“All churches,” says the Welsh-American pastor and blogger Kim Fabricius, “should come equipped with seatbelts.”
When we come to church, we come to do many things. We meet with other Christians. We sing. We pray. We drink weak coffee from Styrofoam cups.
But one of the things we do most of is listen.
There’s quite a lot of sitting in a church service, whatever denomination you attend (or none). It is hard to imagine a church building, or a church meeting, without chairs, isn’t it? There might be portable plastic chairs in a school hall that have to be put out each week, or bench-like old pews that cut off the circulation to your legs. But chairs there are, and sitting there will be.
(Greek Orthodox churches are built with no chairs, and only some props on the sides for the old people to lean on. And their services can go for three hours! Now that’s toughness right there …)
And there’ll be sitting, because Christians gather in order to listen to the Scriptures being read, and to the gospel being proclaimed.
This is not an accident, or simply laziness. It is a quite deliberate illustration about the Christian life, which is in essence the life of faith. And faith comes, says Paul, by hearing (Romans 10:16). The Christian is the one who has heard the word of God addressed to him or her, and who has responded by believing it.
This is the shape of biblical faith. We encounter there a God who speaks, to whom the response must always first be: listen to him. In the Old Testament, Israel were the people who were called, and who followed the voice of Yahweh out of Egypt. The preaching of the book of Deuteronomy marks them out as a hearing nation. The famous Shema, the recitation of God’s uniqueness that Israel would repeat to one another, was a call to listen: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”
In Psalm 23, Yahweh would be addressed as the Shepherd. To follow his guidance meant survival and sustenance for Israel, the sheep. In John 10:1-21, Jesus picks up the ancient and messianic image of the sheep and shepherd. The sheep recognise the voice of the shepherd who calls them by name. As Jesus taught in parables, it was the disciples who craved to hear and understand him.
And what did those disciples in turn do? They preached the gospel, so that the message of the forgiveness of sins and new life in Christ would be heard. That extraordinary miracle that attended the first sermon that Peter delivered at Pentecost was a sign that this good news was not to be confined to one nation and one language, but was to be communicated in the hearing – and the understanding – of all people.
And this is what we see in the book of Acts, and in the other parts of the New Testament. People hear the proclamation of the gospel, and respond. Paul reminds us of this in the beginning of Ephesians:
“And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation.”
As the great Reformer Martin Luther puts it:
“For if you ask a Christian what the work is by which he becomes worthy of the name ‘Christian’, he will be able to give absolutely no other answer than that it is the hearing of the Word of God, that is, faith. Therefore, the ears alone are the organ of a Christian, for he is justified and declared to be a Christian, not by the works of any member, but because of faith.”
The ears! A surprising part of the body to nominate, we may think. But it shows exactly how the Christian life begins, and how it endures. We are sheep listening to the shepherd. We are people of faith whose faith is sustained by hearing again and anew the promises of the great and merciful God who speaks to us.
To say that, however, may give entirely the wrong impression. It may sound like the chief activity of church-going is an entirely passive one. And if we are to be honest, there’s an awful lot of passivity in church out there. We come to listen, but we find the Bible badly read by ill-prepared readers, or find the sound system inaudible; and then the minister delivers a passionless and self-indulgent rant about something obscure. And so we find ourselves expertly counting the bricks in the wall behind the preacher, or reading Eternity magazine, or jotting down some plans to renovate the patio, or reminding ourselves to get the cat vaccinated. Perhaps the humanity of the preacher, with all his or her foibles and quirks and inadequacies, seems like it obscures the fact that he is standing as an emissary of the Lord God himself.
But often enough it is we listeners who are unprepared and inattentive. Part of our task as the people of God is to be active in our listening to the voice of God. If God’s word is going to be spoken in your hearing this morning, and it really is the word of the creator and judge of all things, then are you ready to hear it? Would it be so ridiculous a thing to have read the Scripture passage through during the week and meditated upon it, or discussed it with your family and friends?
And anticipate that when God speaks, powerful stuff actually happens. You will need a seatbelt, because the word of God is powerful enough to make worlds out of nothing and to give life to the dead. It is powerful enough to make a bunch of slaves into a nation and to unite Jews, Greeks and Calathumpians and who knows else into one people. It declares forgiveness to the prostitute and liberty to the alcoholic, and humbles the philanthropist and the celebrity.
So expect, that when God speaks, even using the mouth of one of his weaker and less-skilled servants, transformations will occur. Worlds will be rocked. The impossible will become possible. Hope will miraculously appear in the hopeless. Joy will come to the grief-stricken. Acts of love between enemies will take place. Stingy people will reach for their wallets to give generously to those in need.
Now, that doesn’t mean that any sermon on any given Sunday from any given pulpit will be the occasion for God speaking. It still may be the case that what you may hear from the front, declared to you as the word of God, may be nothing of the kind. It may be deceptive and smooth-talking. It may be simply in error, or mistaken. The task of the faithful listener is to exercise faithful discernment: to weigh up what is being said, like the Bereans of old; to check against the norm of Scripture, that this is indeed what God would say.
And that may mean that a listening Christian decides that what he or she is hearing each week is so far from the gospel, is so far removed from what Scripture teaches, that the voice of God has been put on silent in this church community. In which case, the church that meets each week to listen to a word other than the word of God that created it is not really being itself at all. It has lost the plot. And I would not hesitate to leave such a church, for a church that refuses to listen, or delights in listening to some other word than God’s, is fast becoming a false church.
And that leads me to another important observation about our listening. The word of God is of course good news. More than that, it is sweet news. It is delightful! But that does not mean that the word of God is only ever there to please us. The word of God is, as the prophets and the apostles knew fi
rst hand, a word that gives offence to many who hear it. It delights us because it first speaks a word to us that is a hard word about how we really are. It punctures the bubbles of our pride. It challenges what we have come to accept as normal.
And so, if you aren’t at least sometimes shocked or offended by what you hear from the pulpit, or from the reading desk, something is wrong. If, when the reader says “This is the word of the Lord” you have to say “Thanks be to God” through gritted teeth sometimes, then hallelujah! If you leave church one morning red-faced with wrath, or deeply disturbed, or weeping with sorrow, then praise God! It just might be that God spoke profoundly to you today.