31 January 2011

Baptism of the Lord

Sermon for 9 January 2011

Matthew 3: 13-17

In the play, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, Shakespeare writes, “I see a voice: now will I to the chink, To spy and I can hear my Thisby’s face.” The verse seems to mismatch seeing and hearing. (I see a voice…I can hear my Thisby’s face.) The connection between seeing and hearing in Shakespeare’s verse is a voice. Every person has a unique voice. To know a person includes recognizing his or her voice, and when we hear a voice, we may see a person’s face in our mind’s eye. Our voice is a significant part of our identity, not only in the words we speak, but also in the sound, the inflection, the tone in which we speak.

The ancient Hebrew people recognized that a person’s voice could convey meaning beyond words. A person’s voice could convey emotion and character. Crying out with a loud voice might indicate desperation or anger. A forceful voice could indicate the authority of a king or the judgment of a prophet. A soft voice might suggest gentleness or compassion. There are over three hundred references in the Bible to the voice of a person. In the scriptures, a person’s voice could identify that person equally as well as the person’s visual appearance.

An example of the juxtaposition of seeing and hearing occurs in the story of Jacob. When Jacob pretended to be his brother Esau to deceive his blind father Isaac, he almost was caught because Isaac thought he recognized Jacob’s voice. Our picture of John the Baptist as a man clothed in animal skins is not complete unless we remember that his voice was like a voice crying in the wilderness. We have little visual information in the scriptures about the appearance of Jesus, but when Jesus speaks of himself as the good shepherd, he says, ‘My sheep listen to my voice; I know them and they know me.’ The sheep follow the shepherd because they know his voice.

The Biblical idea that a voice reveals the identity of the speaker becomes less clear when the speaker is God. The people of the Bible believed that the face of God or the image of God could not and should not be revealed. To see the face of God was too overwhelming for any mortal. To create an image of God was to create an idol and would lead to idolatry. Therefore, God is not described in a physical form in the Bible, but God’s voice represents God’s presence, and God’s voice conveys the elusive nature of God.

In the psalm appointed for today, psalm 29, God’s voice is described in relation to the powerful and destructive elements in nature. The voice of the Lord thunders upon the waters. God’s voice breaks the cedars of Lebanon, splits the flames of fire, shakes the wilderness, makes oak trees writhe and strips the forests bare. God’s voice in this psalm is the voice of power and authority, which creates awe and even fear in the listener.

A contrasting description is found in the first Book of Kings of the Old Testament. The presence of God is foreshadowed by a great wind which splits mountains, but the Lord is not in the wind. After the wind, comes an earthquake, but the Lord is not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, a fire comes, but the Lord is not in the fire, and after the fire, a sound of sheer silence. What is a sound of sheer silence? The Hebrew phrase is ambiguous and can be interpreted in various ways. The more traditional translation is that God is in a still, small voice.

The voice of God is a symbol in the Bible of the unseen presence of God. In today’s gospel passage, Jesus went to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. When Jesus emerged from the water, the heavens opened and Jesus saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove upon him. The visual image of God’s Spirit is revealed only to Jesus, but the presence of God is confirmed to everyone by God’s voice. God’s proclamation seems to be addressed to anyone who hears his voice. God does not speak only to Jesus, and say, ‘You are my Son.’ God says to everyone, ‘This is my Son.’

God’s voice brings the presence and authority of God directly to the people crowded around John in the Jordan River.

At the baptism of Jesus, all three persons of the Trinity are present – God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. It is an auspicious beginning to the ministry of Jesus. The voice of God reveals that the mission of Jesus has been created and ordained by God. The baptism of Jesus was a turning point in the life of Jesus.

God is present as Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the baptism of every Christian. Whether a baptism is for an infant or an adult, with a sprinkling of water or full immersion, with many in attendance or very few, baptism is about the presence of the Holy Trinity. Our baptism affirms that God is with us.

The voice of God may be drowned out by the clamour of our noisy, demanding world. Our job is to stop long enough to listen and to be willing to believe that God is here. We may hear the voice of God when we see a storm upon the waters or the breath-taking beauty of the mountains. We may hear the still, small voice of God in our thoughts and imaginings, in our yearnings and our hearts’ desires. For every Christian of any age, baptism offers us the grace to hear God’s voice in our daily lives, to see the world through the eyes of Christ , and to welcome the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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