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The Roots of Listening

Part 1: Listening Well

Part 2: Preaching is Not a Monologue

No one denies that trees have roots, but neither do most of us think about the roots when we see trees. As Christians there are a lot of obvious things we should do—read the Bible, pray, go to church, and avoid sleeping during the sermon. But as obvious as those things are to most Christians, it’s not always obvious why we should do those things.

Before we get too far along in learning how to listen to sermons (the tree currently under inspection), we must understand the roots so that once the tree is set in place it will stand firm. We’re going to answer the question why listen closely to sermons… even the least interesting ones?

In Expository Listening, Ken Ramey provides four theological truths that must support healthy listening habits. Let’s briefly unpack these:

1. God has spoken and commands us to listen to and obey what He has said

When you read the Bible and it refers to God speaking, He doesn’t shout into the dark hoping someone perks up. Instead, He opens a direct channel of communication to individuals and groups of people. The writer of Hebrews opens up his letter, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by His Son…” (Hebrews 1:1-2a).

Just as through Moses God commanded, “Hear, O Israel” (Deuteronomy 5:1; 6:3, 4; 9:1; 20:3; 27:9), God commands us to listen to His Son (Matthew 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35). Over and over in Proverbs the command is repeated “Listen!” (5:7; 7:24; 8:32; 19:20; 23:33), “Hear!” (1:8; 4:1, 10; 8:6, 33; 22:17; 23:19). It is only through hearing that people can be saved (Romans 10:14). The commands to hear and listen to God abound from Genesis to Revelation. God demands to be heard.

But God wants more than simply to be heard. He demands to be obeyed. James writes, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22). Why is it important? Because, Paul writes, “It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (Romans 2:13). As Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

Doing the Father’s will means first of all to confess Jesus as Lord and repent for salvation (John 6:29). It is only after a person has been saved by grace through faith that obedience to God in all areas of life has any meaning. For all the negative press “good works” get in the question of how a person gets saved, good works are critical in the life of those who’ve been born again. Paul’s letter to Titus highlights this: church leaders should provide the example of good works (2:7) because that is the end of redemption (2:14), and so we all ought to be devoted to good works (3:8; 3:14).

This is but skimming the surface, but suffice it to say that when God speaks, He demands to be heard and obeyed.

2. We all fail to listen to and obey God and deserve to be punished by Him

This has been true from the moment Eve was deceived and Adam went along with disobedience to God. Spiritual death, the immediate result of their sin, impairs all their descendants. Apart from grace we are all hostile to God’s voice and certainly hostile to His ways (Romans 8:7). Failure to hear is both the result of hostility and nature. We are like a deaf man who refuses to learn sign language.

Israel is judged, among other things, for not inclining their ear (Jeremiah 7:24, 26; 11:8; 17:23; 35:15; 44:5). They had God’s Word. They were God’s chosen people who received special revelation. But instead of listening and obeying, they were like a teenager who refuses to take off their headphones. What was true of Israel is true of all those who have not received grace.

But the reality is even Christians have a hard time hearing. Of the Hebrews it is written, “Concerning Him we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have becomedull of hearing” (Hebrews 5:11). Paul wrote that in the latter days “people will not endure sound teaching… and will turn away from listening to the truth” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).

The penalty for not hearing and obeying is clear. To Adam and Eve God promised death (Genesis 2:17), and that sentence is the same for us all (Romans 5:12).

So what is the solution?

3. God grants us the ability to listen to and obey Him by His Holy Spirit, whom we receive through faith in Jesus Christ.

Notice, first of all, that the solution does not rest on you. The path to life is not yours to pave. The bricks have already been laid by Jesus Christ in His life, death, and resurrection. Your responsibility is merely to walk on the path, empowered by God’s grace.

Only those empowered by the Holy Spirit can truly hear, understand, and obey God’s Word (1 Corinthians 2:10-14). Only those who are spiritual—that is, born of the Spirit (John 3:1-8)—have received a new nature which longs to hear from God just as a baby desires its mother’s bosom. Ken Ramey writes, “The moment we are born again, it’s as if we are given a new set of hearing aids or a new pair of glasses that enable us to hear and see in God’s Word what we couldn’t before.”

So if a new nature is required to listen and obey, how does someone get that nature? There is a bit of a theological Catch-22 here. According to the point #3, it states that we receive the Holy Spirit through faith in Jesus Christ. So you must believe in Jesus to receive the Holy Spirit. But it’s not that simple. No baby is born by virtue of its own will.

The apostle John captures this Catch-22 in John 1:12-13, “But to all who did receive Him,who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” Though some see this as a tangled web, almost a “which came first” situation, a confusing theological mess, it’s actually quite simple.

