Hearing God

And now, come Holy Spirit, to open our ears to hear whatever it might be that you would have us hear and carry with us as go from this place today.

Life, in many ways, is about living with the consequences of decisions we make. Decisions about who to marry, whether to continue in marriage when times get tough, decisions about our health, our finances, our job, about how to raise our children. About how to deal with the unexpected things life hands us.

The choices we make can have long lasting consequences. Because when we come to those forks in the road that require us to make a decision, choosing one way is, at the same time, rejecting the other way.

This isn’t true just in our personal lives. It’s also true in the church. We’ve made some decisions in this church over the past few years that have brought change, that have required us to do some things differently, even perhaps to change some of the ways we think about things.

So how do we make those decisions? Do we consult family members or close friends? Or do we take it to the Lord in prayer?

All of you probably know that’s what we should be doing. But … some of you are probably thinking right now, “I talk to God but He never talks back. How am I supposed to know what He wants me to do?” Some of you might even be thinking, “Isn’t it kind of presumptuous to think that God cares about the details of my life? Didn’t He give me a brain so I could figure things out on my own?”

To which I would respond: Have you ever considered that it might be more presumptuous and more dangerous to try to make major decisions without hearing God?

Over and over, however, I heard people say, “He doesn’t talk to me.” “I don’t know how to hear Him.”

So why can some people hear God, while others can’t? That’s what we’re going to begin to explore together this morning. How can we hear God?

God has been speaking to me all my life. Usually He speaks to me by speaking words inside my head. Usually in a still, small voice.  I think the first time I actually heard God speak was when I was eight years old and sitting at my desk in my third grade classroom at St. John the Baptist Catholic School in Savage, Minnesota. We were in the middle of religion class learning about eternal salvation; and my teacher said that there was only one way to get into heaven—and that way was to be a part of the Roman Catholic Church. And as soon as she she said that, I heard, inside my head, the words, “That’s not right. Don’t believe that.”

I was eight years old. I went to church six days a week: Monday through Friday and Sunday. Always. But I had no idea how to get to heaven – I’m not at all sure I’d ever even thought about it before. I could not possibly, in my own understanding, have known that the Catholic Church wasn’t the gate to eternal salvation. God was speaking to me, but I didn’t know that—I didn’t know how to recognize His voice. I didn’t even know there was any possibility that God might speak to me. We had religion class every day in Catholic school; we used textbooks and workbooks, but we never ever opened the Bible.

Nevertheless, as an adult, I’ve always considered that my departure from the Roman Catholic Church began at that moment in my third grade classroom.

There were other times, in other classrooms, that, inside my head, I would hear the words, “That’s not right.” Sometimes I even thought that voice in my head was saying that God had a plan to use me to help people know what was right.

The fact is, however, that I didn’t really pay much attention to those thoughts. I was surrounded by adults who taught me that eternal salvation was based on going to church, doing good works and being a good person. And, of course, going to confession regularly and then performing the penance assigned by the priest that would ensure my forgiveness. My parents taught me to pray about everything, and to do so with the expectation that God would answer my prayers—prayers to recover lost objects, prayers to resolve difficulties in our lives, prayers for God to be with us in difficult situations. I was strongly encouraged to talk to God about everything—and I did. And while I was totally convinced even as a very young child that God listened when I prayed, and even that He might respond by doing something—showing me where the lost item was, perhaps even changing circumstances—I had not the slightest idea that He might actually speak to me.

Still, despite the fact that I was totally unaware of it, God was at work in my life, opening some doors while closing others. When I was a senior in high school, I was facing one of those important life-changing decisions: what would come next for me? I knew I would go to college, but now I had to decide where. My mother and I visited a number of colleges and I decided that I wanted to attend a small college in Wisconsin. Still, I applied to three or four different schools, mainly to appease my parents and my older brothers. One of them, of course, was the University of Minnesota because that was our family college. It’s where both my mother and my aunt went; and even when we were very young, any time we would drive past the University, my mother would say, “This is where you’ll go to college someday.” My oldest brother had completed his first year at the University before entering the army and being shipped off to Vietnam. Now he was back home and was heading back to the U of M. He thought it would be great if I was there, too.

I wasn’t convinced. Because my family was not wealthy and my siblings and I were all close in age, I knew that my college education would probably need to be funded primarily by me. I had very good grades and I had very high scores on both my ACT and SAT tests, so I expected to receive some scholarship offers. And I did—but it was the University of Minnesota that offered me almost a full scholarship—so, despite the fact that it wasn’t my first choice, it’s where I went.

