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Bearing Witness about Christ

May 24, 2020
By Rev. James Barton

Let us pray: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen. The text for our meditation today is the Gospel lesson, along with some thoughts from the other readings for the day.

Maybe you saw, about a week ago, a report of a recent survey, a poll, with the headline, “The coronavirus has prompted almost two-thirds of American believers of all faiths to feel that God is telling humanity to change, a new poll finds.” One person is quoted, who says that he believes in God but isn’t religious (probably meaning that he is not connected to any church or organized religious group). Notice how vague his response is. He said, “It could be a sign, like 'Hey, get your act together.' I don’t know .... It just seems like everything was going in an OK direction and all of a sudden you get this coronavirus thing that happens, pops out of nowhere.” (AP Story)

There's not much clarity in that response, is there? Even if we have the feeling that God wants us to change in some way, the answers are never in polls or human opinions or in human feelings or in looking at the world around us. As Christians, we know that we always need to go to where we know that God Himself has spoken clearly, through His prophets and apostles and through Jesus Himself - and that is in the Bible.

In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus is speaking of the coming of the Holy Spirit, that great day we will celebrate next Sunday, on Pentecost. Jesus does say, a little after our text, that when the Spirit comes, “He will convict (or “convince”) the world of sin” (John 16:8). That is the reality. We are all sinful people in a sinful world (and we need to know that, so that we know that we do need a Savior). Even the creation has fallen and is corrupted, too; and in a general sense, all human troubles, including illness and physical problems and even a virus that gets out of control, come because of sin and a broken world.

And sin is not a problem we can solve on our own, the Bible says, even if we feel that we ought to change. Think about all the New Year's resolutions you make and so quickly fail to keep. As a sincere Christian, you have very good intentions about good things you want to do, but how many of those things do you really follow through with?

In this time of the coronavirus and social distancing, we know that we ought to call or email or send a note to check up on and encourage others, even friends in the church, but how often do we do that? That is why, if we are honest with ourselves, we do need to admit, day after day, and week after week, as we did this morning (not just in Covid time), that we are poor, miserable sinners who need forgiveness and the help of God, even to try to do better.

The really Good News of our Gospel lesson is that Jesus did not say, “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of Truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness” (John 15:26) to you about how terrible you are and how you need to straighten up and change yourselves, and get your act together - or else!  Instead, we actually hear Jesus saying, “But when the Helper comes, the Spirit of Truth, He will bear witness about Me” - about Jesus Himself. (John 15:26). For Jesus had been sent into the world to do the work we could not do for ourselves and could never change enough to do. Already, Jesus was living the perfect life we ought to live, but do not and cannot do. And in less than 24 hours after Jesus spoke these words, He would be arrested and put on trial and unjustly be condemned to die, and suffer and die on the cross, for the disciples who deserted Him and for all humanity, which does not change as it should, and for us poor miserable sinners, still today, too, you and me.

As Jesus rose in victory on Easter and 40 days later ascended into heaven, He gave proof that He had won the victory for us, and that we have forgiveness of every sin and hope for our future always, in life and in death, in Jesus. No wonder, then, that the Holy Spirit would bear witness to Jesus. Jesus is the Savior - and the work of the Holy Spirit is now to bring people to faith in Jesus and keep them confident in Him.

Remember what was said in the Old Testament lesson (Ezekiel 36:22-28) for today? People of Israel were captives in Babylon, and they could not free themselves. Their hearts were hard, like stone. So God says, “it is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of My holy Name, which you have profaned (despised) among the nations” (v. 22). The people did not deserve it, but out of His mercy, God brought His people back to the land of Israel, and eventually, He sent the Savior Jesus to be one of them and do His saving work among them and for the whole world, under the New Covenant (the New Testament). He does not first wait for people to change, and then He will help and save them. He changes them and us, through the promise of His Spirit, working through the Word of God, and through the Word connected with water, in the gift of baptism.

Listen to this Word of God, a prophecy that describes what God does for us, too, through His Word and baptism: “I will sprinkle clean water on you and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will be put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes and be careful to obey My rules... You shall be My people, and I will be your God” (Ezekiel 36:25-28). This is what we really are now, because of the saving work of Jesus, completed for us, and the work of the Holy Spirit, who has witnessed to us and brought us to faith and keeps us in faith, through the Word and our baptism and the Lord's Supper, when we are able to receive it, too.

