The voice of the Lord is a powerful voice, according to the psalm writer. The voice of the Lord breaks the cedar trees of Lebanon—these great trees worthy to be used in building God’s temple, God’s own voice could splinter these.
These are words of praise for God in psalm 29, which we chanted a few minutes ago. This week I read Jason Byassee’s commentary on Psalm 29, and he writes that the first word he would use to describe this psalm is “loud.” How can such power come from a voice?
Byassee notes that this psalm may have originated in the north of Israel, since the psalm references Lebanon, Syria, and Kadesh. Historians consider the language of this psalm alongside other local stories of the Canaanite storm god or “a more general religious sense in the Mediterranean that God appears in natural phenomena.”
“Ascribe to the Lord, you gods, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.” It isn’t often that we think of faithful people—the same faithful people who are composing psalms of praise—acknowledging the existence of, let alone speaking directly to, other gods. I mean, wouldn’t I want to deny that any other gods exist, wouldn’t that make my God more powerful?
The confirmation class is beginning their study of the Apostles’ Creed, the same creed we’ll speak aloud later in worship, the same creed we’ve said hundreds of times before. Maybe you’re like me and you’ve said it so many times, you barely pay attention anymore, maybe you forget what you’re really saying.
Reviewing the lesson material reminded me how statements of faith came about in the first place. The first part of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” God is Father—a parent, a Mother, in any case, a caring and nurturing relationship—and God is creator. That creation story we read this morning, just that first part of Genesis, is itself a statement of faith for the people of God who were confessing their faith in one God.
In the ancient near east, at that same time, other peoples had gods, too—many gods. They understood gods as present in natural forces like storms or even seas. People of the Ancient Near East also had creation stories, where gods went to battle and triumphed over gods of chaos. These creation stories were not about explaining how creation got started from nothing, but how victorious gods could bring order and security and safety.
It's something different to say there’s only one God, and that God didn’t need to violently overthrow other gods or use force or violence to create everything that exists. Listen carefully to the creation story: there was chaos, and a wind from God—God’s breath, God’s Spirit—blows over the waters, and then God speaks and creates. It’s not a battle—it is creation that emerges in freedom.
We return to these stories of the power of God’s voice on this Sunday when we remember the time when Jesus was baptized, obedient to meet John the Baptist in the Jordan River, submitting himself to the same baptism of repentance that, apparently, washed over the whole Judean region and all the people of Jerusalem. The same voice of God that can make a mountain skip like a calf, the same voice that can strip the forests bare, is the same voice that calls out to the freshly-baptized Jesus: you are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.
Jason Byassee wrote, “This theophany—the revealing of God’s power and presence—is unbearably gentle, suggesting that God is unbearably patient.”
No one is being forced into the waters of baptism here. There’s no battle, no violence, and to our 21st century understanding, our terribly short attention span, there’s nothing especially interesting going on here. Can the voice of God break through, even to us? Does the loudest sound command our attention? Or in a world of nonstop noise and incredible volume, can our attention be captured by a whisper?
If our God shows up as a human being in Jesus Christ, standing in a river, with a powerful voice and a Holy Spirit descending like a dove—not even a bird of prey—then maybe our God is not in the business of showy displays of strength. God is not a spectator, sitting back, uninvolved, just watching things unfold. God shares in human life and shows up in creation. These are the signs of a God who desires to hold you close. The Holy Spirit is one who works in uncomfortably intimate closeness.
I heard a preaching podcast where the hosts, all seminary professors, referred to this Gospel story with “the dive-bombing dove” because the Holy Spirit pursues people and POSSESSES them, kinda the same concept of demon possession. We don’t want to think of the Holy Spirit possessing a person in the same way a demon might possess a person. I wouldn’t want to be possessed, would you?
But there’s a big difference with the Holy Spirit: if the Holy Spirit possesses a person, that person would have increased freedom. A demon would bind your actions in ways to hurt you or to hurt others, looking out for the good of no one and for the good of nothing in creation—only chaos and fear.
The Holy Spirit works differently. Rather than binding a person, the Holy Spirit sets you FREE: free from your self-centeredness, setting you free from your fear, setting you free FOR caring for someone other than yourself.
Pay attention! It’s important to know the difference. If someone is telling you to be afraid, that person is trying to manipulate you! When humans feel afraid, the blood drains away from the part of your brain that makes it possible for you to think for yourself. If someone is making you afraid or telling you that you should be afraid, they are trying to take away your ability to think for yourself. This is not how God works.
Consider this story of Jesus’s baptism—are there any threats? Is God making anyone afraid? Or think about every time an angel speaks in the Bible—what’s the first thing they say? DON’T BE AFRAID. Angels don’t need to manipulate you—they already know they look scary.
God doesn’t need to manipulate you, either. God already knows God’s own greatness, and while God surely loves to hear human praise, God doesn’t need you to be afraid! God needs you to listen carefully and use all of your brain and think clearly and dwell in your freedom and act within your freedom. You get to choose. And the Holy Spirit is the one advocating for you in freedom.
God may speak with the force of thunder. God may speak in a voice softer than a whisper. But you’ll know it’s God’s voice by the content of the message—is it good for you and all of creation at the same time? Does the message of good news increase your freedom? Does the message echo with the words “with you I am well pleased?” The difference is love: unbearably gentle, unbearably patient. Don’t be afraid.
In the temple of the Lord, all are crying “Glory!” O Lord, give strength to your people; give them, O Lord, the blessings of peace.
 Psalm 29:1
 Information from Here We Stand, confirmation curriculum published by Augsburg Fortress, 2005. This is from the lesson “The Apostles’ Creed: Article One,” page 192 in the “Small Catechism” binder.