Sermon: "God Speaks to You"

Fourth in the "Experiencing God" series.
Delivered March 19, 2006 by Rev. George Antonakos.
Other sermons in this series - 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 / 6 / 7 / 8

Theme: How can we know when God is speaking? How do we know which voice is ours and which voice is God's? What aids our ability to hear God's Spirit?

audio The audio file of this sermon is available for download and listening in MP3 format.
Sermon Text: Exodus 3:1-10 and Proverbs 3:5-6

Once again greetings in the name of the Lord. We are in the 4th of the 7 week series of experiencing God and one of the burning questions that participants in this series are asking these days is, what day are we on on this 40 day journey? And here is my answer, but its flexible. If Day 1 was when John preached the first sermon, which was February 26th, 3 weeks ago we would be on Day 21. That means there are six readings every week and so we should be finished 18 readings. However, if you started on Ash Wednesday as Day 1, you would have read 16 readings on this 4th Sunday in the series, but if you started reading like the Tuesday night men's Bible study, before John's first sermon, you would probably be on Day 22 and if you started the first day of your small group, then you might be anywhere from 12 to 18. But I say all that to say this that the answer to the question of what day are we on is that it depends, okay? But I want to share with you an even more important question to be asking ourselves as we go through this reality series. Is God speaking to you through these lessons and are we listening? That is the question that is much more important, because experiencing God means growing in a daily and an ability to hear clearly when God speaks to us through the Holy Spirit, whether that be by his word, by prayer, by circumstances or by godly people among other things.

Now Pastor John has spent the first three weeks of this series clearly illustrating how God spoke to Moses and the implications of that experience and joining in God in God's plan rather than asking God to join our plan. Now I will be referring back to the Moses encounter in a few ways, but I want to use another text to help us focus on the critical aspect of hearing and discerning God's voice in the midst of all the other voices in our world and in our mind. I got an honest and vulnerable email from a 20 something friend as we were preparing for this week and he was trying to figure out how to depict silence on the screen for the other two services. He then goes on and he starts a stream of consciousness here and he says most of the time I find that even when I try to be silent that is when the brain noise seems to intensify. He says I have a song that illustrates this contrast; "An unconscious rhythm I can't control, a million voices trying to be heard. I can't decipher a single word. My heart beats like a lonely voice. My head is full of noise." He says it maybe getting to a place where silence is dealt with by addressing the noise that is present, turning off different things in our lives so that there is room for silence. He says that it is also scary. I found myself in this uncomfortable place one night. I didn't have my laptop. I don't have cable and I found myself extremely agitated with the thought of having nothing to do. Our young adult leader on the retreat described this as "hurry sickness"; always having the feeling that we have to be doing something. He talks about how it disturbs him that its called a "still small voice of God", because that seems impossible to hear with all the junk noise that is constantly moving in my head. Sometimes I try to hear and sometimes I don't. I usually give up too quickly. Now that is an honest assessment of an honest fellow and I think that he is not alone. I think there is a part of us that can related to that at some level.

And so the question how can we know when God is speaking, how do we know which voice is ours and which voice is God's? What aids our ability to hear the Lord's Holy Spirit? Well, lets go to 1st Samuel, Chapter 3 and try to get an answer on some of this anyway. Before we do, let's ask the Lord by his Holy Spirit to open our minds and our ears.

Gracious Lord, we do thank you for your promise that you would lead us into all truth, that the Holy Spirit would bring to our remembrance and our mind that which is of you and we pray that you would indeed open our ears because it is very, very hard sometimes to hear you Lord and at other times we honestly don't want to hear you, and so use this text and use everything in this service to help us to hear a little better so that we might know how much you love us and care for us and call us in Jesus name. Amen.

1st Samuel 3, Verses 1-10:

"The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions. One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called Samuel. Samuel answered, "Here I am." And he ran to Eli and said, "Here I am; you called me." But Eli said, "I did not call; go back and lie down." So he went and lay down. Again the Lord called, "Samuel!" And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, "Here I am; you called me." "My son," Eli said, "I did not call; go back and lie down." Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel a third time, and Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, "Here I am; you called me." Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, "Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, 'Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.' " So Samuel went and lay down in his place. The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, "Samuel! Samuel!" Then Samuel said, "Speak, for your servant is listening."

