Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67
Listening for God’s voice…seems like a simple task, right? There are books and podcasts on the topic; you can sign up to even go on retreats where people teach you to listen for God’s voice..for a small price.
…Yet for many of us, listening to God’s voice, if there is any voice at all, is quite difficult.
Do we listen to the Bible; the inspired Word of God? Well, what happens when some things in the Bible contradict the other things that are written about in the same book?
Do we listen to prayer? Some people say that God speaks in prayer. The problem, of course, comes when some people say that God wants something different than what we want. If I pray and God says the Cleveland Browns will win the Superbowl (are you listening God?), does that mean that God doesn’t care about the other teams in the NFL?
Prophets are a great way to hear God’s voice…until they say the unpopular thing. People enjoyed listening to Jeremiah…until they didn’t…when his warnings about Israel was realized.
Some people decided that the best way to listen for God’s voice is to set up a system based upon (once again) Scripture that gave us instructions as to who, exactly, would be the closest to God’s voice. Jesus says to Peter that the Church would be built upon him, the Rock. From this tradition the Catholic Church was formed, and there has been a Pope to utter the words of God for the past nearly 2000 years. This worked really well until people began to realize that the Pope and the Church leadership were getting a little too comfortable in their roles, a little too powerful, a little too Godly. In the 1500s people like Martin Luther and John Calvin said that we should ultimately listen to God’s voice alone, through the Scriptures, and not the edicts of the Pope, who was a human after all, subject to the same temptations, sin, and brokenness that we all encounter in our lives. Thus, the Reformation began, and Protestantism, and later Presbyterianism, will be born.
In a very similar way there were similar conversations about government, and who, exactly, should be leading, serving as the voice of a nation. During this time the Church was making many of the laws; after all, they were the ones who heard the voice of God.
Unfortunately for some of the people within these countries, this led to persecution, imperialism, taking away of wealth and property, and ultimately injustice and oppression. Some of these communities decided that it would be better to simply leave these countries and governments where they were being oppressed, and seek ‘greener pastures’ in places like the ‘New World’ of America. According to some historians, the first permanent settlement by Europeans in the modern US was Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607.
However, the question of listening to God’s voice continued. After all, who’s voice should we listen to in the New World now that we have some space between the Popes and Kings of Europe? Slowly a new conversation about government was taking place, largely influenced by the similar conversations that were taking place within Protestant churches. In 1776, Thomas Jefferson would write some of these ideas down in the Declaration of Independence:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,
History was made, but the question of listening for God’s voice of authority would not end there. The founding fathers would continue to debate how our nation would be organized and led. Many people who would be called Federalists believed in a strong central government, led by wise leaders of the nation; some even thought that a monarchy would be best for our young nation. Others, like Jefferson, would be called Democratic Republicans, and believed that our nation entitled each person (white man) to have a voice, and a vote in the future of this nation. The conversation and ideology has continued to this day as we are constantly discerning the best course for our lives in the modern world.
What is best for our country? For the world? For our church? For our families? For ourselves?
Sometimes there are easy answers; most times there are not. We see this as we watch our nightly news, read reports from our General Assembly denominational meetings, check in with neighbors at the grocery store, or scan status updates on Facebook and Twitter.
Both of our Scripture readings this morning have to do with listening for God’s voice in the midst of uncertain times.
Abraham’s servant is told to head back to the homeland to find a wife for Isaac. I’m not sure about you, but I feel like he’s in a pretty tight spot. I can imagine the conversation between Abraham and the servant:
Servant: ‘So let me get this straight. You want me to head back to your old neighborhood and find a wife for your son.’
Abraham: ‘You got it.’
Servant: ‘Can I take Isaac with me to help me choose? After all, it might help if he actually met the girl first before marrying her.’
Servant: ‘And you want me to convince this girl to come with me, a stranger, all the way back to this land, where she has no idea where this place is, no idea who her husband will be, and no idea who I am, who is asking her to come along. Do I have all of this correct?’
Abraham: ‘Yes. Perfect.’
So the servant does what anyone in his situation would do. He comes up with a full proof way to find this woman…by making a deal with God. He goes to get water at the spring, and the first woman to offer him water, he will ask for her to leave her life behind, travel with him across the wilderness, and marry a stranger, who happens to be Isaac. Sounds like a good plan to me.
In all seriousness, the authors of this story communicated to the people of this time how God was intimately involved in the ancestry of their people…now matter how zany it may sound today.
But is this what listening to God is all about?
In a different, yet similar way, Jesus is recorded as having the same thoughts about the people of his time. Jesus compares the people to children, who are short sighted and temperamental. John the Baptist would come as an ascetic, not eating or drinking anything profane and resisting the temptations of the body, and the people would complain about him. Jesus would be just the opposite, drinking and hanging out with ruffians, and the people would complain about him as well. I feel like this was the biblical form of social media before Twitter; people love to complain about anything!
And then he says something that I find challenging…and inspiring:
25At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.
Verses 25 & 26 leave us with a question to wrestle with this morning: Who IS God speaking to, and what are WE listening to?
If God chooses not to speak to the wise and intelligent, both attributes that I believe we can agree we all strive for in today’s world, then who is God speaking to? If we aren’t supposed to listen to the wise and intelligent leaders of the world, then who should we be listening to?
And if we are wise and intelligent, and it’s not God who is speaking to us, then who have we been listening to all of these years?
John Calvin would say that we have only one authority to listen to in this world, and that is God revealed to us in the Bible; and the Spirit will guide us.
Thomas Jefferson would say that we should listen to the people, who share such authority in this world, and it’s our responsibility as a nation to guide the people towards unity of mind and heart through logic and reason.
What do we say, in the year 2014? 238 years later, who do we as citizens of the United States of America listen to? Some 2000 years later, who do we as Christians listen to?
When there are no easy answers in the world to situations like terrorism, political unrest, hunger, poverty, and struggling economies, who do we listen to?
When there are no easy answers in the church to situations like interpreting Scripture, homosexuality, defining marriage, economic divestment, church governance, and membership decline, who do we listen to?
When there are no easy answers in our own lives to health issues, divorce, broken families, job uncertainty, and raising children, who do we listen to?
I’ll be honest in saying that I tend to agree with both Calvin and Jefferson in who to listen to for living in today’s world. As a Christian, I believe that God continues to speak to us in new ways through the words of Scripture. As a modern American, I believe that education, reason, and intellect leads to productive dialogue with other Americans, and for that matter other humans around the world, as we seek to live in today’s world.
Ultimately, however, we must rely on one authority. And as Christians, I find it most helpful to come back to our morning’s Scripture when the world gives us these issues of life. Jesus says:
28“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Both the story in Genesis about finding Rebekah and Isaac, and the message of Jesus in Matthew, share the Good News for us today: When we listen for God’s voice in the world, whether through the gifts of Scripture, or prayer, experience, or reason, we open ourselves to God’s grace offered to us in Christ Jesus.
We are made free today not only by the courageous acts of our ancestors before us, but by the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior. And we celebrate this fact each time we gather together to worship, each time we hear God’s Word proclaimed, and each time we share in the meal which he has prepared—the Lord’s Supper. We experience God’s grace, and live our lives as agents of God’s grace in response, when we listen and respond to God with the entirety of ourselves and our lives; our history, our reason, our own brokenness, and our faith.
Thanks be to God, who continues to speak to us. We, who often must seem like short sighted and impatient children in the way we talk and live our lives, who often look everywhere else but to God to find direction; we, who are weary and carry heavy burdens; God speaks to us, and offers us new life, liberty, and freedom in Christ Jesus.