YOU WILL BE MY WITNESS…. May 12, 2002
Key Verse: (Acts 1:8 NIV) But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."
When historian H.G. Wells died in 1946, many newspapers quoted the last words he spoke. Friends and nurses were fluttering around his bedside trying to be helpful, adjusting pillows, pulling up covers, administering sedatives, and so on. In the midst of all this, Wells turned to them and said, "Don't bother me. Can't you see that I'm busy dying?"
Nobody remembers what sort of person Abner Hoovey was of Bath, Maine was, except that he caused a big commotion on his deathbed. Thinking he was dead, a young nurse bent over Abner's body to see if he was still breathing. When the young nurse bent low over him and placed her ear close to his mouth, Abner shouted, "Boo!" and then he died.
A person's final words are important. When they are out of character or trivial, we remember them with some embarrassment. Elvis Presley, for example, supposedly said, "I'm going to the bathroom to read." Well-spoken words on the other hand, provide a fitting conclusion to a life and encouragement for those who remain. (1) Former President Grover Cleveland, who died in 1908 spoke these parting words: "I have tried so hard to do right."
This week's scripture reading from Acts focuses on the final words of Jesus before he was taken up into heaven. Given this one last opportunity to say what needed to be heard and remembered by his disciples, Jesus addresses the subject of their witness. "…You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." He said.
There is a legend first told by Christians living in the catacombs under the streets of Rome. The legend describes a conversation they imagined took place between Jesus and the Angel Gabriel immediately after he ascended into heaven.
"Lord, who have you left behind to carry on your work?' asks Gabriel.
"My disciples, of course," answers Jesus, "a band of fisherman, tax collectors, beggars, and housewives."
"But Lord," says Gabriel, "I don't mean to be disrespectful, what if they fail you? What if they lose heart, or drop out? What if things get too rough for them, and they let you down?"
"Well," replies Jesus, "then it all I've done will come to nothing. It will all have been a waste of time."
"Of course, you do have a back up don't you?" asks Gabriel. "Isn't there something else to keep it going, to finish your work?"
"No," says Jesus, "there's no back up plan. The church is it. There's nothing else. It's all in their hands"
Given everything Jesus could have said in his final moments with his disciples he said, "You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." By making it the last thing he said to them, he was making sure they remembered that everything depended on them. It was up to them to share the good news of Jesus Christ with the world. AND IT IS UP TO US TOO!
This morning, I want to share some thoughts with you about witnessing. It occurs to me that there are two aspects to witnessing. (2) WITNESSING ON THE ONE HAND MEANS, "TAKING SOMETHING IN." "I witnessed the most incredible thing the other day" we might say.
Example: I Spent a few weeks last summer in Keystone Colorado. One morning Becca and I climbed to the top of one of the tallest peaks in Siverthorne. It took half of the day to reach the summit. The scenery was breathtaking. The beautiful river below. The beautiful blue sky above. The crisp cool wind in our face. The scent of the evergreens in the air. We sat there on the summit for more than an hour just taking everything in. We were witnessing!
Example: A few years ago I went to a baseball game with my dad at the Ballpark in Arlington, Texas. The Rangers were down by three runs in the ninth inning. The bases were loaded and there were two outs when Rafel Palmireo stepped into the batters box. When the count was full he hit a fastball out of the park. I can remember the feeling of exhilaration, when we heard the crack of the bat, like it was yesterday. After the game was over we just sat there and took it all in. We were witnessing!
This is an aspect to witnessing that we often overlook. Before we can talk about what God is doing in the world through Jesus, we must be witness what God is doing through Jesus in the world. You have to take it in for yourself. We can't adequately describe what it's like to sit on a mountain until you had the experience of sitting on a mountain. We can't describe a ninth inning rally until we've witnessed a ninth inning rally. In the same way, how can we expect be tell people about what God is doing through Jesus Christ in the world when we haven't even witnessed it for ourselves.
