Last Sunday, we focused on the person of Joseph. An angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him, “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” We talked about how Joseph could have felt slighted by God, but instead he chooses to be obedient to his calling– which really was a calling to play second-fiddle to Mary and Jesus by being in a supportive role.
Today, following our celebration of the birth of Jesus, Joseph is making an encore appearance. So are the angels and the dreams. Three times in this passage, Joseph receives direct guidance from God. Each time, God speaks to Joseph in a dream, apparently through an angel. First it’s, “Take the family to Egypt.” Next it’s, “All clear, take the child to back to Israel.” Finally, it’s a warning not to go back to Judea, because of the ruler there.
Have you ever wished that an angel would visit you and deliver direct instructions from God? I sure have!
We don’t all need guidance on how to protect the baby Jesus like Joseph did, but there are lots of times when we would like guidance on things that really do matter to us. “What’s God’s plan for me?” What type of work should I be doing? Questions about relationships. What is my purpose? God has a purpose for you whether you’re 3 or 103. Getting God’s guidance toward that purpose would be helpful, right? And God’s guidance isn’t just for big things, but it’s for small things as well.
I think we’d all agree that an angelic visitation would be an event that we would put in the category of an extraordinary way– an outside of the ordinary way– that God guides us. It’s certainly not unheard of for it to happen, but God never promises us visits from angels. We shouldn’t count on an angel.
Thankfully there are other ways that God will guide us. I’ve got 5 main ways that God guides us that I’d like to share today, and they each start with an S.
The first is Scripture. The Psalmist says, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” I’ve found that Scripture is the most frequent way that God communicates with me. The bible isn’t always a simple book to read, but stick with it and you’ll wrap your head around it. It’s rather like a crossword puzzle. When I’m doing a crossword puzzle, if I don’t know the answer to one clue, I skip it and try to fill in the blocks around it. Bit by bit, the puzzle comes together, and the difficult to solve parts of the puzzle begin to become clearer. In the same way, don’t quit when you get to a part of the bible you don’t understand. Use the clearer parts to interpret the unclear parts, and soon you’ll have a fuller picture.
In the bible we learn of God’s love for us. We learn of God’s mercy and grace. We learn about the calling that God has for each of us. Even when the Bible doesn’t have specific guidance for our specific situation, scripture reaffirms God’s truths over our lives in each specific situation that we’re in. And often that will keep us from making decisions based on bad motives like fear or selfishness.
Lots of the time, though, knowing that you have the words of Jesus, the apostles, prophets, patriarchs and matriarchs of the faith helps a lot. It simplifies things when you’re seeking God’s guidance. Imagine you wake up one morning and you find yourself wondering, “Hmm, I wonder if I should pay my taxes, I think I’ll pray about that.” Actually, you don’t have to pray about the answer to that. Paul says that we are to pay our taxes. That’s the type of thing that you learn from reading your Bible.
So again, God guides us by Scripture.
The second way that I see that God guides us is by the Holy Spirit. Romans 8 says, “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” The Holy Spirit led the Israelites through the wilderness as a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire. The Holy Spirit continues to lead Christians as we journey through life, albeit without the pillars of cloud and fire. Nevertheless, being led by God’s Spirit is one of the privileges of being a Christian.
It can take some time to recognize when it’s the Holy Spirit speaking to us. Have you ever had someone call you on the phone and say, “Hey, it’s me.” And you’re like, “Uh… who’s speaking?” That happens to me a lot, even when the person says, “Hey it’s John,” because I probably know lots of people with that first name. But when Katie, my wife, calls me, I now it’s her after the first syllable out of her mouth. I’ve gotten to know her voice through years of talking to her and walking through life with her.
In the same way, as we go about our lives talking with God and listening to God’s voice, we learn to recognize when it’s the Holy Spirit speaking. One time, a few years ago, as I was praying one evening, I had this strong impression that I needed to reach out to a friend of mine. I sent him a text letting him know I was praying for him and asking him if everything was alright. The next day he told me that right as I had felt that prompting of the Spirit, he’d been in a very difficult conversation with his wife. But it was such an encouragement to him to know that he was still on God’s mind, if you will. Sometimes I ignore those promptings from God because I’m afraid. But the more I pay attention to them, the more God seems to do through me.
