Monday, April 15, 2019

Sermon: "Rock of Ages: Our Witness", Joshua 3:14-4:3, 20-24/Luke 19:28-40 (April 14, 2019)

(This sermon is the fifth in our Lenten Series, "Rock of Ages", in which we're exploring how rocks can symbolize different characteristics of God and of ourselves.)


The verb “to witness” is an interesting one, in that it has two different (but related) meanings. When most of us hear it, we think first of the passive meaning of “witness”: to see, hear, or know by personal presence and perception.[1] “I witnessed an argument.” “She witnessed a crime.” “They witnessed a miracle.” In these instances, “to witness” means to be a passive bystander whose involvement is detached and exclusively internal (via your own observations).

However, this term has a second, less frequently used definition, as well. It can also mean “to testify or give evidence”. [2] In this sense, witnessing involves intentionally sharing what you observe with those around you—usually in an effort to convince them of your experience. In this context, “to witness” becomes an active verb. As we enter Holy Week and think about all of the incredible things that Jesus said and did in the last days of his ministry, it’s worth asking which version of witness we’re engaging in, and where the Church would today be if Jesus’ followers hadn’t chosen to share their witness with others.

The Pharisees in Luke sure seem to wish that they hadn’t. As Jesus enters Jerusalem, the crowd witnesses loudly that this is the king who comes in the name of the Lord, but the Pharisees aren’t having it. They chastise Jesus for allowing his followers to create such a ruckus. It’s fine for them to believe whatever they want, of course, but they really should keep it to themselves instead of forcing it on everyone else, right? But Jesus rejects their demand. He implies that passive witness is anathema to God’s message. In fact, the Pharisees’ request is so absurd that it’s impossible to fulfill: “if these [people] were silent, [then] the stones would shout out!” God’s Word cannot be kept a secret—the story WILL be heard, one way or another. The question is…who’ll be the one bold enough to tell it?

For better or for worse, we Presbyterians are inclined to avoid this kind of boldness. We tend to side with the Pharisees when it comes to witnessing. Don’t get me wrong; our intentions are usually good. We know that people experience God differently, and we don’t want to impose our understanding of the divine on others in a way that might make them uncomfortable. But as a result, our denomination is often seen by outsiders as aloof and detached. This has earned us the moniker of “the frozen chosen”—“chosen” referring to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination (which is a whole ‘nother sermon) and “frozen” because of our unwillingness to move, to shout, to actively witness to what we believe. We dutifully sit in our pews, standing when we’re told and singing if we must, but when we leave worship, we usually keep our experiences of Christ to ourselves. We might as well be lifeless stones, with our quiet stoicism and unwillingness to proclaim our faith.

And yet…Jesus tells us that “even the stones will shout”. Even the silent rocks will bear witness to God’s work in the world. It’s tempting to read this verse as if Jesus were saying, “Don’t worry; if you don’t share the Good News, the word will still get out somehow.” But friends…what if WE’RE the stones that Jesus is talking about? What if Jesus’ declaration isn’t an absolution for taciturn Christians like us…but rather a challenge?

Now don’t panic; witnessing to others about God doesn’t necessarily require speaking in tongues or handing out Bible tracts at the grocery store. You don’t have to get in people’s faces. While it’s true that boisterous singing and shouting takes center stage as the primary testimony in the Luke reading, this passage suggests other ways to witness on behalf of God, as well. When the disciples retrieved the colt for Jesus, they witnessed through their actions and obedience. They did what he commanded (no matter how awkward) and, importantly, didn’t hesitate to explain it to those who asked. The crowd witnessed as they laid their cloaks on the road ahead of Jesus. They offered up their belongings to him publicly, without any expectation of a tax write-off or a commemorative plaque. In giving what they had to Jesus, they were demonstrating to the world how important he was to them. Surely, we’re capable of witnessing through our our offerings, our actions, or our voices. The stones will shout, yes, but they give and act in Christ’s name just as easily.

If it feels like even these public methods of witness are still a little too “advanced” for mainline Protestants like us, remember that sometimes witness starts in our own community before we’re bold enough to proclaim it more widely. Last week, we talked about the symbols and monuments that surround us as reminders of our commitment to God. These serve as our very first witness: to ourselves. But that’s not enough. In the Joshua reading today, God commands the Israelites to set up a similar monument as a reminder of what happened at the Jordan River…but it’s not just for them. Joshua explains, “In the future your children will ask their parents, ‘What about these stones?’ Then you will let your children know…the Lord your God dried up the water of the Jordan before you until you crossed over…”[3] Even the stones will TEACH. We must witness not only to ourselves, but to one another and to our children, so that we never forget God’s goodness and faithfulness.

Witnessing among our own community is absolutely important, but at the end of the day, it’s a warm-up. Don’t use it as a stand-in for your wider witness to the world. This is just preparation for the real goal—teaching all people everything that Christ has taught us, as he commanded us to do.[4] Joshua does encourage us to teach our children, but ultimately, he says, “This happened so that all the earth’s people might know that the Lord’s power is great…”[5] Even the stones will shout, not just at a respectable volume to their neighbors, but at the top of their voices to the ends of the earth. It may take us some time and practice to become used to this idea, but our witness was never meant to be kept to ourselves. The entire point is to share what we know loudly and often in the hopes that the Good News of Christ will one day be heard and welcomed by every single person in every corner of the world.

If you weren’t intimidated by the idea of witnessing to others before, I bet you are now. This is a huge task that we’ve been given, and certainly not one that’s accomplished easily. There are plenty of people out there who have no interest in listening to what we stones have to say. There’ll be even more people who believe that stones have no business shouting in the first place. It may feel impossible to proclaim God’s Word effectively without becoming a wrecking ball for Christ. But wrecking balls aren’t the only type of stone that can make an impact on the world. Even a small pebble can create ripples in a pond that reach the shore. Your shout doesn’t need to be loud enough to knock people over—it just needs to be loud enough to be heard.

“If these were silent, even the stones would shout out.” How is Jesus challenging you with these words? We’ve all heard the Good News—otherwise we wouldn’t be here. We’ve all witnessed God in our OWN lives, but how have we shared it with others? God’s Word is so wonderful, so transformative, that it should be bubbling up out of us all the time, even if it feels like nobody’s listening, even if you’re not usually the shouting type, even if others tell you it’s wrong.

The Spirit of the Lord is calling even stones like us to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, to release the prisoners, to comfort all who mourn.[6] This is not the sort of thing you keep to yourself. It’s too IMPORTANT to keep to yourself. This is the sort of message that’s so powerful, it moves inanimate objects to celebration. Don’t be an inanimate object. Be a witness. Whisper this message to yourself, confide it to your children, declare it to one another, and shout it to the world: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

If we do this, if we refuse to silence the message in spite of ourselves, then we’ll be able to carry it with us through even the darkest night. As we embark on Holy Week and walk through the valley of the shadow of death once again, hold fast to the Word that God has placed on your heart. When your own voice falters, may you hear the echo of another shouting stone in the distance reminding you of the hope we find in Christ, until the day that we all find the strength and confidence to shout it aloud together again. Amen.


[3] Joshua 4:21-23, CEB.
[4] The Great Commission: Matthew 28:18-20.
[5] Joshua 4:24, CEB.
[6] Cf. Isaiah 61:1-2, NRSV.

No comments:

Post a Comment