MORE ABOUT JESUS PART 8: WHAT PRAYER IS
There was a young bachelor preacher once who was invited over for dinner to a mother and two unmarried daughter’s place and after dinner one of the daughters got him cornered in the living room and told him the Lord had revealed to her that they were to be married. His answer was a classic. “When the Lord reveals that to me, we’ll be married.” Does the Lord reveal things to us?
Last time, we mentioned grace, the end of evil, and specifically dialogue or presence prayer as the 3 things separating Christianity from all other world religions. True, some other religions have prayer, but not presence prayer where they’re doing so to actually get to know God. To actually hear back from God. Spending time in prayer for a relationship with Jesus is just as important to God from God’s perspective as is getting answers to prayer from our perspective. Why? Because it helps us trust and know Jesus! We learn to hear God’s still quiet voice. Even if it’s not booming instructions from Mt. Sinai or beside the Jordan River where Jesus got baptized. We said prayer for the Christian becomes a moment by moment thing. Not a once in the morning once at night thing. Prayer is as important to our spiritual lives as breathing is to our physical lives. And once you’re used to it, it becomes as easy and normal and necessary to sustain a life worth living. Lamentations 3:55-56 and Steps to Christ page 99.
So the question is not: can we know God’s voice? The Bible’s written assumption, separating it from all other religions, is we can. The question is: how do we know God’s voice? Does prayer have anything to do with hearing God’s voice? And if we haven’t heard from Him, who needs the Miracle Ear?
John 14:21 (NKJV) says, “He who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him.” Doesn’t that sound like an exchange going on? A dialogue? The presence of God being revealed and communicated? “I will manifest Myself to him.” Psalm 46:10 (KJV) says, “Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.” Again, the counsel. “Be still, and know that I am God.” It’s as if He is saying, “If you would slow down, shut up, and listen twice as much as you talk, you’d hear from Me. Because this is supposed to be a dialogue, not a monologue.” I’m interested in communicating with you. It’s like Nextel’s two way coast to coast walkie talkie. But if it’s supposed to be a dialogue, why don’t we hear from Him more often?
I still remember his name. Matthew the Motormouth. That wasn’t his last name but probably could have been. That’s all anybody called him. Because Matthew had a real hard time sitting still in class. Today, we may have labeled him ADD and prescribed ritilin. But he was so excited to be in school, or he was just so excited wherever he was, he just couldn’t stop talking. He always had the most check marks by his name on the chalkboard at school. He routinely spent up to half his recess inside in time out. He always had a sandwich with white bread for lunch and often a sugary snack and pop. And this was only kindergarten! Maybe he calmed down later in life I don’t know. But I never forgot him. Because he talked so much.
Could it be that’s how God feels about us? Could that be that’s why He said in Isaiah 49:15 (NKJV), “Can a woman forget her nursing child, and not have compassion on the son of her womb? Surely they may forget, yet I will not forget you.” Isn’t that awesome? We may forget about God, but God never will forget about us! In John 10:2-4 (NKJV), Jesus said, “But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” Why do the sheep follow the shepherd? Because they know His voice. But how do you know His voice if you haven’t heard it? Right? You see why practicing the presence of God is so important?
God reveals Himself to us in many ways
First one, God speaks to us through nature. Psalm 8:3-4 (NKJV) says, “When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained, what is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You visit him?” Have you found that God can talk to your heart when you slow down and get outdoors in nature? There are those who concede that He does. But many, like my brother Mark, who also says God does the same thing to them from inside the comfort of their closest Hilton or Holiday Inn. But all joking aside, Albert Einstein once said, “Atheists can only be half an atheist at night if he only looks up at the stars.”
I remember when Joshua first saw the moon, he said, “Look, it’s broken!” Because that night it was half a moon, a crescent. There’s a great chapter in Brennan Manning’s book called “The Ragamuffin Gospel". There it notes that scientists say “If the moon were only 50,000 miles away from the earth instead of 200,000, the tides might be so enormous that all continents would be submerged in water—even the mountains would be eroded” (Ragamuffin Gospel, 34). But God has everything perfectly balanced. So much so that they can create those tide charts to accurately tell how high the water will be 200 years from now. God is dependable. He can take care of the details. Isaiah 40:26 (NIV) says, “Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and call them each by name. Because of His great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.” If you can trust He who hung the stars and moon in the sky and controls the tides, don’t you think you can trust Him to handle your life?
