4 Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
6 Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” 7 But the Lord said to me,
“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
8 Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.”
9 Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,
“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”
~ Jeremiah 1:4-10
10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
~ Luke 13:10-17
How do we know when it’s God who is speaking to us?
As many of you know, I had the joy of seeing my daughter during my vacation. And while we spent our days and evenings walking on the boardwalk and enjoying the ocean and beaches, there was also enough down time for Joan to introduce me to her new favorite TV show.[i]
When we meet her, Rebecca is a lovestruck teenager who has just experienced a summer romance at camp with a boy named Josh. She is vibrant, happy, full of life. But then we encounter her ten years later, and she is a sleep-deprived, power-suit wearing, overworked associate at a New York City law firm who seems to depend on a large supply of prescription medications to get through her days. A constant in both scenarios is a highly critical mother who harps on her to achieve, to be successful. And soon she is offered what she supposedly has been working towards: partnership in her law firm, complete with a huge salary.
Instead of celebrating, Rebecca runs outside. She stands in the ramp of a parking garage. She is having a full on panic attack. She is talking to herself. She is saying things like, “This is great, right? This is what it feels like to be happy. I’m happy, right? This is what happy feels like!” She tries to open a bottle of pills in an effort to get some help regulating her panic, spills the pills all over the ramp, and sinks to the pavement. Then she prays:
“Dear God, I don’t pray to you, because I believe in science. But I don’t know what to do. Please give me guidance. Please. Amen. Ay-men? Amen.”
At that very moment, Rebecca looks up and across the street. She sees a brightly colored billboard. It has a picture of a muffin slathered with butter, and it reads, “When was the last time you were truly happy?” A song from camp flits through Rebecca’s head. And then, just below the huge billboard, we see him. Smiling. As if happiness has walked through time to greet her. It’s Josh.
The actions Rebecca takes over the course of this pilot episode make it clear: She is following the guidance of the butter ads (she sees them elsewhere, too). Before we know it, she has left behind her job, her pills, her critical mother, and her power suits, and gone off in pursuit of happiness.
How do we know when it’s God who is speaking to us? Can we tell the difference between the voice of God and the voice of, say, advertising?
All three of our passages this morning depict the voice of God, in one way or another. In the passage from Jeremiah we get a glimpse of a pivotal moment in the life of a young person—“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” And Jeremiah replies, in effect, “Are you kidding? I’m not even grown up yet. I’m just a boy.”
Eric Elnes, the author of Gifts of the Dark Wood, asks, “Have you ever experienced a sudden flash of insight or awareness that rocked your whole world?”[ii]
Jeremiah has. Jeremiah is thunderstruck.
In our passage from Luke’s gospel, Jesus chooses to heal a woman who has been bent over—bent double—for eighteen long years. He says, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”
Jesus has rocked this nameless woman’s world, as well as the world of those who criticize him for healing on the Sabbath. As the woman unfolds herself, and stands straight and tall for the first time in almost two decades, she has to be thunderstruck.
And then there’s our psalm (thank you to Chris Bartlette for leading us in his gorgeous setting of it!).
The voice of the Lord is over the waters… the God of glory thunders!
The Lord thunders over the mighty waters… the Lord thunders over the sea! ~Psalm 29:3
I’ve been learning everything I can about scripture for more than 25 years, but I never fully understood what the words of this psalm seem to be telling us so clearly. Elnes writes, “In every mythology of the Ancient Near East, the elements of lightning and thunder are depicted… as instruments for conveying the voice of the highest deity.” It doesn’t matter which people or what god (or gods). The people of ancient Israel who worshipped Yahweh. The people of Mesopotamia who worshipped Marduk (and a whole lot of other gods too). The Greeks had Zeus. The Anatolians had Tahundi and Ivriz. The Canaanites had Ba’al. Everywhere in the ancient world, when people shared stories of the gods speaking to them, they spoke of thunder and lightning.[iii]
Have you ever experienced a sudden flash of insight or awareness that rocked your whole world? I’ve told a story many times here, about driving down Route 128 in Boston, on my way to an interview, and about the intersection of an Amy Grant song, and my wondering what work God had in store for me, and what I have always described as a lighting bolt to the chest. That was my first clue that I would someday be an ordained minister. I know I can’t be the only one who has had such experiences.
Elnes goes on, “Perhaps you experienced a sudden flash when you encountered your first love or life partner, or when a child was born, or perhaps you went out for a casual walk in the woods one day, only to return a different person. Why do we describe these moments as “sudden flashes” or “seeing the light” when there is nothing to see? Why do we claim that they “rock” our world when the actual world around us remains stable?”[iv]
The answer to that question is: We speak that way because, just like the ancient people, we sometimes need to resort to poetry when we are trying to describe the indescribable. We speak about God in metaphors because precious few of us have seen God face to face. But many of us, even today, have “heard” the voice of God, whether we have thought about it that way or not.
We have all been thunderstruck. But how do we know when it’s God speaking to us, and not, as old Scrooge suspected of Marley’s ghost, merely a bit of undigested beef? Are there any guidelines that can help us to tell inspiration from indigestion? Here are a few thoughts that may be helpful.
· God will never ask us to intentionally cause harm, either to ourselves or others.
God does not want us to harm one another. This is not to say that some of our decisions might not make others sad or angry or hurt. But God is a loving Creator, who is kind and compassionate. This is why we can know that Jesus is attuned to the voice of God in our passage from Luke today: he comes down on the side of compassion. If it is the voice of God, it will be the voice of compassion.
· God will challenge us, but God will not toy with us.
God does ask us to stretch ourselves, to go further than we may think we can—in generosity, in study, in trying a new thing. But God will not give us arbitrary tests of character. God is not a bully, and God is not a sadist. We know it is the voice of God in our passage from Jeremiah, because God is challenging Jeremiah to do a new thing for God’s people. God rejects the notion that a young person cannot do something wonderful and important; God is not setting Jeremiah up to fail, but to be faithful.
· God will ask us to do things that are risky, but not reckless.
God is likely to ask us to do something that costs us those things we value, which we Christians like to call time, talent, and treasure, especially if the outcome is that someone else will be helped. But it is probably not the voice of God if we are being urged into recklessness, if the actions we are pondering could have devastating repercussions for us and do no good to anyone else. God wants us to have abundant life, not set us on the road to ruin.
· God will ask us to be faithful one day—maybe one moment—at a time.
God may not show us the whole picture all at once. God asks us to be faithful right now, in our present context, and to do the next right thing, without necessarily knowing all the right things we are supposed to do. This is one of the cardinal rules of the spiritual life, and it holds true across other faiths and cultures as well. The poetic thunder or lightning strike to the chest may not reveal to us the entire beautiful terrain God is asking us to step out into. But, as E. L. Doctorow said about writing, it’s more like “… driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
I have been thunderstruck. I bet you have been, too. And, for all her impulsiveness, I think there’s a chance Rebecca, our TV lawyer, has been as well….though this is one of those stories where the ending is not at all clear, and she’s driving at night in the fog.
God is still speaking to God’s people. God speaks in our hearts. God speaks through songs. God speaks in the haunting faces of children we see in the news. Though thunder and lightning can make us cower, and terrify the little animals we love, they are also indescribably beautiful. They provide heavenly music on a dark night. They make us glad for the safety of our shelter. They show us, bit by bit, the shape of the terrain, and the direction the storm is moving. And as we cobble our path together, step by step, walking the terrain through which the Spirit is leading us, we find with joy that we are truly heading home.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] The use of a TV show as a sermon illustration is not intended to imply endorsement of the actions of the characters therein. Especially not here.
[ii] Eric Elnes, Gifts of the Dark Wood: Seven Blessings for Soulful Skeptics (And Other Wanderers (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), 67.
[iii] Ibid., 66.
[iv] Ibid., 67.