Encounter: The Vision of Witnessing
Encounter: The Vision of Witnessing
Several years ago, I was enjoying a day of recreation on a ski slope in central Wisconsin. While other friends from the church had gone over to take on more challenging slopes, I was careening off trees and slicing through underbrush on a slope that was just one over from the bunny slope. Having lost all of my friends who would not be caught dead in a place where beginners start, I found myself at the bottom of the hill, friendless, but ready to take the chair lift to the top to find a little more challenging field, because I thought I was up to it.
I happened to get on the chair lift with a fellow who knew his way around this particular sport. He had orange and gold ski pants with matching gloves and hat, custom-made boots and skis and bindings, and all those good things. If there was any way that I could, I wanted to slither off the chair and get to another one. But it took off too quickly, and I was off the ground. I had to stay. So there we were, he in his gorgeous outfit, and I in mine. My ski outfit also happens to double as the pair of coveralls that I wear to work on my car in the wintertime. I was hoping for everything I was worth that I would be able to make it to the top in absolute silence.
But, for some crazy reason, he had the desire to make conversation. He said, "Do you like this ski resort better than the one up the road?" I was trying to formulate the words in my mind so that I might not sound like too much of a novice. But before I could even get words out of my mouth, he began to speak and answer his own question: "I like this one much better because the hills are more challenging. The moguls are more perfectly shaped and formed."
It became clear to me that he had much more in his mind about a good ski scene than just the shape of the slopes. He announced to me that a good bar scene is necessary and absolute for good skiing, a bar that mixes its drinks well, one that provides entertainment that could warm the soul. He then began to help me understand that this particular bar at this particular resort had a female clientele that was second to none.
He began to articulate, in rather indelicate elocution, those particular portions of the female anatomy that he found most appealing. He elaborated. This was a conversation that I would not escape without embarrassment.
I've been in these situations before, and I start running the scenario through my mind. When he gets done talking, he's going to ask me what I do for a living. Oh please, let's get to the top. Please! I thought we were going to make it; we were within 50 feet of where we were to get off. All of a sudden the chair lift came to a halt. Somebody down at the bottom had had trouble getting on, and that caused everything to stop. Those were the longest few seconds of my life.
Just as he had finished his rather sordid speech on the female species, he popped the question: "By the way, what do you do for a living?" "Uh, I'm the minister of The Church of Christ in Janesville, Wisconsin." "OHHHH." Somehow the ease of conversation wasn't quite there anymore.
Encounters that take place between Christians and non-Christians are destined to have their embarrassing moments. Yet those encounters are the ones that are intended to lovingly confront the world with the presence of the Lord Jesus. They are designed to awaken the spiritually insensitive to the reality of the presence of God in our world today. They are to be the points of contact with the ultimate goal of saving lost souls.
If we are to carry in our minds the vision of the Lord Jesus for lost soulsfor every lost soul in our worldwe must begin with a concentrated effort on understanding who we are and what we are as his witnesses, as his people. If we have seen and known and experienced the presence of Jesus in our lives, we then are witnesses of him and to him. The vast majority of what can be known about him is found by those who carry, through their own personal experience and understanding, the presence of God in their lives.
God prepared Ananias and Saul for their encounter.
Perhaps it will be helpful for us to look at the impact of our own witness by rehearsing the experiences of another. Ananias in Acts 9 is someone worthy of our contemplation.
Ananias's entrance in the Scripture is precipitated by the predicament of a young man named Saul. Saul, whose life had been a flurry of purpose and determinationthe rouster of Christians from their homes into streets, with the temper of a persecutor's tantrumwas the one who had the determined energy to shatter all things of "The Way." But his determined energy would be shattered by the crisis of physical blindness, a blindness characteristic of a darkness found deep within his own soul. For that hour of crisis, one man was called by God for rescue: Ananias.
I want you to see in this encounter that the power of God is at work in the lives of those who are willing to be used. Look with me at the text of Scripture from chapter 9, verses 10 through 19. God, in fact, does work through the entire experience of the witness encounter.
See, first of all, the encounter prepared:
Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, 'Ananias.' And he said, 'Here I am, Lord.' The Lord said to him, 'Rise and go to the street called Straight, and enquire in the house of Judas for a man of Tarsus named Saul; for behold he's praying, and he has seen a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.' But Ananias answered, 'Lord, I've heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to thy saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call upon thy name.'
Notice the mutual preparation of all the participants in this particular encounter of witness. Saul is prepared by a dramatic confrontation with the Lord. On his way to Damascus, with papers carrying the authority of extradition, he's struck down before the presence of Christ, a sight clearly more than the naked eye is able to bear. Having seen the Almighty, he now gropes hopelessly in the dark, searching for the meaning of this plague that has come upon him.
