A.J. Thomas is the Founder of Joyful Giving Group, whose mission is to cultivate a culture of generosity.
A.J. is a practiced believer in the power of generosity to transform individual lives, congregations, and entire communities.
A.J. is an ordained United Methodist pastor with over a decade of leadership experience in the local church. He is appointed to Joyful Giving Group as an extension ministry of the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.
While [Balaam] was riding on his donkey accompanied by
his two servants, the Lord’s messenger stood in the road as his adversary. 23 The
donkey saw the Lord’s messenger standing in the road with his sword drawn in
his hand, so the donkey turned from the road and went into the field. Balaam
struck the donkey in order to turn him back onto the road. 24 Then
the Lord’s messenger stood in the narrow path between vineyards with a stone
wall on each side. 25 When the donkey saw the Lord’s messenger,
it leaned against the wall and squeezed Balaam’s foot against the wall, so he
continued to beat it. 26 The Lord’s messenger persisted and
crossed over and stood in a narrow place, where it wasn’t possible to turn
either right or left. 27 The donkey saw the Lord’s messenger
and lay down underneath Balaam. Balaam became angry and beat the donkey with
the rod. 28 Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth and it said
to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you’ve beaten me these three times?”
29 Balaam said
to the donkey, “Because you’ve tormented me. If I had a sword in my hand, I’d
kill you now.”
30 The donkey
said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey, on whom you’ve often ridden to this day?
Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?”
Balaam said, “No.”
31 Then the
Lord uncovered Balaam’s eyes, and Balaam saw the Lord’s messenger standing in
the road with his sword drawn in his hand. Then he bowed low and worshipped.
Martin Luther is undoubtedly best-known as the father of the Protestant
Reformation.He protested against what
he perceived to be the excesses and missteps of the Catholic Church of his day,
and his work eventually caused the division we still see today between Catholic
and Protestant Christians, though, thankfully, relations between the two are
warmer today than they were in his day.
What many people don’t know is that Martin Luther also had a sense of humor
that was, perhaps, bawdier than what you might expect from a great church
leader.In particular, he had a great
affinity for jokes and one-liners about flatulence, making him just as suited
to be a middle school boys’ youth pastor as a great theologian.
Even in his own day, many people thought him vulgar and inappropriate, but
Luther was quick to respond, “God once spoke through the mouth of an ass,” and
the implication was clear: God could also speak through one like him.
What we have just read is
one of the stranger and more peculiar stories found in Scripture.To even begin understanding it, we
desperately need some context.
The people of Israel have
been on the move, and they are now encamped across from the kingdom of
Moab.The king of Moab is threatened by
their presence, fearful that his kingdom will be overtaken.He is looking for any advantage he can gain
over them, and he decides to enlist the services of Balaam, the man we just
Balaam is an entrepreneur
of sorts, and what he sells are blessings and curses.He’s not particularly religious himself, but
is apparently well-studied and good at his job, because his blessings and curses
seem to work whenever he invokes them.The king of Moab, looking for some supernatural help, summons for Balaam
to come and curse the people of Israel so they won’t overtake his kingdom, and
offers a high price for Balaam’s service.
Initially, Balaam declines
the contract, because God has appeared to him and told him not to go and curse
the people of Israel.But the king of
Moab is persistent, he sends another delegation with a higher offer, and the
deal is apparently too sweet for Balaam to resist – after all, business is
business, money talks and his donkey walks, as it were – and so off he goes.
En route, an angel from
God appears on the road with a sword drawn, visible only to the donkey.Not once, but three times the donkey tries to
change course – veering first into the field, then into a stone wall, crushing
Balaam’s foot, and then finally, when there was nowhere else to go, lays down
on the road and refuses to go further.
Each time, the donkey is
rewarded with a beating from Balaam.The
donkey has had enough, and opens his mouth to speak.I apologize in advance for not having a good
Eddie Murphy impression so you could hear the voice of the donkey in its
original form, so please forgive me.The
donkey says, “Dude!(It doesn’t say,
“Dude,” in the English, but it’s pretty close in the Hebrew)Why do you keep beating me?Have I not carried you for years?Have I ever done this sort of thing before –
no, I haven’t – and so maybe there’s a reason I keep changing course, and it
might do you some good to find out why!”
Friends, that is one smart
I used that word in a
sermon in my last church, talking about Jesus riding that animal into Jerusalem
on Palm Sunday.One lady was quite
perturbed by my use of that particular word, even when I told her that that
word’s meaning is determined by the context in which it is used, and she just
said, “Well, that word refers to a beast of burden and NOT to a particular part
of the body!” and I just smiled and said, “You bet your beast of burden it does!”
Let’s go ahead and name
the donkey in the room.In our culture,
the word, “donkey,” is often used as a euphemism for that other term that’s a
little less polite. There is no way to know if the word, “donkey,” had
the same connotations as it does for us today, but there seems a certain
fitness that sometimes it takes a donkey for us to realize what we’re doing,
especially when we’re on the wrong path and need to change course.
