I’m going to let you all in on a little secret. Most of you all know that I pray for a living right? The most important part of my job here is praying. Not fundraising; not managing the building, not managing events. I have to do those things from time to time, but my real job is prayer. That really is what the church pays me for. I do it all the time. In formal ways and in informal ways. Sometimes it is lighting candles or saying the rosary. Sometimes it is saying the daily office or saying mass. Sometimes it is just throwing up my hands to God and saying “Oh Lord, You know!”
That’s not really the secret. Most of you probably know that. Here is the thing I don’t often talk about: almost each and every time I pray there is a little voice in my head that says: why are you doing this? Do you think this is really going to make a difference? Do you think anyone is listening? Do you really think this matters?
If you are a person of prayer, maybe you have heard that little voice before. Sometimes the voice is very faint; sometimes the voice screams in your ear. Either way the message is usually the same: God isn’t listening. God doesn’t care. God isn’t there.
I pray for a living; my life is dedicated to it, and I have seen prayers answered in ways that would blow your minds. I could tell stories that no one in here would believe. I know prayer works; I have seen it work…and yet, even for me…that voice is still there. Maybe it is there for you too.
God dwells in a realm or a kingdom that we cannot always see with our eyes. I am a firm believer that there are physical realities that we can see, feel and touch in this world, and there are spiritual realities that really belong to God’s kingdom, that are not always visible to us, but are no less real. The kingdom of God and the Kingdom of this world, they exist side by side, sometimes they even connect, but we don’t always see it or recognize it. We need to be reminded regularly that although we can’t always see it, God’s kingdom is there. God is there, even though we can’t always see him or touch him. And God is listening, even when it doesn’t seem like he is talking back to us. We need to be reminded of this all the time, I need to be reminded all the time, otherwise…that other little voice wins. And I think we all know who that other little voice belongs to.
“Do not fear, for I am with you”
The Prophet Isaiah comforts God’s people with these words. Do not fear, for I am with you. Earlier he says, “when you pass through the waters, I will be with you. And through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.”
I am with you, God tells his people living in exile. I am with you.
I love this passage from Isaiah, because I think that it is a beautiful reminder that although we may not always see God clearly working in our lives, nonetheless he is there. God is with us in struggles, in exile, in suffering, and in joy, and in feasting and celebration. God is with us when times and good; God is with us when times are bad. God is always with us, God hears our prayers, God always sees us; the problem is that we don’t always see him. Sometimes we need a little help seeming him. Sometimes we need to be reminded that the physical world we live in and the spiritual world of God’s kingdom are not as far apart as we often imagine. In fact, sometimes those two worlds collide.
More than anything else, the celebration of Our Lord’s incarnation is a celebration of the supreme moment when the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world collided. Jesus, who was fully God and fully human, is the living point of connection between the invisible spiritual world of God and the visible, physical world of God’s creation. In Jesus those two become one, and he is the ultimate reminder that this God we are praying to isn’t some distant, disinterested spiritual force, but a living reality in our very lives, and yes, even in our physical bodies.
So much of the time we can’t see the connection between the spiritual world and the physical world. Sometimes we think that they are just two completely separate planes of existence; and sometimes we may have to wrestle with that voice that is always trying to convince us that the spiritual world doesn’t exist at all…that no one is listening when we pray.
But then there are moments when the two worlds collide and the connection between God’s kingdom and this world is made perfectly clear to us and we are given signs and symbols that God is here. God is with us. And God is listening.
When Jesus stepped into those waters of the river Jordan, knelt down and was baptized by John, people saw the most extraordinary thing. It was like the heavens were opened, or the veil that always separates the visible world from the invisible world was torn in two and for a moment they could see that God’s kingdom and the earthly kingdom were colliding in Jesus Christ. The voice they heard then was not that shrill, irritating voice of the deceiver, trying to convince them that this wasn’t happening and God wasn’t real. The voice that they heard then was the bold voice of God saying: this is my son. This is my joy. Here our two worlds are united. Although Jesus was conceived as God’s son and didn’t become God’s son at his baptism, for those standing around witnessing this event, this act was a moment of epiphany when they recognized that the two worlds had collided. God’s kingdom was not as far away as they thought, and maybe, just maybe, God had been listening to their prayers all along. Maybe God was really going to send a messiah to save them. Through the Holy Spirit, and through the water and the voice, God made it clear that he is living in our world. I guess the question for us is: are we living in his?
Baptism, for Christians, is not just a rite of initiation. It’s not waterboarding or hazing, or just a sweet thing to do with babies. Baptism is a moment when God’s world and our world collide. In Jesus’s baptism people recognized that the veil between God’s kingdom and our kingdom was torn in two, that they were no longer completely separate but one in Jesus Christ. And through our baptism as Christians we become a part of that union too. The water of baptism is a symbol to us that we are not just citizens of a visible, material world, but are a full part of a universe far more profound and mysterious. Baptism reminds us that we don’t just live in this world of toil and sin and strife and death, but also have a citizenship in God’s heavenly kingdom where prayers get answered and the dead are raised to new life.
In Baptism, in Communion, in the other sacraments of the church, and in many other ways, God’s world and this world collide and for a moment we recognize and remember that we are not alone. God really is with us. God really does listen. Hold on to those moments, because those moments are real and true.
That other little voice…the one we all hear from time to time, telling us that God isn’t real and prayer doesn’t work, that is the voice of a liar. Literally a damned liar, so my professional advice, as someone who prays for a living, is don’t listen to it. God is with us, and if you will be attentive to the signs and symbols around you, you will see God’s presence in the post amazing ways. So keep praying. God IS listening.