To Tell The Truth
Updated: Jan 9
A million COVID cases on Monday, snow outages, I-95, an insurrection's anniversary, and in-person school starting next -- I've been wondering what a sermon about hope might be like at the end of a week like this, a week when this is our reading from Isaiah.
O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
The point at which this passage was written was the period of exile for the Israelite people -- their home, Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonians and they were scattered far afield and living under occupation. And I wonder what it felt like to remember the promises of God while the worst things imaginable were happening to you and your people. I wonder what it felt like to know that God had more work that God was going to do -- to believe that the exile was not going to be the last thing for you and for your people. From right there in the middle of atrocity, I wonder what it felt like to believe that there was something substantiated in God's "I have called you by name and you are mine", something true in God's promises to us.
We are not exactly living through the Babylonian exile, but I wonder how it sounds to us, in the midst of all of this.
O St Georges, Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
St. George's, I know that things are hard right now, but it will not always be like this.
St. George's, It doesn't have to be this way; God has more work that God has yet to do in our midst.
O St. George's, do not fear. God has called you by name, and you are God's.
How's that feel? If that feels easy, good. If that feels tough, well, I get it. And I hear you.
Hope is weird and elusive and and fragile these days, but in a season like this, it is the work of Christians to be hope for the world, and if that feels hard, I might suggest that we take John the Baptist as our example of what it looks like to live in hope. John the Baptist was the guy who saw it his work to prepare the way of the Lord, and his hope was, in the words of exiled book of Isaiah prophet, that--
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.
John's hope was that another kind of world was promised to us by God, that another kind of world was possible, and another kind of world was coming. John believed that God was not done yet, and John saw that it was his work -- our work -- to share that hope, and to prepare the way for the work that God had yet to do.
In the lead up to this passage, John the Baptist's presence among the people is characterized by two things: 1) proclaiming the coming of the messiah, and 2) rebuking people for their behavior. He tells people to give away one of their two shirts to the person who has none, and similarly to give away their food to the person who had none. He calls out tax collectors for overcollection, and soldiers for extortion and false accusations. With the promise that every valley with be filled, every mountain leveled, every crooked path made straight, John's work was to name those valleys, mountains, crooked paths. Hope for John the Baptist was not just an idea that lived in his brain, hope for John the Baptist was a practice -- hope was work of truth-telling. if we're looking for hope in the midst of everything that's going on, perhaps we ought practice ourselves a little bit of a John the Baptist truth-telling, good news proclaiming, behavior rebuking.
What truth do we have to name? Well I'm glad you asked:
Your truth-telling might begin by saying that "it doesn't have to be this way, things do not have to be this way, this *gestures vaguely* is not what God wants for us."
Your truth-telling can start with naming how you really feel, how you're really holding up in the midst of everything and expecting that you might not be the only one who feels that way.
I hope that your truth-telling can include naming with the confidence of John the Baptist what you know God wants for us -- I might cite Matthew 25 and say "communities where the hungry are fed, the thirsty quenched, the stranger welcomed, the naked clothed, the sick cared for. Or I might say, a world where neighbors truly love one another as themselves.
And if "loving your neighbor as yourself" is what God wants for us, then I hope your truth-telling can name that this is not it and I hope your truth-telling can name where we fall short and where we can be doing better, where greed and ignorance and evil even if that means calling one another to account, or being called to account yourself.
It is a curious thing that part of this Gospel passage is omitted from the Revised Common Lectionary; if you look in the citation, verses 18, 19, and 20 are missing, and in those verses John the Baptist's truth-telling goes so far as to rebuke even King Herod for the evil he'd committed and Herod throws him in prison for it. The boldness with which we are called to proclaim the good news and share the truth of God and God's call for us, is enough to chafe the hides of even the Lectionary compilers. I imagine that you all know how hard it can be to tell the truth in the way that John did in your lives in school, at work, in family and social settings, even at church, but if the return on truth-telling is hope, then I might say that it's worth it. And I can assure you that your naming what needs to be named -- like John the Baptist -- will be good news for many, even if there are a few, kings Herod or otherwise, who look at you like you've got a camels hair shirt and a mouthful of locusts. Amen.