There are other ways He speaks to us. The next one is through providential circumstances. Proverbs 3:6 (NKJV) says, “In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.” Insert car door handle for $35 story. Insert refinancing for free story. Insert low mileage van story. I am guiding you. I am interested in you.
Third way God speaks to us if we will listen is through music. We talked about this last time and last Sabbath in church. In fact, there are at least 4 places in Scripture that are based on then well known songs. We talk about John 1:1-18. But in addition, there are Philippians 2:6-11; Colossians 1:15-20; and 1 Timothy 3:16. On your way out tonight, I’ll play you another of my faves. This one is called “This Pathway” by Greg Ferguson. I cannot explain how reassuring and encouraging these songs have become to me. I’ve created a playlist of Jesus songs on my iPod that God has used to speak to me. Many of them our Christian. Some of them are supposedly not. I don’t think God limits himself to any one medium. Maybe you could compile your own too as you listen to His still small voice. But here’s a text to support this concept of practicing God’s presence with us through music. Psalm 40:3 (NKJV) says, “He has put a new song in my mouth—praise to our God; many will see it and fear, and will trust in the LORD.”
Fourth way Got speaks to us is through imperfect people. Isn’t it cool when He does that, whether those people actually know they’re speaking in God’s behalf or not? Sure he had the 12 disciples. But he lived with Peter. And invited James and John to be in His inner circle. Significantly, not because they were more perfect than anyone else. But because they kept coming to Jesus.
We know this is true because the Bible translators describe John as “the beloved” which is where we get the idea that Jesus loved John more than the others. But the actual words Jesus used to describe John in Greek is not one word in English but a few words to convey the meaning that John was the disciple Jesus literally “kept on loving” in spite of the fact that he didn’t measure up. Proof of this is found in Luke 9:28-56. Jesus had selected Peter, James, and John to witness the transfiguration. Which they did. But shortly after witnessing that miraculous event, John is back to his old ways, reminding the reader why he and James were known as sons of thunder in Mark 3:17. Right after the transfiguration, John argues, as he will later on, about who was going to be the greatest (Luke 9:46).
He had issues with selfishness. He also had issues with pride—even complaining to Jesus that someone else was casting out demons besides the disciples (Luke 9:49–50). But my favorite is in Luke 9:54. Jesus had sent James and John ahead to a Samaritan village to get things ready for Him, but the people there did not welcome him. So James and John ask Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them? But Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they went to another village.” Even nearing the end of his time with Jesus, John had all kinds of issues including a temper so hot he wanted to call down fire like Elijah did on Mt.Carmel not far away and blow these ungrateful Samaritan's away. But because John kept pursuing His relationship with Jesus, kept coming to Him, looking to live, and listening for the Shepherd’s voice, Jesus called him “beloved” or more accurately, he who Jesus “kept on loving.”
This discovery is precious to me. Especially when I’m falling and failing and tempting myself to doubt God’s promise that if I behold Him I’ll be changed. Most folks think John’s Gospel was probably written last. And of his letters, Revelation was probably first. Then 1-3 John. And then the Gospel of John where he never mentions his own name. His pride has finally disappeared. And his temper cooled. And he identifies himself gratefully as “the one Jesus kept on loving.” Aren’t you glad Jesus keeps on loving us?
The bottom line is the Holy Spirit spoke through the Gospel of John not because he was perfect but in spite of the fact that he wasn’t! And if He could speak through John, one of the former sons of thunder, known not for his love but for his pride and exclusive arrogance, certainly he can continue to speak through any of us. Nothing is impossible with God! And God will stop at nothing to try to communicate with us. So the question is not: Is God going to speak to me through imperfect people? The question is: When He does, will we listen? 1 Peter 4:10 (NKJV) says this, “As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.”
A fifth avenue God uses to manifest Himself to us is through the reading of inspired books and articles, particularly those written by Christian authors. If you are not in the habit of reading, then you’ll probably miss out on this one. But if you continue to read, or maybe get some audio books you can listen to while you’re driving or doing dishes around the house, you’ll often find that God touches a spot in your heart while you’re reading something. One spot he touched in my life occurred at the beginning of my ministry.
