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Whose Voice?

Rev. Kate Layzer
Sun, Mar 09

The First Sunday in Lent

Text: Matthew 4: 1-11


To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.

To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,

and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,

and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

                                    —Wendell Berry

About 20 minutes south of Jerusalem, the bus turned left onto a dirt road and began climbing sharply, jolting over rocks. Another half-mile or so, another few minutes, and we pulled to a stop at a look-out point… and I stepped out to find myself face to face with the most amazing landscape I had ever seen.

We were standing on a rise looking down on the Judean wilderness: mile after mile after barren mile of rocky, rippling hills—and wind—and silence—and nothing more. I had never seen anything so desolate… and so beautiful.

I felt my heart go out into that place. I wanted to leave the group and go straight down into that wilderness and be swallowed up in the immensity of it. I wanted to stay and be scoured clean by the desert wind and sun; to wait and listen for a whisper from the Holy One, the God of wilderness wanderings, of nomadic patriarchs and matriarchs, returning refugees and sun-browned prophets, Mary and Joseph running from Herod; their child, Jesus, famished and tempted with no one but the wild beasts for company. It made me ache to look at it. I couldn’t explain it: It was like looking at a part of myself.

Rocks. Wind. Silence.

Imagine Jesus.

Imagine Jesus, newly baptized, anointed by the Spirit, claimed as God’s child: “This is my Son, the Beloved…” He is in the wilderness with John, on retreat from the life of village and city, but he’s not alone: There are scores, perhaps hundreds of others, flocking to hear John’s message of repentance and renewal. Jesus has come to cast his lot with theirs. So many hungry people, yearning to begin over. Yearning to find their way back to God.

The Spirit finds him there, homes in and lights like a dove on its roost. Yes: This one. This man, this dust. In him earth and heaven embrace. The kingdom of God is born here, where the two meet—in the middle of the crowd, surrounded by human conversations, shouts and sighs, crying children, prayers, arguments…

What was that like for him? We can never know. We only know what happened next: that having come home to him, the Spirit turned him around and sent him—not to Jerusalem or the nearby towns, not back up to Galilee to begin his ministry, but deeper. Deeper into the wilderness… into himself… into the immensity of God.

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.

To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,

and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,

and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

Jesus goes without sight, following the inward pull of the Spirit into the silence of hills and rocks, fasting and listening in poverty of spirit; opening himself to be searched and known; waiting patiently for the truth of who he is to come clear. In poverty. In stillness.

Hungering, he comes to know his own need. Tempted to exempt or separate himself from our human vulnerability; tempted to be special, instead of giving himself to God in trust, tempted to rule and to rise above those he has come to be with—“tempted,” as the book of Hebrews reminds us, “in every way as we are,” he waits in silence, listening in himself for the voice of God. Day by day he trains his heart on the quiet presence of the Real at the center of his being.

This is the call the Bible places before each of us from its earliest verses. God speaks, and there is light, sea and shore, bird and beast. God blesses and creation flourishes, shrub, tree, and fruit and every good thing. God calls, and human beings become participants in the care of Creation—tending and tilling, helping bring forth life from life.

But something goes awry. Another voice intrudes: a voice of doubt; a voice of mistrust. It takes God’s words and twists them, inviting Eve to question God’s motives. And Eve listens. And Adam listens to Eve. And suddenly they notice their vulnerability, and instead of trusting God, they are afraid.

“And God said, ‘Who told you you were naked?’”

Whose voice did you listen to?

The question echoes and reechoes through the pages of the Bible, from Cain and Abel to Noah to Sarah and Abraham, from Moses and the midwives to Israel in the wilderness, from Saul and the clan of David to the prophets and the psalmists…

Whose voice?

The voice of the One who called the world into being, whose love sustains our every breath, whose goodness and mercy have followed our every step, and whose promise to us is life…

or the voice of our own self-will—our need to try and secure our own future—our anxiety over our own importance—our deep misgivings about our own worth…?

…all those voices that turn us in on ourselves, and against each other…?

In the scoured and rocky wilderness of Judea, the invitation to doubt returns and returns.

“If you are the Son of God…” it says. —“IF”!

That voice who called you beloved Son? Maybe you can trust it, but you’d better be sure. You’d better shore yourself up. Protect yourself, use your powers, claim your right to rule. Use everything you’ve got.

