I like preaching after Deacon Terry! His sermons are a great help! This morning, I again want to pick up on a point Terry made in his sermon last week.
In his sermon, Terry reminded us that we are called to be like John the Baptist. We are called to follow John’s example in pointing to Christ, without making it all about us.
We see John’s example again in today’s Gospel.
In case we have forgotten, the Gospel writer tells us that the Baptizer “came as a witness to testify to the light.” That’s a big role, but John did it without a big ego.
Under pressure, the Baptizer acknowledges that he fulfills ancient prophecy, that he has important role to play in God’s plan, that he is the long-awaited “voice crying out in the wilderness” about the coming of the messiah.
But John is always clear that he is just a servant of the one to come. John says that he is “not worthy to untie the thong of [Christ’s] sandal.” When Priests and Levites challenge him, John insists that he himself is NOT the Messiah or the Prophet. No ego here.
But, and this is the point I want to emphasize this morning, John doesn’t back down either. His opponents ask, “Why, then, are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” What gives you the right to do the things that you are doing? What gives you the right to make such a big fuss? Who do you think you are?
And John comes right back at them. “I baptize with water.” That’s what I have been called to do, and I plan to keep doing it.
John shows us humility coupled with strength, commitment, courage, faithfulness, the determination to do what God calls him to do no matter what the cost. And, as you probably know, the cost was high for John. Herod imprisoned John and ultimately had John beheaded because John refused to condone the sins of the royal family.
Like John, we are called as witnesses to testify to the light of Christ. As Terry said last week, we should be humble, as John was, as we go about fulfilling our calling as witnesses. And, I add, like John, we should be courageous as we go about fulfilling our calling as witnesses.
I have known Christians who are obnoxious about their faith, people who are self-righteous and judgmental, people who seem to think that they have all the answers and that everyone else is wrong-headed. I don’t want to be like that!
Thankfully, I don’t think many Episcopalians are like that. Our greater danger is, I think, the opposite. In a proper effort not to offend others, I worry sometimes that we are too hesitant to speak out, to share our convictions, to testify to the light, which we are all called to do.
Sometimes people use humility as an excuse to shirk our callings.
The Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis identifies humility as the first “note” of the Order. That is to say, humility is supposed to be one of the most important and obvious attributes of every Third Order Franciscan, including me and Deacon Terry. But, our Principles continue, “when asked to undertake work of which we feel unworthy or incapable, we do not shrink from it on the grounds of humility, but confidently attempt it through the power that is made perfect in weakness.”
John the Baptizer got that exactly right. John was truly humble, and John confidently fulfilled his calling as a witness testifying to the light of Christ. All of us are called to do the same: to be humble, to be confident, and to testify.
Particularly in this season, when we are bombarded with Christmas messages that often have nothing to do with Christ, and yet when many people are open to hearing the message of the Christ child who comes as God among us, we should be prepared to testify, humbly but also confidently, to the light that is Christ.
On this, the ordained have it relatively easy. People may not want me around, but if I am around, they know what they are getting. Priests are expected to talk about Christ and about Church. Testifying happens more or less naturally. It can take more courage for a layperson to bring up God in many contexts.
And, of course, how we testify depends entirely on the particular spiritual gifts God has given us. The silent testimony of our lives is usually the most powerful testimony we can offer. We can point to Christ in ways as simple as treating a homeless person with dignity, or as personal as forgiving someone who has offended us.
But sometimes we need to proclaim the good news of God in Christ not only by our example but by our word as well.
For me, that has meant preaching. Preaching is a pleasure for me now. But for years, the obligation to preach seemed to me a significant barrier to ordination. I was terrified of speaking in public. But God worked on me, and God helped me, and here I am. I say that to show that, with God’s help, we can do things that would otherwise be impossible for us.
But none of us are called to testify to the light in every possible way. In the last year or so, a friend helped me to discover a way I am NOT called to testify.
She gave me the link to a podcast by a well-known atheist. After I listened to the podcast, I sent her a long message about why I found his argument unpersuasive. I explained, at some length, that the podcaster did not understand what religion is or how religion works in the lives of most believers. I was devastating.
My friend responded that she actually knew the podcaster personally and that she could probably get me on his podcast for a debate.
That was NOT an attractive proposition. I enjoy chatting with people with whom I disagree. I would probably enjoy meeting the famous atheist and having a serious conversation about religion. I wouldn’t mind sending him my thoughts in a long email. But a public debate? On a podcast? Worse, on his podcast? That was not something I was prepared to do. Tail between my legs, I declined her suggestion.
It may be that someday I am called to become a public debater. I hope not! If it happens, I will definitely have to rely on God for help! But right now, debate is not my calling. Debate is not the way I need to be testifying to the light of Christ.
But, and here I return to the example of the Baptizer one more time, we are all called as witnesses to testify to the light of Christ in one way or another. I encourage you to spend some time this week thinking about your own testimony. What form does your testimony take? And are you testifying in the way that God is calling you to do?
Given that next Sunday is Christmas Eve, I can be more specific, too. I encourage you to invite someone to worship with us that evening. That is a low stakes way of testifying. And if you can convince anyone to come, they will be glad they did.
In the name of the Christ child, whose birth we celebrate next week. Amen.
 The Principles of the Order, Day 24.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan