A Voice from the Cloud
Today is transfiguration Sunday, the day of the Christian calendar when we remember the date that Jesus went up the mountain with three of his disciples, and while they were there, the three were witnesses to a strange transformation. Jesus’ appearance changed before their eyes, and the disciples saw him talking to Moses and Elijah, two of the most important figures in Judaism, who had actually been dead for centuries before Jesus was born; so this seemed a little strange to them. Then a cloud came over them, and gave them a very important message.
This scripture passage really resonated with me, because all this week I too have been getting messages from a cloud. The scripture passage makes it sounds so exciting, but believe me, it’s actually quite annoying! I keep trying to ignore it, but it just keeps on coming back, the same message over and over: “Your data could not be backed up because your iCloud storage is full.” J Of course, they want me to spend money to buy more storage in the cloud. Why do messages from the cloud always have to cost something?
I suppose the message that Peter and James and John got from the cloud was a little different, because, of course, this was a different kind of cloud. This was not the voice of Apple that they were hearing, but the very voice of God. And while there’s still a cost involved, it’s a price that’s worth paying because what we receive in return is worth so much more than the price we pay.
The voice from the cloud says to Peter, James and John, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” The cost, then, is their obedience. Are they willing to do what Jesus tells them? When Jesus tells them something, will they believe him, no matter how strange it sounds to their ears? Because a lot of the things Jesus said sounded strange to human ears. When Jesus tells them to do something, will they do it? Or if he tells them not to do something, will they obey him? Will they listen to him?
This is an important question for us too…are we willing to listen to Jesus? Because God is still speaking to people, and quite often he will guide us in our decisions, or warn us not to take a certain path that will cause harm to us or others, but a lot of people don’t know how to recognize when God is speaking to them because we haven’t been taught how to listen. I wasn’t taught how to listen until just a few years ago, so now one of my biggest passions is teaching others how to listen for God’s voice, how to recognize when God is guiding us. It makes such a huge difference in our lives. That’s why I’m teaching the Hearing God course in May.
A question I’m often asked as a Minister is “how can I know what God wants?” Or, stated another way: “how can I recognize God’s voice if I’ll never be in a cloud on top of a mountain while physically walking with Jesus?” Because, while I personally know a number of people who have experienced hearing God speak to them in an audible voice, many of us have not experienced that ourselves. I have not, although I would not be surprised one bit to hear from others here in this sanctuary today who have.
Francis Shaeffer was a 20th century Christian philosopher and Presbyterian minister, who shares the story of his own remarkable experience of hearing God speak to him in an audible voice. Shaeffer and his young family needed temporary housing during a time of transition, but they had little money. They really needed a minor miracle. In prayer, Shaeffer asked God, “Lord, where can we live? Please show us.” Immediately he heard an audible voice – not a voice in his head; and he was alone, so it was not a voice from another person. The voice simply said, “Uncle Harrison’s house.”
Though it was perfectly clear, the answer made no sense, because his uncle was living in his house. It was very unlikely he would offer up his house for their family of 4 children to live in. But he felt the voice was so clear and so direct that he had to listen to it. He wrote to his uncle, asking him what he planned to do with his house for the next year. To his astonishment, his uncle replied that he was planning to live with his brother for the next year and would like to offer his house free of rent to Shaeffer and his family for that year.
Over the years, I have heard many similar stories of God providing clear, audible answers to prayer. So does that mean that God doesn’t speak to us if we don’t hear an audible voice, as Peter, John and James did? No, God speaks to his children in many different ways; He is not limited in the ways that He communicates with us. Humans tend to communicate in ways that are perceived by the senses: we speak and hear; we read and write; we use sign language or body language that can be seen; we communicate by touch, with a hug…or maybe a slap! And nothing communicates love quite like the taste of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. There may be ways to communicate by smell, but I’m not sure I want to know about them…maybe roses?
God also communicates with us through our senses sometimes, but God is not limited by our human senses. So, if we haven’t heard God speak to us with an audible voice (or even if we have) what are some of the other ways that most of us have heard the voice of God? There are actually quite a few ways that are attested to in the Bible and in the history of the church (and that some of you have likely experienced), but I just want to highlight a few that are probably more common.
Last week we talked about Joseph, and the dreams he had that were messages from God. There are many other examples of dreams both in the Bible and in the history of the church, including the story of St. Augustine’s mother, Monica, a devout Christian woman who had a dream when her son was 19 years old that the two of them were walking hand in hand in Heaven, despite the fact that her son was not walking with God. The dream encouraged her, and she began praying intensely for him. But he had given himself over to a full-time occupation of drunkenness, sexual immorality, and turning people away from God through his philosophical speculations.
For nine years Monica continued praying, trusting in the dream she had received, despite all evidence that her son was lost; until finally one day, Augustine had his own powerful experience of hearing God’s voice that completely transformed his heart…and had a profound impact on the history of Christianity, as St. Augustine has gone down as one of the most influential theologians the church has ever had. But his mother, Monica, a simple, faithful, loving mother, received this great encouragement from God through a dream.
Not all dreams are messages from God, of course, at least not on their surface level. When I was 31 years old, I was startled awake from a dream, where I heard a voice say to me, “Marilyn Monroe died when she was 36 years old; Princess Diana died when she was 36 years old; maybe I will die when I’m 36 years old!” I’m afraid to speculate on what was going on in my subconscious mind to make me connect myself with Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana, but there it is! Whatever the reason, this dream terrified me and I cried about it for days.
