‘Hearing God’s voice 3’, Acts 16, February 14th.
Acts 15-16. John 21.
‘’Prayer is a living conversation with a loving God, which means we must listen as well as talk.’’
Some words by Pete Greig – one of the founders of the 24-7 prayer movement, and he is one of the people behind the Prayer Course, which our Life Groups are using.
He goes on to tell a story from a few years ago. He was stranded in Chicago. All the flights had been grounded due to the eruption of a volcano on Iceland. So he couldn’t get home to England. He decided to ask God, how He wanted Pete to use this interrupance. Now, a number of American friends had already invited him to stay until flights resumed. But he says, as he prayed, he found himself thinking about a friend who lived 240 km away in Madison, Wisconsin. So Pete got out his computer and emailed his friend ‘’Hey I am in Chicago can I come and crash on your couch.’’
What Pete didn’t know he said, was that his friend Joe had received terrible news. Pete also didn’t know that Joe’s wife – as she worried – asked Joe, ‘Who do you wish you had on your couch right now.? Those were her exact words.
Pete didn’t know what Joe had replied : ‘’I wish Pete was on my couch, but I know that’s crazy as he is in England and he’s never every been to our home.’’ Greig says : ‘’The prophet Malachi chapter 3 says ‘those who feared the Lord talked with each other and the Lord listened and heard.’’ Sometimes God listens to our casual conversation and receives them as prayers. Within hours of Joe’s throw-away line, I had materialized on his couch.’’ (Grieg. P139-140).
In the past two sermons we have been explored a small part of this huge subject ‘hearing God’s voice.’ Simeon two weeks ago in Luke 2 – a man with the Spirit upon him – we too each have the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus within us. The Spirit had brought revelation to Simeon personally. Our God seeks to speak to us personally – perhaps through a range of means, through scripture, through the counsel of others, through circumstantial signs, through common sense, through charismatic revelation. He was a man led, moved by the Spirit that day – his agenda was open to the promptings of the Spirit. Finally the Spirit shared with him, words to share with Mary and Joseph and ultimately for all of us to hear.
Last week. The servant, the first person to seek God’s guidance. And God responds! We saw six ways to consider when discerning what God is saying. Necessity, the word of God; Desires; to remember quick answers are possible, they aren’t impossible or crazy; the counsel of others, and finally God has a purpose or plan when he speaks, even if we aren’t aware of it initially or ever. Like how Pete didn’t know why he should stay with Joe…
1. Looking very at the chapters that lead up to Acts 16.
If we speed read through Acts 1-16, we see visions – moving / active images you can call these – play a significant part in directing the course of the emerging ministry and mission. By a vision, Ananias is sent to Saul Paul. Cornelius and Peter are spoken to. Paul, sent into Europe. At Corinth, Paul has a vision where the Lord Jesus tells him not to be afraid but to keep speaking. And when sharing his testimony in Jerusalem, he shares of a vision where Jesus told him, that his ministry would be among the Gentiles.
There are other places where the Spirit speaks. The Spirit gives words of knowledge or insight to Peter, as he reveals the sin of Ananias and Sapphira. Philip – already told by an angel of the Lord to leave where he is and go down to a desert road, is told by the Spirit to go near the chariot of a Ethiopian official and the rest of history as they say.
Strikingly, Luke shares in Acts 9: 31: ‘’the church … was strengthened. And encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers living in the fear of the Lord.’’ Such words suggest a very active presence, which includes speaking presence, of the Spirit.
Acts 10, Peter after the vision with the many unclean animals, Cornelius soldiers turn up – ‘’While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him ‘’Simon, these three man are looking for you. So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.’’ And this is not the last time, the Spirit of Jesus is speaks about where people are to go.
In Antioch, while worshipping and fasting ‘’the Holy Spirit said: ‘Set apart for me, Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them’’. The Spirit is speaking – we see, in fact, see individuals and the church guided at key moments by the Spirit – and in fact ‘’the gift of the Spirit … determines and regulates the expansion of the church mission.’’
