Bible StudyA new study every Sunday
A Glorious Whisper
A Bible Study by John Birch
Starting June 6th 2021
Introduction (Click to expand/collapse)
“We are silent before hearing the Word, as a child is quiet when he enters his father’s room. We are silent after hearing the Word because the Word is still speaking and dwelling within us. We are silent at the beginning of the day because God should have the first word, and we are silent before going to sleep because the last word also belongs to God…” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life together, p79)
This is not really a Bible study for those who think that God no longer speaks to us, because it makes the assumption that it is still possible to discern the word of God speaking (or getting through) to us within our daily lives, based upon the Biblical evidence of the relationship between God and his people within the Old and New Testaments, along with the everyday experience of Christians today.
We live in an increasingly busy, noisy, and distracting world, and one which is increasingly impatient. We expect deliveries of our internet orders within a couple of days (or sooner) whereas just a decade ago we would have been happy with waiting a week or more.
Apparently a one second delay in loading a web page can result in 11% fewer page views and lost sales. We pray and then wonder why the answer doesn’t come immediately, as it might do if we were asking a question via Google (other search engines are available!)
So that can leave us wondering, does God still want to speak to his people and if so, what should we be expecting to hear… and how?
Is God’s word to us discerned through means other than direct conversation?
“Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:12-13)
“Why do you complain to him that he responds to no one’s words? For God does speak – now one way, now another – though no one perceives it.” (Job 33:13-14)
Through this study we take an overview of how God’s word might speak into our own situations through creation and created places, signs, and wonders, directly through Scripture’s words, via other people, and through creativity in its many forms.
What is your favourite way of communicating with friends, and why?
“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech; they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” (Psalm 19:1-6)
Question: How would you interpret the words of Psalm 19 if you were explaining them to a non-Christian?
Perhaps we first need to define our terms!
We wouldn’t normally expect God to speak in the language we are used to through the natural world. We might talk to the plants and trees, but they don’t generally answer back!
But it might be possible for something of the power, nature, character, and purpose of God to be discerned through that which we see around us in the natural world, and if it speaks into our current situation and prayers then many Christians would argue that it is as valid as the printed word in bringing God’s truth or word alive in our hearts.
God speaks to us, or God’s truth might therefore be revealed to us through the heavens and the created world.
The Apostle Paul certainly thought so, when he wrote to the Christians in Rome, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20)
However, we might interpret the Creation story told in Genesis, it is impossible to ignore that wonderfully poetic picture of God calling the universe into being, as the words “And God said…” shout out from the text.
“And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” (Genesis 1:3)
A Glorious Whisper
John’s gospel begins with this very theme, except that Jesus is seen as the Word, the agent of creation present at the beginning of all beginnings!
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” (John 1:1-3)
Question: Sometimes it is possible to see something of the personality of a potter in a piece they have made and decorated, or an artist in the exuberance or precision of the brushstrokes used in a painting. What do we glimpse of God’s character within the countryside around us?
Perhaps it is possible to say from Genesis that God’s purpose was always that the created world was somewhere where Creator and created could be close and walk together – as with the story of Adam and Eve – where human beings could open their eyes and ears to discern the beauty and grandeur of all that God is and has made, and not only meditate on this but communicate with the one who was its source.
In other words, the universe itself carries the echo of God’s creative word, and we can still discern this glorious whisper, this truth, if we use the senses, we have been given. This is eloquently expressed in Psalm 19 with which we began this study.
We live in a very different world to that of the Psalmist, for whom the night sky with its stars, planets, asteroids, and meteorites visibly moving above must have been a continual source of wonder, as would extremes of weather, landscape, flora, and fauna. For us the night sky is more often than not obscured by the glare of town and city lighting, and during the day its voice lost within the noise of traffic, human voices and headphones plugged into ears!
Question: Scientists are sometimes (but not always) guilty of assuming that they are the purveyors of all truth concerning life and the universe. How do you view the often-fraught relationship between science and religion?
So let us put ourselves and the planet we live on in the context of the observable universe, from where light emitted by the furthest known object takes around 13.7 billion light years to reach earth!
We sit within a mass of somewhere between 100 and 200 billion stars called the Milky Way, which is only one of an astonishing number of galaxies, revealed most recently by the Hubble Space Telescope to be approximately 10 trillion at the moment, which incidentally is also the estimated number of bacteria on the surface of a human body!
Those 10 trillion galaxies could yield more than 100 octillion stars (that’s 1 with 29 zeros after it) which is even more than the estimated 7 octillion atoms in an average 70kg human body!
