A Sermon for Covenant
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
January 12, 2013
Kyndall Rae Rothaus
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
Today’s text uses the phrase “the voice of the Lord” six times and is an action-packed psalm praising the power of voice, specifically the voice of God. It all begins exactly as we would expect, with the voice of God over the waters, just like the Genesis 1 story. In that quiet, brooding, pre-creative void, the Spirit hovers, about to speak the very first, “Let there be . . ..”
In the Psalm, when the voice of God over the waters first breaks this pre-creation silence, it thunders. The brooding quiet erupts in storm, trembles at the first touch of sound.
The voice is powerful. The voice is full of majesty. Both creative and destructive power resides in this voice. It can create something out of nothing, transform chaos into beauty, even resurrect life from death. It can break cedars and cause whole cities to leap like wild animals.
It can shake the very wilderness—wilderness being a place that so often feels as solid and unshakable as a prison. The voice can shake a particular wilderness—the wilderness of Kadesh, for example, or maybe whatever particular wilderness bears your name—the voice of God can interrupt it. The place you are stuck in, the place gone stagnant is a place God shakes.
The voice of God brings about the earth’s seasons. The Psalmist declares it is this voice that causes the leaves from the trees to swirl about in autumn, then strips the trees in winter. Presumably it is this same voice that brings forth grass in the spring and sunshine in the summer. If we return to the Genesis passage, we certainly find this to be true. This is a voice that makes things and this is a voice that makes things happen. This is the voice of God. The voice of God is a force in this world and a force in your life.
I know it often seems as if this voice cannot be heard. Like Elijah, we expect it, look for it, in the earthquake, the fire, and the wind. We do not expect it to rise softly as mist from the earth. We do not expect its still small whisper.
But with all the audacity of a faith-filled mystic, the Psalmist declares that the voice of God still speaks. The voice of God still acts and creates and moves and shatters. The voice of God still shakes up your reality. How might we recapture our sense of expectancy that God will speak to us? Our expectancy that the Holy Spirit still breathes life, still hovers over us, still stirs within us, still is full of power?
Personally I get uncomfortable when I hear people talk too openly and often using language like, “The Lord said this to me . . .” or “Just the other day, God told me such and such . . .” It is not that I don’t believe God speaks. I do believe God speaks. It’s just that I, for one, can rarely decipher what is doing the talking: my intuition, the Holy Spirit, inspiration, voice of God, my feelings or plain human desire. It feels a little presumptuous for me to declare, “Thus saith the Lord . . .” when there’s a chance it is just my indigestion talking. The way I’ve come to view it is that the whole swirling mess of motives and voices is sacred—only on rare occasions does the voice of God break through in singular clarity. Most of the time God’s words and my own thoughts and instincts work together, all blended up like a smoothie and my job is not so much to figure out which flavor in the mix is God, rather my job is more to remove anything in me that is tainted by greed, by hate, or by fear, so that the self I bring to the blend is the sort of stuff the voice of God can smoothly harmonize with.
Sometimes we talk about getting the self out of the way so God can work, and I’ve probably used that very language myself in the past, but I realize now that the self is the very thing God wants to work with. Self must enter the picture. So let yourself into it—your ideas, your wants, your emotions and if those things collide with the voice of God, you will be purified, and you will become one with Spirit. God created you as you for a reason, and God will often speak to you through your passions and gifts and desires rather than in spite of them. Maybe the thing stirring in your heart is heaven-sent, or maybe it is organic to you, or maybe those two sources are one-in-the-same if it was the voice of God that created you in the first place.
As we think about how it is that we recognize and hear the voice of God in our lives, we might do a thought experiment and wonder together, what does the voice of God sound like? At Truett we have a preaching professor named Joel Gregory whom has been nicknamed “the voice of God” because he has this deep but melodic voice. Sounds just like you would expect God to sound. It sort of echoes and booms, but without being too overpowering or scary. It is a voice that commands the room and it is a voice that speaks wisdom. But one day at Truett, I had just preached in chapel when someone said to me that as they listened to me speak, as they listened to my voice, they wondered if the voice of God sounded like mine, and they seemed to find that a comforting idea. Now, please understand that I have also been told that I sound like Minnie Mouse, that I sound like a ten-year-old, and that my voice is squeaky, so I’m not suggesting I have a divine quality to my voice, not at all. But I am suggesting that the voice of God may sound nothing like we expect and that the voice of God may visit us in surprising vessels. And I’m also suggesting that you never know when your own voice is going to sound like the voice of God to another person, so pay attention to what you say and how you say it.
