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December 2020

Witness

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Witness”

Rev. Art Ritter

December 13, 2020

 

John 1:6-8, 19-28

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

 

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. 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.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

 

 

Van Benthem tells the story of a man named Marvin, who like his father and grandfather before him was a tailor.  When the building where his family’s tailor shop was sold and tore down, Marvin started working for a men’s clothing store on the other side of town.  He was such a good tailor that most of his customers followed him.  His reputation spread, and people came to him in even greater numbers than before.

When someone came into the store to purchase a new suit, they would more than likely ask for Marvin because they could trust him to help pick out the right fabric and the right color.  The store manager would call Marvin from his workspace in the back.  Marvin would arrive wearing a suit that was shiny and worn, hair unkempt, shirt tucked halfway in and halfway out, with chalk and pincushion in hand.  Unaware of his own appearance, he would begin his work with the customer.

He worked silently, yet a comfortable silence, the kind of silence that seemed to invite the customer to speak.  And Marvin listened.  He was a good listener.  He listened to stories and in hearing those stories it felt to customers as if he were clothing their soul as well as body.  In Marvin’s hands, an overcoat was more than a garment to be put on and taken off again.  It was as if the wearer was being warmed on the inside and would never be cold in quite the same way again.  Where someone else saw only a customer, Marvin saw the opportunity to help others become more of what God created them to be.  When others looked at Marvin, they didn’t see anything about which to be impressed.  But when Marvin was their tailor, they experienced something important and meaningful.  It wasn’t about him but about what he could do for his customer.

I really debated whether or not to put up outdoor Christmas lights this season.  I’ve done it every year since moving to Novi in 2007.  At first I was the only one on our cul-de-sac but as the years have passed many others have joined in the practice.  This year, with pandemic worries and concerns, it seemed as though it just wasn’t in my heart.

But as Thanksgiving approached, something pulled on my heartstrings.  I felt a sense of responsibility to put up those lights.  I didn’t want to be the only one on the cul-de-sac without them.  I needed the lights to be some kind of statement to my soul and I thought perhaps that others needed to see my lights as a witness to my soul.  So on a warm November weekend, I decided to put up my outdoor lights.  I even added a few extra strings along the deck and the trees behind my house.  And while I normally don’t turn on my outdoor lights until Thanksgiving night, I turned them on a full week early.  I needed something that would speak to the hope that lies within me, the hope that fuels the Christmas season.

In his book, Christmas: A Candid History, author Bruce David Forbes writes about the importance of light for the early celebrations of Jesus’ birth.  In the dead of winter, when the days are the shortest, festivals of light were essential.  They bore witness to the hope that was needed and to the importance of light for the human body, and mind, and soul.

On the third Sunday of Advent, the main character once again is John the Baptist.  Last week’s story about John was from the gospel of Mark.  This time we get to hear about John’s ministry from the perspective of the gospel of John.  John is described as a witness, one who came to testify to the light in a time of great darkness.  We might think of witnesses only in terms of a judicial function, as ones who have direct knowledge of an event or situation, and give testimony concerning the facts of a case.  John saw himself as a witness in his particular time and situation.  He was a witness to something that was coming and something that was happening.  He had to testify to what God was about to do, in fact what God was already doing.  Like Marvin the tailor, his message wasn’t about himself, rather he pointed to the potential presence of God as he saw it in others.

John lived in a time in which the tyrants forced their heavy hand to keep the peace.  People lived in fear of authority.  Many labored daily with the burden of economic uncertainty.  People were worried about their financial obligations and the necessities of life. One’s goodness was measured purely by how well one followed the letter of the law, and that only increased the sense of individual anxiety.  Perhaps John’s time is a bit like our own.  Uncertainty and darkness abounded.  People were searching for answers, for solutions, for a savior.  They wondered if John might be the salvation they were waiting and looking for.

John was not the light, nor even the source of the light.  He was a witness to the light.  He pointed out the importance of light to others.  He never claimed greatness for himself.  He did not exult himself or try to live in the adulation of his own achievement.  Instead of taking advantage of the darkness to make people fearful and garner their support, he wanted them to know that the darkness around them was not of God’s choosing.  The author of John writes, “He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.  He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.  The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”  John the Baptist proclaimed that the time of God’s coming had arrived.  Into the darkness a light would shine.  Soon, all of the faithful would be able to see the road of life’s journey more clearly and view it from a true and proper perspective.

