What Pleases God

Lent 4 (Ps 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; Matthew 25:14-30)

March 26, 2017 – UBC Digby – J G White

Try to find out what is pleasing to God.  

A dear old friend and mentor of mine, who is now dead, spent much of his career as a divinity college professor, in Wolfville, teaching theology to up-and- coming pastors, for 32 years. (M. R. Cherry) Well into his retirement, he was always asked back to teach one lecture a year in a certain class.  The lecture was on “the will of God.”  After his death, as my family went through his papers to send to the university archives, a long-time friend of the professor asked, “If you ever see anything from his lecture on the will of God, save it for me, make me a copy of it, please.”

It has been claimed that if a church offers a study group on “how to know the will of God for your life,” people will flock to it, and some will come back again and again, whenever it is offered.  (Dallas Willard)

D’you suppose this is still the case?  Do devoted followers of the Master still strive to know what the plan is for their lives?  And day to day? I wonder if younger generations of Christians – people my juniour – are as much interested as many of us have been.

Seeking God’s will for my life was a basic thing I was taught, by all the methods of my local Baptist Church, as I grew up. Something God had were plans for my whole life, and for each day.  A path to be revealed.  Right ways and wrong ways to choose.

Amid the serious warnings of Ephesians ch. 5 – about moral behaviour and sensible communication – the letter-writer says:  Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.  Along with the generic morals and ethics of human life that we seek to know and live by, are the particular things for me to do, for you to do, that please God.  That’s the way it is, ain’t it?

Our grandson is four years old today.  When he comes to visit, he is very active.  He spends a lot of time doing things that are completely within the will of Nana Sharon and Papa Jeff, though we often don’t need to tell him just what to do.  He wants to play hockey in the hallway, with his net, hockey sticks, puck, and little soccer balls, and a few other toys.  Fine.  Then he goes to tap on the piano.  Then he comes to the kitchen for a snack.  Next he gets out a remote control car.  Fine.  He is free and within our will.  Now, when it is time for bed, or time to leave, he may want something else. Then, Nana and Papa’s will gets enforced. 🙂  Much of the time he is free to do whatever his enthusiastic heart desires.  

We read a contemporary wording of Psalm 23 today, and we focus upon that common biblical picture, of being a sheep of the Good Shepherd.  Every Sunday the choir and I are here, and get to gaze at a stained-glass image of a pale, european-looking Shepherd holding a sheep.  The church I grew up in also had a stained-glass picture of Jesus as a shepherd with sheep.

We who know this experience – the church experience – get to know this Good Shepherd and sheep paradigm.  Jesus speaks this: I know the sheep and the sheep know me.  The sheep know the Shepherd’s voice.  They don’t heed strangers.

Indeed.  It is a great image.  And if we think about it for a minute, we realize something about the guidance and the freedom of sheep with a shepherd.

Let me tell you a bit of a story I may have told before; I’m not sure.  One of the many stories out there about a children’s Christmas pageant.  This one is set in a Presbyterian Church in the Midwest.  Every child who wanted a part in the play, got a part…

Then there were the sheep: a couple dozen three-, four-, and five-year-olds who had on wooly, fake- sheepskin vests with wooly hoods and their dads’ black socks pulled up on their arms and legs. The Pageant was a lot of things, but smooth it wasn’t. And one of the chief problems was these very sheep… The only sheep most suburban kids have ever seen are on the front of Sunday church bulletin covers: peaceful, grazing sheep who just stand there and look cute and cuddly.

Half of the kids here live on farms. They’ve seen real sheep, many of them. They know that sheep don’t just stand there. They know that sheep don’t often follow directions. They know that sheep are dumb. They know that all sheep want to do is eat.

So, when the young mothers casually instructed the two dozen sheep to act like sheep, they really should have known better. Some of the sheep started to do a remarkable imitation of grazing behind the communion table. Some wandered over by the choir to graze, and others went down the center aisle. Some of them had donuts they found in the church parlor to make the grazing look even more realistic. When one of the shepherds tried to herd them a bit with his shepherd’s crook, some of the sheep spooked and started to scatter just like real sheep do. Everybody knows that’s how sheep act. It was, in fact, a remarkable imitation of sheep behaviour, even though a bit out of the ordinary for a Christmas Pageant. (Michael Lindvall, Good News from North Haven, 1992, pp).  

