Epiphany 1, Baptism of Our Lord | Year A
Do You Hear What I Hear?
Bing Crosby may have been dreaming of a white Christmas, but I for one am dreaming of a thawed Christmas, a snowless Advent, and a dry Epiphany for next year. But Bing Crosby will still be welcome to croon in the background of my holiday season.
Speaking of Bing Crosby—(how's that for a transition?)—a friend of mine told me recently that Bing Crosby would never have had a career if it weren't for the technology of amplification. Apparently he didn't have much ability to project his voice, but fortunately, that didn't stop him from reaching his audience. He had microphones and sound systems and recording studios to make the connection between singing lips and listening ears.
I have a lot of sympathy for Bing Crosby on this matter. I'm actually really poor at projecting my voice—and I've even had voice coaches try to help me! I once lived through a rather painful audition for my middle school's production of Grease: the director had to ask the accompanist to lower the volume of her keyboard because no one could hear me. I'm very fortunate that I preach hear at Grace, because even though there's no sound system, you all do a great job of looking like you're listening to me.
When we look at today's Scriptures, though, it seems like Jesus lacked some of the key things that speakers today rely on to make themselves heard. Obviously he didn't have a microphone. Did he have a natural ability to project his voice?
For most of the rest of this season of Epiphany, we'll hear Jesus through Matthew's gospel: Jesus will tell people that they are the light of the world; he'll teach us to love our enemies. As we hear the gospel passages from the Sermon on the Mount, we might start wondering how Jesus' voice traveled. I guess it helps that he was speaking from a mountain top—from a position above the crowds who were listening. Add that strategic positioning to a powerful ability to amplify his voice, and people might have been able to hear him for miles—like the famous outdoor preachers from other times in history.
But there's a little something from today's readings that works against this theory about Jesus' powers of projection. Our first reading comes from the prophet Isaiah, and it's one of four passages known as the Servant Songs. Many people saw Jesus as the fulfillment of these songs about a servant who is chosen by God before he is born, who is called to lead God's people, who will spread God's saving love to the whole world, and yet who faces insults, rejection, and suffering.
Today, a few words from this first Servant Song caught my attention. They say, "He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street." If this description from Isaiah really does apply to how Jesus conducted his ministry, then perhaps Jesus never raised his voice, or was never audible in the streets. His message spread in quiet, in faithfulness, with perseverance. And, come to think of it, it might be strange to hear someone shouting out the words of the Sermon on the Mount. Can you imagine someone bellowing, "Blessed are the poor in spirit," "Blessed are the meek," "Blessed are the merciful," and "Blessed are the peacemakers"?
That kind of message might spread better not from one big, booming voice, but through people who had to pass the word along, from person to person. People who had to whisper to each other, repeating the message to the people behind them, who in turn would tell the people behind them.
From just the written words of Scripture, we don't know everything about how the Word actually reached people's ears. But we do have a few clues that maybe it spread very well from person to person. Our second reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, gives us a speech that Peter delivered in the household of Cornelius. Cornelius was a Gentile who wanted to know more about a vision that he'd seen. He got together a group of relatives and friends to listen to Peter. So in Peter, we have an example of how the story of Christ spreads through conversation between two people—a Jew and a Gentile—who had no plans to talk to each other until each of them had a vision that brought them together. The Word spread privately, quietly, among family and friends, and between unexpected conversation partners.
Our gospel text for this morning is more of an exception in how the Word tends to speak throughout the Bible. We hear a clear voice from heaven, saying "This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." What's not clear is who actually heard it. Jesus himself, I hope. Probably John the Baptist. Maybe the crowds who regularly came to John in order to be baptized.
After today's gospel passage, we don't get much more amplified sound from the heavens, until the moment in Jesus' life known as the Transfiguration. We'll hear that reading on the last Sunday of the season of Epiphany—in March. (Today is our first Sunday of Epiphany.) In that gospel episode, Jesus takes three of his closest disciples up a mountain, and he is transfigured right in front of them: his face shines like the sun, and his clothes are glowing white. And a voice from a bright cloud says something almost identical to the voice from heaven today: "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!"
Those last few words mark an important difference between the voice today on the first Sunday of Epiphany, and the voice on the last Sunday of Epiphany: The words, "listen to him." Not, "Listen to me, the big voice booming from heaven," but "Listen to him, the beloved." As the prophet Isaiah foretold, Jesus is not one to "cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street." Jesus' words spread from neighbor to neighbor, from stranger to stranger, from listening ear to listening ear, from receptive heart to receptive heart. In Matthew's gospel, a voice from heaven says just enough to point us to Jesus and to suggest that we listen. We don't hear much more from the sky. But we can hear so much from that quiet, persistent, persevering voice that the prophet tells us the coastlands are just waiting to hear.
This Epiphany, let's listen deeply and patiently, not for the big voice from heaven, but for the one that barely gets off the ground.