There are a few verses that just jump right out at you in this text, at least they do to me and they all have to do with hearing God or not hearing God. In Verse 1 it says,

"In those days the word of the Lord was rare."

Verse 7 is another one of those standout verses,

"Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord because the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him."

And then Verse 10 the one that many of you know.

"Speak Lord, for your servant is listening."

Again, the main question is not, Is God speaking? God is speaking all the time. The question is, are we listening? The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day to day poor poor speech, night by night comes knowledge. That's speaking of natural revelation, but that's one way of God speaking trying to get our attention. But it says the word of the Lord was rare, why? Because no one was listening. You have to remember that this is after generations recorded through the judges, after Moses, where the key phrase is, everyone was doing what was right in their own eyes and if you read before Chapter 3 you will see a chilling account of people who were most supposed to be listening, who were most deaf. The priesthood, Eli and his sons. So the first point about being able to hear God speak is that we must be ready to hear. Why? Because spiritual knowledge begins outside of ourselves. Samuel did not yet know the Lord, why? Because the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.

Have you ever seen a student or had a student sitting in class whose bottom is on the front edge of the chair and he was kind of leaning back like this and whose language is saying, "try to teach me something. Go ahead, come on." Any maybe many people aren't sitting like that, but maybe that is the way they are inside and I really appreciate the fact that today none of you are sitting like that. It helps me. It's a picture of unreadiness. That's the opposite of the maxim: when the student is ready the teacher shows up.

In the case of Samuel and Moses, God the teacher started with an attention getter suited to each of their specific needs and circumstances. For Samuel it was an indistinguishable voice and for Moses it was a burning bush. In both cases there is a great deal of ignorance about who God is. In fact, you could argue in the Moses passage that Moses did not have a clue who God was; let alone Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob when God told him who he was. And certainly from the text here we see Samuel, I mean even though he is surrounded by religious stuff, still does not know personally who the Lord is. It's much like the saying that Jesus said about seeing some attention that was coming from some of his new disciples, he saw there was a certain level of attentiveness and then he said something, just three words, "Come and see". God looks for turnings. He looks for readiness. That is also why Jesus when he preached all the time usually said at the end of something, "Let those who have ears to hear, let them hear." How ready are you to hear what's being said? You know why crisis open our ears? Because crisis breaks down our defenses. Crisis creates readiness to hear in a new way and we will be talking about that in the weeks to come. But in Exodus 3:4 there is a fascinating verse that talks about this need to be ready to hear. It says that when the Lord saw that he had gone over to look at the burning bush, God called or God spoke. When he saw that Moses turned to look at this thing, God spoke to him. It wasn't until he gave attention to God's nudge that God spoke more clearly. So God always looks for those turnings and returnings; anything can be a signal.

Ash Wednesday I was getting ready to along with Pastor John to lead the Ash Wednesday service and I noticed this box in the wall. I ripped it off for this illustrious purpose here. I think these are in all the bathrooms in the church, our former custodian actually created these and there is a little box that says, tell us if everything is okay and you take the card out of this part and you write something on it like there are no more paper towels and you are supposed to put it up here, see? I don't know that anybody has done that in the course of the time they have been here, but it says something on the box and five minutes before the Ash Wednesday service I looked at the box and I don't know whether you can see it, but i says, return and there is a cross under it. Now I am going in to the Ash Wednesday service and tell everybody to return to the Lord and the Lord said to me, "You return". You turn. Now I am not saying that we should be looking for boxes on walls to figure out God's voice, but I am saying that there are attention-getters. There are prompters.

