How to Hear From God
Dr. Jim Denison
A friend recently sent me some questions I couldn’t answer: Why do we wash bath towels? Aren’t we clean when we use them? If not, what was the purpose of the bath? What is the point of brick wallpaper? Is there ever a day when mattresses are not on sale? Is it true that the only difference between a yard sale and a trash pickup is how close to the road the stuff is placed?
Other questions are more practical. Business Week began the new year with articles abounding in investment advice for 2005. It identifies such economic “wild cards” as fluctuating oil prices, inflation, the housing market, global growth, and of course terrorism. But the magazine doesn’t tell us what will happen, because it doesn’t know.
Closer to home, where do you most need advice for the year ahead? What decision is weighing on your mind and soul today? Where would you most like to hear from God? He guided Joseph in the clearest terms–will he guide us as well? Will he speak to us as fully as he spoke to Abraham, Moses, and Paul? If so, how can we hear from him this morning and this year?
Understand your place in God’s purpose
Before we get specific and practical, we need to remember some general facts about the will of God. The first is that God has a universal purpose for us all, to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). God will measure our success this year by how many people we helped follow Jesus. Our jobs, possessions, school experiences, and relationships are a means to this end. This is his purpose for every one of us.
Second, God has a unique purpose for your life: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me” (Matthew 11:29). Jesus has a “yoke” for you, a will for your life as you help people follow Jesus.
Third, it is critical that we know and live out this unique purpose each day of our lives.
Annie Dillard is right: how we spend our days is how we spend our lives.
Your 85 or so years on this planet are just a dot compared to the line of eternity. Consider life as a fraction. Put the 85 years of your lifespan in the top, the numerator. Now put eternity in the bottom, the denominator. 85 over infinity is the very small fraction of your existence which you will spend in this world. It only makes sense that you should live your brief life in the numerator, for the sake of the denominator.
Fourth, God has given us three keys to unlocking his unique purpose for our daily lives: the pragmatic, the intuitive, and the rational. I know those terms are not familiar to most of us, and strange language for a sermon. But stay with me–they are the most important and practical advice I have ever encountered for knowing and doing the will of God. I want to show you how they worked in Joseph’s life, and how they work in ours.
Look for God’s open doors
God’s will has led Joseph to marry the pregnant Mary, to adopt her son as his own, and then to flee his homeland with his family for Egypt. Now, after Herod died, an angel of the Lord led Joseph to return from Egypt to Israel, “for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead” (v. 20). But when Joseph returned and found that “Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there” (v. 22). And so he and the family ended up in Nazareth, a village which became Jesus’ hometown.
There are pragmatic, practical factors all through this story. Herod was a vile ruler who slaughtered anyone he considered a threat to his throne, a kind of Saddam Hussein or Adolf Hitler. If someone tells Herod that your adopted son is the King of the Jews, it makes good practical sense to take your child out of his jurisdiction until he dies.
Archelaus wasn’t much of an improvement. Immediately upon assuming power, he put down unrest in Jerusalem by slaughtering 3,000 Jews at the Temple during the Passover. He ruled only ten years before Emperor Augustus removed him for incompetence. Like his father, he might consider Jesus a threat to his power. If you’re a Christian exiled from Cuba by Castro, and you learn that he has died but his brother Raul rules in his place, you’re not sure whether you should return or not. Joseph was being pragmatic and wise.
So he took his family to Nazareth, the town he and Mary had left before Jesus’ birth. Why there? For several practical reasons. Sepphoris was nearby, a cosmopolitan city with excellent educational resources. Jesus could climb the hills of his valley, look west, and see the blue Mediterranean and ships going out to the ends of the earth. The great trade route from Damascus to Egypt and from Rome to the eastern borders of the Empire circled his town. Nazareth was a perfect place for the Savior of mankind to study and prepare to reach the world he was called to save.
God reveals his unique purpose and plan for our lives in pragmatic, practical ways–open and closed doors; circumstances and events; opportunities and disappointments. As you wrestle with something about God’s will you need to know today, ask him to guide you practically. Pay attention to your gifts and abilities, your passions and opportunities.
Frederick Buechner says, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
William Barclay got a call one day from a friend who served on the publishing committee of the Church of Scotland. He said, “Willie, do a commentary in a hurry on one of the books of the Bible. This will give us time to look around for someone really good.” Barclay quickly wrote a commentary on Acts. It was an immediate success, and Barclay was asked to write another volume. His Daily Study Bible became the most popular in Christian history. I read from it each week.