I seem to have singing songs from Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat to myself for the past couple of days which I suppose is one antidote to what’s going on in the world at the moment. I want to start by acknowledging yet another week of bloodshed, of violence, of instability, of change. Chris said this morning that he felt he was out of words – and I want to say something similar. I’m not sure I have any more to say than what I said after that dreadful week of the massacre in Orlando and the shooting of Jo Cox, and the hate-filled promotion from UKIP: as Christians we are called to non-violent resistance, but to be able to achieve that we may need to recognise our own capacity for violence.
Today I want to think about how we hear the voice of God. We’ve heard part of the story of Joseph and specifically Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams. It’s maybe worth recapping the back story of Joseph, and reminding ourselves that Joseph’s dream interpretation hadn’t always gone so well. Remember as a child, and his father’s spoiled favourite, he blurted to his brothers his dream about them all harvesting corn together and all the others bowing down to the sheaf that he had bound. Then there was the one about the sun, moon and stars bowing down to him. It’s reassuring that God works through imperfect people throughout scripture, but it’s not very surprising that Joseph’s brothers reached the levels of frustration that they did.
And now here he is and things have changed. He has refused the advances of Pharaoh’s wife, and has landed in prison, from where he is summoned to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. He interprets the dream of impending famine, but this time offers advice about how to respond, suggests that someone is appointed to look after food supplies in Egypt in anticipation of what is to come.
Joseph’s story covers a lifespan. And here we see someone who has matured. In the end his original dreams do in fact come to pass: the people of Egypt and his brothers will bow down in front of him because he preserves their life. But at the time Joseph did not use them or interpret them to bring about the good things of God.
Today of course we understand that the content of our dreams speaks more about what’s going on in our own inner life, than prophesying what will happen in the future. But when this story was told and written down, dreams were believed to be one of the key ways that God speaks to people. So this is, at its heart, a story about how God speaks, and how we respond.
And what we hear today in the story of Joseph, is Joseph responding to a word of life, a word that will bring life to others instead of building up himself. In my view, it is one of the very greatest challenges of the Christian life, to discern what is God’s voice and what is not. However and wherever we pray, the question of how we know that it is God speaking to our hearts and not simply our own mental scripts cannot be side-stepped. It can equally be asked of all that we call revelations or insights or enlightenments from God: how can we know that these are from God and not simply what we want to do?
Books and books have been written about this, and we will all bring our own experience to bear, in looking back and seen what has taken fruit in our lives and what has not. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and it can be much easier to look back and see where we have been being pushed or nudged or invited to make changes, to respond to opportunities, to try something new. But these things can be much easier to recognise after the event and maybe not much help when we are trying to work out what God might be saying to us now.
I think however that there are two things that speak of God. What comes from God will stay with us, take root, deepen and grow and eventually bear fruit in our lives. What comes only from ourselves will not have a very long shelf life before we get bored or disillusioned, or fade into oblivion. And so taking time to discern God’s voice, and sharing with someone we trust may be key to hearing what God is saying to us.
Secondly, as we see strongly in the story from Joseph, what comes from God will turn our attention away from ourselves and towards God, his people and his creation. What comes merely from ourselves will often be found to be centred on ourselves and the furtherance of our own personal kingdoms.
I don’t really believe in the devil. But I do believe that there are forces in our lives that take us away from God, and whether they are created by ourselves or they come from outside doesn’t really matter. God’s voice to us and God’s calling on us can get so tangled with all the different voices of the world and all the different voices in our heads and can get blocked.
Often what prevents us from hearing the voice of God, or prevents us from growing into the person we are created to be, is fear. Too often our truest desires are outweighed by our anxieties. I want to be myself, without masks or disguises, but people might not like me. I want to write a poem or a song, but it might be no good. I want to say how I really feel, but it might destroy our friendship. I want to do something new and different, but I might lose my security. I want to give you a gift, but you might misunderstand my motives. I want to tell you that I love you, but you might reject me.
The reading from John speaks of sowing and reaping, and I do believe that as we discern what is of God and what is not of God, we can start to recognise these things that take us away from God, as well as a the positive movements that take us towards God. And once we recognise these things it becomes possible to start to feed the good plants that have been sown and to stop watering the weeds. What is of God is creative, and life-giving, and new. What is not of God, or at least in my experience, is boring, is stale, it’s been lived out and expressed a million times before in a million boring ways. What is of God is always stronger than that which is not.
And when we listen to and respond to God’s voice, things change. The story of Joseph tells of famine being averted. God’s word to us and God’s dream for the world cannot be entirely separated.
Meditation, mindfulness, practising kindness have started to gain great secular appeal – and thank God they have. I read somewhere that if all schoolchildren practised meditation it would be a way of achieving world peace for the next generation. And I would like to say the same about the kind of prayer that tries to discern God’s voice. Because I don’t believe that the violence and the unrest and the turbulence that we see around us is actually the desire of anyone. Perhaps I am very naïve. But I do believe in the goodness of people, and I do believe that what we see at the moment is the dreadful expression of what happens when we start listening to voices that are so far from the voice of God. Most of us thank goodness do not go round killing one another. But we all bear resentments, and bitternesses and unkindnesses, and the voice of God will always want to invite us into freedom, for ourselves and for other people. The voice of God may be an uncomfortable one, and responding to the voice of God may feel risky and there may be something mysterious about how it works. But if it is of God, it will be a source of joy and fulfilment.
So I wonder what God might be saying to you tonight, this week, this year. It’s probably not going to be a loud voice, and it will probably come in a sideways way. It may be speaking through your feelings, or perhaps through looking at what you’re good at, and what God wants you to do more of. The recognition of God’s voice might start with a dissatisfaction of the way things are, and a call to make a decision to change things.
We’ll take a couple of moments quiet now. I invite us all to bring to mind those things and people and places that bring us closer to God, that help us to hear the voice of love, that bring us confidence, and joy and peace; and in turn to think about those things which draw us away from God and life and joy. Where do we hear God, and how we might respond?