We’ve probably all been involved in an icebreaker at some point. You’re at a conference or a gathering or a camp or something, and you’re instructed to share with everyone your name and something about yourself. Honestly, I prefer the ones where the instructor tells me exactly what about myself I should share. But there is something important there, I think, in leaving the floor open.
When someone asks who you are, how do you answer? Obviously your name is up there on the list, but what else would you say about yourself? Would you mention what job you have or what grade you’re in, how many kids you have or who you’re married to, where you live, what your education background is, maybe your favorite hobby? The things we choose to say about ourselves say something about what we think is important about who we are. What’s the most important thing for others to know about you?
John the Baptist was faced with that question when the temple leaders came out to interrogate him. “Who are you?” they ask pointedly. And the way John frames his response is remarkable. The first thing he tells them about himself is who he is not. “I am not the Messiah. I am not the Light.” He knows who he is not, and that helps define who he is.
He then cites scripture to say who he is. His identity is shaped by scripture, so that he knows who he is by the scripture he cites—“I am the voice crying out in the wilderness, ‘prepare the way of the Lord.’”
And finally, he defines who he is by what he does. He announces the coming Messiah, who is greater than he is. He baptizes with water. He prepares the way.
In this exchange, we can gather exactly who John is. John knows who he is by the God he serves; in the same way, we understand who we are by the God who brings us into life through baptism. We have all been remade as children of God, baptized in water and brought into a new identity that is shaped by God.
So, to take a cue from John, we know who we are. We are not the lost and forsaken sinners we were before we were baptized. We are ones who pray without ceasing, who rejoice in all things, who hold fast to what is good in our patient waiting for the Lord. And we live lives that testify to the One who has saved us from sin and death.
Like John, we are called to witness to who Jesus is, pointing to him in all that we do. But what does it mean to offer witness, to give testimony? John testified to the Light, naming Jesus and preparing the people for his coming. Testimony is your truth. Your testimony is what you know to be true because you have witnessed it.
God reveals God’s work to us in different ways, and sometimes the way one of us will see it isn’t the way someone else will see it. One may see God at work in the hope found in a terrible situation, someone else may experience Christ in a song lyric heard in a new and unexpected way, and another may see God’s grace in long overdue voices being heard. Testimony is when we tell what it is that we saw and experienced, whether it’s the same way someone else saw it or not. Your testimony is what you know to be true because of what you’ve experienced.
But just because you know it’s true, doesn’t mean others will automatically believe you. After all, John was testifying to the biggest Truth in history, but the Pharisees who came out to interrogate him weren’t willing to believe him or his testimony. When a testimony is telling a truth we’d rather not accept, or is difficult to hear, our first instinct is to throw it out. We don’t want to believe things that challenge the way we see the world or which, if true, would change the very way that we act in the world. It’s why the Pharisees wanted to reject John’s testimony about the coming Messiah and the kingdom he brings. It’s why we too often do the same with testimonies we don’t like.
So for a people whose faith is built on the testimonies of others, shouldn’t our first reaction be to believe there is truth in their testimony? Yes, but despite the cleansing waters of baptism, we are still divided into saint and sinner, and the sinner in us wants to reject unpleasant truths as much as the Pharisees did. The sinner in us still doesn’t like testimony that will force us to change our way of thinking, or way of acting in the world.
But think about it: a testimony already has changed everything, and it’s brought us into the kingdom of God to change the world. We are called to hear the testimonies of others, because that’s the foundation of our faith. It wasn’t a photographic scrapbook of the resurrected Christ or an audio recording of the Great Commission that brought us to faith. It was the testimony of others. It was listening to others tell their truth, passed down to us. Others told their truth of this man from Galilee who preached and healed and died. Then they, the women specifically, told their truth of how the tomb was empty and he was raised just as he said. So it’s on the basis of the testimony of others that we believe.
And our own testimony, our own witness, is what will bring others to faith. Your witness of what God has done in your life, how you see God at work in the world, is the testimony you are called to give. And you start that testimony by knowing who you are, and knowing how that shapes what you do. Your whole being is called to serve as a testimony, pointing others to Jesus.
And our testimony is made believable by being trustworthy witnesses to the truth we know. In Advent we live in preparation for the coming Messiah who was born to save us from our sins and bring us into communion with God. Our lives reflect that hope when we feed the hungry and clothe the naked, when we forgive our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, when we accept personal sacrifices to protect others from the pandemic, when we speak out for justice and believe the testimonies of the oppressed, and when we live in the honest reality that we are sinners in need of a savior as much as anyone else.
Our whole lives are called to be like John the Baptist’s, pointing to Christ who is coming. Our mission and calling is to witness to who Christ is by giving the testimony of our lives—the way we treat our neighbor, the way we care for creation, the way we let Christ’s own life shape the way we live our lives—as proof. To live in such a way that unbelievers will doubt their disbelief in God.
Or as Isaiah reminds us: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon [us], because the Lord has anointed [us]; he has sent [us] to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; [and] to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” May our testimony show Jesus to the whole world.
Thanks be to God. Amen.