Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sermon for March 18th: 'Witnesses'

Lent Series 2012 #4: ‘Witnesses’

We’ve been thinking through Lent about the whole business of sharing our faith with others and spreading the Gospel of Christ. We started on week one by thinking about the word ‘Lost’ – the sense that our life is going in the wrong direction, though we’re not sure what the right direction is! On the second week we thought about the word ‘Gospel’ – the good news about the reign of God, about reconciliation with God, about the power of the resurrection. Last week we thought about the word ‘Conversion’, and what it means to turn to Christ.

Today our word is the word ‘Witness’, and I want to start by telling you a story. When I was a young teenager – and not really a committed Christian yet – my Dad would lend me Christian books from time to time. He knew I was something of a bookworm and I’m sure he hoped that one of those books would catch my imagination and lead me closer to faith in Christ. I must admit that I tended not to read all the way through those books. I would skip through them so that I could get an idea of the contents, and maybe read the first couple of chapters or so if I was vaguely interested.

But the first Christian book I read all the way through, from cover to cover, was Dennis Bennett’s book Nine O’clock in the Morning – first published in 1970 -which my Dad lent to me not long after I turned thirteen. Nowadays no one has heard of Dennis Bennett, but in the late 1950s he was on the front page of ‘Newsweek’ magazine. He was an Episcopal priest in California, and on Palm Sunday in 1959 he preached a sermon from the pulpit of his church about how he had recently experienced something he called ‘the baptism in the Holy Spirit’ and had ‘spoken in tongues’, and how God had richly blessed him through these experiences. Nothing unusual for a Pentecostal pastor, perhaps, but Dennis Bennett was an Anglican, not a Pentecostal, and his sermon caused uproar in his large and respectable California congregation. By the time the furor died down Bennett had resigned and gone off to lead a little mission church, St. Luke’s, Ballard, in the Seattle area.

What grabbed my attention, though, was the way Bennett described his experiences of the Holy Spirit. At the beginning of the book he knew nothing about anything called ‘the baptism in the Holy Spirit’, until a fellow priest told him about a couple in his congregation who ‘came to church every week – and they looked happy!’ ‘Looking happy in church!’ Bennett replied – ‘That is suspicious behaviour’. Later he met this couple for himself and they told him about their experience of the Holy Spirit, just like the early Christians on the day of Pentecost in the book of Acts. Bennett was suspicious, but he kept visiting them and asking questions, and reading and studying for himself. Eventually he asked them to pray for him, and as they laid hands on him and prayed for him, he felt himself to be filled up to overflowing with the joy and power of the Holy Spirit, and he found himself praying in words he didn’t understand – ‘speaking in tongues’ like the disciples on the Day of Pentecost. In the rest of the book Bennett told about what had followed on from that – further experiences of the Holy Spirit, gifts of healing, spiritual renewal in his church, and a new sense of the closeness and reality of God, both for Dennis himself and for others who he ministered to.

Now you might find yourself skeptical of this sort of thing – you might even find yourself mentally labeling it as ‘fanaticism’ - but when I read that book I found it compelling. It was miles away from the rather staid and predictable Church of England that I had experienced up until that point. Dennis Bennett was telling me about a real God, who did real things in the real lives of real people. I found myself getting excited about it, and thinking to myself, “If this is what Christianity is like, I want to find out more about it”. It was that book, more than any other, that set me on the path that led me, a few weeks later, to pray a prayer of commitment to Christ.

When I think back, I realize that what Dennis Bennett was doing was witnessing to me. In Acts 1:8 Jesus says to his disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”. We all know what a witness does in a court of law: the witness is there to tell people what they saw or heard or experienced. It’s not the witness’s job to make the case for the defence or the prosecution; there are lawyers there to do that. The job of the witness is simply to tell their story, and then the lawyer will take their words and use them as part of their argument to make the case.

In John’s Gospel Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the ‘parakletos’, which is a Greek word meaning ‘one who comes alongside you to help you’. It’s translated in various ways in different English versions – the ‘comforter’, the ‘counsellor’, the ‘helper’. But one version uses the English word ‘advocate’, in the legal sense of a lawyer who advocates for the defence or the prosecution. And that is in fact one of the ways the word ‘parakletos’ was used in Greek – to describe a lawyer at a trial.

This meaning fits exactly with what we are saying today. If we are the witnesses, who is the lawyer? The answer is, the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the one who takes our words of witness and uses them in the hearts and minds of those who hear our story. It’s not our job as witnesses to press the case or argue for it – it’s mainly the Holy Spirit who does that. But we can tell our story confidently, knowing that the Holy Spirit will use what we have to say to lead our friends closer to Christ and to a new relationship with him.

In Dennis Bennett’s book, his two friends witnessed to him about what the Holy Spirit had done in their lives. They didn’t try to argue the case, because they knew that Dennis was a priest with far more theological education than they had. They simply told their story, and Dennis found that it got under his skin! He found it attractive and compelling and he just couldn’t stop thinking about it. So he studied the Bible and the Prayer Book and his theology textbooks, and eventually he was convinced that what his friends were saying to him was valid. Do you see how the Holy Spirit used the words of witness that were spoken to him?

And the process didn’t end there. When I read Nine O’clock in the Morning, Dennis Bennett was witnessing to me, too. He didn’t try to argue the case, at least not in that book. He simply told stories about his experiences of the Holy Spirit’s work, in his own life and in the lives of others he knew. Those stories got under my skin; I couldn’t leave them alone. I wanted to know how I could meet God in that kind of way. The Holy Spirit was at work, using Dennis’ words and the words of one or two other people who also witnessed to me. Eventually all of that came together and led to my commitment of my life to Christ.

