Hearing Voices

Luke 4:1-14
February 14, 2016
Steve Hammond

It’s a good thing Jesus heard that voice when he was baptized. “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.” It wasn’t much later until Jesus was hearing a different voice. Let’s read that story now. It’s a responsive reading in your bulletin.

I am wondering if this season of the church year we call Lent isn’t about the voices we hear. Now I kind of play it pretty loose with the church calendar. I do have an understanding and appreciation for Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. But, since I am not rooted in a liturgical tradition, I don’t particularly feel the need to adhere to some, or maybe even many, of the expectations about the appropriate ways to conduct ourselves and our worship during the different seasons of the church year.

Some of you have heard my story about the time years ago when several churches in town decided we were going to end all of our worship services on Palm Sunday of that year by processing to the bandstand area of Tappan Square and doing a short liturgy as we all got ready to move into Holy Week. I was the person who had been charged with the responsibility of creating that liturgy, which, it turned out, was not a decision that had been made with a lot of foresight. Palm Sunday is a high liturgical ground for lots of people. But, liturgically speaking, I am situated much closer to sea level.

I thought I put together a pretty good liturgy for the occasion. It was Palm Sunday which is, of course, a highly celebrative event. And, there is a good churchy word that is often used in our celebrations that nobody had told me we weren’t supposed to use during Lent. And I used it several times in the opening reading. It’s the ‘a’ word, or ‘h’ word if you know what I am talking about. I am about to say it, so I hope it’s not offensive to you. But, I am not going to make you to say it, as I did for the folk who were gathered that day because it came up time and time again in their response. That word is ‘alleluia,’ or ‘halleluiah.’ I didn’t know about that before the gathering. But I sure did afterwards. And, actually, I kind of felt worse for those who didn’t say anything than those who did.
I realize that such a liturgical blunder might be disconcerting to people, but that kind of thing is not a real big deal to me. I mentioned at the last Community Meeting is that one thing that is going to happen during Holy Week is that I am going to listen to an entire gospel in one sitting, and invite whoever wants to, to join me. Nobody in this congregation has given me any pushback about that other than some “a whole gospel?” “will there be a bathroom break?” “how long will that take?” kind of stuff. But I know I have friends and colleagues in town and other places that object to things like Christmas and Easter being dragged into Holy Week.

I am going to do it anyway, precisely because I think what Easter and Christmas and Epiphany and Pentecost and Lent are about are all about the whole year not just the various seasons of the church year where we highlight them. That, of course, is not my discovery. The most intense adherents to the traditions that come along with each of the seasons of the church year never claim that Christmas doesn’t matter just because it’s Pentecost. But they like to make sure Pentecost, Christmas, and all the rest get their fair share of attention.

Let’s get back to the voices Jesus was hearing. I think hearing those voices, however we hear them or describe them, the voice of God and the voice of the Devil are a constant in our lives. “You are my child,” we hear God say. “How do we know you aren’t a fraud?” comes from the Devil. And, of course, those devilish words that so often come into our lives at those points where we are weak, or struggling, or exhausted physically, or spiritually, or emotionally, or psychologically or a combination of some or all of the above.

During Lent, of course, there is a big emphasis on giving up something. And there are people who do that who aren’t what I would particularly call committed church folk. Giving up chocolate is particularly popular. Some people give up a TV show, or limit their online time, or texting during supper during Lent. That kind of stuff that leads to better health or better behavior or better habits is all fine. Self-improvement is always a good thing at any time during the year. But people are realizing, of course, that there must be more to Lent than it being some kind of self-improvement strategy, though. That’s why people are starting to figure out what they can add to their lives during Lent; things like helping out at the Food program, visiting their grandparents more, or making positive changes in their lives for the sake of the environment.

Adding something during Lent is all good, too. But in this story of Jesus responding to that voice of the Devil in the wilderness I see something much deeper going on. Maybe what we need to give up at Lent is the need for power, the need to prove ourselves before God and others. Maybe we need to give up the fear we can’t accomplish what we want to accomplish because we don’t have enough resources, however we define those resources. Maybe what we need to do during Lent, and continue all the way to the next Lent, and the Lent after that is to listen more carefully, more intentionally, more methodically for that voice Jesus heard in the river, not in the dry desert. “You are my child, marked and chosen by my love. Pride of my life.”

