Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Dec. 13, 2020
John 1: 6-9, 19-35
“Seek not the favor of the multitude; it is seldom got by honest and lawful means. But seek the testimony of few; and number not voices, but weigh them.”
—Immanuel Kant, 1724-1804, German Philosopher
“Consider the source.” We’ve all heard that expression. A lot of times we use it as a put-down, like in, “So-and-so said such-and-such!” “Well, consider the source.” In that case, it’s a way of saying, “This person is not a reliable source of information.” If we want objective or factual information, we shouldn’t believe something just because that person said it, but look for other, more reliable sources of information, sources who’ve got a proven track record.
These days it seems like all sources are viewed as questionable by somebody. Many people view the press and other independent, or seemingly independent news sources as prejudiced toward a certain view. And then the news has competition these days, heavy competition, from social media. Increasingly social media is capitalizing on what’s known as “confirmation bias,” the fact that when you and I already have an established opinion, we are more likely to believe information that confirms our opinion. If I am already inclined to believe that guns are a threat, I’m more likely to read or listen to stories that confirm my prejudice and disregard stories that indicate otherwise. If I’m already inclined to believe that democrats are running a child abuse ring out of a pizza place in DC and eat children for breakfastas apparently QAnon says–I’m more likely to pay attention to stories that confirm that bias and disregard information that might indicate otherwise, like how many children of democrats grow up whole and healthy and their parents never even bit them once even if they deserved it.
Many fake news outlets depend on confirmation bias and deliberately write false stories to capitalize on our gullibility. These fake stories play on liberal and conservative prejudices but turn them up to eleven. No one—neither liberal or conservative—has any room to feel superior about this. A major reason for the extreme partisan divide afflicting our nation now is our tendency to believe false stories about the other side that confirm our own biases.
It may come as a surprise to you that confirmation bias, fake news, and the reliability of sources are hardly 21st Century inventions. It could be argued that things were even worse hundreds and thousands of years ago. As Judas says in Jesus Christ Superstar “Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication.” Two thousand years ago news not only travelled slow, it played out like that game we used to play in school where you’d tell a story to the person in the seat behind you and then they’d pass it on until everyone in the class heard it. By that point, the story would likely be changed almost beyond recognition.
The problem, of course, was that there really was no mass communication. One reason there are four gospels, for instance, is that as Christianity spread, it took on regional overtones. Different Christian groups had different assumptions and biases and were early on unfamiliar with the way other Christians might understand their faith. Matthew, for instance, is written with a Jewish Christian readership in mind, whereas Luke is written for a Gentile non-believer readership who would not understand or be interested in things that matter to Matthew’s Jewish audience. Mark was the first gospel and was apparently unfamiliar with the Christmas stories of Jesus’ birth. Those stories appear in the later gospels, Matthew and Luke, but apparently Mark had no idea of them.
Likewise the Gospel writers had to respond to their versions of “fake news.” The Gospel of Matthew reports a rumor going around that Jesus’ disciples stole his body from the grave in the dead of night. Matthew attributes this to a ‘cover up’ by Pilate and the Temple elite, who didn’t want the story of the resurrection to get out. As Christianity spread into the Gentile world during the Biblical period, a Greek philosopher claimed that Mary was actually impregnated by a Roman soldier. Later Jewish scholarship named this soldier Panthera. No doubt these in turn reinforced long-standing questions surrounding Jesus’ mysterious birth. The fact of this fake news influenced the emphasis that Matthew and Luke put on the virgin birth.
The radical and controversial nature of the Gospel made it especially important for the Gospel writers to find an unimpeachable source for their news that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. The source they chose was John the Baptist.
For a Jewish audience, John carried all the right credentials. The First Century Jewish historian Josephus tells us that John was admired and hero-worshipped throughout Galilee and Judea. He writes:
“…[T]his good man … commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, righteousness towards one another and piety towards God. For only thus, in John’s opinion, would the baptism he administered be acceptable to God, namely, if they used it to obtain not pardon for some sins but rather the cleansing of their bodies, inasmuch as it was taken for granted that their souls had already been purified by justice.”
Now many people came in crowds to him, for they were greatly moved by his words. Herod, [the Jewish King of Galilee] who feared that the great influence John had over the masses might put them into his power and enable him to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise), thought it best to put him to death. In this way, he might prevent any mischief John might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late.
Josephus writes that it was widely believed that Herod suffered an embarrassing military defeat because God was punishing Herod for executing John. John in short was viewed by Jews throughout the Middle East as having a unique and powerful relationship with God, and he was greatly respected for standing up to Herod. In fact, John was easily far better known, even decades after his death, than Jesus was. Writing after 70 AD, Josephus writes extensively about John the Baptist but only makes a throwaway remark or two about Jesus. John was a First Century Jewish hero.
This made John the Baptist’s testimony about Jesus extremely important to the Gospel writers and to Christians in general. He was easily the most credible source they could imagine.
