Are You Listening?

by Michael Fischer

That's the title of this message. "Are you listening?" If we're honest, it's not a question we like people to ask us. Especially if you're a man, and it's your wife who asks if you're listening. Why don't we like that question? Because we know we're supposed to listen when someone else is talking to us. Because the question implies that we aren't listening. And mostly because, all too often, we aren't listening, and we don't want to admit that we got caught. To prove this, at some point during this message, I'm going to stop and ask you, "What did I just say?" You're going to be very embarrassed if you have to admit you don't know, so keep listening.

You've all seen the commercials where two well-dressed men are talking quietly in a room full of people talking quietly, and one of them says to his friend, "My broker is E.F. Hutton. And E.F. Hutton says..." - and he pauses, and the whole room goes as quiet as a church so they can hear what E.F. Hutton has to say. I once heard a Christian drama team do their own version of that commercial. One man says, "My broker is E.F. Bullish. And E.F. Bullish says..." - and he pauses, and a hush falls over the room so everybody can hear what E.F. Bullish says.

Then the other man replies, "Well, I handle my finances according to Biblical principles, and I pray over all my investment decisions, so you could say my broker is Jesus Christ. And Jesus Christ says..." - and he pauses, and - nothing happens! Everybody just keeps talking. He tries again - "I said, 'And Jesus Christ says...'" - and he pauses, and again, there is no reaction from the crowd. They just go right on talking. And an announcer's voice says, "Isn't it sad? No one wants to hear what Jesus Christ has to say."

Okay, that's all well and good, but this is supposed to be a Bible-based sermon. Does the Bible have anything to say about not listening? You better believe it! For starters, consider Luke 9:28:

And it came to pass about an eight days after these sayings, he took Peter and John and James, and went up into a mountain to pray. 29And as he prayed, the fashion of his countenance was altered, and his raiment was white and glistering. 30And, behold, there talked with him two men, which were Moses and Elias: 31Who appeared in glory, and spake of his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem. 32But Peter and they that were with him were heavy with sleep: and when they were awake, they saw his glory, and the two men that stood with him.
Now, stop right there and put yourselves in Peter's place. He's climbed up on the mountaintop with his Master, he's a little winded from the climb, he takes a little nap, and when he wakes up, he finds they've been joined, out of the blue, by Moses and Elijah, two of the most famous heroes of the Jewish faith. That would be like us going on our men's prayer advance, and all of a sudden, Praying Hyde and D.L. Moody drop in unannounced. If you were in Peter's position, wouldn't you want to know what those men of God had to say? Wouldn't you hang on their every word? You'd think so. Especially in this case, when they were talking about things that hadn't happened yet, but were going to happen, to someone they loved. But not these disciples. Oh, no.

33And it came to pass, as they departed from him, Peter said unto Jesus, Master, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias: not knowing what he said.
In plain English, Peter was running his mouth without engaging his brain, just because he thought he ought to be saying something. Sometimes we call that "talking to hear yourself talk." Talking, but not listening. Here's what God thought of that:
34While he thus spake, there came a cloud, and overshadowed them: and they feared as they entered into the cloud. 35And there came a voice out of the cloud, saying, This is my beloved Son: hear him.
"Hear him!" God said, quite simply, "Peter, stop talking and listen!" Oh, the priceless truths about God that those disciples could have learned! They could have gained vital insight into the events that were going to occur in Jerusalem in a very short time. But they didn't hear a word that was said. What a chance they missed, because they weren't listening!

Fortunately, they had a golden opportunity to learn their lesson from this mistake of not listening. So how long do you think it took before they made the same mistake again? A year? A month, maybe? Surely not just a week? They did it again that same day, less than ten verses away in the same chapter! They came down from the mountain, where Jesus met the crowds and cast a demon out of a boy. This brings us to Luke 9:43:

And they were all amazed at the mighty power of God. But while they wondered every one at all things which Jesus did, he said unto his disciples, 44Let these sayings sink down into your ears: for the Son of man shall be delivered into the hands of men. 45But they understood not this saying, and it was hid from them, that they perceived it not: and they feared to ask him of that saying.
They heard what He said. They wanted to know what He meant. They could have asked him, and He would have told them. He wouldn't have said it if He didn't want them to know. Part of their problem was that they were afraid. But Scripture tells us that there was another problem. The other problem was that they really weren't paying attention to what Jesus was trying to tell them. They had something much more important on their minds:
46Then there arose a reasoning among them, which of them should be greatest.
Oh, yes! Their priorities are in order, yes sirree! Their beloved Master is predicting His suffering and His death, and what are they thinking about? Selfish ambition! Which of them will be the greatest! Jesus' heart was breaking at the thought of Calvary ahead of Him, but His disciples just weren't listening.

But it wasn't just the disciples who weren't listening to Jesus. The crowds following Him weren't paying attention, either. Consider this scene from John chapter 6. Jesus has just finished feeding the 5,000 with five loaves and two fish, He has retired to pray alone, He has crossed the Sea of Galilee by night (partly by walking on the water, partly by riding in a boat with the disciples), and now the crowd has caught up with Him again on the other shore. He addresses them in John 6:26:

Jesus answered them and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled. 27Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed. 28Then said they unto him, What shall we do, that we might work the works of God? 29Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.
That was a good question they asked Him, a wonderful question: "What does God expect of us?" It's the same question Saul of Tarsus asked on the Damascus road when he met Jesus face-to-face: "Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?" It's a question we all need to ask God, and we need to get an answer from Him. And Jesus answered them straight: all God asks is that we believe on Him. He's just told this crowd how to be saved! He's given them the greatest news there ever was! And how do they respond?
30They said therefore unto him, What sign shewest thou then, that we may see, and believe thee? what dost thou work? 31Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat.
What do these people want from Jesus, these thousands of people whom He just finished feeding with five loaves and two fish? They want to see a miraculous sign from Heaven! And they want it to involve - food! If anyone ever needed proof that Jesus was divine, the fact that He kept His cool in this situation ought to do it.

How could they have been so thick? That one, I can answer. It's because they had a mental image of what the Messiah ought to be like - they wanted a warrior king like David, to kick the Romans out of Israel and make their nation great again. To them, that was the Messiah, and they really wanted Jesus to be that Messiah. So they wanted Him to do something to fit Himself into their mold for them. They really wanted to believe that He was the Savior, but they wanted Him to do it their way. That mental image of "their" Messiah got in between them and Jesus, and it blocked their view of who He really was. They weren't paying attention to Him, because they were fixated on who they thought He should be.

If you had questioned any of those followers later, they might have admitted that they didn't pick up on some of the clues that Jesus left. They would admit that they didn't understand the parables, and they'd admit that they missed the significance of the miracles. "But," they'd say, "if God had spoken to me, and I heard His voice, then I'd recognize Him and I'd obey Him." Has anyone ever told you that when you were witnessing to someone? There's a word for people like that: liar. Because God did speak to those followers, and they did hear His voice, and they missed the Father's voice just as badly as they missed what the Son was saying. John 12:27:

Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour. 28Father, glorify thy name. Then came there a voice from heaven, saying, I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again. 29The people therefore, that stood by, and heard it, said that it thundered: others said, An angel spake to him. 30Jesus answered and said, This voice came not because of me, but for your sakes.
There it is. There's your answer to anyone who ever wanted God to speak audibly to them. He did speak audibly, and nobody got the message. Jesus said that voice came for their sakes - it was a sign, from Heaven, just for them! And did anyone heed that sign? Did anyone even recognize that it was a sign? No, not one.

Then we come to the end of Jesus' earthly ministry. The Last Supper. Jesus knew that his time of ultimate suffering was almost upon Him. He told His disciples that He had longed to eat this supper with them. This would be His last human fellowship before all men deserted Him. One of the Twelve, Judas Iscariot, had already decided to betray Him. Jesus laid it on the line for His disciples in Luke 22:21:

But, behold, the hand of him that betrayeth me is with me on the table. 22And truly the Son of man goeth, as it was determined: but woe unto that man by whom he is betrayed! 23And they began to enquire among themselves, which of them it was that should do this thing.
And did they come up with an answer as to who would betray Jesus? Were they indignant, or sorrowful, for any length of time? Did they try to console their Master, or ask Him why these things must be? No, their minds were still on what really mattered to them:
24And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest.
Ohhh! That must have cut our Savior to the heart. The agony of Gethsemane is barely an hour away, closely followed by the trial, the scourging, the mocking, the rejection, and then the cross, and what are His dearest disciples - His closest friends on earth - thinking about? Not just which of them would be the greatest, but striving over it! Fighting over it, like a bunch of three-year-olds in a sandbox, fighting over a toy truck! Couldn't they get their minds off themselves and their petty little ambitions for just an hour? Could such a thing be possible? No, I guess not. They brushed off His words, and He went to His trial and suffering alone and misunderstood.

And when He had been crucified, when the sins of all the world were laid on His shoulders, when God the Father had to turn away from His Son for the only time in all eternity, and he overcame the pain and exhaustion of His physical ordeal to cry out from His soul's deepest agony, was anyone paying attention to Him then? Matthew 27:46-

And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? 47Some of them that stood there, when they heard that, said, This man calleth for... Elias.
Even at the very end, no one was listening to Him.

Now you might say, "Yes, all these people failed to pay attention to what God was trying to tell them. But none of them had the Holy Spirit living within them to guide them. Once the Spirit, the Comforter, the Interpreter, takes up residence inside a person, they won't miss out on God's messages as badly as those disciples did."

Oh, really? Turn to Acts chapter 20, and we'll test that theory. This is the apostle Paul's farewell message to the leaders of the churches in Ephesus - these are saved Christians with the Holy Spirit within. Listen to what he said to them in Acts 20:28:

Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. 29For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. 30Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. 31Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears.
36And when he had thus spoken, he kneeled down, and prayed with them all. 37And they all wept sore, and fell on Paul's neck, and kissed him, 38Sorrowing most of all for the words which he spake, that they should see his face no more.
Ouch! They totally missed the warning Paul was trying to give them. Totally. Out of all the things Paul told them, what caused them the most sorrow? Was it that spiritual wolves - wicked men - would tear into their churches, doing any harm they could to any Christian they could find? Was it that some of the pastors and deacons present right there would become false teachers, spreading ungodly lies? No, what upset them the most was that they wouldn't see Paul again in this life. That was not what Paul was trying to communicate to them! He spoke by the Spirit of the living God, warning them of trials and troubles to come that they would have to deal with, and all they were concerned with, was not seeing their friend again. They missed the point completely! They were not listening.

So, now that we've established that missing the meaning of God's words has a long and glorious scriptural history, that brings us to the real subjects of this message. Us. We of the wandering minds. All those Scriptures were written down for us as examples of how not to listen, but we're as good at missing the point as the disciples were. You know what I mean. The pastor starts preaching, he gets into the message, and somewhere along the line, our minds go off on a joyride, and when we come back to paying attention five minutes later, we have no idea what he just said.

What did I just say? Let's see a show of hands - who could tell me, roughly, what I just said? You who didn't raise your hands - now I know who this message is for! Bwu ha ha ha!

The pastor might have sweated over that particular point of his message all week, and you didn't even hear him say it. It was straight from God's Holy Word for us, and you totally missed it. The question is, why do we do it? And I say "we" because I don't think there's one person in this room who can honestly say his or her mind has never wandered during a sermon. I know I've done it. We know it's not right. But it keeps happening anyway. You might ask, if it happens all the time, is it that big a deal?

First off, there are times when it's not wrong to think of something besides the message, and I'm grateful to Henry Gibbs for pointing this out. If the preacher says something that sounds wrong to you, or something that puzzles you, then it is good and right to take your mind off-line and think about Bible verses that would confirm, or contradict, or explain what the preacher just said. But that's not a wandering mind. What I'm talking about, is thinking about things that have no bearing on the preacher's message.

If you don't pay attention to my words, that's not a huge problem to me. And if you don't pay attention to Pastor Tom's words, I don't think that's a huge problem to him, and that goes for the other preachers in this church as well. Because none of the preachers in this church get up in this pulpit to speak our own words. We're here to preach God's word. That's what I pray for, every time I get up to preach - that I would speak God's words and not my own. If you want to let your mind go on vacation while I'm preaching, that's not an issue to me. Because if I'm really speaking God's words, then the effect of those words is between you and God. If your mind goes sailing, it does me no real harm, much though I'd like you to listen.

