Fake News (Second Sunday in Advent)

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“Fake News” – it’s been a problem in the last few years.  Politicians across the political spectrum decry its existence.  Our intelligence and security services warn us of its effect on our elections. And even our friends and family share stuff in our newsfeeds that we’re absolutely certain is fake news!

In spite of the fact that sometimes people tell us the news is fake just because they don’t like it or it doesn’t make them look good, sometimes the images we see and the news we hear really is “fake”.  That is, it’s false. It never happened.  Or at least, it didn’t happen it the way that it’s presented.

We’ve all seen images that have been doctored on photoshop, or even deep fake videos that have been altered.  We’ve read reports and seen statistics that Snopes tells us aren’t real.  And we’ve seen plenty of those memes which caption a person saying something that that person never said or wrote.

Sometimes, we’ve believed the fake news.  Sometimes, we’ve even been the people who shared it, thinking it was real.  We’ve been duped even by what our eyes saw or what our ears heard.

Often, we’re tempted to think this is a new problem brought on by the technology of our age.  And certainly, our technology makes fake news easier to produce, and the internet makes it easier for that fake news to go viral.

But while our technology has made the problem of fake news much worse, it didn’t create the problem.  Fake news has been around for as long as people have been around.  And good people, even people on the lookout for fake news, have been deceived by what their eyes see and by what their ears hear.

And so it is that the vision of Isaiah in today’s first reading promises the coming of One who will “not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.”  

And at first, that sounds kind of counter-intuitive.  After all, often the best I can do in making a good decision is by seeing and hearing for myself.  When I was on jury duty a couple of years ago, the judge told us that we were to look at the evidence presented to us and listen to the testimony.  We were NOT to look up the case on the internet and read press reports.  We were not to discuss it with our friends and family.  We were simply to look at what was presented in court which we could see with our eyes.  And we were to listen to the testimony on the stand, which we could hear with our ears.  And then we were to render a verdict based upon what we had seen and what we had heard.

And often, that’s the best we can do.  But even then, a decision can be hard.  Because even without technology, we’ve all been in situations where looks can be deceiving.  And we’ve all heard people tell us things with a straight face that turned out to be lies.

We can see with our eyes, and hear with our ears.  But that may not show us the truth.  The news we receive may still be fake.

And so it is that Isaiah has a vision of God’s future – a vision where God will send a messiah who will NOT judge by what his eyes see or his ears hear.  Instead, he’ll know the truth.  The “fake news” will never deceive him.  And that’s what God finally has in store for us, says Isaiah.  God’s final future will be full of truth and peace – and the fake news will have no place anymore.

Which is great for the final, end of time.  But what about now?  For now, fake news still infects the world.  Our eyes deceive us.  Our ears hear lies.  And as the fake news gets worse, we often become so cynical that we believe everything is fake.

Honestly, this was probably a problem for the people Isaiah first spoke to.  They also heard a lot of lies and a lot of spin.  The future didn’t look so good, and they didn’t know who they could reliably trust.

And in Isaiah’s vision, he doesn’t promise that the fake news will suddenly go away.  Rather, he speaks and writes to give people hope in the midst of all the fake news that surrounds their lives.  And Isaiah’s vision of hope calls people to:

  • Have some humility when they think they know “the truth” (after all, if you could reliably know the truth by closer inspection or by listening more closely, you wouldn’t need someone who doesn’t judge by what his eyes see or what his ears hear.)  And the problem isn’t just “those people” who create fake news – it’s us, when we believe we “know” the truth (and share it on Facebook, especially when it so perfectly reinforces our political opinions); here’s the thing – John the Baptist knew Jesus was coming – but he wasn’t really right about the whole “burn with unquenchable fire” thing.  When Jesus didn’t act like that, he eventually sent messengers from where he was in prison to ask “are you really the guy we were looking for?” … And if John needed a little humility in figuring out the whole truth, we should be a little more humble, too …
  • Be assured that God knows the truth – even when the “fake news” seems to dominate the headlines, and even when we ourselves don’t know what’s true and what’s fake.  It really can change your mood when you know that your friends know the truth about you, even when others don’t believe it.  And it really can help to know that God knows the truth, even if you don’t and even if the world around you doesn’t seem to care…
  • Trust that God’s truth finally wins.  The fake news, no matter how convincing, doesn’t have the final word. And the word of truth, paradoxically, sounds like fake news to us now – “the wolf shall live with the lamb … the nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp … they will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain”…  It’s sounds too good to be true.  It even sounds like fake news. But when you know the truth finally wins, it gives you strength and perspective to endure the fake news around you …

The world around us is full of fake news.  It always has been.  And in the midst of that fake news, Isaiah’s vision calls us to be people who are vigilant not to believe at first glance everything our eyes see or our ears hear.  Instead, Isaiah promises us that God knows the truth – the whole truth – even when we don’t.  Isaiah promises us that God will include all of us in that truth.  And Isaiah reminds us that the God’s truth is actually better and more exciting than even the most sensational and tantalizing fake news.