The Voice of God

Joy has watched 101 Dalmatians at least 101 times. I’m trying to coax her to branch out so this weekend I introduced her to Meet the Robinsons. She loved it. We were snuggled together enjoying the movie when I recognized one of the voices.  The adult version of the main character was voiced by Tom Selleck. I knew it was him because I had watched every episode of Magnum PI in the 80s. I knew his voice well.

Yesterday the Christian radio station posed a question: “How do you hear God’s voice above the noise?” I thought about how I recognized Tom Selleck’s voice in the movie – it was because I had heard it many, many times before. Even without seeing his face, I knew it was him. I realized that the key to recognizing God’s voice is familiarity.

Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice, I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Listening implies a couple of things: first, to recognize God’s voice we have to spend time in His Word. Studying the Scriptures helps us to know what God does – and does not say. You can trust the voice you’re hearing if it’s saying the things God says in His Word. If what you hear doesn’t sound like the Scriptures, then that voice is likely not God. He will never contradict His Word.

Another important key to listening and recognizing God’s voice is obedience. James said “Do not merely listen to the Word and so deceive yourselves.  Do what it says” (1:22). When we tell our granddaughter to pick up her toys and she doesn’t do it, we have to ask her again and again. It’s only when she obeys that we know she heard us. (And, honestly, sometimes she determines to not hear us.) Hearing means “to attend to; to consider what has been said.” Hearing means obeying. And obeying opens up opportunities for further communication. I can’t tell Joy we’re going to the park until she has heard and obeyed and picked up her toys.

When you learn to listen and recognize God’s voice it will be so familiar that your spiritual ears will tune in like a mom picking up on her child’s cry in a noisy room filled with kids. Then, Beloved, you will know without a doubt, “That’s the voice of my Father.”

The Providence of God

I caught myself the other day thinking, “If I could change one thing about my past…” The problem is I found a lot of things. Choices. People. Places. Priorities. Desires.  I’ll bet you can finish that sentence with a few thoughts of your own. Who hasn’t lamented something in their past? For some, the choices were huge and life-altering. For others, they were moments, that while not quite as monumental, we wish we could do over. I have spent so much time living with regrets, living in the “if only’s,” and wishing I had made wiser decisions, or that circumstances had turned out differently. I have discovered that when I live in constant regret I set myself up for a very sad life.

But I am learning to trust in the sovereign providence of God. Those are words we don’t use much in our contemporary religion, but they are powerful. In the original Hebrew, the word combination has a rich and significant meaning. The word “sovereign” speaks to God’s rightful authority as Creator over nature, nations, mankind, and individual lives. Likewise, the word “providence” is speaking to God’s charge over everything He has made – including you and me.  The root word means “to pay attention, to care for, to be in charge of.” This is His tender, loving oversight as our Good Shepherd and Heavenly Father. God has pledged to pay attention to you, to care for you, and to be in charge of your life – not as a dictator – but as One who seeks always and only what is best for you. Job 10:12 expresses this duality beautifully. “You gave me life and showed me kindness, and in Your providence watched over my spirit.” The combination of terms tells us that God is always looking out on your behalf, knows what you need and He has the authority to move heaven and earth to accomplish all things for you – because He loves you.

If you have grieved over your past, know that Your sovereign, providential Father has been watching over and caring for you all along. In His hands, the very thing that caused you the most pain can be the seed for a whole new life. Beloved, God loves you too much to waste the struggles of your life. He has a plan. He has a purpose. And He has you in the palm of His great hand.

The Valley

This morning I was thinking about something I needed to do, something I didn’t really want to do because it often raised up a temptation I’ve been trying to put down for a long time. I prayed for help and a verse came to mind. It comes out of Psalm 23 – The Shepherd’s Psalm. Verse 4 says “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Now, what does that have to do with temptation?

