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Choosing God's Voice

God is not dead. God is not silent. God is alive and speaking. Is anyone listening? That is the meaning of today’s scripture readings. I will propose that they lead us to listen for the voice and call of God and reflect them in God-inspired actions throughout our lives.

But first, Bob Coote tells the story of a seminary student who asserted that God spoke privately to him.  Bob said in response to him, “Shame on you.”  I thought of that in preparation for today’s sermon when I asked the question, “does God still speak?”  I risk Bob’s shame when I answer, “Yes, God still speaks.”  But I will take some time to qualify that assertion with some conditions, cautions, and lessons. God still speaks inside us, but there is the danger that God’s message will be obscured by that louder internal voice, what Sigmund Freud called the id.  The id is highly susceptible to fear, mendacity, and greed, and is too readily a mirror of the actions of a hating and violent mob. We have a President of the United States who has given over his ego solely to the id. We must be cautious in any claim to hear God speaking lest we are misled by the voice of the id.

Based on my experience, the id is the personified, interior urges that kept a body alive when it was a child—the id as an adult is a braggart and would like to claim it is God’s voice.  The id also can distort any of the ego’s self-hating thoughts by creating a counter narrative that hates others.  The ego that hates one’s weight can promote an id judgmental of others’ weight.  The ego’s homosexual urges can be distorted by the id into a homophobic narrative when collected under the banner of moral mob, like a gay-hating church.

Listening to the id’s counternarrative is highly dangerous, and that is why we take claims of hearing God’s voice with such skepticism.  That skepticism is hard won: we’ve been burned too long and too often by leaders who’ve claimed to hear God’s voice in all kinds of unrighteous ways.

Yet, if we believe we are in a relationship with God through Christ, that relationship requires communication to make it authentically human.  Without communication, there is no relationship.

Our readings this morning speak about the calling by name of God to God’s followers. Samuel is called at night by name but misunderstands, as the scripture says he did not know the Lord.  Samuel had to be prepared by Eli to understand what and who he was hearing. In the Gospel of John reading this morning, Nathanael is called by his own name by Jesus.  Jesus knows his name, he says, because he saw Nathanael sitting under a fig tree.

Other scripture in the New Testament says that God knows us by name and calls us.  There is no mention that this voice has ceased in post-Easter times.

We are called by name—and hear God’s voice–in our conscience. God is lord of the conscience, our Presbyterian confessions state.  Our sense of rightness and justice can direct us, give us a path in life. God wants us to follow our conscience that is based on knowing the voice of God. We are meant to ask by these readings, does our conscience accord with we learn in the scriptures?  Do we mirror the actions of prophets and disciples?

My three lessons for hearing God’s voice and God’s call accord with this morning’s readings. First, one must be prepared that there is a God, and that God may call you. That is the lesson from Eli instructing Samuel that it is THE God calling him at night. This preparation is the reason churches proclaim the Gospel to outsiders.  We are testifying that there is a God, and that God has spoken to us, and will speak to us again.

Second, one must be engaged in the disciplined service of community to hear God. That is the lesson of Nathanael being connected in personal stillness and appropriateness to the fig tree—a symbol of the Israelite community. Nathanael is situated where he needs to be to hear his call. And third, the voice and call of God must be authenticated in community.   There is no private messaging between us and God that cannot and does not stand the test of submitting itself to the judgment of the Church.   Jesus calls the disciples in community.  He does not speak to Nathanael in this calling story alone, but in front of the other disciples so that Nathanael may test his discernment and hearing by checking the responses and agreement of the others.

