How do you know it’s true?

Preached on 11 December 2016 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, Washington
Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A
Canticle 15  Isaiah 35:1-10;  James 5:7-10Matthew 11:2-11

How do you know it’s true?  What you think; what you’ve heard; what your senses or your intuition or your perceptions and experience seem to tell you.  How can you tell what’s true?

Well, first we question it; we check it out; we verify using credible sources.  Having a background in engineering and science, I have a lot of faith in the Scientific Method – especially when checking out questions involving science and technology.  In science, we test our hypotheses and adjust the hypothesis when the data won’t support it.  And we test it over and over from many different angles.  Other scientists review the study and still other scientists test it again before it ever becomes a theory.

In journalism, there are best practices that include the requirement to verify information using multiple independent sources.  Other fields have their own “best practices” for assuring accuracy.  We can check them out by seeing if they actually follow accepted best practices for their field.  How are they viewed by their professional peers?  When they err, do they retract and correct the error?

But what about when it comes to God?  How do we know that something is from God?  Now I hesitate to personify evil, but evil is pretty good at disguising itself as “good” or “almost good.”  One of Satan’s tools is to sow seeds of doubt in ourselves, in that which we can trust, and push us to trust the false prophet.

And so, when it comes to God, we have discernment of the spirits and theological reflection.  We discern in community what is from God and what is not.  We don’t do it alone.  What do Scripture and Tradition have to say about it, remembering that sometimes God does something new?  We judge by the fruits; what are the results or consequences?  And then afterwards, we reflect on the experience.  What is God showing us through this experience or what is God calling us to do next?

Now look at John the Baptist in today’s gospel.  What a difference a week makes!  Last week we heard him preaching in the wilderness.  He was on fire.  He had an audience and followers and a message.  Repent, be baptized, Prepare the way for the One who is to come, One who is greater; One who will judge the earth.

This week, he’s alone, locked up in prison.  Now he seems unsure of himself.  He’s reflecting – had he been wrong about Jesus?  Is he in prison because he displeased God?  Or because he got it right and the authorities didn’t like the truth?  And so, he checks it out.

Before we go on, I’d like to recall for you the whole arc of John’s story in Matthew.  In chapter 3, John is proclaiming in the wilderness – Repent, prepare the way of the Lord. He baptizes Jesus who then goes into the desert to be tested.  In chapter 4, when Jesus comes out of the desert, he learns that John has been arrested for challenging King Herod; saying he shouldn’t have married his brother’s wife.

Then in chapter 11, what we heard today, John sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is the One.  And finally in chapter 14, he is beheaded at the request of Herod’s stepdaughter.

So, today John is checking it out.  He sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the One?”  He’s wondering, perhaps, “Did I get it wrong?  Why am I in prison?  Or maybe he wants his followers to be assured.  He sends them to get it right from the source.

And Jesus says, see for yourself.  Tell John what you have seen me do.  The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised, and so forth.  He doesn’t expect them to believe simply because he says so.  And what does he offer as evidence?  He’s not claiming to be the One because he can do wonders, but because what he does refers back to signs given by God in Holy Scripture.

There are patterns in Scripture.  For example, God follows a pattern for Call.

God calls a person to a particular mission.
The person protests – “it can’t be” or “I can’t do it”  – I’m too young, I can’t speak plainly
God then reassures the person that they will have the gifts they need.
And finally, God gives them a sign so they can check it out; so that they will know that this message is indeed from God.

Remember what I said last week that the message of a prophet is for a particular people in a particular place and time, but that often, other people can also find a message of truth.  Isaiah’s message is for a people in exile in Babylon.  He’s assuring them that they will indeed return to their homeland and that God will save them.  He offers a vision where the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame leap, and the speechless sing for joy.

Fast forward to Jesus.  He is making that vision a reality.  He points to his deeds and describes them quoting Isaiah to assure John and his followers that John got it right.  He is the One.  Not because he claims it, but because of the fruits – what he’s doing and how that benefits people.  Because of the sign given by God so that they would know.

As John experienced and we have seen in Jesus, sometimes speaking Truth can get you in trouble.

So, what do we learn from this?

If even God can be questioned and encourages us to check God out, there is no power or person or message that is exempt from challenge or verification.  By the same token, we have a responsibility to follow through; to check for credibility and responsibility.  We have tools from a multitude of fields.

We can look for the fruits – does it advance justice? Help the poor, the needy, the vulnerable?  Do the blind see and the lame walk, so to speak?  We ask ourselves, “What if I’m wrong?”

It’s not easy.  It’s hard work, in fact, but necessary work and really, it’s our responsibility as Christians.  To seek the Truth and ultimately to set our hearts on it and when appropriate, to take action.  Otherwise, we’re lost; paralyzed by fear and despair.  If we’re wrong and it’s not of God, as long as we remain open to the movement of the Holy Spirit, we can trust God to correct us.

As Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

May our lives in Christ, too, always bend toward justice and truth.