For my family, May 24 is a very special day every year for that is Jackson’s birthday.
This year on that date, I will be in Washington, DC. Jackson has asked to go on a trip with me to celebrate his ninth birthday. We’re planning to see the House and Senate chambers, hopefully the White House, the National Art Gallery, the dinosaurs, the planes at the Air and Space Museum, and, the thing that has Jack the most excited: the International Spy Museum. We’re really excited!
May 24 is also a special day in Methodism. In seminary, I learned that May 24 is Aldersgate Day, to celebrate John Wesley’s special encounter with God on Aldersgate Street in London.
It’s debatable whether or not he was converted, saved, or just had a special encounter with God, but on May 24, 1738, Wesley reported that his heart was “strangely warmed,” and he felt an assurance of his salvation. For years, Wesley worried about whether or not he was really saved. No matter how hard he disciplined himself, he would still sin. The presence of that sin made him anxious that, perhaps, he wasn’t really saved.
But here, at the home of an acquaintance, he felt that assurance. It was while someone read the introduction to Martin Luther’s commentary on the book of Romans; a dry read if there ever was one. And yet, in the middle of this academic, rote, study, Wesley’s heart was “strangely warmed,” and from that day on, his life was changed. He rarely questioned his salvation moving forward and, from this seminal experience, gave us our theology of grace that pervades all we do as Methodists.
God spoke to Wesley that day. Just as God speaks to the Apostle Paul, currently named Saul, in this morning’s scripture. Let’s read about that famous “Damascus Road experience” in Acts 9:1-19a.
This is one of the most famous scriptures in the bible. Everyone knows of this moment, where Saul encounters Jesus. And, indeed, it’s a powerful moment. Jesus comes with “light from heaven” flashing and a voice that speaks directly to him. Colleagues traveling with him hear the voice, too. It’s an incredible moment.
It reminds me of other stories from the Old Testament. God comes to Moses on Mount Sinai with flashes of light and a voice from heaven. Isaiah sees an incredible vision and hears the voice of God when he is called to be a prophet. There are similar encounters throughout the Old Testament where God speaks directly to someone he has called.
Just like here. Saul is God’s chosen instrument; a new kind of prophet who will bring the good news to the gentiles. His travel companions witness this incredible moment; a moment so amazing they are rendered speechless. God has spoken!
Wouldn’t it be great if God spoke to all of us that way? Most of the time, we’re left scratching our heads wondering if God is speaking to us at all. Wouldn’t it be great if we had the kind of clarity that comes with flashes of light and a voice from heaven? Wouldn’t it be great if we had our own “Damascus Road experience.”
I’ve heard that phrase used often by church going folks when they speak of trying to discern if God is talking to them. They wish they had a “damascus road experience.” Or, they talk of their salvation, feeling a certain awareness of it but wishing they knew for sure, as Saul knows for sure here, that God has forgiven and saved him. I’ve even heard pastors say they wish they’d had a “Damascus road experience,’ when speaking of their call to ministry. They wish they had that kind of assurance.
Wouldn’t it be great if we did have that kind of encounter? Then we’d know for sure it was the voice of God.
And that’s the thing. We want to discern the voice of God. We know God speaks, sometimes directly to us. How are we to know the voice of God? How are we to know that God is speaking? God doesn’t seem to often grant “Damascus Road Experiences,” so how are we to discern the voice so that we will know what is the will of God: “his good, perfect, and pleasing will?” (Romans 12:2)
I get that question a lot. People ask me, “How do I know God’s voice? How do I tell if it’s God speaking? How do I know the will of God?” As Saul, turned Paul, says in Romans, how do I “discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect?” (Romans 12:2)
It’s not simply a big theological question for academic debate. There’s room for that, such as asking why God doesn’t grant theophanies to everyone, with theophany being the big, theological, word for visible encounters with God. And yet, why we aren’t all granted theophanies is a practical question, too. When we’re making a big decision like, for example, whether or not to take a job offer, it sure would be nice if we had a theophany, a “Damascus Road Experience,” to know what God would have us do. When deciding how to care for a loved one: whether or not that person should move into our home or go to managed care or a treatment center, a theophany would be hugely helpful.
