Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Voice of the Lord

Texts: Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17

WHAT WOULD IT BE LIKE to hear the voice of the Lord?

I mean, actually physically hear the voice of God?

How would we feel? Thrilled? Privileged? Would we be pleased with ourselves because, hey, the Lord God Almighty is speaking to me!

Would hearing the voice of God with our ears be a comforting and comfortable thing? Would it assure us that we are loved and cared for by Him?

Or, rather would it not make us cower down in awestruck fear, overwhelmed by God’s glory? Would it not convict us of our puniness and our sin?

That’s how it was with the Children of Israel when they heard the voice of the Lord at Mount Sinai, after Moses had brought them out of Egypt. The voice of the Lord in their ears was too much for them! They begged Moses to ask the Lord not to speak to them audibly any more. "You talk to the Lord, Moses," they cried. "We can’t bear it!"

The psalm used in our Call to Worship, Psalm 29, is about the awe-inducing effect of the almighty voice of the Lord. And even here, it’s not the direct voice of God, it’s the voice of God as He expresses Himself through wind and thunder, through tempest and earthquake. It’s a wonderful thing to experience from a safe distance, but you wouldn’t want the full brunt of it bearing down on you.

When I was in college in Kansas, during wild thunderstorms people in my dorm would go out on the front porch and cheer God. A really bright flash of lightning would streak down, and be followed by a stupendous clap of thunder, and we’d yell, "Yeaaa, God!!"

I don’t know how many of us were sincerely giving praise and who was just being flippant. But I’d wager that if that lightning had hit us, or if that roaring wind had collapsed that concrete porch roof on our heads, we wouldn’t be going, "Yeaaa, God!" anymore. We’d be too overwhelmed to say anything at all.

And that’s what it’s like when it’s merely the voice of God speaking through Nature! How much more awesome, how much more unbearable would be the voice of God hitting our ears in its unshielded self!

We imagine it would be wonderful to hear the direct, unmediated voice of Almighty God, because we forget how utterly high and majestic He is compared to us.

It’s not just that we are created beings and He is the everlasting Godhead who dwells in inexpressible light and glory. Adam was a created being, and he communed with the Lord God in the garden of Eden as friend to friend.

No, the thing that would make the unshielded, audible voice of God unbearable to us is the fact that we are rebellious and sinful created beings. The unmediated voice of the Lord would remind us painfully of that fact, as it reminded the Israelites in the desert. It would remind us that we have broken His law and betrayed His trust. The naked voice of God speaks judgement on all our little schemes for getting in good with Him and climbing up to heaven on our little four-foot step-ladders. Actually hearing the voice of almighty God would not be a pleasant thing. It would be a terrifying and devastating thing indeed.

But our Lord God does love us, in spite of our sins. He cares for us and wants to reconcile us to Himself. So from of old He spoke to certain chosen individuals, to patriarchs like Abraham and poets like David and prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah. I would dearly love to know what that was like, whether they heard the Lord’s voice with their ears, or in visions, or only in their hearts. However it was, He made them able to bear it, so they could bring His message of repentance and love to His people.

But somehow, His people, most of them anyway, were deaf to what the prophets had to say. Their life, their hope, their entire purpose for being was bound up in the Word of God, in what the Almighty Lord spoke to them. But when He spoke to them by the prophets, His people wouldn’t listen, and when He spoke to them directly, they couldn’t listen.

But praise His name! His prophets kept on listening, and we have the record of what some of them heard. And so in the 42nd chapter of the prophecy of Isaiah, we read what the Lord said about the Servant of His who is to come.

This Servant, says the Lord, will carry the Lord God’s message of justice to the nations. He will bring the peoples of the world into the Lord’s covenant. His service-- or, we could say, His ministry (for the word "ministry" means "service") will mean light to the Gentiles, sight to the blind, and freedom for the captives-- captives of oppression and tyranny or captives to sin. All these gracious things the Servant will do.

Now here is a sad thing: Our Jewish cousins generally interpret this passage to refer to the Jewish nation. The work of this Servant of the Lord, the rabbis say, has to do with the good influence the Jews will have in the world. And it’s true, the Jews have had great and glorious influence in this present world, in all sorts of ways.

The trouble is, this Isaiah passage can’t possibly be talking about a mere mortal, or any group of mere mortals. The Lord says the Servant will "bring forth justice" and "establish justice on the earth." How can any man, however noble, do that? It’s hard enough for even the best of judges to judge with total righteousness in even individual cases. Only God Himself can establish justice over the entire earth!

And the Lord says the islands-- that is, the remotest parts of the world-- will put their hope in the Servant’s law. Is this some system of laws generated by a man or a nation? No, for even the best system of human laws, even the U.S. Constitution itself, for example, falls far short of the perfect law of God! But the law of the Servant isn’t the law of any man, it’s the law of God. If the Servant had made it up for Himself, the Lord would not praise Him for establishing it. But He not only commends Him for it, He declares that the Servant will do this in the power of God’s Spirit.

