Two weeks ago, we began taking a look at a series of topics for our consideration which I entitled, “From Head to Heart.” We started with “Entering a Relationship with God.”
At that time I said to you that we cannot initiate a relationship with God, we can only respond to God’s advances. I also suggested that entering a relationship with God is, on many levels, not that much different than entering a relationship with another human being. All that is required is picking up on the conversation that God has already started with us through the Holy Spirit. However, this conversation cannot be a “now I lay me down to sleep” monologue although, it may certainly start there. It has to move to a meaningful conversation one that is honest and self-revealing and one that pays attention to God’s side of the conversation. There is an expectation on God’s part that at some point in time, we will repent: that is, change our ways.
Last week we looked at some ways in which God speaks to us. Often God speaks to us through words and thoughts that for the most part come from inside of us. Something that I did not talk very much about if at all, is that God also uses a mechanism that is commonly referred to as a “burden” that is, we find ourselves with a desire to do something we don’t know now to do, are afraid to do or, are unwilling to do. This may be something small or, it could be something quite large. This burden will stay with us until we either do it or, the time for doing it has passed. I suspect the reason why it is called a burden is because until we act on it, it weighs heavy on us.
Today we are going to begin looking at how we discern, how we go through the process of deciding if what we are hearing is God’s message to us or just our own imagination run wild.
Prayer: God who knows our heart and empowers us to see what cannot be seen, allow us the experience of meeting Jesus and through him, establishing and growing in relationship with God. Amen.
In 2006 The United Church of Canada adopted a fourth statement of faith. This one, called “A Song of Faith,” is far more poetic than any of its predecessors. The opening stanza reads this way,
God is Holy Mystery,
beyond complete knowledge,
above perfect description.
the one eternal God seeks relationship.
So God creates the universe
and with it the possibility of being and relating.
God tends the universe,
mending the broken and reconciling the estranged.
God enlivens the universe,
guiding all things toward harmony with their Source.
Grateful for God’s loving action,
We cannot keep from singing.
But Houston, we have a problem. Actually, we have several problems that result in us being overwhelmed with messages that are harmful in hearing God’s side of the conversation and are destructive to our relationship with God.
Modern English is not always a precise language that is often used sloppily and is becoming increasingly more so with the advent of texting. For example, English does not make a distinction between “you” singular and “you” plural. “You” can mean one person or a whole group of people. So, when we read “you are the temple of the Holy Spirit,” it is easy for us to conclude that this is referring to individuals, which is true but in this case only by extension. Primarily, the meaning of this passage is that the Church, the Body of Christ, is the temple of the Holy Spirit. In fact, in the New Testament, it is better to assume, unless the context demands otherwise, that whenever the word “you” is used, the passage is directed towards the group not an individual.
The second problem is what the Bible refers to as “the world”. The “world” can refer to the earth and all that is contained therein. The “world” can refer to all the people in the world, as in John 3: 16, “for God so loved the world.” But the term “world” also has a much more sinister meaning. It refers to the values, systems, assumptions and ideas used to promote the idea that God is not or, that God does not matter.
Do you remember the jingle from McDonald’s a few years back, “you deserve a break today?” And what about the commercials on TV that tell us that if we want to have significant relationships we need to use the right toothpaste, deodorant, drink the right kind of alcohol, use the right websites and the list goes on, and on, and on. We are constantly being sold a bill of unhealthy goods based on the notion that we are the most important individuals in the world. We are surrounded by a constant bombardment of ideas, of pictures, of movies and videos, of songs that promote the growth of our selfishness and short-sightedness.
The third problem that I’ll mention today has to do with our shrinking world due to the advancements in travel and in the technology of communication.
If we want the answer to a question all we have to do is go on to our computer and type the question into Google or Bing or some other search engine and before you can count to one you’ll be given a selection of thousands upon thousands of potential answers. But where do these answers come from? Are they the results of years of study and investigation or are they a thought that dropped into someone’s head that really knows little to nothing of what they’re talking about but had a few minutes to express their thoughts online? We see what is supposed to be news from all over the world but increasingly news is entertainment and entertainment demands our reaction. So, what passes is news is often sensationalized or basically propaganda promoting someone else self-interest. Families used to live their lives within a small area. Now families are strung around the world, straining family ties and encouraging a sense of isolation.
I could go on, but we need to stop here and take a look at God’s intention.
In the opening pages of Genesis where it talks about God creating the world, on days one through five God concludes God’s work with a comment that it was good. But, during the sixth day when God created the first human, God concluded that it was “not good for man to be alone.” Of course, “man” is not referring to gender (male or female) but rather a species. God’s solution was to put that first man asleep and to divide that very first human into two genders so that they would not be absolutely unique, alone or self-sufficient. As male and female, “man” now needed one another both for survival and for propagation. In the end, because it was not deemed “good” in God’s eyes for man to be alone, God gave humanity family.
