Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Listening for God

Listening For God
John 10:22-30[1]
  The church in our day is known for a lot of things.  Unfortunately, not many of them are positive.  At least not in our culture at large.  In our day, the church is known for things like covering up serious abuses by the clergy.  And at the same time, it is known for heaping loads of guilt on people who don’t seem to “fit in.”  The church in our day is known for manipulating well-meaning people into giving what amounts to huge sums of money.  Almost in the same breath we could say it is known for spending extravagant amounts of money on itself.  Or it is known for the extravagant amounts of money its “leaders” spend to create their own versions of the lifestyles of the rich and famous.  I’m not sure much of what the average person on the street thinks about church seems very  positive.
  In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus makes some interesting remarks about what characterizes those who at least claim to follow him.  He says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me” (Jn. 10:27).  Earlier in this chapter, he makes a similar statement: “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father” (Jn. 10:14-15).  Those who belong to Jesus know him in the same way that Jesus and the Father know each other.[2]  They hear his voice and follow him.  That seems to me to be a remarkable way to describe the church: the fellowship of those who know Jesus, who hear his voice, and follow him.
  Of course, that’s easier said than done.  Talk of hearing voices in a religious or spiritual context can make people think you’ve lost touch with reality.   And, of course, the claim that “God told me” has been used and abused in every conceivable way.  And yet, when it comes down to it, what Jesus says distinguishes those who believe from those who don’t believe is this: “I know my own and my own know me” and “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”  It would seem to me that some kind of spiritual relationship with God is at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Christ.  And that includes an active attempt to know God, to hear God’s voice, and to put into practice what we hear.[3]
  I don’t think that means that we turn loose all moorings and leave the church at the mercy of whatever someone claims God told them.  For one thing, I think we can assume that the voice of God in our day will not speak in a significantly different way than the generations before us have experienced it.  This particularly relates to Scripture as the primary witness to the living interaction between God and the human family over the centuries.  So paying attention to Scripture can help us in our effort to listen for the voice of God. Another check on an “anything goes” approach to spirituality is that we tend to hear God’s voice better when we do so in community with others than when we are listening alone.  I think a final test for the quality of our attempt to listen for God’s voice has to be the fruit it bears in our lives.  If our discernment of God’s voice leads us to be more patient, more kind, more merciful, more understanding, more loving--in short, if it leads us to live in a way that is more like Christ--then I think we’re on the right track. [4]
  At the end of the day, however, there has to be some kind of effort on our part to actually seek God: his presence, his truth, and his will for our lives.  That is an inherently personal endeavor.  You can do it together with others, but no one can do it for you.  Somehow, sometime, somewhere in your being you have to make the decision that seeking God’s presence is a vital part of your life.[5]  Somehow, sometime, somewhere in your heart you have to decide that aligning your life with God’s will and God’s way is of central importance.  Somehow, sometime, somewhere in your soul you have to come to the place where you realize it’s essential to at least try to listen for God’s voice.[6] 
  I think this is one more way that we can bear witness to our new life through faith in Jesus Christ. [7]  Can you imagine the response from our world if the church came to be known as the people who truly seek to listen for God’s voice?  Can you imagine what would happen if the church became known as the people who know Christ and who truly seek to follow him?  I’m not sure I can.  But I’d like to try.  I think we have to begin by making the decision that listening for God and seeking to follow Christ is something vital to our ability to experience what Jesus called “eternal life.”[8] When we are living out the mercy and compassion of Christ, it seems to me that we’re doing a pretty good job of listening for God. Then maybe we can become the kind of people who are known for knowing Christ truly and for seeking to follow him sincerely.

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX on 4/21/2013.
[2] Cf. Ernst Haenchen, John: A commentary on the Gospel of John, 48.  He points out that this kind of relationship “does not mean to be acquainted; rather, it means to have a living bond.” Cf. also Margaret Guenther, “Known by the Shepherd,” The Christian Century (Apr 26, 1995): 453, where she points out the double edge to this: “To be known, fully known, is both painful and profoundly comforting. We accept the humble status of sheep, let our masks and defenses drop away, and allow the shepherd to carry us on his shoulder and occasionally poke us with his staff.”
[3] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2:279: “The voice of Jesus Christ is the voice of God Himself, who wills to have us for Himself, to make us free and ready for eternal life.”
[4] Cf. Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 33, where he says, ““In prayer, real prayer, we begin to think God’s thoughts after him: to desire the things he desires, to love the things he loves, to will the things he wills.”
[5] Cf. Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us, 121: “From the earliest Christian thinkers onward, tradition has insisted that faith, rightly understood, is a quest to know oneself in God.  To run from the self is to run from God.  People need silence to find their way back to interior wisdom.”
[6] Cf. Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, 34: “To live a spiritual life we must first find the courage to enter into the desert of our loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into a garden of solitude.” He says further (p. 44), “In this solitude we can slowly become aware of a a presence of him who embraces friends and lovers and offers us the freedom to love each other, because he loved us first.”
[7] Cf. The Book of Order 2007-2009, G-3.0200, where we say that we believe we are called to be “a sign in and for the world” of the “new creation, a new beginning for human life” that has occurred in Jesus Christ.
[8] Cf. Henri Nouwen, Here and Now: Living in the Spirit, 69, where he reminds us that “Jesus says: ‘Dwell in me as I dwell in you.’ It is this divine in-dwelling that is eternal life.  It is the active presence of God at the center of my living--the movement of  God’s Spirit within us--that gives us the eternal life.”


Lynn and Ellen said...

Alan....just ran across your blog posts when doing some online searches for commentary on the April 17 texts. Between your words and those of W. Taylor on Revelation 7, I'm having a fruitful search. Thanks.

Alan Brehm said...