My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.
The other night Suanne and I watched the movie “Two Popes.” It is the story of the interaction between Pope Benedict and Pope Francis when Pope Benedict decided to “retire” from being the head of the Catholic Church. It is a compelling look behind the scenes at the political and spiritual struggle that went on. I was struck but the genuine spiritual struggle that was depicted in the lives of both men. Each had to struggle with their own demons from the past. Each genuinely desired to follow Christ. At one point, as Benedict is trying to convince Francis that it was time for Benedict to step down, he said, “I no longer hear the voice of God.” Pope Benedict had become so embroiled in the political and ecclesiastical struggles of the church that he had lost touch with the very essence of his faith. He longed to return to the place where he could hear the voice of God again.
Do you even feel like you can no longer hear the voice of God? Benedict’s struggle struck a chord with me. As a follower of Christ, and especially as a pastor, is it possible for me to get so caught up in the outward trappings of my faith that I lose touch with Jesus? Can I go through the motions yet fail to hear the voice of Jesus? When I was in seminary, I was warned that a danger I faced was becoming a theologian and losing my faith. Throughout my years of ministry there have been times when I have struggled with this. There have been times when, like Pope Benedict, I longed for the simple, almost naïve faith of my youth, unencumbered with the weight of theology and church polity.
The writer of Hebrews warns us that it is possible for us to harden our hearts toward God and lose touch with Him. We can allow the challenges of life to block out the voice of God.
See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first. As has just been said:
"Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion."
These words were not written to unbelievers, but to believers. Hebrews warns us about letting the deceitfulness of sin to dull our hearing. We are shaped by the voices that we listen to. The more that we entertain the voice of the world the harder it is for us to hear the voice of God. This is a constant battle for us all. Daily we are being bombarded with Satan’s lies. The more that we listen to those lies, the more they seem to be true.
The good news is that our salvation is not dependent upon us but upon the grace of God. Christ has given to us the Holy Spirit, who is the guard of our hearts. His role is to continually bring us back to the place where we can hear the voice of God. He convicts us of our sin, not to condemn us, but to draw us back to Christ. When we honestly acknowledge our sin, He applies Christ’s forgiveness to our souls. This something we should not take lightly or presume upon. As Paul writes in Romans 6:1-2, What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? To presume upon God’s grace is to do the very thing that Hebrews warns us about; to harden our heart.
Jesus knew that this journey of faith would be a daily struggle. He is honest with us about what it really means to follow Him. Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) Daily we need to retune our hearts to be able to hear the voice of God. But we don’t have to do this on our own. Jesus has promised to come alongside of us and empower us to follow Him. "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." (Matthew 11:28-30)
We will all struggle along the way. There will be times when we stumble and fall. There will even be times when we act in open rebellion toward God. But the greatest danger is when we get to the place where we stop listening to the master’s voice. Each day is a new opportunity to tune in to the voice of Jesus and to follow Him. Through the study of God’s word, through intentional prayer, and through genuine fellowship with other believers we can sharpen our hearing. Jesus is never far away. If we are careful to listen, we will hear His voice.
Then a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and a voice came from the cloud: "This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!"