I had this sermon ready to go today for Christ the King Chapel at CFB Suffield, but a storm system came through SE Alberta yesterday and service was cancelled, so this is the only place it's being preached. MP+
A Sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord, 9 January, 2011
Lectionary Year A. Lections: Isa 42:1-9, Ps 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matt 3:13-17
5 Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: 6 I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations (Isa 42:5-6)
Two stories to start with. The first is about a cartoon I saw in the New Yorker magazine recently which shows two men, both dressed in white robes, standing on a cloud. Both are looking at their cell phones. One is saying to the other “I only get two bars. What about you?”. I like the cartoon because it begs the question, who are these guys trying to call from heaven? Who are they expecting to call? The cartoon says a lot about our constant dependency on our technology to keep us connected and in control, and it says a lot about our willingness to listen to the voices that matter most to us.
The second is from Saturday’s National Post, quoting a professor who has some ideas about the iPod, that little device that allows people to carry their tunes anywhere they go. The professor, Michael Bull, thinks that the real reason for the popularity of devices like the iPod is that they save people from having to think. “A lot of people don’t like to be alone with their thoughts. The best way to avoid that is to listen to music”.
Don’t think from these two stories that I am a self-righteous and puritanical despiser of technology. As a matter of fact I own a cell phone and an ipod and they are both large parts of my life, partly by necessity and partly by choice. My job requires me to be connected by cell phone and email almost constantly, but I also carry an iphone by choice and I love it its various applications. I also love choosing the music that surrounds me and motivates me, especially when running. But occasionally, when I do find myself alone with my thoughts, I sometimes wonder what price I’m paying. As a priest and, more importantly, as a Christian, I wonder how can my thoughts and my ears be open to the thoughts and voice of God if I surround myself with this bubble of technology?
I’m led to ask this question because today in the life of the church is called the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord, but based on our readings today we could also call if Voice of God Sunday. All of our readings show us God speaking, either directly as in the earthshaking voice of Psalm 29 the voice from heaven that proclaims Jesus as “my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17), on indirectly through the preaching of God’s servants such as Peter, as described in Acts 10. All these readings serve to remind us that our faith is dynamic, because our God speaks. Our relationship with God is intended to be conversational. We speak to God through prayer, through worship, and through our private thoughts and meditations, and God speaks to us.
God speaks to us. Doesn’t he? I wonder, do we really believe that? Well, we might believe it, but I suspect that most of us would be reticent to say publically that God has said anything specific to us. After all, hearing voices and having visions are recognized symptoms of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. Movies like Agnes of God and TV shows like House point to the medical and scientific scepticism, and even hostility, towards religious experience. In a CBC radio interview aired last Friday with Dr. Mark Vonnegut, son of the novelist Kurt Vonnegut, he recounted his own history of mental illness which in his youth sometimes took the form of religious thoughts. As he said, “the fine line between spirituality and mental illness may be just that, a fine line”.
I certainly don’t wish to discount science. As a student pastor, I met a young man who said he heard voices and was convinced he was under demonic attack. While I believed that he believed what he said, I also knew that he was the age when schizophrenia commonly manifests itself in males. It would have been irresponsible of me not to have urged him and his family to seek medical help, while at the same time supporting him spiritually. At the same time, I think that what science and medicine fail to recognize about faith is that God’s speech is not just a matter of personal, subjective experience. Rather, God speaks and has spoken to us as his people, as the church in its many forms, and it as God’s people, the church, where we hear the word of God most clearly and in such as way as it gives us strength and hope to live our lives as individuals and families.
God speaks. That claim is basic to our faith. The theologian Richard Jensen says that God talks. We see that in Genesis, where, however we understand the creation story, the basic point is that God’s word creates life. We heard an echo of Genesis in our first lesson, from Isaiah, which reminds us that God “spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people who walk upon it” (Isa 42:1-9). Then God “talks himself into a body” in Jesus, which is among other things the story of Christmas. If you in church on Christmas Eve you may have heard the gospel reading from John 1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. Then God speaks to us, which we hear primarily through the Bible, and he speaks to us words of life, words of love, words of hope, and we call these grace-filled words the gospel.
