by Dr. Jane L. Fryar
Throughout recorded history, people have beaten a path to places where they expected to hear divine wisdom. The Greeks made the oracle of Delphi their most sacred shrine. Ancient Israel’s first king, Saul, consulted the witch of Endor. Psychics, palm readers, and fortunetellers populate cities large and small today. Unreliable sources all—and forbidden by God in the sternest terms, we might add (see Ex. 22:18; 1 Sam. 15:23).
But suppose there were a place where you really could hear from God Himself. Suppose you knew with certainty that God would speak—speak directly to your situation. Imagine that He would tell you precisely what you need to hear at any given moment. Would you go there? Would you open both ears?
You have likely already guessed where this is going. When God’s people gather for worship, He speaks to us.
The problem with “obvious” truths, though, is that we tend to forget them, to overlook them, to take them for granted. We can lapse into habits of thought that make what happens on Sunday morning simply a comforting memorial service for a God who used to speak, who used to act on behalf of His people a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. We would never say this out loud, of course. But often we think and act as though we actually believe it.
Scripture makes it clear that when the communion of saints gathers, Jesus comes in all His fullness among us (Matt. 18:20). He is really present—and not simply as a disinterested observer. In colloquial terms, “God shows up— and does stuff!” And the “stuff” He does is nothing short of miraculous. In Baptism, He adopts sinners into His family. In the Absolution, He removes our sins and keeps us in that family. In the Holy Supper, He nourishes us with Christ’s very body and blood at His family table. (If my heart weren’t so hard, all this would bring tears to my eyes—every time!)
The sermon is no exception. God shows up when His Word is proclaimed. And He speaks to His people today no less clearly and truly than He did through the prophets of old.
But perhaps the word prophet conjures up images of Elijah the Tishbite (1 Kings 17:1ff)—wild hair, a full beard, a plate of fried locusts for supper, and a wardrobe borrowed from Charlton Heston and central casting. Perhaps, too, we think mainly about the prophets’ “foretelling function”—the predictions the prophets of old made about God’s coming judgment or about the coming Messiah.
True enough, prophets from Abel to Zechariah did foretell the future. But primarily their messages focused on “forth telling,” on proclaiming God’s will for His people, His awareness of, and anger at, their sins, and His consolations of mercy and grace toward repentant, believing sinners.
And it’s with that view of the prophetic ministry that the New Testament speaks about the “prophets” who serve God’s people still today (Eph. 4:11; 1 Cor. 4:1). Your pastor and mine stand and minister week by week in that age-old prophetic tradition, not declaring new revelation, of course, but repeating the warnings and the promises in the way God has always dealt with people. So it is that still today God gives “some to be prophets” (Eph. 4:11 NIV). Still today, Jesus promises that when we hear God’s servants, we hear Him (Luke 10:16). This means we can expect to hear God speak—directly and specifically—in every sermon our pastor preaches (1 Thess. 2:13), every time he sets forth God’s Law and saving promises.
Your Servant Hears
But we don’t always experience that, do we? Or at least, we don’t think we do. Why not? To put it bluntly, our sin gets in the way. Writing about the Third Commandment in his Large Catechism, Martin Luther says this:
It is not only the people who greatly misuse and desecrate the holy day who sin against this commandment (those who neglect to hear God’s Word because of their greed or frivolity or lie in taverns and are dead drunk like swine). But even that other crowd sins. They listen to God’s Word like it was any other trifle and only come to preaching because of custom. They go away again, and at the end of the year they know as little of God’s Word as at the beginning.
—Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, Pocket Edition
Ouch! I’ve joined “that other crowd” on occasion; perhaps you have, too. Praise God for the cross of His Son, where we find refuge, where we have shelter, safe from the wrath we so deeply deserve!
And praise God that the grace that flows from Christ’s cross not only justifies us but also works in us a joy eager to hear and learn the Word—as we study it privately ourselves and in our families and also as we hear it preached in public week by week.
How would the Holy Spirit “direct [our] hearts” more and more “to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ” (2 Thess. 3:5 ESV) through the preaching of His Word? Here are some things that help me listen and hear. Maybe some of them will help you, too.
Ask God for an expectant heart. He will grant it! In fact, He models such a prayer for us in Ps. 119:169–76. All three of our hymnals include this psalm. Consider praying the words before the service begins. In fact, even on your way to church you might think about the promise God has made to speak to your heart. Ask the Holy Spirit to build in you anticipation in knowing He plans to “show up and do stuff”—for you!
Laugh at Satan’s temptation to doubt that God will speak through a human being. Your pastor is a sinner. He will be the first to admit that. He may, in fact, have sinned against you in some specific way. As St. Paul defends his ministry, he admits, “We have this treasure [the Gospel] in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:7 ESV). Did you hear it? The great apostle comes to the brink of calling himself “a cracked pot”! Don’t let Satan use trivial quirks or quarrels to close your ears to the glorious and powerful Word of your Savior, the One to whom the “power belongs.”
Listen intentionally. I carry my Bible to church so I can follow along during the sermon and make notations in the margins. It sometimes helps to take notes and to review them or even journal about them on Monday morning. (I’m often surprised at how much I’ve forgotten in the intervening 24 hours.) Ask yourself, “What one thing does Jesus want me to carry away for my life this week?” Sometimes the message will apply to an event in the past—a sin to confess, a word of hope in a dark situation. But sometimes the message will help prepare you for something you’ll face in the days ahead. Don’t overlook that possibility.
Pray for grace to act on what you’ve heard. Dead orthodoxy sprouts from the ashes of mere intellectual agreement. One translation puts James 1:22 this way: “Don’t just listen to God’s Word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves” (NLT).
More than a hundred times Scripture uses the phrase, “The Word of the Lord came . . .” By the grace of our saving God, that Word is coming still. It’s a Word of life and hope.
Word of God, speak! Your servant is listening!
About the Author: A teacher, writer, editor, and speaker, Dr. Jane L. Fryar is a member of New Beginnings Lutheran Church, Pacific, Mo. Her books include Concordia Publishing House’s popular Today’s Light devotional materials and other resources for Christian education.