1.12.2014 Preaching text: Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-38; Matthew 3:13-17
“The voice of God is powerful, the voice of God is full of majesty.” So says the Psalmist, writing some four thousand years ago. Does God have a voice? The biblical writers certainly thought so. Did God speak in Bible times? If you read your Bible it sure seems like God did. Is God still speaking today? The slogan for the United Church of Christ has affirmed that question for over a decade, “God is still speaking.” And yet, it’s a hard question to answer, isn’t it?
The writers of the Bible saw God’s active hand in just about everything, so it would have been logical for them to assume that God would speak to people, just as they heard God’s voice in nature. The Psalmist (and others) describe the voice of the Lord metaphorically in the more dramatic wonders of creation: echoing over the ocean, in the thunder and lightening, in hurricanes and earthquakes, even in the falling leaves. But what’s even more dramatic is when God’s voice is described literally, not metaphorically: God’s extended conversation with Noah about the ark and the animals; God speaking to Abraham, telling him that he will be the father of many nations, and directing him to go and journey to a new land; the voice of God speaking to Moses in the burning bush and later on Mt. Sinai, when God gives him the Ten Commandments; the Lord calling young Samuel to be his servant and priest; Elijah in the cave on the mountain, when the prophet hears the “still, small voice” of God; and hundreds of other times in the Old Testament, especially in the prophetic books, when we hear the words,
“Thus says the Lord.”
And yet, we find something quite different in the New Testament. Compared to the hundreds of examples of God speaking in the Hebrew Bible, there are a scant half dozen instances in the Christian scriptures. And even these few don’t come right out and say that it’s really God who is speaking. Let me list them for you: the angels and dream “voices” in the birth of Jesus stories; at the baptism of Jesus, the “voice from heaven,” that we heard about this morning; at the transfiguration of Jesus, a “voice from the cloud,” heard by three of the disciples; an instance of Jesus praying – in the Gospel of John – when “a voice from heaven” speaks briefly; Saul on the road to Damascus, when he is knocked to the ground, blinded by a heavenly light, and convicted by a heavenly voice; and Peter’s vision at Joppa, where Peter also hears a voice just before our reading today in Acts, and then learns that God shows no partiality to any person or group of people. And that’s it. Christians, of course, look upon Jesus himself as the perfect word of God, and so, whatever Jesus says and does, we believe that it is God speaking through him and working through him.
However we want to explain “the voice of God” in both the Hebrew and Christian parts of the Bible, the fact that God spoke, directly or indirectly, seems without question to those who believe. We don’t have any of this is “on tape,” of course, and so we sophisticated folks of the 21st century may tend to dismiss these instances as the imaginings of a primitive people, or explain them as part of the weird world of those who hear voices and see strange things. But let’s not be too hasty. As they say, we could be throwing out the baby with the bath water, and miss something vital to our spiritual nurture. If we get hung up on the means, we might miss the message.
Is the voice of the Lord heard today? Does God speak to people in these first years of the twenty first century as God did two to four thousand years ago? That’s not so easy to answer. Secular society is skeptical of things spiritual. We’re more sophisticated today (so we think). God speaking? – Come on, that’s just for religious fanatics. Also, there are lots of conflicting voices today demanding our attention and drowning out anything else. There’s the voice of materialism, telling us that we are what we possess, telling us that all the things we own are what determine our real worth. That’s a strong voice, isn’t it? There’s the voice of hedonism, beckoning us to pleasure for pleasure’s sake, telling us “if it feels good, do it.” There’s the voice of phony religion, let’s call it “cheap grace-ism,” that offers salvation without commitment, grace without sacrifice, Easter without Good Friday. There’s the voice of “me-me-me-ism,” fueled by over-active egos, a philosophy of life based on selfishness, greed, and looking out for number one. We hear this voice a lot these days, don’t we?
There are many voices crying to us in our day, drowning out, or trying to drown out, everything else. But I believe that God’s voice can still be heard by those who listen carefully; God’s mighty acts can still be seen by those who look attentively. Maybe you remember hearing the story about the small Kentucky town that had two churches and a whisky distillery. Members of both churches complained that the distillery gave the town a bad image. To make matters worse, the owner of the distillery was an atheist. They tried to shut down the place, but to no avail. Finally one night, they decided to hold a joint prayer meeting and ask God to intervene.
Lo and behold, as the prayer meeting was ending, a terrible electrical storm came up, and to the delight of the church members, lightening struck the distillery and it burned to the ground. Fire insurance adjusters promptly notified the owner that they would not pay for the damages, since coverage for “acts of God” was excluded from his policy. So, the distillery owner sued all the church members, claiming that they had conspired with God to destroy his building. The church members vehemently denied the charges. The trial judge astutely observed: “I find one thing about this case very perplexing. We have a situation where the plaintiff, an atheist, is professing his belief in the power of prayer, and the defendants, church members, are denying it.” I never did hear who won the case.
The voice of the Lord can still be heard by those willing to listen. Metaphorically, God’s voice can be heard in the events of our day, sometimes joyful – a new-born baby’s cry, a piece of music that moves us to tears of joy – and sometimes terribly tragic, like the Boston Marathon bombings, or the Newtown school massacre, when God’s voice was heard in the cries of victims and survivors, and in the caring words and deeds of first responders and others. Through the wonders of nature, in the intricacies of each original snowflake, in the grandeur of the crashing ocean waves, in the beauty of a flower, God speaks to us. Through family, friends, sometimes even strangers, God’s voice can be heard. And certainly within the silence of our own souls, what we call our conscience, God quietly speaks to us. Someone has said, “If we knew how to listen to God, we would hear [God] speaking to us, for God does speak. God speaks in the Gospel, and also through life, that new Gospel to which we ourselves add a page each day.”
