The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’ - John 1:29-34
Read any thriller, watch any crime drama, see any crime report on television, and you'll notice that one of the most important components, other than the body, the location and the time, is the eyewitness. An eyewitness can make or break an identification, an alibi, or an entire case. In the case of John the Baptizer, his testimony as to the true identity of a man he said he did not know but who had been revealed to him as the Messiah was called into question. He faced some pretty stiff questioning, but his testimony never wavered. It was a gutsy thing to do but then, it was the job John was born to do..
Eyewitness testimony is usually one of the strongest pieces of evidence in a case, far stronger than "Well, he told me he saw..." or "I heard one of the neighbors say.,," Eyewitness testimony is supposed to be an accurate reporting of a split-second in time. After all, a person sees what they see, right? That they are human beings with brains that interpret what they see and apply the person’s own impression based on a number of factors often clouds the issue. Still, we believe they saw what they report.
Fortunately John the Baptizer wasn't a witness to a crime but rather to an emergence, a kind of second birth, of an adult man who was more than he appeared to be. John had been told to look for a sign and, lo and behold, he saw what he was supposed to see.
The Gospel of John never refers to "miracles," per se, but does go in for "signs and wonders." The sign was given so that John could be the eyewitness to the world that the one who was the Word present at the beginning of time had now become flesh and who would baptize with the Holy Spirit rather than water. Israel had had messianic hopes dashed before, so skepticism was probably present, but enough interest was sparked for people to listen and decide for themselves.
Whether we call them miracles or signs and wonders, it was eyewitness testimony that spread interest in Jesus' message. John was just the first eyewitness. From there, word passed from person to person, town to town, just like news has always spread. The testimonies of their lives became a legacy and a model for their descendants' aspirations.
It's probably true that each of us has been an eyewitness to some event over the course of our lives, whether it was in person or via the media. Protest marches, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, Tiananmen Square, September 11th, inspiring speeches, historic handshakes between two representatives whose people have been at war with each other for years, all have given us a glimpse into what will become history-making events and we will each react to the events through the lenses of our own upbringing, experience, education, culture, orientation, and other values.
Often one person stands out from the crowd, like the police and firemen of New York City rushing into places while others were fleeing. We see acts like those and we wonder what gave them the strength and courage to do what they did. And then we think, as we rerun the scene in our minds, would we have done the same thing? Or would we have been running the other way?
The message of Jesus is that each of us is an eyewitness of what God has done for us. It's our job to live in such a way that those who see us will want to share in what we have. It's the "love your neighbor" thing, wanting the best for others because we have been given the best for ourselves.
Look around. Where are we eyewitnesses and where are we witnesses? Our actions reflect our beliefs. so maybe just for one day we can look at ourselves objectively and see what kind of testimony we are showing the world. Eyewitnesses will be watching.
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, January 3, 2014.