Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 28 January 2018.
We have heard much in recent times about ‘Fake News’ – news items which have been widely promoted and are strongly believed, often because they support a personal point of view.
The problem is that these items are promoted without having been fully checked and the sources of information verified. But the result is that extreme ideas can easily gain currency, especially when a person or a part of the community can be held to blame.
When news media were more concentrated, it was easy for states to control the flow of information, and to issue partial, distorted or even wholly false reports. This was especially so in wartime, when sorting news from propaganda was itself difficult and even dangerous.
Today our problem is that the very idea of truth and falsehood are being questioned. ‘Your truth is your truth, and my truth is my truth.’ In other words we see what we want to see and our minds filter out what is uncongenial or personally threatening.
So debating or even understanding news items becomes almost impossible, as the very language of conversation takes on mutually exclusive meanings.
At one time it was different political movements that did this – but now it is different cultural viewpoints, religions understandings or national (or nationalistic) aspirations.
But this is a far cry from the thread of understanding we have in our lessons, for in the OT, Moses speaks very directly about a future prophet who would speak in God’s name.
And there were two solemn warnings: first to the people, not to ignore the prophet who spoke out for they would be held accountable.
And secondly, to the prophet, not to speak out of their own initiative or prejudice when God had not spoken, for they would then be liable to die:
‘Any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods or who presumes to speak in My Name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak – THAT PROPHET SHALL DIE.’
This was a solemn warning and was close to the 4th commandment, not to take the name of the Lord in vain.
For this was far more than a warning against blasphemy and the abuse of the Name of the Lord. It was also a warning against projecting onto the Lord one’s own prejudices and agendas, and using Him to give authority to personal points of view.
And yet it seems to be very much in fashion today, as political and culturally fashionable causes are given a false authority by the church and some of its leaders claiming to be ‘prophetic’. Somehow that supposedly prophetic voice always seems to be on the radical side of the debate, and as the debate moves on then the apparently prophetic voice becomes progressively more radical as well.
And this is the context in which we can look at the gospel lesson in which Jesus demonstrated the authority of His teaching by conducting an exorcism.
For Jesus was first of all teaching with a personal authority. He was not evidently too bothered by the historical commentators and interpreters of the law.
Rather it was in a direct ‘I AM telling you.’ His authority was personal and for many it was a clear and direct word from God which was to be heeded without argument.
‘This is the way – walk ye in it.’ And the gospel of John is full of instances when Jesus spoke clearly as one with a personal and divine standing. ‘I am the way, the truth and the light.’
Our need is to be able to discern what is of God and what is not – whether it comes from a political or social or cultural viewpoint.
It is one thing to repeat a currently fashionable cliché as if it were a revealed truth – but it is another to hear what is new and fashionable, the thing that has that sense of novelty about it and especially when it seems to challenge existing authorities and institutions.
The current fashion in ‘Speaking truth to power’ is that the institutions of power addressed are those of the existing organs of law and government while the new organs of power in the media seem to escape scrutiny.
For our purposes it does not really matter whether the voices being heard are of existing or novel authorities.
What does matter is whether we can hear God speaking in and through them.
My question in this is relatively simple: do the voices we hear draw us closer to Jesus Christ or do they want us to question Him or move away from Him?
Do they build us up in faith and in life or do they destroy or suppress, either us or the voices of faith that we already know?
Jesus did have one guide for us: ‘I am the Good Shepherd and I know My sheep and My sheep know Me. They know My voice and they will not follow another.’
And that holds true for us today, amid all the confusion.