The Holy Spirit speaks as you read scripture and pray, as well. You’ll hear, call that person, share this story with those folks, encourage these people in this way. I want to challenge you, the next time someone says, “Hey will you pray for me for this thing,” pray for them right there. Trust that the Holy Spirit will give you the words. Often when I’m praying for someone, I’ll get some type of image that will pop into my head that can then become fodder for prayer. Be open to be guided by the Holy Spirit.
God guides us by Scripture, by the Spirit, and by the Saints. And I’m using the word “Saints” here in the biblical sense just to mean Christians. The book of Proverbs says, “The wise listen to advice.” We can seek out the advice of other Christians when we are seeking God’s guidance. God doesn’t just speak to me through Scripture and the Holy Spirit. God speaks to you to. God speaks to other Christians as well.
It’s so important to build a relationship of trust with some other Christians. When the time comes that you feel God is calling you to do something out of the ordinary, you’ll have some people that you can go to and explain the situation. They can help test it and see if it’s from God. They might say, “Actually, I don’t think that’s God, why don’t you hit the pause button on that?” or they might say “This really resonates with me, I think God is speaking to you.” Being connected to a few trusted, faithful, mature Christians is one of the best things you can do when you’re trying to seek God’s guidance about something.
Fourth, God guides us by our (Common) Sense, or by our reason. God gave you a brain. Sometimes all that’s needed to decide on the right thing is to use that noggin that God gave you.
Paul wrote to his protege Timothy and said, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in all things.” In other words, God will help you think through the reasons for something. Using your common sense also helps when communicating with others. Saying “God told me to do this,” shuts down conversation, but when you have reasons behind what you’re planning to do, others can follow along and help you.
Your common sense is often what God uses to fill in the gap between the broad revelation that comes from scripture and the specific decision that you’re faced with.
If you’re wondering if you should take a certain job, use your head. Does it seem like a good fit for you? What will it mean for your family and your other relationships?
It’s also important to note that God doesn’t tend to call us out of things. God calls us into things. God didn’t call me out of engineering work. God called me to pastoral ministry. Generally the common sense rule of thumb is this: “keep doing what you’re doing, until God calls you to something different.” Unless of course you’re like a bank robber or something. God’s definitely calling you out of that.
The last method that God guides uses to guide us that I’m talking about today is signs. Isaiah 63:9 says, “It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them.” Often when we’re faced with a very difficult challenge or decision, God will give us a sign of his presence with us. Lots of time this happens through interesting coincidences– the type of coincidences that happen when you pray and seek God for guidance but when you don’t, they don’t. These are the types of things that tend to confirm what God is telling you in other ways, but it’s usually a bad idea to rely on them completely.
So many times I’ve wanted God to speak to me in a booming voice. To send an angel– to speak dramatically to guide me, just like God did for Joseph. And so, I confess at times that I’ve prayed, “God, speak louder!” And for a while that was a frustrating prayer, because God wasn’t seeming to speak louder.
Katie and I were talking about this as I was preparing. She told me that there was a time when she was praying, “God, give me a literal billboard.” You know? Put a literal sign up that’s too bold for me to miss. She then reflected and said, but can you imagine if God gave us something like that every time we asked? There would be no reason to be close to God. God would be eliminating one of the most basic reasons we have to draw close to God– hearing God’s voice.
We say, “God, speak louder!” But God says, “Come closer.” God speaks in a whisper so that we must get close to hear. God doesn’t send angels often, and thank God for that. We can get to a place where we don’t need the messenger. We’re close enough to hear the speaker directly.
Maybe you feel like you’ve missed God’s guidance for you. God was speaking in a whisper about something important, but you missed it. The good news is that God doesn’t give up on you. God is so patient. It’s a bit like being guided by my phone’s GPS. If I make a wrong turn, it doesn’t shout at me. It just reroutes me. It doesn’t say, “Oh no, you missed that turn there, you might as well quit.” It just comes up with a new route.
Obviously the analogy breaks down because God isn’t a machine. Yet “In all things God works for the good of those who love him.” Did God want you to miss that turn– to miss the guidance God was giving? No, of course not. But now there is a new set of directions for a new time. You’ll have another opportunity to hear. Again and again.