March 4, 2012

March 4, 2012
Pastor Joe Wittwer


Part 4—Listen to God


    This is the fourth and final—and most important—talk in our Listen series.  We’ve talked about God listening to us, and listening to those we love and listening to our critics.  Sometimes I’m wrong.  Say that to your neighbor.  Today we talk about listening to God.  Does God really speak to us?

He does.  I looked at over 1300 verses in the Bible that use the words “listen” and “hear”, and most of them were about listening to God.  I’ve put a small sampling on your outline; we’ll read one OT and one NT example.

Isaiah 55:2–3

2 Why spend money on what is not bread,

and your labor on what does not satisfy?

Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,

and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.

3 Give ear and come to me;

hear me, that your soul may live.

This is one of hundreds of passages in the prophets where God pleads with his people to listen.  Why?  He wants to live—really live!  He wants the best for you!  

ILL: Why did I tell my toddlers not to play in the street?  I want them to live!  I wasn’t being mean; I wanted them to live.

The same is true with God: He speaks and wants you to listen because He wants the best for you.  Listen…come to me and live!  Then from Jesus:

John 10:27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.

In John 10, Jesus says that He is the Good Shepherd, and His sheep recognize His voice and follow Him. In this analogy of following Jesus, the emphasis is on the relationship between shepherd and sheep, and on listening—we are to listen to Jesus and follow Him.  Being a Christian is having a relationship with Jesus.  It is learning to listen and follow Him.  

    God is still speaking and leading.  The question is, “are you listening and following?”

The Big Idea: God is speaking!  Are you listening?  Here are three ways to hear God speak to you.

ILL: Imagine this conversation.  Someone says to me, “Joe, you’re not speaking to me these days,” I would ask them, “Are you coming to church each Sunday?”

    “Well, no, I do other things on Sundays.”

“Are you reading the things I post online or emails I send?”

“No, I haven’t bothered.”

“Are you willing to spend some time with me, so we can talk?”

“I’d like to but I’m pretty busy.”

I would have to say, “Well, I’m speaking, but the problem is that you’re not listening.”  

God is speaking!  If you want to hear God speak, learn to listen for His voice in these three ways.


1. God speaks through the Bible.

    Christians believe that the Bible is inspired by God; we believe that God has spoken through the authors of Scripture.  This is God’s word.

2 Timothy 3:16–17 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

All Scripture is God-breathed or inspired by God.  God is speaking.  And because God is speaking, it is useful.  God uses it to teach, rebuke, correct and train us in right living.  He uses it to equip us for every good work.  Think about that: wouldn’t you like to be equipped for every good work?  Have you ever been in a situation where you felt unprepared, ill-equipped—you didn’t know what to do?  Through the Bible, God will speak to you: He will teach you, rebuke and correct you when needed, train you and equip you for every good work. Read the Bible—it is inspired and useful—and let God speak to you.

Hebrews 4:12 For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

The Bible is the living and active word of God. When we read the Bible, God speaks to us, and works inside us.  Have you ever read the Bible and felt it judge the thoughts and attitudes of your heart?  

ILL: One night recently I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep.  My mind started racing.  Don’t you hate it when that happens?  Why does my mind only race at night, and just jogs in the day?  After laying there for an hour fretting, I finally got up at 2 AM and read my Bible.  I was immediately struck by something I read about encouraging others, and felt God saying, “This is for you.”  It cut right through all my anxious thoughts, stilled my racing mind, and soon I was back to sleep.  God spoke and straightened out my crooked thoughts.

God speaks through the Bible—are you listening?  It is the living and active word of God!

Luke 10:38–42 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Notice the phrase: “only one thing is needed.”  There are many good things I could do, but only one thing is needed.  I need to sit and listen to Jesus.  Let me say it again: only one thing is needed; I need to sit and listen to Jesus.  And one of the ways I do that each day is by reading my Bible and letting God speak to me.  

    We talk about PBJ time a lot: daily time with God to pray, read the Bible and journal.  We use a Bible reading plan that you’ll find on our website, in our journals, and on these bookmarks which you can get in the commons.  Here’s what we do: read the Bible every day. Ask Him for one thing for the day, then write it down in your journal and pray it back to God.  If you want some examples, I usually post my daily journal entries on our website on Pastor Joe’s Blog. Each day, sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to Him; let Him speak to you through the Bible.

    I know some of you are reluctant to journal.  Writing is hard and it takes time.  And that’s what makes it so helpful.  When I journal, it slows me down long enough to hear from God.  I usually start with one small thought, and as I write, it gets deeper and richer.  

ILL: For example, on Feb. 21, I read Numbers 8-9, and wrote this:

The Israelites were led by God through the cloud that hovered over the Tabernacle.  If it stayed over the Tabernacle, they stayed put; if it lifted and moved, they moved. I imagine they got up every morning and the first thing they did was look to the Tabernacle: “are we moving today?”  Every day started by looking to God first: what are we doing today?

