How Does God Speak to Us?

Listen! Did you hear that? God speaking?

The witness of Scripture is clear: God seeks a relationship with God’s beloved people, and a relationship requires two-way communication, including language and listening, conversation and connection. In those ancient days, some of this Divine dialog was direct: A voice came from heaven saying…

Often, human prophets became the messengers and mouthpieces: Thus says the Lord God…

On one memorable occasion in the Old Testament book of Numbers, a donkey channels God’s Word to keep wavering Balaam on the straight and narrow.

But how does God speak to us? If you’re like me, you’ve never heard voices or received a clear message from on high. So when we voice our prayers, do we expect God to respond?

When we seek Divine guidance, do we hope to receive insight that illumines the way? As Presbyterians, we listen for God’s Word in Scripture, but never suppose that it contains the literal words of God.

Instead, we look to Scripture as the witness to God’s essential meaning to humanity: God who created us and all people in love and for love, whose purpose for everyone is life, and who invites people to participate in the Divine work of repair and restoration and reconciliation in the Kin-dom on earth as it is in heaven.

Our morning text offers one compelling way God’s Word may be perceived directly. It’s from the early days of Jesus’ earthly ministry, as he is gathering followers to join his movement. Here – and in many other accounts – Jesus makes a direct ask: Follow me. But keep listening.

The call to follow also comes through another voice, friendly and familiar. A reading from the good news according to John, in the first chapter, verses 43 through 51. Listen for God’s Word to you and me, realists and skeptics and very busy people— hungry though we be. [JOHN 1:43-51]

The sign greeted worshipers at the entrance to a great cathedral: Enter this sacred space and trust that you will hear God speak. However, it’s unlikely God will call you on your cell phone, so please silence it. If you want to see God, send Him a text while driving.

Well, an all-purpose warning against relying too heavily on technology. And yet, the sign acknowledges that God will speak to us, an important reminder of a truth we often ignore—or perhaps it’s that we’re too distracted to pay attention.

And when you think about it, does God really bother communicating with individuals when there are whole nations that need to hear Divine proclamations of peace and justice?!

Our doubts about that find resonance in Nathanael’s reactions when confronted by the enthusiasm of his friend Philip: We’ve found him! The ruler long-promised in the law and the prophets!

I picture Nathanael calmly taking another sip of his goat milk smoothie, slowly putting it down, and saying in a bored tone: Oh really? From Nazareth, that little backwater town? Yeah, right.

The next two things that happen are how the voice of God breaks through. First, Philip doesn’t settle for Nathanael’s negative response. He asks again: C’mon. See for yourself. And second, Nathanael gets up and goes. He doesn’t stay stuck in his perspective but seeks more information.

I wonder if this may help us understand why we seldom hear God’s Word to us. We simply don’t expect to. It’s not the way things happen; it’s so unsophisticated.

And we don’t even try to imagine anything else. We know what we know. We question the source; we pooh-pooh the excitement of the Next Big Thing. We know better.

What might happen, friends, if we were open and receptive to hearing God’s Word, say, in worship? In the human, imperfect words of your donkey-pastor? In the music, in the silence, in the post-worship conversations with friends and visitors?

And where would we go to “see Jesus” in our day and time? Some say it would be among the “least of these,” our neighbors and siblings Jesus came to serve.

The thing is, the voice of God is spoken through the words of people. Through the caring card you received when you were recovering from surgery, through the worried and weary voice of an immigrant looking for housing. Through the phone call, inviting you to consider a call to become an elder or deacon.

A number of years ago, one of our members was telling the children’s Bible story and came to a part where God spoke directly. Damn, if God didn’t sound exactly like Jon Dreux!

In the Biblical story, Nathanael seems persuaded when Jesus greets him with what Nathanael considers to be an extraordinary perception. Jesus has miraculously identified him right down to the type of tree under which he was seated!

Then it’s Jesus’ turn to be skeptical. Oh, dear Nathan, you are in for far more than magic! You’re going to see heaven and earth brought close through the love that rules the whole world. Through the actions of Jesus—and those of his followers—Love reconciles and unites.

So yes, God’s Word is spoken in places where the hungry are being fed, the unhoused are sheltered, those in captivity to substance use disorders are being treated, and persons struggling with illness of body or mind experience healing. God’s Word is spoken when those of opposing viewpoints reach across the aisle to work toward the common good. God’s Word is spoken in the voices of millions around the globe, crying out for a ceasefire in Gaza.

God’s Word can be heard from the mouths of babies and toddlers, gurgling in delight at the wonder of this beautiful world. God’s Word can be heard in the provocative questioning of teenagers and young adults who won’t be satisfied with pat answers and the same-old, same-old.

God’s Word is conveyed every Sunday as we greet one another in peace. Can God’s Word be spoken on the Internet, in social media? The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte, known as the “Tik Tok Pastor,” and her 100% online worshiping community called Our Tapestry, say assuredly, “Yes!” as she proclaims God’s love and acceptance into cyberspace to many who have felt rejected by traditional church teaching and witness (Bethany will be our preacher in two weeks).

Like Nathanael, we will exercise judgment about all sources purporting to speak God’s truth. We will weigh those words (be they from the New York Times or Fox News or Joel Osteen) on the scales of Biblical witness, Jesus’ teachings about justice and mercy and peace, and most of all in, whether they reflect the greatest commandments to love God wholly and to love neighbor as self.

We might disagree about how best to apply those sources in contemporary life, but if we “hear” them through these faith filters, we will not go wrong. God’s Word is truth, and perhaps we need, first of all, to listen more carefully, more thoughtfully, more critically, and more lovingly to the human voices through which it may be spoken.

For me, the biggest impediment to hearing God’s Word in daily life is my distracted mind and heart. John Philip Newell is a pastor and best-selling author whose writings on Celtic Spirituality have captured the imaginations of many, including me.

Newell observes that we are all immersed in an ocean of images and voices, our “pinging” phones, the constant bombardment of competing urgencies, discouraging news, and worries about many things, leaving us feeling scattered and stressed. His remedy is the practice of paying attention.

God is not ignoring us. God is with us, and God’s Spirit will guide us into all truth.

I don’t want to end a sermon on how God speaks to us just with words and more words. Instead, I invite us into a brief time of silence, a practice designed to increase our awareness of God’s voice bubbling up from the deepest chambers of our beating hearts.

(This exercise is from Newell’s website)

Simply relax into your seat. Free your hands of anything you’re holding, and place them on your legs, palms upward. Shut your eyes if that is comfortable for you or find an object upon which to focus. Consciously slow your breathing. Breathe in and let the movement raise you upward.

Breath out.

Breathe out, and let the movement help you sink into yourself. 

As you breathe upward, silently say, “Send out your light.” Feel your body expanding.

We are opening ourselves to the One who dwells at the heart of life.

Then, as you breathe downward, repeat, “Let it bring me to your dwelling.” Allow yourself to experience being led to the light within you.

Send out your light. . . . . . . . . let it bring me to your dwelling. . . . .