Titles or Testimonies? – Sermon for December 13, 2020 from Pastor John

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=guqqUTz_PfU

Sermon for December 13, 2020

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     An African-American preacher asked his congregation, “What would you like people to hear at your funeral? Titles or testimonies? Would you want people to hear about your academic diplomas or your sport’s trophies, or maybe plaques on your wall from your company honoring your loyalty and hard work? Or would you rather have folks hear testimonies about simple deeds of kindness, unsung and unrecognized, showing that you cared about neighbors, friends, and even strangers. Testimonies would reveal your passion to bring encouragement for those who were experiencing a difficult time.

     Today’s gospel reading introduced us to a man sent from God whose name was John. His calling was to testify to the light, to bear witness to Jesus. His purpose was to testify and point out Jesus so people would believe in him as the Light of the world. In the Gospel of John the portrayal of John the Baptist is different from what we read in the other gospels. We never hear about his rough appearance wearing camel’s hair and his wilderness diet of locusts and wild honey. In the gospel of John the one known as John the Baptist could just as well be called John the Witness.

It sounded like John was a witness on trial since important priests from the Temple in Jerusalem were sent to check him out. Their first question sounded like a courtroom case: Please state your name, or as they said “Who are you?” John would answer their questions telling them who he was not. John told them he was not the Messiah, not Elijah and not the prophet, meaning an important figure like Moses. With John giving those investigating him neither name nor titles, they became frustrated. They told John how can we prepare a report for the religious authorities if you do not tell us who you are? To answer this time John quoted the prophet Isaiah, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’ John was not like a contestant on the TV program “The Voice”, hoping to show off his talent. John was not looking for fame but being faithful to his calling to bear witness to Jesus and prepare people to hear the good news of his coming.

Those investigating John began to sound a bit hostile questioning his authority to baptize, saying “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, Elijah, nor the prophet?” John was not at all intimidated but remained true to his role as witness saying “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” John did not say much about Jesus except to emphasize his own unworthiness. John told his questioners that they did not know Jesus. This was not so much about factual details then the importance of faith. Let us listen to John’s further testimony in the Gospel which will help us believe and trust Jesus as Savior and Lord. John saw Jesus coming toward him and did not merely say “Hello, how are you?” John gave witness telling the people of his time, and telling us through the witness of the Scripture, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” In the gospel of John we never hear about his baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The emphasis is to reveal Jesus as the one who takes away our sin. There is a famous altar painting in the German city of Isenheim. The artist lived at same period as Martin Luther. It shows the crucifixion. At the cross John the Baptist is pictured. With a long finger he is pointing to the crucified Jesus. In John’s arms is a lamb. One could see the point of the painting: John is bearing witness pointing out Jesus on the cross as if to say “Here must be your focus when you are burdened by sin and fear the judgment of God. Jesus is the one who takes away your sin. Jesus is the one who lifts the burden of guilt. On the cross Jesus revealed his mission for you and the world, not to condemn the world, but that all of us are saved through him.

Whenever John saw Jesus he told his followers “Here is the Lamb of God”. John began to lose disciples but that did not bother him a bit. John said “He must increase, but I must decrease”. John would wrap up his work by making his testimony clear about Jesus: “The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.” John’s last testimony as the Voice of One calling people to prepare for Jesus gave the important reminder that faith in Jesus also means obedience. This obedience is not to meant to be a nagging message of ‘shape up or else.’ This obedience is based on the love of God and Jesus ever invites us to make our home in this steadfast love. Loved by God beyond measure we are called obey the central commandment to love one another. Our dependence on God’s love was illustrated by Jesus when he said “I am the vine, you are the branches. Apart from me you cannot do anything.” Love for one another is not a sweet sentiment, but the necessity of a serving heart inspired by Jesus who never stops his service for us. There was a story in the news not long ago described as nothing short of a miracle. A four-year old boy fell down a well. To rescue the lad required more than lowering a rope. In some way his fall lodged him a place that required an urgent rescue. It took four hours to free the boy, who is now recovering from injuries. We are certainly thankful for those who came to the rescue. Jesus’ mission was one of rescue. Since we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves Jesus has done so through love in action. He completed our salvation, entirely by grace, by his sacrifice as the Lamb of God. He lived up to his name, for the name ‘Jesus’ means “one who rescues, one who delivers’. And sin is not our only trouble. Pandemics hit and we are afraid. Loved one die and we mourn, even at times unable to be comforted. Life can have so many twists and turns, challenges and mistakes, it is no wonder we can feel lost. But another name for the Lamb of God is Immanuel, meaning God is with us. This name was originally prophesied by Isaiah and given to people fearful of the threat of war. Whatever battles we are facing remember we do not face them alone, for Jesus, Immanuel, is risen from the dead and Lord, never to abandon or forsake us.

This Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent, traditionally was known as “Rejoice Sunday”. The second lesson today backs up that name with the short verse “Rejoice always”. This joy is not meant to be shallow or superficial. This joy comes from prayer that includes the promise of the peace of God based on the guardian presence of Jesus. As you may have noticed in the first reading the original hearers were those described as brokenhearted, oppressed, mourning and captive. But the prophet came with good news, what Isaiah called the vengeance of God. It is a strong word but think about God who is so deeply compassionate that God will act with a vengeance to give us comfort and cause for praise. The prophet wrote “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God.” We are not merely to feebly rejoice, but greatly rejoice because God has given us a beautiful wardrobe, to “clothe us with the garments of salvation, and cover us with the robe of righteousness.” Baptism is described in the Bible as being clothed with Christ, wearing the salvation he provided, and robed with the righteousness of the forgiveness of sins and a new life, no longer living a lie of self-sufficiency but the life of joy thankful for Jesus. Jesus promised this joy will never be taken from us.

On the church calendar it is not only “Rejoice Sunday” but also St. Lucy’s day. Lucy, from Sicily, died long ago as a martyr for she refused to abandon her faith in Jesus before her persecutors in the 4th century. In Swedish communities St. Lucy’s day can be celebrated in private homes with a daughter of the house dressed in white and wearing a crown, a crown adorned with lighted candles. The Lucy-designate then fills a tray with cakes and also, you guessed it, coffee, serving members of the family. The crown with candles is probably something you do not want to try at home, but the coffee and cake sounds awesome. Why the candles? The name ‘Lucy’ means light and in northern countries St. Lucy’s day comes about at the darkness time of the year. It is time to bear witness to the light. And it is good for us to remember John the Baptist, or John the Witness, and Lucy the Martyr, a word that means ‘witness’ inspiring us to testify or bear witness to the light. With our words and deeds, even in a time of pandemic, or even in a busy holiday season, let us bear witness to Jesus, the Light of the world, and the light of God’s love that no difficulty or darkness can overcome.

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