When humanity had become so hardened to God’s voice that God decided it was time to start again, God made provision for Noah and his family. When humanity had once again become so hardened that God decided once again to start over, God chose Abram and by extension his family to learn the ways of God. That family became a nation and that nation became the face of God on earth, or at least it was supposed to be.
If God does not think it best for us to live in isolation from others of our kind, what makes us think we can?
When God by the Holy Spirit, pats us on the shoulder and says “hi,” waiting for our response, God has already prepared a family into which we will be born so that we might be nurtured and protected. We are to be surrounded by this family so that we can learn and grow and so that we might become as an individual, and as a family, all that we can be.
Since we are the temple of the Holy Spirit, and by “we” I mean the church, from local congregation to National denomination, to the church universal, and since it is the Holy Spirit who opens our eyes, who teaches us the things of God and empowers us to do God’s work, one of the four main avenues of helping us to discern whether or not the voice we are hearing is God’s voice or another, is through the Council of the church, most often, our local congregation.
Over the course of more than forty years of being actively engaged in a conversation with God, I have heard countless people say that they do not need to go to church to be a Christian. May I point out some of the problems with that statement?
The first issue is that Christians do not “go to church.” We are church! We participate in a gathering of the church and we do so to learn, to grow, to share one another’s burdens and joys and to experiment with the gifts and talents that God has given us. It is within the context of “church” that we are best able to carry out the mission of God in our time and in our place.
The second issue is that the church is made up of people, each with their own frailties. Now, I already know the objections that people have to statements like that above. “Some of the worst people I have ever met our church people.” “Most church people are either liars or hypocrites or both.” “Most church people are mean, or get involved in activities for the sole purpose of gaining power.” Again, the list goes on. I also want you to know that I have never been so betrayed or hurt as deeply as I have by those who are part of the church. And many of those hurts have come from people for which I had great respect. It would have been easy, really easy, to walk away and never be involved in a body of believers again. But, somewhere along the line, I picked up a few lessons.
One of the lessons I learned is that God uses all kinds of circumstances and all kinds of people to work in me the process of becoming more like Christ. Not that I am perfect, far from it. For a moment, consider God’s process of conforming us to the image of Christ similar to a sculptor standing in front of a block of granite. The sculptor’s job is to knock away all of the stone that is not part of the image that lies deep in that piece of granite. And so they start by examining very carefully the stone. They are looking for the grain and flaws. The sculptor needs to know in advance what effect his tools will have on the stone. A sculptor may start with a saw but will quickly turn to a broad chisel and hammer, knocking off big chunks. Once the big chunks are removed, the tools change. Instead of a large chisel, a small one and instead of a large hammer, a small one and instead of smashing, the movement needs to be that of chipping. But even that is insufficient. The tools need to change again. The hammer and the chisel are replaced with an abrasive; something that will grind down the little pieces remaining and make the finished surface smooth.
Out of this lesson comes another: those people whom I thought did me great harm actually worked for my good. Regardless of their motives, regardless of how frail their humanity, God used them as instruments in the process of chipping away or sanding down those parts of me that needed to go.
In the passage that we read from the Gospel of John, Jesus talks about how those who are his followers knowing and responding to his voice. It also says that because they are his followers they do not need to worry because they are secure in his hands. I believe that with all my heart but we have also talked about the whole notion of repenting, of making course corrections. Basically those course corrections can be categorized as doing God stuff God’s way rather than doing what we want, when we want, where we want, why we want. Our priorities become consistent with God’s priorities. So I’m not going to say that’s impossible to be a Christian and not participate in the various gatherings of the church, but I will say to you, there is so much more to our Christian walk, there is so much more to our faith, there is so much more to our joy when we acknowledge that God has our best intentions at heart, both collectively and individually, when we do “not neglect our meeting together.” (He. 10:25 NLT)
One of the ways that we learn to discern whether or not the voice we are hearing is God’s voice or another voice is to share our experience with others and asked them their advice and to listen as they share their experiences with us. Some lessons can only come through experience. Learning to discern God’s voice does not happen overnight. It is a learning experience and one of the classrooms in the school that God has set up for us is that of the local congregation, the local church.
Next week we are going to consider a second mechanism available to us to help us to decide whether or not the voice that we are hearing is God’s voice or not – The Owner’s Manual.
Prayer: God who seeks us out, desiring relationship with us and healthy relationships for us, help us to set aside our own agendas and submit to yours. Amen