As we know, it is the Sunday after Easter Sunday and a few things have changed. The pageantry and the flowers of Easter Sunday are gone as well as some of the people who were here last Sunday. These are predictable changes. But certain things remain unchanged. Most important among these things that remain unchanged is God. Theologians say God is immutable meaning God is consistent and unchanging in his use of wisdom, mercy, justice, and love. God’s acts are never arbitrary. God does not spin a wheel of misfortune and fortune to decide what pleases him on any given day. God is the same, even though everything else in our physical world, in our human experience, is always changing. I cannot imagine what life would be like if we had to keep guessing what God was going to be like today and how he might be different next Sunday. God is always consistent in his regard for our wellbeing.
We see this sense of consistency, the immutability of God, expressed in our Old Testament reading from the prophet Micah. Micah, whose name means “Who Is Like the Lord?” observed that: “18 Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. 19 You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. 20 You will be faithful to Jacob, and show love to Abraham, as you pledged on oath to our ancestors in days long ago” (Micah 7:18-20).
Micah was happy to tell others about the God that loved him. Micah said that God:
- Pardons sin,
- Forgives transgressions,
- Does not stay angry,
- Delights to show mercy,
- Has compassion, and
- Is faithful.
These are the attributes of God to which Micah gave his testimony.
The word “testimony” for me in the context of church was at first a very strange word. I came from a Roman Catholic background into the Baptist church in 1985. People at the Baptist church were excited and hoped for a time to share “their testimony.” I had no real idea what they were talking about. The phrase “sharing your testimony” was not a phrase I found in the Roman Catholic Church any more than making the sign of the cross was found in the Baptist church.
It took me a while to come to understand that to give your testimony meant that you wanted to share with someone else how Jesus and his saving power came into your life and how your life is different as a result. The act of giving testimony is the act of being a witness for Jesus. In church terms, those who witness, those who give testimony, bear the name in Greek, martyrs. Micah, from our Old Testament reading, was a prophet but also a martyr because he was giving his testimony as a witness to the unchangeable nature of God as one who pardons sin, forgives transgressions, does not stay angry, delights in showing mercy, has compassion, and is faithful. There are hundreds of other passages in the Old Testament in which men and women from all walks of life gave testimony, acted as witnesses, to the unchanging nature of God. The psalms, for example, contain numerous statements of testimony about the nature of God. And the testimony about God has great consistency among the many people who gave testimony separated by hundreds of years. For example, David’s testimony concerning his relationship with God was very similar to that offered by Micah’s testimony. David’s testimony said in part: “8 The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. 9 He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; 10 he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. 11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; 12 as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:8-12). David’s testimony, given from his experience with God, was very similar to the testimony of Micah and his experience with God. So to give your testimony is to share from your experience with God.
I thought it would be profitable for us to focus a few weeks on shared testimony so that we can be better prepared to share our own testimony, our own story of life with God. I would like us to look at testimony through the lens of John’s first letter to his church, 1 John.
1 John is a short letter, on par with the length of a letter one friend might write to another. And I recommend that you take some time this week and read 1 John like a letter. By that, I mean read it from beginning to end in one sitting so that you get the full impact of what John has to say. Over the next weeks we will dive deeper into the words John uses but our time together should supplement the time we each spend on our own with John’s letter.
Let’s look at John’s letter of testimony as a letter between dear friends. John opened his letter without the customary greetings of ancient or modern letters. There is no “Dear Friend” or even a “To Whom It May Concern.” Instead, John got right into the heart and substance of what he wanted to say to us about his experience with God. John wrote, “1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2 The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3 We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. 4 We write this to make our joy complete” (1 John 1:1-4). John was setting out that he intended to give testimony from a firsthand perspective of having personally met someone who existed before creation and yet John met this someone in not in a vision but in a form that was visible, touchable, and hearable with the physical senses. Moreover, this someone of John’s testimony is the Word, the Source, of life itself. John said that because of this encounter John and others like John who had such an encounter have fellowship, have a personal relationship with God and that John wanted his friend reading this letter to have the same relationship he has with God. That is why John is writing this letter.
The opening to John’s letter, the foundation of his testimony, is frankly shocking. John is saying here that God, who is outside of the creation, that God decided to come into creation, into the world, as a human being, one that could be seen, heard, and touched, and that John met this person, fellowshipped with him, and because of that time and experience with this God in person, John now fellowships with God himself who is outside the created world.
When we let John’s words sink in for a moment, we easily find John’s words fascinating but we can be just as easily conflicted because we must immediately conclude that either John has had an awe-inspiring supernatural experience or John has lost his mind. There really is no middle ground here. And the concern about being thought to be out of your mind is the first obstacle most people have in sharing their personal testimony of their experience with God. We do not want to be thought of as lunatics so we either withhold our testimony or try to present our testimony in a less fascinating way than did John or in a way that leaves open the possibility that we have not lost our minds. John’s opening here tells us that we should be in our own testimony brave and bold with our faith and begin with an unmistakable stance about our experience with God.
