Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

Reclaiming "Evangelism" and "Testimony"

Message preached December 9, 2012
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Luke 1:68-79

Order of Worship

listen to this in mp3 format
(left out a few paragraphs due to time)

Last week I started a series of sermons for this Advent season in which I am attempting to “reclaim” certain words of faith that we have, perhaps, lost somewhere along the way. Let me repeat, though, by saying “reclaim” I am not envisioning myself as a soldier fighting to win back some strategic location, to “reclaim” it for “our side.”  Instead, I am picturing something more appropriate for this time of year when loved ones seek to make their way home. From this perspective, to “reclaim” is to welcome back someone who is like “family,” to open the door with hugs and warmth, and thus enfold someone who has been distant back into our hearth and home.

I began this “reclamation” project seven days ago by welcoming home two words, “prophecy” and “repentance.” These terms have had either fairly negative or somewhat strange press lately. I sought to see them from the larger perspective of God’s Word. I’m not sure how well I welcomed them home, however. One of the struggles of preaching is that you never feel like you’ve said all that should be said.

By the way, for those of you who wonder what on earth you’d say to fill up the time if you were a preacher, the problem is exactly the reverse. Early on, as I was vaguely sensing a call to the pastoral ministry, the idea of standing in front of people and talking was a frightening prospect for me. I grew up with what seemed to be long-winded preachers. They talked and talked and talked! Surely I didn’t have that much to say.

The truth is, however, that the art of preaching is not so much in what you choose to include, but in what you decide to omit. Some of you like it when I leave the pulpit and my notes and speak extemporaneously, in what Chuck Tipton (I hope affectionately!) once called an “amble and ramble” style. One thing I’ve discovered is that when I run through in my head beforehand what I plan to say, it’s always much longer than what it actually turns out being. In fact, when I stand to preach without a manuscript (unlike today) I usually pray that God would help me to remember what needs to be remembered, and forget what should be forgotten. And, you know what? That prayer is answered, for better or worse.

Of course, God has yet to completely shut my mouth. It’s bound to happen some day, don’t you think? Perhaps some wish it would come sooner than later, right? … This makes me think of dear, old Zechariah, the dad of John the Baptist. We heard the dramatized, paraphrased, slightly abridged version of his story leading up to the gospel reading for this morning - his only recorded sermon, if you will. Thanks, Gary and Grace for doing it so well.

It needs to be repeated that God shut Zechariah’s mouth for at least nine months. That might not have been a bad thing for his wife, Elizabeth, you understand. How many women, after all, desire from their husbands that they just listen? Now, it doesn’t say that Zechariah really listened to his wife for that time period. But a child was born, and it wasn’t an “immaculate” conception.

Speaking of birth, as an aside, this is a time of year for sensitive and listening hearts. The season is so geared to “family,” wrapped up as it is with a nativity story, that we can forget those for whom having children is but an unfulfilled wish. This is a difficult time of year for those, like Elizabeth and Zechariah, who struggle with fertility, or those without a partner. It is a prayer for all of us, and not just some of us, that God would give birth to something new in our lives, that (in fact) we might be born from above in order to receive what God wishes to give. With this, we are not talking about babies, but rather new life in Christ. Christmas is for all of God’s people, not just those who fit the demographics.

Back to Zechariah - as I said, his mouth was shut for a long time. Scripture says this was because he didn’t believe that it was possible for him and his elderly wife to conceive and give birth. He doubted the promise. How many of our mouths are silenced because of doubt? The truth is, doubt is a fact of life. Furthermore, it’s an integral part of a life of faith.

Remember the story of that father with an epileptic child, who brought him to Jesus for healing? “Have pity on us and help us,” he cried to the Lord, a request probably made many times before by the man in as-yet unanswered prayer. “All things can be done for the one who believes,” Jesus responded, to which the father uttered the words that are on all our hearts: “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:17-29)

We can keep from speaking things that need to be said because we allow doubt to shut our mouths. After all, how do we really know whether what we say is really true? We feel it in our bones, but we don’t give it voice. Who really wants to hear what we believe, anyway? The world is full of everybody speaking their mind, sometimes ad nauseam. How important is just one voice, anyway? Especially “my voice.” Do you hear the doubt creeping in?

