Tuesday, December 20, 2011

What (and why) is truth?

So i spoke in church not this past Sunday, but the one before. Just ’cause i have a blog and therefore i can, i’m including the text of it here. (In writing this thing, i actually cribbed some of the lines from a sacrament meeting speech i gave about six years ago, also at Xmastime, but they seemed to fit nicely in this setting.)

Good morning. I was given an address from the latest general conference of the church to use as the basis for what I’m presenting today: Dallin H. Oaks’s address, which was titled “Teachings of Jesus”. I’d recommend giving it a read—it’s a good reminder of things we ought to already know, but sometimes forget. It discusses the importance of Jesus to not just our beliefs, but our lives—and it also, as the title suggests, discusses some of Jesus’s teachings and their importance.

This got me thinking: What has Jesus taught us, through his words and his examples? Well, thinking about this led me to a particular saying of Jesus, and since I’m old-fashioned enough that I use scriptural texts as springboards for my religious speechmaking, I decided to use this particular saying as my text: “…for this cause came I into the world…” This text is taken from the middle of the good news according to John, chapter 18 verse 37, and it’s from the middle of one of Jesus’s responses to Pontius Pilate at his final trial before being shown to the crowd. Introducing this as the text for my speech today, though, leads to a fairly obvious question: What exactly is the “cause”? Jesus says that he came into the world for “this cause”, but what might that cause be? To answer this, we need to look at the surrounding context.

In verse 33, staying with the eighteenth chapter of the Gospel of John, Pilate asks Jesus directly about criminal charges, trying to find out whether Jesus is actually guilty of treason, or at least fomenting rebellion: “Art thou the king of the Jews?” After a bit of back and forth, in verse 36, Jesus says, fairly famously, “My kingdom is not of this world”. He goes further and provides some evidence for this, explaining that his servants didn’t fight for him, which is of course what servants of an earthly king would do. Pilate repeats his question (we’ve come back to verse 37 now): “Art thou a king, then?”—though the text seems ambiguous, since some translations have Pilate questioning, saying “So You are a king?” and in some he’s shocked, not even questioning: “You are a king, then!”

Jesus answers, in part: “Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.”

This is a simple yet dense statement—a set of statements, actually. First, Jesus announces his kingship: “You say rightly that I am a king”, as several translators have rendered the sentence. Having done that, though, Jesus announces something that is at first glance less impressive than kingship, but that I would say is at least as amazing: His purpose in coming to earth was, put simply, truth. “I was born into this world to tell about truth”.

Think about that for a second—and if you’ve been sleeping through the exegesis to this point, if you’ve been zoning out, if you’ve been analyzing the pattern on the shirt worn by the person in front of you, this is the time to come back. As Robert Young rendered it literally, yet poetically, “…A king I am, I for this have been born, and for this I have come to the world, that I may testify to the truth…” Jesus came to testify of truth. And he did testify! As the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews points out, Jesus the Christ was not just a good example for our lives, he was not just a religious figure—he was the testator of the new testament, the new agreement, the new covenant between mortals and God the Father. And as the testator, he died so that the new covenant could be put into effect, just as—according to the author of Hebrews—just as the maker of a will must die for it to be put into effect. Jesus’s supreme testimony was fulfilled by his death, his death which allowed—this is a quote—“that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance”.

But death! Why in the world am I up here talking about death? We’re in the middle of the season of Advent, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, not Palm Sunday or Easter, when it might seem more natural to look forward or backward, as the case may be, to Jesus’s death, as celebrated on Good Friday. Sure, Jesus testified, and he testified most consummately through his death, but isn’t there something happier to talk about here?

You want happiness? There is happiness here, but I’m gonna warn you that we’ll have to stick with sadness for a while before we get to the joy. This is because I’ve talked about the supreme method, the incomparable manner of Jesus’s testifying, but I’ve pretty much ignored what he told us he was testifying of: truth. But “what is truth?” we must ask—along with Pilate, I would note, who asked the question before leaving the judgment hall. We, however, unlike Pilate, can be willing to remain and learn what this truth thing is, and why it was so important for Jesus to give everything for it.

The ninety-third section of the book of Doctrine and Covenants contains some spectacular teachings on the glory of God, and on our relationship to God. However, one of the most quoted verses in that section deals with something perhaps more foundational, and that is what I will quote here—the twenty-fourth verse, which says that “…truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come…” Now, it’s easy to let your mind wander when people read verses of scripture that many in the audience have heard and even read themselves many times before, so let me read this again, slowly, with emphasis, and with the complete attention of everyone out there: “…truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come…”

Rhetorical, but still very important, question: Can you feel the audacity in this claim? We have the answer to Pilate’s question right in front of us! What is truth? Truth is huge, that’s what it is! It would be big enough if it were just everything that is, was, and will be, but it’s much more personal than that. It’s not simply an abstraction hanging out there, something untouchable, something unreachable, it’s the knowledge of everything that is, was, and will be. The knowledge of everything that is, was, and will be. It’s something that each of us can experience personally—something that, as it says later in that same section of the book of Doctrine and Covenants, something that we can receive through communion with God.

Now hopefully, if my rhetorical skills are as good as I hope they are today, at least some of you are recognizing—or recognizing anew—the enormity of what Jesus was saying when he said his purpose for coming to earth was to testify of truth. He was testifying of everything—and not just an unreachable everything, but: everything and we can know it.

But everything’s a lot to deal with. If you try to take on knowledge of everything, if you try to take on truth all at once, it could potentially be overwhelming—or at least I know it would likely be so for me. So, a reasonable question: Where should I start?

Well, we can start by going full circle. Joseph Smith said that—quote—“The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven…” (end of quote). What are the fundamental principles of our religion? That the apostles and prophets were telling the truth about Jesus, basically—that Jesus died, was buried, and was resurrected. And how central is this? Well, it’s so central—let me give you the complete sentence the quote I just gave was taken from: “The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.” It’s that important.

This brings us back to death, though—but it also brings us to truth. And although Jesus came into this world to be killed, his death testified of truth, and if we receive the knowledge that comes with receiving that truth, we will have no need to be saddened, no need to despair—we can rejoice in the birth of Jesus with Simeon, who, even though he prophesied of the death of Jesus, he had received of truth enough to rejoice at the birth of the Son of God, blessing God and saying what are to my mind the most joyous words in the Bible: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.”

For Jesus is a light to all nations, the Son of God revealed in the flesh. As we celebrate Christmas, as we celebrate the birth of Jesus the Christ, let us remember that although Jesus was born to die, even though he was born to give his life as an offering, the covenant he sealed with his death allows us access to that truth that will allow us to rejoice. And this is open to all of us! As Nephi tells us in the Book of Mormon, God invites all of us, “black and white, bond and free, male and female…Jew and Gentile”—and I’d add to that list any of the other lines we might separate ourselves along these days: rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, Mormon and non-Mormon, even believer and non-believer. God invites all of us, no matter how we may label ourselves, no matter how others may label us.

I offer my hopes that I, that you, that all of us in this room, that all of us in this world may receive of the truth that Jesus has offered us, and I offer this in the name of Jesus the Christ, the savior of the world. Amen.

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