Trinity 12 – The Voice of the Turtle

Jesus charged them to tell no one.
But the more he charged them,
the more zealously they proclaimed it.
[Mark 7:36]

Last Sunday we celebrated the Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord (transferred from August 6) – the moment when Jesus brought Peter, James and John to a high mountain apart and revealed to them something of his glory – light shining from within him, Jesus’ divine nature pouring forth for a moment.

And His transfiguration points to our own illumination inwardly by God through Jesus Christ.  This is something affirmed in today’s readings.

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T12 - MosesCommandments-RembrandtIn the Epistle (2 Corinthians 3:4-9), St Paul compares the Old Mosaic Covenant with the New Covenant in Jesus Christ.  St Paul contrasts the Old Covenant, describing it as “the letter”, with the New Covenant, described as “the Spirit”.  He says the Old Covenant is the “ministry of death carved in letters on stone”, referring to the tablets of the Law of Moses.  It is the “ministry of condemnation”, because the words themselves act as a kind of mirror to show us that we are all sinners deserving of death and in need of being forgiven.

The New Covenant is the “ministry of the Spirit”, it is the “ministry of righteousness.”  It “far exceeds [the Old Covenant] in glory”, for a few reasons.

First, it acts in a way to reveal to us our sin, but not from someone else telling us from without, but by hearing inwardly, each of us individually, the call to repent.  That inner Voice reveals to us the Truth about ourselves as we can bear it – and calls us to the highest love, not only in our outward deeds, but in the thoughts of our hearts.

T12 - Turtledove
Wild European turtle dove, Saverio Manetti, 18th century

But that Voice of the Spirit does not just speak of sin, outward and inward, but speaks words of the love of Jesus Christ, words of encouragement – like the Song of Songs, like the wooing of a Lover – the Voice of the Bridegroom [e.g. John 3:29], the Voice of Lady Wisdom [e.g. Proverbs 8].  With the calling to account, is the song of the turtledove [S. of Solomon 2:12], the unveiling of a new place, a place of eternal Spring – even the Paradise of God.  The Spirit both leads us from sin but also gives us a cloak of righteousness, the wedding garments of purity through our union with Jesus Christ even now [Isa 61:10]… and over time the Spirit gives us the grace to amend our lives, to change inwardly, not only to be accounted righteous (His justifying grace), but to become righteous as Jesus is righteous (His sanctifying grace).  Both an inward hearing and an inward willing of the good that we hear.  We are infilled with the Voice of Love and it makes us into better lovers.

This is a “ministry of righteousness” that far exceeds in glory what is possible by the hearing of the Word of Love, the Law of Moses, outwardly with our bodily ears.

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In the Gospel this morning (St. Mark 7:31-37), Jesus Christ is in our midst – we see Jesus responding to the intercessions of the friends of a man who could not hear and could not ask for himself what he needed.  It says these people brought the man, perhaps he was too shy to come forward, and they begged Jesus to heal him.

Jesus cures a Deaf-and-Mute man. c. 15th century. Illuminated Manuscript Codex Vindobonensis Palatinus

Jesus takes the man aside, perhaps because he knows the man is more able to receive his ministrations in private.  “Jesus put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue.  And looking up to heaven, he sighed…”  Luther says, “he sighed” not just for this man’s brokenness, but for all of humanity’s inability to hear God and knowing the great evils that come forth from the mouths of humanity.  “He sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha”, that is, “Be opened.”  And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.

This is the ministration of the Spirit in the New Covenant to each one of us: the opening our ears to hear God’s Voice, the Voice of Jesus Christ, and the loosening of our tongues to speak more plainly, more clearly.

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But let’s look a little more at these gifts: hearing and speaking.

What is it to hear God’s voice?