Sheep guided by a shepherd have a lot of freedom to be sheep.  Even when the Shepherd is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and we, a Church, are the sheep.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.  Even the Shepherd’s grace and mercy shall pursue me, follow me, not lead me.  

So, the desire for the total will of God in our lives can go too far.  Trying to find out what pleases God, we can try too hard.  It is possible to try too hard to hear from the Holy Spirit.

Some Christians want a message-a-minute.  Every waking hour, every little chapter of the day, what is the will of God?  I knew a person who was rather obsessed with this – looking for the Spirit to guide her every step, every choice, moment by moment.  And she thought she was getting that kind of guidance.  

But I have also met those meek folk who seem so fearful and guilty of doing little things wrong every day.  Not saying the right thing to the person she met at the post office.  Saying the wrong thing when so-and-so called on the phone.  A day of probably many, many sins against the mysterious will of God for that individual’s life!

Some believers want to say it’s all in the Bible.  Every bit of guidance we need is here, and everything here is guidance for my life and yours.  No wonder people through all the centuries have played Bible roulette, finding specific divine guidance by pointing their finger at a random page.  

Other folk want to believe whatever comes is God’s will. God is sovereign, in control, King of the world, and God’s will will be done.  Something good happens – God is blessing us.  Something bad happens – God means it for good in the future, or is at least teaching us a lesson now.  

This can take us to a point of not being responsible anymore for our actions, for our life.  Everything is of God: God’s will, God’s plan, God’s guidance.  Every prayer ends with “if it be Your will, Lord,” and so, whatever happens must be God’s will, because God stops all the wrong things from happening.  Only God is left responsible for what happens in our lives.  

As ordinary sheep in the pasture of our Extraordinary Shepherd, we still have a lot of freedom, within the plans of God for us, within our guidelines.  God gives us responsibility, and options, all the time.  God wants us to take initiative, to choose, to enjoy freedom

We sat at Jesus feet today, and heard his Parable of the Talents, recorded in Matthew 25.  Oh, what a chapter that is, with its three big stories from Christ.  Today’s, read by Peter, is a story of investment and initiative and responsibility.  Many a preacher and Bible teacher has instructed us on the skillful talents we have, and how they should be used.  Being musical, or organized, or personable, or prayerful.  The story is about pieces of money called ‘talents.’  Perhaps we should call it the parable of the loonies.  Except one ‘talent’ was worth far more than a labourer would make in a whole year.  

Anyway, it is the slaves given more money, who invested it, used it, and made more, who are commended.  The one who did nothing but keep the one loonie safe is scolded.  He failed.  

Did he do the will of the master?  When the master left them all in charge of things, they were not told what to do.  They were left with freedom.  Freedom to take some initiative, to make their own plans and see them through.  The one slave who simply kept his loonie hidden away failed… failed to take initiative and do something worthwhile.  And he could not be trusted with more the next time.  But the slave who used 5 loonies well was given more.  That servant was creative and did what seemed good, without being told what to do.

I shall always remember Industrial Arts in high school.  One year, grade 9, I suppose, we were in a new woodworking shop.  I think our teacher’s favourite word was ‘initiative.’  It was his agenda, along with the skills of the woodshop, to inspire initiative in us boys.  (Yes, in 1985 it was only boys in Industrial Arts.)  Figure out something to do next, without being told.  

Our Creator God is like my teacher then – a Creator who wants us to become creators.  Wants to mold us, more and more, into people who can take new paths and decide on the next steps for ourselves.  It takes time, and training, and sometimes even testing of our initiative.  It is our character development.

I think Jesus got at this one other time. Again, we have to put ourselves back in time, into an old culture of slaves and masters.  There, Jesus once asked, “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?  So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”  (Lk 17:7-10)

When we have done only what God has dictated for us to do, we are not to be commended?  There is more for us to do than what God decrees. Yes, indeed.