I remember when I was a sophomore before I became a Christian and I had been overdoing it on Saturday night and Sunday morning I would wake up with no sheets on the bed, just one of those thin, crummy little striped mattresses on a single bed and it's a beautiful April day and my roommate apparently had opened the window and I wake up and I am feeling absolutely horrible and the first thing I hear upon waking is a church bell ringing in the distance and then I would hear a few birds and then I hear, "What are you doing?" And I said, "Where did that come from? Did that come from me?" It was almost like, "Adam, where are you?" kind of thing. "What are you doing?" I didn't pay attention to that a whole lot. I just remember vaguely that that voice was there. There were books by Norman Vincent Peale and there were other things and then the encounter with the word of God happened when I pulled a paperback book out of a drawer while I was working and it was the New Testament. You have heard that story and I won't tell it again, but the point is that is when the encounter with God happened, when I heard his word, but God keeps speaking to us a certain readiness so that we will be prepared to hear his word. That is when we know we are standing on holy ground; when the word of God is coming from outside of us and we know that God is pursuing us and revealing and initiating. So I ask you, what are the times in your life that you have known what you know because God revealed it to you, not because you just figured it out, much like Jesus before Pilate. Pilate says, "Are you the king of the Jews?" Jesus says, "Did you come to this on your own or did someone tell you about me?" See how Jesus is looking for what's going on inside.

To Samuel the voice came three times and he didn't understand. Yet many people report in retrospect God trying to get their attention repeatedly before truly responding in faith. And isn't our whole spiritual growth measured by a sense of progressive attending. Every time God speaks we have the option of openness or closedness. It's at the point that we keep saying, "Yes, Lord," that we move forward. Whenever we say, no I don't think so or I am not sure I want to hear this, we regress and we go stale. Revelation and response; revelation and response, revelation and response; it is a continual thing, which is why Jesus said after teaching the parable of the sower--four different responses about hearing God's word. He says this in Luke 8: 18: "Therefore consider carefully how you listen. Whoever has (ears) will be given more; whoever does not have (ears), even what they think they have will be taken from him." And there is a beautiful poetic verse in the second half of 1st Samuel 3 when Samuel really started to get to know the Lord and it said that he did not let one of God's words fall to the ground. Just like the first kind of soil in the parable of the sower, how the seed falls to the ground and Satan snatches it away. Samuel did not let one word fall to the ground and kept it in the fertile soil of his heart. So the first point is that there needs to be a readiness to listen accompanied by an honest response to what God is speaking. When God is speaking to us many times the way to discern is very specific; it's pinpointed on a certain thing. It's not vague when God is calling and speaking to us about something and convicting. Blackaby keeps repeatedly telling us how God calls us to things beyond our natural abilities and so when God is speaking, I guess we should expect a certain level of struggle with it, because its beyond ourselves, but being ready to hear is the first thing that allows us to hear God's voice.

Secondly, the second truth about hearing God speak to us, besides being ready and open to hear, is that those who hear God best do so out of an intimate relationship with the Lord, not out of a formula, not out of a method, but out of an intimate relationship. Again, Verse 7 in the text says it very, very clearly. Samuel did not yet know the Lord. That speaks of an intimacy, of a knowledge of God. He didn't have that personal relationship. You know, we can understand this from our own experience, especially young single people can understand it. Let's say you see someone that you would like to get to know, but you don't have the courage to go up there and speak to them and so you ask somebody else, "Do you know that person? Do you know her? Do you know him?" The answer can vary. "Oh yeah they are a great, great friend of mine." "Oh good, then would you talk to them for me?" Or, "I don't know them very well they just sit next to me in history class." When we want to feel good about ourselves many times we will tell other people who we know, right? Oh I know this person and I know that person, but if we ever picked up a phone and called them there might be on the other end of the line, "Who is this again?" And yet we kind of let people applaud for us because we say we know somebody. So if we understand this so well, why should we have trouble understanding the phrase, knowing the Lord? Do you know the Lord? Do you recognize him and does he recognize you and your voice? Do you spend time in intimate conversations with the Lord?

I remember when Ellen and I courted; we could not spend enough time together and when the phone rang and I picked up the other end I knew immediately the sound of her voice. It's like two parishioners talking after church and one parishioner says to the other, I wish the pastor would quit calling for deeper commitment about knowing the Lord. And the other one said, "Well, wait a minute, look at what we just sang, more about Jesus I would know." And he went on to say, "I don't want to pull out my drivers license when I go to heaven to prove who I am. I want him to know me by the sound of my voice." A knowledge. Again, thinking of that illustrations of kids when somebody finally does recognize that you are present and alive, you know that first romance, they know I am alive! They know I exist! Do you know that God is alive? Do you know that he exists? That he is there for you in an intimate relationship and the thing that breaks down the speaking and hearing is because somewhere along the line we have said no or we said, I don't really want to hear that. But in an intimate relationship, we will be open to hearing more and more.

