March 10, 2021 Lenten Worship Sermon
Courtroom drama captures our American attention. Throughout my adult life I can account for evening television shows that depicted either by comedy (Night Court) or drama like the new tv show called “For Life” a series loosely based on a true story where an innocent man is given a life sentence for a murder he did not commit and yet while incarcerated, he became an attorney and helped overturn the wrongful convictions some inmates. There are no shortage of books that involve the same drama, from the required reading of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” to the series of court drama written by John Grisham. Many of these books get transformed into edge of the seat movies with powerful scenes. While I date myself, who can forget the powerful line issued forth from “A Few Good Men” by Marine Col. Nathan R. Jessep (played by Jack Nickolson) “You can’t handle the truth!”
But, who needs TV series, books and movies when courtroom drama is being played out right before our eyes? Today was the fourth day in selecting jurors for the trial of former Minneapolis police office, Derek Chauvin concerning the death late last spring of George Floyd. The unfortunate and horrible death of George Floyd caused riots and millions of dollars of lost and destroyed property in Minneapolis and we saw peaceful protests all over the state, and his death has served as a catalyst to incite civil and uncivil disobedience all over the country and even the world. The various courts of public opinion, such as media and others have ruled Chauvin guilty without a single minute in a court of law. My heart is anxious about the possible reaction to the verdict of this trial; however, it is ruled.
Tonight’s topic is “Return from false witness” When we hear this sentence it is very natural to think courtroom, judge, jury, the accused and witnesses. Many of us remember the oath before a witness take the stand as best portrayed in the Parry Mason TV show. The witness is called forward and is asked, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” Failure to do such is perjury. To lie in a courtroom is indeed false witness.
We understand this based of the Eighth Commandment; “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). In its simplest meaning, this commandment has much to do with what is said in public or civic courts of justice. And that is what we have before us in tonight’s Gospel reading…sorta.
Our Gospel takes us to a dark place. Jesus has been betrayed by Judas Iscariot. The temple guards have seized Him and hauled Him to Caiaphas the high priest, and all of the scribes and elders had gathered. They have decided that they are going to put Jesus to death, presumably in order to protect their own power and position. And they are determined to complete this task by any means necessary. “Now the chief priests and the whole council were seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might put Him to death” (Matthew 26:59).
It is worth stopping right there to simply ponder that sentence for a minute. They were actively looking for someone to offer lies under oath with the intention of putting Jesus to death.
How evil do you have to be that you are willing to seek false testimony in order to kill someone?
But it gets worse. Matthew says, “They found none, though many false witnesses came forward” (Matthew 26:60).
Which calls the next question. How evil do you have to be that you are willing to offer false testimony, knowing full well that it is intended to lead to another person’s death?
Obviously, these actions clearly conflict with the Eighth Commandment in its most obvious meaning. “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16) is, first and foremost, about testifying falsely in court against another person.
We note the sin that comes out in the “trial” of Jesus. But we don’t really feel it. We observe the trial and we may even become indignant over the injustice that Jesus experienced. But… it is not all that personal, because most of us have never been put in a position where we have to testify in court against someone else, falsely or otherwise. But is the Eight Commandment all about the courtroom alone?
As we examine the entirety of Scripture what it means to be truthful and the repercussions of rebelling against God, we find that the Eight Commandment goes beyond the courtroom but into our daily lives. To obey this Commandment of God is that “we should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.” In other words, God forbids all sins of the tongue by which we may injure or offend our neighbor.
We read in the Large Catechism, “It is a common, [wicked] plague that everyone would rather hear evil than good about their neighbors. Even though we ourselves are evil, we cannot tolerate it when anyone speaks evil of us; instead, we want to hear the whole world say golden things of us. Yet we cannot bear it when someone says the best things about others. (LC I 264)
Our false testimony often consists of the rumors and innuendos that we utter about other people. The high school kids call this “drama”. The whispered did you hears and the murmured you’re not going to believes that slip off our tongues. The half-truths and outright lies we speak about brothers and sisters without ever speaking directly to them. The slander and backbiting we too often delight in sharing.
Luther boils it down like this: No one shall use the tongue to harm a neighbor, whether friend or foe. No one shall say anything evil of a neighbor, whether true or false, unless it is done with proper authority or for that person’s improvement. (LC I 285)
We have all broken this commandment. You have broken this commandment. And you are deserving of punishment for that sin. Each of us has, and each of us is.
But God calls you to a different path. He invites you to return to Him. Turn and leave behind your sins of false witness and see that He has something different in mind. God protects your reputation through the kind words that others speak about you. And He encourages you to be part of it.
To know, first of all, that Christ endured all of that false witness in Jerusalem in order to reconcile you to God and win forgiveness for all your false witness. And, second, to empower you to speak the best about others, to help protect their reputations, and to always put the best construction on everything. Much like the Apostle Paul after his road-to-Damascus conversion, when he was empowered to turn from his own false witness about Christ in order to speak the very best about our Lord and Savior.
You can too, and you get to, all because of what Christ has done for you. Return to the Lord your God. Receive His love and forgiveness. Turn aside from your sins and serve the Lord with all your heart. He will not forsake you. This is the Truth. The whole truth and nothing but the truth! Amen.