Letter to Timothy
Reformed Free Publishing Association
In the last letter to you I mentioned, somewhat in passing, that our attitude towards the preacher and our attitude towards the preaching were inseparably related to each other. I want to say a bit more about that in this letter, especially from the viewpoint of what is involved in listening to a sermon. I wonder sometimes whether we have lost the art of listening. Or, if I may repeat that passage from Ecclesiastes which I quoted last time, "Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God, and be more ready to hear, than to give the sacrifice of fools: for they consider not that they do evil. Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few." Do we really know how to do this?
It is, it seems to me, elementary that how we listen to the preaching in church is determined by other important and related matters. I refer, in the first place, to the fact that our listening to the preaching will be determined in large measure by our attitude towards and interest in spiritual things. This is not something which ought to characterize our lives only on the Lord's day, but something that persists through all of life. Jesus points to the very heart of the matter in his sermon on the mount when he says: "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matt. 6:21). If our treasure is upon earth and not in heaven, then we will not listen very attentively to the preaching, for the preaching is all about spiritual treasures. It may be that a very interesting sermon delivered by a very gifted speaker captures our attention and holds our interest in spite of the fact that our treasures are on earth; but this "hearing" of the Word will be like the seed that fell upon thorny ground. "And the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful" (Matt. 13:22). Nor can one "lay up" treasures on earth during the week and expect to lay up treasures in heaven on the Lord's day. And this is simply because a person cannot "serve God and mammon," as Jesus points out in the following verses.
This is important to remember too. There are so many people who leave God's house unmoved by the sermon and untouched by the word as it is preached and dissatisfied with the preacher and his message. But the trouble lies with themselves. Their treasures are really on earth. They are basically and fundamentally uninterested in the treasures of heaven. But rather than admit this, they are quick to blame the preacher and his preaching for their own disinterest. They prefer to blame someone else rather than their own carnal-mindedness.
This stands closely related to another matter—that of spiritual preparation. This too is an important matter. There are many in the churches today who remember days when preparation for the Sabbath began already on Saturday. There were many homes in which it was a common practice to have all the work finished by late Saturday afternoon or early Saturday evening. Not only was the house itself spick and span, but the clothes for church were laid out, the potatoes for dinner on the Lord's day were peeled and standing in a pan of water, the work on the farm was finished for the week, and the thoughts of the family could turn to the Sabbath. No one might, except under extraordinary circumstances, leave the house on Saturday night because the parents firmly believed that it was impossible to get ready to worship God by gallivanting all over the country. This has all changed. There is not that sense of getting ready for the Sabbath that once there was. Work continues at its normal pace all day Saturday and on into the evening. Or, if one can escape the work, then Saturday is a time to go visiting until very late in the evening, and little or no thought is given to the Lord's day. The result is that many come into God's house on the Lord's day with absolutely no thought at all given to the fact that they have entered God's presence and that they are now to hear what God has to say to them. There is no surprise then when such people receive little or nothing from the preaching. And, once again, as often as not the blame is shifted to the preacher, in an effort to cover the frailties and lack of spirituality of the listener.
Always listening is an act of worship. The whole of the church service on the Lord's day is worship, of course. Fundamentally, worship, according to the scriptural idea, is "bowing the knee towards" God, for that is the most basic meaning of the word which is consistently translated as worship. Worship is, therefore, an act of adoration and praise. It is an acknowledgement of God as the sovereign Lord and as the one who alone is worthy of all honor and glory. All worship basically involves this. Whether we sing or pray, whether we confess our faith or bring our offerings, this is the essence of worship. But listening to God's word is also worship. It is an act of adoration and praise at bottom and an acknowledgement of the absolute lordship of Almighty God.
Listening to the sermon is an act of worship, however, in its own unique way. Listening is worship because our listening must be an inward confession that the Almighty God of heaven and earth, our Jehovah who saves us, has the sovereign right to speak to us and require of us that we listen to what he has to say. There is an element here of listening as acknowledgement of God's absolute sovereignty over us. We must listen because God has authority over us. Listening is acknowledgement of that. But there is also the aspect of praise and adoration because we listen to him who tells us what great things he has done for us.
There are illustrations which help make this clear. If a parent is giving his child instruction in a certain matter and is using that instruction as a basis to admonish the child, the parent expects the child to pay attention. If the child does not pay attention, lets his mind wander while the parent is talking and assumes an attitude of indifference, then the child, by such conduct, refuses to acknowledge the authority of the parent in his life and the parent has the right to say: "Listen to me; I am your father." The other aspect can also be illustrated. Supposing that I am a very poor beggar who has nothing in the world and who can survive only by eating out of garbage cans, fighting with wild dogs for a place to sleep, and struggling to keep warm in cold weather by lying near doors of locked buildings where a bit of heat may seep under the door; supposing further that the king of the land, for some reason known only to himself, calls me into the palace and begins to tell me that he intends to give me a very important place in his kingdom where I will have riches and influence, and opportunity to join in policy discussions and decisions, and the rule over others; supposing that while the king is talking about all this I am so unmoved by what he says and so indifferent to what he is talking about that I simply pay no attention and do not even hear what is being said—such conduct is an insult to the king and brands me as the crassest of fools.
To listen with thankfulness and joy, with adoration and praise to what God tells us of the salvation he has graciously given in Christ is the worship of listening. To listen with humble submission to the authority of our heavenly King is to worship in listening.
Paul tells us in 2 Timothy 3:16 that all scripture is given by the inspiration of God. But he tells us too why God gave the scriptures: they are profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness. If we listen to the preaching of the scriptures we will be profited. We will learn doctrine, we will be reproved and corrected, we will be instructed in righteousness. And, according to 2 Timothy 3:17, this is all that we need that we, as men of God, may be perfect and thoroughly furnished unto all good works.
All of this requires that our listening be spiritual. But I think it best to discuss this with you in a subsequent letter.
Fraternally in Christ,
This article was written by Prof. Herman Hanko and was published in the December 15, 1981 issue of the Standard Bearer.
To read the other articles in this series: https://bit.ly/2UV2YXl.