As Christ speaks to the seven churches of Asia in Revelation 2-3, there is a refrain: ‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches’ (Rev.2:7, 11, 17, 29: 3:6, 13, 22). In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus warns us: ‘Take care then how you hear’ (Luke 8:18a). Scripture assumes that, for the most part, faith will come by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ (Rom.10:17). There are exceptions, and I am one of them, but hearing the Word is God’s usual way of making His salvation known.
Strangely enough, a pastor often gets to read more sermons than he hears – especially if he is unused to or hesitant about roaming the internet, searching for suitable sermons. In any case, it is not quite the same thing as being physically present and listening to a pastor expound the word of God. Yet hearing a sermon can be quite as demanding as preaching one.
Augustine in sermon 274 said to his congregation: ‘We have heard a long reading, brief is the day. And now with a long sermon I should not hold your patience. I know you have listened patiently, and by standing and listening like martyrs you have suffered.’ In Augustine’s day the preacher sat and the congregation stood, but comparing the whole exercise to the suffering of a martyr seems a little overdone!
Luther could speak as only he could when in full cry. He declared: ‘Ears are the only organs of the Christian.’ As a preacher, he even placed the preached word over the written word: ‘The church is not a pen-house but a mouth house.’ To those who claimed that they could read the Word of God at home with as much profit as listening to a preacher, Luther responded vigorously: ‘Even if they do read it, it is not as fruitful or powerful as it is through a public preacher whom God has ordained to say and preach this.’ Commenting on Malachi 2:7 (‘the lips of a priest guard knowledge’), he stated: ‘Reading it is not as profitable as hearing it, for the live voice teaches, exhorts, defends, and resists the spirit of error. Satan does not care a hoot for the written Word of God, but he flees at the speaking of the Word.’ Of course, he was not endorsing all preaching but only faithful preaching. He warned against those who took true preaching for granted: ‘one day it will rain mud.’
Martyn Lloyd-Jones could speak of ‘the romance of preaching’. One never knows what God might do. Spurgeon tells of a man who went to chapel to hear the singing, and put his finger in his ears when the preaching began. But an insect settled on his face, so he went to brush it away, only to hear the minister say: ‘he that hath ears to hear, let him hear.’ He was converted.
How should we hear? It is not something mechanical and automatic, yet it is something very crucial. Let me draw on a sermon by Charles Sermon. He warned that many are careless hearers, others are critical hearers, and while yet others will only hear what they want to hear. Yet hearing the gospel is a savour of life or death (2 Cor.2:15-16)! We should hear with candour, with an honest and good heart, a desire to profit from the Word, and with humble dependence on God’s Spirit. In summary, Simeon cites the Anglican Litany: ‘That it may please Thee to give to all Thy people increase of grace, to hear meekly Thy Word, and to receive it with pure affection and to bring forth the fruits of the Spirit.’
With warmest regards in Christ,