It’s interesting to compare the big numbers of the created universe as we currently know it with something closer to home – our own bodies. Both are things of wonder!
Question: Scientists seem reasonably happy to label human beings as unique within the animal kingdom. Christians would possibly go further and emphasize the uniqueness and wonder of the individual. How might this influence our understanding of the relationship between Creator and created?
Many would acknowledge times and places where they have felt a closeness to God, often in remote or beautiful parts of the countryside (that mountaintop experience), but also within sacred places such as ancient churches and cathedrals. These are sometimes described as “thin” places.
Question: In the UK we might class ancient religious sites such as Iona and Lindisfarne as such places. Have you found somewhere like this, and if so, what seems to make it special?
If we go back to the Bible, then there are quite a few places mentioned that might qualify as “thin” or “sacred” places where some famous characters seem to have found themselves particularly close to God.
Mindie Burgoyne on her website writingthevision. com says “Thin Places are ports in the storm of life, where the pilgrims can move closer to the God they seek, where one leaves that which is familiar and journeys into the Divine Presence. They are stopping places where men and women are given pause to wonder about what lies beyond the mundane rituals, the grief, trials and boredom of our day-to-day life.”
In Exodus chapter 3 we find Moses looking after his father-in-law’s sheep on “Horeb, the mountain of God” which may also be the mountain also known as Mount Sinai. Here Moses is distracted by the burning bush, hears the voice of God, and is told that he must take off his sandals because this is holy ground. A “thin” place?
Later in chapter 19 Moses is commanded to put limits around this mountain and set it apart as holy, before God reveals the Ten Commandments to his prophet.
And yet, apart from the establishment of the Christian Monastery of St Catherine on its slopes, this place does not seem to have become a special place of pilgrimage over succeeding centuries for the Jews.
More interestingly within the context of the Exodus is the view that the presence of God is represented by such signs as the pillar of cloud and fire, the Tabernacle and Tent of Meeting (Exodus 33:7ff) all of which are temporary and would seem to bring a portability into our considerations!
When David proposed building a temple in Jerusalem as a more permanent place where God might reside, there seems to have been some resistance.
“Go and tell my servant David, ‘This is what the Lord has declared: Are you the one to build a house for me to live in? I have never lived in a house; from the day I brought the Israelites out of Egypt until this very day. I have always moved from one place to another with a tent and a Tabernacle as my dwelling. Yet no matter where I have gone with the Israelites, I have never once complained to Israel’s tribal leaders, the shepherds of my people Israel. I have never asked them, “Why haven’t you built me a beautiful cedar house?”’ (2 Samuel 7:5-7)
Question: Are we sometimes guilty of trying to constrain God within walls that we have built?
It was Solomon who eventually built the temple, which by its design actually kept the people away from the holiest place where God was said to dwell – and where only priests could enter. Yet there must have been such a sense of the divine within this beautiful building that inspired the Psalmist to write,
“How lovely is your dwelling place,
O Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
I long, yes, I faint with longing
to enter the courts of the Lord.
With my whole being, body, and soul,
I will shout joyfully to the living God.
Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow builds her nest and raises her
young at a place near your altar,
O Lord of Heaven’s Armies, my King, and my God!
What joy for those who can live in your house,
always singing your praises.” (Psalm 84:1-4)
Question: Meditate on those words for a few moments. What do they say to you?
Canon Christopher Tuckwell from Westminster Cathedral in London talks of visitors crossing the threshold of such a holy place as this, sensing the presence of God, filling it with prayer and contemplation and creating a living house of prayer.
This description could perhaps fit the bill for our most of our ancient cathedrals, which offer spaciousness together with quietness and peace within which to sit and meditate, space apart from the busyness of life, places where the prayer and worship of generations could be said to have soaked into the very fabric.
But then there are some who would suggest that “church” is simply the body of Christ meeting together for worship and service wherever they might be, rather than anything physical constructed by human hands in bricks or stone – and just as God moved with his people rather than being constrained by tent or Temple, so God is with us wherever we are gathered.
Question: Consider the church or chapel where you normally meet? Could this be considered a sacred space where you can sit awhile and feel the presence of God? If not, what prevents this from happening?
Before we pass on from the opening chapters of the Bible there is an important point that is often missed. Human beings were intended to cultivate the earth, produce food from it and care for it and the livestock upon it. This is at the very heart of the Creation story in Genesis. In other words, this world, God’s garden, was to be a place of work, and humankind would experience God’s presence as they went about their daily tasks of caring for the land and each other.
