Lent 1 Year A 2017
The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016 was post-truth – an adjective defined as ‘relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. rpt
Since then it seems to me that post truth has become a noun, a thing itself rather than a description: the kind of assertion that is shaped not by objective facts but by emotion, personal belief or preference.
Can I take you back from the post truth world of today – the world of Brexit, Trump, elections and referenda and briefings shaped by media and politicians who seem to have less regard for truth than we once idealistically believed was a requirement for public life and discourse. Let me take you all the way back to the beginning… to the Garden of Eden and the account of what Milton called “man’s first disobedience and the fall”. I think we will find that post truth isn’t as new as we thought…..
Here are Adam and Eve, living an idyll they aren’t able to appreciate or understand fully – because it’s all they have ever known. They are surrounded by a beautiful, gentle, loving creation, they have a God who is friend and companion…. can they imagine cold, hunger, exhaustion, frustration, sickness? Can they even imagine death? These aren’t questions we can answer, but even asking them may help us to identify a little with these first member of the human race….
And now here is the serpent. He may be more crafty than any other animal, but that is a judgement made with hindsight. Eve’s judgement isn’t tainted by either our knowledge of myth and history, or the instinctive revulsion many of us feel when we see a snake. She listens to what he has to say and doesn’t hear any hiss of falsehood, or have the concept of truth versus falsehood to measure his words.
It isn’t even truth versus falsehood that is the issue here. The serpent tells the truth up to a point – the apple does give them knowledge of good and evil, and as far as that goes it makes them like God. but – and here is the precursor of post truth coming in – the serpent tailors his promise to appeal to Eve’s emotion and personal preference – he piques and stirs her desire to be like God…..
She doesn’t know what the consequences of that will be, she doesn’t stop to ask why, if they already made in God’s image, they should need more are of anything than God has already given them. The serpent has stirred ambition in her….. she doesn’t know any facts that would enable her to make a judgement not based on emotion and personal preference.
And so it begins – the agelong story of truth shaped and distorted by ambition, hatred… by emotion and personal preference. Post truth isn’t new – it’s just more blatant and pervasive in an age when there seems to be no escape from the media – newsprint, broadcast, virtual, social… in every area and moment of our lives. And despite my implicit invitation to you to feel superior to Eve, despite our sense of being sophisticated enough to see through what we are told, we are as susceptible as she was to subtle drip feeding.
What can we do? How can we keep our heads and our integrity as we evaluate the avalanche of information around us, and as we communicate our ideas and needs and preferences to others? The answer, as so often, is to follow Jesus’ example. Jesus, who immediately after the affirmation at his baptism – ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. He was famished…. Notice, Satan doesn’t actuallyoffer to give him food – it isn’t about food really – what he wants is to get Jesus to use – misuse – his power to serve his own interests…. But unlike Adam and Eve, Jesus sees what is really going on, and sweeps the tempter aside with Scripture. ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” The next temptation is more subtle: moving from physical to emotional need. Jesus went into the desert with God’s words of love and affirmation ringing in his ears and heart… wouldn’t it be good, says Satan, to test that love, to have it dramatically proved by a mid-air rescue…. And once again this isn’t an attempt to buy his soul, nothing is being offered to him: he is once again being asked to condemn himself by misuse, abuse, exploitation of his Father’s power. But again, Jesus sees straight to the heart of what is happening – and again responds utterly simply, straight from scripture: “it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” And finally – misjudging Jesus, judging him on the basis of his experience of humanity’s personal preference down the ages, the tempter offers him power….all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour – “if you will only fall down and worship me”. Jane Williams comments that the tempter has seriously misjudged his man, through arrogance and vexation. He had reached Adam and Eve through their desire for power – and their failure to see through his subtle distortion of the truth. But because Jesus knows the truth, knows who he is – that he is at the heart of his being the beloved and obedient son of God – he isn’t remotely touched by this last temptation – and he dismisses the tempter utterly -Away with you, Satan! for it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
And there is the truth, the guidance for us. Test everything you hear against the touchstone of Scripture. Is it something you could bring to God… would you be ashamed to offer this view, this belief, these words, written or spoken, this action in worship, is it something you could pray about? How does it fit with your understanding of who and what you find God to be in your reading of Scripture, in your worship, who the God is that you meet in other people, in the depths of your own heart, in the beauty of the world about you, who is alongside you in suffering as well as in joy. If it fits you are on the path of the kingdom. If it doesn’t – you will know what to do. And I’m certain that the God we seek like this is worthy of all our love and trust – the bedrock of our lives beneath all the noise of ambition and prejudice and pain.
Jesus shows us how to be: his confidence in his Father’s love even in the extremity of his hunger and his thirstand his loneliness in the desert is the example that we need to follow. Jesus saw the whole world through the lens of that trust in God. The Christmas gospel in John1 speaks of the true light that was coming into the world, and it is in that light of Christ that we can find God in our lives and the lives of those around us. So it turns out after all that post-truth is just another way of describing temptation, just another will o’the wisp – albeit a deeply vicious one – leading us away from the path to follow selfishness and ambition. Let’s resolve to keep following the true light…