I love mysteries. There’s a bit of insight into the hearts of conditions of people. There’s usually a neat and tidy beginning and end of the mystery, and there’s the mental challenge to engage in as well in trying to figure out “whodunit.” Mysteries always have witnesses. The ones who saw or heard something, or who were with a suspect prior to the central incident. The sleuth tries to solve the crime based on their reports, she or he tries to use the witnesses’ testimony to gain insight.
Witness is an interesting word as it both involves the seeing of an event—like witnessing something historic—while also signifying the telling of your story, to testify or recount what it was that you witnessed in the first place. In his Prologue, our gospel writer John the Evangelist uses it to describe the other John, the one we call “the Baptist.” He writes, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” John the writer is setting up the story that he will quickly tell about John the Witness. And in our gospel reading this morning, we got the testimony:
“When [John] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him…And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
John gives witness again the next day about who Jesus is and then two of the ones who had been following John and his teachings began following Jesus on that day. John the Witness points to Jesus and says, “It’s him! He’s the one I’ve been talking about!”
In reflecting on the passage, Karoline Lewis a professor of theology posed this question to us preachers: “Will you point to how all of us are called to point—to give witness—to how God is present, to how Jesus reveals God, to how the Kingdom of God is here and now and actually makes a difference for our here and now?” Will you do that, will you point out God’s breaking in to our lives, she asked, or will you take an easier route where we don’t go looking for or giving testimony to God’s work in our world?
I recently saw the marvelous film “A Hidden Life” about Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer living during the unfolding of the Second World War. A devoted Catholic, Franz cannot bring himself to espouse the policies of Hitler as an Austrian and refuses to do so. Initially, this brings only growing discomfort for him and his wife Fani and their young daughters from other people in their simple village nestled in the mountains. He rejects financial support from the government, refuses to raise his arm in salute when greeted that way, and walks away from fellow villagers who begin to spout fascist tenets about nationalism and the hatred of foreigners. He begins to be ridiculed, and looked at suspiciously. Yet Franz and Fani express their deep love and commitment to one another, and to their faith. Franz holds his ground, and hearing rumblings about the euthanasia enacted by the Nazis, as well as the suppression of the Church, he begins to question the morality of the war. And then in 1943 Franz, who had received an exemption up to that point due to his status as a farmer, is called into active duty.
Franz reports for duty but he refuses to swear loyalty to Hitler or to fight for Nazi Germany. Almost immediately, he is imprisoned for treason. Throughout his imprisonment and the trial that follows, he keeps getting asked, “What difference do you think you can make by doing this? Do you think you will change the war? What about your family? Isn’t the best thing to swear allegiance to the Fuhrer and then go work as a medic?” He is asked this by old friends, and the attorney assigned to his case, by the judge and his priest. Fani simply reminds him that she loves him, and will remain with him always. Throughout this time, we also see Franz’s true nature. He often gives pieces of his bread to other inmates, he listens to them and befriends them. He doesn’t get angry or vengeful. He quietly lives out his deep faith.
The title of the film “A Hidden Life” comes from George Eliot’s work “Middlemarch.” Hear these words from that novel: “for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” “The growing good of the world is partly dependent on… the number who lived faithfully a hidden life.” On those who lived their lives as an ongoing testimony and witness to the Kingdom of God.
“Will you point to how all of us are called to point—to give witness—to how God is present, to how Jesus reveals God, to how the Kingdom of God is here and now and actually makes a difference for our here and now?”
John came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. And his testimony was quite clear. “Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world… I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him…And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” The testimony is not that Jesus came as if he were some powerful animal—not a lion or panther or eagle, mind you—and not even as an adult sheep—a ram perhaps—John calls Jesus a young lamb. Seemingly no match against the greater powers that be, and yet the light given by that lamb throughout its life changed the course of the world.
I think sometimes it’s easier to look back on someone like Franz Jägerstätter and think that we aren’t given the opportunity to live a noble and courageous life now. Although I remember the news reports of people arrested along our southern border for leaving water jugs out in the desert for migrants or the ones in the Midwest who came up for charges because they handed out sandwiches in a local park to the homeless. Living a life of quiet valor doesn’t seem as far off in the past as we might hope.
And there is always a need to live in a way that gives witness to the Kingdom of God breaking in here and now. Because of the influence of Hollywood we might usually imagine an epic confrontation of good and evil to show that breaking in, and yet Jesus as light and lamb often comes much more gently. The Kingdom breaking in around us can simply be choosing what is right and noble, embracing integrity and showing profound care to another human being.
Taken together over a lifetime, small gifts of kindness can change the world. Small encounters of compassion can significantly impact another person. Perhaps this week you might consider a time when another person showed you a simple act of thoughtfulness and the effect this has had on your life. You could drop them a note or give them a quick call or just give a prayer of thanksgiving for them and the way in which their actions made a difference.
And then maybe you could go one step further, and hold out that story and share it with another person. To give testimony, to bear witness, to the way in which God’s Kingdom of love and compassion and joy and grace entered into your life. Because when we do, we share the power of the impact with others. When he hear about the hidden lives of your neighbor or a friend then that goodness becomes more generative. That’s the beauty of the Kingdom of God, even a small amount—even just a mustard seed experience—can grow into something significant. And that in turn helps us be more intentional in looking for other places where the kingdom breaks in to our own lives, and in becoming agents of the love and compassion of the kingdom as well.
The Kingdom of Jesus continues breaking into our world even now. Let us go and bear witness—let us share the stories of the quiet strength of that kingdom. Let us become known as Phil the Witness or Sue the Witness or Mark the Witness. Let us proclaim simply in the way we live and in the stories we tell of the glorious goodness of the Almighty One. Let us witness to the beauty of God in our lives.