Learning to Discern: Whose Voice Will You Listen To?

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Matthew 4:1-11
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

Prior to our reading today, Matthew tells the story of the baptism of Jesus. The baptism of Jesus was a beautiful thing: After his baptism he and others heard the voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

It was a moment to remember. Then, immediately after his baptism…something strange happens…  Jesus did not have his picture taken… and Jesus did not invite his friends over for lunch to celebrate that very special moment… No, Matthew says the Spirit leads him into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil… and that after 40 days and nights of fasting… the tempter begins talking to Jesus… trying to get Jesus to listen to him… trying to help him rationalize why he should listen to his voice and not the voice of God… that if he will listen, he will never be hungry again, he will have power, he will have prestige… the world will be his.

Who would not want that? Isn’t that what we are all working for in this world?

This is a story about many things, but as we begin our season of Lent, let me suggest to you it is a story about discernment. Our Lenten theme this year is “Learning to Discern”.

One of the most common questions that arise in my office and in the church is “How do I know… how we know?…” this is what I or we are supposed to do. Or where God is leading me/us?

There seems to be a longing within us to hear God guide us.  So for the coming weeks, through worship and Bible study we will explore what it means to discern the will of God for our lives.

Before we go too far, it might be good to make sure we know what we are talking about.  Sometimes discernment and decision making sound like the same thing.

But Henri Nouwen taught me that they are not the same thing at all.

“Reaching a decision can be straightforward: we consider our goals and options; maybe we list the pros and cons of each possible choice; and then we choose the action that meets our goal most effectively. Discernment, on the other hand, is about listening and responding to that place within us where our deepest desires align with God’s desires…”

That’s an important distinction which we often fail to make.

We fail to make that distinction all the time in the church… and I have been guilty of this myself more than I would like to admit. In committee meetings, or church meetings or session meetings… we’ll talk about some decision small or large and talk about the pros and cons… then come to a decision to vote on… We hardly even pause to pray…we in such a hurry to make a decision… Often, the question is not even asked, “Is this God’s will for us or for the church?” Instead we’ll ask, is this what WE want or is this what the congregation wants.  In those moments we are making decisions, not discerning.

Discernment begins with the person of faith who “believes that God is always speaking us- individually and as the people of God… And that discernment is the spiritual practice that seeks to understand what God is trying to say.”[1]

To discern means we take God’s will for us into account rather than simply our own desires…

I can’t help but think of the most famous quote by Buechner… perhaps it comes to your mind as well… The second part you will know… but people forget the first part. He is talking about vocation:

“There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Super ego, or Self-interest”

May I pause to say that some of those voices sound to me like the voice of the serpent in the garden … the tempter… and the voice of the tempter in the wilderness tempting Jesus to be something he is not… to give into his ego… to grab for power and prosperity just like everyone else…  Buechner is right… there are all sorts of voices calling us to all different kinds of things… many of them are rightly called the voice of the tempter…                                                      

Buechner goes on… And hear the full quote:

“By and large a good rule for finding out (the voice of God) is this. The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work

 (a) that you need most to do and  b) the world needs to have done….

   The place God calls you to is the place where your deepest gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

I’ve thought about that quote for over 30 years now… and I find myself still quoting it to others… But I always want to put an asterisk by it. I want to add a few more words… and to say something like, you find your call or you discover God’s will not only where you find your gladness meeting the world’s hunger… but also where you find those aligning with God’s will revealed in Jesus Christ.

It’s not just about you… and your hunger… it’s not even just about the world’s need… it is about aligning our will with the will of Christ.

Sometimes I worry that people hear that first part of the quote without the second. They think God is only calling them to where their gladness is… but don’t forget the second part… it is where your gladness meets the world’s hunger…

And forgive me, Buechner fans, I’d also like to point out… that not everything we are called to be or do brings gladness… at least not in the way I hear most people think of gladness. And unless the source of your gladness is rooted in God, then it may be narcissism.

Do we think Jesus was glad to be in the wilderness? Hungry and weak? Do we think Jesus was glad when he discovered God’s will was for him to die on the cross?