What is it that we want to hear? I suspect that for most people, perhaps all people, what we want to hear is simple. We want to hear that we aren’t alone. We want to hear that we don’t have to be afraid. We want to hear that we are loved. Pretty simple, and pretty fundamental needs. Perhaps it is these needs that drive us to text, to twitter, to email, to download, so many of us so busy with our gadgets.
Now consider how God speaks to us through the various parts of the Christmas story which the church heard through these last six weeks of Advent and of Christmas. We heard that we aren’t alone. We heard that through the prophet Isaiah (Is 7:10-16), and again in Matthew (Mtt 1:18-25), that the saviour God would send would be “Immanuel”, meaning “God is with us”. We heard that we don’t have to be afraid. On Christmas Eve we heard the angels tell the shepherds “Do not be afraid. For see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people”. That promise to the shepherds, among the poorest of people in Jesus’ time, huddled in the darkness and cold, is a first instalment of the prophet Isaiah’s words, also heard on Christmas Eve, that “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isa 9:2). Finally, we want to know that we are loved. Today we heard God’s word in Isaiah to us, his people, that “I have taken you by the hand and kept you” (Isa 42:1-9). That personal claim of love and support that God makes on us is echoed in the story of the baptism of Jesus, a baptism that we share, and where the same words “This is my child, with whom I am well pleased” are given to each of us. Doctrinally we can say that baptism is many things, but what is baptism if it is not an enactment of God’s love for us that claims us, names us, and saves us?
God speaks. God is telling you that you are not alone, that you don’t have to be afraid, and that you are loved. God’s words of grace are words of liberation. Like Isaiah promising sight to the blind and freedom to the captives, these words have the power to call us out of whatever guilt, whatever isolation, whatever bitterness our lives may have become trapped us in. God’s words call us out into the light, into relationship with Him and with one another. God speaks. The question is, will you hear?
As I said above, God speaks to us collectively, through the church. This is one of the reasons why we worship collectively, to hear the word of God read and preached. Even if you can’t attend every service through Advent and Christmas, this is one of the times when the word of God in scripture and story can be heard and understood most clearly during the church year, even if you’re not a biblical scholar or theologian. But really, the best place to hear God is in the space that you make in your life for his voice. And that’s why I find that cartoon of the two guys in heaven looking at their cell phones and only getting two bars to be so funny, because I think spiritual reception is really up to us rather than to the strength of some celestial network.
God speaks. Hearing his voice is up to us. Over the centuries our faith has developed some methods in which we can hear God's voice. Besides worship, there is meditation which can often be linked to bible or some other kind of devotional reading (often called lectio divina), quiet time, retreats, spiritual direction, or seeking the counsel and conversation of mature Christians. Choosing which method to try may depend upon a person's schedule, temperament, and access to other Christians, whether as part of a church or a small group. But certainly we can all start by taking time to reduce our dependence on the other voices around us and the technology that brings them to us, and then working on our own spiritual receptivity. One of the psalms advises us to "Be still and know that I am God" (Ps 46:10). What the psalmist is talking about, I think, is intentional listening, slowing down and focusing on the presence of God. Sister Madonna Buder puts it this way: "To listen with distraction is to remain empty. To listen with inner stillness is to be filled with peace and wisdom" (from her book, The Grace to Race, p. 242).
God speaks, He speaks words of grace and freedom. He tells you that you are not alone, that you need not be afraid, and that you are loved. But you won't hear these words, and you won't allow them to take you root in your life, unless you listen for them. To go back to Michael Bull, the iPod professor, if we aren't willing to be alone with our thoughts, then we will never hear God's thoughts.
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