When we are doggedly
pursuing a project, and something comes along that is an interruption, an
annoyance, a detour, or a roadblock altogether, we aren’t that pleased,
either.We will likely experience
anything or anyone that stands in the way or delays our progress as a pain in
But I wonder how often we,
like Balaam, find ourselves on a road we shouldn’t be on in the first place,
and what seems like an interruption or a distraction or a detour is actually
there for our benefit.
I am a person who loves to
find backroads and shortcuts.I love to
be on the road less travelled – perhaps to find a way that’s just a bit quicker
than the beaten path, perhaps to feel like I have some sort of inside
knowledge, I’m not sure.When I lived in
Boone, someone told me about an old road that led outside of town to the area
where I lived.I knew roughly where both
ends of the road were, and decided I was going to try to find it one day.I turned off the main road, and then off the
side road, and then onto a windy, one-lane mud path.
I was sure I had found it
– the secret, hidden road no one else travelled!Today was the day I was going to conquer
it!I soon discovered why no one else
travelled this particular road.I pushed
my Pontiac Vibe up the side of this mountain until I came to a place where a
rockslide had covered the road, making it impassible, and I had a particular,
colorful thought as I thought about what a pain that was!
I got out of the car and
climbed over the rocks and walked a little further up the road, and as I went
around a curve that started steeply back down, I saw down at the bottom of the
slick, muddy incline that the road was washed away completely.I realized, had the rocks not been there, I
wouldn’t have stopped back there, and would have come around this curve and
started down that muddy hill with probably no way to stop before I got to the
spot where the road was washed out, and would have careened several hundred
feet to the bottom of the mountain below.
When I first encountered
those rocks, I thought, “What a pain in the proverbial.”But those rocks kept me from going any
further down the road toward something that was infinitely more dangerous.It was an additional pain in the proverbial
to back the car several hundred yards down that windy road to a spot where it
was wide enough for me to turn around and return from whence I had come, but
I’d rather have that frustration than what would have awaited me had I been
able to keep going.
When it comes to what we
experience as donkey-like people and situations, maybe that circumstance or
that person is there to help put us on a different path, or at least to slow us
down enough to think through what we’re doing and whether or not it’s a project
worth pursuing.Maybe we’re on a path of
our desire and have given little regard to what God might want.Maybe we’re on a road that goes nowhere, or
is a dead-end, maybe even a road that leads to destruction.
Other times, it takes a
donkey in our lives, someone or some situation who is an absolute pain in the
proverbial, for us to realize how much a donkey we are making of
ourselves.For Balaam, it took his
now-famous talking beast for him to realize how stubborn he was being, how
headstrong and intent he was on his own plans rather than God’s, pursuing
profit for himself while ignoring the directive of God.By the end of it, Balaam has come to realize
that he, not the beast, is the bigger donkey in the story.
Yes, it’s annoying when
someone or something comes along that interrupts our plans, but if we’re on the
wrong road to begin with, then maybe that pain in the proverbial is actually a
blessing in disguise.
Remember, blessings and
curses were Balaam’s business, and business was good.Being called in by the King of Moab was
likely one of the biggest contracts he had ever landed.After Balaam’s donkey starts talking to him
and he, too, sees the angel of the Lord on the road, he has a change of heart
about offering blessings and curses on the spot for the highest bidder.
If you read on, you’ll see
that he continues on to meet the King of Moab, but does not agree to curse the
people of Israel, agreeing instead to only say what God permits him to
say.The King of Moab takes him to the
top of four different mountains and orders him to curse the Israelites
below.Four times, Balaam refuses, only
speaking oracles about God’s favor and blessing on the people.The king sends Balaam home, furious that he
has blessed the people rather than cursed them.
How many times have we
found ourselves cursing others, when God has called us to bless others?
In reality, what does it
profit us when we make decisions out of our own greed and ignore God’s interest
in the good of all?How many times have
we tried to bend God’s ways to suit our ways, asking God to bless the road
we’re already on and what we’ve already made up our minds to do?How many times have we put the bottom line
ahead of common decency, to the point that the term “business ethics” is
treated like an oxymoron?
From time to time, we all
find ourselves on a road we probably don’t need to be on, and the correcting
word of a friend or stranger – even who seems like a pain in the proverbial –
might be what we need to realize what a donkey’s hind end we are being
ourselves, and get ourselves on a better path.
As Martin Luther said,
“God once spoke through an ass,” and the implication is clear: God can use and
speak through anything and anyone – including us.That reality doesn’t give us license to act
like jerks, but neither should we be surprised when God shows up in unexpected
ways and people and places.If God could
speak through Balaam’s donkey, God can certainly speak through ones like you
and like me.
Let us pray.
God, we can get way too caught up in ourselves
sometimes.We are so interested in our
desires, our plans, our hopes, that we lose sight of what you want.We experience every distraction and detour as
a real pain in the behind, and are often blind to the ways we’re acting like
big old donkeys ourselves.We pursue
profit rather than you.We put our ways
ahead of yours.We stick to our own path
rather than seeking out yours.We curse
others rather than bless them.Put your
messengers on the road we travel, help us to see where we are in error, so we
can better turn toward you.Thank you
for your many blessings in disguise.Amen.
