Hearing God’s Word – Part 1

“The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” John 6:63

Note: While this article was written from a Roman Catholic perspective, the material can be beneficial for Christians from other traditions as well. – editor

Twice every day, Jews pray what is called the Shema (“Hear”), so called from the first word of the first passage of Scripture which is recited during it:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.

Deuteronomy 6:4-7

We call the Shema a prayer because it is surrounded by prayers of blessing, but the heart of it is the above passage from Deuteronomy. Moses spoke these words right after describing the giving of the Ten Commandments on Sinai, and they summarize the response to the covenant God offered. They are perhaps the chief scriptural exhortation addressed to those who have listened to the word of God.

Our Bibles sometimes translate the Hebrew word shema as “hear.” At other times the word is translated “obey” or, in older English, “hearken to.” When we hear someone speak, we can just take in the words. If, however, we “really hear them,” we understand what is said, accept it, and, where appropriate, carry it out.

Fathers will at times give their children a lecture for misconduct and at the end will say, “Now, did you hear me?” By that they mean, have you accepted what I said and will you do it (or at least, do you realize that there will be consequences if you do not)? The above passage from Deuteronomy is preceded by the exhortation “Hear therefore, O Israel, and be careful to do [what has been spoken to you]” (6:3). Jesus uses the word hear the same way, and pronounces a blessing on those who “hear the word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:28; see Luke 8:21).

There is nothing more important than to have God speak to us. We belong to a relatively self-confident human race. We live after centuries of technological development. We can handle more and more of the uncertainties of life, acquire more and more knowledge, power, and comfort. Those of us who are adults with an adequate education, job, financial standing, and home often feel that we can get our lives to go much the way we want them to.

Yet, we also know that tragedy may happen to us or those close to us. We know we are not doing well with our responsibilities in various respects, and the consequences may be bad for us and others. Accidents also may happen at any time. Moreover, even though we resist the thought, we know that a destructive global war that might destroy all we hold dear is still possible. And we all know we will die one day and perhaps become helplessly incapacitated before that.

Our lives are still in God’s hands and not in our own. We need to hear him. Previously we considered what it means to say that the Scripture is the Word of God. There are many ways God may “speak” to us: through the words of someone else, through an interior inspiration, even, in a certain sense, through events. Scripture, however, is the normal way God speaks to us as Christians. Properly interpreted, it is the most accessible way that we come to understand who he is, who we are, and what we must do to fulfil the purpose for which he made us.

Scripture is the Word of God in an objective sense. Because it is inspired, because what God wanted to communicate to human beings for their salvation is in it, it is the Word of God. We may not believe it or we may ignore it, but it is still the Word of God. It is like a letter that is unread in our mailbox. Whether we read that letter, understand it, or respond to it, it is objectively a communication to us. And it is there waiting for us.

Cardinal Newman among others spoke of the Scripture as a sacrament. He said:

The Word of God … cannot be put on the level of other books, as it is now the fashion to do, but has the nature of a Sacrament, which is outward and inward, and a channel of supernatural grace. 1

In other words, like a sacrament, the Scripture is objectively something given by God, a means of grace. It has an outward material form. In this case, it is seemingly a mere book, perhaps badly printed, even shabby. But it contains the words of the Bible, and those printed words are “a means of grace.” They are a means God is prepared to use to convey something very important to us – what he wants to say to us.

In the Gospel of John, at the end of a passage we will discuss further on (John 6:63), the Lord speaks to his disciples and teaches something similar. He says,

It is the spirit that gives life,
the flesh is of no avail;
the words that I have spoken to you
are spirit and life.

In this passage Jesus seems to be speaking about his own words. 2 He is the one sent by God to reveal to us God’s plan, the way of salvation. His words are “spirit and life.”

Here again we see a manner of speech often found in the Gospel of John. When Jesus says, my words are spirit and life, he probably means, my words give spirit and life. But by saying “are” he is likely emphasizing that spirit and life are contained in them. Spirit and life come to us with Jesus’ words, not just because of what we decide to do with those words, not just because we put faith in those words, but because they are the Word of God in the fullest way. They are the new covenant words of God spoken by the Word of God himself. Spirit and life belong to those words, are in them, regardless of how we receive them or how they affect us.

The Gospel does not use the word contained. Nonetheless, “contained” is commonly used by traditional Christian writers to speak about created realities that are stably joined or connected to God in such a way that his presence or action is always available through them, at least if the necessary conditions are met. It does not mean that God’s presence or action is restricted to these things, much less limited by them, or inseparably (exclusively) joined to them. It does, however, mean that his presence or action can be relied upon to be there when these realities are there. Consequently, it is an equivalent of the Johannine use of “is”, “are,” or “am” in passages like the above.

By “spirit and life” Jesus may mean “spiritual life” and so be saying that his words convey spiritual life. He may also mean “the Spirit of life,” the life-giving Spirit, the one we would refer to as the Holy Spirit, and so be saying that his words “contain” the Holy Spirit. He may mean both at the same time, because it is the Spirit who gives life (2 Corinthians 3:6), and the life he gives is the life of the new covenant, eternal life, true spiritual life. He gives us that life by enlightening our minds when the Word of God is spoken so that we can understand spiritually.

