Sermon for 11-14-10: “Keeping the Promise, Act 5: Witness”

November 17, 2010

Sermon Text: Acts 8:26-40

If, like me, you were a teenager in the ’80s, then you and I shared some cultural landmarks growing up: For example, you remember how exciting it was the first time you saw Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. You remember how, after seeing The Breakfast Club, you thought to yourself, “This movie totally gets me.” It captures exactly what it felt like to be at least a white, middle-class, suburban teenager in 1985. And you remember that amazing unaccompanied guitar solo that Prince played on “Let’s Go Crazy” in the opening minutes of the movie Purple Rain.

Prince is still around, doing his musical thing. But in recent years he became a Jehovah’s Witness. And, like all faithful Jehovah’s Witnesses, what can he be found doing occasionally on Saturday mornings? Knocking on doors, canvassing neighborhoods, and trying to persuade people to become Jehovah’s Witnesses. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around answering the door, and having one of the world’s biggest rock stars hand me a copy of the Watchtower magazine, but there you have it…

We’ve all had the experience, I’m sure, of being interrupted at the most inconvenient times by Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons. Whenever this happens, I feel a range of emotions. On the one hand, I love that we have a First Amendment in which people of all religious beliefs get to freely share those beliefs with anyone they wish. On the other hand, since both of these religions are so far outside the bounds of orthodox Christian thought, I’d just as soon they keep it to themselves, rather than risk leading someone down the wrong path. Plus I think, regardless of one’s religion, going door to door and talking to complete strangers about the most profound questions of life is largely ineffective.

But can I confess to you that I feel a couple of other emotions, which I would like for us to consider for a moment: I feel a grudging admiration and respect for these people who believe so deeply in the faith they profess that they’re willing to risk embarrassment, rejection, scorn, and humiliation in order to get the message out.

And with my respect comes another feeling: guilt. I sometimes think, “What’s my problem?” How hard do I work to share my faith with others? How intentional am I about it? Do I believe that, unlike me, other people don’t really need Jesus? Of course I don’t believe that, but why do I act as if I do sometimes? Do I think that people outside of the church and outside of the faith will get that message through osmosis? Do I not think that maybe I have a role in sharing that with them in some way?

I don’t think I’m alone in my reluctance to witness. It has, after all, been done so poorly by so many people over the years, it’s gotten a bad reputation, for better or worse. I posted on my blog this week an excerpt from a Rob Bell video about “Bullhorn Guy”—those so-called evangelists on the sidewalk who shout at people through bullhorns with an angry message that boils down to “turn or burn.” That kind of witnessing can be spiritually harmful to people. If these evangelists are keeping score of how many people come to faith through their efforts, I hope they’re also deducting from that total the number of people they’ve forever turned off to Christianity!

No—we don’t want to be like those people. But just because those people do it poorly is no excuse not to do it. You might be thinking, “I hear what you’re saying, Brent, but the most important way that we witness is in how we live—the way that we love and serve others.” And I agree, sort of. If we don’t demonstrate our Christian faith first through our actions, then how can we be credible when we use words? But at some point, we have to use words. In a book called Faith Sharing, a couple of Methodist evangelists named Fox and Morris got it right when they wrote, “The United Methodist Church shows tremendous proficiency and commitment when it comes to doing the deed of the gospel. We do the compassionate deed from the best of motives, and we do that deed with skill and commitment. However, we are reluctant to name the Name in whom we do the deed.”1

We must also name the Name. It’s a question of integrity: If Jesus is who I believe he is; if I’ve experienced God’s forgiveness and saving grace; if I’ve experienced abundant and eternal life through him; if I’ve experienced this gospel of Jesus Christ as genuinely good news—as the best news of all—how can I keep it to myself? What about you? How can we not share it in some way? When we see a great movie, we naturally tell our friends about it. When we discover a great restaurant, we naturally tell our friends about it. When we discover a great band, we naturally tell our friends about it. This is what witnessing really is: naturally sharing with our friends, through both actions and words, this good news. And the key thing is that witnessing should be natural.

If we’re doing evangelism properly, in other words, it’s not something that should take us very far outside of our comfort zone. I say “far outside” because, for many, even broaching the subject of religion and church with non-churchgoing friends might feel slightly uncomfortable.

I know what this is like. In my previous career, when I was an engineer, even bringing up the subject of church and faith sometimes felt strange and uncomfortable. I would sit around a lunch table with my co-workers—who would happily and openly share personal opinions on a wide range of topics, including even controversial subjects like southern football and politics, but no one ever talked about faith. And the absence of the topic of faith was conspicuous because I knew that some of us sitting around these tables were professing Christians who were active in church. When talking about what we did over the weekend, it should have been natural to bring up something that happened at church, right? But it didn’t come up.

