Sunday, August 07, 2011

Does God Still Speak to His People?

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]

1 Kings 19:9-18
In his fantastic book, The Power of a Whisper, Pastor Bill Hybels, tells what happened to him one day after he prayed this prayer: “God, if there is something you would like me to do…then please say so. It doesn’t matter what it is; I’ll do it.”

He had no idea how God might answer that prayer. But in a few days, Hybels and his wife Lynne were leaving the funeral of his aunt and getting into their car when he “spotted a frail, elderly woman pulling into [a] nearby apartment complex.” He saw the woman park her car, then “slowly and laboriously pull grocery bags out of her trunk.” Hybels sensed God’s Holy Spirit telling him, “How about helping that woman with her groceries?”

Initially, Hybels says, he tried to brush past this holy whisper. It seemed so mundane. But he remembered his prayer.

He approached the elderly woman, asking if he could help her. Relieved, she said, “Oh, yes! Thank you!”

As Hybels tells it: “The driveway leading back to her apartment recently had been seal-coated and was roped off, meaning residents had to walk a few hundred yards just to get from their cars to their homes.” Hybels knew he was helping to fill a real need, especially when the woman handed him a thirty-pound bag of peaches even he found a little hard to handle.

As Hybels tells it, the woman led him “through backyards that had become swamps due to recent rains…” She was “extremely arthritic and slow-moving.” It took thirty minutes for them just to make their way to the woman’s apartment!

After he had helped her to empty the sacks, she reached her hand out to Hybels and said, “I will believe to my dying day that God sent you to help me just now.” As inglorious as it all seemed, Hybels was sure she was right.

Our first Bible lesson for today recounts a conversation between God and the prophet Elijah. It raises an important question: Does God still speak to believers in 2011, the way He spoke to his prophet in the ninth-century BC or was Hybels’ direct message from God a figment of an overly spiritual imagination? What does the Bible say?

Pull out the pew Bibles for a moment, please, and turn to 1 Samuel 3:1, on page 158. The verse tells about when God called a young boy named Samuel to be a priest, judge, and prophet. It says: “Now the boy Samuel ministered to the LORD before Eli. [And this is the part to which I want to call particular attention:] And the word of the LORD was rare in those days; there was no widespread revelation.” That last sentence has always interested me because of is its unspoken assumption that, throughout much of ancient Israel’s history, God commonly spoke to His especially called people, like prophets. The era before Samuel’s call apparently, was a rare time when the connection between God and His people grew spotty.

Centuries after Samuel, after God came into the world in the person of Jesus and after Jesus died and rose and sent the Holy Spirit to believers in the Church, it wasn’t just to prophets and priests that God spoke. It was to all believers. In the pew Bibles, take a look at Acts, chapter 2, starting at verse 17, on page 627. On Pentecost, Peter is explaining how ordinary people who believed in Jesus were telling others about God’s mighty works. He explained how such a thing was possible by remembering the ancient words of the prophet Joel: “And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, That I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh…”

In fact, throughout the book of Acts, which tells the story of the early Church, we’re told how God’s people prayed and God directed them. The Bible assumes that it’s normal for God to speak to believers who are dialed into God.

But how does God speak to us?

Please pull out the Celebrate inserts and look at the first lesson, 2 Kings 19:9-18.

Let’s set the stage: It’s the ninth century BC. About fifty years earlier, the nation of Israel had split in two. The southern kingdom, known as Judah, retained its worship life in Jerusalem and struggled to retain its faith in the God of the Bible, Who they knew as Yahweh, the LORD. The northern kingdom, with its capital of Samaria, called itself Israel.

According to the Bible, the northern kingdom never had a king who was faithful to Yahweh or just in his actions. The worst of its rulers was Ahab, who worshiped Baal, a false deity of rain, fertility, and agriculture.

Despite the LORD’s first commandment that no other god should be worshiped, Ahab and his wife Jezebel encouraged the people to turn their back on God.

God made Elijah a prophet in order to call the king and the nation to repent for their sins and to trust in God alone.

A contest was held at Mount Carmel involving Elijah on one side and 400 prophets of Baal on the other. No matter what the prophets of Baal did, they couldn't cause their idol to do anything to prove its existence. (In fact, one of the funniest passages in Scripture is part of this incident. As the Baal worshipers went through their conniptions, Elijah taunted them, at one point suggesting that Baal has wandered away. But actually, that dainty translation in most of our English versions of the Bible don't get it right. Elijah literally told them that maybe Baal had to take a pit stop to go to the bath room!)

