Truthiness

This sermon was delivered at the Atchison United Methodist Church, as part of the local Ministerial Association’s annual Lenten series, “Soup & Sermon.”

Text: Luke 4:1-13

As you may or may not know, I’m pretty new to this community. My family and I only moved here the last week of August last year, so this is my first Soup & Sermon. I’m glad to be a part of all of this. I have a real desire to see Christians of all sorts come together for worship and work in Christ.

So when I was talking to the Ministers’ Alliance about my participation in Soup & Sermon, and was told that speakers have 10 or 15 minutes and are encouraged to not be too controversial, I thought, “I can do that!”

But I do also like to stir the pot, and I think some of us have heard these stories so many times that it takes something cataclysmic to break through that shell, to get us to hear the living word once again.

So as we begin our Lenten pilgrimage in ways as diverse as we are from one another, I thought I’d talk about Satan. Nothing too controversial, I hope.

Now, I’m going to use the word “satan” to talk about Satan—mostly for convenience and consistency—but if we are honest, our concept of Satan is a collage of around 20 different names, roles, and stories about an entity that does not seem to wish good on humanity.

But for my noncontroversial purposes this morning, I am interested in a subset of these stories and descriptions, a subset so small that it only contains the verses I read from Luke and one other tiny passage from Genesis, where the serpent—who we identify as Satan—tempts Eve and—by proxy—Adam into defying God.

My concern for us is about truth and truthiness. Truthiness is a term coined by comedian Stephen Colbert a few years back to describe a “truth” that someone claims to know intuitively “from the gut” because it “feels right” without regard for evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts (quoted from Wikipedia, s.v. “truthiness).

Now I can’t give you any specific, current event examples of truthiness without being controversial, so I hope you get the picture (without my referencing climate change, gun regulation, economics, or anything that comes out of a politician’s mouth).

As we consider truth and truthiness, we look to the rarely preserved words of Satan in the Bible, found only in Genesis 3 and in the stories of the temptation of Jesus.

The question for us to consider is this: “Does Satan lie?”

Genesis 3

We first consider the temptation of the original humans in Genesis 3. The wily serpent asks Eve about something God said to Adam, something said way before Eve even existed. Not choosing the weak one, I imagine, but the one without firsthand hearing.

Eve enthusiastically defends God, and faithfully repeats the instruction given to Adam about not eating the fruit of one particular tree.

But then the serpent contradicts God, telling Eve that what awaits them is not death but God-likeness, the ability to judge between good and evil.

What is truth? And what is just truthy?

It’s interesting to me that the serpent correctly anticipates God’s grace. God has told Adam in Genesis 2:16-17 that “you will certainly die” if you eat from this tree. But Satan knows God is compassionate and abounding and grace, and Satan seems to anticipate that God will provide a way of grace for this special part of creation as well. So in this sense, Satan perhaps gambled with truth, but came out ahead.

But not so with Satan’s promise. The promise—the lure—is becoming a judge and therefore being like God. And here’s the truthiness: being a judge is not the same as being the Righteous Judge. The actions of the first humans set themselves up as their own judges of good and evil, rather than relying on God to judge rightly. We took on a role of God but do not possess the nature to fill it as does the Divine Being.

But it sounded good. We were swindled into buying some snake oil because of the truthiness of what Satan said. It “felt right” and “made sense” that the ability to judge good and evil would make us like God. But that proved to not be the case.

Luke 4

We move now back to Luke 4. And while we have three temptations here, the time and topic permit me to comment on only one—the final one in Luke’s ordering, which begins in v.9. This is also the only one of Jesus’ temptations where—like Genesis 3—Satan uses God’s own words to try to trip up Jesus.

Satan quotes the Psalms—Psalm 91 to be specific—to try to coax Jesus into a first-century game of Russian roulette. And he seems to hope that Jesus has a “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” kind of religion. Here Satan does not directly state how God will respond to all this, but the texts he uses make a suggestion that just makes sense. They have that certain “truthy” quality that we look for.

But unlike the first humans—and unlike we 21st century humans—Jesus requires more than truthiness.

I think part of what allowed Jesus to separate truth from truthiness is the wilderness time that preceded this encounter. For forty days, as we read in Luke 4:2, Jesus is sustained by the Spirit in the wilderness. For forty days he is practicing the disciplines of silence, solitude, and (I imagine) prayer. And in that time of silence, his hearing becomes calibrated to the truth of God’s own voice. So when Satan, the king of truthiness, comes calling, Jesus is easily able to distinguish the difference.

Lent

The story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is the biblical prototype for our season of Lent. That is why these stories of Jesus’ temptation always appear on the first Sunday of Lent.

For forty days, not counting Sundays, we journey into the wilderness of Lent. We fast. We pray. We confess and repent. We meditate. We practice silence.

Ah, silence. That most uncomfortable of disciplines. [long pause]

It is, I believe, in silence—such as the silence of Lent—that our hearing is re-calibrated. That by listening intently for the voice of God we can ourselves once again learn to tell truth from truthiness.

“Silence enables us to hear again, to distinguish truth amidst the cacophony of voices. It allows us to reset somehow, so we can recognize the distortions and lies of the evil powers in this world. In this series of temptations aimed at Jesus, ‘[Satan] presents wants as needs, falsehoods as truths, distrust as faith'” (Van Driel, Feasting, 47). Satan relies on truthiness to convince us to ignore the facts.

The question I want to leave us all with this first week of Lent is this: “Where else do we hear lies that sound truthful?” (Van Driel, Feasting, 47).

I recently joined the masses and got an iDevice. An iPhone, actually. Not the new fancy one with the bigger screen and the laser gun or whatever else. The old one that you get for a dollar, because I’m a person who is iCheap.

But it’s still an impressive piece of technology. I’m sure it knows more than I do about most anything. It certainly does better controlling me than I do controlling it.

If you watch the commercials, it seems that this little device can turn your whole life around. They tell us that no matter what you want, “there’s an app for that.” But I’ve not noticed that my new phone makes me any thinner, more spiritual, or better looking. With our crazy weather, I  haven’t had the chance to see if I’m any better at catching fish. And this is my first test to see if I’m any better of a preacher because of it.

I’m just picking on Apple because it’s easy and fun. But most any ad on TV is filled with more truthiness than truth. So you know what I’m talking about.

This Lent, as we recalibrate our hearing to the truth of God’s voice, we must be attentive to the question: Where do we hear lies that sound truthful?

I suspect if we are willing to listen and to ask, we will find some truthiness mixed into what we ourselves consider truth. And we may be able to empty ourselves of some of the stuff that may not be worthy to fill our lives in the first place.

I’m rooting for you. We’re all in this together.