THAT VOICE AGAIN
A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on January 11, 2015 (First Sunday after Epiphany)
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” – Mark 1:4-11
The texts for this first Sunday after Epiphany all share a common thread – the voice (or word) of God. The human voice is an amazing development, allowing us to communicate, express emotion, and even make music! It allows us to be heard – to express our humanity. We usually think of the voice as the sounds made by our vocal cords and resonant cavities, but it could also mean the way that we can express ourselves through the written word, movement, symbolic actions, and even synthetically generated sounds (like Stephen Hawking).
If the human voice is amazing, how much more so is the voice of God?
In our first reading from the book of Genesis, God created the heavens and the earth – how? By speaking. By the use of God’s voice (although no one was there to hear other than the primordial chaos). God’s voice brought order out of the chaos – calling forth light, and separating light from darkness, the heavens from the earth, dry land from sea, putting everything in its proper place. God’s voice called a new world into being. God declared it good, blessed it, and gave commandments to keep it good.
In Psalm 29, the psalmist believes he (or she) perceives the voice of God not in speech, but in a powerful thunderstorm. Thunderstorms are amazing if you aren’t caught in them – watching the flashes of lightning, and the wind, and hearing the deep rolling of thunder. As a kid I remember counting the seconds between lightning flash and thunder roll to gauge how far away the storm was. We said it was angels bowling. You’ve heard of operatic singers breaking glasses with their voice? The psalmist says the voice of God breaks the great cedar trees, shakes the wilderness, and strips the forest bare. The voice of God thunders; it is powerful, and full of majesty.
But somehow, at the end of this psalm is a prayer that God would bless the people with peace. How can the voice that can cause so much shaking and rumbling also bring peace? Perhaps it is the same way that the voice of a parent can cause a child terror when they hear their full name being called out (Robert John!), but can also soothe a sick or hurting child. Perhaps it is the assurance that God’s great power is for our well-being.
When Jesus was baptized by John in the River Jordan, after he came up from the water, he heard that voice again. (There is a song that was recorded by popular artist Peter Gabriel almost 30 years ago called, “That Voice Again.”) This time, the voice assured Jesus,
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
(I wonder if it sounded like Morgan Freeman!)
That is an astonishing affirmation – especially in the gospel of Mark – because for those who first hear or read this gospel, this is the first time Jesus appears in the story. He hasn’t yet done anything that God might be pleased (or displeased ) about. God is pleased with him just because of who he is. Amazing!
From the very beginning of the church of Jesus Christ, baptism has been the rite by which people become a part of the faith community and begin their journey of being a disciple of Jesus. Baptism with water for the forgiveness of sins was already being practiced – by John, and by other Jewish groups.
Baptism is still thought of in that way by many people – that it washes away our sin. For centuries the church has taught that children are born in a state of “original sin” – inherited from the first humans Adam and Eve (Augustine, 4th-5th century). This is not a state of guilt for anything they have or have not done, but a recognition that all people fall short of the glory of God. Baptism was supposed to cleanse us of the consequences of that sin, and allow us to receive the gift of eternal life in heaven.
Perhaps no teaching of the church has been more misunderstood, and perhaps even destructive. It caused fear – new parents feeling compelled to get a baby baptized as soon as possible after birth in case of any terrible sickness or accident.
Without getting into all the many different arguments and beliefs of various churches about sin and baptism, let me just assure you that baptism is not a magic ticket into heaven. Even though the Roman Catholic church teaches that baptism is necessary for salvation, it allows that there are circumstances by which unbaptized persons can receive the gifts of baptism, and those who die without being baptized are at the mercy of God – whose mercy is far beyond our understanding.
The meaning and importance of baptism is much richer than just preparation for heaven. It is much more than a celebration of the birth of a child. We can see this in the story of Jesus’ baptism: John says that one will come after him who baptizes with the Holy Spirit – and the Spirit came upon Jesus when he was baptized. When we are baptized, we, too, receive the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit.
Baptism is the ritual by which we are incorporated into the church – the Body of Christ. It is dying with Christ in order that we might rise with Christ. It is becoming “new creations.” It is a means of God’s grace. It is receiving the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
In baptism, we, like Jesus, hear God’s voice (even if it only sounds like water being splashed, a baby’s cry, and the whispered words of approval of the saints gathered as witnesses). Perhaps we are attuned to hear God’s voice throughout our lives. We are affirmed as beloved children of God, with whom God takes great pleasure. If only we can live up to that high calling!
When we are baptized – whether it is a choice made by our parents when we are infants, or something we choose when we are older – it may open us to hearing the voice of God, calling us to better living and to following where that voice and the Spirit might lead. What an awesome thing!
In recent years on this occasion of remembering the baptism of Jesus we have given those of us who have been baptized an opportunity to begin the new year by reaffirming the baptismal commitments made by them or for them at the time of their baptism or confirmation. We will do that again today. If you would like, following the worship service you may come forward to be anointed with water as a reminder of your baptism. If any of you have not yet been baptized and desire to be, please speak to me about making arrangements!
The renewal of baptism questions are:
Do you desire to affirm your baptism into the faith and family of Jesus Christ?
Do you renounce the powers of evil and desire to live in the freedom of new life in Christ? (I do.)
Do you profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior? (I do.)
Do you promise, by the grace of God, to be Christ’s disciple, to follow in the way of our Savior, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ as best you are able?
(I promise, with the help of God.)
Do you promise, according to the grace given you, to grow in the Christian faith and to be a faithful member of the church of Jesus Christ, celebrating Christ’s presence and furthering Christ’s mission in all the world?
(I promise, with the help of God.)
May it be so!
Robert J. von Trebra