Unfortunately, there are some common mistakes we all make which keep us from witnessing God in the world. The Failure to Pay Attention. God is a work in the smallest of things all around us. But we never witness it because of a failure to pay attention. I've been visiting with a spiritual director over the past couple of months. Do you know what a spiritual director does? A spiritual director helps the person he is directing pay attention to God. I think most Christians suffer from some variation of Attention Deficit Disorder. We tend to think that children have short attention spans. Actually that's not a correct description. Children don't have a short attention span. Their attention span is directed to the moment. The here and now. In many ways our children are the best spiritual directors available. Every moment is full of God's little miracles for our 3 year old son.
The Failure to Love What We Have. One of the greatest tragedies in many of our lives is the failure to love what we have. We are always longing for something that we do not have at the expense of what we have - the model child at the expense of the child God has placed in our home - the woman with the perfect body at the expense of the body God has given us - the job that we wish we had at the expense of the job we do have. The reality is that we cannot experience God in the things we do not posses; whereas, God can only be experienced in what we do possess. All the while we are pining for something we wish you had we are failing to take in the good things God has placed within our care. Do you remember the 10th Commandment? You Shall Not Covet…. You Shall Not Lust - for something that does not belong to you. The sin here is not wanting something that doesn't belongs to us. It is the sin of not being satisfied with what we have been given. For another matter, what makes us think God is going to give us more when were not even satisfied with what we have? The trouble here is that the consumer world we live in survives by making us want the things that we don't have. 24 hours a day the pressure is applied from Toyota to Gallery Furniture.
The Failure to Go to the Source. I had a church history professor at TCU that demanded that we read primary sources. She would ask why we would want to read a book about Saint Augustine when we can read Saint Augustine on our own? She would say the best way to get to know Saint Augustine is go straight to the primary sources. One of the reasons many of us fail to witness God in the world is our reliance on secondary sources. We rely on books written about God. More people have probably read the Prayer of Jabez than have actually read the Bible. We rely on sermons about God and songs about God to tell us about God. There is nothing wrong with any of these things, but they are a poor substitute for the real thing. Instead of listening to a Christian song about someone else's experience with God, why not experience God yourself and write your own song. Instead of basing your theology on the experiences of a preacher why not build your theology on some experiences of your own. Interestingly, you should note a little reference in verse 14 of the first chapter of Acts: "They all joined together in constantly in prayer…." There is simply no substitute for the real thing.
What would happen if we began to pay attention, love what God has given us, and began to go straight to the source? When Jesus said you be my witnesses in Jerusalem, the first thing he was talking about being good observers. He was talking taking in what God is doing in the world.
BUT WITNESSING ALSO IMPLIES GIVING SOMETHING OUT. Witnessing is not only seeing something, it is also saying something. It is not only becoming aware of something, it is making others aware of something. First, we have the experience and then we testify.
For many years Charles Allen was the minister of First Methodist Church in Houston. In 1980 he delivered a memorable sermon before the National Evangelism Association of the Christian Church. In the message he mentioned his friendship with Alan Shepherd. "I live around the corner from a man named Allan Shepherd who walked on the moon. And every so often when I'm at home, I'll get out and walk in the evening. Sometimes, I'll go by his house and he'll be out in the yard and he and I talk. And I think, here is a man who has walked on the moon. And that's great. But the greatest thing that every happened was that God walked on the earth. You and I have the privilege of proclaiming the glories of Jesus Christ." (3)
As with taking God in, there are also obstacles which keep us from testifying. Many Suffer From Evangelphobia. Evangelphobia: the fear of sharing our faith. When we witness a beautiful sunset we want to tell someone about it. When we witness child's first steps we want to tell someone about it. When we fall in love we want to tell the whole world about it! Why is it then we have such a fear of telling others about our experience with God? Don't you think we would want to share with others the very thing that gives our life meaning and hope? It could be that we've subscribed to the old American maxim. There are two things you never talk about: politics and religion. Or it could be we associate witnessing with pushy people pedaling Watchtower Magazines from home to home, or the fellow with a suit two sizes to small standing in the middle of busy intersection holding a sign: "Do you know Jesus?" printed in bold red letters. Notice however that Jesus did not make it an option. He did not say, "Think about being my witness." He did not say, "If you have time be my witness," either. However, he did say, "You will be my witness."
