1 Epiphany Year A: Is 42:1-9; Ps 29; Acts 10:34-43; Mt 3:13-17
A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
And a voice from Heaven said, This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.
How would we describe the voice of the Lord? Elijah said it was a still, small voice. For Moses, it came out of a burning bush”crackling like fire one might assume. Adam and Eve knew that voice as friendly, even fatherly until they fell from grace and then it terrified them. George Burns uses a grandfatherly, kind voice when he speaks to John Denver in the cloudy interview room in the movie, Oh God. And then there is the deep, resonating voice of Morgan Freeman as God’s voice in Bruce Almighty and Evan Almighty.
In Matthew’s Gospel this morning we hear the voice of the Lord as a voice from Heaven, a hopeful voice, a peaceful voice just as the dove is a sign of hope and peace.
Mark’s Gospel makes God’s voice seem a little more terrifying in that the Heavens were torn apart when describing this same baptism scene. Luke’s depiction of the scene, makes God’s voice almost a thoughtful afterthought”oh by the way, this is my Son. John doesn’t even attribute anything to a voice from God, he just simply states that the one in whom the Holy Spirit alighted is God’s son.
There are other times in the Scriptures in which we hear the voice of God”Peter gets chided by God’s voice on the mountain during the Transfiguration, Sarah laughs when God tells her she will have a son, Abraham responds faithfully when God tells him to sacrifice Isaac, the list goes on and on. But I wonder what the voice of the Lord actually sounded like to each of these people? We never really get a description of God’s voice”is it gravelly, or high pitched, a deep bass or baritone perhaps? It is only Elijah and the psalmist this morning that give us a clear picture as to how it might have sounded and their descriptions are leagues apart.
The psalm this morning describes a terrifying, yet magnificent voice. God’s voice is thunder upon the waters in a great storm, a powerful voice, a voice of splendor. The voice of the Lord is so powerful it breaks the cedar trees, it brings forth lightening, and its boom shakes the very land. The voice of the Lord makes the oak trees writhe and strips the forest bare. God’s voice is as majestic and powerful and scary as all the parts of a good storm”the thunder, the wind, the lightening.
Storms are part of life. We prepare for the extremes of nature”dripping pipes in winter to boarding windows in hurricane season”and we recognize that nature’s power is greater than our own.
The psalmist this morning recognizes that same power and majesty in the storm and then finds more than divine inspiration in the storm; the psalmist finds that the storm is the theophany of God”the manifestation of God to humanity. Seven times, the psalmist describes the voice of the Lord and it is as if the poetry of the psalm itself is like seven thunderclaps. The Hebrew people call this psalm the Psalm of the Seven Thunders and believe it to depict the seven-fold voice of YHWH.
This theophany seems to underscore the puniness of our humanity with the power of God’s might. Storms often call us to question God’s actions and motives and yet, for the psalmist, the storm is framed in the context of worship and praise. The psalmist prefaces the awesome theophany by telling us to praise God, Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. He follows this decree to praise with the decree to worship the Lord in the beauty of his holiness. And describes that beauty in terms of a fierce and terrible storm.
I have meet people who have lost everything in fierce and terrible storms, including survivors of Hurricane Katrina. One of those survivors was a young woman named Lynn from Plaquemines Parish in southern Louisiana. She was married to a sheriff’s deputy who was on duty, as were all emergency response personnel, when Katrina made landfall. She, her son, their two dogs and three six-week old puppies were supposed to have evacuated with her father-in-law the previous day. Instead, her father-in-law decided not to go and she stayed as well.
When the storm hit, their still packed car was sitting in the driveway and she, her son, the dogs, and father-in-law were huddled in the house. What they didn’t realize, what no one realized, was how much water this storm was actually moving and how much flooding would quickly endanger the lives of so many. Nor did they know how terrible the east side of the storm would be and that they were on the eastern edge.
As Katrina moved inward it dumped a significant amount of rain and brought a tremendous amount of water on shore with it so that soon the flooding caused Lynn and her family to move to the roof of the house. Lynn climbed up first and her father-in-law handed up first her son followed by the puppies and the older dogs before climbing up on the roof himself. The three humans and five animals then spent the most harrowing night of their lives as the rain beat down, the skies thundered, the trees writhed and broke, and lightening flashed like flames of fire around them.They sat on that roof through the darkest hours of morning until the rains and wind stopped and the air was filled with the brightest blue. The eye of the storm was passing over them and as they sat huddled on that roof in southern Louisiana, their terror lifted a little as the brilliance of the day filled them with hope and encouraged their spirits even for just a moment.
The winds and rain on the south side of the storm were much diminished and soon passed. Within an hour of Hurricane Katrina’s destructive path through Plaquemine’s Parish, a boat with Lynn’s husband and another deputy arrived and rescued the weary group of survivors from the roof taking them to the only dry area left in the parish, the courthouse.
It would be another two days without power or running water until Lynn and her son and the dogs could get out of the parish with nothing other than the clothes on their backs. Her husband stayed to help with the clean up effort but the parish had been decimated”they had no jobs, no home, nothing.
But what they did have is what most survivors find they have”a strength they had not realized, a resolve they had never needed, and a peace that even in the midst of the great storms of our lives there is a calm and a brilliance that brings us hope and encourages us to ride out the rest of the storms that are sure to follow.
Psalm 29 describes the voice of the Lord as thundering over the waters and full of majesty. It breaks the cedars. It flashes flames of fire. It shakes the wilderness. The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to writhe and strips the forest bare.
But in our Gospel lesson we hear quite a different voice of the Lord”it is still powerful and majestic, but quieter, softer, the voice of a proud father telling the world he has a son”the one he has sent to save us from our sins”This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased. It is the same voice that described the suffering servant to Isaiah. Here is the one who will bring justice to the nations; who will not cry or lift up his voice, who would not break a bruised reed or quench a dimly burning wick. Here is the one who will bring peace and calm, who will right the world.
This is the voice of hope, the calm that lies in the midst of great and terrible storms. Storms that Mary and Joseph have already weathered. Storms that will break against John the Baptist in prison. Storms that will lead us to Golgotha, turn the day to darkness, rent the Temple curtain in two, shake the foundations of the earth, and bring us to an empty tomb.
I don’t know why we must weather such storms. But all men do. God is the voice of the storm. God is also the quieter, softer voice of peace and calm in the eye of the storm”the voice that gives us hope for a better time ahead.
Lynn told me that after the storm had passed and the rains and winds were gone and the sky was blue and the sun was shining, but before the rescue party had arrived, she and her son and father-in-law lay on the roof and listened to the gentle lapping of the water against the house and let the rays of the sun dry their clothes and warm their skin. The puppies began to wrestle with one another and the older dogs stretched out and slept.
She knew she had lost everything”her wedding photos, her son’s baby pictures, favorite outfits, the new couch she had recently purchased;
but she was overwhelmed with the quiet that she heard and it gave her a sense of peace and calm, a sense of rightness in the world. She knew it was absurd to even think it, especially after she had known so much fear and seen so much devastation around her, but she couldn’t help it”she turned to her father-in-law and said, What a beautiful day on the bayou.
That is what the voice of hope gives to us”an opportunity to experience the beauty of this world even in the midst of the chaos and suffering that we know. The voice of hope is the presence of Christ”the Christ who lives and dies for us, the Christ who’s story does not end on a cross on Golgotha, but an empty tomb bringing us the message of Good News, of hope and salvation.