Do you hear the voice?

Saint James Fordham • Advent 2b • Tobias Haller BSG

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid…+

In today’s readings from the Holy Scripture a number of voices speak out to us, from the dialogue portrayed in the prophecy of Isaiah, through the sage advice of the Apostle Peter, and concluding with the proclamation of John the Baptist. And while these voices speak different words, they bear a single message.

The effect is like that of a chorus from Handel’s great oratorio Messiah — and who can hear that passage from Isaiah without thinking of Handel’s setting? He must have particularly loved this passage, for there are about six sections of his masterpiece that come from just this one text! You know how in these choruses the various voices enter at different times, each singing its own melody as the fugue twists and turns its way. But then, suddenly, of the voices all come together on a single phrase of the text, all of the voices lining up — “For the mouth of the Lord has spoken it” — with one clear message. Well, our lessons today have the same effect, and out of the richness of all these voices, there emerges a clear message that speaks to us today after that long gap of nearly two and a half thousand years. Be comforted, be patient, and repent. This is the message God is sending us through his messengers Isaiah, Peter, and John the Baptist.

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Isaiah says, Be comforted, for your prison term is over, and your Lord will gather you up as a shepherd carries the young lambs in his arms. Peter says, Be patient, because the Lord is giving everyone time, as much time as is needed, to come to repentance. Which brings us to John the Baptist, who says, Repent and be baptized, that your sins may be forgiven.

These messages weave together in a single strand, depending on each other, because there is no use repenting unless there is comfort and hope that repentance will lead to salvation. If the situation were hopeless, if we were simply dead in our sins, if the prison door has clanged shut behind us forever already, then there is no point either in repentance or good behavior. That is why the message of hope and comfort from Isaiah and Peter is so important.

Be comforted, Isaiah says: and that’s a little hard for us to understand, because for us “comfort” has to do primarily with mattresses and easy-chairs. But that’s not really what comfort means when Isaiah says, “Speak comfortingly to Jerusalem.” It doesn’t mean coziness, but encouragement, strengthening the heart and soul to stand up and endure, not lie down and go to sleep! Take courage, Isaiah is saying, your prison sentence is over, and you’ve been released, given a second chance to start again, a new life, a life in which the obstacles are being leveled, the mountains torn down and the valleys filled in; you can begin a new life in which God himself will lift you over the hard spots, carry you in his arms if you will let him, over the rough spots you are not able to cross on your own. This is the voice of encouragement so sorely needed by anyone who is discouraged, in their life, or by their sins.

Some folks, even in the church, think it’s enough to make people feel bad about themselves because they’ve failed and fallen. But that is not repentance; that is only remorse, and unless the message gives some hope, some comforting encouragement, beating people over the head with their sins will only lead them perhaps as far as remorse, but it may also lead to despair. The church’s true task is not simply to tell people they’ve sinned and fallen short — as indeed we all have — but that there is hope, there is a promise, there is a way out and a way forward. There is, as John the Baptist promised, a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and there is, as Peter promised, time in which to take advantage of that opportunity. The prison door has not clanged shut, it has swung open, and it is up to us to lift up our heads and walk forward into a new life.

That is what repentance is all about: not wallowing in sorrow for the past, but turning around towards the hope of tomorrow. And sometimes all that is needed is a comforting word, an encouraging word, a voice that speaks to us in our sin and our sorrow and reassures us that all is not lost; that it is not too late; that there is hope; that there is a way forward, a way out of our past errors, freedom from the prisons of our own devising.

God’s voice is the voice of comfort and encouragement, that calls us to patience and repentance, to accepting our redemption rather than despairing in our sin. The voice of God is the voice that tells us we are not worthless creatures, but beloved children, precious in his sight. And our joyful response to that voice, that voice that warms our hearts and renews our spirits, is repentance, the acceptance of our salvation.

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There was once a little girl of eight named Mary Ann who felt awful about herself. Mary Ann was born with a cleft palate and a harelip. It affected her speech, it marred her looks, and since she’d started school her life was a misery as she saw the faces of her classmates curl in imitation or twist in disgust. When some of the more charitable youngsters showed concern and asked her what had happened to her lip, she would make up a story and say that she’d fallen on the sidewalk and cut herself on a broken bottle. That didn’t change how she looked, but pretending it was an accident, something that had happened to her, not something about who she was made it fell a little less awful.

Mary Ann felt terrible most of the time at school, and was sure that nobody liked her. There was someone, however, whom she liked very much, Mrs. Leonard, the second-grade teacher, a short, plump lady with a wonderful smile and bright eyes that sparkled with their own inner light. Mary Ann was too shy to say much to her, though, fearing that even Mrs. Leonards’s bright smile would fade if she were forced to look too long into Mary Ann’s face.

Well, every year the school held a hearing test. This was some time ago, in the days before hi-tech equipment, and the test consisted of a simple screening procedure. Each student would come into the empty classroom and stand at the back of the room facing the wall, turned away from Mrs. Leonard who would sit at her desk at the front of the room. She would whisper some short phrase, which each child would then repeat back. Nothing complicated, just some short phrase like, “The field is green” or “The cat chased the mouse.” And if the child repeated the phrase correctly it was deemed their hearing was o.k.

When Mary Ann’s turn came she entered the room and stood with her back to Mrs. Leonard, facing the wall at the back of the room, glad Mrs. Leonard couldn’t see her face, glad she could simply stand and listen for the words, repeat them, and then be out from under what seemed like a terrible focus of attention. Moments passed as she waited to hear the words, words she would later realize that God had placed in Mrs. Leonard’s mouth, seven words that changed Mary Ann’s life, right then and there. Into the stillness of that room, Mrs. Leonard whispered, “I wish you were my little girl.”

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“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,” God tells his prophet. “Speak tenderly.” Comfort here, strengthen her; give her a new life. God’s tender voice is the voice of comfort and encouragement, the voice that calls us to patience and repentance, the voice that calls us to accept our redemption rather than to despair in our sin. God’s voice is not a voice that beats us into the ground, that tells us we are unworthy, stained from birth with original sin,
worthless, hapless creatures scarcely worth his notice. No, God’s voice is a tender voice of comfort and encouragement. God’s voice says to each and every one of us, not only do I wish you were, but You are my own beloved son, you are my own beloved daughter, you are my own beloved child.

May we hearken to that voice, patiently listening for it in the midst of the turmoil and noise of this world. May we listen patiently, in the knowledge that God is seeking us out, as we await the words that can change our lives, words of comfort and encouragement, so that we might repent and accept our salvation, and “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity.”+

The story of Mary Ann Bird is freely adapted from her book, The Whisper Test.