Television has exerted a profound impact on our culture. It effects almost every area of life and among other things has powerfully effected public discourse, especially preaching. Preaching as a means of communication appears to many to be archaic. Because we are accustomed to visual stimulation and abbreviated verbal messages, it is increasingly difficult for the average person to give sustained attention to a sermon.
This creates a crisis for us. We believe the Bible teaches that the preaching of the Word of God is one of the primary means of grace. Heidelberg Catechism 65 says, "Since then faith alone makes us share in Christ and all his benefits, where does this faith come from? From the Holy Spirit, who works it in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel, and strengthens it by the use of the sacraments."
The Westminster Shorter Catechism 89, in response to the question "How is the Word made effectual to salvation?" says: "The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation."
The preaching of the Word is a primary grace! Nevertheless, people increasingly have difficulty listening. What must we do? Both preacher and hearer need to be concerned about this difficulty and there are things that each should do. But in this article I want to address the responsibility of hearers of the Word.
Listening – The Obligation
First, we need to recognize our obligation to profit from the Word. One of the delusions fostered by television culture is that preaching should entertain us; that we have little or no responsibility for how we listen. In the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-25) Jesus teaches just the opposite.
In this parable Jesus is pointing out the importance of paying attention to the Word. Because the Jews hardened their hearts, Jesus determined to teach publicly only in parables. In Mark 4:11 and 12 he says he did this in order to hide the Word from those who did not believe. By presenting the truth in a veiled, enigmatic fashion, a parable is a two-edged sword. The parable veils the truth so that those who are spiritually lazy quickly give up; it is not worth the effort. On the other hand, those in whom the Spirit was at work would ponder and puzzle. Like the disciples, they would seek the meaning from Jesus. For them the parable that hid the truth would become a graphic way to remember the truth.
Building on this theology of the parable, Jesus uses the parable of the sower to point out that hearers are responsible for how they listened. We can summarize the truth of the parable, "Listen as if your salvation depends on it, because it does." Thus the careless, superficial and worldly hearer will not profit from the Word. But the one who is a good and honest hearer (Luke 8:15) will listen carefully with profit.
Jesus applies the parable in Mark 4:24, "Take care what you listen to. By your standard of measure it shall be measured to you; and more shall be given you besides." In other words you will profit from the Word on the basis of how well you listen. This is not to rule out grace. He who listens with care will receive much more than he deserves. But if one does not listen with care, one will not profit.
So the way you listen to the Word of God is very important. You should not blame the preacher if you do not benefit from a sermon. Concentrate on how you listen. You need to recognize that for many of you, listening will not be easy. You must seek God's grace to help you work at being a Good listener.
Listening – The Preparation
How then should you listen? The Westminster Larger Catechism 160 gives some very helpful principles in answering the question: "What is required of those that hear the Word preached?" First, how to prepare: "It is required of those that hear the Word preached, that they attend upon it with diligence, preparation, and prayer."
We have already noted that listening to preaching is work. Regardless how good or poor the preacher is, it is our duty to profit. Thus we may not approach the sermon in a passive manner. We bring our minds and should expect to use them. We must be determined to fasten our attention on the sermon in order to follow and learn. If we approach the sermon like the evening news or Sesame Street we will get very little profit.
This diligence includes a proper preparation. Jesus says in Luke 8:18 "Take care how you listen." We should come to worship with body and mind rested. We should prepare ourselves by Bible study and meditation. We ought to be in church early enough to compose ourselves and meditate.
Listening – With Prayer
This preparation includes the third thing mentioned here, prayer. We ought to be praying for the preacher as he is preparing the sermon; praying for the proclamation that it will be in the power of the Spirit; and praying for ourselves that we will profit and that God will speak to us.
Listening – With Discernment and Faith
The catechism also tells us how to behave as we listen: "Examine what they hear by the Scriptures; receive the truth with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind, as the Word of God." We are to exercise discernment, comparing what we hear with the teaching of the Bible. If the message is consistent with the Bible, we are to receive it as the Word of God.
This means we are to receive the preached Word in faith. We will not profit from preaching if we do not actively receive what we hear. The children of Israel did not profit from the Word because they did not receive it in faith (Hebrew 4:2). We are to receive the preached Word in faith, believing the promises, fearing the threats, embracing the doctrine. Of course when we respond this way, we love the message. It is God's message and we delight in it. Moreover, because it is from God, we are to humble ourselves under it. We must never forget it is God who speaks to us through the preached Word (1 Thessalonians 2:13).
The catechism instructs us how to conduct ourselves after the sermon: "Meditate, and confer on it; hide it in their hearts, and bring forth the fruit of it in their lives." We are to review and study what we have heard. Not only should we do this for ourselves, but with our children also. There is no need for children's sermons if parents will work with their children. Parents should be teaching them how to listen and help them understand what they have heard.
We must work at remembering what we have learned. Furthermore, we are to apply the preached Word to every area of life (2 Timothy 3:16, 17).
Do not be deceived. Profiting from a sermon is spiritual work. But if you approach preaching in the way suggested, God guarantees you will profit from this most excellent means of grace.