Share |

Listening to God: Scripture, Spirit, and Stillness

A Three-Part Series Appropriate for Ascension and Pentecost

It isn’t too unusual for churches to spend some time learning about and practicing prayer. In fact, this issue of Reformed Worship includes several services that do exactly that. But our focus is typically on the words we say to God, not on how to listen for what God says to us. It’s hard to imagine how one might teach listening skills within the context of corporate worship, and truthfully this series would be most successful if paired with ideas for how to develop the spiritual practice of listening as individuals. This three-part series is offered as a place to begin. It is a mix of teaching—why we need to spend time listening—and actually practicing listening in worship.

There are many ways this topic could be approached and many Scripture texts on which one could focus, but I have chosen the themes of Scripture, Spirit, and Stillness to reflect the various ways that God speaks. The first service focuses on how God speaks through Scripture and connects to it the Word made flesh, Christ himself. This service incorporates some of the themes of Christ’s ascension and would work well on the Sunday after Ascension Day. The second service explores how God speaks through the teaching of the Holy Spirit in the world around us, in other people, and in us. This service would work well on Pentecost. The third service reflects on how God also speaks through silence. In order to listen well to God, we must develop the ability to quietly rest in God and be receptive to God’s voice.

It is hard to know how best to order these services. If you’re using this series around Ascension Day and Pentecost, you might choose to start the Sunday before Ascension Day with the service about silence (the third service). If you adapt some of the language and substitute for a couple of the songs, this series would work well within Lent, and you might choose to end with the focus on Christ (the second service). Whenever and however you use it, even if you use just one service or one idea, make sure you adjust it for your context.

May these words of my mouth
and this meditation of my heart
be pleasing in your sight,
Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.
Amen.
—Psalm 19:14

Today, If You Hear His Voice . . .

Prelude

Call to Worship
Psalm 95:1–7

Greeting
Our God, who has called us to bow down in worship,
greets us with these words:
      Grace to you and peace,
      from God our Father, who sits on the throne,
      and our Lord Jesus Christ,
      who reigns with him.

The Word who spoke in the beginning,
the Word who came in the flesh,
the Word who was crucified, died, and was buried,
that Word, Jesus Christ, is our risen and ascended Lord.

Medley of Praise
“Jesus Is Lord” Chua, LUYH 226
“He Is Lord” Anonymous, LUYH 227, PsH 633 (v. 1)

Call to Confession
The Word that spoke in the beginning,
      became flesh, was crucified, died, and was buried;
the Word, Jesus Christ, our risen and ascended Lord,
      who even now sits at God’s right hand,
      interceding on our behalf—
that Word is still speaking today.

But do we hear him?

We began our worship today with the first seven verses of Psalm 95.
Those are the familiar words of Psalm 95, the happy part.
But listen to the psalm’s last four verses:
      Today, if only you would hear his voice,
“Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah,
      as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness,
where your ancestors tested me;
      they tried me, though they had seen what I did.
For forty years I was angry with that generation;
      I said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray,
      and they have not known my ways.’
So I declared on oath in my anger,
      ‘They shall never enter my rest.’”

Sometimes we are so busy—
busy saying the right things,
busy doing the right things—
that we fail to hear his voice.
We are so busy singing “Jesus is Lord”
that we fail to truly listen to what
our Lord is calling us to do,
and we fail to hear his voice calling us to rest in him.
So we need to ask Jesus, our ascended Lord,
to intercede on our behalf,
to ask that our ears be unstopped
that we may hear with receptive hearts and find rest.
Let us pray.

Prayer of Confession and Lament
Holy God,
forgive us for failing to listen to your Word.
Your Word was spoken at creation,
through the prophets, in the life of your Son.
It is written in Scripture, proclaimed from the pulpit,
taught in our Sunday School classes,
and evident in the words and lives
of so many people around us.
Yet we have failed to hear, to listen.
Forgive us for not listening.

Holy God,
because we did not listen,
because we ignored your voice
and ignored your will for our lives,
we failed you time and again
in our thoughts,
in our words,
in our deeds.
Forgive us.

