The idolatry inherent in conspiracy theories is not a conclusion people come to by reading the news through the lens of the Bible, reason, and love. It is a belief borne of fear, anxiety, and despair. Once we embrace an idolatrous conspiracy theory, we can only see the evidence that supports it. Belief blinds us to any piece of evidence that would tear from our arms the precious belief that has provided a salve to the fear, anxiety, and despair of our age. Here is what we can do: become as faithful in our discipleship of Jesus Christ as we are able.
1 Samuel 3:1-20
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. . . .
So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”
. . . Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
“The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”
That’s what the writer of 1 Samuel tells us about the era when Eli and his sons served as priests in the temple of Shiloh. When we read this passage closely, we discover an irony in this claim that the word of the Lord was rare. Within just these few verses, we find the Hebrew word for word repeated fifteen times. Though the word of God may be rare, we cannot even tiptoe through this passage without tripping over the word.
And, when we go back and read from the beginning of the book of 1 Samuel, through today’s passage and on into the next few chapters, we discover quickly what our narrator means to say—it was not that the word of the Lord was absent in those days. Rather, the people of the time rarely listened carefully enough to hear it.
Hannah prays to God in the first chapter to conceive and bear a child and God answers her with her pregnancy. While she is praying, however, the old priest Eli cannot even recognize that Hannah is praying—he thinks she is drunk. If he cannot recognize the word spoken to God, how much less likely is it that he would recognize a word from God?
In the passage immediately preceding today’s reading, we are told that “a man of God,” unnamed, comes to Eli and explicitly reveals to him the word of the Lord. “Thus the Lord has said,” he begins, and tells Eli that God has had enough of him and his sons, Hophni and Phinehas. Their time is coming to an end. Eli has been going through the motions of prayer and sacrifice in the temple of Shiloh, but his sons have been taking the meat sacrificed to God and eating it themselves. When young women came to the temple to ask God for a blessing, Eli’s sons took advantage of their vulnerability and used them for sexual gratification. These boys were bad news. If you wanted to start a death metal band, you might name it The Sons of Eli—it’s hard to think of a more morally cretinous group of men in the Bible.
And, in the chapter following today’s reading, all that the unnamed prophet had revealed to Eli comes to pass. First, Eli’s sons are killed in a battle with the Philistines; then, when Eli hears that his sons are killed and the ark of God has been captured by the Philistines, he also falls down, breaks his neck and dies.
So, the irony runs thick in this story—God’s word is rare, but it is everywhere. Visions are not widespread, Eli has gone blind at ninety-eight years of age, but the evidence of God’s guiding hand abounds for those with eyes to see.
As I prepare to preach, I am often guided by the advice of twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth: that we prepare a sermon with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. When I first began to preach, this was easy advice to follow. I had the Bible in one hand and the Dallas Morning News in the other; if I wanted to consider a different slant on the news, I could also read the Dallas Times Herald or the Fort Worth Star Telegram, two papers whose editorial policies leaned in slightly different directions.
But, back then, and it seems so long ago now, there was a Federal Communications Commission regulation called the Fairness Doctrine that required news organizations to base their stories on fact and to present both sides of a question. The Fairness Doctrine, now considered a quaint relic of a different age, went away in 1987, the third year of my ministry.
I don’t want to give the impression that back in the good old days there was no such thing as bias in the news—there was.
But, there is no doubt that it is more difficult now to interpret the advice of Barth to prepare a sermon with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Which newspaper? I haven’t actually subscribed to a hard copy newspaper in several years. Which web sites? Which radio station? Which television station? And what about social media? I don’t know if you have noticed this, but it has come to my attention that not everything I read on Facebook is true.
And, that is the challenge of our day—discerning what is true.
The word of the Lord, that is Truth, may seem rare now for the same reason it was rare in the time of Eli and Samuel. It’s not that it is not out there available to us, but it is difficult to hear for all the interference.
All the unrest and violence of the past two weeks, from the Day of Epiphany Riot at the Capitol to the threats of violence against the inauguration of a new president, is the result of our highly anxious society’s inability or unwillingness to discern truth from lies. The people who stormed the Capitol last week and beat Capitol Police, and killed Brian Sicknick, actually believe that the election has been stolen from them and mainstream news outlets would rather go along with it than break the story of the century. They actually believe that Vice-president Pence had the power to overturn the Electoral College. They actually believe that the violence in which they engaged was a righteous cause. Some of them actually believe that an unnamed internet troll who calls himself or herself Q holds the keys to understanding a dark and apocalyptic reality of evil that is hidden from the rest of us.
