Advent 4b, December 17, 2017

December 19, 2017

The Voice

John 1:6-8, 19-28


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 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,'” 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. 


Advent is a hard season for me to get my mind around. The word, Advent, comes from the Latin word, Adventus, which means coming or visit. And I know the season of Advent is an invitation for us to prepare ourselves for the coming celebration of Christ’s birth, but it’s easy for me to overthink this thing. It’s not easy for me to be unaware of the fact that we are preparing for the coming of the one who has already come. And of course we all know this, but we also know that this is a good thing to do. The birth of Christ in to the world changed the world, and the living presence of Christ in the world has a current impact on each of our lives – Christ comes to all of us in new and personal ways. But I still have a hard time getting my mind around the idea of preparing for Christ to come – when I know that Christ has already arrived.


Of course we also talk about Christ coming again, but that’s not an easy thing for me to urgently prepare for. The second coming of Christ may happen this morning, but they might be talking about the second coming of Christ two thousand years from now. So it’s not easy for me to generate any urgency in my heart for that day of all days – the day when Christ comes in final victory and we feast at the ultimate heavenly banquet here on earth. I trust that day will come, but statistically speaking there’s a low probability of that happening soon.


So on one hand it’s literally impossible for me to prepare for the original birth of Christ, and on the other hand I have a psychological barrier to preparing for the second coming of Christ. Fortunately there is this third way for me to prepare to be visited by Christ, and that’s what I want to talk about this morning. We all know we aren’t preparing for the original birth of Christ when we pull out the Christmas lights and arrange our nativity scenes, and most of us aren’t anticipating that the second and ultimate coming of Christ will happen within the next week, but this is a time for us to prepare ourselves for Christ to come in to our hearts and lives in a new way. As I mentioned earlier, Advent means coming or visit, and who isn’t in need of a new encounter with the living presence of God.


As I reflect on this tradition we have of reading scriptures that point to the coming of Christ in to the world it occurs to me that there’s one character that’s missing from our nativity scenes and that is John the Baptist. I know he was only born a few months before Jesus, and he wasn’t making this announcement about Jesus before Jesus was born, but he plays a large role in the work of preparing people for the coming of the one we know as Jesus Christ.


We always read these various texts about John the Baptist during the season of Advent. He played a very significant role in creating an atmosphere of divine expectation. He was an unsettling character for the religious executives of the day, and as today’s text indicates, they sent people out to try to figure out who he was and what he was doing. And I don’t think they got the answers they were looking for. They were hoping they could somehow put John the Baptist in a category that they understood, but they couldn’t. What John the Baptist was doing was to try to prepare people for something that had never occurred before. I don’t even think John the Baptist knew exactly who Jesus was or what he was going to do, but he trusted and expected God to enter the world in a new way and he wanted the rest of us to be ready for this new encounter with God.


John the Baptist spoke of himself as the voice of one crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. That’s a compelling way to speak of himself – to refer to himself as the voice of one crying in the wilderness. He was listening to a powerful voice, and I think it’s helpful for us to think that what John the Baptist was doing with his voice was to try to get us to pay attention to the voice of the one who was coming.


John the Baptist didn’t refer to Jesus as the voice, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable for us to think of what he was saying in that way. John seemed to think of himself as a voice crying out for us to be prepared for the voice. We don’t have the privilege of encountering Jesus in the flesh, but we do have the opportunity to hear his word. 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 fully embodied the presence of God.


It’s amazing how powerful the sound of a voice can be 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. I participated in the funeral of the mother of one of my childhood friends yesterday. After the service I gave my friend a ride back to his house along with his son. We drove by our old neighborhood and as we passed by my childhood home my friend told his son – that’s the house where I watched the Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan Show. That wasn’t something I remembered (I was a mere kindergartner and he was a worldly 1st grader). But he also remembered my father saying, that guy looks like Moe (of the three stooges), and that other guy looks like Moe as well – in fact they all look like Moe. And that sounds exactly like something my father would have said.


Which reminds me of a 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 (I may have told this story before). But we had been driving for a few hours in relative silence – my father wasn’t very talkative, but out of the blue my father said You know, I’m having a hard time remembering the sound of Martha’s voice. That was a curious thing to hear him say, and then 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 remember hearing 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. I know 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 people of Israel. John the Baptist didn’t think of himself as the voice, but he was a powerful voice, and he used his voice 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 some attention to the various voices that are out in the world exposing various truths that are worth noting, and it’s important to utilize our own voices to express what we see to be true, but without some guidance from the voice of the one who truly speaks for God we can get caught up in a cacophony of voices.


This world is full of many different voices, and it’s easy to get caught up in the sound of the wrong voices. It’s a challenge for us to tune our ears to hear the true voice of the one who came from God and to train our own voices to become powerful instruments of love and peace and justice.


I have a friend who works as an engineer, but he’s always enjoyed singing and he decided to take voice lessons a few years ago. Being the engineer that he is he had become interested in the mechanics of vocal sound, and he gave me a short tutorial one night on his understanding of how the human voice works. He said the lungs function as the the engine of sound, and how well you learn to control the air-flow has a significant 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, and tongue, but the quality of the sound is also affected by things like sinus cavities, and skull configuration – which we have no control over. He had come to believe that there’s a good amount of control you can 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 a strong connection between what we have and how well we learn to utilize what we have. I think this creative process of generating voice is 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 in to sounds that suit our own purposes. We can make some devious sounds with God’s breath, but as surely as some people learn to create beautiful sounds with their lungs, vocal chords, and mouths, we are all provided the tools we need to become instruments to proclaim the good news of God’s presence with us.


I believe we are all provided the opportunity to hear God’s voice and to become the bearers of God’s voice. 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 to join in a heavenly chorus.


I believe the voice of Christ comes to all of us in ways that we can understand if we will heed the words of those people like John who could see the world for what it is and call for us to pay attention to how God intends for it to be. The voice of God continues to break in to this world, and to speak to us in particular ways. So during this season of Advent, we aren’t just to give thanks for the way in which God once came in to this world in the form of a child in Bethlehem. We aren’t just to long for the day when Christ will come in final victory. We are to pay attention to the way in which God continues to speak and to guide our lives. Listen, learn, sing, speak, pray, and rejoice!


For Christ is alive, we are not alone — thanks be to God!






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