John 1: 6-8; 19-28
In the book Small Miracles that is in our church library, authors Yitta Halbertsam and Judith Leventhal write this:
There are moments in life when each of us catch our breath and glimpse God’s presence. Sometimes it is when we see the radiant face of a sleeping child, sometimes it is when we hear a fragment of a melody that stirs awake an unfamiliar yearning…. These epiphanic experiences, common to us all, can help lead us to our unfulfilled destiny. … When consciousness is cultivated and perception heightened, these experiences can serve as vital tokens of growth and transformation. To encounter these moments in their fullness and their richness, to be aware of their message and hear their music, is to truly know God. And predominant among these experiences is the phenomenon we call coincidences…. [Writer Doris Lessing once put it like this: “Coincidences are God’s way of remaining anonymous.”]
Today I firmly believe that many of us here today have had a time, or several times, when we were made aware of the presence of God. Lyricist Lanny Wolfe said it like this: “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place, I can feel his mighty power, and his grace;
I can hear the brush of angels’ wings, I see glory on each face,
Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.” Where have you felt the brush of angels’ wings? I’ve felt them when I prayed over a man who had a stroke, was in a hospital emergency room, and who made an almost instant recovery. I said to the family “New drugs can really turn around a stroke,” but the doctor heard me and replied: “No medication could have brought this recovery this fast!” God’s powerful Spirit made the difference. I’ve felt the tender presence of God as I looked into the faces of my three children just after they were born. I’ve felt the Holy Spirit stir my soul when somebody told amazing stories of healing or redemption. For me and for others, the presence of God’s Spirit can produce goose bumps on my skin.
Today I want to suggest that many if not all of us have been witness to some miraculous, life-changing, or amazing experiences that point heavenward. Others have a story to tell about their life before they found Christ, and the way their life is now. Each of these people can be a witness if they choose to tell their story! I hope you have chosen to tell your story already, or if you haven’t, that you will choose to do so. Yes, being a witness means you might get questioned, but without your testimony, the light of God might stay under the bushel of your mouth that is not telling it, or your hand that is not writing it. Telling or writing about your encounter with something amazing or divine can, at the least, invite others to consider noticing the “brush of angels wings,” and open them to divine visits. In 1970, a Chaplain in the U.S. Army Chaplain’s Corp, Merlin Carothers, told his conversion story in his book Prison to Praise. In one section her wrote:
Grandmother was a sweet old lady, and I thought a great deal of Grandfather, but going to visit them was an ordeal I avoided as much as possible. They made me nervous. Grandmother always found an opportunity to talk about God! One day when I went to see them … they were getting ready to go to church…. At the zero hour I had no choice. Off we went together. The church service was held in a barn, but everyone there seemed to be happy. “Poor people,” I thought, “They don’t know anything about real life out there in the world, or they wouldn’t waste an evening in a barn.” The singing began and I picked up a hymnbook to follow the words. I at least had to look as if I was with it. Suddenly I heard a deep voice speak directly in my ear. “What—what did you say?” I whirled around to find no one…. There was the voice again: “Tonight you must make a decision for me. ” I shook my head and said, “Why?”…. Was I losing my marbles? The voice was real! …. God was real! The service went on but I heard myself mutter “Yes God. I’ll do it. I’ll do whatever you want.”
[Little did he know that the grandfather who sat next to him was having a conversation with God too! He had been addicted to tobacco for forty years, but on that night he prayed this: “God, if you change Merlin, I’ll give up my chewing and smoking even if it kills me.” A commitment was being started by two men and God that night.] [Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1972, pp. 20-21]
That’s a testimonial. It is offered by one who had a first hand encounter with God. John the Baptist also had a message to share because he had first hand account. He had known Jesus! John was not the light, but he certainly bore witness to the light. How did he do it? One way was testimony. Testimony is when you declare to others what you have seen or heard. Giving your testimony is a wonderful way to witness: you are not making things up, and you’re not exaggerating what you’ve seen. You just tell what you saw, or heard, or tasted, or smelled, or touched. John gave testimony. He even gave testimony about himself, saying: “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness.” John knew how to be a witness.
