“Take heed how you hear” (Luke 8:18).
This is a surprising saying. If it had read, “take heed what you say, for you never know how far-reaching may be the influence of your words,” we could have understood it. Is not the responsibility with the person who speaks? Why warn the listener?
Yet we can and do choose the things to which we listen. So we do well to reflect upon the responsibility of listening.
Have you ever thought of the influence exerted upon you by the people to whom you listen in the pulpit or on radio or TV, the newspapers and books you read, the films and plays you see. We cannot measure the effect upon us of the voices that reach us, the opinions they utter, the habits of mind they express.
We are not altogether responsible for what we hear but we are responsible for how we hear it, for the degree of attention we give to it, for the manner in which we receive it and for the length of time we hold it in mind.
Our ears are the most important organs we have, spiritually speaking. Someone has said: “You have two ears and one mouth; so listen twice as much as you speak.” That is a good rule for life — especially for our spiritual life.
The Israelites were constantly ordered to hear the words of the Lord. Though the word “listen” is used infrequently in the Bible, the command to hear or to hearken to the Lord or His servants is used many times.
St. Paul says: “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.” In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is reported as saying, “Take heed what you hear,” because what you hear determines what you become. What you hear is what you receive and what you receive determines what you have to give to others.
In our text Jesus says: “Take heed how you hear.” We can hear the right things but if we do not hear them in the right way they will do us no good. The writer to the Hebrews says: “About this we have much to say which is hard to explain because you have become dull of hearing.” They had listened to the voices of this world and lost their ability to hear the voice of God.
Paul, in his second letter to Timothy, warns us that some people will develop itching ears wanting to hear men’s exciting new ideas instead of God’s eternal Word. “They will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths.”
What we hear and attend to has a vital influence upon our mind. It has a big part to play in the guiding of our lives. The art of listening is not easily practiced. For many of us it is easier to speak than it is to listen.
By the way we listen we may make it hard for the truth to reach us. Thoreau said: “It takes two to speak the truth; one to speak, the other to hear.”
Often when Jesus was speaking He would say: “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” He knew that all the people were listening but not all were hearing. So He constantly reminded them of the responsibility of hearing. “Every one who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon a rock.”
He called the crowd to Himself and said “hear and understand.” “If any man will hear my voice and open the door, I will come in.” Jesus thought that the opportunity of hearing the Gospel was an inestimable privilege. “Blessed are your ears for they hear. Many prophets and righteous men have desired to hear the things which you hear but did not hear them.”
It is the duty of the preacher to proclaim faithfully the truth as it is in Jesus. He is not responsible for what those who hear the truth do with it. That is their responsibility, as the parable of the sower shows us. It is our Lord’s discussion of the reason why His preaching had such different results with different people. The sower is the same and the seed is the same but different parts of the field show different results.
1. There was the seed sown by the wayside.
The wayside hearer is stolid, impassive, the kind of person of whom it is said that he has no capacity for religion. He hears the Word but does not take it in. The message falls idly on his ear without penetrating his mind and heart.
Why? The constant traffic of idle thoughts has robbed him of the ability to respond to a serious message. His mind is like a footpath beaten hard by the continual passage through it of earthly thoughts and desires. He has become hard-hearted.
2. There was the seed which fell on stony ground.
These are shallow people who give an easy and amiable response to everything but have no depth of earth in which ideas or beliefs can rest. They possess starting power but not staying power.
The Word only finds a temporary lodging in them. It may for a moment sway their emotions but it does not become a part of them. When the time of stress comes such people cannot stand. Before the blasts of temptation or persecution their religion is swept away.
They are like Bunyan’s character Mr. Pliable. They have not the root of the matter in them and so endure only for a while. They are the faint-hearted. We can listen to a preacher for his art or his eloquence. We can attend a service as we do a concert with no intention of doing anything about it.
The monk Savonarola, who poured out his soul to the people of Florence, deplored this fact. “Preach to these people as one may,” he said, “they have taken the habit of listening well and yet acting ill.”
He warned them that they would become like a rook on a steeple that at the first stroke of the church bell takes alarm and is afraid but when accustomed to the sound perches quietly on the bell however loudly it rings.
3. There was the seed that fell among the thorns.
The fault here was not in the soil but in the husbandry. The soil itself was good enough but it had not been cleaned. The roots of thorns and thistles had been allowed to remain, so the corn was dwarfed and stunted.
Some people are only Christians by halves and all too often the weeds on the other half spread and choke the Christian faith that is trying to gain a foothold. The good seed never gets a fair chance among the faint-hearted and so brings forth no fruit to perfection.
Such people as these three types do not give the Christian message a fair hearing. The hard-hearted, the faint-hearted and the half-hearted may not refuse to listen but they have allowed their minds to get into such a state that they have lost the ability to hear and the truth cannot reach them.
4. There was the seed which fell in the good soil.
These are the true-hearted who, “hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart and bring forth fruit to perfection.”
I want to make a plea for creative listening. I owe this phrase to a famous Austrian conductor, Felix Weingartner, who used it once on a visit to England. He said to a reporter: “I have always held that the musical training in this country, particularly the training in good creative listening, is on a very high level.”
The helpfulness of a service of worship depends on the preparedness of the listener. If we bring to church a hardened heart, trampled upon during the week by every kind of intruder that chooses to demand a right of way, or a mind made shallow by careless and persistent frivolity, or a spirit crowded with weeds of selfish aims and interests, we are not likely to be helped by the service or to take in the word of God.
