September 16th, 2012

God is looking for truth tellers and truth seekers.

Jeremiah 5:1-9

September 16, 2012

On lying and liars

I have spent a good part of my week thinking about lying and liars – reading, talking, reflecting.  I have come to the conclusion that everyone’s a liar, with two exceptions – you and me.  And I am having my doubts about you.

Does anyone truly meet the standard of telling  “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”?  By this standard lying is not only bold and hurtful lies, it’s little white lies, deceiving, misleading, withholding information, and self-deception.

We lie when we play games.  Does the phrase “poker face” mean anything to you?  When I watch the Panthers beat the Saints this afternoon, faking the defenders is part of the game.  But so is pretending you made a catch when you didn’t, or pretending you didn’t commit a foul.  If you’re last year’s New Orleans Saints, so is pretending you did not intend to injure the quarterback.

We lie to protect others.  Two famous lies the Bible seems to approve of are the Egyptian midwives protecting the babies from Pharaoh and Rahab protecting the spies.  Most of us would also lie to protect those we love, especially from physical harm.

We lie to protect someone’s feelings.  One question illustrates this:  “Does this dress make me look fat?”

We lie to protect ourselves.  I remember a couple of years after I came to Corinth my church-owned vehicle needed new tires.  A member of the Consistory asked me, “Well, did you get them rotated?”  I indignantly answered, “Of course.”  But I hadn’t, and I had to admit to her later that I had lied.  I was protecting myself from embarrassment.  I wish the incidents were only 15 years ago.  Just this past week I brought Linda her nightly ice cream bar while I ate my ice cream sandwich in front of her.  It’s how we limit our “dessert portion.”  Then when I took the wrappers back into the kitchen I snuck another one without telling her.  Strike me off the list of truth-tellers.

Most of the time when we lie to balance unequal power.  Children learn this early.  They are always at a power deficit.  For this reason, the youngest child tends to lie the most – and get by with it the most.  One study says 70% of children lie regularly by the age of 3, and 100% by the age of 6.  What child won’t tell a lie if the truth will get them in trouble?  That carries over into adulthood.  We lie to employers, to the government, to anyone we believe has unfair power over us.

I believe ours is a culture of deceit, and it’s getting worse.  But it’s not new.  For most of us, the Andy Griffith show was about the good ole days of innocence.  A few years ago a Sunday School video series was developed using the Andy Griffith show to teach Christian values.  Really?  Go back and watch again.  In almost every episode Andy Taylor tells white lies.  This past Friday night I watched the first episode again.  Aunt Bea is going to be Opie’s new caregiver but he doesn’t like her because she can’t fish or play baseball like Rose could.  Andy’s way of dealing with this letdown is to tell Opie that Aunt Bea’s clumsy fishing is because she is accustomed to deep sea fishing.

Of course if Opie ever gets caught in a lie, Andy is indignant.  This brings me to another point about lying.  I’ve noticed more hypocrisy about lying than almost any other sin. Listen to political ads and speeches these days and read factcheck.org.  Both presidential candidates and their campaigns tell half-truths while simultaneously feigning indignation at their opponents for doing so.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to a spouse in a marital discord complain that their partner had deceived them about another relationship or hiding money or consulting an attorney when they had done the same thing.  Nobody likes to be lied to, especially those who lie.

Here’s the problem.  We all believe in truth.  It is a value we cherish.  But it’s not the highest value.  We will lie, or not tell the whole truth, if it conflicts with another value higher up the ladder: safety, success, or self-esteem. When we lie, we do it for what we think is a justifiable reason.  Truth is not an absolute value.

Why all this reflection on lying?   Jeremiah.  I told you last week that he will not tell you what want to hear.  He will tell you what you need to know.  In chapter 5 Jeremiah is on a vain search for truth.  Let’s look verse by verse at our text.

