“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” (John 1:6-9)
No one had more odd jobs getting through college than I did. Yard work, painting, chauffeuring, and of course, retail sales. One such job was selling pots and pans. I went to the demonstrations and learned the good features of the product. Then I learned how to get in some family’s home and set the tone for a sale. I learned all the ways to get the people to sign on the dotted line. It was all, of course, for their good. And I got a commission for every sale (no salary). One night I was in a home demonstrating the pots and pans. A wife and husband were giving me the opportunity to make a sale. Even as a fledgling college student I could tell that they were just getting by. Yet I knew that with my speaking skills coupled with the manipulative techniques I had been taught, I could make a sale and earn some tuition money. At some point that evening I decided to end the presentation gracefully and not lead them into more monthly debt than they already had. That job ended abruptly. Soon after, I found another part-time college job; bagging groceries. I got a straight salary and didn’t need to learn manipulative ways. To this day, I like to bag my own groceries. One does not forget such skills.
If you saw your neighbor’s home on fire and thought your neighbor was asleep, would you see that as a private matter, or would you find a way to get your neighbor’s attention? If you had good news that could help change another person’s life in the most positive ways in this life and in eternity, wouldn’t you want to share it?
That’s something of the struggle many of us feel. Methods of evangelism sometimes seem contrived and manipulative. We know this good news that can change everything and the other person may not even know it, or may know it only in a distorted form. Yet we want to honor the other person’s privacy and choice. What do we do? John the Baptist told people clearly: Jesus is the one. John was a witness to the light. With deeds and words he pointed people to Jesus. He never put the spotlight on himself; he always put the spotlight on Jesus. He has long been a role-model for me as a pastor and preacher.
This faith is designed to be shared. That means being a witness by how we live and it means being ready to share what we believe with others. A preacher named Steve Brown said, “If you’re going to act like a jerk, please don’t tell people about Jesus.” I would add, if you’re going to drive like a jerk, don’t advertise that you’re a Christian on your bumper. If you’re going to be impatient waiting in line or snapping at a harried salesperson, don’t wear a cross around your neck or a WWJD bracelet. The living we do will always speak louder than the words we speak.
Yet there is a place to speak. The best place for that speaking is out of our living. The unspoken but lived sermon is always powerful. I remind us of the words attributed to St. Francis: “Preach the gospel at all times; use words when necessary.” Words are often necessary. God reveals himself to us through the vehicle of words. God gives us a book, a revelation of his nature and a record of his mighty deeds. Words. God sends his son to live among us and die for us, and calls him the Word. We need the words. Talk may be cheap; good words are not. They are precious. Some years ago I saw the version of the Emancipation Proclamation that Abraham Lincoln wrote in his own hand on temporary display in Albany. It was so many words, but those words changed lives forever. Those words freed men, women, and children from cruel bondage. Words matter. Speaking the needed word often takes courage. Being a contagious Christian is about always living the faith and sometimes verbalizing that faith.
In my pastorate, I once received a card from a woman who, with her husband, had just moved away. She wrote, “I fell away from God and the church when I was in college. Some of my life circumstances made me angry with God. I thought God was punishing me. When my neighbors invited my husband and me to attend their church, I was a little reluctant, but God had softened my heart some and I went. I was immediately struck by the presence of the Lord. Everyone was kind and welcoming. I continued to come over the next two years and developed a relationship with God. A lot of healing took place. I am not angry at God anymore and I know that he loves me.” How many people are like she was before she accepted her neighbor’s invitation? How many are hoping to find that God loves them and welcomes them? How many are waiting for a gracious invitation to a Christmas Eve service this year?
Let’s work for our churches to be communities that welcome others and, out of our living, earn the right to share the Good News. What a difference that word can make in another person’s life. John the Baptist knew his role and played it to the full: to point everyone to Jesus, the Lamb of God, the heaven-sent Savior, Bethlehem’s babe, the Lord of heaven and earth. “He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”