Advent 3B, December 14, 2014

December 15, 2014

The Voice
John 1:6-8, 19-28

1:6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “‘I am a voice crying out in the wilderness, Make the Lord’s path straight’, just as the prophet Isaiah said.” 24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

I’m not immune from getting sucked in to the world of mindless television, but The Voice isn’t one of the shows that lures me in. I prefer pure over-the-top fiction to pseudo-reality based television shows. When I want to watch real people scratching and clawing to get what they want I turn on the news. I’m not sure that you ever really capture reality when a film crew is on hand.

Of course in light of the recent deaths that have occurred at the hands of police officers – I’m all for adding body cameras to those who are on the front line of crime response. I think it would be helpful for everyone involved. It will protect the innocent and moderate the behavior of the guilty. Unfortunately what we are seeing on the news is way too much like a bad reality tv show. There is this growing movement called Black Lives Matter, and today has been designated by the leaders of that movement as Black Lives Matter Sunday. It’s unfortunate that we have to have demonstrations to make the point that black lives matter, but that’s a message that needs to get out. Everyone matters, and I hope the day will come when we don’t have to be reminded of this.

I guess the world is in the mess it’s in because there is this tendency to value some lives more than others and to give more attention to some voices than to others. We live in a world that’s inundated by a cacophony of voices, and we don’t always pay attention to the right voices, but this morning we are invited to hear the voice of a man who called for people to prepare the way for the One who’s voice would change everything.

I’m focused on the power of voice because when pressed to identify himself, this man named John, the one we know of as John the Baptist – he identified himself as a voice. When the Pharisees insisted that he let them know who he was, he quoted this passage from Isaiah: I am a voice crying out in the wilderness, Make the Lord’s path straight.

I’m wondering how many of us would ever think of ourselves as, a voice. I’m guessing there are a number of people who might think of themselves in that way, but I’m not one of them. I don’t think of myself as a voice. I like to think I’ve got good hands, but I don’t have much of a voice. It’s sort of ridiculous that I make a living as a public speaker. Of course that may also explain the lack of public that shows up to hear me speak. If it wasn’t for my ability to say remarkably witty and insightful things I think I would be a dreadful preacher.

There are many of us who don’t have particularly powerful voices, but there is no shortage of people who have stage-worthy voices. I don’t think The Voice has trouble getting people to show up for their auditions. There are a lot of people who want to share their voice with the public, and that’s a beautiful thing. A great voice is a thing to behold. It’s a wonderful experience to hear a great voice. We are healed by good voices, we are inspired by good voices, we are moved by good voices. There may not be anything more humanly powerful than a beautiful voice.

Of course God doesn’t depend on the quality of a person’s voice to use them to do powerful things. Moses didn’t think he was qualified to lead the people of Israel because he thought he had a weak voice, but God didn’t consider that to be a problem. God provided a bit of a work-a-round by incorporating Aaron in to the communication process, but a weak voice is no obstacle for God. A weak voice is no excuse to not get involved in God’s work of redeeming the world.

We don’t know what kind of vocal strength John the Baptist had, but we know he had a powerful message. John was calling for people to change their lives, but he didn’t consider himself to be the one who would change everything. He was a voice, and he wanted people to be prepared for the voice.

John the Baptist didn’t refer to Jesus as the voice, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think of what he was saying in that way. John thought of himself as a voice crying out for us to be prepared for the voice. It’s not easy to be prepared to hear the voice of Jesus, but I like to think of that as the nature of our calling as Christians. We are people who aspire to hear the voice of Jesus – the voice of the One who speaks for God.

It’s amazing how powerful the sound of voices are to us. You can hear a song and be transported back to the place or the period of time in your life when you first heard that song. You can hear the sound of a familiar television character’s voice and be transported in to the reality of that show. You can hear the sound of a loved one’s voice or laugh and experience immediate wellbeing or the sound of an adversary and be put on full alert.