Now in these moments of silence,
we pray that you will speak to us.
Speak to us words of invitation
to bring to you all the junk
that stands between us and you.
Speak to us words of invitation
to come to you and rest.
Speak to us words of love and grace.
Speak to us words of forgiveness, comfort, and joy.

[Silence]

Sung Refrain
“Listen, God Is Calling” Olson, LUYH 753, GtG 456 (refrain only)

Assurance of Pardon
Be assured that God has heard our prayers,
for Christ himself is sitting at God’s right hand in heaven,
interceding on our behalf.

“‘He himself bore our sins’ in his body on the cross,
so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness;
‘by his wounds you have been healed.’”
—1 Peter 2:24

Now, having been forgiven, we are called to share the good news with others,
imploring them to “Listen, [for] God is calling.”

Song of Dedication
“Listen, God is Calling” Olson, LUYH 753, GtG 456

Prayer for Illumination
Holy God, Scripture says,
“The Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14),

and “in these last days
[God] has spoken to us by his Son,
whom he appointed heir of all things,
and through whom also he made the universe” (Hebrews 1:2).

Now may our ears be opened to your written Word
and the words spoken by your servant,
so that in listening, our hearts may be enlivened,
our eyes opened, and our hands unclenched.
May we be not just hearers but also doers of your Word,
becoming living testimonies to your Son,
the Word of God.
Amen.

Scripture Reading
Hebrews 4

Sermon
“Today, If You Hear His Voice . . .”

Sermon Notes
In many ways the book of Hebrews is a book about the ascension. It starts with declarations that “in these last days [God] has spoken to us by his Son” and that Christ “after he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven” (Hebrews 1:2, 3). Every “therefore” that follows in the book ultimately points back to that truth. Because Christ is seated at the right hand of God, “the promise of entering his rest still stands” (Hebrews 4:1). Because he sits at God’s right hand he is still speaking, and therefore “today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Hebrews 4:7). And because Christ is speaking, “the word of God is alive and active” (Hebrews 4:12). Most importantly, because Christ is seated at the right hand of God we have a great high priest who is able “to empathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15). But Christ’s ascension is meaningless for us and we will not find rest if we do not first listen to his voice. God is speaking to us through his Son, the Word itself, but are we listening, and as listeners are we also doers of the Word?

Silent Reflection

Sung Response
“Lord, We Hear Your Word with Gladness” Clarkson, LUYH 766
“Open Your Ears, O Faithful People” Jabusch/Tel, LUYH 751, GtG 453

Profession of Faith
Nicene Creed or “Across the Lands” Getty/Townend, LUYH 775, SSS 654

Prayers of the People

Offering

The Lord’s Supper
“Break Now the Bread of Life” Lathbury, LUYH 764, GtG 460, PsH 282
“Before the Throne of God Above” Bancroft, LUYH 682

Sending
Go forth knowing that you are not alone,
for you have a great high priest,
Jesus Christ, who at this very moment
is interceding on your behalf.
This week, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts.
—based on Hebrews 4

Blessing
2 Thessalonians 2:16–17

Postlude

“Be constant as well in prayer as in reading; now speak with God, now let God speak with you, let him instruct you in his precepts, let him direct you.”
—Cyprian, The Epistles of Cyprian, Epistle 1 to Donatus, paragraph 15, PD

Schooled by the Holy Spirit

Prelude

Call to Worship
Isaiah 55:1–3

Greeting
Jude 2

Psalm of Praise
Psalm 104:1, 27–30

Prayer for Renewal
“Send Us Your Spirit” Haas, LUYH 228
“Come, Holy Ghost” Mills/Benedict, LUYH 232
“Come Down, O Love Divine” da Siena, LUYH 234, GtG 282
“Holy Spirit” Torwalt/Jobe

Call to Confession
Psalm 104:31–35

Prayer of Confession with Sung Refrain
Holy God,
we come before you
acknowledging our need for renewal,
and so we pray: send us your Spirit.

