The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
June 10, 2018
To pray is to engage with God in an interactive, two-way conversation. To have that dialogue we must maintain empty, silent spaces of listening that God might fill them with words of wisdom and encouragement.
But sometimes we wonder whether God hears us when we ask Him to talk back to us.
A concerned husband got alone with the family doctor and said, “I think my wife is growing deaf. She often fails to respond when I say something.”
The doctor replied, “To get an accurate read on any hearing loss, go home tonight and approach her from outside her range of view. When you’re about 15 feet from her, say something. If she doesn’t reply, move a little closer and say it again. Keep doing this and you’ll get an idea about how much loss of hearing there’s been.”
The husband went home, and gave the experiment a try. While his wife was standing in the kitchen cutting vegetables, he asked her from 15 feet behind her, “What’s for dinner?” When he got no response, he moved 5 feet closer and repeated the question. Still getting no reply, he stepped forward some more and said it again. Silence again. Finally, he moved right behind her and asked a final time: “What’s for dinner?” She turned around and said, “For Pete’s sake! For the 4th time, it’s stew!”
God says things to us far more often than we hear. Why do we often fail to pick up any words from Him? Sometimes, in truth, we don’t want to hear from Him!
We sometimes don’t want to be told what to do. Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel once acknowledged, “I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God.” Another philosopher, Mortimer Adler, at the time a sceptic but later a Christian, admitted he had a vested interest in denying the reality of God because it “would require a radical change in my way of life, a basic alteration in the direction of my day-to-day choices as well as in my ultimate objectives.”
Even believers sometimes wish there were no God, or at least wish not one who intends to address certain issues in how we live.
A Christian knew he was supposed to share with unbelievers about Jesus but hated the idea. Nevertheless, he did ask God to give him to chance to try sharing about Jesus with someone.
One day he boarded an empty city bus and sat down in the last row. He prayed, “Lord, if you want me to speak to someone about you, make our paths cross.” At the next stop, a man boarded the bus, walked all the way to the back, sat across the aisle from him, and smiled as if he’d like to strike up a conversation. The Christian turned away and silently prayed, “Confirm this please, Lord!” Almost immediately, the man said, “I see you have a pen with a cross on it. Can you tell me anything about Jesus?” The Christian once more looked out the window to silently pray. He said, “Lord, if you really want me to talk to this guy, assure me with just one more sign: Please turn the bus driver into an armadillo.”
Of course, sometimes, even when we are genuinely open to hearing from God, we don’t know how to pick up His typically soft, almost always unobtrusive voice or the subtle signs of His nearness: and we miss His messages, both spoken and shown. Messages from God are like hummingbirds: We have to have the eyes and ears to be aware that they are there.
Once, while visiting a bird-supplies store, Scott McKnight mentioned to the owner that, though he and his wife had owned a hummingbird feeder for a year, they’d never once seen a hummer. The shop owner asked where they lived. After he told him, the owner said, “They’re all over your neighborhood. You just have to develop the sensitivity to take note of them. Once you do, you will see them everywhere. They are small and fast, and camouflaged, but they’re not that hard to spot.”
So Scott and his wife made a concerted effort to improve their hummer-spotting skills. Now they pick up on their presence at home and in the neighborhood all the time.
Messages from God are there for us all the time. To make them out just takes some focused and patient attentiveness. For, as Eugene Peterson observes, everything else and everyone else is noisier than the God who rarely raises His voice. We only detect it when we are alert for it.
When five-year-old Barbara had been bad, her mother sent her to her room. After a few minutes, Sue went in to talk with her. Teary-eyed, little Barbara asked, “Mommy, why do we do wrong things?” Sue replied, “Honey, sometimes the devil tells us to do something wrong, and we listen to him. We need to listen to God instead.” To which Barbara sobbed, “But God doesn’t talk loud enough.”
When, however, God doesn’t talk loud, we can choose to grow quiet and attune ourselves to the sound of His still, small voice. It will come to us, but it mostly comes in a whisper, and through ordinary, non-dramatic voices we listen to almost every day.
When the church had its first major decision to make, after selecting a replacement for Judas, it did what Christians do all the time. The believers talked it over with God in prayer, talked with each other in discussion and debate, reflected together on their experience, considered scripture and cocked the ears of their souls to pick up the voice of the Holy Spirt. As a result of their listening in those four commonplace Christian ways, they heard from God as to what they should do on the issue before them: how Jewish they should require non-Jewish people to become in order to be fully Christian, when Christ Himself was 100% Jewish and was circumcised as a sign of the holy covenant with God. When finally they heard from God what to do, they announced it saying that it “seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us”.
Next week we will look in some detail at each of those four paths the first Christians travelled to listen to hear what God’s will was: They listened to their experience, the Bible, the inner voice of the Spirit, and His outer voice through the body of Christ – that is, the church at large. Suffice it to note this Sunday that, while God will not until the end of the age command our attention, He is eager in these days to be heard – and He will be if we but make a little effort to open our ears by everyday Christian practices and pick up His messages for us of wise guidance and encouragement.
Let us pray!