I’ve said that it’s not our job to argue the case: we are the witnesses, and the Holy Spirit is the lawyer or ‘advocate’. But of course the Holy Spirit has some ‘staff people’ here too, to help him in this work - people who are gifted in explaining the Christian faith and presenting arguments for it. The New Testament calls them ‘evangelists’. Evangelists don’t have to be ministers or priests; in fact, I know many ministers and priests who are scared stiff of evangelism and don’t have the first idea of how to do it! I also know many lay people who are gifted in sharing the good news with others and explaining the Christian faith to people on the outside. It’s not scary to them at all – they’ve learned how to relax and enjoy the adventure of co-operating with the Holy Spirit to lead people to faith in Christ.

Evangelism is a spiritual gift and not every Christian has it. Some will never have it, because God has other things for them to do. Some may have it but not have discovered it yet – just as a person may have musical talent, but not know it until they first pick up an instrument and learn to play it. Some of you may have the gift of evangelism but never have suspected it, because you’ve never taken the time to learn your scales!

Still, it’s undoubtedly true that not every Christian is an evangelist. However, every Christian is called to be a witness. Jesus gave that call to his whole church: ‘You will be my witnesses’. We may not all be able to explain the Christian faith and argue for it, but we all have a story that we can tell. You may not think that you do, but believe me, you do! I’ll come back to that point in a minute.

One of the best witness stories in the New Testament is found in the ninth chapter of John’s gospel. Jesus is walking through the temple in Jerusalem on the Sabbath day and he sees a man who has been blind from birth. So he spits on the ground, makes some mud with the spittle, smears it on the man’s eyes and says, “Go and wash in the Pool of Siloam”. The man does as he’s told, and when he washes the mud off, his blindness seems to wash off too, and he can see for the first time in his life! When the people standing around see this and ask what happened, he explains, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash’. Then I went and washed and received my sight’ (John 9:11).

This is the man’s basic word of witness, and he keeps repeating it all through the rest of the chapter. The Pharisees are incensed that Jesus has healed a man on the Sabbath, so they start calling witnesses and interviewing them to see if it’s true. They ask the man several times what happened to him, and they also call in his parents to testify if he really was born blind. They challenge the man as to who he thinks Jesus is, which the man probably hasn’t thought of yet, and gradually through the chapter we see his views of ‘who Jesus is’ sharpening. First he just calls him ‘the man called Jesus’ (v.11); later he calls him ‘a prophet’ (v.17), and by the end of the chapter he’s calling him ‘a man sent from God’ and ‘the Son of Man’.

The Pharisees of course don’t agree. They argue theology with him and ask him again who he thinks Jesus is. “We know he’s a sinner”, they say. At this point the man has had enough of their theologizing and he comes back to his story again: “I don’t know whether he’s a sinner”, he replies. “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I can see” (v.25).

I find this story tremendously encouraging. The man was not a trained theologian and at the beginning his views of Jesus were very muddled. But the one thing that was crystal clear to him was that Jesus had done something wonderful in his life. When the Pharisees asked him to argue, he kept coming back to that story. He might have said with John Newton, “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see”.

Jesus calls us to be his witnesses too. What do you need to be a witness? Just two things: you need a story to tell, and you need a willingness to tell it.

If we are Christians we all have a story to tell about the work of Christ in our lives. It may not be what we think of as a dramatic story. You may never have had a darkness to light conversion experience; you may have known Christ for as long as you can remember. You may never have experienced what you think of as a supernatural work of God in your life. But nonetheless, Christ has been at work, and he wants you to tell others about that.

A few Saturdays ago we had a workshop here at the church about sharing our faith stories. One of the exercises we used was a timeline exercise. We took a sheet of paper and drew a timeline down the centre of it – a timeline of our lives. Then on the one side of the line we noted particularly significant events – birth, school, college, marriage, birth of children and so on. We also noted some things that perhaps weren’t so pleasant – times of stress and trial of various kinds.

Then on the other side of the line we noted times when we had been particularly aware of God’s help and support in our lives, even if it wasn’t dramatic. Maybe when we went through that time of unemployment we found that we weren’t worrying as much as we thought we would. Maybe we went on a retreat and experienced a real sense of the closeness of God. Maybe we joined a Bible study group at the church and over a period of a few months or years we found fresh joy in studying the scriptures and applying them to our lives. Maybe we had a group of Christian friends who prayed for us and supported us in a particularly difficult time. Maybe we had a conversion experience of some kind, as I did as a young teenager. Or maybe we came to the end of a time of searching and said to ourselves, “I’m not sure how it happened, but all I know is that God is now real to me in a way that he wasn’t before”.

That’s our story, and I hope it is special to each one of us. I hope you cherish the story of how God has worked in your life, because it’s a unique story. No one person’s story is quite like another’s. And every single story was written by God.

A witness needs a story to tell, but secondly, a witness needs a willingness to share it. Are you willing?

Last week I told the story of my friend Terry and of the process by which he came to faith in Christ. One vital part in that process was the time when his good friend Chuck told him the story of his own faith journey and how God had worked in his life. Chuck didn’t realize at the time how important that would be; he had no idea that one day his friend Terry would join him in our church as a committed Christian. His story would be one of the links in the chain that God used to bring Terry to Christ. And God can use your story too, if you’re willing to tell it.

Next week we’re going to hear from some witnesses. Some members of our congregation have agreed to be interviewed by me during the sermon spot next week – one at the 9.00 service, two at the 10.30 service - so that you can hear the story of their faith journeys. I’m looking forward to hearing those stories, and I hope you are too. So stay tuned!

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