A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on October 31, 2010.
My prayers, my God, flow from what I am not; I think thy answers make me what I am.
For the past two months, we have been taking a journey through worship that we have called Now That I Believe. The principle is that in scripture whenever we encounter Christ and accept him as our Lord and Savior, things are different. Jesus told a parable about new wine in old wine skins. He said that the new spirit that comes into us is the new wine. If the lives we led before are the old wine skins, then the two don’t match. When the new wine comes, the old skins must be replaced. The new simply will not fit into the old.
Paul said when a person comes to Christ they are a new creation. The old has passed away; the new has come. Wherever we turn in scripture, we are reminded that an encounter with God or accepting Christ results in some kind of change.
There is a lot of preoccupation with angels in our society. There are TV shows, mementos at gift stores, and even bumper stickers that say, “My guardian angel is watching over me.” But if you read scripture, it is never quite as cute when a person encounters an angel as mementos in a gift store would make it seem.
Jacob encountered an angel at the Brook Jabbok and he left with a severe limp and a new name because his life was so changed that the old name did not fit any more.
We titter when we hear someone make reference to Balaam and, as the Bible says, Balaam’s ass, but few of us take the time to notice that neither master nor donkey are ever the same at the end of the story because the story is about an encounter with an angel.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, was never the same after the angel came and said, “The spirit of the most high will overshadow you.” It doesn’t matter if we have turned aside from a burning bush, stood at the foot of the cross and looked and recognized for the first time that it is the son of God who died for us, when God speaks and comes to a life, it is new. It is never the same again.
We walk this journey, Now That I Believe. Now that I believe, what has God done in my life and what is it that God wants yet to do? I have heard that God loves us enough to accept us the way we are but God loves us too much to let us stay that way. We come to this encounter with Christ. Things are new but not all the way yet. There is still more newness to be worked.
Among the things that we have talked about in this Now That I Believe journey of faith are praying differently and praying without ceasing. Indeed we pray in a different manner than we did before we knew Christ. Surely this makes sense. Wouldn’t a Christian pray in a different way than a person who is not a Christian? If we grow in the understanding of our faith and in our relationship with God so that we know God better than we have known him in the past, surely wouldn’t that change the way we communicate? Do you communicate the same way with your best friend ten years after you would describe that person as your best friend as you did the first time? No, we all grow.
We are thinking once again about prayer and how being a Christian changes the way we pray. I want to focus on what it means to listen. On the Sunday when I preached about praying differently, we talked about that we mature and go from focusing on what we want God to give us as to what it is that we want God to do in our lives.
The Psalmist says, “My soul waits in silence for God alone” then lists all of these things that waiting in silence is going to provide. He said that God is a rock and a refuge and mentions how God is going to strengthen and uplift a life. Surely, it is in that silence when we listen for God that God has his best opportunity to do that work.
The question that arises and I think has to be addressed is: Does God still speak? There is not a cloud in the sky and Noah hears God say, “Build an ark.” Abraham is in Ur of the Chaldees when he hears God say, “It is time to go to the Promised Land.” Moses is tending sheep on Mt. Sinai when the bush seems to burn yet it is not consumed and God says to him, “Go tell Pharaoh, ‘Let my people go.’”
Does God still speak like this? Does God’s voice still come to people? It is very dangerous if we say it does. I believe they burned Joan of Arc at the stake. When Oral Roberts said that a 900-foot Jesus spoke to him, I don’t think his ministry was ever quite the same after that. People look at you just a little bit funny when you say, “God spoke to me.” I am convinced that we may not hear a voice as you hear my voice in these moments, but we are just as convinced that God does speak.
What I want to offer today are some very practical ways for an average Christian to listen for the voice of God in this world.
Have you ever had someone you considered a counselor who was always a help when you needed to talk about something? It seems to me that the best ones point out what we say. They ask, “Did you just hear what you said?” Then we have to stop and take our own words into account. They might ask a question and get us to say something. But as we say it, we remark, “I guess I just answered my own question.” Have you ever had that experience?
My first suggestion on how to hear God speak is to pray out loud. I am not talking about praying in public, which I know many people do not like to do. The mind is a funny thing. We can gloss over things. We can think things in our mind, skip right over them, and never pay attention to the things we are saying to ourselves, but when we speak out loud we hear it. I think the same thing is true in prayer. There are times when we have a silent or mental prayer when we are offering something to God, and we really don’t pay attention to what we are saying. But if we were to say it out loud, we might actually have that compulsion that God is guiding us to pray a different way.
Let me offer you this challenge: Pray out loud for someone that you don’t particularly care for. Pray out loud for someone you are angry with, disappointed in, or whatever it may be. When we pray in our own minds, it is very simple to list the faults and complain to God and think that is a prayer. But if we do the very same thing out loud, the spirit of truth that Jesus promises us in the Gospel of John compels us to recognize that is no prayer, and that is not the way I am supposed to pray for somebody even if I consider them my enemy. I think that is God leading us and speaking to us.
I challenge you to pray for a problem that really has you worried. Pray out loud for that. We can do it silently but we never catch the fact that all we are really doing is worrying in the presence of God. But if we say it out loud, we realize I really have not asked God to do anything. I really have not asked God to change anything. I have only listed the problem and have not even spoken to God about God’s promises. In those moments when we recognize there is no trust, no sense of dependence upon God, that all it has been is worrying aloud in the presence of God, God leads us again by that spirit of truth to say, There is something else I am supposed to be asking. I believe that is the way God speaks. God leads us when we say these things out loud. God compels us to think of a new way to pray. In that God, indeed, has spoken to us. Pray out loud, not for the simple and easy stuff, but for the most personal and difficult issues that you face and see what your own reaction is to what you say to God. I promise you that the reaction is not your own. It is God directing.
