Written by Pastor Bryan Niebanck
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end”Lamentations 3:22
Who here has ever wondered if you are hearing God? [raise hands?] We might liken the idea to hearing someone walk in the door at home, when we ask, “Is that you?” to confirm that it is really who we think it is and not someone else we might not be expecting. If you have ever asked that question, “Is that you?” when you are talking to a person, have you ever thought about using it with God? When have you stopped what you are doing and said, “God, is that your voice?” If we are here in church today, chances are that we all want to hear God, and when we do, we want to be sure that God is the one we hear. We want to be able to expel all doubts that we are hearing God and not our own voice, or the voice that an evil force wants us to believe. We have learned so far in our conversations on prayer this year that, first, we will not really hear God if we do not choose to set aside the time to spend with God, and second, we will not hear God if we are not trying to listen for God in more than one way. But when we do these things well, and we pray and we think that we hear something back, we want to check it at the door. As Paul once told us, “Test everything, and hold fast onto what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
I want to tell you a story about a certain Jesus fountain in Ashland. It is in the middle of the seminary campus, and I passed by it every day while I was going to seminary. I had a few good prayer moments sitting at that fountain. About a month ago, I was visiting a friend in Ashland, and I decided to stop by the fountain for some renewal and clarity with the Lord. I especially needed clarification that I should move forward in seeing one particular person whom I met back in August. I asked God if this would be the right path for me. After spending 45 minutes in prayer, moving back and forth between the fountain and the nearby prayer garden, I had returned to the fountain and I heard two words: “Look up.” I told God, “The only thing I see is the sky.” God said back, “Exactly.” Her name happens to be Sky, and that was my answer in that moment. God does not always answer in crystal clear terms, but He does give us what we need.
You might be wondering how I knew it was God in that moment. I actually did too, in that moment. I did not end my prayer immediately after I heard those two important words, because I wanted to make sure that it was God. I stared into the eyes of Jesus in the fountain, and I felt an overwhelming sense of calm. I felt that I knew it had to be God because I heard it while I was focused on God, and God alone. I had cleared my mind of all other distractions. Satan wasn’t getting into my mind very easily either, because when you spend time with God, and fill your mind with things of God, even Satan is crowded out. When God fills your entire mind, and you hear a voice, it is likely God. When you allow God to have all the space, God will take up all the space, because God is infinite. There is no room for your voice, your friend’s voice, or Satan’s voice; only God’s voice. First, we know that it is more likely God when God speaks when we are praying. We are focused on God and not on other idols or passions.
Second, we know the Lord more intimately, and thus what the Lord says, when we do more than just what we ought to have done. Luke 17:10 implies that we should go further than just the bare minimum when the response Jesus gave to the apostles, asking him to increase their faith, is this: “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” We might know that God is the one we hear if we have done more than just the bare minimum to know the Lord. We pray. We study scripture. We read books about the Lord. We try to gain and understanding of the Lord from our own experiences as well as from the experiences of others. Then we can compare the words we hear with the sense of God’s character that we have gained. We can test the words against God’s character, which, again, Paul told us to do, so that we know whatever it is, is of God or not of God.
We can be more assured that we hear God when we know we are focused on God and God alone, such as in deep prayer, and also when we have tested what we have heard against God’s character, which we have studied and experienced. Third, we should pay attention to what is going on around us. As an example, Jeremiah knew that he had heard the voice of the Lord through his own hearing when, in fact, it came true: “The word of the Lord came to me: Hanamel is going to come to you and say, ‘Buy my field, for the right of redemption is yours.’ Then Hanamel came to me and said, ‘Buy my field, for the right of possession and redemption is yours.’ Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord” (Jeremiah 32:6-8). The Lord can confirm that we are hearing God by having the things actually happen. Sometimes we just need to be sure we are actually listening to what we are hearing, and then paying attention to the world, to be able to recognize it and make the connection that Jeremiah did. Further, God can often confirm what he is saying through a repeated verse that keeps coming up in a sermon or a book on the very topic you are struggling with. Last week, I received an automated email which had a headline that read, “The third year is always the hardest.” It talked about Year 3 in the same role being the hardest hurdle to get through, referencing year 3 of the pandemic in relation to year 3 of any job. It seemed like perfect timing, since I have just begun Year 3 of serving as a pastor. It encouraged me to spend some time reflecting and to build stronger devotions and connections with the Lord. I truly believe that God speaks through some of these moments that are perfect timing. A friend tells you exactly what you need to hear. A particular sermon tells you exactly what you needed to hear in a particular moment. God uses these moments, as long as you are listening. This is one of many reasons why we should listen to wise counsel; not only might they have powerful tips to share with us, but God can speak to us through godly people in our lives.
