Do you remember the television game show from the 1960’s, To Tell the Truth? Three people tried to stump a panel of celebrities, all three of which claiming to be someone who had accomplished an unusual feat. The panel tried to guess which of the three was telling the truth. It was harmless enough. But it also showed how persuasive and tricky lying could be. Sometimes it is hard to tell who is telling the truth, isn’t it? Don’t you wish there were a little buzzer that went off when someone told a lie, exposing the deceit before any damage could be done?
But there is no such buzzer. There is no spell that makes a person’s nose grow like Pinocchio’s when they lie. In fact, even when a person swears with their hand on a Bible in a courtroom, under penalty of perjury, they still may not be telling the truth. As a result, we are all a bit jaded these days, wondering whom to trust, wondering who is really telling the truth. We long for the legendary honesty of George Washington and the cherry tree. What ever happened to politicians who could say, “I cannot tell a lie?” Of course, the outstanding majority of those in honorable professions are scrupulously honest; and that is why the deception of a small few makes the headlines. But the damage to our national psyche is done nonetheless. Does anyone really tell the truth these days? Or is the truth so twisted by spin-doctors that it simply does not exist these days?
We are not the first generation of humans to ask this question. In the dawning days of the New Testament the people were facing the same despair. There was no lack of people who had climbed the ladder to success by twisting the truth to their own benefit, like Herod the King. There was no lack of religious leaders who had learned the fine art of political correctness, soft-peddling the truth lest the powers-that-be become offended, or their own position of power be threatened. There was no lack of tax collectors and Roman soldiers who were corrupt, bending the truth in whichever way suited them. But into this caldron of half-truth and deception, what happens? God sent a messenger named John, with a new word of pure truth. We tell his story these days of Advent to remind us that truth always wins in the end, even if the person who tells it is killed for telling it. My friends the truth is, we are all dying to hear the truth, the real truth. Like the game show, we want to say, “Will the person telling the truth please just stand up?” And John the Baptist stood up. But the real challenge for us in this day and age is how can we be people of the truth too?
To tell the truth means a person must have a moral center, a sense of truth that keeps them anchored to integrity.
No one sets out to be a serial liar, any more than a person intends to become an alcoholic. It is a slow drift, an almost imperceptible slide across time. The first lie is a small one, an impulsive dodge of a question whose truthful answer would get us punished for a small misdeed. Soon, we learn the art of half-truth, of diplomatic word-smithing, of situational ethics. By the time we are pathological liars we have developed the skill so well that we cannot even tell where the line is between truth and deception anymore. Is there any hope for a person like this, or for a culture like this?
Well, yes, there is. Telling the truth is a choice. And it is a habit, a discipline. And ultimately, it becomes a matter of character. My brothers and sisters, as a people of hope, it is never too late to reverse the course of our lives. But the first place to go is to the very heart of the person, to secure the heart in the only Source of all truth, God Himself. Truth-telling is not just a matter of a New Year’s resolution, like losing ten pounds or organizing the tax receipts better. Turning from a life of deception to a life commitment to truth-telling begins by anchoring oneself to the God who is all truth, in whom is no shadow or deception at all. It is a faith matter, at its core. The more a person ties their sense of truth to the God of truth, the more likely that person is to resist twisting the truth to their own benefit. God can redraw that line between truth and falsehood for us, etching it gently but firmly into our psyche until a little buzzer does go off in our brains when we step across it. And then, the more we practice telling the truth, the easier it becomes, until after a while it hardly seems like a choice anymore, it just feels right. Because it is right.
John the Baptist had such an anchor in God. He feared God, that is, he respected only God’s opinion of him, and as a result, he cared very little about the opinions of others. And because he feared God, he did not need to fear anyone else. And thus, he was not tossed around by public acclaim nor by the threats of the powerful people his truth threatened. John’s message dared to expose the secrets that everyone knew, whether they be in Herod’s household or in the secret hearts of ordinary people. And that truth-telling was so rare in those days that people sought out John, to hear his message of repentance. Like water in the desert, John’s words slaked the thirst of the people’s hearts to hear the truth.
But to tell the truth has another benefit; telling the truth is a simpler way to live.
My friends, how much emotional and mental energy does it take to lie, and then to cover up afterwards? Those who tell the truth do not have to waste time looking over their shoulder, fearing when the lie catches up to them. As Satchel Paige once said, “A lie will take you far, but a lie will not get you home.” Spouses involved in affairs become ensnared in an ever-tightening vise of the double life. Business leaders who attempt to deceive investors or employees must keep increasing their level of intrigue to stay ahead of the baying hounds of consequences that pursue them. In the end it simply becomes too complex, too difficult, too exhausting to continue. But the person who tells the truth, even if that truth is painful at first, lives free of these complications. That is not to say that truth-telling has no risk. Folks, Herod killed John the Baptist. But even that cruel act did not cut off John’s voice, because Jesus came to pick up the message, and the disciples of John continued to venerate his work, even to this very day.
In the end, the truth wins, every time. And maybe that is why people today name their sons John. Have you noticed, no one names their son Herod?