What does God sound like? In showbiz code, the voice of God is a deep, resonant voice—someone like James Earl Jones—who narrates a story or advertisement in a way that conjures up majesty and power. But what does the voice of God really sound like?
Does God talk to you? Really? When you pray, telling God the heaviness, joy, guilt and hopes of your deepest secret self, does God respond? I don’t mean in way that the people who suffer from schizophrenia hear voices in their heads. I mean, do you receive authentic communication from God? How do you know it’s God?
Jesus says confidently in today’s reading from John, “I know my own and my own know me.” He also says that all the sheep from the “other fold” (which is to say, the Gentiles, which is to say, us) know his voice. But do we? Though, frankly, it would help a lot, I don’t actually hear an audible voice saying, “don’t do that” or “don’t neglect to do that.” So what does Jesus mean?
I used this text as part of a children’s sermon. To illustrate the point, I chose a volunteer from among the children—a little boy named Peter, about four years old—and blindfolded him. I told him that he was going to hear several people calling his name, but when he heard his mother’s voice, he should raise his hand. Then I pointed to several members of the congregation, and they called out the little boy’s name. Finally, I pointed to his mother. And as soon as she opened her mouth, the little boy’s hand shot up in the air. I asked him how he knew that that was his mother, when he couldn’t see her. And he said, “Because that is her sound.”
Ah yes. That’s how it is. When we are deeply in relationship with someone, we know the sound. The sound is distinguishable even in a crowd, even when we cannot see anything or anyone. There is something that melts inside of us when we hear a beloved voice on the other end of a telephone call. And there is something in the familiar music of a special voice that cannot be replaced by a Blackberry or email or text messaging or any of the other ways we can now communicate. Nothing replaces the profound sense of connection that sparkles when someone dear calls your name out loud.
Before Jesus was born, there was a voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” It had been resonating for hundreds of years. This voice echoed from the prophet Isaiah, all the way through time to John the Baptist. This voice was always calling people to be alert for the presence of God among them. And after Jesus did arrive in their midst, and began to minister among the people, to eat with them and to heal them, the prophet’s voice was succeeded by another voice—one confirming Jesus’ role as the Messiah. The voice cracked through the heavens as Jesus was baptized crying out, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.” God’s voice echoes throughout the Bible, from the Old Testament to the New, speaking with power and truth. What about now? Is God still speaking to us now?
In all the cacophony around us, how can we hear? And if we do hear, how do we recognize the sound of God? It helps to become familiar with God’s voice, to learn the themes and phrases and ideas that show up repeatedly in God’s language. One way to become familiar with God’s speech is to read the Bible, either on your own or with others. When we open the Scriptures, especially as a family or in Bible study groups, God’s voice enters into our homes and our classrooms. Another way to recognize God’s voice is happening right now: when we come to worship, we hear God’s voice proclaimed in the readings, the sermon, the music, the liturgy, the sacraments. As we become familiar with and engaged in the stories, poetry, and instructional teachings of God’s people through the ages, we learn to recognize the sound of our shepherd’s voice, to distinguish it from the cacophony of all the other voices that surround us.
But God’s voice is not limited to church or the Bible. God speaks to us when a trusted friend or mentor counsels or comforts us, when a wise Christian companion points our attention toward our place as a beloved child in the family of God. God whispers to us as a gentle hand puts a cold washcloth on our foreheads when we are sick, or holds us close when we are sad or scared. In some struggling countries, the sound of God’s voice ripples as the sound of purified water, pouring from a well funded by Lutheran World Relief or the ELCA’s Stand with Africa campaign. The sound of Jesus’ voice calls from a child’s crayon drawing. God’s voice calls from the earth, joyfully when we tend to it in our gardens, and in pain when we abuse or neglect it. God’s voice calls to us from the arts and the warmth of a fire, from mountains and from acts of justice done in faith. God’s voice vibrates through our very pores, breathing peace into us, and empowering us to speak the truth in love! God’s voice is not static words, frozen on the page for centuries. The voice of God is resonating throughout the universe right now, calling light from darkness, hope from despair, and life from death.
When my sister and brother and I were children, outside playing in the neighbor’s yard, or up the street, at 6 pm my mother would stand outside the front door and ring our little brass dinner bell, the one with a bird sitting on a branch as its handle. No matter where we were, we knew that sound. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we would come salivating back home. Maybe it helped that my mom is a really great cook. But I am not sure that it was just the prospect of good food that brought us running home. The ringing of that bell also signified to us that it was time to gather as a family. It was time to tell stories of the day, to negotiate who would do the dishes and who needed to use the car when, and simply to share concerns and joys. A family dinner is communion. We knew the sound of that bell. And when we heard it, we knew it was time to come home.
In a few short minutes, a pastor will quote Jesus, repeating the words he said to his disciples during their last family meal together. And then a voice will echo his words to you, “This is the body of Christ, the blood of Christ, given for you.” We speak to each other in God’s voice, the same voice that beckons, “Come to me you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” The same voice says, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” The same voice that pleads, “Love one another as I have loved you.”
One of the ways you can know that the voice you are hearing is the voice of your Good Shepherd is that it will always be some variation of this message: “I understand. And I love you. Come home. Bring everyone with you. Let’s eat.”
~Pastor Susan Schneider