Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of Mark by Marcus Borg

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How can I know when it is God who is speaking to me?

Whenever we experience a sense of calling from God, we generally receive that experience with a degree of ambiguity.

Listening for the Voice of God

Written By Marcus Borg

I was struck this year during the season of Epiphany, that season of the church year that immediately precedes the season of Lent. The Epiphany both begins and ends with stories from the Gospels in which we hear the Voice of God.

On the first Sunday in Epiphany we hear the story of the baptism of Jesus, with its climax in the Voice of God speaking to Jesus, "You are my beloved. In you I am well pleased."

And then on the last Sunday in Epiphany, immediately before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of our Lenten journey, we hear the Transfiguration story in which Jesus and the inner core of his disciples ascend to a high mountain. And this time it is the disciples who hear the Voice of God. The Voice of God says this time, "This is my beloved son. Listen to him." The disciples, in a way, represent us in that passage. "Listen to him." Listen to Jesus.

This phenomenon of the Divine Voice actually has a name in the Jewish tradition. The Hebrew phrase that names this Divine Voice [because the Divine Voice is known in stories of the Rabbis as well and not just in stories of Jesus] is bat cole. Let me translate that for you, because it's very interesting. Translated into English, bat cole means "the daughter of a sound." What kind of metaphor is this? The Voice of God, the Divine Voice, is the daughter of a sound.

We hear this same voice in the Hebrew Bible in I Kings 18, the story of Elijah in a cave when the presence of God passes past him. We are told in the English translations of that story that Elijah hears a still, small voice — that's the bat cole, the daughter of a sound.

The Hebrew for the voice that Elijah hears, translates literally into English as "Elijah heard the sound of thinnest silence." So the daughter of a sound, the sound of thinnest silence, a still, small voice, all different ways of attempting to express this that lies perhaps beyond the boundaries of speech.

Have you ever heard this Voice? My wife was leading a Sunday morning group a couple of weeks ago in which she explained to the group this notion of the bat cole, and after explaining it, she asked the group, "Have any of you ever heard this Voice?" And several in the group had.

One woman spoke about a time when she was seven years old and when she heard a Voice speak to her as clearly as any voice has ever spoken to her, "You belong to me." Then she said, "I didn't hear it with my ear. But I heard it."

Another woman reported an evening when she had an extraordinarily strong sense of the presence of Jesus in the room, and she said to Jesus, "Where have you been?" And she heard a Voice say back to her, "I never left you." And, again, she said, "I didn't hear it with my ear. But I heard the Voice."

It would be very interesting to ask you, "How many of you have heard such a Voice?" I'm not going to ask for a show of hands. But it would be interesting to know that. Even if you've never heard such a Voice, it's okay, because God also speaks to us in less dramatic ways.

We sometimes hear the Voice of God in our dreams, if we know how to listen for it. We sometimes hear the Voice of God in what our Quaker friends refer to as leadings or proddings, colloquially … in nudges and clobbers; if you don't get the nudge, you might get a clobber.

We sometimes hear the Voice of God, again, in a less dramatic way in the events of our lives. The contemporary Christian writer, Frederick Buechner, has a wonderful way of putting this. Buechner writes,

Listen to your life. Listen to what happens to you, because it is through what happens to you that God speaks. It's in language that's not always easy to decipher, but it's there, powerfully, memorably, unforgettably.
(Excerpt from Listening to Your Life : Daily Meditations with Frederick Buechner by Frederick Buechner)

And so God speaks to us in the events of our lives.

Now, don't do something weird with that and think that that means that everything that happens to us is somehow God trying to get our attention. It doesn't mean that. It's more sacramental than that; that in, with, and under the events of our lives, we are being addressed by God.

God sometimes speaks to us through Scripture, through that meditative devotional use of Scripture that many of you are familiar with, perhaps, in a daily practice.

And God also speaks to us through the liturgical seasons of the church here. Indeed, that's one of their central purposes.

So we are back to the season of Epiphany and Lent and back to that bat cole—that voice that we hear in the Transfiguration story on the Sunday before the beginning of Lent.

In that story, as I've already mentioned, the Voice of God—the bat cole—speaks to the disciples, to us, and it says, "Listen to him." That is, listen to Jesus.

And immediately after the Transfiguration story in Mark's gospel--also in Matthew and Luke--immediately after that Voice has said, "Listen to him," we get the story of Jesus' final journey from Galilee to Jerusalem.

As I've said … the season of Lent is about journeying with Jesus on that journey; listening to Jesus as he journeys from Galilee to Jerusalem. On that journey Jesus speaks about the way—the path of following him. To listen to Jesus means to follow him on that path that leads to Jerusalem.

Jerusalem, in that story, is both the place of confrontation with a domination system, and it is also the place of death and resurrection, the place of endings and beginnings, of endings and new life, the place where what we feared was the place of death becomes the place of new life.

Listening to Jesus means embarking on that journey, and it is the journey at the very center of the Christian life.

Jesus, himself, says, "If any person would come after me, let that person take up their cross and follow after me." To follow Jesus is to follow the path of the cross.

Paul says the same thing. Paul says, "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me."

To take the cross of Jesus seriously…means to die with Christ and to be resurrected with Christ, to be reborn in Christ. Indeed, this is what is meant by that metaphor, "to be born again."

Listening to Jesus is about being born again. And all of this together means dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being.

