What does the voice of God sound like? Really, if you had to cast someone as the voice of God, who would you choose? Would you go for the obvious, like James Earl Jones or Morgan Freeman? Or the traditional, like Charleton Heston? You could go retro with George Burns or Philadelphia with John Facenda. Would God sound like your father, your grandfather, your childhood priest? Would God sound like an old man, a strong man, a wise man? Would God sound like a man at all? Maybe God would sound like your mother or Meryl Streep or that kindergarten teacher who seemed to know all things. Maybe God would sound extremely well-mannered, like if Walter Cronkite and Peter Jennings had a love child. Maybe God would sound very, very posh, like Benedict Cumberbatch in a period film. Or would God sound like a wise old wizard, Gandalf the White plus Dumbledore with a little Yoda thrown in for good measure? No, the Yoda thing would probably be weird, but God could sound a little weird. Maybe God would have three voices, some male, some female, some breathy, some bold. Or maybe God would sound warm and resonant, like Renee Fleming or Bryn Terfel or your very favorite tenor. Maybe the voice of God would be booming. Maybe the voice of God would be barely there. Maybe the voice of God would be comforting and solid, or clarion and somewhat terrifying. Maybe the voice of God would sound like your wife, or your lover. Maybe the voice of God would sound like a child.
We know that the voice of God is important, no, not just important – fundamental. God’s voice speaks into the darkness and there is light. God’s voice breaks the cedar trees and shakes the wilderness. God’s voice tears open the heavens above his only-begotten Son and rains down upon his dripping head, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” God’s voice pronounces judgment and blessing, calls and calls to account, teaches and comforts and rebukes. God’s voice is always there in scripture, a nearly constant companion to the people of Israel and the followers of Christ…but what does that voice sound like?
I want to know. I really want to know. Because I want to know what to listen for. I want to know God’s voice when I hear it. I want to know which voice belongs to God in the general cacophony of this world. Every morning, I pray along with the psalmist that I would “hearken to his voice,” and I mean it. I want to hearken to God’s voice; I’m all about hearkening. Especially when I’m afraid, or sad, or lost, or anxious or confused or angry or generally tied up in knots. I’m desperate to hearken, I long to hearken. And it would just be so much easier if I knew exactly what to hearken for, if I knew exactly what God’s voice sounded like.
But it isn’t as easy as that. I wish that it were, I really wish that I could stand here and say to you all, “This just in – God’s voice sounds just like Aretha Franklin. So just listen for that and you’ll be a-ok.” But much as I’d like to do that, and much as I’d like for God to actually sound like Aretha Franklin, you know I can’t say that. You know that I can’t point to one voice and say to you, “That’s God – that’s definitely, undeniably God.” I can’t even do that standing in this church, in this holy place where we know God’s presence abides. I wish that I could, but I can’t. Because hearing the voice of God isn’t always easy. It isn’t usually easy. Some of us have had the gift of knowing a miraculous moment when God’s voice is as clear as a bell and rings us all the way down to our bones. But that doesn’t happen all the time. Heck, it doesn’t happen most of the time. Most of the time, you and I listen for the one, clear voice of God and instead hear lots and lots of voices – the humming of advice from friends, the clicking away of pros and cons and rationalizations, the echoes of our own fears or desires, the whir of the tapes that have been running in our heads since we were children, and maybe the speaking of the Holy Spirit deep in our souls. But how do we know which is which? How do we hear God in the midst of all of this noise?
Well, we pray. We sit in silence and contemplate the holiness that is God our Father and our Mother. We come to Mass to be still and know God, to sing and hear God singing with us, to take bread and wine and hope to then find God singing within us. We pray. And we read. We study scripture. We read what other, wiser people have said about scripture. We read old church fathers and new church mothers, Augustine and Bernard and Anne Lamott and Nadia Bolz-Weber. We journal. We walk. We think. We get tired, we get frustrated. We get some clarity, some hope, an idea! We check it out – what would Jesus say about this? What would my mother say about this? What does Saint Mark or my best friend or my therapist say about this? And maybe they confirm for us that we have, in fact, heard the voice of God renting the heavens above our own heads. But maybe they don’t. And maybe we feel like we’ve taken a step forward, but sometimes we feel like we’re back at square one. And we wonder, again and again, what will God’s voice sound like when it comes?
It’s a process, this listening for God’s voice. It’s a progression. It’s actually a practice. We may never get to be great at this, but we can get better. The truth is that God’s voice spoke into the world, spoke the world, in the beginning, and that voice has continued to resound throughout the ages. God’s voice spoke to priests and prophets, to shepherds and dressers of sycamore trees, to carpenters and virgins, to three magi and to one Messiah. God’s voice has never ceased to sound. And the more we listen for it, the more we practice, the better we’ll get at picking it out of the crowd.
Sometimes, of course, it is the loudest voice in the room, the voice of a hurricane, the voice that shatters the cedar trees and shakes the foundations of the earth. Sometimes it sounds like a young girl from the wilds of Pakistan who stood up and told her oppressors and the world that just because she is a girl, she is no less worthy of freedom, respect, and an education. Sometimes it sounds like a young black preacher 50 years ago who told the world that his people deserved the right to vote and they were willing to march from Selma to Montgomery in the midst of a hailstorm of hate to get it. Sometimes it sounds like the voices of men and boys saying no to violence against women, or the voices of men and women saying no to violence against Creation. Sometimes it sounds like an imam who stands up again and again to remind the world that terrorism and hatred and violence are not Islamic; they are fanatic.
But sometimes the voice of God is still and small, a sound like sheer silence, so tiny that in Hebrew it is called the “bat-kol,” the “daughter of a voice.” Sometimes it sounds like a stranger saying, “God bless you” on the subway when you are feeling decidedly unblessed. Sometimes it sounds like a friend asking you how you are and really meaning it. Sometimes it sounds like a quiet hum – the murmur of a calling, the whisper of a job offer, the yearning for something more. Sometimes it sounds like three little words – I see you. I forgive you. I love you. – spoken by one little, ordinary person. The more we practice listening for this voice that sounds all around us, the better we’ll get at hearing it. I know this because the Bible tells me so, because Augustine tells me so, because my mother and my mentors and my own miraculous moments have told me so. And in a moment, we’ll all have a chance to practice. We’ll stand as a community and watch the parents and godparents of little Maddox Lee Henssler make promises on his behalf. We’ll make some promises of our own, affirming that we will support him in his life in Christ. We’ll pray for Maddox and for God’s help. We’ll watch the Holy Spirit poured out on Maddox in water and oil. And in our Amen we will listen for the reverberations from the heavens, “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And maybe we’ll hear it. And maybe we won’t. But maybe, just maybe, as we live into these prayers and promises, maybe, as we live out our discipleship in this community of faith, maybe, as we practice our own listening, maybe someday Maddox will be able to say how he heard the voice of God as a little child. And that it sounded like you.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
11 January 2015 - The Baptism of our Lord
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia