Meditations, Reflections, Bible Studies, and Sermons from Kowloon Union Church  

“Can I Get a Witness?”

A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 17 December 2017, the Third Sunday in Advent, by the Rev. Dr. Judy Chan. The scripture readings that day were Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; I Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28.

Good morning.

During Advent, we have themes for each week. We started with hope, last week we had peace, and today is joy. So, let me start with a story about one of the most joyful occasions in life – weddings.

I read an interesting offer on a blog for expatriates in Hong Kong. A woman wrote that she and her fiancé were planning to come to the city to get married. They looked at the requirements, and the only thing they still needed were two official witnesses over 18 years old. She said, “We’re foreigners and don’t know anyone in Hong Kong. Anyone out there willing to help us? You just need to bring your passport or Hong Kong I.D. If you can help us out, we’ll gladly compensate you for your time and generosity.”

Almost right away, someone in Hong Kong ‘Yan Yan’ replied: “Congratulations!
I can be your wedding witness, and I’m able to invite one more friend to attend your wedding ceremony. Please let me know the details. Thanks.” The bride-to-be was elated and wrote that she’d be in touch.

I don’t know what happened after that – whether the couple ever made it to Hong Kong, and if they did, what kind of compensation Yan Yan and her friend got for their time and generosity.

Nevertheless, the story points out the importance of witnesses in our lives. People who testify that they were there when something significant happened – whether it’s a marriage, the signing of a will, or even the committing of a crime. Being a witness is no small thing. If you are a marriage witness, you not only bring your documents for verification of identity, you have to sign your name on the marriage certificate. The same if you are a witness to someone’s last will and testament. If there are any challenges to the will after the person dies, the lawyer may come looking for you to prove that the deceased was of sound mind when this will was executed. And have any of you ever been a witness in a court case? I haven’t, but from what little I know, it’s not simple either.

In many places, you have to take an oath. You put your hand on a Bible or perhaps just put your hand up, and promise that what you are about to say is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God. And not only that, you don’t just get to say your piece and go. You can be questioned by the judge or a lawyer or the police about what you know and what you’ve seen. It is serious business, folks!

So, I found it intriguing that in today’s Gospel, John the Baptist is first and foremost a “witness”. He too is called to testify that something significant has happened. He too must sign on the dotted line, so to speak, putting his reputation on the line. He too must swear in the name of God that his words are indeed the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

So what exactly is John testifying about?
Two things:
1. That Jesus Christ is the Light of the World.
2. That he, John the Baptist, is NOT the Light of the World.

Now the first of those two we understand – Jesus Christ is the light of world, the light of all people. But why does John need to emphasize so strongly that he is NOT that light? Was there possibly a case of mistaken identity here?

Some scholars say yes. John the Baptist did have a sizeable following, as we heard last week in the Gospel reading from Mark. There were whispers among the people about who this charismatic preacher might be. Was he the one they had been waiting for so long? The excitement around John the Baptist was big enough to attract the attention of the religious leaders in Jerusalem. That’s why they sent the priests and Levites to check him out. Not only were they anxious about his identity, they were worried that his radical actions might get them all in trouble with the Roman authorities.

So, how did his cross-examination go?
First question: Who are you?
John answers: “I’m not the Messiah.”
OK, that settles that.
Second question: What then? Are you Elijah?
“Not him, either”

Third question: Are you the prophet?
“No, I am not.”

By this point, the priests and Levites are getting impatient. John has told them who he isn’t – he’s not the Christ, he’s not the return of the Old Testament prophet Elijah, he’s not the prophet Moses.

Well, then, who are you? They need an answer and they need it now.

John’s reply is brilliant: “I am a voice with only one thing to say: Prepare the way of Lord. He is coming!” 

His interrogators don’t quite seem to know what to make of this quotation from Isaiah. But they do know that if John is not the Messiah, not Elijah, and not the prophet, then he has no business doing what he’s doing.

So, they make one last effort at pinning him down. If you’re basically nobody, what gives you the right to go around preaching repentance and telling people to be baptized? You see, for the Jews, John’s baptisms were doubly offensive. Not only was he meddling in religious affairs without their permission, he was proclaiming that everyone, including the Jews, had to repent, be baptized and cleansed of their sins. How dare he!

But John doesn’t take the bait. Remember, he was the man sent by God, so whose authority is higher than that? And yes, he does baptize with water, but only to prepare the people for the One who is coming after him. The One the so-called religious experts know nothing about. The One so great that even John is not worthy to untie his sandal.

On this third Sunday in Advent, we too need to hear the testimony of John the Baptist. Jesus Christ is the Light of the World, and we are not. Our job is simply to be a witness, a voice crying out in today’s wilderness, a guide pointing others to the Light so they might believe and be saved from darkness.

As I said earlier, however, being a witness is serious business. And being a witness to Jesus Christ is even more serious. But we don’t have to be afraid to speak out, because we’ve been given the model to follow in today’s Gospel reading.

New Testament professor Mark Allan Powell lists three essential qualities of the witness of John the Baptist. It’s public. It’s certain. And it’s humble. Public, certain, humble. Let’s look at these one at a time.