God is very pleased when we are at a stage to be trusted with more.  More responsibility.  More of our own decisions that are still within ‘the will of God.’  More initiative to live the good life in the Kingdom of God in the here and now.  

John 8:31, 32 Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  

It pleases God to give us freedom.  To train us for freedom.  To welcome us as apprentices in the divine woodshop.  Learning the ways of the Carpenter, and learning to be creative.  

May God’s Kingdom come: God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  It pleases God to set us free.

Recognize God’s Voice

Lent 3 (Ps 95; Ex 17:1-7; John 4:5-42)
March 19, 2017 – UBC Digby – J G White

Noah’s in his rec room, making some things for the home.  He’s a very good carpenter:
Vooobah, voobah, voobah.  Bing.
“Noah.”
(quietly) “Somebody Call?
Vooobah, voobah, voobah.  Bing.
“Noah!”
“Who is that?
“It’s the LORD; Noah.”
… “Right!” (Bill Cosby, 1965)

Oh, to hear the LORD’s voice.  To recognize it.  To have a conversation.  

Psalm 95 today exclaims: O that today you would listen to his voice!  To sing to the LORD, to kneel before our Maker, to be the sheep of God’s pasture, to listen to His voice… It happens when we recognize the speaking of God.  Perhaps this Psalm hints at three good steps for people of Faith to learn:
One. Hear the Voice.
Two. Know it is the Voice.
Three. Respond appropriately.

Step Two, recognizing the Voice continues to be a challenge.  There are at last Eight ways people are addressed by God in the Biblical record.

One.  A supernatural phenomena with a voice.  The burning bush Moses meets, Exodus 3.  Jesus baptism: heavens open, dove descends, voice.  

Two.  A supernatural messenger or angel.  Angels visit Mary, and Joseph, on separate occasions, Mt 1, Luke 1.  

Three. Dreams and visions.  Pharaoh’s dreams Joseph interprets, Genesis 41.  Paul’s dream of the man from Macedonia, saying, “Come to Macedonia and help us” Acts 16.

Perhaps you have heard the story of Patrick of Ireland.  After escape from slavery in Ireland, Patrick devoted his life to ministry.  While studying for the priesthood, he experienced recurring dreams in which he heard voices say, “O holy youth, come back to Erin and walk once more amongst us.”  His superiors let him return to Ireland in 432 CE to seek reconciliation and spread his faith.  (Shane Claiborne, Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, 2010, pp.185-6)

Four. A natural phenomenon.  Psalm 19 The heavens are telling the glory of God … Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.  There is no speech, nor are there words… yet their voice goes out through all the earth.

Five. An audible voice.  Young Samuel hearing his name called in the night. 1 Samuel 3.  Or, is this what Saul heard when he met Jesus one day travelling the road to Damascus? Acts 9.

Six. By the scriptures.  Peter preaches to the crowds stirred up by those filled with the Holy Spirit.  He quotes the OT, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, & your sons and your daughters shall prophesy…(Ac 2)

Seven. A human voice. The words of someone can be a word from the Lord.  We might go back to the stories of Moses, who is assured by God, “I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.” Ex 4.  And the prophets of old experienced the force of God’s word that had to come out of their mouths.  Jeremiah 20:  If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.

Eight. Human spirit/thought. Our own thoughts and feelings inside – can regularly be the Holy Spirit speaking. Proverbs 20:27. The human spirit is the lamp of the LORD, searching every inmost part.  The light of God shines within, at our ‘deepest place.’ Psalm 16 remarks I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me.  

Among these ways the Divine Voice is heard, the most common and usual for us – in friendship with God – could be the most ordinary ways:  The Bible.  Creation.  The voice of other people.  And our thoughts within us.  In these we detect the ‘still small voice.’

