In ‘the sacred dairy of Adrian Plass Christian speaker aged 45 ¾’, Adrian Plass illustrates some of the difficulties of trying to discern how God is speaking to us and what he is saying. After a disastrous speaking engagement, Plass says ‘he had some words with God in church on Sunday, and ‘asked for something to lift his spirits about the whole speaking business.’ On the way out of church he looked up and saw a cloud which looked very much like South America and wondered if this was a sign that God was calling him there. He pointed it out to a friend who said it was like Italy and God was definitely calling Plass to Italy. His son thought it looked like ‘India’ his wife who loves the West Country thought it was just like the Lizard peninsula in Cornwell, a man who didn’t like Plass that much said he thought it was Greenland which confirmed something he’d thought about Plass all along, while Plass’ quirky neighbour thought it was a carrot and that God was calling Plass to work with those who labour among root vegetables. Plass concludes
“I thought it wasn’t the sign I was looking for, not unless God is expecting me to convert most of the planet and people who labour among root vegetables. I mean, God created the world, didn’t he? So he must be able to draw one little bit of it accurately if he wants to.”
Later Plass was encouraged by receiving an invitation to go to Australia to speak. Who would have figured that God could use the postal service or Australians?
Maybe people who expect God to speak to us actually do have their heads suck in the clouds. It’s one of the big questions about prayer, if prayer is conversation with God, is it one way communication? How does God speak back? And How can we tune our hearts and minds to hearing what God is saying? On the Other hand it is one of the great privileges and joys of the Christian life to know that God does speak to his people.
The passage from John’s gospel we read today is part of a wider passage where Jesus uses the image of a good shepherd to talk of his relationship with us. One part in particular sticks out ‘My Sheep know my voice, I know them, they follow me’. It gives us a picture of a relationship with God where we know His voice and we respond, and what an amazing affirmation that Christ knows us! Prayer is at the centre of that relationship that is why it is one of the eight areas that the Parish council have identified as key if our vision to be an authentic, vibrant, sustainable community, growing as followers of Jesus, and inspiring others to join us that journey is to be an ongoing reality. So we are going to finish our season of prayer today by looking at some nuts’n’bolts about hearing God speak. Again some of them are very practical and others are very theological.
In my life I have experienced God speaking in so many different ways. When I needed to make a decision about staying in Auckland as the Youth coordinator or going to Rotorua, I went into the Waitakere’s to pray and God lead me to a passage about ‘a prophet being without honour in their own country’, not a delusion of grandeur but a clear direction that it was time to move away from the familiar into a new area. When I pray for people in a ministry situation I will often hear, as Adrian Plass puts it, “ a small voice at the back of my head that I equate with God” bring a scripture to mind or a simple word for that person or direction to Pray. God speaks through what I read, through other People. One night when I was about twenty two a man grabbed my arm on the way out of church, and said he believed God was telling me to go to Bible College, which after working it through with the leadership of the church I did. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a picture in the clouds, but God hasused wood pigeon’s to speak to me. I see them as a sign of the Holy Spirit, as they are the closest you get to native doves here, and it’s amazing how oftenthey turn up and God uses them to speak to me… I could go on and talk of circumstance, surprise encounters…I’m sure you have got your own tales as well. But they are all subjective and open to interpretation and they are not just the everyday communication with God that comes in a constant growing prayer life.
When we started our season of prayer we defined prayer as our response to God’s speaking to us. God is a personal god and reveals Gods-self and his purpose and will to us. He has done that through his interaction with Israel and in Christ becoming one of us. Our prayer is in response to that. The chief way we have in which God has spoken and continues to speak is through the bible, the scriptures of the Old and New Testament. What we call God’s word. Not just dry words on dusty dog eared pages but living word that God’s spirit is able to use to speak into our lives and world. In fact we should filter and test every other way we feel God speak to us through the scriptures. When we find ourselves in a difficult situation or in need of advice the Holy Spirit will bring the scriptures to our minds. AS we immerse ourselves in them they help shape our thinking and actions and reactions. God’s will and ways and character are not a secret, in fact you could say that God is an open book.
The story of Samuel’s call to be a prophet is helpful to explore how we listen to God’s word. The passage starts by saying that visions and words from the lord were rare when Samuel was young. For God’s people this is not supposed to be the normal situation. It was part of God’s judgment on the house of Eli. The people of Israel would expect their priest to be the one who got those words but it didn’t happen Eli and his sons had their own agenda. Can I say we can spend out whole life in Church and not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It is one of the things that the church in the west has wrestled with nominal Christianity, or cultural Christianity. The challenge for us is… that we can be quite happy going about our own life doing our own thing, so we don’t take the time to listen and hear. God’s word is not scare for us today we have open access to the scriptures.
The second thing is that Samuel really wasn’t expecting God to speak to him. He thought it was Eli calling him. Samuel is geared to listening and responding to Eli. Eli we are told is old and overweight and nearly blind, maybe it was a regular nightly occurrence that Eli would call for Samuel to help him. It is only when Eli tells Samuel that it maybe God speaking and to listen and respond with “Lord speak, your servant is listening” that Samuel hears God speak more than just his name. It is easy for us to get caught up in our routines and doing things and not to actually stop and be open to God speaking. May even in today’s world to turn off the devices and pull out our headphones. The line is busy because we are busy, not God. You can even get caught up in doing good things and religious things, and not make room for God and relationship. It actually takes time to be still and listen; it takes time to adopt that humble and expectant attitude that Samuel does.
