Time to Testify
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; November 17, 2019
23rd Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 12; Luke 21:5-19
As you know, most of the time our worship services are guided by Lectionary readings. Each week, the Lectionary calendar provides an offering from the Old Testament, a Psalm, a text from a Gospel and an Epistle. Supposedly, selections are provided that share common themes. Sometimes the connections are obvious. At other times, the pastor is left scratching her head, wondering, “What in the world were ‘they’ thinking?” I admit, at first glance, our readings from Isaiah and Luke seem like an odd pairing. Allow me to explain.
Overall, the book of Isaiah is a prophetic meditation upon the city of Jerusalem and the faith of ancient Israel, and, by extension, our faith. In poetic fashion, Isaiah weaves two threads into the fabric of the story of a chosen people. First, Yahweh, the God of Israel, has made deep, abiding promises to the line of David—promises of abundant blessings. In wondrous ways, God keeps God’s promises. The second thread of Isaiah’s story is an awareness that Jerusalem has fallen short and is constantly in jeopardy of judgment. Thus, through the eyes of the prophet, divine promise and divine judgment are linked.
Isaiah chapter 11, which precedes today’s reading, offers a glimpse of the peaceable kingdom that will spring up from the root of Jesse. The spirit of the Lord will rest upon God’s chosen king and peace and harmony will reign. The obvious response of such hope and restoration is the song of Thanksgiving found in our reading for today.
We happen upon quite a different scene in our reading from the gospel of Luke. While Jerusalem and the temple are still key to the faith of God’s chosen people, with Jesus a new day is dawning. For good reason, there are those who are impressed by the beautiful stones and the grandeur of the temple. Jesus, however, is not one of them. He is sick and tired of those in leadership who have used the temple system and their own positions to bully and oppress the vulnerable. A new day is dawning and with courage Jesus tells it like it is. In essence, he says something like this:
You see this building that you admire so much, well, a time is coming when it will be nothing more than a heap of rubble. It will be destroyed for the old world is passing away. But don’t be afraid—even when you hear of wars and rumors of wars—even when it looks like the end is drawing nigh—even when false prophets rise up. Oh, they will say they know the ins and outs of my Father’s plan. Don’t believe them! Don’t follow them! Nation will rise up against nation and there will be natural disasters that can’t possibly be explained. Hold fast! Before Abba’s plan is complete, there will still be work to do. Those who believe in me will be handed over to people in authority. And then you will be given the greatest of opportunities. You will have a chance to testify. Even then, don’t be afraid because I’m going to be right there beside you, giving you the wise words you need. They won’t know what hit them. It won’t be easy. You may be betrayed by your own kin. Hatred will rise against you—so much so—some will be put to death. Regardless, the bigger picture is this: every detail of your body and soul—even the hair on your head—is in my tender care. Stay with it! That’s what is needed! Stay with it and you won’t be sorry. Instead, you’ll be saved.
At first glance, the readings from Isaiah and Luke appear to be miles apart. But as I reflected on them, one thing kept glaring back at me. In a time of celebration, thanksgiving and praise, twice Isaiah proclaims, “You will say in that day!” Then from Luke, Jesus foretells of a time of chaos and destruction that will provide the perfect opportunity to testify. In other words, in good times, testify to God’s goodness throughout the earth. In bad times, don’t keep your faith bottled up; instead open your mouth and testify!
Testify—the word gets a bad rap in our tradition, doesn’t it? Likely, it brings up images of some Bible thumping man on the street corner, shouting at the top of his lungs, “Have you been saved?” In an article in Presbyterians Today, Lynn Hasselbarth, a student at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, admitted that when she thinks of evangelism, what comes to mind is a cartoon character of a car blaring its horn. Beep! Beep! Hasselbarth said in the past she felt more comfortable sharing her faith—quietly, politely, and avoiding conflict at all costs. But somewhere along the way her faith took her to an unexpected place—a place that helped her see evangelism differently. She realized that simple conversations about her call and the process of becoming ordained gave her just the opening she needed to talk about the things of God. She explains,
While I find myself more and more compelled to share the good news of God’s love for us, I continue to want to slam on the brakes, for fear of honking the horn of evangelism too loud. But I’m learning that the sound of evangelism is not [fundamentally] noisy or aggressive, nor is [a] …subdued or silent form of witness [best]. I yearn for an evangelism that sings like a set of wind chimes, ringing with different voices, tones, and pitches—not from our own doing but because of the stirring of the Holy Spirit.[i]
The truth is, in the way that we live out our faith, no matter what is going on—be it good, bad, or somewhere in between—we are a witness for God—albeit, too often, a silent one.
In her book, Tell it Like it Is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony, Lillian Daniel claims that all congregations and all churchgoers have faith stories. But most people of mainline traditions have for too long believed it is impolite or rude to talk about religion. People think being reverent to God means being silent and serving others. “It’s better to walk the walk than talk the talk” we say. One of the results of such thinking is we have lost our vocabulary of faith—we have lost our voice.
No doubt, we, who stand in the light and love of Jesus Christ, have a story to tell. And Jesus said we would have an opportunity to testify. But will we? Will we trust the Holy Spirit to help us find the words? “When things are going well,” you might be thinking, “I can muster up a few words of hope and love. Telling about good times and good things, sharing how God made a way when there seemed to be no way—that kind of testimony seems reasonable. I think I can learn to do that.” But what about when we stare darkness and pain in the face? Can we muster up a testimony then? Might it be that at such times, the world needs our witness even more?
No doubt every generation has speculated if the end of time is drawing near. In recent years, we have surely witnessed our share of wars, natural disasters, and political chaos, which might lead us to wonder: “Are these the last days of which Jesus spoke?” But Jesus does not want us to fret about such things. No matter what happens, our instructions remain the same: Do not be afraid…this is the perfect opportunity to testify.
But what kind of testimony can a faithful person give in the face of death and destruction? One scholar notes: “The opportunity to testify during times of destruction is, in part, the audacity to muster courage in the face of fear, the boldness to speak in the face of suffering. Great suffering changes some people and defeats others, but for those who endure—their very souls are gained. Suffering provides an opportunity for those who have been changed to tell of their hope.”[ii]
Thomas Dorsey was born in rural Georgia in 1889. He was an amazing song writer, and gospel and blues musician. As a young man he moved to Chicago where he made a living playing piano in churches, clubs, and theaters. Eventually, he devoted his career to the church. In August of 1932 he left his pregnant wife in Chicago and traveled to St. Louis to be the featured soloist at a large revival. After the first night, he got a telegram with the news, “Your wife just died.” He raced home to learn that his wife had died during childbirth and his son had died the next day. Crushed, Dorsey refused to compose or play music for a long, long time. Eventually, however, sitting in front of a piano, a feeling of peace washed over him. That very night, Dorsey recorded his testimony—one that has struck a chord in the hearts of people ever since.[iii]
Precious Lord, take my hand. Lead me on, let me stand;
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;
Through the storm, through the night, Lead me on to the light;
Take my hand, precious Lord, Lead me home.
We are all on a pilgrimage. There are days when the light shines and hope reigns. There are days when the bottom falls out and we stagger, unsure of which way to turn. Nonetheless, our instructions remain the same: It’s time to testify about the love and mercy and grace of God Almighty—the God who counts the hairs on our heads—the God who holds our hands—and, yes, the God who leads us home! In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] Lynn Hasselbarth, Presbyterians Today, Nov. 2013, 8.
[ii] Nancy Lynne Westfield, Feasting on the Word, 310- 312.
*Cover Art, Stushie Art; used by subscription