Have you ever heard God’s voice? Growing up, I heard God’s voice every time I went to Yankee Stadium. For 56 blessed years, from Joe DiMaggio to Derek Jeter, God spoke through a man named Bob Sheppard, the public address announcer for the Yankees. His nickname? You guessed it: The voice of God.
Sheppard wasn’t flashy. “A public-address announcer should be clear, concise, correct,” he once counseled. “He should not be colorful, cute or comic.”
Two priests who mentored him as a student encouraged him to study speech. One of the priests was known as a fiery orator. The other was known for being poetic and understated. Both styles made an impact on Sheppard, who would go on to teach speech education at a New York high school and St. John’s University.
My favorite detail of Sheppard’s life is that he also served as a lay reader at his church. He read the lessons in the same dignified voice he used to make announcements at the ball park. Or as he explained, “I don’t change my pattern. I speak at Yankee Stadium the same way I do in a classroom, a saloon or reading the Gospel at Mass at St. Christopher’s.”
He also didn’t change his pattern according to which player was coming up to bat. All-stars and rookies, Yankees or members of the visiting team: every players’ name was pronounced with equal dignity. As the voice of God announced their name and echoed through the stadium, every athlete felt as if they mattered.
In our readings today, we hear the voice of God reverberating in the wilderness.
The location of today’s story is important. A group of people, including Jesus, have fled from the city to the desert. For any faithful Jew, there was no way that you could go out into the desert without thinking about how your people wandered for 40 years through the wilderness after God freed them from slavery in Egypt.
God’s people take the long way home to the Promised Land, just like we do in our own lives. Speaking for myself, on this, my birthday weekend, there are many things I’ve learned in middle age that I wish I knew in my twenties. Life would have been a lot easier with that perspective.
The wilderness is a place to discover what matters most in life, to simplify, to gain hard-won wisdom. Love God with complete abandon. Hunger and thirst for the only One who can truly satisfy our restless hearts. Live lives centered on prayer and worship. Care for the poor, sick and lonely. Give generously to our neighbors.
Turn from evil and temptation. When we fall, as we inevitably will, let God pick us up and mercifully forgive our trespasses. Honor our elders; care for our children with patience and kindness. These are the ways of wisdom that the wilderness teaches God’s people then and now.
Finally, after their 40-year freedom march, God’s people arrive at the Jordan River. Joshua, Moses’s right-hand man, is now in charge, and he leads the people of Israel through the Jordan River into the land that had been promised to Abraham and Sarah so long ago.
You know what they were thinking when they went across the Jordan—this is just like when we went through the Red Sea so many years ago. As we cross this threshold, life will never be the same. Now, we are truly free. Here, we can take hold of the life that truly is life.
That’s why we’re here today in this church: our deepest desire is to be free from everything that holds us back from the life God wants for us. As we begin this new year, we’re seeking to take hold of the life that truly is life.
Baptism is how we cross the Red Sea and Jordan River with God’s people. It’s the beginning of our journey to freedom and abundant life in God’s Promised Land, a journey that we make as part of a community. That’s why our baptisms here at St. John’s take place during Sunday services. There’s no such thing as a Christian alone—we’re journeying on this road with Jesus, just like Jesus’ disciples followed him on the road that leads to freedom and abundant life.
Even at his own baptism, Jesus is just another face in the crowd. Did you notice how Jesus gets on line just like everyone else? Luke writes: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized . . .”
When we hear this story, we tend to focus on Jesus, the drama of the heavens torn open, the Holy Spirit descending on him like a dove. Maybe we also picture his cousin, John. But the fascinating part of this scene is that Jesus and John are just two faces in the crowd.
Jesus, the Son of God, has humbly gotten in line just like any utility player on the team. And this, even after the All-Star introduction we hear in the beginning of the reading. John the Baptist is stepping up to the plate, and everyone is filled with expectation. The announcer’s voice reverberates through the story.
God’s people want John to knock the ball out of the park because they think that he’s the long-awaited messiah, God’s anointed one who will lead the team to victory. But John points his bat away from himself and speaks of a baptism of fire. He tells the group that he’s just a rookie compared to Jesus: “Someone who is more powerful than I,” John exclaims, “is coming to baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” And then John uses an image that would have made a lot of sense to the people around him in a mostly agricultural society.
He speaks of a field of dreams, a harvest of wheat. Imagine in your mind’s eye a barn. Golden wheat covers the threshing floor. The doors are open on both sides of the barn so that the wind can freely move through the structure. John says that Jesus has a winnowing fork in his hand, and that we’re all like wheat stalks that Jesus hoists up unto the air, so that the wind can do all the work.
That’s why winnowing is so effective: the wind separates the wheat from the chaff, the good stuff that we can eat from the husks that we burn and throw away. John is saying that the Holy Spirit is just like that wind that separates the wheat from the chaff.
No human being is either/or. We’re all a little of both. We need that wind of the Spirit to shake lose the infinite ways that we take our eye off the ball and strike out.
Make no mistake: baptism is a life and death matter. We’re marking the occasion when the Holy Spirit courses through our bodies, shaking free the chaff of sin and death and leaving us to freely turn towards Jesus, our Lord and Savior, the One who makes us whole in this life and the life to come.
We’re God’s children now, and no one, or nothing can take that away from us. There is a dignity in baptism: we’re marked as Christ’s own forever, made in God’s own image, washed in the holy waters of the Red Sea and the Jordan River.
When Jesus comes up out of the water, he prays and then hears these words from heaven: “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” He hears the voice of God, clear, concise, correct, announcing his essential place on the team.
I want you to hear God’s voice calling out to you. If you listen carefully and pray just like Jesus listens carefully and prays in the story today, you will hear God announcing your name with equal dignity. It doesn’t matter that you were just called up from the minor leagues. It doesn’t matter that you can’t hit a slider. It doesn’t matter that you’re on the visiting team.
In God’s eyes, from that announcer’s box high in the stadium, you are precious. You bring gifts to the team that only you can bring. You are an essential part of the whole. Step up to the plate with confidence for you are God’s beloved child and with you, God is well-pleased.
A sermon preached by the Rev. David C. Killeen at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee, FL, on January 13, 2019.