We had just arrived at the coast of Maine at our little bed and breakfast. It was the first full day of our marriage and we were ready to begin our honeymoon. After checking in, setting down our bags, and getting settled in the room, we walked down the street to a lobster restaurant we had seen. As we walked, holding hands, I heard a voice next to me say:
“I’m so glad we’re on holiday!”
I looked, startled, at Dana. The voice had definitely come from her. But it wasn’t her voice. It was some other voice, speaking with a decidedly British accent. I had this flash of wondering if the person I had just married was really the person I thought! She looked at me, puzzled, wondering why I was starting at her, puzzled myself.
I told her that I’d just heard her say, “I’m so glad we’re on holiday” in a British accent. It was her turn to be very confused, for she hadn’t realized that she’d spoken in a British accent. And not only that, but she used the British colloquialism for vacation.
Turns out, something about the look of the coast and the feel of the place reminded her of the year she lived in England, when she was about nine years old. Her dad said she was the first to pick up the accent while they lived there and the first to sound like a Texan moved to Texas.
And so being in a place that reminded her of England had triggered a subconscious reaction, causing her to speak in a British way as we walked to dinner on the first night of our honeymoon.
It’s a funny story but it highlights an important fact: voice is important. Especially recognizing a voice. Consider the comfort you find hearing the familiar voice of a close relative or friend. Or the panic and terror you might feel if you hear the voice of someone you fear. We put much value and stock in recognizing a voice.
Which begs this question: how do we recognize the voice of God?
Let’s hear a story about that question. It’s the story of Samuel being called to the ministry of a prophet from 1 Samuel 3.
How do we recognize the voice of God?
It’s a really tough question. Sometimes you hear me talk about listening for God, or listening to God, in our prayer lives. Those of you who have been in the Enneagram small group know that I speak of that frequently, especially because we’re practicing prayer postures that focus on listening to God.
We’re supposed to listen, to be able to hear from God through our prayer lives. We hear that it’s a two-way street. But what exactly does that mean? We’re astute enough to know that the voice of God doesn’t sound like the voice of any human.
Or does it?
Certainly, that’s how it sounded to Samuel: like a human voice.
He hears a voice, a very human voice, and thinks that it’s his master Eli, the chief priest. Eli has been raising the boy, teaching him the ways of a priest. And so when Samuel hears a voice say, “Samuel! Samuel!” He assumes that Eli is calling for him. He rushes to the next room only to find that Eli didn’t call him. It’s at night and so most likely he finds a sleeping Eli, waking him with the energy and enthusiasm of a child who runs into the room shouting, “Here I am!”
Imagine Eli’s confusion. Samuel bursts into the room, saying loudly, “here I am!” Eli didn’t call him. Why is the child acting this way. Like a parent disturbed by a child who’s supposed to be in bed, Eli dismissively says “go lie down again.” Eli just wants to be left to sleep.
But the voice persists.
A voice. A human voice that can be discerned.
Except that the voice isn’t immediately recognizable. Like Dana saying, “I’m so glad we’re on holiday,” Samuel doesn’t distinguish that this is God’s voice.
Then he goes to Eli and Eli is unable to recognize that it’s God speaking until a lightbulb goes off after Samuel’s third visit to his room. And then, let’s consider that God’s coming to talk to Samuel, a child, a priest in training, rather than Eli, the chief priest, or any of the other priests in the temple.
Why? Why can no one recognize the voice of God immediately? Why would God come to a child training to be a priest rather than a priest himself?
The answer is in the very first verse: “The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” There’s little experience of hearing the voice of God, and so God’s voice is both unknown and unexpected. Thus, they don’t recognize God’s voice when it comes.
Which begs us to, once again, ask why? Why was God’s voice rare in those days?
Immediately after where we left off in the story, God gives Samuel a message. God tells Samuel that God’s raising him up to be a prophet and to deliver a message. Eli’s sons are corrupt, which matters because they’re the next chief priests. In fact, God tells Samuel the entire temple is corrupt, resulting in a spiritual draught upon the land, God will be using Samuel to bear his message that an upheaval is coming, that Eli’s sons will be punished, that the people will suffer, that there will be consequences for their apostasy, their sin, their lack of religious conviction, their willingness to follow falsehoods and, especially, false religious leaders.
God is raising Samuel up to be a prophet. And, like all prophets, the message is dire, hard, direct, and upsetting. Like all prophets, Samuel should expect a hard life ahead.
How do we recognize the voice of God?
In light of Samuel’s experience, maybe we don’t want to!
Indeed, when the voice of God comes in scripture in this kind of direct way, rarely is it good news. Almost always, it’s because God needs a prophet, or a messenger, to go and tell the people that they’re not living their lives right, that there will be consequences for their sin, and that there will be upheaval to their society.
A message like that, of not living life correctly, of there being consequences for their sin, all of which results in upheaval for their society, sounds not only like a biblical prophet’s message but also much like my Facebook feed.
Social media is full of these kinds of messages. The current upheaval we know is because of this reason or that reason. These people over here are to blame, or those people over there. The rise of socialism is anti-Christian and thus we’re experiencing a religious draught. Or the rise of Christian nationalism is anti-Christian and thus we’re experiencing a religious draught. And on and on and on.
Social media is full of wannabe prophets.
And by prophet, I mean simply this: God’s messenger. In the Bible, those messages are both critical and energizing. They’re critical in that they point to what the people are doing wrong, highlight sins, and call the people to repent. They’re energizing in that they encourage the people to change their ways, pointing to God’s preferred vision of the future if they’ll repent. Prophets criticize and energize. They call the people to repent and encourage them to draw close to God.
