After loading a van, cleaning the house from top to bottom, driving 10+ hours, unloading the van, and trying to find places for all of our stuff, it has been an exhausting week. In fact, my legs are still sore. But, like I said, we are excited to be here!
I also want to thank you, Bob, for all you have already done to help ease this transition. Your passion for ministry and for Cowan Christian Church are contagious and have been an example to us all. Thank you!
It’s been quite a journey for my family since the last time I was up here a little more than a month ago. From the moment we pulled out of the parking lot of Cowan Christian Church to return to Johnson City, we began the process of saying goodbye to our friends in Tennessee. Of course, we are excited about this new chapter in our lives and in the life of Cowan Christian Church. But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been tears shed over the past few weeks as we closed the chapter in Johnson City, Tennessee.
During the process of saying goodbye, I have thought of other memorable goodbyes I have experienced in my life. There are many of them. Some were funny. Some were sad. There’s just something about knowing you aren’t going to see someone again for a long time that makes you want to soak up the moment and do something memorable. And you try to think of some memorable, parting words to share that summarize your relationship and what you hope will happen in the future.
We find countless examples of famous last words that have been recorded throughout history. After playing 2,130 (two thousand, one hundred and thirty) consecutive games, Lou Gehrig was diagnosed with ALS, which we now call Lou Gehrig’s Disease. After retiring from baseball, the New York Yankees honored him with Lou Gehrig Day later that Summer. He walked onto the field for the last time and spoke with the fans. In his speech he said, “For the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today…I consider myself…(ask the congregation to finish the phrase) the luckiest man…on the face of this earth.” He later concluded his speech saying, “I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.” Talk about memorable. Decades later, Lou Gehrig’s speech is one of the most memorable moments in all of Major League Baseball – maybe even of the 20th century.
Popular culture is full of memorable last words to friends and family. When long-running TV series air their final episodes, TV stations usually make an event out of them. Series finales like MASH, Cheers, and Seinfeld are some of the most-viewed episodes of all time. And it’s because people felt the need to say one last ‘goodbye’ to the characters many came to know and love.
And then there’s the touching goodbye scene in Steven Spielburg’s E.T. You know the story – a boy named Elliot becomes friends with an alien who has been accidentally abandoned here on Earth. E.T.’s spaceship eventually returns for him after Elliot and friends help him “phone home.” Before he boards the ship, E.T. turns to Elliot, points to the boy’s heart and says, “I’ll be right here.” And there’s not a dry eye in the house.
Memorable last words are not limited to pop culture. There are countless examples in Scripture: Moses’ farewell speech to the children of Israel is recorded in Deuteronomy, David’s deathbed speech, Elijah’s conversation with Elisha before leaving Earth on a chariot of fire, and paul’s farewell to the Ephesians in the book of Acts are just a few examples of Scripture’s recording of memorable farewells.
Which leads us to the text for today. If you have your Bibles, turn with me to Acts 1. If you don’t have your Bible, feel free to use the one found in your pew. You can find the passage on page 947. I’ll be reading from the New International Version.
The Disciples were in the middle of a life-changing series of events. They had followed this man, Jesus, around the countryside for the better part of three years. They had abandoned everything to follow him. He showed them what it means to be part of God’s Kingdom, and he stretched their understanding of what that Kingdom is and who is part of it. They were with him when he entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey and the crowd shouted praises to his name. They were together with him in the upper room where he called them his friends and said he was going to lay down his life for his friends. They were there when Judas, one of their own friends, turned Jesus over to the religious leaders and government officials to be killed. They were there when a resurrected Jesus Christ appeared in the flesh and showed them his nail-scarred hands and his spear-pierced side. Everything Jesus Christ had said and done occurred with these friends by his side. They didn’t always understand him. In fact, they rarely understood him, but this was a ragtag band of nobodies that he had chosen to change the world.
And now here, in the first chapter of Acts, we find that Jesus and his friends are walking together for one last time. It is almost time for him to return to the right hand of the Father and so they are spending the last remaining moments together.
And there’s little surprise that now, at the time when he knows he’s about to return to the right hand of the Father, that he leaves his friends with one final statement. It’s a commissioning that will be remembered throughout the centuries – and is a challenge to us today, too. Read Acts 1:6-9
Talk about a transition. Talk about passing the baton. Jesus had spent the past three years preparing these friends for this time when he would no longer be with them. They had gone through some amazing highs and some horribly low lows. Upon the ascension of Jesus, it is time for the Disciples to step up to the plate. The proclamation of the coming Kingdom of God is now their responsibility. They are now Christ’s witnesses. And so are we today.
