Learning to hear God’s voice.
May 5th 2019, Third Sunday of Easter
Acts 9,v1-20, Rev 5:11-14, John 21.
We are with Peter, John and the others by the Sea of Galilee, we are with Saul and Ananias in Damascus, we are with John as he sees a vision of worship in heaven.
Over the coming 4 sermons, I want to look at the theme of ‘Hearing God’s voice’. Each sermon will look at different aspects of this, how we do it, why and how the Lord speaks whether to a congregation or an individual. It is possible after this sermon we may feel we have missed important parts. But, hopefully, by the end of the four, hopefully we will have painted the picture.
Today we see the experiences of Saul, Ananias, John and Peter, what they teach us.
We are with Saul and Ananias. Jesus speaks to someone who does not believe in him. Saul has the vision – as Ananias says, Jesus met him on the road and spoke to him. Jesus appeared to and spoke to a person who did not believe in him.
In the last years, there are regularly testimonies of Muslims having visions of Jesus. You may have heard such stories. Tomorrow Ramadan begins. And certain Christian organisations are offering resources suggesting how Christians can pray over the coming 30 days. The Open Doors magazine for May, which many of us received, has a number of prayer points and the first one is ”Ask the Lord Jesus to reveal himself to many Muslims through dreams and visions.”
Many of your Muslim neighbours will observe Ramadan. One way we pray is to ask the Lord to reveal himself. A true story from Open Doors, to tell you. Tofik was a Muslim cleric, imam. who grew up attending Islamic schools and rose to the position of an imam in his East African village. Several deeply personal revelations brought him to faith in Christ, at the risk of his life.
Tofik trained to become an imam for 24 years at an Islamic madrasa school in Africa. “In school, I only learned about Islam,” he said. “Parts of our teaching were about destroying Christianity. So we did what we learned, by attacking Christians once we finished our training. … We beat them, attacked the church and burned their Bibles.”’
Tofik was later selected by the local mosque to be trained in Saudi Arabia for further Islamic studies. After finishing his education in Saudi Arabia, he returned to become an imam in his village. He led the construction of 16 mosques in his area. He also imposed a rule—no village leaders or visitors could preach Christianity in his town.
One night, in the midst of his zeal for Islam, his journey to Christ unexpectedly began. “In 2002 … I had a vision from the Lord early in the morning around 3 a.m.,” he said. “In the vision, I saw Jesus very clearly telling me to follow Him.”
“My wife asked me what happened in my dream because I woke up very startled, and when I explained it to her, she was scared and said, ‘… we need to pray.’”
When he returned to sleep, Tofik immediately had another vision of Jesus. “Jesus appeared saying ‘It’s Me, follow Me. When you follow Me you will pay a price, there will be persecution in your life, but in the end, you will be victorious. I am with you.’ ”
His wife and children were reluctant to accept the idea of following Jesus, but Tofik could not ignore the visions of Jesus, and he began attending church. After attending his first church service, Tofik asked to meet the leaders. Initially, they were suspicious of his motives, knowing his reputation as one of the most influential Islamic leaders in the area.
“I told them about my dreams and everything else, so they accepted me and prayed for me,” he said. The news of my attending church spread quickly back home and many people started to cry, thinking of me as ‘as good as dead,’ because in Islam when you convert to another religion people receive it that way.” His tribe was especially angry over his decision to follow Christ. “They reacted by coming to my home saying, ‘this brother is dead.’ In our culture, when someone dies, their property is shared. So they destroyed my house, setting it on fire, and they took my cattle, and the remainder of my property,” he said. “They then falsely accused me of burning another house, so I was jailed and taken to court.”
After being released from jail, Tofik helped bring more than 200 people to faith in Jesus. ”Local villagers were upset. So again, they attacked me physically and burned my house.” Tofik said initially he wanted to retaliate; his dreams persuaded him otherwise. “The voice of Jesus himself spoke to me in my dreams about persecution, so I knew it was going to come and was ready,” Tofik said. So the Lord can speak to a non believer.
