Witness Among the Stones
“Look at those great stones!”
My tour guide pointed at what remained of the temple wall in Jerusalem. Massive stones weighing as much as 80 tonnes could be seen towering above us. It was an amazing sight. We marveled at their size and grandeur. We wondered how they got them up there.
We love great stones. The temple in Jerusalem. The pyramids in Egypt. The Great Wall of China. All of them testaments to human ingenuity and engineering. All of them major tourist destinations. All of them admired for their size and beauty. All of them testaments to human terror. The fear of invasion. The fear of death. The fear that God will forsake us.
Because, when earthquakes, famines and pandemics occur, when humans arrest, persecute and betray one another, when families are divided, when war and insurrections happen, and these things happen in every age, we are terrified. And we respond with stones.
Not far from where Jesus’ disciples stood, admiring the great stones of the temple, there are more stones. There is a wall which passes near to Jerusalem and extends more than 700 kilometers to keep Palestinians out of Israel. When we are afraid, we build walls. Barbed wire fences to keep Syrian refugees out of Europe. Compounds on Greek islands. A wall on the border with Mexico. We want to control things, we need to keep people out, because we are afraid.
We love great stones. Armies and weapons. Governments and institutions. The United Nations and NATO. International conferences, trade agreements and border protection. All great stones, all designed to protect us from the things that terrify us, wars and famines, conflict and disease.
We pile up stones in our bank accounts and in our pensions. In our homes, our fences and our gates. We are led astray by false prophets and we go after them in search of prosperity and security – nationalism, tribalism, capitalism, consumerism, escapism, and many other false prophets.
And Jesus says, “Do you see these great buildings? The days will come when not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
Yes there will be wars and rumors of wars, yes, there will be earthquakes and pandemics, yes families will be divided, yes people will be arrested and persecuted and yes, sooner or later these things will touch you and those that you love.
And there will be false prophets who offer solutions. Strong leaders who identify enemies and scapegoats. Demagogues who would suspend civil rights to make us safe. Beware that you are not led astray. Do not be terrified. Because if you are terrified, you too will respond with stones.
Do not be afraid, for you have another calling.
You have been called to be a witness. Always, but especially in troubled times, when stones are being piled up and thrown down, God has called you to a particular vocation. You will be given the opportunity to testify.
You may not think at first that the opportunity to testify is much of a gift. In fact if wars and insurrections don’t scare you, the thought that you’re supposed to testify just might!
But testimony is who we are as disciples of Jesus. In his very last words to us before his ascension Jesus says to us,
“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Witness. Testify. That’s what we are called to do as followers of Jesus, as God’s people in the world. It is our vocation. And what a gift it is to be given the opportunity to do the very thing that God has called us to do. To become the people that God has called us to be. To be God’s witnesses.
To testify, to give witness, these are images drawn from the law court. When there is an arrest, when there is a trial, a witness is someone who has seen something important and true about the matter at hand, and then speaks the truth about what she has seen.
When life is hard - and these past twenty months have been hard, we have lived through a pandemic in which too many have died too soon – when life if hard for many people the matter at hand is this: Where is God in all of this? Is there a God at all? And if the evidence of our eyes and ears is that God is absent, that there is no God, then we look for other solutions, and we become afraid, and we respond with stones.
But yours is the voice that says no, that says that God is still here in the midst of all this. You are the ones who can look into the storm of life, see God at work, healing, comforting, inspiring, redeeming – and then tell us what you have seen. That’s what witnesses do. That’s what it means to testify.
You don’t need to prepare your testimony in advance. You can’t! You don’t know yet what you will see, where you will see God in the storm that’s coming just beyond the horizon. Here, Jesus offers us another gift. It is the assurance when the time comes, and the time is coming, the Holy Spirit will give us the words and wisdom that we will need to speak. What we need to do, and that does start now, is to put our trust in God, and be ready to share the hope that is within us. And that hope is this: we are an Easter people, and we have seen Jesus crucified and raised from the dead, and so we are not afraid in times of trouble because we know that in life God is with us and even in death we will be raised by the power of God. Of this, we are witnesses. We are the ones who are convinced that neither death nor life, not rulers, not powers, neither wars nor pandemics, nothing in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God.
Now, I’m not claiming that this testimony thing is easy. It’s not. Our gospel text today is not about everything being easy, in fact it’s quite the opposite. Some years ago I spent a few days in Toronto doing a preaching workshop with Anna Carter Florence. We spent most of that week wrestling with testimony, in fact she has written a book called “Preaching as Testimony”. What she wrote and what she taught us is that our job as preachers is to go into the text, that scripture reading that we’ve been given to preach on, to engage with it, to wrestle with it, to poke it and prod it, to let it poke us and prod us and to stay there and not come back until we’ve seen something that is true, something true about God. And only then are we to return and tell you all what we’ve seen. That’s how I as a preacher do testimony: I engage the text, enter into it, struggle with it, wrestle with it until I see something true about God and then I come here on Sunday and tell you what I see.
You as a disciple of Jesus, as one who has been given the vocation of witness, you are called to do the same thing – but your text is your life. Every day, you have the opportunity to engage life, to enter into it, to struggle with it, to wrestle with it, until you see something true about God, and then you need to tell others what you see. You can do this. God will give you the opportunity and the words and the wisdom.
In today’s gospel, Jesus points to challenging times ahead. And it is especially during times of trouble that God needs witnesses. That all of us need witnesses, witnesses who can point to the truth about God. Who can testify to God’s redeeming love, present and active in the world. Who can reassure us that we can trust in God and that God is good.
When life gets hard, many will respond with stones. But we are called to testify.
Homily: Yr B P33, Nov 14 2021. Trinity
Readings: 1 Sam 1.4-20; 1 Sam 2.1-10; Hebrews 10.11-14, 19-25; Mark 13.1-11
Image by Dennis Jarvis