Sung Refrain: “Send Us Your Spirit” LUYH 228 (refrain only)

Your word says that if we love you
and keep your commandments,
you will send your Spirit, the Spirit of truth.
We must confess
that we have not kept your commandments.
We have failed to do what you ask of us.
Sometimes we have acted like belligerent toddlers,
intentionally disobeying you.
Sometimes we have tried so hard to resist temptation,
but we failed yet again.
Sometimes we didn’t even realize we were doing wrong
until we saw the hurt it caused
or until your Spirit convicted us.
We don’t deserve it, but still we pray: send us your Spirit.

Sung Refrain

Holy God,
forgive us.
Help us to listen to the teaching of the Holy Spirit,
to heed its promptings that we feel within us,
and to pay attention
to the words spoken through other people.
Open our eyes to the Spirit’s work
in the world around us,
and embolden us to join in that work.

Holy God,
forgive us, renew us, and send us your Spirit.

Sung Refrain

This we ask in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Amen.

Assurance of Pardon
Ezekiel 36:24–28

Song of Praise
“Away With Our Fears” Hicks
“Praise the Spirit in Creation” Hewlett, LUYH 236
“Fear Not, Rejoice and Be Glad” Wright, LUYH 240, PsH 201

Prayer for Illumination

Scripture Reading
John 14:15–31

Sermon
“Schooled by the Holy Spirit”

Sermon Notes
While we often speak of the Holy Spirit as comforter and advocate, we rarely highlight the Spirit’s role as teacher. In John 14, Jesus speaks to his disciples, encouraging them to remember all he has taught them. But recognizing that they will fail, he assures them that the Holy Spirit will come to teach them all things and remind them of everything he has said to them (John 14:26). Other Scripture passages speak of how the Holy Spirit is at work in creation (1 Kings 19:12), in other people (Exodus 31:1–5), and in ourselves (Romans 8:16; 9:1). But for us to join in the Holy Spirit’s work and to benefit from the Spirit’s presence in our life, we need to be in tune with it, listening to the Holy Spirit speak through others, having our eyes open to see the Spirit at work in the world, and being still long enough for the Holy Spirit to speak directly to us. We can know it is the Spirit of Truth if what it says is in agreement with Scripture, especially the commandments, and receives confirmation from people who have the Spirit of wisdom.

Silent Reflection

Sung Response
“Jesus, We on the Word Depend” McKenna
“Holy Spirit, Living Breath of God” Getty/Townend, LUYH 746

Profession of Faith
Consider using A Brief Statement of Faith from the Presbyterian Church, USA (bit.ly/2LNFAJn).

Response of Praise
“Glory Be to the Father” Anonymous, LUYH 959/961, GtG 580, PsH 635

Prayers of the People

Offering

The Lord’s Supper

Sending
John 14:26

Blessing
John 14:27

Extending God’s Blessing to Each Other
“Now Go in Peace” Mair, LUYH 951

Postlude
I weave a silence onto my lips.
I weave a silence into my mind.
I weave a silence within my heart.
I close my ears to distractions.
I close my eyes to attractions.
I close my heart to temptations.
Calm me, O Lord, as you stilled the storm.
Still me, O Lord, keep me from harm.
Let all tumult within me cease.
Enfold me, Beloved, in your peace.
—”Silence,” from the Ortha Nan Gaidheal, traditional Gaelic

The Sound of Silence

Prelude
Consider inviting congregants to enter the worship space in silence, without any music. Invite congregants via the bulletin or a projected announcement to use that time to prepare their hearts and minds for worship. You could provide them with a Scripture text or prayer to meditate on.

Dear God,
silence all voices within our minds but your own.
Help us to seek and be able to follow your will.
May our prayers be joined
with those of our sisters and brothers in the faith,
that together we may glorify your name
and enjoy your fellowship forever.
In Jesus’ name, amen.
RW 19:31

Call to Worship
God calls us to worship with these words from Psalm 46:
“Be still, and know that I am God;
      I will be exalted among the nations,
      I will be exalted in the earth!”
The LORD Almighty is with us;
The God of Jacob is our fortress.

Song of Invitation
“Come Away from Rush and Hurry” Dawn, LUYH 527
“How Lovely, Lord, How Lovely (Psalm 84)” Duba, LUYH 46, GtG 402

Greeting
Philippians 1:2

Prayer for Peace
“Come and Fill Our Hearts” Taizé, LUYH 528, GtG 466

You are encouraged to sing this song multiple times so that it soaks deep into the souls of the congregation. In order to keep the song from being monotonous, use multiple instruments playing obligato parts. These parts are in various publications from the Taizé Community and are sold in North America by GIA Publications.