I started with an observation about the cloud, but as I thought and wrote, I imagined getting up each morning, and the first thing I’d do is check the cloud.  “Pack up Laina, we’re moving.”  Or “Brew the coffee, honey, we’re staying.”

The lesson: start every day by looking to God first.  What are we doing today Lord?

Journaling slowed me down enough to listen, to go deeper, to hear more from God.

    Only one thing is needed.  I need to listen to Jesus.  I need to hear what He is saying to me.  So read the Bible each day and ask Him to speak to you!  God speaks through the Bible—are you listening?


2. God speaks through “the gentle whisper.”  

    What do I mean by “the gentle whisper?”  The phrase comes from a story in the Old Testament in 1 Kings 19.  The prophet Elijah has just won a showdown with the prophets of Baal, and Queen Jezebel has promised to kill him, so he is running for his life.  He is afraid, exhausted and discouraged.  At one point, he told the Lord, “I’ve had enough; just take my life.”  God sends an angel to feed and encourage him, and 40 days later, he is in a cave on Mt. Horeb, also known as Mt. Sinai, the mountain of God.  This is where God spoke to Moses in a burning bush, and later gave Moses the law.  Here, on this holy ground, God is going to meet Elijah.  

    God asks him, “What are you doing here?”

    Elijah answers:

1 Kings 19:10-13 “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

11 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. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Elijah was used to seeing God do spectacular things, powerful things.  But God was not in the powerful wind or the earthquake or the fire.  Instead God spoke in a gentle whisper.  Other translations render this “a low (or soft) whisper”, or “a sound of sheer silence”, or “a gentle quiet sound”, or “a still small voice”.

    WIND!  EARTHQUAKE!  FIRE!  Then, “Elijah.”  (whispered)

    God speaks through the gentle whisper, the still small voice.

    This is the internal nudge, the quiet voice in your mind and heart, the sense or feeling or thought that calls your name and says, “do this.”  We call these leadings of the Holy Spirit, or promptings, or words from God.  God speaks directly to our hearts or minds, but He doesn’t shout; it’s the gentle whisper that we miss if we’re not listening.

    If you read the book of Acts in the New Testament, which is the history of the early church, you will discover that the first Christians were led by the Spirit.  They listened for the gentle whisper, for God’s voice, and responded.  You can read the references on your outline from Acts.  Here’s one example.

In Acts 8, Philip is in the midst of an amazing work of God in Samaria.  Thousands of people are hearing the gospel and becoming followers of Jesus; many are also being healed.  In the middle of this, God speaks to Philip through an angel and sends him out onto a road in the middle of the desert.  No other instructions; just go to this remote road.  On the way, Philip saw a chariot with an Ethiopian government official in it.   

Acts 8:29 The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”

Here is the gentle whisper: the Spirit speaks.  So Philip goes to the chariot and hears the man reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, from Isaiah 53, a passage that predicts the suffering of Jesus.  What a coincidence!  Philip asked the man if he understood what he read, and the man said no and asked for help.  Philip started with that passage and explained the good news of Jesus.  The man believed and became a follower of Jesus and when they came to an oasis, Philip baptized him.  That man went home to Ethiopia and took the gospel with him to Africa.  The gospel penetrated a new continent because Philip listened to the gentle whisper: “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”  There are lots of stories like this in Acts!

    God speaks through the gentle whisper, the leadings of His Spirit—are you listening?  A couple questions:

    What does God sound like?  This may surprise you: He sounds like you!  God uses your vocabulary and thought forms to speak to you.  Many of us imagine God sounding like the Cecil B. DeMille version of God in “The Ten Commandments”.  “Moses!  Come up to the mountain.”  But when you read the Bible, you see that God speaks to us in our language.  The New Testament was written in Koine Greek, the common language of the people—street Greek, so everyone could understand.  And God’s ultimate word is Jesus: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  God became one of us—that is the ultimate in speaking our language!  So when God speaks to you, He will use your language, your thought forms; He will sound like you.

    How do I know it is God, and not just me? What keeps me from just doing what I want and saying that God told me to do it?  Obviously that can happen. So let’s admit, “Sometimes I’m wrong.”  Our capacity for self-deception is enormous!  I can hear what I want to hear.  

    So how do we avoid fooling ourselves, and make sure that we’re really hearing from God?  Notice that I put this point in the middle between points one and three: God speaks through the Bible and God speaks through people.  These two things—the Bible and other people—provide the balance that keeps us from error.  If what you are hearing contradicts Scripture, it is not from God.  If what you are hearing gains no support from others who know the Lord, you should question it.  More about that in a moment.

    God speaks through the gentle whisper—are you listening?

ILL: I am here because of a gentle whisper, a leading from God.  

    It started on New Years Eve of 1977.  I was at a church service and our pastor told us to ask God for a word for the New Year.  I did, and God whispered, “You will leave here and go pastor a church; I will show you where.  Don’t tell anyone; don’t try to make it happen.”  Then he gave me a verse: 1 Thessalonians 5:24.  “Faithful is He who calls you; He will bring it to pass.”  

