Bear Witness To The Light

John 1:1-18

The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / December 26, 2004


            The Gospel of John begins in a peculiar manner. The Gospel of John begins by talking about the second member of the Trinity, referring to Him as “the Word” and “the light” (1:1-5).


            The evangelist explains that “the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1). We are told that “through Him all things were made” (1:3) and that “in Him was life” (1:4).


            But, that’s not the peculiar part. What is peculiar is that in the midst of this profound discourse about the second member of the Trinity, the evangelist interrupts himself to talk about “a man sent from God whose name was John” (1:6).


            From a literary standpoint, one could delete verses 6 through 8 from the first 14 verses, and the passage would read seamlessly. So, why the interruption? Why the abrupt insertion of the reference to John the Baptist? Why not finish the discourse about the second member of the Trinity, and then introduce John?


            By writing the passage in this way, the evangelist is communicating to the reader from the outset that God’s way of making Christ known is through human witnesses. God’s way of introducing light to the darkness is through human agency.


            This view is buttressed by the manner in which the evangelist introduces John the Baptist. In the fourth gospel, John’s ministry of baptism takes a backseat to his ministry of testifying about Jesus the Christ. The emphasis is not on John ‘the Baptist’, but on John ‘the witness’. The evangelist, noting that John “was sent from God”, identifies John’s primary role by writing, “He came as a witness to testify concerning the light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light” (1:7, 8).


            It didn’t have to be this way. Surely, God had innumerable options available to Him when considering how to make the light of Christ known. He could have entrusted the task to His angels. He could have rearranged the stars above to spell the gospel message from the sky. He could have caused the trees of the forest to speak the message. But, instead, God chose to commission human beings to bear witness to the light. “There came a man sent from God, whose name was John” (1:6).


            Friends, was the need to testify concerning Christ necessary for John’s day only, or must we also bear witness to the light of Christ?


            Surely, the responsibility to bear witness to Jesus Christ also falls on us. The apostle Paul explains: “how can they believe in the one whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Rom. 10:14). Elsewhere, Paul commands Timothy: “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season” (2Tim. 4:2). And lest we imagine that this task lies with ordained preachers only, the apostle Peter exhorts every believer: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1Pet. 3:15).


            Just as Jesus Christ was heralded long ago by John the Baptist, so must He, today, be heralded by us who bear the name ‘Christian’.


            This is no secondary matter. This is not a ‘take it or leave it’ kind of thing. As I think about the many responsibilities of the Christian Church, I can think of no task more important than the task of proclaiming Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.


Have you ever wondered why God leaves us here on earth, with all of its pain, sorrow, and sin, after we become Christians?


Why doesn't God just zap us immediately into heaven and spare us from all of this hardship? After all, we can worship God most purely in heaven. We can enjoy Christian fellowship, we can sing, and we can understand God's Word perfectly when we are in heaven.


In fact, there are only two things you can't do in heaven that you can do on earth: sin and witness to unbelievers. Now which of these two things do you think God has left us here to do? Bearing witness to Christ must, therefore, be a priority for every Christian.


In other words, our faith in Christ is not entirely a private matter. Yes, there are certainly private aspects to our faith—we usually pray in private, we often study our Bible in private, and we typically give our gifts of money quietly, and discreetly.


There are, however, other aspects of the Christian faith that simply cannot be relegated to the private realm. ‘Bearing witness’ implies that you are speaking, at the very least, to one other person.  In the legal realm, of course, bearing witness refers to verbal testimony. For this reason, we cannot rightly say that we have witnessed for Christ if we have neglected to speak about Christ.


By way of illustration, consider what it would be like to be a beggar living among a multitude of beggars, always in need of food, and in constant danger of dying from starvation.


Now imagine one day, as a beggar, you meet a man on the street who is giving away free sandwiches and other food items. After obtaining food for yourself, you begin to suspect that your homeless friends may not be aware that there is an answer to their starvation. Would it not be cruel to conceal this discovery while your friends perish from lack of food? And how will they know how to find food unless you tell them?