Dallas Willard claims that the still small voice — or the interior voice, as it is also called — is the preferred and most valuable form of individualized communication for God’s purposes.  (Hearing God, 1999, p. 89)  He also claimed that the more spectacular ways that God speaks go along with the less mature levels of the spiritual life. (Ibid, p. 111)

Quite a few years ago, I was at a point in my life where I needed to know what to do next.  I had a decision to make. I was twenty years old.  I’d had weeks and months of thinking it over, talking to people about it, and trying to pray into the answer.  But when would I know, really know?

Then, it happened suddenly.  A single moment when it all felt clear, at last.  The straw that broke the camel’s back was a couple sentences from a devotional book I’d been given.  When I read this, one evening, suddenly I knew.  I knew the answer; I knew my decision.

Many of us have a sort of vision of the kind of person God wants us to be.  We must be true to that vision, whatever it is, and we must try to live up to it, by living the way we believe we should live.  …In all people there is the good person which God sees in us, the person we could be and that God would like us to be.  (Twenty-Four Hours a Day, 1975, Dec. 2)

It seemed so clear that, in the moment, my Saviour spoke to me.  How do we recognize this?  We can see three factors in the Voice of the Master.

One.  The Tone. God speaking has a certain weight of authority about it.  When Jesus taught along the way, people remarked at how he taught with an authority that was greater than the usual religion teachers of the day.  So to with the quiet, contemporary voice of the Spirit to us.  When certain Bible verse stand out to us, or something strikes us in words someone speaks, or a thought comes to us from within – a tone of authority in it can signify the Holy Source. Other ideas of our own, or words we hear that catch our attention, will not be so clear and strong.  

  1. Stanley Jones said, Perhaps the rough distinction is this: The voice of the subconscious argues with you, tries to convince you; but the inner voice of God does not argue, does not try to convince you.  It just speaks, and it is self-authenticating. It has the feel of the voice of God within it.  (Jones, A Song of Ascents, 1979, p. 190.)

So choosing the right way is not like the cartoon of the devil on one shoulder, and an angel on the other, both trying to sway us.  The voice of a true angel will simply be clear, not so much trying to sway, as simply stating the truth.  

We heard an old scripture story from Exodus 17.  We notice, perhaps, the strong frustration, and desperation, of the people, now traversing a wilderness they did not know.  The people quarrelled with their leader, Moses.  They complained.  They were demanding.  Moses almost sounds testy, “Why do you quarrel with me?”  On their behalf, Moses goes to YHWH God with his own desperation: “What shall I do with this people?  They are almost ready to stone me.”

Then note Yhwh’s calm response.  The instructions sound clear, and unaffected by the hotheadedness of the people.  At this moment, at least, there is a quality of clarity and straightforwardness.  ‘Go there, take them, use this, do that.  I will be there,’ says God.  And water comes from the rock.  

The Voice of God has a tone of authority to it.  

Two.  The Spirit of the voice, as Dallas Willard calls it.  God speaking has a spirit of  exalted peacefulness and confidence, of joy, of sweet reasonableness and of goodwill. (Willard, Hearing God, p. 177)  Again, it is as Jesus was, as Jesus is.  The voice is in accord with His demeanor.  

What we call the story of the woman at the well, in John 4, continues to impress me.  Dick and Evelyn helped us hear it today.  It records a series of events that might have many lessons for us in it.  I keep on noticing how the woman, here in Samaria, reacts.  Especially when she goes back to town, there among her own people.  

The woman is impressed. Something about Jesus made a very positive impression on her. About this Jewish traveller, she keeps saying, “He told me everything I have ever done.  Might he be the Christ?”  We notice she has some definite life experience – five husbands in the past, and now she has a man she’s not married to.  

There must have been something in how Jesus spoke with her that made this good news.  He knew her story.  He told her so.  But she is excited about Jesus.  She suspects He is the long-awaited Messiah.  He sure did not come across as her judge and accuser, or as holier-than-thou.  

She is so enthusiastic that her fellow Samaritans invite this Jewish teacher to say a while.  And many of them get convinced He is the Christ.  The spirit in which Jesus spoke was so convincing, so open, so good.  

So, much of what we hear, in the still-small-voice will also be like this.  The message will have the Spirit of Jesus about it.  There is a certain grace in it.  

