Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

I want to start with two questions in the field of epistemology, in fact, with the two chief questions of epistemology:

How do we know what we know?, and

What is truth?

I think one of the most problematic aspects of Christianity as far as the secular culture is concerned is the religious understanding of knowledge and Truth. [If you had my manuscript in hand, you’d see that that was “Truth” with a capital “T”; another strange habit some religious people have is capitalizing things that don’t need capitalization… even pronouns for god’s sake.] You may have heard me lament before about how narrow our definition of truth has become over the last five centuries or so. Modernity (the context in which most of us find ourselves unless we hang out with very hip, post-modern types) more or less holds that the only true propositions are facts, which are either empirically verifiable or logically deductible. So, “John has ten fingers” or “five and five make ten” are truths. If you’re a fan of Kant, those are synthetic aposteriori and analitic apriori propositions. If you’re not a fan of Kant, that’s observation and logic (or science and math).

What are theological truths, though? Well, the most modern of Christians (though we don’t think of them as being modern at all), the fundamentalists, will claim that theological truths are just science and math. Observe the facts, study them, and they will prove that Jesus was born of a virgin and that he rose from the dead. Take the states of water for an analogy and it will prove the Trinity. Consider how cause and effect are linked (and don’t think about quantum mechanics) and it will prove the existence of an ultimate cause, namely God. The problem is that this just doesn’t work. We might convince ourselves that these are compelling arguments, but that’s because we’re already inclined to believe the theological truth supposedly being proved.

So, we’re left with a problem. Can we know anything about God? Obviously, the answer I want to give is “yes” because I am in the business of making God known. I think I can pretty confidently claim that we can know theological truths, but Truth (again with that capital “T”) ends up being a lot more complex than facts. Such knowledge begins neither with observation nor with reason but with conviction. And when we come upon Truth, it can sometimes seem internally inconsistent, which is to say that the claims of religion seem (at least to our pea-brains) as being in contradiction with each other.

All of this, believe it or not, has something to do with the Prophet Micah:

But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting. Therefore will he give them up, until the time that she which travaileth hath brought forth: then the remnant of his brethren shall return unto the children of Israel. And he shall stand and feed in the strength of the Lord in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God; and they shall abide: for now shall he be great unto the ends of the earth.

Are you ready for this? Micah wasn’t talking about Jesus. But, Micah was talking about Jesus. I’m not using figures of speech here, nor am I vacillating. Nor am I saying that the prophet was unintentionally writing about Jesus when he just thought he was doing something else. Micah was both foretelling the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem, and he was doing nothing of the sort. Both true. Not “truthy”. True.

Confused yet? Let’s try to dig ourselves out. Micah was prophesying during the second half of the Eighth Century BC, around the same time as Isaiah and Amos and Hosea. Tiglath-Pileser III had been king of Assyria for eighteen years and had conquered and made himself king of Babylon two years before his death. In 729 BC, upon the king’s death, the people of Israel believed the time was ripe for a rebellion against Assyria, of which it had become a vassal state. The rebellion was ruthlessly suppressed by the new king, Shalmanesar V, who laid waste to Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and sent the ten tribes of that kingdom into exile.

What Micah was prophesying in this morning’s reading was a successful uprising from the remaining two tribes in the Southern Kingdom of Judah who would defeat the Assyrians, bring the lost tribes home, and reëstablish an independent, reunited state under a Davidic king. This never happened. The Southern Kingdom was eventually defeated by the Neo-Babylonian Empire (themselves having just regained independence from Assyria), and they were sent into exile, too, staying there until King Cyrus of Persia defeated the Babylonians and let the Jews go back home and rebuild their temple. By the way, they still weren’t permitted to have their own king, and even when they finally did reëstablish the monarchy, after the Maccabean Revolt, they never got anybody from David’s line onto the throne.

So, Micah was making a prediction which ended up not happening. That’s the truth.

But there’s a funny thing about Scripture, which the Church Fathers told us, and which was lost in the epistemological project of Modernity. There are many correct ways to read Scripture. Here we need to be careful. I am not saying that there are as many ways to read scripture as there are readers and that scripture can be whatever we want it to be. It’s a book about the perfect love of God which has been used to justify slavery and misogyny and violence against racial, religious, and sexual minorities. It is a book about justice which has been used to keep the poor in their place. There are some ways of reading scripture which are just plain wrong.

There is, however, a wealth of meaning in Scripture. Historical criticism, the hermeneutical circle, the finer points of figuring out which are the best ancient manuscripts, and everything else that modern scholarship has given us are important, but we also believe that the Holy Spirit had something to do with this book we call “holy.” This means that whatever the author’s intent or the historic context in which some piece of biblical literature should be placed, there is still room for spiritual truths and moral truths and theological truths which have nothing in the world to do with things like intent and context. Micah was preaching a hopeful if mistaken message about the future of the Jewish state. For us, we see the promise of a savior. Isaiah (or really the later additions to Isaiah) talk about a Persian King named Cyrus who let the Jews go back home. We see Jesus in the story. The Song of Solomon is nothing more than mildly cheeky love poetry. We see in it the most beautiful account of the love Christ has for his Church.

What is Truth? It’s a lot less simple than the modern person might think. It’s also a great deal more beautiful and comforting and exciting.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.