Isaiah 36:1-3,13-20; 37:1-7; 2:1-4; Matt. 5:14
Propaganda, rumour, spin, half-truths, quarter-truths, a kernel, a nugget of truth, fabrication, barefaced lies are what we are reading this week. The ideal of “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God,” is a little lost in the words spoken in this story. We are in the company of the Governor Pilate of Jesus’ day here, asking, “What is truth?”
We have three versions of the same event in the Bible. 2 Kings 18 & 19 and 2 Chronicles 32 tell similar accounts of the same event. It seems that Sennacherib, the all-conquering ruler of Assyria, was laying siege to Lachish, one of the major fortified towns of Judah. Hezekiah tried to buy him off with a huge payment of gold and silver, while at the same time strengthening Jerusalem’s defences. In response Sennacherib sent the head of his household staff, the Rabshakeh to besiege Jerusalem. He camped just outside the city and then the diplomacy began, and this is where it gets interesting.
The Rabshakeh’s speech is pure propaganda. It is full of satire and irony; it is insulting and threatening. He underplays the strength of Jerusalem, boasts of the Assyrian abilities, mentions the horrors of a siege and even refers to Hezekiah’s recent, possibly unpopular reformation of worship in Judah. He belittles everyone in Jerusalem and the God of Judah. It is a loud and arrogant challenge, repeated in Hebrew to rub it in.
Today he would make a video, like the ISIS leaders did when they announced a new Caliphate in the Middle-East. He would post on Facebook. His tweets would be equally potent and popular. His announcements would headline the news and everyone would be speculating about what was actually happening. When chaos descended on Ukraine a few years ago, we witnessed a similar pattern. We heard many versions of what was happening, all the politicians weighing in to win a war of words and still we do not know what was really happening. In the war of words the facts are just weapons; what people think and feel are what really matters. No wonder powerful people invest so much in spin doctors and publicists.
Something similar happens in our churches. We hear phrases like “people are saying”, “the rules say”, “no-one likes”, supposedly adding strength to a personal opinion. Sweeping statements often have the ring of authority. When something is repeated often enough, it does not matter if it is wrong, or only a little true, it can come to be believed. The loudest voices, the most often repeated, the cleverest argument can be what comes to be accepted ~spin and rumour in action. Rumours can be very powerful and awfully destructive. People come to believe them; they can even become the narrative that people tell about themselves. Such rumours create anxiety, destroy peace, and can eventually defeat the cause for which the church was created: to further the mission and message of Jesus Christ.
Hezekiah, for all his faults, refuses to get involved in rumour mongering and offers a different message. He puts on sackcloth, signalling that he feels tarnished by the Rabshakeh’s words, that he regrets his dealings with Sennacherib, that he will not let rumour frame his understanding, and that what matters is what the God of Judah has to say. Isaiah’s reply on behalf of YHWH is wonderful: the Lord laughs at the arrogance of emperors and their plans, their statements are only “claims” and another rumour will be enough to send Sennacherib home. Jesus’ reply to Pilate was in a similar vein, you might remember – that Pilate’s power was given from on high. This frames the picture in an entirely different light, setting it in the context of God’s purposes: our Merciful God, whose love embraces the world and whose weakness is stronger than all the might of armies.
We can become so ground down by competing rumours, particularly the negative ones that we oft repeat, telling a bleak story for people, for our nations, for churches and the future. We can do this differently, however. Like Hezekiah, we can refuse to play the rumour game and try to frame events in the light of Christ, in the light of what it means to be a loved people, called to love with the love of Christ.
A church consultant I know will often have a church post a sign that says: “Things we don’t do here.” One of those things is “spread rumours”. Another is not speaking about your issues with someone to another person without first seeking a one-on-one conversation with the individual who’s troubling you to find a solution together. The goal of any congregation is to shed light, not shadow. One of the things we need to do is shed light on the places we need to do better.
The interesting thing to me about sharing rumours is that they don’t always start with ill will. People share gossip because it’s a way of bridging relationships. It’s a way of showing you are connected to people and care about what’s happening in their lives. Unfortunately, if we speak about what we don’t know, or we spread negativity, it can have disastrous impact on people’s lives and on the health of a faith community.
In contrast, our reading finishes with Isaiah 2:1-4, which uncovers a different rumour, a rumour of glory. There is a bright city on a hill, not besieged but with open gates though which the whole world comes because there is found truth that is not spun. This is said of one of the smallest cities of the day, one that was often besieged with rumour of disaster, yet it is called a city on a hill—lit like a beacon. Is this also the truth of the church? We could be spreading that with all the enthusiasm of a rumour, a truth to gossip, to shout from the rooftops. If we’re going to spread something let’s do that! Let’s add to the peace of the world, the hope, the joy – rather than create disease and disharmony.
The reading from Isaiah concludes with the images of beating swords into ploughshares – in other words, turning weapons into tools to grow food and nourish life. The image on the front cover of the bulletin is based on that passage. Weapons of war have been transformed into an art sculpture. Can we change from using words as weapons to using words to bring new life?
I ask you this morning: who do you know in your congregation, your community, your circle of friends, or even your family bearing the scars of malicious gossip or vicious rumours? Are you a victim yourself?
It is said that the only way to fix such situations is to change the rumour.
Who do we know that is causing pain with their words and false stories?
Perhaps this is the week to confront them and start changing rumours.
Let’s turn wounding words into healing words, weapons into tools for growth, swords into ploughshares, and so increase the spirit of peace in our lives and our community. Amen.
Much of the material for this sermon comes from the Spill the Beans Narrative Lectionary resource, adapted for Gordon United Church. Used by permission.