Sermon at St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Jackson, MS

1 Epiphany, Year B (RCL)
January 11, 2009

What have you heard this morning? “Hurry up!” “Where are the car keys?” “Sshh!” “It’s good to see you.” Or maybe you’ve heard babies crying, beautiful music, the rustling in the pew near you.

Did you hear God’s voice? For those with ears to hear, God was speaking in all those encounters. What have you heard from the big stories of our faith? Did you hear God speak at the very beginning of creation? “And God said, ‘let there be light, and there was light. And God saw that it was good.” That psalm is choc a bloc full of God’s “powerful and splendid voice” – the voice that thunders over the waters, breaks cedar trees, splits flames of fire, shakes wilderness, makes oak trees writhe, and strips the forests bare. Do we still hear that voice today? I can certainly hear echoes when I go look at the wonder of creation – hiking through the desert or a forest, climbing a mountain, or canoeing a river. Where do you hear God’s voice?

The disciples in Ephesus heard God’s voice when they were baptized by Paul. They began to speak for God – which is what prophesying is all about – and they did it in a variety of languages. You just thought this was Epiphany – it’s Pentecost, too.

And when Jesus is baptized, he hears that voice telling him, “you are my beloved, and in you I am well pleased.”

There’s something remarkable in that grand sweep of time, from creation to Jesus to now, from speaking light to speaking love. And we’re meant to connect them all, and realize that the voice that first speaks creation does so out of love for all that is created.

Before we had this new lectionary, this connection wasn’t so obvious, but the way Jesus’ baptism is told in the gospels is meant to remind us of the great creation stories in Genesis. The first story tells about God speaking all that is into existence. God said, let there be light, and there was light, and God saw that it was good. And the story goes on through stars and moon and land and sea and plants and animals. And at last God creates human beings, male and female he created them. And God saw everything he had made and, indeed, it was very good.

That’s what the heavenly voice tells the newly baptized Jesus: you are very good, you are my beloved, and in you I am well pleased. But the story goes on. The next thing Jesus does is to go out into the wilderness to be tempted – he gets invited to wander away, or ignore his beloved status. That’s what the second creation story talks about, with Adam and Eve and the tempter with an apple. Those two stories talk about the reality of our experience – both beloved and wandering. And the story of baptism brings them front and center.

In baptism, we are reborn, once again from the womb of creation, and pronounced good and beloved. And yes, we do wander away. That’s one of the reasons that we remember and recite those baptismal promises so often – because we need to keep hearing God’s voice saying to us, “you are my beloved, and in you I am well pleased.” Notice that God says that before Jesus does anything else. He doesn’t have to measure up, or “be good,” or do anything in order to be pronounced beloved. God’s beloved voice keeps saying that each time we breathe in. There’s a remarkable both/and/yes in the word that’s used for breath – it means spirit, too, and wind, as well as breath. We can’t escape it – it blows where it will, and finds us in the pits as well as the heights of joy. Each time we take a breath, God is saying to us, you, too, are my beloved. Do we have ears to hear?

That’s what happens when we baptize these young ones. We’re going to plant that reminder as they are born anew from this water. With the first breath you take, know that God calls you beloved. A good friend of mine tells about her baptism – since she was baptized when she was about 9, she remembers it well. It wasn’t in an Episcopal church, but in one that expected people to wait until they were old enough to answer for themselves, and to be baptized by immersion. Her baptism took place in a deep pool. As she tells it, the pastor pushed her hard, down under the water, and she went down, down, down, until her feet finally touched the bottom. She pushed off, yearning for the light above her, but even more desperately hungry for air. When she finally broke the surface, her gasp for breath was like a cry. What if each and every breath we took was like that, hungry for belovedness?

Because that breath that we take in is meant to be transformed in these sacred human vessels and come out like the Ephesians’ voices – speaking for God. If we’re made in the image of God, and called God’s beloved, then our voices are meant to do divine work as well. The words we speak are supposed to share in creation, for we are meant to be God’s partners, building up creation for more life. Remember Jesus’ voice, saying, “I came that you might have life, and have it more abundantly”?

We baptize with the expectation – the firm and earnest hope – that these children will share in that divine creative work. And you and I are going to promise to be their support – to hold them above the water where breath is to be found, and to challenge them to use their voices to speak for God. None of us can do this work alone.

What does speaking for God sound like? If you listen very long to the biblical prophets, you soon discover that they talk unceasingly about building a community that looks like the God’s in charge – justice that rolls down like waters, peace like a river, a banquet on a hillside, spears turned into farm implements, people living together without fear and with abundance enough for a feast.

If we’re going to support each other and the newly baptized in cultivating a voice like that, it has to begin with listening – both to the still and quiet voice of God and to our own voices, and comparing the two. The prayer we’re going to say for the newly baptized asks that they “may receive the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works.” That certainly has something to do with listening for the voice of God in creation – in the wonder of the natural world around us and in the voice of Wisdom spoken through human beings throughout the ages. And in listening for the voice of God spoken as the Word, Jesus, born among us in human flesh, baptized and named beloved.

Let me invite you, and all of us, to practice. Take a few moments, close your eyes, relax into the pew, and hear God saying to you what was first spoken at your baptism, “you are my beloved, and in you I am well pleased.” Don’t argue – too much – just listen, breathe it in, and believe.