A few years ago, one of my favorite up and coming bands went off the deep end, ranting and raving about how too many Christians worship a book instead of God. He thought they made the Bible too important. Well, where is he now? To give you an idea, one of his last musical projects was called, God Our Mother. He’s denied the historical reliability of the Bible, saying most of the stories involving Adam and Noah are myths, and partnered with people known to have denied essential Christian doctrines.
How did that happen? Very simply—he started by denying the importance of Scripture. Claiming it was an idol for some Christians, he allowed himself to deny the authority of the Bible. And if it has no authority, then all bets are off. You can believe or do anything that you want. But if the Bible is God’s Word, then it is authoritative. We can’t do or believe whatever we want, but what God says to believe and to do.
In this second part of a 3-part series on listening to sermons, we return to Nehemiah 8. Specifically, we should think about how Israel thought of the Scriptures. They believed that “the Book of the Law” which was written by “Moses” did not have its origin with Moses. Moses didn’t make it up. Instead, it was the Law written down by Moses but “which the Lord had commanded” for them (8:1). The people honored the Word because it was God’s Word. What about us? Previously we talked about preparing for a sermon. In this post, we want to consider how to listen to a sermon. How can we both honor the Scriptures and receive the most benefit when we come together to listen to sermons?
They not only say they want to hear God’s word proclaimed, they act like they want it proclaimed. Verse 3 says that Ezra “read from [the law] facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law” (8:3). These people stand around for five hours soaking up Ezra’s preaching. This was like the first Secret Church meeting. Although, I’m sure Ezra preached slower than David Platt! We may be tempted to say, “Well, that’s they’re culture” or “It was expected of them.” But Nehemiah makes it clear—they were attentive to the preaching. In fact, I love the specificity here. He says: “the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law” (8:3).
One of the most convicting lessons I ever learned in seminary only took about three minutes to teach. My preaching professor said that when you listen to a sermon, there ought always be something there you can thank God for. Seminarians needed to hear that. I needed to hear that when I was in Bible college, for that matter! Why? Because when you begin filling up your mind with the Bible, it’s easy for fill up your heart with pride. And it easy to think you’re there to judge the accuracy of the preacher’s handling of the Bible, rather than listen attentively to God’s voice from God’s word. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for discernment. Some guys can blow it big time! But it does mean that our default mode of listening is one of humility and attentiveness. We should expect to hear something that convicts and encourages us.
“Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose. . . . And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood” (8:4, 5). Why did the people stand the whole time that the book of the Law was read? Why did they put Ezra up on the platform? Why do you put me behind the pulpit on a raised platform? Are they worshiping the Book? No! They are honoring the Book because they’re worshiping God. Ezra blessed what? The book? No! “Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen,’ lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground” (8:6).
Ezra finishes proclaiming God’s Word, and the immediate response is thankful worship. Again, this is not some planned response by Ezra and the Levites. It is the natural response of people who desire the Word to be preached. It is the natural response of people who are hungry to hear from the Lord, and desire to see their lives changed by him.
In some traditions today, whenever the preacher reads the passage he will preach from, he tells the congregation to “Stand in honor of God’s Word.” It’s interesting that no one stands for the whole sermon! But it is a carryover from what we see here, I think. Another tradition expects the people to listen worshipfully as the preacher reads his text. And when he’s finished, he will do as I almost always do on Sundays and say something like, “This is the Word of God” or “May God bless the reading of his Word.” Then the congregation responds by saying, “Thanks be to God.” Still yet, another tradition from the Scottish Church leaves no doubt about the place of the Bible in the lives of his people. The service begins when a man called a beadle enters the auditorium carrying the Bible. The entire congregation stands as he walks in and proceeds up the small flight of stairs to the pulpit, which is more than a podium but small enclosure with a door. He lays down the Bible on the pulpit and opens it to the sermon text. Then, he exits the pulpit and walks across the platform where the minister then follows him back to the pulpit. The beadle opens the door for the minister, then shuts the door after he enters. Only then to the people sit with the expectation that the minister will not leave the pulpit until he was preached from God’s holy word.
What’s the point to all of this? The worship of God by listening reverently, worshipfully to the preaching of his Word. Some of those traditions have merit. But none of them mean anything if they do not connect to your heart. How do we do that? We remember that in listening to a sermon we are also aiming to be changed by God’s Word.
As we said previously, all Israel is gathered together at this point (8:1). But how is Ezra to respond to the people? Preaching may look like one-way communication, but it’s more than that. When I’m preaching, I’m looking at faces. I can see if people are understanding what I’m saying, as well as if their confused, or sleeping. There have been times when I have switched gears, adding an illustration or an extra few minutes of explanation or a more specific application given the needs of the moment.
With so many gathered, Ezra can’t do that. So, they have the Levites spread out among the people. They are there to provide further application to the groups that are near them: “the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (8:7-8). When we assemble under the Word, our desire should not be to simply listen and walk away. Our desire should be to listen intently to what is being said. To listen with this purpose—that we would understand what is being said so that we would be able to apply to our lives. If that is how we are thinking about the sermon, it will change our expectations about Sundays. It will change the way we give attention to what is being said, and even how we leave having heard a sermon. For some that simply means listening more closely than they would to a news broadcast. For others it might mean taking notes to keep from being distracted. Whatever practical helps might be needed, the aim is purposeful engagement with the preacher; intentional listening that helps us behold the glory of Christ and be changed.