Horizontal or vertical

Verse 1:  Go up and down the streets of Jerusalem, look around and consider, search through her squares.  If you can find but one person who deals honestly and seeks the truth, I will forgive this city.

If I translate the phrases “deals honestly and seeks the truth” literally from Hebrew, what God tells Jeremiah to look for is one person of “justice” and “faithfulness.”  Let’s use the word “integrity.”

Jeremiah is preaching at the low point of Jewish history – the rock bottom of idolatry and moral corruption.  I am not sure whether this search for one person of integrity is literal or rhetorical.  He is depicting a bankrupt culture, spiritually and morally.  Would you say that’s true of our culture today?

Here’s why I don’t want to go there.  A lot of the comparisons between Jeremiah’s day and ours sound to me a lot like “Everybody today lies – except you and me.”  I don’t want us to leave church thinking about the sins of those who aren’t here.  Jeremiah reminds me that the futile search for truth includes me.  Everybody lies.

Verse 2:  Although they say, “As surely as the LORD lives,” still they are swearing falsely.

I have had several conversations this week about whether this text deals with horizontal truth or vertical truth.  Is Jeremiah’s search for truth about those who lie to each other or who lie about God?  Is he looking for truth tellers or truth seekers?

This verse tells me I cannot divorce the two.  When God’s name is used carelessly to back up a lie, the casualty is more than the loss of trust between two people.  There is a callous disregard for accountability before God.  The same rationalizations I use to excuse hiding the truth from others I use with God – especially the one about power.

A culture where truth doesn’t matter horizontally is a culture where truth about God doesn’t matter either.  In Jeremiah’s day false prophets would counter Jeremiah’s message of doom and insist God has spoken to them as well.  But the fault doesn’t lie with lying prophets.  The people want to believe lies about God.  Embracing a lie is as bad as telling one, especially when that lie is about God.

Verse 3:  O LORD, do not your eyes look for truth?  You struck them, but they felt no pain; you crushed them, but they refused correction.  They made their faces harder than stone and refused to repent.

It’s one thing to sin, but quite another to face discipline and refuse to confront our sin.

Pastor Paul told me this week there’s a movement out there called “Good without God.” It’s an atheistic philosophy that says you don’t need religion to be a good person.  We Christians would answer that it’s based on a misunderstanding of what we believe anyway.  We do believe in a common grace that allows unbelievers to be good.  We also do not think we are “more good” than they because we have God.  We are more aware of our sins because we understand God’s holiness.

What I fear from inside the church is the idea that I can be “Bad with God.”  If I get the gospel right, that my sins are all forgiven by Christ, does it really matter if I excuse some white lies and deceptions toward others?  Yes!

Verse 4:  I thought, “These are only the poor; they are foolish, for they do not know the way of the LORD, the requirements of their God.”

When I read this verse, I immediately thought of Charles Murray’s book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Murray contrasts today’s working class and upper class in America.  He says over the past fifty years there has been a growing divide between the haves and have nots in basic values: marriage, industriousness, honesty, and religiosity.  Murray believes the haves should “preach what they practice.”

Like Murray, Jeremiah first looks for integrity among the poor, and doesn’t find any.  But he seems to give the benefit of the doubt to the poor for their ignorance.

Verse 5: “So I will go to the leaders and speak to them; surely they know the way of the LORD, the requirements of their God.”  But with one accord they too had broken off the yoke and torn off the bonds.

Would you not think the leaders (literally in Hebrew “the great”) would do better?  Jeremiah says no – they flagrantly break God’s law even though they do know better.  An op ed piece in the Charlotte Observer by Howard Gardner this past Monday caught my attention.  The writer, a professor at Harvard University, says the recently exposed cheating scandal says something very important about these students who are the best and brightest at a flagship university.