It turned out to be a good decision. My last year in college, all five of us were there together, my oldest brother now working on a Master’s Degree, my youngest sister an incoming freshman.

And on my very first day at college, I met identical twin brothers from Lamberton, Minnesota—a town not much bigger than McCallsburg that I had never even heard of. Denny and Doug Sandmann. And two years later, when I was engaged to marry Denny Sandmann, who was a Lutheran, we knew that we had to figure out whether we would be Lutheran or Catholic or something else.  Every Sunday, we’d go to different churches around the Twin Cities, until finally, we settled on a church we both liked that happened to be Lutheran.

And, mostly because Lutheran Campus Ministries was located just across the street from the dorm where I had spent my first two years in college and just a block from the fraternity house where Denny lived, we started to meet with a Lutheran pastor. A pastor who not only didn’t believe that salvation was only by way of the Roman Catholic Church, but who opened the Bible and showed me what God had to say about salvation. Who showed me Jesus’ words in John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” Who showed me the words of the apostle Paul in Romans 10:9, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

I discovered that the Bible doesn’t even mention the Roman Catholic Church or the Lutheran Church or any other denomination—only the church that recognizes Jesus as the head, Jesus as the only way.

I began to know God in a more personal way—a way, I discovered, that was only possible through knowing His Word. I discovered that all the textbooks in the world couldn’t do for me what God’s written Word could do.  Because this book—and this book alone—is God’s voice speaking directly to us.

And the closer I got to the Lord, the easier it began to be for me to differentiate His voice from my voice. I began to recognize that some of the things I had always believed were just my own thoughts were actually God talking to me—even when I was only eight years old.

Brotheres and sisters in Christ, God talks to all His people—all of them. Not some, not even many—all. How I wish someone had told me that when I was eight years old. But apparently that wasn’t part of God’s plan for me.

Some of you are a long way from eight years old and you still don’t think God talks to you. But  He does.

In John 16:12-15, Jesus is speaking to His disciples just before He’s arrested. He says, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

“When the Spirit of truth comes, … he will guide you into all truth. … He will speak and … will declare to you…” Not, “He might speak”; not “He’ll speak to some of you”; Not even, “He’ll speak to most of you.”

He’ll speak to all of us. What Jesus is telling His disciples here is that in order to hear, we have to have the Holy Spirit. This is why, immediately after the Spirit fell on Jesus’ followers on the day of Pentecost, suddenly they understood all kinds of things that had previously just confused them.

They’d been with Jesus for three years—and they’d been paying attention. They listened, they watched—but, even after Jesus rose from the dead, even right up until the moment He ascended back into heaven, they still didn’t understand most of what they’d seen and heard.

Now, however, they’re filled with the Holy Spirit—who immediately began to “guide them into all truth.” Suddenly the pieces began to fall into place, to make sense. They understood all those things Jesus had been saying to them. 

The role of the Holy Spirit in our lives is primarily like that of a reporter. He doesn’t have to come up with lots of great things to tell us. Jesus said that “He will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak” (16:13).

The Holy Spirit knows God’s Word perfectly—every single Word of it from the first Word in the Book of Genesis to the last Word in the Book of Revelation. And He’s prepared to reveal it to us whenever and wherever it’s needed. And He’s with us—always With us to “guide us into all truth.” With us to speak whatever the Father tells Him to speak.

Just a short time earlier in John’s gospel, as part of the same conversation, “Jesus said, ‘If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him’” (John 14:23).

Again, Jesus didn’t say that if we love Him and keep His word, “maybe” He and the Father will come and make their home with us.

Throughout the entire Bible, we see God speaking to His people. Sometimes we even see God speaking to people who are not His people. Beginning with Adam and Eve in the garden, continuing through Noah and Abraham and Moses and the prophets, we see God speaking to His people throughout the Old Testament. When the Israelite people finally settled in the Promised Land, God first used judges and later, beginning with Samuel, prophets to be His messengers.

While God was clearly present throughout the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit wasn’t available to the people the way He is to us today. Sometimes God sent the Spirit to certain people to empower them to do certain things. And the prophets were kind of like forerunners of the way the Holy Spirit works today. They spoke to God’s people what God told them to speak.

