Posted by: owizblog | December 9, 2012

The Voice: Sermon, UCB, 9 12 12

Luke 3:1-6



There’s a story that always makes me smile, and I can’t find any disrespect in it anywhere. Quite the opposite in fact – which might be part of why it makes me smile.

Chistmas morning, in the Master’s Lodge in a Cambridge college. Jesus College, Cambridge. The wife of the Master answers it. A voice says “Is that Jesus?” “Yes…” says the Master’s wife.

“Happy birthday to you, / Happy birthday to you…”

The disembodied voice…

So, John the Baptist rocks up, looking, dressing, coming over very weird, and starts preaching. And people listen to him. Because whatever else he is, he’s a voice, and a voice saying things that people can’t not listen to.

And they want to know who and what he is.

And he says “I’m a voice.”

And he’s quoting; quoting from the first appearance in the text of the Bible of perhaps the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, a prophet so great – we don’t even know his name! Chapters 1 to 39 of the Book of Isaiah are the deposit in literature of Isaiah of Jerusalem, warning and scolding Judah at the time of the Assyrian crisis which spans the end of the eighth century BC and the start of the seventh – the seven-hundreds BC and the six-hundreds BC, if you like. But bound into Isaiah’s big book are the record of the preaching of two other prophets, whose names we don’t know. Biblical scholars being full of imagination, they get called the Second Isaiah, and the Third Isaiah.

The Second Isaiah is preaching a long time after Isaiah of Jerusalem, in the middle of the sixth century – the five-hundreds BC – when the Assyrians, having wiped the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom, Israel, from the face of the earth, have themselves been conquered and replaced by the Babylonians. And the Babylonians have overrun Judah, captured Jerusalem, and taken away the group of people who actually ran things there to exile, and hopelessness.

It’s to that despairing group that a prophet suddenly starts preaching, talking about God in ways that had never been heard before. We don’t know his name. We only know him as the Second Isaiah.

And it’s the Second Isaiah, in chapter 40 of the Book of Isaiah, who introduces himself as A Voice.

Specifically, he says – well, you can punctuate this two ways. “I’m a voice, comma, crying in the wilderness…” Or: “I’m a voice crying, comma, quotation marks, “In the wilderness, prepare the way of God…”

Since the whole of Second Isaiah’s message turns on the theme of liberation, of the road across the desert back home, of a second Exodus even bigger than the first, we read his words as “A voice crying: ‘In the wilderness, prepare the way of God…’”

But John, trying to explain who he is, boils it down even further. “I am a voice, crying in the wilderness…” Just that. Just a voice…



We underestimate the power of the voice alone. I was going to say “the disembodied voice” – but that wouldn’t be quite right. Our human experience of voices isn’t that they are always embodied. Many people, many more than we would think, live with the constant presence of voices that aren’t “embodied” – but a voice is always a presence-to-us, even when it implies someone who in other respects isn’t there. And even when that someone is me.

There’s a film – perhaps the last of the Cold War thrillers, set in a world which might come to an end four minutes after you heard the warning on the TV or the radio – called By Dawn’s Early Light. Set in the era of glasnost, the thawing of the Cold War and the vast easing of relations between the countries of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, it turns on the launching against the Soviet Union of a nuclear missile by dissident Soviet forces, to trigger a nuclear response against the West. It works, and the American President is woken from a late-night doze in front of the TV to be told that a missile strike is on its way in, and that his Emergency War Order officer is about to arrive with the launch codes.

The film is intricate, and draws out the human agony of people on bith sides, and all levels,who are forced by duty to play their roles in a vast military machine. The Soviet President teletypes a message explaining that this is not a pre-emptive attack, and begging his counterpart not to retaliate – or at least not to retaliate with a strike larger than the one they are about to suffer. If the American response is contained, the Soviets will stop, and they may all take stock. Against huge pressure from his own military, the American President agrees; but then a misunderstanding leads to the assumption that the Soviets have launched again, and the American response escalates the whole thing further.

