The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
June 17, 2018
The most important part of praying is, not what we get across to God, but what God gets across to us. Thus, at its best prayer is more about our listening than our talking.
Last Sunday, as we looked at Acts 15 and how the church heard from God about what Jewish standards of behavior to require of Gentile converts, we noted how the spiritual leaders in Jerusalem turned their ears in four directions to hear from God: they listened to the Bible, to their experience, to the inner voice of the Spirit speaking from within them, and to His outer voice addressing them through fellow believers.
We found them listening to the Bible when, for example, James quoted from Amos 9 and when the apostles and elders came to a consensus about a solution by applying to the new situation of Jews and Gentiles living together in the church the old standard of behavior for their living together in cities from Leviticus 17-18. We found them listening to their experience when Peter and others bore testimony about how they witnessed Gentiles receiving the Holy Spirit apart from following all the practices of the Jewish faith. We found them listening to the Spirit’s outer voice and inner voice when they heard each other out in discussion and debate, and settled upon a decision that rang so true and right within their souls that they claimed it “seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us”.
Once the leaders in Jerusalem felt sure they’d heard from God, they sent Paul and others to announce to the churches what God had said. As Paul traveled in Turkey to deliver the news and to support the churches he’d started there, he – according to Acts 16 here – continued to listen for God’s guidance in the same four ways they had in Jerusalem. You just know, from Paul’s long-established, consistent habit, he kept meditating on scripture and its implications. He took the experience of the group’s travel plans being thwarted as an indication of God’s intention to override their itinerary and lead them where they hadn’t yet expected to go. He listened to the Spirit’s outer voice as he consulted with other believers about Timothy’s suitability as a mission partner and held true to his commitment to make major decisions and move forward in ministry only in the context of community. He listened to the Spirit’s inner voice as he made out one rerouting of their journey as the Spirit’s “forbidding” their going further west and another as the Spirit’s “not allowing” their going further north, and heard in that vision of a man from Macedonia, Greece, calling for help, a message from God to leave the continent of Asia and enter Europe for the first time.
We would do well to listen for God’s messages in these four different ways.
Let us then listen long and prayerfully to the Bible.
Some of us have a hard time hearing from the Bible anymore because we’ve grown so familiar with it. We’d be wise to bear in mind how quickly we forget its truths and thus how much we need to review them. We’d also be wise to appreciate how deep the Bible is and how there are always new treasures of wisdom and inspiration yet to be discovered within it.
A man took up the hobby of treasure hunting and bought a metal detector. When he purchased it, the sales clerk gave him some good advice. He started out by telling him that, after he’d uncovered something buried in the ground, he should hold off from filling the hole back up but scan it one more time. For often, when there is one treasure, there are others.
Following that practice has often rewarded the hunter. The clerk added one more piece of counsel: Never think a site has been “hunted out” – that is, emptied of treasure. There’s almost always another treasure awaiting a persistent hunter.
Following that practice also has often rewarded the hunter. In fact, once when he was searching through an 18th century home site that everyone said had been hunted out and that had given him nothing after six hours of scanning, his detector suddenly started beeping maniacally and led him to scores of old coins worth hundreds of dollars!
In the same way, if we keep going over the scriptures, even those we think we already “know”, we will keep being rewarded with messages that have passed out of mind or that we’ve never picked up before. The Bible is such a rich field for discovery that, no matter how much we dig into it, it will never be hunted out.
Let us then listen to the Bible. Let us also listen to our experience, opening our ears to let it speak to us for God.
Some of us are rushing through life at such a speed that we never stop, look and listen to our encounters, situations and circumstances – and we thereby miss messages God is sending through them.
Dr. Irwin Braverman directs the residents at Yale Medical School. He grew concerned about how little, in patient examinations, his students caught of what was right in front of them.
He came up with a brilliant idea. He took the future doctors to the Yale Center for British Art and told them to sit with a painting hanging in its gallery. He instructed them to give it time, attention and their openness of mind and heart. They soon learned how essential patience and perseverance are for perceiving all that is going on in great art – and they heard loud and clear how essential patience and perseverance are for perceiving all that is going on in people.
When they learned to listen to their patients without hurry and to examine them without an eye on the clock, their diagnostic skills improved dramatically. Going to an art museum is now mandatory for medical students at Yale, Harvard and a dozen other schools.
In the same way, we need to refrain from going through our experiences as fast as possible, but instead give, at least some of them, our time and open-minded attentiveness until they reveal themselves to us, and we take in their meaning. We need to keep our ears alert for God to speak to us through them.
Let us listen to the Bible and to our experience. Let us also listen to the Spirit’s outer voice and inner voice.
We do well to keep an ear cocked for messages from God by means of other people, even those of whom we don’t think highly. After all, God once spoke to one of His prophets through a jackass! Might He not then say something to us through someone we find aggravating, or perhaps even – gulp! – our spouse?
We also do well to create times in which we desist from our chattering, grow silent and tuned in, and listen quietly for that still small voice that arises from deep within us to prompt us to some action or to plant in our brains some idea that carries the scent of heaven.
God is always there, and God always has a word for us. He never ceases to want to communicate it with us, even through silence. He will speak to us from every side and by every means. So let us stay attentive in prayer and be all ears for the sound of God’s voice!
Let us listen as we pray.