It’s public. A testimony is no use if you’re not willing to share it openly. You do have to put yourself out there, and there’s always a risk when we identify ourselves as Christians in a non-Christian setting. I remember hearing a university student from the Philippines speak at a meeting of the Asia and Pacific Alliance of YMCAs in Hong Kong. The question was, “What challenges do young people in your country face because of their faith in Jesus Christ?” She said young Christians wanted to be a strong witness but when it came to things like praying before their meal in the school canteen, they felt embarrassed. Other students might think they were weird or showing off their religion. So, the Christian students sometimes just didn’t do it, but she felt a bit ashamed.

I can sympathize with her. I’m a minister, so you’d think it’s no problem for me to let people know I’m a Christian. But there was one time when I didn’t want others to know. As I’ve said before, I studied a journalism course at Hong Kong University a few years back. After entering the program, I didn’t want to tell people I was a minister . . . because, well, I didn’t want them to think I was weird and they’d treat me differently. Then, someone asked me what I do (because I was studying part-time). I said I worked in an office as an editor. “What kind of office?” A Christian organization. “What’s the name of it?” Hong Kong Christian Council. “Do you have a business card?” Well, I was busted. Finally, one classmate asked me, “Are you a minister?” Yes. “So you, like, preach sermons?” At this point, I was slowly melting and wishing to disappear. In hindsight, it seems a bit ridiculous. Surely, I wasn’t the only Christian in the class, though maybe the only Reverend. I am happy to report afterwards that one classmate did ask me about Christianity, and whether there was any introductory book I could recommend so she could learn more about it. I bought a book and gave it to her as a gift.

Being public about our faith doesn’t mean we need to wear our religion on our sleeve. But it does mean when there is the need for the general public and even our own church to know what we believe and why, we will speak it out loud and clear. Someone has said that what we think of Jesus Christ is not as important as what Jesus Christ thinks of us.

The second quality of Christian witness is certainty. What use is a testimony if you’re not sure about what you’re saying? If you can easily be swayed to change your mind? It might have been better to never have opened your mouth, right? That’s why it’s important to remember that John was the man sent by God to testify to Jesus Christ. He didn’t appoint himself. So, even under harsh questioning by the highest authorities in his religion, he didn’t waver, he didn’t change a word. He was certain of what he was saying, and that kind of confidence could only come from above. And that same certainty and confidence can be ours as Christians today. How? A song by the group Casting Crowns says it best:

Not because of who I am
But because of what You've done
Not because of what I've done
But because of who You are

Jesus Christ, Light of the World.

Last but not least, John the Baptist teaches that Christian witness must be humble. That doesn’t mean you make yourself less than what you are. It means you measure yourself by the right standard. That’s why John says he’s not even worthy to untie Jesus’ sandal. Disciples in those times were expected to do small tasks for their masters. There was a limit, however, to what disciples could be asked to do, and they were not to be asked to untie the Master’s sandal. That work belonged to a slave. Yet, in the presence of the Son of God, all our human distinctions go out the window. No one is above or below anyone else. We all stand equal at the foot of the Cross. That’s why humility is essential to authentic Christian witness. It keeps us grounded in reality about who is the Light and who is not. It also saves us from exhausting ourselves trying to be something we’re not. As the saying goes, the moon can go on thinking it’s the sun, but all that does is wear out the moon.

Christian witness: It’s public, it’s certain, it’s humble.

I’d like to close with one more story, a story of joy. It’s about a migrant worker in Hong Kong, and I share it in recognition of International Migrants Day tomorrow. I also share it as a testimony to the 300,000 domestic workers in the city who bless our families and theirs, our community and their country.

One Sunday, a Chinese woman from Hong Kong came up to a Catholic priest and said, “I want to be baptized.”

As they were talking, the priest asked her, “Why do you want to be baptized?”

She said that she has a son who is suffering from Down Syndrome. A few years back she hired a Filipina nanny who took care of her son until now. Last year, the nanny got another job offer, and the salary was a lot higher than she was giving her.

So, the employer told her that it was okay, that she understood if she left for another job.

The Filipina thought about it and she said to this woman, NO, she was not leaving her present job, she would like to continue taking care of her son with Down Syndrome. She said, “Your son needs me more than ever.” And so she stayed with the family. This Filipina goes to Mass in the Catholic Church every week.

The Chinese woman told the priest that she herself had been coming to the church ever since. She wanted to find out the reason for the decision of the Filipina nanny to continue to look after her son. After coming to the church for over a year, the woman said she would like to be baptized and become a Christian because she was inspired by her nanny’s faith.

When I heard this story told by one of our Catholic speakers on the radio, I thought, Wow.

And then I realized none of us comes to Christ on our own, do we? There’s always someone who introduced us to the faith – our parents, a relative, a friend, an author, a teacher, a youth director, a minister, a church. Someone has to prepare the way.

Can I get a witness? That’s the question I leave you with this morning on the 3rd Sunday of Advent. It’s not just the title of the sermon, it’s not really even my question. It’s the call of Jesus Christ to the faithful to promise always to tell the Gospel truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God.

# posted by Heddy Ha : Sunday, December 17, 2017

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