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John 1_6-8_19-28 advent 3

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TITLE:  Martyrs for Jesus                 SCRIPTURE:    John 1:6-8, 19-28

SERMON:   

Would you be willing to be a martyr for Jesus?  That is difficult to answer, because we don't really know how we would respond to a threat to our life.  It is the same sort of question that soldiers ask themselves going into battle.  How will I respond?  Will I be brave?  Nobody knows until they get there?

A martyr, of course, is a person who has been killed because of his or her beliefs -- usually religious beliefs.  We all know of first century Christians being martyred in the Roman Coliseum -- or crucified on crosses lining Roman roads.  But every century has known Christian martyrs -- people who remained faithful in the face of danger -- and who were killed because of their beliefs.  That sort of thing still takes place today in China, Vietnam, Indonesia, India, Egypt, and a host of other countries.  Christian martyrdom seems quite foreign to us, because it has always been safe to be a Christian here -- but throughout history it has often not been safe for people to be Christians.

Would you be willing to be a martyr for Jesus?  I doubt that many of us would welcome the prospect, although there are always people with a flair for the dramatic who would be happy to die gloriously -- for a good cause.  There may be someone here who would be happy enough to be a martyr -- but most of us would be happy not to.

The truth is that I prefer NOT to be a martyr for Jesus -- NOT to die for my faith.  I prefer living for Jesus instead of dying for Jesus.  But if the occasion ever arises that I am forced to choose between life without Jesus or death with Jesus, I hope I will have the strength to choose death -- to be a martyr for Jesus.

But the word martyr didn't always mean dying for the sake of principle.  The word martyr comes from the Greek word marturia, which meant witness -- like a witness in court.  A marturia -- a witness -- would bear marturion -- testimony -- in a trial.  The idea, of course, was the same as it is today -- that a witness testifies to something that he or she knows.  If you see an accident, for instance, you might be asked to testify in court -- to tell a judge or jury what you saw -- what you know about the accident from your personal experience.  The purpose of such testimony, of course, is to help the judge or jury -- who were not there to see the accident -- to assess what happened and to render a fair and just verdict. 

Most of us would be happy enough -- or at least willing -- to serve as a marturia -- a witness in a trial -- if we had personal knowledge of an accident or a crime.  It isn't usually dangerous to be a marturia -- a witness -- in a trial. 

But Christians bearing witness to their faith were living dangerously in the first century, and Christians bearing witness to their faith today sometimes find themselves living dangerously too.  That hasn't generally been the case in this country yet, but we shouldn't assume that we won't live to see such a thing.  Religious fundamentalists are bent on imposing their religion on the world -- people who try to accomplish by terror what they are unable to accomplish at a ballot box.  We should not assume that it will always be safe to be a Christian here.  We should give serious thought to what we will do in the event that it becomes dangerous to become a Christian.  It could happen.

The word marturia -- which originally meant witness -- became a word that speaks of dying for one's faith because so many Christians died for their faith.  They maintained their faith -- witnessed to their faith even under persecution -- and many were killed.

But the time has not yet come when we have to choose between life without Christ or death with him.  Nobody is holding us at gunpoint -- demanding that we renounce our faith.  Thank God for that!

But while Christ has not yet called us to be a martyr in the sense that we die for our faith, he calls us every day to be a martyr in the sense that we witness to our faith -- that we do what John the Baptist did -- that we point people to Jesus -- that we tell him that Jesus is the light -- that we make straight the way of the Lord.

The irony, of course, is that many of us who imagine that we could find the courage to die for our faith cannot seem to find the courage to invite our neighbor to come to church with us.  Or perhaps we just don't realize how important it is for us to do that -- to let our friends and neighbors know that we are Christians -- to invite them to church -- to take overt steps to win them to Christ.  We have believed the world when the world has told us that our neighbor's faith is none of our business.  We need instead to believe Jesus when he tells us that it is.

We live in a world where people outside the church are not likely to hear much about Jesus unless we say something.  Schoolteachers aren't permitted to talk about their faith.  The Christmas music that used to speak of Jesus now speaks of reindeer and snowmen. 

Many Christmas cards today say "Happy Holidays!" instead of "Merry Christmas!" -- presumably because we might offend one of our Jewish friends by saying "Merry Christmas!"  Why can't we send Christmas cards that lift up Christ to most of our friends and send Hanukkah cards to our Jewish friends?  Hopefully we know our friends well enough to know if they are Jewish, and we can tailor our greetings accordingly. 

Why have we let the world convince us that we should hide the light of our faith under a bushel?  Why have we let the world convince us that we should hide our lamp in the cellar instead of putting it on the top of a hill where it can give light to all who see it?  Why have we been so willing to roll over and play dead whenever someone says, "You shouldn't do that, because you might offend someone"? 

I am not suggesting that we become offensive Christians -- in the sense that we fail to take other people's feelings into consideration.  I don't believe that we need to be offensive Christians.  I do believe that we need to be less timid -- less hesitant -- less fearful.  I do believe that we need to make a positive witness for Christ.

I am simply suggesting that we be open and encouraging about our faith -- that we let other people know that our faith is important to us -- that it helps us -- that it might help them.

