January 24, 2021 Isaiah 64:1-12; Acts 17:16-34; John 16:4-15
Honesty, Truth & Respect
The earliest form of writing appeared approximately 5000 years ago. From the earliest writings we find evidence of the existence of religion. It is generally accepted that societies practiced various forms of religions long before they had written things down. Religion is most likely as old as the human race. Ancient Greek philosopher, Plutarch said: “You may find communities without walls, without letters, without kings, without money, without theaters, but a community without holy rite, without a God, that uses no prayer, without sacrifice to win good or avert evil – no man ever saw or ever will see.”
The concept of God in ancient times came in many shapes and forms: from animals to heavenly bodies, from wooden poles to human figures. Ancient people felt that no single deity could possibly take care of all the needs of everyone. So, they needed many gods with smaller and manageable “portfolios”. Ancient Greek had a polytheistic religion with many gods and goddesses. Their temple was called the Pantheon, the word pantheon literally means “all gods”.
Israel’s religion deviated from those of her neighbors. Israel’s was monotheistic, God was One. She believed that God was the Creator of heaven and earth, animals and human beings. Only God is to be worshiped.
One of the most remarkable differences in Israel’s understanding of her God, was that God is a relational Being! God entered into a relationship with human beings – with Adam and Eve and later on with Abraham, the ancestor of the people of Israel. This relationship of course is called a covenant: God chooses to be the God of Israel and God wants Israel to be God’s people. The covenant implied certain privileges and certain responsibilities.
In our reading from Isaiah we come across what is considered to be the most powerful Psalm of communal lamentation in the Bible. The Psalm actually starts in chapter 63:13. It is a prayer for God to intervene for they are deeply aware that God’s mercy is lost. The original setting was the fall of Jerusalem in the year 587BCE.
But the background in this chapter is different. From 537BCE the Jewish people in Babylon were allowed to go back to Jerusalem. They had longed to go back to their land but now the future seemed uncertain and their economic troubles were severe.
The only place they could find refuge was in God, their Father. This is the only Psalm where God is viewed as a Father, a living and present Father. God knows them, God acknowledges them, God sees them. They may call upon God and God is expected to turn in grace towards God’s children.
A closer reading of Isaiah reveals that the relationship between God and Israel is an honest one, even brutally honest: God was angry, God hid God’s face from them. What kindled God’s wrath was Israel’s unfaithfulness and transgression. The reason Israel had been in Exile in Babylon and what was causing her difficulties now was her transgressions and unfaithfulness.
They were called to be God’s people, they were supposed to know and to do what is right. Instead, they, who were in a close relationship with God, acted, promoted and tolerated actions that were not compatible with their status as God’s children.
God being true to God’s nature and true to the relationship with Israel was honest with them. They did not abide by what God had asked of them. And now there are consequences. We see how serious God is about the relationship with Israel; it also shows us how honest God is with God’s people.
God is as serious and honest with us. When God requires of us to do justice, to love our neighbor, care for the weak and the marginalized, honor our parents, speak the truth, and respect others, God wants us to do what God requires. If we don’t do what God requires, God does not approve and there are consequences. Isn’t this true for all relationships? If one party does wrong and the other one pretends everything is fine, such a relationship is not honest. One has to be honest to address the wrongs, one has to work to make sure it does not happen again, and sometimes one must suffer consequences.
We are also relational beings. And our relationships with God and others need to be honest too. We need to be brutally honest with God about where we fail and what our sins and shortcomings are. It is only when we honestly face our sins that we can start new.
This honesty also transfers to our relationship with each other. There will be times when we have to look at ourselves and assess the integrity of our decisions and actions. We need to acknowledge our part in the condition of our relationships. How did I contribute to the deterioration of interpersonal or communal relationships? I mentioned it last week but it is important enough to repeat: We have to be honest and courageous to admit that we too are to blame for the disunity and disharmony in our personal and communal life. But we also have to be honest to point out actions of others that are harmful and wrong. This is our prophetic responsibility.
As the Psalm continues we see that the downtrodden people of Israel confess their sins – “we sinned, we have all become one who is unclean, our iniquities.” They acknowledge the fact that God is the potter and they are the clay, the work of God’s hand. Their healing starts when they are honest and when they acknowledge their sins. Yes, an honest assessment of our condition is needed for renewal.
