Can I get a Witness?
In 1963 Marvin Gaye wrote a song using a line Southern Gospel preachers use when they want the congregation to affirm their point. "Can I get a witness?" is a fitting title for the Sunday focusing on John the Baptist. Four times in the first three verses our text speaks of John the witness or witnessing. Literally, "He came for a witness to witness.He came only as a witness. This John was witnessing." So can I get a witness?
Can I get a witness for the prosecution? Yes, John himself will take the stand. There is enough in his witness for everyone to believe the Light. The text says, "He came as a witness that he should witness concerning the light so that through him all men might believe." Get that? Just in what John says, "There's the Lamb that takes away the sin of the world; there's the light of every man coming into the world;" is enough that all, not some, not most but all might believe. Yet, here we sit in darkness. Here we sit with Elvis and our Blue Christmas. Here we are with the Carpenters wishing for someone or thing that's not here.
Jesus says the light of the body is the eye and if your eye is dark how great is your darkness. When everything is darkness, when we expect things only to get darker, when the only thing darker than our eye is our thoughts, we can't be seeing the Light of the world. We're guilty as charged of believing that darkness has overcome the Light. We're denying spiritually a physical truth: that light scatters darkness.
Can I get a witness? I sure can; John isn't done. John tells us that the Light stands among us as One we do not know. How can that be? Apparently pretty easy. Jesus stands in our midst no less really, no less tangibly than in John's day, but we refuse to see Him, use Him, rejoice in Him. You can see what happened in Jesus' earthly ministry when someone knew He was in their midst. Blind Bartimaeus goes crazy praying for mercy; the demons run to Him and fall on the ground; Mary Magdalene grabs on to Jesus as if her life depends on it.
Guilty as charged. When's the last time you ran to Jesus in Baptismal water? When's the last time you recognized it was the voice of Jesus forgiving your sins when the pastor spoke? When's the last time you knew you were bowing before Jesus present in Communion rather than just going through the motions?
Can I get a witness? Why bother? John has already convicted us. Not firmly enough. John, the one Jesus says was greatest among those born of women, says he wasn't worthy to untie Jesus' sandals. We, however, think we're worthy to get a Merry Christmas, a White Christmas, or any other Christmas we want. We're convicted not only by John's words but our own Catechism. There we say, "We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved themfor we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment."
Guilty as charged. We think we have a right to be as joyless and dark this Christmas as the girl who doesn't get a hippopotamus, as the Grinch who stole it, as the Scrooge who humbugs it. When Jesus doesn't do exactly what we want when we want it, we conclude He let us down rather than realize the truth that being unworthy we had no right to ask let alone expect Him to do anything.
Can I get a witness? I better get one quick for the defense. This is Jesus. Jesus is the Light coming into this dark world. Jesus didn't glow, except at His Transfiguration, but that's the picture you can have. Mary gives birth to Jesus and the stable glows; light emanates from the manger. Where Jesus treads faint glowing footprints are left behind.
How's this a witness for the defense? Because Jesus the Light of the world was snuffed out for the world's sake. Being pure light, He took on our darkness, and then gave Himself up to darkness. When giving Himself up in Gethsemane Jesus says, "This is the hour of the power of darkness." The great darkness that you know is in you, that you know will carry you away, and has carried you away before carried away Jesus in your place. "Take Me instead," says Jesus, and darkness did, but darkness couldn't put out the Light of the world. Once it exacted the price, the punishment, the pain for every dark deed you ever did or thought, it could no more keep the Light from shining then darkness does Christmas lights.
Not guilty. That's what the divine verdict is. God can't hold you guilty for the dark deed of not believing in the Light when the Light of the world paid the price for your unbelief. The Light of the World rose on Easter calling everyone in darkness out into His marvelous light.
Can I get a witness? You sure can. True enough, Jesus stands among us and we walk on by. Walk on by our Baptism as if it means nothing now; walk on by Absolution as if in the mouth of a man couldn't be the voice of God; walk on by Communion as if it was nothing but bread and wine. But Jesus knows us; Jesus recognizes us; Jesus claims us. In order to safeguard babies some hospitals have wrist bands that play music. Only when the baby gets close to the mother does the wrist band play. It won't play for another. The baby does nothing. Doesn't realize what's happening.
