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How To Preach So That Listeners May Truly Hear

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Posted by Simon Vibert, 5 Oct 2018

Simon Vibert explores the role of hearing the word of God in preaching, in this excerpt from an article in the latest edition of Churchman

“Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear” (Mark 4:9; Matt 11:15; 13:9,43; Luke 8:8b)

With the overall goal and desire of allowing the word of God to penetrate the minds and hearts of hearers through the preaching of the Word, this article will cover the following the areas: We learn why hearing is important from a brief look at relevant biblical texts. We will consider how to hear a sermon in a brief literature review. We then turn to a particular slice of history, namely Puritan writers who have given thought as to how to hear a sermon. Finally, there are lessons from contemporary experience, including a brief survey. Conclusions for hearers and implications for preachers, then follow.

Why We Need to Hear the Word of God
In his explanation of the parable of sower and seed, Jesus makes a number of assumptions about the necessity of fruitful hearing. In Luke’s account we are told, “the seed is the word of God” (Luke 8:11). This alludes to the power of the word of God: as the Kingdom of God is proclaimed, within this message is the potential to produce abundant fruit, albeit only for those who “hear the word, retain it, and by preserving produce a crop” (8:15b). It is worth spending a little more time in the version found in Matthew 13:10ff. We note first that the seed of the word is broadcast (rather than “narrow-cast”). In other words, Jesus assumes that the message of the Kingdom is generously preached to all-comers even knowing that not all will be fruitful. This parable would seem to indicate that it is not the job of the preacher to ascertain the potential fruitfulness of the ground upon which the seed falls, although Matt 10:14 might seem to imply that if there is unfruitfulness then his disciples should move on elsewhere and not pursue ministry where it produces nothing. Nevertheless, the preacher’s job is to sow the seed of the word, with clarity, to ensure good understanding, and with an awareness of the distractions which compete for the hearers’ attention.

Different types of hearing are implied in this parable:
• Some of the seed never really penetrates the hard ground which has beaten under foot (13:19). The seed which falls on the path represents those who hear without understanding. The evil one
snatches the word.
• Some of the seed falls on rocks with a shallow layer of soil (13:20f.). The quick, early, growth is unsustainable. After an initial joyful response, the sun scorches and withers the plant. This type of listener has an initially positive emotional response to the word but it has not gone deep enough to put down root, rather like the foolish man who built his house without a foundation and thus is flattened when the storm of persecution comes along (7:24–27).
• Some of the seed is choked by thorns (13:22). The word is heard, but the enticing voice of materialism and worldly wealth stifles the fledgling growth.
• Some falls on good soil (13:23). Evidence that the word has been heard, understood and heeded, is seen in the bearing of fruit.

In addition to the need for clarity and understanding in preaching, Jesus might be implying the need for the preacher to protect the word from an enthusiastic, but shallow, reception, being snatched away, or choked out. The glittery deceitfulness of the false messages around and the distraction from other cares and concerns compete for fruitfulness in the hearer. But that which goes deep produces amazing and life impacting fruit. Thus there is no need for panic, nor is there any need to change strategy. The seed of the message of the kingdom has potential for massive change.
There are some implications for the preacher, e.g. not using stories/jokes that distract, doing all we can to encourage attentive hearing and protecting the preached word from being snatched away, etc. There are implications for the hearer too. For example, Paul seeks to ensure that “the word of God dwells richly in/among you,” (or, maybe “you all” for this is plural, not just the individual Christian; Col 3:16) and that within the congregation Christians speak the word to one another, perhaps over coffee in the lobby after church or at any other times when Christians meet together. In these ways and more, the preaching may take root. These principles are borne out in other biblical texts as this brief overview will demonstrate.

In 1 Sam 3 we are told that the word of God was rare in Israel, but that it came, unexpectedly, to the boy Samuel. Samuel did not recognise the call of God and assumed it to be the aged Eli. Even tired old Eli eventually realised that the Lord was calling Samuel and encouraged the appropriate posture with the words “Speak, for your servant is listening” (3:8bff.), and then encouraged Samuel faithfully to repeat God’s challenging message, even if they were words he would not want to hear.

In Neh 8:5f., once the book of the law of Moses is recovered, we have a great model of respectful and reverent listening to God’s word: “Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. Ezra praised the Lord, the great God, and all the people lifted their hands and responded, ‘Amen! Amen!’ Then they bowed down and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground.”

Paul warns of the failure to heed the preaching of God’s word in 2 Tim 4:3: “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather round them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” Although the exact meaning of this phrase is unclear, “itching ears” implies the desire for words that sooth the itch, that titillate or entertain, rather than the correction, rebuke, patient encouragement and careful instruction which should be hallmark of Timothy’s preaching.

James 1:21 states: “Therefore get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent, and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.” Such hearing should be humble and unhindered by immortality. This is the exact opposite of a Pharisaic posture which waited “to catch [Jesus] in something he might say” (Luke 11:53f.), or the Pharisee who thanked God that he was not like the miserable tax collector and in his self-exultation went away unjustified (Luke 18:9–14).

Rather, as in Acts 17:11, we should be like the noble Bereans who were known to be receptive, eager, and scrutinising towards the preaching: “they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.”

Such a spirit was also to be found in Thessalonica, where believers heard Paul’s preaching, receiving it not as merely human words, but as God’s word, 1 Thess 2:13 “we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.”

Finally, the consistent warning of Ps 95:7b is for soft heartedness: “Today, if only you would hear his voice, Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness” (cf. the frequent quotation of this Psalm in the New Testament, particularly Heb 3:15; 4:7).

This brief biblical survey is sufficient to deduce these points: how you listen to, and then respond to, Jesus’s words about God’s Kingdom determines whether or not you are in it. Similarly, the frequent refrain at the end of the letters to each of the Churches in Asia Minor in Revelation 2–3 concludes with the exhortation: “whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (2:7, 11, 17, 28; 3:6, 13, 22). Equally important is the warning not just to listen but to hear. The type of hearing in mind is one which results in change of heart and action, hence the warning of Jas 1:19, 22 to be “quick to listen, slow to speak.… Do not merely listen to the word … do what it says.”

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Simon Vibert is vicar of Christ Church, Virginia Water, and formerly served as Vice Principal and Tutor in Homiletics at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.

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