Hearing Voices – January 15, 2017

Baptism of our Lord 2017

Hearing Voices          audio not available



Matthew 3:13-17, Romans 6:1-4
Pastor Marty Raths


Someone has suggested that we all have a handful of formative experiences in life, experiences that continue to live on in us, influencing our attitudes, our perceptions, and our choices.  I know that I had one such experience nearly 40 years ago.

I was a student at Carleton College, and I was working as a teacher’s aide in a kindergarten class at one of the elementary schools. And there was a little boy, I will call him Andy, though that was not his real name, and Andy was having a hard time learning the alphabet. So the teacher asked me to work with him, and she got us set up on one of the tables in the classroom, putting in front of us a list of the letters of the alphabet.

I pointed to the first letter, and I asked Andy, “Do you know what letter this is?”  “A,” he said.  “Good.  And how about this one?”  He hesitated a moment, and hen he said, “B.  I think.”  “And this one?”  This time he hesitated a little longer before saying, “I can’t do this. I’m too stupid.”/

40 years later, I can still see Andy sitting there, still hear him saying, “I’m too stupid.”  He was 5 years old, with the whole of his life still ahead of him. But he had already come to believe that about himself.  Now I know that Andy was not born with that perception of himself.  He had heard it from someone else.  Parents, siblings, classmates . . .  I do not know from whom.   But he had heard it from someone else.

And I learned something that day that has stayed with me ever since:  we hear voices, all of us, the voices of parents, siblings, peers, the church, the media, the culture at large. And these voices have power, so much so that we can internalize them, giving them a life of their own within us, until they begin to give shape and direction to our lives. After all these years, I still wonder about Andy sometimes, whether he is still listening to that voice that had him believing, at age 5, that he was stupid.

We all hear voices. When I told this story some years ago, a faithful member of the church named John told me afterwards, “You know, there is medication for that.”  But you know what I mean. We do hear voices.  So many voices, confusing and conflicting and even contradictory ones. And unfortunately we tend to listen most to the negative ones.  They are the ones that seem to get a hearing again and again in our minds. A Christian writer named Lewis Smedes has identified these 3 voices as the most negative ones in life:  the voice of parental rejection, the voice of secular culture, and the voice of graceless religion.  How many of us have lived with the negative tape of at least one of these three voices playing in our minds:  the voice of parents who never really gave us their blessing, whose love for us always seemed to come with strings attached; the voice of a culture that sets before us all sorts of arbitrary and all but unattainable standards for beauty and status and success; and the voice of a religion that is all about law and guilt and fear and judgment. These are the voices that have the potential to be the loudest and the most persistent in our minds.

And what is most tragic is when we begin to internalize theses voices to such a degree that we begin to hear them as the voice of God, in effect putting words into the mouth of God that God would never, ever speak. That is what Andy was doing. By the age of 5 he was already convinced that he was stupid, and these were no longer just words that someone else had spoken to him. They were becoming for him the gospel truth about himself. But something else that I learned that day with Andy is that the loudest voices in our minds, and the most persistent ones, which tend to be the most negative ones, are not the truest ones./

Jesus heard voices too. In his ministry he was surrounded by the voices of accusation, expectation, ridicule, acclaim, and condemnation. And it must have been hard for him to hear all of that.  But there were other voices in his life as well:  the voice of loving parents as he was growing up, and the voice that spoke to him at his baptism.

At the very beginning of his ministry he had heard another voice, one that stood out from all the others, the voice of God. After being baptized by John in the Jordan, and just as he was coming up out of the water, there came a voice from heaven saying, “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.”

Though the scriptures do not tell us this, there must have been times in the course of his ministry when Jesus brought this voice to mind, taking it to heart again, and holding fast to the assurance, “You are my beloved son.” These words must have served as a source of comfort and guidance and strength in trying times, of which there were many in his ministry. In the wilderness, in the opposition of religious leaders, in the resistance of his own followers, in the garden, in his confrontation with Pilate, Jesus faced difficult circumstances and hard choices. But the assurance that he was loved by God enabled him to trust God and to say, even in the face of the most difficult choice of all, “Not my will but your will be done.”

In our baptism God speaks to each of us as well.  God says, “You are my beloved.”  And in all the world there is no truer voice than this voice of God.  No matter what all the other voices have to say to us, and about us, we are loved by God. With no strings attached Without condition.  Because with the love of God there is no “if.”

That is why the reformer, Martin Luther, could say, “There is no greater comfort on earth than baptism.” It is not that baptism bestows upon us the love of God. It proclaims what is already so: that we are God’s beloved daughters and sons. And in our baptism we are called to live out our lives not in the fear of a God who condemns us but in the assurance of a God who loves us.

