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.  

Worship Fully

(Isaiah 2:1-5; John 4:19-26)

1st Sun of Advent, Nov 27, 2016 – UBC Digby – J G White

Have you ever been part of a conspiracy?  No?  Well, when the snow arrives, don’t let me catch you singing this: (Richard B. Smith, ‘34)
Later on we’ll conspire As we dream by the fire
To face unafraid The plans that we’ve made
Walking in a winter wonderland.

To conspire together is to make plans together.  Today, I invite you to join the Advent Conspiracy, a movement among Christians to do December differently, to live Advent without all the traps of the Season that is just beginning to catch us.  Shopping, rushing, wanting stuff, pigging out, getting in debt, forgetting Bethlehem.

The first of four themes for Christians in Advent can be Worship.  Worship Fully. Come and Worship.

Isaiah the prophet exclaimed to the Jews of old: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob” (2:3)  Isaiah paints one of these visions of the Hebrew Holy City and their Temple as the highest mountain, raised up, to which all the peoples of earth will be attracted.  Attracted and gathered to Almighty God.

God calls. Come and worship. Christ calls.

It was the night of the annual Santa Parade of Lights, Windsor NS.  Out by the local mall parking lot, the many vehicles, floats, and groups walking were lined up.  The local Baptist Church even had a float.  On the trailer was an old ‘pump organ’ that the pastor played, dressed in old-time garb and a top hat.  Others dressed in Victorian outfits were there to sing the carols. But in the front of the float was a rough structure with a feed-trough in it.  A young couple huddled there, dressed in old, Mid-Eastern clothing.  A baby doll was in the straw of the manger.

As the parade wound along the streets of the town, with the crowds of young and old alike cheering them on, at once Mary and Joseph saw this… A child in the front row called out: “Hi, Mary!  Hi, Joseph!”

A moment of worship, in Santa’s parade?  Full- fledged worship happens outside our own buildings.

One day, Jesus with his disciples traveled through the region called Samaria.  The Samaritans were like the Jews, but had broken away generations before.  They had their own holy mountain for worshipping God, not Mount Zion in Jerusalem.  But when Christ has a private conversation with one of the locals at a community well, He reveals some amazing things.  Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father… God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:21, 24)

Our worship of the Son of God transcends the buildings and the rituals we know so well.  Our worship includes our private moments of devotion, and the spontaneous praise that happens anywhere.  

And when we worship fully, it is so that God may Teach us. Show us the way.  Look back to those words of Isaiah 2:3 “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord… that he may teach us his ways…” Isaiah goes on in his prophecy: For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

God’s ways, God’s law, God’s word.  Our worship, together, can be at the heart of this.  Of our practical training as disciples. Our apprenticeship to Jesus.  Our following of our Master, our Shepherd.  So Advent, these weeks before Christmas, can be a time of learning and training.

So we use the Jesse Tree this year.  A decoration that puts up, each day, a symbol of an Old Testament person, or event.  We remember the ancestors of Jesus, as well as our many mothers and fathers of faith.  The spiritual heroes of the Bible.  During this week a fruit tree will go up, reminding us of Adam and Eve.  Noah’s ark will go on the tree, remembering that story, and God’s covenant then.  And so on.

We also listen to the words of the many carols that are still sung and played all around us right now.  On the radio, on street corners, in the stores, on the internet.  We still learn from the stories of the Messiah coming into the world.  
Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.  Hmm… Jesus has more hands-on things to teach us about reconciliation.
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care, and fit us for heaven, to live with thee there.  Christ still has things to do with us to prepare us for heaven.
God with us is now residing, yonder shines the infant Light.  There is more to enjoy that we know, when it comes to God living with us here and now.

What we learn from God when we focus upon God has results.  It changes us, wonderfully.  We get trained to go out there and make a difference.  We worship so We may Walk in His Paths.
Isaiah 2:3 “…that we may walk in his paths.”
Isaiah 2:5  O house of Jacob, come, let us walk    in the light of the Lord.

I was reminded last week of what someone once said to me about the danger of being ‘spiritually fat’ Christians.  You know, we have been to many many Bible Studies, and retreats, and memorized scripture, and prayed.  And we still want more of that.  But what do we DO?  Sometime we need to get up off our duff and get out there and do what we know in the cause of Jesus.  

The Rev. Sam Shoemaker was a great preacher of the 20th century, an Episcopal pastor, and one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous.  He wrote this poem as an Apologia for his life.

I stand by the door.
I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out.
The door is the most important door in the world –
It is the door through which [people] walk when they find God.
There is no use my going way inside & staying there,
When so many are still outside and they, as much as I,
Crave to know where the door is.
And all that so many ever find
Is only the wall where the door ought to be.
They creep along the wall like blind men,
With outstretched, groping hands,
Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,
Yet they never find it.
So I stand by the door.

The most tremendous thing in the world
Is for [people] to find that door – the door to God.
The most important thing that any [person] can do
Is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands
And put it on the latch – the latch that only clicks
And opens to the [person’s] own touch.

[People] die outside the door, as starving beggars die
On cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter.
Die for want of what is within their grasp.
They live on the other side of it – live because they have not found it.
Nothing else matters compared to helping them find it,
And open it, and walk in, and find Him.
So I stand by the door.

Go in great saints; go all the way in –
Go way down into the cavernous cellars,
And way up into the spacious attics.
It is a vast, roomy house, this house where God is.
Go into the deepest of hidden casements,
Of withdrawal, of silence, of sainthood.
Some must inhabit those inner rooms
And know the depths and heights of God,
And call outside to the rest of us how wonderful it is.
Sometimes I take a deeper look in.
Sometimes venture in a little farther,
But my place seems closer to the opening.
So I stand by the door.

[ There is another reason why I stand there.
Some people get part way in and become afraid
Lest God and the zeal of His house devour them;
For God is so very great and asks all of us.
And these people feel a cosmic claustrophobia
And want to get out. ‘Let me out!’ they cry.
And the people way inside only terrify them more.
Somebody must be by the door to tell them that they are spoiled.
For the old life, they have seen too much:
One taste of God and nothing but God will do any more.
Somebody must be watching for the frightened
Who seek to sneak out just where they came in,
To tell them how much better it is inside.
The people too far in do not see how near these are
To leaving – preoccupied with the wonder of it all.
Somebody must watch for those who have entered the door
But would like to run away. So for them too,
I stand by the door.

I admire the people who go way in.
But I wish they would not forget how it was
Before they got in. Then they would be able to help
The people who have not yet even found the door.
Or the people who want to run away again from God.
You can go in too deeply and stay in too long
And forget the people outside the door. ]
As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place,
Near enough to God to hear Him and know He is there,
But not so far from [people] as not to hear them,
And remember they are there too.

Where? Outside the door –
Thousands of them. Millions of them.
But – more important for me –
One of them, two of them, ten of them.
Whose hands I am intended to put on the latch.
So I shall stand by the door and wait
For those who seek it.

‘I had rather be a door-keeper
So I stand by the door.

This is walking in his paths.  This is walking in the light of the LORD!  This goes hand in hand with true worship, worshipping in spirit and in truth.  

[ Micah the prophet famously asked:  (6:6a, 8)
“With what shall I come before the Lord,
   and bow myself before God on high?
He has showed you, O mortal, what is good;
   and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
   and to walk humbly with your God? ]

Your December can be a season of worshipping God fully.  All we are, worshipping all God is.  Our lives an offering to Jesus the Christ.