1 Sam 3:1-18, 1 Cor 12:1-11, 1 Jn 4:1-6
We have reached the final instalment on our series of sermons on prayer.
We started, if you recall, over two months ago with Stephen Thornton talking about how prayer is bringing us closer to God. God is love and love is God, a love which is bigger and broader and wider and deeper than we can ever imagine. And when we pray, we don’t go to God with a list of instructions –
- “God, there’s a mess here. Go and sort it.
- What are you doing about Syria?
- What are you doing about this situation?
- God, go and help these people.”
But rather we allow God to come to us, to change us and to transform us and to make us better lovers of the world. We say to God, “how can I help?”
Then, six weeks ago, I had the privilege of leading a discussion on when to pray and how to go about it. We saw how Jesus would go away on his own up a mountainside to pray. We found how some people like to use objects such as candles to help them focus. We learned that we don’t need fancy words or eloquence to pray – we should just share with God what is on our heart, in the same way we might share with a friend. And in the quiet we should listen to God.
Michael then preached about how we could use the Psalms to help us pray. How the Psalms were real people, facing the same questions and situations that we face, and trying to respond through more poetic turns of phrase than people like me can manage, ‘an anatomy of all parts of the soul.’ if you like.
“Entering into the psalms is transformative”, he said. “It changes the way we understand some of the deepest elements of who we are, or rather, who, where, when, and what we are: They do this in order that we may be changed, transformed, so that we look at the world, one another, and ourselves in a radically different way, which we believe to be God’s way.”
The last week Maggie talked about creative prayer. Using the things around us to suggest and lead our prayers. She showed us various aids to our prayer, such as prayer books and objects close to her heart. But the thing that stuck in my mind was how she said we could take objects just lying around and use them to drive our prayers. She showed us a cuddly polar bear. We could use this to help us pray for species in danger, perhaps, and this might lead us to pray about global warming and the environment.
Looking back over the series, a common theme emerges in each and every sermon. And talking to people in the church one-to-one during this time, many many people have said the same thing to me. Prayer is about listening to God.
And so it is fitting that we end this sermon series thinking about listening to God.
If prayer is about our relationship with God, then listening is so important. After all, if we think about the relationship with have with our spouse, our partner, our friends, what sort of relationship is it when all we do was talk but never listen? What do we think about others around us who do that to us? Does it strengthen our relationship with them?
After all, it is said we have two ears and one mouth and we should use them in that proportion.
I guess, though, that one thing that none of us have discussed so far is about how to listen to God. How does He speak to us? What’s he going to say? How we can recognise it’s Him? And how should we respond?
Well let’s start with the first of those: how does God speak to us?
Well to start with, we all know that he speaks through the Bible. And I think there are two ways this happens:
Firstly, the writers of scripture were inspired by the Holy Spirit. In other words, the words they wrote share His message for the church and for the world.
But secondly, the Holy Spirit is with us when we read the Bible. He draws our attention to those parts of what is written which we need to hear.
I don’t think this phenomenon is restricted to reading the Bible, though. I am quite sure that when we come to church we each get something different and something personal from the services and indeed from the sermon. I bet if we did a straw poll amongst those of us here today, we would all think I said something different! Even me.
The other thing the Holy Spirit does when we read the Bible is give us new insight regarding its meaning. Suddenly our understanding of the words changes completely. This was something I very much experienced as I was preparing this sermon, which I will share with you later.
But God doesn’t just use the Bible to speak to us. He can guide our thoughts and even our dreams. We saw this with Samuel – he thought he heard Eli calling him, but actually it was God – not in a physical way but within his thoughtlife.
It is because God can guide us through our thoughts that we need to allow him space and quietness to speak. For if we are always rushing around, if we are always surrounding by noise, when can that “still small voice of calm” get through?
Finally, God can speak to us through others. I would hope that as I stand up here and speak to you, I am being used by God to speak to you. At least, if that’s not the case, then I am not succeeding as a preacher.
But you know, it’s not just the preacher that God uses to speak – he can and does use anyone and everyone. As we grow accustomed to hearing God’s voice, we hear Him more and more through the things people say – not just Christians, but those of other faiths and those of none.
I have long held the view that, as we are all made in the image of God, each and every person shows the fruits of the Spirit to some extent or other – for that is the nature of God in whose image we are all are made – and therefore each and every one of us has wisdom and insight to share.
So God can speak to us through the Bible, through others, or through our thoughts and dreams. But what does he say?
Our passage from 1 Corinthians 12 this morning can help us with that. I’ve picked out the items from the list that I think help us answer the question – the rest of the list is just as important but perhaps not so relevant to what we are discussing this morning.
To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.
So what’s this saying?
