Sunday, January 9, 2022

Sermon: “The Voice That Isn’t Quite”, Psalm 29:3-9/Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 (January 9, 2022)


“Why doesn’t God talk to us anymore?” It’s a question that most people of faith have had at one time or another. I remember wondering it as a child as well as reflecting on it as an adult, and I’ve been asked it multiple times as a pastor. And to be honest with you, I don’t think I usually offer a particularly satisfactory explanation. Throughout scripture, we read about ordinary, everyday people seeming to have entire out-loud conversations with God on a regular basis, as if God had called them up on the phone. And yet, while hundreds or even thousands of different messages make their way into our consciousness each day, very few (if any) of them come to us as words booming down from heaven.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s not that God’s absent. People of faith sense God with them all the time. We feel God surrounding us in times of trouble; we experience God in the love we feel for one another; we recognize God in moments of wonder and awe; we respond to the Holy Spirit moving in our lives. Surely, the presence of the Lord is in this and every place.

But God’s VOICE? Psalm 29 describes it as something that thunders, something strong and majestic, something that unleashes fiery flames, and shakes the wilderness, and strips the forests bare. Something that requires no interpretation because it’s impossible to miss. Sensing God’s presence can be a profound, powerful, and holy experience, but if we’re being honest with ourselves, it’s usually not anything like what Psalm 29 describes. Certainly, God can and does communicate with us through God’s presence, but if this passage is any indication, God’s voice seems to be something distinctly different.

Now, even though I’ve never heard a mysterious voice so loud that it makes everything around me shake, I do believe I’ve heard God’s voice before. But only once or twice in my life—certainly not frequently enough to consider myself any kind of expert. Since one person’s experience is rarely representative of humanity at large, I decided crowdsource other experiences of hearing God’s voice before sitting down to write this sermon. I figured it might help me find an answer to why God doesn’t chat openly with humanity the way God seems to in scripture.

More than twenty people responded to my inquiry with detailed accounts of hearing God’s voice speaking to them. All of them were deeply personal, so I won’t share them here (as much as I’m sure I’ve piqued your curiosity). But I will share some of the commonalities I noticed as I sat with these stories.

The first thing I learned is that, unlike the experience of God’s presence, hearing God’s voice is rare. Most respondents told me that it’d only happened to them once or twice. Even those who’ve discerned prophesy as a spiritual gift don’t just hear God chatting to them all the time. Maybe we misunderstood all those scriptural accounts—it turns out, God is absolutely still speaking, it’s just not an everyday occurrence.

And that seems to be a good thing, because the second thing I learned is that the experience of actually hearing God’s voice can be utterly disorienting and overwhelming. Many people reported confusion about what was happening to them. One person theorized that God’s voice is just too holy for human beings to encounter directly for too long, and I mean, this idea has scriptural precedent. Isaiah explains that seraphim have six wings, with two that cover their face to shield it from God’s brilliance. In Exodus, Moses covered his face with a veil after speaking to God because it emanated secondhand glory too bright for the Israelites’ eyes. Saul, later known as Paul, was blinded after seeing the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Clearly, a direct encounter with God is difficult for mortals to endure, so why wouldn’t God’s voice have a similar effect?

This doesn’t mean, however, that God’s voice is vague or ambiguous. One thing that all the stories had in common is that in each one, God’s voice speaks with startling specificity and clarity of message. It conveys a certainty that goes deeper than even the conscience or personal resolve. One person described it as “like a lightbulb situation”; another said, “it was like all of a sudden, something clicked.” Many of the stories (including one of my own) were calls to ministry or other vocations; others were instructions to reach out to a specific person or to help someone in a particular way. And some were simple messages of affirmation or love, like the one at Jesus’ baptism. But every single one was explicit and pointed. This is one of the most basic ways that an experience of God’s voice is different from an experience of God’s presence: it conveys a specific message with an unmistakable sense of direction (think Jonah’s call to Nineveh or Jesus’ baptism, as opposed to the events of Pentecost or Jesus’ miracles).

