Live not by lies

Let’s pray:

Heavenly Father, we pray with the Psalmist who wrote:Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart. Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it.In Jesus’ name. Amen.

The Ten Commandments are the core of God’s law. They reveal his character, expose our need of a saviour, restrain evil, and show us how to live in thankful service of Jesus. In our series taking a look at each commandment in turn, we’ve got to the ninth. It’s there in Deuteronomy 5.20, and it simply says:

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.

My title is ‘Live Not By Lies’. That’s a quotation. More about that later. So on this Mothering Sunday this is not a sermon about mothering, not directly anyway. But let me begin with a mother who’s been in the news. As you’ll no doubt be aware, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was released last week after six years in prison and detention in Iran. She told a news conference she’d been overwhelmed with emotion by her precious reunion with her husband Richard and daughter Gabriella. She said:

I had been waiting for that moment for such a long time. It was lovely to get to hold her, to braid her hair and to brush her hair. That was a moment that I really, really missed. [BBC News website 23.03.2022].

She said she was looking forward to getting to know Gabriella better again and doing everyday things like taking her to school. She wouldn’t speak about her ordeal, saying it would always haunt her. But she added:

I always felt like I was holding this black hole in my heart all these years.

When she was in Iran to visit her family in September 2016, she was accused of plotting to overthrow the Iranian government and was given a five-year sentence. Then last April she was sentenced for another year on charges of propaganda against the government. She has always denied those allegations, and she said that she was told by the Iranian authorities at the start that she would be released when they got what they wanted from the UK. She paid the price of being on the wrong end of false witness. Which brings me to my first heading. So:

1. Justice requires that the truth be told

A world without justice is a world of rampant evil. And the need for justice goes far beyond the law courts into every area of life. The Command is:

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.

So justice is relational. It’s a matter of being right with God, and right with one another. When we lie, we turn our backs on God, and we damage other people. Justice requires that the truth be told. Hence the oath that trial witnesses are required to make, in one form or another:

I swear by Almighty God that the evidence I shall give shall be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

The harm done by false witness and lying is of immense concern to God. That’s so clear from later in Deuteronomy, in Deuteronomy 19.16-21, which sets out the consequences of bearing false witness. It says:

If a malicious witness arises to accuse a person of wrongdoing, then … The judges shall enquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you. Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

So that fundamental principle of proportional justice, is set out so starkly there in relation to the issue of false witness. God hates it, because it is so destructive. And it is such a rejection of him and his own character. Titus 1.2:

God…never lies.

Isaiah 5.20-23:

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil…who acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of his right!

Jeremiah 5.1-3:

Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem…Search her squares to see if you can find a man, one who does justice and seeks truth …O Lord, do not your eyes look for truth?

A Russian journalist has been fined and released after she protested against the war in Ukraine on a live TV news programme and made an anti-war video. Marina Ovsyannikova, an editor on state-controlled Channel 1, was detained after she ran on to the set of one of Russia's most-watched news programmes, holding a sign reading "No war, stop the war, don't believe the propaganda, they are lying to you here." She said later:

Don't be afraid of anything. They can't imprison us all…I'm ashamed that I allowed myself to tell lies from the television screen.[BBC News website, 15.03.2022]

Justice requires that the truth be told.

2. Lies are at the root of all evil

And that’s because Satan is the Father of Lies. In John 8 there’s a powerful, sobering and explosive encounter between Jesus and the Jewish leaders who want him dead. Jesus says to them (John 8.37-45):

I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you…Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me.

Lies sent Jesus to the cross, like during his so-called trial. Matthew 26.59-60:

Now the chief priests and the whole Council were seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward.

That is false witness that spews from hatred of Jesus. Then there is false witness arising from a lack of courage – like the lies Peter told in the courtyard during that trial of Jesus. Matthew 26 again (Matthew 26.69-74):

Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. And a servant girl came up to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” But he denied it before them all, saying, “I do not know what you mean.” And when he went out to the entrance, another servant girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” And again he denied it with an oath: “I do not know the man.” After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you too are one of them, for your accent betrays you.” Then he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know the man.” And immediately the cock crowed.

The biggest lie of all is the denial of Christ.

