|Today’s scripture readings:
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28
|Sermon audio (clipped):
Every so often on his late-night show, Jimmy Kimmel features a segment called “Lie Witness News.” Here’s the premise: Jimmy Kimmel’s staff go out into the world as roving “reporters,” asking people to share their opinions about stories that are supposedly in the news, but which are actually just totally made up. They’ll go out on the streets and ask people questions like, “What were your thoughts about the First Lady Debate last night between Melania Trump and Bill Clinton?” or, “What did you think when you heard Jay-Z bought the Leaning Tower of Piza as a gift for his wife Beyonce?”, or “How excited were you when you heard paleontologists had brought back to life the first ever viable baby pterodactyl?” They ask these crazy questions about completely fictional stories, and then they see who takes the bait. One of my favorite moments was when one of these “reporters” tricked someone into believing that the President had taken two months off during the summer to shoot a Transformers movie where he played a hybrid car to promote eco-awareness; the person being interviewed said that while he thinks it’s a good cause, he didn’t think it was the right use of the President’s time. Of course, these Lie Witness News segments never show anyone replying to these absurd questions with, “Wait, what? Are you serious?” though you sure hope that most people aren’t so clueless. It’s amazing to see people pretend to speak so knowledgeably about news events that never actually happened.
For the most part, Lie Witness News is just silly, harmless fun. But these days, questions about truth and fiction seem more important than ever. Not too long ago I stumbled upon a documentary about North Korea. One of the things I found most fascinating is how the North Korean people have been made to believe ridiculous lies about their government and their “Dear Leader.” North Koreans have been told that Kim Jong-un never needs to use the bathroom because he works so hard and his body is so perfectly calibrated. As a baby, Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, supposedly started walking at three weeks and was talking within two months. Later in his life Kim Jong-il was said to have scored 11 holes in one in a single round of golf—and that was the first time he’d ever set foot on a golf course. (If you’re wondering, he finished the round 38 under par.) The journalist making the documentary pointed out that it’s hard to know whether people actually believe all that nonsense, but one thing is for sure: Any North Korean who challenged one of these claims would face certain death, along with every member of their family. Do the people who cling to these bogus ideas have genuine faith or are they acting out of fear? The journalist concluded that after generations of absolute rule and complete indoctrination, there may not be much of a difference between true belief and utter fear.
The philosopher Hannah Arendt once wrote that the result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lies start being accepted as truth, but that the sense by which we find our bearings in the real world is destroyed. In other words, when all we ever hear is lies, we begin to lose our ability to tell truth from fiction, and the lies become our truth.
The world bombards us with lies—lies about the way things are, lies about our neighbors, and lies about ourselves. Maybe what we need are people who can expose those lies and point us to the truth.
That is exactly who John the Baptist was—someone who exposed the lies and pointed to the truth.
Last Sunday’s reading from the Gospel of Mark introduced us to John the Baptist, a prophet in the wilderness who wore camel’s hair, ate locusts and wild honey, and called for repentance. He baptized the people who came to him in droves confessing their sins and announced that one greater than him was coming. Today’s Gospel reading paints another picture of John, not of some wacky prophet in the wilderness or an angry preacher whose primary ministry is a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Today’s Gospel reading describes John as “a man sent from God… who came as a witness to testify to the light.” The Gospel writer takes pains not to get things confused, saying that “he himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” “Let’s be very clear,” the gospel writer wants to say, “this man John is not the one you’ve been waiting for. But his witness will point you to the one who is to be your light and salvation.” There’s a famous painting of John the Baptist that shows him with arm outstretched, pointing to Jesus on the cross with a finger that’s about twice as long as it should be, just to be sure you get the picture. That painting captures well the John we meet in today’s Gospel reading: not so much John “the Baptist” crying out for repentance in the wilderness, but John “the Witness” who sees the truth and takes it upon himself to help us see it, too.
A witness is someone who tells the truth about their experience. Witnesses show up in places where the truth is disputed (Koester). Think about it: When the truth is already clear for everyone to see, there’s no need for witnesses. Being a witness and telling the truth about the way things are isn’t always easy or safe. Sometimes being a witness is an act of courage, because telling the truth often disrupts people’s lives and causes discomfort. It’s not a coincidence that the Greek word we translate as “witness” is “martyria”—the same word from which we get our English word “martyr.” Being a witness can be dangerous. It can even pose a threat to one’s life.
John’s witness was dangerous because he revealed the hypocrisy and corruption of the religious establishment. Jewish leaders in Jerusalem claimed to represent their people but were actually conspiring with the Roman Empire to maintain their grip on power and amass wealth for themselves. John showed people the truth instead. He went into the wilderness, fleeing the swirl of lies and deception in Jerusalem, and invited others to join him. It was there in the wilderness—only far removed from the Jerusalem establishment with its false narratives—that he could help others see the truth. John’s message to those who came to see him was, “Wake up! Can’t you see? Everything you’ve been told is a lie! Each of you needs to make a decision today to choose a different way. Keep your eyes wide open, because one is coming who will bring all of this crashing down and usher in a new era.” Because of his witness, John the Baptist, like Jesus after him, would be arrested, put on trial, and killed. Deceitful powers will stop at nothing to silence those who seek to reveal the truth.
That’s just as true today as it was in the time of John the Baptist. Part of what has been so amazing about the #MeToo movement is that the sheer volume of women coming forward with stories of sexual harassment or assault has cleared the way for more and more women to share their own stories without fearing it might end their careers or even cost them their lives. For too long, these women have suffered in silence, knowing that sharing the truth would put them in danger. Victims of sexual harassment could be the first to tell the rest of us that there are powerful forces at work in the world that seek to prevent some truths from being exposed, forces that seek to silence or eliminate witnesses who pull back the curtain and shine a light on what’s real. The powers that be will always fight to keep the truth concealed so the rest of us will submit to their own version of reality. It’s only when witnesses come forward that the truth can be revealed.
Whether it’s John the Baptist exposing hypocrisy and corruption, or millions of women exposing men who have abused their power, witnesses always bring hope to those who have been victims of deception and spell trouble for those who attempt to suppress the truth. The paradox is that truth-telling sets the oppressor free as well. Bearing witness to the truth lifts the cloud of deception and liberates us from the burden of maintaining an illusion. It invites the possibility of living in the world on its own terms rather than working so hard to defend a web of lies. The truth really does set us free. During this season of Advent, when the darkness grows deeper and we begin to wonder if morning will ever come, we bear witness to Christ, the light who is coming into the world, who will reveal the truth and bring new life—for all of us, new life.
“Inside North Korea,” National Geographic Explorer, February 27, 2007, http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/explorer/episodes/inside-north-korea/.
Craig R. Koester, The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).
“Lie Witness News – 2015 in Review,” Jimmy Kimmel Live, December 18, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1U9n2Z68-A0.