What makes it simple is the word picture John uses. He uses of the analogy of physical birth. As already stated, no baby exists by virtue of its own decision. Instead, every baby owes his or her existence to their parents. And once a baby is born, every baby gasps for air and soon grasps for milk in their fight to live. The natural response to being given life is to seek it. In the same way, the natural response to being given spiritual life is to receive Him and believe in His name.

Since all people are utterly dependent on God for the ability to listen and obey, we must all cry out to Him for His help.

4. God promises to bless us both now and for all eternity if we listen to and obey Him.

This could not be stated any clearer than Revelation 1:3, “Blessed is the one who readsaloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.” Read, hear, keep, and you will be blessed.

Proverbs is full of reminders that those who “listen to me shall live securely and will be at ease from the dread of evil” (1:33). When a women wanted to bless Mary (Jesus’ mother) by virtue of her relationship to Jesus, Jesus responds, “Blessed rather are those who hearthe word of God and keep it!” Elsewhere Jesus rejected the priority of his blood relationships in favor of water relationships (baptism) saying that it is those who “do the will of God” who are his brother and sister and mother (Matthew 12:50; Mark 3:35).

In other words, while some place heavy emphasis on the Christian’s relationship with Jesus, Jesus places the emphasis on the Christian’s obedience. “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46). The fact that we are Jesus’ fellow heirs (Romans 8:17) and His friends (John 15:14), does not change the fact that we are fundamentally His slaves—otherwise “Lord” would be a wholly inappropriate title.

But we are slaves of the loving, gracious, kind, generous, benevolent God of the Universe. Though from our perspective we can only say, “We are unworthy slaves; we have only done what was our duty” (Luke 17:10), when we obey, God’s response will be, “Well done, good and faithful slave…. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:23).

Conclusion

When God speaks, He demands to be heard and obeyed. But He is not like a despot who whips his slaves forcing them to listen out of fear. Rather, He is a loving King who gives life to His slaves enabling them to hear—even giving them the desire to hear and obey—and then He rewards them for doing so.

We have been saved from the eternal wrath of God. We have been brought into the kingdom of His beloved Son who gave His life for ours. And our loving Father is eager to teach, instruct, warn, and help us live a life that is not only pleasing to Him, but results in blessing for us. The more He speaks the more He reveals His marvelous character to us which only makes us want to draw nearer and listen more closely.

But listening and obeying is not easy. Even the most loving father’s words can be drowned out by the television in the corner. But regardless of the winds of distraction in this world, here are four deep roots that will help you stand firm in listening to your Father’s voice.

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Preaching is Not a Monologue

Preaching is out of style. Many church goers today experience pulpits like they experience great white sharks—they’ve seen one on TV, maybe. Stools, music stands, couches, conversational tones, and large group discussions have replaced authoritative proclamation of God’s Word from what was once known as the “sacred desk”—the pulpit. People balk at the idea of everyone facing one direction and being talked at by someone who is arrogant enough to think he has a corner on Truth. Monologue is the enemy of the new way to do church.

But those who minimize authoritative Word-centered preaching forget the true nature of preaching. Preaching the Word is a distinct kind of communication in which the preacher prays desperately that the people will hear what the Spirit is saying. When a man preaches, to the degree his words accurately reflect God’s Word, God Himself is speaking. As the God-breathed Word is proclaimed, the Spirit is taking that Word and implanting it in the hearts of His people.

So the act of preaching engages not just the preacher, but also the person of the Holy Spirit. But there’s someone else involved—you. Though the listener does not verbally interact one-on-one with the preacher as he speaks, they should engage in silent conversation. Since all preachers are fallen sinful men, not everything they say will be accurate. Sometimes he says Paul instead of Saul or John 3:16 instead of 1 John 3:16. But other times the preacher may make an unprepared remark that is contradicted by the context of the passage. It’s also not uncommon for preachers to miss the entire point of the passage! It is right for a congregation to expect their pastor has “done his homework” and is communicating truth, but that assumption should not lead to blind acceptance.

Listeners should adopt the well known phrase, “Trust, but verify.” The Bible commends those who, “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). In his book Expository Listening, Ramey makes use of the pitcher/catcher relationship. The pitcher is responsible to send the ball to a precise location. But the catcher is responsible not only to catch the ball at that location, but to adjust himself if the pitcher misses. The catcher would be a fool to place his mit in the correct location and then close his eyes!