In his interviews with students, Gardner found that the students are not appalled by cheating in school or in the workplace.  Their goal is success, and they believe it is the job of the authorities to catch the cheaters, much the same way it is the job of a football official to catch a player breaking the rules.  If you can get by with it and it gives you another rung on the ladder of success, it’s OK.  Gardner speaks of “articulate, thoughtful, even lovable” students with “hollowness at the core.”  Remember, these are going to be tomorrow’s business and civic leaders.  They will be the “great.”  When you try to be “good without God,” there is no objective standard for truth.

Verse 6: Therefore a lion from the forest will attack them, a wolf from the desert will ravage them, a leopard will lie in wait near their towns to tear to pieces any who venture out, for their rebellion is great and their backslidings many.

This is more than a verse about wild animals terrorizing human communities.  The nations around Judah are pictured as ravaging beats.  Jeremiah is graphically portraying his message of coming judgment.  Whether you live near the forest, in the desert, or in a walled city, you are not safe from the wrath of God.

Jeremiah knows your next question.  Does God not forgive?

Verses 7-8: “Why should I forgive you?  Your children have forsaken me and sworn by gods that are not gods.  I supplied all their needs, yet they committed adultery and thronged to the house of prostitutes.  They are well-fed, lusty stallions, each neighing for another man’s wife.”

We skipped from chapter 1 to chapter 5, but in between Jeremiah frequently uses the metaphor of promiscuity to describe the people of God.  Sometimes the image is of an adulteress, sometimes of a prostitute, and sometimes of an animal in heat.  Always God is a scorned lover.  He has provided for his people, has fulfilled every need and desire, but he was not enough for them.  We will speak more of idolatry ahead.

Sexual promiscuity and spiritual prostitution are as closely connected as truth-telling and truth-seeking.  The people do not believe they will be accountable to God for their sins.  This is Jeremiah’s final point.

Verse 9:  “Should I not punish them for this?” declares the LORD.  “Should I not avenge myself on a nation such as this?”

Paul follows and extends this same logic in Romans 3.  The whole human race is guilty – starting with Jews and including moral nonbelievers and spiritually reckless pagans in depraved cultures.  “Jews and Gentiles alike are under sin,” Paul writes (Romans 3:9), and the law applies to all “so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God” (Romans 3:19).

I warned you Jeremiah is not a feel good prophet.  Sin must be judged by a holy God.  To deny this is to deny the holiness and character of God.

A setup for Jesus

So what do we take away from Jeremiah’s message on God’s search for truth?

First, we take away a passion for truth.  “Everybody’s doing it” is not an excuse before God.  Justice and honesty matter to God. God’s search for truth continues. My quest is to be the one person God is looking for who believes the truth and tells the truth.  This requires complete dependence on the Holy Spirit, who Jesus said leads us into all truth and convicts us of sin.  I need his help and when I ask for it he will give it.

Second, we take away honest confession.  In my desire to be the one God is looking for, it’s good to admit that I am not perfected in integrity and will not be this side of heaven.  Once I start think of the liars as “everybody but you and me” I start excusing my lies or minimizing them as “white lies.”  Some of you are wanting me to spoon-feed you with a list of permitted exceptions to truth-telling.  Is it OK to spare someone’s feelings?  Does God approve of self-protection?  I’m not going to give you Rabbi Thompson’s version of which lies and deceptions are acceptable.  What God wants is your heart – a heart that says, “God, I want to be a truth seeker, a truth teller.”  Spend less time seeking to justify lying and more time agreeing with Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure?  Who can understand it?”  That’s my heart he’s talking about.

Finally, we take away grace on this side of the cross.  I love how God says in verse 1 that he will forgive the city if he can find “one person who deals honestly and seeks the truth.”  This is a taste of the gospel, a setup for Jesus.  In Christ God says, “I will be the one you find when you search for truth.  I will be the one who in human form lives the truth, tells the truth, is the truth.  I will satisfy what God’s law demands, and then give my life for your sins.  “If there’s only one person of complete integrity,” God says, “atonement can be made.”  The “one” will never be you or me.  Thank God for Jesus.  Amen.

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