Ananias is spoken to in a vision. Again it is a voice. The Lord speaks to him and commands him to go to Saul, to pray for him. The Lord says that Saul has himself had a vision of Ananias coming.
We learn 6 things about how the Lord speaks here. Firstly Ananias – who is he? Ananias is not an apostle, not a prophet, evangelist, pastor or teacher. He is a disciple. A follower of Jesus. The Lord speaks to someone who follows him.
Secondly it is a surprise the Lord speaks. There is no suggestion that Ananias is praying about Saul – in fact for him Saul is bad news for Ananias as we see in his reaction. This is a vision that comes out of nowhere. We don’t even know if he was praying or it happened in another manner.
Thirdly this is an example of foretelling and forth-telling. The image of the Lord speaking, and of the gift of prophecy can be, that it is only about foretelling – the future and what will happen, for example as much of Revelation is about. Yet we read the OT and we see many words from Isaiah, Jeremiah etc are about the here and now and not the future – forthtelling – speaking into the present. For Ananias – this is a time related, location related word – go to Straight Street – not in some years but this day. It is not about what he is to do in the coming months. Just go, visit Saul, pray for Saul, he is a Christian now too.
Fourth. Ananias argues / debates with God. This may sound like something we would not do. But it has a bluntness, chutzpah, like in the psalms, like Moses speaking to God about why he shouldn’t destroy the nation of Israel. This suggests good practice.You have something come to you. You are not sure if this is from God. Ananias shows us – to turn it into prayer fuel. Talk to the Lord about it, if it is not clear, if you don’t know if it is your own imagination or is he breaking through. Sometimes we do feel the Lord is clearly speaking to us. but other times we just are not sure. Do not give it up. Bring it back into your prayers asking the Lord for insight, confirmation, understanding, if it is from him.
Fifth. This word brings supernatural knowledge. He did not know Saul was in the city. He did not know Saul had become a Christian. He did not know where Saul was. His knowledge of scripture, the Bible, on this occasion did not help him. The Lord broke into that house where he was and spoke. The Lord can speak to reveal to us situations we are unaware. Over the years, I have heard enough stories of people sharing how they were praying, and it was laid on their heart to give money to person X, and did not know the problems they faced. Or they had this person come to mind in their prayers and they rang them and the person shared, so glad you called or visited.
Sixth. Ananias acts. If the Lord speaks, and we know he is speaking, then we are to obey and act. Ananias goes to Straight Street, even though it is a step of faith. He has to trust Saul has converted and this is not some big hallucination.
In my last year of university I thought, it was right to work as a Christian student worker. I had prayed about it with others. The Christian student group – the Christian Union – thought it was good logic, made sense and also a help to develop ministry. I was turned down. The organisation did not think it was the right time to appoint a worker.
What next. I met up with the Christian Union leadership a few days later. They prayed with me. One of them – Cathy – after prayer, said she believed she had been given a vision – which means ‘a set of moving images’ – in her mind. In the vision, I was sitting on a chair. Behind me were a series of doors. I would hear a door open and I would turn around and before I could see which one, the door would close. Cathy shared, carefully, she thought God may be saying, that before me lay before many possibilities but he would put a big arrow by the door he wanted me to go through. Cathy didn’t push her idea cross.
You could say it was unclear all that. But it was true, I was worried about what would be a next step after having been turned down. I went back to my room, to continue studying for my final exams. As soon as I opened the door and walked into my room. Two letters OM shot into my mind. Out of nowhere. I didn’t have anything in my room to prompt that. I groaned when they came into my mind. OM are an international missionary organisation, with OM standing for ”Operation Mobilisation”. We had done a retreat with one of their speakers and it had not gone well. I already thought this could be God pointing to the door.
But you know I prayed about it, and the letters never left me. I shared it with a wise Christian friend who prayed as well with me and for me. And after 6 weeks of chewing it over and praying about it, I made contact with Operation Mobilisation and well the rest is history, worked for them as you know in Hungary and it was a highly formative significant time. It was a complete surprise – it broke in. I did sense it could be the Lord but I still took time to pray about it. And then I stepped out and acted on it, for if it was the Lord, then I needed to do something with this.
