The current television show using the tried and tested formula is Would I lie to you, in which contestants tell incredible stories, allegedly about themselves, and the other team has to guess whether they’re telling the truth or not. Sometimes the really incredible is, in fact, true, and sometimes the really incredible is indeed incredible.
In the good old days, of course, it was the rather more erudite Call My Bluff with the unique Robert Robinson asking teams to provide three definitions for obscure words, two of which were false. The idea was the same – working out what was true or false.
It isn’t just in parlour games, of course, but in so many different aspects of life that we’re challenged to try and work out what the truth is. It was in John’s gospel that Jesus said, “you shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” That reminded me of another time when Jesus had a conversation about truth, later on in John’s gospel, when Jesus was on trial before Pilate, he says, “everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
And like every wily politician before and since, Pilate shrugs his shoulders and tilts his head and sneers, “What is truth?”
Pilate had a point, in so far as the truth is hard to come by in so much of public discourse, particularly discourse which has as its aim persuading others to see the world as you do, and to do as you wish. How much of what see and hear and read has been written to persuade us of a point of view, and not to offer facts for us to work out the truth for ourselves. There’s a different dietary or nutritional claim in the news every week (and it does make it harder to prove the existence of God if bacon really does cause cancer), and so often they contradict other claims, and they can’t all be true.
A few years ago I was in a bookshop where I happened to notice two books I’d never seen before. One was “The Optimist’s Guide to History;” the other was “The Pessimist’s Guide to History.” The first was half as thick, and is now out of print, the second is updated and re-issued. Back then, I asked in the shop, and the assistant told me that they sold plenty of each, but people only bought one of them. I suppose the optimists often bought the optimist’s version, and that pessimists frequently bought the pessimist’s version; which means that most of them weren’t really looking for the truth – they were looking for evidence to bolster their already established opinions.
I wonder how much most of us are really looking for the truth, and how much we’re looking for snippets of information which help us build up the views and opinions we hold. How often do we read newspapers or blogs that we disagree with? How much do we converse with people with a different outlook on things? I wonder how much we’re looking for truth, and how much we’re looking to secure what we’ve decided is the truth?
I think this becomes a problem if we were to start to treat the truth of the Gospel like a fact to be marshalled in defence of our various, time-limited, fallible and self-interested, political and social positions. God must be a Presbyterian. God must be a Roman Catholic. Jesus would surely have voted Labour. Jesus would surely have voted Liberal. All Christians must believe in whatever particular cause has caught your attention.
The truth that John’s getting at in his gospel is not a fact, a piece of data; it is the living, active, moving God, who breaks through both our optimism and our pessimism, and rearranges our head and our heart in ways we never imagined. It’s a truth that smashes all our preconceptions and ideas, and reconstructs them on the basis of God’s love and God’s grace.
That kind of God, bringing that kind of truth, is not at all interested in whether or not we are optimists or pessimists, doesn’t really care about our take on the world’s various political and religious differences, could care less about whether we pray standing up, sitting down or somewhere in between, etc. That kind of God doesn’t want to be a “part of our spirituality,” an expression of our deeper yearnings. That kind of God is not after either our spare time or our spare change; the eternal God of truth wants us.
A Minister wrote of visiting a tiny Christian congregation in a village in Kenya. It met in the open air, beneath a thatched roof. When it came to the time for the offering, a round, flat basket was passed up and down the rows of benches as people placed money in it. The basket came to a young woman with two small children. She took the basket and laid it on the ground in front of her. She took off her sandals and then stood in the basket, head bowed, praying silently for a full minute, then she stepped out of the basket and passed it on.
On this Reformation Sunday, in the midst of the rocks from which we’re hewn, of bringing the faith to the place where we are now, of grappling with what is God’s truth, and how that sets us free, may we open our hearts and our minds to try and hear anew Christ speaking to us. As we are called to be the church of the Reformation, may we encourage each other, forgive each other, and carry each other through difficult times. May we be sensitive to others, listen to each other, and walk together with each other and with the rest of the Christian family. May the Reforming work of the Spirit continue among us. May we never try to justify ourselves by our own efforts, but let us wholly rely on the strength of God, who offers us grace and mercy.
If knowing God’s truth, and allowing it to set us free means anything, it surely shows us the real values of life. The fundamental question underlying everything we are and everything we are is what do we give our lives ot? Is it to our career, amassing material possessions, to pleasure? Or is it trying to follow and serve God? Surely the truth that Jesus brings us and shows us is what enables us to get things in proportion. In him we see what is really important, and what isn’t.
I conclude with some words of Charles Wesley:
Come, thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us;
Let us find our rest in thee.
By thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By thine all-sufficient merit
Raise us to thy glorious throne.