In the middle of all this, Washington is struck by two thermonuclear weapons, the Vice-President and the Cabinet are all uncontactable if they are still alive – and the US President’s helicopter crashes.

Desperately needing a civilian leader to head their military machine, the Air Force pick up the Secretary of the Interior – now the only person they can find who is in the constitutional line of succession – to exercise the powers of the Presidency. He is a mediocre, belligerent, uncomprehending man of scant vision – but he has the codes, the missiles, the bombers and the submarines at his disposal, and he wants, absurdly, to use this gigantic nuclear arsenal to “win the war.” Over the advice of his senior military aides, who see clear signs that the Soviets are desperately looking for a way to “turn this thing off,” he decides on a colossal strike aimed at obliterating them, which will, of course, invite them to launch the same back, in the seconds left for them to do it.

presidential phone

Meanwhile, the President isn’t dead. He’s in an emergency centre in Maryland, badly hurt and blinded by a nuclear flash. He doesn’t have his codes, only the memory of the words he used to launch the first response, now expired. But he has managed to establish a tenuous radio link with the Soviet President, and now he’s trying to talk to one of the Air Force’s command planes, code-named “Looking Glass” – to a burly Air Force General codenamed Alice. You’ll remember that the voice of Darth Vader, in Star Wars, was the incomparable James Earl Jones. (Just the voice, interestingly enough. Darth Vader’s body was of course Dave Prowse.) Well, James Earl Jones is Alice…

And Alice isn’t for talking to someone who might, for all he knows, be a Russian trained to sound like the missing US President. His orders are to deal only with the Presidential successor in the other aircraft, the man with the codes. The man who has just ordered the End of the World. The man, in the film, who has just sacked him for refusing to obey direct orders to bring that about.

That man is the President, so the law tells him. This other man is just a voice on the radio. No codes. No presidential plane. Just a voice, asking for trust…

“Charlie, its me…”

And there’s only only test he can apply, which is a test that no amount of electronic examination of sound patterns, no voiceprint analysis, could settle for him. Any one of those would tell him whose voice he was listening to, but without the codes in the briefcase, none of them could authorize him to listen to it, to take it seriously, to do what it asks.

In fact, there’s nothing left any more that can. Unless he himself believes the claim that this voice lays on his attention.

“Charlie – it’s me…”

It isn’t simple, this business of the voice, and its claims on us.



I suspect we’ve all thought a lot, this week, about what we might have done had we been called to the phone in the early hours of the morning, in the middle of a long shift, and told that we were speaking to the Queen, who wanted us to do something for her.

I can understand people’s execration of the stupid prank that two Australian disc-jockeys pulled, phoning the King Edward VII Hospital pretending to be the Queen, and asking for details of the Duchess of Cambridge’s health. I can’t see what they hoped to get from it beyond a silly and rather cheap laugh at someone’s discomfiture as they tried to decide what to do. I’ve occasionally had prank calls – I can remember two of them – in which I answered the phone to a voice claiming to be someone it probably “just couldn’t be,” and being fairly sure that I was talking to a prankster, and thinking “Well yes, if that really is who they say they are, and I tell them to grow up and not be so silly, it won’t be a good outcome for this call…”


But I was also thinking “I’m a Minister, and I can’t tell who this is, and it might be someone I know, and however stupid they are being, and however irritated I am, I’m not going to lose my cool. I’m going to go with it…”

I imagine that nurses have that same sense of being constrained by who they are, and how people expect them to behave.

So there’s uncertainty. Anxiety… Insecurity…

I wonder if the two Australian DJs pitched their prank into that expectation. “Nobody at the King Edward VII Hospital is actually going to tell us how the Queen’s daughter-in-law is; but then again, nobody at the King Edward VII Hospital is actually going to be rude to us, either; they’re going to sound a bit silly, fluffing and flustering, and finding ways of saying things without saying anything, and putting us off in an awkwardly stilted and polite way – and it could be funny… If you find that sort of thing funny…

They were being stupid and crass.

And most people, at some time, have been stupid and crass. I certainly have…

And what it will have done to them, to their lives, to the sense they have of the people they are, is awful to contemplate.

