Hearing God’s voice – 2. Fourth Sunday of Easter.
It is winter. We are with Jesus. In the Solomon’s Colonade Jesus declares: ”My sheep listen to my voice, I know them and they follow me.” It isn’t the first time Jesus had called himself a Good Shepherd – earlier in the same chapter (John 10). Jesus said: ”I am the good shepherd, I know my sheep and my sheep know me … and I lay down my life for my sheep.” In the scriptures known so well by the listeners, God was Israel’s shepherd and his people, the sheep of his pasture. Jesus now takes that title to himself, and calls himself the Good shepherd of these sheep and other flocks, which refers to Gentiles. But he is more than a shepherd of a group.
David in Psalm 23, says the Lord is my shepherd, a personal shepherd, one who leads him, protects him, provides for him even in the midst of enemies, he is the one who, as the Hebrew says, God the Shepherd pursues us with goodness and mercy. We know that verse as ‘follow’ but the Hebrew means ‘pursue / hunt’.
To bring it together. To declare God as shepherd, it is shepherd of a group, but also of an individual. Jesus describes himself as a shepherd, saying his sheep follow him because they know his voice. Christian faith means God promises to guide by His Holy Spirit – who is also known as the Spirit of Christ and the Spirit of Jesus as Paul and Luke remind us – promises to guide those who are in a relationship with him.
As we said last week. We are preaching across four Sundays on Hearing God’s voice, building a picture and an understanding across these Sundays of May. Last week, we looked at Jesus restoration of Peter – a word which was personal to him, at the right time – not too early or too late but precisely on time – and a word which, though hard to hear, was about strengthening, encouraging, comforting, building up. How Jesus the Good shepherds seeks to lead us, to go ahead of us, to guide us personally, to build up, encourage, comfort, to strengthen.
So how does God guide us? Five ways we’re going to look at to. And in some cases, the Lord may guide by one, or in major decisions it might be a number of them.
I am thankful to the Alpha Course session ”how does God guide” for giving the structure and some of the examples for the rest of this sermon.
God’s general will for all people in all places in all circumstances is revealed in Scripture, in the Bible. We know certain things are right and certain things are wrong. We don’t think, at work, is it God’s will for me to steal this laptop from my company? Do not steal, God says.
Or I sit at my desk and decide, shall I pay taxes to the Dutch Tax Office– There was a letter written to the British Tax Office by someone who’d just become a Christian. He wrote: `Dear Sir, I have just become a Christian, and I have found that I cannot sleep at night. So here is a hundred pounds that I owe you. PS: If I still can’t sleep, I’ll send you the rest.’ The Bible says we should pay our taxes…
Through the Bible God may well, also reveal to us particular decisions we should make in situations facing us. One example may be to tell the truth no matter how difficult that may be: A true story about a man whose nickname was Gibbo. This story comes from Nicky Gumbel.
Gibbo used to work as a clerk for the famous London department store Selfridges, and he worked with Gordon Selfridge, who actually started Selfridges. And one time the telephone rang, and he picked it up, and the person said, `Could I speak to Gordon Selfridge?’ And Gordon Selfridge was in the room, and so he told him, and Gordon Selfridge said, `Tell him I’m out.’ And Gibbo handed him the phone and said, `You tell him you’re out!’ Gordon Selfridge was furious. But Gibbo said to him, `Look, if I can lie for you, I can lie to you. And I never will.’ And from that moment Gibbo’s career was transformed at Selfridges, because from that moment onwards when they needed someone they could trust, they always went to him. There is another example. George Sada was a man who rose through the military ranks until he was part of a council / cabinet that advised Saddam Hussein. George was a Christian. Saddam Hussein had not respect for his beliefs. But he knew, that if he asked George a question, he would speak his mind, the truth, instead of many in his council who would say what Saddam wanted to hear.
The writer of the psalms says: Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path. God can also speak through Scripture guiding us in a specific situation.
But while God’s general will – how to live and act – is revealed in the Bible, which covers most of our life’s decisions and issues. , we cannot find always his particular will for us in a situation.
When David calls God his shepherd, he is well aware of the general will of God revealed in the scriptures on how to live; he also times sought the particular will of God in situations, such as battles, and the Lord guided him directly. We see this also, for example in Joshua. Joshua knows about the Law, he has been told to meditate upon it day and night (Joshua 1), yet Joshua also consults the Lord on battles and what to do etc.
