There’s a famous line in the movie “Cool Hand Luke” where a frustrated prison guard tells the prisoner, Luke, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” It’s a great line but not quite true. The problem is not communication; Luke heard the message, he just chose to ignore what the prison guard wanted him to do. I wonder if we have a similar communication problem with God. The lectionary texts for January 8th are all about communication, in particular about the power of the voice of God. Literally from Day One (Gen. 1:1-5) to the Baptism of Jesus (Mark 1:4-11) to Paul’s ministry in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7), God speaks and big things happen. And the Psalm for this Baptism of the Lord Sunday, Psalm 29, speaks directly about the power of “Voice of the Lord” seven times in 11 verses and by implication several other times.
Communication scholars describe Speech-Act theory as the phenomenon by which language has the power to create or change reality. Anyone who has ever stood before a clergy person or a justice of the peace and said two little words, “I do,” knows very well that their lives are forever changed from that moment forward. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is a little ditty most of us learned at an early age. The problem is it isn’t true. Words have power to hurt and heal. Most bullying begins with name calling and naming our political or personal enemies in ways that depersonalize and demonize them is the first step toward justifying abusive and unkind treatment that can ultimately lead to violence and death.
The words we use are a matter of life and death, of light and darkness. Psalm 29 contains a whole litany of things that the voice of God can do: thunder, break cedars, fire, shake the wilderness, whirl oaks, strip forests and cause floods. This must be where the insurance companies get their justification for excluding from coverage (read the fine print) natural disasters as “Acts of God.”
I am more interested in what these texts say about the power of God’s voice to transform human lives than I am the cause of natural disasters. Genesis 1 tells us God spoke light into darkness, and that speech act is far more important symbolically than the on-going debate between creationism and evolution. The darkness God expelled on day 1 of creation is wonderful, but a more relevant question is “what has God done for us lately?” There are still far too many black holes of darkness in our world and our hearts today that need the light of God’s powerful voice of truth.
I love this parable by an anonymous author:
A pilgrim asks a wise one about the moment when we can tell darkness from the dawn. “Is it when I can tell the difference between a sheep and a goat?” she asks. “No.”
“Then is it when I can tell the difference between a peach and a pomegranate?”
“No,” says the elder. “When you can look into another’s eyes and say, ‘you are my brother, you are sister,’ that is the dawn. Until then, there is only darkness.”
Both the Mark 1 text and Acts 19 deal with hearing God’s voice through the sacramental act of baptism. Both texts tell us that John the Baptist preached and performed a baptism of repentance and belief in Jesus as the anointed one who came after John. Mark doesn’t address the perplexing question of why Jesus needed a baptism of repentance because that’s not the point of that text, and not the full meaning of baptism. Repentance is a critical first step in transformation, but only a prelude to what an anointed, spirit-led disciple can do. When Paul asks the Christians in Ephesus “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” they reply, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul proceeds to fix that problem but in doing so creates a theological dilemma for us. Paul baptizes those Ephesians a second time. To this day rebaptism is a controversial issue among Christians of different persuasions, along with what kind of baptism counts, how it’s done, at what age, by whom, etc.
Our different opinions on such matters can sometime be humorous. One person, when asked if he believed in infant baptism replied, “Believe in it! I’ve seen it.” Or when my children were young and we were visiting a Baptist church where my daughter was playing in a piano recital. After the recital our son went up to explore the chancel area and came back to excitedly report, “Dad, they have a Jacuzzi up there!”
Let’s put the debates about sprinkling or pouring or immersing aside for now and focus on one key point of the Acts text and Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism– what the power of the Holy Spirit does to transform lives. It’s not the water or how or when it’s applied that matters, it’s the voice of God and whether we hear it. Jesus’ public ministry begins from the moment he hears the voice of God saying “You are my son….” The question is have we heard God say, “you are my daughter, you are my son, and with you I am pleased?”
Gospel interpreters sometime wonder if Jesus was the only one who heard God’s voice there beside the Jordan. Given God’s propensity to speak in parables and metaphors and in “a still small voice” (I Kgs 19:12), I’d bet he was. And so would Fred Craddock, I believe, who loves to say that when it came to his call to ministry it would have been so much easier if God had called him in a voice loud enough that his friends and relatives could have heard it too.
We liberal, sophisticated Christians are often afraid of the emotion associated with Pentecostal Christianity. But we dare not let that fear make us miss the positive power of the voice, breath, and spirit of God to transform lives. Jesus is transformed into the Messiah at his baptism and empowered by the voice of God to resist every temptation that Satan can throw at him in the wilderness. God’s voice enables Jesus to find his voice to speak truth and salvation as God’s messenger. We don’t know where Jesus was hanging out till he was 30, but we do know that at this pivotal moment Jesus emerges to “shout from the housetops what the Spirit has told him in a whisper” (Matt. 10:27). By the power of God’s voice he is inspired to go public with his ministry with a passion that enabled him to set his face toward Jerusalem’s cross and never look back, even when his closest friends try their best to persuade him to renounce his calling and take an easier route.
And here’s the important point so don’t miss it– it’s not just Jesus who is transformed and empowered by the voice of God. In the text from Acts 19 we see how the ordinary folks in Ephesus are also changed into God’s messengers. “The Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied” (19:7). Those are loaded terms that may need clarification. Speaking in tongues for many of us conjures up images of ecstatic nonsense speech that is unfamiliar and incomprehensible. But what if we interpret tongues to mean that these people were on fire for God and spoke with passion about their faith in ways that people of many different cultures and ethnic groups could understand, as they did on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2)? Acts 19 also tells us these new baptizees “prophesied,” another term that can have negative connotations if we take prophesying to mean what psychics who advertise on late night TV do. Biblical prophets are not fortune tellers or crystal ball gazers. A biblical prophet is simply someone who speaks for God. They are those who know God’s truth and are emboldened by God’s presence in their lives to proclaim good news to a world starving for some.
The world needs people in every walk of life who have heard the voice of God and are willing not only to talk that talk but to walk God’s walk. To do that takes incredible courage and faith in a world where people of faith are often aliens in a strange land. To have the courage of our convictions means that all of us, clergy and laity alike are called to witness to our faith by word and action, even when we know the dangers and risks involved in speaking an uncomfortable truth – in love. The risks of that kind of truth are exemplified quite simply in the fact that the Greek word for “witness” is also the word for “martyr.”
All baptized Christians are called to be witnesses and prophets for God, and the enormity of that calling means we all need to be anointed by God’s spirit. We cannot hope to fulfill the ministry we are baptized into without the power of God’s spirit to guide and direct us. God knows we all need a baptism of repentance, but we also need the power of the Holy Spirit to move us from repentance and forgiveness to become proactive messengers who dare to become the voice of God that transforms lives and the world.