"And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers" (1 Thessalonians 2:13).
Reformed churches believe God still speaks. While we do not believe he speaks via the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we believe that via preaching God's voice is as real and vital to us as it was through the mouths and pens of prophets and apostles. How can we say this? Here's the doctrine formulated as simply as possible: when a lawfully called and ordained minister (Rom. 10) preaches the Word of God and not his own words (2 Tim. 2:15) and does so in sincerity to honor God and not himself (1 Thes. 2:3–6), God speaks. His words are "not . . . the word of men but . . . the word of God." In the words of Heinrich Bullinger (1504–1575): "Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called [per prædicatores legitime vocatos], we believe that the very Word of God [ipsum Dei verbum] is preached, and received of the faithful" (Second Helvetic Confession, 1.4). So how do you hear the voice of the Lord in your pastor's sermon? Obviously I'm assuming the above is true of him. Here's how:
1. Expectantly—“Lord, I expect you to speak” Since we gather together on the Lord’s Day to hear what Paul says is “not . . . the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God,” we need to come expectantly, crying out to God, “Lord, I expect you to speak.” This means that we need to prepare all week to hear him speak through the preaching of his Word on the Lord’s Day. We need to be preparing our hearts all week long with a spirit of anticipation. The prophet Isaiah spoke of our day, saying, the Lord’s mountain would be exalted and the nations would flow to his house: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” (Isa. 2:3). Because of this we need to be saying to ourselves, “God’s going to speak. What’s he going to say? I can’t wait.”
2. Hungrily—“Lord, I need you to speak” When Sunday morning rolls around, we need to hear the Word hungrily, crying out, “Lord, I need you to speak.” Why? Why do we need him to speak through the words of men, which are in reality the Word of God? Because his Word is the food of our souls. In our age of instant gratification and having the world at our fingertips on our iPhones and Blackberries, we are ever-connected to each other and to information. But that feeling is passing. It does not last not does it satisfy our souls. Like our forefathers in the wilderness, our hungry souls need the Word. “Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deut. 8:3). Like the prophets of old who ate their scrolls to signify the people’s need to have the Word within them to nourish them, so too we need to partake of the Word to satisfy our spiritual hunger. What kind of an appetite do you have? Do you want the empty calories, the quick sugar high of the devil’s words, the world’s words, your own words, and sadly, the words of so many professing Christian preachers today? What kind of appetite do you have? Do you want your ears tickled with promises of a better life now, health, wealth, and happiness? Instead, we are called to have an appetite for the Word like a nursing child has an appetite for milk. As Peter says, “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). Milk is nourishing. Milk is healthy. Milk is satisfying.
3. Attentively—“Lord, I will listen to you speak” To make best use of that nourishment we need to hear the Word attentively. During the sermon, we need to be praying, “Lord, I will listen to you speak.” This means every week and even every moment of the sermon, we need to be saying to ourselves, “These are not the words of Pastor ____, but what they are in truth, the words of God.” As we recognize that God is in our midst and that he is speaking, we will be able to give our attentive listening to the Word. This is why the Westminster Confession calls the “conscionable hearing” of the Word an act of worship. We are hearing God, and hearing him, giving our minds and hearts’ full attention to every last word. One example of hearing the Word attentively is in Deuteronomy 32:47. At the end of one of Moses’ last sermons, he exhorted the people to recognize the profundity of what was happening in that sermon: “For it is no empty word for you, but your very life.” Here is a challenge for pastors as well as for parishioners. Can you say of the preaching of the Word in your church that it is not empty? Can you say of the preaching of the Word that it is your very life? Let me challenge you with all that is in me to think of preaching totally different after this sermon. Let me challenge you to fight fatigue, to fight distracting thoughts, and to fight what the devil wants you to think about all this, that it’s boring. Worship is the place and the time where God speaks!
4. Faithfully—“Lord, I believe you when you speak” You need to leave worship saying to God, “Lord, I believe you when you speak.” I know this is difficult to believe that in preaching it is not the words of men but the words of God. I know it must be hard to believe that your pastor's words are not merely his words but God’s words, given that you know that he is a mere man, a sinful man at that. Because of this receive the preaching of the Word by faith as God’s word to you. Because preaching must be received by faith, that faith is inevitably going to be an object of the devil’s temptation. We too easily give into the devil’s subtle designs on this point. How? He wants us to judge the minister with our eyes—his appearance, his fashion or lack thereof, or even the fact that he may wear a robe to signify his office but that turns you off to the content of what he preaches. The devil wants us to judge the minister with our hearts. Don’t ever tell him your gripes, but hold grudges, hold spite, and hold adverse opinions about him that you are saving as weapons for a later time. He wants us to judge the minister with our minds. How easy it is to fall into the trap that one of my college professors said parishioners fall into when he said, “Some people know just enough Hebrew and Greek to be dangerous.” We puff ourselves up in our minds so that we can do mental battle with the preacher. All this is so that we do not listen to him.
5. Obediently—“Lord, I will obey you when you speak” Instead, God wants us to hear the Word obediently. He wants us to leave, saying to him, “Lord, I will obey you when you speak.” The Thessalonians heard the Word, they received the Word, and they accepted the Word. And it was that Word that was “at work” in them. The Word is never fruitless, but is always fruitful. As the prophet Isaiah said, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:10–11). Are you a doer of the Word and not merely a hearer? We need to learn how to fine-tune our spiritual senses that we are able to hear the Lord in a world of noise. We can do that as we listen expectantly, as we listen hungrily, as we listen attentively, as we listen faithfully, and as we listen obediently. Let me challenge you to do so that your life will be saturated with the Word in every part and guided by the Word at every turn of your life. Let me close with a wonderful quote that summarizes it all. The Puritan Joseph Alleine once said—and I pray this is true for us all: “Come from your knees to the sermon, and come from the sermon to your knees.” Amen.