Sunday, January 15, 2012

To Be an Honest Witness for Jesus

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]

John 1:43-51
Let’s say that friends are visiting you. You’ve just renovated your living room: new chairs, couch, end tables, lamps, entertainment center, furnishings. All are tasteful, plain, functional, pleasing to the eye. The chairs and couch are comfy. The wall coloring is rich and inviting.

Now, sometime during their visit, your friends, who have been to your house before, are going to ask you about your newly appointed living room. Where did you get the furniture, the paint, the carpeting? Did you have help? If so, who was the contractor?

Let me ask you this: If your friends asked you questions like these, would you refuse to answer them? Of course not! You’d be happy to answer their questions, maybe even with a trace of pride. When we have good things happen in our lives, we want to share the story with others.

We are now in a season of the Church Year called Epiphany. The New Testament was, of course, originally written in Greek and the word epiphany comes from the Greek word epiphaino. It means to show oneself, to appear. The Gospel lessons for the season of Epiphany are ones in which Jesus showed Himself to be more than just another man—more even than just another king, but God enfleshed, the King of all kings, the Savior Who offers freedom from sin and death to all who will repent for sin and entrust their lives to only Him.

Today, as in Biblical times, the true identity of Jesus can be shown to people in miraculous signs as well as in moments of quiet clarity. People come to life-saving faith in Jesus Christ in many different ways. But coming to believe in Jesus always involves an epiphany, whether one that evolves slowly, one that takes roots in us as children on our parents' knees, or one that comes in a flash.

Whenever our epiphany comes to us, we know that Jesus is our God and King and that the only reasonable thing to do is bow down and surrender our whole lives to Him.

Today’s Gospel lesson recounts an epiphany in which Jesus revealed His identity to an honest skeptic named Nathanael. And it all happened when a friend of Nathanael’s talked about Jesus the way we might talk about a newly renovated living room with friends.

You know the story well. But let’s look at it together this morning. Please go to our Gospel lesson, John 1:43-51.

Here's a bit of background to put the incidents in today's lesson in context. Three days before the incidents recounted in our lesson, John the Baptist had told crowds thronging to him to repent for sin because the Messiah was coming. He said that he himself was such an imperfect sinner, he was unworthy to even do the slave’s work of untying the thongs of the Messiah's sandals.

The next day, John saw Jesus and said, “Here is the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world.” (John was saying here that Jesus, without sin Himself, would become the perfect sacrificial Lamb for the whole human race, taking our deserved punishment for sin so that, when He rose from the dead, He could give everlasting life with God to all who follow Jesus through the crucifixion of their old sinful bodies and the resurrection of their new bodies in eternity.)

The following day, John told two of his own followers, Andrew and John, known as disciples, mathetes in the Greek, a word that means students: “Look, here is the Lamb of God.” John, the preacher who said elsewhere, “He [Jesus] must increase, I must decrease” was, in effect, telling his two students, “I’m giving you to a new teacher, this One is the Lamb of God, the One you and I and all the world have been waiting for!”

We pick up what happens next in today’s lesson. Jesus has gone from the Jordan to His native region of Galilee. Philip is from Bethsaida, a fishing town on the lakeshore there. Jesus goes to Philip and says, “Follow Me.” Philip, who already has spent time with Jesus the previous evening, is ready to follow when Jesus calls.

But Philip understands that following Jesus is not a private matter. He seems to understand that if followers of Jesus fail to tell others about Jesus, God will be forced to make the inanimate stones cry out Jesus’ Name, so that all the world will have the chance to hear of Him!

Look at what happens next, in verse 45. Philip has received no training as an evangelist. He hasn’t been to seminary. But he can’t contain himself! (Jesus is a bigger deal than a renovated living room!) So, Philip finds his friend, Nathanael and tells him: “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote…” Stop right there a second.

We’re nearing the end of our year of reading the Bible together. It’s been the best experience of my twenty-seven years as a pastor! Two things that come through loudly and clearly as you read the whole Bible—Old and New Testament—are:
  • how the God of the Old Testament is exactly the same God we meet in the New Testament and 
  • how all of history up to Jesus’ time was aimed toward the moment when God would take on flesh, walk among us, go to a cross for us, and rise to give everlasting life to repentant sinners who believe in the Messiah, Jesus. 
Philip knew his Biblical history and he was sure that Jesus was the Messiah. “We have found Him,” Philip tells Nathanael (read what he says next in verse 45), “Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”

Nathanael has an understandable question. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Nazareth was a pigsty of a village in the Galilean hills, composed of maybe 15 shacks where impoverished people eked out their livelihoods.

