31. Openness to ‘Hear’

Lessons in Growth Meditations: 31. Openness to ‘Hear’

1 Sam 3:10  Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

I ventured yesterday into an area that many might consider very subjective, the reality of ‘hearing’ the voice of God, an area that I think is vital in respect of Christian growth, and as a part of the experience of being seated with Christ in the heavenly realms, as he brings in the kingdom of God on earth.

Watch & Listen for God: I believe the Lord has a sense of humour (after all, where do we get a sense of humour from, except made in the image of God!) and it is particularly obvious in the way He deals with us sometimes. Our starter verse above comes from that delightful story about young Samuel. I don’t know if you have ever thought about this, but it would have been so much easier for the Lord to have simply sent an angel to Samuel and explained to him about listening to God, but instead we have this little learning exercise which, I suggest, was given largely for our benefit!

My American friend: I have watched this with a particular friend of mine, someone I respect and esteem very highly and have had the privilege of knowing for nearly 20 years, an American pastor, now retired. I will spare his blushes by not using his name. My friend is very knowledgeable, a great teacher and about as cerebral as you can get, except from the earliest moments of our friendship he exhibited a hidden (and he would deny it) desire to know more of the things of the Spirit. Everything from my life (well some of it) he would have said was subjective and so our ‘discussions’ have always been about which of us is the most ‘Bible based’ (fun times with much laughter). A number of years ago I received a phone call from him from across the Pond in which he said he wanted my opinion on something and went on to share that he felt the Lord had been speaking to him about a potentially life-threatening semi-evangelistic project abroad which, at first hearing, sounded absolutely crazy.

Certainty: Now bear in mind my friend does not do ‘emotional’. He is a hardened ex-Vietnam vet. After I questioned him on the details and the ‘why’, I pushed him, almost to get him to back away from it, with, “Come on, the crucial thing, what is it that makes you so sure this is the Lord?” He almost whispered back, “Because it won’t go away,” and I realized he was in tears. To cut a long story short, he did this crazy thing and the Lord blessed him abundantly. The same thing happened a few years later, almost identically. He is a man who was called to two absolutely crazy, potentially life-threatening projects, both of which meant we might never see him again. I was there on the first one, when he left, and we were all saying a final farewell and believed it was probable we would never see him again or it we did it might be at least ten years later. It was terrible!

Now I share this precious story which has had some amazing outworkings because my absolutely Bible-based, evangelical friend who is all brain, ‘heard’ God and it defied all of what he knew, but he could not escape it. It doesn’t happen to many of us like that – but God DOES speak to His people TODAY in ways that we struggle with.

The ‘Wise Men’? Every Christmas I struggle with the fact of the ‘wise men’ these men from the east, who came at the leading of a star and goodness knows what else (they might have been astrologers!) but in the midst of it was God leading them to glorify His Son and become the ‘bankers’ for his early life (serious gifts of great value to be sold).

A story of my own: I could tell you of some extensive ‘training’ the Lord has put me through in respect of ‘listening’ to Him but it would take too long. I will tell you of one very simple experience we had that challenges our cerebral approach. I had only known the Lord a short time and the Lord had given me a beautiful Christian fiancé whose spiritual pedigree was much greater than mine. She suggested we volunteer in the summer to work on a mission or camp with a well-known Christian organisation in the UK. To cut a long story short we volunteered, and they sent us to be part of a team on a ‘beach mission’ to children and young people for two weeks on the coast in the west of the UK.  Somehow or other they asked me to lead the teenagers’ team. All went well and it was fun. The next year we were getting married and were not available. The following year we received a letter early in the year saying the present leader of the mission was retiring from it and would I take over. We prayed, and I eventually said yes.

An ‘Impossible’ Problem: We would probably have a team of between fifteen and eighteen, probably late teens, early twenties, but the only problem was that the accommodation the teams had used previously was now not available. We visited the place at Easter and checked everywhere, but there was no accommodation to be found for these two peak weeks of the summer holidays. We came home and prayed. Now this is no exaggeration, but this is how it happened. I worked in the city of London and was one morning walking from the station to my office when suddenly ‘that voice’ came into my head. “In my father’s house are many mansions. I have prepared a place for you.” Put aside the AV version, that’s all I knew then. I was a sufficiently young, naïve and brash young Christian that I dared to challenge the Lord and immediately ‘thought back’, “Excuse me Lord, but your word says, ‘I go to prepare a place for you.’” (Jn 14:2) Back came, “I have said what I have said.” I went home later and shared it with my wife who, bless her, trusted my ‘hearing’. We decided we would go.

