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The Reverend Matt Gaventa
November 17, 2019
2 Thessalonians 2:1-17
A Reading from Paul’s Second Letter to the Thessalonians
As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here.
Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you? And you know what is now restraining him, so that he may be revealed when his time comes. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but only until the one who now restrains it is removed. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will destroy with the breath of his mouth, annihilating him by the manifestation of his coming. The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders, and every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion, leading them to believe what is false, so that all who have not believed the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness will be condemned.
But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.
Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.
In late 2012, a story appeared in the Chinese People’s Daily, which is the largest newspaper in China, and an official publication of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. The story was that an American news outlet had named North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, another communist leader, of all things, Sexiest Man Alive. The source quotes are revelatory: “Blessed with an air of power that masks an unmistakable cute, cuddly side, Kim made this newspaper’s editorial board swoon with his impeccable fashion sense, chic short hairstyle, and, of course, that famous smile.” The People’s Daily ran this alongside a 55-photo spread of the Korean leader, all to celebrate this remarkable accomplishment, and presumably totally unaware that the American source for their story was the satirical newspaper called The Onion.
The Onion, if you are not familiar, has been running a satirical newspaper for decades — I had friends with Onion articles cut out of the print edition and taped to the door of their freshman dorm room. But of course one of the costs of running a satirical newspaper is that sometimes people just don’t quite get the joke. Sometimes it gets lost in translation, as befell the Chinese People’s Daily. Sometimes it just cuts a bit too close to home. In 2011, The Onion ran a story with the headline “Study Finds Every Style Of Parenting Produces Disturbed, Miserable Adults,” which quoted a researcher from the California Parenting Institute as saying that “Despite great variance in parenting styles across populations, the end product is always the same: a profoundly flawed and joyless human being.” No such study exists, of course. But unfortunately the California Parenting Institute does exist. And before too long, they got so overwhelmed by panicked calls from anxious parents who had seen this thing fly around Facebook that they had to issue a formal public statement.
This feels like a very modern problem. It is more than fashionable for us to talk about the unreliability of what we read on the internet. But in some ways, this very modern problem is just as alive and well in the church in Thessalonika. They don’t know where to get their news. And they don’t know who to trust. The scene is this. Paul is writing to a church that he helped found, but in his absence they have gotten some bad information and now he is trying to do cleanup: “Do not be shaken in mind or alarmed,” Paul writes, “either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here.” Somebody is telling this church that the apocalyptic day of the Lord is upon them, which is understandably making people very nervous. Part of the reason it’s working so well is that the news seems to have come from Paul himself — a letter as though from us! Paul says. Somebody is out there faking Paul’s signature just to get the clicks! But actually writing under somebody else’s name isn’t that uncommon in the first century. Probably the more celebrity Paul got, the more even faithful communities would use his name to try to lend legitimacy to their own written discernment. Which means the problem isn’t just that somebody is out there masquerading as the apostle.
The problem is that this community is falling for it. They’re falling for cheap theology and scaremongering headlines. They’re falling for click bait, and the click bait has overwhelmed whatever shared values they once had. “Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you?” Paul writes, as he lays out what the real day of the Lord is supposed to look like. Ironically, Paul’s version also sounds a lot like a crisis of truth. The lawless one that Paul describes uses all kinds of deception, impersonating even God; Paul is clearly exasperated by the misinformation circulating through his churches, and as frustrated as this passage seems, I can only imagine the much angrier letter he must have written to whoever it was who impersonated him in the first place. On the other hand. The Thessalonians should know better. Don’t blame The Onion just because you got gullible, Paul tells this anxious congregation. Or, in the immortal theology of one Homer Simpson: “It takes two to lie, Marge. One to lie, and one to listen.”
It’s a little funny. When The Onion names Kim Jong Un Sexiest Man Alive and some other newspaper takes it seriously, it’s a little funny. But it’s not that funny. In 1992, in the wake of the First Gulf War and with the legacy of the Iran/Contra scandal not so far in the distance, playwright Steve Tesich took to the pages of The Nation to consider our appetite for truth in the years since Watergate. Watergate, of course, had been a triumph of justice on the surface, a triumph of democracy, a triumph of truth finding the light of day. But, as Tesich writes, “in the wake of that triumph something totally unforeseen occurred. Either because the Watergate revelations were so wrenching and followed on the heels of the war in Vietnam … or because Nixon was so quickly pardoned, we began to shy away from the truth. We came to equate truth with bad news and we didn’t want bad news anymore, no matter how true or vital to our health as a nation. We looked to our government to protect us from the truth.”
