Scripture: John 1:6-8; 19-29
December 21 is the longest night of the year—the winter solstice. And this year, it’s also the night of an astronomical event that hasn’t happened in 800 years. Astronomers tell us that for the first time since the year 1226, we will be able to see with the naked eye an alignment of Jupiter and Saturn in the night sky—such that these two planets will almost appear as one bright, shining star. This is such and unusual and interesting event that astronomers call this conjunction of planets the “Star of Bethlehem”—and many Christians have even speculated that God might have used this very event over 2,000 years ago to inspire the magi, or Wise Men, to travel the 700 miles or so from modern-day Baghdad to Jerusalem, looking for the Messiah.
Whether God used this natural event, or whether he used some supernatural event, the result is the same: Remember, these magi were literally world’s foremost experts in astronomy. So God spoke to them in a “language they could understand”—the language of astronomy. And what God told them through these stars is, “Go to Israel and worship the newborn king of the Jews.”
It was very gracious of God to do this! It’s unlikely that anything else would have gotten their attention! But as a result, these magi were saved—and if we are in Christ, just think… we will even have an opportunity to meet them some day.
I shared some of this testimony at a recent U-Nite service, but it bears repeating: When I was 13 years old, I was not yet a believer in Jesus; I wasn’t saved. My parents were the most nominal of Christians at the time—although that changed later, thank God. But when I was 13, I was in a place in my life in which I was deeply afraid… First, I was making a transition from a small elementary school to a large high school—seventh grade was the end of elementary school, eighth grade was the beginning of high school. No middle school back then. We eighth-graders were called “sub-freshmen,” subbies. And we were the “scum” of the high school—the bottom rung of the social ladder.
In fact, our school was up on a giant hill, and there was a rumor that on Fridays at 3:00, as the final bell rang and school was out for the weekend, seniors would grab us subbies and throw us down the steep hill—which, even if it didn’t hurt physically, would cause me to die of embarrassment, I’m sure!
So I was afraid of that…
I was afraid of not being able to fit in at this large and intimidating new school I was part of.
I was also afraid of dying… Literally! I was afraid of dying in a nuclear war with the Soviet Union! And I know that may sound silly, but this was the early-’80s. This was the Cold War! The topic of nuclear war was all over the news, all over TV, movies, music… There was a movie called WarGames, for instance, starring a young Matthew Broderick in which he plays a computer hacker who hacks into Pentagon computers and almost accidentally launches World War III. I absorbed that scary message.
There was a hit song by Sting, called “Russians.” And the message of the song was, “If the Russians love their children, too, then surely they won’t attack the West with nuclear missiles… But they might!” And I absorbed that scary message.
There was a video game—popular at the arcades—called “Missile Command.” The object of “Missile Command” was to defend these American cities from fast approaching nuclear missiles—to shoot them out of the sky before they landed and reduced your cities to rubble. And you always failed in the end. The game was over when all your cities were destroyed… Almost at the very same time President Reagan was talking about building a real-life missile defense system—like the video game—nicknamed “Star Wars.” So I also absorbed that scary message, too!
I was fairly certain I was going to die in a nuclear war. And that scared me!
Even more, I knew that I was not saved. I was not in a right relationship with God. I had not yet received God’s gift of eternal life in Christ. Which meant that I knew that if or when the Soviets did launch a nuclear attack—and I died—I would be unprepared to stand before God in Final Judgment.
And that scared me most of all!
I was already passionately interested in music back then, as I am today, and I was taking guitar lessons. And Jody Johnston, my guitar teacher, got me interested in listening to the rock band Genesis. I had heard of Genesis… they would later become one of the most popular bands of the ’80s… But Jody said, no, I need to hear their early albums—specifically, I needed to hear one of their early songs, called “Supper’s Ready,” a 20-plus-minute song which uses biblical language and imagery about the end of the world and the Second Coming of Christ. He said that when he was studying music at Georgia State, he wrote a term paper on it.
So I bought that particular record. And one night I was listening to this song—in the dark, with headphones, in my bedroom… It’s a spooky song. And when I reached the end of the song, I was scared… in a good way… because my fear inspired to pray my first real prayer… the first one that wasn’t of the “now I lay me down to sleep” variety—a prayer from my heart. And I said these words to God: I said, “I want to become a Christian, Lord. I want to be saved from my sins. I don’t know what I need to do, but show me, and I’ll do it.” [Matthew 10:28]
And after I prayed, that very night I summoned the courage to go to my parents and tell them that I wanted to be saved… I wanted to be a Christian. They didn’t quite know what to do or say, but they called the youth pastor, and they signed me up to go on a youth retreat the next month or so in Black Mountain, North Carolina. There I encountered Jesus in a powerful way… There I experienced the love of Christ through some dear Christian brothers and sisters who were leading and chaperoning the retreat. There I learned what Jesus did through his atoning death on the cross to save me from my sins, to save me from hell, to give me eternal life, and to come and live in my heart through the Holy Spirit.