The voice of God still speaks, but to hear it, we may have to turn off our smart phones, mp3 players, computers, tablets, radios, and TV’s, and then attune our lives to the divine frequency. When the King of France complained to Joan of Arc: “Oh, your voices, your voices! Why don’t I hear any voices?” the condemned woman replied, “You would, if you listened.” And yet the voice of God is not easily heard, at least not right away. We have to listen with all our senses – with body, mind, and soul. To hear the soft, soothing voice of God in a little child, or that powerful voice of God in death, or that beautiful, gentle voice of God in love, or that comforting voice of God in pain or sorrow, requires nothing less than our entire strength, our entire being.
If we can accept for a moment that God’s voice can be heard today, what might God be saying to us? I believe the word of God for us today is three-fold. The first and most important message from God is “You are loved and accepted.” God searches after us even when we wander away. God’s voice sounds into our lives, letting us know through grace and judgment that God cares about us. God cares enough to call us from the brink when we’re about to self-destruct. God cares enough to let us suffer the consequences of our own actions, and learn from them. God so loves the world that God sends the beloved Son, Jesus, not to condemn the world, but through him to bring salvation for all. If the voice of the Lord is heard today, I believe it is first saying, “I love you.”
The second word God might be saying to you and me is this: “Accept the challenges I’ve laid before you, and live your life in ways worthy of the calling to which I’ve called you.” Life is full of challenges: mountains to climb, obstacles to leap over, races to run, problems to overcome. We are called to accept these as best we can.
Often we cannot do them on our own, but if we listen carefully, we’ll hear the third word that God also whispers in our ear, “I am with you always.” On this day when we remember the baptism of Jesus, we would do well to think about our own baptism. More than having our sins symbolically washed away, baptism also means being called to be God’s special, beloved children, God’s servants, to accept the challenges, to be witnesses to the living Christ in our words and in our deeds, with the assurance that God is always with us.
Does God still speak to us today? I believe God does – in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons. Abraham Lincoln expressed what I often feel when he said: “I am satisfied that when the Almighty wants me to do or not do any particular thing, He finds a way of letting me know it.” I have heard the voice of God metaphorically many times over the years, for example during my active ministry when I was looking for a direction to go with a sermon, or when I was agonizing over a parishioner in need; and certainly in my personal life many times when I’ve been in need myself. But I doubt that I’ve ever heard the voice of the Lord more powerfully or more clearly than one evening about twenty five years ago. I remember it as if it were yesterday. Let me share this true story with you.
Mark was an elderly parishioner who’d been sick a long time. He’d been in the hospital for a month, was recently transferred to a nursing home, and the doctors said it was just a matter of time. I received a phone call early one evening from Mark’s son. The home had indicated that death would probably be soon, the family had gathered, and would I come to be with them for awhile? Of course. Preparing to leave, something very strange happened to me. An incredibly strong feeling came over me, urging me to look for a small pocket Bible (New Testament and Psalms) and bring it with me. I’d never brought this little Bible with me on such a call before. So, it was a most unusual feeling. But I found it and brought it.
I arrived at the nursing home and went to Mark’s room. His wife, Liz, and their two grown children and their spouses were seated around the bed. Mark appeared to be sleeping, but his breathing was labored. We talked for a while in hushed tones. And then the feeling came over me again, and I arose, got out the pocket Bible, and asked if I could read something out of it. The family readily agreed. So I went to the bedside, put my hand gently on his head, and said to my old friend, “Mark, I’m going to read to you the 23rd Psalm.” He did not respond, but I believe he heard. Health care experts say that hearing is the last of the senses to function as death approaches. I believe he heard. By the time I had finished reading the psalm, which as you know includes the words, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me…,” Mark had breathed his last breath. It was a quiet, beautiful, peaceful passing, and the family was very grateful that it happened as it did. I too felt privileged to have shared such a special moment. The voice of God spoke that night, perhaps in different ways to each of us, but still heard by all of us.
If God seems silent to you, be patient and keep listening. And don’t forget to pray – that two-way kind of prayer where we talk to God, and then wait, and listen for God to communicate with us. And don’t give up. As someone has written, the voice of God sometimes seems “sealed as the voice of a frost-bound stream.” The voice of the stream is still there, but it’s hard to hear, because of the ice coating on the surface. It’s much like the stream of life today – other voices sometimes cover up the voice of God. But there’s hope, the hope of spring and new life. A thaw can come to our lives as well as to the “frost-bound stream,” freeing the sealed voice of God. So, keep hope in your hearts. Be patient and listen. Listen for the voice of God, saying to each of us, “I love you; accept the challenges you have been given; and know that I will always be with you.” Is God still speaking? Oh yes, yes, yes. Amen.
Rev. Kenneth C. Landall
 Pastor’s Story File, 11.6.
 Michael Quoist, quoted in William Neil’s Concise Dictionary of Religious Quotations, p. 84.
 Pulpit Resource, 1/11/87.
 Neil, op. cit.
 Swinburn, PR, op. cit.