Knowing what God wants?

Knowing what God wants?

November 8, 2020 Stewardship Sunday Psalm 119:1-11 Jeremiah 15:15-21, 2 Timothy 3:10-17, John 13:31-35

Knowing what God wants?

            In 2016, the Oxford Dictionary named post-truth as the word of the year. It defined post-truth as “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief“.  German-born American political philosopher, Hanna Arendt is widely considered one of the most important political thinkers of the 20th century. She describes what she terms defactualization, or the inability to discern fact from fiction, a concept very close to what we now understand by post-truth. 

            The Judeo-Christian tradition has always valued truth as opposed to lies and deceit. The Hebrew word for truth, emet is used in the OT 126 times. It denotes a reality that is firm, solid, valid or binding. When it is used of persons, it predominantly characterizes their speech, action or thought. The man of truth is thus a man of integrity.  In the New Testament the Greek word for truth, alytheia, refers to what has certainty, what is genuine and what is proper. It also signifies sincerity and honesty. Later on, it is used for the “true teaching of faith.”

            Truth in John’s Gospel, is a highly concentrated theological concept. For John, “grace and truth” came through Jesus Christ (1:17). The truth has become an event, Jesus himself is the truth and the life (14:6). The revelation brought by the Son is the truth (3:34). John makes no secret that the truth of God is present in Jesus, and the word of God, brought by Jesus is therefore the truth (17:17). People who accept the truth of Jesus are sanctified in the truth (17:19). The truth becomes a reality and power in them (8:32-36).

            At the same time the truth must become the norm which governs their lives; we must do the truth and practice love in deed and truth (3:21). A person’s attitudes and actions show whether he is “of the truth”, that is of God, or whether he has fallen into the power of lies (8:44). John then is very clear: God reveals God’s alytheia, God’s truth by sending the Son, and Jesus reveals truth in his talk and action. No wonder NT scholar, Schnackenburg, concludes: “The basic meaning of reliability is opened to reveal a deeper sense of divine truth revealed by Jesus.”

            The Word that became flesh, reveals to us the Divine truth and He in fact IS the divine truth. Followers of Jesus therefore, are, or should be, people who have a passion for and commitment to the truth. Their Lord and Savior after all said these words: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (8:31-32).

            Furthermore, we believe that God’s written Word, reveals God’s truth to us. In traditional theology the Word of God, that is the OT and the NT, is inspired by the God’s Spirit. If we want to know who God is, who Jesus is, what he did and what God requires of us, we need to read the Bible. We believe that the Bible is God’s revelation to us.

            And yet is not as simple as it seems. Let me explain: There is a slight problem how this truth plays out in practice. Why is it that people of faith, who believe in the same Jesus, the same Bible, come to such different and at times opposing conclusions? Why do people of faith interpret the Bible in divergent ways and conclude that my view is the right one and other views are not “Biblical”? 

            If John presents us with the Truth that is so clear and so well-defined, why is it that even people of faith don’t agree on the what this truth is? Do we also live in a post-truth theological world? In other words, I read the Bible the way I want to read it, my personal beliefs matter even as I adjust my personal beliefs the way I want to for my own convenience. Why is it that Christians (and people of other faiths) so easily adjust their beliefs to fit and support their personal, philosophical, political or economic views? In the light of this, is it possible to talk about alytheia, truth at all?

            I am afraid theological truth is not always as clear as we thought. How I wish it was different! Can you imagine living in a world like Jeremiah where he is struggling to cope in a changing world, and then simply takes a scroll of Hebrew scripture and eats it, tastes it sweetness, experiences its joy and knows that it is true?

            The time is over when we have one person, the Pope, who speaks the truth and all of Christendom accepts his view of the truth. Nowadays, even if the Pope says something that I disagree with, I dismiss that as his view.

            These are complicated issues. I am not pretending that I have all the answers. But the idea of a post truth world is not attractive to me. Living in a world where truth is evasive, everything is relative and nothing is trustworthy or reliable is not appealing to me. I am not comfortable with a world where emotions are the only driving force and objective facts do not exist. Above all, I am not sure that I want to live in a world, where I cannot rely on the words of John that God’s truth is revealed in Jesus. I do want to live in a world where some things are firm, solid, valid and biding.