Here’s a clue that we’re missing an opportunity to witness: When we find ourselves censoring our words in order to avoid talking about things related to faith.

Years ago, I heard a lecture by a world-renowned chemist named Henry Schaefer, who is a professor at the University of Georgia. He was at UC Berkeley for years before that. He is rumored to have been in the running for the Nobel Prize several times. He said that after one of his first lectures at UGA—in freshman chemistry in a large lecture hall before hundreds of students—he mentioned in passing something that he had done at church the previous weekend. After the class, he said, dozens of students wanted to talk to him about the apparently strange fact that this great scientist was a churchgoer and professing Christian. He was surprised that these students were so surprised about this. It was such a little thing: mentioning church. Yet it sparked interesting conversations about faith, and Schaefer continues to be a witness in that environment.

Notice this: The professor would have had to pretend to be someone else to avoid the opportunity to witness.

These opportunities occur naturally. It was true in the case of Philip in today’s scripture. God leads him to go to this certain place. He doesn’t know why he was supposed to go there. But when he gets there, he senses the Spirit leading him to go up to this chariot, where a man, an official of high rank in the Ethiopian court, was in the chariot. Philip hears him reading from Isaiah 53. By the way, why was the Ethiopian reading out loud? Because people in the ancient world didn’t read silently. Even when they read to themselves, they read aloud. Interesting, huh? So he’s reading scripture that finds its fulfillment in Jesus, that anticipates the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, as Philip well knows. So Philip sees this as a Spirit-led opportunity to witness.

He doesn’t approach the man saying, “Do you know for certain that if you were to die tonight, you would go to heaven?” I’ve noticed that a lot of books on witnessing offer the equivalent of religious pick-up lines. Techniques that you can follow to engage people in spiritual conversations—and it often boils down to, “Pretend that you’re interested in the person—that you really care about whatever it is you’re interested in—so that you can witness to them.” This is not witnessing; this is selling Amway. We’re not selling Amway, we’re sharing the love of Christ. Witnessing is not about forced and phony techniques. In Philip’s case, he asks the most natural question imaginable: “Do you understand what you’re reading.” It was, after all, a difficult passage of scripture. To which the Ethiopian replies, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” See: there’s an invitation in the Ethiopian’s words for Philip to engage in this conversation.

That’s all well and good, we might be thinking, but I’m no Billy Graham. Well, you don’t have to be. That’s my main point! In order to be an effective witness, you don’t have to be anyone other than who you are! The Holy Spirit has equipped you, right now, in your own unique way—in your own sphere of influence—to share the gospel of Jesus Christ through your actions first, but also your words.

How do you do it? I don’t know… I don’t believe in techniques. But here are at least four things to keep in mind as you try live up to your promise to be a witness. First thing is, you pray. Pray that the Holy Spirit would enable you to love others. Out of this love will flow a natural desire to be a witness. Pray for opportunities to love and care for other people. Love is the foundation of witnessing; otherwise, we may as well be selling Amway.

Second thing: Be yourself. What does Jesus mean to you? How has the Lord helped you? How has your faith equipped you to deal with difficult times in your life? You might have an opportunity to tell someone about it. It won’t hurt you or the other person. If you’re being honest, authentic, and loving, how could that possibly offend someone or rub someone the wrong way?

Third thing: Invite people to church. This is really the easiest and most natural thing to do—and it’s ultimately the most effective way to help people into a saving relationship with God through Christ. Some of you invited your friends to Coffee House, just like I asked, and that’s awesome. When you get to know someone, ask if them if they have a church home. If they don’t, tell them about your church and invite them to come with you.

Fourth thing: When we witness, we’re not approaching people from a position of superiority—like we’ve got the answers they need, and they need to become like us… No. Instead, we know that other people need Jesus because we need Jesus. We want God to transform other people’s lives because God needs to continue transforming our lives. We are all works in progress. We’re all on a journey, and we haven’t arrived yet. The world needs Jesus, by all means. But so do we! We all stand in need of him and his love and grace and mercy at every moment. As someone said, witnessing is really one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.

1. H. Eddie Fox and George E. Morris , Faith Sharing (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1998), 56.

One Response to “Sermon for 11-14-10: “Keeping the Promise, Act 5: Witness””

  1. […] couple weeks ago, I preached on witnessing. One of the promises we make as members of the United Methodist Church is to serve Christ through […]

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