When God called Moses he said, "Moses!" and when God called to Samuel he said, "Samuel!" and the third time he said, "Samuel, Samuel." What is this trying to tell us about God? That God is good at remembering names? Yes and no, that we have a God that desires to be known on a first name basis and when God came to Moses he revealed who he was. I am who I am. I will be what I will be, in a self-disclosing, intimate dialogue kind of way and he wants to do that with all of us. In fact, when Moses and somewhat with Samuel, both of them in both accounts, God tells them what he is about to do. Jesus says, "I don't call you slaves anymore. I call you friends, because a servant doesn't know what his Lord is about to do." Samuel, this is what I am about to do. Moses, this is what I am going to do and it reflects Psalm 25:14,

"The Lord confides in those who fear him. The secret of the Lord is for those who fear him."

On Tuesday night Mary Magan recalled what Interim Pastor Houck said back in the late 80s. It was one of those lines that stuck in her head and since she mentioned it, it stuck in my head too. "God does not have favorites. God has intimates." Intimacy or closeness is developed and maintained by the depth of sharing over time and long time happily married couples have a developed capacity to know what the other is thinking and after a while its not even about talking. It's about just knowing and feeling and sensing, even though communication is very important. Well Samuel went from not knowing to knowing and the question becomes, does that happen today? All of the time. And rather than illustrate that personally or from a third person story, I want to introduce you to a new friend. I want to ask Anna Sykes if she will come and join me up here. I met Anna a few months ago when working with some of the college age students and she told me a beautiful story about her own faith development and listening to God and I wanted you to hear it as well. So Anna, come on over here and take over.

Thank you George. Many of you recognize me. For those of you who don't my name is Anna and I am a freshman at Towson University. Each of us have our own stories about how God speaks to us and this is mine. I grew up in catholic school and I went to the daily religion class and went through many of the sacraments, but I never looked closely into what it meant to be a Christian. I didn't look at what it meant to know God. My parents were not particularly spiritual and we said our memorized prayers before meals and everything, but we never really went to mass or spoke about Christianity. Throughout high school I became more cynical and stubborn towards religion and I became what I want to call an apathetic atheist. I didn't believe in God. I didn't care to and I didn't want to and I thought I didn't need it. I lived peacefully enough. I played sports, had friends, but people knew me as shy and quiet and simply smart. That only proved how much I neglected to reach out to others.

Through high school I was looking at one day in senior year; this was in the fall of 2004, I was looking at some photos of my parents in high school and I realized that there were many that I hadn't seen and then I was looking at some of my dad's old photos and I saw one of my cousins at a wedding and I realized that I didn't know these boys and I would like to. The same day, my cousin Drew who was then a junior at University of California Irvine, was looking at the same picture and saw my sisters and I and realized that he didn't know us and he wanted to. It was arranged that Drew would come and visit us over Christmas. Now I was excited that he was coming, but I knew he was religious and that made me wary. I didn't want to become a missions project. What I was unprepared for was this loving person who showed up at my front door. He changed everything. He taught me so much. I learned from him how to love and he gradually started to open up my heart. He was open to everything. He was loving. He was comfortable in any situation that he was placed in. And I fell in love with that lifestyle. I saw that that was something that I would like to do.

Through that week my cousin became my brother. We were best friends. He left and through spring we kept in pretty close contact and I arranged to go visit him for a week over Easter and when I got there the same thing happened all over again. I met his family. I met his brothers and I fell in love with them. I fell in love with their lifestyle. I spent time with them and my heart opened up more and more towards them. They took me to church on Easter Sunday and I was a little nervous because I thought I wasn't religious enough. I thought I would not fit in. I walked in through the doors and the pastor came up and gave me a hug. I had never seen him before in my life. I didn't expect that, but I felt a little more at ease and I enjoyed the service and as I left I thought, you know that wasn't all that bad. Now, it came time for me to leave California and I was extremely sad to go. I was incredibly upset because I had had such a wonderful time. I really enjoyed being with my cousin.

