1/10/2010 sermon: Hearing voices

Location:   Grace Episcopal Church, Alexandria, VA
Text: Luke 3:15-16, 21-22
1st Epiphany, Year C

Hearing voices

Six months ago, when Father Malm invited me to preach, I chose today, the First Sunday after the Epiphany. I did so because this is a day that we reserve for telling the story of Jesus’ baptism, an event so important that it is reported in all four Gospels.

So—as my thinking went at the time—what could be a better set of lessons on which to preach my first sermon in my home parish? We could compare and contrast… Well, as Father Malm frequently reminds us, “If you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans.” When I began to reflect on today’s lessons what I kept hearing was a song from my childhood that goes like this:

“Did you ever hear God speaking to you? Saying,
‘I’ve got a job to do, and I’ll sure be needing you if it ever gets done.’”

God speaks; are you listening?

So I got an ever-so-subtle hint that we should be listening to God’s voice today. Did you hear God’s voice in today’s lessons?

In the Old Testament reading the voice is one of total affirmation:[1]

Do not be afraid— it says —for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.

And in the Gospel we hear:

And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”[2]

As the Sundays go by in the rest of the season of Epiphany, the Gospel readings make clearer and clearer exactly what the voice means when it calls Jesus its beloved Son. Turns out, God did, in fact, have a job for Jesus to do, one that somehow began with his baptism. Today, however, we have the voice.

When the other Gospel writers tell of Jesus’ baptism, the crucial moment—the moment when everyone present heard God’s voice—is when Jesus came up out of the water. Not so today. For Luke, the crucial moment was when Jesus prayed.

I used to think that inconsistencies such as these were somehow a problem. Now I understand them as a testimony to their truth, as well as a window into the thinking of the author. And is it any wonder that Luke, the physician, wanted to make sure that we did not miss the vital connection between prayer and spiritual health, between prayer and hearing God’s voice?

In fact, there does appear to be a close relationship between prayer and spiritual health, and there’s now even a scientific explanation: A 2008 neuroscience study found that when experts—Franciscan nuns—were praying, activity in their parietal lobes when way down. We use our parietal lobes to orient ourselves in space. However, at the same time, when the nuns were praying activity in their frontal lobes went way up.[3] We use our frontal lobes to pay attention. So the scientific explanation boils down to this: when we pray, we allocate more of our resources to listen.

I prefer another kind of explanation. If you want to talk to you if your friend, is it better to go about your business and hope that you hear her talking to you, or for you to call her up and begin a conversation? I can hear Martin Smith now. Martin is an Episcopal priest and theologian who spends time with us each Lent. Martin would say, “We never begin a conversation with God, God is always communicating with us,” and—I would add—God is communicating on all channels! So the picture we have is of God, who is always communicating, and of us, who are sometimes listening. I want to mention just a few of the many ways—other than a voice from heaven—that God speaks to us today:

  • God speaks through the Bible. My favorite example is Athenagoras, a renowned second-century philosopher who began reading the Bible to gather ammunition to debunk Christianity. However, while he was reading, he heard God speaking, became a Christian, and ended up writing one of the greatest apologies supporting Christianity ever written.[4]
  • God speaks through our brains. Have you ever had a thought come to you “right out of the blue?” Usually one urging you to do something good? Perhaps, like Theresa, what you heard was, “A mission trip to Tanzania? I could do that.”
  • God speaks through other people. Perhaps, like Wayne, you are retired and talking with your priest, who suggests that you volunteer in the food pantry. You do, before you know it you are running the whole operation, and it seems to give new meaning to your life.
  • This last example is one that I hope that each of you can connect with, whether you have been at Grace Church for 10 weeks or 10,000: God speaks through worship. I literally experienced Pentecost during worship in an Episcopal cathedral in Minneapolis in 2003. The message I heard was, “God is who God is. God does what God does. God calls who God calls.” I thought that the voice was talking about someone else at the time! But my life has not been the same since; God broke open my heart and I have been learning how to give away control of my life ever since.

So, you may wonder (as am I), if God is doing all this talking, why don’t hear him more often? I think one reason might be because God’s voice isn’t the only one available to be heard. I daresay that the voice that we each hear most often is our very own, and when that voice is active we do not have many resources left to hear God. To make matters worse, when I don’t like the critique that voice is providing, I turn up the volume on the “reality channel” using things like Facebook, computer games, video games, television, movies, overwork; you might go shopping.… You get the idea. There is nothing wrong with any of these activities, when done in moderation; we just need to be mindful that when we engage in them it is very hard to hear God speaking, and to adjust our priorities accordingly.

Then too, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there is a third voice, one that always seems to be heard after we have heard God speaking. This third voice urges us to do something slightly different than God suggests. It says things like, “You don’t actually have to work in the shelter, you could send them a check.” In case you are wondering where this third voice is in today’s gospel lesson, stay tuned: the story continues next week!

The final thing is that with all these voices it is sometimes difficult to tell whose voice is whose. And for that we have the help of the Holy Spirit. Those who think deeply about such things say that the Holy Spirit is the agency of God that makes God present to us, the very thing that gives us the ability to hear, recognize, and understand God’s voice. The Holy Spirit is most obviously present in the Gospel lesson today, and it lets us know that baptism—and its essential saying “yes” to God—helps us to better connect with our creator, who loves and affirms us beyond measure. So in a very real sense our true life begins with baptism, and it continues with prayer.

I invite you to reflect this week on instances when you have heard God’s voice, and what it has urged—and might now be urging—you to do. As it turns out, God has a job for each of us to do, and he’ll sure be needing us if it ever gets done!

Open our ears, O Lord, to hear your voice, and our hearts to do your will. Amen.


[1] Isaiah 43:1b (New King James version)

[2] Luke 3:21-22 (New Revised Standard version)

[3] Andrea Useem, “Neuroscience is Not just for Buddhists: Reflections on the Physiology of Belief,” http://www.religionwriter.com/featured/neuroscience-is-not-just-for-buddhists/ (accessed 07/19, 2009)., referenced in David Brooks, Andrew Newberg and Michael Cromartie, “How our Brains are Wired for Belief” (Key West, FL, The Pew Forum on Religion and Public life, 05/05/2008, 2008) (accessed 07/19/2009).

[4] As told in William Barclay, Communicating the Gospel (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1978), 86.

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