Sunday, January 10, 2010

Divine Vocalise

Divine Vocalise
Baptism of the Lord, January 10, 2010
© 2010 copyright 2010 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Psalm 29
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

The voice of the Lord is powerful;
The voice of the Lord is full of majesty. NRSV

This psalm is about divine speech, the vocalizations of God. Oh, it may be about a lot of other things, but we won’t be too far off if we claim to know at least that it is about God speaking, since no less than seven of the eleven verses in this psalm begin with the phrase, “The voice of the Lord is...” And when we begin to consider all the things the psalm claims the voice of the Lord accomplishes, it is pretty astonishing. Yet after all the images of power through the voice — which breaks the cedars, and flashes out of thunderstorms like tongues of fire, rattles all the windows like the winds of the most recent windstorm we can recall, and rips oak trees into shreds — after all this, the psalm ends with a prayer that, in the mind of the psalmist anyway, seemed to be an appropriately related thought. Following images of violence and power, the psalm utters a brief prayer which says, “May the Lord bless his people with peace.”

They are amazing to me, these two things together: the God of thunder and lightning who resembles some Teutonic “Thor,” being petitioned for shalom, for peace. This psalm is in some ways a prayer of confession, that a God who is Lord over any chaos surely has the power to bless the people with peace.

The voice of the Lord is this, the voice of the Lord does that... When is the last time you heard the voice of God? Have you ever heard it? How did it sound? Did it come to you as it does in this psalm with splintering trees and raging thunder? Or was your experience more like the still small voice Elijah heard during his pilgrimage? We have hospitals for people who claim to hear the voice of God, and yet the Bible — the Old Testament particularly — is filled with references to this voice, especially when the people fail to heed it. In the Old Testament alone, there are over 200 verses containing the word “voice,” a great number referring to the voice of God, the voice of the Lord, and all the things that voice accomplishes. There are 100 New Testament verses with the word “voice,” many referring to the voice of God as another way of speaking of the Word of God.

I recently read a story about a medical doctor who had long battled against the idea that there is a personal God who intervenes in human life. He sought his own spiritual refuge instead in music; the music of Bach particularly appealed to him because of the mathematical precision of Bach’s fugues. Meanwhile, though professionally successful, his personal life was falling apart. His first wife left him; he started drinking too much. One day as he was driving, he pounded the steering wheel with his open palms and cried out, “God, if you’re really there, you’re going to have to say something! And you know what kind of man I am! No screwing around, now-no (blasted) ‘signs.’ You’re going to have to talk my language!” Just then on the radio came Bach’s classic “Jesus, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” The man sobbed, and laughed at what an idiotic but wonderfully appropriate word this was to him. And just as his mind began to try to explain away the moment, with a thought that Bach was often played on that radio station (which was actually not a classical music station), the next song to come on was “The Girl from Ipanema.”

Whatever it is that is — or is not — happening today, whatever we may or may not be hearing, clearly there have been those who were convinced that God has something to say to us that we would do well to hear. Maybe one of the reasons our world is often in such sorry shape is that we have ceased to listen for the voice of God, ceased to believe that God has anything worthwhile to add to the conversation. We have weather satellites that circle the globe and have learned that heat in one area of the world can contribute to high winds in another, that high barometric pressure tends to move out large air masses of low pressure, and the process creates storms. No matter what the Farmers’ Almanac tells us, no one can accurately predict the weather beyond about four or five days, and real accuracy comes only one or two days ahead, if then. Still, very few weather forecasters on the 11:00 o’clock news will stand before their audiences and declare, with the psalmist, that our weather is attributable to the voice of God, even if they believe it, which some probably do.

