Acts 9:10-19 & Matthew 7:24-29

Speak Lord

I have a bit of a soft spot for good old Ananias. There he is, minding his own business in Damascus, when one day God speaks to him in a vision. In scenes reminiscent of the call of Samuel in the Old Testament, God starts with a simple call of a name. “Ananias”. Now, compared to Samuel, Ananias is pretty quick on the uptake, and responds immediately, “Yes, Lord”. Then the Lord tells Ananias what he’s to do, very specific instructions including an address, the name of a person and an action to be completed. Ananias is a bit unsure about this, he’s heard of this, “Saul” and queries the instructions. The Lord repeats them and Ananias goes. He finds Saul and prays for him, and Saul’s sight is restored. And Ananias disappears from the story, never to be heard of again. Apart from Paul’s retelling of the account later in the book of Acts.

Here is a man who is a faithful disciple, as Paul later describes him, “a devout observer of the law, and highly respected by all the Jews” who is so attuned to God’s voice that he recognises it as soon as God speaks to him, who is confident enough in his relationship with God to have a bit of debate about what he’s being asked to do, but who then does it, and thereby sees God at work in one of the most dramatic of conversions, and yet we know nothing else about him. I wonder how many other people’s names God called in Damascus that night? People who didn’t recognise God’s voice, who weren’t willing to obey, who missed out on seeing God at work in such astonishing ways.

In our reading from Matthew’s eyewitness account of the good news of Jesus’ life, we hear him coming to the end of one of his famous pieces of teaching, the sermon on the mount. Jesus has been teaching his disciples and the crowd about a whole range of things, from the upside values of the Kingdom expressed in the Beatitudes to the Lord’s prayer, from the generousity of God to the love of enemies. He concludes all this teaching with this short parable beloved of Sunday School teachers everywhere, contrasting the wise person who puts Jesus’ words into action and the foolish person who does not.

This evening we are continuing our sermon series on Biblical prayer, and tonight we are focussing on listening prayer. In some ways these two passages don’t say very much about listening prayer, but it seems to be me that they do teach the most important thing. The most important thing about listening to God is that we put what we hear into action. The most important thing about listening to God is that we put what we hear into action. It is not a spiritual exercise for it’s own sake, though it can take discipline. It is not so that we have a trump card in an argument or debate – who can argue with “God told me to”, though it can give us confidence in the face of opposition. It is not so that we can feel better about ourselves, though it can reassure us in dark times. The primary purpose of us learning to listen to God is so that we can obey and follow Jesus’ way.

The story is told of a job that was advertised for a telegraph operator, in the days when such things still existed. The interviews were due to start at 10am, and by 9:30 there were a crowd of hopeful applicants in the waiting room of the office. The working day had started and there was a lot of hustle and bustle about the place, typewriters going, people coming in and out. At five to ten another hopeful entered the room, and sat down on the last chair. A couple of minutes later he stood up, opened one of the doors out of the waiting room and closed it behind him. Ten minutes after that the manager came out, thanked everyone else for coming and told them that the position had been filled. They were understandably cross, and one of them protested, “Why did he get the job, he wasn’t even first in line to be interviewed.” The manager replied, “Since 9:15 this morning, there has been a message in Morse code playing in the office, “If you understand this message, knock on the second door on the right, the job is yours.”

It is my understanding that God is a communicating God. The very first thing that God is recorded as doing, in the first book of the Bible is creating the universe. And how was this done? God said…
Through out the Old Testament God spoke to people about what God was doing, what God was going to do, why God was going to do, what God wanted people to do. God speaks repeatedly. There are times when the voice of God is rare- as in the time leading up to Samuel’s ministry. For the four hundred years before Jesus, there was a great silence. Nevertheless, in Jesus, the Word made flesh God’s communication with humanity is restored. And as Jesus leaves he promises to send the Holy Spirit. The abiding of the Holy Spirit with us has many purposes and one of them, as the prophet Joel said, and as was confirmed by Peter on the day of Pentecost is that “sons and daughters will prophesy, young men will see visions and old men will dream dreams.” That is, God’s people will hear and recognise God’s voice and share what God is saying with others.

So if God is a God who speaks, and if obeying what we hear God saying is so important, why do we find it hard to stop and listen?