Many Suffer From Isolation. It is our tendency to isolate ourselves - to remove ourselves from the world - to retreat to our sanctuaries like a cocoon - to the extent that we neither experience God, nor are we of much use to God. Most of you have been to the Super Wal-Mart on 242. They have everything under one roof. You can buy hardware, food, clothing, glasses, airline tickets, toys, office supplies, and gasoline. I've heard that in the near future some Super Wal-Marts are going to be selling used cars. Maybe someday we'll be able to get our pets cloned at Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart has made billions by putting everything together under one roof. Why would you go anywhere else when everything you need is right there? They are selling convenience. What's interesting is the Super Wal-Mart trend is taking place in the church. Many entrepreneurs have adopted Sam Walton's business model for the church. Springing up all over the country are these mega-churches offering everything that anybody could ever want under one roof. In Dallas, First Baptist Church is building a 48 million, 8 story family life center with a Starbucks and a bookstore. In Houston, the Lakewood Church has purchased the Compaq center where you can go ice skating, work out in a gym, watch a concert, and so on. The idea is to put as many amenities together as you can under one roof. Why go anywhere else when you can get everything you need from the church. There is nothing wrong with any of these things. There is nothing more I would like to have for our church than Gym. At the least we could have a Put-Put course and a Marble Slab Creamery. However, the big problem with this is that it takes Christians even further out of the world. When the Holy Spirit gave birth to the church at Pentecost it was meant to be an organization on wheels, not a fortress with walls as thick as bank buildings. How can we witness God or be a witness for God if we spend all our free time at church? To witness God we've got be in the world and to be a witness for God we've got to be in the world. In the 17th chapter of John we find Jesus praying for his disciples. In that prayer he specifically says in verse 18 "As you have sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world."
Many Suffer From Majoring in the Minors. Sharing the good news of Jesus Christ is the mission of the church. The mission of the church is not a social cause, adherence to a tradition, the teaching of doctrine, the building of buildings, or maintenance of an institution. The center of congregational life and mission is the preaching of Jesus Christ for the purpose of making disciples. The main thing we are called to do is to be a witness for Jesus Christ. But too often majoring in the minors like buildings, programs, small groups, and even theology sidetracks us. Where I went to seminary someone scribbled some graffiti on the wall in the student lounge. "Jesus said, to them, 'Who do you say that I am?' And they replied, 'You are the eschatological manifestation of the ground of our being, the kerygma in which we find the ultimate meaning of our interpersonal relationship.' And Jesus said, 'What?'" There is an old saying that describes the church some times: "They can't see the forest for all the trees!" Christian congregations often become so preoccupied with the details of management, maintenance, and survival that we lose sight of the big picture. Our original purpose to share the love of God provided through his Son Jesus has been lost.
What would happen if we overcame our evangelphobia, involved ourselves in the world, and spent our time and energy on the main thing? Being a witness for Christ means witnessing Christ in the world and then taking him in. It also means telling someone else about what we have seen.
"Make sure you wear clean underwear." Those were my mother's last words when I left home for college. "You might get in an accident." (Notice how I managed too sneak something in about mothers and graduates at the end of the sermon.) The last words I have for you this morning is a question formed with Jesus last words in mind.
What is it about our experience- not our dogma or doctrine, not our historical knowledge, not our reasoned opinion - but what is it about our heartfelt, practical, and daily experience of Jesus, that continually and radically changes, modifies, improves, and redirects the course of our daily living?
Moreover, what is it about our this experience with Jesus, that is so unique, precious, and universally significant, that unless we share it with someone else, their lives will be impoverished and lacking - but if we do share it with someone else, their lives will be immeasurably enriched? (4)
i Scott Bader-Saye, The Christian Century, April 24-May 1, 2002, 16.
iv Bandy and Easum, Growing Spiritual Redwoods, Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1997, 50.
iiThomas G. Long, The Witness of Preaching, Louisville, KY: Westminister/John Knox, 1989, 42-47,78-79.
iiiHerb Miller, Fishing On the Asphalt, St. Louis, MO: The Bethany Press, 1983, 84.
iv Bandy and Easum, Growing Spiritual Redwoods, Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1997, 50.