Let me illustrate this notion from my personal life. When I worked for the federal government, I frequently traveled throughout the country. Most weeks, I flew somewhere for a meeting or to conduct an inspection or address a problem. On those airplane rides, inevitably the person seated next to me would ask me questions like, “What is your name? Where do you live? Where do you work? What do you do for a living?” etc. And these questions are all intended in a roundabout way to elicit testimony from me about myself. There is nothing fascinating about these questions or the answers these questions would elicit.
I now wonder what my experiences on those airplanes would have been like if someone said to me, “So what is your name?” and I answered, “My name is George. I am a Christian and by that, I mean I seek to imitate Christ and so that I can remain in fellowship with God.” Now that is a fascinating response and the person next to me might well conclude that I have something important to say or that I have lost my mind. And if my fellow passenger did not immediately seek to change seats, then I could add, “And I nothing would make me happier than for you to have the same fellowship I have with Jesus and the Father. Can we talk?” This is essentially what John did in the opening of his letter to his friends. The start of John’s testimony is either fascinating or disturbing. But either way, John believed what he had to say was important enough to risk being thought a fool or insane.
With the starkness of his opening testimony, John began to explain what he learned from his experience in equally stark and contrasting terms. John wrote, “5 This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:5-7). John’s testimony is that God is light, meaning God is pure, holy, righteous, and good. There is nothing corrupt about God. John emphasized this latter point by saying, “In him [God] there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5b). God is pure and not corrupt. For John, in his experience with God, God stands in contrast to the worldliness. God is light; the world is darkness.
Now for John’s friends to experience the joy John is having; John’s friends must have fellowship with God. By this John means his friends must walk, live out their everyday life, in the light. They must not live their life immersed in the darkness of the world. John’s friends might then have asked as they were reading this letter, “How can someone born into the world and its darkness move into the light of God so that they can live in the light? How is it possible to leave behind the corruption of the world, the darkness, and enter the light?” Anticipating just such a question, John said the way to move from the darkness into the light is to accept Jesus, this person who existed before creation and lived for a brief time on earth as a human being. John’s testimony then is that John was changed by Jesus because Jesus purified John from all sin allowing John to be full in the light (1 John 1:7b). And John said the same purification can happen for John’s friends.
How do we relate to John’s testimony? How might we explain our experience with God to the person seated next to us in the airplane. We might say, “I am a Christian and by that, I mean I seek to imitate Christ and be in fellowship with God. I can imitate Christ Jesus because he has removed all my sins from me when he died on the cross. This is grace. Because of this grace, my mind has been transformed, it has been changed. I now try to see my life through Jesus’ eyes and do the things He would have me do. This is living in the light.” This might be how we might give our testimony to the passenger seated next to us.
But whether you were a friend of John, or the passenger seated on that plane, one of the things you would quickly pick up on is that in all this testimony of fellowship, light, darkness, and sin, we are saying not so subtly that we have called the person receiving this testimony a sinner. “You are a sinner.” That is not a compliment and is not a label anyone exactly wants to be called.
Again, I think John anticipated hs readers would react negatively to being called a sinner. So John wrote, “8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:8-10). John was saying two things here, one much more important than the other. First, let’s consider the thing of lesser importance. “If we say we do not sin, then we deceive ourselves.” I think most people, if they think about it, can get through the idea that they are not perfect and can agree they have sinned. We don’t like saying or having someone say we are a sinner, but we can eventually agree with that statement. Now, let’s consider the thing of greater importance from John’s testimony. While God is immutable, unchangeable, us being a sinner is not an immutable, unchangeable, part of who we are. We do not have to continue to be a sinner. John said, “If we confess our sins, he (Jesus) is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” Jesus changed John and Jesus can change you. Our nature as a sinner is changeable.
How might we explain our testimony to the passenger next to us on the plane? We might say, “I am a Christian and by that, I mean I seek to imitate Christ and be in fellowship with God. I can imitate Christ Jesus because he has removed all my sins from me when he died on the cross. This is grace. Because of this grace, my mind has been transformed, it has been changed. I now try to see my life through Jesus’ eyes and do the things He would have me do. This is living in the light. But I am not perfect. So when I do veer again into sinful behavior, Jesus is there to call me back to Him, to clean me up, and restore me to fellowship with God. Without Jesus, I am lost.” This is the beginning of our testimony.
The Bible is very much a book of testimonies from men and women across the ages seeking to share with others their experience with God. We have seen a sampling of this from the Old Testament and have looked in some detail at the testimony of John in the New Testament. Those who gave testimony were called witnesses or martyrs. The reason we want to give our testimony is first that is what Jesus asked his disciples to do. And second, being witness, telling your story of your experience with God in your own words, is always fascinating and compelling. You have a story to tell about walking with God, about being in the light, about being a sinner who was changed when Jesus came into your life. This week I want to encourage you to read 1 John and begin thinking about your personal testimony. Start writing down how you might explain your life with Christ and how it differs from your life without Christ. Let’s all begin to see how we too can be a martyr, a witness, by sharing our testimony. Amen and Amen.