Bearing Witness: a sermon on John 1

by the Rev. Anna Doherty

In John’s gospel, John the Baptizer doesn’t actually baptize Jesus.

In John’s gospel, John the Baptist witnesses and testifies to who Jesus is.

In Greek, the words for witness and testimony share a common root, so in case you misunderstand what John the baptist is about in John’s gospel,

here’s how the second line of today’s gospel is literally translated:

“He came to bear witness to the bearing witness of the light.”

Witness and Testimony are virtually interchangeable in John’s gospel, and the call to be a witness to who Jesus is in the world…

is literally how the gospel begins.

Testifying to God’s presence in the world in Jesus Christ is what John the Baptist is about.

John the Baptist not only tell his own truth about who Jesus is…

John also shows us how we, as disciples of Jesus, also tell the truth about who Jesus is.

Now the idea of bearing witness or testifying to something often has negative connotations in our western American culture.

Either the concept of testifying calls to mind courtroom dramas, where a witnesses’ testimony serves either to punish or protect someone legally…

Our when we testify to something, it sounds like we’re trying to justify our actions, or to persuade someone to our own point of view, perhaps in a pushy or manipulative way.

We’ve seen enough politicians testify before panels, such that we begin to doubt what kind of truth or resolution the act of testifying actually brings into the world.

Here’s the thing about testimony.

When we testify or bear witness to what God is doing in the world, in order for it to be true testimony, it can only be our own truth.

What we, ourselves, as individuals know and have experienced about God.

Testimony that is platitudes about what we think we or others “should” believe about God…

Or trying to force our truths about God onto other people—that isn’t really testifying to the light.

At least not in the way that John the Baptist shows us.

In today’s gospel reading, the priests and Levites try multiple times to get John to tell a truth about God that is not his own.

“Who are you?” they ask.

“I am not the Messiah,” John answers.

While that is an extremely direct answer, the priests and Levites keep pushing John.

“Well then, are you Elijah?,” they ask.

They want John to admit to being someone or something he knows he is not.

“I am not.” John answers.

“Are you the prophet?”

“No.”

And when finally the priests and Levites push for John to say who he is, rather than who he is not, John answers by quoting Scripture:

“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’, as the prophet Isaiah said.”

Which says something profound about how reading and reflecting on Scripture can help us discover what our own truth about God is for us.

Interestingly enough, John’s repeated statements of “I am not” serve as a counterpoint to Jesus’ many “I am” statements about who Jesus is in John’s gospel.

By refusing to testify to a truth that is not his own, John actually says something true about who God is.

It’s not as if, if we bear witness faithfully to our own truth about God, we will undermine or undersell God.

As John shows us, that is not possible; honest witness might instead even open up for others deeper avenues for discerning who God is for them.

The truth is, so often, as people of faith, we are afraid to bear witness to our own truth about God’s presence in our world.

Sometimes we are afraid because we lack confidence in the “rightness” of our own testimony.

Who are we, after all, to tell the truth about God in our lives?

If we’ve sinned just like everybody else, how can we possibly possess any meaningful truth about God?

The thing about testimony is, if we are truly telling our own truth, we can’t get our own experience of God wrong in any way; it is real for us.

And telling our own truth bears witness to the light of God in the world.

It makes God’s presence shine a little brighter in a world that is so often dark and in need of Good News of God.

Or we are afraid to witness to the light because we are afraid of what other people will think of us, that we are overly emotional, or religiously deluded people.

John’s gospel shows us, from the very beginning, that the call of discipleship is the call of witnessing to who God is in the world.

If we are afraid to do that, we are holding back on who we truly are, as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Or, worse yet, we are afraid to tell our own truth because we don’t want to upset people, to rock the boat, to disrupt the status quo.

The sin of silence is a painful one.

I can’t tell you how many times I have held back a truth about God from my own experience,

simply because I knew it was something that another person didn’t want to hear, or that it might be hard for them to hear.

Times when I took the easy route, to my own shame.

When I stifled the light of God in the world, because I was too afraid to testify to it.

We are living in a time in history when people are witnessing to the reality of their lives.

Whatever you think of the politics of it, there is no denying that there is a movement of testimony happening right now, from Black Lives Matter to #MeToo.

Many editorial and scholarly pieces have been written about the cultural moment in which we find ourselves,

about whether or not it will result in lasting or productive social change.

One of the most helpful things I have read suggested that in order for social change to take root in a society…

we have to start being honest with ourselves and with other people.

To have those uncomfortable, sometimes awkward conversations, to speak our truths as we’ve experienced them and to listen carefully and openly to the truths of others.

And this is where I think the call to witness and to testify to the light of God in the world, becomes not just a call of discipleship…

…but an absolute necessity for the transformation of the world.

The light of God’s love cannot shine for other people if we do not testify or bear witness to it.

If we keep God’s light close to our chests or let it shine only for ourselves, when we become like a shuttered lantern…

where the light still burns, but it doesn’t illuminate anything.

The Good News of God needs to be shared—that it what makes it good news.

That’s why in John’s Gospel, the first mention of Jesus coming into the world is by mentioning the person who witnesses to that coming.

“There was a man send from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.”

or, put another way, “There was a woman sent from God, whose name was Janet. She came as a witness to the light so that all might believe through her.”

Or, there was a child sent from God, whose name was Bobby. He came as a witness to testify to the light so that all might believe through him.

Insert your own name into today’s gospel.

It’s not sacra religious to imagine such a thing—that is actually what today’s Gospel calls us to do and to be.

To testify to the light, as John the baptist does.

As we all are called to do, as disciples of Jesus Christ.