At Mount Carmel, God was shown to be faithful and powerful, while Baal was shown to be a man-made fiction.

Right after this contest, it seemed that the northern kingdom would return to God. King Ahab got rid of the prophets of Baal as God, through Elijah, directed him.

Later though, Ahab told his wife Jezebel about all that happened and she sent a message to Elijah, telling him that within a day’s time, she would see that Elijah was a dead man. First Kings, chapter 19, verse 3, says that when Elijah received that message, “he was afraid” and he ran. Like Peter, in our Gospel lesson, Elijah allowed his fears to veto his faith in God. He panicked.

Our lesson finds Elijah at Mount Horeb, also known as Mount Sinai, the place where, six centuries before Elijah’s time, God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses. Twice in our lesson, God asks Elijah why he has run. Twice, Elijah says, as he does in verse 10, you see: “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant [the covenant God had made with Israel on that very mountain], thrown down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

Have you ever known fear like that, a fear that leaves you feeling alone and without hope? The doctor tells you about a poor prognosis or a loved one dies and you wonder how you can possibly function. The stock market moves further into negative territory and you fear that you’ll have no retirement income.

It’s at times like these that God wants to tell us, in the words of Psalm 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God.”

God wants to tell all who believe in Jesus Christ, as 1 John 4:4 puts it: “Little children…the one who is in you [the Bible teaches that Christ lives in His people] is greater than the one who is in the world.”

God is bigger than anything we may fear and, as Romans 8 reminds us, those who turn from sin and believe in Jesus Christ, live in the certainty that nothing can separate us from the love of God given to us through Christ!

Sometimes though, we may need special guidance or assurance. Elijah did.

Look at verse 11 of our first lesson. God told Elijah to stand on the mountain, “for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then, we’re told, “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind, an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire, and after the fire the sound of sheer silence.”

It was there in the silence, that somewhere in his own spirit, Elijah heard God speak to him. (The older translations says that God spoke to Elijah in “a still, small voice,” but even that may suggest something too noisy.)

God then ordered Elijah to move past his fears, giving him three specific tasks.

Listen! When you’re afraid or lonely or need guidance or you simply want to offer yourself to the God Who offered Himself for you on the cross, you can hear from God.

The most reliable place to hear God is on the pages of the Bible. That’s where God’s Word can always be found.

I got to know a Pentecostal pastor named Howard back in Cincinnati. Loved that man! We were having a heart to heart one night when he said, “You know, so many Pentecostals want to hear ‘a special word from God.’ But all they really need to do is look at the Bible to find God’s Word for their lives.” I smiled and said, "Howard, you sound like a Lutheran!"

Howard was right! We’ve all read about people who have done horrible things because, they claimed, some voice had told them to do so. If you feel prompted to do something, look in the Book. Find out what God’s Word says. Talk to a trusted Christian friend who knows God’s Book. God will never tell us to do anything that runs contrary to His revealed will in the Bible. Never.

But when, in the silence of your soul, you sense God prompting you, go for it!

Jim and Sheila, from our congregation, went to Bob Evans for lunch on Friday. Across the way from them sat an older man eating by himself. Sheila observed his conversation with the waitress, indicating he might be a “regular” there. She thought she heard him use the word, “radiation.”

That’s when I think God spoke to Sheila. “I felt,” she wrote to me in an email on Friday, “like I wanted to make this man’s day.”

In order to not be heard by the man, she wrote a note asking the waitress to bring the man’s check to Jim and her. She handed one of our “The Meal’s on Us!” cards to the waitress to give to the man. Later, the waitress brought a box to the man as he’d requested and told him that his meal had been taken care of. “Who?” he asked. The waitress shrugged. The man teared up, read the card twice, then tucked it into his pocket. Sheila says, “My heart felt warm all over.”

[The front of one of our "This meal's on us!" card.]

[The back side of our "This meal's on us!" card.]

Does God still speak to His people today? Yes, most reliably in His Word, the Bible.

But there are also times when God may speak to us in the silence of our hearts and minds, when God will order our steps directly. God will teach us, as He taught Elijah (and as he taught Peter in our Gospel lesson), to live "by faith and not by sight.”

And when we live by faith in Christ, then we are  truly living!

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