The book of James, with it’s strong warnings about how to speak, and the dangers of the human tongue, tells us this: But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. (3:17).  If only our own voices could always be like the wise voice of God with us.

Three. The Content.  What is said; the message, the meaning. Does it make sense that it’s from Christ?

I shall always remember the anecdote my OT professor told, from his days as a young pastor in the midwest of the United States.  He had a fellow in his church who got convinced of weird things, occasionally. Like the time the man claimed the Bible was telling him to put cream cheese in his wife’s hair.

That might not be harmful at all, but not useful either.  I got the impression from my prof that this just did not seem to him like a bit of guidance from God.  

When an idea, an impression, a message comes along that might be of God, does it seem to be the sort of thing God would say to us?  That is the question.  Naturally, the scriptures play a big part in this.  Charles Stanley wrote: “God’s voice will never tell us to engage in any activity or relationship that is inconsistent with the Holy Scriptures.” (How to Listen to God, 1985, p. 51)  What we know of God in holy history help us us know if a message is divine or not.

Though it is not all so simple, of course.  I believe our Bible is as big a book as it is because any one small piece of it is not always enough.  All together, it is the complete word of God – one verse here or there – even one whole book – can lead us astray.  So we read one chapter of the Bible in light of all the others.  

When we wonder – ah, is that You speaking to me, Jesus? – then we bring our whole impression of Him from scripture to bear.  Does Jesus say the sort of thing we think He is saying to us us now, in the moment?

As I look back on Christians in history, over the past few hundred years, I am often impressed by how humble they were, and what a large sense they had of sin in their own lives.  They seemed to feel so unworthy in the face of a Holy God.  But along with this they shared a deep amazement and gratitude in the face of Christ’s great love and acceptance.  

Here is an example from the writings of John Bunyan, an early Baptist preacher and famous author. He still felt the weight of his failures from time to time.  He said:

One day, as I was traveling into the country and musing on the wickedness and blasphemy of my heart, and considering the enmity that was in me to God, that scripture came to my mind: “ Having made peace through the blood of His cross” (Colossians 1:20).  By which I was made to see, both again and again, that God and my soul were friends by his blood; yea, I saw that the justice of God and my sinful soul could embrace and kiss each other, through his blood.  This was a good day to me; I hope I shall never forget it. (Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, p. 46)

The holy purity of almighty God, and the supreme kindness God shows us are but two big aspects of this One we seek to hear.  When we suspect the Spirit is speaking to our spirits, what is said will match up with what we’d expect from the kind of God we know.  God’s voice says only the kinds of things God would say.  

Thanks be to God for that tone of authority, that Spirit of Jesus, and that clear content that makes divine messages recognizable.  The sheep get to know the Shepherd’s voice.  

God Will Keep You

Lent 2 (Ps 121; Ex 12:1-4a; Mtt 8:23-27)
March 12, 2017 – UBC Digby – J G White

Back in school days, I must have read Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. (1903)  The one scene I remember in the whole saga about Buck the dog, is in chapter 6, at a point when Buck has deeply bonded with his new master, John Thornton.  As strong a love as possible between dog and man existed between Buck and Thornton. Let Jack London tell the scene…

Nothing was too great for Buck to do, when Thornton commanded.  One day… the men and dogs were sitting on the crest of a cliff which fell away, straight down, to naked bedrock three hundred feet below.  John Thornton was sitting near the edge, Buck at his shoulder.  A thoughtless whim seized Thornton, and he drew the attention of Hans and Pete to the experiment he had in mind. “Jump, Buck!” he commanded, sweeping his arm out and over the chasm.  The next instant he was grappling with Buck on the extreme edge, while Hans and Pete were dragging them back into safety.  (p. 83)
Absolute love and trust.  

Life with God, in the will of God, hearing from God, is a life of love and trust.  Confidence in the One we are joined to.  Sure that we are being ‘kept,’ kept safe, kept forever. Only when we know the Master so well are we free from fear and ready to obey any and every command.

