He Who Has Ears
Some accuse the Protestant emphasis upon the preached Word as pastor-centric and non-engaging, but such an accusation assumes too little about the listener's responsibility in corporate worship. Every individual in the congregation has responsibilities when the Word of God is preached. As we listen to the Word preached we want to aim at listening to it astutely, attentively, reverently, prayerfully, and responsively.
Astutely: As listeners of the Word, we must insist upon the sound preaching of the Word. We dare not fall into the ways of those who have "itching ears" and accumulate for ourselves "teachers to suit our own passions" (2 Timothy 4:3). The temptation to do so is great and subtle. The Word is our nourishment, we live by "every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4). Our souls and hearts will languish apart from "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). The pastor who enters the pulpit should not be able to satiate us with stories, jokes, wandering tales, or dispassionate reflections. We want to hear from God, so we will listen astutely for that living Word (Hebrews 4:12).
Attentively: Our worship is never passive, but active as we engage with the Word preached. Of course, it is not our "laboring" that makes the Word preached effectual; that is the work of the Holy Spirit as He attends to the Word and works faith in the listener (John 3). But a disengaged and passive listener to the Word is no listener at all. As the preacher is accountable for what he says, so the congregation is accountable for its faithfulness in listening.
Reverently: God is speaking to His people and so we are to receive that Word reverently. With the Psalmist, we would say, "Let me hear what God the Lord will speak" (Psalm 85:8). The most blessed of sermons occur when the listener begins to forget the preacher and finds their mind filled with the Word of God, their heart moved with love for Him, and their affections running after Him. We are on holy ground in worship and knowingly hang on the edge of our seats as we long to hear the next words from our Heavenly Father. He speaks and we listen.
Prayerfully: The Spirit must attend to the Word, so we labor prayerfully in the pew as much as the preacher labors at preaching in the pulpit. Prayer paves the way for the Spirit's effectual moving. We want our hearts to be fertile soil (Mark 4) for this eternal seed of truth. Even as our ears and mind our being stirred with the Word, so we are stirring our spirits in prayer.
Responsively: As the Westminster Shorter Catechism states, "The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of Man." The Scriptures demand response: faith and obedience. We are to be "doers of the Word and not just hearers" (James 1:22). The fault lies with us if we emerge from a service asking, "Did you get anything out of that sermon?" Rather, we desire to respond with, "I will believe what God says and will obey Him." The sermon will never be perfect, because the man preaching it is never perfect. Yet, if the text was read and the text was preached, there is always something for the listener to respond to. Searching our thoughts and lives for where the Word preached that morning is speaking needed truth in my life marks every faithful listener. We dare not excuse ourselves, focus on how much others need to hear this truth, or think we have heard this message too many times. None of us are perfect in any area of our Christian lives, we are all straining forward, pressing "on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3:14).
Dear Christian, you may be sitting in corporate worship while the pastor is preaching, but this is no idle exercise. We are to be engaged with the Word. The little effect many sermons have upon listeners is less often due to the preacher's lack of skill in preaching, but rather due to our lack of effort in listening. Listen astutely, attentively, reverently, prayerfully, and responsively. "He who has ears, let him hear" (Matthew 13:9).
Richard Steele, A Remedy for Wandering Thoughts in Worship
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