By now, Tesich writes, in 1992, by now, “We are rapidly becoming prototypes of a people that totalitarian monsters could only drool about in their dreams. All the dictators up to now have had to work hard at suppressing the truth. We, by our actions, are saying that this is no longer necessary, that we have acquired a spiritual mechanism that can denude truth of any significance. In a very fundamental way we, as a free people, have freely decided that we want to live in some post-truth world.” So here we are. The watchdog site Climate Feedback estimates that, every month, at least one fake climate story, written to undermine the scientific consensus, breaks through for millions of online shares. Journalists at Buzzfeed compiled the most widely-shared fake stories of 2018, including 900,000 shares of a story where Michael Jordan apparently resigned from the Board of Nike because of its working with Colin Kaepernick. And of course the big one. Last year, political scientists from Princeton and Dartmouth released a study estimating that in the weeks just prior to the 2016 election, that more than 27 percent of American adults visited a news site that was identifiably fraudulent. That is an epidemic of deception. It’s an infection at the very heart of our ability to form moral and just communities. It’s the post-truth world we’ve chosen.
Paul would have us choose otherwise. “We must always give thanks to God for you, because God chose you for salvation by the Spirit and through belief in the truth.” Here it is, dead-center in Paul’s understanding of the Christian life, belief in the truth. Now, to be sure, when Paul says belief in the truth, he is not thinking first and foremost about truth as a broad philosophical construct. When Paul says belief in the truth, he is thinking first about the truth of the Gospel, namely the birth and life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And there is something here undoubtedly worthy of proclamation, especially in our own moment of crisis, in our own moment of fracture, in this moment where truth itself seems more and more elusive, there is something absolutely essential about proclaiming this big eternal truth of the life and death and resurrection, this truth of Jesus Christ, the solid rock. There is something timely and urgent about remembering that Jesus reigns over all of this mess. Next week is Reign of Christ Sunday on the church calendar, so we are going to say it again then, too.
But for today, it’s also not quite just that simple. Paul calls his congregation to the truth, not just to celebrate the incarnate truth of Jesus Christ, but also because their ministry together depends on this church practicing an everyday discipline of seeking everyday truth. “Hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter,” — We can see that Paul’s just as stuck on the way out as he was on the way in, because somebody else can still forge these letters, somebody else can still come in behind him and cause all the same panic again that Paul has just done his best to fix. All Paul can do is ask the church to think critically about what they read and to think critically about what they believe. People are going to lie to you, Paul says. They’re going to lie to you, in my name. They’re going to lie to you, on my paper. They’re going to lie to you, with my signature. They’re going to lie to you, because they can, they’re going to lie to you because they like it, they’re going to lie to you because they think they know better, they’re going to lie to you because they want something, most of all, they’re going to lie to you just because they’re liars. But just remember, Paul says, as part of your life together remember. As part of your stewardship of Christian community, remember. It takes two to lie. You don’t have to listen.
And so for us. If we have, in the playwright’s words, if we have “acquired a spiritual mechanism that can denude truth of any significance,” then our spiritual mechanisms may need some repair. Then it may be time for a great re-emergence of truth-telling and truth-seeking as spiritual disciplines. In some ways this is very old stuff. Our own Book of Order includes the century-old Great Ends of Church with its call for Christians to seek the preservation of the truth. The Presbyterian Brief Statement of Faith, written at the time of church reunion in the early 1980s and included regularly in our own Sunday morning liturgy, names this failure as part of its confession: we rebel against God; we hide from our Creator; we exploit neighbor and nature; we accept lies as truth. All of which are here simply to remind us that the critical interpretation of the world around us, the critical discernment of the true and the false, is not simply a matter of good citizenship. It’s a matter of good discipleship. It is a matter of good church. It’s a matter of following Jesus Christ in word and in deed.
And so this morning I invite us into this very new, very old spiritual discipline, alongside those regular habits of prayer and fasting and charity and sabbath, here is a new one, custom-made for our perilous times, and it is the discipline of looking for the truth at every chance. It is the discipline of holding the world accountable for truth. It is the discipline of holding ourselves accountable for truth. It is the discipline, before we pass along some sensational headline, it is the discipline of asking, “Is this true?” It is the discipline, before we like comment subscribe on some half-baked conspiracy plot, it is the discipline of asking, “Is this true?” It is the discipline, before we ourselves make the erosion worse, it is the discipline of asking, “Does this story just make me feel good? Or is it true?” Just a pause, before we share it. Just a devotional beat, before we broadcast it to the world. Just a prayerful moment, to ground ourselves in truth, in God’s truth, in God’s insistence on truth. Just a moment to put ourselves in the service of the great unfolding of the kingdom of the one true God.
May it be so.
California Parenting Institute response: http://newsfeed.time.com/2011/11/01/parents-believe-onion-article-freak-out-accordingly/
Brief Statement of Faith: https://www.presbyterianmission.org/what-we-believe/brief-statement-of-faith/
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