You think that a pastor ought to take great care how and what he or she preaches, and that is a perfectly proper thing for you to think. It is true indeed that a preacher has a duty of integrity in preaching. A duty of clarity and honesty and love. We must admit though that if no one is listening to the preacher, his sermon won’t make any difference to anyone but the preacher himself. Those who preach and those who listen are in a partnership with each other, and so would you accept that you must take great care how you listen?
The great British preacher Charles Spurgeon once told of an encounter with a woman and their discussion of a certain preacher.
She said to Spurgeon, “I heard him well last Sunday.”
And that, according to Spurgeon, was the important thing; she did not tell Spurgeon how the man preached, she told him how she heard, and that is the main point. We all need to be good hearers.
Spurgeon used to claim that preaching will enrich you or impoverish you according to how you hear. There are some hearers who have nothing, and the preacher gives them nothing. The best listener is someone who has received some truth, and wants more of God’s truth. Where there is some love of God, and love of neighbours, more will come. I hope all of you are among those who have, to whom more shall be given! You might say the gospel is also a paradox, because for those who think they have the truth, the gospel reveals to them their ignorance; and so it takes from them that truth they mistakenly thought they had.
I will do my best with my preaching this morning, and I hope you do your best hearing!
When Spurgeon spoke this way about hearing it was in the context of this morning’s Bible passage – Luke 8:4–21.
Verses four through fifteen are about the farmer who sowed seed on different types of soil. Jesus tells his disciples that the seed is God’s word, while the soil types “represent those who hear the message” and have various responses. We often focus on the soil, but Jesus hints that maybe we should pay more attention to how we listen. Jesus quotes Isaiah 6:9 to his disciples in Luke 8:8.
“Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand.”
How you listen, or how you hear (it’s the same Greek word in these verses), could be the difference between you being hard soil and fertile soil.
The next three verses are the parable of the lamp, and Jesus tells how lamps are for putting on a stand so that the light shines for all to benefit. It’s often taught that this is an instruction about talking, and an instruction for us all to preach the Good News rather than keep it to ourselves. But look at what Jesus says in Luke 8:18, and note that he is giving us a teaching about the importance of listening. Someone is shining a light so that “all that is secret will eventually be brought into the open.” Jesus isn’t telling you to do that, he is telling you to be careful how you react to the light. He says that if you listen well, you will receive more understanding, and if you don’t listen well even the little you understand will be taken away.
“So pay attention to how you hear. To those who listen to my teaching, more understanding will be given. But for those who are not listening, even what they think they understand will be taken away from them.”
In the third section of our reading, verses 19 through 21, Jesus explains who are the members of his family. His mother and brothers have come to see Jesus, and when he is told they are outside the house Jesus gives the famous reply in Luke 8:21. He doesn’t explicitly reject Mary, James, Joseph (Joses), Judas (Jude) and Simon, but Jesus actually extends his definition of family to all of us who hear and obey God.
Jesus replied, “My mother and my brothers are all those who hear God’s word and obey it.”
We aren’t going to be part of the family of God if we aren’t listening to God. Are you listening to me now? How many of you are listening carefully and deliberately? How many of you are thinking right now about what God is saying to you, and how many of you have allowed yourselves to be distracted? Are you listening well, as the woman said to Spurgeon.
I am doing my best to share with you God’s message, are you doing your best to hear what God is saying to you through my words. If you aren’t then Jesus says you are not growing in knowledge, but becoming more ignorant as you sit here.
The Old Testament uses a phrase sometimes interpreted “incline your ear”, to express how to listen. We read in Isaiah 55:3 “Come to me with your ears wide open” or in the ESV “Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live.”
Focus your hearing on the speaker, whether that speaker be God or your children, whether it be your parents or a beggar in the street.
Please do not think that hearing God involves only sound waves entering your ear, because hearing God much more often involves your imagination.
While the Lord has interacted with his people in a physically observable way, such as when he led the Israelites across the wilderness, this was not the ordinary way God related to his people.
God’s ordinary mode of communication, both in biblical times and today, is to speak and appear to those who have the spiritual capacity to hear and see spiritual realities.
That’s why Jesus says in today’s reading, “Anyone with ears to hear should listen.” It is a spiritual hearing and seeing and as such it is a private experience, given only to the one intended by God to receive it. In other words, it is an experience that took place in what today we would call ‘the imagination’.
The trouble is that many of us are modern people, and to say a dream or vision took place in the imagination sounds as if we are saying it wasn’t real. It’s a problem because we think imagination is the same as make-believe, and it sounds as if we are saying all those people in the Bible didn’t really hear from God. But that is not the case and ancient people in general, and people in biblical times in particular, did not share your ideas. They generally understood that the imagination was a means through which God can communicate with his people. God speaks to his people by what passes through the mind, so listen in a way that opens your mind and your imagination to God.
Do we hear God’s voice as just another noise in the echo chamber of our minds? Do we give God’s word the undistracted audience it deserves? What are your habits and the voices you listen to? Do you invite God’s voice to shape and colour, amplify or silence the other voices you hear? What we hear and what we listen to every day is so important.
While people were asleep or awake, God spoke to them in those days. And he still speaks to everyone who is receptive to the things God wants people to hear and see.
God inspires the imagination. God wants to be known by his people in concrete, vivid, personal, and transforming ways. And this has never ceased. God is still sending signals, as it were, but we have too often discredited those signals by writing them off as make-believe. Do you have eyes to see and ears to hear?
God is speaking to you, he is always speaking to you, but how well are you listening?