While God’s voice is unambiguous in its message, that doesn’t mean that it’s always conveyed out loud. Some people specifically reported perceiving audible words, and almost all referred to their encounter as “hearing” God, but the experience wasn’t always that straightforward. Many experienced God’s voice as thoughts inside their own head, but in a way that made them certain the thoughts didn’t originate from within themselves. Others encountered God’s voice within their dreams—again, somehow distinct from their usual experience—and a few people even attempted to describe waking visions that they had (which was, as you might imagine, quite a challenge to put into words). One person described it as being like “the Holy Spirit highlighting [something] for me, but it isn’t visual.”

This clearly external message is almost always accompanied by an intense internal reaction. Many, MANY people described the experience of hearing God’s voice as eliciting a strange physical or emotional sensation. These descriptions were the most sacred and mysterious part of my research. I heard descriptions like, “I felt like lightning had hit me,” “I get this whole body sense of paying deep attention,” “It feels like a sense of ‘I-can-barely-contain-myself’ excitement,” “I just started sobbing,” “I felt all the tension in my body completely release,” “I got a very specific feeling in my belly,” “My heart was pounding; I was sweating.” More than one person described it as “a profoundly visceral experience.” God’s voice somehow manages to draw us outside of the bounds of our everyday human experience, while at the same time being deeply grounded in our lived reality.

Maybe now, after hearing all of this, we can better understand why the Psalmist might describe God’s voice in terms of what’s essentially a natural disaster. It’s the only thing within our shared frame of reference that even comes close to expressing the sort of impact that God’s voice has on human beings. God’s voice provokes glorious thunder, fiery flames, and convulsing trees WITHIN OURSELVES. The Lord’s voice strips US bare, down to the roots of our being, all in the space of a moment.

I know that some of these descriptions may have triggered deep skepticism or doubt within you. It was definitely a challenging and humbling experience for me to hear them. It’s not the sort of thing that we Presbyterians are usually comfortable talking about. I encourage you to hold that doubt in tension with the certainty and faith of those who shared their stories: people from all traditions, education levels, backgrounds, and personalities—people who ALSO wrestled with skepticism and doubt, even in the face of their own experience. And consider the possibility that God may communicate with humanity in ways beyond the familiar, ways that our minds and vocabulary struggle to make sense of.

So, given ALL this, let’s hear Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism once more, this time in the context of all we’ve learned about God’s voice: “When everyone was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized. While he was praying, heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit came down on him in bodily form like a dove. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.” Could this passage be describing a far more mystical event than we usually picture? Maybe, this was just the best way Luke could figure out to describe the experience in writing. Maybe these words were actually perceived by more than the outward senses; maybe the voice’s message went beyond human hearing and saturated the very being of those who heard it.

Maybe if Jesus had written down his own experience, it would sound more like this person’s description: “I never felt more seen in all my life. It doesn't make sense…but I would describe God's voice as a gold glittery rumble in my middle. I wasn't alone while this was happening, and the others who were with me sensed that something special was happening as well.” Although it sounds strange, this account of God’s voice somehow feels more authentic, more realistic, more true, than the idea of a great, booming voice descending from the clouds. Don’t you think?

So what do we do with all of this? I suspect that this is one of those sermons that will leave all of us—myself included—with more questions than answers. You’ll probably walk out of here today with a vague sense of confusion and discomfort, rather than an obvious lesson or personal conviction. This may stem from a resistance to the more mysterious parts of faith, or it could be that you’re disheartened because you’ve never had an experience like this before.

Please don’t hear this as a condemnation of you on either count. Instead, consider this an invitation: an invitation to hear familiar stories in a new way. An invitation to expand your perception of God. An invitation to embrace those experiences that can’t be easily explained and don’t fit neatly into your understanding of the world. An invitation to listen more closely, not just for God’s voice, but to our fellow human beings, so that we might learn about divine truths that go beyond our personal experience. An invitation to open your heart, mind, and spirit to EVERY way that God may be moving and speaking in the world.

Because God IS speaking. And whether or not you hear God’s voice directly, or through the words of a modern prophet, or through group discernment, or through a sense of divine presence, know this: everything this voice says and commands us to do is for the purpose of sharing this one truth with the world—“You are my beloved child. In you (yes, you) I find happiness.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

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