And, says the Lord, His Servant will be a covenant for the people. The passage doesn’t say, "You will administer or draw up or deliver My covenant for the people"; no, the Servant will be that covenant Himself. All the good promises and protections of belonging to God and being His people will be wrapped up in the Servant. All the pledges of God will be Yes and Amen in Him. No mere man can claim that!

Only God can do all these things. Only God can claim this glory. The Lord Himself says it in verse 8:

I am the Lord; that is my name!
I will not give my glory to another
or my praise to idols.

No sinful, fallen human being could do all these things and gain all this praise. Only the Lord God Almighty is capable of carrying out these tasks. Only the Lord God Almighty Himself can be His own perfect Servant, the Chosen One, the One on whom His Spirit rests.

But if the Servant is somehow God Himself, don’t we still have the same problem? How can we hear this message of justice and hope and liberation? For as Psalm 29 says, the voice of the Lord shakes the desert, the voice of the Lord twists the oaks and strips the forests bare!

This is how we will hear it: We will hear it softly and tenderly; earnestly, pleadingly. In verse 2 of our Isaiah passage the Lord says,

He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.

The Servant of the Lord would be the Lord Himself coming to us with the voice of love and forgiveness. He would not come as a conqueror, nor as an angry overlord marching into a rebellious city to claim his rights. No,

A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.

He would support and encourage what is good; He would have mercy on our weakness. He would speak so we could hear Him; His voice would be pitched so we could respond.

It would be wonderful to hear the voice of the Lord like that. But it seems too much to hope for.

But it isn’t too much to hope for. The Servant of the Lord, the hope of the nations who was and is God Himself, has come to us, and His name is Jesus the Christ. Our passage in Isaiah introduces Him and His ministry seven hundred years before He would appear, and our gospel reading from St. Matthew introduces Him as He begins His ministry on this earth.

As Jesus our Lord comes to be baptised, we see Him coming in humility. We see Him entering into our weakness and sympathizing with our frailty. John the Baptist says, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" He’s right, humanly-speaking, to say this. For John’s baptism was a sign of repentance from sin, and our Lord Jesus had no sin to repent. But Jesus is the Servant of the Lord who has been called in righteousness, and He submits to baptism to fulfill all righteousness. His very willingness to share the sign and symbol of our sin-- though He never sinned Himself-- declares His good news that we can share the reality of righteousness in Him. The baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ speaks of new life and repentance that don’t depend on our efforts, but on the liberating, eye-opening, covenant-making mercy of God.

Jesus was baptised for us in the Jordan River, and as He came up out of the water, heaven was opened and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on Him. As the prophet Isaiah said,

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him.

And a voice from heaven is heard: it is the voice of the Lord God Almighty, saying, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well-pleased." The unshielded voice of God was heard by the ears of man: heard by John the Baptist and his disciples standing around, and they were not overwhelmed, they were not judged, they were not destroyed!

How could this be?

It could happen because here at the Jordan the voice of God gave testimony to Him who was and is and will always be the voice of God on earth. From now on and forever more, the Man Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, is the Voice of God speaking to humankind. From now on, what God does for mankind He will do through Christ. The voice of God at the Jordan River testifies that this one Man, this Galilean, is the Servant of the Lord who will not make a clamour in the streets, who will not rant and scream to lord it over others, but who will be the Son of Man, preaching the Good News of new life in Him, the humble King of Glory who came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.

If you want to hear the direct voice of God, look to Jesus Christ. Look to His obedient life. Put your utter trust in His sacrificial death. Hear Him call you to share in His glorious resurrection.

Accept no counterfeits. Whatever voice does not glorify Jesus Christ, whatever voice is an enemy to His cross, whatever voice would tell you there are other ways to find divine justice, liberation, and light--that is not the voice of God. Jesus Christ is how God speaks to us. Jesus is the Voice of God to us, recorded in His holy Word, testified to in our hearts by His Holy Spirit.

Jesus is the voice of God to us now, just as much as He was to those who heard Him preach and teach in Galilee and Judea long ago. In fact, He is more so, for now He has ascended into heaven and can minister to His people in every time and place. For as the prophet says,

In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
In his law the islands will put their hope.

This is our Saviour. This is our Lord. He calls you to trust in Him, to trust what He did for you at His cross where the voice of His blood spoke forgiveness and covering for your sins. He calls you to let Him open your eyes, that you might see your sins for the filthy things they are-- and then see them taken away, totally removed, by the power of His sacrifice. His voice is calling you out of the prison of your prejudices, your limitations, your ungodly fears and your agonizing memories. He speaks to free you from the deep dungeon of your brokenness, to bring you into the wideness of His marvellous wholeness and light.

Will you hear His voice today? You may say, I was baptised as an infant; I’ve known Jesus all my life. If that is your thought, yes, praise Him for that grace. But we who have known Jesus all our lives need to hear the voice of the Lord just as much as the one who has never heard or responded to it at all. We need to hear His Word daily to support us, to uphold us, to help us persevere until the day we are made perfect in Him. We need the testimony of His Spirit confirming His truth to us. With open ears and willing hearts, let us hear and follow our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the Voice of the Lord: He calls us to repentance, He gives us hope, and He invites us to share His justice, His liberation, and His light.

1 comment:

Lizina said...

Well written article.