Defying the darkness seems to satisfy something in our soul.  Perhaps that is why we put up Christmas lights.  Perhaps it is more important than ever this year.  We mourn the loss of lives and the loss of our routine and tradition.  We are all just plain worried and tired, worn down or disappointed.  Our society struggles with issues of violence and hatred.  Many live with brokenness and want.  All around the darkness seems to press in upon us.  We all need more light.  And it is more important than ever to be a witness to the light.

I read this week that John the Baptist was perhaps the most effective non-Jesus in history.  That’s quite a statement!  He didn’t pass out tracts or tell others that he possessed the secret to their salvation.  John’s message was grow less so Jesus might increase.  John knew nothing other than to speak about his identity in connection to the identity of the one who was coming.  This Advent season, we are asked to claim our identity by witnessing to and reflecting the identity of Jesus ourselves.  In a time of falsehoods, we are to witness to truth.  In a time of anger, we are to witness to love.  In a time of uncertainty, we are to witness to hope.  In a time of fear, we are to witness to faith.  In those things we become a light which points to the light which guides our lives.

According to the book The Life of Francis d’Assisi, Francis once invited a young monk to join him on a trip to town to preach.  Honored to be given such an invitation, the monk readily accepted.  All day long he and Francis walked through the streets and alleys, even by the homes outside the city.  They rubbed shoulders with hundreds of people.  At the day’s end the two headed back for home.  Not once did St. Francis give a sermon or speak directly about a lesson from the gospel.  Greatly disappointed, the young companion said, “I thought we were going into town to preach.”  Francis responded, “My son, we have preached.  We were preaching while we were walking.  We were seen by many and our behavior was closely watched.  It is of no use to walk anywhere to preach- unless we preach everywhere we walk.”

Living in our troubled world, in the midst of these most difficult circumstances, surrounded by pandemic illness and isolation and choices, we can bear witness to the light to which John the Baptist witnessed.  We may not have answers but we can have hope.  God is already acting to bring something redemptive in our lives and in our world.  Put up your light.  Light your candle.  Pray with hope.  Point to the promise of God that is here and yet to come, the promise of light that will overcome any darkness.  Be a witness to the light.  Light will overcome this darkness.

The Beginning of Good News

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“The Beginning of Good News”

Rev. Art Ritter

December 6, 2020

 

Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

 

 

 

On the website of the American Book Review, editors have selected what they believe to be the 100 Best First Lines of Novels.  Here are a few of the selections:

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”  Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea.

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter.”  Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

            “Call me Ishmael.”  Herman Melville, Moby Dick

            “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”  George Orwell, 1984

            “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”  Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

            “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”  Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

 

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”  J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

I read of an interview with an Olympic champion swimmer.  She was asked to speak about the hardest part of her successful career.  She answered, “The beginning.”  The interviewer commented, “When you were younger and just learning how to swim competitively?”  The swimmer answered, “No.  The beginning of every single day when I have to get into the pool.  Just getting into the pool is the hardest part.  After that it is easy.”

The beginning is perhaps the most important part of any story.  I have heard some writers remark that they spend a great deal of their time struggling with the beginning of their stories because those early words set the scene and establish the framework of the story.  One author has written that it was the beginning of his tale, his first few sentences that inspired him to write the rest of the book.  It is said that some authors don’t actually write the early sentences of their manuscript until they have completed the rest of the book.

I know that the hardest part of each weekly sermon is the beginning.  I sometimes struggle with a good way to ease listeners into the meaning of the Scriptures, to grab your attention so that you will want to listen to everything that follows.  Donald Juel writes, “The function of story openings is to create expectations.  Engagement requires expectations and hunches.  The story may provide surprises, but even surprises depend upon a shared sense of what can be anticipated.”

