Why: Why doesn’t God speak to us like God speaks to people in the Bible?
Today we’re beginning a new sermon series called “Why: Asking Tough Questions of Faith.” Each week, we’ll be exploring together one of the faith questions that seems to be a question that many people had, questions that I’ve heard throughout my ministry, questions that Christians have struggled with for generation upon generation. We’ll wrestle with these questions together, and see what we can learn from the scriptures, from God’s direction, from our experiences, and from each other. I have to warn you right at the start that I can’t promise to give the answer to these questions we’ll wrestle with. If they were easy questions to answer, they wouldn’t be questions that people have wrestled with over centuries. But we’ll do our best to be thoughtful and inquisitive and turn to our best sources of wisdom as we try to find God’s voice, God’s direction when it comes to challenging faith questions. Sometimes people get anxious when it comes to questioning and faith, fearing that expressing doubt or confusion or concern is a sign of a weak faith. But I feel strongly that asking questions about faith is a sign of strength. It’s a sign that we’re exploring and struggling and searching, and I think that our searching is what leads to growing in faith. So together, we’ll question, search, and hopefully grow together as we explore.
Today, we’re starting with this question: Why doesn’t God speak to us now like God seems to speak to people in the Bible? This is one of the questions I’ve been asked regularly throughout my years as a pastor. After all, in the scriptures, we read about God speaking out from a burning bush, or God walking through the garden where Adam and Eve lived, or speaking from an overshadowing cloud, or Moses speaking with God on the mountaintop, so in the presence of God’s holiness that Moses’ face is glowing – all these very dramatic ways of getting someone’s attention. Then, even when there are not appearances of God in these dramatic forms, instead, there are dramatic appearances of angels: the heavenly host singing of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds, Jacob wrestling with an angel all night long, angels telling of Jesus’ resurrection to the women at the tomb. And yet, I’ve encountered very few people who have said that they have heard God’s voice in direct, clear way, or experienced angels in dazzling white. So why doesn’t God speak with us like this anymore?
Today’s scripture text from Genesis is a great example. In chapter 11 of Genesis, we find a long record of genealogy, and the first mention of a man named Abram, who with his wife Sarai and some of his extended family settles in a region called Haran, a place in present-day Turkey. We don’t know anything else about Abram at this point. And then as chapter 12 begins, it starts with these words: “Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”” The next verse tells us, “So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.” And I think, of course he did! Of course Abram did what God said – because what God said was clear and direct and unambiguous! When Abram gets to where he can look into the land of Canaan that God has promised, the text tells us that Abram builds and altar to God “who had appeared to him.” We don’t know any details about how God appears to Abram, but the point for us is that God did appear. And again, I think: Of course, if God just appeared to me, I would be able to hear what God was saying and know what I was supposed to do. So what’s changed? Does God not speak in the same way anymore? And if not, why not?
I think when it comes to hearing God speaking to us, there are a few things we can think about to help us understand why it seems like things are so different. First, I think what we perceive as a difference in how God acts in the world often might actually be a difference in how we speak about our experiences, how we use language, how we describe events. Our language is different today than it was in the Bible. We understand the mind differently, and we have different ways to express how people experience the world around them. For example, the field of psychology has given us lots of ways to speak about what goes on in our minds. We can speak about our conscience and our subconscious. That we might engage in thoughts and behaviors that we’re not really even aware of in the moment, or that we might have moral wrestling in our mind, as we struggle to determine the right course of action – I don’t find these themes anywhere in the scripture, because we didn’t study these concepts, find a way to describe them, until much, much later. So, we don’t read: Abram and his family started feeling like perhaps they should move to a new place, and that God might bless them in new ways if they moved, and this idea just kept tugging at them, and they weighed all the pros and cons, and finally decided that they needed to take a risk and that yes, God was with them in their decision, yes, God was leading them to a new land. Instead, we read: God spoke, and Abram went. Maybe, though, if the authors of Genesis were contemporaries of ours, they’d use different language, different metaphors, to describe how God spoke to Abram.
