Posted: August 7th, 2013

God Still Speaks

By, Fr. Mark Sietsema
On July 25, Metropolitan Nicholas was invited to be the guest homilist at the Ecumenical Vespers of the Dormition of Saint Anna at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Detroit.  Below are excerpts from the text of that homily.  Eis Polla Eti, Despota!

My friends, we know that Joachim and Anna were people like ourselves:  they knew love and loss, they knew happiness and heartache.  They did not see themselves as angelic saints who stood high and above this messy, broken world; they were ordinary people, with ordinary lives and ordinary abilities. 

Their souls’ greatest burden, as they advanced in age, was childlessness.  And as the words of the Psalmist echoed in their hearts, (127:3) “Behold, children are a gift from the Lord, and the fruit of the womb is His reward,” instead of godly comfort from Scripture they felt human loss and derision.  For in truth, no such reward had been granted to Joachim and Anna for their lifelong love and fidelity.  It was for them an emptiness that was crushing. 

But without doubt they did know the Scriptures.  Undoubtedly they had heard the stories of old, when the Lord heard the voice of the barren woman and sent an answer in her hour of deepest distress.

So God had spoken eleven centuries earlier to Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel!  When she poured out her lamentation to God, He answered her through His priest Eli.  And there were others …. even before God’s blessing to Hannah, God sent His angel to speak to the wife of Manoah, telling her that she would be the mother of Samson.  And even before her, God spoke to Sarah, the wife of Abraham.  God granted them a personal visitation, under the form of three angels, promising that Sarah would know the joys of motherhood, even in her old age.  And so she did; and her son Isaac was named for the laughter of his incredulous mother. 

Yes, Joachim and Anna knew these cherished stories, repeated from generation to generation.  But these things—these glorious, gladsome things—they happened so long ago.   They must have wondered: what about us in our day?  Does God still listen?  Does God still speak?

Here in this Cathedral tonight, how many Joachims, how many Annas, sit here and ponder the same questions?  How many of us are people just like them: ordinary people, people of faith and virtue, people struggling against the unseen enemy, people who seek the Lord, but feel themselves weighed down by heartaches and disappointments, by family troubles and health concerns.  How many of us – even this night – wonder to ourselves if God really hears our prayers – and more importantly:  does God speak to us in today’s world? 

While it is fitting that each year on this day, we ourselves repeat the story of Anna’s prayer and of God’s answer, twenty centuries later we still find ourselves asking: Does God still hear, and does He speak to us even today?

My brothers and sisters, beloved in the Lord, it is our common witness and reason for being gathered here in this sacred place to affirm that in our day God does speak to us.   But to hear Him, we must learn how to listen to Him; to hear God, we must learn to listen to Him as He speaks in the forms and languages of His love for us.  And if we learn the different forms and languages of His love, we will discern His voice in our time just as men and women did in all ages past.

We affirm that God speaks to us – and at times He speaks to us in the opening of our hearts.  One of my clergy tells of a childless couple in the parish.   Like Joachim and Anna they felt incomplete.  They availed themselves of all that modern medicine could offer … but still they waited.  They came to their priest, and they poured out their hearts standing in full love and honesty before God.   The priest prayed with them and offered such reassurances as he had. 

Several nights later, the priest had a dream.  In the dream he saw himself arranging for the woman to be anointed with the healing oil of Holy Unction for several days, and through this act of faith God would grant their request.  When the priest awoke from his dream, he called the couple and told them about the dream.  They agreed to follow the divine plan.   Yes my friends, God speaks to us in the baring of our hearts before Him and the dreams of the priest.  Just last Saturday the priest baptized this couple’s baby boy. 

God speaks.  He continues to speak through dreams, through visions, through voices, through experiences of His indescribable glory.  These things happen not just to monks and nuns, not just to bishops and priests.  The God who reveals Himself as the Heavenly Father, this God still speaks to His beloved children today.

In fact, He speaks to each and every one of us. Truly God does not speak in dreams to everyone … but He does speak to everyone.  Not in the same way to every person, but to each of us, according to our needs and our capacity for understanding, God speaks … and it is but for us to be open to hear Him! 

God still speaks.  He speaks to us through His Church, which is nothing other than the very Body of Christ in this world.  The flesh-and-blood Jesus who walked the roads of Galilee speaks to us through flesh and blood, through our brothers and sisters in Christ. 

In these instances, God speaks through the voice of your brothers and sisters in Christ who offer counsel and guidance, encouragement and wisdom.  “In a multitude of counselors, one’s plans are established,” says King Solomon in the Proverbs (15:22).  In the Body of Christ, every member needs the help of every other member in some way.  From one another we draw strength, wisdom, courage, consolation, and reassurance.   Yes, my friends, God speaks through the love of His people.

