(A sermon based on Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17)
Let’s face it—even we Christian folks who believe in God with all our hearts will, if we hear someone claim to have heard God speaking to them, inwardly flinch and start wondering if we’re dealing with someone who has some serious issues. Such a reaction is understandable, given that so many of the folks who make headlines say such audacious things, ranging from predictions of the future by certain televangelists to declarations by some serial killers that “God told them to do it.”
The obviousness of the truth that such pronouncements do not come from God should not cause us to conclude, however, that the voice of God cannot be heard. The witness of the Bible is that it was heard in those times. I want us to know that the voice of God can be heard in these times as well.
The Psalm reminds us that the voice of God is heard in nature. It pictures a powerful thunderstorm evoking the voice of God. We know what that’s like. We see the lightning and we hear the thunder and we think of the majesty of God. When I look into the night sky I am overwhelmed by what I can see. But think about what I cannot see! Scientists estimate that there are some one sextillion (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) stars in the universe; I have read that there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on all the beaches in the world! We hear the voice of God in the world and in the universe that he has created. In some mysterious way that we feel at a very primal level, God’s voice speaks to us in the phenomena of nature.
The mighty creator God is an awe-inspiring God. How much more awe-inspiring is it that this mighty creator God is up to something in relation to us human beings? He is up to something in regard to the entire universe that he has created, to be sure—it will all be redeemed. But he intends for we who are his human creation to be caught up in what he is up to. That mighty God acts to save us. That mighty God acts to be with us. As an old song says,
I’ve seen it in the lightning,
Heard it in the thunder,
And felt it in the rain;
My God is near me all the time.
We stand in awe of the mighty creator God, but how much more in awe do we stand of the mighty creator God who cares enough to come to us in Christ and to be with us through the Holy Spirit?
Matthew tells us that when Jesus was baptized by John, “a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’” (3:17). The voice that was heard at Jesus’ baptism was an affirming voice; it affirmed Jesus as God’s Son and it affirmed him as he embarked on his mission of salvation.
It’s interesting that the voice of God spoke thus of Jesus after he was baptized. Jesus had come to be baptized by John but John’s baptism was one “for the forgiveness of sins.” John very understandably said that the roles were being reversed; he needed to be baptized by Jesus. John understood that Jesus was the lamb who had come to take away the sin of the world and that he, John, was the sinner in need of forgiveness and of baptism. Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
In other words, Jesus was saying, it was necessary that he submit himself to what God was up to and to God’s way of accomplishing what God was up to. What did that way involve?
First, it involved submission. Jesus was called to submit himself to the will and way of his Father and he in fact submitted himself to that will and way. Such a way was going to be hard and the temptation to abandon it for an easier way was going to be strong. Indeed, immediately following his baptism, Jesus was driven by the Spirit—the same Spirit that had come down to him at his baptism in that wonderful act of affirmation—into the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil. Those temptations went right to the heart of who Jesus was and what kind of Messiah he was to be. He was tempted to take the path of power and privilege rather than the way of submission and sacrifice. But he would not.
Second, it involved humility. While Jesus was without sin, he voluntarily and humbly identified himself with sinful humanity by submitting to John’s baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” “He who knew no sin became sin for us,” we read elsewhere. That identification with sinful humanity would continue throughout his ministry. It would culminate in his death on the cross, where he took our sin on himself and died for us. His humility was key to his saving act.
Third, it involved sacrifice. We can only try to imagine what Jesus’ submission to his Father’s will and his humble identification with sinful humanity cost him. We can imagine giving something up for someone, but can we imagine the Son of God giving up his home with the Father in order to become human? We can even imagine giving our lives up for someone that we love or for someone that is innocent, but can we imagine the sinless Son of God giving his life up for all of sinful humanity? We can imagine dying, but can we imagine dying with all the sin and all the death of all people in all times bearing down on us?
When Jesus heard the voice of God affirming him, it was the way of submission, humility, and sacrifice that was being affirmed. The voice of God that is heard in the thunder was also heard in the affirmation of Jesus as he stood in the waters of the Jordan that day. The voice of God was most clearly heard in the humble, submissive, and sacrificial life of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who came “not to serve but to be served and to give his life a ransom for many.” As the author of Hebrews put it, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds” (Hebrews 1:1-2). The Son who was involved in creation is also the Son who, in his crucifixion and resurrection, played the central role in what God is up to.
Is the voice of God still heard? Certainly, and it is heard in many ways. While this is not what I am talking about today, I would encourage you to listen for the still, small voice of God that comes to you in your Bible study and in your communion with God through prayer. The Holy Spirit is with us and God does speak to us in our innermost being.
When I ask “Is the voice of God still heard?” what I have in mind is this: is it still heard by those who don’t know him and who thus desperately need to hear it? One of the ways that it is heard is in our sharing of the good news of Jesus Christ.
That good news is well summarized in the sermon delivered by Simon Peter in our Acts passage. At the beginning of that sermon, Peter affirmed that the good news was for everyone, that God accepts anybody who fears him. He then went on to proclaim the submissive, humble, and sacrificial way in which Jesus lived out his mission as the Messiah. It started, Peter said, after the baptism of Jesus. Then the ministry of Jesus spread as he went about doing good and healing folks. Finally he was crucified and raised from the dead. That’s what Jesus did, Peter said. But then Peter added that Jesus gave his followers the commission to preach and to testify that Jesus was in fact the Savior and the Messiah. That is still the message that we preach and to which we testify; the old, old story is still the much needed story.
Surely, though, if we are going to preach such a message we are also called to live such a message. Will people who need the Lord hear the voice of God through us? They will if our lives bear witness to the kind of Lord and Savior that we serve. They will if we are also submissive to God’s will, if we are also humble in our relations with other people, and if we are sacrificial in our approach to life and ministry.
People do still hear the voice of God. But God desires that they hear it through our words and through our actions. Can they?