God is Speaking…are We Listening? [Part 2]
Unless we’re really obtuse, it’s pretty hard to miss the invitation to listen to God when He speaks to us in overt way. After all, what took place with Bill (as I described in Part 1) was very direct. I would have been a fool to ignore God’s voice in that moment.
How, though, do we catch what God is doing when He wants to speak to us in more subtle ways?
I learned this lesson during the very first week of the 1 Peter sermon series; the messages that arose from my study retreat after Bill’s prophetic word from God.
During the retreat, I spent hours laying out this series of messages that would take place over several weeks. I figured out texts, titles, and themes. Back at the church, we publicized the series in advance (as we always do) so everyone was in the loop. Our music leaders sometimes use the messages to plan their portion of the service. One of our children’s Sunday School teachers keys her curriculum to my messages. Many of our people like to read the Bible passages during the week to prepare for Sunday. So information was distributed and everyone made their plans.
In the week leading up to the 1st message, I had completed my textual research. I had figured out key points to address, and an outline was developed and placed in the printed program for Sunday.
And then I hit a bump in the road.
As I sat in my study on Saturday, trying to put the finishing touches on Sunday’s message, I kept getting more and more uncomfortable. I had lots of pieces that I could not fit into a coherent whole.
I wrestled with it for a couple of hours, thinking that somehow I was the problem. Thinking that if I could just get my mind in gear, I could nail it down. Thinking that this was my problem, so I needed to solve it.
So finally I did what I should have done at the outset: I prayed.
I asked God for some wisdom and insight. I even said something like this: “Lord, are You trying to get my attention? Are You trying to tell me something about this message?”
And the impression came back strongly into my mind: “Yes! Look again at the text with fresh eyes.” As I did, I saw it in a new way. I realized that I could (and should) divide this one message into two. I saw how this would result in two much better sermons. I felt a rush of heat through my body and said out loud, “Is this what You wanted me to see, Lord?”
I did not hear an answer, but there was a sense of conviction that this was the solution I needed.
Yet immediately I thought of all kinds of reasons NOT to proceed.
If I made this change, the entire series would be bumped back a week. It would throw off the schedules of various people. The outline in Sunday’s program would be wrong and useless. I would have to write a new message from scratch! And it already was Saturday afternoon.
These objections – and more – bounced around in my head.
And yet I could not shake this thought: “Are you listening to Me, Bruce?”
How is it possible to “know” things that can’t actually be proven? I never could convince anyone that God was speaking to me in that moment, but I know – beyond a shadow of a doubt – that He was.
So I wrote a whole new sermon and changed the schedule around. On Sunday morning, I told the church what had happened and – like me – they were rather amazed.
The two new messages (Week 1 and Week 2 of the series) certainly were an improvement over what I originally had planned, but they were not earthshaking. I found myself wondering why God had wanted me to make this change. Perhaps He simply wanted me to see that I had not been listening to Him closely enough during my study retreat.
That may be true. It also may be true that I heard God perfectly during the retreat…and that He wanted me to hear Him again, in a different way. In other words, I may not have misheard God the first time. He may have wanted to intervene in a dramatic way; prompting me to change the schedule at the last minute in order to make a point.
And I think that’s what happened.
Why? Because – by moving the schedule of messages back one week – we had an amazing moment.
One historical Friday (June 26, 2015) the U.S Supreme Court decided to legalize same-sex marriage. It was, in my view, an exercise of raw judicial power completely divorced from the democratic processes that our country is supposed to follow. It was, and is, a huge blow to a nation that long has understood and embraced the natural view (and biblical view) of marriage as an act which unites one man with one woman. I believed at the time (and continue to believe) that this decision will be a significant step in the erosion of religious liberty…particularly for those of us who follow Jesus Christ.
The decision was announced on Friday. Two days later, my text was 1 Peter 4:12-19…a text perfectly suited to our times. The title I had picked – weeks earlier – was “Don’t get burned by a fiery trial”. I
did not preach about “same-sex marriage”; I spoke about the issues faced by the First Century Christians to whom Peter was writing.
They were experiencing cultural and government harassment. They increasingly felt like outsiders in a secular world that had a growing dislike for men and women of faith. In that environment, they needed to trust more deeply in God...and not expect too much from human government. The parallels to our own day were striking.
At the end of the message, I made a few brief comments, beginning with this statement:
As you know, I plan each sermon series, in a broad way, months in advance. I certainly have no idea what will be going on in the world at the time I actually deliver the message. For example, I did not know that our Supreme Court would rule on same-sex marriage the week that I would be preaching on this passage. But our Heavenly Father knew. I believe He arranged the timing of this, because there is much in this text to guide our response to current events.
I then made some connections between the text and our circumstances. I talked about how we, as followers of Jesus, can respond to our changing world. We can remain faithful to God, and still extend love to our very confused culture. I was able to offer some words of hope and encouragement to our family of believers who were feeling a huge sense of cultural shock that day.
As I walked off the platform, all of a sudden it hit me: this timing would not have taken place without the change in schedule I made back on the first week of the series!
If I had not listened to God…if I had been unwilling to change…our church would have missed out on a key moment when God wanted to offer us a timely word of encouragement.
Once again, I had goose bumps. Once again, I was filled with awe. And I was filled with a growing awareness that God does want to catch our attention at times. He does want to speak to His people.
The key question always is this: when God is speaking…are we listening?