A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on January 8, 2012.
Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Mark 1:4-11; Acts 19:1-7
Dallas Willard, now a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California, tells of a Sunday afternoon lunch he shared many years ago with his family that included his wife’s grandmother—a thoughtful woman named Lucy. In those days Dallas served as the young assistant minister of a church whose pastor had devoted his morning sermon to his vision for the future of the church. The pastor confidently affirmed the church’s plans to build a new sanctuary to replace the old one, and assured his members that God had spoken to him very clearly about how the church should proceed in its expansion program.
As Dallas’ family chatted over lunch about the morning service, Lucy remained deep in thought. Finally, she said quietly, “I wonder why God never speaks to me like that.”
Many of us may have asked ourselves the same question. Some people, and especially certain preachers we can think of, seem very confident that they have a direct line to God. Meanwhile, the rest of us peons may feel like Lucy, wondering why it is we just never seem to hear the voice of the Lord so clearly.
This week I came across the words of a song composed by Andrew Peterson that express Lucy’s sentiments a bit differently. The song, appropriately entitled “The Silence of God,” opens with these words:
It’s enough to drive a man crazy
It’ll break a man’s faith
It’s enough to make him wonder
If he’s even been sane.
…when he’s bleating for comfort
from Thy staff and Thy rod,
and the heavens’ only answer
is the silence of God.
And it’ll shake a man’s timbers
when he loses his heart,
when he has to remember
what broke him apart.
This yoke may be easy
but this burden is not,
when the crying fields are frozen
by the silence of God.
It’s not just the atheists among us who contend God is silent, that God has lost his voice if he ever had one. Many Christ-followers won’t say it out loud. But we’ve had our moments of brokenness when we pray to or even cry out to God, and the only response we detect is a deafening silence.
This week I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on the importance of the voice because of a sinus infection that robbed me of mine. Most pastors, me included, are rattled when they lose their voices because of the prospect of losing their livelihood. But far more unsettling than a hoarse pastor is the prospect of a God with laryngitis either never speaks, or speaks very sparingly, and then only through a soft whisper easily lost in our perpetually noisy world.
Today is the first Sunday after Epiphany (January 6). And on this Sunday of all Sundays it seems strange to speak of the silence of God because on this day Christians traditionally celebrate the fast that God has revealed himself in a Christmas epiphany that is history-changing and life-transforming.
On this day our Christian tradition says if we make the journey to the manger like the Wise Men of old then we too shall see the Light of God streaming through the Babe in a manger. And we too shall hear the Word of God resounding through this baby who was God wrapped in flesh.
But if this day is to make any sense for those of us who wrestle with the silence of God, we need to find our way back to the voice of God, not only reaffirming its existence but reconnecting to its reality.
So just how do we tune into the voice of the Lord? We can begin by hearing God’s voice in creation.
Because we human beings are so self-absorbed, we may have fogotten that the first words ever spoken were uttered by God, not us. According to the scriptures, the original “word-maker” used his words to create the universe we inhabit.
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”, and there was light.
Then God said…
If you had to identify a key phrase in Genesis 1, it would be, And (or then) God said. Nine more times in Genesis 1 we read, And God said. By the time God stops talking light and darkness, land and water, animals and birds, flora and fauna, male and female have come into existence.
The bible repeatedly affirms the power of God’s speech. Many believers turn to the thirty-third Psalm to read about the sovereign power of God’s voice—
By the word of the Lord the
heavens were made,
And all their host by the breath
of his mouth…
For he spoke and it came to be;
he commanded, and it stood firm (vv.6, 9).
But the twenty-ninth Psalm, maybe the oldest of the Psalms, is another biblical gem when it comes to describing the power of the voice of the Lord.
The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the glory of God thunders, the Lord over mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
The phrase, “the voice of the Lord” appears seven times in Psalm 29. If you know anything about numbers in scripture, you know seven is the perfect number. This is the Psalmist’s (probably David) way of affirming that nothing is more powerful in heaven and on earth than the voice of the Lord.
The voice of the Lord not only creates the mighty cedars of Lebanon. It can snap them in two in a thunderstorm, and peel off their bark in a tornado. At the right pitch and frequency the human voice can shatter fine crystal. But the voice of the Lord can bring an entire nation to its knees, and pierce the hardest human heart.