You all know the
feeling.It is halfway through the
sermon – not one of mine, certainly – and your eyes are starting to get heavy,
and your head is starting to droop, and your chin is bobbing against your
chest.You’re falling asleep in church.Maybe you were up all night with kids or
sickness or just couldn’t sleep.Maybe
you just came in from work.Maybe it’s
gotten a little too warm in here and your seat is just a little too comfy and
the preacher – again, not me – is a little boring or dry or monotone, and it’s
all you can do not to drift off completely.
There is a little game I
like to play from up here as I look around and see people with heads bowed and
eyes closed – the name of the game is “Who’s Praying, Who’s Sleeping?”One little girl was once asked why we should
be quiet in church, and she thought for a minute and said, “Because, people are
The next time the person
next to you falls asleep in church, you may be tempted to throw an elbow or
wake them up.But think twice, before
you do.You see, God has a long-standing
and well-documented history of speaking to people in their dreams.God speaks to us in our waking and in our
sleeping, in our going out and our lying down.God speaks to people when they take a rest, in their sleep, in trances,
and through their dreams.
In fact, this was so
well-known that people would go to the temple and intentionally fall asleep, in
the hopes that God would speak to them in their dreams.And so, when I look around and see you
starting to nod off, I don’t take offense, I just assume that you are
participating in a great Biblical tradition.When the person next to you starts to nod off, let them sleep – God may
have something to say to them as they dream.
We have already talked
about how God speaks to us in silence – and how we need to intentionally turn
off the noise and stop making noise so we can hear the still, small voice of
God.We have talked about how God speaks
to us through other people – in the particularities of each and every voice,
but always and consistently with the accent of love, grace, mercy, and
Hearing from God requires
a simultaneous tuning out and tuning in.Tuning out other distractions, tuning in to what God.Given that, it should be no surprise that God
might speak to us in a dream.Dreams
happen in our subconscious, with our eyes closed and parts of our mind taking a
rest, perhaps the perfect place for God to get our attention when we might not
have been paying attention, otherwise.
The Old Testament prophet,
Samuel, is one whom God first called in his sleep.Turn with me in your Bibles to 1 Samuel
Now the boy Samuel was serving the Lord under Eli. The
Lord’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known. 2 One
day Eli, whose eyes had grown so weak he was unable to see, was lying down in
his room. 3 God’s lamp hadn’t gone out yet, and Samuel was
lying down in the Lord’s temple, where God’s chest was.
4 The Lord
called to Samuel. “I’m here,” he said.
hurried to Eli and said, “I’m here. You called me?”
“I didn’t call you,” Eli replied. “Go lie down.” So he
6 Again the
Lord called Samuel, so Samuel got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You
“I didn’t call, my son,” Eli replied. “Go and lie down.”
(7 Now Samuel didn’t yet know the Lord,
and the Lord’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him.)
8 A third
time the Lord called Samuel. He got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You
Then Eli realized that it was the Lord who was calling
the boy. 9 So Eli said to Samuel, “Go and lie down. If he calls
you, say, ‘Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay
down where he’d been.
10 Then the
Lord came and stood there, calling just as before, “Samuel, Samuel!”
Samuel said, “Speak. Your servant is listening.”
Samuel – Through
dreams, God calls us to action
Samuel is a young boy, no
more than 12.He is drifting off to
sleep, and a voice calls to him in the night: “Samuel!Samuel!”Obediently, if not somewhat begrudgingly, the boy jumps out of bed and
says, “Here I am! You called me!” as he scurries into the room of Eli, the old,
blind priest.“Silly boy!I didn’t call you!Now quit bothering me and go back to bed!”
The scene is vaguely
familiar to anyone with children in the home.The adults are tired and the child won’t stay in bed.In slapstick comic fashion, not once, not
twice, but three times the child shows up in the adult’s room when he should be
in bed.But as the rusty gears in Eli’s
brain finally engage, he remembers that the Lord sometimes does this sorta
thing.In verse 9, he says, “Go, lie
down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is
listening.’”Dottering old Eli’s eyes
were almost dim, but not quite - there was still enough of a flicker of God’s
Holy Spirit within him to help young Samuel hear the call of God.
When the word of the Lord
is far too rare and where visions are not nearly widespread enough, it is not
that God has ceased speaking, it’s that humans have stopped listening.The absence of a word or vision from God has
more to do with our human refusal to listen than with any divine reluctance to
speak.To hear from God, we, like
Samuel, may need to lie down in the dark and be still, and say, “Speak, Lord,
for your servant is listening.”
That drowsy, quiet place
might be what God needs to get our attention, to speak our name, to make God’s
dream our dream.As God did with Samuel,
God may use that dream to call us into action to bring God’s dream to fruition.God may use a dream to call us into action.
The tricky part is that in
order to have the time and space to dream, we need to take a break from the
action.A story is told of Henry Ford,
some years after he began assembly line production on the Model T, he hired an
efficiency expert to help him run the operation better.They made a few tweaks to the assembly line
itself, and how the workers did their work.Then they came to the administrative office.The efficiency expert said, “There’s a man
down the hall – every time I pass his office, his feet are on the desk, he’s
kicked back in his chair, and his hands are folded behind his head.He’s wasting space here – you need to fire
Henry Ford said, “He came
up with an idea that saves me millions of dollars a year.If I remember right, his hands and feet were
in the same position, then.”