We just confessed, moments ago, the Apostles' Creed; and in a certain sense, you could say that we are now living in the time of the Third Article of the Creed. We believe in God the Father, who created all things and loved us, even after the fall into sin, and sent His Son, in whom we also believe, into this sinful, broken world to do all the work necessary to rescue and save us.

And we believe in the Holy Spirit, too, who has been and still today is creating “the Holy Christian Church", which consists of “the communion of saints”, the fellowship of all believers in Christ and the Christian faith, who are saints, not by what they have done but by what Christ and the Holy Spirit have done for them. This “communion of saints” includes each of us and those 3,000 people who were baptized and came to faith on Pentecost, as we will hear next week, and all other believers. It also includes every single baby and child and adult who is baptized and believes, in our own congregation - and anyone else in the future. For this is Good News for all, and these are gifts available to all, and for anyone listening today who has not yet been baptized and come to faith, too; for Christ died for all, the Holy Spirit tells us in the Scriptures (1 Timothy 2:1-6). And the Holy Spirit daily and richly promises and provides for us “the forgiveness for our sins” as we continually come to Him for cleansing - and he even promises to us “the resurrection of our bodies” and “the life everlasting” with our Lord. How important and comforting these gifts of God are for us, too!

Remember the words of Peter in our Epistle lesson (1 Peter 4:7-11) for today? “The end of all things has drawn near” (v. 7). The Scriptures often remind us that Jesus will come back, any day or any year, and we always need to be prepared for that. And we are prepared, by continuing faith in Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit, through the Word of God and the Sacraments.

Our own personal end in this life may come at any time, too, as the Covid pandemic reminds us. We pray that Covid will not affect us; but something else will, at some point; and we will all die, unless Jesus comes back first. Jesus even predicts, in our Gospel lesson, that the hour is coming (for some) “when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God” (John 16:2). Think of all those who died on 9/11, and just a number of months ago, the shootings at the Naval Air Base in Pensacola, Florida, and another shooting at another Naval Air Base, just a few days ago, when Islamic terrorists mistakenly thought they were serving God by killing Christians. But even in the midst of Covid and all these other terrible things, we have hope and confidence in Christ - and the certainty of “the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting,“ for us, too.

And in the meantime, as we wait for the end of all things, Peter says we can try to do some things that say “thank you” to God for all His gifts to us and that can help others and be a witness to them of the love of God for them, too (1 Peter 4:8-11). Jesus did say to His disciples: “Your also will bear witness” about Me (John 15:27). As an example of this and to close our sermon, I’d like to speak to any children still listening - and to grown-up children, too. This is for all of us.

I brought a big rock, a stone, with me today. If I talked to this stone all day and asked it to do various things, what would it do? Absolutely nothing! It is not alive, and it cannot hear or do anything. That is the way we were born, we heard earlier in our sermon - physically alive but spiritually dead, with hearts of stone. But God loved us enough to send Jesus to be our Savior, and sent the Holy Spirit, through the Word of God and our baptism, to wash away our sins and make us spiritually alive and take away our hearts of stone and give us new hearts, which can hear and say “thank you” to Jesus. Peter gives us several examples of what we could do.

Since Jesus ascended to heaven, the Bible says He has been praying for us, that we stay in faith and not fall away (John 16:1, John 17:14-15, John 22:32, Romans 8:34, etc.). We can pray for others, too, that God would help them (1 Peter 4:7). Jesus loved us, while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8). So, instead of grumbling and complaining and pointing out the faults of our brothers and sisters and others, we could try to be more patient and loving and forgiving to them, as we have already been forgiven by Jesus. Everything we can do flows first from what Jesus already has done for us (1 Peter 4:8-10). As we speak to others, we can try to be a good witness for Jesus to them, as the Holy Spirit has already told us about Jesus, through His Word, and his been a good witness to us, bringing us to faith (1 Peter 4:11).

In all this, we are not trying to earn the favor of God in any way. He has already done everything we need, in Christ, and through the Holy Spirit and our baptism. Any good we can do, we do by the power of God anyway, not our own (1 Peter 4:11), as we are now alive in Christ. “We serve,” Peter says, “as one who serves by the strength God supplies.”  God gets the credit, by His grace for us. And so Peter ends by saying something very similar to what we say, at the end of the Lord's Prayer: “In order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To Him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 4:11).

Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep us safe, where we can be safe, now and forever, in Christ Jesus. Amen (Philippians 4:7).