Have you ever experienced an extraordinary time when, in hindsight, you saw the hand of God? Here’s one I read:
Every Sunday morning at exactly 9 a.m. the twenty members of a church choir would assemble in the chapel of their small Southern Baptist congregation for a one-hour rehearsal before services…. One Sunday morning the tranquil air of the sleepy southern town was suddenly pierced by a loud blast. Residents rushed outdoors to see what happened and then watched in anguish as flames spurted out of the windows of the small church. They checked the time: ten minutes past nine. Gasps, wails and shrieks filled the air as the townspeople raced toward the church. The volunteer firemen, who had preceded them by a few minutes, shook their heads mournfully as they arrived. In just seconds, the church had been totally consumed by flames. “It was probably a gas explosion” one of the firemen said. “It happened too fast. None of the choir members could have gotten out in time. I’m sorry. It doesn’t look like there are any survivors at all.” [Just then, almost all at the same time, twenty cars pulled up to the fire, each one with a choir member on board! Although they were shocked and dismayed to see the church burning, each one individually had been delayed that morning “for separate, different, and unconnected reasons.”] [Believe in Small Miracles, Halberstam & Leventhal, Adams Media Cororation, Massachusetts, 1997, pp. 25-26.]
What story might you have about the presence of God? What story might you tell to encourage someone else to not only tell their story, but also to look again for special sights, or times of feeling the brush of angels’ wings?
Here’s one: About seven years ago our church published a book of Advent reflections written by church members. One of them was Nancy Force. With her permission, I want to share her reflection with you now. She wrote:
We were a small family of three, my father, my brother and me. But early in World War II that changed when my brother, Johnny, was killed. My father was never the same after that. He was always a loving, kind, Christian man. But a spark had died in him. When I was a young bride I received a phone call that Dad had died suddenly. I was devastated. I prayed long and hard that Dad and Johnny were together in heaven. As I was flying from southern Florida to California on a clear early morning, two rainbows appeared from white clouds far below. I took that as God’s answer to my prayer. There have been many rainbows in my life through the mountaintop and valley experiences. Years later, when my beloved second husband, Harley, died, Dick Wilson, Pastor of First Presbyterian Church said, “I have never seen so many rainbows!” They were over our home, the funeral, home, and the church.
By now it might seem like I am offering many stories for one sermon! Indeed. Stories are what witnessing is about! And your story is even more powerful that a second hand story. Here is one of my own first hand stories.
I believe I’ve heard God’s voice twice. I heard just seven words. The first time was when I was considering whether to ask Mary Ann to marry me. Here is what I am sure I heard from God: “You love her.” Three words. That was in 1977. We got engaged on 7/7/77. Then I didn’t hear from God again until 1985. I had been the Pastor of the first church I served for almost four years when I heard it. Just four words: “Your work is done.” And I believed that staying there would not be blessed by God after that. I have not heard that voice since. But I am sure I heard it those two times. Seven words; but how those words changed my life.
Testimonies can be powerful. They often involve stories that engage listeners. You can join me in pointing to the light, in bearing witness to the light like John the Baptist did! Tell your stories! You will find that you are not alone in experiencing Holy Ones touching human hearts.
Finally, let me close with a prayer written by Daniel Iverson. Published by Moody Press in 1935, the simple words to “Spirit of the Living God” were formed in Iverson’s mind when he was attending a revival in Orlando with George C. Stephans in 1926. Iverson was a Presbyterian Pastor from North Carolina. He heard Stephans’ sermon on the Holy Spirit and after that wrote this hymn the same day. Iverson’s final home was in Montreat, N.C. This was his prayer, and it is ours today: [The Presbyterian Hymnal Companion, Linda Jo McKim, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993,pp. 228-229]
“Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me;
Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me;
Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me;
Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.” Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner December 17, 2017