They spoke—but God told Ezekiel in this morning’s reading that some of the people would refuse to hear. That still happens.  

In the New Testament, Jesus promises that everyone who believes in Him will receive the Holy Spirit—everyone. And that’s exactly what happened on Pentecost. The Spirit fell on every single person in that room in Jerusalem—all 120 or so people, most of whose names we’ll never know—at least in this life.

Later that day, another 3000 people received the Holy Spirit, as they came to believe in Jesus. Not a single person who believed was rejected. And so it has been for 2000 years.

But there’s more—Jesus didn’t just say we would receive the Spirit. He said that His Holy Spirit will speak directly to us. To all of us who believe in Him.

So if God is speaking to all of us, why don’t we all hear Him? There are a lot of different reasons: one is simply that in order to hear anyone, we have to be listening. My husband likes to listen to books on tape. And sometimes I talk to him and get absolutely no response. Then I notice that he has headphones plugged into his ears—he can’t hear me. Some of us are so continually plugged in to headphones or music or TV or the internet or video games that we don’t hear God when He speaks. Because He rarely shouts. Almost never will He force you to listen to Him.

Every single day, there are messages coming through the airwaves, messages that we don’t hear because we’re not listening. Right now there are probably dozens of sermons being preached on radio and television stations—messages that we could be listening to right now, even right here. But unless we tune in, we can’t hear them. If I want to watch the local news and I turn on KCCI, I won’t hear what they say on WHO, even though they’re talking and sending news out over the airwaves just as surely as KCCI is.

So we have to be tuned in to the right channel—and many of us haven’t learned how to tune in to God’s channel. We’ve never learned to recognize His voice. We haven’t learned to differentiate God from our own thoughts. The eight year old me didn’t recognize God’s voice. Neither did the teenage me; it was only as an adult that I began to be aware of His voice sometimes.

There’s another reason why many of us don’t hear God—it’s a reason that, quite honestly, would never have occurred to me if I had not read an article on the subject recently. Apparently there are a lot of people who don’t hear God because they don’t want to hear God. They are, either knowingly or unknowingly, blocking Him out—like Denny with his earphones is blocking out other voices.

Sometimes we’re just not paying attention. 24 years ago, I owned a small business that I had loved for most of the time I owned it. But I’d begun to have just kind of a general feeling of discontent. I’d been wondering if it was time for a change. And then one day while I was sitting in my office, I heard that voice in my head. It said, “This is not my plan for you.” And suddenly  realized that I’d heard that same voice saying those same words a number of times over the past few months—but I hadn’t been paying attention. By that time in my life, I’d heard God speak to me many times—so it wasn’t that I was incapable of recognizing His voice. It was just that I was distracted by other things. I wasn’t paying attention.

By that time in my life, my relationship with the Lord had reached a place where it didn’t even occur to me to try to argue with Him, or even just say no. There was no point—I knew I’d never win. So I listened and began the process of going out of business. And making my own plans for the future, which turned out to be completely different from God’s plan for my future. In large part because His plan for me was one that would never have occurred to me.

I had moved into a phase in my life where it was easy to recognize His voice—mainly because it was always directing me to do something I didn’t want to do. Although it took me a while to figure it out, the basic message was, “I don’t just was a piece of your life—I want all of it.”

And I remembered the message that I’d heard more than once during my childhood and teenage years: “I know the plans I have for you, plans to give you a future and a hope.” Heard those words long before I ever knew that they were written in the Bible—Jeremiah 29:11.

Jeremiah 29:12 continues: “Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you.”

What the Lord is saying here is that there is a direct connection between our willingness to set aside our own plans, to submit our lives to His plans, and the way that He hears our prayers.  It’s really the same message that Jesus was giving when He said to His disciples in John 16:23, “Whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name.”

Jesus is saying that when we allow His Spirit within us to lead us in whatever direction God would have us go, we become connected to Him in the same way that our arm is connected to our body—we are one. And when that happens, the only things we’ll ask God for are the things that we need to carry out His purposes.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, God is speaking to you.  My great hope and prayer for each one of you is that you learn to hear God. Nothing is more important for us as a congregation than that we learn to recognize God’s voice, learn to listen to Him.

When you go home today, spend some time listening. Do it again tomorrow and the next day and continue. Ask Him to speak. If you’re not used to reading God’s Word, to listening to Him, begin.

There’s much more to say on this subject. We’ll continue next Sunday.

Let us pray.