Listening to God’s Word

Listening to God’s Word

Amy’s sermon on Sunday focused on Luke 4, when Jesus announces just what sort of kingdom he’s bringing to the world. But Jesus’ announcement came through the reading of scripture (in this case Isaiah 61) in the synagogue. And in keeping with the blog posts over these last few weeks, I want to commend to us this particular way of encountering the Bible.

In Jesus’ time—and for centuries before and after!—most people only ever read the Bible in this way. They heard it read out loud in the context of corporate worship. Before the printing press came along, written texts were difficult and expensive to produce, and the majority of people couldn’t read for themselves. So they listened.

Consider for a moment how this differs from our usual way of reading the Bible.

First, it’s something that happens together. I grew up with the call to have a ‘quiet time.’ The whole purpose of a quiet time was to ‘get alone with God.’ Now, that’s certainly a healthy thing to do—Jesus often withdrew by himself to pray. But when we only ever read or study the Bible by ourselves, it’s only up to us to decide what it means. Some of us take it for granted that the Bible just ‘means what it says’, but the truth is that each of us reads all texts through the lens of our own knowledge, opinions, and experience.

When Jesus read from Isaiah 61, he then sat down and began to teach on it. The expectation was that the people would hear how he read it and (most likely) it would follow with a discussion. People would ask questions, challenge interpretations, comparing and contrasting how a passage fits with the rest of scripture and the movement of God in the world. In The case of Luke 4, the people were so challenged by Jesus’ interpretation they almost ended up throwing Jesus off a cliff!

One of the great gifts of the Reformation was to get the Bible in the hands of the people, to read and learn for themselves. Still, when our primary encounter with scripture happens in isolation, we will tend to use it to reinforce our own understandings, and we will end up with a lopsided view of God’s Word.

Second, hearing the Bible out loud is different than reading it on the page. I say that it’s different, not better. I love reading the Bible with a pen and a journal in hand, ready to underline, write questions, and dive deep. But I just returned from a retreat in which we listened to large portions of scripture read out loud. When you just listen to the text, it sort of sweeps you up like the current of a river. Instead of pausing every few seconds to reflect and dissect, you just keep pressing on from one moment to another.

This way of reading scripture disarmed the critical and academic lens that I bring with me to any text. I was so grateful to hear whole chapters of Luke read aloud and suddenly see the story happening in my imagination, following Jesus along the dusty roads among the teeming crowds.

This year, I hope you’ll consider an intentional practice of listening to scripture. Here are some resources that can help you along the way:

  1. Sunday Morning: Sometimes it’s hard for me to focus when scripture is read on Sunday. My kids might need shushing or my mind might be wandering. But this moment is our own throwback to the synagogue—we hear God’s word read aloud and the sermon is our time to hear a new perspective on it.

    When you listen to the readings and the sermon, consider what you think about this passage. Listen dialogically, asking questions, challenging interpretations, and opening yourself up to a new understanding. And listen prayerfully, asking the Holy Spirit to show you how this text can shape your life as a disciple.

  2. YouVersion’s Bible App: This popular app is free and amazing. You can use it on your phone, on a computer, even on a home speaker like Google Voice or Amazon Alexa. They have audio for several different translations, including the English Standard Version and Eugene Peterson’s The Message. Find different reading plans (this is what Jed used for his 90 day reading!) or try it every now and then to help you engage with scripture in a new way. I recommend listening to at least three chapters at a time to give you a chance to get ‘carried away.’

  3. Dwell App: Another Bible reading app that focuses exclusively on listening to scripture. This app is much newer, so they are still adding content and translations, but their design is beautiful and the listening experience is much more customizable. You can choose from four different readers and add different music ‘soundscapes’ to the background. This is great for contemplative or meditative reading of scripture. There is a small subscription fee for this one. (Note: I’ve had some issues with the app glitching or crashing, but their customer service has been incredibly responsive and they are updating all the time. I expect them to get it right.)

  4. The Trinity Mission: For much of the church’s history, people’s daily experience with God’s word came at morning and evening prayer services read from a prayer book. The lectionary, or scheduled readings of scripture, help us encounter readings in the context of prayer. Father Michael Jarrett, who runs a mission at the Texas border, has provided easy-to-use text and audio for these services on his website and as a podcast.

I hope you find a way to cultivate a practice of listening to the Bible this year. As James reminds us, God calls us to not merely be hearers of the word, but also to do what it says (James 1:22). It’s my prayer that as God’s word washes over us, we would be transformed and equipped to follow where it leads.