A Dummies Guide to Reality I Can Tell a Lie
In this sermon series we go to the Ten Commandments to find out how things really are. Get past our opinions, the world's ideas, and conventional wisdom. Tonight we go to the 8th Commandment, and this dummy finds surprisingly that I can tell a lie.
The Bible has plenty of examples of God's people lying. The usual way of looking at these is: Yes, but they weren't rewarded for it. That is they were really wrong to tell a lie; there is no circumstance where it is permissible for a Christian to lie.
The midwives in Ex. 1:19 lie. They're commanded by Pharaoh to throw out the boy Hebrew babies. They don't. When asked why they lie and say that the Hebrew women are stronger than Egyptian and give birth sooner. Jonathon lies to his father Saul in 1 Sam. 20 about the whereabouts of David. He is hiding in a nearby field, but Jonathon says he's in Bethlehem. David while fleeing from Saul lies to the high priest in 1 Sam. 21. He tells him Saul has sent him on a special mission. Jeremiah rather than telling officials the truth that he had prophesied to the king about the coming fall of Jerusalem, he lies and says he was pleading for his own life (Jer. 38).
I have more. Rehab lies to those searching for the spies sent out by Joshua saying, "They went that a way," when she was hiding them. A woman hides 2 spies on their way to David. When men come looking for them she says, "They crossed over the brook." That's enough. If I go on, you'll cover your kids' ears because one of the big hurdles of childrearing is lying.
But since the days of Augustine right down to Luther, the church has known of the useful or necessary lie. This should not surprise you. For the last 3 sermons on the 8th Commandment since 2004 I have cited the man who systemized Luther's theology, Chemnitz, on this. "When a willful revelation of something would be a sin, it is not a lie to say or show something indirect" (Locci, II, 425). Luther clearly subordinates the duty of truthfulness to love of one's neighbor. In one place, he considers the lie not only to be permitted but commanded. Wherever it prevents harm, shame, sin, or murder he is not afraid of calling it a lie of love, an honorable and pious lie, even a duty of love (Peters, Ten Commandments, 299).
So not only can I tell a lie sometimes I should, must, ought, better tell one. But there's another sense to "I can tell a lie." It's that this dummy is no George Washington. When his father asked him about the felled cherry tree, he supposedly said, "I cannot tell a lie; I did it." According to some, the story itself is a lie (http://listverse.com/2008/05/15/top-10-famous-historic-misquotes/), but it lives on in American lore, and it gives the impression that this Commandment is the one we can do. Then pastors spend hours exposing how many white lies from whether your wife is gaining weight to whether your husband is going bald we tell. Then they say, "There are no white lies only black ones." See above for the church's historic perspective. But the real damage is that the pastor has given the impression this Commandment is doable.
Do you see the damage? The closer we get to the 9th and 10th Commandments, the closer we're getting to the horrific truth of where our sin really lies. The 9th and 10th deal with the heart, as does the 1st so we're back where we started. With the 8th we're at the mouth, but what does Jesus say about the mouth? "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks." So even a dummy like me gets an indication of what's going on in his heart by what is coming out of his mouth. And what's coming out of my mouth is lies. I can easily, frequently, and thoughtlessly tell them.
Paul is blunt about this. He says, "God is honest, and every man is a liar." Not some men, not most men, but every man is a liar. Luther said that God gave this Commandment because He knows that every one of us, "'insofar as he is human, is a false witness, betrayer, liar, and that no true word goes out of our mouth when we are in danger'" (Peters, 297), and I might add or when we are mad, glad, or sad!
And any lie that comes to fallen dummies like me so naturally, so easily whether it be in the form of gossiping or listening to it, whether it be delighting to hear bad things about others or keeping silent about the good things, is the core act of unbelief. Jesus says not that He is a truth, but The Truth. Jesus alone says, "Truly, truly" to people. The Devil is the father of lies. So the lie is more than skin deep, more than at the tip of our tongue, it's an indication our mouths are open graves. The lie is our "no" to the God who is truth (Ibid. 294). And we are helpless to stop.