Dr. Norman Macleod of Glasgow once offered this prayer before preaching: “O Lord, teach us to remember for every sermon we hear we must give an account in the day of judgment.”
The congregation must be held accountable for the sermon it listens to. Listening is an activity. It is not passive. Not only are you hearing the preacher, you are talking back to him not in words but by the way you sit, by the expression on your face. Some listeners are helpful to speakers, some are indifferent or neutral, and some are distracting and discouraging. What kind of listener are you?
We sometimes complain that there are no great preachers today. I do not think the complaint is justified, but in so far as it is, the blame rests more heavily on hearers than on preachers.
Great hearers make great preachers. An eager, sympathetic, spiritually-alive congregation can make almost anyone a preacher. It is so easy to sit in the pew and leave it all to the person in the pulpit, to lend an ear to words without listening.
It would transform many a preacher’s life if, week after week, he could be sure that when he entered the pulpit his people listened eagerly and expectantly for the Word of God and looked for it. Then worship would cease to be a mere convention and become a creative act of the first importance.
Kierkegaard once suggested that on the inside of every pulpit where only the preacher could see it, these words should be placed: “How dreadful is this place. This is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven.” And in big letters on the side of the pulpit these words: “Take heed how you hear. If you know these things, happy are you if you do them.”
We need to prepare ourselves to receive the message of the preacher. After the rush and bustle of the week this is by no means easy. We cannot easily empty our minds on a Sunday morning.
Most of us enter the church door with a multitude of things tugging at us: business worries, family problems, our health, things that have irritated us. If we enter heartily into the service, the hymns, the prayers and the lessons will wash our minds clean and prepare them for the Gospel message. But if we sing half-heartedly or not at all, if we allow our minds to wander during the lessons and the prayers, we shall get little good from the sermon, however faithfully it is delivered.
An authentic sermon is not one that causes the hearers to say, “What a wonderful preacher we have” but “What a wonderful Savior we have.” It is one that leads the hearers to prayer and to a rededication of themselves to the service of Christ. George Herbert said: “Prayer is the end of preaching.” A sermon is not a solo performance: it is an act of congregational worship.
After a concert in a midwestern town Paderewski was found behind the stage silent and preoccupied. Someone asked him what was the matter — was he ill? “No,” he said, “but some friends of mine were missing: the grey-haired couple on the fourth row back. They were not in their usual places.”
“I didn’t know you had friends in this town. Did you know them well?”
The pianist replied, “I didn’t know them at all. I never spoke to them but I liked the way they listened. Every time I have played here for 50 years I have always played to them.”
That is creative listening. The uplifted face, the radiant eyes, the intent ears and the eager minds ready to hear and to understand what God has to say through His servant will be avenues through which the soul of the listener will go out to the soul of the preacher.
A hearer’s judgment of a sermon is really a judgment of himself. The same message falls on every ear but how different is the response. We hear with all that we have made ourselves. We hear with every sin to which we cling. Every ambition, every joy or sorrow, comes to the hearing of the Gospel. That is why to one it is a weariness to be endured, to another it is a thing to be disproved and to a third in his hunger the bread of angels.
It is a great responsibility to preach. It is also a great responsibility to hear. Most of us have heard so much preaching. Have we brought to it that sincerity, that expectancy without which we are never likely to hear an authentic word of God? Have we become Gospel-hardened so that we are mere sermon-tasters?
A sermon is not to be tasted. It is to be weighed in the presence of God with a view to action. The Word of God never leaves you the same as it found you: either you are better or worse for having heard it.
Dr. Alexander Whyte met a woman who said to him, “I didn’t like your sermon on Sunday.” She did not know that the same week her son had written to him saying “That sermon led me to Christ.”
A distinguished Judge once said that in all his long experience he had never listened to a bad sermon. That seems a sweeping statement but he went on to explain. “I have never listened to any man who tried to set forth the truth of God without deep sympathy with the preacher’s aim and without surrounding him with such an atmosphere of help and encouragement as his own prayers were fit to receive.” That is creative listening.
We have been thinking of listening in relation to public worship. Let my closing words lead you to consider the need for giving God a hearing not only in church but wherever you may be.
Are you listening to the voice of God? He has never ceased to speak. He is speaking still as He spoke of old.
He said to Abraham: “Get thee out of thy country unto the land that I will show thee” and Abraham obeyed the call. God spoke to Moses in the burning bush and he went forth to lead Israel out of Egypt. God spoke to Isaiah in the temple: “Whom shall I send and who will go for me?” and he replied “Here am I: send me.”
God spoke to Jeremiah: “I have appointed thee a prophet unto the nations.” He was conscious of many limitations and much weakness but he listened and obeyed. He spoke to Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus: “Arise, stand on thy feet for to this end have I appeared unto thee, to appoint thee a minister.” These men all listened in a creative way to what God said to them and with what marvelous results.
Whenever a person listens, God speaks. His voice can come to you not only through the word of a preacher but through the beauty of nature, the friendship of books, human love, the face of a little child.
Creative listening is listening that is intent, alert, open-eared and open-eyed. It is listening with all the windows and doors of the spirit wide-open, ready for the incoming of any living word. It is listening with faith in the God who speaks, in His faithfulness and His authority. It is listening that is followed by surrender, by loyal obedience whatever the cost.
Master, speak and make me ready
When Thy voice is truly heard,
With obedience glad and steady
Still to follow every word.
I am listening, Lord, for Thee
What hast Thou to say to me?

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