Hearing the Voice of God

Hearing the Voice of God

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

The voice is a powerful thing. Our culture admires those who have harnessed that gift of God, spending untold millions purchasing the music some can generate with it. Many sit glued to their televisions on certain nights of the week, waiting breathlessly for the announcement of who has survived and who has failed in the latest round of “American Idol” or “The Voice”.

With similar adulation that sometimes borders on adoration, many also listen to other voices: Sportscasters and news reporters. Talk show hosts and celebrities. Government leaders, and candidates who would like to be.

Given good ideas and righteous motives, listening to the wise, knowledgeable voices of others can enlighten and encourage. In can inform and persuade. It can impassion and motivate. We are right to admire those who can use their voices for godly things, whether that be for purposes of beauty or purposes of building up.

Yet for every Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, or Martin Luther King, there is a corresponding voice of evil, it seems. For every Jeremiah there is a Judas. For every Malachi there is a Mao Tse-Dong. For every Hosea there is a Hitler. Like all the well-intended, glorious gifts of God, the voice can be used for wondrous blessing, or for horrible destruction.

Not long after the voice of the Lord God spoke creation into existence, one of His creatures used his own voice to lead others into breaking the simple, blessed covenant under which they dwelled. Twisting the words in clever ways, Satan spoke just enough truth to make his suggestion sound enticing, yet spoke enough falsehood and withheld enough truth to keep his hearers from making a fully-informed decision.

Or did he? Weren’t Adam and Eve fully informed already? Hadn’t they received the fullness of God’s truth, or at least as much of it as He’d deemed necessary to reveal to them? Didn’t they have everything they already needed?

Of course they did. Yet the voice of the devil was powerful and persuasive enough to convince poor Adam and Eve that things would be so much better if they followed his guidance, not the voice of God. From lies comes disobedience, as we listen to our internal voices, not what God has spoken to us.

And we can no longer keep free of this, for the serpent’s venom still courses through our veins today, a bitter reminder that listening to the wrong voices always leads us away from God and His salvation.

The scriptures are full of reminders that the voice of God ought to be heeded and obeyed. But soon Cain didn’t listen, and in his jealousy, Abel paid the price. Later, Noah listened and obeyed when the rest of the world would not, and was brought safely through the deluge to preserve humanity. When it was all over, the voice of God spoke consistently once more: Be fruitful and multiply, He told this remnant. Fill the earth once again.

But we never learn. As our Old Testament lesson for this day describes, instead of listening to God’s voice and dispersing themselves across the face of the earth, the offspring of Noah behave just like the offspring of Adam that we all are. They listen to the voices of one another, a task made easier by their common, unified language.

And those voices are telling them to glorify themselves, to build a tower up to heaven so that they, too, might attempt to be like God. “Thus says the Lord” is replaced by, “Hey, what do you think of this idea?”

They might think it’s a grand plan, but God does not. He laments that their disobedience has made them imagine themselves too powerful; too sure of themselves. Then, as He always does, God has a plan to fix human arrogance and human failure: He confused their language, so that cooperation among the people is impossible. No longer able to listen and make sense of the voices of one another, humanity must once again abandoned their own plans and respond to the voice of God. The people disperse, and the tower is abandoned. Distinctive cultures can now develop around the whole world, the Lord creating a rich tapestry of many different threads.

So it continued throughout the centuries: The voice of God speaking to the people, whether individually or collectively, directly or through His prophets. He spoke to them in language they could understand, even when they couldn’t always understand one another. He’s like that; He wants us to hear Him, comprehend Him, know Him, and trust Him. Abraham listened, believed, was declared righteous, but then on many occasions turned away. Moses listened and Pharaoh refused. The Israelites listened and then did not, fearing the voice of God so greatly that they asked that He not speak to them directly.

But God always speaks to us in the way that we need, if only we are willing to listen. When we are rebellious and self-assured, His voice thunders the threats of the Law down upon us, like He did from the cloud surrounding the heights of Sinai.

Yet when we are fearful, humble, and seemingly alone and doomed, on the same mountain the Lord speaks to His servant Elijah in a still small voice, filling us with sweet, tender, comforting Gospel. You have the assurance that Christ was crucified for you and your sins, that He arose from the dead, that He ascended to heaven to be our advocate with the Father, and that you have forgiveness and eternal life, for His sake.

That is exactly what God does on that Pentecost Day in Jerusalem, too. It is just ten days after the Ascension of Jesus. It is barely fifty days since Judas listened to the voice of Satan and Pontius Pilate listened to the voices of the crowd instead of the voice of the Son of God. But now, bolstered by the Holy Spirit which Jesus had promised to them and which had been given in spectacular fashion, the apostles give voice to both the threats and the promises of God. Peter proclaims Law which condemns the Pentecost pilgrims as well as the residents of Jerusalem of their complicity in the death of Jesus.