Having the time to dream
is important, but in response, we’re then called to action.A God-given dream that is never acted upon is
a wasted dream.God will always call us
to action.God is not one to say, “Well,
what I want YOU to do about it, is
absolutely nothing.” God’s dream is not for us to be lazy, comfortable, and
contented.That may be our dream, but it certainly isn’t God’s
dream for us!If you think the message
you’re getting from God is “sit this one out,” then check again, because that
most certainly is not a dream from God.God uses a dream to call us into action.
Joseph – Through
dreams, God shows us a preferred future
God also uses a dream to
call us to show us a preferred future.A
famous example of this is Joseph, who had several famous dreams of his own, and
who famously interpreted the dreams of others, including the king, the Pharaoh
himself.Let me read the story from
said to Joseph, “I had a dream, but no one could interpret it. Then I heard
that when you hear a dream, you can interpret it.”
answered Pharaoh, “It’s not me. God will give Pharaoh a favorable response.”
17 So Pharaoh
said to Joseph, “In my dream I was standing on the bank of the Nile. 18 In
front of me, seven fattened, stout cows climbed up out of the Nile and grazed
on the reeds. 19 Just then, seven other cows, weak and frail
and thin, climbed up after them. I’ve never seen such awful cows in all the
land of Egypt. 20 Then the thin, frail cows devoured the first
seven, fattened cows. 21 But after they swallowed them whole,
no one would have known it. They looked just as bad as they had before. Then I
25 Joseph said
to Pharaoh, “26 The seven healthy cows are seven years, 27 The
seven thin and frail cows, climbing up after them, are seven years.
29 Seven years
of great abundance are now coming throughout the entire land of Egypt. 30 After
them, seven years of famine will appear, and all of the abundance in the land
of Egypt will be forgotten. The famine will devastate the land. 31 No
one will remember the abundance in the land because the famine that follows
will be so very severe.
Because of Joseph’s interpretation of that dream, he was put in charge of
all the affairs of the country.Sure
enough, there were seven years of abundance, followed by seven years of
famine.But during those years of
surplus, Joseph had the extra stored away in barns so that when the seven years
of famine hit, they had saved up enough food to make it through.
Friends, God can speak through our dreams to prepare us for a preferred future.
God’s dream necessarily has a future component to it, the hope of something
that is yet-to-be-fulfilled, but by the grace of God, can and will be.God’s dream is rooted in the past, a
testimony to the unfailing faithfulness of God, a witness to who God always has
been and what God has always desired, but God’s dream is never to simply reset
the clock and go back to the past.
No, God uses our dreams to show us a preferred future, and then to prepare
for that future.It’s one of the things
that really excites me about where we are as a church right now.In so many of my conversations with you, you
are dreaming about our future, and I believe that God is the one giving you
those dreams.There is some beautiful
synergy in your dreams, and the more I see what you express lining up and
layering over each other, the more our God-given preferred future is revealed.You see, if I talked to you and your hopes
and dreams for the future of the church were all over the map, those might be
our personal dreams, but when all the
dreams start to hit the same page, it tells me we are getting very close to
Friends, if God gives us a dream, God will also provide every resource we
need to fulfill that dream.It doesn’t
mean God will spoon-feed us – we may still have to use our God-given abilities
to think and plan and strategize – but whatever resources we need, be they
money or people or ministries or relationships or facilities or land or
whatever it is as we move into God’s preferred future, but if God gives us the
dream, and we catch it and move toward it, I know our God will provide.Amen?
Further, no one gets the whole of
God’s dream.We each get a piece.The prophet Joel said that when God’s Spirit
is poured out on all people, our sons and daughters will prophecy.The old will dream dreams, and the young will
see visions.To this day, anywhere God’s
Holy Spirit is found among God’s people, there will be dreams and visions.
So to back it up, let’s be
sure we’re praying to receive the Holy Spirit.Praying for the Holy Spirit to be poured on us.We pray to feel God’s presence in
unmistakable and life-changing ways.And
then, where the Spirit is, there will be dreams, and there will be
visions.Visions and dreams from
everyone – old and young, sons and daughters, newcomer and
long-established.Catching God’s dream
requires us to listen to each other.We
need each other!The dream of God’s
preferred future is given to all of us, and we realize the fullness of God’s
dream when we listen to and learn from each other – each of us bringing what we
see, what we hope, what we envision.
Another aspect of God’s
dream is that God’s dream is big.As a
kid, I remember taking a large portion of food when the dishes came around, and
sometimes, not very often, but sometimes, not being able to finish it.My mom would look at my dad and say, “Looks
like somebody’s eyes were bigger than his stomach.”