But what will you do when you stand at the judgment seat of Christ, and Jesus your Savior asks you, "Do you remember that Sunday when your mind wandered? My Heavenly Father gave the preacher a message that was meant for you. The preacher's words that day were My words. Was My Word so unimportant, so insignificant to you that you paid no attention? I was trying to tell you something, something important, something that you needed to hear. Why did you ignore Me?"

What will you say to Him on that day? Do you even want to be in that position? I sure don't. So, what do we do about it? What is the application of this message?

The reason we don't listen, the reason we don't pay attention, is simple. We saw it in all those Scripture passages we just read. It's because we're thinking about something that is more important to us than what is being said. Maybe it's a family issue. Maybe it's your plans for Sunday afternoon. Pastor Tom has confessed that he used to plan his week's business during the evening service. I admit I once wrote a computer program for work, in my head, when I was supposed to be listening to that same pastor.

And it's not just about preaching, either, although that's where our minds wander the most. What about our quiet times, or our times of Bible study? Our minds can be a million miles away from God there, too. If we spend ten minutes in front of an open Bible, and spend only three minutes actually reading and meditating on the Word, would you call that listening to God? I wouldn't.

But whatever it is, it all boils down to a simple case of wrong priorities. By way of example, if something is more important to us than our spouse, then if we're thinking about that something when our spouse is talking, we won't pay attention. And then your wife asks, "Are you listening to me?" And you're dead. In the same way, if you've got something on your mind that's more important to you than God and His Word, then you won't listen to His Word. So if your mind keeps wandering away from the words of life that our pastor and our other preachers bring us on Sundays, and you want a solution to this problem, then the first place you should look is your own priorities. What is it about [whatever you're thinking about] that makes it more important to you than God's Word?

We can see this principle in Scripture. Those Ephesian church leaders who weren't listening to Paul, were probably among the ones whom Jesus rebuked just a few years later, in Revelation 2, starting in verse 1:

Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks; 2I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars: 3And hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name's sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted. 4Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.
Those Ephesians had it together in regard to doctrine. They were fine on good works. Jesus commended them for their patience twice. And it appears that they gave some thought to Paul's warning after all, because they were on the lookout for those who spread false doctrine. But their first great love for God had slipped away. They were doing all the right things, but the love wasn't there. So of course they weren't paying attention to what God was trying to tell them! God was no longer their priority.

So the key point of this message is this: God is supposed to be our #1 priority in life. And if He is our #1 priority, then we will want to know what He has to say to us. If you consistently have trouble listening to what God is trying to tell you, then that is an absolutely sure sign that something is more important to you than God is. That's God putting His finger on something in your life that has become an idol to you. That's a strong word, I know. But if you're putting anything in your life ahead of God, then that thing is an idol, and if you have an idol in your life, that makes you an idolater. And if that's the case, then I have one word for you. The "R" word. Repent. Repent of putting that thing ahead of God, and take active steps to make Him first in your life again. Do whatever it takes.

I'm not saying that it's a dreadful sin if your mind wanders now and then. Distractions happen. Sometimes the room is too warm to stay alert. If you got a bad night's sleep last night, you'll have a hard time focusing on anything. Some sermons are more applicable to us than others, and some pastors are easier to follow than others. We're only human, and God knows that. What I'm talking about is a pattern. I'm talking about a constant, losing battle to keep your mind on the sermon. That's a sure sign that something is not right, and that "something" is your love for God.

Do you remember how, when you were courting your spouse, you would hang on his or her every word? Your mind didn't wander very far under those circumstances! That's what "first love" is all about. That's the kind of love God wants from each of us. He wants us to hang on His every word, because He loves us, and because His every word is good for us! And if your attention span for God doesn't bear witness to the love you profess for God, then Jesus' command to the Ephesians in Revelation 2:5 is just as applicable to you today:

Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent.
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