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How Does God Speak to You?

The way in which we are spoken to can make a real difference to how we react, the way in which our relationship with that person develops. A friend was telling me the other day about fire officers coming to inspect his premises for fire safety and evacuation procedures. The meeting did not start well, because they were really tough with him from the outset and assumed that little provision was in place. It’s hard to get back on the right footing when someone starts being bolshie with you. On the other hand, we do meet people who have the gift of saying the right things in such a way that even bad news is made easier to take. It is a real gift to be able to diffuse a difficult situation with words which show empathy and understanding. The bible says just that in the book of Proverbs: ‘A soft answer turns away wrath.’ (Proverbs 15.1)
How do you like to be spoken to? Do you like people to be familiar and chatty or prefer something a bit more formal? Personally, it does not sit well with me when the chap in the service station or the girl in the corner shop insists on calling me mate, love or some other name that implies we are on the best of terms and have know each other since primary school. To me it seems a bit inappropriate, but I guess others see it as natural. On the other hand, I find it equally difficult when people who I have know through church or in some other context for years still want to remain distant, insisting on giving me my full title.
But how does God speak to us? Perhaps we have an image in our minds of God speaking out of the clouds with a loud voice. After all, is that not how he appears to Moses on Mount Sinai? (Exodus 19 & 20) There is thunder and lightning, cloud and smoke. The people are forbidden to approach the mountain. Only Moses can go up to hear God speaking to him and give him the non-negotiable ten commandments. Again, in the Old Testament, God is often heard speaking harsh words of judgement to his people through the prophets. In the new testament as well, there are occasions when Jesus himself dishes out the dirt particularly to the religious leaders who thought they were holy but are exposed as hypocrites. (Matthew 23) In the seven short letters to churches at the beginning of the book of Revelation, the risen Christ does not hold back on what he ‘hold against’ his followers. (Revelation 2 & 3)
It is easy to pick up the idea from bits of the bible and the way it is portrayed that God is grumpy old man in the sky, him upstairs, who has always got something against us. People react to that in one of two ways. Either they try to make sure they do enough good things hoping that he will ‘see our best side, not our worst’ (Rev’d Eli Jenkins, Under Milkwood, Dylan Thomas) or they dismiss the whole God thing as a figment of their imaginations.
But is that really the way God speaks to us? Is he just about handing down edicts from the sky on how we should live and then meeting out nasty punishments when we don’t match up?
Our two bible passages today are both about occasions when the old testament was read in public. In Nehemiah, (chapter 8) the Israelite people are returning from a dark period in their history, probably even darker than the threatened no deal Brexit. They have been enslaved to the Babylonians but have now returned to their own land, the walls and temple at Jerusalem are being rebuilt. The people are settled in their own towns and are called together to listen to a public reading of their law book, Leviticus and Deuteronomy in our bibles, developed from those laws given by God on Mount Sinai. The book is read from early morning until mid-day. (You think I preach for too long!) The people are not bored. Instead they weep and mourn, probably because they know that they have messed up but through their deliverance from Babylon, they now realise how much God loves them. So, Nehemiah, the governor, Ezra, the priest and scribe and all the Levites tell them to go off and have a party. The day is holy to God and so they should celebrate.
In our other reading from Luke’s gospel, we are at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He’s back in Nazareth and following his custom, as a good Jewish boy, he goes to the Synagogue on the Sabbath in much the same way that we have all come here this morning. He follows the practice in synagogues then as now taking his turn read a passage from the scriptures. He is given the book of Isaiah and reads from chapter 60:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (Luke 4.18-19)
After he has handed the scroll back to the attendant and sat down, Jesus then announces: ‘Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your own hearing.’ (Luke 4.21)
The impact of that can be lost on us, but it must have been electrifying. They all knew Jesus. He had grown up in their town. They were all aware of the stories people told about his birth and were conscious that he seemed more at home in the temple than the carpenter’s shop. But here, in their own synagogue, he takes this upbeat passage from Isaiah and instead of suggesting that it talked of God blessing them in the future, it was all happening now, and he was the fulfilment. ‘Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’
Suddenly, God is no longer speaking through words delivered through Moses and the prophets in the past. He is speaking through flesh and blood standing in front of them. As they look at Jesus, they see the human face of God, yet they still live.
What is the message?
Good news to the poor. God really does care about the poor because they have spare capacity to receive him. The rich have everything they want. They are well filled and satisfied by material wealth, good company and physical wellbeing. The poor lack these things; there is gap which only God can fill. We are not just talking of tables of social and economic deprivation, but a willingness to see that we have no power to help ourselves as the old prayer puts it.
Freedom for the prisoners. Does this mean that Jesus would want to open the doors of HMP Berwyn and the like? This not about due process of law, but about the fact that we are all held captive, some to more obvious addictions than others. Ultimately, they all lead back to what we call sin. All sin is against God and only Jesus can set us free.
Recovery of sight for the blind. Jesus acts that out as he makes blind men see again in his ministry, but there is so much we don’t see or hear or understand. This is not about intellectual ability; exams and the like. It is about understanding life as it really is and that with God, it is so much better.
Release the oppressed. In Jesus’ ministry, many are set free from demons of one kind and another. Today, we might be more selective about what we attribute to evil spirits and what we think may have other causes. Yet, the word ‘oppression’ still applies. If we are willing, Jesus brings release.
Proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. The time is now! That’s what Jesus is saying. His Kingdom was pushing into the world as he spoke, like the first shoots of spring we can even now see in our gardens. Yes, the time still is now. The opportunity is to receive all that God has for us in Christ.
These are the beautiful uplifting words that God speaks to our hearts today. Yes, there are times and seasons for the harder words of judgment, and we will face them unless they we heed this good news. So, in the words of the writer to the Hebrews: ‘See that you do not refuse him who speaks.’ (Hebrews 12.25)
Readings Epiphany 3 Preached Epiphany 4 27.01.2019

Rev'd Jonathan Smith

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