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08.10.14 God Speaks in Many Ways Matthew 14:22-33 Sermon Summary

by on August 11, 2014

I saw a mentally ill person talking to himself last week and I wondered, “How many people in my congregation view me the same way on Sunday mornings?”

Summary Points

  • Reformed worship, the mentally ill, and preachers
  • When God tends to speak to me (and Elijah, and the disciples)
  • Four additional suggestions when listening for God’s Word
  • Questions for discussion and reflection

In the Reformed tradition, the Word has primary place in worship. By “Word” we of course mean the Bible, but more, we are referring to an encounter with the risen Christ, the Word of God incarnate. We listen for the Word, respond to the Word, and re-incarnate the Word in our lives.

Seeing the mentally ill person last week got me thinking: there is a paradox in Reformed worship, that we come in order to listen, but we don’t really expect to hear. I mean, do you really want me to tell you, as others do on televised Sunday morning worship, that “I heard God say . . .”?

As a professional listener and proclaimer of God’s Word, I’m nonetheless skeptical when people say to me, “God said such and such to me.” I can only remember one person claim to have heard an audible voice, one that could be recorded (another one told me about such an experience yesterday, actually). But for all the others, they refer to something else: a “sense, feeling, leading, prompting.”

As for me, I can only tell you about my own experience of “hearing God’s voice,” and illustrate with some examples from the Bible.

I can tell you that God tends to speak to us when we’re tired, at the end of our rope, totally spent.

Elijah had just defeated the prophets of Baal and as a result, the evil queen Jezebel threatened him with his life. He runs 100 miles from Mt. Carmel to Beersheba where the text says, he abandoned his servant and continued a day’s journey more where he’s fed three meals and told to sleep. He then takes forty days and nights to go to Mount Horeb, probably fasting and praying as he goes.

He has traveled a total of 280 miles from Carmel to Horeb and ONLY THEN God’s Word “came to him.” “Came” sounds to me like a “sense.” The question Elijah “hears” is, “What are you doing here?” It might just as easily have been a thought Elijah had as a voice he heard: “What AM I doing here?”

Elijah answers twice with the same words, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Between answers, God makes an appearance, but not in the typical theophanies of wind, earthquake, or fire—but in silence. In that silence, which Elijah “heard,” the question came again.

We don’t know how he answered the two times. Was the first time an angry accusation against God, or was Elijah resigned? Was the second answer given more as a lamentation? We can’t tell from the text; we have only the words. But what the Scripture tells us is that Elijah was tired, and that God spoke to him in many ways.

The disciples also were tired. They had just spent the day feeding 5000 plus people. And that night they spent in a boat struggling against a storm. They had worked a double-shift! Besides being tired, I imagine they might also have been angry: Jesus can feed everyone else, but now he goes up in to the mountains to “pray” and leaves us all alone!

Between 3 and 6 AM, Jesus finally comes to them, walking on the water. Tired, angry, and trying to explain his absence, maybe the disciples thought Jesus had died, and maybe they felt a little guilty about all these feelings, because when Jesus shows up, the disciples are terrified and cry out, “It’s a ghost!”

Peter, true to his impetuous nature, asks to walk on the water also. Jesus invites him out, but when Peter sees the strong winds, far from confusing this with the presence of God as Elijah might have done, Peter panics and begins to sink. He cries out to Jesus who reaches out and saves him.

Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Here again, we don’t know how Jesus delivered this. Was it a deep, judging “God voice”? Was it disappointment? Did Jesus find the whole thing a little funny and deliver these words through laughter? Again, having only text with no stage directions, we don’t know. But the point is this: though God is always speaking, even when we’re not tired, it’s still a good idea to listen ESPECIALLY when we’re tired, exhausted, spent, or at the end of our rope.

Drawing some more from these texts, here are some other guidelines for listening for God’s Word.

First, start by being honest. Here remember Elijah’s need to answer God’s question twice. And remember Peter being true to his character. In worship, we offer a prayer of confession and receive assurance of pardon which is our way of being honest about who we are and who God is. We need, and God is, a savior. We also pray for the illumination of the Holy Spirit when we read the Bible and hear the sermon. Without this help, all we have are words. So start by being honest about your feelings, who you are, and your need for the Spirit’s help.

Second, listen for God’s Word in the form of metaphors. God delights in surprising us by how he uses words. This is why Jesus’ favorite teaching method is the parables. We also see God using action-reflection (for example, Elijah), twists, double-meanings, and even paradoxes. God does speak to us in Scripture, but in experience also. God does speak in fire, but also in silence. So listen without prejudice (as George Michael would urge).

Third, it’s important to always return to and listen in community. Matthew tells us, as Peter and Jesus return to the boat, that those in the boat believed. He seems to contrast their experience with that of Peter’s. We know that Peter eventually came back to the boat—he became the first great preacher. We see time after time how God speaks both to individuals and to communities, and to individuals in communities. So it’s important to listen for God’s Word personally, but also to listen in community. Alone we’re quite at risk of getting it wrong; together we’re better assured of hearing God accurately.

Fourth, to hear God’s Word, maybe stop trying so hard. Paul reminds us that the Word of faith, the Word of salvation, isn’t in heaven to be brought down, nor is it dead in the abyss, needing to be brought back to life. He says it is near, on our lips, even in our hearts. The elementary message of grace, and thus of Christianity, is, “stop trying so hard.” Or better even, “stop trying.” God is speaking; just listen.

Psalm 85 says God’s salvation is near to those who call upon him. Our voice may not be very loud, but then again, neither is God’s necessarily. God speaks to us in many ways. Whether we are tired, whatever our condition emotionally, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, the promise throughout the Bible is that, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” May that be so for us.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • Have you ever had an experience of “hearing” God’s Word to you? How do you describe it? What were the circumstances? Is there a discernable pattern in your life where God “speaks” to you?
  • If it’s true that God tends to speak to those who are at the end of their rope, why might that be?
  • When you listen for God through Scripture and prayer, do you start by being honest about yourself? What might that look like?
  • How might allowing more metaphorical and experiential “readings” of Scripture and prayer enhance your receiving of God’s Word?
  • In what ways do you “try too hard” to hear God’s Word? What would it mean for you to “stop and just listen”?
  • Has God ever spoken to you through another person? Have God ever spoken to someone else through you?
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