It was so important for what Jesus was about to do that he listen for that first voice because it would be telling him things so different than the second. And the thing is, that as much as we would like to think differently, it’s that second voice, the Devil in the wilderness that is the default for most of what goes on in this world. Both voices are always there, but Lent reminds us that we have to, more often than not, stop and listen for the first.

That second voice, just like it did for Jesus, always tells us that there is a better way, a way that makes more sense, a way that’s less of a hassle and gets more approval than whatever God is saying to us. It’s a voice that says you can make the system work for you, rather than going to all that effort to come up with a new system. “And you know,” the voice says, “nobody wants God working outside the system. Even if you listen to God’s voice, nobody will ever believe you, anyway. Just do it my way, Jesus. It works for me and everybody else.”

One of Gospel stories that illustrates this so well can be found in Luke 16. That’s where Jesus is talking to the folk about money. It’s the place where he says you can’t serve two masters, you will love the one and hate the other, you can’t serve both God and money. But here’s the response to that. It says it so well in The Message translation. “When the Pharisees, a money-obsessed bunch, heard him say these things, they rolled their eyes, dismissing him as hopelessly out of touch.” Jesus was giving us something from God, that first voice. But the Pharisees immediately gave voice to the second, the Tempter.

Jesus just said no. That voice in the desert wasn’t the one Jesus was going to listen to. It wasn’t the voice of life. Jesus knew that the voice of God was calling us to something better and it had to do with things like loving our enemies, forgiving each other, walking across the borders, tearing down the walls, putting our hope in God not our stuff, treasuring ourselves and each other. I noticed a theme that started with Jesus’ baptism. ‘As he was praying, the sky opened up and the Holy Spirit, like a dove descending, came down on him.’ ‘Now Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wild.’ ‘Jesus returned to Galilee powerful in the Spirit.’ You can’t have Lent without Pentecost. Empowered by God’s Spirit, Jesus was much more enabled to hear that first voice. And the Spirit was with Jesus when that second voice was speaking.

When we hear that first voice more clearly, more constantly than that will, of course, have an impact on what we say. What comes out of us is likely to sound more like that first voice Jesus heard rather than the second. In Ephesians the Apostle Paul counsels us to “let no corrupt communications come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” Now there’s a worthy Lenten discipline.

Some of you read that post from John Bergen that I put on the church’s facebook page about Lent. It’s pretty good. And he says Lent is his favorite season of the church year. I don’t hear that much. I always kind of chuckle to myself when I hear Mary tell somebody that Advent is her favorite season of the church year. And I think, “You and something like 94% of everybody else.” But I get what John is saying. Lent gives us the opportunity to hone our listening skills, and change how we talk. To hear what God is saying that is so contradictory to the voice of the Devil. Lent provides us the time to remember that God is calling us to something that is wonderful and dangerous and life giving. Lent is all about taking risks and moving not toward death, but resurrection.

As I alluded to in my Lenten confession, I think we have to get past the hyper individualism that Lent can seem to encourage. What if this business of Lent, of listening to God’s voice and setting our faces toward life, isn’t simply about me or you or somebody else, but all of us? What if Lent is about this church, about the bigger church, empowered by the Spirit, listening together for the voice of God, the church, not just me or you, rejecting that second voice? What if Lent is that reminder that we take this wonderful and dangerous journey, that God keeps telling us about, together?

Hearing voices? Of course you are. The voices are there all the time, telling us much different things. But Lent reminds us to keep listening for the first voice no matter how loud, or constant, or present or persistent the second is. Listening for that first voice is, I think, a Lenten discipline worthy of pursuit and something worth celebrating. Can I get an amen and alleluia?

