Merry Christmas! Yes, it is the Christmas season still in the church, for a few more days. In these twelve days after Christmas eve, we still rejoice in its light.
Today we have this beautiful prologue to the gospel of John. It describes Jesus as the Word, the logos, who was present with God from the very beginning of creation. It tells us Jesus has made God known to us so that we may be God’s children. It tells us with boldness: the light shines in the darkness and “the darkness did not overcome it.”
And we also have this character, John the Baptist, or rather, John the Witness. He comes as a witness to testify to the true light, who was coming into the world. To testify to Jesus, the logos, the one in whom we meet and see God.
All of this sounds wonderful, but what does it really mean? Witness - testify? How often do you hear these words in Minnesota Lutheranism? What if I asked you to stand up right now and give a testimony of your faith? Don’t worry, I’m not going to do that. But we don’t need to be afraid of words like testify and witness, either. Yes, they have been abused by some Christians - you can’t just make up what you want and claim it’s from God. But let’s not allow the actions of a few to keep us from witnessing to our faith and testifying for God.
Being a witness means sharing your faith in Christ, living your life in response to who God is and what God has done for you.
Being a witness is believing that God truly became Incarnate, became human, so that we may see and know God. This is something to be excited about! That God is here, dwelling among us. What an incredible gift!
We can witness by recognizing this ourselves and sharing it with other people. I have found - and this is a generalization - that we in the ELCA, myself included, are good at talking about God and not as good at naming where God is or sharing what they believe and why.
We are able to say, “God is love, God is light, God wants us to care for our neighbors,” but we are less able to say, “I saw God in you when you comforted me after my friend died,” or “I trust God is always with me because of this set of experiences …”
If you are able to share these things naturally, then please encourage others! If not, I want to walk you through what makes it hard and offer a few examples of witnessing to your faith.
First - why is this even important? Why witness? There are many reasons I could give you, but considering this text and the Christmas season I will say we witness because God’s actions and creativity did not end with Jesus. We continue to respond to the Incarnation because God has not left us, and we want others to know this, too. And God is too expansive, too great, for us to comprehend. There is no end to how many ways we could testify for God or name his presence - so we keep on witnessing, because God keeps on acting. We trust that God will work through one of these many ways so others might know him, too.
Second - what makes it hard? One thing that makes it hard is not wanting to be like those who forcefully share their faith. We’ve been convinced that sharing your faith at all is offensive and will make people think you’re obnoxious, like those guys yelling with hateful signs on the street.
Another thing that makes witnessing hard is that we don’t want to tell anyone what they should think - we don’t want to come across as pushy. We want people to be free to make their individual choices.
Lastly, we may be hesitant to witness because we’re afraid we’re wrong, or that we won’t say exactly the right things. We let fear and insecurity convince us that maybe it wasn’t really God or that we’ll just sound stupid if we try to speak confidently about our faith.
I want you to know that sharing your faith is possible, and it should never look like those people shouting hate. You don’t have to have all the right words or ideas or the perfect stories and examples - just share and live from your heart, from what you know is true, from your relationship with God.
Witnessing can be as simple as sharing a story about God’s presence in your life with someone else.
If you’re unsure, focus on how amazed you are by God’s love, how grateful you are for God’s coming in Jesus, and how deeply your faith has influenced and changed your life. Would you want someone else to have the chance to experience these things too? I hope so! It is possible that you will open up these experiences for someone else by your witness, your sharing, your faith.
In places where you can’t talk openly about your faith, witness through your actions. Advocate for others. Give generously of your time and resources. Forgive and try to understand people’s situations. Perhaps others will notice your example and do likewise. Or maybe they’ll just be annoyed that you’re not acting the way they want you to. Either way, you’re still living our life as a witness.
I said earlier that witnessing can be as simple as sharing a story about God’s presence in your life with others. So, I’m going to share two stories from my own faith with you, in the hopes of being a witness and an encouragement for you to witness. In other words, I am putting into action what I have been preaching, and I hope something in my story will resonate with yours.