Now I want to tell you about two books that I commend to you. They can both in their different ways help to equip us to bear witness for Christ and to speak the truth in a world dangerously awash with lies. The first is by Sharon James – who’s on the team of the Christian Institute, here on Tyneside. It’s called The Lies We Are Told, The Truth We Must Hold. The Foreword to the book speaks of the lies that are like:

…termites secretly eating away the inside of wooden pillars of a building until it comes crashing down…

That reminds me, too, of the chimney on our house which collapsed catastrophically during Storm Arwen two months ago. The chimney looked OK from the outside. But inside the brickwork and the mortar were evidently rotting away because when the winds raged fiercest, down it came, shattering our roof – though we thank God no one was hurt. We can get away with a lot for a while, when the weather is good. But it’s when the storms come that the damage done by false witness to our culture and to the church in our nation is exposed. And Sharon James says:

Those who speak out for biblical Christianity face accusations such as ‘bigot’, ‘transphobe’, or ‘fundamentalist’. Many Christians are scared into silence. Others, wanting to avoid confrontation, go along with current trends, and keep quiet about ways in which biblical truth is denied. Some celebrate the whole package, and rewrite biblical morality to suit the current times…each of these options (silence, acquiescence, celebration) buys into lies and ignores the truth. They shut down the only real answer for human suffering…We don’t need to be ashamed of Christ; we don’t need to be intimidated by the claims of those who are militantly opposed to the Bible.

She has chapters on four key lies that are trying to flood our culture: No God, No Absolute Morality, No Universal Truth, and No Universal Humanity. And she sets out the alternative Christian and Biblical world-view. Lies are at the root of all evil – above all, the rejection of Christ.

3. The truth is to be found in Jesus

Jesus is the Truth. John 14.6:

I am the way, and the truth, and the life.

Jesus speaks the truth of God his Father. John 12.49-50 – Jesus says:

For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me.

And the Truth sets us free. John 8.31-32:

So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

The truth is to be found in Jesus. So what are we do in the face of a tsunami of lies and false witness, for some of which we are responsible ourselves? Three things:

i. Live not by lies.

On the day the dissident Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was arrested (February 12, 1974) he released a text entitled Live Not by Lies. The next day, he was exiled to the West. He wrote:

We are not called upon to step out onto the square and shout out the truth, to say out loud what we think—this is scary, we are not ready. But let us at least refuse to say what we do not think!…Our way must be: Never knowingly support lies! …It will not be an easy path, perhaps, but it is the easiest among those that lie before us. Not an easy choice for the body, but the only one for the soul.

We need to have the courage to turn our back on lies. We need to ask God to give us the discernment to see our own lies, and all the ways we have born false witness, either by what we’ve said, or by our silence when we should’ve spoken. We are weak, but God will strengthen us when we look to him, and will give us the courage we need.

ii. Rely on Jesus and the truth that he speaks, and be his witness.

Acts 1.8 – Jesus said:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.

iii. Build others up by speaking the truth in love.

Lies destroy and bring death. The truth as it is found in Jesus builds up and brings life. Ephesians 4.15:

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…

And then there’s this comprehensive and profoundly challenging command in Ephesians 4.29:

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.

I mentioned the book by Sharon James. The other book I want to draw to your attention is by the American Christian social analyst and commentator Rod Dreher. It’s called Live Not by Lies – quoting Solzhenitsyn. It’s subtitled: A manual for Christian dissidents. He says:

The old, hard totalitarianism had a vision for the world that required the eradication of Christianity. The new, soft totalitarianism does too, and we are not equipped to resist its sneakier attack.The Western world has become post-Christian, with large numbers of those born after 1980 rejecting religious faith. This means that they will not only oppose Christians when we stand up for our principles – in particular, in defence of the traditional family, of male and female gender roles, and of the sanctity of human life – but also they will not understand why they should tolerate dissent based on religious belief.We cannot hope to resist the coming soft totalitarianism if we do not have our spiritual lives in order. This is the message of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn…He believed the core of the crisis that created and sustained communism was not political but spiritual.

Dreher talks about the central importance of family life, faith, and the fellowship of the church community in strengthening us to live within the truth. So:

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.

Live not by lies; rely on Jesus and the truth that he speaks and be his witness; and build others up by speaking the truth in love. Let’s pray:

Heavenly Father, we praise you that you are a God who never lies. A God of truth. We thank you for giving us your Son Jesus, who is the Truth, and who was willing to lay down his life to set us free. Lord Jesus, we are weak, sinful, and cowardly. Give us your strength, holiness, and courage, we pray. Forgive us our false witness, and our sinful silence, in an unjust world that so desperately needs the truth. Teach us to be faithful witnesses for you, and to speak the truth in love. In your name and for your glory. Amen.

Our final hymn reminds us that we belong to God. He has called us out of darkness into his most marvellous light – and brought his truth to life within us. Let’s stand to sing.

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