When it comes to God’s
dream, of seeing and preparing for a preferred future, we may be tempted to
keep the dream manageable and only bite off as much as we can chew.That’s a very reasonable, rational approach,
and if we follow it, we will completely short change what God wants.God’s dream is big, God-sized.God’s dream is so big it will require faith
beyond our own abilities and what we ourselves can manage.If we’re dreaming of something we can
accomplish with relative ease on our own, then our dream isn’t big enough.And so, as we discern and act on God’s dream,
let’s make sure we’re pursuing a big, God-size dream.A big God gives big dreams.What’s the thing that we’re pursuing that we
will desperately have to rely upon God to accomplish?What’s the thing that if God doesn’t show up,
it’s never gonna happen?What is the
thing that makes us a bit queasy and sick to our stomachs to think about
attempting it, the thing that pushes us further outside of our comfort zone
than we’ve ever imagined – because that’s the kind of dream that comes from
Dreaming is not just for
the pastor or the leaders or just for the folks who’ve always been here or just
for the young people.What any of us
wants to do needs to take its place in light of what God wants us to do.Yes, we are all called to dream, to dream
God’s dream.God’s dream is the most
important one around here, and it’s the one we’ll follow.
The word of the Lord was
rare, and visions were not widespread, until Samuel laid down and said, “Speak,
Lord, for your servant is listening.”It’s not lying down on the job.It’s getting ourselves in a place to hear from God, to dream dreams and
see visions.It’s lying down, so we can
do the job.
Remember, God has not
called us to settle into cozy little cocoons of comfort and complacency.That is not God’s dream.God’s dream calls us to action, and it leads
us into a preferred future.God’s dream
is God-sized.Keep dreaming until yours
This week, one of my alma maters, Duke University, made waves by announcing that the Muslim call to prayer would be allowed to sound each Friday at 1pm from the tower of Duke Chapel, the "great towering church" Mr. Duke envisioned at the center of the campus.
Many notable Christian leaders have decried the decision, including Franklin Graham, who is quoted in the article.
To me, this is a complicated and multi-faceted issue, my own feelings on the matter are mixed, and I'm not particularly looking to push a side or foster an argument.
The (perhaps A?) complicating factor is that Duke Chapel belongs both to the Christian tradition, and to the University. Neither owner has "exclusive" rights to the use of the building. Like co-owners of a business, there are times when they get along nicely. There are other times when they are a bit at odds with each other. Sometimes compromise comes easy, sometimes compromise is difficult, and sometimes there is downright hostility and resentment that extends far beyond the owners, as everyone who knows one or the other feels compelled to take a side.
On the one hand, Duke University has historic and ongoing ties with the United Methodist Church. Duke Chapel is distinctly built and used as a building for Christian worship, and to this day, is the site for hundreds of services a year of Christian worship, including 52 Sundays. The cruciform (cross-shaped) architecture, the symbols found throughout the building in glass, stone, and wood, the font, the altar, the pulpit - all inescapable reminders that you have entered a hallowed space with a distinctly Christian tradition.
On the other hand, Duke Chapel is not exclusively a Christian building. It is not a United Methodist Church or the church of any denomination. Duke Chapel serves as the spiritual center for a vibrant and multicultural University and the wider Durham community. It is the campus home to a breadth of religious groups. The Chapel is used by the University for services and occasions that are not particularly Christian, specifically, or religious, generally, even as many local churches similarly provide space for their community within their facilities.
A symbol is always open to interpretation. A symbol with two owners is almost impossible to interpret.
Duke Chapel is a building and symbol both (to say nothing of a people, as in the non-denominational Congregation of Duke Chapel), a building and symbol belonging simultaneously to the Christian tradition and to the University.
Again, it's complicated, as both owners have their claims and interests. I see the claim of both.
Franklin Graham and others are asking their friends and supporters to write letters to the University administration and withhold financial support. Meanwhile, the Muslims are praying, no less than five times a day. I've seen no Christian response that encourages the same fervency of prayer.
I find the Christian response ironic. The Muslims are being called to prayer. In response, the Christians are being called to protest.
Hearing God speak – it’s
my hope and prayer that we will be the kind of people, the kind of church, who
listens intently to hear God speaking.That we have the expectation that God will speak to us, and then, that
we respond simply by doing what God says to do.How marvelous would that be?
Last week, we talked about
Hearing God Speak in Silence.Given that
we live such busy, noisy, cluttered lives, we can miss God simply because we
aren’t quiet enough for long enough to hear the still, small voice of God.I encouraged you to intentionally seek some
silence in your life so you could better hear from God.To make and designate some quiet space in
your home, to carve out some quiet time in your schedule, and to stop talking
in order to practice listening for
That being said, you’ve
got to be careful what you ask for – because sometimes you actually get it.By now you know that my voice gave out
halfway through the 11 o’clock service last week as some upper respiratory
thing finally caught up with me, and I ended up sick at home for the next three
days.Did I mention that I was unable to
speak?Me – not talking for three days -
oh, the humanity!
My house has never been
quieter.Three sick days for me, more
like three vacation days for Ashley – finally some of the peace and quiet my
introvert wife craves – all on the heels of my own sermon about seeking silence
and speaking less.
So yes, God speaks through
silence.God also speaks through
people.On one hand, there is nothing
too surprising or shocking about the idea that God would communicate through
people.Our faith tradition is filled
with examples of this.God spoke and is
speaking through the human authors of Scripture.God has spoken through prophets and priests
and scholars.God has spoken through
Jesus and his apostles and leaders in the Church.God speaks through pastors and teachers,
authors and artists, poets and musicians – surely we can all think of some time
we have been particularly moved or inspired through the great gift of some
person who is using their gift to God’s glory.
