The Prophets: Truth Tellers – December 8th 2019

by the Reverend Matt Harbage

Readings: Isaiah 11.1-10; Matthew 3.1-12

On this Second Sunday of Advent, we celebrate the prophets of God. These are the holy men and women who, yes, predict the future, but more importantly and more powerfully, the prophets are those who speak the truth.

Truth to those in power. Exactly as John the Baptist cries to the religious authorities, “Repent!” and cease manipulating others.

They speak Truth about who God is, his character and loving nature. And they point out God’s action in the world.

Our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures today comes from the great prophet Isaiah. As a bit of an aside, the book Isaiah is better thought-of not as one book written by one prophet, but one book with two Epilogues – additions written by two subsequent prophetic writers who follow the original Isaiah. Our passage from chapter 11 comes from that first Isaiah, writing in the mid-8th Century BC. A solid 700 years before Jesus was born.

In this prophetic writing Isaiah gives us an unrestrainedly joyful image of an exalted figure who will wield power well,

 The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

This leader, this Lord, this Anointed One, will rule with justice, not cruelty: Isaiah says,

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;”

Here Isaiah reveals the truth of God’s inner character. The ‘Spirit of the Lord’ which rests on the Root of Jesse will care for the poor and the meek of the earth. This is the God we believe in and trust; the God we celebrate coming in the person of Jesus Christ.

When we look around us, we of course see that the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, the Kingdom of God, is not yet fully realised in the here and now. Thus one of our callings as Christians is to take up the call of Isaiah and John the Baptist: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” ’ and work with all peoples towards a more just and more caring society. It’s an exciting calling.

So how do we get there? With a General Election upon us this week, I’m sure you foresaw the future that I might have a thought or two to share as we consider our voting.

If there was one suggestion I could offer, it would be this: “Trust those who tell the truth”.

Of all the casualties of the pre-election debates, it is the breaking of the 8th Commandment which concerns me most. After all, if we cannot base our voting on facts, we cannot make a meaningful choice. I am not advocating for one particular party, but rather would rule out the politicians or parties who are happy to make false claims, deny they said things they said, or simply seek to manipulate rather than persuade. I would suggest these have not the character for good leadership.

It is a challenge for all parties and all governments to be honest and transparent, especially when they want to be popular. It’s a challenge for all of us as individuals too as sometimes being honest can be costly or risks others rejecting us for who we are.

Truth though can be hard to pin down. Two weeks ago here at St Mark’s we hosted a panel discussion on Artificial Intelligence and Ethics. It drew out some fascinating discussion and one of the topics under the microscope was the question Pontius Pilate once asked Jesus, “What is Truth?”

In a world where AI can be used to empower political manipulators such as Cambridge Anaylictica; and Facebook controlling what we think we see on social media, and the blossoming of alt-truth and fake news, we might be tempted to declare that we live in a post-truth society and the only truth is the one we create for ourselves.

However, as someone who gets really excited about the potential good of new technology and AI, I recognise that much of what appears new, is simply a new improvisation on what came before. For example, in the history of politics there has always been propaganda, lies and manipulation, character assassinations and the such.

It is into the same kind of political world we face, that Isaiah and Amos, and Jeremiah and Micah, John the Baptizer and Jesus could speak truthfully of God and the kind of persons we are to be and the kind of society we are to seek after.

In seeking truth, the recent joint pastoral letter from Archbishops York and Canterbury: speaks powerfully about our calling this Election. They wrote,

 “As followers of Jesus Christ each of us is called to honour the gift of truth, both to speak it and to seek it. We all have a responsibility to speak accurately, to challenge falsehoods when we hear them, and to be careful to separate facts from opinion”

This week, may we prayerfully reflect on who to vote for, and re-check the facts. We cannot cynically say it doesn’t matter, they are all as bad as each other; or, what difference can one vote make?  – let us avoid “the valley of despair” and find our way up the mountain of hope.

It is the role of the Prophets, the Canon of Scripture and our Tradition to recall our shared values and keep us prizing the truth above the lies we are told. We cannot “fact check” ourselves. Instead these ancient guides help us discern together the direction we should go.

And once the dust has settled after the Election, let us continue to serve our common life together by prizing the truth and celebrating those who speak it.

The growth of Artificial Intelligence, whilst helping sift false information and potentially aid us in understanding the world, will only take us so far. Wisdom and justice are not to be found in a technological Messiah, any more than a nationalistic one.

BUT we do have hope. We Christians aren’t dreamers. Nor are the prophets idealists: They are realists. They describe the vision God has for his people, which we believe in Jesus Christ has already started to become a reality. What’s more, the reality of God’s loving kingdom cannot be stopped or overtaken by another vision of the future. It will bless everything: this planet and all nations.  The God of the poor and marginal, his redeemed people and His Messiah will be united, completed[1]. This is Christ’s return, Maranatha. Come Lord Jesus.

And then?

“the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
   as the waters cover the sea.

On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.”

Amen.

[1] 1 Cor 15

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