Turn stones to bread! Throw yourself from the Temple! Let them crown you king… if that’s what you are. Satan offers Jesus many invitations.

But Jesus, steeped in the stories of his faith, recognizes the difference between the invitation of fear, and the invitation of Love welling up from his own depths—in him, and yet beyond him… the one invitation he can trust: to follow where Love leads.

Lent begins here, with this invitation to silence and stillness and listening. Listening for the voice of the Real at the center of the self.

It starts with Jesus’ willingness to be real to himself, to feel his hunger, to be present to his doubts, to recognize his desire for power and control—not to mask these temptations and not to be consumed by them, but to be with them. When we are able to be present to the truth of our lives, and especially when we take time to pay attention to what rises unbidden from the deepest parts of us, the gospel tells us that God will be with us there.

Listening with the heart doesn’t require rocks, sand, and wind, but it does take stillness and attention and the willingness to set aside our usual defenses. There’s no small discomfort in entering into that kind of quiet. It requires that we surrender our importance, our many tasks and responsibilities, our hard-earned opinions and ideas, and open ourselves to God without any conditions or expectations, consenting to the work of the Spirit within us.

“Just as I am, without one plea…”

Blessed are you poor in spirit. Blessed are you who dare to set aside the self you’ve spent a lifetime constructing, and listen deeply and simply to the truth of your being. Blessed are you who are learning to put your trust in God in a world where nothing is certain but the reality of love.

That’s God’s invitation to each of us. And let’s be honest: It’s a pretty hard one to hear. Yet Jesus emerged from his time in the wilderness with this assurance to anyone who would listen:

You shall see God.

Steve Garnaas-Holmes, pastor of St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church in Acton and author of a really wonderful blog called Unfolding Light posted a short reflection last month which could have been written for our congregation as we listen together for God’s invitation to us. He titled it simply:


Something happened to me last week. In the course of a poetry and prayer weekend, as I led people in practices of deep listening, and preached about Jesus calling the disciples, I myself heard a call.

It wasn’t as bold as Jesus’ invitation to the disciples to leave their nets; it wasn’t as clear as guidance into a new career. But it was a call, a call to follow, a call that echoes and haunts me as I listen to what it means. 

It was a voice saying, “I am here. Come be with me.” I could easily conclude it’s a call to move, though I won’t, or merely a call to lead more workshops, though I will, or even to quit the ministry and do poetry full time (now there’s a way to make more money). The call is more inward.

Jesus’ call isn’t usually a career path. But it is a vocation, a vocalization, a spoken invitation, a voice asking you to come closer. You don’t have to go off to Africa and become a missionary, though you might. It’s seldom a call to leave the place you are. No, it’s a call to go deeper. Christ calls you deeper into what you are here to do. Deeper into the present moment, deeper into relationships, deeper into the life you are already living. Deeper into the truth that is already before you. Deeper into the Presence that is already within you. It is most often not a call to go elsewhere but a call to be otherwise, to become new, to allow yourself to be transformed.

Like the fishermen and tax collectors I have made a comfortable place for myself in my life. Now Jesus calls me to let go of that familiar place and move deeper, to go on an unknown adventure on an untraveled road right where I am. It may lead me to other changes, but it will certainly lead me to a new awareness, a new way of being, a new sense of my calling, which is Christ calling to me--and so a clearer sense that I am not on my own; I am called; I am led.

Listen for that call. It’s quiet. But it will not leave you or forsake you. It comes over and over. The Beloved wants you near, while traveling that road deep into your own life; and you must follow.

What a powerful vocation to live out in a world made lonely and dangerous by lies and false allegiances. Now imagine a whole church full of people who are learning to do that.

Might that be God’s call to First Church in Cambridge? to this community I have loved for almost 30 years for your willingness to be real and human with each other, to learn and grow and care and forgive even when that’s really hard…?

Today at lunch, and on Sundays to come, we’ll have the opportunity to wonder about that together. We’ll be invited to talk to each other about where we’ve felt God moving in our lives, and where we sense God might be calling us now. Together, we’ll practice living into our covenant to support each other in our frailties and strengths, that we may embody the love that overcomes fear and death… confessing always our reliance on God’s grace  in Christ, and on the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Beloved, it is enough.

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.

To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,

and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,

and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.



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