Every time we come into the Christmas season, you can tell that feelings intensify; spiritual feelings especially intensify as we come into Christmas. It’s the Christmas music that you hear, it’s probably a greater focus on things of God, its scriptures that you see on sign posts, and on television. But what I look for around Christmas more than anything else is for a whisper. A whisper from God. Jesus said in John 10, “My sheep hear My voice and they heed it.” My sheep hear My voice and they heed it.
What differentiates biblical Christianity from almost every other major religion in the world is there is a voice available to the followers of Jesus Christ. Certainly there’s first a book. The revealed word of God, the bible that we all study and live by, but there’s a voice and often it comes in the form of a whisper or an impression. And its God’s way of guiding us. Sometimes it’s His way of reproving us. Sometimes it’s His way of encouraging us. But Jesus said it, we all believe it. My sheep, if they listen, can hear My voice and if they hear it, they should heed it.
I became aware of this phenomenon when I was in 2nd grade if you can believe it or not. I had the opportunity to go to a little Dutch Christian school in Kalamazoo Michigan. And one day I was sitting at the edge of my seat, ready to go out for recess and as was the occasion in that little Christian school, before recess, the teacher would read a little bible story, make a few comments on it and then release us to recess. It wasn’t my favorite formality of the day, that little bible story; recess actually was. But I was poised and ready to go out to play ball and Miss Van Zolan read a little text from the Old Testament about a young boy named Samuel who heard a whisper in the night. He didn’t know what to do with it so he went to an older prophet and he said did you call me, Eli, and Eli said I didn’t. Go lay down.
Samuel lays down and he hears the whisper again. He gets up and he said now Eli, I know you whispered to me. Eli said I did not, go lay down. This happens three times. Finally, Eli said maybe this is a whisper from God. And so next time you lay down, and you hear a whisper, simply say speak Lord, because Your servant is listening. And then that’s exactly what happened in the story and God whispered some information to little Samuel and he conveyed it and it was quite an important message that God had that young boy deliver to the older prophet.
Anyway, Miss Van Zolan’s reading that little story, she makes a few comments on it, she dismisses us for recess, all my buddies go running out and usually I was the ring leader of them, the first one out to organize the ball game. I couldn’t leave my seat. And I was embarrassed that I couldn’t leave my seat. I didn’t know why I was hanging around but I knew I had to stay there for a few moments and after the whole class dismissed, I timidly walked up to my teacher, something I’d never done before, and I said “Miss Van Zolan, do you think God still whispers to little boys?” She was like oh man, “you were listening.” I said “yes I listened.” She said “why do you want to know such a thing” and I said “because if God would whisper to little boys, that’d just be about the coolest thing I could imagine ever happening.” And so she talked with me for a few moments. She actually took my question seriously, and she said “I have something for you after school. You run out and play with your friends, but you come back after school and I’m going to give you something.”
So I ran out and played ball and finished the day as I normally would have and then she gave me a little envelope when I went out the door. She said “I’d like for you to take a peek at this at home tonight.” I said “thank you, I will.” So I was saying my prayers that night, second grade again, before I was going to go to bed and remembered that little envelope from Miss Van Zolan and so I opened it up and it was a poem about Samuel. And I read it and I read it again, and I read it again and it really grabbed me.
The next morning, I go to school, I run into Miss Van Zolan and she said “I’ll bet you didn’t even read that little poem I gave you.” And I said oh “no I did.” And she said “can you tell me at all what it was about?” She was testing me a little bit and I said “well as a matter of fact, I memorized it.” She said “you did not.” I said “no really I did.” She said “well then say it.” And I said okay. “Oh give me Samuel’s ear, an open ear, oh Lord, alive and quick to hear each whisper of Thy word. Like him to answer to Thy call and to obey Thee first of all.” And I remember she looked down on me and she put her hands on my shoulders and she said “Billy, if you listen to whispers from God the rest of your life and if you heed them, God’s favor will fall on your life and follow you for the rest of your life.” I’ve never forgotten her words on that, either.
But that day in the 2nd grade, I became aware of the power of a whisper. Of the fact that we have a God who doesn’t just stay sanitized and distant from us, but a God who speaks to His children if they’ll listen.