That is the challenge for us as Christians in our time and place—that the idolatry inherent in conspiracy theories is not a conclusion people come to by reading the news through the lens of the Bible, reason, and love. It is a belief borne of fear, anxiety, and despair. Once we embrace an idolatrous conspiracy theory, we can only see the evidence that supports it. Belief blinds us to any piece of evidence that would tear from our arms the precious belief that has provided a salve to the fear, anxiety, and despair of our age.
People, including you and me, who hold strong beliefs borne out of fear, anxiety, and despair, cannot be argued out of them. Reason is drowned out by anxiety. I doubt that anyone has ever seen a clever internet meme on Facebook and said, “Oh, now I see!” Memes are not for persuasion; they are for demand feeding of anxiety.
So, what can we do?
I know this may sound naïve within our present context, but hear me out. Here is what we can do: become as faithful in our discipleship of Jesus Christ as we are able.
Our Gospel reading today tells the story of Philip bringing Nathanael to Jesus. Nathanael is a skeptic, asking “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” But, Philip persists: Come and see, he says, Come and see. Philip does not spend much time trying to convince Nathanael that Jesus is the Messiah; he simply invites him to come and see.
When Jesus tells Nathanael, “I saw you under the fig tree,” there is some kind of Shazam moment, a revelation that I cannot explain. But, I think that is the point—we don’t understand how Jesus makes disciples, we just know that when we lead people to encounter Jesus in their time of need, they recognize him for who he is, God in human flesh.
The challenge for us as disciples of Jesus Christ is to differentiate ourselves from the ocean of anxiety in which we live today. Only by finding some emotional and spiritual distance from the anxiety can we read and listen to the news of the world through the lens of Scripture rather than reading Scripture through the lens of our favorite news sources.
Only by embracing Jesus Christ and following him can we manage to love our neighbors, much less our enemies, in this polarized environment. There are people who make my blood boil when I see them on video or hear their voices on the radio. Lies, innuendo, and manipulation push all of my buttons. The Gospel, however, reminds us that no matter how much people push our buttons, they are children of God for whom Jesus died.
On this weekend when we observe the only United States holiday dedicated to a minister of the Christian Gospel, we can remember the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., a dream borne of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a time of high anxiety. There are more famous sections of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but here is the part that has been on my mind this week:
[T]here is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: in the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.
“Meeting physical force with soul force;” that encapsulates the difficult task of discipleship in a time of rhetorical and physical violence.
This kind of discipleship is all the more difficult when that “warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice” becomes a place of violence. It is all the more difficult when reason and love are met with force or violent rhetoric in all caps.
But, if it were easy, God would not have needed to send Jesus. But God did send Jesus, out of love for the world, as the Gospel writer will tell us a couple of chapters after the story of Philip and Nathanael.
Though the word of the Lord seemed rare and visions were not widespread in the time of Eli, and often it may feel as if that passage describes our own time, the Gospel reminds us that the Word of God is not rare. The Word is here for us to hear and see.
And the Word’s name is Jesus.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Shannon Webster, a wise ministry colleague, questioned how we might pray in this present time. He said,
“A lot of the prayers I'm seeing in the last few days . . . bother me a bit. Well-written and well-meaning for the most part, having content with which I agree , still they don't feel right. Been thinking about it. Here's what's not working for me... prayers that: lecture, analyze, problem-solve (a *lot* of these), formulate good theological statements, or submit to God our Christmas list for social change (lest the Creator is not up on recent events?). Like I say, decent enough words. But this is not that time. This is the time of grief, fear, anger, darkness, and uncertainty about the soul of our nation. I don't actually know how to seek the grace of God right now. This is the time of Lament. Later you can pray all those things and do all that other stuff. But this is the time of Lament. I saw a good prayer of lament by Neal Presa, and it went straight to my heart, and I realized that is what I was missing, in all the well-crafted pronouncements and prayers. “O Lord, we are a people of darkness, sadness and evil intent, and we have nowhere else to turn but to you.”
Let us pray.
“We have nowhere else to turn but to you, O God.” Bind us together as your people, hold us close in our time of darkness and lament, and lead us into the light of your path, we pray. Amen.