I’m not asking us to throw away Buechner’s definition… I’m asking us to think more carefully about how we might discern God’s call in our lives.

For Buechner is right about this: There are many voices out there telling us to do all sorts of things

Eve, Adam… heard those voices that had them doubting God… and eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil… Bad decision! No discernment!

Jesus faced the temptations – heard those voices tell him to save himself… get ahead… take the easy way… The tempter even quoted scripture! What if Jesus had just listed the pros and cons of tempter’s offer? He might have come to a different decision.

But Jesus, the only one the Bible says fully and faithfully listened to God’s voice, stayed faithful to his calling…

Those days in the wilderness, as hard as it was… was a time of fasting and praying… staying focused on God. I imagine him praying this prayer over and over again: “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”…. Thy will be done… thy will be done… Not “my” but “thy”…a pryer he would pray before going to the cross.

Jesus was able to do what Adam and Eve were not… and frankly what we all fail to do: resist the voice of the tempter and remain faithful to God.

Note that this just did not happen… Jesus was grounded in his knowledge of scripture (he was prepared to respond to Satan)… he was grounded in prayer… he was led to a place where there were no distractions… he was focused on listening to God and determined to discern God’s voice from the others…

Perhaps as he struggled… which he did if he was fully human… perhaps  it was the very memory of an earlier voice he had heard that kept comforting him and helping him through his moment… Perhaps it was the memory of his baptis and the voice that said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,”—that centered him…

Perhaps he kept listening to that voice… so that when he heard those other voices telling him that to be somebody, he had to have power and wealth and praise…  

He knew better. He had heard the voice of God tell him… you don’t need that… you are my son the beloved…

I wonder if that sounds familiar to you… At the end of every baptism, we say these words,

“This child of God has been received into the holy catholic and universal church….See what love God has for all of us, that we should be called children of God and that is who we are!”

Discernment, if you ask me… begins right there. It begins by remembering that when the world tells you that in order to get ahead you have to sell your soul to your job, your school, some voices telling you that in order for my children to be happy I have to be involved in a million activities…or they will be failures…or we will be failures as parents…

When you hear those voices telling you that if you do not gain the whole world and if you are not better than everyone else at what you do… that happiness depends on your success… your income… where you live…how many promotions you’ve received…

 And when those things don’t happen… you hear the other voices say… you must be a failure… you are worthless… you don’t matter…

If you ever hear those voices, I want to you to remember another voice… that says… enough… enough with that trash talk… Stop what you are doing… Stop… and listen to me…

“You are my child… you are my child… you are baptized… nothing will ever change that… remember… that is who you are.”

That’s what Ted Wardlaw, Presbyterian minister and President of Austin Seminary,  was trying to teach his children… he and his wife wanted to raise them in the Christian faith, and one of Ted’s habits was to periodically put his hand on their foreheads and make the sign of the cross, and say, “Remember your baptism.”

Getting his girls ready for school in the morning? Shoes on, hair combed, backpack ready.   Sign of the cross, remember your baptism.Tucking them into bed at night? Brush teeth, read books.  Sign of the cross, remember your baptism.

As they got older, he didn’t do this quite as much…didn’t want them to rebel… But still he said it to them- a lot…

When one of his daughters was a teenager, she reminded him of how often he said it.She’s heading out the door with friends. He says, “do you have your driver’s license?” Yes, Dad

Do you have money for the movie?Yes, Dad

Do you…

And she cuts him off.

Dad, I’ve got my license, I’ve got my money, I know what time to be home, I’ve done my homework, I’ve walked the dog… and  I’m remembering my baptism… I’ll be okay!”

Life is full of choices to be made… and there are so many voices talking to us… discerning which ones are the tempter… and which ones come from God… can be hard… hard work… it is the work of the soul…

But as long as we remember our baptism which is a way of remembering who we are… who we belong to… as Jesus did in that wilderness… As long as we remember that, then we will be okay. We’ll be okay.And the choices we make—are more likely to help us discern our true calling: to live in a way that brings honor and glory to God as we follow Jesus Christ.  Amen.




[1] Preface, Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life by Henri Nouwen