Besides, Nathanael may have known the prophecies as well as Philip: the prophets said that the Messiah would be from Bethlehem. Knowing nothing of the place where Jesus was born, Nathanael was skeptical.

We run into skepticism about Jesus all the time. But Philip doesn’t get defensive. Neither should we when people challenge our faith. Look at Philip's response in verse 46: “Come and see.”

Folks, this is a great example for us as Christians who have been commissioned by Jesus Himself to “make disciples.”

And this is no small matter! As I read the Bible, making disciples is the only job Christ has given to the Church.

Jesus did not commission the Church to do political advocacy, to erect church buildings as monuments to our piety, to perpetuate congregations as social clubs where everybody smiles and nobody's life gets changed.

The Church has one job and one job only: to make disciples, to help people know and grow in their faith in Jesus Christ.

Conservative and liberal Christians alike often grow impatient with Jesus’ way of changing people’s lives. They want to push their own particular versions of Christian living on people through things like politics, political correctness, or social pressure.

But Jesus never once coerced goodness or faithfulness out of people and we would be faithless, shortsighted fools to try coercion ourselves.

Instead, we Christians, together in Christ’s body, the Church, are commissioned to speak and lovingly live out God’s truth about human sin and about the forgiveness and hope offered to every single person on the planet through faith in Jesus Christ.

We do so in order to make disciples of Christ.

Ideally, this can happen when people see us living for Jesus and they ask us about the steadying, joy-giving influence over our lives and we can say, “Jesus.” That, after all is the quiet way we Lutherans would prefer to spread the Good News of Jesus. No muss. No fuss. No witnessing.

And sometimes, it actually works that way.  I've known John since I was in the fourth grade. We were in Cub Scouts together. We played Gra-Y and Junior Hi-Y basketball together. John was a good athlete. I wasn't. John was popular. I wasn't. John got elected to student council. I didn't. John and I liked the same girl in the sixth grade. Guess who she went with to Fun Night, the biggest event of the year?

In the forty years after we graduated from high school, I ran into John twice and each time our conversations were quick and perfunctory. Then, at our high school class reunion last year, John, his wife, and I had a long and enjoyable chat. After the reunion, a number of our classmates kept in touch through a Facebook page. We talk with each other fairly often, even John and I.

In the months since last June, John undoubtedly saw the sermons and prayer requests I post on Facebook. But I never once "witnessed" to John. Yet he wrote to me last month just before Christmas to say, "Mark, haven't been to church in a long time, but you've inspired me to go. Christmas Eve I will attend a service here in town." 

It isn't a confession of faith, but when I read that, it made me feel good! It's a beginning and it's to hear and read things like that that every Christian is made for! My invitation to John to "come and see" Jesus had happened quite indirectly, without my really knowing it.
But Jesus has commissioned us to take a more direct approach in making disciples for Jesus. It's an approach like that of Philip, who went to his friend, Nathanael...or, like my friend Zack, when he went to his father.

After Zack's mother died, his dad was inconsolable. Unlike Zack's mom, a faithful believer in Jesus, his dad had always been indifferent to God, almost scornful of the Church. Following his mother's death, Zack watched his father go into a tailspin of depression and self-destructive behavior. He had no hope and he ricocheted between long periods of sleeping for hours on end and almost frenetic activity, anything to block out his pain and grief and utter hopelessness.

Zack finally approached his father. "Dad," he said, "do you remember how strong and joyful Mom was? It was because of her faith in Jesus, Dad. You need Jesus, too. If you'll trust in Him, you'll know that He's beside you, helping you get through these tough days. You'll also know that one day, not only will you see Jesus, but you'll see Mom again."

Amazingly, Zack's Dad took his son's message to heart. He came to faith in Christ. When I met Zack's father some years later, he was a truly joyful follower of Jesus, deeply involved in his church. This once self-absorbed man spent many hours every week providing help to people without work, food, or shelter. It all happened because his son, like Philip in our Gospel lesson, proactively went to him and said, "Dad, come and see. Come and see Jesus."

Who could you issue the same invitation to this week?

When Nathanael took Philip up on his invitation and Jesus told Nathanael things about himself that Jesus could only have known if Jesus were God in the flesh, Nathanael confessed his faith in Jesus: "Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!"

Philip, the Gospel of John makes clear, was no perfect disciple. But he was what we are called to be: an honest witness for Jesus. He made himself available for Jesus’ great commission and available to his friend who needed the Savior. When he invited Nathanael to “come and see” the Messiah, Nathanael saw the God Who knows all about us and loves us anyway.

May we be more like Philip, so that the people we know will experience epiphanies about the forgiveness, the healing, and the wholeness God gives to all who turn from sin and trust in Christ.

May we tell the story of Jesus and let others see Jesus for themselves. Amen

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