On this, our World Communion Sunday, I have a bit of wise counsel that also appeared in my emails this week. It is from our Association Minister, Rev. Dan Busch: “We, who are like the disciples with our flaws, imperfections, and shortcomings, are invited to take our places “at the TABLE.” The TABLE is a place of acceptance, love, sacrifice, reconciliation, and love where we join with Christ and the entire community of faith to be witnesses to God’s transforming power in our lives. We receive blessings of forgiveness, hope, and call to be witnesses of God’s Good News in both Word and Deed. “This is the joyful feast of the people of God. Men and women, youth and children, come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and gather about Christ’s TABLE.” We all celebrate our union tonight at this table that we are invited to. God invites us – all of us, around the globe – to share in Christ’s body and drink of Christ’s cup, so that we all might know God more intimately, have a closer relationship with God, hear God more, and KNOW that we ARE connected to God in a special way.
The readings from Lamentations and Psalm 137 may seem a bit off to us this week. They may be a bit depressing, in fact. Common themes between the two include weeping, lamenting, and grieving. Maybe we can relate. We want to ask God so many “why” questions. But at the same time, the scripture lessons do not show an empty “why” question. The emotion and expression is taken to the Lord in prayer. When everything does not go right, as we would like it do, both for ourselves and more importantly for the expansion of God’s kingdom, we could complain and turn to our own idols, or we could turn and cry to the Lord in prayer, knowing that God is with us. We may be able to be confident that God is shedding that tear with us, and if we listen carefully, we may realize the words that God is speaking tenderly back to us.
“The authors of Lamentations, of Habakkuk and of many psalms see trouble and cry to the Lord. Much lament rises from the interrogative mood. How long, Lord, how long? Why, Lord, why? When, Lord, when? It’s important to see that lament makes no sense if God is indifferent or off duty. Lament makes sense only if God is present, addressable and full of steadfast love. So the author of Lamentations pauses in the middle of five chapters of lament to testify to one ray of hope: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end” (Lam. 3:22). The author finds hope and love because he is lamenting in good faith. Unbelief shakes its fist at God or dismisses God or tries to get an invasive God off its back. It’s faith that laments. Faith wrestles with God because trouble and enemies and terror are all anomalies in God’s world. They don’t belong there. In a world in which the King of the universe has steadfast love, these things should not happen. But they do, and so the believer points them out to God and laments them. These terrible things should not be” (Cornelius Plantinga Jr. 2013, senior research fellow at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship in Grand Rapids, Michigan).
Being in the midst of what we face does cause us to doubt that God is the one we hear. We may think that we are only hearing what we want to hear, and/or that God may actually be absent. Yet, may you be blessed to focus on the ray of hope that the authors of the Bible still find in the most difficult times: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end” (Lam. 3:22). First, you know that God is with us, no matter what. God’s love does not cease. Second, knowing that God has not left us, you feel prone to pray and listen to what God tells you while you are not focused on other things. You are patient in prayer and do not give up. You test everything that you hear against God’s character. And third, you listen to other ways that God may communicate with you that is not through direct prayer. How do you know that God is the voice you hear? Keep listening. Do not end your prayer there. Keep your ears and eyes open. Pray more about it, and watch for God to confirm things in other ways. God closes doors and opens windows, places things before you in your path especially when you need them most, and guides you in your steps. May you be blessed to know the presence and the power of God through your persistency in prayer. May all glory and honor be to God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
1:1 How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal.
1:2 She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies.
1:3 Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress.
1:4 The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter.
1:5 Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper, because the LORD has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions; her children have gone away, captives before the foe.
1:6 From daughter Zion has departed all her majesty. Her princes have become like stags that find no pasture; they fled without strength before the pursuer.
137:1 By the rivers of Babylon– there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
137:2 On the willows there we hung up our harps.
137:3 For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
137:4 How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
137:5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!
137:6 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.
137:7 Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!”
137:8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!
137:9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!
17:5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
17:6 The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
17:7 “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’?
17:8 Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’?
17:9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?
17:10 So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'”