On the popular show, House M.D., the main character says, “If you talk to God, you’re religious. If God talks to you, you’re psychotic.” I would say that this is a pretty accurate reflection of the perception that the secular world, and even often the religious world, has about interaction with God. It seems quite normal and appropriate for someone to pray to God. But we don’t often pray expecting to hear the voice of God responding back to us. Maybe it’s because we aren’t listening, maybe it’s because it seems impossible, or maybe its because we just don’t recognize God’s voice when God’s speaking to us. However, the Bible gives us several examples of how God speaks to people. Mainly I see God as speaking to people in three different ways.
Sometimes God is loud, tangible, and in your face.
Imagine this: You are shepherding your father-in-law’s flock of sheep. You go through the wilderness, over some mountains. Just a typical day helping out the family, right? Well, all of a sudden, you come across a bush, and it’s on fire; big, crackling, flames kind of fire. At first you start to panic, worried that you and your sheep might be harmed by whatever or whoever caused such a fire so far out here, but then you look again. Though the bush is surely aflame, it somehow is not burning up. You come closer, curious to see what exactly is going on here. And then, you hear a voice. God is calling your name. “Moses, Moses!” (Exodus 3:1-4)
The story just gets stranger from here. God then tells Moses to remove his shoes, because the ground he is standing on is holy. God identifies God‘s self and Moses hides his face, intimidated by the awesome God that speaks to him. God tells Moses to bring the Israelites out of Egypt and Moses is incredulous. “You want me to do what?”
Moses fears God’s presence and God’s commands. Moses argues with God, pleading not to be sent.
This type of response within the Bible has always frustrated and confused me. It’s odd to me when I read such stories in the Bible, that someone would hear the true voice of God, knowing that it is God, and not automatically respond. I feel like sometimes it is so hard to understand the specifics of where God wants us to go or what God wants us to do, and here Moses, hearing God speaking to him, would rather pass the responsibility off to someone else.
Fortunately, God doesn’t leave him there in his incredulity and insecurity. God legitimizes Moses’ leadership through a series of plagues and miracles. God spoke to Moses and through Moses, was able to save a whole people from slavery, whether Moses really wanted to follow God to this sort of leadership or not.
Yet, even when we are scared of the call God places on our lives, I have to admit, I still feel so much better just in the knowing what God is directing me to do. I’d give anything for that kind of clarity, when God speaks in the second way I noticed God speaking in the Bible, speaking through silence.
This way is very hard to understand, because at the time it seems like God isn’t saying anything. These are the times when our lives become overwhelmed with sadness, devastation, sickness, or grief. In these times our circumstances are so loud that we may not even think ourselves capable of hearing God speaking to us.
And when we are in the midst of experiencing such terrible things it really is hard to understand people who will say it is all in God’s plan or that it is for some divine purpose. Such a story takes up an entire book in the Bible, giving us the story of Job.
Here is Job. A man whom we are told is “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turns away from evil.” (Exodus 3:1-4) We are also told of his ten children, his expansive collection of livestock, and his devout practices of burnt offerings on behalf of his children. Job has everything anyone of his time could wish for, but then Satan enters the story, and as you may imagine, things get complicated.
Within a few paragraphs Job has every possession and loved one taken away from him. Yet, despite Job’s grief and suffering, he maintains that it is all within God’s plan. It’s hard to understand the Jobs of the world who process loss and pain, without questioning their faith. We read the book of Job and we, like Job’s friends want Job to snap and curse God. And though Job curses his own life, he will never curse God. And I believe that is the lesson of Job, not as some interpret it that God allowed terrible things to happen, but that God transcends our experience and our ephemeral earthly possessions and relationships, and gives us an eternity of hope and peace beyond what we are capable of knowing on earth.
More often than not though, I believe that God speaks in whispering voice as we see in our lectionary passage today: “The LORD said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.” (1 Kings 19:11-12, NIV)
The voice that Elijah hears is not loud. It is not the type that sets aflame our passions and the bush in the Horeb mountains. No, instead God presents God’s self simply in a whisper to Elijah. However, if you look back on the entirety of the passage, God does not just speak through the whisper, but through all of the actions of the angels working on God’s behalf. God is present and vocal through the shelter of the broom tree and cave; the providential bread and water; and the near voice of God, the Lord, who speaks intimately with Elijah, even preparing him to listen for God’s voice.
This same accompanying voice of God speaks into our lives, our relationships, and our sense of vocation. This voice may be hard to recognize since it is rarely one that identifies itself as God’s own. This voice most often comes from those in our communities: siblings, teachers, parents, co-workers, and congregation members. These people call us by name, not out of a burning bush, but out of their desire for the goodness of God’s will to be manifest in our lives. God uses such people to reveal God’s self through community. Community, according to John Calvin, was not only important, but essential to faith. He believed that it was only through communion with others that we were able to know anything about God both through the history of the Christian church and through God’s presence revealed through the words and actions of one another.
When I think of God speaking through others, I can’t help but think of the show Joan of Arcadia. In the course of each episode God speaks to Joan through custodians, school secretaries, legal stenographers, school outcasts, and my favorite, a seven-year-old girl. Each manifestation of God becomes known to Joan as God, when each addresses Joan by name, as God does throughout Biblical narratives. These manifestations of God relate to Joan’s current struggles, sometimes giving her seemingly obscure or random tasks to complete. Throughout the course of each episode the purpose for such a task is revealed, and the character of God within the show explains how God is using the small things Joan does for a greater purpose.
I believe that God truly does speak in this way, providing communities and people in our lives to point us towards God’s call for our lives. I personally, have heard God whispering to me, calling me towards ministry in the church. This started first as a whisper of my parent’s will for me to be incorporated into the Christian community through my baptism. The whisper came again through church members who taught me in Sunday school classes, Vacation Bible School, and youth group. When I began confirmation class, and he encouraged me to take on various leadership roles within the youth group and church, the whisper got louder. The joy that I found through both participating in worship and leading devotional groups and retreats helped me to make out just a few of the details of this whisper. God was calling me to ministry.
Now, after my second year of seminary, I continue to experience these whispering calls through my interactions with others and the opportunities that come my way, calling me to further service of God’s kingdom. Such a call has led me here today, in worship and fellowship with you. I am grateful for your support in allowing me to take part in this community, and it is my hope that we will whisper what we believe to be God’s will to one another throughout the following months, so that God may be further revealed among us.
It is my prayer that as you go out into the world today, you may listen for the many ways God is speaking to you, and that you may be willing to seem at least a little crazy in hearing and responding to God’s call in your life.