BEARING WITNESS IN SACKCLOTH
A Sermon by Rev. Lawson M. Smith Preached in Westville, South Africa January 28, 1996
“And I will give [power] to My two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and sixty days, clothed in sackcloth” (Rev. 11:3).
The Lord calls us to be witnesses. He wants us to testify on our own behalf, that is, to make up our minds what we believe and what principles we stand for in our lives. He also wants us to bear witness for other people, to help them believe in Him, and to support them in standing for what is right in the way they live.
These are the two most important things for us to make up our minds about: Do we believe that the Lord is the one God of heaven and earth? Are we willing to discipline ourselves to keep His commandments? These are the two witnesses, and they are inseparable.
We do not believe in the Lord unless we are keeping His commandments. We cannot, in our hearts, live a good life according to the commandments unless we do so for the Lord’s sake, and with prayer for His help.
In order to be a true witness, we must be willing to go through struggles, even persecution, because no one can keep the commandments without a struggle. This struggle is reflected in the story of the two witnesses.
The word for “witness” in the New Testament is “martyr,” someone willing to lay down his life as a witness to the Lord. John saw them slain by the beast out of the pit, and people rejoiced at their death.
The witnesses in the book of Revelation were clothed in sackcloth. In ancient times, sackcloth was a sign of mourning and repentance, especially mourning for the violation of the truth, the Lord’s commandments.
The two witnesses, it is said, prophesied for a thousand two hundred sixty days. This period, three and a half years, represents from the beginning, through the middle, to the end the three years and then to a new beginning the half year.
“Prophesying” means teaching, listening to and obeying the truth. So, put together, these words mean that we must continue to teach ourselves the truth and obey it, right from the beginning through to the end of life and so into a new life, even through sad times when the truth is hard to receive. It represents facing up to unpleasant truths about ourselves, and working on making changes in our habits and attitudes because the Lord says so. It means being willing to make sacrifices, to give up things we enjoy, in order to be faithful in performing the duties of our calling, at work and at home.
Think of the Lord’s own example when He was on earth: He kept on teaching the truth in the face of rejection and terrible persecution, even to being crucified. In so doing He exposed the utterly fallen state of the church at that time. He made it possible for good people to make their own judgments and separate themselves from the corrupt church instead of being dragged down with it. He gave His life to set us free from the domination of hell. And so when He was speaking to His twelve apostles on the eve of His arrest, He warned them that the world would hate them as it had hated Him. He said, “If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19). The Lord is here warning us that we have to be prepared to face the world’s hatred. But by “the world” here the Lord mainly means evil lusts that rise up in us from hell. When we struggle to give up worldly, selfish pleasures, such as trying to control others, nursing hatred of someone, fantasizing filthy things, or coveting certain possessions, the hells hate us and fight back. But it feels like a struggle, anxiety and grief totally within us.
The Lord often speaks of the sacrifice involved in following Him: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matt. 16:24,25). “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11,12). So if we find ourselves battling with certain lusts, it is a good sign: we are paying attention to our spiritual health. We are noticing some harmful qualities in our lives and resisting them. The Lord says to us, “Be of good cheer,” or of good courage, “for I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Since the Lord overcame the hells Himself, we can win as well, by His power.
The Writings say, “Everyone engages in combat [against his lusts] who believes there is a hell and a heaven, and that heaven is eternal happiness and hell eternal unhappiness; and who believes further that those who do evil go to hell, and those who do good go to heaven” (Life 94). In other words, everyone fights against evil in himself who believes in the Lord and His promise of eternal life. But does it have to be a public matter to be the Lord’s witness? Sometimes the struggle may involve facing the disapproval of others, because we are putting the right thing ahead of the popular thing. For example, we may choose to spend some time with family when we’ve been away a lot, rather than spending extra time at the office, winning approval from our boss or colleagues. Or we might have to disappoint some friends, saying we can’t play sports today because of our other obligations. In some cases, people such as Gandhi have faced severe persecution for putting their beliefs into practice. But for most of us, most of the time the issue will be private, struggling with selfish reactions inside ourselves, and trying to make sure they do not get expressed in ugly ways toward others.