Even though we consider the confrontation between Saul and Jesus rather remarkable, I want to suggest that God continues in this day to work through his Holy Spirit by confrontation. Over and over again he calls us. He brings us and leads us to points of confrontation where we cannot help but see him and find him and understand his power in us and over us. I think he forces us into times when we must see him, as he did Paul.
Some time ago I stood at the hospital bed of a man who was diabetic. If you know anything about diabetics, or if you are close to one, you understand there are a number of other physical maladies that will go along with those struggles. For this man, his diabetes also caused his blindness. He also had terrible circulation problems, so that any small injury that he received on his body was a grave threat to him. As a matter of fact, he was in the hospital at that time, preparing to have his leg amputated.
I went into the room, and we visited for a few moments. He asked if I wanted to see his leg. He uncovered the leg, and I saw a foot that was charcoal black, evidence that circulation had not been there for a long time. As I looked up the leg, I saw colors from black to deep purple to other shades of purple. Finally I got up to a point where the flesh looked somewhat recognizable, as it should. He covered the leg and said, "Can we pray?" I said, "Certainly."
I led in prayer but I don't remember what I said. But then, when I was finished, he prayed. I'll never forget what he said. When this blind man prayed, he said, "Lord Jesus, today let me see you. I know that you are the author of all things, and the creator and sustainer. Today, in this time of fear, let me see you."
As he closed his prayer, it occurred to me that he was seeing more in his blindness than most people see in a lifetime of clear vision. Somehow the vision of Christ changed the perspective of the moment. Somehow the view of the Lord overshadowed the fears of this turmoil. Seeing the risen Messiah, conquering and in control and in the center of all things, made even this particular trauma somewhat bearable.
That, my friends, is the vision of witnessing, for every person we meet is blind or lame or crippled by a world of personal crisis and struggle. The only thing they see that can lift them above the horror is the vision of Jesus Christ, lifted high above all things. We need to believe that the vision of Christ can change people today; and it does.
Saul was prepared for this encounter, as we are, by a confrontation with the Eternal One. For Saul, from this point on, all matters of earthly frustration would be overshadowed by a life that was put into perspective by the person of Jesus Christ.
Simultaneously, as Saul is prepared for this encounter, so is Ananias. Ananias is preparedin the same way that the Holy Spirit prepares you and me to make these confrontations, in the same way that Peter was so delicately and perfectly prepared for his meeting with Cornelius, in the same way that Philip was so perfectly prepared for his meeting with the Ethiopian chamberlain. Minds were being opened. Consciences were being freed. Inhibitions and fears were being overcome by purpose. Ananias was a selected instrument. He and he alone could accomplish what God desired in those moments, and the Holy Spirit made him ready. Here's how.
Verse 15: "But the Lord said to him, 'Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.' "
I want us to see the encounter assured. While Ananias expresses reluctance about the task at hand, the Lord helped him put things into perspective: Ananias, you see a man filled with hate who threatens you. You feel at risk, that he will violate or harm your family, your friends, members of the church. But I want you to see that I, God, see him as a chosen instrument. Ananias, I see a man who works so well, who's willing to suffer for my sake. See with my eyes. See what I see in him.
The encounter is assured when Ananias begins to see what God sees, recognizes the usefulness that God recognizes, observes the potential God observes.
The vision of Christ changes the perspective of the moment.
We must begin to see the lost and the hurt through the eyes of the Father. What do you see when you view the world around. What do you see when you observe those nameless faces dressed in punk garb, who loiter on street corners, cursing at the passers-by? Do you see rebels and renegades, worthless to the core, or do you see people desperately in need of the filling of the Holy Spirit?
What do you see when you notice husbands and wives whose lives are in misery because of frivolous lifestyles? What do you see? Do you see people who are getting what they deserve, or people who are desperately in need of the presence of Jesus Christ? What do you see when you notice alcoholics, whose lives are overturned by the frustration of past upbringing and the present crisis that is too much for them to bear. Do we see people too far gone, or do we see them as children who are lost, in desperate need of healing? What do we see in the world we observe? Through what spectacles do we see?
My little brother once had a rather traumatic event take place in his life. He was playing a basketball game in which he took an extremely freak-ish fall. He went up in the air, and he came down with his feet over his head, and landed on the back of his head and neck. Immediately he went into convulsions. His toes turned inward and his arms and hands pulled in toward his chest. He lay lifeless and silent on the court. His breathing stopped. His heart ceased to function. Some medical personnel in the crowd immediately rushed down and began to administer CPR to him. A number of minutes later, they got him going again. To make a long story short, he is doing fine today. Other than the fact that he is still the ugliest member of the Erickson clan, he's fine; he's absolutely fine.
I wasn't there when that event happened. By the time I arrived in Minneapolis, he had been released from the hospital and was home. But as with most ball games these days, the event was videotaped, so I had an opportunity to see for myself what took place. When I watched the replay, two things were indelibly etched in my memory. Number one is the fall itself and how his body reacted to the severity of that blow. But the other thing that I can never forget is the look on my father's face as he peered over the shoulders of those attempting to resuscitate his son. I want you to know that there's something extremely powerful about the way a father looks at his child in distress.
