Pastor Craig Carter
I’m happy to be back in action following my “COVID vacation.”
My daughter and I recently tested positive for the coronavirus and we’re fairly certain everyone in our household had it also. We thank God that our symptoms were relatively mild and we’re trusting the Lord that we will suffer no long-term effects.
While contracting the coronavirus did provide me a break from work, it wasn’t necessarily fun or relaxing for me or anyone else in my family. But one thing we did enjoy was the prayers and expressions of love and support we received from many of you! Your words of encouragement lifted our spirits and aided our recovery tremendously.
Today we’re continuing our sermon series called Essential, where we are exploring what is truly necessary in life.
Certain things are vital to our physical existence – air, water, food and so forth. But according the Bible, our spiritual lives are dependent on some essentials as well. One of them was explicitly mentioned by Jesus at the start of His public ministry.
Answering one of Satan’s temptations in the wilderness, Christ quoted from the Old Testament and said, “People do not live by bread alone; rather, we live by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 8:3b NLT)
Just as we cannot physically exist without food, we cannot spiritually live without the word of the Lord.
As I just mentioned in regard to my recent illness, a carefully spoken word can be life-giving. And while that’s true with respect to what others say to us, it is especially true when it’s the Lord who is doing the talking.
So it is essential for us, both individually and collectively, to receive the word of the Lord.
We need to hear God’s voice for guidance, wisdom, knowledge of the truth, and to discern right from wrong. Today we’re going to explore how we can hear and receive the word of the Lord.
We will draw from the experience of a little boy named Samuel. His story is told in two Old Testament books attributed to him as the chief author.
Samuel, the last judge of Israel, was the son of Elkanah and Hannah. Unable to become pregnant, Hannah sought the Lord and asked for a child. God answered her prayer and she gave birth to a son whom she named Samuel.
As an act of thanksgiving, Hannah presented the boy to the high priest, Eli, and offered to let him live in the tabernacle as a minister to the Lord.
From a very young age, Samuel served as Eli’s “right hand man” and assisted the priest in his religious duties.
One night, while sleeping, Samuel heard a voice call his name. He immediately ran to Eli’s bedside and awakened the old man. Eli responded that he hadn’t called and told the boy to go lie down.
When this process was repeated a second and third time, Eli realized that something was really going on. So, he told the young lad that if he heard the voice a fourth time, he should say, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3:9b NLT)
Sure enough, it happened again, and Samuel was able to hear and receive a message from the Lord Himself.
From Samuel’s experience, we learn several important truths about the ways in which the word of the Lord comes to us.
1) The word of the Lord may come to any one, at any time.
The opening verse of 1 Samuel 3 foreshadows that God was about the speak: “In those days the word of the LORD was rare…” (1 Samuel 3:1b NIV)
So anticipation builds that God’s silence is coming to end. Who would we expect to receive God’s word? The high priest of Israel, Eli, of course.
And when would it most likely occur? Probably during some act of worship.
But much to the reader’s surprise, God’s voice is heard not by any of the established priests or leaders of Israel, but by a small boy who, according to verse 7, “did not yet know the Lord.” The verse goes on to tell us: “The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.” (1 Samuel 3:7b NIV)
In such a way, God reminds us that He is not restrictive in His communication. He can speak anywhere, to any one, at any time. All of Scripture confirms this.
When looking for someone to deliver the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, God spoke to Moses, a lonely 80-year old shepherd in the wilderness.
When seeking a prophet to speak His message to a rebellious people, God called Jeremiah, a humble unassuming man, even before he was born.
When looking for someone to preach to the gospel to the Gentiles, God chose Saul of Tarsus, a devout Jew who had been persecuting Christians.
No matter who we are, no matter our age or station in life, no matter our prior relationship with God, He can and will speak to us. We simply need to listen.
How do we go about doing that? Where and how can we expect to hear from God? What are some of ways in which the Lord speaks His word? I’ll briefly mention several.
Scripture is the primary way in which God reveals Himself and His will.
Listen to what Christian writer, Hannah Whitall Smith, says on the subject: “The Scriptures come first. If you are in doubt upon any subject you must first of all consult the Bible about it…” (Disciplines for the Inner Life, p. 182)
If it’s in the Bible, we don’t need to question whether or not God is telling us to do it. For example, you may contend that God has never spoken to you about witnessing. But I’d argue, yes, He has – in Matthew 28:19 and Acts 1:8. If we want to hear from God, the starting point is opening the pages of Scripture.
The Holy Spirit is another way in which the word of the Lord comes to us.
It may be in an audible voice as Samuel heard. Or it may be a feeling or “an inward impression of the soul,” as John Wesley once described it. I recently experienced this in the form of an uneasiness about resuming in-person worship that I couldn’t shake. I soon realized it was God communicating with me through His Spirit and guiding me to make a difficult choice that was in the best interest of our entire congregation.
