How do we know when it’s the voice of God? For the past few weeks, we’ve been focusing on vocation, the idea of a calling from God. And as we’ve moved through various Bible stories, we have tried to connect their lives with ours. Whether it was Jonah’s desperate desire to run away from God, or Ruth’s willingness to hold her convictions loosely for the sake of love and faith, each of the characters we have studied has taught us something about what it means to be beloved of God.
But…how do we know when it’s the voice of God?
That’s probably the trickiest question of all. After all, very few of us have had that dramatic moment worthy of Biblical accounting where heaven and earth stood still, God leaned down, and said, “Mind if I have a word with you?” I think most of us can get behind the idea that God works and speaks through others. The church can be that voice, or a loved one, or even a complete stranger, at times…God uses others to speak to us. A thought for the margins: God uses us to speak to others. But that story will keep for another day.
So when that other person is speaking to us, how do we know if it’s the voice of God?
The lesson we just read from Luke’s gospel is a familiar one. We read it during Advent every year in the lead up to Christmas. And what we seem to take away from it is how willing and obedient Mary was. This young girl, engaged, but not married, was told by an angel that she is pregnant. And her reply was the same one that echoed out of history through the replies of the patriarchs and matriarchs and prophets whenever they heard the voice of God speaking their names: “Here I am.” And Mary went on to embellish it, with words that seem to sum up her willingness to do God’s will: “I am a servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”
Not much later in the story, Mary will give birth to the baby Jesus. Angel choruses will be spread across the sky, shepherds will come running down from the hills with news of what this baby will mean to God’s people. And Mary, faithful Mary, will gently “ponder these things in her heart.” It’s beautiful…frankly, it’s a little too beautiful.
I don’t know about you, but that kind of simple trust makes it very difficult for me to connect with Mary, as much as I might want to. Deep down, I’m a skeptic. Scratch that: my skepticism isn’t that far from the surface. In a group of clergy, I was once asked what my spiritual gift was, and my answer was “snark.” If someone comes to me claiming to be an angel of the Lord, my first reaction is to assume that they are selling something I don’t need. I would love to be that willing and obedient; but…
But what? What’s the hesitation? Is it a love of sophistication, of complicating things that really deserve simplicity? Or is there something actually redeeming in a tendency toward doubt? I have always found solace in the fact that most of the Biblical giants have deep, deep flaws. Moses must have driven God crazy with his constant demurring from leadership. David, the great king, was a masterful politician and soldier, but left a lot to desire when it came to marital fidelity. Jacob was tricky; Elijah gave up; Jonah ran away; Peter denied; Thomas doubted; Paul persecuted…the truth is that we cynics have a wealth of Biblical characters as a reflection of ourselves. But Mary…she simply stuns with her willing embrace of this earth-shattering news. When I read about Mary, I begin to understand why she is so elevated in the Catholic tradition. It is though she is unrelatable to our lives, unapproachable in her holiness.
But then again, maybe we missed something in the lesson. Could it be that we don’t know the story as well as we think we do? Is there wisdom in looking at it again, carefully, deliberately, just in case we might have missed something the first, second, third times around?
Today’s lesson begins with the angel Gabriel dispatched to Nazareth, fresh off of his visit to Zechariah and Elizabeth with news of a surprise pregnancy. When Gabriel greets Mary, her first reaction isn’t welcome or prayer; it’s confusion. And when he shares the news of another miraculous pregnancy, she doesn’t reply with a faith-filled “let it be with me according to thy word”; it’s a question. It is only after Gabriel reminds her of what has just happened to Elizabeth, her cousin, a woman whom the text indelicately describes as being in her “old age”, who is now six months pregnant, soon to be the mother of John the Baptist; it is only then that Mary seems to begin embracing the news that is so hard to believe that it is borderline far-fetched.
Gabriel’s final words ring in the ears: “Nothing is impossible for God.”
So back to our original question: How do we know when it is the voice of God?
There are two moments that I take away from Mary’s story that begin to help me answer this question for myself:
The first moment is the asking. Test the voice, the messenger, the angel-elect. Don’t take the word at face value. Mary’s question is a great one: “How can this be?” There is, in her question, hope for the skeptics among us. Even in the presence of a bona fide angel, even blessed Mary can be dubious. When we are faced with what claims to be a voice of God, we are welcome, encouraged, even required to question it. “How can this be?”
And the second moment is the track record. It is only when Gabriel reminds Mary that this very same miracle has just taken place with her cousin Elizabeth that she is even willing to consider the possibility. How can she be pregnant? The same way that Elizabeth can be pregnant. Or is God merely a one-act play? When we come up against that moment of possibility, that thing that might appear too good or too fantastical to be true, can we pause and remember if have we seen God at work in the same way in the lives of others?
I don’t know where this story may or may not connect with you. Perhaps there’s a decision you need to make, one where you need the voice of God to come ringing through loud and clear. Or maybe there’s a word of encouragement or comfort that can keep you going, bring you some healing, take you a little further down the road.
How will you know it when you hear it? Will you recognize the angel when it arrives? Are you going to take or reject it at face value? Or will you quiz, ask, probe, test it until you know that God really is at work in it all?
Friends, the incredible thing, the almost unbelievable thing, is that God is closer to us than our own breath. We are the body of Christ! And Christ lives within us just as much as Christ lived within Mary. May it be this truth that shakes and moves us down to the very fiber of our being.
Whether we are conducting a capital campaign or feeding the hungry, whether we swing hammers for Habitat or welcome our neighbors, whether we gather for study or fellowship, we are the body of Christ! And it is this same Christ who calls, redeems, and moves us into God’s future! And friends, that future is too good, too fantastical to be true. May we know it!