My husband is a trial attorney, so when we sit down for dinner and chat about what’s happened during the day, I hear a lot about witnesses. Some witnesses are cooperative; others are reluctant. Some witnesses give testimony that is clear and convincing; others tell stories that are muddled and full of inconsistencies. Some people who claim to be witnesses turn out not to be. And some—well, there are some Marc just shakes his head over.
According to the dictionary, a witness is someone who has seen something happen, or who knows about something from personal observation or experience. There’s nothing in the definition about telling others what you’ve seen. If you see an accident, you’re a witness whether or not you ever appear in court. If you watch a UFO land in your backyard, you’re a witness whether or not you post it on Facebook or call Channel 11’s news team.
But when you’re a Christian, there’s more to being a witness than just seeing. For Christians, seeing and telling go hand in hand. And, we’re called to testify not only to what we’ve already seen, but also to things we haven’t seen yet but still know to be true—things we trust will happen in the future because God has promised that they will. We are called to be witnesses “now” while we wait for the “not yet.”
This is what we find today in our passages from Isaiah. It’s also what we find in today’s lectionary Gospel passages. One is from the first chapter of John. It says, in part, “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…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…Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me…’”
Later verses suggest that John didn’t yet know from personal experience who this coming one would be. But, John certainly knew the history of his people, and how God had acted in the past. And, there was that moment when the pregnant Mary greeted the pregnant Elizabeth, and Elizabeth exclaimed that, upon hearing Mary’s voice, her unborn baby John “leaped for joy in her womb.” John was poised in that time of now and not-yet, where he could see and tell of what God had done and what God would do.
We also have Mary’s joyous song in Luke, which we call the “Magnificat.” She sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Like John, Mary stands between what is and what will be. She is pregnant with the baby who is the Son of God, but she is so confident of all that he will do that she can proclaim it as an accomplished fact. She is a witness who sees and tells of what she is experiencing and what she knows to be true of the future promised by God.
And then, we have the words of the messenger in Second Isaiah—the one whom God has anointed for the task of proclaiming deliverance to a people who are just now learning that their long exile is nearing its end. God has anointed this messenger—chosen him—and because of that anointing, the Spirit of God has fallen upon him. He is filled with the Spirit’s power, enabling him to announce the good news of what is to come: freedom for the oppressed, liberty for the captive, release for the prisoner, comfort for all who mourn. They will rise up from what has oppressed and imprisoned and grieved them to celebrate and rebuild. Even the Lord participates in this announcement with the assurance that the covenant will be renewed and that all who see this newly-liberated people will know that they are people whom the Lord has blessed. A glorious future lies ahead.
The messenger who speaks of this future is a witness to what he has already personally experienced. He switches from speaking of the future to his present joy in what God has already done. “My whole being shall exult in my God,” he exclaims, “for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation and he has covered me with the robes of righteousness.” This is something he has personal knowledge of, and he rejoices in witnessing to this present reality even as he waits for the promised future.
The good news that Isaiah proclaims to his people is the same good news Jesus proclaimed to us. In the first public appearance of his ministry, according to Luke, Jesus quoted Isaiah’s words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Later, he will commission his disciples to carry this good news to the world: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth.”
We have been given the task of being witnesses—people who can speak of what we have personally experienced of God’s mercy and grace. Advent is a good time to think about how the good news of Jesus has made a difference in our lives and about how we can share it with others.
What does the present reality of that good news look like for us? At its foundation, of course, the good news is that God offered us an escape hatch from the exile of sinfulness that keeps us from a full relationship with God. Once we embrace the knowledge of God’s love for us—the love that comes to us on that highway through the desert that we talked about last week—the doors of all kinds of prisons swing open.
At our Advent study this week, we talked about one of those prisons. It’s made of the walls we erect around ourselves when we are afraid that no one, least of all God, could possibly love us if they knew everything about us. This is what the Advent study calls “almost love.” We carefully curate the parts of our lives we show others, so that all anyone sees is the happy us. One web site calls this being “Facebook happy”—putting on a good face because we’re afraid we’ll seem too needy or too broken if we’re honest about the struggles we deal with.
This is especially true when we’ve suffered a painful loss—loss of a loved one, loss of a job, loss of a friendship. We know that most people don’t want to hear us talk about our feelings of sadness, even though talking through it is exactly what we need to do.
So, we build a strong, decorative fence around ourselves and say that we’re doing fine. We even try to keep God out, because surely God will think us ungrateful or even unfaithful if we express anger or doubt or need. It feels safe inside those walls, but it’s also lonely. It’s a kind of exile that cuts us off from deep and authentic relationship with other people. It’s a prison that cuts us off from deep and authentic relationship with God.
But, through Isaiah, God promised freedom to the imprisoned, and Jesus fulfilled that promise. As we trust that God loves us in all our beauty and all our flaws, our hearts unfold and grace pours in. The prison walls begin to crumble. As we allow ourselves to experience God’s liberating love, we can offer our whole selves to God. And, just maybe, that trust and grace will overflow into our relationships with others. We want to share the joy of our release with others who are in prisons of their own making. We want to tell others of the love that has bound up our broken hearts and can bind up theirs as well.
When we tell others about what we have experienced in our own lives, we are witnessing to the power of God through Jesus Christ in the present. But we are also called to be witnesses to the future. This may not be acceptable in a court of law, but it is what the people around us need to hear.
We have been through some very dark days this year (some of you more than most), but the light is coming. I’m not talking about the vaccine, although that is certainly news to celebrate. I’m not talking about the possibilities of improved social relations or work on climate change. These are all good things, but they are small steps toward the future God has promised.
When Christ comes again, all things will be made new. As we read in Revelation, God will make a home among mortals and dwell with us, as God dwelt among us in the human form of Jesus. God will be with us, wiping every tear from our eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more. As Isaiah says, “the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all nations.” When we witness to the truth of this future, we are the heralds of good tidings for a hurting and broken world.
Advent is a time when we pay special attention to the fact that we, like John and Mary and the messenger in Isaiah, are witnesses to what God has done and to what God will do. We are witnesses to the promises of God fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and we are witnesses to the future promised when Christ returns. May God bless us as witnesses to the reality of God’s work in us now and as witnesses who wait for what is “not yet.” Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young