More briefly. We are with Peter at the Sea of Galillee. Now you may say, Grant, are you suggesting this is a vision, for it seems pretty real. It is real. A real event. The crucified risen Lord Jesus cooks and eats breakfast with these 7 disciples. He meets them in Galilee as he promised he would.
This is relevant. What is the purpose of the Lord speaking? When Paul is discussing prophecy – encouraging this spiritual gift among believers in that church and I’d suggest across all churches – why is prophecy good for the church and believers? Paul says: ”everyone speaks to people for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort.” (1 Cor 14:3). He adds in a verse later, that he or she who prophesies (Paul is clear he believes women and men can both prophesy), edifies the church – builds the church. Strengthen, encourage, comfort. Who lives within each believer? The Holy Spirit. He has other titles. He is the Spirit of Christ, and Luke says in Acts 16, he is the Spirit of Jesus. Paul declares. ”Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.” (Romans 8:9).
I want to suggest that we can have confidence that the Lord when he chooses to speak to us, outside of Scripture – for Scripture is the main way he speaks and the way we test what we believe he is saying – he speaks for our strengthening, encouragement and comfort, and to build up. We see this with Peter. Yet in that encouragement, comfort, it is still quite a hard process isn’t it? Peter is restored. But it is a hard time. ”He is hurt” by the third question. He is asked three times if he loves Jesus, repeating the three times he denied him. It is something that is needed for Peter, to be publically restored and internally, emotionally / mentally to be restored. Even though they had met on Easter Day, there was more deeper healing needed for Peter, which this breakfast was part of. It is lovingly done. It is bring healing. To strengthen him, to encourage him and to comfort him I’d say. So first thought : As the Lord spoke to Peter, he may choose to speak to you, but as he does, it is to strengthen, encourage, comfort you, not to damage you.
Secondly Jesus speaks a word at the right time. Now is the time Jesus does it. Jesus could have done it in the upper room during the previous two visits – Peter was there. But he doesn’t. Jesus does in Galilee. Back in their home waters. And after a night of no success and then a miraculous catch, recalling the beginning of the calling for Peter, in Luke 5. Even perhaps after some rest from a night of hard work, and some food, now is the time.
There are a number of people who know Lord of the Rings. In the film, Fellowship of the Ring, when Frodo is waiting for Gandalf to arrive for Bilbo’s party, he sees him arriving on his buggy and tells him he is late. Gandalf replies – “A wizard is never late, nor is he early, he arrives precisely when he means to.” The Lord speaks not late, or early, but precisely when he means to. It was the right time for Peter.
Third. It is a specific word. After Peter is restored, Jesus prophecies over him about his future. At the Last Supper Jesus had said he will deny me three times. Now after Peter has declared his love for Jesus three times, Jesus prophecies over him again about his death. Peter then wants to know about John who has started following him – what about him. Jesus has other plans for John we hear – a quote which is misunderstood somewhere along the line. There is a word for Peter, a word for John. A specific word rather than the Lord only speaking to everyone.
So Jesus speaks. It is at the right time. It is a specific word for Peter. And it is for his encouragment, strengthening and comfort. And I think that is a helpful attitude to have for us, to the Lord speaking to us. To be open to his speaking. But knowing he speaks at the right time. His word is relevant, specific to us at times. And it is for our encouragement, strengthening, comfort.
So Saul reminds us the Lord speaks to unbelievers as well as believers.
Ananias teaches us that 1. a disciple, not a leader, to whom the Lord speaks. 2. The Lord spoke out of nowhere. 3. It was a message for that day, that town, that afternoon – forthtelling. 4. Ananias wrestles with the message – he prays, talks to the Lord. 5. About something he could not have known about. 6. When he knows the Lord speaks, he acts / he obeys, he goes.
Finally Peter. For we have the Spirit of Christ within. The Lord will speak at precisely the right time. His word can be a specific one for us instead of a general one for everyone. And when he speaks, it is ultimately for strengthening, encouragment and comforting.
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.
Let’s be silent…