We’re doing it! We checked with the local tourist information people at the mission town and they confirmed the place was sold out for those two weeks. We wrote to each of the team volunteers and we told them the situation and said, “We are going down the day before the start of the Mission and as far as we are concerned God will provide and the Mission will go ahead, but we realize that not all of you might feel comfortable with this so we would like you to share this with your parents and if you feel unable to come, we understand completely. (They all came!)

Provision! My wife and I packed all our stuff into our car and arrived after a long journey, camped in a small tent and first thing on the Saturday morning we started praying and looking. At one small caravan campsite the owner said, “Well we don’t have any caravans, but we have two old bungalows we are renovating, which are virtually finished, you could have them. They are for letting later in the season.” They became our home for the two weeks for the following years while we continued to do it every summer. Oh, yes, we had found a caravan booking on another site that had been cancelled that week and so when the team arrived at midday we had exactly the right amount of accommodation for them all and had a great two-week mission, the first of a number to follow that we led.

And so? Now I have taken time to use testimonies rather than the usual exposition, because at the end of all this, you will believe and hear God and go on to do exploits (which I’ll talk about tomorrow) or you will deny what you hear and miss some wonderful opportunities to be blessed by God and be a blessing to others. Stay with me if you can.

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3.4b … and listen and watch!

Short Meditations in Psalms: 3.4b  …and listen and watch!

Psa 3:4  To the LORD I cry aloud, and he answers me from his holy hill.  

The second part of this verse is, I suggest, one of those verses of Scripture that we all read and pass over quickly without much thought, taking for granted what it says.

For the last year I have been teaching a small prayer group to listen to the Lord. I have formed a dictum that I have repeated to them again and again: “Focus on God; unfocus on answers.” Now the reason I have said that is that many years of sitting in prayer meetings convinces me that most of the time we want to tell the Lord the answers we want Him to give us: please heal me, please save Aunty Jean, please change these circumstances at work, please deal with our unpleasant neighbours, and so on.

When we do this two things follow: we do not make the Lord our first priority in life and we cease to be open to the variety of answers He might want to give. Going with this so often is unbelief that does not expect God to answer when we pray. Perhaps His difficulty in answering is that we keep on uttering more and more words and fail to stop and listen.

David cried out to the Lord and (the bit we take for granted) the Lord answered him. Now the things that follow in the psalm may be the way the Lord answered him, but how in general does the Lord ‘answer’ us when we cry out to Him?

Well we hinted at the first answer in the previous meditation, the peace of His presence comes over us. Sometimes this is accompanied with a sure sense that He knows, He understands and He has it all in hand.

Second, He may speak to us. How many of us dare take that step of faith and say, “The Lord said to me…” It is unbelief that says God cannot speak to you. The whole Bible testifies to the truth that God is a communicating God. If He communicated with hundreds of people in the Bible why shouldn’t He communicate with you? After all, you are His child aren’t you? Don’t parents speak with their children? How will He speak? A quiet whisper in your spirit that comes through your mind, words that make sense, perhaps a sentence or more, sometimes just a sense, sometimes words that stand out when you read the Bible or are praying. Listen for them.

Third, He may act and bring change. People may change, circumstances may change, and you may change. David wanted a change of circumstances but there was also a change in him as we shall shortly see.

45. Words

Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 45 :  Wisdom with Words

Eccles 5:2,3 Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few. As a dream comes when there are many cares, so the speech of a fool when there are many words.

If anyone has the temerity to say the Bible isn’t practical, they have obviously never read large parts of it. Solomon has just counselled listening in the presence of God and now, before he actually comes to the subject of vows that he has in his mind, he gives a general warning about the way we speak in God’s presence. It is very much a continuation from verse 1 where he counselled listening. If you listen you don’t speak!

Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. An aspect or expression of sin, I believe, is stupidity, and a part of stupidity is thoughtlessness and therefore sometimes our rash statements before God as simply thoughtless and comes from remnants of the stupidity of sin left over in our lives from the past.  Probably the greatest example of a big mouth in the Bible is the apostle Peter. For example, remember the time when Jesus is explaining he will have to die, Peter launches out, “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” (Mt 16:22) Or there was the time at the Last Supper when Jesus wanted to wash the feet of the disciples: “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” (Jn 13:8) You don’t say no to Jesus! He has a reason.