There I received Christ as my Savior and Lord!
I left the retreat that weekend knowing that I was saved… The Bible says in Romans 8:16, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirits that we are children of God.” I knew that I was a child of God! Suddenly all my previous fears melted away! And I knew that my life would never the be same. And I’m here today in part because of that experience.
Listen… do you think the members of Genesis, this secular rock band, had any idea the impact their song would have on me? Nope. Do you think that Jody, my guitar teacher, had any idea that by talking me in to buying this record he was helping to set the course for the rest of my life—including the role I’ve played in leading people to Christ… including my career as a pastor… including my marriage and family? I mean, I met Lisa when she was in college… But she didn’t go to my college. I met her at church, when the church hired her mother to be on staff there! Which means my three kids literally wouldn’t exist if Jesus hadn’t gotten hold of me on that youth retreat, which I wouldn’t have gone on if I hadn’t listened to that song, which I wouldn’t have listened to if I hadn’t taken guitar lessons from this particular teacher.
Do you see what I mean?
Who could have known the kind of impact that all these experiences would have on me?
No one… except God. He planned it all along! He spoke to me through music. That was a language I could understand. Like the star of Bethlehem leading the magi to Christ, God was using all these different experiences to lead me to him.
Now, with that in mind, let’s consider John the Baptist in today’s scripture. One commentator called John a “star”—not a Hollywood star or a rock star or a celebrity—but a star like the one that guided the wise men to Christ… not like the sun, which is the source of light, but like a morning star—like Jupiter and Saturn that I mentioned earlier, which reflects the light of the sun.
That’s what the apostle John is getting at in verses 7 and 8, when he says that John the Baptist came “to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.”
John the Baptist was not the light, but a witness to it.
Do these words contradict Jesus’ own words in the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, when he says to his disciples, “You are the light of the world… let your light shine before others”?
No… it’s not a contradiction. Because in that same passage of scripture Jesus compares us disciples to lamps: “Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.” If we are like lamps—by which he means oil lamps like the kind Aladdin used—if we’re that kind of lamp, that means we are not the source of light that shines form us… the source is outside of ourselves…. it means that apart from fuel and flame, we have no ability to produce light on our own.
So whether we reflect the light of Christ that comes from outside of us, like John the Baptist, or whether we receive and project a light that has been put inside of us, as Jesus said of his disciples, the point is the same: our ability to shine doesn’t depend so much on us; by all means, we have responsibility to say “yes” to God and let him shine through us; but mostly our shining depends on God. In fact, it depends on what John the Baptist himself mentions in verse 33: Christ baptizes us believers with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the the fuel, the flame, the source of the light of Christ that shines within us—to which we bear witness.
My point is, our ability to bear witness to the light doesn’t depend very much on who we are. It depends mostly on God and his Holy Spirit inside of us.
John the Baptist understands this as well as anyone! Look at verses 19 to 23: These religious leaders ask him, “Who are you?” And before he begins to answer who he is, he tells them three things he isn’t. First, he says, “I am not the Christ.”
Then he says he’s not the prophet Elijah. Four hundred years earlier, in the very last word of the last book in the Old Testament, the prophet Malachi wrote, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.” And since Elijah was taken up to heaven before he died, many Jews in the first century interpreted that to mean that Elijah himself would come down from heaven and resume his life on earth. And John says, “No, I’m not Elijah! I’m just John!” And finally he says he’s not “the Prophet,” which is another prophecy of the Messiah.
It’s as if John were saying, “You don’t have to have a high opinion of me! I’m a nobody! I’m no one special! I’m just a voice! A voicecrying in the wilderness… I’m a voice… Not even the mind or body or mouth behind the voice. Even these words are not my own! I’m just sharing the words that God has given me to say.”
Brothers and sisters, don’t tell yourselves, “I’m a nobody. I’m nothing special. I’m not gifted. Therefore I can’t be a witness. Are you kidding? John was a nobody! John was nothing special! John wasn’t gifted—except with the Holy Spirit, which all of us Christians possess! That’s the point of his words in verses 20 to 23!