The voice of God still speaks. The problem is whether we have the capacity to hear it. Whether we can shut off distractions and whether we can recognize the holy in the unexpected. We do not, by nature, know how to listen. We especially do not know how to hear whispers from God. There is much to unlearn, to unsay, before we do.
Remember that pre-creation silence, that void, into which God spoke and the earth was born? To experience God’s regenerative force in our lives, I believe there is a sense in which we must quiet ourselves back down to a pre-creative stillness. Like the sleep before the morning we wait in quiet anticipation so that when the voice of God does come, we are ready to be created and recreated. We must open space within ourselves to receive anew the “Let-there-be” of God. The Let-there-be-light and Let-there-be-life and God-saw-that-it-was-good: all these words are waiting to be spoken over us again and again because God is always Creator.
Today is the day we observe the baptism of the Lord in the church calendar, and I think of that dove descending on Jesus’ head, and the voice from heaven saying, “This is my son; in him I am well pleased.” Since these words come at the outset of Jesus’ ministry, rather than the end, they are less a stamp of approval on what Jesus has already done and more a creative statement about who Jesus will be, a forward blessing about what he will do. So, imagine that God speaks such words over you, before you even begin to move, just as you are waking up from a long night’s sleep: “In you I am well-pleased.” Imagine God speaking these words over you: “Welcome, my good and faithful servant.” What if God didn’t hold those words back until you got to heaven, but was speaking them over you as you emerged from the womb or as you emerged from the baptismal waters? What if God’s words were creating you and blessing you all along the way, from the outset, not at the end? If you knew God’s words were with you, even now, how might that free you to live? If it were God’s voice that woke you up in the morning, what would that sound like, and how would that impact your day? What if every morning was a creation story, waiting to happen? Waiting for you to receive the holy words, the dust of you mingling with the life force of God?
Sometimes we also lack the capacity to echo back what we hear, to become creative forces of our own, to open our own mouths in collaboration with the Creator. But it is this sacred rhythm between quiet listening and power-filled speaking that makes us co-creators with God. We must first become the quiet brooding waters with which the Spirit can work and then we must loosen our tongues and sing.
One of my favorite things about our Covenant worship is how loudly and robustly we sing. Ryan makes it easy for us, but still, I am glad this is our way, to sing with abandon. I’ve been to so many churches where they sing in a whisper, almost as if they are apologizing for making noise. But at Covenant, we belt it out. To me, our singing serves as a symbol of how we are to be out in the world—those who make noise robustly without shame. I do not mean that we shout. We do not waste breath being aggressive or vain or vulgar, and we make silence amidst scurry. But we do sing and tell stories and laugh with our neighbors. With the power of our own voices, we tap something of the holy and thereby shake up the world.
This past year I had a dream that has become very important to me. In the dream, I was being chased by a wild creature. I was running through a big rickety house, trying to escape. I climbed up stairs, racing, looking for a place to hide. When I reached the upper level of the house, I was just about to squeeze myself into a small corner where perhaps I wouldn’t be seen when I noticed a large window to my right, and I suddenly wondered if I could jump out the window and run away from this house entirely. I was so high up, though. I was afraid jumping would injure me. I stood there at the window, undecided. I knew my pursuer would burst in any minute, to devour me. Then I woke up.
It was significant to me that I woke up right at the crossroads, before I decided. I shared this dream with a mentor, and she pointed out that the dream wasn’t over yet, and she suggested that there could be more than two options—maybe I didn’t have to hide or jump. “Maybe you could sprout wings,” she suggested. Or I could turn around and fight. After all, it was my dream.
So I decided to write my own ending to the story. I got out my journal. I wrote about the long scary chase, the point of decision at the window, trying to figure out whether to escape danger and evil by hiding or by running away. And then I kept writing, and I wrote that instead of cowering or jumping, I turned about, raised myself up, and began to sing. I had no idea how this would solve anything; in fact, I assume it would give away my whereabouts. But I sang and sang and sang louder and louder and since this was my imagination, I just so happened to have a lovely singing voice. The melody of my voice carried throughout the house and out the windows into the streets and trees. To my surprise, the song beckoned all sorts of creatures to my aid to help me face the monstrous creature who had come to destroy me. It was my voice that saved me.
Our voices are powerful tools because our voices are made in the image of the God whose voice brings things into existence. With them we can destroy or we can build. With them we liberate or we take captive. With them we tell the truth or we spin lies. With them we create compassion or we kill off hope. With them we bless or we curse. With them we make friends or we build walls. As believers, our voices are always painting a picture to the world of who God is. People hear us and that gives them an idea of what kind of God we say we belong to.
My prayer is that we might grow still, very, very still and listen, listen close for the voice of God to speak powerfully, and then, when we have heard, to speak, to sing, to create. Amen.