February 15, 2015
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
WHEN GOD’S VOICE IS UNCLEAR
I love Narnia. The Chronicles of Narnia are books written for children that I didn’t discover until I was an adult. They are really for children of all ages. There are seven in the series. They were written by C.S. Lewis. If you haven’t read them yet, you are in for a treat. If you have, I think I can safely predict that you will one day read them again.
I got the idea for today from book 4, The Silver Chair. The book begins with a girl named Jill Pole finding one of the doors into Narnia. Suddenly she finds herself looking down from the top of a high mountain cliff. And if that wasn’t scary enough, there is a lion beside her. She had met Aslan. Aslan is a kind of a Christ figure who is central to all seven books.
Of course, Aslan can talk. Talking animals are not uncommon in Narnia. He explains to her why she found that door into Narnia. It was his doing. He had called her there. He had a mission that only she could accomplish. It had to do with rescuing a certain prince who had fallen under an evil spell. How will a little girl in a strange new world be able to accomplish so heroic a deed? He tells her. He gives her four Signs. Aslan will guide her to success, but these four Signs are the way he will guide her. So it’s very important that she remember them. They are simple and straightforward. They sound easy enough to follow. But the lion insists that she memorize them and recite them over and over until she can say them perfectly. And then, satisfied that she knows them, Aslan speaks these words:
Remember, remember, remember the Signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the Signs . . . I give you a warning. Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly. I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear. As you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the Signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the Signs and believe the Signs. Nothing else matters. (Page 21)
Whether you’ve read the book or not, you can probably guess what is going to happen. Jill goes from the mountaintop meeting with the lion to the lowlands of Narnia and what had seemed so simple and straightforward and easy to follow is now complicated and confusing and impossibly hard. Just as the lion had warned her, she is finding out for herself, the voice that was once so clear is now unclear. The rest of the book is one missed opportunity after another to follow the Signs. Each time Jill gets herself into terrible trouble. Eventually the prince is rescued in spite of it all. I figured you wouldn’t mind me spoiling the ending because it’s not exactly a surprise ending.
What I love about these Narnia books is all the places where these fantasy adventures connect with my humdrum, everyday life. Haven’t we all had those moments when things are so clear? God is there. We know what God wants us to do. We can almost hear an audible voice. There is no confusion. It’s just a matter of doing it. We’re full of confidence. It may be a hard assignment, but with God on our side, how can we fail? And haven’t we also all had those moments when things are not clear at all? Clear as mud. God seems distant. We wonder if God is there at all. The circumstances of our lives are so confusing and so complicated and so discouraging that we have no idea what to do. Even if we had a clue about what to do, we certainly don’t have any enthusiasm or confidence or joy with which to do it. And let’s be honest. Isn’t it also true that our moments of darkness and confusion tend to outnumber our moments of light and clarity?
God called Moses to a mountain. Kind of like Aslan called Jill to a mountain. Moses was given Ten Signs, better known as Ten Commandments. These were later condensed into one: “Hear, O Israel. The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). And God wasn’t done. God insisted that these words spoken from the mountaintop be remembered always. Especially in the valleys of everyday life. “And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (6:6-9). In other words, remember, remember, remember the Signs!
Here’s the whole sermon in one sentence: Never doubt in the darkness what God has told you in the light.
Every night I check my radio alarm clock. I make sure it’s set for the right time. So what’s the right time? Well, for me that varies. It depends on how early I need to be where I need to be and how many things I need to get done first. Some days it’s real early. Other days not so early. On the early days especially, here’s what I say to myself when I hear NPR on my clock radio: Do I really need to get up this early? What was I thinking?? It can’t possibly hurt for me to get a few more minutes of sleep. Sleep is important, after all. I’ll have a better day if I’m rested. I’ll be more productive. I won’t be so crabby. All the things I was planning to have time for by getting up this early can wait while I sleep. They won’t miss me at worship, will they? It’s amazing how easy it is to compromise just about anything in exchange for a little more sleep! When I went to bed the reason to get up early was crystal clear. When it’s time to get up, it’s not clear at all. Never doubt when you’re sleepy what you decided to do when you were awake!
There is a condition of sleepiness even when we are fully awake that is called depression. It’s very common. It can be very serious. Whether it’s mild or severe, one characteristic of depression is that it feels permanent. It feels like it will never go away. And the negative, hopeless thoughts induced by the depression feel like the way things really are. Things really are bad. They never will get any better. Well, things may be bad, but never as bad as they seem when you’re depressed. And things will get better. Once you get through that dark cloud and enter the sunshine on the other side, it’s amazing how much better life will look. And of course one of the greatest of tragedies is when a person gets so low and so hopeless that death seems the only escape. Those who are depressed, however mildly, however deeply, need to cling to the wisdom of these words: Never doubt in the darkness what God has told you in the light.
Jesus began his ministry with an episode of darkness. It was all he could do to get through to the other side. We read about that experience in our scripture lesson for today. I think we underestimate how Jesus struggled in those 40 days in the wilderness. Being hungry was not the worst of it. It was a battle with evil. It was a battle with the Evil One. In the midst of that battle, I’m not sure even Jesus thought the outcome was certain. Even Jesus was forced to cling in this time of darkness to what God had told him in the light.