One of the issues with the sources we hear from these days is anonymity. We don’t know who they are or where they get their information. QAnon especially capitalizes on this. He, she or they are anonymous source supposedly in some government inner circle who can’t reveal who they are for fear of retaliation. That should be a red flag right there. They claim some kind of credibility they can’t prove. We don’t know who they are.
The Gospel writers don’t start their story with a quote from a source they can’t attribute. They go to someone with proven credibility: they go to John the Baptist.
And it’s important to note the way John gives his testimony about Jesus. Listen again to what he says:
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.”[g] 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
He then says that his job is to point away from himself, and toward Jesus, the Lamb of God. So despite his fame, John doesn’t toot his own horn. He doesn’t claim that he’s something he is not. This is the first thing we should note about credible testimony: It isn’t raising itself up. One thing we should always ask is, Does the testimony this source gives only serve to further its own ends?
The proof that John isn’t in this for glory is proven in our reading today when immediately after John calls Jesus “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” two of John’s own disciples abandon him to follow Jesus. If John was out to promote himself, he wouldn’t want that to happen. But he’s not out to promote himself. He’s out to promote something much larger than himself and is glad to fade into the limelight so Jesus’ light can shine.
Of course we are two thousand years out and our sources on John the Baptist are mixed. We cannot know for sure what John said and thought of Jesus. It is striking that all four gospels indicate that John knew and respected Jesus and his ministry. John put his own credibility on the line when he spoke out for Jesus. That is often true of people who give testimony about a truth larger than themselves. It’s a risk.
This should be another red flag on someone like QAnon. He’s anonymous. What risk is he taking? None, really. He says he’s at risk but we only have his word on that. On the other hand, is he benefiting? Most definitely, as his fame continues to spread and his opinions influence those of people in powerful positions.
You have probably noticed that I’m not filming this service in the usual way. I’m in my office after hours because I am quarantining. I have been exposed to COVID-19 and I don’t want to affect the health of other people. I have a test first thing in the morning tomorrow and will find out if I have it. If I do, I’ll have to quarantine for the next seven to nine days. Hopefully, I won’t have to. But I have to say that this has been an object lesson for me. I have tried to be cautious, and I advise everyone to be cautious, but even so, here I am. I am experiencing firsthand what the health experts are warning us about. The virus is more virulent now than it has been during all the last nine months. I can’t give more details, but I can assure that I am not the only church person who has gotten this. The virus hasn’t had a serious impact on our congregation before this, but now it most definitely is.
I have to tell you I am inordinately and irrationally angry at Covid-19. Not so much because I might have it. More because of the terrible effect is having on everything that makes being a church and being a minister matter. We can’t have proper funerals when someone dies. Hugging someone could make them or you sick. Singing is a no-no. I hate this disease’s inhumanity that I have to advise lonely or hurting people to stand six feet apart and make sure they are wearing masks and that we all have to live in fear that doing the things that make us loving and empathetic, the things that make us human, could actually hurt the people we love. I hate that despite good news of a successful vaccine, we will still have to wait months and months until we can relate to one another in the fully human way that all of us so desperately need right now.
I hate this disease. But even so, from the bottom of my heart, I beg you, please, take it seriously right now. The spread is particularly virulent right now. The risk has never been higher. I know you want to spend holidays with family or go caroling or attend some sort of live event. I know we’re desperate for those human connections. But please, I’m begging you, do not believe the people who lie and tell you it is okay not to wear a mask or that the vaccine is a way to implant microcircuitry in your body or that the threat is exaggerated or unreal. Do not believe them. I don’t know to what extent I have any credibility with anybody, but if I do with you, please listen to me. I WANT it to not be true that COVID-19 is a risk. I hate it and its effects on me and you and the world with all my heart. This disease undermines everything I went into ministry to do.
Except one. The most important thing I went into to ministry to do was to tell the truth. The truth about God, the truth about Jesus, the truth about the Gospel and the truth about the world.
And I’m telling you the truth now. Believe science. Believe Dr. Fauci. Wear a mask. Stay home. If you aren’t worried about yourself or the people you love, think about our hospital system strained to the breaking point, the numerous health care workers in our own congregation who could be stretched to the breaking point and in many cases already are, as numbers of infections increase at alarming rates. Think about the many people in need of some sort of surgical or medical procedure whose treatments are having to be postponed so hospitals can deal with increased COVID-19 volume. It’s misleading to call these “elective” surgeries. A knee surgery when you can’t walk or a test to find out if you have cancer is not the same as getting a nose job. Postponing such surgeries and procedures extends misery and increases risk.
Please don’t believe the self-serving lies out there to promote false notions that COVID-19 is fake or some kind of conspiracy. Consider the source. And also just look at the evidence all around you.
But also trust in this truth: God is with us. God loves us. God is with us in suffering because as Jesus Christ, he suffered just the same as we do. God is with us in grief, because God grieves when we grieve. As the psalmist says, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
Hold out. Hold out and trust God. Joy will come with the morning.