'When was the last time you went home after a sermon thinking 'I really needed to hear that''
That was one of the challenges from Dan's sermon last week, I wonder how you answered it? The point was that like Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7 we often don't really listen to God's word as it is preached. Instead we prefer to judge preaching against our own preconceptions rather than exposing our hearts to God's word allowing it to test our thoughts and attitudes to refine, rebuke, teach, train and transform us.
Our passage this morning: Luke 8.1-22 makes a similar challenge and it's a passage which is relevant to everyone of you here this morning. It's relevant because it is a parable about listening to God's word - which is, I hope, the reason why most of us are here this morning.
Big Idea: Be careful how you listen to God's word
1. A Parable about hearing 2. You hear with your heart 3. How to listen to God's word
1. A Parable about hearing
Jesus says that there are different ways in which we can hear God's word and so we must consider carefully how we will listen to it.
Turn to p730 and look at Luke 8 v1:
After this (these personal encounters with the centurion, Simon the Pharisee, the sinful women etc) Jesus travels about from town to town proclaiming (preaching) the good news of the Kingdomof God.
Jesus is preaching to a large audience again but this passage has more to say about hearing than it does about preaching. Notice in the following verses how Luke is already pulling out the different types of hearer who are gathering to listen to Jesus preach:
v1b The Twelve. v2-3 List of women, Jew and Gentile who are following Jesus even financially supporting him. v4 Large crowd drawn from town after town.
It's to this mixed audience that Jesus tells this parable, often known as the parable of the sower in v5-8, Jesus says:
5 A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up.6 Some fell on rock, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture.7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants.8 Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown. When he said this, he called out, He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
So the first thing I want us to notice is that this parable is primarily about the act of hearing: 'He who has ears to hear, let him hear'. Particularly the parable is about active listening to God's word; we know this because unusually here as well as the parable we have also have Jesus' explanation of the parable, look at v11: 11This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God.
Notice too how in the following verses Jesus interprets the different types of soil as being in terms of different ways of listening to God's word:
12 Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. 13 Those on the rock are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. 14 The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life's worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. 15 But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.
The parable then is about the way in which we listen to God's word. Over the course of the parable Jesus observes four different ways in which we can hear God's word and then challenges us in v18 to consider carefully the way in which we listen. Followers of Jesus are called to be deliberate hearers of God's word, this is an essential part of what it means to be a Christian.
I wonder do you know that? Or to put it another way have you consider that carefully? When you stepped out of the door this morning did you think; I'm going out now to listen to God's word and I want to listen to it in a particular way.
The central message of this passage is that the way in which we listen to God's word is of incredible importance; different ways hearing God's word have vastly differing consequences, that's what I want us to take a closer look at in our second point: 'Hearing God's word is an attitude of the heart'.
2. You hear with your heart
Jesus tells us that listening to God's word will produce either: a believing heart ready to produce fruit or a hardened heart ready for judgement.
In v8 Jesus ends the parable saying: 'He who has ears to hear, let him hear' what does he mean? Jesus is doing more than checking that his microphone is on or that peoples hearing aids are adjusted correctly. Here Jesus is implying that hearing God's word requires something more than two functioning ears and the ability to understand language - hearing God's word is an activity of the heart as much as it is the head.
Immediately before the direct explanation of the parable which we read earlier from v11-15 Jesus says this in v10:
The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that, 'though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand.'
Jesus tells the disciples that they have been given as a gift the 'secrets of the kingdom of God' i.e. the ability to understand and accept the good news of the Gospel and so be saved. This has been gifted to them but to others God's word produces a very different effect, Jesus quotes from Isaiah's commission in Isaiah 6 which we read in our first bible reading and which continues saying:
9 ...Go and tell this people: 'Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.' 10 Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.
This is a hard message. Isaiah's message brought hope to some but to others it pronounced judgement it said; time has run out for you to listen and be saved by God's word. Jesus seems to be applying this rule more widely now, saying that for some God's word will produce saving faith but for others it will act as a pronouncement of judgement. As 2 Corinthians puts it: 16 To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task? We should take this teaching very seriously. Rightly we say that the good news about Jesus means that any one can be saved, it is a gift to be freely received. All we need do is admit or sin against God and cast ourselves on Jesus' mercy. However, we must also do everything we can to ensure that our hearts are in a place where we can receive this free gift. We hear Jesus suggests as much with our hearts as with our ears and our minds so in order to listen will we must pay close attention to the state of our hearts.
You'll often hear in football commentary something like this: 'Well the manager's done his job now, what matters is what the players do on the pitch'. Such is the frustrating life of a football manager I imagine: it doesn't matter what you've said in practise if the players don't do it in on the pitch. Similarly with God's word it doesn't matter how eloquently it is presented if our hearts are not in a place where they can truly hear and respond to it.
The continued and persistent rejection of, or apathy to, (which is essentially the same thing) God's word. Or placing ourselves in a position of judgement over God's word (as we saw in the example of Simon last week) also has a spiritual effect. Our ears become blocked to the cry of God's mercy it thickens the flesh of our heart so that it will no longer latch on to the truth. No doubt God is full of compassion and mercy I have seen that in my own life - I heard the Gospel probably thousands of times faithfully explained before I truly heard it. The point is though that listening to God's word is never a neutral activity, it always produces something: either it produces faith and consequently fruit or it produces hardening which ultimately will end in judgement. Look at v16,17:
16 No-one lights a lamp and hides it in a jar or puts it under a bed. Instead, he puts it on a stand, so that those who come in can see the light. 17 For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.
