In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
What is the Human Condition?
Good morning, St. Andrew’s! Today we continue our series of sermons on stewardship. You recall that we define stewardship as involving more than just our care of money. God has created humans to be stewards of his creation and this means we must be stewards of all his gifts, not just his material blessings. Last week I talked about the importance of our stewardship of prayer because our prayer life (or lack of it) reveals what we think about God and the kind of relationship we have with him. I focused on our side of the conversation (because all real prayer is a conversation). This week I want to focus on the other dimension of our stewardship of prayer: listening for and to God’s voice. In preparing this sermon I am heavily indebted to that old British Methodist preacher and teacher, Dr. W. E. Sangster, whose classic little book, God Does Guide Us, has been a tremendous help in my own stewardship of prayer.
In today’s OT lesson, Job claims to have heard God’s voice. But how did he know it was God’s voice? In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that his sheep know his voice. But how do we know that? We humans are not unlike blind Bartimaeus. We want desperately for Jesus to heal us and we keep calling out to him for help. But the problem is, we usually do not take the time to stop and listen for and to him so that he can work to transform us into his likeness. There are many reasons for this. Sometimes we are worried and distracted. Other times we are not really sure we want to hear an answer from our Lord. And of course we are finite and fallible beings and so when we hear what we think might be the voice of Jesus, we aren’t really sure whether it is, and so we can become discouraged in our listening and stop trying to do so. After all, it is easier for us to do all the talking, but that is manifestly arrogant and rude on our part for two reasons: (1) we are the creatures and God is our Creator; and (2) any conversation requires that both parties participate.
Where is God’s Grace?
But it is the biblical witness that God does answer prayer and speaks with his people. The OT prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah were called prophets precisely because they were recognized to bring an authoritative word of the Lord to his people. The Apostle Paul claimed to bring the word of the Lord to many of the people to whom he wrote. Surely he learned some of that in prayer. For example, in Acts 16, Luke tells us that the Spirit of Jesus prevented Paul from going to Asia to preach, but rather directed him westward into Greece. And of course our Lord Jesus himself spoke authoritatively about hearing God’s voice and doing God’s will, especially in John’s Gospel.
If it is the consistent biblical witness that God does speak to his people through prayer, then we too can avail ourselves of this tremendous privilege, especially if we really want to be his followers. If we really are Christ’s ambassadors as Paul insists in 2 Corinthians 5:20, then it is only logical that we must have our marching orders available from our leader. After all, there is no ambassador in the world who does not receive ongoing orders and direction from his or her government. Likewise, we Christians should expect our Leader, Jesus, to issue us our orders and direction so that we can be his witnesses to a world that desperately needs to hear the Good News.
Where is the Application?
I would therefore offer the following five suggestions to help us better listen for and hear the voice of God in our prayer. First, we must engage in the difficult work of disciplining ourselves to listen for God’s voice in prayer and expect him to answer. Malcolm Muggeridge made the very insightful statement that, “The whole story of Christendom shows, if everything is asked for, everything—and more—will be accorded; if little, then nothing.” How true this is! Be bold in your prayer requests and then listen expectantly!
God tells us through the psalmist that we are to “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10), but that is not easy is it? We are easily distracted and it is hard to be quiet and listen for God’s voice. But that is exactly what me must do. If you are spending 15 minutes each morning in prayer, you must devote an adequate portion of that time to listen for God’s voice. Let him control your thoughts. As he does, you will often gain a clear insight into a problem or situation, and that is often accompanied by a sense of assurance or confirmation. While this is not infallible, of course, we need to pay attention to those moments. At other times, our thoughts might start moving toward or away from a particular direction. Pay attention to this and take notes.
For example, earlier this week, I was really sweating about what to preach about stewardship in light of today’s lectionary texts. I usually start reading texts about 2-3 weeks in advance and as I read and reread the texts, I grew increasingly desperate because I really could not see how I could draw out the theme of stewardship from today’s texts. But last Sunday right as I was reading the texts, the Lord told me to preach about listening for his voice in prayer, pointing me especially to today’s OT reading. Now let’s be clear about this. I did not hear an audible voice telling me to preach about this topic. But suddenly I had a keen insight and a door was opened up for me. Imagine that. God answered me before I even asked! This insight was accompanied by a sense of assurance, and I have learned that this assurance is usually God’s assurance. I cannot explain it to you but I know it to be true.
Then on Monday morning during my morning devotions, I was reading some devotional texts and received an additional insight about what to preach as I read them. Again, no audible voice, but a clear insight that was accompanied by a sense of assurance that led me to believe it was God’s voice speaking to me as I was being still before him. You’ll learn about this insight when we get to my fifth suggestion below.