In the same manner, if we have discovered the source of eternal life and if we conceal it from others, this must be regarded as equally cruel.

This is why the apostle Paul commands Timothy, "preach the word . . . in season and out of season"(2Tim.4:2). Notice the timing contained within that command: “in season and out of season”. As far as I can logically tell, one can only be in season or out of season. There are no other possible options. In other words, Paul is telling us to be ready to bear witness at any given moment.


The fact that the Bible commands us to “preach the word” should sufficiently motivate us; the fact that Jesus’ final instructions were to “Go and make disciples” (Mt. 28:19) should effectively prompt us to action, and yet, if further stimulus is required we need only to look at the current state of the Presbyterian Church.


In the Presbytery of West Toronto, alone, we are scheduled to close two congregations in 2005. The attendance trends for many West Toronto congregations—do I dare say, most West Toronto congregations—is downward.


I have heard the arguments justifying these trends—arguments pointing to the demographic changes in the community. I have heard the complaint that ‘not enough Presbyterians are moving into the neighbourhood’.


Beloved, Jesus did not call us to be ‘fishers of Presbyterians’; He did not even call us to be ‘fishers of people with an openness to orthodox theology’; He commanded us to be “fishers of men” (Mt. 4:19)—period. Are there human beings moving into our neighbourhood? Because, if there are, we have people to bear witness to, and we have hope for future growth.


John the Baptist managed to attract the multitudes while ministering in the desert. And because John bore faithful witness to the light of Christ, the fact that his context for ministry was an unbearably hot, and totally uncivilized, desert had no impact on his effectiveness.


            We do many things extremely well here at St. Giles Kingsway. Our music is of the highest caliber. Our Church School teachers are eminently gifted, and highly committed. Our committees are represented by intelligent, hard-working, Christian men and women. And yet, in spite of all of our strengths, if we fail in one regard our numbers are certain to diminish. If we do not bear witness to Jesus Christ in this community, it is only a matter of time before our growth is stunted.


            Even worse, if we fail to bear witness, if we fail to verbally testify to what Christ has done, we cease to be marked by one of the most essential qualities of a Christian Church.


            O, that we might have the boldness of John the Baptist who, when laying eyes on Jesus, said “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (1:29).


            Friends, we have laid eyes on Jesus; we have tasted the living water He provides—will we not share that water with others? We have searched the Scriptures and have been convinced by the evidence for Christ found therein—will we not share the evidence with our neighbour?


            I have only been an ordained minister for 7 years, but I have been to enough potluck dinners to appreciate the patterns accompanying such gatherings. I would now like to address those of you who have cooked for potluck dinners: I want you to think about the food items you have cooked for potluck dinners, and why you chose those particular dishes. You don’t cook, and bring, food that you dislike; but rather, you cook, and bring, a food item that you delight to eat. And your motivation in bringing a favourite food item is to allow others the opportunity of sharing in your delight for this dish.


            You could say that potluck dinners are really a gathering for ‘food evangelists’—a gathering for people who desire to share with others their affection for particular foods. And, what we need to note is that the sharing is motivated by delight. It is no hardship to share with others that which we delight in.


            And so should it be with sharing the gospel with others. Bearing witness to Jesus Christ should not be regarded as an onerous task. Testifying to Christ’s goodness should come from the natural overflow of our delight in Him.


            There is a sense in which a sermon on witnessing should hardly be necessary, since it should be the inevitable byproduct of loving Jesus. And yet, congregations are closing. The attendance in many congregations is dwindling. Has our love for Jesus Christ become cold? Has our delight in Jesus Christ become ordinary? Can we sing, with sincerity, the words of our hymn?


            Fairest Lord Jesus, Lord of all creation,

            Jesus, of God and Mary the Son;

            Thee will I cherish, Thee will I honour,

            O Thou my soul’s delight and crown.


If none can be fairer, if none can be purer, if none can shine brighter than Jesus Christ, then our response is singular: Bear Witness To The Light. Amen.