Pastor Richard Donovan shard this story: I have a bird feeder in my yard.  I bought it at a store that specializes in bird feeders and birdseed.  When I went into the store to look at bird feeders, the clerk asked how she could help me and I explained that I was looking for a bird feeder that squirrels could not raid.  With great delight she showed me a bird feeder that is made for that purpose.  The birds sit on a little circular rail that goes around the bottom of the feeder -- but if a squirrel tries to sit on the rail the added weight activates a motor that causes the rail to spin and throw the squirrel off.  The clerk demonstrated with great delight how it worked.  She ran a short video that showed squirrels trying to mount the rail and being thrown off.  She was quite enthusiastic about her wonderful bird feeder -- to the point that I bought one -- even though it cost three times what I had budgeted.

 

And then she said, "Let me tell you about our bird seed."  They have custom mixed birdseed that is wonderful -- at least that is how she described it.  Of course it costs more than the supermarket variety.  But she was right.  The birds love it!  So the enthusiastic clerk turned my low-budget entertainment into a much high-budget project.  Her enthusiasm -- her delight in telling me about birdseed -- made me a customer for life.

So the question comes to mind, Why can't we be as enthusiastic about our faith as that woman was about her birdseed?  Why can't we be at least that serious about our Christian witness?

While writing this sermon, I tried to find some stories about witnessing for Jesus.  The problem was that so many of the stories were so dramatic that most of us could never imagine ourselves in such a situation.  In one story -- a true story -- a church bus was involved in an accident and a youth pastor was engulfed in flame.  As he was dying, kids in the bus heard him speak joyfully to Jesus -- saying that he was coming home.  That was a powerful witness to those kids, but I hope none of us ever have the opportunity to make that sort of witness.

But we can let people know that we are Christians.  We can keep a Bible on our desk at work.  Of course, if we do that, we then need to act like Christians.  We need to watch our language.  We need to treat people respectfully.  We need to be concerned for their welfare.  We need to be honest.

And we need to invite unchurched neighbors to come to church with us.  First we need to get acquainted.  We need to make friends.  Then we need to invite them to come to church with us.  Not everyone will respond, but some will.  In some cases, it will change their lives -- and the lives of their children. Don't tell me that it doesn't work -- that it doesn't change lives!  It changed my life.

I did come across a story though -- a true story -- that I would like to share with you.  In his book, Sources of Strength, Jimmy Carter tells about a Southern Baptist convention at that he was invited to address while he was President.  It was a huge assembly -- 17,000 delegates.  There were two other speakers.  One was Billy Graham.  The other was a truck driver.  This is not a joke.   It is a true story.  There were three people scheduled to speak at this huge convention -- President Carter, Billy Graham, and a truck driver.  Each of them was given five minutes to speak.

Billy Graham was slated to speak first, so he stood up and began his short but powerful speech.  President Carter was seated next to the truck driver while Graham was speaking.  The truck driver was shaking in his boots at the prospect of giving a speech in front of that great crowd.  He confided to the president that he had never given a speech, and said that he didn't think he could do it.

But when Billy Graham sat down, the truck driver pulled himself to his feet and made his way to the podium.  He stood there silently for a moment, and then reached for a glass of water.  Finally he began to speak -- mumbling into the microphone.  He said:

"I was always drunk, and didn't have any friends.

The only people I knew were men like me

who hung around bars in the town where I lived."

And then he related how someone had told him about Christ.  One thing led to another, and the drunk became a Christian.  His life began to change, and he began to be excited about the possibilities.  He began to want to share his faith with others, but wasn't sure how to go about it.

He had spent a good deal of his life in bars and felt comfortable there -- so he went to one of the bars and began talking to his old friends about Jesus.  The bartender tried to stop him, telling him that he was bad for business -- but he wouldn't be stopped.  His old friends hardly knew what to think, but some began to talk to him and to ask questions.  The truck driver said:

"At first they treated me like a joke,

but I kept up with the questions

and when I couldn't answer one,

I went and got the answer and came back with it."

He concluded his speech by saying , "Fourteen of my friends became Christians."  And then he sat down.  Jimmy Carter said,

"The truck driver's speech, of course,

was the highlight of the convention.

I don't believe anyone who was there

will ever forget that five-minute stumbling statement

or remember what I or even Billy Graham had to say."

Our Gospel lesson tells us that John the Baptist was sent by God to testify to the light -- to testify to Jesus.  So was that truck driver.  And so are we.

It will help if we will do what Jesus told us to do -- to love God -- to love our neighbor -- to care for those who are hungry or thirsty or sick or in prison. 

It will help if we will become the kind of person that our co-workers will respect -- if we are honest -- if we are kind.

It will help if we will find ways to let people know that we are Christians. 

It will help if we will invite friends and neighbors to come to church with us.

It will help if we will pray for guidance, so that we can know just how the Spirit would have us to witness for Christ.

But however we set about to accomplish the task, God sent us here to testify to the light.  Let us not forget that.  And let us not forget to do it.

Amen.

Come Thou Long Expected Jesus      UMH #196      MH #360

What Child Is This                              UMH #219      MH #385

Angels We Have Heard On High       UMH #238      MH #374

HYMN STORY:  Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus

Charles Wesley wrote seventy-five hundred hymns (Encyclopedia Britannica) -- roughly a hymn every other day for fifty years.  I find that amazing!  It would be amazing if he had written one verse every other day, but most of his hymns have several verses.  I can scarcely imagine how he managed to do anything else -- but he was a great preacher as well as a great writer of hymns. 

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