However, we can get so
accustomed to hearing from God through those with extraordinary and great
gifts, that we don’t expect to hear from God through regular and ordinary
people.Jimmy Valvano said, “God must
love ordinary people, because he made so many of us.But every day, ordinary people do
Ordinary people doing
extraordinary things – friends, that’s a good descriptor for what the Church
can be at its best.If you have your
Bibles, turn with me to 1 Peter 4:8-11, which is a description of the community
of faith when we are at our best:
8 Above all,
show sincere love to each other, because love brings about the forgiveness of
many sins. 9 Open your homes to each other without complaining.
10 And serve each other according to the gift each person has
received, as good managers of God’s diverse gifts. 11 Whoever
speaks should do so as those who speak God’s word. Whoever serves should do so
from the strength that God furnishes. Do this so that in everything God may be
honored through Jesus Christ. To him be honor and power forever and always.
Whoever speaks should do
so as those who speak God’s word.Not
only those who lead, not only those up front, whoever speaks to anyone about anything should do so as those who
speak God’s word.God is not only
speaking to ordinary people – God is
also speaking through them.And with so many ordinary people in the
world, including us, God has a lot to say.
I have always loved
accents.When it comes to regional
accents, I never had a chance.My mom
was from Western Pennsylvania, and my Dad is from Northern Virginia, and
believe me, both places have their own distinct sound.I, myself was born in Oklahoma, and had the
sweetest, most syrupy drawl you’ve ever heard by the time I was three and we
moved to Western New York.I stayed
there another 19 years, and have been here in North Carolina for the last 12,
and am now married to a Western North Carolina mountain girl.
Every one of those regions
has some place in how I speak.Depending
where I am, who I’m with, characteristics of one place may come out over another.I’ve got a little bit of all of those in me,
I’m an accent mutt – not a purebred anything.My Dad’s family in Northern Virginia, they all sound like they expect
Mary and Robert E. Lee to drop by at any moment.My friends in Western New York claim they
have no accent at all – “We talk just like the people on TV” – which would be
true if everyone on TV had raisins shoved up their noses!
No matter where I go,
someone will always ask, “I can’t place your accent – where are you from anyway?” and none of the regions in
which I have lived will claim me as their own because anywhere I go they all think I talk a little funny, and
they may not know where I’m from, but they all know that I ain’t from around
here, wherever “here” happens to be.
Did you ever wonder if God
has an accent?If God spoke, what would
God sound like?Sure, God may speak in pristine and proper King
James English, with all the formalities of “thee” and “thine,” but God doesn’t
speak only that way.God comes to us in ways we can understand.
That’s what the birth of
Jesus was about.In Jesus, heaven comes
to earth.In Jesus, we see the fullness
of God’s love in a face like our own.God loves ordinary people and comes to us as an ordinary person.This world is full of ordinary people whom
God loves more than you can imagine, and so when God speaks, God does so in a
way that ordinary people like us can understand.
So God does have
accent?You better believe it.Whoever you are, and wherever you’re from,
God has a way of speaking in a way we can recognize and understand, a way
that’s familiar and comfortable to each of us, because God more often than not
speaks through ordinary people.
God’s accent sounds like
the person on your right or your left, and perhaps our familiarity with one
another is what makes it difficult to hear from God.We’re so used to hearing each other that
we’re not even thinking about hearing from God through each other.
And the tricky thing is
that not everything we say is from God.Anyone here ever said something that you’re pretty sure wasn’t of
God?Anyone want to volunteer what you
said?The Scripture says that those who
speak should do so as those who speak God’s word, and yet we all know that we
all say things that aren’t from God.We
say cruel things, hurtful things, gossipy things (though in church we mask
those as prayer requests), so how can we hear God speak through other people
with all the rest that’s mixed in there?
Think of it this way.Do you ever pick up someone else’s
accent?I’ve done that, in a sense, with
all the influences on how I speak, but what I’m talking about is maybe that
you’ve spent so much time with someone, that their ways are so familiar to you
that you end up sounding a bit like they do?
So what if we picked up
God’s accent?Knowing who God is, that
some of that rubs off on us, so that when we speak, it’s as if God is speaking
through us?That requires spending
enough time with God, having enough familiarity with God that we can discern
what is from God and what isn’t.That
familiarity is required both for the one who speaks as well as the one who
hears, but that familiarity is what allows us to speak as those who speak God’s
word, and to hear when God is speaking through others.
What does God’s accent
sound like?It sounds like consistency
with what we know about the character of God. God’s accent sounds like love – the unconditional
love of a father.It sounds like mercy
and grace and forgiveness.It sounds
like a will that is ever-directed toward the good of all.It sounds like words that build each other up
rather than tear each other down.God’s
accent sounds like anything that allows the fruit of the Spirit to grow and
flourish - love,
joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and
As people of faith, we are
called to tune our ear so that we can recognize God’s accent when we hear
it.When you find people who speak in
God’s accent, stay very close to them and learn everything you can from
them.Become so familiar with God’s
accent that pick it up and start to sound a bit like God, so that as you have
recognized God in others, others will be able to recognize God in you, that
your words will have a ring of God in them, and even if people can’t place
exactly where you’re from, they’ll be able to tell that you’ve been spending
time with God.
