Tonight our subject is 'Listening to God'. That is a huge subject. Obviously, it will relate to the Bible. That, too, is a huge subject requiring much discussion and some defence. However, tonight I have just two headings. They are two questions: First, Why Are You to Listen to God? and, secondly, How Are You to Listen to God?
1. Why Are You to Listen to God?
Let me give just three of a number of reasons:
The first is that our God speaks and supremely in and through Jesus Christ. That is why we need to listen to God. For in speaking he is so unlike any other alleged god or ultimate being or entity. As Hebrews 1.1-3 say:
"Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high."
So as God speaks to us, you need to listen to him. It is as simple as that. Supremely you need to listen to what God says through the Old Testament prophets and others about the promised Messiah, the Christ, and about the world and the human race. Also, of course, you need to listen to the New Testament on how Jesus lived and taught, died for our sins, rose again and is ascended back to his Father. There he is now, reigning and ruling. However, he will return cosmically, but visibly, one day to judge the living and the dead. That is why the New Testament is so important. And the Resurrection of Jesus leaving an Empty Tomb is hard evidence for the reliability of the rest of God's written word, which Jesus endorses. So the Bible deals with reality, not myth; and fact, not fiction.
Why listen to God? The first answer is because God is speaking, and speaking to you supremely in, and through, Jesus, our Saviour, as recorded in the New Testament and prefigured in the Old Testament.
But secondly, you need the truth, because conforming to error and evil is so easy.
From the proceedings of the Newcastle Coroner's Court, this past week, we've seen that (nation-wide) in the tragic death of a Newcastle student. And there are so many lies going around in this 21st century – not only about excessive drinking. Therefore, you need some benchmark – some reliable source of truth. That is because, as the sociologists tell us, our social environment powerfully conditions our beliefs. So some post-Christian individual says that this or that clearly immoral behaviour is right, or that some fundamental Christian doctrine that the Bible clearly teaches is wrong. Then probably not just reason dictates your response. For you may be led to believe and act against reason.
That is because, in place in our wider society, are what are called 'plausibility structures'. They mean you can be conditioned to feel that such new immoral teaching or new false ideas are to be believed. 'Conditioning', of course, is the friendly term. The unfriendly term is 'brainwashing'. And this conditioning (or brainwashing) comes from education, the media, legal judgments in our law courts, theologically heretical clergy, and from elsewhere. And all this is not just a hunch. There is good evidence in the form of the Asch Experiment, named after the psychologist, Solomon Asch. Some of you will have heard of it. For those of you that haven't, the experiment takes the following form.
A volunteer is told he (or she – it was a male in the case I witnessed) is taking part in a visual perception test. What he doesn't know is this. The other participants are actors and the volunteer is the only person taking part for real. And the test is about group conformity. In the experiment, the group (made up of actors and the one volunteer) are told that they will be tested regarding their perception of line length. Their task is simply to look at a line on the left of a screen and say which of the three lines on the right is equal to it in length. The actors have been told to match the wrong lines, with all the actors following the lead of the first actor. The volunteer is then monitored to see if he gives the correct answer or if he goes along with the opinion of the group and also gives the wrong answer.
In the experiment, I saw (on film), in the first test the correct answer was line two. The first actor then said, "one", the second then said, "one" and the third said, "one". Then came the turn of the volunteer who paused and with surprise and hesitancy in his voice said, "two". Then the final actor said, "one". In the second test (with a different set of lines) again the correct answer was two. This time the first three actors said, "three"; and this time, after a long pause, the volunteer also said, "three", followed by the final actor saying "three". This, then, was the comment on the experiment:
"The Asch Experiment has been repeated many times and the results have been supported again and again. We will conform to the group. We are very social creatures. We are very much aware of what people around us think. We want to be liked. We do not want to be seen to rock the boat. So we will go along with the group. Even if we don't believe what people are saying, we still go along."
I read somewhere that 75% of people in the tests conform – 3 out of 4. But if such is the case, how you need a clear benchmark to test what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what is false and how you need God's strength to stand for the truth. For we live in a world that can be as confused as it was in the 8th century BC when God said through the prophet Isaiah:
"Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!" (Is 5.20).
In Old Testament times there were benchmarks provided by the prophets. But you now have a far greater benchmark as Hebrews 1 tells you, in our Lord Jesus Christ – God's word come in human flesh. So how you need to listen to God's written word that is about Jesus Christ and why we all need him.
But, you say, 'wasn't all that in the Bible just for the millennium before Christ and the 1st century AD?' No! It applies today. As we heard in our Old Testament reading, Isaiah 40.8:
"The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand for ever."
So you need to listen to God because you need the benchmark of God's truth - the truth about Jesus, and about this world and yourself and why you need saving.
Thirdly, you need to listen to God as his word leads to new birth (or being saved) and new strength, as we heard in our New Testament reading (James 1.18):
"Of his [God's] own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first-fruits of his creatures".
That is absolutely vital. For in his written Word, the Bible, God tells you how to have new life, how to be saved, how to be "born again", how to be filled with God's Spirit. These are phrases speaking about that move from the darkness of the world into the marvellous light of Christ, with sins forgiven, with new power to stand for the truth and with new life in God's kingdom which starts now and lasts forever.
I wonder if there is anyone tonight who needs to hear that word? God's simple word through Paul is in Romans 10.9.