I’m branching over into territory covered by the words I’d like us to welcome home today. What is “evangelism,” after all, but giving voice to something good that you feel in your very bones, the core of who you are. Literally, the word means “sharing good news.” That’s it. We have clouded it up with all sorts of preconceived notions - that such sharing has to happen in certain ways, by certain people. But it doesn’t. That, in and of itself, is good news.

We can receive training in all sorts of methods for doing evangelism, and these can be very worthwhile and helpful. However, if we allow the need for such training to shut our mouths, to prevent us from simply sharing the good news of Christ that’s in our very bones, those “methods” do us (and others) harm. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell good news. We don’t even have to have it all figured out beforehand. Sometimes the most effective evangelists are those who have recently discovered Christ. They don’t know better than to allow this good news to bubble over into everyday conversation. They don’t know all the methods. Neither do they know all the answers. They don’t know enough to doubt what they’ve experienced. They just know they’ve found something good, and they want to share it.

Oh, to be so naive! ... It’s said that there comes a second naivete for us all, even those who move through the critical questions of faith, who realize that things aren’t as simple as they seem, who deal with the doubt which is an integral part of faith. God brings us round to a fresh time of being able to share that which is in our very bones. God opens our mouths. Yes, we know a lot about the skeletal structure of our faith, we’ve even struggled with many of the skeletons in our closet. However, God gives us a voice. And we don’t have to be a preacher to speak.

Now, as Ecclesiastes (also know as “the preacher” of the Old Testament) once said, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven,” including “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak...” (3:1, 7) That certainly was true for Zechariah, the priest, the father of John the Baptist. His mouth was shut for at least nine months. All he could do during that time of silence was just experience it all.

The same is true for this thing we call “evangelism.” There is a time to keep silence, and a time to speak. Some Christians don’t quite have this concept down. Evangelism, I believe, is like prayer. A good portion of prayer is silence, just being open for God to speak in whatever way God speaks, listening. Often, evangelism is like an echo. We remember that there is no place to which we go, no person that we encounter, that Christ has not been there first. We recognize him there, we hear a refrain we’ve heard before, we see something in another person’s life that looks familiar - the bubbling up of God’s kingdom - and our voice arises in echo.

Of course, there are times when evangelism is a confrontation, that is, it is a voice counter to the bad news around us. Like the son of Zechariah, ours may be like “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God’” (Luke 3:4‑6). But even when standing up and speaking God’s news to those who don’t want to hear it, our voices are but an echo of a greater voice.

Jesus told his disciples, “When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say” (Luke 12:11‑12). Or, to put it a bit differently, “your words will echo what God is already saying.” That’s true for times of trial, when we may be judged for what we say, as well as for everyday sharing of good news. The best testimonies are those that come from the heart. I love that line from the old hymn (“My life flows on”): “Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear that music ringing. It finds an echo in my soul. How can I keep from singing?”

Did I just use the word “testimony?” Now, there’s one we may not be all that comfortable with. Maybe it’s for the same reasons as why “evangelism” rubs us the wrong way. We have a preconceived notion of what “testimony” is all about. In reality, it’s a cousin of evangelism. Strictly speaking, it’s “bearing witness.” As in, telling what you’ve experienced. In a courtroom, a witness gives testimony to something they were there to see or hear. They aren’t asked to give testimony to what they haven’t experienced.

This week I received the testimony of a brother-in-the-Lord. Oh, I went to visit him in preparation for some out-patient surgery he was to undergo the next day. I was there to minister to him, but he ended up ministering to me. He spoke of how God had taken care of him through some pretty rough times in the past few years. I confessed my own struggle trying to figure out where the Lord is leading me right now, wondering what’s going to happen to me down the road. His testimony was like a fresh breath of air, something I needed to hear on that day. Do you think the Holy Spirit was somehow involved?

Testimony doesn’t have to be highly dramatic, folks. It can be just a simple bearing witness to God’s goodness and mercy. You do notice in our bulletin that our time of sharing “joys and concerns” in worship is also intended for “a word of testimony or praise.” It not merely a time to recite our own aches and pains, or the trials and troubles of others. While these burdens do need to be shared, we also need to speak of how we have experienced God at work in and around us, echoing God’s song. How can we keep from singing?

Our final hymn, if you look at the bottom of the page upon which it’s printed, is based on what Zechariah said, once God opened his mouth. It’s a blessing. That’s what evangelism and testimony should be, also, don’t you think? Let’s allow Zechariah to have the final word.  (#174, “Bless'd be the God of Israel”)

©2012 (revised from 2000) Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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