This is what James 3says. Notice how he connects the lie on the tongue to the flames of hell and concludes no one can stop. "The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison."
Where on earth are we to go from here? Certainly not inside ourselves, but to some place on earth. To the Jesus who walked the earth telling the truth to save us. Twice in the Passion History Jesus states who He really is. In Gethsemane when the mob says they're looking for Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus says, "I am." In the trial before the Sanhedrin the high priest formerly asks "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One," Jesus answers: "I am."
In Gethsemane those 2 little words brought down the house. The arresting mob all fell backward to the ground. At the trial those 2 words brought the tearing of the high priest's robes something he was never to do and it brought the death sentence to Jesus, as well as spit on His face, a cover over His head, blows to His body and mockery to His soul.
Why did the words "I am" do so much? Jesus was telling the truth about who this Man born of Mary, raised in Nazareth, and standing before them was in reality. He is whom Moses first met in the burning bush. When Moses asked for His name, Yahweh replied, "I am." The One arrested in Gethsemane was the almighty I am' whose presence rocks mountains and causes men to pee their pants. The One being painfully and shamefully mistreated on trial is Yahweh in flesh and blood before whom angels bow and demons flee.
The Gethsemane incident shows that Jesus could easily have escaped the shaming, the bleeding, and dying. With 2 little words all those against Him fell to the ground. Jesus goes willingly to all this suffering. He said that, didn't He? "No man takes My life from Me, but I lay it down willingly." The One who is Truth laid down His life for us liars. He willingly gave Himself over to men who would tell lies about Him and get more liars to help. And the trial incident shows Jesus is whipped, beaten, tortured, and crucified for telling the truth. "I am the Son of the Blessed One."
How many times have I avoided the truth? How many times have I not confessed the guilt of my sins? How many times have I not faced the truth and been content with my lies about self or others? Whip me till the cows come home; punch me till I look like Jesus did having to discernable face; torture me till I faint from pain, and crucify me in hell itself, and I won't be able to make up for, to pay for, or lessen my guilt even a little. Only the punching, torturing, crucifying and dying of God can do that. Unless the God-Man had drained the cup of wrath my sins deserve that Baptismal Font would only have cobwebs for me and the chalice would only pour dust into my mouth.
Jesus isn't done truth telling. Tonight He says, "Do not weep for me." If ever you go away from a Lenten service feeling sorry for Jesus, you have missed the boat. He doesn't want your tears. He doesn't want your promises to never do that again. He doesn't want your mental gymnastics that prove to you why you really aren't the cause of His suffering. You are, but He tells the truth when He says, "Do not weep for me." He wants from you what He got from the dying thief. He wants you to want Him to remember you when He comes in His kingdom. He wants you to use His suffering as payment for your sins of the tongue and as redemption for your fallen heart.
Jesus is true even though every dummy like me is a liar. Jesus says, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." Either Jesus is lying and we do know and so forgiveness isn't ours, or Jesus is telling the truth. We don't know and forgiveness is. Don't you know what you're doing when you gossip or backbite? Don't you know what you're doing when you delight in bad news about someone and forget the good? This dummy does. But Jesus says I don't, and He speaks truth. I lie.
Based on Jesus who is Truth incarnate I don't know what I'm doing. I have no idea how gross my sins, how grievous my sins, how great my sin. I don't know that each sin of mine pounded the nails into Yahweh's flesh a little deeper, caused one more lash stroke to fall, pressed one more tear from His eye. I don't know that. You don't know that. We only think we do, but we lie. Jesus doesn't. He knows it all, and He says, "Father forgive them." He did; you are.
We've sung Luther's hymn on the Ten Commandments for 16 years. We sing, pray really, that we not belie our neighbor, but defend him, and hide his shame. But we end this petition the way we do the rest: "Have mercy, Lord!" Apart from His mercy we would be consumed by our fiery tongues. Having His mercy we aren't. While I can tell a lie; I can also believe in my heart that gracious truth, and out of that heart my mouth can speak. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Lenten Vespers V (20160309); 8th Commandment, Passion Reading 5