So roll the clock of my life ahead a little bit. My father was a Christian, a cosmopolitan businessman and he loved to give money away. He made a lot of money; I think he had the spiritual gift of giving. He loved to be generous, especially with Christian causes. So I remember growing up and going by his office and there would be pastors and people who ran other charities streaming in and out of his office, always wanting a gift from him, which he was normally quite willing to give. One day a guy comes in and says I want you to scholarship a couple kids to go to a Christian camp in Wisconsin. And my father’s getting ready to write out a check and he hears a whisper from God. And the whisper was, yes give the man a check but send your middle child along to that camp. Just send your middle child to camp. That would have been me. So that evening at the dinner table, coming into the summer again I was on a couple of baseball teams, very active athletically and he said hey Billy you’re going to camp for a couple of weeks this summer. I was like now wait a minute; I pitch on the baseball team, I’ve got my summer plans laid out and he said no I gave a check to a guy to take some kids to camp and God whispered to me that you should go. I said He didn’t whisper to me, dad. He said well He did to me and you’re going.
So he packs me up and sends me off to this camp that I knew nothing about. It was a place I’d never been with 200 kids I didn’t know a single one. I was homesick the first couple days. There was nothing about this situation that I liked. But after a few days, I settled in and made some friends, and who could have predicted but I actually volunteered to go to that camp the next year and the next year, and a few years after that, I met Christ as my Savior at that camp. I didn’t meet Christ personally in the church I grew up in. I’m not saying He wasn’t taught about there, I’m saying that’s not where I met Him. The kind of doctrinal preaching that went on in the church I grew up in, didn’t talk much about a personal relationship with Christ. It kind of taught that if you knew some stuff about Him, and if you lived according to the rules you were probably going to be all right but I go to this Christian camp and they’re saying that the essence of Christianity is not just knowledge about God, its not a set of rules, its not rituals that you practice or hoops that you jump through, it’s a relationship with God through Jesus Christ and its real and its conversational and its close. And I received Christ at that camp and I remember thinking just within hours after I was reconciled to God and things really changed, I knew it when I met Christ, I really knew it. And I remember thinking I wound up at this camp because my father heard a whisper. I’m going to wind up in heaven forever because of one of my dad’s responsiveness to whispers. Pretty powerful, isn’t it?
So then run the clock of my life ahead a little bit, I certainly planned to run my father’s business. He had prepared it for me for 35 years. I was taking some college classes in economics and business administration and I also went to another school where I went to a theology class and the theological professor would finish his lectures early from time to time and then he would take a bible and he would turn to Acts chapter 2, and he would say “students, there was once a community of people radically devoted to God. There was a community of people who when God told them to do something, they would do it. When He told them not to do it, they would stop doing it. When he urged them all out on the limb of faith, they went. There was at a point in history such a group of people who trusted God that radically. And in that same group of people, there was a love for each other that’s difficult to describe. They became like family to each other. They actually called each other brothers and sisters and the rich among them sold property and possessions and gave to the poor and the poor were not diminished by the rich. And gender walls came down and socio economic walls came down. And they took their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, which means they stopped pretending, they stopped playing church. And they opened up their lives and became self disclosing to each other and God knit their hearts together. And they were so convinced of the power of God that they prayed bold prayers and God answered so that signs and wonders happened in their little fellowship. And people were coming to faith regularly and people were worshipping with liberated spirits.” And on and on that professor would go, describing what life could be like in what he called a biblically functioning holy spirit led community.
And then he dismissed the class and I would walk off by myself and say I think I got my bell rung. I think I just heard about something that if it could actually exist in today’s world, it would be better than what I’m planning on throwing my life into.
A few months after that, that same professor ended one of his vision casting times about what a biblically functioning community should be like and he said “students I want to ask you this question. If such a remarkable faith community existed in the first century, why couldn’t it exist in the 20th century? Does God still have His power? Is the word of God still true? Do prayers still get answered? Can Jesus Christ still transform human lives?” And he said “I think some of you who have your plans and agendas for your future and your careers all figured out, I think some of you, maybe someone in this class ought to cancel your career plan and you ought to go build a biblically functioning community. You ought to lay your life down and do that every day the rest of your life.”
Then he dismissed the class, I ran out of class that day. I ran down three flights of stairs, got in my car, put my head on the steering wheel and fought the tears back and I heard a whisper. Go build such a church. Build a church. It was just a whisper. And I drove home and I told my wife, I said I heard a whisper from God and it’s about building an Acts 2 church in Chicago, in the 70’s. She’s like really? Have you told your father this yet? I said no I really haven’t gotten around to that yet and she said I suggest you do.
So I walk into my father’s corner office, again he’s prepared a company for me to run for 35 years. I said dad I heard a whisper from God and I think I need to walk out of this and move to Chicago, gather some friends and start a church. He goes you’re making a big decision, son. I said yes. He said and you’re betting all of that on a whisper? I said legitimate question. I said I guess if you put it that way, I am. He said well I hope you don’t have your wires crossed. I hope it’s from God. I said yeah, me too. So we signed off all of the agreements of me with the family business, I drove away taking myself out from all of that opportunity and I remember driving away all by myself in this car I had in high school, I’m driving toward Chicago and I’m going I’m betting the farm on a whisper. Whew. Hope this works.