Whenever you speak, no
matter how formal or informal the setting, don’t underestimate the impact of
what you say.Don’t underestimate the
power of your words.
Every time we open our
mouths, we are giving God an opportunity to speak through us.Let’s not miss those opportunities.Let’s pick up the accent, and speak with the
recognizable tones of love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness.Let the soil of our words be a fertile place
for the Fruit of the Spirit to grow, a foundation upon which we build one
another up as we pass by opportunities to tear one another down.Would it be that when we speak, we do so as
those who speak God’s word.
So, no need to be
surprised when you hear God’s accent from the person on your right or on your
left.God has a distinct sound, and once
you’ve gotten familiar enough with it, you’ll recognize it from friends and
strangers alike.Hopefully, they’ll
recognize it in you, too.
This morning we kick off a new sermon series called "Say What?"
God is still speaking, right now, to ordinary people - like us! But, how can we
hear from God? How could our lives be different if we intentionally seek out
the places God is speaking? What if we had the daily expectation that God has
something to say to us?
Today our message will be “Hearing God Speak Through Silence.”I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a
lot of silence in my life.There’s a lot
of noise in my life, much of it generated by me.Maybe we avoid silence.Maybe we find silence awkward or
uncomfortable.Sometimes it is.But today, let’s see how leaning into silence
is a way to better hear from God.
Back before everyone carried a cell phone, we had this thing called a
“landline” – a telephone that, somewhere in your house, was plugged into the
wall, where it connected with a wire that ran over land and connected you with
the outside world.
Back in the olden days, we also had this thing called “Dial-up Internet
service.I remember was getting kicked
off the Internet when someone else in the house picked up the phone to make a
call.I also remember that when my
parents were expecting an important call, we had to stay off the phone and stay
off the computer, so the line would stay open for that call to come in.
In our faith, do we keep the line open to hear from God?Is God important enough to us, is hearing from God important that we do
what it takes to keep the line open?
In this new year, I want to be the kind of person who expects to hear from God.I
want us to be the kind of church who
expects to hear from God.There is no limit to the places and methods
God uses to speak.We won’t be paying
much attention to the obvious places, but that doesn’t lessen the reality that
yes, God still speaks to us through Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, through
Scripture and prayer.Over the next few
weeks, we’ll be paying attention to some of the less obvious ways that God
speaks to us.Because they’re less
obvious, we’re more likely to miss them.If God is trying to get through to me, I want to make sure all lines are
That’s the aim of the series of messages we’re beginning today – that we
all expect to hear from God, that we
keep all lines open, and are intentional to seek out those places where we can
find God – both the obvious places, and the not-so-obvious places.
Turn with me in your Bibles to the Old Testament book of 1 Kings, Chapter
19, verses 11-13:
11 The Lord
said, “Go out and stand at the mountain before the Lord. The Lord is passing
by.” A very strong wind tore through the mountains and broke apart the stones
before the Lord. But the Lord wasn’t in the wind. After the wind, there was an
earthquake. But the Lord wasn’t in the earthquake. 12 After the
earthquake, there was a fire. But the Lord wasn’t in the fire. After the fire,
there was a sound. Thin. Quiet. 13 When Elijah heard it, he
wrapped his face in his coat. He went out and stood at the cave’s entrance. A
voice came to him and said, “Why are you here, Elijah?”
So here the prophet Elijah is told that God is about to pass by.God has a history of showing up in the
grandiose and spectacular, indeed, in things like fire, and smoke, and wind,
and earthquakes.We, too, look for God
in awesome displays of power and grandeur.Have your home damaged by an earthquake, fire, or storm, and the
insurance company calls that, “an act of God.”When asked to describe God, we offer superlatives like, “All-powerful,”
“All-knowing, “All-present.”What does
God sound like?Surely something deep
and commanding like James Earl Jones in an echo chamber.
Our faith tradition witnesses to the reality of a God who is bigger,
mightier, more awesome than our minds can fathom, and so we look for God in
signs and wonders that are beyond our comprehension.It’s easy to overlook that God is also found
in stillness and quietness, in whispers and shadows, in movements imperceptible
to the human eye and in silence indistinguishable to the human ear.
God spoke to Elijah, not in the power of the wind, earthquake, or fire, but
in a still small voice. God often spoke to the prophets in the quietness of the
God still speaks in silence and stillness, indeed God speaks to us in the
quietness of our days, yet how often
do we miss it because our lives are too cluttered with other noise and
Several applicants were seeking a position as a ship's Morse Code operator.
They gathered in a waiting room, which soon filled with the sounds of small
talk between strangers.Then another
applicant comes in, sits alone, and waits quietly. Suddenly, she jumps up,
walks into the private office, and after a few minutes, it was announced that
the position had been filled.The other
applicants exclaim, "We were here first! Why did you hire her?" The
captain replies, "Any of you could have gotten the job.You see that intercom?” and points to a
speaker on the counter.“For the last
twenty minutes, I’ve been transmitting a message in Morse Code through that
intercom. If you had been quiet enough and paid attention, you would have heard
the message, 'The first person who hears this message and comes directly into
my office will get the job.’”