Instead, whenever there are decisions, big and small, that we take to God in prayer, we most often seem to encounter silence. Or a bunch of different voices in our heads, which we can’t sort out to figure out which one, if any, are God. When deciding how to best parent, when deciding if we should quit a job, when deciding how to manage our money, when deciding anything of significance, a theophany would sure be helpful. So, why is it that God doesn’t come in a visible way to all of us?
It’s in decision-making that we usually seek to listen for God’s voice. But note that such is not the case here. Saul wasn’t seeking to make a decision: he’d already decided to go and seek out Christians, “breathing threats and murder.” He’s made up his mind. There’s no decision to make. Rather, Saul’s life is dramatically interrupted by the voice and light of Christ on the road to Damascus. Saul gets a theophany.
And then there’s Ananias, who’s home, minding his own business, not seeking to make any decisions, when he receives a vision from God. This word vision could mean hearing a voice, having a sense, or actually seeing something, but I suspect it’s hearing a voice because he hears God say to “get up and go to Straight Street.” Ananias hears a voice, just like we want to when we’re faced with decisions, but note that the voice doesn’t come through in flashes of light nor from heaven. Ananias hears without having a theophany.
It’s a still, small voice, as Elijah heard God speak in 1 Kings 19. It’s not with thunder, lightning, whirling trees, or any other visible presence of God. It’s a still, small voice, that speaks. It tells Elijah to return and face his fears and it tells Ananias to go and face his own: confront the most hated man among Christians, bringing him into the Way, as Christians were then called.
And then, while he’s waiting, God’s voice has been speaking to Saul, although perhaps not with words. Saul expects Ananias to come, but it’s not clear that God is actually speaking with voice. Perhaps, Saul knows that someone is coming, has that conviction of confidence, like John Wesley when his heart was strangely warmed. He is simply aware, senses God’s presence, and knows he will be taken care of.
So here, within this one scripture, we have three different ways that God speaks: with theophany, that visible presence; with a voice to Ananias; and with a sense of confidence with Saul as he awaits Ananias. Three different ways.
Add to this that God speaks in a variety of different ways throughout scripture. In Daniel, a hand writes on a wall. To Elisha, there’s a chariot of fire. To Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, there’s a leap of her baby in her womb. For the Israelites trekking through the wilderness, there’s a column of fire by night and a cloud by day. To Samuel, God calls his name.
God speaks differently throughout scripture. But one thing is clear: the people who hear from God know with confidence that it is God and respond accordingly. And that’s the central question for us: how do we hear from God with confidence? When we have decisions to make or we just need to hear from God: to hear a word of comfort, to hear and have assurance that God is with us, to feel assured of our own salvation, how do we hear from God with confidence?
We can be assured that God does speak to us, in ways we can comprehend with confidence, because God loves us and desires relationship with us. God wants to be heard.
There’s no doubt in my mind that God speaks to us in ways we can understand. God speaks differently because we are different people. And God will always speak to us in a way we can understand.
Consider the examples we’ve looked at so far. On the Damascus Road, God speaks to Saul in a way that he can understand. He approaches Saul just as he has approached prophets in the Old Testament. Saul, being a pharisee, would know those stories well, so coming through a theophany, a visible presence, would speak Saul’s language. And then, the presence of witnesses confirms the story. In Deuteronomy, two unrelated witnesses are required to validate any story and thus make it true, something Saul would know well. That is exactly what occurs on the road. God comes to Saul with a theophany not because Saul is special, but because that’s how Saul will understand him.
Just as the still, small, voice to Ananias comes in a way that works for Ananias. When he hears the voice, he simply responds like the prophet Samuel who heard the same voice by saying , “Here I am, Lord.” (1 Samuel 3) Ananias knows the voice because God has revealed that voice to Ananias.
