Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sent to be a Witness

A popular college application asks, “What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed?” How would you answer that question? These were some answers: The building of the pyramids, the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln at Gettysburg, D-Day WWII, the assassination of JFK, Woodstock, the first moon landing. One person said, ‘my parent’s wedding.’  I noticed that many said "a day in the life of Jesus Christ," and in particular his crucifixion and resurrection.

Jesus told his disciples in Acts 1:8, “You will be my witnesses.”  Now, the definition of a “credible witness” in a court of law is “someone who has personal, believable, first-hand knowledge of an event or who has told the whole truth.”  The reason I am a follower of Christ is that I find the testimony of the gospels to be believable, credible, accounts of what eye-witnesses heard and saw concerning him.  None of us were “eyewitnesses” of Jesus’ life, death, or resurrection.  But as followers of the King who are filled with his Holy Spirit, Jesus promises that we will bear witness to him. Jesus shows us what this looks like in Matthew 9:36-10:10.

From the beginning we must learn that witnesses share the heart of the King (Matt. 9: 36, 10: 5-6) When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.  Then he said to his disciples…. “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

In Matt. 9:36 we learn that because Jesus has a heart -- a heart of compassion for people; and because Jesus suffers for and with people, he sends us on a mission to them.  The word “compassion” translates a Greek word (splachna) meaning “to be moved from the gut.”  Listen! You can’t be a witness to Jesus until you are moved by the heart of Jesus.  Jesus had a gut-level compassion for the sick, for the grieving, for the lonely, for the hungry, for the rebel and the spiritually lost.  

Secular sociologist Rodney Stark has written a brilliant book, The Rise of Christianity, in which he describes how Christianity arose from a small group … to become the dominant force of the Roman Empire in a short time. He presents factors that would have contributed to this great movement towards Christ. One of these factors  was the two devastating epidemics in the second and third centuries. If those who were affected were cared for, there was a good chance they would survive. But often when a member of the family contracted the disease, the other family members left that person uncared for and left their homes for places not affected by the disease. The Christians, however, did not do this …. They cared for their own family members and also cared for those who were left behind by their family members. Stark points out that the willingness to suffer in order to care for the sick had a part to play in large numbers of people in the Roman Empire turning to Christ.  It was their compassion, that showed through and bore witness to the heart of Christ.

I want to emphasize that Jesus has compassion for the lost.  Jesus sent his disciples to the “lost sheep” and he told his most famous parable about the wayward son who returned home in repentance to his welcoming father who declared, “My son who was lost has been found.”  The Greek word apolwlota (apololota) does not mean “lost” in the sense of “strayed” or “missing” but lost in the final sense of “perished” or “dead."  When Jesus looked around him, he saw lost people, he saw “perished” people.  He saw people who were truly endangered…spiritually, suffocating under the weight of sin, wandering far from the grace and truth of God (Romans 3: 23).  One of the things that neutralizes our witness for Christ is the denial of our own lostness…that we are lost and in need of the King and his kingdom.

Two young college-age men, not members of this church, came to me in a single week to talk, and what they told me in so many words was:  “I’m lost.  I have done things that I regret.  I need help.”  My heart was moved by their stories as I listened; but I have to tell you…both of them were about the age I was when I was experiencing my own spiritual struggles, my own lostness…and so I was able to share with them not only the hope of Christ; but the hope that Christ brought to MY life and the truth that he came “to seek and save the lost.”   Friends, we have to pray for compassion… a heart that cares about the sick and the grieving and the lonely and the hungry and the rebel.  We have to pray for compassion for those who have lost their way and are running far from God.  But first we must come to understand that we are lost…that we are without hope accept in God’s sovereign mercy; that the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 6:23).  

Witnesses speak the words of the King (Matt. 10: 7)  As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’  A witness, as we said earlier, is someone who testifies to what he or she has seen, heard, or experienced.  Now there is no doubt, when we look at the ministry and the mission of Jesus and his disciples, that they used their words.   And they continued to use their words, even after Jesus was crucified.  If there was ever a time when Jesus’ followers should have kept quiet, it’s when he was put to death… and yet after the resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, they continued to speak with tremendous courage.  Historically, when Christians are under persecution, they speak up, they tell others, they spread the word!  Paul asks the Christians in Rome, “How are they to believe in one whom they have never heard?  And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?”  In 1 Peter 3:15 we read, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”

To speak out and share in our own words what Christ has done for us, to stand with him and speak for those things that advance his kingdom; this is one of the most critical things we can do as his followers.  Often this will be in the midst of ordinary events and circumstances….as we walk in relationship with others, listen carefully to others, and share our deepest convictions, thoughts, and feelings. Sometimes the call to bear witness to Jesus will come at the most unexpected moments, moments that we have to be ready for....