When we compare the various experiences of the Spirit, and the angelic and visionary directions, it gives us a picture as James Dunn says ‘’of almost unending and apparently arbitrary variety which emerges. Like why does an angel speak first to Philip to send him out of Samaria to the desert, and then the Spirit. Why is a vision for Peter, then the Spirit speaks? Why is an angel speaking? Another time it is a man saying ‘come over and help us?’ and other times, the Lord Jesus speaking. There is no apparent pattern in this!
2. Acts 15 & 16. Paul had a desire to visit the previous churches. Perhaps it felt like necessity as they had been away for a few years. Barnabas agrees. But they fall out over who is in the team. So two missionary teams are formed. Paul and Silas leave ‘commended by the brothers [the church] to the grace of the Lord.’’ It says – they strengthened the churches. They continue on their journey. Timothy joins them. Again we hear. ‘’The churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily numbers.’’ Things are going so well.
Then Paul wants to take the westward road – to coast of what is now Turkey. But it says. They are forbidden to take that road. ‘’They were kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word of God in Asia.’’ Bit of a shocker. I mean. Didn’t Jesus say ‘go and make disciples of all nations.’ It doesn’t seem to make sense. Paul wants to plant a church for every unreached group, in every city. The Spirit says no.
So he seeks to go north to Bithynia. It is the next logical, common sense, strategic step, following the great commission, to preach to all creation. It was an area which had the great city of Nicaea and other Jewish settlements. He – the apostle, Silas the prophet – and Timothy – are forbidden again. ‘When they tried to enter Bithynia, the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.’’
So NW to Troas. They are guided by the Spirit on a 644 KM journey, by foot, not knowing what was going on. That is a bit shorter than the distance from here to the German Polish border! And only then does the the vision comes. A Macedonian man who says ‘come over and help us.’ ‘’After Paul had the vision, we got ready at once, to leave for Macedonia concluding God had called us to preach the gospel to them.’’ The Spirit has spoken. They discerned – as a group – the interpretation and application of this vision, this revelation. The mission is moving into new territory. Into Europe for the first time. The gospel is moving towards the ends of the earth.
FF Bruce wonderfully says: ‘’Paul’s missionary journey’s display an extraordinary combination of strategic planning and keen sensitiveness to the guidance of the Spirit of God – however that guidance was conveyed.’’ He used his brain, his common sense, he chatted to others, he read the scriptures – we know Paul was a man of the Bible, he was a leader, strategic – and he was also as Bruce say, a person with: ‘keen sensitiveness to the guidance of the Spirit of God however that guidance was conveyed.’’
3.The vision of Macedonian man. How did God speak on the road so Paul, Silas and Timothy knew God was saying no twice. There are a range of ways God can speak by his Spirit. We remind ourselves of the breadth he can speak. I share this – if we expect God to only speak in certain ways and not others, then I assume it is possible we can miss something.
The Spirit can speak
a)Through scripture: we read the bible not only to study and learn, but also to listen for his voice in the scriptures we are reading.
b)Through an image. A still picture. Eg Jeremiah sees the branch of an almond tree.
c)Through dreams or visions. Visions as we have examples in Acts. You could call a vision, an active or moving image.
d) through thoughts or impressions: the inner voice / prompting, an idea.
e) God’s audible voice.
f) Through others: angels. But also, whether intentionally or not, God lays a word on someone’s heart which they share with you.
g) through events: circumstantial signs you could call it. We ask Lord what are you saying through this…
A range of ways. That is the revelation from God. The question then is the right interpretation and application. John 21 reminds: when God speaks, it can be different for one person, than for another. Peter has one calling, the unnamed apostle – probably John – has another. We cannot assume that a word from the Lord will always mean initial success or it is easy or popular. We walk in the footsteps of a crucified Saviour. Peter is given his commission – to nurture and feed the sheep, yet he is told, part of that word, in the future he will go where he does not want to. Finally John 21 reminds us, that we need to carefully listen / note what the Lord says – see the confusion over whether John would live until Jesus return. Yet Jesus did not say he would live that long, but people thought he said that. So what exactly is the revelation. Sometimes the interpretation and application may be very clear, the question is do we step out in faith, and obey. Other times, we need to take time, perhaps with others, understand how to interpret and apply. Some
4.Thoughts and impressions. I wanted in the closing minutes to focus on these. It possible we miss the voice of God not because it is strange – but because it is ordinary, too familiar. We expect the Almighty to only speak in a vision, or even a burning bright bible verse. Remember, when Elijah came looking to talk to God and to hear from him, he saw that God was not in the wind, the fire, the earthquake, but in, yes, the gentle whisper. What can come, is an idea during prayer, or thinking over a work issue or even, out of the blue on a walk or car drive…
Sometimes, God’s voice comes disguised as an ordinary thought. So how do you test these? We assume that the thought is not against scripture in any way. Pete Greig suggests two questions he always asks himself.