“Through insights, … hunches, [elegant coincidences,] dreams, bursts of energy, and inspirational thoughts, God is [continually] calling us to listen and then follow, shaping our encounters with God in our own unique ways.”  These insights and elegant coincidences can speak to us as convincingly as a voice does.  We need only test our hunches that God is behind them by acting on our unique consciences in ways that bear fruit. I think that may be how the voice of the conscience functioned in our guests today, the Valve Turners. They confirm the consequences of their actions with the rightness of their consciences. We become convinced of God’s voice by the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

When I was in seminary, I routinely questioned my relationship with God—rather, not with God, but with ministry.  Seminary studies were putting a strain on my marriage, and I wasn’t convinced that I had the necessary graces and virtues for a counseling ministry.  Each semester at SFTS began with a worship service, and I tell you the truth, in the opening worship service to each of those 8 semesters I was visited by a spirit that, in the words of John Wesley, “strangely warmed my heart;” joyfully warmed my heart.  As I had these spiritual experiences, I heard the words, “this is where you should be.”  I couldn’t sense that the words originated anywhere but from my own ego, but the “strangely warmed,” joyful heart I felt was otherworldly.  It should not surprise us, that if we are in relationship with the Holy Spirt, the Spirit speaks with a voice that sounds personal and familiar. It did not speak in archaic language or in Hebrew or with sounds of thunder.

I believe this was God’s voice and call to me.  These experiences are repetitive, elegant, and consistent with Scripture.  Thus my next lesson regarding hearing God’s voice and call is that one should prepare for hearing them in a regular worship setting, under the personal reflective equilibrium of Scripture and conscience.  God cannot speak against Godself: that what we’ve learned from the ancient holy men and women who heard God’s voice prior to the Bible’s writing is a relatively sure guide to how God wants people of all times and places to hear God’s voice.

But hearing God’s voice can be hindered by what we might call “weapons of mass distraction:” the internet, television, gaming, and general busyness. These are our culture’s din of what Buddhists call monkey brain intruding on our inner selves. So, in addition to the preparation to hear God’s voice in hymns, preaching, Scripture and worship, the virtues of conscience must be cultivated. Of these virtues of conscience, I note three: gratitude, silence, and honesty.

Gratitude thanks God for relationship: both with God and with others. Gratitude is the preparation for authentic worship. If we express thanks often enough it develops into a virtue of gratitude which stays with us even during our challenges and struggles. Raising children with the virtue of gratitude gives them resilience.  It is through gratitude that the body functions socially, to give benefactors their due, but in gratitude also is the work of the soul. It is the work of eternity, to gratefully praise God for our talents and our calling. Gratitude, like all the virtues, ties body and soul together—virtues tie the ephemeral needs of the body for daily sustenance with the confidence of the soul to go without continually stuffing itself because of greed or fearfulness for what tomorrow might bring.

The Grinch stole Christmas, and still the Whos young and old sang praise and thanks around the town square. Their souls weren’t disturbed that their bodies weren’t going to have that night’s traditional Roast Beast. Theirs was the virtue of gratitude: the virtue that helps soul triumph over stomach.

Silence is also a virtue that builds resilience. It is the virtue that derives from the commandment to keep Sabbath.  We—and hopefully our children–turn off keyboards, screens, and weapons of mass distraction on a schedule, and devote at least a portion of each week—or better, each day–to cultivating silence.  In stillness, we stifle the monkey brain of our own id. It is in the total silence that the Holy Spirit may heal our hearts.

The main weapon of mass distraction is busyness. Have you ever tried to talk someone yet they’re so busy that they cannot hear you? Stress and preoccupations keep them from relationship in that moment. Have you ever turned down the radio when you are lost while driving? Do you turn down the voice of your conscience because you feel lost in obsessing about something in your daily life: your children, your health, your job?

“Be still, and know that I am God,” writes the Psalmist (Ps. 46).  Don’t rush out to explore for God, but meet God as God comes to you in your stillness and conscience, in where you are supposed to be.   Know the inclinations and urges of God’s pointing out a direction for your life.  That is God’s call to our conscience. When we are quiet and/or reading the Bible, our virtues and God’s word can act symbiotically on our hearts. This silent stillness is a spirituality, a Sabbath practice, a tuning to God’s word in prayer and silence through a prepared environment that is not in tune with the monkey brain noise of our culture.