There are three temptations. We call them temptations but the usual interpretation of this passage is that Jesus wasn’t really tempted. I’m not so sure. Temptations by definition are tempting. If there isn’t something about them that makes them difficult to resist, they aren’t real temptations. If they aren’t real temptations, the victory Jesus won over them is not a real victory. You see, Jesus was in the wilderness. He was not on the mountaintop. The voice of God was not so clear. The voice of Satan was very clear. And I think very persuasive. So how did Jesus emerge victorious?
First, he responded to each temptation with scripture. “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone’ . . . It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve’ . . . It is said, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God'” (Luke 4:4,8,12). Jesus knew the Book. He didn’t have to look up the perfect passage. He had the perfect passage inside him. It was part of him. He lived it and he breathed it. Including Psalm 119:11 that says, “I have hidden your Word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” That’s exactly what Jesus had done. He had hidden God’s Word in his heart. And these three verses never had so much meaning as when Jesus needed them, when they were his only weapons against Satan, when what God told him in the light kept him alive in the darkness.
Do you know the Bible? I don’t think any of us can honestly answer yes to that one. Because however well we know the Bible, we could know it better. Some of you read and study the Bible and have made that a priority in your life. And some of you feel a little embarrassed when I bring up the subject. Because you feel so far behind everyone else in your knowledge of the Bible. I’ll tell you some good news. You’re probably not as far behind as you think. And I’ll tell you some better news. A little effort goes a long way in mastering the basics.
Second, Jesus listened for God’s voice. That’s not in the Bible passage we read. There is no record of Jesus praying to God in the wilderness. The only record we have gives the details of his conversation with Satan. But do you really think when he wasn’t fending off Satan’s temptations he was spending the rest of those 40 days twiddling his thumbs? He had lots of time on his hands. And from what we know about Jesus elsewhere in scripture, it’s not a stretch to conclude that he spent most of this time in prayer. Talking to God and also listening to God. And because God’s voice wasn’t clear, he had to listen extra hard. He had to discipline himself when praying was hard, to pray all the harder.
I don’t see Jesus sitting still while he prayed. I see him walking. It’s rugged country. I’ve been there. But I see Jesus exploring the desolate beauty of God’s wilderness carrying on a conversation with God all the while. And when God didn’t answer back, he didn’t give up. He reminded himself that God was there whether he heard God’s voice or not.
There’s a poem about this kind of faith: “I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining. I believe in love, even when I do not feel it. I believe in God, even when God is silent.” These words were found on a cellar wall in Cologne, Germany, written by a Jew hiding from Nazis in World War II.
How’s your prayer life? Do you discipline yourself to pray hardest when your life is hardest? When God seems to be silent?
There’s a third lesson from the victory Jesus won over Satan.
The passage we read begins and ends with the Holy Spirit. It begins, “And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit . . . was led by the Spirit for forty days in the wilderness . . . ” It ends, “And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee . . . ” The story of Jesus in the wilderness is bracketed by the Holy Spirit. And even though Jesus must have felt utterly alone as those 40 days slowly passed, one agonizing day at a time, he was never alone. The Holy Spirit was with him. Matthew and Mark tell this same story and add the detail that “angels ministered to [Jesus]”. He was never alone. It was not all up to him. He had help. And so do we.
Whenever I officiate at a graveside service, I begin with these words: “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From whence does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:1). There is help even at those times when we feel most helpless. When we feel like we can’t make it on our own, we are right. We can’t. Not on our own. But thank God we are never, ever on our own.
We started today in the land of Narnia and that’s where we’re going to end. A different book. The Magician’s Nephew. A boy named Digory is with the lion we have already met, Aslan. Digory is given as assignment. He is to go to a garden and pick an apple from a tree. The apple is to be returned to Aslan. He finds the garden and the tree. He picks the apple. It was so easy! He’s on his way back, congratulating himself on what a great job he has done when he comes upon Jadis the witch. She is not a stranger. He has met her before. He knows she is as evil as Aslan is good. He runs as hard as he can to get away from her.
But as he runs, he hears her voice: “Foolish boy, why do you run from me? I mean you no harm. If you do not stop and listen to me now you will miss some knowledge that would have made you happy all your life.”
He answers that he doesn’t want to hear it. But he really does.
The witch tells him lies. They are echoes of the lies told by the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Digory really should eat that apple. If he does, he will live forever. Not only that. If he eats that apple it will heal his mother who is dying.
He was about to give in. The witch’s lies were so believable. He wanted to believe that what she said was true. But Digory was not alone with the evil witch. He had help. And he found that help at the very moment when he needed it most. “And even in the midst of all his misery, his head suddenly cleared.”
Digory refused the witch. He brought the apple to Aslan. And Aslan said, “Well done,” in a voice that made the earth shake.
Never doubt in the darkness what God has told you in the light. And you will stand one day in his presence and the words will be spoken to you: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”
Dear God, there are so many choices in life. We are so often torn as we agonize between the greater of two goods or the lesser of two evils. And then our emotions get involved, and it gets even more complicated. God, at moments like these, help us to remember, remember, remember what we do know, what we do believe, what you have told us so clearly in the light. Guide us, Lord Jesus, that we may emerge from our wilderness struggles as you did from yours. Victorious. In your mighty name, Amen.