Prayer: God who knows our heart and empowers us to see what cannot be seen allow us the experience of deepening our relationship with you through Christ. Amen.
Last week we gave some thought to entering a relationship with God. I suggested to you that entering a relationship with God is similar to entering a relationship with another person in that it simply means entering into a meaningful conversation. A conversation is two-way communication, not a monologue. A meaningful conversation is one in which there is a sharing of more than just facts. It is personal. It is self-revealing. A meaningful conversation opens the door to change and growth.
When we are speaking with another person we employ a lot of tools that we have learned through experience to help us better understand what is being said. We see that person with our eyes and/or hear their voice with our ears. We consider their body language, their tone of their voice, the emotions behind their voice and the expression on their face. If we are listening, truly listening, when we have uncertainties about what that person is trying to say to us we have the opportunity to ask questions, to probe until we are satisfied that what they are saying is the same as what we are hearing but, what about our conversation with God? We can’t literally see God’s face, or body language and it is very difficult to grasp the tone of voice or the “emotions” behind the voice. Better yet, how do we even know that this is God’s voice that we are hearing?
In our readings this morning (John 21:1–19 and Acts 9:1–6) there were accounts of two conversations that involved Jesus. Both were initiated by him. One seems to be a very quiet conversation, while the other, seems to be quite “loud” but not necessarily due to volume.
In the John passage, after Jesus serves seven of his disciples breakfast, Jesus singles out Peter and asks him three times if Peter loved him. Three times Peter responds, “Yes!” This was a very important conversation for Peter because Peter had denied knowing Jesus three times in the hours following Jesus for arrest just as Jesus had predicted and Peter denied he would do. Peter’s denial was based in fear, fear that if he was associated with Jesus who had just been arrested and was now standing trial, he too may be arrested and suffer the same all too obvious consequences, losing his life. When Jesus responds to Peter’s “yes” by asking Peter to take care of Jesus’s followers, he is in reality asking Peter to lay down his life in service of others. I find it interesting that the tone of this conversation would appear to be very calm and friendly. There is no hint of anger or judgment. Jesus does not bring up Peter’s threefold denial; he simply asked Peter three times what Peter was prepared to do now and going forward. Is this not Jesus asking Peter if he was willing to repent, that is, changes conduct?
In the reading from Acts there’s a young rabbi named Saul who has taken it as his personal mission to root out and destroy the following that had built up around Jesus. He is on his way to Damascus to hunt and arrest Christians so that they can be taken back to Jerusalem for trial. In the course of his journey Saul is stopped dead in his tracks. There is a blinding light and there is a voice. Because we were not there we do not know if this was a loud voice, an angry voice or a quiet voice but we do know it was a questioning voice. That question was, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Personally I tend to think that this voice didn’t need to be loud or angry. God did need to stop Saul in his tracks and get his attention because Saul was a very passionate man, a driven man determined to do whatever he set his mind to. The voice was loud enough for it to be heard by those on the road with Saul but I get a sense that what made this message loud was not the strength of the voice but the brightness of the light. Again, there are no recriminations here. Jesus asked Saul why he’s doing what he’s doing, identifies himself as the one who Saul is persecuting and then asks Saul to repent; to change his conduct.
In both these cases it was easy for the people involved to know to whom they were speaking. In one way or another both Simon and Saul, who became Paul, were standing face-to-face with Jesus. Wouldn’t it be nice, when the easy, to hear God’s voice if we found ourselves in similar circumstances to either of these two? But does that happen today, to us?
I want to ask those who have been in conversation with God for a long time what is it that causes you to suspect that God is talking? What is it that tells you that you need to pay attention? Does God always communicate God’s side of the conversation in words?
My personal experience is that often God does use words but they are not loud: most often they are more like whispers and if they have any volume, it is more like the highlighted text I use in the announcements. Bold text, italicized text and underlined text makes it easier to notice and remember. God’s words are not condemning although, they can be questioning or challenging. And they do not come from outside usually they come the inside. Of course that often makes it hard to know if they are God’s words or just my own thoughts. It’s also my experience that God speaks at the most unexpected times.
But God doesn’t always use words. Sometimes God will show us things, often subtle things. Something will stand out in a movie I’m watching or in a book I’m reading or in a conversation in which I am engaged or simply overhearing. Sometimes the actions of someone will take on an exceptional importance. Sometimes I will just find myself with the urge to do something good. Sometimes, God speaks through a thought or impression that we should do something specific like befriending someone or beginning a ministry or saying something to someone. The truth is God can speak to us at any time, in any place or circumstance, whether it is during our waking hours or in our dreams.
I would hope that as we are thinking about having a conversation with God, we are in one way or another, linking it to prayer. And by prayer, I mean a time when we set ourselves to be alone and focus our thoughts, our concerns, our hopes and wishes, our dreams and our burdens on God. Having a time of prayer every day is important. How can our conversation with God be increasingly more meaningful if we do not spend time in conversation with God? However, there is another way.
Very early in my Christian walk I came across a concept of “practising the presence of God” and it’s something I’ve been doing ever since. Basically, “practising the presence of God” takes prayer beyond a set time. We talk about how God will never leave us for or forsake us, about how God is always present with us and so, why should we not act accordingly? From the time that we awake until we close her eyes and drifted off into sleep, and some will say even in our sleep, we can be carrying on a conversation with God. Yes, at first it is a little awkward when for instance, you’re driving down the road and talking to God just as if God was sitting in the passenger seat or if you are doing housework and carrying on a conversation as if God was in the same room with you, which of course God is.
Okay, we’ve talked a lot about how we hear God’s side of the conversation but, how do we know that voice is actually God’s voice? I’ll be perfectly honest with you, I may trust God, but I do not always trust myself. I’m not always sure that when I hear God’s voice that I have understood that voice correctly or whether that voice is actually God’s voice or has originated someplace else. So what can we do? Over the course of the next four weeks we are going to take a look at different avenues that people employ to rightfully determine whether or not the voice that they are hearing is in fact God’s voice. Not only that but, these four avenues actually help us to deepen our relationship with God and so they are very important. It is one thing to enter a relationship with God, it is something completely different to grow in that relationship. Too often people treat their faith the way that so many now treat weddings. They are eager to spend a lot of time and money on the wedding but simply don’t care enough to invest anything in the marriage.
Prayer: God who desires that we live in harmony and in communication with you, help us to be attentive to your whispers, shouts and impressions. Amen.