Not guilty. Though you don't recognize what the playing of the wrist band means, though you don't know what the sound of baptismal waters means, though you can't hear the voice of God in the words of a man, though you can't see anything but bread and wine, God does. With every drop of baptismal water, God asserts you're mine for Jesus' sake. With every syllable of absolution, God asserts I forgive you your sins for Jesus' sake. With every crumb of Bread and every drop of Wine, Jesus says My Body and Blood are here to take you home.
Can I get a witness? The standard response to this is Amen!" Or as we would say in our Catechism, "This is most certainly true." It ever remains true that the prosecution is right. We are always convicted by the Law of not seeing the light, not knowing the Savior among us, of thinking we're worthy of God doing whatever we think He should. We're ever convicted by the law that we belong with the characters of the secular holiday stories that are without hope, light, or joy. We stand with Shrek who finds no joy in holiday visitors. We stand with Scrooge who sees no light in Christmas. We stand with Grinch who thinks Christmas joy comes only from things.
So when you're convicted of being blind to the Light, of not recognizing Jesus in your midst, of feeling you have a right to be disappointed with God, say Amen' to that witness, but don't stop there. The Law not only remains most certainly true, but so does the Gospel. The witness for the defense ever remains true as well. Defended by Jesus we stand with the real people of the real Christmas Gospel.
We stand with the shepherds in that cold, dark field when all of a sudden the night explodes with light and we hear, "Fear not for I bring you tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. Your Savior has been born." Though we've missed the light a thousand times, not recognized the Savior where He has promised to meet us, and had a sense of entitlement rather than humility, we need not fear. Jesus doesn't come into this world to make people afraid but to remove fears.
The Gospel ever testifies that no matter how unwise, stupid even, you have been you can go over there and stand with the wise men. They lost the light that was to show them where their King, and God, and Sacrifice was among them. They get to the point of despair, but suddenly the star is there again and they rejoiced a great joy exceedingly. The Gospel says you can stand with them. Jesus has paid for your place with them by His blood, sweat, and tears. By His wise life and His holy death Jesus purchased you a place in the caravan of the wise men this Christmas.
You can say "This is most certainly true," not only to the Law but to the Gospel. And that means you can stand with the real people of the Christmas story not just shepherds, not just wise men, but with John. John saw the light even in a dark foreboding wilderness. If you read ahead in John 1, you'll see that Baptism made it possible for him to recognize the Light that was among them. You've been baptized, you been brought out of darkness into the wonderful light. Don't un-see the grace, mercy, and peace that are guaranteed you in Jesus' name.
Go over there and stand with John and say, "This is most certainly true" to the witness of the Gospel. While John was only 6 months old in his mother, Jesus knew him there. Psalm 139 says the same about you. You were hand knit by God in your mother's womb. How well a person knows something they personally knit. How precious it is to them. That's you and John. Not only was John known by Jesus in his mother's womb, he jumped for joy there says Scripture. Maybe some of us did there too, but I know every single one of us can here. For what caused John to leap for joy was being filled by the Holy Spirit. That same Spirit was poured on you in Baptism; put in your ears in Absolution, and is eaten and drank in Communion. It's a wonder that we don't all leap for joy coming back from Communion.
Maybe we can't or shouldn't do that in here, but we can out there. Perhaps it would help if the chorus "Can I get a witness" would get stuck in our heads the way songs do. Not the 1963 original but the chorus that Grand Funk Railroad incorporated in their 1974 tune "Some Kind of Wonderful." Don't have it stuck there as an unending question, but as a reminder that you have a witness in John and ultimately he witnesses to the joy that is yours in Jesus. That's why the candle for this Third Sunday in Advent has lightened from purple to pink. It's a reminder that even in a Season of Repentance there is a time even for sinners to "lighten up." Can I get a witness? Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Third Sunday in Advent (20141214); John 1: 6-8; 19-28