The Apostle Paul tells his readers, even the humble slave, “Obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favour, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.”
There are tales of the early Celtic saints praying as they worked in the fields and milked the cows – possibly not quite the same environment as an office or factory, but behaviour that is close to that which Paul encouraged.
Question: Is it possible to feel an intimacy with God, to hear his word and prompting in a working environment that is nowhere near as quiet or beautiful as a hillside?
Summing up: We have taken a broad overview of the concept of God being discerned in place or sacred space, briefly stopping on our way in the Garden of Eden and passing through history to the cathedrals we love to wander around, the countryside we walk through, the churches and chapels where we meet for worship, and even perhaps our places of work. It leaves us perhaps with one final question.
Question: Are we right to think that there are particular places where God’s nature, power, and purpose for us are more easily discerned, or should we consider this to be possible throughout the whole of the created world as it once was described in Eden?
What to you is the most iconic symbol in the world, and does it carry any particular message?
To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. (1 Corinthians 12:8-10)
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:26-27)
How would you define a miracle?
We began the last session in Genesis, looking at the picture of God calling the universe into being, “And God said…!”
From there we thought about whether that picture of the first humans walking through the Garden and communicating directly with God (being in his presence) was an experience that is still possible in today’s world, either within creation or a created place.
Now we look a little at how God’s presence is seen within Scripture through signs, symbols, and miracles, and consider what God was saying to his people through the miraculous in the Old and New Testaments and whether these are ways through which God might speak to us today.
So let us begin again with the Creation story, and the first thing that we have to acknowledge is that when these words were written there was no concept of any “laws of nature” that we might now be familiar with – all that happened was seen as a result of the hand of God. We see this reflected so poetically in the words of the Psalm 104, which is actually worth reading in its entirety.
All creatures look to you
to give them their food at the proper time.
When you give it to them,
they gather it up;
when you open your hand,
they are satisfied with good things.
When you hide your face,
they are terrified;
when you take away their breath,
they die and return to the dust.
When you send your Spirit,
they are created,
and you renew the face of the ground. (Psalm 104:27-30)
So, there is some disconnect between what we might view as the miraculous (above and beyond the laws of nature) and something which an ancient people looked upon more as an unexpected event or sign from God, memorable enough to be passed on through the generations via an oral and then written history.
As we journey through the Old Testament, signs and wonders become increasingly associated with the story of God’s relationship with an often-rebellious people in their epic journey from slavery in Egypt to a promised land, subsequent engagements with the surrounding cultures and time spent in exile in Babylon at the time of Daniel.
In other words, they are linked to God’s plan of salvation and the establishment of his kingdom, initially through a chosen people on earth.
So, in the Old Testament the signs and miracles are in general speaking to us about Salvation and God’s Kingdom, which are still big issues for all of us. It is still possible for stories written several thousands of years ago to speak into our situations today!
Can you recall stories from those early years of God’s people that might qualify as signs and wonders?
Signs and wonders in the Old Testament speak to us of God’s power supporting his people, executing judgement on individuals and nations, and in single unexpected events and miracles.
Here’s a few examples: –
“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Tell Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt—over the streams and canals, over the ponds and all the reservoirs—and they will turn to blood.’” (Exodus 7:19)
“(Nebuchadnezzar) said, ‘Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.’ Nebuchadnezzar then approached the opening of the blazing furnace and shouted, ‘Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!’” (Daniel 3:25-26)
“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions…’” (Exodus 16:4ff)
“Remember today that your children were not the ones who saw and experienced the discipline of the Lord your God: his majesty, his mighty hand, his outstretched arm; the signs he performed and the things he did in the heart of Egypt, both to Pharaoh king of Egypt and to his whole country; what he did to the Egyptian army, to its horses and chariots, how he overwhelmed them with the waters of the Red Sea…” (Deuteronomy 11:2-4)
“Ezekiel will be a sign to you; you will do just as he has done. When this happens, you will know that I am the Sovereign Lord.” (Ezekiel 24:24-7)
“She went away and did as Elijah had told her. So, there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family. For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the Lord spoken by Elijah.” (from 1 Kings 17:10-16)
There are of course many more…….!
The four Gospels also include many miracles. And the writer John presents us with seven, describing them as “miraculous signs” (as in chapter 2:11). Is there a difference between these and the Old Testament miracles?