God is not the same as nature—he is the God of nature. Even so, nature can reveal the presence of God, and the Word of God on a daily basis. In the 21st century we take light for granted. But it was not always so. Every time we step into the light of day or, for that matter, the dark of night, we can know we are seeing the handiwork of God. As Psalm 19 reminds us,
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
And the firmament declares his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
And night to night declares knowledge (vv.1-2).
Want to hear a word from God? Then step outside!
But nature is not the only realm of the voice of the Lord. In fact, we hear God’s voice most clearly in Jesus, the Word of God in the flesh. The evangelist Mark makes this crystal clear as he writes in the first verse of his gospel—The beginning of the good news (or gospel) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Mark is not writing an autobiography of himself. He’s writing a biography of the Son of God, who will reflect the voice of God, and the good news of God like none other.
Interestingly, Mark’s biography of Jesus doesn’t begin with his birth. Instead, it begins with the story of John the Baptist who is having such a dramatic impact upon Israel that some thought he might be the long-awaited Messiah. After all, it had been hundreds of years since the voice of the Lord had been heard through any prophet, and the people were desperate to hear a word from God. John the Baptist was delivering that word in spades.
Very quickly, though, John makes it clear that while he speaks for God there is one about to come who will be the Living Word of God. That one makes his dramatic debut in the Jordan River, of all places. Even though he is guilty of no sin Jesus asks John to baptize him. And just as (Jesus) was coming up out of the water, Mark writes, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well-pleased.”
Now we tend to focus on the voice of God coming from heaven, and understandably so. This is one of only two instances recorded in the New Testament (the other being the “transfiguration” of Jesus) when Jesus hears a direct, audible word from God. And what a word it is! This is a word of affirmation from his Heavenly Father that must have blessed Jesus to the core—before he’s performed even one act of ministry. The fact is, I believe God has similar words of blessing for all his sons and daughters—but that’s another sermon.
Meanwhile, please don’t ignore the fact that Jesus saw the heavens torn apart. This gash in the heavens is terribly important because it confirms that God’s voice is not bottled up in heaven. It is pouring out of heaven, available for all to hear who have ears to hear, especially when God’s son speaks.
Want to hear the voice of the Lord? Then spend time in the written word, contained in the Holy Scripture passed down to us. And pay particular attention to the Living Word, Jesus, because his is the voice that most closely resembles the very voice of God.
And there is still another venue for the voice of God—the human voice. Yes, there are human voices claiming to echo the voice of God that prove themselves to be false voices over time. But thank God there are also a multitude of human voices that carry the pitch and frequency of God’s voice with great accuracy.
For starters we can point to those well-known authors of scripture that we count on to bring us God’s Word. Just today we have heard from a variety of authors in our scripture lessons, including King David and the prophet Isaiah, evangelists Mark and Luke, and the Apostle Paul.
Maybe you’ve noticed that these days we are reading more passages of scripture in worship. Are we doing this just because the lectionary asks us to? No, we’re doing it because of our belief that these human voices expose us to the very voice of God in a way unrivaled in human literature. Are these voices influenced by the contemporary cultures? Yes, they are. Even so we believe their voice of the Lord is uniquely mixed with their human voices.
In our passage from Acts, we learn that when even young, untutored Christians are filled with the Spirit of God they can speak for God. Thanks to God’s Spirit, literally anybody can speak for God. That doesn’t mean that everybody speaks accurately for God. But in theory, anybody can.
Early in my ministry I used to wonder how it could be that people would spend 25-30 minutes of their precious time each week listening to me preach. I didn’t know whether to feel proud or completely overwhelmed by that kind of attention.
Then, it occurred to me that nothing I had to say deserved that kind of attention. The reason people keep listening to me and people like is because they are hoping to hear the voice of the Lord somewhere along the way. It is only to the degree that I reflect the pitch and the tone and the frequency of that voice that I am worth listening to for 30 seconds, much less 30 minutes.
God speaks in myriad ways, too many to describe today. But here’s the $64,000 question—as we listen for God’s voice, how do we know we are hearing the real thing and not some cleverly distorted, self-serving voice, or for that matter, our own imagination talking?
How do we know we are hearing the true voice of the Lord?
Good question. Stay tuned!