With all these voices all over social media, how do we know what to listen to? How do we recognize the truth? How do we know it’s a word from God, or God’s voice, when we hear someone else say they’ve heard that voice?
I think it’s an urgent question because there are so many wannabe prophets among us right now. We don’t suffer for a lack of people who claim to represent the voice of God. We don’t suffer for a lack of people who are willing to criticize our society and place blame squarely at the feet of various groups of people. We don’t suffer for a lack of people calling for repentance, although unlike biblical prophets, they don’t usually point to their own tribe and call for repentance. We don’t suffer for a lack of people who are also trying to energize: encourage by calling us back to God.
We don’t suffer for a lack of wannabe prophets. They’re all over our social media.
So in the midst of that din, that overwhelm of all these proclamations of truth and what God says and thinks, how do we recognize the voice of God?
Which is another way of asking this question: how do we discern the truth?
To answer that question, note with me that it’s not Samuel who recognizes that it’s God’s voice speaking. It’s Eli. That’s significant.
So often in the Bible, when God comes and speaks, there’s someone else on hand to help interpret or to help the person realize it’s God talking. For Jeremiah, that was Baruch. For Moses, it was Aaron. Even for Jesus, at the start of his ministry, it was John the Baptist. Rarely does God speak without someone else there, present, to help legitimize the voice and to offer interpretation or understanding.
It’s like how the Bible talks about speaking in tongues. Almost always, when someone is legitimately speaking in tongues, one person is doing the talking and someone else in the room is doing the interpreting. It’s not the same person speaking and interpreting.
Consider this very famous verse: where two or more are gathered in my name, there I am with them. Where two more more. Not where one.
Hearing God speak isn’t a solo affair. We’re far too fallible, far too human, to hear from God on our own. We need someone else to help us discern. We need someone else to walk the road with us to help us recognize what we’re hearing and why we’re hearing it.
Years ago, I found myself wrestling with something inside of me that I couldn’t understand. The feeling had a growing urgency to it. But I couldn’t understand the feeling and the growing urgency. I couldn’t interpret it.
I sat with my boss, who had become a mentor, one day talking about how I was feeling, sharing with her my gnawing confusion. She asked if I’d ever thought about becoming a pastor. A lightbulb went off. She interpreted my inner feelings. The urgency left me. I knew I was hearing God speak to me, calling me to become a pastor.
Sometimes, hearing the voice of God is like that; it’s a feeling, a sense of urgency, that someone else helps us understand.
You’ve heard me share the story of the man at Dana’s parent’s old church who came out to me, pressed $200 into my hand, and told me that the Holy Spirit had told him I needed it more than he did. He’d talked that through with someone else before he did it. He felt compelled to go and do, felt like he heard directly from God, but wanted to confirm it first by speaking with a spiritual elder.
I could tell story after story like this. When God speaks, two or more people are needed to validate and understand the voice. And God does speak, God still speaks, but to verify and understand what God is saying requires community.
That’s one of the reasons we have the church. And it’s why it’s so important to have spiritual elders in our lives: people whose faith we respect; people with whom we can have open and honest spiritual conversations and get direction.
How do we recognize the voice of God?
Sometimes, in our personal prayer life, we will feel a sense of peace, or love, or joy, that’s indescribable and unexplainable. That’s God. In the past, I’ve referred to that as God speaking. But really, as I have processed this sermon, I realized I’ve muddied the waters. Feeling that kind of inexplicable feeling isn’t hearing God speak; it’s experiencing God’s presence. They’re related, but they’re different.
We experience God’s presence when we pray or we worship or we’re engaged in a spiritual discipline and we feel that peace, we sense a joy, we know an abiding love. That is different from what’s happened here with Samuel. And it’s different from what happens when someone feels compelled by the spirit, like the man at the church who gave me $200, or when we have that internal feeling that someone needs to help us interpret, like when my mentor helped me hear God calling me to ministry.
Those are moments of God speaking and those moments are far more rare and they require two or more people.
So how do we recognize the voice of God?
We talk with someone about what we’re hearing. We talk about it with spiritual elders. We talk about it with pastors we respect. We talk about it at church. We go to community; where two or more are gathered in God’s name, God’s voice will become distinguishable, understandable.
How do we discern the truth?
In the same way. We do it in community. Not online community, where there’s an echo chamber of people repeating what someone else has said. We need to have honest and frank discussions of what we’re sensing through our prayer lives, what we’re feeling when we engage in our spiritual disciplines.
Which, of course, means that we need to be committed to our spiritual disciplines.
We discern the truth when, through regular and sustained engagement in spiritual disciplines, and especially prayer, we take what we’re learning and sensing and feeling to our church, to our spiritual elders, to our faith community, or come and talk to me, and process it together, because it’s through community, through talking about it with others, that we find the truth, that we come to understand and recognize God’s voice. Where two or more are gathered in God’s name, God is there.
How do we recognize the voice of God?
In community. With others. At church.
It’s essential that we practice our faith in community with others. That’s made more difficult right now because of the pandemic, but there are ways we can do that. There’s the private Facebook group for members of the church. Have you joined? I have offered several online classes. If I were to offer another, would you sign-up? Do you have friends with whom you can talk about your faith? Do you call or text and have those conversations? Even here, during worship, we can chat more in the comments and talk about what we’re feeling and experiencing. Do you engage with others during worship?
Even in this pandemic where interaction is not as easy and free as it was when we gathered in the church building, there are ways of engaging together. It takes a little creativity but, even more so, it takes initiative. Will you take that initiative today?
It’s essential that we practice our faith in community with others. Then we will recognize God’s voice. Then we will be better equipped to discern truth, sifting through all the bull that’s out there. Then, we will be on the path to spiritual maturity.
Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there with them.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.