Other people can be vehicles for God’s voice to be heard.
On the same topic of resuming in-person worship, a few weeks ago I spoke with a fellow pastor who told me about their experience and decision to remain on-line. That conversation helped me more clearly understand what God was trying to tell me through the Spirit.
And finally, circumstances oftentimes reveal the word of the Lord.
Finding out my family had been exposed to the virus and seeing the rapid increase in COVID-19 cases locally helped me further hear and understand what God was trying to communicate.
So in every situation, always ask, “God, what are you trying to show me or teach me?” Don’t forget that the last three must be measured in light of Scripture. God will never contradict His written Word.
God’s call to Samuel demonstrates His desire to speak to all persons, all the time, in all places. You don’t have to be spiritual giant or biblical expert to receive the word of the Lord. You simply have to be available and a good listener.
2) The word of the Lord is not always what we want to hear.
When Samuel made himself available to listen to God, he could never have anticipated what he would hear. God’s word was not a message of hope or encouragement, but one of judgment:
Then the Lord said to Samuel, “I am about to do a shocking thing in Israel. I am going to carry out all my threats against Eli and his family, from beginning to end. I have warned him that judgment is coming upon his family forever, because his sons are blaspheming God and he hasn’t disciplined them.” (1 Samuel 3:11-13 NLT)
That’s not exactly pleasant news for the young boy to bear or have to repeat to his boss.
But when we open our ears to hear from God, we need to be ready to receive His Word. It may not be exactly what we want to hear. Sometimes (or even oftentimes), the word of the Lord isn’t all that desirable to hear.
For example, Moses wasn’t thrilled that God instructed him to go to Pharoah, Nathan didn’t want to confront King David about his sin, Jonah had no desire to preach to the Ninevites, and I seriously doubt that Mary wanted to bear a child out of wedlock.
So why should we be surprised when God asks us to give sacrificially, teach a group of rambunctious teenagers, or forgive our hurtful brother?
How are we to know it’s God’s voice since it may not necessarily be what we want to hear? Besides, there are so many voices competing for our attention.
In his book, Listening to God, Charles Stanley identifies several ways in which we can distinguish between God’s voice and someone else’s (especially Satan’s).
God’s voice is consistent with His Word. As mentioned earlier, God will never tell us to do something that contradicts Holy Scripture.
God’s voice conflicts with human wisdom. God’s plan is usually not what you would consider to be the reasonable, safe course of action. Remember: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. (Isaiah 55:8 NIV)
God’s voice challenges our faith. God wants us to grow in our trust and dependency upon Him. That means we are going to be challenged.
God’s voice requires courage: God normally pushes us to accomplish difficult tasks (so we’ll know who is responsible for our success).
Like Samuel, we need to make ourselves available to hear the word of the Lord. And we shouldn’t be surprised if His message isn’t quite what we want to hear.
But let’s not forget: while it might challenge our commitment and stretch our faith, it will always be in our best interest.
3) The proper response to the word of the Lord is obedience.
Although it took a little prompting from his mentor (Eli), Samuel responded to God’s word by obediently declaring all that he had been told to say.
“So Samuel told Eli everything; he didn’t hold anything back.” (1 Samuel 3:18a NLT)
Once we hear from God, we have a choice to make: to answer the call or to ignore it.
What do we do when the phone rings or we feel a vibration from a text notification? Sadly, many of us respond better to our electronic devices than we do to the voice of God.
And not only must we answer His call, we need to obey it. When it comes to the word of the Lord, there is no substitute for obedience.
Listen to the conclusion reached by Samuel and communicated later in a conversation with rebellious Saul.
Samuel replied, “What is more pleasing to the LORD: your burnt offerings and sacrifices or your obedience to his voice? Listen! Obedience is better than sacrifice…” (1 Samuel 15:22 NLT)
Or, as Jesus put it, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46 NIV)
Make no mistake about it, God is looking for obedient hearers. Once we carry out what the Lord tells us to do (whatever it may be), we can expect the same result achieved by Samuel.
“The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, and there He revealed Himself to Samuel by the word of the Lord.” (1 Samuel 3:21 NIV)
When we hear God’s word and act upon it, He continues to reveal more and more of Himself and His will.
“To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given, and they will have an abundance of knowledge.” (Matthew 13:12 NLT)
Wouldn’t we all like for that to be true?
It can be and for that to happen it’s essential that we hear and heed the word of the Lord.
It may be heard anytime, anywhere, by anyone.
It may surprise us and not be exactly what we want to hear.
It must be met by obedience on our part.
In the closing book of the Bible, we read these words: “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says…” (Revelation 3:22 NIV)
I believe with all my heart that the Spirit has much to say. The question is, “Do we have ears to hear?”
I’m convinced that the word of the Lord is constantly being spoken. But to hear it, we need ears to hear and hearts that say, like Samuel did long ago, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3:9b NLT)