The past month has been what I can only refer to as a tsunami of events where I have found myself in a flood of people from all sorts of places in my past… funerals, weddings, birthday parties, open houses… it has been a whirlwind of a month and I don’t know if it would be possible for me to count the number of people, from all kinds of places in my past, with whom I’ve had one of those ‘catch up’ sorts of conversations. Now, a good number of these conversations were wonderful, but can I just say, people like to talk about themselves, don’t they! I’m just saying… Now, I think most people would agree that our relationships with one another are the richest when we speak appropriately to one another and we listen carefully to one another, but I’ve just had a month of being reminded of how listening to one another is almost a lost art in our culture… there is a lot of talking going on, but listening carefully to others… well, that’s another subject. And I know this isn’t just an out-in-the-social-world issue because a good deal of my pastoral counseling of late has boiled down to getting husbands and wives or parents and children or even members of small groups to speak appropriately and listen attentively to each other. I say all this because today we will be looking at this notion of carefully listening when it comes to our relationship with God. We’ve spent a good deal of the last 3 weekends talking about how God is paying attention to us… how he’s listening to us and taking in all we say to him and do for him… and each week in this series has been very important. Dave, Barry and Maron have all given us great insights into what it looks like to worship God in thanksgiving for his presence in our lives and for the attention he gives us. And this week we’re going to flip the coin and spend some time talking about us listening to God… us listening for his guidance… us listening to his encouragement, us listening to his words of truth and correction… and in the end, we’ll be talking about what it looks like to listen and respond to God as an act of worship. And to do this we are going to look together at a passage found in, what I believe, is one of the most dense, theological books in all the Bible: The Book of Romans. And specifically, we’ll be looking at a passage found in one of the most quoted chapters in the entire New Testament: Romans 8!
A bit of context: what we call the Book of Romans wasn’t written to be a ‘book.’ It was a letter, a letter written, and there is essentially universal agreement on this, by the apostle Paul, the great, 1st Century evangelist to the gentile world. It is generally assumed that Paul was either in or nearby Corinth when he wrote this letter to the Christians living in Rome, but Rome was a city that Paul had never visited. In fact, the church in Rome was the only church that Paul wrote a letter to that he didn’t start. All the other New Testament churches, the churches in Ephesus, Corinth, Colossi and Thessalonica were all planted by Paul, but the church in Rome had developed organically… Jewish and Gentile Christians from many places in the Roman empire had moved to Rome and carried their faith with them. But we know from what Paul says in this letter that he was making plans to go to Rome; he wanted to visit the Christians there for a while and then head off on a missionary journey to Spain, of all places. And something else we can tell from what Paul wrote in this letter is that Paul knew all too well that while the vast majority of Christians in Rome hadn’t met him, his reputation as a somewhat controversial figure had proceeded him. And so, Paul felt he needed to write a letter to the Roman Christians as something of an introduction… as a way to show the Roman believers that not only did he know his ‘stuff’ when it came to the faith, but that his ‘stuff’ was right in line with what the Roman Christians believed was true about following Jesus. And boy, did he bring his A game when he wrote this letter! Many scholars don’t even refer to this ‘book’ as a letter; they call it a ‘diatribe.’ Now, to us a diatribe implies an over-the-top, negative, never-ending rant. But in Paul’s day a diatribe was a ‘learned discussion or discourse.’ And Paul certainly let out all the stops as he wrote this ‘learned discourse!’ Why, by the time we get to today’s chapter, chapter 8, Paul had already discussed huge topics like, ‘What should a Christian’s relationship to the Old Testament law look like?’… and ‘What exactly is Sin?’… and ‘How did Jesus make it possible for everyone to be free from the power of death?’ And he was just about to write extensively on how important it was for Jewish and Gentile Christians to set aside all their cultural and historical differences and live together in unity. But just before he got going on this big topic, he wrote chapter 8, a chapter dedicated to explaining what it looks like to live your life in the power of God’s Holy Spirit… and in Chapter 8 in verses 12-17 he says this, ‘Therefore dear brothers and sisters, you have no obligation to do what your sinful nature urges you to do. For if you live by its dictates, you will die. But if through the power of the Spirit you put to death the deeds of your sinful nature, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. Man, there is a ton we could say about these verses. Why, we could spend a good amount of time just talking about the word, ‘Therefore!’ But for today, the main phrase we want to look at is ‘For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God!’ The word that gives us ‘led’ here is the verb which means ‘to be directed and guided’ and interestingly, Paul uses a passive form of this verb here… and I don’t want to get too much in the weeds, but by using a passive verb Paul implies that God’s spirit is doing all the work… God is leading and we, those of us being led by His Spirit, are simply, passively being directed here and there. And I know this can, at times absolutely be the case… God does at times lead in ways where I am just along for the ride. But I have to say that for most of my life that has not been my experience. Most of my experience is that I have to be listening… paying attention… and making decisions that keep me in line with God’s leading. I have lived most of my life knowing that I have the choice to listen and follow or listen, and then choose to go my own way… ‘being led’ is more often a choice that I make to follow his leading than anything. And in all honesty, I think Paul felt the same way because what he says next in verses 15-17 is a very forceful argument about why we should be listening to God and then heeding what he says is best. So, you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. 16 For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. 17 And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. I do need to say that when Paul mentions slavery, he is talking about slavery in the ancient world, and slavery in the Roman world was far different than the American experience with slavery. We could go on and on about the differences, but let’s be honest… slavery is slavery and ancient slavery, even if it was different than what we think of when we hear the word, slavery was still one person owning another person. And the fear Paul was talking about was twofold: the first fear related to slavery was that as a slave you could be sold off to anyone… for any reason… at any time; that would make me fearful… and the second fear was that you could be punished in any manner, even up to death, for anything your owner thought needed punishment… and you had no recourse because you were that person’s property… and that was certainly a reason for continual fear. And Paul was saying, ‘Look, God gave you his spirit; he is never going to abandon you; he’ll never get rid of you or trade you away… and he has no intention of punishing you in any way… he has taken care of all that for you… so you don’t need to be fearful… you are not a slave, you are his child.’ And that’s one good reason to listen to God’s leading. He isn’t our slave master… he has our absolute best in mind because we are his children! And he goes on in this same vein in the second half of verse 15 where Paul says, Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” Paul’s use of the idea of adoption is, at least in my mind, the most powerful of his arguments for why we should listen to and be led by God’s Spirit. First off, adoption in the ancient world was very different from adoption in our world. We think of adoption almost entirely in terms of very young children, generally in very unstable situations, often from other countries, being taken into families where their futures and their circumstances will then be determined by their adopted parents. This wasn’t what adoption was in the ancient world. Then, adoption was when an older person, usually an older, wealthy person, legally made a younger, grown adult, a younger adult who wasn’t in the family and was often a slave or servant in the household… made this younger person their legal heir, because, and here is the important point, because the older person had seen enough of this young person’s life and character to conclude that this was the right young person to represent the adopting ‘family’ in the future. Adoption grew out of one person’s confidence in someone else’s character! Adopted people were given the father’s family name… they became the heir to the adopting family’s estate… it was even expected that when this adopted person was out in public they would be given all the honor that was due to the adopting family. This is the kind of adoption we need to think of when we read that God has adopted us… Paul, simply by saying, ‘when God adopted you’ he meant for us to think this: When God saw you, he said to himself, ‘This one has all the potential to best represent me in the world… I want this one to inherit all that I own. I want this one to be given all the honor that I deserve. I want this one to be my child and to be called by my name.’ And this is why Paul then says, ‘Now we call him, Abba, Father for his spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children.’ ‘Abba’ was an Aramaic word of familiarity for a father… it was generally one of the first words a child said, and no one ever called a man, ‘Abba’ except for that man’s immediate children. You may have heard someone say that ‘Abba’ was similar to, ‘daddy.’ I think that’s a bit of a stretch… but still, we’ve been given permission, by both Paul and Jesus no less, to call God, ‘Abba,’ and that’s pretty amazing… it reveals just how intimate God wants his adopted children, you and me, to be with him as he leads us into representing him well, and showing our broken world how people are supposed to live, and accurately mirroring his character… and, the truth is, we can only do any of these things if we listen to God when he speaks to us.
So, let’s get practical: how does the Spirit of God speak to us and lead us? And I must tell you right off that even though I am not generally a very mystical guy, I have audibly heard the ‘voice’ of God one time in my life, and it happened when I was considering the possibility of a massive shift in my life. I was sitting alone in a boat on a Michigan lake, and I clearly heard God say four words to me. He said, ‘You can do this.’ It wasn’t, ‘You must do this.’ Or ‘You will do this.’ It was, ‘You can do this.’ And I took that to mean he would be with me if I pursued this huge change… and because he would be with me, I could do it! But otherwise, I mostly hear the spirit leading me in far more down to earth ways, and I want you to know upfront that what I’m about to say is not going to be new, spiritual rocket science stuff.
