Third Sunday of Advent

The Power of Testimony

One of my earliest memories of attending church with my grandmother (affectionately known as Big Mama) is of testimony service.

woman testifying in worship

Commentary on John 1:6-8, 19-28

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One of my earliest memories of attending church with my grandmother (affectionately known as Big Mama) is of testimony service.

At Big Mama’s church there was singing and praying and preaching, and testimonies. I did not know the language of liturgy and proclamation, but I knew there was something significant about the ways in which the congregants talked about God. Adults and children would spontaneously stand up and witness to the goodness of God—which they called testifyin’. They seemed to know God, even as they wanted to know God more deeply.

The typical testimonial preamble sounded something like this: “Giving honor to God who is the head of my life, and to the pastor, officers and deacons, to the saints and friends; God has been good to me…” The testifier would continue with personal reflection about who God is, what God did, and how fellow worshipers ought to respond to this “miracle-working, prayer-answering, right-on-time God.” Jesus as the Way, the Waymaker, the Light, and the Answer permeated those testimonies, depicting the expansive character of the Divine.

Since then, I have attended many other religious assemblies wherein congregants can’t keep it to themselves just how good God has been. These testimonies shaped my views about the God and God’s activity in the world and continue to do so today. As I reflected on this week’s gospel reading, I was reminded of the power and efficacy of testimony.

Though not included in the lectionary gospel reading, the opening lines of the poetic prologue to John’s Gospel provide an overarching lens through which the reader might interpret the volume of the book. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.”

The narrative of Divine omnipresence and omniscience presented in John 1:1-4, coupled with the birth narratives and Mary’s pregnancy found in the synoptic Gospels, provides the reader with a robust portrayal of the incarnate Christ. Present with God and in God from the creation and born to a girl named Mary—such is the Light of the world of whom John testifies.

The theme of belief in Jesus as the messianic fulfillment—that is, the Light which shines in the darkness of the world—is a core message in John’s testimony. John is witness, not of his own accord, but sent by God (1:6). He is both witness (noun) and witness (verb), attestant and attesting, to the Word made flesh among us (1:14).

The term “witness” or some form of it appears over fifty times in this Gospel. Witness as used by John refers to the character and significance of God’s person.1 Paired with the term “testimony,” the notion of judicial proceedings or a trial scene comes into view. Credible witnesses are crucial to the judicatory process; their accounts of events may have life and death consequences for those for whom they testify. Character witnesses offer testimony to “positive or negative character traits and the person’s reputation and conduct in the community.”2 They offer evidence that corroborates or dispels the image(s) presented of the person during court hearings. The “cosmic trial”3 to come is against Jesus who claims to give eternal life, forgiveness of sins, and to be one with God. John’s evidence for belief in Jesus is rooted in God’s revelation of the Divine.

John’s genealogy suggests he is likely familiar with the prophets and aware of the messianic prophecies. He is the son of Zechariah, of the priestly order of Abijah, and Elizabeth, a descendant of Aaron (Luke 1:5). He may have heard the testimonies of his mother Elizabeth and Mary, the mother of Jesus—how John leaped in Elizabeth’s womb at the voice of a pregnant Mary (Luke 1:40-41). Even before John knew himself, God revealed Jesus. “Even I didn’t recognize him,” asserts John, but the One who sent me told me how to recognize Him (1:33). John’s knowledge does not come from journeying with Jesus, as will his disciples; rather, God has revealed to John, “here is the Lamb of God” (1:36).

The inquiring delegation asks, “Who are you?” John perceives their real question as, “Are you the One?” (1:22). Jesus’ witness par excellence4 declares that he is not the One—not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the Prophet. His testimony defers to the One who offers light and life: I am not the One you seek; He is coming after me and already is among you (1:26). John further distinguishes himself from Jesus as the voice of one crying in the wilderness, echoing the prophet Isaiah (1:23). God is the One who provides the way to salvation, and for John, “Jesus is God’s agent of Israel’s salvation.”5

John’s testimony of Jesus reverberates across time as we look forward in this Advent season. We are reminded to thoughtfully consider our testimonies of word and deed—do our lives witness to the light of God within? In the midst of darkness, disappointments, and dreary outlooks, God sent Light into the world. Trying times have the possibility to yield tremendous testimonies. May God’s people ever bear witness that the Light is come and is now here. Thanks be to God.


Notes

  1. Merrill C. Tenney, “Topics from the Gospel of John: Part III: The Meaning of ‘Witness’ in John,” Bibliotheca Sacra 132 (July 1975): 229–41.
  2. “Character Witness,” Legal Information Institute, https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/character_witness.
  3. Cornelis Bennema, “John: Witness Par Excellance,” in Encountering Jesus: Character Studies in the Gospel of John, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 61–74.
  4. Bennema, 2014.
  5. Bennema, 2014.