(a sermon for January 12, 2020, the 1st Sunday after Epiphany, based on Psalm 29 and Matthew 3:13-17)
We are a church that is, by its very nature, sacramental.
By definition, a sacrament is a holy act and visible sign declaring the promise of the gospel to those who receive it in faith and gratitude. As Christians, we believe that a sacrament is holy because Jesus Christ himself, by word or example instituted it. Now, in most protestant churches, including the congregational tradition of which we are a part, baptism and communion are the two celebrations of the church that are recognized as sacrament. The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, also recognizes five other rites of the church as being sacramental: confirmation, penance, ordination, matrimony, and the sacrament of the sick (that which used to be known as “last rites.”).
That’s not say that these are of lesser value or importance in our tradition; it’s just that for us communion and baptism hold a special significance in the Christian life. We believe that the sharing of these sacraments make for the most intimate part of the worship experience, and are amongst the most meaningful parts of one’s walk of faith. Sacrament, you see, is by its very nature a very physical act: a time when you touch Christ and Christ touches you; a moment in which your own relationship with the holy begins to take shape and grow.
All these ecclesiastical explanations aside, however, I’ve always loved what Frederick Buechner has written about the nature of sacraments: he says that while in the midst of such church oriented milestone moments, “you are apt to catch a glimpse of the almost unbearable preciousness and mystery of life…. church isn’t the only place where the holy happens.” He goes on to say that “sacramental moments can occur at any moment, any place, and to anybody. [For instance,] watching somebody be born. Sharing love. A high school graduation. Somebody coming to see you when you’re sick. A meal with people you love. Looking into a stranger’s eyes and finding out he’s not a stranger” after all. In fact, Buechner suggests, “if we weren’t all as blind as bats, we might see that life itself is sacramental.”
I love that; because what Beuchner’s words serve to remind us is that in amidst all of life’s many and myriad experiences is found yet another example of the mighty hand of God at work. There is so much of the holy that’s happening all around us – so much in our lives that is truly sacramental in nature – but only if we have eyes to see it for what it really is!
What’s interesting, you know, is that in my own work as a church pastor I am, by definition and through ecclesiastical authorization through the United Church of Christ, a minister of Word and Sacrament, and so as you can imagine I’m dealing with that which is sacramental all the time… but not always in the ways you might expect. There’s communion and baptism, absolutely, but there’s also, for instance, the sacrament of the Sunday School Christmas pageant, especially on those inevitable moments every year when one or more of our little ones (and maybe even a few of our big ones!) literally start groovin’ to “The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy.” It’s the sacrament of “Silent Night” sung by candlelight; or, for that matter, of our reaching for the high notes of “Up from the Grave He Arose” at Easter Sunrise! There’s the Sacrament of Fellowship and Laughter that’s found at Bean Suppers, Holiday Fairs and countless other gatherings, as well as the sacrament of sorrows shared and of burdens mutually borne in moments of grief and struggle and uncertainty; and within that, the sacrament of Prayers Ascending not merely on a Sunday morning but on every other day of the week.
What I experience on a regular basis as your pastor are the sacraments of not-so-random acts of kindness, of words of encouragement spoken, and of standing up for and with those in need. These are also the sacraments that are revealed in countless untold blessings of our having been drawn together as a community – a true family – of faith; and then there’s the sacrament that come in the palpable sense of God’s presence, and his power, and his love… but not, as it turns out, here at 10:00 on a Sunday morning but at some other time and place during the week, perhaps even in amidst a situation where you least expected to find God… and yet, there God was.
Because, you see, while ours is a shared ministry of Word and Sacrament, the truth is that it doesn’t always happen at church! For when you and I experience something like that – something like God – in our lives, whether it’s in joy, or in peace, or in struggle or even in the wake of great tragedy then life for us becomes a sacrament, something that is most holy and good and fully imbued with God’s presence and power and love. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest to you this morning that that the only place where true life and real living begins and grows and flourishes is with the voice of God.
It all begins, you see, with a voice….
…a voice that is at time raucous and profound as thunder crashing across the silence of a summer night; at other times as gentle and as subtle as the sound of crickets after a storm. It begins with a voice that’s “tympanic… symphonic,” [The Message] filled with “glory and strength” and “full of majesty.” It begins with a voice: the voice of God.
