Being a Hearer

By Paul Koch

Being a hearer of the Word is not my usual position. I am a speaker of the Word, one called to proclaim the living Word of God to others. I’m a pastor, the guy up front, and I’ve grown accustomed to that role over the years. It has become somewhat comfortable.

Sometimes I fear it has become too comfortable.

In fact, I think a great danger for any preacher is when they forget what it is like to be a hearer. The feeling of sitting in a pew waiting for the message, the feeling of helplessness as something is going to be done to you. Something that you have no control over. Sure, you could leave if it gets too uncomfortable. But usually folks will opt to just endure whatever comes their way. And in the end, they will even shake the preacher’s hand, even if the sermon was garbage, even if it was as forgettable as yesterday’s leftovers.

It is difficult for me to become a hearer. Though I know it is crucial. Faith does come by hearing after all. It isn’t easy. When I do go to church and actually sit next to my bride and with my kids, I find that I shift around a lot. I nervously flip through the hymnbook as I try to guess the angle the preacher will take. I’ve become quite the skeptic. I crave the proclamation of God’s absolution. I want Law and Gospel clearly distinguished and preached without hesitation or dilution. But I have great doubts that I will receive these things.

I know that I’m not very gracious or kind when I am mistreated as a hearer. I can revert to my schooldays of acting the part of the class clown in the back of the class. I’m not proud of it, but I know that I can get there really quick when I’m a hearer of the Word. All this makes me wonder if everyone struggles with this. Do they get frustrated and angry when the sermon seems to misfire? When the absolution is robbed of them and they are left bound in sin, encouragement, or 10-step processes to a better prayer life? Do the hearers give up and walk away from it all? Or do they simply get used to whatever it is that passes for a sermon? Do they long for that Word of hope, life, and freedom that must come from the mouth of a preacher but settle for what they can get? Can they go so long without hearing that they forget what it sounds like when it does come?

As a preacher of the Word, I learned that there is great hope found in the simple fact that God send me his preachers in more ways than the few times a year I sit in a pew. The proclamation of the Word, that is the specialty of the gathering of the saints on a Sunday morning, is not limited to that place.

I recall sitting at the Here We Still Stand conference this past October in San Diego. I was in a smaller room sitting towards the back to give support for my bride who was speaking on the topic “Proverbs and the Cross.” Her work in wisdom literature is impressive, and I knew she would do just fine whether I was there or not. And of course, I knew what she was going to be discussing. We’ve had many conversations about Proverbs and its great misuse in the church and how the comfort and hope of Christ flows through the text. But then towards the end of her presentation something shocking happened. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised but I was. As she was speaking of our journey from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil to the tree of life in the new heavens and the new earth, a journey that can only go through the tree of the cross of Christ, her words moved from a discussion about God to a Word from God, a Word of God for me.

I, a preacher, found my eyes starting to tear up, for I had become a hearer again. In a surprising way, the Word got to me again and did what only the Word can do. I was forgiven, set free in Christ alone. It was startling, refreshing, and long overdue.

Sometimes we must wait a long time for a preacher. And we don’t always find one where we expect it to be. But if this preacher can become a hearer, then there is hope for hearers everywhere. Hope that the Lord still sends out his preachers, to kill and bring forth life. To absolve without merit or worthiness in you.

One thought on “Being a Hearer

  1. To answer your question as to whether anyone else struggles with being a hearer: yes. If a church service does not have the confession and absolution, I miss it tremendously. At the same time, my “law-and-gospel radar” sometimes causes me to be too harsh on otherwise not-bad sermons which discuss things that are at best adiaphora or at worst heterodox. As a result, because of my merciless attitude, I tend to nitpick over little things and then I become like the Pharisee in the parable with the tax collector: “I thank you God that I don’t follow pastors like THIS guy.” God have mercy on me.

    So, yes, there is definitely a struggle.

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