Difficult Witness

Today’s scripture readings:
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Sermon audio unavailable

Last week’s gospel reading from the Gospel of Mark introduced us to John the Baptist, a prophet in the wilderness who wore camel’s hair, ate locusts and wild honey, and called for repentance. He baptized the people who came to him in droves confessing their sins and announced that one greater than him was coming.

Today’s Gospel reading paints another picture of John—a different picture of John than most of us are accustomed to—not of some wacky prophet in the wilderness, an angry preacher whose primary ministry is a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Today’s Gospel reading depicts John as a witness, as one who testifies to the light. The Gospel writer takes great pains to help us understand John’s identity: “There was a man sent from God whose name was John, who came as a witness to testify to the light.” Then the gospel writer underscores that point: “He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” “Let’s be very clear,” the gospel writer wants to say, “this man John is not the one you’ve been waiting for. But his witness will point you to the one who is to be your light and salvation.” One famous painting of John the Baptist shows him with arm outstretched, pointing to Jesus on the cross. This image captures well the John we meet in today’s Gospel reading: not so much John “the Baptist” crying out for repentance in the wilderness, but John “the Witness” who sees the truth and takes it upon himself to help us see it, too.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that word, “witness.” A witness is someone who tells the truth about what they have seen, heard, or experienced. In our modern society we usually associate the word “witness” with legal proceedings. And actually, that’s the tone of today’s Gospel lesson. It reads like an interrogation, a scene in a courtroom drama. As the Gospel of John begins, the religious authorities have been dispatched to the wilderness to ask John a barrage of questions. These authorities’ repeated questioning creates a sense that John—and by extension, Jesus—are already on trial, and that John’s witness is evidence. Those of us who know the whole story know that this trial won’t end well for Jesus. And it won’t end well for John the Witness, either, whose testimony reveals a truth the religious authorities don’t want to hear. John will end up being beheaded in prison.

Witnesses are people who tell us the truth about their experience. It’s not always easy or safe. Sometimes being a witness is an act of courage. Sometimes telling the truth disrupts people’s lives and causes discomfort. It’s not a coincidence that the Greek word that we translate as “witness” is “martyria”—the same word from which we get our English word “martyr.” Being a witness can be dangerous, even pose a threat to one’s life. Here in the United States we have a witness protection program for people whose testimony in court puts their lives at risk—a program that provides witnesses with brand new identities and careers and everything a person needs to be invisible to those who would try to destroy them. There are powerful forces at work in the world that seek to prevent some truths from being exposed, that seek to silence or eliminate witnesses who pull back the curtain and shine a light on what’s real.

This week I exchanged some messages about this with a friend of mine, a Latina woman and devout Catholic living in East Los Angeles. “Have you ever noticed,” she wrote, “that you don’t really know how bad your roach problem is until you walk into a dark room and turn on the lights? Then you see all the roaches scurrying to hide from the light that exposes them. I’m not comparing people to roaches,” she said. “I’m comparing negative, destructive attitudes and practices to roaches hiding in the dark. It is when the light comes on that you realize you have a problem. And you won’t be popular for exposing the problem; it’s embarrassing.”

Ignorance is bliss. Our roaches are embarrassing and disgusting. There are some who would prefer to stay in the darkness rather than allow light to unveil the roaches lurking in the shadows. But the world needs witnesses who flip on the lights and reveal the truth.

Today, witnesses abound.

In the wake of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, people of color have been speaking out, witnessing to the truth of their own experience. “Our lives aren’t valued in our society,” they say. “Black lives matter” has become the rallying cry for a segment of the population who experience a devaluing of their existence at every turn. Their witness tells us that this isn’t just about law enforcement or the criminal justice system. This is a deeper, more insidious problem that poisons our entire society. At a clergy meeting a couple weeks ago an African American pastor from right here in St. Paul described being pulled over seven times for no discernible reason since moving here several years ago. Another African American pastor spoke about her son’s struggles in school. “I’m doing everything I can at home,” she said, “but it seems like his teacher and the school have already given up on him, as though his fate is sealed.” Witnesses like these turn on the lights to reveal racism around us. We might feel our skin crawl at the revelations.

Rather than coming to terms with the truths they reveal, some have looked for ways to discredit their testimony. “These things don’t just happen,” some say. “He must have done something wrong.” “We don’t know the whole story.” “He needs to try harder.” “He should make better choices.” Responses like these show that we’d prefer to keep the lights off so we don’t have to deal with the roaches.

Other witnesses this week revealed the truth about our country’s interrogation methods at a top-secret facility hidden deep in the desert of Afghanistan. Those who were no longer willing to be complicit in these atrocities describe in great detail practices too gruesome to mention in a sermon. Many of the responses to the report’s release have once again reflected an unwillingness to come to terms with the truth of the witnesses’ testimony: “This was a politically motivated, partisan report,” some have said. “The committee didn’t interview the right people.” “The release of this report will incite violence and jeopardize Americans’ lives overseas.” “This was the only way to get the intelligence we needed.” There was, however, one prominent Senator, himself a victim of torture while a military prisoner in Vietnam, who recognized exactly what was going on: “The truth is a hard pill to swallow,” he said. “This question is… about us. It’s about who we were, who we are, and who we aspire to be.”

At the end of the day, witnesses are called to reveal the truth even when the truth is a hard pill to swallow, so the rest of us can come to terms with reality. Those who witness to the truth, whose testimony pulls back the curtain and shows us what’s actually going on, are doing us a great service, even as they discomfort us, provoke us, or even anger us. Another friend of mine reminded me this week that the first step in any 12-step program is to acknowledge the truth about one’s brokenness, for it’s only in accepting that we have a problem that we can begin to deal with it. Witnesses are people who can stage an intervention, who can hold a mirror up to our faces and say, “This has got to stop.” It’s only when we have come to terms with the reality of our brokenness that we can become who we aspire to be—who God has called us to be.

The good news is that Jesus is also a witness. Jesus is a witness who tells the truth about God’s love, God’s grace, God’s mercy. On the cross, Jesus pulls back the curtain and reveals in stunning fashion the ultimate truth: that God so desperately longs to be in relationship with us that God will endure the worst we humans have to offer. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection testify that there is nothing we can do to escape God’s love. We may stubbornly perpetuate the lies the world tries to tell us about ourselves and about those who are different from us. We may mistreat our neighbors and push God away, even send God to the cross to die. And the good news—the truth to which Jesus is a witness—is that God’s love is relentless and inescapable. And that love has the power to transform us from the inside out, to create new opportunities for life together, with one another and with God.

Later in the Gospel of John, Jesus will tell his disciples, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” May it be so. Amen.

Resources consulted:

David L. Bartlett, “John 1:6-8, 19-28: Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008).

Gary Charles, “John 1:6-8, 19-28: Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008).

Gail R. O’Day and Susan E. Hylen, John, in The Westminster Bible Companion series, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006).

Marcia Y. Riggs, “John 1:6-8, 19-28: Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008).

Victoria Weinstein, The Intellectual Condescension of White Liberals, accessed December 13, http://www.peacebang.com/2014/12/04/the-intellectual-condescension-of-white-liberals/.

Lamar Williamson, Jr., Preaching the Gospel of John (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004).

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