We looked back, way back, this morning, to Abram and Sarai, ancient Hebrews, we might call them. They lived in one part of the Middle East.  They were told to go… move on.  By God.  What do they do?  They go.  They just go.  Not even being told where they are going, they go.  They step out in faith.   They were confident in the One who spoke, and in the message.

But many of us falter at the critical step of hearing commands from our Master.  How do I get guidance from Christ?  Do I get guidance from Him?  Is there not much being said, or am I just not hearing or seeing a whole lot that is being said all around me?

Though I think of myself as an optimist, I am also a skeptic.  Skeptical about miracles, signs & wonders, angels and ghosts and near-death experiences.   If you listen closely to what I don’t say, you may notice I don’t often say, “God told me to…” or “Christ healed so-and-so,” or “That turned out the way it was meant to be.”  I tend to experience the voice of God as a subtle, silent, rare thing.  My feeling or sense of the Holy Spirit being present is seldom.

Years ago, in one of my Celtic devotional books, this quotation caught my attention.  It seemed so beautiful.  It seemed so true to me.  It seems so dangerous.  Maybe it’s wrong?

The more a human being advances in the Christian faith, the more they live the presence of God as an absence, the more they accept to die to the idea of becoming aware of God, of fathoming Him.  For they have learned, while advancing, that God is unfathomable. [And from then on the presence of God assumed value in their eyes only against the backdrop of absence.] The mystic, in his long and complicated pilgrimage, experiences alternately the presence and absence of God.  By, by degrees, the absence of God is felt more and more and the mystic understands that this absence is now [normal] the norm.  Thus the mystic is someone who has had a long-term confrontation with God, like Jacob in the struggle that he waged all through the night, someone who does not cease to confront God.  God always precedes us, we see Him only from behind, He walks ahead, He is ahead of us. What the mystic experiences – and every Christian is a mystic because it is not the great illuminations that are the mark of the mystic but the night, an everyday night – is a kind of distancing from God in proportion to advances in the deepening of their faith.  
(Jean Francois Six, Is God Endangered by Believers, 1983)

How shall I know my Saviour so well, as a Friend, if hearing the Master’s voice is so hidden and absent?
Hearing from God, knowing the Master’s voice, is a matter of confidence.  Having faith and trust in our God.  Who this Holy God is, who is also called Love.

Abram and Sarai went as the LORD had told them, with other family members, toward an unknown future.  Abraham is commended for his faith, at various times in scripture.  Faith in who this God was and faithfulness in doing what the divine guidance told them to do.  Later on, you may know, when they finally have a child of their own, Abraham is to take young Isaac out in the wild for a sacrifice. Isaac is to be the human sacrifice!  But at the last moment, God’s angel stops Abraham and points out a nearby animal that can be slaughtered.
Sounds a bit to me like Thornton and his dog, Buck, at the cliff edge.  A dangerous test of training and relationship.

Another Bible story today also could be a test, of sorts.  Jesus stills the storm.  Of course, all the men in the little boat must face the storm on the Sea of Galilee.  Notice, Jesus was sleeping in the boat, while His friends were panicking.  They had nothing to fear: Jesus knew this; the disciples did not.

Dallas Willard said many times that we humans are perfectly safe in this life within the Kingdom of God.  Even if you are being destroyed and killed, you are safe in the arms of God.  Jesus knew this, on the storm-tossed boat, that day.

There is something to be said for being able to rest and to sleep.  Or simply to relax when going through life’s stresses and challenges.  Walking with Christ, living in the Kingdom now, gives a peace over and above the pains and problems and fears of everyday life.  Psalm 127 says,
It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he give sleep to his beloved.
We can be at ease, because our God is always alert.  

Today’s Psalm, 121, says, he who watches over… will neither slumber nor sleep.  The LORD watches over you– by day… by night.  Our timeless God is present and alert, always. God will keep you, the Psalm says.  God will keep your life.  God never slumbers, so we can. We can be still, when all around is the rough sea.

