October 29, 2023
Most of you “old-timers” like me remember the old television game show, Truth or Consequences. With host, Bob Barker, the show was a combination trivia game and stunt show. Contestants were asked silly questions and had to answer correctly before “Beulah the Buzzer” sounded. If they failed to give the “Truth,” they had to face the “Consequences” – usually some embarrassing stunt. The show was so popular, they named a town after it. No foolin’. It’s called Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.
If only truth were as popular. The man who wrote this morning’s opening hymn about 500 years ago was something of a crusader for truth. Martin Luther was supposed to be a quiet, well-mannered monk, keeping his head in the books and his mouth shut. But he heard the Pope, who was supposed to be infallible, issuing decrees for the collection of money from peasants who thought they were buying souls out of purgatory, and it rang in his ears as a giant lie. He couldn’t be a good boy and stay silent. He asked for an airing of grievances, for his sincere questions to be answered, for an open debate on matters of faith within the church. For his commitment to truth, he was hauled before the inquisition, punished, and excommunicated.
On this “Reformation Sunday” when we recall and celebrate those who launched this great Protestant adventure, I would like to, in the spirit of Martin Luther, open with you this Bible that, thanks to those reformers, is now available to each of us in our own language, and unearth a treasure – a pearl of Biblical wisdom to carry with us on the journey.
We find it first here in this story from Matthew. It’s one of the most interesting encounters that Jesus has. A lawyer asks him to say which commandment in the law is the greatest, and Jesus, after answering his question, fires one right back at him. He asks whose son the Messiah is. The guy, along with the Pharisees, falls into his trap by giving the traditional answer: “the son of David.” Then Jesus makes a rather obscure reference to the first verse of Psalm 110: “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.’” His point being that since David was regarded as the author of the Psalms, and this psalm was interpreted to be addressed to the Messiah, how can David call the Messiah Lord, if the Messiah is his son? We’re told that after that, “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.”
I’d like to raise with you the question of why Jesus did that. Personally, I don’t think it had anything to do with whose son the Messiah was. I think the point was the trap Jesus set for this lawyer and the Pharisees. Jesus was being extraordinarily clever. He played this guy and his friends like a pawn gambit in a chess game: set them up, and artfully lowered the boom. And why did he do it? I think because he knew that this learned man’s question about the law was a kind of a trap too. It was a test. He was going to see just what sort of intellectual fiber this Jesus guy was really made of. So he asked him a difficult question and stood back, scratching his chin waiting for the answer.
I’ve found myself in that situation before. You know what I mean: when a question is not really a question; it’s more of a game – a game of “one-upmanship” like, “So, what are you reading these days?” or a game of “catch-me-kiss-me” like, “I bet you don’t even know why I didn’t call you,” or not so much a question as a disguised zinger like, “That was your expert opinion?” You’ve heard them; they’re little question games that really get under your skin. I think the reason they get to us so readily is that they’re basically dishonest. We can always sense the lie hiding just under the surface. It’s a lie about how the questioner is feeling, or about what they really want of you. Those are the kinds of questions that I always wish I had a great comeback for.
Well, Jesus had a great comeback. This lawyer, no doubt, had a wry smile on his face as he put Jesus to the test. By coming back with his little piece of entrapment, I think Jesus is saying, in essence, “If you want to play question games with me, you’re going to lose.” By extension, I think he’s saying, “Don’t play games with lies.”
Here’s a compass that can keep you on course through the stormiest seas. If you deal in truth, love truth, pursue truth – truth with intention, truth with passion, unwavering truth – you will never lose your bearings.
The Apostle Paul carried that compass, and it served him well over a lot of miles. He writes to the Christians in Thessalonica, “. . . we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition.
“For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery . . . As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others . . .” Maybe he’s bragging just a little, but he’s also making a point. He’s saying that truth has been his compass, and it has caused him to live a life to take pride in.
The lie comes so easily. When you’re caught doing or saying something you shouldn’t, it’s practically instinctive to try to cover your tracks, to bend the facts, to put a better light on things. It’s so difficult to simply say, “You’re right. I really blew it. I’m sorry.” When there’s a gain to be made, or a loss to avoid, it’s so easy to rationalize a little lie on a tax form, or in a business deal. It’s so much more difficult to stand on principle against those who would pressure you to tinker with the numbers. When you’re hurting inside, it’s so easy to play little word games with other people, and hide your feelings behind questions that conceal darts, or challenges, or tricks. It’s harder to simply be honest about your pain, or your anger, and speak the truth in love.
We watch TV commercials about drugs that are supposed to make us live totally happy lives romping through fields of daisies, or listen to politicians bending the truth or speaking outright lies and knowing how many people are soaking it up uncritically. There have to be many people asking in these unsettling days if there are any islands of decency left in this sea of self-interest and deception in which we live.
Anyone who walks through these doors and takes a seat here with us, anyone who contemplates becoming part of this congregation is, at one level, asking a similar question: “Is this ‘church thing’ another scam in a world of sinister motives, or is this a place of integrity, a place I can encounter the Holy and find support as I struggle with faith?”
Let me say without reservation that if this church should stand for one thing it is the quest for truth. Not truth stamped from a cookie cutter and neatly packaged for mass consumption, but a deeper kind of truth. The truth that speaks to you from these pages of scripture, the Truth that encounters you in a time of prayer and helps you to feel a connection with the eternal, a truth and encourages you to raise questions, challenge authority, and never, ever settle – never, ever settle for easy answers, warmed over platitudes, or someone else’s beliefs.
To live for such truth takes courage. But the courage that is mustered in the process builds character, and enriches life. In 1845, James Russell Lowell wrote a poem. It was a time when war seemed to be brewing on the horizon. There was a large movement for engaging in a war with Mexico. Lowell, in the face of stern opposition, made a courageous call for the nation to enter into reasoned deliberation before rushing into war, and consider carefully the choices that lay before us. His opposition was grounded in the fact that the American plan was to annex Texas as a state and allow slavery there. Lowell was an ardent abolitionist. His poem was titled “The Present Crisis.” It is eighteen stanzas long. One of which goes like this:
Slavery, the earth-born Cyclops,
fellest of the giant brood,
Sons of brutish Force and Darkness,
who have drenched the earth with blood,
Famished in his self-made desert,
blinded by our purer day,
Gropes in yet unblasted regions
for his miserable prey;—
Shall we guide his gory fingers
where our helpless children play?
He wrote, with the courage of his convictions these words:
Once to every man and nation
comes the moment to decide,
in the strife of Truth with Falsehood,
for the good or evil side.
Though the cause of Evil prosper,
yet ’tis Truth alone is strong,
Truth forever on the scaffold,
Wrong forever on the throne,—
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
and, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow,
keeping watch above his own.
And, indeed, on the scaffold that held a rope around the neck of the truth – the truth that slavery must be abolished did indeed sway the future. And his poem, “The Present Crisis” later became the inspiration for the title of The Crisis, the magazine published by the NAACP.
So, “Truth or Consequences” was a fun TV show, but it’s title was profound. And what are the “consequences” of failing to live for and by the “truth?” I think Lowell had it right. It may seem that truth always has its head in the noose. But, in fact, that hangman’s rope holds the future, and the consequence of refusing the courage to live for truth may well be the demise our participation in that future. And all the while, as Lowell said, in the shadows, the Lord of Life is standing, keeping watch above his own.
Almost a half century after Lowell wrote that courageous poem, Thomas Williams set portions of it to music. It’s on our insert. Let’s sing it together.