The gospel of Mark starts like this, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  The author of Mark doesn’t waste any time.  He gets right to the point.  Gospel scholars recognize that Mark is known for its brevity.  The favorite word of the author is the word “immediately” which he uses repeatedly throughout the gospel narrative.   Compared to Matthew and Luke and John, Mark’s gospel is a Reader’s Digest condensed version- short and to the point.  The author of Mark leaves much up to the reader.  For example, the Easter story of Jesus is extremely short and allows the reader to decide for him or herself what to do with an empty tomb, no body, and no resurrected Jesus.

Mark starts the gospel with the line about beginning and then heads into the words of Isaiah from centuries earlier.

“See I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness; Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

And then Mark immediately introduces the character of John the Baptist, a man who wears camel’s hair, dines on locusts and wild honey, and offers a popular baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

There is no birth narrative of Jesus.  There is no Mary nor Joseph.  There are no angels or shepherds.  There are no wise men or stars.  There isn’t a crowded inn or a stable and there isn’t even a manger.  There is no genealogies and no epic song to God’s eternal word.  Rather than starting the story with a pregnant Mary or an apprehensive Joseph, Mark begins with a sentence about the good news of Jesus being born.

I have read that there is a great deal of scholarly debate about that very first sentence in the gospel of Mark, “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God.”  What does beginning mean and where does the beginning begin and the beginning end?  Are the verses that we heard today the entire “beginning?”  Is the story of John the Baptist the actual “beginning?”  Preacher and scholar Tom Long writes that he believes the “beginning” is nothing less than the complete gospel of Mark.  Whatever happened to Jesus from baptism to temptation to teachings and healings to crucifixion to resurrection is the beginning of a larger story, a more complete gospel message that the world will begin to hear through the words and actions of Christ’s believers.  All that Jesus did was just the start, the prelude.  And the story, that good news, continues this day even among us.

Scott Hoezee writes that when we hear the story of Jesus from the viewpoint of the gospel of Mark, it is like starting the story of the Three Bears by hearing the part about Goldilocks running out of the bears’ home in her pajamas.  That’s not the way we used to hearing it.  Heard in this way, we would really miss all of that stuff about porridge and chairs and the testing of comfortable beds.  It is hard to believe that this is the way Mark wanted to begin the story of good news- with a strange man wandering around the wilderness, screaming at us about our sins.  It doesn’t make sense that Mark describes a beginning that doesn’t seem like much of a beginning.

Yet Mark’s concise description of that beginning is a picture of God moving in an untamed place and in an uncertain time.  Just as God created the world amid darkness and void, God begins here with a cry of good news in the midst of the wilderness. And we can certainly relate to that.  It sure seems as if we live in the wilderness.  We yearn for that good news in our landscape of pandemic and conflict and anxiety and fear.  We search for something hopeful in the midst of despair and pain.  While we might prefer an easy escape in the songs of angels or the guiding of a bright, shiny star, Mark’s gospel tells of God’s promise of a beginning, of the potential for something new to happen in the very wilderness where we live.  Mark’s gospel has John the Baptist challenging us to then hit the road to make it happen.  It is not a story book happily ever after tale with a happy ending.  It is a tale of a beginning of honesty and truth and a call to change.  The wilderness God who makes a way where there is no way will dwell with us and walk our human steps and travel our human valley.  We have the task of living the story and telling the good news ourselves.

On a plaque that marks the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln near Hodgenville, Kentucky, this conversation is recorded.  “Any news down the village Ezra?”  “Well, Squire McLain’s gone to Washington to see Madison swore in and Ol’ Spellman tells me this Bonaparte fella has captured most of Spain.  What’s new out here, neighbor?”  “Nuthn’, nuthin’ a’tall, cept a baby born to Tom Lincoln’s.  Nothin ever happens out here.”

Mark’s gospel speaks the same kind of story.  Nothing happens here that appears to create much earthly splash.  The details of story aren’t remarkable.  It takes place in the middle of the wilderness, a place where extraordinary things aren’t especially likely.  Yet this is where it all begins.  This is the beginning of the good news.  Into that world the promise of God came.  Into our world comes that same beginning.  God is still with us, working through us, continuing the story of good news among us and in us and with us.  John the Baptist simply reminds us, “We are not yet what we have been called to me.”  This is only the beginning.  The story will continue.