There can be times, when we hear a Scripture, and it speaks to us, hits us between the eyes, as if we are the only one in the room and it is for us to hear, God pointing the way we are to act.
Last week I mentioned my calling to work with OM =Operation Mobilisation. When in Hungary, I was thinking a lot about the future and thinking seriously about continuing as a missionary in Eastern Europe as I was enjoying it and it fitted me as a glove. My friend Rob Merchant who had been accepted for training, said, consider the Church of England. He’d had a feeling God may be drawing me into this. Before I’d gone to OM he had said how God’s guidance can be like a big picture – most of it undrawn, or not filled in, we only see the part painted in so far, but we don’t see the whole canvas, the next step / place.
I had a number of concerns about the Church of England. But you know, over that year, God addressed each of those – through things I read I think mostly… and so as far as I remember, I came to the point where I felt, God was pointing that way – it was November 1998. I was going to attend a big Urban Ministry conference in Budapest and I asked God, if he could please confirm one more time that he was calling me to the direction of being a church minister. I arrived late. Sat down, listened to the Hungarian Bishop who was doing the opening talk and he said the text : 6 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”
It hit me deep inside – and I know God had spoken, directly, through a piece of Scripture. So through Scripture God’s general will but also his particular will in a situation or stage of life can be revealed.
Pretty dramatic. But at times, haven’t we experienced Scripture speaking to us? We read a passage, and somehow, our mind, our spirit, connects it, takes us to a situation or person we are wondering about how or what to do? As if the Spirit takes the passage, connects it to that situation. When this happens, this can be the Spirit speaking to our spirit, showing us the next step or the path to take or the action necessary.
God guides by through Scripture.
2. The Spirit of God.
In the Gospels, Jesus is shown as someone led by the Spirit of God. Then Acts shows that this same Spirit has been given to every Christian, and his guidance is seen at work in the Early church. It suggests that we can be led by the Spirit as Jesus was, as the Early church was.
As Christians, the Spirit seeks to communicate with us. We need to learn to hear his voice – Jesus said: “his sheep follow him because they know his voice.” Here in All Saints, our kids are in creche, yet I can guess, for many mums – as well as dads – you know the sound of your child. For me, it is another child perhaps unhappy – for you, you know don’t you. You grow to know them, you grow to know their voice. Same as Christians, as we grow to know God, we grow to also know His voice, and to recognise it more easily.
Three possible ways God speaks by his Spirit.
a) Through Prayer
Prayer is meant to be a two-way conversation— prayer is more than pouring out our requests to God and then going off without ever listening, because he may want to speak to us when we pray.
It’s a bit like, you know, imagine I go to see Patrick, a physio. I say, `Oh, hello, good morning, Patrick! I’ve got a number of problems. I’ve got this problem with my cartilage in my knee, and I think I’ve sprained my elbow again when I fell off my bike. And, oh, I get double vision every so often when on my bike, and I think I nearly faint each time I climb the stairs to my study… And I say, `So, well, it’s been very nice to see you, Patrick. Goodbye!’ You know, Patrick, might say, in a caring, direct Dutch way, `Well, hang on a second, do you want to hear what I have to say?
If we only speak to God and never take time to listen, then we are a bit like me with Patrick! God may speak to you in prayer by a thought that does not leave you, a strong impression – ring that person, write that email – or a feeling (perhaps a total lack of peace about a certain decision)
b) Sometimes God speaks through a strong desire within us to do something. Philippians 2:13 – says God… ”works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” Something as we surrender to God, he works in us and changes our desires, plants his desires, his passions into us. It is helpful to be mindful to what desires may grow inside us, could it be part of the Lord working in us, ”to will and to act according to his good purpose” ?
c) The third way are the more supernatural ways. As we read in Acts, post Ascension and Pentecost, God uses prophecy, dreams, visions / pictures, angels or even an audible voice to guide. Last week we focused on Ananias – a vision – where Jesus commands him to go to Saul, that day, in that city where Ananias lives. In modern times. I remember a church leader, John Wimber, who was concerned about some new things taking place in his church. He looked into church history and the bible, and he was still unsure what to think or do. A friend of his, living the other side of the United states, rang him the next day feeling God had woken him up, with a message to pass onto John Wimber. The message was three words : ‘it’s me John’ – he didn’t know anything what it meant, but for John Wimber, it meant a lot and allowed him to continue to encourage what was taking place.
d) Of course, with all of this – prayers, desires, unusual means, testing needs to be done.