For me, I gained fresh understanding of this passage while preparing for this morning. I had always seen it as saying that people were individually gifted only in certain things. Yet what I saw when I re-read it was that God could give each of us any of the gifts from time to time as the situation required. In other words –God speaks to all of us and uses all of us in all of these ways dependent on the situation.
Firstly, God can give us wisdom in a certain situation. This may be a situation we are involved in, or perhaps a situation someone else is experiencing.
Next knowledge. God can give us a supernatural way to know something we wouldn’t otherwise have known.
I remember a situation where I was praying quietly at the end of a church service and someone came over to me and told me that when I think of the cross, I think of it with Jesus hanging on it. But that God wanted me to know that Christ was risen – the cross is empty.
Now that’s a particularly bold thing to just go up and say to somebody. The person who came over to me would not have known that that was how I saw the cross. They couldn’t have known – I had never told anybody. But it was true. And God had given this person knowledge supernaturally. If they had not listened and then acted, I would never have got this message.
Faith. How often do we lack faith? But God can give us faith. If we listen, he will build us up.
Prophecy. That’s God speaking through you to another person or people. In many ways, the person I spoke about just now not only was given knowledge, but they were also bearing prophecy – God wanted me to know the cross was empty. Samuel, in our first reading, had prophecy to give to Eli, even though it was uncomfortable to hear.
Discernment of Spirits. What do you think of when you hear this expression? For me, it conjures up images of tele-evangelists at the front of large American auditoria seeing evil spirits in people then casting them out. Not something I feel comfortable with, though I would not be prepared to stand here and say either that they are wrong – for how can I know? – or that this is not what this means– for I think there is probably a place for it.
However, I think that in normal situations, this means something completely different. I think it is about assessing whether something is of God or not. More on that later.
The last one on our list is also something I personally struggle with. But it’s there and so I need to speak about it: speaking in tongues and its interpretation.
I know many people who pray in tongues and who get great blessing from doing so. It’s not something I’ve ever done, but people tell me that they find it very good when they just don’t know what to pray, for God controls the words.
But there are occasions when I have heard tongues spoken in a church service – not as a prayer language but in prophecy – God using someone to share something. It can be quite amazing if you ever see it happening and somehow I find it less uncomfortable than people jabbering away in prayer. However, it’s not very useful, as you wouldn’t normally know what is being said. But the Bible says that if this happens, God will speak to somebody with an interpretation. So if ever you do hear someone speaking to a gathering in tongues, just ask God if there is an interpretation, allow him to guide your thoughts or your lips and speak it out.
So to sum up this section, when God speaks, he has something to say to us but sometimes he has something to say through us to someone else or to the church. It may give us wisdom, it may give us knowledge we wouldn’t otherwise have known, it may be to build our faith, or it may be to speak into some situation.
But it does beg the question: when I have a thought, or when God is using somebody else to speak to me, how do I know it’s Him? How do I know it’s not just my own imagination – that I am going to do my will rather than God’s? Temptation is easy to fall for.
Let’s face it, I am sure those terrorists in Paris last week believed that they were doing God’s will when they killed innocent people out for an evening’s entertainment. But I’m quite sure none of us would agree with them.
John tells us, in our reading, to test the spirits to see whether they are from God. And this is what we mean when we talk about discernment of spirits.
It is by doing this that we know whether we have heard God.
So how do we do it? Well here are some basic principles:
God will not say anything which is inconsistent with the Bible.
So should you go and kill people in a rock concert? No, because God says you shall not commit murder.
Secondly, we know the nature of God. God is love.
So do we see love in what we think we heard God say? If not, then it is not God.
Thirdly, and this is related to that last point, is God saying that we should serve other people or be served by them? Is he saying we should give or we should receive? Is he saying we should be the centre of attention or that we should build others up?
Well which of these is God? We are to serve, we are to give, we are to build others up. This is how God would have us be as Christians, and if we think God is telling us otherwise, we are not hearing Him.
And finally, we can test what we believe God says with other people. God can then use them to confirm or cast doubt on what we believe he has said.
A friend of mine had advanced multiple sclerosis. He was dependent on others to help him with many of the tasks of day-to-day living. He was going downhill mentally – it was well known that he would tell you the same anecdotes time and time again, forgetting that he had ever done so before. Yet he thought God was calling him to sell his house and use the money to go and serve as a missionary abroad. Now this seems to pass our first three tests. In fact, he even went so far as to put his house on the market. Fortunately, he was persuaded not to do so – it would have been very unwise, and he would have placed great burden on others. Sadly, he died a few months later.
So in closing, I would like to encourage all of us to look back over our prayer life. Find time to pray and read the Bible. Pray for others. Ask how God would use us to show his love.
And when God speaks to you, test it, and then obey!