Saturday, 25 December 2021

Where Truth Lies

A sermon for Christmas Day 2021
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

It seems to me that the reactions of some people to the Coronavirus pandemic
            has revealed a deep problem in our society.
And this is the problem of knowing what to believe, or who to believe.
            It is the problem of discerning where truth lies.
Apparently, one third of Londoners have not taken up the option of the vaccine,
            and as we stare down the barrel of another potential lockdown,
            it’s both interesting and important to try and work out why this should be.
Certainly, the lasting effects of racism and isolation will be part of this story,
            as some communities are disengaging
            because they don’t trust those who are telling them to be vaccinated.
But that’s not the whole story,
            and there are many people who are turning away
                        from the PowerPoint slides of Chris Witty,
            and the army of peer-reviewed scientific endeavor
                        that lies behind his sage advice.
There are many people who no longer trust ‘the scientists’,
            and who would rather ‘do their own research’.
Now, don’t get me wrong, as an academic,
            I’m all in favour of people doing their own research,
but one of the early lessons researchers need to learn
            is that not all opinions are of equal value.
Something uttered by a scientist who is engaged with and accountable to her peers,
            will be of greater worth than the utterance of some bloke on YouTube,
            who can’t get his spurious theories published in reputable journals,
and who takes to the airwaves
            to complain about being cancelled by scientific establishment.
We have a crisis of knowledge, a crisis of truth.
To give it its technical name,
            we have a crisis of epistemology.
So as we gather today, online again over Christmas,
            I wonder what we can hear that will speak to our crisis of truth?
A trilogy books I greatly enjoyed a few years ago
            was the Philip Pullman series ‘His Dark Materials’.
Famously anti-religious,
            and condemned by certain quarters of the Christian church,
I found them to be that rare combination
            of both thoroughly enjoyable, and profoundly thought provoking.
The ‘church’ in these books
            is represented by an establishment known as the Magisterium,
a powerful and power-hungry organization
            that constantly seeks to silence its critics and reassert its monopoly;
                        which, to be fair, is a not-unrealistic caricature
                        of what the church can become.
In Philip Pullman’s novels, the looming authority of the Magisterium
            provides the backdrop for the adventures
            of the young female protagonist Lyra;
and on her adventures she comes into possession of a wonderful object,
            known as the Alethiometer, or the Golden Compass.
In a world of lies and untruths,
            the Alethiometer points reliably to the truth,
            but not always comfortably.
It enables those who know how to read it
            to access the deep truth of creation
            which exists beyond the propaganda of the Magisterium and its allies.
And this idea of deep truth,
            which cuts through the lies by which people live,
is just one of several profoundly Christian concepts
            that Philip Pullman builds into his supposedly atheistic narrative.
He could even be echoing John’s gospel,
            which is shot through with the language of truth.
The Greek word for truth, which is used in the gospel, is ‘aletheia’,
            and in fact this is where Philip Pullman’s word ‘Alethiometer’ comes from,
            it’s something that measures truth.
And it’s this word ‘aletheia’ that we meet time and again through John’s gospel,
            beginning with our verse for this morning from the prologue to the gospel.
This passage is the closest thing John gets to a birth-narrative.
Because in the fourth gospel there’s no choirs of angels or singing shepherds,
            no wise men or virgin birth,
            no census, no inn, no donkey, no cattle lowing…
Just this bold and profound statement:
John 1.14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
            and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son,
            full of grace and truth.
This word aletheia, translated here as ‘truth’,
            means literally ‘to stop concealing’, or ‘to reveal’.
To see the truth is to see the true nature of things,
            which would otherwise be concealed, falsified, truncated, or suppressed.
Aletheia reveals the full, or the real state of affairs;
            it is to see things as they really, or truly, are.
And in a world of post-truth, fake-news, and vaccine misinformation,
            it can be very hard indeed to know what the true, or real state of affairs is.
Social media giants turn to algorithms
            in their efforts to counter the spread of fake news
but those same algorithms create the echo chambers of false truths,
