HEBREW BIBLE LESSON II Samuel 23:1-7
GOSPEL LESSON John 18:33-=37
SERMON: “Encountering the Truth”
This is Thanksgiving weekend. We are ready to get ready for Advent and Christmas. And yet, because it is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the liturgical year, we get this odd passage from John about Pilate interviewing Jesus before sending him to his death. We want to celebrate Jesus’ birth – we’re not really in a mood to hear about his death. So in my scouring the commentaries on this passage and trying to help us all make the transition, I am thankful for finding the following piece I came across:
A young woman brought her fiancé home for thanksgiving dinner to meet her parents. After dinner, her mother told her father to find out about the young man. The father invited the fiancé to his study for a talk. “So what are your plans?” the father asked the young man.
“I am a biblical scholar,” he replied. “A biblical scholar. Hmmm,” the father said. “Admirable, but what will you do to provide a nice house for my daughter to live in?”
“I will study,” the young man replied, “and God will provide for us.”
“And how will you buy her a beautiful engagement ring, such as she deserves?” asked the father.
“I will concentrate on my studies,” the young man replied, “God will provide for us.”
“And children?” asked the father. “How will you support children?”
“Don’t worry, sir, God will provide,” replied the fiancé.
The conversation proceeded like this, and each time the father questioned, the young idealist insisted that God would provide. Later, the mother asked, “How did it go, Honey?”
The father answered, “He has no job and no plans, and he thinks I’m God!”
It’s Thanksgiving Sunday and I am very thankful today not on-
ly because God has provided the harvest, wonderful food on the table, the greatest job, and a church family to learn, serve and fellowship with. I’m thankful today because Jesus knows He is God, and that He has a job and a plan for us all.
A certain person in my life who considers himself an atheist, once asked me if I believed there is such a thing as ultimate truth. The question stems from a position of many atheists that there is no such thing as absolute or ultimate truth. I answered that, “I do believe in an ultimate Truth. Do I think I know what that Truth is in its totality? Absolutely not.”
Pilate’s question from our scripture today is one of the defining questions of our culture: What is truth? Many of you will be familiar with ancient fable from India of the blind men and the elephant — popularized by American poet John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887). The original fable is told from the point of view of a king who leads several blind men to an elephant and asks them to tell him what it is that they are feeling. The first blind man walked into the formidable side of the huge mammal and declared with certainty that what he found was a wall. The second took hold of the elephant’s tusk and asserted that it was a spear. The third blind man felt the squirming trunk of the elephant and jumped back saying that it was, without a doubt, a great snake. A fourth bumped into one of the beast’s large legs and declared it to be a tree. Another was led by the king to the elephant’s flapping ear and proclaimed that he had definitely found a fan. The last blind man groped for what was before him, and grabbing the elephant’s tail
was convinced that the thing before him was a rope.
The story is usually told to make the point that none of us have a grasp on the whole truth. One person sees things one way, and another sees truth in a different way depending upon our individual experience.
The story is sometimes used by people trying to say that all religions are the same, and that we just have different ways of talking about God and experiencing him. “After all,” they say, “we are all feeling the same elephant, but describing him according to our limited perceptions.” Saxe sees a religious significance in the fable and ends his poem saying,
So oft in theologic wars, The disputants, I [believe],
Rail on in utter ignorance Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant Not one of them has seen!
Many who use this story try to make a point out that all religions are merely an attempt by men (blind men at that) to grope after truth. However, those trying to make that point seem to miss several important problems with the story.
First of all, as Newbigin points out in his book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, “We [also] have to ask why the king only led each man to one part of the elephant, instead of allowing them to experience as much as they could and were capable of understanding. The most obvious gloss in the fable is that even though there are some people who are born blind, most are born with the ability to see. Most of us don’t have to figure out an elephant by only encountering one part. Sight is a gift of God who wants us to see and perceive. Another important point is that rather than each of them having a portion of the truth, none of them had (even) a part of the truth; they were all completely wrong. What they experienced was not a rope, a snake or a wall, it was an elephant. And the most important point is: the elephant was still an elephant in spite of what their perceptions were. The elephant was unchanged by their imperfect understanding of what they were experiencing.”
As we head into Advent, Pilate’s question is a profound question for each of us. What is truth? How do we know that what we are experiencing is reality and truth? Do we have a hold of only a part of God, and is he something/someone completely other than what we think or have experienced?
Consider this: Our ideas of who God is and what God is like, if they were based entirely on the Old Testament give some information about who God is, but not a complete picture. In the story of the blind men and the elephant, the king leads the men only to the part of the elephant he wants them to experience. He only allows them a partial revelation, and he never volunteers to correct their false perceptions. Neither does he offer any explanations.
Understanding that is what leads many of us to continue studying the Bible, to continue praying, to continue talking about our faith journey. That is how we expand our understanding of who God is and what God’s purposes are, and the task is never completed. When someone says so convincingly that they don’t need the church; they can worship God out in nature we struggle to respond, because indeed it is possible to worship God out in nature – even on a golf course. The trouble is, doing that exclusively places limits on anyone’s understanding.
Christians believe that we have a King who does not try to defraud and fool us. He does not toy with us. God does not deceive us, or lead us in a way that confuses us or distorts our perception. We do not have a king who hides truth from us, but reveals truth to us. God wants us to know and understand as much as possible. When God walks us up to an elephant, even though we are blind, he shows us the entire mammal, he explains what it is and, best of all, he heals our blindness. God does not want us to live in the dark, but in the light.
Truth is a major theme in John’s gospel. From the first chapter, John tells us “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) In the third chapter Nicodemus encounters the Truth and hears Jesus tell him, “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.” (John 3:21).
A Samaritan woman encounters Jesus at the well and hears him declare, “A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
Following a confrontation with the Pharisees who argued about who Jesus was, “To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)
Comforting his disciples before his arrest and death and in response to Thomas’ question about how the disciples could possibly know how to follow him, “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’”
John’s Gospel urges us to encounter the Truth, to make a decision about our faith, about who Jesus of Nazareth really is. In John’s Gospel, truth isn’t a fact, just a scrap of data, or even a system of thought that explains the world. Truth is the life-giving power of God, graciously given to the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Truth is the love of God revealed in Jesus’ words and deeds. Truth is the disclosure of God’s heart to us. Truth is summarized, “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Author Cathy Ammlung writes. “Jesus’ whole identity -- his words, his works, his dying and rising, his breathing of the Spirit upon his followers, everything -- was the embodiment of that simple, confounding truth. That makes Jesus’ kingship unlike any other. He doesn’t act like a regular king! Most kings make laws and decrees, fight wars, make treaties, order ordinary people around, and act as the kingdom’s ultimate judge, jury, and executioner. But according to John’s Gospel, what Jesus does is reveal the perfect light, utter love, and endless gracious life of God to people who are blind, bound, and dead in the darkness of sin. And he offers us a way to enjoy all this (perfect light, utter love and endless gracious life of God) with him forever. That’s it. He doesn’t judge, though he has the right. He doesn’t throw his weight around. . . . Even his deeds of power are simply “signs” meant to bring people to a new, freeing, saving relationship with God the Father. The truth of what Jesus does and says and is. . . that’s how he “acts out” [his] kingship over creation that was his from before the world’s foundation.
What is your encounter with the Truth?