Thy probably never imagined whatever position it was that they put the poor woman who took their call, and couldn’t live with the consequences, into.

And most of us will at some time have put people into consequences that were vastly more awful than we ever bothered to imagine – though not, please God, on this tragic scale –  and most people are spared the horror of finding out the damage wrought by their thoughtlessness in the lives of other people.

These two broadcasters have not been spared that.

We should think of them, too, with compassion.


I can’t defend the crass and irresponsible thing that they did. But I do find elements of the huge global popular response to that genuinely frightening. It’s a “blame game.” And I suspect that millions of people who heard the taped conversation on the news responded first of all not by thinking, of the nurse, “That poor woman!”

I imagine that millions of people literally or metaphorically slapped their foreheads in superior stupefaction as the call – the voice – was taken at face value. I imagine the number of people was tiny, who thought “How clear-headed would I be at five in the morning?” or “How do you tell a voice that just might be the Queen ‘I’m awfully sorry, your Majesty, I can’t just tell you that over the phone.’” Or “The real Queen wouldn’t put anybody  on the spot like that…”

On the contrary, millions of people will have thought “They’d never have caught me out like that!”

And worse.

And millions of people will have laughed…

Millions of people who are now demanding that blame be pinned on two Australian DJs for their crass stunt. Because if they get the blame, so the reasoning goes, we are absolved. (Rather like blaming the tabloid press for intrusions into people’s lives, while insisting that we can’t raise the interesting subject of people who buy and read such papers for their gossip and intrusion…)

As I say, I’m not minimizing the stupid stunt, or its impact – but it’s hard to imagine that a sense of the mockery of millions after the clip was broadcast and rebroadcast around the world isn’t a very big part of all of this.


Two voices. A voice claiming to be dressed in authority and power, demanding politely – because power and authority can afford to be polite, and this voice has dressed itself in power and authority. A pleading voice, a voice whose claim to a hearing, to any authority at all, can only rest on its being recognized as moral, as compelling, in this situation…

Two voices. And two situations, the one governed by fear, the other decided by trust.

One in which a voice on the phone claims to be the Queen – and what happens if you rebuff it brusquely, ask for identification, tell it to call back later?

The other in which the voice on the line claims to be the voice that should be listened to, the moral voice with the moral right to be heard – but shorn of all the authority that could demand a hearing for it. Just a voice…

Too often, people have expected the voice that speaks of God, and for God, to be the voice of power and might and authority in the world. The voice that comes rubber-stamped with the right to command. The voice that you listen to because it’s big and bold and frightening. That’s why people will do such stupid and awful things in the name of religion.

christian hatred

That’s why when people start thinking that they can speak in God’s name, they start bullying other people. That’s why people condemn and judge, because they think they are only saying what God says. God’s voice, and the voice that speaks for God, is powerful and loud, they think. God’s voice makes life hell for people who don’t respect and fear it, they think.

We have to take responsibility for the voices we choose to listen to, and take seriously. We have to measure them against what we know of God. God as revealed in Jesus Christ. We have to ask: is this a Christ-like voice?

Does it demand fear?

Or does it plead for trust?

And John the Baptist comes along, and he says “I’m nothing but a voice. I’ve nothing to make you listen to me, no way of forcing you to hear me – but I’ll tell you this. I’m here to tell you that the next voice you’ll hear is God’s…”

And God speaks. In a Gospel, a story, the story of a human life in which God is completely, utterly and vulnerably present. In a word made flesh, in openness and vulnerability. A word that’s simultaneously easy and impossible to shut up. A word that can be tortured and crucified, but won’t go away.

John comes along. A voice crying in the wilderness. No more. And then Jesus comes along. “Follow me…”

Faith isn’t a matter of being bullied into believing by a big loud voice of authority. Some people think it is, and some people think it should be, but it isn’t.

Faith is a matter of listening to a voice which calls on you, and not being able not to believe in it…


NOTES: Hmmm..


  1. Love the film clips.

    • Oops, and the sermon too.

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