I talked it out with a trusted mentor of mine and was able to discern that this was not the voice of God, because that’s not how God speaks to his beloved children. First of all, God does not tell us when we are going to die. How do I know that? Some of you may say, “no, I think God told me when I’m going to die.” I’ll go into the ways we can discern if it’s God’s voice we’re hearing, but I feel pretty confident in saying that if you heard a voice telling you when you are going to die, I do not believe the voice was from God.
Furthermore, while God will sometimes do dramatic things to get our attention, God is a perfect, loving parent and doesn’t speak to us by terrifying us.
It is interesting to note though that when I was 36, my life changed dramatically. That was the year that I graduated from seminary and was ordained and moved away by myself to Nova Scotia; but it was also the year that I had a kind of “conversion” experience, not in that I became a Christian, of course; but events in my life at that time caused me to rethink my whole theology, my whole relationship with God, and I became much more committed to a life of Christian discipleship. So, I didn’t physically die, as you can see (unless you thought I was still only 35); but in a sense, an older version of me died at that time, and I experienced a powerful life renewal. So on a deeper level, it may have been a message from God, just not in its immediate, superficial meaning.
Another common way that God speaks to people is through other people. If you’ve ever had multiple, unconnected people say to you the exact same thing, seemingly “out of the blue,” it’s worth praying to see if God is trying to tell you something.
If you’ve ever heard something in church, in a sermon or prayer that seemed to be exactly connected to what you’re going through, but the minister doesn’t even know what it is you’re experiencing or thinking about, it is almost certainly from God. God knows exactly what you’re experiencing or thinking about, whether the minister does or not. This is more common than you might imagine.
One time I even had someone greet me at the door at the end of a service, and they said to me, “when you said ‘such and such’ (I don’t remember what it was) it was exactly what I needed to hear!” And, shaking their hand, I smiled and thought to myself, “I’m pretty sure I said the exact opposite of what you heard.” I didn’t say that to them; but I thought to myself, ‘well, I guess God can speak to people through me; and I guess God can speak to people in spite of me!”
It is quite common for God to speak to us through dreams or through other people, and there are other ways God may speak to us, but the most common way God speaks is not the audible voice that Peter James and John heard; rather it’s the “still small voice” that the prophet Elijah heard when he himself was up on a mountain…and not just Elijah, but many other people in the Bible attest to this quiet voice, which the prophet Nehemiah described as God “putting something into his heart.” This inner, still small voice usually takes the form of thoughts that are our thoughts, but they’re clearly not from us; they’re thoughts that we would never have thought on our own.
Sometimes people will decide to do something or say something, and they’re not sure why they decided to do it, and it really makes no sense; but later on they discover that it was very important that they did. Some people describe this still small voice as a conviction or prompting or an impression, and it’s often accompanied by feelings of peace and confidence.
The danger with the still small voice is that it’s a gentle word that bypasses our senses to go directly to our spirits, so it may be easily disregarded if we think God wouldn’t ever speak to us, or alternatively, if we assume that God only speaks in dramatic, explosive ways.
No matter how God chooses to speak to us, how can we discern if what we are hearing is from God or not? Peter, James and John were in a situation that left no room for doubt, but for the rest of us it can often seem more confusing and ambiguous. For the dream I had (when I heard the voice telling me I would die when I was 36), I was able to discern that it was not God’s voice by reflecting on the components of what is known as the Wesleyan quadrilateral.
Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, taught that we can discern if what we’re hearing is from God holding it up to the light of Scripture, of Apostolic tradition, of our own experience of God, and of Reason. Scripture is God’s self-revelation; it’s the way He has revealed who He is through the nation of Israel and specifically in the person of Jesus Christ. If we hear something that is contrary to Scripture, it is not God’s voice. Apostolic tradition is the teaching of the church that has been held by Christians since the time of the apostles. The best of the best Christian thinkers throughout history keep us from going off the rails with our own idiosyncratic ideas about God. Experience is personal – why do I believe that God is love? Because some of my experiences have taught me that love is a powerful force in the world. And Reason is our ability to use sound judgement and wisdom in helping us to discern God’s voice.
These four ways of discernment help us to avoid the trap of assuming that if something “feels” good to us then it’s from God; because while hearing from God will often elicit an emotional response, we need to be able to discern beyond our feelings and emotions, which can also deceive us.
The term Wesleyan Quadrilateral is kind of a misnomer, though, because Wesley did not understand these four ways of discerning God’s voice as equal, but in a pyramid of authority with Scripture as the most important, Apostolic tradition after that, and Experience and Reason as the least important and insufficient without the other two.
I’ll be teaching about this more in the Hearing God Seminar in May for those who would like to learn how to go deeper into their prayer life to include listening for the voice of God. Prayer is a two-way street, but often we focus on telling God what’s on our mind and leaving it at that. But God wants to respond to our prayer – God wants to speak to us, words of comfort, of guidance, of wisdom and love. Learning to listen is an important step in the process of growing into spiritual maturity, and an important way to receive all the blessings that God wants to give us. God spoke from a cloud to tell Peter, James and John, “this is my Son – listen to Him!” This was for their benefit, not His! Amen.