Manuscript of “The Witness of a Bonfire” Luke 24:36b-48
Delivered to Church for the Highlands
Sunday, April 19, 2015
I remember the moment very well. I was walking in downtown Nacogdoches, TX and passed by a building I had not noticed before. It had a sign out front with the name that indicated it was some type of social service helping people in need. At that time, I was a member of a campus political group, out walking the neighborhoods to register voters, something of great interest to me as a Political Science/History major and as someone wanting to go into a life of politics. At this time of my life, I was also beginning to struggle with God about the direction of my life. What you should also know is that I experienced a call to ministry when I was thirteen years old, one I had not forgotten but had put on the back burner of my life, not knowing what to do with it in my teen and college years. My interest in law and politics had become my passion in those years and were very much on my front burner. A change in priorities was coming, though, as I looked at that sign. It was one of those moments when I could feel a dramatic shift in heat as God started moving things around on the stove (I guess I must have been hungry when I wrote this sermon) of my life. The rapid boil of law and politics would change to a simmer while the stagnant surface of my call to ministry would increase with intensity to a simmer and then to a boil. God had put heat where God wanted it the most in my life. In that moment while looking at the sign, God stirred in me a passion for compassion, giving me a vision of serving people in need, sharing the love of Jesus rather than my political dogma with the world around me, and being a witness of what I knew about Jesus and the kingdom he entered our world to expand. I still wasn’t quite sure how to be that witness, but one thing I knew: God had called me to be one.
Excited but unsure. I imagine that’s how the disciples must have felt as they heard Jesus call them to be witnesses of and for him in their world, “You are witnesses of these things.” They too had been called to ministry by Jesus, they had walked with him for several years, had witnessed his actions of love and his concern for liberating the world of sin and injustice, and, most recently, had seen him in death. And now they were seeing him alive, standing in their midst, and joining them for a meal. Jesus wanted them to see that he was real. That was important for them in order to understand what was next for them as his followers. Jesus reviewed for them how the recent events of his death and his resurrection happened just as had been written in the law and spoken by the prophets. They were now to be witnesses of all of this in Jerusalem and to all nations.
I’m sure they were on the edge of their seats just like they were every time before when Jesus spoke and taught. He usually made his point by telling stories or by using a seed or a bird as an illustration. This time, though, Jesus moved quickly to the point of application. They were to get beyond the four walls of the room they were in and into the streets of Jerusalem. What a challenge this would be for them as they feared for their own lives, as the brutality of Jesus’s death was still on their minds. “Go out there? Jesus, don’t you mean ‘stay in here until things die down’ or ‘get out of here and go out where it will be safer to be a witness’?” Wouldn’t you and I have said something like that, trying to reason with Jesus after realizing the cost of becoming a witness. The Roman officials in Jerusalem as well as their High Priest would surely stamp out any testimonies about seeing Jesus and who knows what would happen to them if they left town and started sharing the message with people not like them. Jesus didn’t deny that there would be opposition. He just said go.
That’s where we find ourselves today as followers of Jesus, right there with the same call he gave to them. What does that look like for us? Just how is it that we are to be witnesses right here in our own Jerusalem? That is something I have asked myself throughout my years as a Christian, which encompasses most of my life. I have heard the term more times than I can count, taken evangelism training classes, served as a counselor at a Billy Graham crusade, gone door-to-door in neighborhoods, been on mission trips, passed out evangelistic tracts in parks, and preached as a witness for the last twenty something years. I guess the reason I continue to ask this question is that I am not sure if I am being a very good one. In all of those activities, I wonder if I’m actually bearing witness to a risen Savior. In my words and efforts, are people really getting the Good News of Jesus? Or, are they hearing about my church, doctrine, religion?
As followers of Jesus, we all have testimonies of how we have turned (and continue to need to turn) from our sinful ways and discovered the forgiveness of our sins by God. Thankfully, someone was a witness of these things to us somewhere along the way. It may have been a parent, a Sunday School teacher, a VBS worker, a friend at school, or a preacher, but God used someone to share the message of Jesus with you. And so now you are called to be that witness of Jesus for someone else. Who is it around you that needs to hear about Jesus?
What I have discovered thus far is that our words are great, but they aren’t everything. We need a plan of action. I have learned that it is best to keep things simple when it comes to being a witness. Simple means practical. I like how Jesus’s brother, James, understood the need for practicality and how he puts it in his writing,
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
Being a witness means that we find practical expressions in our own culture and time for the good news of repentance and the forgiveness of sins. There are ample opportunities we have around us now to call for repentance when we see poverty, discrimination, crime, violence, human trafficking, racism, greed, and indifference here in our community and in this state. I’m thinking our most effective witness here involves using our experiences, gifts, and resources to make a difference in these areas
We do this witnessing with our words, but we must also do it with our actions. Our best witness will be when we are doing both together; when our family, friends, co-workers and neighbors get a consistent message from us. If, for instance, we say that we believe in resurrection, we ought to live as though we do rather than living like there is no tomorrow. If we say we love our neighbor, it should be visible in how we treat her, him, or them. If we claim God’s forgiveness in our own lives and yet have not forgiven a brother or sister, are we really bearing witness to grace? If we say that the good news of Jesus is for all people but our actions and policies make qualifications about who it is not for, then what kind of a witness for all peoples have we become? If we proclaim the need for repentance in our world today, then we must be the greatest examples of what that looks like. If we invite other people to follow Jesus, we must do so as those who are in his footsteps.
The quote in your bulletin today from Shakespeare’s Henry VI illustrates this whole idea of being a witness,
And feast and banquet in the open streets
To celebrate the joy that God hath given us.”
Make bonfires. That’s what a witness does. I saw one in the open streets of Nacogdoches. You’ve seen one on your pathway as well. Now its time start some of our own.
“You are witnesses of these things.”