Today’s reading is from the account of Jesus’ life written by John. In the first half of his book, John shares some of Jesus’ teaching and the miraculous signs that he did to show that he was the Son of God. In the second half of his book, John shares in detail the things that Jesus said and did in the last week of his life on earth. Jesus and his friends have arrived in Jerusalem for a Jewish festival called the Passover, where they remembered and celebrated the way that God had rescued them from slavery in Egypt hundreds of years earlier. It is the night before Jesus died and they are gathered together in an upper room to eat this special meal together:
After the meal Jesus talked to his disciples about what would happen after he had gone, and why he had to return to heaven. Jesus said to his followers, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”
Jesus promised that when he returned to the Father they would send the Holy Spirit to be with his followers to support, guide, encourage, empower, and perfect them. We know that he kept this promise because later on, in the book of Acts, we are told about what happened at the harvest festival called Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came to the disciples. But the promise wasn’t just for those followers of Jesus, it was for everyone, throughout the ages, who has chosen to follow Jesus. And that includes us.
So, if we have chosen to follow Jesus, then we have been given the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus promised. And one of the things that Jesus said the Holy Spirit would do would be to speak to us, things that the Spirit hears from the Father. And the Spirit does this to guide us into truth.
So, if the Holy Spirit is speaking to us, then it seems to me that it is only polite if we listen. But it is more than common politeness. There are all kinds of voices speaking into our lives. There is the voice of our family, our colleagues and bosses at work, the television and media, the advertising agencies, the surrounding culture, speaking to us, telling us what they think we should do, how we should live our lives, what decisions we should make, what we should think. All these voices, some of them helpful, some of them deeply damaging.
But there is another voice, the voice of the one who created us, who knit us together in our mother’s womb, who loves us so much that Jesus came to die for us, who has so much power that Jesus was raised from the dead, defeating death once and for all. This is a voice that I think is worth hearing, that I want to learn to recognise more and more because I know that all it speaks to me and over me is good, and wholesome, and healing. This is the voice of the Holy Spirit.
So, how does the Holy Spirit speak to us? Well, let’s have a think for a minute about the different ways that we have of communicating with one another.
Writing, drawing, sending a message via someone else, talking directly.
We have a whole lot of writing from God in the Bible. Often the Holy Spirit will speak to us through the Bible. As we read it a verse or idea might suddenly spring out at us, or grab our imagination. Sometimes we’ll be praying and a verse from the Bible will come into our minds that has something to do with the situation or person we are praying for. It is very simple for us to hear more from God in this way. We just have to read the Bible more. The more we read the Bible, the more opportunities we give the Holy Spirit to speak to us through it. The more we read the Bible the more we have in our minds for the Holy Spirit to remind us of when we are praying. If we want to hear more of what the Holy Spirit is saying to us, then a good first step is to read our Bibles more and to ask the Holy Spirit to speak to us as we do.
Sometimes the Holy Spirit will speak to us by giving someone else a message for us. The Old Testament has a lot of this in, of prophets, God’s human messengers, bringing God’s word to the people. In the New Testament we read of the spiritual gifts of words of knowledge, of wisdom, and of prophecy. All of these involve someone speaking what they are hearing from God to someone else. I can say from personal experience that it is really encouraging and builds up my faith when someone who doesn’t know me, or my situation, says something to me that makes complete sense and helps me in my walk with Jesus.
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and that can be true for the Holy Spirit as well. Sometimes an image or picture will come into our minds that seems to be important in a particular situation. On some occasions we’ll know why it’s important immediately and on others it’ll take a little time to work it out, and we might need to share it with other people. These images can help us to pray, give us insight into what is happening, or might show us something that will happen later.
We might also experience the Holy Spirit talking to us directly, through thoughts, words, or ideas that come into our minds. Sometimes I experience this as a conviction that I just need to do something. Sometimes that will be when we are awake, sometimes it will be in dreams when we are asleep.
However the Holy Spirit speaks to us, we do need to confirm that it is the Holy Spirit we are hearing, and that we are hearing correctly. The Bible teaches us that there are deceiving spirits who try to mislead us. We also know ourselves, and even our physical hearing isn’t always great and we can misinterpret what people are saying to us. There are different ways that we can check out what we think we’ve heard.
The first one is easy. The Holy Spirit will never say something to us that contradicts the Bible. For example, if you believe that God is saying to you that you should leave your husband or wife because you’ve fallen for someone else, then you are not hearing correctly, the Bible is clear that this is wrong. If you think that God is telling you that it’s OK not to forgive someone for something because what they did was really bad, then you are not hearing correctly. The Bible is clear that we are to forgive others as God forgives us. This takes us back to the importance of really knowing our Bibles.
It gives us opportunities to hear God’s word to us, and helps us to check whether what we think we’re hearing really is God speaking.
The second thing to do is to check it out with other Christians. One of the great things about following Jesus is that we don’t walk on our own, we walk with others. When we have decisions to make, and we are trying to hear what God is saying to us, we don’t have to listen on our own. We can listen and check out what we are hearing with others. The reality is that some of us are better at it than others. Just as some people have really good hearing and have trained themselves to tell the difference between a sparrow and a starling singing, some people have really good spiritual hearing and have learnt, through experience and gifting, to recognise the Holy Spirit’s voice.
The third thing to look out for is patterns or themes of things being said to us at different times, or by different people. A good example of this is something that happened to me a few weeks ago. I was at an event and someone was praying for me and for the church here in Priorslee. This person said that he felt drawn to a verse in the book of Isaiah, “Enlarge the site of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back, lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes.” Now, when I first came to Priorslee, we had a service here when the bishop came to licence me for the work here. At that service I gave everyone a tent peg to take away with them to remind them to pray for us, and one of the verses we used in our prayers that night was this verse from Isaiah. I emailed this round to a few folk, and Karen reminded me that she had emailed me earlier in the year with this verse as well. So that verse has come to us over a period of time, from different sources, twice recently. What God saying to us through it, I’m not sure yet, but I am fairly sure that God is saying something and we will need to act on it as a church. It is much easier to see these patterns and themes if you write things down. That is why we have a record of all the things that people have suggested God might be saying to us about the church in Priorslee in this book.
Having heard from God, we then need to decide what we are going to do about it. As Psalm 95, that we talked about earlier put it, “today, when you hear his voice, do not harden your heart”. We have to do something about it. We have to follow. Jesus told a story about two men. One built his house on rock – dug proper foundations and everything. It was really hard work. Such hard work that the other man couldn’t be bothered, he just built his house, without foundations, on the sand. Then the rain fell and the river rose. What happened to the two houses? The one on the sand collapsed and the one on rock stood firm. Jesus said that the one who built on rock was the one who heard Jesus’ words and put them into practice. It might be hard or costly in the short term, but in the long term its the only way to have a secure life.
A little later we’re going to share bread and wine in obedience to Jesus’ command to remember him. When we’ve done that we’re going to have a short time of quiet, with some music playing. Some space for you to ask God to speak to you, and for you to decide on what you’re going to do about it. It may be that you feel that you want to share it with everyone else here. If so, then come and have a quiet word with me and we’ll decide together if that is the right thing to do. It may be that you just want to talk it over privately with someone later on, or to keep it in your heart and act on it at the right time.
“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”