Epiphany 1c, January 10, 2016

January 11, 2016

The Voice of God
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

It was a dark and stormy night. It was the fall of 1977. I had been trying to work Calculus problems in the library room of the United Methodist Student Center which was located at the corner of Leveret and Maple in Fayetteville. But my work wasn’t going well, and it made me mad. Calculus didn’t make sense to me, and it made me miserable to work at it. But it wasn’t just Calculus. There was hardly anything that made sense to me. I didn’t like where I was living, I didn’t like what I was having to study, and I didn’t have a good place to go rant about how miserable I was.

So I did the next best thing – I decided to walk home in the middle of a thunderstorm. I put my books in my backpack, I put on my rain jacket – made from the first generation of gortex material which was almost waterproof, and I headed for the door. I took a couple of steps out of the building, but I had hardly gone anywhere before there was this tremendous bolt of lightening that seemed to strike directly behind the Kappa House – which was right across the street from where I was standing, and I instantly jumped back against the wall of the Wesley Foundation building.

A moment later I heard this voice come from above that said: Thompson, this is your God. I was speechless for a couple of seconds, and then I heard that same voice start giggling. It wasn’t the voice of God I had heard – it was the voice of Costas Economicles. Costas had been watching the storm approach from an upstairs window in the old Pierce House, which was owned by the Wesley Foundation and where rooms were rented to students at a very cut rate. Costas was an architecture student from Greece who had a quick mind and a wicked sense of humor.

You might think I would have been amused by the situation, but it wasn’t as funny to me as it was to him. I didn’t join him in laughing at the remarkable timing of everything and the quickness of his wit – it made me even madder and I proceeded to do what I had intended to do and I walked home in the rain, thunder, and lightening. I found myself ranting at God about how miserable I was as I trekked through the storm and I actually found myself daring God to take better aim with the next bolt of lightening.

Now this isn’t exactly like what happened on the day Jesus went out to the Jordan River and was baptized by John the Baptist. But clearly there are some comparable elements.

There was water involved in each of the situations. And there was the descending of something powerful. Lightening in my case and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove in Jesus’ case. And there was a voice from above with a Middle Eastern accent. But there are some significant departures between the two events as well – the most notable difference being the source of the voice that came from above.

The presence of God was palpable on the day Jesus was baptized, but it’s easy for me to believe that God was at hand on the night I went out in to the storm. I think the fact that I didn’t get struck by lightening as I walked home that night is a testament to the prevenient grace of God, and while I didn’t make any eternal pledges to God that night, I suspect the events of that night had some impact on my journey in to ministry. Some people might have taken that initial bolt of lightening as a sign to go back inside and finish their homework. Had I done that I might have ended up an engineer after all, but that isn’t what I chose to do.

I’m not sure if I was laughing about what had happened by the time I went to bed that night, but I can tell you it generated some laughs at the Wesley Foundation the next day – and to this day. Just the other day I mentioned this to my friend, Lewis Chesser, who was the director of the Wesley Foundation at the time. Costas was an epic story teller, and while he really didn’t have to elaborate on anything that happened, he loved telling people what had transpired, and it actually left me feeling pretty special. I don’t know many people who have thought for as long as three seconds that they had heard the actual voice of God, but I am one of those people. What else can you do but become a preacher when you’ve had such a close encounter.

Today’s scripture lesson isn’t comical, but it is the account of an unusual turn of events. First of all, a day in the presence of John the Baptist is a day that anyone would remember. I think John the Baptist probably had the looks of the character Tom Hanks played in the movie “Castaway” after he had been marooned on that deserted island for more than a year. And I think he had the personality of the guy known as the Soup Nazi on the Seinfeld show. If you’ve never seen either of those characters I’m sure you have your own image and impression of John the Baptist – a man with the look of a feral animal and the resolve of a soldier. He had a razor sharp focus on serving God, and he gave his all to preparing the way for the coming of the lord.

John the Baptist had a lot to say, and you can’t argue with what he said, but God wasn’t going to change the world through the fiery words of John the Baptist. God was going to change the world through the words and actions of the man who doesn’t say a word in this particular passage of scripture. John the Baptist spoke, the Holy Spirit descended like a dove upon Jesus, and then God spoke. Jesus never said a word as these things transpired, but we are told that he was in prayer. It’s accurate to say that Jesus was sharing words with God, but we don’t know what they were.

There’s an important message to us in this. I know we often think the most important words are the ones we say out-loud, but I don’t think we know what words to say if we don’t spend some time trying to be quietly present to God.

Sometimes I wish I had understood the value of being quietly present to God when I was a younger person. I was pretty impatient to know what I was going to do and why I was going to do it. I wanted a plan and I wanted to like it. I made some plans, but my plans weren’t working out the way I wanted them to, and it made me mad. I didn’t go to God with quiet patience – I went to God with demands, and that’s not something you should do if you aren’t willing to become a preacher.

I used to think Calculus was mysterious – that was before I started trying to prepare sermons. You may find it distressing to hear that I don’t step in to the pulpit each week with a clear understanding of what God intends for me to say to you. There probably are preachers who speak with that kind of authority, but I am not one of them. I wish I had such clarity in regard to what I need to say and what you need to hear, but God doesn’t speak to me so clearly. I struggle to find the right words, and the words I offer – I offer in hope that they will fall well on your hearts. And I do trust that they can be used by God to provide you with some access to the good news that Jesus Christ came to deliver.

The truth is that it’s impossible for me to figure out what I need to say in a sermon. If it was all up to me to generate the right words and to deliver them properly it would truly be an overwhelming task, but I try to remember that God uses us all in ways we don’t fully understand to do the work of sharing the gospel. I wrestle with the task of preaching, but I also know that the Holy Spirit is as free as a dove. It didn’t descend upon Jesus because of something he or John the Baptist said – it goes where it will and does what it will do.

If you aren’t hearing what you want to hear from the preacher be careful what you wish for because you might find yourself doing something you never imagined. I’m not saying that there is no such thing as bad preaching – I’ve heard it and I’ve done it. There is such a thing as a bad sermon, but God’s word is uncontained. The same Holy Spirit that descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove can come upon us in ways that we would never have imagined. God can use anyone and anything to get our attention and to open our hearts to the truth of the gospel.

It’s interesting to think of the unusual ways that we come to hear the word of God. I don’t know of anyone who has actually heard the voice of God who provided them with clear instructions on what they need to do next. I’m not saying that has never happened or can’t happen. I say that because I don’t know what God is capable of doing nor am I anxious to get some of those clear instructions from God. From what I can tell, God doesn’t send people on easy missions. I known what can happen when you taunt God. I don’t do that anymore.

The voice of God is illusive, but Jesus Christ has revealed to us what clearly pleases God. It pleases God for us to live with love for one another, and when I say one another I don’t just mean the people we already love and cherish. The love of Jesus Christ is the kind of love that has no boundaries. Jesus didn’t just love the people who were living the right way and doing the right things – Jesus loved people because they were people. That was what made him the beloved son of God that he was, and that is what he has invited us to join him in doing.

The voice of God is a powerful thing that comes to us in unusual ways. None of us are too young or too old to hear it, and in spite of my warning not to taunt God, I believe it always comes as a welcome word to willing hearts. The voice of God isn’t loud, but it’s profound, and it changes everything. To hear the voice of God is to come to understand that which is truly important. It’s the voice of God that calls us out of our small worlds of self-concern and points us toward the world with love and compassion.

We haven’t heard many words from God, but we’ve heard enough to know what to be listening for. And thanks be to God — we haven’t yet heard the last word!

Amen.

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