Listen, Look, and Stop
Listen, Look, and Stop
From the editor
Doubts, a "dark night of the soul," a feeling of divine absence, isolation (either voluntary or involuntary), disappointment, disillusionment, cynicism—all things that we encounter in the Christian life, all things that can tempt us to wander from the Lord. So how do we deal with such feelings, such temptations? In the featured sermon below, Arthurs says we approach it all just as we do when we look to cross railroad tracks: we stop, we look, we listen. Actually, the text in focus reverses the actions (listen, look, and stop), but you get the point. Here's a good example of a sermon that pushes listeners (whether young or old in the faith) to take an honest assessment of their spiritual health and general closeness with the Father.
When you come to a railroad crossing, what are you supposed to do? Stop, look, and listen. And why are we supposed to stop, look, and listen? So, we won't get smashed! We need to find out if a train is coming—if there is danger ahead. Our passage, Hebrews 2:1-4, tells us to do the same thing. It tells us to stop, look, and listen when we come to a dangerous place. Of course, the danger described in the passage is not the danger of an oncoming train. It is the danger of slipping away from Jesus—the danger of slowly falling away so that one day you wake up to discover you are no longer a Christian. The first verse of our passage refers to this process as "drifting away."
Maybe you have been swimming in the ocean before—splashing, riding the waves, having a good time—when you look up and realize that you've drifted from your starting place. You look up and down the beach, but you don't recognize anyone. You see no landmarks. You can't find the red and white beach umbrella your family uses. You've drifted. The waves have carried you away, and you didn't realize you were drifting. If you're lucky, you may see something you recognize as you scrutinize the beach. But if you've drifted too far, you're lost.
Hebrews 2:1-4 is a warning not to drift from the faith. It counsels us to be careful—to examine ourselves to see where we stand so that we will not drift from the Lord. It counsels us in this area because the possibility of drifting is real, not just hypothetical. Drifting actually happens.
In his autobiography, Charles Darwin wrote: "I came to gradually disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation …. Disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but at last it was complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct."
Drifting often happens slowly, without splash or fanfare.
If you've walked with the Lord for any length of time, I'm sure you know people who have drifted. I went to a conservative Christian college, and one year I had a roommate who was very zealous in the Lord's work. Every weekend he went on what we called extension, which was ministry in local churches. A few years after graduation, I ran into another roommate who filled me in on our old gang. He told me that my first roommate was now part of a cult. He now denied Jesus. To use the harsh, theological word, he had "apostatized." Now how does something like that happen?
Maybe persecution chokes the seed of the Word that has sprouted in a new believer's heart. Jesus said that persecution and the cares of this world can cause people to drift. They think, I didn't sign up for this persecution. I thought God loved me and promised me a good life. No one told me that being a Christian causes problems. Forget it! I'm out of here.
Another cause of drifting is money. The Lord said through the apostle Paul: "Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith." They think, I love money. It is worth any sacrifice and any compromise. Money is more important to me than anything! Money becomes their god, and they drift.
Other people drift because of bad companions. Proverbs says that a companion of fools suffers harm, and that harm could even be leaving the faith. These people think, I'm finally accepted. I finally have friends. I'll do anything to keep these friends. I don't care if they pull me down, as long as I go down with them. They are more important to me than my integrity, my conscience, and my faith.
The writer of Hebrews was concerned for his readers. The danger of drifting was real for them, so he warns them: "Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it." It seems that some of them were tempted to abandon Jesus and the new message of grace to return to the old ways of law-keeping, sacrifice, and systematic religion.
In light of the fact that people do drift—in light of the danger that we all could drift—what should we do? We should stop, look, and listen. Or, since our passage rearranges those commands, we should listen, look, and stop.
In verses 1-3, did you notice the emphasis on listening? We must "pay closer attention to what we have heard" (v. 1); the message was "declared by angels" (v. 2); it was "declared by the Lord" (v. 3); it was "attested to by those who heard" (v. 3). It's a call to listening, and the author's argument builds over those verses, from lesser reasons to greater.
The author says we should "pay attention to what we have heard," because the "angels' message proved to be reliable." It's a reference to the giving of the Law, the Ten Commandments. That is what the author means by the "angels' message." Violation of that Law received just punishment." This reflects the words of Deuteronomy 28:15-19:
However, if you do not obey the LORD your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come upon you and overtake you:
You will be cursed in the city and cursed in the country.
Your basket and your kneading trough will be cursed.
The fruit of your womb will be cursed, and the crops of your land, and the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks.
You will be cursed when you come in and cursed when you go out.
The Holy Spirit is saying to us, through the author of Hebrews, that if the message of "mere" angels is binding, how much more binding is the message from the Lord himself? The argument is from the lesser—the word of angels—to the greater—the word of the Lord. The Holy Spirit is saying that we need to listen.
But what is the message the Lord declares? It is the teaching of Jesus. We are to listen again and again to the teaching of Jesus.
Take the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that anyone who believes in him will not perish but will have everlasting life." But keep reading on into verse 18: "Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God." How shall we escape if we reject this message? How will we receive eternal life without Jesus? How can we avoid condemnation for our sins without believing in Jesus? Listen up! Pay attention! Hold on to this message! Don't let it slip! This message was "declared by the Lord, and it was attested to us by witnesses." John heard the message and wrote it down. Peter heard the message and preached it. Reliable eye witnesses have passed on what they heard and saw. So, listen to Jesus. Pay attention to him. You're not dealing with just another motivational speaker. You haven't turned on public television to catch the latest author on the lecture circuit telling us how to find life, health, happiness, the American Dream, and self-actualization. Neither have you tuned in to some religious guru who tells us to save ourselves through meditation, charity, good deeds, or by tapping into the god-spirit within. No, you are hearing the Word of God where you learn that salvation comes through Jesus—that there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved. Listen to him.