Cut to the bone and beyond by the sharp edge of God’s Word, the sword of the spirit, they fearfully ask what they might do to be saved. Peter goes on to tell them the promises of God which were made theirs in and through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

And—wonder of wonders—each of these listeners hears the words of the apostles in his or her native language. The tongues that had been scrambled by God in humanity’s arrogance at Babel are unified once again, miraculously, in the preaching of the Gospel to address mankind’s deepest and greatest need in Jerusalem that day.

At Babel, the unified voices of humanity caused trouble as they sought their own purposes, and were sent away in frustration and confusion. But at Pentecost, the differentiated voices of the apostles spoke the word of God, creating faith and hope out of despair. God’s purposes were fulfilled as people were brought from great distances to be united in the one, holy, Christian, and apostolic Church for the forgiveness of their sins and the granting of God’s gifts toward life everlasting.

We might desire that God speak to us more distinctly and directly sometimes, like He did to the people of ancient times. Like Jesus did to His disciples. We might even harbor a little jealousy against those who in centuries past were personally confronted by an audible manifestation of God.

And I’m sure most of you probably know some people in our own day who—on account of not having received a special revelation to themselves—reject the faith that has been revealed and offered to us through the written voice of God, the Bible. They insist that God meet them on their terms, fulfilling their expectations rather than fulfilling His promises.

Others claim to have had audible contact from God, hearing Him speak and give them specific directions for actions to be taken in response to His words. We certainly can’t rule that possibility out, but we ought to be discerning and cautious in responding to such claims.

What we can know for sure is that God is without doubt capable of revealing Himself to us in whatever way He wishes. We can also be sure that He will not contradict Himself or be inconsistent, either. If those claiming to have heard God speak to them directly in the physical sense share those supposed messages with us, we have a standard against which to judge them as being genuine or not: The Scriptures in which God has revealed Himself to us are our measuring stick. Whatever does not align with the prophetic and apostolic writings cannot be of God. He has put His reputation and integrity on the line by giving them to us. He has bound Himself to the Scriptures in the person of Jesus Christ, the living Word made flesh for us.

The voice of God must always be heard the loudest and most clearly in our lives. If we close our ears to it, or allow it to be drowned out by the cacophony of the world’s noise, or to be mimicked by Satan with just enough alteration to corrupt its truth, then we are lost.

We are only safe when it cuts through the fog of our lives, breaks the chains that bind us to sin and death’s shopping cart, and pierces the darkness of our tainted souls.

Not just all the sin in general, but also specifically much of the sin of heresy and false religion that we see in this world arises because people listen to voices other than God’s. Some special, supplemental revelation is claimed by an individual—some voice speaking a message that differs from that given through the prophets, taught by Jesus, and proclaimed and written by His apostles. They offer something new that stands apart from His Word.

It doesn’t matter if it’s Islam, Mormonism, or some hack TV evangelist with a big arena and promises of certain happiness in this world. They aren’t letting people hear the voice of God, because they don’t speak in accordance with the Word of God. St. Paul said it well: If anyone, even an angel from heaven, proclaims a Gospel to you that differs from that which he taught—that is, the biblical faith—that messenger is to be accursed.

Today we confirm five of our young people, a handful of dynamic potential who we hope and pray will continue to heed God’s voice and listen to His message, for the rest of their lives and to eternity. They will confront a world overwhelmingly hostile to the faith they confess this morning—a world led by Satan’s voice to question and reject and even actively pursue the destruction of their faith and the holy Church.

It will not be any easier for them to resist the temptation to listen to voices other than God’s than it is for us. There are plenty of voices offering more pleasant thoughts and images than a man bloodied by whips and thorns and nailed to a tree. Yet aesthetically ugly as that image might be, it is both the source and the means of our hope for this life and the next, and I pray that they will continue to seek the right voice and from that derive comfort.

All of you may draw comfort, also. The voice of God has reached you in your own language through the apostles, through the prophets, through the ministry of Christ. The same Spirit who was given the apostles on that Pentecost day so long ago also called you by the voice of the Scriptures to the one, true faith in the one, true triune God. That Spirit also guides the Church of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ yet today. The voice of the Good Shepherd is always heard by His sheep.

God’s voice flows from God’s Word—the Word given to us in readings and hymns, in liturgy and in preaching, in absolution and supper. So we listen and sing, chant and pray, give thanks and give generously to sustain the work of God, just as He gives generously each day to sustain our life and our faith. We echo God’s Word as we give His message a voice in our age. Within the ark of the Church, we extend that voice outwardly, for we are His instruments to spread the Gospel. We do this in patient vigilance, seeking to convey the wondrous joy and hope we have in language that others can understand.

We need not fret about any lack of eloquence, or even a lack of visible progress. For it matters little who is speaking, but rather what is being spoken. The sound may come from our voice, but it is God who is being heard. The Spirit will guide all whom He has chosen into the truth of Jesus. Lift your voice with Peter, and share God’s voice with others—for everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.