Sunday, June 11, 2017

Knowing His Voice

Knowing His Voice
John 10:1-10[1]
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to you for me to say that prayer is a vital part of the Christian life. A brief glance at any one of our worship bulletins reveals the importance of prayer. I teach our confirmation students that prayer is as simple as talking to God about what concerns you. But many of us know that a life of prayer as a part of practicing our faith is not always that simple. We have to contend with all kinds of challenges: especially the challenge of prayer that seems to go unanswered. Some of us have experienced prayers that have felt as if they have gone unanswered for years! I’m afraid I’d have to say that even though prayer is such an important part of our faith, many of us struggle with prayer.
Part of the problem with prayer is that we have to learn to sort out the competing voices in our world and even within ourselves. As I mentioned recently, one way to do that is to listen more attentively to the Scriptures. But the Scriptures don’t always address the matters that concern us in prayer: what job to take, or whether to commit to a relationship, or how to make ends meet, or what direction to take when a door closes. I think when it comes to the nuts and bolts of our prayers, we have to develop a kind of intuition or wisdom about prayer that only comes with practice—in many cases, years of practice. I think knowing God’s voice is something we all have to learn.
In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus describes the relationship we have with him as that of sheep with a “good shepherd.” In that day, many shepherds kept their sheep in a “sheepfold” where the sheep would be safe overnight. The next day, each shepherd would come to collect his flock, and only the sheep that belonged to him would follow him. Jesus puts it this way: “the sheep follow him because they know his voice” (Jn. 10:4). Later in the chapter, he makes an amazing 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. They know 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, Jesus characterizes the relationship we have with him by saying: “I know my own and my own know me” and “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me” (Jn. 10:27).  Those who know Jesus know his voice.
But then the real question we face here is how we can possibly “know his voice.” In my experience, one of the most difficult aspects of trying to do this is distinguishing our voice from God’s voice. For most of us our prayers consist of expressing our desires, our wishes, and our hopes to God. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. God invites us to do just that: to cast all our cares on him because he cares for us (1 Pet. 5:7). But the problem is that many times we feel those hopes and wishes so deeply that they can become the sole focus of our attention. When that happens, it can be surprisingly easy to mistake the voice of our wants for the voice of God.
I think we all need some practical guidelines for what it means to listen for God’s voice in our prayers. One principle that I’ve heard all my life and that I find helpful is that God’s voice brings us peace. When our prayers are filled with urgency and worry, that’s a pretty good sign that we’ve gotten caught in our own desires. Another helpful principle is that when it comes down to it, God’s will for all of us really is no mystery: God intends for us to live in such a way that we love God with all our hearts and that we love our neighbors as ourselves. While that doesn’t constitute an obvious answer to every prayer, it does give us guidance in discerning whether the “answer” we think we hear is truly God’s voice.
It’s often said that God answers prayers in three ways: yes, no, or wait. But I’d have to say that my experience with prayer has been nowhere near that clear-cut. If you pay close attention to the Psalms and the Prophets, you find people of faith wrestling with God in prayer, anguishing over life’s twists and turns. Even Jesus was “deeply distressed” as he poured out his heart to God in the Garden of Gethsemane. I don’t think we can set his prayer in the context of a simple answer. In fact, in the end, Jesus had to give up his desire to be set free from the “cup” he was to drink and surrender his will to God’s will.
I think that’s the key to developing a life of prayer that sustains faith. When our prayers become dominated by our own desires, they can become an experience in constant disappointment. And so perhaps the most important lesson we have to learn as we develop the discipline of prayer is to surrender our own wants and desires. Again, it’s not that we cannot or should not pray for them, but when we let them dominate our prayers, we tend to do all the talking and not much listening. The more we can develop the kind of faith that enables us to present our requests to God and then entrust the outcome into his loving care, the more we will develop the wisdom and discernment it takes to know his voice.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/7/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

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