Ordinary Means – Listening to the Word

The Good News of Jesus Christ is outwardly communicated to us through God’s Word. God has ordained that we will come to knowledge and understanding of the redemption that has been won by Christ through the reading and preaching of God’s Word (WLC 155). Through the reading and preaching of God’s Word, Christ is revealed to the elect. The Holy Spirit makes this communication effective. But, humanly speaking, if the preaching of the Word is to be effective, it must be heard.

The Christian is obliged to hear and to listen to the Word preached. We must put ourselves in close enough proximity to the voice of the preacher (either immediately or mediately through recordings) so that his sound is received into our ears and translated by our brains into intelligible noises. This is hearing. But hearing must be accompanied with listening. Any parent can probably explain the difference between simply hearing and listening. A child might hear his parent’s instruction, but if it does not actually register in his brain, then he has not listened. One can have background music playing in the office and hear it, but not really listen to it. The Word preached must be heard, meaning we need to be present enough to receive the sound, but it also must be listened to.

Every preacher has looked out into the congregation and seen blank stares or eyes closed in slumber. Perhaps the sermon is heard, but it is patently obvious (in spite of the person’s protestations) that he is not listening. What is required in not merely hearing but listening to the sermon? The Larger Catechism 160 says we must listen with “diligence, preparation, and prayer; examine what [is heard] by the scriptures.” In order to listen to the preached Word, we need to listen with diligence and preparation. Preparation likely begins the night before by getting enough rest so that one is not drowsy. The work week can be burdensome. For many people sitting down for 30 minutes during the sermon is the only time they slow down during their whole week. With that exhaustion, they are nodding off after a few minutes. We must prepare to receive God’s Word by being physically ready to sit and actively listen to the Word.

We also need to listen with diligence and preparation by learning how to listen. T David Gordon notes that most people in Western society today are aliterate.[1] It isn’t that they can’t read, but rather that they don’t read. And when they do read, it is in a shallow and vapid manner. I recently read the 1904 newspaper clipping from my great-great grandfather’s mysterious death from the Eagle Valley Times. It was written by a nameless journalist in a nothing town in the Colorado frontier at the turn of the 20th century. And it is more eloquent than nearly anything written by journalists today. It isn’t because people can’t write like that, it is because people won’t read like that. Ours is a highly visual age. We are a people who want to consume images instead of words. This is combined with the Google-age where nearly limitless information is available with a few taps of the thumb. When we do read, we tend to read for information and not to understand. If we read poetry, we read looking for some line we like instead of seeking to understand the thoughts of the poet. All meaning and interpretation becomes centered around the consumer. The meaning of the word is whatever it means to me. And the result is that when a word is given, our literary abilities are too scrawny to meet the task. This affects how we listen to preaching. We need to prepare to listen to the preached Word by laboring to understand what God is saying to us through the Word.

One aspect that will help us to do this is if we receive the preached Word as the Word of God. The Larger Catechism instructs us to “receive the truth with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind, as the word of God.” The 2nd Helvetic Confession 1.4 is even clearer when it confesses that “the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” The preacher is not regarded as God, but even though he is a sinner the word faithfully preached is good and true. If we see the preached Word with this kind of gravitas, then we will do the work necessary to listen and understand. If we value rightly the preached Word then we will also labor to meditate upon it. We will turn it over in our minds and contemplate its meaning. We will examine it thoroughly and weigh it against the whole of Scripture that we might better understand God and what he requires of us. And then we will do it. We will bear fruit in our lives. God’s Word “shall not return void” (Is 55:11, KJV).

[1] T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers, unknown edition (Phillipsburg, N.J: P & R Publishing, 2009), 37.