"If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you will be saved."
And note: 'heart faith' is trusting and obedient faith, not just intellectual assent. And Jesus says you should seal that faith commitment in baptism – and there is an adult baptism and renewing of vows service next week. We must move on.
2. How Are You to Listen to God?
Again there are three answers I want to suggest. First, supremely (as we've been thinking) your listening should be biblically - biblical listening and meditating on the Bible. But five things need to be said about that.
One, do actually read the Bible. The tragedy with the modern world is that there is what the prophet Amos called a famine (I quote) …
"not a famine of bread, not a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord" (Amos 8.11).
And Jesus was so emphatic – quoting the Old Testament:
"Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God." (Mat 4.4)
So read the Bible regularly – daily.
But, two, plan your listening. Individually you can use Bible reading aids that are available at the back of the church in the Resources Area. And also plan to study the Bible with other Christians, in small groups like Home Groups, Focus groups or Beginners groups. And hear Christian teaching on the Bible. That is one reason it is so important coming to church and hearing sermons based on the Bible, and hear it from great Christian teaches down the ages. And you should hear God's word reflected in biblical hymns and songs. Colossians 3.16 says:
"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God."
Then, three, listen by reading the Bible wisely. For it must be appropriately interpreted - if history, as history; if poetry, as poetry; if prophecy as prophecy and so forth. And interpret it in the light of Article 20 of the Church of England, which says:
"it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God's Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another."
For, as the great pre-Reformer, John Wycliffe said, the Bible "cannot be corrected" – it is "incorrigible" because it is God's word. And listen to the Church's corporate wisdom down the ages on the Bible.
Then four, you must remember that the Bible is the fundamental test for false claims to God speaking, by false prophets who teach false teaching in the Church (1 Thessalonians 5.21):
"Test everything; hold fast what is good."
And you do need to test every such claim, for there are false prophets and even "false signs and wonders" (2 Thessalonians 2.9). So neither subtract from, nor add to, the teaching of the Bible as false teachers do.
Five, therefore, listen supremely to God through the text of the Bible - God's special revelation for his people. But also understand the Bible itself speaks of God's General Revelation. It is 'General' because accessible 'generally' to people who haven't heard the Bible's message. And this is God's indirect Word through Creation, Nature and Conscience. Psalm 19.1 says:
"The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork."
Then in the New Testament Paul writes about people who "suppress the truth" being "without excuse". And why? Answer: because …
"what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made" (Rom 1.18-20).
And in Romans 2.15 Paul writes that there is also a natural law about right and wrong written on people's hearts, "while their conscience also bears witness". That 'General Revelation' means that when you talk to your friends you can know this – that deep down (at least) there will be a consciousness of the reality of God and of his basic moral law. So you, too, should be aware of, and listening, to God's indirect word – that declaration and proclamation (as Psalm 19 puts) of God's glory, through God's creation and human conscience. That was a great motivation for some of our early modern science and scientists – God's book of nature. So in all those ways listen biblically.
But, secondly, listen not any-old-how but prayerfully. Pray, like the Psalmist, that the Holy Spirit will help you to hear God speaking as you read:
"Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law" (Psalm 119.18).
Jesus prayed to his Father for his disciples just before he died that God's word would be effective in them – John 17.17:
"Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth."
So pray for the Holy Spirit to lead you into truth. That is his great work. Jesus said in John 16.13-14:
"When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you."
So the Holy Spirit's great work is to glorify Jesus and to lead you into God's truth. And, then, pray for practical wisdom. Perhaps, you've got important choices to make – about marriage, moving house, new job and so on. Well, listen to God speaking through our second reading (James 1.5-8):
"If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways."
Asking "in faith, with no doubting" seems to mean 'you are not doubting that God knows better than you'. You are not "double-minded". You are not someone who has made up your mind and simply want God to bless your decision. For you are not really willing for him to say, 'No!' However, if you are genuine, God will guide you. But Psalm 32.8-9 is important, where God says:
"I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle, or it will not stay near you."
So don't think you can be like a horse with a rider on your back pulling on the bit all the time for direction. Don't think God will give you supernatural words all the time. Yes, sometimes there will be the seemingly miraculous. But most often you will pray, and then use your Christian mind. And you will listen to God's indirect word through other Christians' advice and God-ordered circumstances. So, you are to listen prayerfully as you read God's written word for what it is saying to you, and as you seek to hear God on practical wisdom.
Then, thirdly, and finally, you are to listen obediently. The next verses, following where our reading from James ended, are very important for listening to God. Look at James 1.19-21:
"Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls."
You are to listen to and "receive with meekness the implanted word [God's word]" (verse 21). So be teachable. Believe that God does know best. Then look at verse 19:
"let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger."
So when you hear God's word, don't react too soon, if it is difficult or seems hard. That is what people do with difficult passages of the Bible, especially today when they are counter-cultural. That is what they do with passages on a number of these modern ethical issues (for example, on sex, sexuality and gender). They get angry. So be "quick to hear" but "slow to anger". Then obey, however, hard. As James says in 1.22-25:
"But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing."
And he will be blessed, by being convinced of the truth of God's word, as he obeys it. Jesus said (John 7.17 - and with this I conclude):
"If anyone's will is to do God's will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority."