What does God sound like? In showbiz, the voice of God is always a deep, resonant voice—someone like James Earl Jones (or Josh Pehrson)—someone whose every syllable conjures up majesty and gravitas. But I don’t know anyone who has ever actually heard God speaking to them in that voice.
Does God talk to you? When you pray, telling God the heaviness, joy, guilt or hope of your deepest secret self, does God respond? I don’t mean in way that the people who suffer from schizophrenia sometimes hear voices in their heads. I mean, do you receive authentic communication from God? And if so, how do you know it’s God?
Jesus says confidently in today’s reading from John, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” But do we? And if we don’t actually hear an audible voice saying, “don’t do that” or “don’t neglect to do that,” does that mean we are not Jesus’ sheep? And how awful would that be? What does Jesus mean?
I once used this text as part of a children’s sermon. To illustrate the point of the sheep knowing the voice of their shepherd, I chose a volunteer from among the children—a little boy named Peter, about four years old—and asked him to face away from the congregation. I told him that he was going to hear several people calling his name, but when he heard his mother’s voice, he should raise his hand. Then I pointed to several members of the congregation, and they called out the little boy’s name. Finally, I pointed to his mother. As soon as she opened her mouth, the little boy’s hand shot up in the air. I asked him how he knew that that was his mother, when he couldn’t see her. And he said, “Because that is her sound.”
Ah yes. That’s how. Though on this day in particular I am keenly aware that not everyone finds joy or safety with their mothers, I think little Peter’s point is still applicable if we think of someone who has mothered us, regardless of biological or legal connection. When we are deeply in relationship with someone, when we have been cherished and honored by them, heard them scold, encourage, and comfort us, we know their sound. Something inside of us melts when we hear our name called by a beloved one—a music that cannot be replaced by an email or text message.
Before Jesus was born, there was a voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” It had been resonating for centuries. This voice echoed from the prophet Isaiah all the way to John the Baptist. This voice called people to be alert for the presence of God among them, around them. After Jesus arrived in their midst and began to minister among the people, to eat with them and to heal them, the prophet’s voice was succeeded by another voice—one confirming Jesus’ role as the Messiah. This voice cracked through the heavens as Jesus was baptized crying out, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.” The voice of God echoes throughout the Bible, from Moses, who heard God speak from a burning bush through the story we heard just last week about Saul being asked why he was persecuting the body of Christ. From the Old Testament to the New God’s voice carries, speaking with power and truth.
But what about now? Is God still speaking to us now, as our UCC friends attest in their national slogan? In all the cacophony around us, how can we hear? And if we do hear, how do we recognize the voice we hear as the sound of God?
It helps to become familiar with God’s voice, to learn the themes and phrases and ideas that show up repeatedly in God’s language. One way to become familiar with God’s speech is to read the Bible, either on our own or with others. When we open the Scriptures, especially as a family or in Bible study groups, God’s voice permeates our classrooms, homes, and hearts.
Another way to recognize God’s voice is happening right now: we come to worship to hear God’s voice proclaimed in the readings, the sermon, the music, the liturgy, the sacraments. As we become familiar with and engaged in the stories, poetry, and instructional teachings of God’s people through the ages, we learn to recognize the sound of our shepherd’s voice, just as a child learns to recognize their mother’s voice, distinguishable from all others.
But God’s voice is not limited to church or the Bible. God speaks to us when a trusted friend or mentor counsels or comforts us, when a wise Christian companion points us toward our place as a beloved child in the family of God. God whispers to us as a gentle hand puts a cold washcloth on our foreheads when we are sick, or holds us close when we are sad or scared. In some countries, the sound of God’s voice ripples as the sound of purified water, pouring from a well funded by Lutheran World Relief or similar agencies. Ask our friends in Ailanga how they hear God speaking to them. It might teach us a lot about our multilingual God.
Sometimes God’s voice speaks without words—like when God’s voice calls from a child’s crayon sketch. God’s voice emerges from the earth, joyfully as flowers and fruit emerge from farms or gardens or parks, and in pain when we abuse or neglect it. God’s voice calls to us from the arts, as it did at yesterday’s beautiful concert. It calls from the warmth of a fire, from mountains, and from acts of justice done in faith. God’s voice vibrates through our very pores, empowering us to speak the truth in love! God’s voice is not reduced to static words, frozen on the page for centuries. The voice of God is resonating throughout the universe right now, calling light from darkness, hope from despair, and life from death.
When my sister and brother and I were children, outside playing in the neighbor’s yard, or up the street, at 6 pm my mother would stand outside the front door and ring our little brass dinner bell, the one with a bird sitting on a branch as its handle. No matter where we were, we knew that sound. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we would come salivating back home. Maybe it helped that my mom is a really great cook. But I am not sure that it was just the prospect of good food that brought us running home. The ringing of that bell also signified to us that it was time to gather as a family. It was time to tell stories of the day, to negotiate who would do the dishes and who needed to use the car when, and simply to share concerns and joys. Family dinner as communion. We knew the sound of that bell. And when we heard it, we knew it was time to come home.
In a few short minutes, I will quote Jesus, repeating the words he said to his disciples during their last family meal together. And then a voice will echo Jesus own words to you: “This is the body of Christ, the blood of Christ, given for you.” We speak to each other in God’s voice, the same voice that beckons, “Come to me you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” The same voice promises, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” The same voice that pleads, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.” The same voice that begs, “Love one another as I have loved you.”
We will know that the voice we are hearing is the voice of our Good Shepherd if it bears some variation of this message: “I love you. Come home. Bring everyone with you. Feed the hungry. Love your neighbors. I will never leave you. You are a lamb of my own flock, a sinner of my own redeeming. You are my own sheep, now and forever.” That is the voice of our Good Shepherd.
Thanks be to God.
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