The experts in interpersonal communication tell us that there are different kinds of listening. We listen for different purposes with different levels of intensity. The lowest level is simply sensing or noticing. Sound waves strike our ear—like when you notice the background music in a mall. Most of the time, you pay no attention to something like background music, but I do recall one time walking through the mall and hearing "Amazing Grace" playing. I heard that, taking me to the next highest level of listening—contemplating or thinking about what you hear. You analyze and mull over the message. As I walked through the mall I thought, Isn't that interesting? Here in the mall, the great temple of consumerism, they are playing an overtly Christian song. I suppose that we live in such a pluralistic society, and "Amazing Grace" is so well known in this society, that they can play it alongside secular tunes and no one bats an eye. Interesting. I thought about what I heard. I contemplated. All of this led me to the highest level of listening, which is responding. You allow the message to influence your heart and actions. If I were listening on that level, I might have worshiped God as I walked the aisles of the mall, praising him for his amazing grace. I might have prayed and thanked him for saving a wretch like me. You respond when you're engaged in top-level listening.
Which level of listening do you think the author of Hebrews has in mind when he says, "We must pay close attention to what we have heard"? What might such listening look like? Maybe you would pay special attention when you hear the Word of God taught. You might take notes on a sermon and meditate on it later. Maybe you would join a Bible study. Maybe you would seek friends who speak the Word to you, while being that same kind of friend in return.
To keep from drifting, we listen, we contemplate, we put into practice what we hear. Remember: It's not just angels who are speaking to us; it is the Lord himself, confirmed by witnesses. Listen up!
Listening is not all we can do to keep from drifting. Verse 4 of our text tells us to look—to gaze upon, consider, narrow your eyes and focus. And what do we look at? The signs and wonders Jesus performed. They help us stand firm in our faith.
Look—here is a wedding party. Everyone is having a good time. Flutes and tambourines can be heard in the background. But wait—they've run out of wine. How embarrassing! But then Jesus steps in. Somehow, someway, with power over nature and with compassion for his friends, he turns water into wine—gallons of it! The hosts pour out jug after jug from the large pots. John calls this a sign. It points to a truth you may not see at first: Jesus is the Son of God.
Look—here is a great crowd of people on a grassy hillside, maybe twelve or fifteen thousand. Uh-oh! They're hungry, and there's no food. Some of them are so hungry that they are almost fainting. But then Jesus steps in. Somehow, some way, with power over nature and with compassion on the people, he takes two fish and five loaves of bread and feeds the multitude. John calls this a "sign. It points to something we might miss without the sign—that Jesus is the divine Son of God, the third person of the Trinity.
Look—here is a cool, dark tomb. It belongs to a fellow named Joseph, but he's allowed some other folks to use it. They are placing a body there—a body that seems awfully beat up. It must have been a cruel death. They place the body gently on one of the niches carved in the wall, and with a great heave, they roll a huge stone in front of the tomb. They are all very sad. But wait! A few days later, when some women come to finish the burial process, they can't find the body. The stone is rolled back, and the body is gone. The women are confused and frightened. But then Jesus steps forth. He's alive! He looks fine. He looks better than fine! He glows with health and power. He is risen! This is a sign through which God says he approves of Jesus; he validates him; he affirms all that Jesus taught.
Jesus made some astounding claims, didn't he? But is there anything to back them up? When we're asked to step out in faith, we Americans demand proof. "This natural product can lower your cholesterol." Any proof? "I am running for political office, and I will lower your taxes." Any proof? What's your track record? Jesus made promises more astounding than these, so we ask, "Any proof?" Well, yes! There are many signs and wonders. Look! Behold! Open your eyes.
What if I made the claims Jesus did? What if I claimed to be God's son, claimed to be able to take away your sin, claimed to be able to heal you? You would say I'm a loony. Why? Because there would be no evidence to remotely suggest that my claims are true. But what about Jesus? Is there any proof for his claims? Yes. He predicted his own death and resurrection, and then it happened just like he said. This had never been done in the history of our planet, and it has never been done since. It is a sign that he is who he claims to be and that his Word is binding.
When you come to a railroad crossing, you stop, look, and listen. When you are in danger of drifting spiritually, you listen to God's Word, you look at the signs which confirm that message, and then you finally just need to stop. Perhaps the most important thing you can do is just stop and assess whether or not you are drifting.
There are some indications to help you know when that might be the case. First of all, you might be drifting if you find it easy to separate from fellowship—if you find it easy to float away from your Christian friends and from the Lord's Body, the church. In my years of pastoral work I have seen that this often leads to trouble. When you cut yourself off from God's people, you might end up drifting from God.
Another indication of drifting may be that you are tormented by doubts, but you suppress them. You tell no one. You hardly face them yourself. Doubting is not necessarily a sin, and doubting does not necessarily lead to abandoning Jesus, but burying doubts is trouble. Run up the red flag not because you have doubts, but when you tell no one and pretend like all is well. Those suppressed doubts eat away at your faith like toxic waste corroding buried steel cans.
Another cause of drifting is a bitter spirit. Griping about leaders such as pastors, professors, or parents can lead us to reject not just the person but the belief system associated with the person. I've seen it happen.
How can we avoid becoming spiritual casualties? How can we persevere to the end? How can we stop drifting? Listen, look, and then stop. If you maintain your faith in God, he promises to walk with you, hold you, protect you, and one day take you home.
To see an outline of Arthurs' sermon, click here.
For your reflection:
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? _____________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ___________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? _______________________
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? ______________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ___________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see Plagiarism, Schmagiarism and Stolen Goods: Tempted to Plagiarize.
Jeffrey Arthur is professor of preaching and communication at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.