In today’s Holy Gospel (Mark 7:31-37), our Lord shows us how profoundly our hearing affects us. Before he’d heard God’s Word, the man in our text was deaf and had trouble speaking. But then he heard God’s Word and his life changed dramatically. His ears were opened, his tongue was released, and there was no lack of zeal in his proclamation of the Gospel.
What you hear, perhaps more than anything else, affects how you think, speak, and act. It all begins with the ears.
Musicians, in particular, know how influential what you hear can be. Plato warned against the dangers of music, saying, “Musical innovation is full of danger to the State, for when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state change with them.”
Certainly music can be used for evil purposes. You’ll find more garbage in the lyrics of most pop music than you would in a landfill.
But music can also be used for godly purposes. In the temple there was an intimate connection between music and God’s Word, where certain men were set apart to prophesy with lyres, harps, and cymbals.[i] Samuel tells us how David was able to chase away an evil spirit that was troubling Saul by playing the harp.[ii] An early church Father said, “He who sings prays twice.”[iii]
Luther also spoke very highly of music. He said,
“I am not ashamed to confess publicly that next to theology there is no art which is the equal of music, for she alone, after theology, can do what otherwise only theology can accomplish, namely, quiet and cheer up the soul of man, which is clear evidence that the devil, the originator of depressing worries and troubled thoughts, flees from the voice of music just as he flees from the words of theology. For this very reason the prophets cultivated no art so much as music in that they attached their theology not to geometry, nor to arithmetic, nor to astronomy, but to music, speaking the truth through psalms and hymns.”[iv]
Visitors often notice how much of our liturgy is tied to singing. This is an ancient custom, going all the way back to the Old Testament prophets. They knew well how profoundly what you hear influences you. And so they married the very best biblical texts and poetry to music so that theology might shine.
They didn’t see music as an end in itself like many churches unfortunately do today, even in our beloved synod. When I’ve asked people why they’re so willing to throw our liturgy away and replace it with praise bands, most of the time they say it’s because they like the music.
That’s exactly the problem. Church isn’t supposed to be about the music, it’s supposed to be about Jesus. I’ve never heard anybody say, that new praise song, man, it has the best theology. Most of them have little to no theology, but that doesn’t seem to matter.
Luther wrote 16-stanza hymns that hemorrhage theology because until recently, the church always understood that music is supposed to teach the faith. Psalm 119, David’s magnum opus, is a 176-verse theological marathon. You don’t find him writing any of these goofy 7/11 songs where you sing the same 7 words 11 times. The chorus to one popular praise song goes:
Yes Lord, yes Lord, yes, yes, Lord.
Yes Lord, yes Lord, yes, yes, Lord.
Yes Lord, yes Lord, yes, yes, Lord. Amen.[v]
Profound as that is, songs like that have even drawn criticism from those who like Christian pop. One writer says,
I have a love/hate relationship with Christian praise music. I find the vast majority of it vapid, insubstantial and theologically lacking, which makes me sad… One would hope, with the Bible calling for beautiful music to praise God, modern writers would put a little more thought into their lyrics.
But some praise music is worse than vapid. Some is outright creepy [like the ones] that are… indistinguishable from the writer’s… romantic life. [Many of them] could double as the song you play on acoustic guitar to your girlfriend right before she tells you “We should just be friends.”[vi]
What you hear matters. Jesus warns that you can’t assume what you’re hearing is true, even in church. You need to test everything you hear against God’s Word. And so Christ warns about wolves who come in sheep’s clothing. Satan will distract you with friendly pastors and catchy songs so you don’t notice as he’s stealing God’s Word from you. The devil disguises himself as an angel of light. The minute you lower your guard and something becomes more important than hearing the voice of your Shepherd, Satan will devour you. What you hear matters.
And this is just as true in the world as it is in the church. We don’t always guard our ears as carefully as we should and realize the profound influence what we hear has on us.
In Genesis 18, we hear about Abraham, someone who spent a great deal of time listening to God’s doctrine. This had an undeniable influence on his thoughts, words, and actions. Abraham taught God’s Word to his household and even prayed that God would spare his enemies, who were living in the nearby town of Sodom. Abraham heard God’s Word and lived accordingly.
Those who lived in Sodom couldn’t have been any more different from Abraham. They could care less about doctrine—though I’m sure they had catchy music—and so they became famous for their wickedness. They didn’t hear God’s Word and lived accordingly.
The contrast between Abraham and Sodom couldn’t be greater. It’s no accident that Genesis sets Abraham’s righteousness side-by-side with Sodom’s wickedness. Abraham was profoundly affected by hearing God’s Word, even as Sodom was profoundly affected by not hearing God’s Word.
What goes into your ears, perhaps more than anything else, affects your spiritual welfare. Apart from hearing God’s Word, you won’t know how to think about yourself, the world around you, or God. When you listen to evil things, your thoughts, words, and actions become evil. When you listen to God’s Word, you repent of this evil.
We don’t guard our ears as carefully as we should. Think about the sorts of things that you hear on a daily basis: the things you read, the way the people around you speak, the music you listen to, and the shows you watch.
Unless you’re really, really careful, probably most of what you hear is opposed to God’s Word. Satan will do everything he can to saturate you with wicked words and shallow or false doctrine. They’re all around you, nearly impossible to escape, and have a profound impact on how you think, speak, and live.
There’s no denying that the devil’s words are enticing, which is all the more reason to flee them and cling to Christ. What fellowship hath Christ and Satan? Repent, and cling to the Word of Christ.
Satan’s words will offer fleeting gratification. But once the gratification has fled, it will leave behind a troubled conscience and potentially, a hardened heart.
The Word of Christ will offend the sinful flesh. But once you’re repented, the Holy Spirit works a peaceful conscience and creates in you a clean heart.
Jesus is present and speaks His Word to you in this place that you might hear it and keep it, and so find comfort, peace, and joy—like Mary, who treasured the Christmas Gospel the shepherds preached to her, pondering these beautiful words in her heart. For unto you, too, a Savior is born, who is Christ the Lord.
And as this Savior told Martha, there is only one thing that is absolutely necessary, and that’s hearing His Word. Other things may be important, but this one thing alone is necessary. You can go without food and clothing. You cannot go without the Gospel.
Everything else is secondary to the preaching of God’s Word, even if it’s Thanksgiving Day, you have a house full of guests, and you haven’t even started dinner. Mary dropped everything so she could hear God’s Word. It is the most important thing you will ever hear, and you can’t hear it often enough.
This is our comfort, that Jesus doesn’t keep His distance from sinners who have been deaf to His Word. He opens our ears to hear His Word and looses our tongues to declare His praise.
There was only one time when our heavenly Father turned a deaf ear to the anguished cries of a Beloved Child. He withheld all comfort and spoke no gracious words to Jesus in His agony so that He might never withhold His gracious Word from you. When Christ speaks,
the deaf hear,
the mute speak,
the hungry are fed,
the dead are raised,
and sinners become saints.
Go in peace; your sin is forgiven you.
Soli Deo Gloria
[i] 1 Chronicles 25
[ii] 1 Samuel 16
[iii] The Catechism of the Catholic Church attributes this quote to Augustine; par. 1156.
[v] “Trading My Sorrows”