Realize, of course, that when I speak of the “voice of God,” I am referring to the biblical understanding of what that voice is. For when the people of the Old and New Testaments referred to “the voice of the LORD,” they were not as much referring to an audible, speaking voice coming down from out of heaven (although scripture is full of moments when that was the case) as much as they were referring to the ongoing activity and the powerful nature of God! What you’ll always throughout scripture is that the words “the Lord spoke” are almost always synonymous with “the Lord did.” It’s right there from the very beginning in the creation story in Genesis: “Then God said, ‘Let there be light;’ and there was light.” Actually, our English translation of scripture sort of suggests a cause and effect – that first God said it, and then it happened – but the original Hebrew is lot more direct and to the point: at God’s very utterance, the deed is done, and it’s done with power and might, in the process shifting all that we ever expected to be true about life, so to be in accordance with his will. We see this very clearly in our reading this morning from Psalm 29, in which the Psalmist sings – because remember that these psalms were in fact songs meant to be sung with all due emotion and even bravado (!) – that “the voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire; the voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness.” In this psalm we bear witness to a God of action: a God who, when he speaks, the oaks whirl, the forests are stripped bare, and strength is given to his people. In fact, God’s involvement in every aspect of life and in creation is so readily apparent that all in the temple can but cry, “Glory!”
So, that in mind, it is no coincidence that the ministry of our Lord Jesus begins first with baptism and only with the voice of God; and even then, that voice is manifest in action and divine love, with the spirit of God descending upon Jesus like a dove from the heavens, opening at just that precise moment. It’s a voice as from a loving parent, perhaps even as a mother would sound cradling her child in her arms: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” I have long been fond of speaking of our celebration of baptism in the church as a sacrament of welcome: be it be the christening of an infant or an adult baptism, it’s a welcome into a life of faith, a blessing for the beginning of a journey toward whatever life brings, and the affirmation of God’s presence and love being there at every part of the journey. And truly, that’s what was happening here: a visible (and audible) sign of God’s active and continuing involvement in the redemption of his people. It’s important to note here that the ministry of Jesus Christ did not begin in a vacuum but by the voice of God: a voice that was heard and felt by his people gathered that day by the River Jordan; a voice that made clear what God was doing in sending Jesus to this earth to bring forth his kingdom and to do the work of redemption; a voice that even now reminds you and me of the holy presence of God in our lives, yours and mine; of our baptism, and of who – and whose – we truly are.
In fact, lately, I’ve been thinking that for all the “sacramental” aspects of what I do as a pastor, at the end of the day I’m more of an officiant than the actual provider! By that, I mean I’m not the one who truly “baptizes” the baby, any more than I’m the one who sanctifies the wedding vows between two people in love, or that I am the one who makes a simple meal of bread and grape juice the body and blood of Christ. I am simply the intercessory of what God is doing, the instrument of the music that God wants to be played. God does the baptizing; God blesses the marriage vow; God in Jesus Christ, by his great and redeeming love, who makes the elements of bread and wine infinitely more than the commonplace.
In all of these sacraments, and so many others as well, there is the voice of the Lord, speaking in and through our hearts, our lives, and in the fellowship of faithful, kindred hearts; speaking so powerfully and personally that the very ways that we speak, and act and love are perceptively shifted in positive and creative ways. I know that I have heard that voice speaking into my own heart and through the continuing journeys of my own life; and, unless I miss my guess here, I suspect you have too. We experience that voice in the countless ways that God’s spirit moves in unexpected, life-renewing ways; and we hear it in the comings and goings of our our daily lives, if we’ll but have ears to hear what’s being said. The good news is that all the love, and the peace, and the hope, and joy that is manifest in the voice of Jesus Christ has been spoken, and even better is that it continues to be spoken – even and especially now.
And that’s the challenge of the gospel, beloved: to listen for the voice of God! Slow down for a minute; be quiet for once; listen in the middle of the silence for the voice that’s inside you, and pay attention: for perhaps it is the voice of the Lord seeking at this very moment to lift you higher so you might walk along his pathways rather than your own. Listen… for just maybe in the midst of all the other noise that fills up our ears we might just hear the sound of his voice; perchance to experience something holy and good.
Because it all begins with a voice… and with God.
Thanks be to God.
AMEN and AMEN.
© 2020 Rev. Michael W. Lowry