Questions must be asked. We noted how Ananias took time to understand if the vision was right. We need to ask – does it bring peace, is it loving to us, encouraging, strengthening, building up, which is different from being easy or unchallenging – but there can be something about it which doesn’t feel right. Is the impression, word, picture, in line with the Bible – God will not contradict his Bible, it is the tester for all guidance.
I’d always recommend testing it, share it with someone, as they may more clearly see something not right or something is right but we don’t want to hear it. Our prayer ministry team is a very suitable place to share such words / impressions etc, to invite them to pray for clarity for you.
God guides through the workings of His Spirit.
3. Common Sense
We have our conscience to guide us. John Stott writes: `Although our conscience reflects our upbringing and culture and is therefore fallible, nevertheless it remains a guard within us, warning us that there’s a difference between right and wrong.’
And I like another John Stott quote – ‘God’s promises of guidance were not given to save us the problem of thinking.’ God has given us minds, to think and to reason. Paul tells Timothy – ”Reflect on what I am saying for the Lord will give you insight into all this.” (2 Timothy 2:7). As we think through things, God may well guide our thoughts.
God guides through common sense.
4. Counsel of the saints.
The Book of Proverbs, is full of encouragements, exhortations to seek wise advice. We seek advice from friends, and from wiser, older Christians we respect. My journey towards ordination – Rob suggesting I consider it – his counsel. Over the years I have had a mentor to help me in ministry – currently my mentor is Revd George Fisher who preached here last November. At times my mentors have guided me in a correct direction of action. It can never hurt to have a wiser Christian to bounce things around with. Part of the process of discernment, for example, if someone is considering a calling towards being a minister, will be conversations with other skilled wise ministers about your potential calling. Wisdom through the counsel of the saints.
But ultimately you need to weigh up, is their advice good and God’s direction?
God guides through the counsel of the saints.
Finally, our fifth one, Circumstantial Signs.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding, in all your ways acknowledge him and he will direct your path… (Prov 3:5-6)
and in another place, it says
`In his heart a person plans their course, but the Lord determines their steps. (Proverbs 16:9)
As we face things which we just don’t have a clue about – one way seems maybe a bit more right than another – at times it can be simply to commit our way to the Lord, to trust him with the issue, direction, and knowing he will direct our steps. God may well open doors – and he may well close doors – he did both to Paul as we see in a couple of weeks, despite Paul being an apostle and full of good plans and intentions, somehow, God closed doors and opened others, (see Acts 16).
At Durham I believed God was leading me into spending a term abroad internationally. My tutors agreed. The plan was for me to attend an overseas training college, in Nigeria, that Durham had a link with. Another student from Durham had been there, who had had a strange and rough experience at that college. That person was concerned for me a little. Nigeria was pretty unstable then. And as the autumn term started my college tried a number of times to get assurances they needed so they would feel fine for me to go over. No contact was coming back… My college in Durham decided to give it up and looked at their other link college in Western Kenya, St Paul’s Kapsabet – one email, sent, a few hours later, all sorted, all fine, Grant can come for the three months. Done and dusted. A closed door, in Nigeria; a big wide door open in Kenya. And off I went.
God guides through circumstantial signs.
God’s guidance may come immediately or it may take time. It is possible we may hear God’s voice but get the timing wrong – not now.
We do all make mistakes but the cross and resurrection reminds us that the Christian faith being about forgiveness for wrongs and a new start – daily.
We also may feel well God just wouldn’t use us, or guide us into his purposes of his kingdom. But God is greater, much greater than that. He can use anyone. The cross and resurrection declares his immense love for us and commitment to us.
God invites us to play a part in the purposes of his Kingdom. We discover our role or daily part, by seeking his will for our lives as we read Scripture, as we listen for the voice of the Spirit, as we think and use common sense, as we talk with others, and as we watch for the signs around us, and wait – and listen for the voice and leading of our Shepherd. As we seek to hear and listen to his voice.
And so we are going to be still. That is often how it begins. Instead of always talking to the Lord, to be still and seek to listen to what his Spirit wants us to hear.
We are going to take a couple of minutes of silence. After that time, we will come to our creed. If in this silence, things come to mind, you want to talk over and pray about, our prayer ministry team are very willing to pray with you and for you in confidence.
May we pray. Lord, we thank you for the amazing promise that you will be our guide. And Lord, I pray for every single one of us here that we may experience this.
In Jesus’ name, amen.