To Saul, awaiting Ananias’s visit on Straight Street, God comes with presence; one that Saul is able to recognize. This is not unlike John Wesley having his heart strangely warmed at that house on Aldersgate Street.
To all of us, God speaks in a way we can understand. I testify to you that I have experienced God speaking to me many times, and I always know it’s God. I cannot explain to you how I know; I just know. I liken it to that scripture I alluded to earlier when we asked the question, “How do we ‘discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect’”? The answer to that question is the fullness of that same scripture. Paul, writing in Romans 12, says:
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
So the question is not whether or not God speaks. God does, with frequency. The question is not whether or not God is comprehendible when speaking to us. God is; God will speak to us in a way we can understand. God is speaking. God wants to be heard. The question is whether or not we’re positioned to hear.
I submit to us this morning that if we cannot discern the voice of God, it’s probably for one of two reasons. First, there’s no regular routine of spiritual discipline in your life. I know I say this all the time from the pulpit, in bible studies, and in Sunday School classes, but if you do not spend time regularly with God, engaging in spiritual practices that work for you, then it will be very difficult to discern the voice of God from all the competing voices that run rampant in our heads. There’s no substitute for regular spiritual practice, for its by that practice that we “present our bodies as living sacrifice[s],” and thus are “transformed by the renewing of [our] mind[s],” as Paul says. While there are extraordinary moments where God breaks into our lives, for the most part, if you want to know what God is saying to you, you have to spend time with God.
Then, when engaged in that regular practice, we will know the peace that passes understanding when there’s no rational reason to experience peace. Then, we can experience joy even in hard times of life. Then, we will know hope when there’s only reason for despair. Then, we will know love even when there’s nothing but hate in our lives. Then, we will experience the powerful presence of God that can do the impossible, holding us close, making us know that, as St. Julian of Norwich famous put it: “All will be well. And all manner of things will be well.”
And beyond that, we will hear direction from God, just as Ananias did and Saul did while waiting. God has called us to not only experience the blessings of relationship but to go and share those blessings with the world. We are blessed to be a blessing. And God speaks to us still, just as God spoke to Ananias, so that we can go and offer ourselves, our blessings, to the world. That’s the power of hearing God’s voice, of experiencing God. And that’s the first point: to know what God is saying to you, you have to spend time with God.
Second, I think too often when we want to hear from God, it’s because we want God to make a decision for us. So we listen to all the competing voices in our heads, assuming one of them must be God. Many times in life, none of them are. God gave us freedom to make decisions; that’s part of free will.
If we’re spending time with God and we know what it is to hear from God and yet, in the midst of a decision we do not sense a word from God, then make the best decision you know how to make. That’s what Paul means by being “transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern what is the will of God–what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2) Be bold, be brave, be courageous. God gave us freedom for a reason and blesses our decision-making when the decision is left for us. Don’t use a lack of a word from God as justification to be cowardly in decision-making.
Just as we shouldn’t go to God, looking for divine guidance in decision-making, if we aren’t going to God on a regular basis for worship and spiritual discipline. God is not only a divine guide for life, nor is God to only be used when life gets hard. God gave us everything; to only seek God when we need God is to use God.
While God does sometimes break into our lives, most of the time, we don’t hear from God because we’re not spiritually disciplined. God speaks to us in ways we can comprehend. That’s because God desires relationship with us! We don’t need to have a theophany, a “Damascus Road Experience,” because God will come to us in a way we can understand. The question is whether or not we’re positioned to hear. In other words, you know it’s God speaking when you’ve spent time seeking after God; when you’ve been spiritually disciplined.
Are you spending time with God regularly? Do you have a spiritual discipline you engage? I cannot stress enough how important that is, for many reasons, but in particular, for being able to discern God’s voice. God is there, God is speaking, the question is whether or not we have ears to hear.
So I, with the apostle Paul, “…appeal to you, [my] brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:1b-2)
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.