The life of religion does not consist in doing special good deeds, like donating money or volunteering time to good causes, or making speeches, laying out our faith and convictions to others. It might well include such things, but those are not the essentials. We are not to live our lives for show. We are not to shun evils just because they are bad for our reputation, but because they are sins against the Lord. On the other hand, the Lord says, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works, and may glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). We are created to live with and for others, or as the Lord said, “to bear much fruit,” to lead a useful life. We fight against evils because they are sins against the Lord, but the evils we shun mainly consist in the harm we must not do to others. Our goal is to learn to love one another as the Lord has loved us: This is the main lesson we have to learn in this life.
So as the Lord’s witnesses, we testify both to ourselves and to our neighbors at the same time. Our essential witness is our whole way of life, our words, example and sphere of influence taken together. The doctrine says, “With everyone, Christian charity consists in his performing faithfully the duties of his calling. For in this way, if he shuns evils as sins, he daily does what is good, and is himself his own use in the common body. In this way also the common good is provided for as well as the good of each individual in particular” (Life 114).
Our life makes a statement of the measure of our belief in the Lord and the truth and happiness of a life according to His commandments. We are always bearing witness to others, whether we mean to or not. For example, think of a couple who have been married for a long time. Their life bears witness to the rightness and happiness of making a marriage work. They show that it can be done, by the Lord’s help. The witness of their lives also is a support to the heavens, the Writings say. The strength of their commitment gives strength to the angels, and the peace and contentment of their life together gives the angels joy (see AE 1002).
If we live well, our words will have weight and meaning for others, not because of our own wisdom or virtue, but because they will see that the Lord is with us to that extent. We are not to live our lives for show, but if we shun evils as sins against the Lord and look to Him, then He will teach and lead us each day what to do, and our lives will be of service to others. May our lives be a true witness to the Lord in the way He described: “And you also will bear witness, because you have been with Me from the beginning” (John 15:27). Amen.
Lessons: John 15, Life 92-94, 97
Doctrine of Life 92-94, 97
NO ONE CAN SHUN EVILS AS SINS SO AS TO BE INWARDLY AVERSE TO THEM EXCEPT BY MEANS OF COMBATS AGAINST THEM.
92-94. Everybody knows from the Word and from doctrine drawn from it that the own [proprium] of man is evil from his birth, and that this is the reason why from inborn concupiscence he loves evils and is drawn into them. This is why he desires to have revenge, and to commit fraud, defamation, and adultery. And unless he takes thought that such things are sins, and on this account resists them, he does them whenever an opportunity offers, provided that his reputation and thereby his honors and gains do not suffer. Consider also that unless he has religion the man does these things from delight.
As this own of man constitutes the first root of his life, it is evident what kind of a tree a man would be unless this root were plucked up and a new root planted in its place. He would be a rotted tree, of which it is said that it must be cut down and cast into the fire (Matt. 3:10; 7:19). And this root is not removed and a new one set in its place unless the man regards the evils that constitute the root as injurious to his soul, and on this account desires to rid himself of them. But as these evils belong to man’s own, and are therefore delightful to him, he cannot do this except against his will, with a struggle, and therefore with battling.
Every one does this battling who believes in the existence of hell and of heaven: that heaven is eternal happiness, and hell eternal unhappiness; and that those who do evils go to hell, and those who do goods to heaven. And one who thus fights acts from within, and against the concupiscence itself which constitutes the root of the evil, for one who fights against anything does not will it, and to desire is to will. This shows that the root of evil is not removed except by means of combat.
97. This combat is not severe except in the case of those who have given free rein to their concupiscences, and have indulged them of set purpose, and also in the case of those who have stubbornly cast off the holy things of the Word and of the church. With others it is not severe; let them even once in a week, or twice in a month, resist the evils they are inclined to, and they will perceive a change.