Many of you know I grew up in Moose Lake, Minnesota, about two hours north of here. It’s a small town of about 2,000 people. There’s a K-12 school, a hospital, a post office, and several bars and churches - as is typical. My home church is Hope Lutheran of Moose Lake. I spent a lot of time there in high school, helping out with whatever I could. And the friends I made there my sophomore year were ones I could really trust.
Chris and I in particular became good friends. He was a senior and wanting to go Augsburg College to pursue youth ministry. I hoped to be a pastor. We talked a lot about vocation, theology, the church, and just about anything else. There was a depth and trust to our friendship I hadn’t experienced before. He was also very good at making me laugh, and had a natural gift for working with the kids at church.
Unfortunately, Chris also lived with chronic depression. Although he had a loving family, a supportive church, and a closeness with God, the illness ended up taking him. One morning in June 2008, I woke up to a call telling me that my best friend had hung himself. This wasn’t unexpected - I knew he had depression and had been in treatment for it before. But nothing prepares you for the death of someone you love, especially not when you’re 16. Obviously I felt a lot of pain.
As you can imagine in a small town, everyone pulled together. With only 40 or so kids per grade in school, everyone knew everyone and so we were all affected. The pastor and youth director at my church made time and space for students to come together, to grieve, to just be with one another. I saw my church and people I looked up to being there for others. I heard from them that God does not cause this kind of pain, God does not have some set time for each person to die. God did not plan for Chris to kill himself. Rather I heard that God weeps with us, loves us, and is present in the very midst of despair. At his funeral, I saw in the faces of my friends and my church that God was weeping with us, that God was embracing us as we embraced one another, and that God was living and active right in the heart of all this agony and pain.
Looking back, I can name God’s love and activity in that situation and the days that followed, and I can share this story with you as a strong example of why I believe God is present even in the darkest of places and why I believe that the darkness can never overcome the light. I felt and saw and heard God in my pastor, youth director, friends, and congregation, I trust that God was with Chris even as he took his last breath, and the light I witnessed in people taking care of one another could never be swallowed up by the darkness. It might have not always felt like it at the time, but God’s love radiated through. So basically, what I’m trying to say is: even when life sucks, I believe God is right there.
The second story I have to share is one of having faith and following God. Just as many of you know that I grew up in Moose Lake, you also likely know that I am a relatively quiet person. I don’t think it takes long to figure out I’m more of a listener and definitely an introvert. Growing up with a rather loud and sociable extended family, I certainly felt out of place. I assumed that introversion was somehow a deficiency, that something was wrong with me, and that I would always be shy and quiet and not able to speak in front of others. I didn’t understand that introversion simply meant you gain energy from being alone, and it didn’t mean that you couldn’t be social or a leader -- it just meant it took more energy for you to do these things than it did for extroverts. So in the 9th grade when, with really no warning, this inkling came that I should consider being a pastor, I felt surprised and my reaction was something like: “How the heck am I supposed to do that?” But the inkling grew into a deeper sense of call and it was something I couldn’t help but follow.
So I started to push myself outside of my comfort zone. I read more in class. I gave a couple of homily-encouragement talk type things during a few youth retreat weekends I was involved with. I went to a theological camp at Augsburg College. I started talking to my pastor and youth director about ministry and a sense of call. I took on more leadership roles in high school and in college. There were all sorts of experiences along the way, and I continue to live into that. Of course there are times I doubt or think maybe I shouldn’t be doing this, I don’t have the ability. But then I find the more I am willing to follow this call and to go beyond my comfort zone and trust in God, the more I find this is a real calling and I can do it. This whole journey is why I believe that God calls the unexpected and is with you the whole way.
I hope something in these stories resonates with you. I encourage you to witness to others by sharing your stories, in all of their joy and pain. There are no bounds to where God might be at work, so go beyond your bounds, your comfort zone in being a witness, and notice God as much as you can. Don’t be afraid to name the places where God has come to dwell with you. You never know how your witness might welcome someone else into relationship with this most incredible God. Get out there, your story, and be the witness God is calling you to be. Amen.
Faith-Lilac Way Lutheran