Comedian Lily Tomlin asked an important question. “Why is it that when we talk to God we call it prayer but when God talks to us we call it schizophrenia?”
Does God still talk to us? It can be a tough question to answer particularly because there is such a wide range of opinions. One extreme says that God quit speaking to man directly once the Bible was completed. The Bible is all we need and that is where we get our guidance. But there are a couple of problems with that approach.
First, St. Paul had a Bible right? It was the Old Testament but to him it was the Word of God. And yet St. Paul never made the argument that God quit speaking once the Old Testament was completed. Just the opposite. He said that Jesus appeared and spoke to him. He had visions and dreams and he interpreted events that happened to him as the Lord guiding him. So there is no indication from the major author of the New Testament that the Lord would quit talking once the Bible was completed.
A second problem with this cessationist view is that it leads too easily to a form of idolatry about the Bible. The Bible is certainly the Word of God but it is not God. We don’t turn to the Bible for direction, we turn to the Lord and while He may direct us through His Word He is not limited to the written Word. FB Meyer put it this way. “The written Word is the wire along which the voice of God will certainly come you if the heart is hushed and the attention fixed.” You have heard me say it many times before, the Bible is the treasure map but we must always remember that the treasure is Jesus.
On the other extreme we see the Televangelists speak in tongues and then declare that the Lord just told them that 50 people are going to send in $1000 to his ministry. I once saw a televangelist stop in mid sentence and look up to heaven and get real quiet and then said “Yes Lord I’ll tell them that in a minute.” This kind of snake oil tomfoolery is so off putting that it seems easier to become agnostic about whether or not the Lord still speaks today and just try to muddle through the best we can.
As tempting as that position may be for some, it is wrongheaded. Jesus tells us so in today’s Gospel lesson. He says, “My sheep know my voice.” How can we know His voice if either He is not speaking or we are not listening? We must believe that He still speaks and we must make it a priority to learn to hear His voice. But let’s consider first why He speaks to His flock?
He speaks to us because God calls us into an intimate relationship with Him such that we are as united with the Father as the Son is united with the Father. That may sound like an exaggeration but it is not. Jesus prayed to His Father in John 17, “I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” Did you catch that? That the world would know that God loves you as much as He loves Jesus?
So God still speaks to us today because He calls us into a relationship with Him and communication is how you build a relationship. People who love, who are united to one another, communicate with one another. They text and email and twitter and facetime and call. “No you hang up, no you hang up, no you hang up….” And the communication is not just about giving directions. Sometimes they are just checking in, sometimes it to express love, sometimes it is to ask a question. This too is the kind of connection we are called to have with our Shepherd. It is what Brother Lawrence called “Practicing the Presence of God.”
But how do we go about this? How do we learn to hear the Shepherd’s voice? It starts by first becoming His sheep. In the Gospel we see some people coming to Jesus and asking for Him to say plainly whether or not He is the Messiah. Jesus has not only told them so but also demonstrated to them that He is the Messiah. But they still don’t get it. Why? Jesus said to them, “but you do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep.” Knowing God and hearing God is not an intellectual exercise. We do not become convinced because we have gained enough proof or become convinced by an argument. We know and hear God by becoming born of the Spirit because carnal man cannot comprehend the things of the Spirit. Some of you may have had the experience of having a spiritual conversation with someone who is brilliant but spiritually dead and during the conversation you realize that you might as well have been speaking Klingon. What we are talking about are kingdom things and if you are not in the kingdom then you just won’t get it.
Second we learn to hear the Shepherd’s voice by learning Holy Scripture. We believe the Bible to be the Word of the Lord and so the more familiar we are with it the more we tune our ear to the sound of His voice. Familiarity with His voice through the Scriptures also protect us when others come to us, claiming to speak for Him. If their voice contradicts His voice through Scripture then we can know that they are false prophets. Every cult and every heretical church that I have studied was started by a leader who claimed that God was doing a new thing and was speaking directly through them. But when you compare what they were saying with God’s voice through Scripture it becomes clear that they are not speaking for God. The Shepherd’s voice today will not contradict His voice from yesterday. As John Calvin said, “The Holy Spirit doeth not stutter.”
But the Shepherd’s voice is not limited to Holy Scripture. In fact we need to remember that just because it is Scripture does not mean that it is the voice of the Shepherd. Satan quoted Scripture to Jesus in the wilderness but because he took it out of context it was not the voice of God.
In his book on guidance Dallas Willard highlights two other ways that the Lord speaks to us. One is “the still small voice.” That term comes from the story in 1 Kings where God spoke to Elijah. The prophet was waiting on the Lord and first came wind so strong that it destroyed the mountains. The text says, “but the Lord was not in the wind.” Next came an earthquake but the Lord was not in the earthquake. Then came fire but the Lord was not in the fire. Then the text says, “And after the fire the sound of a still small voice.”
So we are not talking here about a dramatic voice thundering from heaven. This is that whisper in you heart and mind that gives assurance or correction or direction. Willard says one of the ways you can distinguish the small voice from your own thoughts is that it comes with authority. It does not cajole or argue or condemn. Matthew says “and the crowds were amazed because he spoke to them as one who has authority and not as the scribes.”
