Summary: Claims by some that God speaks to them must be tested by two things: the pattern of God’s speaking to individuals recorded in the Bible, and by God’s previous revelation through the Prophets and Apostles.
When God Speaks
It was interesting for me to survey how other preachers have treated the passages in today’s lectionary, particularly the Old Testament and Gospel lessons for today. There are a number of sites on the internet where pastors archive their sermons. And, I regularly consult these sites. They give me a way to CHECK my own pastoral instincts against the instincts of a great number of other men who are striving to do what I strive to do here each Sunday.
And, so, this week, as I looked over what other pastors have done with this passage, I found a bewildering number of different, unrelated topics and applications. If you were to read the first paragraphs of all these sermons (and, in fact, I DID skim the first paragraphs of more than 100 such sermons), you’d never think that all these sermons were taken from the gospel appointed for today! What seems to have happened, as near as I can tell, is that each of those 100 pastors selected one or two details from the gospel narrative and built his sermon around THAT, rather than around the subject matter of the passage as a whole. And, this might NOT be a bad thing to do. I’m NOT criticizing these pastors’ choices.
But, the bewildering diversity of their choices wasn’t any help to me at all. You see, a short while ago, in the Old Testament reading, we heard about the time when God called his servant Samuel into service as his prophet. The Gospel reading is similar in subject matter – it recounts the calling of the first of Jesus’ disciples. At John chapter 1 and verse 35, Jesus has no disciples; by verse 51 he has at least five disciples, perhaps six. So, you can see that the Old Testament and the Gospel lessons both treat the calling of those who will serve as God’s ministers to God’s people. So, a sermon about this kind of thing seems appropriate. But, in all those 100 sermons, there none of them that really engaged what entire subject matter of the passage, much less the Gospel lesson paired with the Old Testament lesson.
I suspect, that most of those pastors recognized the same problem that comes with preaching a passage like this. In the case of Samuel’s case, and in the case of Jesus’ disciples, their call to ministry takes the form of a direct, verbal, audible summons from God himself. To put it in the bluntest terms, God spoke to them, as plainly as I am speaking to you right now.
So, if God speaks to us today as he spoke to Samuel, or if Jesus speaks to you and to me today – in an audible voice, as he spoke to Andrew, or Peter, or Philip, or Nathaniel – then I might draw from these passages some principles and applications. On the other hand, if God does NOT speak to us today as he spoke to Samuel, if Jesus does not speak today in an audible voice as I am speaking to you right this moment – then, what am I supposed to do with passages like this, beyond providing you commentary that might illuminate some of the more obscure details?
For the record, I do not believe God speaks to us today as he spoke to Samuel during the night. And, I do not believe the Jesus speaks to us in an audible voice as he spoke to Andrew, or as he spoke to Simon Peter, or as he spoke to the multitudes in the Sermon on the Mount, or as he spoke his dying words as he hung on the cross. It is always conceivable that God MIGHT speak in an audible voice or that Jesus can speak in these ways. I’m not referring to absolute possibilities or impossibilities here. But, the Jesus’ own apostles in the New Testament are clear that God’s words and Christ’s words are ours in the pages of the Bible and in no other way, until the Lord returns to the earth.
If I am correct in this, does that mean that passages such as the Old Testament lesson or the gospel lesson for today are simply curiosities for us? Does it mean that there is nothing in such passages to inform our own day to day life as Christians? Not at all. There are, in fact, a critically important principle in Samuel’s experience and in the calling of the disciples which apply as much to us today as they did to Samuel or to the Apostles. And, it is this critically important principle that we will examine now.
That principle is simply this: We do not understand God’s word to us apart from his word to others.