What about those times when we listen for God’s voice but don’t hear anything? In some cases we must simply be patient and wait for God; it is his time, not ours. If we are asking God for daily guidance and do not hear anything in particular as we are still and listen for him, it can be helpful to assume that nothing new has changed from our previous marching orders and so we should keep doing what we are doing. After all, the older our children get, the less we have to remind them about their duties or tasks, at least on a daily basis. Likewise with prayer and our growth in Christ. And like exercise, the more we practice being still and listening for God’s voice, the better we get at hearing it.
Second, and related to the first suggestion, we must learn to listen for God’s voice with a sense of humility. As we become still before God in prayer, we must remember he is the Creator and we are his creatures. He is omniscient and we are not. This perforce dictates that he must lead the conversation, not us. Certainly he bids us to bring our cares and concerns to him, but how we do so is important. For example, if we ask God (or worse, demand of him) to explain to us why this or that is happening in our lives, we will often not get an answer because as Job vividly reminds us, we are not going to ever be privy to all of God’s knowledge and will. But if we humble ourselves and ask God how we can serve and glorify him in our present circumstances, there will always be an answer because that is why he created us: to have a relationship with him so that we can bring him praise and glory in our lives.
Likewise, when you ask God to guide you in making decisions, it is important that you not bring to him the decision you’ve already made and ask him to confirm it. Obviously, doing so is not asking for guidance at all; rather, you are essentially saying that you know better than God does regarding your decision and you want him to simply confirm this. A more satisfactory approach would be to lay out your reasons for reaching your decision to God and ask him to give you insight into the validity of your decision making.
Third, we hear God’s voice through God’s word, the Bible. This should make perfect sense to us. If we believe the Bible is God’s definitive Word to us, then why would we not read it to hear God’s voice? We can use the Bible as a standard by which we can assess what we hear from God when we are still before him. This, of course, requires that we read our Bibles regularly and become familiar with what it has to say. Otherwise, we do not have an authoritative standard by which to assess our listening. For example, if we “hear” God telling us to commit murder or mayhem, we immediately know this is another voice speaking to us, a far more malevolent one. Why? Because we know that this is against God’s holy law and we must respect that. As we read our Bibles each day, a good question to ask is, “How does this passage apply to my life or situation?” or “What new insight have I gained by reading this passage?” God speaks to us through Scripture and we deny ourselves a wonderful opportunity to hear his voice when we fail to listen to him through it.
Fourth, we hear God’s voice through Christian fellowship. God can and does speak to us through other faithful Christians. It might come as a word of encouragement or an insight offered by a trusted Christian friend that gives us clarity to a problem or issue we face. It might come as an exhortation or warning to stay our hand or turn us away from a particular course or action. It might come simply by our friend being present in our time of need. Whatever the situation, we miss the opportunity to hear God’s voice if we do not pay attention to our trusted Christian friends. This, of course, makes small group fellowship even more important to us as we seek to hear God’s voice in our lives.
Fifth and finally, God’s voice will always produce in us holiness and a sense of servanthood. As we learn to hear God’s voice in our lives and seek to obey his guidance, this will naturally lead us to holy living. We will seek to live our lives in ways that bring glory to God and we will find joy in doing so. Our holy living will also inevitably lead us to a life of servanthood. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a special calling or ministry. Your service might take place in the context of your regular work. Oft times it will lead us to serve the least, the lost, and the downtrodden. However our service manifests itself, we can be sure God will show us where and how we can serve him by serving others, and we will have a sense of joy in our service. This holy living takes a lifetime to develop but it is the clearest evidence that God is guiding us and transforming us into his likeness.
Our stewardship of prayer involves both talking and listening. Learning to hear God’s voice is not easy and we must be very intentional about it. It involves daily discipline and takes a lifetime to learn to hear God’s voice, but it is indeed possible to do so. After all, the best things in life never come easy, do they? Being still before God with a proper sense of humility, hearing his voice in Scripture and fellowship, and having our lives transformed into holy living and servanthood are common ways in which we can learn to listen for and to God’s voice.
It is an awesome thought, isn’t it? The Lord and Creator of this vast universe condescends to have a conversation with each one of us if we are willing to reciprocate. This is the same God who loves us so much he took on our flesh, suffered and died for us, was raised to life, and sent us his Holy Spirit to be with us until he comes again in glory to finish the work he started from all eternity. And when we learn to recognize his Voice, he promises to transform us into his very image as our lives bring him honor and glory. That’s good news, folks, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.