And more than this -- God speaks through the voice of your priests and pastors, as they declare to you the promises of God; as they witness to you the Gospel of Christ and the unchanging beliefs of our Faith; as they perform the Sacraments that bring down grace and forgiveness and healing.  The spiritual epiphanies that come to all of us are easily misinterpreted; wise is the woman or man who confers with the priest, who can offer a wealth of experience in sorting out the sense behind these events…the priest who can help separate modern day  myths from eternal reality.

God speaks through the voice of the bishop, as he passes down the ageless wisdom of the Church throughout time and space.  The unchanging Tradition of our common Catholic and Orthodox inheritance shines like the North Star in pointing us to truth, to sanity, to decency, to goodness.  We all need a place where we can get answers, and the Church is the treasure-house of wisdom, both human and divine.  Through the Church we learn the disciplines of prayer, of alms and fasting, of chastity and monogamy.  Through the Church we learn the value of human life, both in its beginnings and in its final days.  The voice of the Church and of her bishops is in these matters truly the voice of God.

God speaks to us through yet another voice … the voice of our heart, as we read and study the Holy Scriptures.  We pick up this book which is unlike any other book.  And in it we find the long record of God’s dealings with people just like us.  In His words to them, He speaks also to all of us.

There was a fad a few years ago, of Christian people wearing bracelets with the letters WWJD—“What Would Jesus Do?”  It is an important question, and it is valuable to have a tangible reminder for ourselves to ask that question as we go through our days.  But there is no sense in asking “What Would Jesus Do?” if we are not regularly consulting the book that tells us What Did Jesus Do!  

God does speak!  One of the things that Scriptures teach us is that God speaks through circumstances.  “All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose,” says the Apostle Paul (Romans 8:28).  Paul speaks himself of God “opening a door” for him to serve longer in a particular situation (1 Corinthians 16:8).  God spoke through the way things lined up, just as clearly as if it were written in big red letters in the sky. 

There is an old-fashioned word for this, one that has fallen out of use: Providence.  God provides.  At the right time—and usually not a moment before!—He brings to hand that which we really need: an opportunity, an idea, a gift.  Sometimes Providence is in the form of barriers, too: what we want to happen, doesn’t.  And how often, after the fact, do we realize that this too was actually for the best?

God still speaks.  If only we open our hearts and ears to hear His voice, calling us as if by name. 

But if God speaks, why do we fail to hear?  Why do we fall despondent, thinking that God has forgotten us, or that God is lost in silence?

Perhaps we make the mistake of the Prophet Elijah (1 Kings 19ff).  In his time of trouble, he became depressed: he even prayed for death.  But God sent Elijah up to the top of Mount Horeb, there to await Him.  A mighty wind came through.  But God was not in the wind.  Then an earthquake struck.  But God was not in the earthquake.  Then a firestorm appeared.  But God was not in the fire. 

Then, in the thinness of absolute silence, there on the mountaintop, Elijah heard the still, small voice.  This was the voice of God, speaking to him directly, personally, specifically.  God was not in the noise and the ruckus, in the chaos and confusion.  God was in the silence.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, truly we are living in the midst of an epidemic.  An epidemic of noise.  The sound of “civilization” grows and grows; it is reaching an unceasing, unbearable din.  Machinery, vehicles, ringtones, iPods, TVs, elevator music—even the pleasant sounds become unpleasant because they are everywhere and inescapable.  Worse yet, we have become addicted to noise.  We get into our cars, we buckle the seatbelt, we turn the key in the ignition and put it in gear, … and then what is the next motion?  Is it not to turn on the radio or the CD player?  We have become a society of people afraid, not of the dark, but of the quiet.

Solitude and silence are an absolutely necessary component of a well-balanced spiritual diet.  Remember that the Son of God, in His earthly ministry, required times of withdrawal from human company, time apart in silence and solitude.  If Jesus Christ sought in silence to hear His Father’s voice, how much more do we need this respite?   “My soul in silence waits for God,” sang the Psalmist (62:1).  When do our souls ever experience silence anymore? 

When Saint Joachim sought healing for his broken heart, where did he go?  To the wilderness, to solitude, to silence.  When Saint Anna sought answers in her time of bitter grief, where did she go? To the garden, to solitude, to silence. 

Tonight, as I said, we are a congregation of Joachims and of Annas.  Catholic and Orthodox, young and old, single and married, male and female, we come together as people seeking the peace from above, but suffering from the brokenness of our life here below.  We want to hear the voice of God. Tonight He speaks to us:  He speaks in our common assembly here; He speaks through the united presence of Bishops, Clergy, Monastics and laity; He speaks through the presence of this Sacred Altar of Sacrifice which brings life to us; and I pray that God also speaks to you through the presence of this unworthy messenger who stands before you, to bring you this simple, this profound declaration:

God still speaks to us today.  Through His people, through His priests, through His bishops, through His Church, through His Scriptures, through His Providence, through times of retreat into solitude and silence, and through His acts of love.  Above the din of this world, God still speaks to our hearts; even in that still, small voice, God speaks. 

May we be given the ears to hear, and the hearts to trust, and the lips to give glory to the one true and living God—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.  Amen.

 




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