Eli in this story represents the religious knowledge and wisdom of his day, and he is the one who actually helps Samuel to know it is God speaking and to know how to respond. WE need that same guidance and help. Hearing God’s voice is a community activity. WE have a wealth of resources and wisdom in people and in the saints who have gone before us that can help us to develop our prayer lives and to learn to connect with God. I’m going to finish this sermon by sharing one with you for you to try this week. I read what I call a spiritual health book once a year… one that focuses on my prayer and devotional life to get that guidance. This year it is Tim Keller’s book ‘Prayer: awe and intimacy with God.’ I’m using the ‘bible in one year app for my devotions this year and it is good to have the voice of Nicky Gumble to help open the word up with his reflections. Nicky’s wife Pippa also makes some very non theological everyday practical comments that equally help God’s word speak into my life.
WE see as the chapter goes on beyond our reading that Samuel becomes more and more adapt at hearing what God has to say. It’s process of learning of learning to listen. The other Key to Samuel developing a relationship with God where he hears god clearly, is that he actually obeys what he hears… In the gospel Jesus says his followers are those who hear his word and act on it. In the passage from John he says his sheep hear his voice and they follow.
That’s cool for Samuel but are you saying we should all simply wait to hear God call us in the night. How does it relate to my prayer life today?
Scripture needs to be a big part of our life. Not just reading it which I encourage people to do daily but allowing it be the starting point and conversation partner in our prayer life. Because it allows God then to speak to us. Eastern meditation is the process of emptying oneself and becoming one with the other whatever that other is. But Christian meditation or contemplation according to Tim Keller is ‘not mere bible study. It is taking the word of scripture and pondering them in such a way that your thoughts and feeling converge on God’. In fact the word meditation comes from the same root as mastication, or chewing. Cow’s have four stomachs and they will digest grass and later bring it back up to chew over again, we call it chewing their cud, to get all the richness and goodness out of it. That is the idea of contemplation on or praying through scripture.
It’s great that we have Eli’s to help us in this matter. One such person is the great reformer Martin Luther…we have a letter that Martin Luther wrote to his barber in response to being asked by him ‘For some simple ideas on ‘how he should pray?’. In it Martin Luther explained his process for pondering and prayer through scripture. Luther said that the first thing is that prayer must become a habit. I’ve just started going to the gym and swimming again, and can I say it’s not an enjoyable experience. It’s hard work, I ache I don’t really feel any benefit from it, this week I’ve had to learn to be less charismatic in my worship life… because it hurts to raise my arms. But I know as I go on that I will receive more and more benefit from it and it will get easier. Prayer like all things in life is not easy it’s hard and we need to work at it to develop past the difficult stage to a level of relationship which is sustaining and edifying. It’s like communication in marriage we need to spend time doing it and make time to do it and work at it.
Luther says he will contemplate a passage in scripture and then will turn it into a prayer via four different books. He says it becomes a (click) school book, he approaches it to see what it has to say about God, the human condition life and ‘what the Lord demands of me earnestly’. Then it turns into (click) his song book, it draws him to give thanks to God, he begins to pray those two classical parts of prayer adoration and thanksgiving. Then he says it becomes (click) his Penitential book, it leads him to confession and seeing where he needs to make changes in his life. Finally it becomes a (click) prayer book and he finds his prayers for himself and his world directed by God’s word. It is a good simple process which allows God to start the conversation, speak to us through his word, and guide our response in prayer. We used this technique at the parish council meeting on Wednesday and it was really amazing I think we had one of the best prayer times we’d had at the parish council in a long time. It’s a technique that helps the scriptures and prayer to become a two way conversation. Luther was quick to point out that in the midst of this if the Holy Spirit begins to preach a sermon to us we should be quite desisting and listen.
Luther also says that we should allow the word of God to lead our prayer’s by using the Lord’s prayer. Not simply verbatim but paraphrasing and personalising it each day so that its petitions express our world and heart to God. He says I do not bind myself to words or phrases but say my prayer in one fashion today and in another tomorrow, depending on my mood and feelings”. Again we allow God to set the pattern for our prayer and lead us and speak to us in prayer.
I want to finish by giving you a gift: A seven day prayer journal to help you pray through the scriptures using Luther’s guidelines. I’m asking you to take time in the next week to meditate on specific passages, as we are looking at prayer they are Paul’s prayers for the churches in his epistles. May we let those prayers guide our prayers? Then I want to invite you to write a prayer from that using Luther’s four books and also to write a prayer or say a prayer that is lead and guided by the Lord’s Prayer.
I hope that among the various spiritual practises we’ve done this month that you’ve found things that are of real practical help. The parish council and I hope and pray that you might find your faith growing and developing a real vibrancy. It’s been our hope that during this month your prayer life will have deepened and grown: That you may draw near to God and have him draw near to you.
For those who would like a pdf version of the prayer journal mentioned in this sermon here is a link to it... Luthers guidelines for praying the scriptures.