I want to turn this sermon over now to the virtue of honesty, which is so lacking in our current age.

But first, I want to make a too brief statement about this weekend’s commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr., a man whom I believe without doubt heard God’s voice within and in the social conscience of his people—all people—and acted on it. Not only can you hear God’s voice within yourself, but you can hear it the ringing wisdom and prophecy of others, like Dr. King.

If you do anything this week to commemorate truth and Dr. King, follow the link in today’s written sermon to the King Center in Atlanta to learn about an under-reported but legally established fact of our nation’s racist history.  That website reports the findings of a 1999 Civil Jury. [quote] “After four weeks of testimony and over 70 witnesses in a civil trial in Memphis, Tennessee, twelve jurors reached a unanimous verdict on December 8, 1999 … that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated as a result of a conspiracy…. of the Mafia, local, state and federal government agencies. The jury also affirmed overwhelming evidence that… James Earl Ray was… set up to take the blame.”[1]

This upcoming April is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of MLK in Memphis by government conspiracy. Yes, America does do conspiracies.

Back to the virtues. Honesty is a virtue greater than control.  Controlling others malevolently in abuse, propaganda, and lies is the great social sin of our age. The need to control is behind sexual abuse, racism, and economic exploitation. In that sin, the collective id is rampant. The id desires to control its childish fearfulness and unleash greed to such a limitless extent that it loses its soul by lying.

The Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko who died last year wrote this about the Soviet period, “People will remember these strange times, when ordinary honesty was called courage.” These are words for our own debased times.  Honesty is not solely about sincerity. Honesty is courageously concerned with the health and autonomy of a neighbor’s conscience. Thus the church has always frowned on gossip, which may be someone’s sincere expression, but that of a faulty and unloving understanding which is directed at controlling others.  God’s call is for conscience to be a connoisseur of truth. That requires a sustained communal effort in deliberation regarding the common good, not simply a sincere, personal reporting of the felt voice of the id’s desire.

Nonsense shouters, climate change deniers, political liars, and folksy quasi-Christians like Roy Moore “hold reality, including science and the rule of law, in contempt. They seek to banish those who live in a reality-based world defined by intellectual and moral autonomy.”[2] They stifle the word of God and the autonomous soul in relationship with God’s truth.

Voltaire cautioned, “Truly, whoever is able to make you absurd is able to make you unjust.”

Nonsense and totalitarian rule are inextricably linked, and they conspire to “embolden the brutal and the stupid. They use clichés and slogans, most of which are absurd and contradictory, to justify their greed and lust for power.”[3]

These techniques and propaganda of the id-driven mob degrades and drowns out the communal and personal voice of God that expresses God’s will for justice and communal harmony. They drown out truth.

It is upon clear conscience based on honesty, silence, and gratitude which we must depend to resist the supremacy of the individual and collective id. A conscience guided by the Holy Spirit and God’s Word is required—a conscience purged of the id’s structures that hate self and hate others. To those who do not cleanse their conscience of hate, but instead give full vent to it, I say “shame on you, God speaks through God’s primary law, to Love your neighbor as yourself. Your hatred is a lie.”

Listen to your conscience–listen for God’s cloistered voice within us that transforms us. Be more judgmental about ideas and less judgmental about people.  Resist the urge to make Jesus an object of static religion, and more a guided path which we follow.  Listen to the call of God to enables springtime neighborhoods of shalom–where truth, beauty, empathy and justice endure.

Come, let us live without fear.

Let us lean on the everlasting arm.

Let us make neighborhood together in the lee of God’s awesome power, in the softness of God’s tender voice.

Even amidst the rage, fire, and storm of modern life: let us live with the whispering softness of a gift-giving Lord.

Let us be changed in our inner being by our glimpse into and recollection of the abyss of disaster, yet let us thrive in the ongoing springs of spiritual whispers that tells us that we are friends of the Lord of Life and the Living. Amen.

2018 Copyright. Douglas Olds. All rights reserved.

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