John’s Gospel, written some decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection includes seven incidents which we might call miraculous, beginning with Jesus turning water into wine and ending with the raising of Lazarus from the dead – and John calls them “signs” rather than miracles. He also includes seven “I am” statements where Jesus’ words help to answer the question, “Who is this man?”
If we put the two together then it is possible to discern not only how Jesus described himself and his purpose, but also how the things he did confirmed the words he said, pointing to God’s glory revealed through him – or to quote Nicodemus, who was starting to put the picture together, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” (John 3:2)
Nicodemus seems to be at least in part on the right track, but the Jews generally were not, even though they were looking for Messiah to come accompanied by signs and wonders. Why do you think that they might have missed the clues that were speaking to Nicodemus?
In the gospels we see Jesus as the Word, with the writer John connecting him with Creation and God’s creative breath. So, Jesus speaks with the authority of God, and the signs and wonders that accompanied his work were a consequence of who he was and where there was need – not simply for the purpose of demonstrating his power.
Jesus brought healing and wholeness to those who were in need of it, showed that the Creative Word could still control the elements (Luke 8:22-25) but refused to do tricks to impress Herod (Luke 23:8- 9).
So, the “signs” or “miracles” within the four gospels speak to us of the power and glory of God present in Jesus’ life, and point us towards an understanding of the Kingdom of God both here on earth and in heaven.
They also speak to us about healing and wholeness… and the continuing story of Salvation.
“These things,” says John “are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
But the New Testament is more than just the story of Jesus. Paul in his second letter to the Corinthian church tells the fellowship of believers, “I persevered in demonstrating among you the marks of a true apostle, including signs, wonders and miracles.”
There are signs, wonders and miraculous acts demonstrated in the lives of the disciples and apostles after Pentecost and in the early church. Is there a difference, do you think, between these miracles and those of Jesus?
As we read the book of Acts, we discover that it is the story of a developing church, and the teaching of the apostles begins to take precedence over signs and wonders. It is unclear from the continuing story whether or not the incidence of healings or other miraculous acts continued or decreased during this period. Where they do occur, an important difference must be noted – they are not performed through the authority of the individual but by the power of God’s Spirit invested in them by Jesus (Acts 1:8).
Sometimes these were, as with Jesus, acts of blessing and healing. But there were also occasions when God’s judgement was dispensed, as with Elymas the sorcerer (Acts 13:6-13).
And we are told most emphatically that the signs and wonders performed in the early church were by no means the same as those performed by others such as the clairvoyant slave girl in Acts 16:16-18.
How do we distinguish between signs that have their source with God, and those which do not?
The early Christian apostles were people who in the main were not highly educated or experienced in public speaking and demonstrations of supernatural power. It was the Word of God that was being heard, and the power of God being shown – through ordinary lives but empowered by the Holy Spirit.
The book is, in a sense, not the Acts of the Apostles, but the acts of Jesus Christ continuing to be seen through his apostles, by his power and with his authority.
“He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’” (Acts 1:7-8)
Paul seems to have anticipated that the early Christians would continue to demonstrate the power of God in the lives of believers, ultimately for the building up of the Church.
“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
Through the Old and New Testaments, the signs and miracles still speak to us of Salvation and the Kingdom of God. The Epistles speak to us of the continuing power of Jesus post Resurrection, alive within his followers as they carry on his work of establishing God’s Kingdom on earth.
So, what of signs speaking to us of God’s nature and purpose today? Are we dismissive, sceptical, or anticipating?
Within the established church and its different denominations there are various signs and symbols which point us toward aspects of our faith and particularly the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We can perhaps consider these as speaking to us, revealing something of the nature of God.
In this context there is the depiction of the Cross displayed on wall or table, icons, paintings or statues, the elements used for Holy Communion, the Bible, sacred songs, anointing with oil or laying on of hands for healing or blessing. In their own way these remind us or speak to us about aspects of our spiritual life and its source.
Are these any different than signs (or symbols) seen within the Old Testament, such as the bronze snake lifted high by Moses that spoke to the people of God’s power, and the pillar of cloud which spoke of God’s presence with his people (other than perhaps in scale?)
What are the most important symbols in your church, and what do they say to you?
Many would argue that the age of the miraculous gradually ended with the establishment of the fledgling church by the apostles. Others refute this and point to healings which appear unexplainable by doctors, and the continuation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:28-31) present within the church. The miraculous, where it occurs in the life of an individual, speaks of God’s eternal power and love, and of a beautiful relationship between the Creator and humankind.