a sermon on Jeremiah 5:1-3 and 2 Timothy 2:8-15
preached on July 24, 2016, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as we just did is a good reminder that we are in the midst of a hyperpolitical season, that time every four years right before the Summer Olympics when the attention of many in our country turns to the conventions of the Republican and Democratic parties. This has put journalists everywhere into overdrive, trying to report as many different stories from as many different angles as possible about the election. Over the last few years, a new angle of political journalism has built on the efforts of a few people on the internet to pay close attention to the claims made by candidates in their speeches. There are now several fact-checking websites that review these statements and report on the truth and lies present in them. My favorite, Politifact’s “Truth-O-Meter,” rates the truth or falsehood of each statement on a scale of true, mostly true, half true, mostly false, false, and “pants on fire”—described as “the statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim” even as it builds on that childhood taunt “Liar, liar, pants on fire!” The thinking of all these sites is that identifying the truth or falsehood of the claims of candidates will help voters make a more informed decision on Election Day—assuming of course that telling the truth counts for something.
But nowadays, such an assumption that the truth matters may not be so true. Various studies have examined whether or not telling a person that their preferred candidate had lied about a particular issue made any difference to how they intended to vote, and the conclusion seems to be that it does not. In fact, when statements are made in an atmosphere where two sides of an argument are placed on equal footing as they seem to be nowadays, people are far more likely “to resist or reject arguments and evidence contradicting their opinions,” as one study put it. It seems that truth is a major concern these days—but that in the end it doesn’t really matter all that much to the outcome.
In this kind of environment, then, it is curious that the fourth Great End of the Church is “the preservation of the truth.” What exactly does it mean for the church to be engaged in preserving the truth today? What does it mean to hold the truth in this way in a day and age when truth seems to be so easily manipulated by the assumptions that we bring to a particular situation? What does truth even mean in a world where an individual’s perspective seems to overrule any view of the bigger picture?
In light of all these things, it is incredibly difficult to say what this Great End means, let alone put it into a visual form as we find on this banner. The description for this banner states,
The banner represents the light of truth shining in the darkness. The dove reminds us that the truth we proclaim to the world is the gospel of Jesus Christ, God with us and for us. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
That makes some sense to me, but I need more.
When I think of “the preservation of the truth,” I cannot help but think of the preservation of specimens for biological study—you know, those strange-looking creatures stored in glass jars of formaldehyde in your biology classroom in high school or in the older corners of the Natural History Museum. While these specimens may be preserved for some sort of study, they look very much unlike what they started out as in the first place—and of very limited use for study in the present and future. The same sort of thing can happen with the preservation of the truth in the church—if we are not careful, we can be so focused on the preservation of the truth that we forget that the truth is less important than what lies behind it and what emerges from it. As hymnwriter Thomas Troeger put it,
May the church at prayer recall
that no single holy name
but the truth behind them all
is the God whom we proclaim.
Our two scripture readings this morning offer us four insights into what it might mean for the church to be involved in “the preservation of the truth” in these days. First, these readings remind us that truth must be sought. Truth isn’t just sitting out there, clearly identifiable because it is holding up a giant sign that says TRUTH. That might actually be some of the deepest falsehood! Instead, the preservation of the truth demands that we seek out the truth for ourselves, to search the squares of the city “and see if you can find one person who acts justly and seeks truth,” as Jeremiah says, for it may not be so obvious in a world like our own. We may not need to establish fact-checking websites for everything that Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or even your average pastor says, but we should not be afraid to stand up for the truth when God’s words and ways are twisted for human pursuits and purposes or when falsehood threatens the values of love, peace, hope, and justice that are the foundation of God’s message for our world.
In the same way, these scriptures also show us that truth always comes along the pathway of justice. The one sought by the prophet in Jeremiah does not just seek truth but also one who “acts justly,” one who puts truth into action in the world, for faithful living comes not just in our words but also in our actions. The truth we preserve as God’s church becomes real when we live out the words of the prophet Micah, doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God, as we will discuss more in a few weeks when we look at the fifth Great End of the Church, “the promotion of social righteousness.”
These scriptures today also show us that the preservation of the truth requires us to focus on proclaiming the truth along the way. The words from 2 Timothy summarize this truth that we proclaim so well:
Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David…
If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.
When we proclaim the truth in this way, we must set aside the falsehoods of our world—the falsehood that we are the ones who draw lines that separate us or others from the salvation of Christ, the falsehood that we are better off on our own than in faithful relationship with others along the way, the falsehood that we have the final say in matters based on what we believe to be true, and most of all the falsehood that we can save ourselves and can make it on our own without God. This sort of proclamation of the truth makes preservation of the truth all the easier as the truth takes life in new places all round us and touches the lives of those we never could have imagined along the way.
Finally, these scriptures remind us that God is the ultimate arbiter and preserver of truth. Our actions of proclaiming and preserving the truth will ultimately be judged by God, and so we must never substitute our understanding of this divine gift for deeper understanding of God. This does not mean that we do not speak up when we hear falsehood, but it does call us to offer all our proclamation of truth and falsehood with humility and with hope, recognizing that God may be at work in our world in ways beyond our comprehension and through those we might least expect. And we can always trust that God’s judgment of truth and falsehood will be far more incisive, probing, honest—and yet merciful—than our own could ever be.
Being a people and a church charged with “the preservation of the truth” is more difficult now than ever before. If the political world is any indication, it is unlikely that our words will win over people to our cause. Our proclamation of the truth is so easily empty at best and outright falsehood at worst, filled with promises that we have no intention of actually fulfilling or with lies that deny the character and action of our gracious and merciful God as we join the chorus of criticism and even hate that fills our world. And it is easy to let our work of preserving the truth of the gospel of Christ be nothing more than encapsulating it in jars of formaldehyde, leaving it to decay slowly but surely, risking nothing for the future, leaving no chance of it making a difference in a world that longs for it so deeply.
And yet God’s call to the church for the preservation of the truth stands strong, guiding us to keep searching for the truth that God has shared with us, inspiring us to look for it and work for it along the pathway of justice, demanding that we set aside falsehood in our words and actions so that everything we do points to the One who judges and preserves—and who is—the truth, God alone, revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
So as we go forth as God’s church with this call for “the preservation of the truth,” may God strengthen us to live out this truth so that our world might know the power and wonder of this great gift as we preserve it in our words and actions that join in making God’s gift of new life real in Jesus Christ our Lord. Thanks be to God! Amen.