In the end everything will be exposed, when Jesus returns exactly how we have responded to God's word will become clear and so Jesus pleads with us in v18:
18 Therefore consider carefully how you listen. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has will be taken from him.
In other words those who hear truly, who have hearts which can be moved and swayed by God's word - more will be given; this is the crop of the good soil, its saving faith, growth and fruitfulness. However, those who do not truly hear those who never really listen at all or who have no root and fall away when testing come, those distracted by the cares of life - for these types of soil even what they think they have will be taken away.
So we've seen that this parable is one about what it means to truly hear God's word. We've seen that listening to God's word is not simply a matter of receiving information, rather it is an active process which demands that our hearts are in a position to respond to God's message. Hearing God's word is never a neutral experience; either it will produce saving faith and fruit in our lives or it will harden us to God's mercy and bring us closer to judgement.
You may have noticed that I have not said very much about the differing characteristics of each soil type present in the parable. There are a couple of reasons for this:
(i) First, verse 18 seems to me to be the conclusion of the parable's explanation. As we've seen it divides us very simply either we are those who hear God's word truly and so receive more or we hear falsely leading to even what we thought we had being taken from us.
(ii) Secondly, this is not a personality test like Myers Briggs or similar which leave you with a set of letters describing your personality type; I'm an ESTJ therefore I act like this. The question is not which type of soil most closely resembles you, rather the command is; consider carefully how you listen.
With that in mind and in view of these things how then should we approach the task of listening to God's word? That will be the subject of our third and final point: 'How to listen to God's word'.
3. How to listen to God's word
We should listen to God's word; carefully, perseveringly and prayerfully
a) We should listen to God's word carefully
If you remember nothing else from this sermon please remember the first part of v18:
'Therefore consider carefully how you listen'
That's the big idea of this passage: Be careful how you listen to God's word. So we should be deliberate in the way we approach listening to God's word. So what does that mean in practise?
Certainly the principles in this passage apply to us whenever we are dealing with God's word; whether its our own personal bible study, our home group or wherever but it applies particularly to preaching. The context here is preaching: v1 Jesus is proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God to v4 a large crowd and the bible reserves a special place for the public proclamation of God's word: for example Paul urges Timothy to:
'...devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.'
Paul then goes on to tell Timothy to watch his life and doctrine carefully in order that he and his hearers would be saved; preaching is used by God to save sinners. We're not just opening a book together Sunday by Sunday here, hoping for some kind of mystical experience, we're exposing ourselves to a means of God's grace.
First, we need to be here, if this is your church, regularly hearing God's word preached. That might also mean being at both morning services so that you can listen to God's word and then help children to do the same. There's an evening service too, some of you morning crowd might not know that.
Second, we need to be ready to listen. Sunday mornings can be busy and stressful, I know. But if this really is God's word then it is vital that we get the most out of listening to it. So if that means getting up half an hour earlier so you can arrive five minutes early rather than five minutes late then do it. And if that means going to bed an hour earlier then do it.
Third, we need ways of evaluating our listening. We need other people for this - ask someone else what they learnt from the sermon over coffee, talk about it over the dinner table and not just about the colour of the preacher's shirt. Ask questions like:
What did I learn about God's character today? What did the passage tell me about Jesus? What attitudes do I need to repent of? How does this help me understand the big picture of the bible? What steps do I need to take as a result of what I heard today?
b) We should listen to God's word with perseverance
Verse 13 tells us that the seed that falls on rocky ground are like those who: 'believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away.' In contrast those who are described as good soil, v15 tells us: '...hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.'
Listening to God's word can be difficult, particularly it can be difficult when we are aiming for obedience rather than mere understanding. Sometimes there are flashes of inspiration, moments when the penny drops which are very precious to us, moments when we see something of God's grandeur or go one stage further in realising that Jesus really has taken all our sin and shame away.
However, it's not always, or even often, like that. Often its slow progress, often there are things going on in our lives which make it difficult for us to fully believe God's word - there is testing. But we must persevere for it is often in these times that God is most at work producing fruit; both in and through us. Notice that v15 says; 'and by persevering produce a crop'.
We need to keep going and that's where home groups, women's fellowship and trusted friends come in. They help us when its hard or when its just unremarkable to keep persevering in applying and re-applying God's word to our hearts. They help us to be those who Jesus describes as truly being his mother and brothers...those who hear God's word and put it into practice.
c) We should listen to God's word prayerfully
Thirdly, and finally we should listen to God's word prayerfully. We've seen already that listening to God's word is an act of the heart rather than simply a test of our ability to capture information. Therefore we need to pay particular attention to our hearts condition.
We can start to do this in very practical and structural ways as we've already mentioned: coming regularly to hear God's word, rested and ready to listen as far as is physically possible, developing structures around us that check our listening and help us to keep persevering in applying God's word to our lives.
But we need more than this; we need God to make his home in our hearts by his Spirit as he has promised and to move our affections, to warm our hearts to his word to give us the deep, groaning desire to be free from our sin and to be more like Jesus. We need God's help and therefore we should pray and ask for it. So next Saturday night as you start to get ready to hear God's word preached again why not pray something like this from v15:
Father by your Holy Spirit make me ready to hear and to listen truly to your word. Make me into good soil. Please give me a noble and a good heart; free me from self-deception, from pride, from my own stubbornness and hardness of heart. Soften my heart towards you Lord, help me not just to hear your word but to listen to it, to retain it and by persevering with your help produce a crop for your name's sake. I ask this in Jesus name. Amen