And when we started Willow Creek, it was like the early days of the Crystal Cathedral, in a sense, that you’re just a week away from extinction every week. We sold tomatoes door to door to make ends meet. We met in a rented movie theater and sometimes they’d show horror shows the night before and the janitors wouldn’t clean up and so before we held our services the next day, my wife and I and some others would crawl on our hands and knees with buckets and sponges and clean up other people’s vomit. We had to do that before we could hold church. And I remember on some of those days when it was not going particularly well, I remember saying man; I’m doing all this because of a whisper. Whew.
Well then as God’s favor and blessing fell on our church, there came a time when the church seemed to resonate with a whole bunch of people and it grew, I mean it blew all of us away with what God did and continues to do at our church, but I have never forgotten that it all started with a whisper.
About 15 years into our church, a group of 20 or so pastors had been calling and wanting to know what God was doing at Willow and how could they learn about it and I was very hesitant to set myself up as any kind of expert at anything. I was still in my early 30’s and they said we’ll gather if you’ll just come and spend a day with us. And so reluctantly I did. We rented a little room in a nearby hotel and I went into that room and most of these guys were twice my age. And I felt again uncomfortable trying to say that I had any more knowledge than anybody else about this stuff. But at the end of the day, they said this was a tremendous day. We learned a lot through you. Would you do it again some day and I said well probably not soon, but I hope this was of some value to you.
I get in my car and I’m going to drive back to Willow Creek Church and I hear another whisper. Two word whisper. Serve pastors. Serve pastors. And I remember thinking, God I don’t even know how to be one yet. I mean I’m making all kinds of mistakes in my own church and He just kept that whisper going. No just serve pastors. Just keep serving pastors. Whenever you get the opportunity, put a serving towel over your arm, you’re no expert, I’m asking you to be a servant to pastors. Every one that calls you, every time you can arrange it, serve them.
Some years after that, we started the Willow Creek Association, which is an organization that serves pastors and as you were told earlier, now 12 or 13,000 churches are in that network. We serve and train hundreds of thousands of church pastors all over the world. It all came down to a car ride and a two word whisper. Serve pastors.
How important are these whispers? How much of a trajectory change could occur in the life of a human being if they were open to and responsive to whispers from God. I was going to take a sailing trip several years back and a staff member, an African American staff member came running up to me, just before I was heading out the door and he had a book in his hand and he said you know I was praying this morning and God whispered to me that you need to read this book when you’re on vacation. And I said well, okay. I mean how do you argue with that, you know. Its fine, so I took the book, put it in my briefcase and I remember thinking these aren’t the kinds of books I read on vacation, especially when I’m on a sailboat with my family.
Second night, we’re at anchor and the family goes to bed early, I reach in my briefcase, I pull out a book that I think is a sailing book but it’s the book this guy gave me. And the book was titled Divided by Faith. Divided by Faith and it was about systemic injustice, about racial oppression, about how racism got rooted in the early days of our country, how the church was complicit with it, how there’s all kinds of ongoing systemic injustices due to racism going on and I read it and I re-read it and God wrecked me through the reading of that book. It’s the best way I can describe it.
About the third time through the book, the spirit of God whispered to me this is going to become a major theme that I want you to talk about the rest of your life. Racial injustice. So I get home, I keep it to myself for awhile, but the whisper never went away. Bill you’ve got to start teaching on this, you have to lift up the banner of racial reconciliation in the name of Jesus Christ. You have to preach radical inclusivity. You have to go after any kind of racial prejudice wherever you see it, be fearless about it, and so I started teaching about it at Willow. Starting holding up that banner. Our diversity at Willow has gone from 2% to over 20% in 7 years. Almost every single weekend you would see racial diversity in every area around Willow. And I think back that it all began with a whisper, a whisper to a staff member of mine who said Bill needs to read this. And a whisper after I read the book, God saying you need to preach this.
