The Voice God: Baptism and the Dignity of Being Addressed
Baptism of Jesus (Epiphany 1A)
Psalm 29; Matthew 3:13-17
By The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
12 January 2020
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our strength and our Redeemer.
From Psalm 29
The voice of the Lord is on the waters;
The voice of the Lord is a powerful voice
The voice of the Lord is a voice of splendor
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedar trees
The voice of the Lord splits the flames of fire
The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness
The voice of the Lord makes the oak trees writhe and strips the forests bare.
The Lord shall give strength to his people
The Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.
And from our Gospel lesson this morning:
And the voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
A voice implies a speaker. A voice implies a presence. It implies a character that lies behind the speaker. And, it implies a relationship between the speaker and the one being addressed.
In the Psalm the poet shows us the breadth and range of the voice of God. Not only does the poet remind us of the majesty and power of God as God speaks through nature, but the psalmist tells us that the voice of God gives strength to his people. The voice of God also blesses his people with peace.
Some of us have experienced that mixture of awe and terror if we have ever lived through a ferocious thunderstorm, hurricane, tornado, earthquake or fire. I was living in Colorado Springs in 2012 when a terrible fire wiped out thousands of acres of land in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. I was living about 15 miles away in a pre-evacuation zone, having collected all of my valuables and ready to leave my house if the flames would have jumped across Interstate-25 and our neighborhood was ordered to evacuate. The Air Force Academy was making contingency plans as well, as they entire campus was under threat of the fire. I remember standing outside my house watching the wall of flames coming down the mountain. It was mesmerizing. It was an awesome sight in both its beauty and its destructiveness. It brought home to me how terribly vulnerable we still are as human beings in the face of the raw power of creation
But we also know that God speaks to us directly as well. The Psalmist tells us that God gives strength to his people. God blesses his people and gives us peace. The God who can speak through the great natural phenomena of the world, can also whisper quietly to us. God’s voice can still our souls. God’s voice can comfort us. In the midst of great fires and earthquakes and tornados, we can not only see and feel God’s presence in creation, but also can hear that still small voice of calm, which says, “Do not be afraid. I am with you always.”
In light of that, it is not too hard to imagine the voice of God speaking from heaven and declaring for all to hear, “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” The people at the scene of Jesus’ baptism must have been surprised, perhaps even shocked at hearing the voice of God speak to them. Jesus, I imagine, was both hearing the voice of God not only through his ears, but also heard God speaking to him in his heart.
The fact that God speaks to us is important. Why? Because God bestows dignity on us by speaking to us. Stated another way, we have our dignity as human beings, not because of any qualities that we possess, but because God deigns to speak to us. And he speaks to us truthfully. Only through truthful communications do authentic relationships form, grow, and deepen. So often we think that our dignity as human beings rest on particular capacities, like being rational, or smart, or beautiful, or wealthy, or good at something. But that can’t be right, since none of those things are permanent and not all of us possess all of these things.
If we go back to Genesis, the first thing God does after he creates human beings is he address them. In Genesis 1, after God creates Adam and Eve, he first pronounces a blessing over them, and then commands them to be fruitful and multiply and to subdue the earth. In Genesis 2, after God creates Adam, he gives him a command to obey. “You may not eat of the tree of good and evil.” God does not create us and then go away to leave us to our own devices. God talks to us, both through commands and comforting words. God gives us commands so that we have a good purpose and direction in our life. God blesses us and gives us peace, to give us strength and courage to follow the purpose and direction that he sets out for us.
Once again, it is by addressing us that God gives us our dignity. This, I think, is where our radical equality as human beings is derived. It is compelling to me because it grounds our dignity in what God has done. Not what I have done or based on how other humans view me. Our dignity is established by God and sustained by God. No human being, no matter what they do to us, or what they say to us, can undo that. No human being can cut off our communication with God.
This can help explain why some people can maintain their sense of dignity even through the most horrible experiences of torture or being dehumanized. Our dignity, if you will, is a permanent feature of our existence, predicated on the fact that we are addressed by God. People can assault our dignity, people can deny our dignity, people can attempt to diminish our dignity, but it fundamentally cannot be removed. We can only truly lose our dignity as human beings, created in the image and likeness of God, and as those created and addressed by God, if God ever decides to turn his back on us and stops speaking to us.