            But how does one know that what I believe is the truth and that my actions are truthful? How does one live with integrity knowing that I stand on firm, solid, valid or binding grounds? And how does one know that Jesus is the One who personifies the divine truth, and is not simply a projection of what I want.

            Yes, unfortunately it is true that people have “created” their own Jesus to justify their views on race (South Africa), nation (Germany), their quest for power (European colonial powers) and their greed (forms of raw capitalism).

            Maybe we find some guidelines in our NT readings today. The Apostle Paul writes a letter to the young Timothy, son of a gentile father and Jewish-Christian mother. Paul thinks highly of Timothy. He warns Timothy that distressing times are coming. People will be lovers of themselves, of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, slanderers, brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, and holding to the outward form of godliness. Does it not sound like a world that we are familiar with? In such a world Paul instructs and encourages the young man to be different – “…continue in what you have learned and firmly believed.” Paul states that the sacred writings are able to instruct people for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

            The sacred writings at the time of course did not include the collection of NT books. So, Paul refers to the Hebrew scriptures, our Old Testament. These sacred writings, Paul says are “…inspired by God, useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. These writings equip people for every good work.”

            The church today believes that the sacred writings, which now include the New Testament books are “inspired by God, useful for teaching, for reproof for correction and for training righteousness”. The sacred scriptures make it possible for everyone who belongs to God (literally every person of God) may be proficient, equipped for every good work. God gives us what is needed to live a life that is pleasing to God, an anchor to keep us steady and grounded in the truth. This is why the Belgic Confession, one of the Reformed Standards, states that the Holy Spirit testifies in our hearts that the Biblical books are from God, they are sufficient and reliable. They are truthful.

            But once again, not every interpretation of these sufficient, reliable and truthful books is the same. Furthermore, if they are open to interpretation doesn’t it mean that truth after all is open to interpretation? Is there any way for us to make sure that we interpret the books in a truthful way? Are we not back to where we started that the truth is just an opinion?

            Perhaps there is a bottom line, a guideline, a standard or anchor. Perhaps there is a way to not only read God’s Word but also interpret God’s Word so that we can be proficient, equipped for every good work, anchored in God’s truth!

            Maybe John 13:31-35 is helpful in this regard. In this paragraph, Jesus says that “…the Son of Man has been glorified and God has been glorified in him.” He prepares his Disciples for the time when he won’t be with them anymore. And then he gives them a new commandment: “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

            Why does Jesus call this a new commandment? The commandment to love your neighbor is not new. We find it Leviticus 19:18. So what is it new?

            It is new because of the distinctive emphasis by Jesus, namely his service of others and his giving himself in death. Love of neighbor is now defined by your focus on others instead of focusing on “what is in it for me”. Love of neighbor is now defined in terms of how I can serve my neighbor and what can I do that is beneficial for my neighbor.

            I believe this is the key to determine what is divine truth: God’s love that has been given to us opens up a new living space for others in which we can and should love our neighbors in an entirely new way. St. Augustine said it this way: “The love of God renews us, so that we are new people, inheritors of the new covenant and singers of new song.” 

Another theologian says it this way: “This is not just a moral demand. It is rather expressed above all as a new possibility which calls imperiously and insistently for realization” (Schnackenburg).

            It is true that the world today is confusing and truth is not always obvious. Even in a post-truth world, we are called to live in the truth of God who revealed the divine truth in Jesus. We are called to love, not (only) in word or speech, but in truth and action (1 John 3;18).

            Whenever we are caught up in the noise and distractions of this world, whenever we are unsure of what the truth is, let us be reminded that God’s love of us is the truth – that is why God sent Jesus into the world. The truth is that God wants us to love one another in serving others in a sacrificial way.  How do we know this is the truth? God reveals this in God’s Word, the Bible. The truth is that we believe in the name of God’s Son and we love one another, just as he commanded us!  The same John is clear that God is love and if we love one another, God lives in us and God’s love is perfected in us (1 John 4:11-12). This is true! Amen.