            where lies about the coronavirus vaccine, for example, take root in people’s lives,
            leading to avoidable deaths and global lockdowns once again.
You don’t often hear me talking about Satan,
            but it’s interesting that John’s gospel describes the personification of evil,
            as being ‘the father of lies’ (John 8.44).
The contrast is clear in the gospel:
            If Jesus reveals truth, the opposite of this is the evil of lies.
And the whispering of lies,
            as they sneak into our social media streams and our WhatsApp groups
            whirling round the globe and killing people with their deceptions,
            is surely as good a description as any of the work of the evil one.
The recent resurgence of far right political ideologies in Europe
            can in part be traced to the spreading of fake stories about refugees and immigration
                        on platforms such as Twitter and WhatsApp;
and lies and falsehood can take root and spread so quickly in our world.
And in the midst of all this, how are we to know truth?
            What is to be our guide to truth?
Unfortunately we don’t have Philip Pullman’s Alethiometer
            to help us distinguish the truth from the lies,
and there is no perfected spiritual algorithm
            to which we can turn for a calculated answer.
Rather, says John’s gospel, we hear the truth
            through the word of the Father, spoken in the person of Jesus,
            mediated to us by the revelation of the Spirit.
The truth of all things is made known to us
            through the life of the one in whom God becomes flesh.
And it is as we hear the stories of Jesus
            that we are signposted to the truth of the witness he gives.
It’s like we are invited to read the world
            through the lens of Jesus,
to hold up the ideologies, beliefs, and actions of those around us,
            and measure them against the words and actions of Jesus.
And I worry that all too often Christians don’t do this;
            that all too often we become obsessed with a narrow Biblicism
                        where we use the words of the Bible as our yardstick,
            forgetting that the words of the Bible are simply there to point us
                        to the ultimate Word made flesh who lived among us,
                        and who continues to witnesses to our spirits by his Spirit of truth.
Truth, according to John’s gospel,
            is known by the inner witness of the Spirit
                        whispering the truth of Christ’s witness
                        to the depths of our being.
And I do understand that in some ways
            this can seem a highly unsatisfactory answer,
            because it is so subjective.
I do understand that in a world of uncertainty,
            people long for the certainty of a written guide,
            that will lead them into truth if only they follow it carefully enough.
I really do understand the desire
            to have access to the word of God in written form,
            that can be held, and read, and followed.
But that is not what John’s gospel says we have.
The Christian Bible is not God’s written truth for us to follow,
            any more than John the Baptist was himself the Messiah.
Rather, the Bible testifies to the truth because it points to Jesus,
            just as John the Baptist testified to Jesus and pointed to him.
The Law of Moses was the Jewish attempt to capture truth in written form,
            and Jesus comes to fulfil that law
by writing it onto our living hearts, and into our daily lives,
            rather than on tablets of stone, or scrolls of parchment.
The word of truth, it seems, cannot be contained in stone or book,
            because this word is alive, it dwells among us,
            speaking truth to our hearts by the Spirit of truth that is active in our lives.
And this Spirit of truth, the Spirit of Jesus who is God-made-flesh
            brings truth to birth in our lives
            just as Jesus came to birth in Bethlehem in Judea.
And here we find ourselves at the heart of Christmas,
            and the enduring significance of the baby in the manger.
Jesus came to a world of sin and darkness,
            to unmask the lies and to reveal truth,
and he does the same thing in our world today.
Letting the Spirit of Jesus into our lives is a dangerous thing,
            because once we start to listen to the whispers of truth,
                        we start to see the world differently,
            and once we see it differently,
                        we have to start living differently.
As truth is born in our lives through the witness of Jesus,
            the lies by which we live, and by which we are often comforted,
            are challenged and stripped away.
The birth of the Word of truth is an uncomfortable thing,
            as any birth is and should be.
New life does not come easily,
            but it does come, whether we are ready or not.
And this morning, as we gather to worship the child in the manger,
            I wonder if we can hear his cry of truth,
            echoing down the years to today?

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