Let’s go back to that room of job candidates for a moment. What four things did they need to be able to do to get the job? Firstly they needed to be able to filter out all the extraneous noise – the typewriters, the office banter, the traffic outside the window. Secondly they needed to recognise the morse code for what it was, morse code. Thirdly, they needed to be able to decipher the code, understand the language, interpret the message. And fourthly, they needed the confidence to do something about it. They needed to do what the message told them to do.

What if listening prayer is like this?

How do we filter out extraneous noise? What are the equivalents of the typewriters, the office chatter, the traffic noise? What do we do with them to make sure that they don’t distract us? When I take time to listen to God, all kinds of things come rushing into my head. Some of them are work concerns, some are family concerns. Some of them are completely random. Sometimes it as simple as the traffic noise outside the window. There are a couple of things we can do to filter these out. The first is to ask the Holy Spirit to take the distractions away, to help us to focus on what God is saying to us. We then cooperate with the Holy Spirit by not inviting distractions or entertaining them when they arise. Some, like the traffic noise, can just be noticed and laid aside. Sometimes it can help to keep a note pad and write down distracting thoughts, so that we know they can be dealt with later. At other times it is helpful to pray a simple prayer, noticing the thing concerning us, inviting God into that situation and then leaving it with God. Simple prayers like “Lord have mercy”, or “Come Lord Jesus”, prevent us getting sucked into the issue and leave us free from being distracted.

How do we recognise the Morse Code, or in our case, God’s voice? Again, the first step is to ask the Holy Spirit to help us, to make us aware of God’s voice to us. We do also have a record of whole load of things that we know God has said in the past in the Bible. One of the reasons that it is important for us to read the Bible, both together and individually is so that we learn to recognise what God’s voice sounds like. We learn to recognise the kind of things God says, and the way in which God speaks. The Bible talks of many different ways in which God speaks. Sometimes it’s visions and dreams. Sometimes it is words of knowledge or insight. Sometimes it is through other Christians. Sometimes it is to communities together and sometimes to individuals in solitude. We are encouraged to test the things we think God might be saying to us. We do not have to do this alone, we might go to a trusted Christian friend and ask them what they think about what we think we’ve hearing.

Having filtered out the distractions, and recognised the voice, how do we learn to interpret the message? Sometimes this is simple. Ananias heard the Lord tell him to do something, and then he did it.
No interpretation needed really. But there are examples in Scripture where the interpretation was not so easy. In Acts 10 we read that Peter had a dream of a sheet being lowered from heaven with lots of unkosher animals in it and was told to kill and eat. He wasn’t having any of it, it didn’t tally with his previous experience of God. When he woke from this dream we read, “While Peter was pondering the meaning of this vision, the men sent by Cornelius arrived.” Peter discovered the meaning of the dream as he went with them and saw Gentiles coming to faith in Jesus. Particularly when it comes to visions and words of knowledge, it often takes a community to interpret them and to test them together. This can be a faith building and encouraging process as together we listen to God, and discern God’s call on our lives. It takes humility and a willingness to hear that we might not have heard God clearly or completely.

It is one of things I value about the Ignite events that we have those opportunities to share what we think God might be saying, to test it against Scripture, and to share together in the work of listening to God faithfully. It is what I hope that we are doing as we think about the vision for the parish. It’s why I brought a few pictures to the Annual Parish Meeting, why I asked home group leaders to feed back on what folk in their groups thought about them, why I want people to let me know what fires their imaginations and fills them with hope as they look forward in our church life. It is part of listening to God together and interpreting and understanding correctly what God is saying.

As an aside, the community of faith is also a gift to us when it seems like God is not speaking to us. When we follow all the instructions about how to deal with distractions, and we have asked the Holy Spirit to help us to recognise God’s voice, and we’ve searched the Scriptures, and listened and listened and there is nothing there. When it all just goes quiet. Those times can be heart breaking, particularly when they happen when we need God most. But they can also be the times of the greatest growth in our faith as we hold on by our fingernails, when we rest on the faith of others because we’re not sure there is much left of ours, when we cry out “My God, my God why have you forsaken me” and discover that we rest in the shadow of the cross. It is my conviction that God speaks, but it is also my experience, and the Biblical witness that sometimes God is silent. Nevertheless, I will choose to listen, and if all I hear is silence then I will choose to trust it.

And lastly, we return to the most important aspect of listening prayer, the aspect that we begun with. We come to the place of standing up, crossing the room, knocking on the door. The place of setting out for Straight Street. The place of digging into the rock to build the house. The place of obeying and doing. The place of being those who hear God’s words and put them into action. Speak Lord, your servant is listening.

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