This valley is not a pastoral scene of gentle slopes between the hills but a steep, narrow gorge where the sun never reaches. The valley most attributed to this passage was the Valley of Hinnom outside the walls of Jerusalem. It was a horrible place of death as bodies of criminals and animals and the town’s rubbish were thrown there and fires burned continually to consume them. The ”shadow of death” is a place of extreme danger and thick darkness – an apt description of the valley. It was also a place where kings and priest sent their own children to be burned alive to appease the gods – a horrible sin.

Death and sin go hand in hand. From the very beginning, God told the first humans that when they sin (disobey God) they “will surely die” (Gen 2:17). Paul said that “The wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). The valley was a terrifying place of sin and death. But it was also a place people had to pass to get to the gates of the city. Here’s where this all comes together. You and I will be faced with sin and its consequences as long as we are on this earth. We can’t escape it. But we don’t have to fear it. God is with us. If we walk closely with Him we can traverse the sin and death of this world without falling into it. That’s what God was saying to me this morning. “Don’t be afraid of what you need to do. I am with you. I will not let you fall.” And He didn’t.

Beloved, the world is filled with sin and death, but if you belong to Christ you can face it with faith in your Shepherd. Your very Good Shepherd who died to save you – His precious little lamb.

The Good Shepherd

The Lost Sheep, Painted by Alfred Usher Soord (1868-1915), Oil on canvas, Painted in 1898, © Alfred Usher Soord

My favorite “I Am” statement of Jesus is “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11). It always reminds me of a painting that hung in the vestibule of a church I worked at thirty years ago depicting Jesus as the Good Shepherd. He is reaching from the side of a cliff to rescue one of His little lambs. Sheep are notoriously clueless and helpless. They start grazing and fail to notice when they wander too far from the fold or too close to the edge of a cliff. They love to graze at the edge of the water because the grass is abundant and lush. But they step on the slippery rocks and tumble into the water. Their wool becomes so heavy they cannot right themselves or climb out. If the shepherd doesn’t hear their bleating, they will soon drown. Sound familiar? It sure does to me. I have often wandered from the safety of my shepherd’s side following the lush and tempting things of the world. But Jesus never fails to rescue me when I cry out.

I love how, in this painting, Jesus has put Himself in a precarious position to bring His wandering one to safety. What struck me the most about the painting though was the look on the little lamb’s face – absolute confidence in the Shepherd. There is no worry or doubt that the Shepherd will rescue her. She isn’t trying to pull herself up the rocky wall of the cliff but waits for Him to reach her and bring her to safety. There is no fear of anger from the Shepherd. Just trust. This little lamb knows the Shepherd, knows that He is able to rescue her, and knows that He loves her.

I don’t know what danger you may have wandered into. You may be trying to get yourself to safety, too ashamed to call out for help. You wonder if Jesus will come and if He will be angry with you. Beloved, stop trying to rescue yourself. Cry out to Jesus – there’s no need to be ashamed. He will come and He is not angry. The Lord is your Shepherd – whether you are safe in the fold or hanging on the side of a cliff. You are His beloved lamb.

Names of God Series: Yahweh Rohi – The Lord My Shepherd

shepherd-and-lamb-pic2“God has been my Shepherd all my life to this day” Genesis 48:15.

I remember a painting I saw in a church, a depiction of the Shepherd Psalm – “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not be in want” Psalm 23:1. The scene was a rocky mountain-side and a little lamb was precariously tangled in a bush growing out of the side of the cliff.  A shepherd stood over him, reaching out to bring him back to safety.  What has stayed with me ever since I saw it was the expression on the face of the lamb  – it was a look of utter trust and confidence in the shepherd with not a trace of fear.  It was a look that said, “I’m glad you’re here. I know you will save me.”  This is the image of God that I love the most: Yahweh Rohi – The Lord my Shepherd.[1]

In describing the Lord as a Shepherd, David wrote out of his own experience because he had spent his early years caring for sheep.  Sheep are completely dependent on the shepherd for guidance, protection, and provision.  The welfare of the sheep depends solely on the care they get from their shepherd.  The better the shepherd, the healthier and happier the sheep.  When you see weak, sickly, or pest-infested sheep, you can be sure that their shepherd does not really care for or about them.