Who we happen to be matters infinitely less than who Jesus is! Like John, we have the Spirit of Christ living inside of us, and he was put there, in part, so that each one of us could play a role in showing other people the way to Jesus Christ, the way to eternal life, the way to the salvation that’s available through him alone. That’s why we’re here! That’s our purpose in life! That’s our mission!
In fact, that’s the Great Commission…
This commission is the final thing that Jesus gives to his disciples in Matthew 28: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…”
By the way, Jesus gave this Great Commission to a bunch of nobodies… They were nothing special. If you don’t believe me, consider this: a little more than a month before Jesus commissioned these disciples, they had literally fallen away from Christ the night he was arrested and put on trial… They abandoned their Lord… They ran away from him in fear… They even denied him… at least his number one disciple did.
This was not a very promising group of people. Nothing about their past would predict their future success in making disciples. These were not well-educated men; these were not powerful and influential men; these were not wealthy men. These were not well-spoken men. They were of account in the world’s eyes. And they had proven time and again over the course of three years that they were not like Jesus. No one was mistaking these eleven disciples for him!
Yet, like John the Baptist, they were witnesses!
Look, when Jesus and John the Baptist and the apostle John talk about being a “witness,” they’re using legal language—like a witness in a courtroom. No one really cares much about who the witness in a courtroom is, only that he or she is telling the truth… based on their own experience… in this case, based on their own personal experience with Jesus Christ!
Listen… I can give you testimonies of ways in which disciples from Toccoa First are witnessing—not that we weren’t before; don’t misunderstand… but I’m seeing people in this church beginning to live out the Great Commission in ways I haven’t seen before. With greater boldness and power. For example, I’ve heard from one of you in Go Beyond Academy that for the first time you are initiating conversations about Jesus and the gospel with people you work with. You’re praying with people at work. That’s witnessing!
Or how about the Christmas event the Friday night before last. We set out a table. We gave out candy and information about the church, of course. We invited people to enter a drawing to win gift certificates. But even more than that, we were talking to people about Jesus and the gospel! And not just me and Pastor April and Pastor Josh, but some of our youth and our youth volunteers—they were witnessing, they were inviting. My son Townshend also helped. There were several families, for example, who came to our table. We asked them if they knew Jesus. And when they said “yes,” Townshend said, “I love meeting other Christians. But there are so many people who don’t know Jesus… I don’t want to put you on the spot, but what would you say if someone asked you to tell them who Jesus is? How would you answer?” And they were happy to talk. And then that gave us an opportunity to share the gospel with them, if necessary.
And here’s what our recent experience is teaching us about witnessing: First…We’re afraid to do it… Second, it’s terrifying… Third, getting started is hard… Fourth, we would rather be doing almost anything else… And yet… Fifth… every time we do it, it’s much easier than we think or fear that it’s going to be. And, sixth, every time we are happy and grateful and blessed to have gene used by God to do it.
Mostly you just have to open your mouth… the Lord gives you the words… But open your mouth. Just be a voice. Like John the Baptist. Be a voice!
You can be a witness… You can be a witness on one condition: So long as you have something to witness to. So long as you’ve truly witnessed something. So long as you know Jesus and have experienced him personally!
That why I shared my testimony earlier… I don’t know if it’s a good testimony, but it’s mine. It’s based on my own personal experience. I lived it! I know what Jesus can do!
As I said earlier, John told his questioners three things he was not before saying what he was. Actually there’s a fourth “not” in this passage, and it’s the most important one of all. Verses 26 and 27: John says, “but among you stands one you do not know… the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.”
Later in the gospels, Jesus calls John literally the greatest human being who ever lived prior to Christ. Yet even John isn’t worthy to do a task that only a slave in the first century would be allowed to do—to unfasten a man’s sandals. John, the greatest, most righteous man up until Jesus, wasn’t worthy of doing even that. Why? Because John knew himself to be a sinner. And God revealed to him that Jesus was God in the flesh.
Our sin prevents us from being in a right relationship with God. Unless God does something to solve our problem with sin, unless God does something to make forgiveness possible, we will be separated from God… eternally… in hell.
But God also revealed to John the words that John speaks in verse 29: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
I can hardly find sweeter words in all of scripture: Christ willingly and out of love suffered the punishment for our sins that we deserved to suffer. He died the death that we deserved to die for our sins.
If we believe in Christ, all of our sins—past, present, and future—can be forgiven. We can have eternal life. We can become children of God. All this is a free gift… But like any gift you have to receive it.
I pray that you will!