How easy it is to make surface or shallow commitments. It is one of the reasons that I am wary about commitment times at the end of a sermon. It is important to bring people to a place of decision but I wonder how often those decisions are shallow and the seed has fallen on ground that will not be long-term fruitful (See Mt 13:18 onwards).

Now having said this and having used Peter as an example, there is one instance where Peter’s rashness led him out into an experience no other human has ever had. It was in the midst of the wind on the lake and Jesus walked to them across the water and spoke to them. Observe Peter: “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” (Mt 14:28) Do you ever have those times when God turns up and you find yourself saying crazy things? Sometimes it enables us to step out in faith like Peter did but sometimes it is something we later rue and don’t follow through on. Solomon’s warnings hold true.

Solomon obviously had this sort of thing in mind when he was writing his proverbs: “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.” (Prov 10:19). The more we speak the more likely we are to get it wrong!  But Solomon now gives another reason: “God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.” What does he mean? God is not human like us; His home is in heaven because He is the Lord and from there (implied) He sees all things and therefore He knows all things. So, you’d better be careful what you say because God sees and knows and knows the truth. To be on the safe side you’d do better to keep your words few (just like he says in Proverbs).

To conclude these particular thoughts, Solomon uses a comparison: As a dream comes when there are many cares, so the speech of a fool when there are many words.” First the comparison: dreams. Dreams, he says, naturally flow when we are worried. Similarly words naturally flow from a fool. Remember in this sort of writing, a fool is someone who is morally limited, and who lacks wisdom. Sit on a bus and listen to chattering conversations, go on Facebook and note the shallow chattering there, and go on chat rooms and see the multitude of words poured out there. I have given up writing in such places because I am aware that it is so easy to just pour out shallow words that really don’t touch the truth which is often far more complex than chat rooms allow. I used to write a weekly blog commenting upon the affairs of the world. I gave it up for two reasons. First, because it is so depressing commenting on the many negative things in the world and, second, because I came to realise that to make any meaningful comment that really touched on the truth meant that you had to cover so many points that you couldn’t do that with a limited length blog.

So Solomon’s warning comes to us: check out your speech – especially before God. Be careful not to just pour out meaningless words, words which we sometimes utter because we feel we will achieve something by them. Yet the truth is that they need to come out of the heart and need to be truthful, for that is what the Lord looks for.

44. Right Worship

Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 44 :  Right Worship

Eccles 5:1 Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong.

Before we think much about this verse we first need to confront a major change between the times of the Old and New Covenants. In Solomon’s day he had the Temple to go to for meeting with God. He had just built it, and it became the central focus for worship in the land. The Temple was ‘the house of God’. But now of course that Temple and subsequent temples have been destroyed and there is no temple in Jerusalem. More than that, the teaching of the New Testament is that WE are the temple of the Lord (see 1 Cor 3:16, 6:19, 2 Cor 6:16, Eph 2:21) so contrary to much popular thought our church buildings are NOT the house of God – we are.

Solomon’s warning was to be careful when you went into the Temple. Unlike, say a modern cathedral the temple wasn’t a place for beautiful singing and inspiring liturgy, it was a place for offering incense and sacrifices and both were forms of worship, although the latter also involved a coming to put things right between God and man. Far more than modern religious buildings, the Temple was primarily a place where lives were put right with God through sacrifices and by affirming love for God by burning incense.

Now in the light of the description that I have just given Solomon’s exhortation to go in to listen, seems rather strange. In what follows Solomon is going to consider speaking before God and particularly uttering vows before God (which would have been accompanied by a sacrifice). We’ll consider this more in the meditations to come, but the problem with vows is that they are so often given in order to try to persuade God to perform in some way. An example of this is the silly vow that Jephthah made in Judges: And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD: If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.” (Judg 11:30,31) This ended with him foolishly sacrificing his daughter which was not what God wanted. Jephthah was so unsure of God’s love and God’s good intentions for Israel, that he felt he had to ‘bribe’ God with his blatant, over-zealous commitment.

But this is the thing, we don’t need to bribe God, we don’t need to ‘get Him on our side’; He already is!   When we find individuals praying in the Bible so often they rehearse the truth before they ask for whatever it is.  A good example of this is the apostles praying in Acts 4:24-31 where they declare what God has said, then what has happened and put it in the context of the divine will and then, and only then, asked for God to move. In those cases they are declaring the truth as an act of faith. That is a very different thing from trying to get God on your side.