My second suggestion is: We live in a rather sleepless nation. Many commercials on TV are for the right number on your bed, for the right type of mattress, or for the right medication. We all complain about how poorly we sleep. I learned this a long time ago: When I wake up in the middle of the night, I try to pay attention to where my mind goes. I have come to believe that where my mind goes in the middle of the night is where God is trying to direct me. God is speaking to me.
There is biblical precedent for this. Young Samuel hears the voice of God in the middle of the night. He goes to Eli who was his mentor. Samuel says, “Here I am.”
Eli says, “I didn’t call you.”
This goes on for a couple of times, and finally Eli realizes that God is speaking to Samuel in the middle of the night. Samuel told Eli, “The next time this happens say, ‘Speak Lord, for your servant listens.’”
There in the middle of the night when there are no other distractions, God speaks to Samuel and calls him to be a servant.
In this world of ours, everybody has on ear buds, we have our nose in a phone either texting or whatever it is we do, the TV is on the background, and somebody is trying to talk to us. In that incredible amount of noise, how does God speak to us? How does God get through all that noise to say something that needs to be said to our hearts? I am not so sure of the fact that we are such a sleepless nation, but that is the only time there is no competition for our attention. Pay attention to where your mind goes in the middle of the night. We might even try the very words of Samuel, “Speak, Lord, I’m listening.” Does somebody come to mind? Maybe there is something you need to be doing about that person. Maybe that person needs you and God is speaking to you in the night and bringing that person to mind so that you might do some ministry in God’s name.
You might think, “I am not particularly fond of the person who comes to my mind.” Maybe God is speaking to you about that relationship and that there is something to be done that you need to do to change it.
Maybe you say, “I just wake up and I worry. I am worried about the kids. I am worried about my job.” Maybe God wants to break through in the middle of the night and say to you, “Don’t forget that I am still in charge. Don’t forget that I am still here.” What other time will God get that word through to us if it is not in those still and silent moments when there is no competition?
The third way is: Pay attention to the things in your life that won’t go away. This might be related to vocation, some place of service, or to a particular person or relationship. Who knows what it might be? Pay attention to those things where there is a thread that seems to weave through so many places in life. I think that is one of the ways that God speaks to us and he won’t let us go. He is going to say it again until we finally recognize that it is the voice of God in our lives.
I will have to confess that I don’t do this but there are a number of people who journal about things that are spiritually important to them. In reading back through the journal, they will see bits and pieces and threads of ideas and convictions that weave through that and they realize, This is something God has been speaking to me about for five years now, and not just a passing thought that comes and goes in their lives. It is God trying to get a message through.
In none of these cases is there a voice. I believe God can speak that way, and I believe I have met people that God has spoken to in some sort of audible sense but I don’t think it happens that way most of the time. I think most of the time we don’t recognize it has been the voice of God until afterward. It is afterward when we reflect back on it and we have responded to something God has said to us in the middle of the night or some way that God has altered our prayer because the spirit has convicted us as we have prayed aloud. It may be something that we have finally responded to because we have seen the thread weave its way through our life where we can come to a place and say with absolute conviction, God spoke to me. God has been telling me this for a long time. After the fact, we recognize that it is the voice of God.
Those are the ideas on how to listen to God, but I need to say one other thing. It is a very, very, very dangerous thing to believe that any thought I have is God speaking to me. I don’t know about you, but I have thought some pretty weird things on occasion in my life and I would hate to try to ascribe that to God.
Somebody once asked the question, Does God still speak, and the answer was yes. God still speaks but God has not said anything since the cross that runs contrary to the cross. Everything that God would say to us is consistent with the cross of Jesus Christ. If I am trying to determine if this is my own neurosis or if it is God speaking to me, how do I know it is God? The answer is: Is it consistent with the cross of Jesus? If it convicts and moves us in some way and speaks to us about the wideness of God’s mercy or the depth of God’s love, then I think that is likely a word from God. Is it something that reminds us of the sacrifice of Christ or what it means to be obedient to God, then I think it is something that is likely a word from God.
If it is something that only increases our hate, fuels our vindictiveness, or in some way inflates our own pride or ego, I don’t think that comes from God. I think that comes from one of the dark places in our hearts that God would like to shed his light upon.
If God speaks to us in such a way that what we would do is bring emotional pain to someone or hurt someone, that is not from Jesus. Jesus suffered on the cross and did not inflict pain. It has to be consistent with the cross.
It is easy in this world to assume everybody thinks like we do but that is not the case. There are people who sometimes think they hear God say some bad things. God would never tell us to hurt a child. God would never tell us to harm a wife. In the same way, God would never speak to us to inflate our own ego or somehow grab all the power out there. It is not about us. It is about the love of God demonstrated through the cross of Christ. If it is consistent with that, then very likely you can say, God is speaking to me.
God still speaks. Do not think that all the words of God stopped 2,000 years ago and are contained in the Bible. God would not say anything that is not consistent with the cross. God is speaking still. Who knows, maybe in this service, maybe this afternoon when you are taking a nap or in the morning when you wake up at 3:00 a.m., if you pray out loud and the spirit of God redirects you to pray another way, God is speaking.
God is speaking, and my prayer for you would be that you would listen. That is our prayer for each of us in Christ’s name.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.