On the bus a few years ago, returning from the Hollywood Bowl, a couple who had been drinking too much began getting into a loud argument.  The wife continued to badger her husband who was standing up, and I could tell that it was about to get physical as she stood and began to grab him more forcefully.  Lisa and I and our two friends (a therapist, a pastor, and a social worker) were staring at each other, wondering what to do?  Then, without thinking, I found myself on my feet, taking hold of her hand, and asking.  “May I pray for you?”  I wasn’t sure what I was going to say, but then the words came out of my mouth:  “Lord I pray that you would bring peace into the heart of this woman, and her husband.”  She sat down and began to get quiet.  I soon discovered she was from Burbank, and that her children had attended the preschool where my dad had been pastor!  After we got out of the bus, they hugged me…though they were far from sober, or out of the woods. 

For many of us, being a witness in this way is difficult because we have not really thought through what, if anything, we would say about our experience with Christ.  A witness tells others what he or she has experienced and seen…not what someone else has experienced or seen.  In our church's Lifegroups we are preparing our testimonies.  The idea is to think about your life before knowing or really following Christ; then to think about how and when you came to be an apprentice and follower of Jesus; and how your life with Christ now is different because of him.  Remember these four things:  Keep it short / 3 minutes, since people tend to switch off after that. (2) Keep it personal without preaching.  Use “I” and “we,” not “you.”  (3) Keep it real. Share how Christ has helped you through times of failure, difficulty, doubt, or other personal challenge. (4) Keep Christ central.  They need to follow Him, not you!  

Finally, witnesses do the works of the King (Matt. 10: 8) Jesus said, Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.  You received without payment; give without payment.”  In other words, I want you to do the things that I do.  I want you to bring healing to the sick, life to the dead, bless those who are on the margins of society, confront evil in all its forms.  As you received the overflowing grace of God from me, so I want you to share it with open hands. 

Through our daughters, we have come to know a family whose young daughter was diagnosed with leukemia two years ago.  The news was devastating for the family, and incredibly stressful for the parents.  We felt that we should be praying for this family who were not part of any church community.  Of course, “Susan” knew that I was the pastor at St. John’s but Lisa and I both felt that there was more that we needed to do to be a witness to them.  Through it all, this little girl’s mother continued to talk about the excellent care she was getting at UCLA and in particular one compassionate and calming nurse that was her primary oncology nurse. You can imagine that you get to know your doctors and nurses pretty well through an experience like this…and at one point their daughter’s primary nurse mentioned that she went to St. John’s and was talking about our youth group.  It was "Dianna" -- an oncology nurse in our own congregation! That day, “Susan” called up Lisa and said, “I found out that our favorite nurse is a member of your church!”  She went on to talk about how gentle and compassionate and professional she was with her daughter.   I have to tell you that it seemed to us to be an incredible answer to prayer.  Here was a family that we cared about very much… a family who knew that we were praying for them, but who had been keeping a safe distance from the church.  Dianna’s care of Susan's daughter was a kingdom advancing act…one that demonstrated, in a tangible way, the King’s love for this family. Jesus said, “let your light so shine that others may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven.” Because of Dianna’s faithful work as a nurse who loves the King, and our friendship…they are experiencing the light, the compassion, the truth, and the goodness of the King and his kingdom.

So, the question we began with was, “What historical moment or event do you wish you could witness?”    If you had asked Jesus’ disciples that just before his ascension they would have said, “We would like to see the golden age of Israel again when she was in her glory.  Lord can we?  Can we see that in our time (Acts 1:6)?”  Jesus’ response was “It’s not for you to know the times or seasons which the Father has established…but you will receive power and you will be my witnesses.”  In other words, you’re not going to dwell on the past…you’re going to witness history in the making…right now.  And they did.

So let’s go out there and make history…let’s pray that this week is a week in which Jesus himself makes an appearance on this earth through our Christ-honoring words and works.  That as we share his heart, speak his words, and do his works…someone who is sick is healed, someone who is grieving is comforted, someone who is lonely is loved, someone who is hungry is given bread, someone who is lost and running from God finds hope and eternal life.  Let’s go do what Jesus’ people do, let’s do the job we’ve been called to do…let’s go make history…as his witnesses…and to God be the glory.  Amen!

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