There’s power in these whispers. I’m just going to give you one more and then I’ll wrap this up together. I was bringing the garbage out one night in front of my house. It’s one of the tasks I have to do. I’ve tried my best to get my wife to do it. She still won’t. So that’s one of my jobs is to bring the garbage out to the curb where the garbage guy picks it up. I was bringing the garbage out one night and a person who appeared to be my brand new neighbor because the house next to ours had been vacant for quite awhile and this must be my new neighbor and he’s bringing his garbage out and its cold, its in January, I didn’t put a coat on, so I brought our garbage containers out, I was in mid turn, you know how you do that, you’re going to turn to run back into the house and again, some of you think that I’m making this stuff up, I assure you I’m not. I just had a whisper. Walk across the cul-de-sac and meet your neighbor. That’s all I’m asking you to do. Just walk that far, meet your neighbor. Again mid turn, I’m like all right so I go across the cul-de-sac, I reach out my hand and I said “are you my new neighbor?” And he said “well I just moved into this house so if you live there, yep, I guess we’re neighbors.” I said “well my name’s Bill” and he said “well my name’s Bill.” I said “well that makes this pretty easy.” I said Bill “I’m freezing, can we, you know maybe carry this on later.” He said “yeah fine, no problem.”
Couple weeks later, I’m bringing the garbage out and he’s bringing his out at the same time, we start a conversation and we had lots of conversations at the garbage cans, strangely enough. One time he said “Bill what do you do?” He’s asking me, he said “Bill what do you do for a living?” I said “well I’m the pastor of a church here in the area.” He said “not that one that grid locks the traffic on Sunday mornings and all that,” I said “well I’m not sure it’s that one, but I am a pastor in the area” and he said “well this is going to be very easy between us. I haven’t gone to church in my adult life, I never intend on going so if you’re thinking it’s going to be awkward about you inviting me and all this kind of stuff, this is going to be real easy: I’m never going.” So I said “Bill that makes it very easy.” I said “what do you do for a living?” He said “I own a Chevrolet dealership.” I said “Bill this is going to be very easy cause I would never buy a Chevrolet under any circumstances.” He said “wow, I guess this is going to be easy.”
So for the next several years, all we did is talk around the garbage cans, we both like motorcycles, we did a little Harley riding together. But one year Easter was coming up and I thought I’d have a little fun with him and so I said “where are you going to church on Easter?” And he said of course “I never go to church on Easter.” And I said “you know I don’t think you’re a red blooded patriotic American unless you go to church on Easter.” He said “nobody has ever challenged my patriotism.” I said “well I’m challenging it right here and right now.” And he said “well then I’ll come with you to church on Easter.” I said “okay.”
So during the Easter service, I’m preaching the message, I actually see him in the crowd, believe it or not. And the next Tuesday night, I’m bringing out the garbage, there he is, we chat and I said “I saw you in church and you said you’d never go.” He said “well I went and I have to tell you church has changed since I remember going like as a tiny little kid. I loved everything about your church.” He said “I love the music; I loved the way it was organized. I loved the fact that people seem normal and they treated me courteously.” He said “you know the thing I really liked most, I liked your sermon.” Now I’m thinking he’s setting me up, yanking my chain or something and he said “no I loved your sermon. I understood it, it got me to thinking about a lot of things.” I said “wow, great Bill.”
So then I just assumed that he would come, you know, the next week or the following or the following. Well he never did. But then Christmas was coming up and again we’re coming into Christmas now and people get sensitive about things of God around Christmas time. Don’t ever underestimate how the spirit of God works in people’s hearts and lives around Christmas. So I invited Bill to our Christmas Eve service. And he said sure “I’ll come with you to Christmas Eve.” I said “wow that was easy.” And I said “Bill if you liked our Easter service so much, and I think you actually said you loved my sermon, how come you didn’t come back all these months?” He said “Bill your sermon was so good it’s lasted me all these months.” Now you know why he sells so many Chevrolets.
But he came on Christmas and he loved our Christmas service and to make a long story short, for the next several years, he came every Easter and he came every Christmas and then a couple years ago, at a Christmas Eve service, he met Christ. This car dealer guy who swore he’d never go to church in his adult life, he gave his life to Christ and if you could meet him today, you would see a transformed guy. So many miracles happen around Christmastime. But when he told me that he had trusted Christ, I thought of the time when I had brought the garbage cans out, I was in mid turn, going to run back into the house but the spirit whispered just go meet your neighbor.
I ask you again how important are whispers? Some of you came to this church this morning because of a whisper. You had no intentions of being here and then there was a whisper. You need to come to the Crystal Cathedral today. Some of you are watching television right now and you’re not even sure why you are. It might be a whisper. When God whispers, pay attention. When God whispers, discern it as carefully as you can, and do it. If God whispers for you to reconcile a broken relationship today, follow the whisper. If He encourages you to take a faith step today, take a faith step. If He encourages you to be generous toward someone in need, follow the whisper. And if He asks you some time in this Christmas season to make the Christmas child the Savior of the world become your Savior, follow the whisper. Oh give me Samuel’s ear, an open ear oh Lord, alive and quick to hear each whisper of Thy word, like him to answer to Thy call, and to obey Thee first of all. Thank you everybody.