This is the Supreme Being we worship here.  This is the One we seek to hear.  To see.  To know.  To befriend.  To obey.  To serve with.  To love.  ‘Hearing from God’ is about this God, who is present, even when all seems lost, even when God seems lost to us.

Years ago, author and pastor Richard Foster was working in a family counselling centre, and was becoming interested in how prayers of healing worked with emotional needs.  
A man came to him who had lived in constant fear and bitterness for twenty-eight years.  He would wake up at night, screaming and in a cold sweat. He lived in constant depression, so much so that his wife said that he had not laughed for many years.

The man told Foster the story of what had happened those many years before that had caused such a deep sadness to hang over him.  He was in Italy during the Second World War and was in charge of a mission of thirty-three men.  They became trapped by enemy gunfire.  With deep sorrow in his eyes, this man related how he had prayed desperately that God would get them out of that mess. It was not to be.  He had to send his men out two by two and watch them get killed.  Finally in the early hours of the morning he was able to escape with six men – four seriously wounded.  He had only a flesh wound.  He said that the experience turned him into an atheist.  Certainly, his heart was filled with rage, bitterness, and guilt.

His counsellor, Foster, said, ‘Don’t you know that Jesus Christ, the Son of God who lives in the eternal now, can enter that old painful memory and heal it so that it will no longer control you?’  He did not know this was possible.  Foster asked if he would mind if he prayed for him – never might that he was an atheist; he would have faith for him.  He nodded his consent.  Sitting beside him with his hand on the man’s shoulder, Richard Foster invited the Lord Jesus to go back those twenty-eight years and walk through that day with this good man.  ‘Please Lord,’ Foster asked, ‘draw out the hurt and the hate and the sorrow and set him free.’  Almost as an afterthought, he asked for peaceful sleep to be one of the evidences of this healing work, for the fellow had not slept well for all those years.  ‘Amen.’

The next week he came up to the counsellor with a sparkle in his eyes and a brightness on his face…  ‘Every night I have slept soundly and each morning I have awakened with a hymn on my mind.  And I am happy… happy for the first time in twenty-eight years.’ …That was many years ago, and the wonderful thing is that although this man… had the normal ups and downs of life since then, the old sorrows… never returned.  (Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, 1992, pp. 218-19)

Perfect love casts out fear, says scripture.(1 Jn 4:18)  This testimony of a man about freedom from the past is but one example, and you have your own stories to tell.  You know this already.  God will keep you.  Even when there is silence.  When God seems not even to be there, to exist.  One poet prayed:

In Your presence there is an absence
silencing my greatest fear.
It is with You that I know the essence
of what is life, now that You’re near.

It is in the absence of Your presence
that I rekindle my desire;
and it is when I am without You
That I burn, an inextinguishable fire.

In Your presence there is an absence
of all that preys upon my mind;
for my heart’s desire’s before me,
and I leave all else behind.

It is in the absence of Your presence
that I have learned to be apart.
It is without You that I am with You;
for You are Joy within my heart.

  • Janet Rimmer

Then, when the hidden God says, “Go,” we may go, confidently.  Then, when the Cosmic Christ says, “I will go back in your life and be there for you,” we find freedom from our past.  Then, when the Spirit of Truth speaks ever so quietly, we will recognize and understand.  God will keep your life.  

Next Sunday we will explore some factors of God’s still, small voice that help us recognize it as the voice of the Master.  

God Will Teach You the Way

Lent 1 (Ps 32; Gen 3:1-13; Mtt 4:1-11)

March 5, 2017 – UBC Digby – J G White

Sunday dinner was finished, but [the family] lingered round the table savoring the good food and reflecting on the morning’s service at [their local Southern Baptist] church.  The congregation… was excited about its plans for a new sanctuary to replace its old building, which was much loved but long overused and outgrown.

The morning message had focused on the plans for the new building.  [The] pastor spoke of his vision for the church’s increased ministry.  He indicated how strongly he felt God’s guidance in the way the congregation was going, and he testified that God had spoken to him about things that should be done.

…[Grandmother] seemed deep in thought as [the family] continued to chatter along [around the dinner table.]   Finally she said quietly, “ I wonder why God never speaks to me like that.”