And, you know what it is like, don’t you, when someone won’t speak to you. When there is no communication, relationships weaken and can ultimately break. When people refuse to address us, out of anger, or out of contempt, or because we somehow don’t merit their attention, it hurts, it is painful, it’s frustrating. The intentional refusal of truthful communication is an affront to our dignity and can feel like a chasm that is impossible to cross. If we are not addressed, then we cannot respond.
Sometimes the “silent treatment” can be the most hurtful thing we can do to another person. There can, of course, be wisdom in remaining silent at certain junctures in any relationship, but only if that silence is used to listen to God and to reflect carefully on how one is being led to repair a relationship. Silence can be good if it helps us to collect our thoughts, and to figure out how to engage in a conversation with someone more respectfully. A conversation which honors their dignity as a fellow child of God, or as a brother and sister in Christ.
If God is always addressing us, whether it is through nature or in person, or through someone else, the question facing us is how are we going to respond to God’s address? Are we going to turn out back on God? Are we going to give God the silent treatment if we are angry at him? Will we try to negotiate with God and try to get him to change his position? Or, will we turn and face God and have that hard conversation which has been needed for a long time.
Jesus, of course, is our model for how we are to respond to God’s address. In the Gospel of Matthew we hear that a voice from heaven said, “This is my son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” In Mark, the words are, “You are my beloved Son, in you I am well pleased.” In response to that address Jesus responds with obedience and sets out to fulfill his vocation as the Son of God. And, that was no easy life. Jesus did not have a hard life so our life could be easy. Jesus did not suffer so we wouldn’t ever experience suffering. No, Jesus had a hard life, and it is by his example that he shows us how to persevere and live faithfully in the midst of all the challenges a committed Christian life brings with it.
But, Jesus, too, as one addressed by God, had a choice about his life. He could have disobeyed God. God respects Jesus’ human dignity by addressing him and waiting for a reply. Imagine if Jesus had said, “Well, Dad. Thanks for all the confidence that you have in me. This life to which you have called me, while it seems important and I can help a lot of people, I don’t think it’s for me. It’s pretty hard and will involve a lot of suffering. I don’t understand the point of that. I think I’d like to settle down a bit. All this traveling and teaching is exhausting. I’d like to have a quieter life. There is a girl I am interested in and I think I’d like to have a family, teach in the synagogue, and make my living as a carpenter and hopefully die peacefully in my sleep. I hope you understand. I love you, Jesus.”
How many of our conversations with God sound like that? Mine do sometimes.
How is your life going right now? What sort of reply are you giving God when he speaks to you? Are you replying in the obedience of faith and experiencing God’s accompanying grace that goes along with it, or are you negotiating with God for an easier time of it?
In a few moments we will be renewing our baptismal covenant. You will be asked the following questions: Will you continue in the apostles teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respecting the dignity of every human being?
The promises we make are difficult to keep. And, we fail at them often. But these are the tasks that are proper to us as human beings, as God’s image bearers on earth. Perhaps more important than the Baptismal promises themselves, however, is the fact that we are saying them together, in the presence of one another. The Christian life cannot be lived alone. We need the strength of the community to sustain us as we continue to discern the life God is calling each of us to live. We need each other to be examples of the Christian life, especially when our own faith feels weak, or in times of great temptation. This is why God gave us the church, so we can draw our strength from the faith of the community. It is in worship that we respond to God’s voice as a community with praise and thanksgiving.
So, listen for the voice of God in your life. God confers your dignity upon you by addressing you. How are you responding to that address? In what ways are you being faithful? In what ways are you not? If you are on the path that God has set for you, keep going and persevering. Your example is important to others, even if you do not realize it. If you have wandered off the path, stop and listen for God’s voice. He will provide you the direction and purpose that you are looking for. It’s never too late to listen and respond to his voice. He will also grant you the courage and strength to follow the path that he has prepared for you.