Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
December 6, 2009
THE ECHO OF A VOICE
Texts: Genesis 28:10-17; Luke 1:68-79
I know some for whom Advent is their favorite season of the church year. Is it that it leads toward Christmas with all its joys and charms? Partly.
But it is also because they get to feel and to express their longing for God, for the “more” they have hoped to experience and have not yet experienced. It is legitimized longing, a validated ache, a lack that is not a wrong.
There’s an expression in Hebrew, bat qol; it mean means echo of a voice, or literally “daughter of a voice.” We cannot hear God’s Voice directly, but we hear an echo of a voice. We do not hear God’s Voice directly, but who cannot be grateful for its echo, however faint?
N. T. Wright says that there is a universal longing for God, and we experience it as the echo of God’s voice in four stirrings or longings:
The longing for justice
Is not the longing for justice a universal longing and the cry for justice in time of injustice God’s own cry?
In today’s Gospel text we saw the longing for justice expressed in the promise to Zechariah that he and his people would be freed from their enemies and no longer live in fear. We heard it in Isaiah’s words that when Messiah is here swords will be beat into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. The light of the world was on his way to guide our feet into the “way of peace.”
Philosopher John Rawls helped us picture justice with a thought experiment. What if you could choose any society any time of history in which to live, but you could not choose where in that society you happened to be born, what class, race, ability, condition. Would you choose ancient China, first-century Rome, sixteenth-century France, nineteenth-century England, Charlotte 2009? The just society is the one in which, no matter the circumstances of your birth, you have the chance for a life of dignity, opportunity and fulfillment.
What about spirituality? There is a spirituality revolution going on in our world. Once spirituality was the province of religious institutions. It’s like they possessed the rights to all the rivers and water sources. If you wanted to drink the water of spirituality, you had to follow their rules, go to their places.
But now it’s as if we’ve discovered new, hidden springs all around, and most importantly, we’ve discovered the hidden spring deep within each of us.
It is there, it has always been there, our own true life in the Spirit, our soulfulness. Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles has spent his life studying children. In his book The Spiritual Life of Children he says that children are “soulful in ways that they themselves reveal.”2 The holy work of parents and the church is to pay attention to our children as they reveal their soulfulness, then to nurture it.
I remember days as a boy spent in the woods, exploring creeks and caves. These woods still inhabit my mind and soul. There’s something sacred there.
In Reynolds Price’s novel Kate Vaiden, Kate has suffered the violent deaths of her parents and now is being raised by extended family. She writes about her spirituality:
Prayer took a big share of my time then. I’ve said I didn’t enjoy church a lot, that I went with Caroline twice a month when the circuit rider passed. What I really had was long talks with God, Christ, angels, trees, the Devil, birds, and dogs. Anything seemed liable to turn sacred on me, and I’d worship it freely till it faded off.3
It is there, this deep running stream within each of you. The issue is how to connect to it so your spirit and the divine Spirit flow together. Jesus said to the woman at Jacob’s well in Samaria:
We need religious institutions, and spiritual practices and spiritual community to guide and nourish our spirituality, but it is deep and there in all of us. I think we are paying more and more attention here to the place of spirituality and our nurture of it. It is part of a larger movement in American Christianity we could call “The Practicing Church,” where the nurture of spiritual practices is important.
Then there is the echo of God’s Voice in beauty. The main beauty I experienced in church growing up was attached to music. Worship music saved me from the sternness of Baptist preaching and biblical texts which scared the “bejesus” out of me.
But Baptist churches didn’t have beauty many other places. Part of it was our economic class. We could not afford the beauty of Episcopal churches. It was beige linoleum and painted cinder block walls and a pulpit and communion table you could build in your shop at home.
Part of it may have been the Protestant suspicion of beauty. We carried the Commandment about “no graven images” to mean “no art,” especially art depicting the human form. Such art was distracting, seductive, dangerous. It might make you want to dance! The only pictorial art we had was in Children’s Bibles and pictures of Bible stories put up in children’s Sunday School rooms.
H.L. Mencken, commenting on Protestant churches and their banishment of beauty, said that Protestants had a “libido for ugly.”
But not this church. From its beginnings we saw beauty as a window to God. We built the most beautiful sanctuary we could imagine, and opened our wallets to have it paid for by the time it was built.
So we come into this sacred space with its ancient, pure proportions, elegant simplicity, rich visual symbolism, and the one central stained glass window above the altar whose blaze of blue makes you feel like you are in a cathedral in France.
And we’ve created a worship service and liturgy which seek to worship God in the beauty of holiness. With its rhythms and robes, vestments and song, flowers and frontals and language and stillnesses.