Aa) Is this like Jesus? So if I obeyed this idea, would the resulting action reflect the character and purpose of Jesus? Is it the sort of thing he would do?
Bb) What is the worst that could happen if I were to get this wrong? If the answer is ‘Actually it would be a disaster if I get this wrong! Then red lights are flashing. We pause and pray. We seek advice from others. I take time to discern the best way forward. We are very careful around thoughts ideas that are not upbuilding, comforting, edIfying, strengthening.
As Pete reflects. When he was stranded by the volcano, he wasn’t sure if his idea of visiting his friend Joe had come from the Lord. It was merely a fleeting thought that came to him as he prayed. But it passed Pete’s two tests. To see a friend, eat his home, take time together, seemed like the sort of thing Jesus would do. And if God was not sending Pete to see Joe, as Pete shares, it would not be the end of the world. So, he acted on his hunch. Sent an email. Discovered that his hunch had been the gentle whisper of God.
5. A second simple example to finish.
A story from 20 years ago. Peter Lawrence was a vicar in Birmingham. He was driving home to his wife and kids. It was about 4pm. He found himself driving past Angela’s home – Angela was 16, and a member of the church youth group. She lived at home with her mother, her father had died a couple of years before. He saw the house and it reminded him to ask her something about the youth group.
So he parked the car. Then remembered Angela didn’t go to school locally. She’d only be home at 5pm. He looked at the house. No sign of anyone home. He was about to start the car, when a thought entered his head ‘Angela is there, go and knock the door.’
Lawrence says: ‘’Only a Christian who believes that the Holy Spirit lives inside each believer, only one who has realized that the Bible communicates the assumption that God speaks; only one familiar with the biographies of other Christians and the saints of old, would pay attention to a thought like this, at the side of the road, at tea time.’’
Peter says, he sat in the car and tried to reason it out. What had come into mind, was not a logical thought. The house looked unoccupied and Angela did not normally come home until 5pm, he told himself.
Peter says he thought:
‘’But there is nothing to lose. If she is not there I simply knock at the door, wait, and walk away.
But I do not live my life based on random thoughts, but sensible propositions and plans.
But God lives inside me by his Spirit.
He knows what I don’t know.’’
He says: ‘’I paused, wrestled with a bit more, then eventually gave in with the thought that nobody would know and I would not look foolish. I slowly got out of the car, locked it carefully, went down the path, rang the bell, and Angela came to the door in her school uniform.’’ How did you know I was here, she responded, ‘’I skipped the last class at school?’’
‘’God told me,’’ I said.
Her next words, were very important. ‘Mother’s here, Come in.’’
Peter says, that if she had said, ‘Mother’s out, come in’ he would not have, as it would be very inappropriate to be visiting a home alone with a 16 year old girl.
Another sign for him, confirming it was okay to visit Angela, that the thought had been a Spirit given one.
He went in. Had tea and cake. Talked about the youth group. Angela’s mother was really interested by what the youth group were doing. She was pleased to know more about how her daughter was embracing the Christian faith. They also chatted a lot about Angela’s father.
Peter realized as he left, it had been helpful for them to have talked about the man who was now missing from their lives.
All from a ‘Angela is at home.’
You see, sometimes it comes down to faith isn’t it? Sometimes there is not always a way to know if a word is correct or if anything will happen. We test it as best as we can. The right response to God – if it is God – is a mixture of obedience, faith and willingness to be a fool for Christ. Sometimes what is stopping us, deep down, it is our ego or our fear. To use another bible image, it can be simply stepping out of the boat.
Not just talk about it, but to do it.
Sit still for 3 minutes? To listen. Ask God do you have a scripture or another word for me today?
Or is there someone you want me to connect with this coming week and ask them ‘how are you? Really, how are you doing?’