08 Jan Dreams, Epiphany & Call: Hearing God’s Voice
1 Samuel 3:1-9 and Matthew 2:1-12
January 7, 2018
M. Michelle Fincher
Calvary Presbyterian Church
How would you describe your dreams? How many have vivid dreams? Do you remember your dreams?
Matthew’s second chapter tells of three dreams, and each of them convey divine guidance to the dreamer. First comes a dream that warns the Magi to steer clear of duplicitous King Herod. A few verses later, Joseph dreams of the Lord, who leads the holy family, now exiled in Egypt, back to Israel. In another dream Joseph is warned away from Judea where Herod’s son is ruling, and toward the Galilean town of Nazareth where Joseph settles his family.
Fortunately for those of us who seldom remember our dreams, like me, dreams are not the only way God communicates with us. The English word epiphany is rooted in the Greek word epiphaneia. An epiphany is a revelation, a manifestation and divine revelations can come in many different forms. For example, in the Old Testament, a young boy living as an apprentice in the Temple under Eli the Priest is in bed when he hears a voice calling his name. Samuel responds to the voice by running to Eli to see what Eli needs. Since Eli had not
summoned the boy, he sends Samuel back to bed. This same pattern repeats three times before Eli finally realizes that it must be the Lord calling to Samuel. He prepares Samuel in how to respond if the voice should speak Samuel’s name again. God does and so begins Samuel’s role as a prophet of the Most High God.
We may not hear it as audibly as Samuel, or dream it as vividly as the Magi, but God still speaks and God still calls, a truth we are celebrating today with the ordination of our new Elders. Rose, Ben and Bonnie have heard God call their names, inviting them to serve this church in self-giving love. But one dilemma we sometimes have regarding the call of God is uncertainty. It is often not that we’re unwilling to respond to God’s call, but that we’re not sure we are the ones being tapped on the shoulder, or that it’s really God’s voice we’re hearing rather than just an idea that popped into our heads—or into someone else’s head on our behalf.
Some of you have heard me reference the work of Dr. E. Stanley Jones, a 20 th century American Christian from Baltimore. When Jones was 23 years old, a college president asked him to teach at his college. The president told him, “It is the will of the student body, the will of the townspeople, the will of the faculty and we believe it is the will of God for you to teach in this college.”
At the same time, however, a friend wrote to him saying, “I believe it is the will of God for you to go into evangelistic work here in America.” And during the same period, Jones also received a letter from his denomination’s mission board saying, “It is our will to send you to India.” As if all of that weren’t enough, Jones himself thought that God’s will for him was to go as a missionary to Africa.
Jones described this as a “traffic jam of wills.” In the end, after much prayer, he eventually became convinced that he should go to India, which he did, and where he ministered faithfully until his death. But at the time of the competing calls, he had no foolproof way to be sure which, if any of the options, was God’s will.
Still, one lesson to be drawn is that even in times when those around us are not tuned in, God does speak and call. But, this comes as a surprise to some people: God’s call doesn’t always come as good news. What Samuel heard first was a powerful word of judgment and rebuke against Eli and Eli’s two sons, words which it fell to young Samuel to deliver. Eventually, Samuel received better news from God, and he became a prophet to all of Israel. Perseverance is an aspect of responding to God’s call that is sometimes overlooked. But we still need to consider the question of how we discern when God is calling.
It’s not like we have a photo icon of God that pops up like an incoming call on our smartphones. Barbara Brown Taylor addresses this desire for clarity in hearing God’s voice with her typical humor: “Those were the good old days: burning bushes, angels of the Lord, pillars of fire, parted seas, all those unmistakable signs of the presence of God. What wouldn’t we give for one clear direction from the Lord, one burning bush to call us by name and tell us what to do? At least I think that is what I want. I stay so busy sometimes I wonder if I would see it; I wonder if I am so focused on my list of things to do that I would not notice a burning bush until I was scorched by it. And then, like Moses, I am afraid—of what the bush might know about me, of what it might ask me to do. If I stay busy with the little things, maybe God will not notice me or [will] see that I already have enough to do and call on someone else to do the big things. So I just hunch my shoulders, keep my head down, and mind my own business. A burning bush? I didn’t see it. A burning bush? I haven’t got time. A burning bush? There is a reasonable explanation. A burning bush? Someone, please, put it out.”
But if we are open, if we are willing to hear, here are four questions we can ask ourselves, to help us make that determination about the message we think we’re hearing.
1. Is it consistent with Scripture? One of the oldest principles of biblical study is “Let Scripture interpret Scripture.” If a verse or passage seems to jump out from the page, take a moment to consider whether it’s consistent with what we read elsewhere. Does it pass “the love test”—put another way, does it serve the overarching purpose of God’s love?
2. Does it serve God’s aims for the world? Does it help spread the good news? Build up the church? Bring justice to the poor and marginalized?
3. Does it direct me along the path of humility? One of the most potent temptations of the spiritual life is pride. We’re far more likely to be led astray by a voice that feeds our pride than by one that leads us in the direction of humble servanthood, following the example of Jesus.
4. Is it confirmed by what others are discerning? One of the powerful gifts the Lord has given us is community. Rarely does God speak a message to just one person that is not at the same time also being heard by others.
As you ask these questions, it is critical that you immerse yourself in a relationship with Jesus Christ. Delve into his life and his teachings. Follow what he says to do. The author of the book of Hebrews describes how we, as Christians, can most reliably hear and discern the voice of God today: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various way by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.”
People can spend their whole lives hoping to hear the voice of God, waiting for that one, unequivocal proof of the reliability of faith. Yet, God reveals the divine Self most clearly in the person of Jesus Christ. We can hear the voice of God by entering into a personal relationship with God’s living Word, his only Son, Jesus and by rooting ourselves in the community of the church where that word is taught, preached, and heard together by those seeking to follow God. When we do that, we will have epiphanies, spiritual “aha’s” as God calls and leads us together to do his will. Thanks be to God!