On one of my pastoral visits many years ago to a woman who was physically and emotionally challenged, I was confronted with a statement and a question which later caused me to ponder spirituality in a much deeper way than I had so far in my life. Elizabeth told me that over the past week she had been talking with Moses, Jeremiah, and Paul. She claimed that they were as real to her as I was sitting in the chair before her. She then asked if I believed that was possible. Along with her question, she mentioned scenes in the Bible when people were confronted with angels and other people of faith who had been dead for many years. I was aware that she was on medication for psychosis and assumed that her “visions” were related to her mental disability or her meds. I gave some noncommittal answer that I do not remember now. But that experience challenged me to consider how valid visionary experiences actually are in the lives of people who claim to have them.
Now, I do not have a definitive answer for this question, but I believe there are some answers, and they are not mutually exclusive.
(One) Throughout the Bible and in most cultures, we have accounts of people having visions/seeing things, other people, and heavenly beings that no one else sees. Now we can be like many moderns and dismiss all this as hallucinations or as outright lies, but I think that would be making a mistake. Almost all cultures except our own have many accounts of people having visions or being connected in extraordinary ways to a spiritual dimension which transcends their own familiar time and space. Past cultures have had shamans, prophets, or founders of religious movements who claimed to have had visions. One of the great saints whom I admire is John Woolman. Woolman was a man of impeccable integrity and honesty. In his journal he refers to visions he had throughout his life. Woolman died in 1772, so I can’t question him directly. However, I do recognize how sincere and faithful he was, and I can more easily believe that his visions were real to him than I can believe that he would lie or could easily be deceived. So, the question is, “What kind of sense can we make of these accounts and testimonies?”
I believe there are people who are sensitive to the spiritual world. Perhaps they are blessed with a talent or ability which most of us do not have. I think of Mozart who was composing symphonies at the age of six. That ability is a mystery to us, but I would suggest that in a similar way there are people who are gifted in ways we are not‑-people who can tune in to “frequencies” that are beyond the experience of most of us. In any age the number of these gifted individuals has been quite small, even in biblical times.
In most of the cultures where these visionary occurrences have happened, there is a close connection to nature and a long, arduous process of preparing oneself for transcendent experiences. And there is a special sensitivity to the spiritual world. People expect to be touched by the extraordinary, because they believe that the ordinary is permeated by the extraordinary. And so, they are especially attuned to the spiritual impinging on the physical. It’s all a matter of what one expects and prepares oneself to notice.
I remember hearing of a Native American who was visiting a friend in New York City. As they were walking down a busy sidewalk, the Native American stopped and asked his friend, “Did you hear that? I hadn’t realized how much I had missed that sound.” His friend asked, “What sound?” “A cricket,” the Native American said. His friend replied, “You can’t hear a cricket in this city with all its people and noise.” The Native American said that he had heard a cricket. He then reached into his pocket and pulled out a few coins and dropped them on the sidewalk. People all around him stopped to look for the sound of the money tingling as the coins hit the concrete. The Native American said, “What you hear is conditioned by what you value and appreciate, even in NYC.”
We live in a time where we are divorced from the natural world, where we are attuned to everything except the extraordinary permeating the ordinary, and when we are too busy to take the time to cultivate a spiritual sensitivity. It is doubtful that the spiritual world could make itself known to many of us in an extraordinary way because most of us are not prepared for such a visitation.
(Two) God speaks through the ordinary which is perceived by the spiritually sensitive as extraordinary. The prophet Amos received a profound truth as his eyes focused on a plumb line. A century and a half later Jeremiah had the same experience as he looked upon an almond tree. Did Amos and Jeremiah actually hear God’s voice on those occasions? Or did they simply notice their surroundings, make the connection, and understand God’s message? The Hebrew and Greek words for “angel” both simply mean “messenger.” With that meaning anyone can be an angel as they communicate a message from God. Often the true prophets are not those who hear voices and see visions. They are those who can correctly interpret their own time and their own world. God speaks to them through the ordinary, and they feel deep down that this message is as much from God as if God had appeared before them and spoken the message in an audible voice. And so, when they present their messages to the people, they introduce those oracles with the words, “Thus says the Lord.” In other words, they come to the message in ordinary ways, but they present it as coming from an extraordinary source. And if we have a problem with that, it’s because we have not caught on to the ways in which the holy can penetrate our world and be communicated through everyday means.