In order for a sermon to be successful, not only must the preacher “preach the Word,” but the listener must dialogue with the Word in his or her own mind. This is why I personally find it difficult to take notes during the sermon. If I’m writing, I can’t process what is being said; I can only write down what comes in my ears. But when I’m not concerned with taking copious notes, my mind can fire on all cylinders processing what I’m hearing, anticipating what is coming next, tying what I’m hearing together with what I already know, and even getting side-tracked by cross references. If I take notes, they rarely reflect what the preacher says. They normally contain my processed thoughts which were triggered by the Word being preached. But that’s just me. Many of you are excellent note takers, and there is a part of me that envies you!

Preaching is not a monologue because it involves at least three persons—the preacher, the Spirit, and the listener. Though only one may be making audible sounds, all three are speaking, and the preacher and listener are processing, and—hopefully—hearing what the Spirit is saying.

The first step to listening well is to engage your mind in silent dialogue with the preacher and the Spirit. In short, think. This can be done in its most basic form by asking questions like, “Does this point he is making come out of the text? Does the context affirm what he is saying? Is this consistent with what the Bible says elsewhere?” There are a multitude of questions to ask yourself as you listen. My hope is not that you’ll create a list of questions to ask of each point in the sermon. My prayer is that you’ll learn to think about what the preacher and the Spirit are saying.

J.I. Packer has said, “Congregations never honor God more than by reverently listening to His Word with a full purpose of praising and obeying Him once they see what He has done and is doing, and what they are called to do” (The Preacher and Preaching, 20). May you honor the Lord by listening and engaging with His Word.

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Church Life, Uncategorized

Listening Well – Introduction

Before I turn 30 I will likely have heard more sermons than my nearly 80-year old grandfather. In high school I often tuned to CSN Radio (Calvary Satellite Network), taking in three or four 30-minute sermons a day. While I attended Whatcom Community College I cared for a couple horses and heard “Grace to You” on the radio three times a week cleaning out the stalls. In college we had chapel three times a week, and during seminary we had chapel twice a week. When I obtained an MP3 player I downloaded dozens of sermons at a time and played them as I drove around. Later as a programmer, I often heard three to four sermons a day while I punched out code. And that’s all on top of the one to two sermons every Sunday since I was born.

The paragraph above is not something I’m proud of. If anything, I should be ashamed. I should be ashamed that I’ve heard that many sermons and yet know as little as I do andsin as much as I do. I heard all those sermons, but I didn’t listen to all of them. The sound of the preacher’s voice passed through my ears, but most of the time I wasn’t paying close attention. Thousands of sermons have had little lasting effect in my life. In the words of James, I’ve done a lot of hearing, and not much doing.

The issue isn’t how many sermons you’ve heard, but how well you’ve listened, understood, believed, and applied. The Bible is replete with commands to listen to God’s Word. Frequently in Matthew and Revelation the command is, “He who has ears, let him hear…” And the commands imply obedience. As James says, “But be doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22).

But the problem is most of us don’t know how to do that. If you’re like me, no one has ever taught you how to listen to a sermon well. You just… sit and listen hoping something interesting comes along.

Is it really that hard? It’s harder than you think. I remember driving with a friend in college who majored in music. He was listening to a classical piece played by an orchestra. I appreciate classical music. I enjoy classical music. And I thought the piece was excellent. But my friend listened to that piece in a way I’ll never forget. With his knowledge of music, he was giddy over the intricate details and nuances of the composition. He would say, “Oh, listen to this next part… Wow that was incredible! Did you hear that minor note?” I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about… to me it just sounded like a nice piece of music.

The average person on the street can enjoy good art, music, and literature. But to the trained consumer, those products of human creativity take on significance beyond what others can comprehend. In the same way, listening to sermons can reap many benefits for anyone indwelt by the Holy Spirit. But the effect is enhanced, deepened, and overflowing when heard by someone who knows how to listen well.

The purpose of the coming series of articles is to help you grow in your ability to listen and apply God’s Word well. The substance of the articles will largely be summaries of chapters from Ken Ramey’s Expository Listening: A Handbook for Hearing and Doing God’s Word (Kress Biblical Resources, 2010).

Whether you attend this church or another expository preaching church, my prayer is you will make the time and effort to consider and apply these helpful lessons.

One caveat is critical to understand. Don’t assume that every sermon will require a behavioral change. Sometimes—even often—the effect a sermon ought to have has more to do with changing the mind, affections, and will rather than behavior. There are countless sermons I’ve heard where my soul was stirred, my love for Christ grew, and my confidence in God and His Word strengthened. Application is not limited to outward behavior. Applying God’s Word means to allow it to have its necessary effect in your life.

I hope you’ll walk with me through this series and seek to develop a healthy appetite for God’s Word, learn to chew on it, and digest it for your good and God’s glory.

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