That simple comment… came like a bolt out of the blue from the heart of this woman of unshakable faith and complete devotion… [Grandmother] in fact, had a richly interactive life with God…  But for whatever reasons, she had not been able to relate her experience of God’s presence in her life – of which she was completely certain – to the idea of God’s speaking with her.  This left her at a loss for how to deal with the conversational side of her friendship with God.  

(Dallas Willard, Hearing God, 1983, 1999, pp. 15-16)

I believe the thoughts of that grandmother would be echoed by many a church-goer through the years.  There remains for so many of us a mystery about how God speaks to us, and with us.  Prayer seems one sided – we do all the talking – and the Voice of the Lord is a rare and special occurrence!

We Christians look to the holy scriptures for words from God.  And right we are to do so.  But in the scenes there the Holy One seems so chatty, talking with people all the time. We recited a reworded version of Psalm 32 today.  It celebrates some personal interaction with God, even some conversation.  
So I went to God, and confessed.
And God forgave me.
God says, “I will teach you.”
Let God lead you through life.

When we speak these words out loud to one another, we are encouraging ourselves to believe.  To believe that God answers us, and even takes initiative to say things to us.  God is willing and active when it comes to showing us the way to know God, to converse and develop friendship.  I long for our Master to teach us in the weeks ahead, teach us about our holy conversations.  Show us: how we are already hearing from God, and some new things to learn.

The Bible is full – FULL – of people’s conversations with God.   Some people stand out as real heroes when it comes to knowing the Almighty.
Abraham was called a friend of God. (James 2:23)
Moses knew God face to face. Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. (Exodus 33:11)
Young Samuel needed help, but soon learned to recognize when the LORD was speaking to him.  “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” (1 S 3:10)
Mary and Joseph both received angel visitors, and believed what they were told about the child to be born.  (Luke 1, Matthew 1)  
Does the Creator, does the Spirit, does the Saviour still speak with us today?  

We were made to relate to God.  We are created to know the Divine.  This is who we are.  Let’s go back, way back, to Genesis 3.  God seeks out Adam & Eve in the Garden.   You remember that the real trouble in the Garden was not the the apple in the tree. It was the pair on the ground!

Just after that famous scene in the garden with the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and the serpent, God comes looking for the people.  They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze…  Amid the tragedy of this story, it is a beautiful moment.  God in the garden with them.

But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?”  God seems to have given the humans space, freedom, and even turns off God’s own all-seeing ability, and asks, “Where are you?”  

They have a conversation.  And so the back-and-forth continues, through all the thousands of years in the story of the Bible.  Humans are made for relationship with God.  Jesus once prayed: And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (Jn 17:3)

Have you heard God walking in your garden, at the time of the evening breeze?

As we seek to recognize God’s voice in our lives, we will have to watch for the dangers and errors that are possible.  We heard today a story from Matthew 4 of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.  Here is a case of a human (albeit unique and more than human) in conversation with God and with the Enemy.  The Bible plays a big part in the conversation.  As the three temptations arise, Jesus quotes three times from the book of Deuteronomy: 8:3; 6:16; 6:13.  But the Devil also quotes scripture, Psalm 91:11-12.  

Not every claim about the right way, God’s way, is right.  We have learned in our lives some about what’s not God’s guidance. We will have more yet to learn.

There is a sense in which we have been built for relating to the Divine.  We are made for relationships.  

So is God.  God is already relational all on their own.   Christians find God to be Trinity – Father, Son and Spirit.  God is already in relationship, without the universe or us.  

There are many things we can say about God briefly.  God is Spirit.  God is Holy.  God is good.  God is One.  God is Three.  God is Love.  

So God is Relationship.

And this God wants and works for a relationship with us. This is why Christ came, and even died, for us. So we could be with God in loving fellowship always. Reconciled to God.  

So we can hear from God.  

Let me end with the very first words of Thomas Kelly’s classic book, A Testament of Devotion.
Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return.  Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home unto Itself.  (1941, p. 3)

God will teach us the way.