Call to Confession
Isaiah 30:15, 18

Prayer of Confession with “Nearer, Still Nearer” Morris, LUYH 659, SSS 302

This prayer goes back and forth between the singing of a stanza and spoken prayer with a time for silent prayer near the end. It would be appropriate for an instrument to continue playing underneath the spoken prayers and during the time for silent prayer.

Stanza 1

Lord, we say we desire to be close to you.
We know we would be safe there
like a child is safe in its mother’s arms.
But we confess that sometimes
we like our independence too much.

Good parents know
what is best for us when we are young.
They in their wisdom hold us close,
and we in our arrogance kick out and run away,
thinking we are old enough, smart enough,
strong enough to go our own way.

Lord, we know how that turns out for young children.
Why do we think we will be any better off
when we leave you?
Why are we so arrogant
to think that we don’t need your shelter and rest?
Lord, we confess
that we are obstinate and willful people.
Forgive us our willfulness, and bring us nearer to you.

Stanza 2

Lord, why is it that we think some way, somehow,
we can do something to deserve your grace?
Why is it that,
even though we read your Word and sing songs
that clearly say that we have nothing to bring,
we try to bring our money, our success,
our good works anyway?
We fill our lives with busyness—not out of obedience,
but out of a failed notion
that somehow we will gain points
and work our way into heaven.
Lord, help us to stop worshiping at the idol of busyness
and find our rest in you.
Forgive us our ungodly busyness,
and bring us nearer to you.

Stanza 3

Lord, if we are truly honest,
we don’t want to give up all our sinful ways.
In fact, we kind of like—even crave—some of them.
We rationalize, we make excuses,
but deep down we know
that we haven’t given you our whole lives.

In this silence, help us listen for your voice.
Reveal to us the idols and gods in our lives
that we cling to.
Help us to relax our grip
and to ask for your help in letting go.

Silent Prayer

Forgive us for holding on to our sin,
and bring us nearer to you.

Stanza 4

Lord, help us to truly rest in you and
in your promise of salvation.
Forgive us for not trusting enough in you,
For not believing the promises of your grace.
Amen.

Assurance of Pardon
Psalm 103:8–13

Song of Praise
“My Soul Finds Rest” Townend/Keyes, LUYH 370, SSS 328

Prayer for Illumination
Lord God,
help us to turn our hearts to you
and to hear what you will speak,
for you speak peace to your people
through Christ, our Lord. Amen.
—based on Psalm 85:8

Scripture Reading
Proverbs 2:1–5

Sermon
“The Sound of Silence”

Sermon Notes
William Barclay is purported to have said, “It may be that one of our great faults in prayer is that we talk too much and listen too little. When prayer is at its highest, we wait in silence for God’s voice to us” (source unknown). Indeed, it was in the still, small voice that Elijah heard God speak (1 Kings 19:11–13); Lamentations encourages the young to “sit alone and keep silent” (Lamentations 3:28); the psalms repeatedly tell God’s people to wait and to hear God speak; and Christ himself sought a solitary place to meet with God (Mark 1:35). But how often aren’t our own prayers full of words rather than time spent silently listening for God’s word to us? How can we hear God’s words if we are busy talking? How are we to hear if we never set aside time to rest in God? Proverbs 2 invites us to use our ears and hearts to acquire wisdom and understanding, to find the knowledge of God. The only use of our mouths is to implore God for discernment and understanding. In the midst of all the noise in our lives and the incessant demands on our time, we need to learn how to wait in silence and to use our ears and hearts to hear from God.

Silent Reflection

Sung Response
“In God Alone” Taizé, LUYH 433, GtG 814

This is another song from the Taizé Community that is meant to be sung repeatedly and reflectively while various instruments play supporting melodies.

Prayers of the People

Offering

The Lord’s Supper

Sending
As you go today,
leave eager to spend time in God’s presence
listening to his voice.

Blessing
Numbers 6:24–26

Postlude