Having been called by God as witnesses to him, we must see with the eyes of a father whose desperate face announces that, even should one child perish, it's far too much. We must see with unblinking eyes the renegades who run from God, see them as children he is not willing to forfeit on any account. If you look at the growing churches around you, you will notice that they are churches consumed with the Lord's vision for hurting people: Not one shall perish, not one.
The Lord did not place Ananias in the world to see only with physical vision,but to see the world as he sees it. The encounter is assured when Ananias begins to see with godly eyes. Once that vision is instilled in his mind, he's compelled to go.
Witnessing encounters turn the lost into members of the family.
I want you to see the encounter completed. Verse 17:
So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him, he said, 'Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.' And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized, and took food and was strengthened." "He entered the house and laying his hands upon him, he said, 'Brother Saul!'
What a canyon has been hurdled in the mind of Ananias, from the hesitant fear of Saulhating his work, fearing himto the point where he now calls him "Brother" and accepts him in the same kingdom! To be counted as a brother in Christ after his attempts to ruin the church must have been a great shock and astonishment for Saul. What a blessed introduction into Christian fellowshipno word of reproach for his persecuting activities, no vehement words that Saul should pay for what he has done, no silent undercurrent of ridicule, nothing but the soothing sound of a brother from the lips of another individual who has experienced God's grace.
What a picture for the church! The church is that vehicle where the brotherhood of God comes to life—where people's disturbing pasts and presents are measured by the calculator of God's grace. Everyone else in the world seems determined to hold us tightly to our pasts, measuring the concept of who we are and what we might become against the picture of days gone by—but not the church. The church is that unique institution that experiences and expresses the very character of God's grace, the place where I'm not afraid and I'm not ashamed to call a fellow sinner "Brother." It's the incarnate body of Christ today.
Like the woman with the issue of blood, who crawled her way through the streets to touch the very hem of the garment of the Lord Jesus, our world is filled today with people who are in need of the touch of brotherhood that comes from the presence of God: his church.
Please notice the progression that Ananias makes in this text. Witness is a temporary term in a personal sense. You serve as a witness of Christ for someone, leading them to a point where they become family members themselves.
It frustrates me when I listen to people who boast of their value as a witness of the Lord, announcing all sorts of experiences when they have said something religious, yet they've never observed the progressive nature of the call of the Christian witness. Witness is an introducing experience that culminates at the celebration of brotherhood in the family. When we have invested our lives in another, learning their hurts, sorrowing in their sorrows, feeling their inadequacies as our own—when we've experienced the tug of war of life with them to the point where we call them and they call us "Brother"—then and only then is the encounter of witnessing completed.
See the healing in the process. It is when Ananias calls Saul "Brother" that the scalesthose crusty blinders that obstruct our vision of God and the church and his peoplefall from his eyes. He regaines his sight; only this time, he has new vision, seeing both God and man in a way that he had never seen them before.
Several weeks ago during our missions emphasis week, one of our students shared with us an article by Amy Carmichael. It helped all of us see the calling to which we, as witnesses of the Lord Jesus, have been called. Let me share briefly some excerpts from that:
One jungle night the tom-tom stomped all night, and the darkness shuddered round me like a living, feeling thing. I could not go to sleep. So I lay awake and looked and I saw and it seemed like this: that I stood on a grassy sward, and at my feet a precipice broke sheer down into infinite space. I looked but saw no bottom, only clouds, shaped black and furiously coiled. And great shadows shrouded hollows and unfathomable depths. Back I drew, dizzy at the depth I saw.
"Then I saw the forms of people moving single file along the grass. They were making for the edge. There was a woman, and it was her baby in her arms, and another little child holding onto her dress. She was at the very verge. Then I saw that she was blind. She lifted her foot for the next step, and it trod air. She was over, and the children with her. And oh, the cry of them as they went!
"Then I saw more streams of people flowing from every quarter. All were blind, stone blind. All made straight for the precipice edge. There were shrieks as they suddenly knew themselves to be falling, a tossing up of helpless arms clutching empty air. And then I wondered, with an agony of wonder, why no one stopped them at the edge.
"Once a child caught a tuft of grass that grew at the very brink of the gulf. The child clung convulsively, and it called for someone. But no one seemed to hear. Then the roots of the grass gave way, and with a cry the child went over, too.
"And then a voice thundered from heaven, and it said, 'Whom shall I send?' And I said, 'Lord send me.' And the Lord said, 'You shall be my witnesses.' "
It would occur to me that we have been called by God to speak to a world blinded by sin, saying, "Brother, receive sight. Brother, receive sight."
For your reflection:
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul?
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach?
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers?
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points?
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers?
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers?
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see "Plagiarism, Schmagiarism" and "Stolen Goods: Tempted to Plagiarize".