Hearing God’s Voice in the Noise

Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening.

As you’ve probably figured out by now, I believe the pre-assigned lessons – chosen years in advance – are a real gift: they keep me from picking my favourite passages or using the pulpit to say what I want to hear.

This is one of those weeks. 

If it were up to me, there’s so much happening in the world that needs our prayerful attention.  Have you watched the news?  It’s mind-boggling.  There’s now twice as many US troops in Washington DC than there doing peacekeeping in Afghanistan and Iraq combined; Ontario’s gone back into lockdown; Pfizer has pushed back Canada’s vaccine delivery schedule; there’s Covid showing up in the sewage in Hay River, and no one knows where it’s coming from; and in the midst of all that, we’re called to be faithful in our mission to reach Fort Smith with the merciful love of God in Christ Jesus.  So many things we could focus on, so many directions we could go, and honestly, so many opportunities for me to offer my opinion, to throw my voice into the already confused mix of noise we hear every day.

But, you know what?  Last week, as I went to work on your behalf as a minister of the gospel, whether in my office, or offering pastoral care by text, or at Celebrate Recovery, or making my rounds at Northern Lights, 4 times last week I was asked the same question: “Does God speak to people?”  “How do I know if God’s telling me something?”

…and then, Wednesday morning, I sat at my desk to see what the lessons were for today.  And what did I find?  The voice of the Lord calling to the prophet Samuel, and Samuel missing it.  And what’s it paired with?  Jesus himself calling Philip to follow him. 

Thanks be to God, He does speak to us, and can even use lessons chosen 40 years ago to answer the questions people are asking, right here, right now.

Hearing God’s Voice

So first, I think we need to be clear: what does it mean to hear God’s voice? What are we talking about here? 

Well, I’ll say that there certainly are faithful Christians who speak about hearing God’s voice in an audible way, an actual voice.  I’m not one who has had that experience, but of course, if God is almighty and all-powerful in any real way, there’s no reason He couldn’t choose to operate that way, but it’s not the typical way God speaks to his people.  Sure, there are exceptions: St. Paul was knocked off his horse when he saw a bright light and heard the voice of the Risen Christ; God spoke at Jesus’ baptism, and again at the Transfiguration on the mountain.  Yet, even in those exceptional situations, we’re told that the bystanders didn’t hear an audible voice – they heard a sound like thunder.

No, rather than a booming voice from heaven, the consistent teaching in scripture is quite the opposite: did God speak in the earthquake, the whirlwind, or the fire?  No – his voice was in the still, small voice.[1]  When God spoke to Joseph to confirm that Mary’s child was the Son of God, he was resting on his bed.  Throughout the Psalms, we read that the Lord “visits us on our beds” as we remember and meditate on God in the quiet hours of the day.[2]  Job speaks of God’s faithfulness in speaking when we’re at rest, though we fail to perceive it.[3] And, in today’s lesson from Samuel, the young prophet first hears the Lord’s voice while he’s at rest, lying awake on his bed.

There’s an obvious connection there, and it’s not that they were dreaming. 

If we’re going to be attentive to God’s voice, we have to be at rest.

Be Still and Know…

What is it that Psalm 46 says?  ‘Work yourself into a fluster, and know that I am God?’  ‘Scroll the news headlines non-stop and know that I am God?’  ‘Cook up endless plans to solve all the problems of the world and the church and your family, and know that I am God?’  No.  “Be still and know that I am God.”

Very practically, how often do we find ourselves in a fluster or outright overwhelmed – and sometimes for very good, legitimate reasons – and, under our breath, we mutter “God help me”, but then what do we do?  We let our minds race, as we occupy ourselves with things that are beyond our control.  We know we’re overwhelmed, and yet our instinct is to do the very thing that makes it worse: rather than stepping back, letting things settle, finding a solid place to stand so we no longer feel like we’re spinning out of control, what do we do?  When we already know we’re not in control, our instinct is to cook up plans to control the situation.  That’s literally insane, yet it’s our natural response. 

No, consistently throughout scripture, God’s voice isn’t one of many competing for our focus or attention.  God doesn’t present himself as one option among the several that we’ve cooked up.  At no point, not only in scripture, but also in the long history of the Church, has God’s voice been one of several valid options to be decided by making a pro and con list. 

God’s voice is heard when we make the decision to step back and rest.  God’s voice is heard when we realize that all our anxious attempts to “figure it out” is part of the problem, not the solution.  Rather, if we want to hear God’s voice, we need to find rest – no, more than that, we need to consciously choose rest, we need to choose to be still, acknowledging that more anxious wondering will never, ever make an anxious situation less anxious.  Choose to rest.  Choose to be still.  Choose to be attentive.

And, to be clear, this isn’t just another self-help plan.  We believe God doesn’t need to thunder his voice from heaven precisely because he has put his Spirit in our hearts (2 Cor 1:22).  James, in his epistle, puts it this way: “everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger”, rather, “humbly accept the word of God already planted in your hearts” (1:19-21).   

If we’re going to ask God to help us, if we’re going to ask God to give us direction, then, without a doubt, the first step is to step back, to rest, to let ourselves be still, and to be attentive.

That means shutting off the phone and the TV and sitting or lying down, rather than trying to forge ahead on your own power.  Maybe that means going for a walk, not to “think things through”, but to clear your head.  Sometimes it means removing yourself for a while from a stressful situation that makes rest impossible.  Since the pandemic began, I’ve been getting requests from people to open the church for prayer and reflection.  Sometimes it’s just to get out of the house, sometimes it’s just to find somewhere quiet, sometimes it’s an actual felt need to be in God’s presence in His house.  And, you know what?  When you get that idea in your head, I can almost guarantee that it’s a little direction from God.  Anytime I’m home, I’m happy to open the door for someone to come in and pray; if I’m not home, any of the lay leaders or either of the wardens, and to be honest, quite a few others have keys.  God’s house isn’t here for an hour on Sundays – it’s here to be a sanctuary from the weary world, and, whether it’s here or on a walk or in a comfy chair, if we want to hear God’s voice, we need to be still and know that He is God.