I’ll never forget this conversation I had with my father a few months after my mother died. We were driving back to Little Rock from my cousin’s wedding in Dallas. We had been driving for a few hours and my father said he was having a hard time remembering the sound of my mother’s voice. He asked me if I could remember the sound of her voice. As I thought about it for a moment it occurred to me that I could still hear the sound of her laugh, and there was also a phrase I could hear her say. It was a phrase I often heard her say to my father, and I told him what it was. I told him I could still hear her saying to him, Buddy, if you would just listen! Luckily he was sort of amused by what I said, and I think that line rang a bell with him.

I think John the Baptist was a little bit like my mother in that way. He was conscious of the fact that we are often inclined to turn our deaf ear toward essential messages. My mother could strike a tone that would call me to attention, and I think that’s what John the Baptist was doing for the leaders of Israel. John the Baptist didn’t think of himself as the voice, but he was a powerful voice, and he continues to call us to attention.

It’s never easy to discern the voice of Christ, but it’s particularly hard when we give an inordinate amount of attention to all the other voices that are trying to get noticed. It’s especially hard when we think the most important voice out there is our own.

Of course it’s important to pay attention to those voices that are out there and it’s important to utilize our own voices, but without some guidance from the voice we can become caught up in a really ugly chorus.

As I mentioned earlier, I fully believe there is an important message coming out of this Black Lives Matter campaign. Our society has been overly tolerant of a pattern of abuse that has been directed toward black men. There is some righteous anger being expressed right now and it’s easy for me to believe that this message resonates to what Jesus had to say. Jesus raised his own voice against injustice, but he never added his voice to the advocates of hate – even toward those who carried out evil agendas.

And this is what makes it so hard to hear what Jesus is saying and to join our own voices to his own. Our challenge is to tune our ears to hear his voice and to train our own voices to become powerful instruments of love and peace and justice.

My friend Mark has begun taking voice lessons. He doesn’t claim to know how what he is learning is going to enhance his vocal ability, but he’s an engineer, and he tried to explain to me what he has learned about the mechanics vocal sound. The lungs are more or less the engine of sound, and how well you control the air-flow certainly has an impact on the quality of the sound you produce. The vocal chords actually generate the sound, and of course there’s some training that goes in to how tightly or loosely you hold those chords as the air passes through them. Then there’s the shaping of the sound with your throat, mouth, tongue, sinus cavities, and skull configuration. There’s a good amount of control you have over the resonance of the sound you produce, but of course some people simply have better heads than others when it comes to sound production.

The mechanics of voice is interesting, and I think it reflects the way in which there’s always a relationship between the hardware and the software. There’s always a relationship between what we have and how well we learn to utilize what we have. I think this creative process of generating voice is also a reflection of how we can learn to join our own voices with the voice of God.

It’s God’s breath than powers us. Some of us constrict the amount of God’s breath we allow to pass through us, but there’s some divinity in all of us. We can choose to waste God’s breath by choosing to remain silent or by twisting it for our own purposes. We can make some devious sounds with God’s breath, but it’s purpose is to speak and to sing the words that bring comfort and healing.

I believe we are all invited to become incorporated in to the voice of God in this world. It’s a powerful invitation. It’s a beautiful opportunity. It’s a difficult challenge. It’s a mysterious undertaking. It’s a gift. It’s a job. It’s a solo act. It’s a face in a choir.

I believe the voice of Christ speaks to all of us in ways that we can understand if we will heed the words of those people like John who see the world for what it is and call for us to pay attention to how God intends for it to be. The voice is speaking. Listen, learn, sing, speak, pray, and rejoice!

We are not alone — thanks be to God!


One Response to “Advent 3B, December 14, 2014”

  1. Bill Waddell Says:

    “It’s God’s breath that powers us.” That phrase is so poignant. God breathes his spirit into us and the resulting voice is hopefully a witness to God’s love, grace, and justice.

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