Sitting in the terminal I opened up a letter that he had given me to read before I left and I started to cry. I cried and sobbed because in this letter Drew wrote to me that he loved me; that he would always love me. He would love to be there for me through everything and that he wanted the best for my life. He meant it and I knew it and I was so overcome with emotion that I didn't know what to do. I was sitting there in the middle of the California airport crying, hardly able to breath and I decided to calm down and I put a CD in my CD player and the CD that God placed in my CD player as I walked on to the plane was one that my aunt had given me before I had left; a Christian band had written a bunch of worship songs and as I sat on the plane God slowly eased my grief and let me listen to that CD. I listened and began to hear those words and on that plane an hour I met Jesus and I learned that he loved me. I knew that he was what placed the joy behind my cousin's life, behind my cousin's love and that he wanted to do the same for me. He wanted to live with me and I realized that I wanted that. I wanted to live with him. I listened to those songs and I started singing them. I walked on to the place in utter grief and pain and sorrow and I walked off singing those songs, smiling like someone had handed me the world and I didn't know what to do with it, but I was filled with joy and peace.

It took me about two weeks when I came back to Baltimore to ask a friend if I could come to Central with her and she said sure. I thought it would be a little harder; that there would be more to it than that, but I walked in and I began to meet person after person and I was amazed that everyone was so open and accepting arms open wide to someone new. I began to learn more and more how to act on the decision that I had made on that plane ride. I realized that I could read the Bible and I could learn so much more each day. I went to small group meetings and I began to open up so much more to love, to learn to love.

My life has changed dramatically. I am a completely different person. I don't remember exactly what I was thinking through high school. I don't remember the exact feelings that I had, but I know now that each day is clear and perfect and I know that each day God is working through me and he speaks to me each day and calls me and all I have to do is listen. All I have to do is to decide that remember the decision I made and to act upon it. And right now I would like to take the time to thank people like my cousin who make others missions projects. I would like to thank people here at Central who are so open to me, but most of all I would like to thank Jesus for opening my heart, for calling and never giving up when I wouldn't listen. I would like to thank him for showing me how to love and for showing me that I can accept his love and change. And I know that I he does that each day in each of your lives and in mine and all we need to do is open up our ears a little and just listen. Thanks.

Thank you, Anna, that's a beautiful story and it makes me think about, why is it that some have a hard time listening or some fear surrendering their lives to God? I think one reason that we do is because we are afraid that if we surrender our lives to God that some how God will consume us and erase our life kind of thing and make us do all kinds of things that we don't want to do. But I want to remind you about something, about the burning bush and when you walk out of this sanctuary today and you look at that modern replica of the burning bush hanging from the balcony to maybe me think about it, that the burning bush is a symbol, because the Bible says that it was burning, but not consumed. In other words, it's a symbol that God will take the common ordinary, even ineffectiveness of our lives and not consume us, but transform us. What consumes people is not God. It's slavery in Egypt. It's making bricks in hard labor in some modern way. People are caught up in a rat-race of living. It's not the whip of an Egyptian taskmaster, but the whip of greed or covetousness or preoccupation with things that enslave. The call to Moses and the call to Samuel is a call to each one of us to partner with God, to deliver others from the things that bind them, from the things that enslave them. The call to Samuel is the call to speak a word of hope to a generation gone deaf, so that they too might come out of isolated living into community.

Hebrews, Chapter 1, Verse 1 says this: "In various ways God spoke to our forefathers in times past, but now he has spoken to us through his Son" and the word of the Lord today speaking through his Son is again something maybe like this box you know, turn or return to me; align yourself with what I have been trying to tell you and when we do that we are aligned in helping other people come out of slavery in to freedom as well. We do that best when we open our minds and ears, when we are intimate with the Lord Jesus Christ and more honestly and hopefully then say, speak Lord for your servant is listening.

Let's pray: Lord, we give you thanks that you speak to us and love us and care for us. Thank you for Anna's story that reminds us that you pursue us and you are trying to get through to us and for the ways that you bring other people to help us discern and hear your voice. Lord, I pray for anyone today who does not feel like they know you intimately, that they would know that to open their hearts, to accept your life and your death and your resurrection by faith will exchange their life of death into hope. Lord, we pray and ask that you would turn all of us in some new way so that we might hear you speaking and know that when we hear and respond our life is transformed and not consumed. We pray this in Christ's name. Amen.

© 2006, Rev. George Antonakos
Central Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD 21204 410/823-6145