Prayer – Epiphany Sermon Series – 1: Daughter of a Sound

PrayerSermon series pastorDawnThree years ago, I reluctantly gave in to requests to preach on the subject of prayer and I devoted my sermons during the season of Epiphany to the subject of prayer.  I have been asked to re-post those sermons. In the course of three years, my theology has continued to evolve. However, I have resisted the temptation to edit the sermons and so the manuscripts are what they are, an exploration of sorts. Here’s the first. I shall repost the seven sermons in the series over the course of the Season of Epiphany.

Prayer #1 – Bath Qol – The Daughter of a Sound – preached on Baptism of Jesus Sunday 2012

Mark 1:4-11

And so John the Baptizer appeared in the desert, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to John and were baptized by him in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins. John was clothed in camels’ hair and wore a leather belt around his waist, and he ate nothing but grasshoppers and wild honey.

In the course of his preaching, John said, ‘One more powerful than I is to come after me. I am not fit to stoop and untie his sandal strips. I have baptized you with water, but the One to come will baptize you in the Holy Spirit. It was then that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan River by John. Immediately upon coming out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. Then a voice came from the heavens: “You are my Beloved, my Own. On you my favor rests.”

I began the sermon by asking the congregation to sing a cappella from memory the familiar hymn: I Come to the Garden.

I come to the garden alone,

while the dew is still on the Roses;

And the voice I hear,

falling on my ear the Son of God discloses.

And he walks with me, and he talks with me,

and he tells me I am his own,

And the joy we share as we tarry there,

Non other has ever known.

He speaks and the sound of his voice

Is so sweet the birds hush their singing;

And the melody that he gave to me

Within my heart is ringing,

And he walks with me, and he talks with me,

and he tells me I am his own,

And the joy we share as we tarry there,

Non other has ever known.

I’d stay in the garden with him,

Though the night around me be falling;

But he bids me go;

Through the voice of woe

His voice to me is calling.

And he walks with me, and he talks with me,

and he tells me I am his own,

And the joy we share as we tarry there,

Non other has ever known.

The season of Epiphany begins and ends with stories of Jesus’ hearing the voice of God. In this morning’s story of Jesus’ baptism, Jesus hears the voice of God as a dove descends from the clouds. On the last Sunday of Epiphany, we will hear the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop when the voice of God is heard speaking from out of a cloud. Both times the voice will say essentially the same thing: “This is my beloved”

The word Epiphany is a Greek word which means “manifestation or revelation” of the divine. Over the years, the word epiphany has been used to describe those “a ha” moments in which something quite obvious is revealed. The phrase, “I saw the light” springs to mind whenever I think of the word Epiphany. I’d like to say that I associate that particular phrase with the word epiphany because, in the season of Epiphany is the season when plunged into the darkness of winter the church celebrates light. But the truth is the word epiphany makes me think of cartoons I watched as a child, when a light bulb would appear over the head of a character when the cartoon character had a bright idea. When that light-bulbs appear in cartoons, it’s a sure sign that the character is headed for trouble, because bright ideas often get us into trouble. So, you’d think I would have known better when, earlier this week a light-bulb went off and I had a bright idea that during the season of epiphany I should begin a sermon series on the subject of prayer. I mean, what better season than the season of epiphany to tackle a subject that people have been asking me to address for months now.

Ever since we set off on this grand journey of re-thinking our theology, trying to understand Christianity in the 21st century, the issue of prayer has been lurking in the background, almost haunting us. As we’ve explored ancient and mystic, understandings of the reality that we call God our cherished notions of God as a grand puppeteer in the sky who intervenes from above to change the course of history, have been challenged. As we’ve come to understand God as more than our images of God could ever even begin to capture, we have explored the possibility that God is more immediately present in with and through us. As we begin to see God’s work in the world grounded in the world, there are moments when I really miss that grand puppeteer in the sky.

It is certainly easier to talk about prayer if your talking about appealing to an other-worldly creature to fulfill your longing for a divine parent to solve all our problems. Because seriously folks, when you give up the idol that we’ve created of a god who controls all things from up in heaven, a god who listens to our prayers and then decides what is and isn’t good for us, and answers those prayers according to some grand plan he devised eons ago, in which all we are required to do is believe that whatever happens its God’s will, and we shouldn’t question but simply believe because in the end all will be revealed, well when you give up that particular image of God, the question that haunts me, and judging by the questions and comments I’ve heard from a good many of you is,

Who or what do we pray to know?
Should we pray, and how should we pray?
And more importantly who or what will answer those prayers?