Now granted fear has its limited purposes in life. As a way of protecting our children from harm, we warn them not to touch the stove, or to run out into the street, or to go with strangers. But no loving parent wants their child to grow up with fear as their overriding emotion in life.

Nor does God.  God does not want us to live out our faith in fear. Again, fear can serve some limited purposes, even in the life of faith. It can be one way that God brings us to our senses if we have lost our way.

There is a story about a parrot that was raised by a salty, old sailor. And when the sailor died, the parrot got a new owner, a kind-hearted woman who was very much offended by the language of the parrot. Like the old sailor the parrot was cussing and cursing all the time. Now the woman tried all sorts of gentle ways to teach the parrot to stop using such words, but to no avail. The parrot seemed to be incorrigible.

And finally, after yet another outburst, the poor woman had had enough. In exasperation she took the parrot and put him in the freezer. She just stuck him in there and closed the door. Now it was not long before she had a change of heart. She was just too kind-hearted. So she opened up the freezer and took the parrot out, and the parrot was noticeably shaken by the whole ordeal. And not just from the cold.  For with fear in its eyes the parrot asked the woman, “That turkey in the freezer?  Or what is left of him?  What did he do to deserve that?”  Needless to say, that parrot was a changed bird after that.

Fear has it limited purposes.  It can be one way for God to get our attention, and to get us back on the way. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, the scriptures say.  The beginning but not the end because love not fear is what God wants from us. Beyond its limited purposes, fear becomes a hindrance in the life of faith. A faith rooted in fear, and a faith rooted in love make for 2 very different vines. One bears the fruits of caution at best, and the fruits of resentment and resistance and rebellion at worst.  The other bears the fruits of the Spirit.  In any relationship fear may compel us to obey someone, but it can never move us to love someone.  Only love can do that.  And love is what God wants from us. So above all else God seeks to love us into a relationship where we freely choose to love in response.

You know how an animal that has been hit too many times cowers when someone reaches out to it. Our spirits can get to doing that too if our faith is rooted in fear. We can get to believing that God wants nothing more than to punish us, that God is just waiting around for us to mess up, leaving our spirits cowering before God like a frightened animal.

And this leaves us with a caricature of the Christian life as a life rooted in fear and burdened with guilt, lived under the shadow of a God who never seems to weary of finding fault with us. But is that in any way a reflection of the life and teachings of Jesus?

It really comes down to this. Are we going to take Jesus at his word, or not?  Is God a loving father, a loving parent, or a hanging judge?  Is the good news good, or not?  Do we need to live in fear of the mistakes we make in life? Or may make? Or are there second chances with God?  Are the promises given to us in our baptism true, or not?  And is the way of discipleship a way of walking in newness of life, as Paul says, or not?

The Christian life is not mean to be a burdensome life, or a boring life. It is meant to be a bold life. God does not want us walking through life like we were making our way through a china shop. We can risk a little for the sake of the kingdom. We can take our talents and risk investing them in life, for the sake of the kingdom coming, or we can just bury them away in the ground, either way, it is our choice, but Jesus taught us which of these is the more faithful way.

It all comes back to those voices again. There is a lot that I do not know in life. But this I do believe. The voice of God encourages us to be bold, to not be held back by voices telling us that we are stupid, weak, unpopular, undeserving, unworthy, whatever. God calls us to live in the security and the confidence and the freedom of sons and daughters who know that they are loved. No matter what. You are my beloved, God assures us in our baptism. So be bold, walking every day in newness of life.

And that makes me think of Andy again. I do wonder at times whatever became of him, that little boy who was so timid that he hesitated to learn even the alphabet. He is an adult now, in his mid-forties. And I wonder what direction his life has taken? Is he still listening to that same voice that was holding him back all those years ago? And if so, how many other things in life has he avoided even trying because of that voice within him saying, “I can’t do that. I’m too stupid.”

Or did he hear, and I pray that this is so, somewhere along the way another voice, the voice of God telling him, “You’re not stupid, Andy. You’re my beloved son. So do not be afraid, Do not hold back.  Be bold.”  And if so, what difference did that make in his life?

And this is one of my prayers for our children and youth.  For all of us really, but especially our children and youth.  I pray that they will grow up in our congregation knowing the truth about themselves, the truth given to them in their baptism, the truth that comes to them in the form of a promise. Of all the voices in the world, I pray that the one that they will hear most clearly, and most distinctly, and most often, is the voice of God. And I pray that as they go out into the world, and as they make their way through this life, they will never stop hearing in their minds and hearts, the voice of God saying to them, “You are my beloved daughter. You are my beloved son.  So do not be afraid.  Live secure.  Be bold.  Bold with your gifts. Bold in the faith.  Bold in your love. And bold for the sake of the kingdom coming.”  Amen.



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