A couple of months ago, a man that we knew and admired died, so yesterday, Dave and I went to a celebration of his life. John was a well-loved man, so the room was full. A program was planned with music and eulogies. There were numerous people who shared reflections about this man who had touched their lives in a profound way. One of his friends said, “I will miss his presence and I will miss his friendship, but I won’t miss his spirit, because it will live on in me. I will choose to carry his spirit forward by the way I live.” It was a celebration of John’s life, just as his family had planned. And key to the celebration was that his friends and family gave testimony to his life. In the tributes they shared, they gave witness to John’s life.
Now if you are a lawyer, or if you work in law enforcement, these words, “testimony” or “witness,” might be a regular part of your vocabulary. But if not, they might sound like legal or even theological terms that don’t necessarily connect with how you live your days. Since I’m in the practice of making ‘churchy’ words more accessible, my ears perk up when I hear them used in a different way.
Some years ago, Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon starred in a movie called, “Shall We Dance?” The movie didn’t get rave reviews, but it left an impression on me. It was a romantic comedy about a middle-aged couple that had been married a couple of decades, and although things were going well for them, they were in a rut. He got bored, so he secretly took up ballroom dance lessons. She got suspicious, and she hired a private detective. In rom-com fashion, their marriage was on the rocks. At the climax of the movie, Susan Sarandon’s character speaks to Richard Gere’s about marriage: “We need a witness to our lives,” she says. “There’s a billion people on the planet… what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things… You’re saying ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go un-witnessed because I will be your witness.’”
I wonder whose life you are noticing now. Whether it’s in marriage or other significant relationships, we are, indeed, witnesses to each other’s lives. And sometimes we are moved to bear witness to the life of another – to tell of that life – with our words or with our actions.
Our reading today tells us that one day, Jesus went out to the wilderness of Judea in search of John the Baptist. Word about John had gotten out, and crowds of people left their homes to go out and see him. Like a skilled politician, John had a magnetic personality, and he spoke a word conviction and invitation about the future in a way that touched people. “Turn away from the things that separate you from God,” he said, “and let your life bear fruit…”
John was an unconventional man, unkempt but persuasive. His clothes were made of camel hair, and he ate simple, organic food, like locusts and wild honey. People came out to see him because he spoke of things that mattered. He had a vision.
Jesus came out to see him, too, and to be baptized by him. But when John recognized Jesus, he said, “No. I should be baptized by you. You are the leader we’ve been waiting for. You are the one I’ve been telling people was about to come.”
John was not the first to speak about Jesus. Before Jesus was even born, an angel had told his father Joseph that the child would save the people from their sins. Wise men from the east also spoke of him to Herod and asked where the new king was to be born. Now, some three decades later, for the first time, Jesus opens his mouth and speaks: “This is what needs to be done,” he tells John. “We need to do it together. It takes two of us.”
Like a servant who stoops down to wash the feet of his disciples, Jesus bends down and has John baptize him. Jesus won’t be a king who shows his power through strength. He won’t be a leader who pushes others aside. He’ll be a servant king who shows strength in weakness.
The baptism happens quickly, almost unremarkably. But as he comes out of the water, soaking wet, he sees the Spirit of God coming to rest on him. A voice from heaven says for all to hear, “This is my beloved, my son, my child.” And with the pride of a parent, the voice says, “I’m so pleased.”
This morning, two little boys will be baptized. The baptisms will happen quickly, almost unremarkably. But as they are doused with water, we’ll name the promise that they are beloved children of God, and with them, God is pleased. We’ll name the reality of sin and of all the things that separate us from God. And we’ll claim that forgiveness is theirs in Jesus. We’ll welcome them to the family of God, to the community of Christ.
There was another gathering of grieving people yesterday in West Des Moines, Iowa. At a church called Hope, there was a rite of Christian burial for a man named Ken. Ken was just 63, he was a journalist, and he was diagnosed with a serious illness a year ago. Ken decided to write his own obituary, and it was unique enough that it made the rounds on social media. The obituary was long. It was self-deprecating and funny. It was gracious and honest. Among other things, the obituary said:
…For most of his life, Ken suffered from a compulsive gambling addiction that nearly destroyed him. But his church friends, and the loving people at Gamblers Anonymous, never gave up on him. Ken last placed a bet on Sept. 5, 2009. He died clean. He hopes that anyone who needs help will seek it, which is hard, and accept it, which is even harder. Miracles abound. Ken’s pastor says God can work miracles for you and through you. Skepticism may be cool, and for too many years Ken embraced it, but it was faith in Jesus Christ that transformed his life. That was the one thing he never regretted. (His faith in Jesus) changed everything….*
Friends in Christ, I don’t know what your inner struggles are. I don’t know what addictions might hold you captive, or what fears might keep you from living fully the life that God intended. But I know this: God came in Jesus to live as one of us. To be fully human, to take on flesh and to know all that it means to be human, even as he was God. God continues to come to you, knowing all about you and loving you as you are – saying to you, too: “You are my beloved. With you, I am well pleased.”
That changes everything.
But that’s not all. God calls you to something more. Pastor Greg Meyer used to say, “God loves you too much to leave you where you are.” God calls you to turn away from the things that impede life, the things that thwart your own thriving and the prospering of others. God calls you to bear witness to the love of God revealed in Jesus. God calls you to let your light shine.
This morning when we baptize Tristen and Owen, we will bear witness to Jesus, the one who heals the sick and raises the dead, the one who brings good news to the poor. In baptism, we bear witness to another way in the world. In baptism, we claim there’s an alternative to the voices that say, “might makes right,” or “an eye for an eye,” or “me first.”
As baptized Christians, we get sent into the places where we live and work and go to school to bear witness to Jesus, the one who forgives, the one who does not seek retaliation, the suffering servant-king whose strength is found in his weakness.
We don’t do it perfectly. And so we come back to our baptisms again and again to remember. To turn from the things that separate us from God and to walk in newness of life.
Nor do we do it alone. In his obituary, Ken (the journalist) speaks of Gamblers Anonymous and his church friends, and the important role they played by strengthening and encouraging him, walking alongside him. The implied subject of his sentences is “we”, not “I”. Jesus said to John, “We need to do this…” And “we” are a community, a fellowship of Christ.
Community is an important part of living out our faith. We come together to worship, to serve, to do things like hosting Families Moving Forward these past three weeks. We come together to remind one another of who we are:
beloved children of God.
And we strengthen and encourage one another to bear witness to Jesus, to his life and ministry, his death and resurrection, and to his identity – in our words, and most importantly, in the way we live. It’s not easy in these days of deep division. But Jesus shows us the way.
Beloved children of God, you are his. You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. So let your light so shine before others that they might see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven. That’s how we bear witness to the One who was and is and is yet to be.