I heard this voice of authority about 12 years ago while we were still in the Episcopal Church. A group of folks in Chattanooga asked to meet with me on Monte Eagle. They represented nearly 100 people who had left the Episcopal Church and wanted me to return to Chattanooga and plant an orthodox Anglican Church. I told them that I still had work to do at All Saints and was not ready to leave but that I would come on Sunday evenings and celebrate Holy Communion and help them start a church.
As I was driving down the mountain the still small voice spoke to me and told me that I was to remain their shepherd until they were firmly planted and called a permanent shepherd. It was just that clear to me.
A few months into this work I got a call from the Episcopal Bishop in Nashville to come to his home. I was told that the Episcopal Bishop in Knoxville was going to bring me up on charges and have me defrocked for doing ministry in his diocese without his permission. I had already spoken to that Bishop and explained to him that I was not stealing any sheep but that these were folks he had already lost. Further I was not planting an Episcopal Church so in my mind he might as well have been equally mad at the Methodists or Baptists for being in his diocese. None of that mattered to them and I was ordered to stop. I asked the Bishop to show me anywhere in Scripture where a shepherd abandons his flock and I would obey. Otherwise I would continue my work. That still small voice had been so clear to me that I knew that I would be disobeying Jesus to stop. I concluded that if I could not please both Jesus and the Bishop that the Bishop was going to lose out on that deal. I don’t know why they didn’t defrock me, at least not then, but they did not and I continued until they called a full time priest and they continue to be a thriving parish. When the word of the Lord comes to us in authority, it gives us authority to follow through.
A third way that Willard says the Lord speaks to us is through circumstances. Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem fulfilled a prophecy but the reason that Joseph and Mary were not in Nazareth was because they were audited by the IRS and had to return to their hometown. One of our parishioners became a parishioner because she was thinking about looking for a new church and pulled up behind a car with a St. Patrick’s bumper sticker on it. This does not mean, of course, that we are to interpret everything that happens to us as a sign from the Lord, but like the old joke tells us, when He sends you two boats and a helicopter, He is trying to get your attention.
What I particularly liked about Willard’s advice on hearing God is that he says that we can be certain that we are hearing the voice of the Shepherd when all three points of light line up together. When something confirmed by Scripture, the still small voice and circumstances then we can bank on it.
We can see this interplay in the life of St. Paul. He argued very eloquently from Holy Scripture that that the gospel was not just for the Jews but was also to be taken to the Gentiles. One night in a dream a young man pleaded with him to come to Macedonia and then circumstantial doors opened for the Apostle to make the trip.
We can use these points of light in a similar way. The Scripture is not going to tell you which woman to marry but it will give you guidelines to begin the search. The Scripture commands that we are not to be unequally yoked so a Christian will not be led to marry an unbeliever. Proverbs talks about the glories of a virtuous woman so you can rule out finding her at a strip club.
The still small voice can be more of a challenge when it comes to matters of the heart but if you will seek His will and not your will the Holy Spirit will give you a peace that surpasses comprehension when you are in His will and have found the right person.
Circumstances will also confirm God’s will. If you want 15 kids and she does not want to submit her body to childbearing so that she can become a professional dancer…red flag. If her family hates you…red flag. If you want to give your life in service to others and her life motto is “You can never be too rich or too thin”…red flag.
There is another point of light that I would add to Dallas Willard’s list and that is community. Because we are the Body of Christ and members of one another we can expect the Lord to speak to us through His Church. If you have fallen madly in love but your priest, the members of your Bible Study and even the altar guild are telling you to run to the hills then run Forrest run! If you are married expect the Lord to speak through your spouse. Not in a controlling or manipulative way and not in a way to remake you in their image. But expect Him to speak to you as a team because He is the one who has yoked you together. He is not going to tell one to go right and the other to go left. He will direct you so that you are pulling together.
Expect Him to speak through friends who know and love you the most. Again, not in a way to control you, but to encourage and exhort you or in love to warn you. One of the most difficult conversations I have had in my entire life was to sit down with a friend and warn him that his marriage was in trouble when he did not know it. I was terrified what I would lose his friendship but he took it with incredible maturity and grace. He addressed what needed to be addressed and to this day they are a remarkable family. This is how we ministry to one another and avoid just playing church.
Much of what I have spoken about in terms of hearing the Shepherd’s voice has focused on guidance, but as I said earlier, He is calling us into a relationship with Him that goes way beyond just giving us advice. In turn, as we seek His face, it should also be more than just for direction. We seek to hear His voice to grow closer to the Shepherd. Sometimes prayer is climbing up in Daddy’s lap just to be with Him. Sometimes no words are needed. Willard puts it so beautifully. “Our concern for discerning God’s voice must be overwhelmed by and lost in our worship and adoration of Him and in our delight in His creation and His provision for our whole life.” Given His abundant love for us, who would not want to hear the Shepherd’s voice? Amen.