The first place I find God speaking to me is… and I know you know what I am going to say… I hear God speaking to me through the Bible. Again, I know that this seems like a given, but, hey, I do hear God speaking to me through his word to us. Now, we do need to be careful when we say we’ve heard God speaking to us in the Bible because it’s possible to make the Bible say just about anything you want it to say. The Bible isn’t a magic book… you can’t, or you shouldn’t just pop it open and point and think that God is obligated to give you a new truth or new direction or anything like that. We should handle the Bible carefully and appropriately… which is something we constantly strive to do here at Grace. Earlier I said that Romans 8 is one of the most quoted chapters in all the Bible… and it is for good reasons… but unfortunately some of the quoting I hear from this chapter are phrases taken out of context and used in ways that I am confident neither Paul nor God ever intended. But I have found that if I’m careful in the ways I study the Bible and I take the time to meditate on what I find there and I open-handedly discuss what I’ve found in the Bible with others, God’s Spirit will speak to me. Over the years, God has told me how much he loves me…he has settled my fears… he has reminded me of his presence… he has pointed out areas in my life that I need to be thinking about… he has directed my attitudes, my reactions and my priorities and he has even changed my worldview on certain things… all through the Bible… and if that isn’t leading, then I don’t know what is.
The second way I feel that God speaks to me is in silence… me being quiet and letting my soul be influenced by God’s Spirit. Again, this isn’t some sort of magic… I think this is what Paul was talking about when he said in verse 16 ‘Now we call him, Abba, Father for his spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children.’ I’ve found that a real clarity can come when I have waited in silence and allowed his spirit to ‘join with mine.’ In fact, the 3rd way I believe God speaks to us is when we pray, and I think being silent before God and praying to God are two halves of a whole… I have found that being quiet after saying my appropriate piece to God often leads to hearing from God’s spirit. I can’t explain it fully, but I know there is something wonderful about that sort of conversation. Though, I must admit it’s something I don’t do enough… I don’t regularly give God’s Spirit the time to ‘join with mine.’ I tend to say what I feel I need to say to God and then I close the conversation down and get on with life and rarely just wait. But prayer, since it is simply talking honestly to God should be accompanied by some space where I am silent and open to God’s leading… open to God’s Spirit intermingling with mine in a way that opens the door to hearing his voice.
And finally, I think God speaks to us through others. I can’t tell you how many times someone has said something to me, and it was clearly the voice of God. I believe that when it comes to others, God speaks to us in two ways… first, through relationships and secondly, through pastoral teaching. I could give you dozens of examples of both from my life. And this is why I strongly believe that we need relationships with other brothers and sisters in Jesus and we need to have trustworthy, pastoral shepherds teaching us about the ways of our Father. I can say without a shadow of doubt that my life has been led by God’s Spirit through the voices of others… voices that in the moment were clearly the voice of God to me.
And I believe all of this is worship. Paying attention to what God has graciously given us in his word… is worship. Being silent before him in ways that give him space to speak into our spirits… is worship. Praying in ways that create honest opportunities to hear God’s perspective on our lives… is worship. And trusting that others can be used by God’s Spirit to speak into our hearts and minds… is worship… these are all actions… no, decisions, that say to God, ‘I trust you, Father, and I am willing to let you lead me into whatever you want this child to be and do.’ And my thought is that any heart that says, ‘Where you lead, I will follow!’ is a heart of worship.
I feel that this is an important issue for me at this stage of my life. I know that the one time I heard God say, ‘You can do this!’ it was about leaving the business world and doing the hard work of becoming a pastor. And he was right. I could, with his help, but only with his leading, do it. And these are also days when I need to spend time in a boat, thinking about all I have learned from God’s word… and praying honestly… and silently waiting… and being willing to listen to my brothers and sisters as they speak into my life; all, so that as I move into the coming chapters, I can do so fearlessly and with a deep confidence that it is the God of the universe that is leading me.
And I want to challenge us all to do this together… let’s listen carefully… let’s allow God’s spirit to join with ours… let’s let him lead us in ways that we, together, will fearlessly become a community that shows the world the truth about God’s character and his deep love for everyone. Let’s listen together and with hearts of worship say, ‘Where you lead, we will follow.