A sermon based on Psalm 147:12-20 and John 1:1-18 preached on
January 3rd, 2016
I was 22 and in my last semester of college when I did an internship at a small Presbyterian church with my mentor and friend Matt Matthews. The idea was to give me a taste and some experience into what ministry in a small church looked and felt like, and every day, I did something different. One of my main responsibilities, though, was to lead worship with Matt on Sunday mornings. The two of us would meet up 10 minutes before the start of the service with the Choir, and have a prayer beforehand.
It was the 2nd or 3rd Sunday I was there, as the two of us were walking from his office to meet up with the Choir that Matt said to me, “I’m not feeling so good today, so you might be the one preaching my sermon for me. We’ll see how it goes.” He said that like it was no big deal—like I would reply with a quick, “Oh, okay, that’s fine!”
In fact, that’s how I might have responded, but on the inside there was sheer panic. How could he just drop this on me all the sudden and 10 minutes before the service, no less?! This is a clear set-up for failure! I stand no chance!
As it turned out, Matt preached his sermon just fine that morning. He had taken a dose of DayQuil just before worship, and it kicked in right about the time he started preaching. But he did something that morning that I’ve never seen him do before or since. At one point in the sermon, to emphasize his point, he pounded on the pulpit with his fist. Hard and loud. It woke everyone up! I was sitting in back of him that morning, in the chancel area, and once he threw his fist down onto the pulpit, I jumped out of my skin!
Later that week, Matt told me he didn’t know whether it was the cough syrup or the Holy Spirit that made him bang his fist on that pulpit. A friend of his suggested that it was maybe both. Maybe both, but we’ll never know.
How do we know when God is speaking?
Does the voice of God speaking to us feel any different than the effects of a dose of Dayquil, or say—indigestion, gas, or the hardening of arteries? How can we tell?
We have a bible full of stories where God seems to speak with words—audible words—and humans just like us (there’s tons of them!) they hear God’s voice, they have conversations with Him just like you and I can have conversations with each other. Why doesn’t that happen anymore? Did it ever happen in the first place?What if the writers of the bible simply had better imaginations than we do?
When we read that Moses heard the voice of God speaking from inside a burning bush, how literally are we supposed to take that? If there were iPhones at the time, and that whole scene could have been filmed, what would we see and hear when we played it back? And that’s just one instance out of hundreds in the bible. Has God lost His voice? Has He become more introverted after all these years? Has God tried and tried, over and over again, to speak to us and because we never really listened, He’s given up trying? Or is it that we’re not listening for the right things? What kind of voice are we listening for?
Maybe it’s that God speaks out of the mystery of life itself. Perhaps the voice we need to listen for is a slower and more profound one—something speaking to us not with words strung together into sentences, but something more than that, some deeper utterance—some nudge in one direction or another—some trembling in our bones or underneath our feet. And it’s all we can do to try to make sense of that utterance. We know we hear something, but we need to hear it again, or else we might chalk it up to too much cough syrup.
And this is what separates the Church from any other gathering of people. We listen together. We live with one another, not just because we like each other, but because we’re here to help each other listen—to try our best to make sense of all the different and mysterious ways that God is speaking into our lives. If that wasn’t our calling as a Church—the very center of our existence, the very heart of our purpose, then we might as well call ourselves something other than Church. The Lion’s Club, perhaps. Or the Shriners. Our men could sign up for a spot in the parade, wear those funny hats with the tassels on them, and drive in figure 8’s in tiny go-carts. We’re here because we’re called for something more. We’re called to listen deeper—to listen with one another. We’re here to remind each other that God is still speaking, and has a word for each and every one of us.
God is famous for calling something to life over and over again—something that didn’t and couldn’t exist before God spoke it into being.
John’s gospel starts with this poem—this amazing and mysterious word—and in it, he declares that Jesus’ coming wasn’t happenstance. That his birth among us wasn’t just a consequence, or good timing. John declares from the very start that Jesus has existed in and with God from the very beginning of time, and at the fullness of time, God spoke again and something new appeared. Think of the very first words of the bible. John uses them here as his very first words:
In the beginning…
God speaks and things happen. And this new divine utterance is just one more thing God is creating, it is God himself coming to us, to live among us, as one of us.
The Word became flesh and made his home among us.
Another translation of this verse says that God moved into the neighborhood, because the original meaning of the word here is that in the person of Jesus, God pitched a tent right next to ours. With Jesus, God made himself at home in the world—setting up camp with us. Jesus is the Word. The deepest utterance of God. The very center of God’s voice. His heartbeat. The purpose of the Word made flesh is to bring God out, to give God a voice we all can hear and wrap our minds and hearts around.
Before Jesus, we looked up toward the sky—into its vast emptiness and we wondered what was out there and if it had anything for us. But now there’s no reason to look up to find our meaning and purpose. Now we look to Jesus, because God has made himself at home in the world.
Jesus’s voice—that’s the voice we should listen for. He himself is the very utterance of God. And He’s still speaking. Jesus is God’s most powerful word ever spoken—so powerful that it’s still echoing across the sky. Sometimes it comes as soft as a whisper. Other times, as loud as a clanging cymbal. Sometimes as small as a mustard seed. Other times, as big as Christmas.
We don’t always hear God well. It’s far easier to pay attention to the small things that take up our days. We don’t have to look too far after God’s first words that spoke creation and humanity into being to find that it was the very first of us who decided to pay attention to other voices—their own as well as the smaller ones much closer to them.
We know that story. It’s not just Adam and Eve’s story. It’s ours, too. We’re great at listening to the lesser voices, the most immediate and closer ones. It’s much harder to listen for the Voice that spoke it all into being in the first place—the One who still speaks us into being. The invitation, then, is to listen deeper—to take time out before the tumble of our lives and all of its distractions begin hurtling towards us from every direction. C.S. Lewis said it best in his book Mere Christianity:
It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other Voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and fretting; coming in out of the wind.
That’s the invitation in these first words from the gospel of John. To listen for a new utterance in and among us. Let us start the New Year listening for that voice.
Our God is closer to us than we have ever imagined!
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!