in Catechesis, Sermons

30. November 2011
Advent 1 Midweek
1 John 1:1-8ff

A preaching series based on and drawn from John Pless’s outline and Al Collver’s Bible study materials. 

This year’s midweek Advent services will consider the latest emphases—systematized, packaged, and illustrated—from our Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Witness-Mercy-Life Together. You may recognize them as I introduced them last year and used these emphases to provide focus to our 2012 budget and its proposal. We are not considering them because they are Scripture. Nor are we considering them because they are a full summary of our faith. They are not another catechism. They are simply another set of memory tools to help us teach and learn what the Scriptures teach, specifically aimed toward refocusing the Missouri Synod and her member congregations on the Biblical doctrine of the church. Will they work? Only the Spirit knows, when and where He blows.

Tonight we begin with the first emphasis: witness. In 1872, CFW Walther preached to the Synodical Conference, that “the chief object of [our] joint labor” in the kingdom of Christ is “the salvation of souls.” That is not to say that this is our work. No, it is the Lord who saves souls by the witness of His Gospel. He locates this Gospel in the church and the people of His church are used as instruments of the Gospel to save others. Or, to put it another way, the Holy Spirit creates and sustains saving faith through the witness of the Gospel by others in the church. This good news, this Gospel, is the persona and work of Jesus Christ, who through His life, sufferings, death, and resurrection earned for us forgiveness of sins and eternal life. (Collver)

The Greek word martyria is a term taken from the courtroom; it originally meant something similar to “eyewitness testimony.” In the New Testament, martyria describes eyewitness testimony made by the apostles and others who saw and heard Jesus preach, teach, and heal. At His ascension, Jesus told His apostles, “You will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8, cf Is 43:12). The testimony about Jesus and His Gospel began with His eyewitnesses and expanded to include those who came to faith through their preaching and teaching. We Christians today are beneficiaries of their witness. As the body of Christ, the church continually bears witness to Jesus. Likewise, every Christian bears witness and testifies about Jesus in the vocations to which God has called him. Further, in the Early Church, those who gave their lives for the sake of the Gospel, that is, bore witness about Jesus through their deaths, were called martyrs, derived from the Greek word martyria. (Collver)

“Bearing witness” says Luther “is nothing but God’s Word spoken by angels or men, and it calls for faith” (AE20:213). In Acts 1:8 the risen Lord says of His apostles that they will be His witness in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and beyond those borders to the end of the earth. It is the apostles who with their own eyes have seen the Lord, touched Him with their own hands, and heard His voice with their ears who are designated witnesses. We are witnesses only in a derived sense that our words echo the reliable testimony of the apostles. To bear witness is to speak not of ourselves but of another—Jesus Christ. (Pless)

[St. John writes in his first epistle: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life— 2 the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us— 3 that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. 4 And these things we write to you that your joy may be full” (1 John 1:1-4)]

The great witness of Advent is John the Baptist. “The prologue [of the Fourth Gospel] says that God sent John to be a witness (1:6-8). A witness speaks in contexts where the truth is disputed. If everything is clear, there is no need for testimony” (Koester, The Word of Life, p. 34). The witness of John the Baptist is twofold. He bears witness to human sinfulness which separates man from God. In no uncertain terms he names sin for what it is, showing his hearers their inability to recognize the One who stands among them is their Messiah. [John answered them, saying, “I baptize with water, but there stands One among you whom you do not know. 27 It is He who, coming after me, is preferred before me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose” (John 1:26-27).] (Pless)

John is not sent to bear witness to himself; he is the voice crying in the wilderness. [19 Now this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you, that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said: “I am ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Make straight the way of the Lord,” ’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” (John 1:19-23)]

John is neither the light of the world (John 1:6-8) nor the Christ (John 1:20) but the one sent to bear witness. Thus he proclaims Jesus Christ as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Our witness is always this same confession of Jesus Christ.

32 And John bore witness, saying, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him. 33 I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I have seen and testified that this is the Son of God.” (John 1:32-34)

This first-hand testimony reveals the truth, because John saw and heard and now bears witness. The Holy Trinity are all active in Jesus’ Baptism. The Holy Spirit specifically points to and directs us to see Jesus, the Son of God. This cannot come by our own reason or strength, as we confess in Luther’s explanation to the Third Article, but “the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel.” The Holy Spirit directs us through the Word of testimony, of witness, to see Jesus. This Word of Jesus creates faith in you when it is heard. By the working of the Holy Spirit through this Word, with John, we recognize Jesus is the Son of God.

We need the witness to believe and to remain in this faith until the end. St. Paul says: 14 How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? 15 And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, Who bring glad tidings of good things!” 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our report?” 17 So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:14-17).

Some think that only those who have never heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ should receive the Church’s witness. However, people in the Church and people in the world need the Church’s witness! [We need to be converted, yes, but we also need this witness to keep us in the faith.] What is the chief content of that witness? God’s gracious and free forgiveness of our sins for Jesus’ sake.

St. John writes in his first epistle: This is He who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not only by water, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who bears witness, because the Spirit is truth. 7 For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. 8 And there are three that bear witness on earth: the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree as one. 

All three, the Spirit, the water, and the blood testify, or bear witness, to Jesus. Or to put it another way, the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments bear witness to Jesus. For the sake of Jesus, God forgives our sins through the Word, both preached and in Holy Absolution; and through the water of Holy Baptism and the body and blood of Jesus in the Lord’s Supper. In order to witness what the Lord has done for us, we Christians need first to be fed by God’s Word and be forgiven our sins through these means of grace. (Collver)

Thus, we, too, are witnesses with the apostles. We have heard and we see by the testimony they have given and the work of the Holy Spirit. Our duty is to bear witness to Jesus, true. But first, let us receive this witness through preaching, instruction and catechesis, and through the receiving of Christ’s forgiveness in the blessed sacraments. This is precisely where Jesus, the Word, locates Himself for you, His people. By receiving, we testify to Jesus. By the work of the Holy Spirit, by the water of Baptism, by the confession of Christ’s death and resurrection for us, and by the Lord’s Supper, the world will know what Jesus has done. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Cor 11:26). Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

In Name of the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church
Dyer, Indiana