I used to feel guilty about asking already busy people to serve as leaders in the church, or to start a Care Group, or to come to prayer meeting. And so I asked God to either stop making me feel this way or help me figure out a way to describe my request to others so they wouldn’t feel that way either. And then, not too long after that, I picked up a book by Bill Hybels that answered that very question. It said, “You and I get to invite these people to be used by God in ways they never imagined. We have the opportunity to empower them to develop their gifts they didn’t know they had. We can cheer them on as they courageously assume new levels of Kingdom responsibility that fill their hearts to overflowing. And we get to see the look on their faces when they realize God has used them to touch another human being” (The Volunteer Revolution, 12).
So I thanked God the day I read that. And I quit feeling guilty about asking already busy people to become busier for Christ’s sake. God told me that they would one day thank me because their Christianity became meaningful only after they invested their time and talents in it with others with no strings attached. And the same thing applies to other Christian writers and books. Steps to Christ and The Desire of Ages have helped me love Jesus more. Same thing with Max Lucado and Philip Yancey. We should read widely from the most gifted Christian thinkers and writers if we wish to hear God’s voice.
God speaks through the Bible
Get a translation that works for you. Read the Bible and you will find God speaking to you from the funniest places. For example, 1 Chronicles of all things, 28:20 (NIV) says, “Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the LORD God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you until all the work for the service of the temple of the LORD is finished.” God speaks to fearful pastors like me from Chronicles of all places! Psalm 119:105 (NKJV) adds, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.”
And the last way we’re going to mention today that Jesus speaks back to us is through thoughts and impressions. Just the other day, I was having a stressful time. And out of the blue, someone called me and prayed for me. Now, I’m the pastor, so when I call or visit people, they almost expect me to pray for them which I’m happy to do. But it’s not too often people call me just to pray for me! They usually need or want something. But when someone thinks to call me, or when I think to do likewise, I think that’s another way God speaks to us. Even when—get this—we’re not abiding in Him!
Daniel 5:5–6 (NKJV) says this about the pagan king Belshazaar. “In the same hour the fingers of a man's hand appeared and wrote opposite the lampstand on the plaster of the wall of the king's palace; and the king saw the part of the hand that wrote. Then the king's countenance changed, and his thoughts troubled him, so that the joints of his hips were loosened and his knees knocked against each other.” Seeming coincidences to us are not coincidences to God. He speaks to all of us through simple thoughts and impressions. Even pagan drunk intentionally rebellious kings!
Another time, I got a very encouraging email, the morning right after I had a confidential and private but really bad day full of fear, frustration, and hurt. I’ve seen the bumper sticker that said, “God answers knee mail.” Well, He apparently answers email too! He prompted someone else to think to send Pastor Mike an encouraging email on the morning I needed it most. Matthew 16:17 adds, “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.” Aren’t you glad God impresses people in thoughts? And these are just some of the ways. Maybe you’ve got some others. I’m sure there are some. Because God is not dead. He lives! And so do His love letters. And responses to us.
Many years ago, there was a guy who was giving a Native American Indian chief a tour of New York City and as they were walking through Manhattan, with the hustle and bustle of traffic and commerce and trade, suddenly the Indian chief stopped in the crowd of people and tilted his head to one side. Then he moved, deliberately, intentionally, and specifically, to one spot where there were some weeds growing through a crack in the sidewalk. And he pulled back one of the leaves of the little shrub there and found a cricket chirping. And the tour guide who was with him said to him, “You couldn’t have heard that. You couldn’t have heard that here in the midst of all this noise. Whatever prompted you to hear that cricket? He replied, “You can hear what you train your ear to hear.” The guys said, “Yes, but not that well. There’s too much noise in the city. You’re taking that too far!” And the Indian chief said to him, “I will show you. Do you have any pocket change?” The tour guide reached into his pocket and handed him the change. The chief took the change and dropped it and instantly 40 people on the sidewalk looked. And he said, “You hear what you’ve trained yourself to hear.”
If we have trained our ears to hear other things, God can give us a Miracle Ear. I’m not talking about those hearing aids advertised on TV. I’m talking about a miraculous thing God does in each of us looking to live who came and are still coming to Jesus day by day. Longing to do nothing but His will for us that day. That’s what happened to Nicodemus. And John. Whom Jesus kept on loving. And that’s what can happen to us. But how do you learn to listen? By spending time in the presence of the Good Shepherd. Listening twice as much as you talk. That’s how the sheep come to hear his voice. That’s what practicing the presence of prayer really is.