So we in our architecture and in our use of art – like Da Vinci’s drawing of Mary on today’s cover – in our liturgy and sacred music are engaged in the holy work of reflecting the beauty of God. As Gerard Manley Hopkins expressed this calling:
Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God,
beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.4
Or, in the words of George Herbert the choir sang today:
Wherefore with my utmost art I will sing thee,
and the cream of all my heart I will bring thee.5
Are any of you old enough to remember milk bottles delivered to your door with the thick rich cream risen to the neck of the bottle? You would scoop out the cream with a spoon and use it for your richest dishes. “And the cream of all my heart will bring thee.”
Artists have captured the beauty of Christ himself in art through the centuries, and composed hymns like “Fairest Lord Jesus.”
Was Jesus physically beautiful? We do not know. There is nothing in the Gospels to suggest so, that he was anything but ordinary in his physical appearance. But he must have had a spiritual beauty about him, an aliveness and inner light, a passion and compassion that attracted people. Spiritual beauty is not dependent upon the kinds of beauty we see in fashion magazines, the kind People magazine identifies every year in their “50 Most Beautiful People in the World” issue.
We can make too much of physical beauty, and define it way too narrowly. And it can be an obstacle to personal growth. Frederick Buechner describes a Mrs. Schroeder in one of his novels:
“The main trouble with Mrs. Schroeder was that she was so pretty.
She was so pretty, you see, that she never had to be anything other than pretty to have friends or enjoy success.” As Buechner put it:
So beauty in and of itself can be a trap, a false trail, but it is given to us as a window open to God, to deepen our praise, and bring us alive, and lead us to the beauty of God, or the spiritual beauty of a soul tuned to God.
So here at Myers Park we seek justice and we love beauty. As Albert Camus put it so memorably:
In this world there is beauty and there are the humiliated, and we must strive, hard as it is, not to be unfaithful, either to the one or the other.
Now we turn to relationship as an echo of God’s Voice. The second Genesis creation story says that when God made Eve to be a companion to Adam, God said, “It is not good that man [or woman] should be alone” (Genesis 2:18).
We were made to live in communion and community, with God and with one another. The first creation story says that when God formed us in the divine image God formed us male and female (Genesis 1:27), which always informs us that the divine partakes equally of male and female, but it also suggests that we were made to live in communion with one another, in deep, abiding relationships. So marriage, and friendship, and community are gifts of God without which life cannot be as full or rich as God intends. Relationships cannot cure all our ills and all our incompleteness. As Wendell Berry says: “Some wishes cannot succeed; some victories cannot be won; some loneliness is incorrigible.”7 But they are part of God’s intended goodness to us. One goal of our Holy Conversation strategic plan is to nurture our connectedness to each other in the Body of Christ.
The Hebrew text for today was Jacob’s dream of the ladder spanning earth and heaven with angels ascending and descending. It is one of the most beautiful and oft-represented subjects in Jewish art. This dream, this vision is archetypally true: the ladder deep within reaching to the realm of God, bathed in light, surrounded by angels and all the company of heaven. And its luminosity is not only with the beauty of what is seen, but the beauty of what is heard. And what is heard is the Voice of God speaking to Jacob as he fled his home:
I am the God of your ancestors, and I will be with you, and keep you, wherever you go. I will bless the whole world through you and your offspring. I will bring you home and all my promises will be fulfilled.
“I will be with you”: the heart of our relationship with God, and of God’s promise to us.
Justice, spirituality, beauty, relationships: they are windows open to God, echos of the divine Voice.
But they are not God; they cannot bear our worship. Without the transcendent dimension justice can become fanaticism, spirituality a solipsism, the self as object of worship, beauty a false god, and relationships idolatry. They are good, but they are not God.
So we long for something more, not an echo of a Voice, but the Voice itself.
And here is our Christmas proclamation! We cry it out in joy and in endless wonder:
And the Voice became flesh
flesh of our human flesh
and dwelt among us
full of grace and truth
And we have beheld his glory
glory as of God’s own child
birthed in our arms
And from his fulness
we have received
1 N.T. Wright, Simply Christian (New York: Harper One, 2006), pp. 3-51.
2 Robert Coles, The Spiritual Life of Children (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1990), p. xviii.
3 Reynolds Price, Kate Vaiden (New York: Atheneum, 1986), p. 38.
4 Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The Leader Echo and the Golden Echo,” The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 92.
5 “King of Glory, King of Peace.”
6 Frederick Buechner, The Wizard’s Tide (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1990), p. 4.
7 Wendell Berry, “Poetry and Marriage,” Standing by Words (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1983), p. 200.