If you’ve been following the daily readings, over the past week you will have read the latter parts of Jeremiah [see Jeremiah 42-43] and the beginning of Ezekiel.  It is around 6 centuries before Christ, when the Babylonians were surrounding the city of Jerusalem.  Jeremiah has been told by God to tell the people that if they submit to the Babylonians and allow themselves to be taken captive, that they will survive.  Some stay and refuse this counsel.  The situation becomes worse for those who stay in Jerusalem, and they go to Jeremiah, and they tell him they will listen to what God wants them to do?  They are emphatic, whatever God says, we will do it!  Then Jeremiah tells them that God sees they are planning to go to Egypt to escape from all the madness of their enemy, the Babylonians, and from the harsh conditions in Israel itself.  God says, Whatever you do, do not go to Egypt, that will only result in your destruction.  So what do the people do?  They go to Egypt.

And as we read this, it is heartbreaking to imagine the distress of these people and the choices before them.  And we have to think to ourselves about what is it to hear God’s voice?  Those people came recognizing Jeremiah’s authority as a prophet, but when it comes to the hard message that God had to tell them through him, they choose not to hear him.

The desire to hear the Voice of God is something spoken of a lot in the New Wine movement, and we had a course in the chaplaincy recently that was quite interesting that some of us attended.  Hearing the voice of God is of course at the heart of the whole mystical tradition of the Church through the ages – the desire and expectation to hear that still small Voice!

What about us?  Will we take the time to listen?  And will we hear the Voice of God, only so long as it fits in with our plans already?  What if we hear that Voice and it is calling us to something that seems our very destruction?  Jesus tells us, unless we lose our lives for His sake – that is, give up our own ideas of what life is – only then will we find true life. [e.g. St Matthew 10:39; 16:25; St John 12:25]

We can see that hearing, has to do not just with understanding the actual message itself, but it has to do with obedience to that call.  This is not easy at all – if we think God’s Word is easy, we have not been hearing the Voice of God.  It is a radical hearing that will save us and it will mean that everything changes for us.

Jesus sighs in the Gospel, because elsewhere (in his dealings with his beloved people from the beginning) he laments, “Hearing they do not hear.” [e.g. Isa 6:9; Mark 4:12]

And what about the gift of speaking plainly?

At its most basic level, surely it has to do with opening our mouths in prayer to ask God for those things that are most important?  To be filled with His Spirit?  To receive spiritual gifts?  For the Truth to transform us, illuminate us, even to wound us that He might make us whole?  To use our mouths not to tear down but to build up others?  To use our mouths to give praise and glory to God, its ultimate end?

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In the Gospel this morning there is this very strange element in this healing miracle, I don’t know if you heard it, a puzzling element, which perhaps is there to show us the brokenness of humanity and God’s loving mercy despite it.

The crowds do not seem to have been so much moved by Jesus’ words as by the miracle that they saw – the healing of the man deaf and with a speech impediment.  They “hear”, in a sense, when they see the power of God, and only then are their tongues are loosed to speak, perhaps for the first time, the praises of God – he has done all things well!  But we see also a kind of ambiguity – because the crowd both “hear” and they don’t “hear.”

The Gospel says that after the miracles, Jesus charged them to tell no one.  But the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.

Why are they speaking out?  Is it to boast about being there to see some spectacular event? Quick, put it on Facebook, on Twitter! I was there!  But will their hearing of His words, the seeing of the miracle, change their lives?  Have they heard but not heard?

And what about us?  Do we see how we are both hearing and not hearing?  Do you expect, do you truly desire, to hear the voice of God inwardly, personally, to your soul to day?  What about our obedience that Word, that Voice?  What if the Voice tells us to go to the end of the earth away from our current comforts, or what if it tells us to stay right where we are in a difficult situation rather than following the temptation to flee?  What about our obedience to the moral life, the high calling of the moral laws, which is to truly love our neighbour?  Are we ready to act on what God is speaking to us in our hearts?  Perhaps a radical giving up of something very dear to us, that we might find everything?

God’s Word today challenges all of us because you and I know that not one of us is fully responding to that Voice.  But we also know that that Voice only wants what is best for us, it is a Voice most patient, most kind, most loving, most merciful, it is a Voice wooing us, speaking to us from Paradise…and even now calling us to the marriage feast of the Lamb.

Amen.