The commentaries on this thunderstorm psalm use phrases like “the overwhelming majesty of God” to describe the feelings it is meant to elicit from its hearers. It sounds like something that should be mentioned in the temple in Jerusalem as well as from the pulpit of First Presbyterian Church, but when was the last time you honestly felt overwhelmed by the majesty of God? “Now let’s see, was it last Tuesday or the day before...?” Honestly, now, on the subject of God as author of storms and wind, haven’t most of us become practicing weather agnostics most of the time, depending on our weather prognosticators to deal with causes and effects of weather? Haven’t we come to seek a God who will be our friend to the extent that fearful experiences of the majesty of God have pretty much departed from our religious vocabulary?

When God’s people were in exile in Babylon in the sixth century before Christ, they ran into a poem very much like this psalm, praising a god named Ba’al-Hadad, which one commentary called the local “weather god.”
2 But in a style typical of Hebrew poetry, in the face of claims made by other local folks for their neighborhood deities like this weather god, the poet claims over and over again that the real author of creation, and the One who continues to oversee operations, is not some little regional sub-god, but the Lord God of Israel. Over and over again through the imagery of the thunderstorm the claim is made for the God of Israel rather than some half-pint god:
  • The voice of the Lord is over the waters, and not just rain waters, but also the chaotic waters into which the Creator stepped on that first day of creation;
  • Only the voice of the Lord is powerful enough to have made a world in which thunder sometimes crashes, rainstorms sometimes heave water onto the earth;
  • The voice of the Lord not only can break oaks and Lebanon cedars like toothpicks, but the voice from this One could hurl Lebanon itself across the Mediterranean like a skipping stone on a lake.
I recall after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast back in 2005, folks in the media often invoked the term biblical to describe the vast destruction brought on by Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge, which had apparently gone beyond our imagination and our normal categories of explanation for such disasters.3 The term wasn’t used to describe the storm with any precision—it seems to mean to most of us that this storm was simply vast or awe-inspiring. The Bible, and Psalm 29 in particular, is not satisfied with any explanations that suggest God is not in control of natural events in the world, rather the Bible is more inclined to claim that God’s power is beyond our normal calculus, so explanation is a futile enterprise.

This is more than a poem about a God who is in charge of weather, this is about a God who is in charge of everything, and so the competition for our attention and devotion is shown to be no competition at all! The psalmist says, “Don’t be fooled: the weather forecasters, the orbiting satellites may well describe what is going on, but only the Lord creates.”

So, if the God we worship is the author of all this, what is an appropriate prayer, what shall we ask of God? For the psalmist, it boils down to a simple prayer, really: “May the Lord give strength to God’s people! May the Lord bless God’s people with peace!”

A psalm that began with declarations of glory ends with a prayer for peace. It’s not unlike another message from the heavenly council that came to shepherds on a hillside one winter. Their message began in glory and ended in an answer to humanity’s endless prayer for peace with the gift of the child, the Prince of Peace. That the author of raging thunderstorms could also be the author of the babe of Bethlehem somehow makes a wonderful sort of sense to me.

Today on the liturgical calendar calls for remembrance of Jesus’ baptism. I have heard that consideration of the waters of baptism have been an important subject in the worship life of this congregation, and while I have never been what we might call “highly liturgical” in the orientation of my ministry, I do believe that the entire meaning of baptism to each of us probably takes a lifetime to comprehend. Thinking on the psalm and gospel read today, and thinking on the long path of faith which takes a lifetime to finish, I think it is helpful to return to thoughts of baptism, even to come and touch the baptismal waters here in the font, to remember the voice of the Lord which is over the waters and especially the stormy waters of our lives, to remember, and be glad.

This is the God who can answer your prayer for the strength you need, for the peace you seek in your own life. He has answered it already. The answer has a name. It is Jesus.


1 “Signs and Sounds,” by Lawrence Wood, Christian Century, December 26, 2006, p. 19.
2 The Psalms, by Artur Weiser, 1962: Westminster Press, p. 261.
3 I am grateful for “A Disaster of ‘Biblical’ Proportions,” by Walter Brueggemann, Christian Century, October 4, 2005, p, 23 for ideas in this paragraph.

Copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved