Lily Tomlin once said, “If you speak with God, they call it prayer; but if God speaks to you, they think you’re crazy.” Last Sunday on the Mount of Transfiguration, Peter and the other two disciples heard a voice from heaven. We are told that they didn’t tell anytone about it until after the resurrection. They seem to have taken Lily Tomlin’s advice to heart. I don’t know how many of you have heard God speak to you, but we all hear voices both outside and inside ourselves every day. These voices dialogue with us in words that affect us deeply at our core, for better and for worse:
* Your boss gives you a poor performance review and you hear it as her thinking you are basically worthless. Certain voices inside you echo that word, telling you you’ll never be able to hold a decent job.
* A friend thanks you for listening to him when he was venting his anger at a partner. An inner voice affirms that you're mostly a caring person.
* A coworker tells you how you can make a little extra money. It’s legal and it won’t really hurt the company, but you should keep it a secret. A little voice inside suggests that you won’t feel very good about doing it. Another voice tells you that you deserve it and it won’t hurt anyone.
* A partner tells you that you treated her like trash in front of a friend. An inner voice starts shouting that no one ever understands you.
Voices call us to do certain things and to be certain ways. They lead to actions that expand or shrink our lives. They carry us into ways of thinking about ourselves that enhance or encumber our lives.
Evan Pigford in his poem in our Preparation speaks of these voices. One voice gets shouted down by another. But both need to be heard. Some voices whisper. Other voices shout. Sometimes we need to heed the shouting voices and resist the whispers; at other times we need to heed the whispering voices and ignore the shouting. In order to pay attention to the right voice we need to learn Volume Control. When different voices call us to life or to death, to fulfill our destiny or to shrink in fear, we need to learn how to adjust the right mix of voices to create the desired impact, just like a sound editor does in a music studio.
How do we learn this skill? One way is to embrace temptation – like a lost child trying to find the way home. But doesn’t the Bible tell us to “flee temptation?” Why should we embrace it? Because it’s what Jesus did: He went right from his baptism, where he heard a voice call him beloved, to the wilderness, where none but God, the beasts and the tempter dwelt. Jesus was driven by the Spirit to the wilderness to embrace temptation in order to strengthen him to fulfill his destiny. Jesus was going to face huge challenges in his short life. Like the rest of us, he didn’t even know how huge they were. He would face many temptations along the way; temptations that could compromise his mission, or cause him to miss it altogether. And again like us, Jesus was both strong & weak. So it was necessary to leave all the supports behind, embrace temptation and test his identity against the harsh backdrop of the wilderness.
Believe it or not, we’re more like than unlike Jesus. We have a mission in life - we have no idea how important a mission. We are strong and weak. So the need to embrace temptation is no less for us than for Jesus. Sometimes it’s necessary to turn up the volume on all those voices, to encounter the world without the multitude of painkillers we’re addicted to, without anesthesia, to find out what life is like with no comfort but God.
Most of us know we’re addicted to something, whether it be eating, shopping, blaming or taking care of other people. An addiction is anything we use to fill the empty place inside of us that belongs to God alone. The hollowness isn’t a sign of something wrong. It’s the holy of holies inside us, the uncluttered throne room of God. Nothing on earth can fill it, but that doesn’t stop us from trying. Whenever we start feeling too empty inside, the temptation is to stick a pacifier into our mouth and suck for all we are worth. It doesn’t nourish us, but at least it plugs the hole. (Barbara Brown Taylor)
The church, and even the government, has been eager to help us flee temptation. Nearly 100 years ago Congress passed a constitutional amendment to prohibit the sale of liquor in an attempt to get the country to clean up its act. Prohibition didn’t last long before it was rescinded because it was a moral pacifier rather than moral nourishment. We’re wrestling with the same tension in the debate around the legalization of marijuana.
How can parents, the church, and even the government provide moral nourishment rather than moral pacifiers? Jesus’ encounter with the tempter suggests that our primary task is to teach the stories that give people their identity. Jesus had just been baptized and identified by a voice from heaven as the Son, the Beloved. Then Luke traced Jesus’ genealogy through David, Jacob, Noah, Adam and God. Jesus knew who he was because he’d been taught all those stories, and had them at his fingertips in the midst of temptation. He’d heard about their successes and failures; he understood that both were part of life.
What does it mean to be about God’s business in God’s way? For 40 days alone with the devil, out of place, weakened by hunger Jesus wrestled with that question. We need to wrestle with it too. The answer is costly, difficult and risky. It requires trusting a path that we intuitively know is right, but which doesn’t guarantee success. How we respond depends on how well we know who we are when we’re alone; when the life supports we know are taken away; or when we’re thrust into a sense of insecurity by a series of failures that make us question who we are. These are forms that the wilderness takes.
No one told Jesus which stories to draw upon, or what those stories meant. He selected the stories, interpreted them, and claimed his identity within them, standing his ground against the devil. Israel was constantly tempted to disregard its destiny. So Jesus selected stories where God summoned Israel to its destiny. He saw himself summoned by God to his destiny and experienced the same three temptations the people did.
We are helpful when we teach stories. We’re not so helpful when we tell people which stories to tell, which voices need to speak and which need to be silenced. When people in authority do that, they simply add their voice to an already confusing dialogue.
Proof-texting is the most blatant form of this: taking stories out of context and imposing them to manipulate the situation. Satan used this technique on Jesus; Jesus saw right through it. Shakespeare said, “There is no error so gross but that some sober brow will bless it with a proper text.” Telling people which voices need to be heard is another way of sticking pacifiers in people’s mouth. The church is more helpful when it teaches people how to adjust the volume on the different voices: to listen, to discern, and to get the timing right.
Of course, this means we need patience to delay gratification.
- Children want bread now; adults have to wait until we get our paycheck.
- The oppressed want power to change hands now, but quick revolutions rarely distribute power more fairly.
- We want fame now, because it looks easy to hold a microphone & sing in front of 1000s of people. We don’t want to do the work involved in getting there.
- We want our rights now.
- We want morality now.