Being a ‘witness’ of Jesus Christ conjures up all kinds of mental images. Some people think of large-scale crusades where an evangelist preaches the Good News to thousands of people at one time. Is that being a witness?
Others think of a street preacher standing on a corner, shouting the gospel to all who pass by. Is that being a witness?
Others might think of leaving gospel tracts for others to find. When Christy and I were dating, she took her car to a local auto mechanic in Johnson City. Not only did the mechanic charge an insane amount of money for labor, but he also ‘conveniently’ found some extra ‘problems’ that he thought were necessary to fix. She left the place feeling cheated and taken advantage of. This guy lived up to every negative stereotype that many people think of when they think of auto mechanics. As we pulled away from the garage, still fuming from the treatment Christy had received, we found a gospel tract conveniently placed on the dashboard. Is that being a witness?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t have a problem with mechanics. The vast majority of mechanics I’ve run into are honest and hard-working. And I don’t have a problem with Gospel tracts, large crusade-like evangelistic events, or street preaching, either. They can be very effective on many occasions. In fact, one of my best friends at Milligan came to Christ because of a street preacher. All of these methods are valid forms of being a witness.
But when Jesus says that we will be his witnesses, is that all he’s talking about? Does he merely mean that we’re just going to talk about the Good News? After all, that’s what the Greek word used here means. It’s a legal term that means someone who saw an event and describes it in a court of Law. In the legal world, witnesses today aren’t much different than they were in the Roman world. But is that all Jesus means when he says we’re his witnesses? Just…talk…about him? Or is there something more?
When reading through the Gospels, Jesus spends a lot of time telling his friends to proclaim the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven. He sent them out two-by-two to preach in the cities. The book of Acts records many of the speeches and sermons Jesus’ followers after his ascension. Luke tells us that the Disciples were ‘full of the Holy Spirit’ when they were preaching Good News. So it’s very apparent that talking with others about Christ is part of being a witness. But is that all?
Jesus also spent a lot of time calling out the Jewish leaders for their hypocrisy. The Pharisees and Sadducees talked a good game. They knew the religious lingo and had all of the right answers. But Jesus repeatedly pointed out that their actions did not measure up with their religious speak. He called them a bunch of hypocrites…a brood of vipers…and a whitewashed tomb. They looked good on the outside, but they were dead on the inside. And Jesus tells us to be exactly the opposite of these hypocrites.
There needs to be consistency between what is said and how a person is living their life. Be a witness – both in what you say and do. Francis of Assisi was a monk in the 13th. He impacted many with his radical, wholehearted dedication to Christ. He was born into a very wealthy family, but he chose to live a life of poverty, ministering to the poor, sick, and the outcast. It is Francis of Assisi who is attributed as saying, “Preach the Gospel always. When necessary, use words.” The majority of the New Testament letters tell us how to preach the Gospel without always using words. It is our lives that proclaim the Good News as much as our speech does – maybe even moreso.
When Jesus says we will be his witnesses, it’s obvious that he doesn’t want us to merely talk about him. Serving as a witness means living out the Gospel every day. It’s not programs or websites or a church building that serve as witnesses to Jesus Christ. Yes, those can be tools to help us, but I think we get too caught up in the tools rather than in living the life. Jesus said you will be my witnesses. It is everyday people following Christ everyday. When you’re doing the laundry or cutting the grass, you’re a witness. When that person cuts you off on the highway or you’re stuck in construction traffic, you’re a witness. Around the dinner table, you’re a witness. When you’re standing in the express line at the grocery store and the person in front of you has 17 items when they’re only supposed to have 10, you’re a witness. When you come upon a homeless person on the street or at Burger King, you’re a witness. Regardless of your team preference, when Indiana beats Purdue in basketball, you’re a witness.
I think you get the point. Everything about us – our attitudes, our actions, our words – everything – serve as a testimony to the life-changing power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Even though we’re going through a transition at Cowan Christian Church and regardless of who is preaching from this pulpit, our mission is still the same – be witnesses to Jesus Christ. And the world is watching. People are watching to see if what we say and what we do match up. Some people are waiting for us screw up so they can say, “See? Those Christians are a bunch of hypocrites anyway. Why would I ever want to be part of something like that?” So – live your lives in such a way that they point to the cross of Christ. In everything you do and say, be witnesses. Because, if you are a follower of Christ, you already are a witness, whether you acknowledge it or not.
Close with Invitation Hymn