(Three) The Old Testament recognizes that there are times when the truth of God comes not in clear voices and amazing visions, but through everyday life and events which at first sight seem divorced from God’s presence and providence. The stories of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) in the book of Genesis have many references to God speaking and appearing to these Fathers of Israel. There are also times when heavenly messengers appear and converse with these men. It’s interesting to compare these stories to the story of Joseph.
The Joseph novella was designed to teach young Jewish men how to live lives of integrity, godliness, and faith. If you read those stories about Joseph, you will not find a single appearance of God or angels. There is not a word spoken from God or any heavenly source. There are no miracles. (Joseph does have the gift of interpreting dreams, but the texts mention that Egyptians serving Pharaoh also had that ability.) The only real claim to the presence and providence of God occurs at the end of the novella when Joseph, looking back over his life of 37+ years, says to his brothers that when they sold him into slavery and deceived their father, they meant all that for evil. God, however, meant it for good so that Joseph would be in a position to help them and many others in the future during a time of famine.
My parents had a splendid rose garden when I was a child. I remember playing a game when those roses were blooming and filling the atmosphere with their wonderful aroma. I would position myself some distance from the roses, close my eyes, and slowly walk toward the flowers. I would stop when I could smell the roses. I wanted to see how far I could be from the roses and be able to smell them. One day I wondered if I actually was smelling the roses at that distance or if, in anticipation, I simply thought I was smelling them. God’s providence most often works in this mysterious and hidden way. We can always find another reason for what may be God working behind the scenes. Sometimes, like Joseph, it takes decades for us to trust that God is present and working for the best in our lives and our world. Such was a good lesson for those young Jewish men. It probably is also a good lesson for us throughout the years we have to grace this earth. Such providence does not come with flashy signs and undeniable visitations. It comes like yeast doing its hidden work in dough or like seeds being transformed deep in the earth.
(Four) What makes us Christian? Our belief that in Jesus of Nazareth God is revealed in a special way‑-that in this Jesus we have the greatest revelation of God. In many ways through Jesus (his words, actions, life, death, and resurrection) God has said all we need to hear. What further revelation do any of us is need? In what way did Jesus fail to reveal what is vital and indispensable about God and our own healing and mission? Perhaps one reason we don’t have visions or hear voices, or experience visitations from angels any more than we do is because there is no need for such happenings. We have yet to use the wisdom, truth, example, and guidance we have received from Jesus. What right do we have to expect more when we have not embraced the greatest revelation God has offered humankind? Seriously, what more does God need to say or do that God has not said or done in Jesus Christ? I am sure that Abraham, Moses, and Jeremiah would have exchanged all their visions, voices, and extraordinary experiences for the truth we have in Jesus Christ.
Now as I said in the beginning of this sermon, the points I have made are not mutually exclusive. In other words, I believe there is some truth in all of them. There is a lot more that could be said. And all we have considered doesn’t answer all our questions. But I believe we have some signposts that can help us in our own struggles and experiences. So, to summarize:
1) Perhaps we do miss out on visions, voices, and extraordinary events because we are not conditioned to receive them. It takes time, effort, and an openness that most of us won’t take to be attuned to the spiritual world. And our divorce from nature certainly has not helped in this regard.
2) Just as God spoke in ordinary ways in the past, so God speaks to us today. We just haven’t caught on to the notion that the extraordinary permeates the ordinary, and that God’s word through angels/messengers all around us is as precious as God’s word through some heavenly visitation.
3) Most of life‑‑even that of the saints and spiritual giants of this world‑-is lived in the common, humdrum world of the ordinary. Is God a part of that world and a part of what happens in our lives? The spiritually enlightened answer with a resounding “Yes!” Is there such a thing as providence? Like Joseph we may find that in our maturity, we too can confess that God was there, even when back then we doubted or when we felt no divine presence. But that is a faith claim, not a fact. When you think about it, it takes a bigger miracle for someone to live out of faith with all its risks and questions than for one to base one’s life on a burning bush or an angelic visitation.
4) As people on this side of the cross and empty tomb and as people who have decided to follow Jesus, we have experienced the greatest revelation of God in human history. Let’s have the good manners to embrace and use that revelation before we demand a lot more fireworks from heaven.