St Barnabas and St Michael’s, 6th September 2009
Listening to Jesus – something we all find difficult!
- Jesus is alive!
- You have the Holy Spirit
- You can pray
How do we listen?
- People – pray with others
- Read the Bible daily
- Act – step out in faith!
- Yield – do what Jesus says
- Experience – see what Jesus has already done
- Relationship – spend time with Jesus
This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him! (Mark 9:7)
How well are you listening to Jesus?
If there’s one question people have about the Christian faith, one which causes more heart-searching and head-scratching than anything else, it is quite simply this: Does God speak to me? And if so, how do I know it is God speaking to me? In fact, I would go so far as to say there is no-one in this church this morning who at some time or other has not wrestled with this question – how do I hear God’s voice?
You may be a child who has heard all the wonderful Bible stories, such as the Lord calling the boy Samuel, or the Lord appearing to Moses in the burning bush, and you may be thinking, “That’s all very well, but what about me? How am I expected to hear God speak?” You may be a new Christian who has decided to follow Jesus, but now you need to know where exactly He might be leading you. You may be a long-standing Christian of many, many years but you face a difficult decision where it isn’t clear what to do, and you need guidance from Jesus. All of us, one way or another, wrestle with this issue which takes us right to the heart of the Christian faith. After all, we believe God has spoken through His Son Jesus Christ. But what does that mean for us personally, in our busy, confused and often stressful lives?
And that’s the question I want to answer this morning in as a simple and direct fashion as possible, in a way that I hope will help to address many of the issues we face. So although I will be looking at our two passages from time to time, really today is about practical training and helping us get to grips with this most important of issues in our Christian faith. Because a church that is alive, a church where good things happen, is apart from anything else a church where people are learning to discern and respond to God’s voice. So before we go any further, let’s be still and pray for the Lord to help us learn from Him this morning…
Now I said just now that this morning is about practical training, but before we dive into the details, it’s important we step back for a moment and just be clear about a few basic truths that undergirds all I’m about to say. Because what we do as Christians flows from what we believe, and if we aren’t completely sure what we believe, it will affect the way we try to listen to Jesus day by day.
So truth number one – Jesus is alive. And I don’t mean in some vague general sense that He has risen from the dead and is now somewhere up in heaven. He is the risen, ascended Son of God who is your Lord and your Saviour and who wants to have a personal relationship with you. Because at the end of the day Jesus loves you. Not just the person sitting next to you, or the person who happens to be standing up at the front of church, but you. And that is why Jesus wants to speak to you. He has a vast, generous and gracious love that means He wants the very best for your life. So unless you grasp how deeply you are loved, then very little of what I’m going to say this morning will make much sense.
And flowing on from this, truth number two – if you believe in Jesus, you have the Holy Spirit. At which point, whenever I say this, I often find even some experienced and long-standing Christians flinch and take a backward step. But it’s true. 1 John 4:13, We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. When we respond to Jesus’ love and put our faith in Him, then He comes into our hearts and fills us with His peace and His presence. So working out what Jesus might or might not be saying does not depend on trying our hardest to figure it all out, or how clever we happen to be. It depends on recognising that Jesus is living with us by His Spirit and listening to His still small voice deep within us.
And truth number three which again builds on what I’ve just said – you too can pray. I know why people come up to me and say, “Can you say a prayer for me?”. It’s something I’m only too happy to do, and it’s one of the great privileges of my job that people share their deepest joys and sorrows. But I wonder sometimes if people also realise that they too can pray about the things that trouble them. There is, you see, in God’s eyes no difference between the prayers of a man in a dog collar, for example, and the prayers of anyone else. Some people may be better at expressing what they feel, some may be more confident about praying out loud, but God is not so much interested in what comes out of the mouth, as what is going on in the heart. And if your heart is set on seeking God, then you can be sure He will hear and respond to your prayers.
Jesus is alive. He has given us of His Holy Spirit. And through faith and trust in Him all of us have this wonderful and amazing privilege of being able to pray in His name. So before I go any further – can I ask if you know this to be true? Not just know, as in being able to say these are facts you happen to agree with. But know as living realities that mould, shape and inform your lives. Can you really say you know the love of Jesus in a direct, practical and personal way? Or has your relationship with Him grow tired and dull and stale? Because if it has, you need to ask Jesus to reignite that spark deep within you if you are going to listen to Him and live for Him. After all, there’s nothing worse than trying to keep on with the Christian faith when the love and joy seems to have disappeared. It’s like drinking nothing except flat lemonade – OK for a while, but you know it’s not quite the real thing.
Then a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” And of course the reason we have the story written down is not simply to tell us something interesting happened to three of Jesus’ disciples on a high mountain 2000 years ago. It is to present us with the same challenge that we too listen to God’s beloved Son, Jesus Christ. And for those of us who are Greek geeks, it is interesting to note that the command to listen is not simply an order to listen once, or for a brief period of time. It is a command to keep on listening, to keep on hearing His voice, to keep on letting Him speak into our lives. How well are we fulfilling that command?
Now I mentioned a moment ago that all of us can pray. But I realise that the topic of prayer itself raises many questions. It’s rather like turning on this radio here. Sometimes the sound is clear and we know what we’re listening to. Sometimes the sound is clear but we have no idea what station we’re tuned into. And other times all we seem to get is a hum and a buzz, and we can’t seem to pick up anything at all. So how then do we clearly pick up what Jesus might be saying to us? Well, I can’t give you a foolproof answer but I hope the following points might help.
First of all, it is important we pray with other people. What did Jesus say? Where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them. Let’s not forget, the Holy Spirit isn’t only the gift of Jesus to individuals, it is also His gift to the church. It is as we meet with each other, as we share our needs and our concerns, as we worship together, that so often we find the Lord leading the hearts and thoughts of several people in the same direction, or what one person says suddenly gives an insight to somebody else. That’s why at the moment I am trying to create as many opportunities for people in the church to pray together – through daily prayer, through GIFT groups, through monthly prayer breakfasts, as well as, of course, the Sunday worship. And it goes without saying, you don’t have to wait for me to begin praying with others. You can easily start your own prayer triplet, or arrange to meet a trusted Christian friend regularly. The how is in the end less important than the why – that by listening to and with others we so often end up listening to Jesus. We are together the body of Christ and there should be no-one here today who feels they have to struggle on their own in their faith.
Secondly, we need to read our Bibles. I don’t mean by that we only open our Bibles when we need guidance or when we have some kind of emergency. You probably all know the story of the man who wanted to know what God was asking Him to do, so he opened his Bible at random and hit upon the verse about Judas hanging himself. Deciding that wasn’t quite right, he opened it at another place, only for the next verse to read, “Go and thou likewise”! Brothers and sisters, that isn’t reading the Bible. Reading the Bible is about going through Scripture book by book, chapter by chapter on a daily basis, preferably with the aid of Bible reading notes, so we have a regular pattern of spending time with God. Then when the tough times come, or we have a difficult decision to make, we may find ourselves reminded of a particular verse or story in the Bible that will help us choose the right path. And that shouldn’t surprise us. Because the same Holy Spirit that Jesus gives us to live in our hearts also caused the Bible to be written down. And He’s there to help us understand what He has already led others to put down on paper. No wonder the apostle James is so hot on listening to the word. The idea that some have nowadays you can be an active Christian and not read your Bible is one that would horrified the first century church.
Thirdly we need to act. I can’t remember the story exactly but there’s a silly poem somewhere about a centipede who was asked which leg came after which, with the result that he gets so confused he simply lies down in a ditch. You can get so hung up trying to work out what God’s will for your life is that you never actually get round to doing anything. Sometimes the only way we work out whether something is God’s will is to step out in faith. James’ advice on this point is perfectly clear, Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. And if we are relying on the Holy Spirit to help us put what we read in our Bibles into practice, we will soon find out whether we are actually doing what Jesus wants us to do, or whether we are simply following our own whims. We will either find that doors open, and that the Lord provides, or else the openings slam shut, and we are going nowhere.
And this leads on to another extremely important point, that if we are really going to listen to Jesus’ voice, we need to be willing to yield. If we’re honest, the difficulty on occasions isn’t that He is silent or has nothing to say to us. The difficulty is we don’t like what He’s saying and we’d much rather do what we want to do. For example, the Bible tells us to give a regular proportion of our money to the Lord’s work, a tithe, or a tenth of what we receive. Now we can come up with all kinds of reasons why this couldn’t be God’s will for our lives, and we can raise all kinds of practical objections. But then we have to come back again to whether Jesus really is Lord over our lives or not, and why He has given us this command in the first place. Is it to make us poor or force us to struggle on what we little we have? No, it’s because He loves us deeply and He wants us to see how generous and good He is to those who learn to rely on Him. But somehow when it comes to the hard-edged, practical issues such as money or relationships or anything else we seem to doubt His love and are so slow to do what He wants of our lives. It’s little wonder, then, that we struggle to hear His voice.
Not I’m saying that this listening process is always easy. And that’s why, next, experience so important, being able to look back on our lives and learn where and how the Lord has guided us. Or, indeed, if we are new to the Christian faith, learning from those wiser and older than ourselves to see how Jesus has kept and guided them over the years. Because that’s what being a disciple is all about. It literally means being a learner, and there is a sense in which as Christians we never take our L-plates off, at least not in this life. We look back, we learn and as we do so we understand more about the Lord’s will for our life.
For in the end listening to Jesus all flows out of that relationship I talked about at the beginning. Being a Christian, despite what so many people think, is not about being religious. Nor is it a matter of mentally signing on the dotted line to certain beliefs. It’s about responding to the most generous, most gracious offer of love you could ever hope to receive and accepting the free and undeserved gift of eternal life that Jesus offers you. But for our life with Jesus to grow and deepen, we need to spend time with Him, regularly, persistently, just as we would with any other relationship. We need to learn what pleases Him, and just as importantly, what doesn’t please Him. We need sometimes to give Him the best of our time, and not just the first few brief minutes at the start of the day, or the last few minutes before we drift off to sleep. Because Jesus has so much to teach us about the Father’s love for us, and He longs for us to grow from mere infants in the faith, into mature, stable Christians who seek to do His will and want to hear Him speak. So can I ask – what priority does time with Jesus have in your life?
In the 1650s a vicar in the Worcestershire town of Kidderminster called Richard Baxter devised a plan where he would visit every household in the parish regularly and question them about the state of their spiritual life. It might seem a slightly strange thing to do, but the impact on the faith of the people there was dramatic and long-lasting. Because, as I said in my introduction, a growing church is in the end one where people are learning to discern and respond to God’s voice. I’m not sure I can follow the Baxter model to the letter, although if anyone wants to come to me for a spiritual MOT I can always find the time. But can I urge you at the very least to think through the points I have raised this morning, and use the hand-out I have given you as some sort of spiritual check-up. For learning to hear God speak is at the very heart of our Christian faith and it is something we all need to do, if we are serious about serving Jesus as our Lord and Saviour.
This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him! Not just once, or for a brief season in our lives, but constantly, continually, all our lives through. The question is: do we have ears to hear and the will to obey?