Dying to an old identity and being born into a new identity, into an identity in God, in the spirit, in Christ. This is what our Lenten journey is about. Indeed, in a sense, we're invited to do this every day--to die to that old way of being and be born into a new way of being.

Now, in some ways, the heart of my sermon: Why do we need this? Why do we need to die to an old way of being and be born into a new way of being? Well, it's because of something that happens to us very early in life, perhaps as early as infancy, and certainly by the time we are toddlers.

It's something that happens in the pre-verbal stage of life, and what I'm speaking about here is the birth of self-awareness, the birth of self-consciousness, that awareness that the world is something separate from us.

You know if you're a newborn baby and you have excellent parenting, it might take a while before the realization that the world is something separate from you would emerge. If you're hungry, you get fed; if you're cold and wet, you get changed; if you cry, you get picked up.

But at some point, the world ceases to be immediately responsive to your needs, and you become aware that the world there is something separate from you. That's the birth of self-consciousness, or even more simply, that's the birth of the separated self. And it happens very early in life.

This is one of the central meanings of the Garden of Eden story, one of the central meanings of the Fall. The Fall isn't really about disobedience, though it's there in the story. The Fall is much more about the fact that we begin our lives, each of us individually, with a sense of undifferentiated union with what is. We begin our lives in paradise. But the birth of the separated self suddenly means, "We live our lives east of Eden in a state of separation and estrangement."

Let me use a story, … it's the best story I know for making this point. … It's a story that I've been told is in one of the books of Parker Palmer.

It's a story about a three-year-old girl who was the only child in her family. But now her mom is pregnant, and this three-year-old girl is very excited about having a baby in the house. The day comes where the mother-to-be delivered, and the mom and dad go off to the hospital. A couple of days later come home with a new baby brother. And the little girl is just delighted.

But after they've been home for a couple of hours, the little girl tells her parents that she wants to be with the baby in the baby's room, alone, with the door shut. She's absolutely insistent about the door being shut. It kind of gives her folks the willies, you know? They know she's a good little girl, but they've heard about sibling rivalry and all of this.

Then they remember that they've recently installed an intercom system in preparation for the arrival of the new baby, and they realize that they can let their little girl do this, and if they hear the slightest weird thing happening, they can be in there in a flash.

So they let their little girl go into the room. They close the door behind her. They race to the listening post. They hear her footsteps move across the room. They imagine her now standing over the baby's crib, and then they hear her say to her two-day-old baby brother, "Tell me about God. I've almost forgotten."

I find that to be a haunting and evocative story, because it suggests that we come from God, and when we are very, very young, we still remember that. We still know that.

But the process of growing up, of learning the language of this world, is a process of progressive forgetting; in a sense, even a process of progressive obliterating of that memory.

Because as we learn the language of this world, the categories of this world get imprinted upon our psyches, and our sense of being a separated self grows stronger and stronger. That sense of disconnection continues throughout childhood, until, by the end of childhood, we may have lost that sense of connection altogether.

There's something about the very process of growing up that wounds us. We all grow up wounded. Our sense of separation increases through our adolescence as we continue to internalize all of these messages that we get from our culture about who we are and what we ought to be like.

Our sense of being a separated self with an identity conferred primarily by the identity-conferring values of culture grows and grows. I have a sense of being okay or not okay to the extent that I measure up to these messages, and we fall further into that world of separation and alienation, of comparison and judgment, of self and others.

The result is what the contemporary Benedictine teacher Thomas Keating calls "the false self," the self conferred by culture. Our identity is wrapped up in that false self.

Or to refer to Frederick Buechner again,

Increasingly, we live our lives from the outside in rather than from the inside out, taking our cues from the world, taking our cues from others, taking our cues from culture.

It is that way of being and that kind of identity that the Lenten journey calls us to die to. Listening to Jesus means undertaking this journey, embarking on that path of dying to the false self, to that identity, to that way of being, and to be born into an identity centered in this spirit, in Christ, in God. It is the process of internal redefinition of the self so that a real person can be born within us.

We all know that Lent historically is a season of repentance. I don't know what your associations with repentance are. Going back to my childhood, mine are pretty negative. Repentance means to feel really, really bad about the horrible person you are, okay? To feel really, really bad because you've got impure thoughts. A big issue in adolescence. Repentance for me always kind of meant just feeling really, really sorry for being so disobedient to God.

The Biblical meanings of repentance are much richer and much more important. To begin with the Greek word for repentance that we find in the gospels in the New Testament, metanoia or the verb metanoiata.

In terms of its Greek roots, to repent means "to go beyond the mind that you have," and the mind that you have gotten from culture. From all of those messages, the identity you have is one that you've gotten from culture. To repent means to go beyond the mind that you have to a mind in Christ.

The meaning of the Hebrew word for repentance is very rich. It's shoo-vog, and the home of this word in the Hebrew Bible is the Jewish experience of exile. To repent is to return. That's the meaning of the word. To return from exile, to return from that state of separation, to begin that journey of return from the separated self to a new self in God.

To repent is to reconnect with the one from whom we came and in whom we live and move and have our being. And we do both -- return and go beyond the mind that we have by hearing the Voice of God which says to us: Listen to him. Listen to Jesus. Listen to the way that he teaches and follow him on this journey of Lent, with its climax in our participation in Good Friday and Easter, with its climax in our dying with Christ and being born again into life in God.


Copyright 2003 Dr. Marcus J. Borg

Preached at the Lenten Noonday Preaching Series at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis, Tennessee, March 17, 2003.