by Rev. Rebecca Migliore
January 9, 2022
In the Bible no one thinks twice talking about God’s voice. In the beginning we hear “Let there be light.” As our prelude highlighted, people heard God calling their names, prophets listened for God’s voice, even if it was still and small, and at Jesus’ baptism (at least in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke) God’s voice is heard—identifying Jesus as “my son, the beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.”
If you compare the versions of the baptism of Jesus, there is an interesting difference—who God is talking to. In two, the voice is addressed to Jesus—“You are my son…” whereas in the other, the voice seems to be addressed to those assembled, “This is my son…” And as all these thoughts ran around in my brain, I wondered, how do we hear God’s voice? Or are we just “hearing voices”—are we just crazy in the world’s eyes.
Because “hearing voices” is not usually a top line in your resume. We live in a world that does not want there to be whispers from unknown sources (leave that to scary movies and supernatural reality shows). If you hear voices—there must be something wrong with you. Your brain isn’t working right. You need to be on medication or supervised.
And yet, we church people keep reading these stories where it is normal for there to be messages from God (sent by angels who appear and talk to people, like Zachariah or Mary); or for God to have conversations with us, like the story of Samuel in the temple, or Abraham on his journeys. Do we hear these as quaint stories of something in the past, something that we can scientifically explain away now that we are modern? Do we believe that God still speaks to us? What would God want to say? And how do we listen so we might also hear voices—or more importantly, hear God’s voice?
This isn’t just an academic exercise. I’m becoming more and more convinced that it is important for us to talk about, to witness, what we are hearing from God—to pass along God’s voice, God’s message, to others—as a church, and as individuals. Because I believe that God’s voice is being high-jacked, being distorted by those who scream the loudest. As we were driving across the country along route 80 this past holiday season, you cannot help seeing these huge billboards that purport to capture God’s voice. But it is not a nice voice. And it is not a nice message.
I didn’t see any “I created, and ‘it was good’” along the highway.
I don’t remember any “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you” towering over the fields.
I might have missed it—but I can’t recall seeing the words “You are my beloved…With you I am well pleased.”
And I used to just try to ignore the billboards, the fringe people who show up with signs and get on TV, the local TV preachers, all who spout a message, who hear God’s voice, as judgmental and sneering and actively hateful and vengeful. I can’t ignore it anymore, because as we have seen in the last few years, if you speak an untruth enough times and with enough fervor and enough volume, people begin to believe it has truth.
And so, because of all that is being said that I don’t believe is God’s voice, it means that we, that I, have to up my own volume. It becomes more important to claim what I hear, what I believe God is saying to us. And it means that we need to figure out how to magnify that message in our very noisy world. It is part of our calling. To testify, to witness, to pass it on.
How do we hear God’s voice? We might hear it through reading Scripture. We might hear it through the stories we hear from our elders, our friends, even those younger than ourselves. When I look at the story of the baptism of Jesus, I see that part of being human is needing to be reminded of truths. We are perpetually in a state like those iconic Teletubbies who get to the end of a story and jump up and down, saying “Again” “Again.”
In our story today, here is Jesus, we imagine one who is fluent in talking to God, one who has an inkling of what God wants him to do, one who has heard the call pretty clearly, and yet, God in this important moment, this inaugural moment, still wants to go on the record. “Just to make sure you remember—just to make sure you heard it right—listen to me say it again, You are my son, my beloved child.” And even before Jesus has done anything, before any miracles, before any sermons, before any followers, God says “With you I am well-pleased.” It’s like hearing, “I’m so proud of you—not because you did well on a test, not because you scored a goal, a touchdown, a three-pointer, a parlay, but because you are who you are.”
We don’t say that enough to each other. And we don’t say enough that God says that to us. Even when we make mistakes. Even when we disappoint. Even when we follow wrong paths, and mess up every opportunity. I hear the echoes of those words of Isaiah, written to people who were weeping by the waters of Babylon, weeping for Zion that had been destroyed, a country that had ceased to exist, weeping because of the pressures of living as a stranger in a foreign land, weeping because everything they knew and loved had disappeared, weeping because they couldn’t imagine how it could ever be right again. Into that mental anguish Isaiah heard God say, “Do not fear, I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, You are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, the flames shall not consume you…”
That is what God’s voice is saying. But too often that is not the message the church has been amplifying. Too often the “I love you” gets swallowed up in the lists of things that we could be doing better in our lives. And worse yet, the “I am well-pleased with you”—an affirmation of worth, has been obliterated by words of hostility, words of fear, words of hate, words that trample on the idea that we are each beloved children of God, created in God’s image, beautiful and worthy and gifted and loved.
