My dog is spending the winter with my daughter. I’m hoping I get him back for the summers, but they’re mighty happy together. We’ll see. My dog’s name is Mikko, he’s ½ black lab and ½ German shorthair pointer, but he doesn’t know how to point. He isn’t the least bit interested in sniffing out birds in grassy areas. In fact, he’s afraid of geese. He is not supposed to draw attention to himself but rather to direct the focus toward the object of the hunt. Mikko is supposed to be a pointer, but he’s not.
John the Baptist was a different kind of pointer. He pointed away from himself toward Jesus. John 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. That’s what witnesses do. They point.
In the other gospels we find out much more about John, known as the Baptist, than we do in the gospel of John where our reading for today is from. Here we don’t learn about Elizabeth and Zechariah, John’s parents. Nor do we learn about his appearance or his diet. The only thing we learn is that he was sent as a witness. Although the priests and Levites asked John 6 direct questions about who he was and what he was doing, his only answers pointed to Jesus rather than providing any personal information.
All Christians are called to be witnesses, to point to Jesus and share what we have. Only a few of us are called to preachers, but we are all pointers.
I read about a young pastor whose mother asked him why he was the only one of her children who still went to church. In response, he asked her what she would tell her other children – his siblings – if they asked her why she went to church. Why, was her faith important to her? He reported that what followed was the most uncomfortable twenty minutes of conversation he’d ever had with his mother. Because, like many adult Christians, she hadn’t been asked to talk about her faith since confirmation. So, articulating her reasons for going to church, let alone the importance of her faith, was remarkably difficult. Eventually, she came out with a single clear sentence describing what her faith meant to her.
That same pastor felt challenged to share that conversation from the pulpit and ask his congregation the questions—why does faith matter to us, why do we come to church? He invited his parishioners to pause for a minute and write an answer to those questions on the bulletins. Then he asked them to turn to each other and share for just a moment or two what they had written. After worship that day a man in his middle eighties, stopped at the door to tell the pastor, “I just want to say thank you,” he began, “because I’ve been going to church with this gal,” nodding to his wife who followed close behind, “for more than sixty years. And it turns out that neither of us ever knew why the other was going!”
Our churches grow when Christians can name and share why their faith is important to them with their friends and neighbors. Not in a pushy, in-your-face kind of way, but rather in the same honest, even casual way we’d share other things that are important to us, whether that’s our favorite sports team, or our views on some current issue, or our favorite restaurant.
In the last congregations I served I think most of the new participants were invited by one person, Sue. She wasn’t pushy. She didn’t go door-knocking or approach strangers. She simply told her friends and neighbors what she liked about church and offered them rides. I don’t think she told her own story of faith to them. She’s never shared that story with me either. Sue is something like John, she points away from herself. It works.
When I was in college I worked in an organization called A Christian Ministry in the National Parks. I got free room and board in exchange for providing worship services for campers and tourists staying in Bryce Canyon National Park. Part of the position was what was called Campground Calling. I walked through the campgrounds inviting people to worship. I’ll be honest, it was hard to do, at first. Lots of people reacted negatively, expecting me to be like other door-knockers with religious tracts that they’d encountered in the past. I heard my fair share of reasons why people were turned off by religion. But others were so pleased to know there was a worship service to attend.
In Romans 10: 14-15 Paul writes, “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15 And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
I daresay, most Christians feel a bit like my dog, Mikko, clueless about our identity as a pointer. Or maybe we know we are supposed to point to Jesus, but just don’t know how or don’t dare. Or maybe, like our dog Mikko we haven’t been trained. I had another dog, years ago, a Brittany Spaniel, named Penny who was trained, from the time she was just a puppy. Penny knew hand signals, and whistle signals and she was a great pheasant pointer. My husband, Steve, was a K9 handler for the police department for 15 years. His dogs could do amazing things—but they trained all the time. I suppose it’s the same with us. I’ve been trained and I’ve had a lot of practice inviting people to worship and pointing to Jesus.
I’d like to point out something quite encouraging from our gospel today: John’s testimony isn’t that articulate. Negative confessions rarely are. All he can say for a while is that he is not the Messiah. He’s just not. And he’s not Elijah, or the prophet, or anyone else of any significance. He’s just a voice crying out in the wilderness. So, if you aren’t sure just what you’re capable of, in this pointing business, remember that you don’t have to eloquent, just honest. You don’t need elaborate theological arguments. You’re probably better off without them! Instead, you just need to be willing to share with someone you know, share about the impact of your faith or your experience of congregational life. It can be as simple as offering a ride.
Several years ago, we were welcoming a child into the congregation through baptism. The parents had invited a friend of theirs from work, Mike, to come and take photographs during the service. After worship, I approached Mike and invited him to come back the next week for worship. Sure enough, the next week, Mike showed up. In that congregation, our worship only included Holy Communion on the first Sundays of the month, it happened to be that Sunday. Just before communion, I made the same announcement I always make, about everyone being welcome at the Lord’s table. Mike took part, which I didn’t really think anything of, until he made an appointment to come talk with me. He had moved back to town a dozen years or so before and went with his mother to the church he had grown up in. But, as his membership had lapsed in the years he had been living elsewhere, he had been refused the sacrament. Mike joined the congregation and became a leader there. He soaked up the gospel like a sponge soaks up water. That year I encouraged people to read through the entire gospel of John during Lent. Mike did and he felt transformed by the welcoming grace of God he encountered in the Word. A simple invitation led to a changed life.
It’s not that hard. We’ve got cards with our worship service location and time printed on them. We’ve made up a few posters for those of you who live in condo buildings to post. Christmas Eve is a great time to offer a ride. Wouldn’t it be great if we had to set up extra chairs. Remember, it’s not about you, it’s about Jesus. Your words don’t have to be articulate or eloquent, just honest. Be a pointer. Amen.