Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Witnesses are found in a variety of settings. Lawyers deal with witnesses all the time: There are eye-witnesses who tell what they saw; Expert witnesses who tell what they know about a particular subject; Character witnesses who tell about the nature of the defendant. And rebuttal witnesses who testify so as to undermine the testimony of another witness. In the church, the witness is most often the one preaches. And for the pastor, the testimony is the classic sermon. Stand up boldly, outline three strong points, and sit down quickly. You see, at the core of every witness, there is a truth that must be revealed or discovered.
Unfortunately, time has a way of turning monumental truths into a loosely, woven set of experiences and memories. This was especially true for the life of Jesus. In his final days before the crucifixion, the events all seemed jumbled. His enemies had worked to silence him, a disciple betrayed him, another denied him, the crowds turned against him. Indeed they held him down. They nailed him down. They murdered him and buried him. But they could not keep him down. Jesus rose from that grave and brought life to the very place where there had been death and only death before. That was the truth Jesus’ told his disciples to remember as his witnesses. And while he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.
Surprisingly, the disciples were not sad nor anxious at Jesus’ departure. Instead, we read that they worshiped him and that they returned to Jerusalem with great joy. That wouldn’t have been my response, if I had been there. But something happened on that wind swept hilltop overlooking the city of Jerusalem, that filled the disciples will joy and excitement. They were so overwhelmed that they wanted to get about the task of sharing the truth they had been called to do. They were ready to become witnesses, then and there. Yes, they were ready to become witnessing apostles who would tell the story of Jesus and his love to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
My friends, that is the task that you and I have been given as well. We are called to be Christ’s witnesses in a world that is longing for the truth of Jesus’ forgiveness and hope. Even if we feel unprepared, Jesus has given us three words of counsel for this task, just as he gave them to his disciples on that wind swept hill. But beware, they may not be in the order that you think, Go, Stop and Focus.
Let us begin with the command to Go. If the disciples would have known the road that was ahead of them, they would have felt anxious and bewildered. They could be compared to the young preachers the Seminary sends out every spring. Quivering, bodies of vulnerability with nothing to say. The disciples, however, had lots to say.
Now that may seem a bit odd to you. Perhaps, the disciples didn’t fully understand Jesus’ command. These words would be their marching orders, “You will be my witnesses of these things in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The word witness itself was an interesting choice, but the disciples understood its meaning. The word witness meant to testify, and also meant to become a martyr. The disciples were willing to testify for Jesus, and to die for him. Why, you may ask? Because in the midst of a troubled, hateful and often discouraging world, they felt that they had been given a purpose and they knew they had a truth to share. They could see the hurting, lost world, and they knew they had something to say. For them, Jesus was that word that needed to be shared. Not even the emperor in the great Roman Empire could keep this dead man in the grave. Jesus was and is greater than all the forces that work against him. My friends, that is the witness that you have been given as well. You have a purpose and a calling. Go.
Let us turn now to Jesus’ second word of counsel. Stop, be patient, and wait for the power of the Holy Spirt. The disciples felt a great deal of excitement to go, but they also felt a great deal of anxiety as well. The disciples might have been naïve, but they were honest. Before his ascension Jesus told them that they should wait for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit to be given. They knew they had no power of their own, and that any power they would ever know would be given to them by the Spirit. But they weren’t even told when or how. Jesus said simply, “Stop worrying about having things the way you want them and wait for something else, a power that is coming. A gift is on the way. Wait for it.”
Without that same gift, without the empowering Spirit that Jesus promised at his ascension, you and I can do nothing- except worry. God’s Spirit prepares us not only to tell the story, but the Spirit prepares others to hear the story. Without the gift of the Holy Spirit you would just be spinning your wheels. The Spirit gives your words and actions traction. For those who waiting for the Holy Spirit, they must be patient and trust that God’s victory is near. No matter how dark the valleys and how terrible the destination may seem, you must wait and trust that a God’s victory is imminent. So stop and wait for the Spirit to come upon you and upon those who need to hear your witness. Without the Spirit, all will be for naught.
Finally, Focus. In the Book of Acts, we read that as Jesus ascended into heaven, two men in white robes stood before the disciples and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” It is the third word of counsel that comes from the windswept hillside. Do not be focused on heaven, but be focused on the world. That is where God needs you. Now don’t misunderstand me. Heaven is surely wonderful. But the problem with gazing up to heaven is that prevents you from seeing the person next to you. And that is where your call to be a witness begins. Christ’s ascension is not about Jesus’ location, but Christ’s ascension is about the assurance that Christ is always near. Jesus is near and he is just around the bend- even if you cannot see him. He has gone ahead and is preparing the way for your witness. Yes, Jesus will be there ahead of you, on this blessed earth, every step of the way regardless of your worrying.
So where does Jesus need you? Don’t look to heaven. Go to all the nations, beginning in Jerusalem. It’s interesting that Jesus didn’t command his disciples to go to the ends of the earth first. That was to be the final dream and destination. The disciples would certainly journey to those places. But Jesus’ immediate command was to begin in their own backyard. Look to the people who struggle each day for their daily bread. Look to the lowly and forgotten. Look to the poor, and to those who are without a shepherd seeking truth. Jesus is waiting in very ordinary places and ordinary ways with extraordinary grace and love.
My friends, Go, Stop and Focus your witness. There is power in faith, power to move mountains and carry momentous burdens. That is what Jesus longs for you to experience. You are his witnesses, and you have the word to change hearts and lives- for the better. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.