In my part of the evangelical world there has been quite a lot of debate lately around the appropriate length of sermons. Some of it was kicked off by a motion moved at a denominational meeting that proposed mandating that sermons be 20 minutes or less in all its churches. Then there was a subsequent Facebook discussion a week or so ago on the same topic in which there was much heat, little light, and—it seemed to me—a whole dimension of the discussion missing. (How unusual for Facebook!)
You see, one of the things that trouble me about discussions of sermon length is the all-too-frequent assumption that it’s the preachers who need to change if people are switching off in sermons. Intuitively, that just doesn’t feel right to me.
As I was pondering these matters, Hebrews 3 and 4 came to mind, with the repeated refrain (originating, of course, from Psalm 95): “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion…”
If we honestly believe that if we are hearing God’s voice today through the preaching of his Word, surely our response as listeners should be like Samuel’s “Speak, for your servant hears” (1 Sam 3:10) rather than “Hey, Lord, nice to hear from you, but I can only spare you 15-20 minutes”.
And then I kept reading Hebrews 5, especially this section:
About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. (Heb. 5:11-14)
So the writer is definitely not happy with them. He’s giving them a right-old kick up the backside. He thinks they should be more mature by now, more skilled in the word of righteousness, with more highly trained powers of discernment. But they’re not, and he’s disappointed.
In chapter 6 he goes on to talk about the danger of Christians who have “tasted the goodness of the word of God” and yet have “fallen away”. That’s literally a hopeless outcome for a Christian.
But what’s causing this immaturity that is putting them at such risk?
Back to 5:11, and the phrase I find interesting: “you have become dull of hearing”. The HCSB translates it this way: “you have become too lazy to understand”. I think the original word conveys the idea of being sluggish.
Basically, they’re not putting in the effort needed. They want to just cruise along and not have to work hard on grappling with the word of righteousness. That’s no road to spiritual growth.
Here are three things which can help:
Work on your own godliness in this area: Are you at risk of hardening your hearts? Are you grappling hard with the word? Do you hear from God with enthusiasm, whether in church or in your home group or in your personal times with him?
We need to help set the culture of listening attentively when God speaks. When talk happens between Christians about sermons or Bible studies or quiet times, we need to (sincerely) speak with enthusiasm about digesting as much of God’s nutritious ‘solid food’ as we can. Practically speaking, it means taking notes in sermons and Bible study groups so that (a) we are more likely to focus and listen more closely, (b) we can reflect later on what we’ve heard, and (c) we model good listening to others around us.
But, thirdly, if our brothers and sisters are showing signs of being lazy or sluggish in listening, we need to warn, encourage and rebuke them. And the Hebrews writer gives us a good model here. He does it positively: he says that in their case he’s confident of a better outcome as he’s seen the way God has been working in them as they keep serving the saints (6:9-10). Nonetheless he repeats the challenge not to become lazy/sluggish, but rather to be diligent (6:11) and so “imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises”.
May our churches be marked by a diligence in hearing and following God’s word, so that we are a community of those who inherit his great promises and rest.
by Ian Carmichael