At the same time, Isaiah is clear that when we confess our sins, God is more than ready to forgive. God maintains the relationship with us for it is important to God- and God wants us to take this relationship seriously as well by doing what is right, just and honest in God’s eyes.
So, honesty is called for in our relationship with God and with each other.
In the reading of John’s Gospel Jesus is preparing his disciples for his departure. The disciples are filled with paralyzing sadness. Now Jesus is comforting them, pointing out that his departure would actually be to their advantage: Jesus will send the Advocate, the Holy Spirit to them. The Advocate will lead the community to understand who Jesus is and what he did. Jesus will be present in the community of the Spirit. The Spirit will put an end to their paralyzing sadness and replace it with action and joy.
The Advocate will not speak on his own but will speak whatever he hears. He will, in other words, confirm Jesus’s relationship with the Father who sent Jesus. The relationship between Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit is a harmonious one. The Advocate will guide the community in the truth. Truth refers first of all to the Gospel of Jesus, and the Spirit will guide us into all the truth. John defines truth also as an action. Truth has to be done (3:21; 1 John 1:6), people need to walk in the truth (2 John 4:3). Truth should define everything we do and everything we are.
Some commentators have pointed out that we live in times when truth is being attacked. News is fake, misinformation is common on social media, and conspiracy theories range from vaccine to climate change. Concepts like alternative facts have entered our lexicon and some are openly saying that “truth is not truth” anymore.
For any community and any relationship to be harmonious, sound, and to function properly, you have to be able to rely on truth and facts. Lies and misinformation harm communities and they harm relationships.
That is why people who care about the relational nature of our species should have a holy passion for the truth. This is one of the reasons why God gives the commandment, “you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor”. When you lie to your neighbor it harms her for it presents to her a world that is not reliable. When you present to him facts that are not based on reality, you deceive him.
As Christians, there is another important aspect to the seriousness of attacking the truth. If lies are presented as the truth, it harms my neighbor, and it harms me, for it destroys the legitimacy of my witness to the truth. If my word is not dependable, how can I witness about the truth that we find in Jesus? If I don’t walk in the truth, if I dabble with untruths or lies how can I be a reliable messenger for the Truth, the Way and the Life. If I am not truthful, then people will not be able to learn that God is trustworthy!
So, people of God, this is serious business: Our relationship with God and our neighbors should be honest and truthful. If people cannot rely on my word, then it harms our relationship!
I suspect that all of us, over the next years, will have an important calling to serve the truth. For we as people of faith are called to serve both the Truth (with a capital T) and the truth. Our serving God and our neighbor is closely linked to the truth and the One who is the Truth.
In Acts 17 the Apostle Paul finds himself in Athens at the Areopagus. This was where the Athenians spent their days doing what intellectuals enjoy – searching for new ideas. Novelty attracts their attention more quickly than truth. The Apostle finds common ground with the Athenians – he points out an altar to an unknown God. One commentator explains that such an altar to an unknown God was to make sure that all your bases are covered. To make sure you appease an unknown God from somewhere that was left out of the Pantheon. This unknown God Paul proclaims to them; the Creator God, the Lord of heaven and earth. “In him we live and move and have our being” and once again Paul finds common ground when he says: “as even one of your own poets have said, for we too are his offspring”.
Paul finds common ground with the Athenians. It is not farfetched to conclude that he respects them and loves them for God’s sake. Remember what he wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:19-22: “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law, so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”
Yes, relationships should be honest, based on the truth and respectful of the others.
This does not mean that we will always agree on everything. When Paul talked to the Athenians about the creator God, they were interested. However, as soon as he talked about the resurrection some of them joined him and became believers. Others disagreed and scoffed for Jesus being raised from the dead was too farfetched for them.
Let me conclude: We worship a God who is very serious about and committed to the relationship with us. God requires of us to reflect God’s goodness and holiness. Gods relationship with us should shape our relationship with God and with our neighbors. God calls us to be honest, truthful and respectful of others- even if, perhaps especially if, they disagree with us.
I suspect that honesty, a passion for the truth and respect of others will help in the renewing work that is so needed for our world. Amen.