A few weeks ago, I was reading Deuteronomy 18:15-20 and Mark 1:21-28 in an effort to keep up with the lectionary readings (I have since fallen behind; life gets in the way sometimes.). They’ve both been twirling through my brain ever since. Connecting both passages is the theme of being able to recognize God’s voice in other people.
Deuteronomy 18:15-20 promises that a prophet will arise from the midst of the Jewish people. They are to be looking for God’s voice from someone within in their community; and Deuteronomy also points out how to know if person’s voice doesn’t represent God — their promises and predictions don’t come to pass. The prophet is God’s mouthpiece, rather than a maker of future predictions. Deuteronomy 18 and Mark 1 fit together nicely in this sense. Deuteronomy tells what to look for in a prophet, and Mark 1 gives an example (really the ultimate example) of this coming to pass.
Jesus shows up out of thin air in the midst of the Jews. He just appears, is baptized, tempted, called the 1st disciples, and started his ministry. All this in chapter 1 of Mark.
Taking his newbie followers with him, Jesus heads toward a place called Capernaum. On the Sabbath, Jesus started teaching in the synagogue. As he taught, the crowd was flabbergasted. Mark doesn’t tell us details about what Jesus taught, but rather how Jesus taught — like someone with authority. Given the point that Mark makes about the anointing of Jesus by the Spirit earlier, Mark’s point here makes sense.
But Jesus doesn’t just teach in the synagogue. A man showed up who was possessed by an evil spirit. That evil spirit confirms Jesus’ authority, and names Jesus as the Holy One of God. Jesus rebukes the demon, saying “Be quiet! (1:25).” Then, Jesus cast the demon out of the man. With vivid details, Mark notes the spirit “shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.”
And the crowd is beyond stunned. Something happened in front of them. Jesus’ authority is confirmed by his deeds — just like what Deuteronomy 18 declares as the hallmark of a true prophet. Jesus’ authority is confirmed by his character and action. Mark is making a point with his narrative that Jesus is able to be trusted as God’s spokesperson.
Reading Deuteronomy, I found myself struck by the old adage, “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” Do we always want what we can’t have? I look at the Israelites and am just like, “Are you nuts? You have tangible ways of encountering God– the pillar of fire or hearing God’s voice directly, and are just like, ‘Umm… can we have a human mediator instead?’ What’s with that?”
I usually seek to encounter God directly and to avoid hearing God’s voice through people. I’m suspicious of that. Exception being through reading books, but I’m not sure that reading counts the same as engaging with a breathing person next to me. I want control over my God encounters, I think. Hearing God privately seems, to me at least, less spooky than God meeting me through others. Probably weird. I’m quirky.
And at the same time, I recognize that I need growth here. I need to be open to hearing God speak in various formats — not just the one I falsely think I can control. This part requires a stance of humility and vulnerability in order to take seriously that someone else might be hearing God’s voice better than I am at the moment.
I look back through my journals and am amazed by way my faith journey looked in junior high, high school and college; at the way I talked about God and the ways that God met me. But my faith journey was largely a private enterprise.
Lately God has been introducing me to the concept that I might actually encounter His presence through other people. For some of you, that’s a “Well, duh!” moment. But, for me, this is newish. It started with the ectopic pregnancy.
After the ectopic pregnancy, I found God’s presence with me through others. I found God’s comfort through the friend who checked in with me every day for over a month after my surgery. Through friends who brought us meals while I recovered — even though I was a hot mess who wept all over them when they walked in the door. Through the mentor who unexpectedly sat and cried with me when he heard my story. Through countless others that spoke to me about their experiences of infertility.
Using all these people, God showed me that my journey with loss and childlessness is not shameful. I am not less because my body has not carried a pregnancy to term. God does not love me less than those who can have biological children. I needed the presence of others with me in community to experience all this.
While I found myself wanting God to meet me directly on this topic, God didn’t. Instead, God brought people to me and spoke to me through them.
God can meet us in all kinds of ways and places (see Balaam’s donkey in Numbers 22 for one such wacky encounter). But, in terms of listening to the voices of other humans, I want to also offer some cautions. Is the person speaking of sound character? Basically, does their life match their talk? Does what they say come to pass? Are they wise? And is their message consistent with God’s character and heart? If the answer to any of those question is no, be wary about following that path.
I’m not saying everyone I meet is a profound divine encounter, nor am I saying all the words people speak to me are from God. Or that God only speaks to me through people. Heck, no! Nor is every thought that pops into my head from the Spirit; sometimes my selfish or crazy sounds like a good idea even though it is SO not. Wisdom and discernment are needed in both areas.
I’m learning how to hear God in more than one way. To trust that community is a place where God speaks to me just as much as the Spirit within me. And I think this is making me a healthier person as I learn to lean into that. Carefully. With discernment.