    So I wrote it in my journal and started praying; I didn’t tell anyone, even Laina.

    Three months later, my pastor told me, “I was praying for you and God said it’s time for you to go pastor somewhere else.”  I smiled and showed him my journal and said, “I’m three months ahead of you, Pastor.”  I told Laina and we began praying.

    A month later, our district supervisor asked me to become the pastor of this church in Spokane.  We agreed to check it out.  We flew up on April 16, 1978.  It was grey day, cold and spitting snow.  I preached at the church—about 40 people were there, and we were not what they were hoping for!  Afterwards, we had a little time to see the city; we drove up Division and out Sprague—that’s all we saw.  I told Laina, “Spokane is the armpit of the Northwest!”  We flew home and didn’t want to come here.  But we promised our supervisor we’d pray for three days.

    On the third day, God whispered, “I want you to go to Spokane.” And He gave me a verse: Proverbs 3:5-6.  “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and don’t lean on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge him and He will make your paths straight.”  

    Then God used several people we knew and loved to confirm that word.  

    So we came because of a gentle whisper.  And God knew what He was doing.  We love Spokane, and we love our church!  

God speaks through the gentle whisper—are you listening?  Here’s a prayer that we’ll pray in a few minutes, and I hope you’ll pray every day.

1 Samuel 3:9–10 So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’ ” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

10 The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”

Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.

    God speaks through the Bible, through the gentle whisper, and:


3. God speaks through people.  (Ask ushers to bring communion.)

    The most obvious example of this is the prophets.  

Hebrews 1:1–2 In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…

God spoke through the prophets.  But in these last days He has spoken through His Son.  God became a man—to speak to us.  The Word became flesh!  God speaks through people—through the prophets, supremely through His Son, and through ordinary folks like you and me.  

    Have you ever been in a conversation and someone says something, and it’s like God takes a highlighter and underlines it for you?  You walk away thinking, “God just spoke to me through that person”

ILL: I was talking with my son Andy when our cat died a few weeks ago.  We were reminiscing about the cat; I said that she was always hanging around people, hoping to be picked up and held.  She always wanted more attention and affection.  Andy said, “Don’t we all?”  

    Three simple words—don’t we all—and suddenly I knew God was speaking to me, reminding me that every person I’m with wants attention and affection and I need to slow down and pay attention.  “Don’t we all?” has become a word from God for me—through my son.

ILL: Or last week I was talking with one of our staff, Cole Steinbach.  At the end of our conversation, Cole asked, “With all you have to do, how do you find time to think about the future?”  I thought, “I don’t have time to think about the future—I need some margin in my schedule to do that.”  And I knew that God was speaking to me through Cole’s question.  I scheduled some time to sit and pray and think about the future.  God spoke through Cole.

God speaks through people—are you listening?

    God also uses people to confirm the gentle whisper.  When we think we’re hearing something from God, it should match Scripture and resonate with other people who know the Lord. I’ve listed some verses about this on your outline.  One example: Paul insisted that he received the gospel directly from the Lord, through a revelation.  But he went to Jerusalem and submitted his revelation to the other apostles who had walked with Jesus.

Galatians 2:2 I went in response to a revelation and set before them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. But I did this privately to those who seemed to be leaders, for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain.

He was confident that he had heard from God, but he also knew that alone, he could be wrong, so he submitted it to others who knew the Lord.  There are no Lone Ranger Christians; we are part of a community of believers.  So we don’t hear from God in a bubble or a vacuum; we do it as part of the community, and the community helps us discern what is from God.  

    God speaks through the Bible, through the gentle whisper, and through people.  Are you listening?  I want to finish with this story and then we’ll take communion and take some time to listen.

ILL: In his book, The Divine Mentor, Wayne Cordeiro shares this letter he wrote to his son, Aaron.

    Dear Aaron,

    Today I’m speaking at a youth conference.  Earlier today while I was tuning my acoustic Martin guitar, the soundman cranked up some ear-piercing rock music.  I kept trying to tune my guitar by putting my ear closer and closer to it, but to no avail.  My guitar was no match for the high-powered speakers.  We didn’t have digital tuners, so I had to do it the old-fashioned way…by listening.  I put my ear right onto the wood itself, and then, regardless of how loud the music was, I could still hear my acoustic guitar.  But it wasn’t because my guitar got any louder.  It was because my ear got closer.

    Aaron, you’ll come to times when voices around you will be so loud that it will difficult to hear the gentle voice of our Savior.  Yes, He can speak in thunderous ways too.  But that wouldn’t require any faith to hear Him, would it?  God will always be speaking.  But sometimes in order to hear Him, we’ve got to bend our ears so that we will hear the very vibrations of His heart.  

    And Aaron, don’t just pretend to know Him.  Take the time to really know Him by listening to His heart.  And I think that is what really pleases God anyway.  He wants us to be a people who are willing simply to bend our ears to touch Him.  What pleases Him most are people who are willing to take time to listen every day.  Develop ears that hear.