The shepherd guides the sheep by leading them to the good pasture.  The 23rd Psalm reveals God as our guiding Shepherd, and us as sheep who follow Him.  How does He guide us?  By His Word as we study the Bible every day, by His Spirit as we listen to Him speak to our hearts, and most importantly, by His example in Jesus Christ.  Jesus’ life on earth is our example of trust and obedience, the two most important attributes for a sheep. He always obeyed His Father in everything and because He trusted Him, Jesus’ life was marked by peace even in the face of the cross.   When we allow God to guide us, we have peace and contentment.  Our Shepherd knows where to find the green pastures that nourish us and the quiet waters that restore us.

The shepherd is also the protector of his flock.  Sheep are easy prey for predators.  They have no natural defensive abilities and are easily panicked.   The put their head to the ground and graze, never bothering to look up to see where they are or what is around them.  Sheep have been known to graze right off the edge of a cliff.  A sheep who strays from the protection of the shepherd is completely vulnerable.  The good shepherd knows where the sheep are at all times, calling them back to safety, and searching diligently for them when they stray too far.  The shepherd fights for his sheep – a hungry wolf is bold enough to attack the flock even with the shepherd nearby.  The shepherd must defend his sheep from these attacks even at the risk of his own life.   Jesus said “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).  And He did – He gave His life for you and me, to save us from the enemy who “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).   The shepherd is always on duty, even at night.  In the evenings sheep were brought into a simple enclosure for the night, it might be stone or mud-packed walls if they were close to home, or just branches twisted and bound together in the open.  In order to keep them safe, the shepherd would sleep with his body across the opening of the sheep pen to keep his flock in and predators out.  This is what Jesus was describing when He said, “I am the gate for the sheep” (John 10:7). He protects His sheep day and night.

The good shepherd also made sure his sheep were well-fed.  Sheep were completely dependent on the shepherd to provide good pastures in which to graze.  The shepherd constantly scouted out the best pastures and would lead his sheep to good land.  Because sheep eat continually, the shepherd always had to be prepared with the next pasture in mind.  Sheep couldn’t wander long looking for food – it needed to be available to them every day.  As the Good Shepherd Jesus meets the needs of His flock, both for physical food and for spiritual nourishment.  He fed multitudes of people in his earthly ministry, surely we can trust Him to provide for us as well.  He provides Himself as nourishment for our souls through the Sacrament of Holy Communion.  As we partake of His Blood and Body, our souls are being fed and nurtured.  Jesus is our provider for body, soul and spirit.

The good shepherd has a special, tender relationship with his sheep.  He knows them by name and he talks with them so that they know his voice.  He laughs at their antics and comforts them when they are hurt.  Many a shepherd sings his sheep to sleep at night.  Theirs is an intimate relationship, like a father caring for his children.  Jesus, as the Good Shepherd knows each of us by name and He talks with us so we can learn to recognize His voice – if we’ll listen.   He draws us close just to be with us; He comforts us when we are hurting, binds up our wounds and applies His healing grace.  Not only that but He “will rejoice over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17). Imagine that – drawn up in His embrace as His voice floats down on you with songs of delight.

No wonder the image of the shepherd is one of God’s favorite ways of expressing His care and love for us.  It captures the beautiful relationship of God and His people.  The Lord our Shepherd – Yahweh Rohi – will guide us to the green pastures and still waters, He will protect us and care for us with tenderness and love.  He will cover us with goodness and mercy all the days of our lives; and when this life is done we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever (Psalm 23:6).

Good Shepherd, how blessed I am to say “The Lord is my Shepherd – I am His little lamb.” Amen.

[1] Alternately: Yahweh/Jehovah Roi