Honestly, I must confess that all week long in addition to regretting that I mentioned to anyone that I was going to tackle the issue of prayer during this epiphany season, I have found myself longing for the good old days when God was safely ensconced in his heaven and all I had to do was figure out the correct formula for prayer to entice this god to hear me, and respond in exactly the way I wanted him to respond. All week long I’ve been wishing that this epiphany God would speak to us from on high. I’ve even found myself humming old hymns as I seek epiphanies of my own with regard to prayer. One thing I have discovered is that there are no easy answers when it comes to prayer. So this morning we are going to simply scratch the surface.

This year the season of Epiphany lasts until February 19th so in addition to today, there will be seven more sermons on the subject of prayer. Today, I simply want to invite you to embark on this journey with me as together we try to work out what a life of prayer might look like in the 21st century.

But before we set off on this journey I want to make something very clear, because we are going to be straying in to new and dangerous waters and I’m sure that some of you may begin to wonder if the journey is too perilous and you might begin to fear that prayer is an illusion, or that faith is hopeless.

So, I want to say this at the outset. And I may have to say it over and over again because, I want you to remember it as we travel through these unknown waters. Despite what you may infer as we travel along, I want you all to know that I firmly believe in the power of prayer. I pray each and every day. My goal in life is to learn to as the Apostle Paul has written, “pray without ceasing”. Prayer is now and has always been at the very heart of my life. Indeed, if the truth be told, I probably became a pastor so that I could learn to pray. And while my praying together with my understanding of prayer has changed over the years, my desire to pray has not diminished anymore than my need of prayer. So, today, I want to begin by talking about our desire for prayer. Over the course of the next seven Sundays we will delve deeper into the waters and explore various aspects of prayer. We’ll use the scriptures as our guide, through the deep waters of our tradition. We’ll explore the history of prayer in the Christian church, as we drink from the refreshing wells of the mystics. We’ll open ourselves to the crashing waters of creation as we try to open our eyes to the world around us through prayer. And hopefully we’ll be ready to journey up to the mountaintop to drink from the babbling brooks that flow down to refresh the earth. As always our journey will be punctuated by stories. Remember that the waters flow swiftly, there will be rapids, and falls that lie ahead and like all flowing waters our journey will lead us to the ocean where the waters run so deep. But before we set off on our journey, we should perhaps take a look at the safety we have come to know at the shore.

I think my earliest memory of prayer is a distant memory I have of skipping along the sidewalk chanting a familiar refrain: “Don’t step on a crack or you’ll break your mother’s back.” Most of us can remember a moment from our childhood when a superstition was instilled in us that caused us to perform some ritual in order to placate the unseen power that could determine our fate. Whether it was avoiding cracks, or walking under ladders or black cats, we were trained from an early age to believe that there were powers out there that could determine our future. Now, I don’t remember whether or not I was trying to avoid a crack in the sidewalk or not, but I do remember going ass over tea-kettle and smashing my skull on the ground. By the time I reached my mother, I was still crying that soundless cry that emanates from a kid when they are in so much pain and shock that even though their mouths are wide open no sound can be heard. I was really small, perhaps 3 or 4, but I have a vague memory of my mother shouting, “Ah holy Jesus”.

Now whether this was a curse, a cry for help, or just my Irish mother punctuating a moment in her Irish way, I remember hoping that I was not going to die from the pain that was emanating from my skull. So, right then and there I asked God not only to save me but to stop the pain.

After that, my remembered prayers began to take the shape of bedtime requests to take care of Mommy & Daddy, Nanny & Granda and all the other loved ones in my life. I remember thinking that if I forgot to name one or the other of my loved ones, terrible things would happen to them, so I worked hard to make sure they all got a mention. I remember once being so angry with my brother that I deliberately left him out of my prayers. But just before I fell asleep, I had a vision his nose bleeding as it often did, only this time because I had not named him in my prayers God let his nose go on bleeding and worried that I might be the cause of my little brother bleeding to death, I got out of bed and down on my knees to pray for my brother.

I never went to church as a child so what I learned of prayer and of God and Jesus came from my parents, grand-parents and various aunts and uncles. God was to be feared, appealed to, and feared. God functioned as a kind of grand disciplinarian in the sky; a kind of boogie man who would visit all kinds of tragedy upon me and upon my loved ones if I did not behave. God was definitely an old man with a white beard who spoke with an upper-class English accent.