Be ready to listen.

But, it’s important to add that there’s more to hearing God’s voice than just being quiet.  This might sound silly, but it’s crucial: if I’m wanting to hear God’s voice, I have to realize that I’m not God.

What do I mean by that?  Simply, the point of the rest, the point of the quiet isn’t so that I can scheme a solution to my problem.  As Christians, we have to accept that we don’t have the power within ourselves to help ourselves.  We don’t.  That’s the most important lesson for us to learn as we follow Jesus and become more like him every day.

It’s no good for us to ask God for help, and then sit down to evaluate the three options that we’ve cooked up.  Sure, there’s some wisdom in all sorts of worldly decision-making strategies, but we have to acknowledge that God’s perspective is not our own, and that’s a good thing.  “The wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight”, Paul writes to the Corinthians, “for the Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile”.[4] 

Practically, that means that when we are at rest, when we’ve chosen to be attentive, we can’t assume that God’s will for us will meet our expectations, or that it will be in line with our gut instincts, or that it will be the next ‘logical step’.  Remember, God’s ways are not our ways, and his thoughts are not our thoughts[5] – and that’s a very good thing, if our ways aren’t getting us anywhere, and our thoughts are a swirling bundle of anxiety!

In fact, there have been dozens of times in my life when, faced with an impossible situation or a difficult decision, having chosen to put aside the anxiety, to rest and to pray, a new option emerges.  And do you know what my first reaction is?  “Hmm, that can’t be right”. 

Reach out to the person who cursed me out?  Suggest that an accomplished leader twice my age needs help with an undiagnosed mental illness?  Tell my boss that the expensive strategic plan that was a year in the making is all based on a lie?  Answer the most ridiculous job ad I had ever seen, and leave a dream job to move to the North? 

Honestly… my first response is very often “hmm, that can’t be right”.

But how can we know if we’re hearing God’s voice?  Thankfully, God tells us that too: we’re to test it.  If we think we have the solution, the way forward, there are two checks that we can run.  First, do we see that response echoed in the life and ministry of Christ?  It’s not just ‘what would Jesus do’, but also, is this in keeping with who Jesus is, because we believe God is shaping all of us into the image of his Son.  In John’s first epistle, he puts it simply: “by this you will know the Spirit of God: if it confesses that Jesus has come in the flesh [to live and die as one of us, to heal the sick, to offer himself as a sacrifice for many], than it’s from God.”[6]  Otherwise, it’s not. 

And the other check is connected to that one: what does God say in his word?  This is where the church comes in, especially for those who are still learning the scriptures.  If we take as fact that God will not contradict himself, than that means picking and choosing Bible verses can’t be a free-for-all; we have to read it as a consistent whole.  God’s not going to tell you to do something that make you less like Jesus.

Come and See.

And finally, after we’re chosen to rest, after we’ve opened our minds to hearing that there’s more to the story, and other ways forward besides our own, there’s one other crucial part: we need to be ready to open our eyes.  To really open them.

In the Gospel today, Jesus called Philip, who agreed to follow him.  Philip was speaking to his friend Nathaniel, telling him that their prayers had been answered.  And what was Nathaniel’s response?  To question it.  ‘Sure, I’ve been hoping and praying for the Messiah, but from Nazareth?  Nazareth is a hole, it’s a dump.  No way the Son of God is even stepping foot there, let alone actually being from there!’  Nathaniel’s been praying for years, and here’s the answer, but his response is ‘hmm, that can’t be right!’. 

But what does Philip say?  Does he engage him on an endless back-and-forth debate based on their perceptions and assumptions?  No.  He says “come and see”.

At some point, if we’re really willing to hear God’s voice, we have to stop questioning and instead open our eyes to the evidence. 

The truth is that God isn’t just at work in our hearts and minds.  God is at work in the world.  Our minds can deceive us.  At some point, we have to get out of our anxious minds and actually see what God is doing in the world – and I can say from experience that it’s hardly ever in the headlines.

When John’s disciples came to ask Jesus if he was the Messiah, Jesus’ response was simply ‘what have you seen and heard?’.  Are lives being healed?  Are the outcasts being cleansed and welcomed in?  Are people being given new life?  Are those who have nothing being offered the hope of the good news?’[7]  Let the evidence speak for itself – it’s not about what diseases they had, or what they had done, or where they had failed before: rather, what is God doing, right here?

If the way forward offers mercy, gives new life, gives hope, promotes justice, and gives everyone involved the opportunity to be more like Christ, then the evidence all points to that being of God.

Speak, O Lord…

God still speaks, and we need to hear his voice now as much as ever.  His voice isn’t silent, but at the end of the day, we need to be willing to hear it.  We need to step back, and find rest;  we need to remember that we’re not God, and we don’t have all the answers; and we need to be ready to test our thoughts and our attitudes, ready to open our eyes to see the evidence of God’s presence.

May God give us grace to simply say, with Samuel, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening”.  Amen.

[1] 1 Kings 19:11-15

[2] Psalm 16:7, 17:3, 63:6

[3] Job 33:14-18

[4] 1 Corinthians 3:19-20

[5] Isaiah 55:8-9

[6] 1 John 4:2-5

[7] Luke 7:22

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