Another reason I think it seems like God speaks to us differently is because we are different and so we’re expecting different things from God. Here’s what I mean: I’ve shared with some of you before that part of the process of becoming ordained in The United Methodist Church includes undergoing a psychological assessment. For part of this, you have to answer a survey with hundreds of questions that then get processed to assess your mental fitness for ministry. A repeated question on the tests appearing in multiple different ways is something like: “Do you hear voices telling you what to do?” The expected answer is, of course, “No!” But I always found this to be a fascinating question for potential clergy to answer. We speak all the time about feeling called by God, about God speaking to us. But we also have this clear sense that “hearing voices” in the way we often use that phrase today is a potential sign of a mental illness. If I started “hearing voices,” my first thought would not be that God was speaking to me. I might think I was being pranked or that there was a scam, a trick being played on me. And if that wasn’t the solution, I’d start to wonder, seriously, about my mental health. I’d go to the doctor. And I don’t think I’m alone in that. And so, if I am not likely to respond positively to God speaking in this way – if I’m more likely to doubt and question than trust and act, why would God try to get a message to me like this? I think God is pretty wise, and so God is wise enough to speak in ways we can hear. I think about how we send out meeting reminder messages from the church office. Usually, we send emails. But not everyone has email, and over time we’ve learned that some people who technically have email never actually check their email. How much sense would it make for us to keep emailing someone about a meeting when we know that they are never going to see the message? In the same way, why would God keep sending us messages that we aren’t going to hear?
Finally, I think sometimes God is speaking, but we’re just not hearing it, not listening, not recognizing God’s voice for what it is. We’ll be talking more about God and prayer next week, but I’m reminded of the illustration that talks about a person trapped in their home, praying for rescue from a flood. They’re convinced God will save them. A person comes by in a truck, and another in a boat to help, and finally in a helicopter, all trying to rescue the person, who keeps refusing help because they’re waiting for God to save them. When the person meets God face to face, and wonders why God didn’t save them from the flood, God explains that God sent help three times, only to be refused. I wonder, sometimes, if God is speaking to us in different ways, but we’re so focused on our plan of what we think will happen, how we think God will act, that we can’t see God right in front of us, calling our name.
So, how is God speaking to you? How have you heard God in your life? As a pastor, I’ve had lots of practice talking about my “call” to ministry. I can say that God “called me” to be a pastor, but that simple sentence doesn’t reflect the long struggle of trying to figure out what God was leading me to do. But since part of becoming a pastor includes being able to share my sense of call again and again, I’ve had more practice than many of you in thinking about how God speaks to me. I can tell you that I went through a period of time when I was sure I wanted to do anything but go to seminary, even though I wanted to find a way to serve God with my life. But lots of people that I trusted and looked up to kept asking me whether I had thought about seminary, whether I had thought about becoming a pastor. There was no single moment where I heard God’s booming voice telling me to be a preacher. But there were so many little moments of people pointing me in the direction of answering God’s call.
After I started on that journey, when I was in college and visiting seminaries, I had narrowed it down to two choices: Wesley Seminary in Washington, DC, or Drew Theological School in Madison, NJ. After weighing the choices, I settled on Drew, and began sharing the news with folks in my childhood church. One woman there was Bertha Holmes, the widow of a United Methodist pastor. I, along with everyone else in the congregation, deeply admired her spirituality and strong faith. When I shared my choice with Bertha, she said: “Oh, I prophesied that you would go to Drew.” I’d never heard Bertha say anything like this before. She was more quiet and contemplative than someone I would call “a prophet” who made declarations about what she knew would be. And perhaps because of this, her words were all the more powerful. I immediately felt content with the choice I had made. If Bertha prophesied that I would go to Drew, to Drew I would go. I strongly believe that God was speaking to me through Bertha.
And I’ve told you before of the vivid dream I had about my late grandfather, Millard Mudge. There wasn’t much to the dream other than Grandpa looking healthy and whole and giving me a big hug, and me telling him, “I have missed you so much,” and it all feeling so very real that I woke up with tears in my eyes. I don’t think God is speaking to me in all my crazy dreams, but I do think that God was at work in this one, bringing me comfort, and an abiding peace knowing that my grandfather was well in God’s eternal care.
How has God spoken to you? How can we make it easier for God to speak to us? I think we can learn from our forbearers in the scriptures. They had no doubt that God would speak to them, and so they seemed to be ready to listen and respond. Can you cultivate your trust in God by studying the scriptures, by praying regularly, by listening more? If you are interested in exploring more deeply God’s call for your life, I also have resources I can share with you, tools for discernment, for figuring out what God wants you to do. Talk to me, and together we can find some practices that will help you listen for God’s voice. I think we can be on the lookout for God’s messengers: that’s the literal meaning of the word “angel.” If other people keep suggesting that you take a certain path, if they keep telling you that they see a certain gift or strength in you, it just might be that God is speaking to you through them. Will you listen? And when you’ve heard God’s voice, whether you hear God’s voice from the burning bush, or you hear God in the persistent tug of your subconscious, will you claim you call? Will you respond? Will you answer?
God does still speak to us. Let’s listen carefully. Amen.