No, says Solomon, rather than going in to the Temple and uttering meaningless words and offering meaningless sacrifices, you would do far better to go in and simply listen.  Listen? Yes. Have you ever been into a church building or cathedral in the absence of people and just listened in the silence? As you look in awe you sense something of the greatness of God. As the Israelite would have gone into the great Temple they would have seen the altars for offering incense and sacrifices and seen the great curtain at the end behind which was the Holy of Holies, or Most Holy Place, where God was said to reside. There in the near presence of the Almighty, if the individual would just stand still and listen in silence, they would know the truth. They were sinners in the presence of a Holy God and they had to make sure they put their lives right with Him.

I wonder sometimes how much modern Sunday Services come under the same corrective words of Solomon. In so many ‘churches’ we know exactly what is going to happen, in general terms at least. We know there is going to be singing and there will be prayers uttered and the Bible read and expounded. It is all very predictable and unfortunately predictability so often linked with familiarity which, the saying goes, breeds contempt. Solomon’s ‘sacrifice of fools’ simply means doing something because it is expected, not because you are inspired to do it or need to do it. How many of our actions on a Sunday morning are born out of loving desire for God? How many are born out of a need to put things right with God? How many are born out of an awesome sense of reverence? Even in so-called ‘free churches’ the predictability is just the same.

Put aside Sunday mornings which aren’t very good at doing this anyway, how often do we sit still and listen to the Lord? Oh, we say, I pray and read my Bible. Yes, but how often do we sit still and just let Him speak to us?  Living in this noisy and hectic world today, it is not easy to sit quietly and let God speak to us. If you are like me, our minds are full of things to do, places to go, people to see. There are worries and concerns and all these things are like a background noise that makes it difficult to listen to the Lord. Then when He does speak, we wonder was it Him or was I making it up. Time and experience are primary learning ingredients here. You’ve just got to do it and learn to discern His voice. Do we prefer to pour out shopping-list prayers or listen to God? I know which is easier, but it’s not the best.

31. Harms Way

ADVENT MEDITATIONS No.31

31. Out of Harm’s Way

Matt 2:14,15 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

The world in which we live today seems increasingly unstable. Three or four years ago, terrorist threat became a very real feature of modern life and that has continued. In the past years the forces of nature have also wreaked havoc in many parts of the world, and it seems that no area of safe from possible natural catastrophe. Fear has become a very real part of many people’s lives as society has changed out of all recognition from fifty years ago. Where is there some source of stability?

As we look into these verses today and yesterday, we find our answer. Hollywood has produced various films where rogue government groups hunt the hero. This could be one such story and the rogue authority is Herod. He is shortly going to have every child under the age of two killed in an attempt to purge the land of a potential competitor to his family dynasty. Very soon the land is going to be very unsafe for this little family; their lives are under a very real threat, even if they don’t realise it fully yet.

And that’s where God’s intervention comes in. God has bound Himself to permit us free will – and that includes allowing evil men to be evil, so the murder of the infants will happen. As terrible as that is, it cannot be avoided. This is what sinful men do! However, while the plans of Herod are being made, the Lord speaks to His servant, Joseph, in a dream, knowing that this is a man who has proved that he listens and obeys. Possibly God was speaking to all the other parents with young children, but few if any heard.

Where does Joseph and Mary’s security come from? It comes from hearing God’s words of guidance and protection and responding to them. Note the twofold aspect of that. God speaks AND they obey. God could have spoken and they refused to go. In such a case Jesus would have been killed! No, their security came from obeying what God said to them; it was that which put them out of harm’s way. Does God not move sovereignly to protect His children? Yes He does, but more often than not, it seems that He wants our co-operation. The story of Peter’s escape from prison, from the plans of a later Herod (see Acts 12), is a classic example of this. God’s angel told him what to do and opened up doors for him, but he still had to get up, get dressed and follow the angel, step by step, out of the prison. Do you see this? Our security is not some passive thing, whereby we just sit back and let God pander to us. He wants us to be an active part of His plans and so He involves us in our deliverance from harm.

Is this easy? Is this easy, this listening to God and responding to Him? In as much as it requires us to learn to listen to Him, and the old natural ‘us’ would prefer to reason out our own lives, no, it’s not easy, but this is how it works! It’s what we’ve been saying again and again: this Christmas story is not a comfortable soft and mushy children’s story; it is an account of how God actually moved in the affairs of men and women, and it challenges us who call ourselves His children, to walk in the same way as them – the way of faith. When we learn to do this, we can be at peace, in the strong assurance that God is for us, and He who knows all things will lead and guide us – as much as we will allow Him to lead and guide! Maybe you have a steep learning curve ahead it you – but it’s worth it! Go for it!