Sermon notes 01-26-20 Discerning Voices

Isaiah 9:1-4 But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.
3 You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
4 For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.

Matthew 4:12 Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee.13 And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
15 “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light,
and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,
on them a light has dawned.”17

From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 18 While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen.19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”]20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them.22 Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. 23 And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.

When I was in seminary, I studied Hebrew for a year, and as you might expect, our exams very often consisted of translating a passage written in Hebrew into English. I wasn’t very good—at all—at translating biblical Hebrew into English, but there was one short Hebrew phrase that I learned to recognize and translate quite well, because it appeared very often in the Hebrew or Jewish Bible that we call the Old Testament. That phrase was, “Thus says the Lord.” The Old Testament prophets very often begin their prophecies by saying, “Thus says the Lord.” So on an exam, when we were required to translate a passage from an Old Testament prophet, I might not have been able to translate anything that came after the opening words, but I could at least get, “Thus says the Lord.” The prophets very often used those words of introduction to their prophecies in order to show that they were not speaking on their own, but rather they were speaking on behalf of God. And since they were speaking what God had given them to speak, their words and their voices could be trusted.

You may have noticed as our two Scripture passages were being read, that the second reading from Matthew’s Gospel repeats, or echoes, much of the first reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah. In fact, Matthew tells us that when Jesus, very early in his ministry, left Nazareth to live in Capernaum, his relocation was a fulfillment of what the prophet Isaiah had written some 700 years before the time of Christ.

This is one of many times in Matthew’s Gospel where he repeats a prophecy from the Old Testament to show that it is being fulfilled in Christ. Listen to these quotes from just the first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel when Matthew is describing events associated with the birth of Christ: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet” (1:22) … “For so it is written by the prophet” (2:5)… “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet” (2:15) … “Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet” (2:17) … “that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled” (2:23).

If you are wondering why Matthew refers so often to the Old Testament prophets, here’s why: Matthew was a Jew, writing primarily to his fellow Jews, who would all have had the words of the prophets engrained in their heads from the time they were born. All Jews were waiting for the Messiah to come to fulfill what the prophets had promised, so Matthew repeats the words of the prophets to persuade his fellow Jews to recognize that Jesus is their long-awaited Messiah. Or put another way, Matthew is showing his Jewish audience that they can believe his voice, because what he is saying about the Messiah is in keeping with the voices of the prophets, who the people knew were speaking on behalf of God.

I gave my sermon the title, Discerning Voices, but a much better title would have been, Discerning Between Voices. There are so many voices in our world today, constantly bombarding us, making claims, trying to persuade us, telling us what to believe. There are even many voices today claiming to be God’s voice, voices that claim to be speaking on behalf of God. How are we to know, how can we discern whether a voice we are hearing is the voice of God, or some other voice?

One of the things many of us find to be incredible in our Gospel story today is the immediate response of the disciples, first Simon Peter and Andrew, and then John and James, when Jesus calls them to follow him. Jesus calls these men to abandon their occupations, to relinquish commitment to their family business and their livelihood, to join him on his messianic mission. And they do it, immediately, apparently without any hesitation or reservation.

Why did they do that; how were they able to do it? The only explanation that makes sense is that they understood that Jesus was the One for whom they had been waiting so long, the Messiah whom the prophets foretold. These fishermen seemed to discern that the voice calling them to abandon everything and follow him was in keeping with the voice of God. They would not have followed anyone else, any other voice, in that way, but they discerned God’s voice in the call of Jesus.

Of course, those first disciples had an advantage we do not have, of Jesus in bodily form speaking to them directly. Without that advantage going for us today, how then are we to discern the voice of God from other voices?

Rodger Y. Nishioka is a Professor of Christian Education at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, and I want to read to you what he wrote, in a commentary I use called Feasting on the Word, about discerning God’s voice.
To discern whether the voice we are hearing is truly the voice of God, we have to examine the person behind the voice, to see if the person is consistent with the God who is revealed to us in Scripture…

And then Professor Nishioka told this story:

Last year, as a speaker at a youth conference in California, I met a young man who was deeply distraught. I had preached that night on discerning God’s call. One of the adult leaders from this young man’s group brought him to me and asked if I would talk with him. I asked the adult leader to stay with us and asked the young man for his permission. He said that would be fine. The young man said that for some time he had been hearing God’s call to him to end his life—that the world would be better off if he were dead. As he broke down sobbing, I held on to that young man and prayed with and for him. After several minutes, I whispered to him that while I believed he was hearing a voice that was telling him to end his life, it was not God’s voice. The young man asked if I was sure. I told him I was certain.

Then he asked me how I knew for sure and I told him that in Psalm 139 he is described as fearfully and wonderfully made and that Jesus himself said in John 10:10 that he came that he might have life abundant. “God made you in God’s own image,” I told this young man. “God said you were wonderfully and fearfully made. God sent (his) Son Jesus so that you might have life.” I assured the young man that I believed he was hearing voices, but I told him again that the voices were not from God, because it did not fit God’s nature to call him to take his own life.

Professor Nishioka concluded his story with these words of guidance:

It is our responsibility, in the midst of the many voices calling us, to know the person of God so well that we are able to discern what voices are consistent with the God who created us in (the image of God), redeemed us through (His) only Son, and sustains us by (the Holy) Spirit….

So then, a voice coming from God will be consistent with the God revealed in Scripture. And of course, conversely, a voice that is not in keeping with what the Scriptures teach us about God’s nature cannot be a voice that comes from God. In order to prove the veracity, the truthfulness of his Gospel, Matthew repeatedly echoed the words of the prophets who spoke on behalf of God. In much the same way, we can discern that voices are trustworthy when they echo Scripture. So if and when you are seeking to discern between competing and conflicting voices, listen for echoes of God’s word. If the voices you are hearing do not echo the word of God, beware. Sometimes those voices can come from surprising places.

Sadly, we have at least one leader at the highest levels of our own denomination who has essentially accused Jesus of committing sin, and another who has publicly questioned Jesus’ bodily resurrection. Come see me if you want to know the details. Friends, I think you know these are not insignificant matters. That Jesus was without sin, and that he was raised bodily, physically from the dead, are tenets of the Christian faith that if not true, render meaningless the whole story of God’s plan of salvation for humanity. In other words, if those things are not true, we are all lost. To claim that those foundational tenets of Christianity are not true is to make claims that do not echo Scripture. Those voices are not voices we should follow.

So I want to challenge and advise you not to automatically believe everything you hear from the leadership of the church or even from this pulpit. I want you to hold me and what I say accountable to what the Bible says. Don’t believe my voice unless my voice echoes Scripture. I have nothing original to offer, no enlightenment, no insight, no wisdom apart from what can be found in the Bible. I can only promise never to intentionally lead you astray from the teachings of Scripture, but I am not above making mistakes. I encourage you to be discerning, to test my voice and all voices, to be sure that they echo the Bible.

There are and will be times in all of our lives, probably many times, when we must discern between voices. There is no shortage of voices in our world, in our culture, even in the church, clamoring for our attention and our loyalty, trying to persuade us, telling us what we should believe, even making claims of speaking on behalf of God. My prayer is that, when we are faced with situations in our lives when we need to discern between voices, we will, as Professor Nishioka wrote, know the person of God so well that we are able to discern and to follow the voices that are consistent with the God who created us, who redeemed us and who sustains us. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Some insights for this sermon were derived from Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.  284-289.