[I began the service with this]

Lenten confession

I have to confess, as we gather on this first Sunday of Lent, that I have some reservations about whether the whole idea of Lent is really a good thing. Mary and I have been talking about this.

First of all, I don’t want to dismiss the real value that any of you, and a whole bunch of other people, in all kinds of times and places, have found in pursuing a deeper spiritual life during Lent. Going deeper, exploring confession and repentance, making positive changes in your relationships with God and people and the environment are all worthy things. But here is where my discomfort comes.

Now granted I haven’t done a whole lot of research on this. But I have read that Lent didn’t come along until later in the traditions because there was a feeling that Christians were getting complacent and needed some prodding, or even scolding, that something like Lent could provide. Here is something Ken Sehested wrote. “Do not bother looking for Lent in your Bible dictionary. There was no such thing in biblical times. There is some evidence that early Christians fasted 40 hours between Good Friday and Easter, but the custom of spending 40 days in prayer and self-denial did not arise until later, when the initial rush of Christian adrenaline was over and believers had gotten very ho-hum about their faith.”

Giving people a bit of a spiritual kick in the butt is not a particularly bad idea, but here is where it can get bad. The folk who need to take it seriously, are often, the ones who don’t. But the ones who aren’t particularly among those who have been ho-hum about their faith are the ones who do take it seriously and there can be lot of unnecessary self-flagellation going on because they feel like, as hard as they try, they just aren’t good enough.

It’s kind of like the Good Citizen thing that used to happen in the schools. It was a program designed to encourage the kids whose behavior could use some improving. But the kids who took it most seriously were the ones whose behavior was great, but the message was it was not good enough. I fear that too much of what Lent is about is that you aren’t good enough.

Another concern I have is that in this hyper-individualistic culture of ours, Lent feeds into that whole idea that it’s all about me, and doesn’t have much to do with this being about us. I have to examine myself more rigorously. I have to get my act with God more together. I have to take care of my salvation. To me, that can just reinforce that building community is, at best, a nice option for us, but what really counts is me and God.

And related to that concern is that I don’t understand how the story of Lent, which is essentially Jesus turning his face toward Jerusalem to face what he knew he would face there, became something not about Jesus, but about us. How Jesus lived his life may be something worth examining during Lent, at least, as much as we examine how we live ours.

And finally, I am not sure what giving up candy during Lent, or watching less TV has to do with following Jesus. That kind of thing is good to do, but if that is what captures the essence of Lent for folk, that leaves it all feeling a bit empty for me. And even if there is a bit more to it in our spiritual disciplines like being nicer to our little brother, visiting our grandparents more, or shoveling the next door widow’s walk, I’m still not convinced that we are reaching into the depths of the sacrifice Jesus made, nor the kinds of sacrifices people are making in this world, not because they choose to, but because of what is being imposed on them by our political, economic, social, and religious forces.

This is something I found in the Huffington Post by ecotheologian Jacob Erikson. “Don’t get me wrong. I know a lot of people who are surprised and grateful for the strange sacrifices they take up during Lent. But there are moments when some Lenten practices feel like vaguely pious, individualistic, New Year’s resolutions. They begin to fall by the wayside quickly, and don’t really open up our imaginations to thinking life differently.
“Lent, for me, is not about (and has never been about) sacrifice or penance or appeasing some unexamined heritage. It’s about interrogative love, passionate justice, and learning how to wonder again in the midst of all the awful, awful sadness. It’s about asking how beauty might occur in the midst of our fragile, decaying lives. It’s about creating new songs, stories, images scribbled in dust and ash that reexamine what human beings can be for the life of each other and the life of the planet. The short-shrift harmonies we sometimes manage to sing never are pure or clear, and the words and questions often grate against our ears with their grittiness. But Lent is about the questioning, the ambiguity of grit and glory.”

So that’s my Lenten confession. I go into Lent hoping that I will keep my ears attentive to hear the voice of God in all the ways it comes. And that, I hope, will have an impact on what people hear coming out of me. At the same time, though, I am going to approach Lent with my eyes a bit more widely open because, in spite of so many good intentions, there might be some unintended consequences.