Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) was possibly the greatest person in the Church between New Testament times and the Reformation. The story of his conversion is both extraordinary and wonderful. Augustine was, by any standards, a remarkable man. He was a university professor, possessed a brilliant mind, was a profound philosopher … yet at the same time he lived an immoral, dissolute life! He had a godly mother, Monica, who taught him the things of Christ when he was a child, only for Augustine to reject them. Nevertheless, she continued to love her son and pray for him. In 386 A.D., when he was 32 years of age, Augustine reached a ‘crisis point’ in his life when he became increasingly disturbed as to his ‘spiritual state’. He began to ask searching questions, and felt himself to be ‘in agony of soul’.
One day, Augustine was sitting in a garden, still feeling very disturbed within, when he heard, what he thought to be a child’s voice, calling out from the other side of the garden wall: ‘Tolle lege! Tolle lege!’ – ‘Take up and read! Take up and read!’. Augustine initially wondered if this was a children’s game that was being played, but could think of none that had these words in it? Suddenly he realised that this was no child’s voice, but the voice of God himself – the God who speaks – instructing him to open his Bible and read from it! Augustine rushed home, picked up his Bible, and read the first passage of Scripture that he came to. It was a few verses from Paul’s Letter to the Romans: ‘Not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature’ (Romans 13:13,14).
Augustine was converted on the spot! ‘I had no wish to read more, and no need to do so’ he tells us in his Confessions, ‘for in an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of faith flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled!’
Advent is that time in the Christian Year when we prepare ourselves for the wonder of Christmas itself – the birth of the Saviour, the Messiah, the Lord! One who was given two distinct names: ‘Jesus … because he will save people from their sin’ and ‘Immanuel … meaning God with us’ (Matthew 1:21,23). Each Sunday in Advent (comprising of four Sundays in all) has a different preparatory theme, and on the Second Sunday in Advent we are reminded that, especially in the birth of Jesus Christ we see The God Who Speaks!
God speaks to us firstly, through the Bible! For many years, the Second Sunday in Advent was observed as ‘Bible Sunday’ – an opportunity to talk and think about the special place that the Bible has in the Christian Church – but nowadays ‘Bible Sunday’ (where still observed) seems to be more of a ‘moveable feast’ depending on which ‘denomination’ or ‘spirituality’ individual Christians belong to? And for evangelical Christians the Bible is most certainly the supreme place where we hear God’s voice. A major tenet of evangelical faith is a belief in the ‘inspiration and authority’ of Scripture as fundamental in all matters of faith and conduct, belief and behaviour. When the Apostle Paul reminds his protégé, Timothy (and all the rest of us down through the ages) that ‘all Scripture is given by inspiration of God and profitable’ (2 Timothy 3:16) he is not just thinking of the Old Testament Scriptures but of the whole Bible, Old and New Testaments alike. As someone once suggested, ‘If the Old Testament is inspired by God, then how much more so, the New Testament!’. The Bible not only provides ‘rails to run on’ for us, but can speak to us in a personal and powerful way even today (as Augustine of Hippo and many others have discovered over the years). When the Apostle Paul likens ‘the Word of God’ (i.e. the Scriptures) to ‘the sword of the Spirit’ (Ephesians 6:17) he uses the Greek word rhema which implies ‘a specific word that comes underlined by the Holy Spirit’. When God called me to the ministry many years ago as an 18-year-old he used a sermon by a visiting speaker to my home church in Greenford. It was based on Isaiah 6 – Isaiah’s Commission – and when I heard those familiar words: ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ (v.8a), I felt that I was the only person present and that this call from God was just for me? The only fitting response that I could make was ‘Here am I, Send me!’ (v.8b).
God also speaks to us secondly, directly through his Spirit! When the Old Testament Prophet Elijah, in fear of his life, was hiding from the wicked Queen Jezebel in a cave, we are told that ‘the word of the Lord came to him’ (1 Kings 19:9). Just how God spoke to him is clarified in the next few verses, where we are told that as Elijah stood by the entrance to the cave ‘A hurricane wind ripped through the mountains and shattered the rocks before God, but God wasn’t to be found in the wind; after the wind an earthquake, but God wasn’t in the earthquake; and after the earthquake fire, but God wasn’t in the fire; and after the fire a gentle and quiet whisper’ (1 Kings 19:11,12). In that moment (as the Apostle Paul would have put it) God’s Spirit bore witness with Elijah’s spirit – ‘God’s Spirit touching our spirits and confirming who we really are’ (Romans 8:16). Of course, we need to recognise that when God does speak to us in this way – directly into our lives by his Spirit – the Holy Spirit will never say anything that contradicts the Scriptures. The Holy Spirit who lives in us is the same Spirit that inspired men and women of old to write the Scriptures (2 Peter 1:21) and he can never contradict himself.
Supremely, however, God has spoken to us in Jesus Christ! The Writer to the Hebrews tells us that having attempted to communicate with us in various ways in the past, particularly through those he had raised up as Prophets, ‘now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son’ (Hebrews 1:1,2). The Bible is in many ways a book all about Jesus. I recall a popular book from my youth (by A M Hodgkin) entitled ‘Christ in All the Scriptures’ and we find him everywhere, in one way or another, from Genesis to Revelation. Equally, the Holy Spirit does not draw attention to himself but continually points us to Jesus: ‘When the Spirit of the Truth comes’ Jesus told us, ‘he won’t draw attention to himself … he will honour me’ (John 16:13,14). As has often been said, ‘If we want to know what God is like, all we have to do is look at Jesus!’
So, if we want to hear from God, where do we begin? I would suggest that we need to begin with the Bible! Don’t start with the Old Testament, start with the New Testament, and with something straightforward like the Gospel According to Mark. It is short, pithy, to the point … and it tells us about Jesus! In one of my previous churches there was a lady who, every time I saw her, wanted to know if I ‘had a word from the Lord for her’? One day, I got so frustrated with her seemingly endless quest for ‘special revelation’ that I responded, ‘Yes … I do have a word from the Lord for you!’ and I gave her my Bible … ‘Here … read this!’
God of revelation, we thank you that you are not a silent God, isolated from humanity, leaving us to guess and speculate about the things that matter. We pray for those who serve you by studying manuscripts and clarifying texts; for scholars and preachers who wrestle with the words of life for the building up of your Church; for linguists, translators, and publishers who continue to serve the cause of your gospel by making the Bible available to more and more people. Lord, create in us a hunger for your Word, a thankfulness for your gospel, and a faithfulness to your commands; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen