger, and this caused them to miss the message. Messianic expectations in Israel at the time of John were running higher than those of a five-year-old two weeks before Christmas. John’s appearance in the Jordan wilderness created quite a stir. Enough of a stir that the religious authorities in Jerusalem sent a committee to ask John, “Who are you?” or probably more to the point, “Just who do you think you are?”
John had no delusions of grandeur. “I am not the Christ,” he confessed.
“What then? Are you Elijah?” they asked. Over 400 years earlier, the prophet Malachi had said that Elijah would come before the Christ. You’ll recall that Elijah had been taken up to heaven bodily in a fiery chariot. A popular expectation was that Elijah would return one day to signal the coming of the Messiah. Dressed in camel’s hair and a leather belt, John the Baptist sure looked the part. And in truth, John came in the spirit and power of Elijah. Jesus Himself said later that John was Elijah for those who would believe it.
But John would not apply the honor of Elijah to himself. “I am not,” he said.
So the investigators asked, “Are you the Prophet?” If John was not Elijah, perhaps he was the prophet spoken of by the Lord through Moses: “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers, and I will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him” (Deuteronomy 18:18). They wondered if John could be the great Prophet walking in Moses’ shoes.   
Indeed, John was the last and greatest of the prophets, the one who was sent to point directly to the Christ. But John declined once again to appropriate any glory for himself. “No,” he replied.
Notice how John’s answers became shorter as their questioning continued. He was a witness to the light. He wanted to talk about Jesus, not himself. That’s what true “witnessing” is all about—not what God has done for me lately because I’m so religious. Not even about how God has turned my sorry life around since I gave myself to Jesus. But it is telling other about what God, in His mercy and grace, has done for them in Jesus Christ to reconcile them and the sinful world to Himself.
By that time the priests and Levites were running out of questions and still had nothing to send back to headquarters. They became more direct. “Who then are you?” they asked. “What do you say about yourself?”
John answered, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” John wasn’t sent to talk about himself, to deliver stirring personal testimonials, or to win a huge following for himself. He was sent to prepare a people for the Lord by preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. His person and personality were completely covered and overshadowed by the person of Jesus. John said, “Don’t look to me, because I’m not the Christ. I’m not Elijah. I’m not the Prophet. I’m nothing but a voice ringing in your ears, telling you to prepare for the coming of the Lord.”
But the Pharisees ignored John’s words and pressed him further: “Then why are you baptizing?” Their question went beyond John’s identity to his authority. The Pharisees recognized that for John to baptize was no small thing. You didn’t go and invent a baptism on your own. John had to be claiming God’s authority in some way. But John refused to even address their question. There wasn’t time for more discussion. A Greater One than John was coming. In fact, the Greater One was already standing in their midst, in the same crowd, listening to the questions, hidden, but soon to be revealed. The light of the world was about to dawn. This was such a crucial moment that the evangelist even notes the location: “These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.”
The next day John would extend his piercing gaze out across the crowd and point his finger in the direction of the lone figure coming toward him and declare, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Only then would John answer the Pharisees’ question about his baptizing. “For this purpose I came baptizing with water, that He might be revealed to Israel. I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove and it remained on Him. 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.’ And I have seen and borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
John was not the light himself. He came as a witness to the light. He was a voice crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord.” He was the messenger sent with the announcement of Christ’s arrival. He was a finger pointing to “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
The church is that voice and a finger in today’s wilderness of sin and terror and death—a voice to proclaim repentance and forgiveness in Jesus’ name—a finger pointing to Jesus. “There’s the One for you! There’s your forgiveness, your life, and your salvation. There is true light, a light that already shines on you and on all. There He is, in the water of your Baptism. There He is, in the mouth of the pastor absolving your sin. There He is, in the bread that is His body, in the wine that is His blood. There He is, in the proclamation of God’s Word!”
That’s what being a witness to Jesus means. Not pointing to myself and saying “Be religious like me.” But pointing to Jesus in the Word, the water, the bread and the wine, and testifying on His behalf: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world—your sin. He died bearing your sin. He rose holding your life in His life. He reigns and in Him you reign too.” That’s the church’s testimony, her witness. That’s your witness.
One word of warning though—the word for witness, marturia, is the same word from which we get “martyr.” A martyr is a witness who testifies up to the time of his or her death. As a witness for Christ, you might even be called to lose your head for your faith, as John the Baptist did. Given recent events in the news that doesn’t seem so far removed from reality as it did just a few years ago.
But do not worry. You’ve already died in Jesus. In your baptism, you’ve been buried into His death. You are in the ultimate witness protection program, embraced by the death of the Son of God who loved you and gave Himself up for you. You have been clothed with Christ, covered from head to toe with His righteousness. You are already dead to the world, dead to sin, and dead to death. And your life is safely hidden in Christ, tucked away where no one can take it. You’ve got nothing to lose. That’s the beauty of being dead in your self, but alive to God in Christ: The dead have nothing to lose.
You don’t have to hide under false identities, like some frightened witness with a death threat over your head. You don’t have to put on the fake nose and glasses of phony piety and religion. You don’t have to remain silent for fear of being detected. You can be yourself, confessing the truth about your sin, and even more about your Savior, the world’s Savior. You can point people to Jesus: “Look! There’s a light who shines on you!”
You are not the light. Jesus is the light, the world’s light, who shines in this present darkness with a light no darkness can overcome—not even the darkness of your sin or the terrors of death. This glorious light, Jesus, who has been shining on the creation from the beginning, since day one as the creative Word, is the same light who redeemed the world with His death on a dark Friday. And you have the privilege to be a witness to this light even as I speak of Him and point to Him now:   “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of world! This is Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, your Lord and Savior. For His sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.”  

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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