It’s often the same between us and God.God is speaking to us all the time, but our ears may not be tuned to
hear the message.We are looking for God
in the grand and mighty displays, the signs and wonders, the earthquake, wind,
and fire, when all along God has been speaking quietly, almost imperceptibly, and
for all the noise around us and within us, we miss it.
We are unfamiliar and unaccustomed to silence.We find silence awkward and
uncomfortable.And yet, God is often
speaking quietly in a still, small voice, so we need to become people who
intentionally seek out silence.
How can we do that?Well, first,
each of us needs to talk less.How much
of the noise around us is self-generated?We can all be more enamored with our own voice and opinion than is
probably warranted, yet it’s very hard to hear God speaking if we never stop
talking.I’ve said it before but I’ll
say it again: we have one mouth and two ears for a reason; if we want to hear
from God, we need to listen more than we speak.
Have you ever had a conversation with a person who talks non-stop and
doesn’t let you say anything?Or, a
person who walks in, dumps their words all over you, and then walks out?Or, a person who asks one question after
another and never pauses long enough to hear the answer?That’s frustrating, isn’t it?
I’ve often wondered if God experiences something of the same frustration in
dealing with us.How often is our prayer
time a one-way conversation where we dial in, talk at God non-stop, and then
dial back out?Barraging God with our
desires, our requests, our needs, our joys, our concerns.I wonder if God says, “Hey, I’ve heard from
you the whole time, which is great, but, can you take just a moment to listen
to what I have to say?”
The first step in listening is to stop talking.Friends, while we are bringing everything on
our heart to God, can we also make space to hear what’s on God’s heart for us?
The second thing we can do, once we stop talking, is to turn off as much
other noise as we can.We live
cluttered, busy, and noisy lives.How
often have I found myself working on something at home, laptop open, looking up
something on my phone, Ashley showing me something on the iPad, TV on in the
background.Let’s assume God is trying
to speak to me – how likely is it that I am going to hear God with all the rest
of that going on?
To find some silence in order to hear that still, small voice in which God
is constantly speaking, sometimes we need to simply turn off and put away some
of the other distractions so we can focus on God.The very definition of the word “focus” means
to give our attention to one thing only, which means we are not giving
attention to other things.And so,
focusing on God requires us to put other things away.
And then, after we’ve stopped talking so we can listen, after we’ve put
other things away so we can focus, we may still need to seek a quiet place or
That’s one of the things I love about our Wednesday night service at 5:30 –
we’ve created that service as a place for some silence in the middle of the
week.Our Wednesday night service is
completely different from what we do on Sunday – Sunday is often loud and
celebratory, chatty, a bit chaotic sometimes.Wednesday nights are simpler and quieter – where liturgy, Communion,
prayer, and silence get center stage.Silence
isn’t popular – we rarely have more than a dozen people present each Wednesday
– but for those few but faithful who do
come, those 30 minutes of prayer and Communion and silence are an intimate
experience of God’s presence that is far too rare in this busy, noisy world of
ours.Only when we are still and silent
before God can we hear the faint, almost imperceptible whisper of his voice – a
whisper that’s been there all along if we had only quieted down to hear it.
That’s a place we create a silent space as a church – silence that we can
more intentionally and alertly draw into God’s presence.Perhaps you also need to create some silence
in your day – intentional silence where you practice hearing for the still,
small voice of God.A place where you
can pause amidst the busy noise to not only pour out your heart to God, but
where you also hear God speak, and show you what’s on God’s heart.
This week at home, I want you to prepare your own quiet place.Some physical space – a room, a corner, a
certain chair – where you will go for quiet and to hear from God.Prepare some quiet space in your schedule –
when during your day will you seek out that quiet place so you can hear from
God?Some people do that early in the
morning, some late at night, some just after lunch or before dinner.Remember, this is focused time, not while
you’re doing some other task.Not while
you’re driving, not while you’re working out, not while you’re cooking.
And then, once you’ve prepared that quiet place – both physically and in
your schedule – begin practicing being in silence.If you’ve never done that before, start small
with five minutes or ten minutes a day.Sometimes it helps to keep a pad of paper nearby so you can jot down
what you’re hearing from God.
God so often moves among us quietly and imperceptibly.Silence doesn’t come to us naturally or
easily, at least it doesn’t to me, I wonder how much of God I’ve missed over
the years because I was making too much noise or paying too much attention to
the noise around me.
Even so, it’s not too late to free up the line, because we are expecting to
hear from someone important.We’re expecting
to hear from God.Listen carefully to
Holy God, who speaks to us in the silences of our lives and invites us to
listen closely for the Spirit's Presence, be with us as we continue to seek
after you. Forgive our noisy ways, reclothe us in a quieter mind.Guide our hearts and open our eyes and ears
so that we may gain new glimpses of you--trusting that there is deep
faithfulness in listening deeply. Teach us the gift of silence, that we may
hear you, O still, small voice of calm and peace.Amen.