It’s not enough to put “all are welcome” on the sign out front if all are not welcome when they darken the doors. I cannot tell you the number of people who have said to me, “Better be careful. God might bring the walls down if I step into the sanctuary.” Ha ha. But not funny that that is what people think is God’s message. If you haven’t been perfect, If you haven’t lived up to your own standards (much less God’s standards), don’t come in here, don’t come looking for me, don’t think you would be welcomed back, with open arms, with loving hearts, with smiles of joy.
We should probably make more of a fuss about Baptism of the Lord Sunday. Because it’s not just about Jesus’s baptism. It’s about our own baptisms. It’s about God’s love being there before we even know who we are. It’s about God’s promises to us that are renewed and refreshed in the splash of water each Sunday. It’s about how we are given a chance to wash ourselves off from anything that encumbers us, and emerge bright and clean to start a new day. It’s about being part of a community—brothers and sisters together.
That’s why we go “down to the water to pray.” That’s why we “wade in the water.” Because we want a chance to start over. Because we want to be reminded again and again of God’s commitment to us, and our commitment to God. Because we all need to know that we are loved, beyond measure—we need to hear the words—even if the world sees that as hearing voices. We need it, just as we need water to stay alive. It is precious, as precious as clean water is in some parts of the world, and in some parts of our country. And it is abundant—it is not something that you have to travel the world to find, it is not something that you have to dig deep inside the earth, or crawl into a small space, or spend a whole lifetime looking for.
God’s love is as close as the drop of rain from the heavens. God’s love is as wide as the ocean seas. God’s love is still like a lake in calm, and sparkly like the ice on trees, and roiling like a swollen river.
It is no mistake that water is the image of baptism. Or that John recognizes that when God gets involved, it is not just water but water and spirit and fire. Of course, from the beginning of the world the spirit has hovered over water. Of course, from the beginning, God announced “I Am Who I Am,” from a burning bush. Of course, from the beginning of the people Israel, there was a crossing of water and a pillar of fire and a pillar of cloud. Of course, God would pull us close with water and spirit and fire—all to underline what had been from the very beginning—that God created, and what God created was good. It was very good.
And maybe some think that I’m just hearing voices—making up stories in my head, telling myself what I want to hear. But if so, I stand in a long line of story-tellers that stretch back before we knew we were human. And I am sure that the story is important. That we need to be telling it, in our own words, but telling it nonetheless. Some have not heard it before. Some have only heard a distorted version. Some don’t believe it was meant for them. Some need to hear it again and again and again so that it can break through the fog of misery that encircles them. Some just take comfort in hearing the familiar refrain. Some are jolted anew to wonder in hearing the story from another perspective.
Yes, we are called to listen to others tell the story of God’s love. Yes, we are called to speak our own truth—however haltingly, in whatever language, to whatever beat. It is in telling the story that we inscribe it on our lives. It is in sharing the story that we bring it to life once again. It is in living the story that we find where we need to be changed, where we need to be made anew, where we need to step into ever deeper relationship with the one who first loved us.
If we were together, in the flesh, I would have had some sort of water ritual, so we could remember our baptism, and be set free to speak and do all God has planned for us.
But since we are here, some in person, and some online, the best I can do is this—
Far back in the church’s liturgy, we talk about baptism as dying to Christ, and rising with new life. And so, I invite you to stand, if you are able, close your eyes, and imagine you are going down to the water, ready, ready to be made new, with God’s help.
And I invite you, still with your eyes closed, carefully, to sit, imagining yourself immersed in water, maybe you can see yourself lying back and floating, held in God’s embrace. Maybe you are cannonballing into the water, sinking deep, and shooting back up to the surface. Maybe you are inching in, first your toes, and then up to your knees, and then to your middle and over your shoulders, and finally getting everything wet.
And finally, I invite you to stand and open your eyes. And recite with me these words:
Now we rise, renewed,
Blessed by the hand of heaven,
Newly alive to your peace,
With a passion for justice alive in our souls,
And in every breath, the possibility of love.
We rise from the waters,
Committed as servants of the Gospel,
Dedicated to the realm of love.
May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.