Sometimes when I wasn’t busy being afraid of God, God functioned as a sort of Santa Claus, or as I knew him, Father Christmas, who could bring me all sorts of presents if I prayed just right. Jesus on the other hand was kind of like my buddy. Jesus was the one who I prayed to when I was too afraid to pray to his Father, or when I thought what I was praying about wasn’t important enough for his Father to bother with. Jesus was far more friendly than his Father and way more understanding. But both of them, Jesus and especially his Father, had the power to bestow upon me anything I asked for and when they said no, it was clearly for my own good. God had a plan and it was up to me to figure out what that plan was and be happy about it. 

Later, when, as I believed then, God’s plan led me into the church at the tender age of 15, my prayers became more formal. As I learned to read my bible and pray every day, pray ever day so that I would grow, grow, grow. I began my days with prayer, and tried to remember to issue up little prayers during the day, and then continued praying before falling asleep at night. Each Sunday I would begin by going to the garden alone. Literally, I would go outside for a walk and sing to myself. My song was a sort of prayer to get God’s attention and then I would prayer about all the traumatic stuff that a teen ager prayers about. Then I’d faithfully go to church and there I would participate in the prayers of the church, which for the most part were a slightly more formal version of the prayers I’d prayed in the garden alone.

Over the years there were disappointments when God failed to do what I had faithfully asked God to do, but I was willing to believe that God had a plan, and one day I’d understand why God had said, “no” and I’d be grateful to God for having loved me enough to say, ‘no’ to me. There were times when the suffering of loved ones caused me to shake my fist at God in anger. But my faith never wavered. I figured that God must like a good argument, cause the bible was full of stories about people arguing with God, so I walked, with him and I talked with him, and he told me I was his own, and from time to time, I shouted at him, and I argued with him, and I cried with him, and always knew that no matter what I could always go to the garden alone while the dew was still on the roses.

Looking back on it know there was a distinct pattern to my prayers. I would talk and God would listen. God never got a word in edgeways. I would talk and God would listen. God would answer me one way or another, but I would talk and then God would listen. The Church reinforced this model. In the beginning the pastor would talk, while God listened. Sometimes the congregation would talk, while God listened.

Today, before we head off into the crashing waters of creation to see what we can learn about prayer, I’d like us to begin not by going to the garden, whether it’s alone or together to walk and talk with God but rather to pause for a moment to listen.I said before that epiphany begins and ends with the voice of God. So that’s where our epiphany journey will begin and end with the voice of God.

In the scriptures the voice of God is named in the Hebrew as the bath qol (or bat cole). Which literally translates as “the daughter of a sound”.

The daughter of a sound. I’d always imagined the voice of God as a deep bass booming from on high. But our ancestors imagined the voice of God as the daughter of a sound. Elijah hears the Bat Cole when the presence of God passes by him and the Hebrew for daughter of a sound has been translated as a still small voice or the translation that I love, is Elijah heard the sound of the thinnest silence. The voice of God, the daughter of a sound is the sound of the thinnest silence, a still small voice, clearly beyond the boundaries of speech. I know that some of you have heard the bat cole. I also know that in order to hear the daughter of a sound, the thinnest silence, the still small voice, you must begin by listening. I suspect that if all you can hear is the booming baritone from on high you might miss the thinnest silence of the daughter of a sound.

Over the years, I have come to believe that if we listen we will hear the bat cole . For the God I am coming to know is the God who lives and breathes in with and through us. The daughter of a sound can be heard if we listen. When I was a child, I remember being handed a large seashell. I was told that if I put the seashell up against my ear I would hear the sound of the ocean. As I grew up, I learnt the that the sound that I was hearing was not actually the ocean. I learned this the day that I cupped my hand over my ear and heard the very same sound. I learned that it was a sound that emanated from deep inside of me.

While I still love the notion that I might be able to hear the ocean, I am even more intrigued that I can hear a sound that emanates from deep within. Sometimes when I can’t for the life of me, hear the Bat Cole, when the still small, daughter of a sound eludes me no matter how hard I’ve been trying to listen, I will cup my hands over my ears and then that sound that emanates from deep with in will help me to hear the Bat Cole. And so before we leave the garden on the shore, before we leave behind the booming, tones of God as he walks and talks with us, we need to pause, take some time to listen.

Cup your hands over your ears if you need to be reminded of the sound that emanates from deep within. Listen to your life. Listen to what happens to you, because it is through what happens to you that God speaks.

It’s often difficult to hear, but its there, powerfully, memorably, unforgettably in ways that will nourish, ground and sustain us as we wade in the waters of life. This week, I encourage you to linger on the shore, only keep your mouths shut, and listen. Listen for the daughter of a sound, who will speak to you in the thinnest of silence. And the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.   Shuuusssssshhh!

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