As a result, when we read or listen to the Scriptures we receive a communication directly from God, one that can bring us to life just as the word of Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.3

Yet, as we know, we do not automatically receive anything when we hear God’s Word. When we read the Bible or listen to it, we sometimes “hear” nothing, perhaps because we are distracted, perhaps because we do not understand, perhaps because we do not want to hear. We do not experience grace coming to us, nor do we seem to receive spiritual life. Nothing much happens. The question is, how can we hear the Scriptures so that God speaks to us, so that we hear what he wants us to hear, so that we receive light and life from him?

Here, we will be considering the Liturgy of the Word. The Liturgy of the Word is a ceremony. A ceremony (or rite) is a complex of words and actions that expresses the importance of something. Some ceremonies are secular. We speak, for instance, of a graduation ceremony. We are here concerned with ceremonies that are intended to honor God or the things of God. A Liturgy of the Word is one of them.4

Certainly we can find many people who endure the Liturgy of the Word and hear little or nothing of God’s word during it. On certain days, all of us find ourselves in that category. There are even some for whom the services they attend are normally an obstacle. Yet, if we learn the meaning of a Liturgy of the Word and the principles behind it, it can be a help to us.

In this chapter we will first look at some of the spiritual truths that allow us to listen to God’s Word well. We will then consider how the Liturgy of the Word is put together on principles drawn from those truths. Our primary purpose is to look at the Liturgy of the Word in the Eucharistic celebration. We can also, however, find Liturgies of the Word in the Liturgy of the Hours and in other services for prayer. We can even “hold our own” Liturgy of the Word in our private prayer. Whenever we listen to the Scripture read or read it ourselves, if we “hear” the Word, it will be a means of grace for us, a source of true spiritual life. 

Word and Covenant

Previously, we considered how God spoke to Moses. In that event, he began the process of delivering his people Israel from the power of Pharaoh “with signs and wonders” and brought them to Sinai (Horeb), “the mountain of God.” In Exodus 19-20, we can read the main description of what happened when the children of Israel arrived at Mount Sinai, and that passage illustrates some important truths about how God speaks to human beings.

God began by speaking to Moses to give him a message for his people, an explanation of why he had instructed them to come to this mountain:

And Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him out of the mountain, saying,

Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob,
and tell the people of Israel:
You have seen what I did to the Egyptians,
and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.
Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant,
you shall be my own possession among all peoples;
for all the earth is mine,
and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.

So Moses came and called the elders of the people, and set before them all

these words which the Lord had commanded him. And all the people

answered together and said,

All that the Lord has spoken we will do.

And Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord.

God, in other words, had brought the people of lsrael “to himself” by bringing them to Mount Sinai, the place of his special presence on earth. He did so in order to make them into a kingdom and a nation. But they were not to be.  just any people or nation, like the Egyptians or Canaanites or Assyrians. They were to be a holy nation, that is, a nation that belongs to God himself. And they were to be a kingdom of priests, that is, a nation who worship him in a unified way.

When we think about relationship to God and about the worship of God, we often tend to think in an individualistic manner. The focus is on ourselves and what we personally will receive. The main question is how I can find something good or helpful-grace or salvation from God-or perhaps find a good experience – peace or joy that God might give me. Less often, but still often in an individualistic way, the focus is on how we can relate to God and glorify him. God does relate to us individually, but we can see in the Scriptures that more fundamentally he relates to a people, a corporate body. He even relates to the individuals in that body primarily because they belong to the people.

God briefly stated in the above passage the condition for being his people. The people of Israel had to “hear” his voice and keep his covenant. These are two synonymous phrases that indicate the need to obey what he said. If Israel would be willing to do that, he would explain to them what they would need to do to be his people. The people responded that they were willing. The Lord then instructed them how he would speak and how they needed to prepare themselves:

And the Lord said to Moses,

Lo, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever.

Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments, and be ready by the third day; for on the third day the Lord will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.

And you shall set bounds for the people round about, saying to them,
Take heed that you do not go up into the mountain or touch the border of it; whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death; no hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot; whether beast or man, he shall not live.

When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain.

The Lord, in other words, was going to do something similar to what he did when he appeared to Moses in the burning bush. He was going to show his presence to his people so that they would know that he was speaking to them. But they would have to be ready. Just as Moses had to keep his distance and

take his shoes off, they would have to stay away from the mountain and would have to purify themselves so that they would be in the right condition.

Then God manifested himself to the people:

On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God; and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. And Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and the smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. And the Lord came down upon Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain; and the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.

According to this description, God’s manifestation on the mountain must have been spectacular. Sinai, although not a volcano, looked something like one erupting. There was a tremendously loud noise, a kind of prolonged trumpet blast, and a pillar of cloud and fire came down upon the mountain. The mountain seemed like it was burning up, with cloud and flames heading to the sky.

At the same time there was an earthquake that shook the whole mountain. At that point the people of lsrael must have been very glad that God had told them to keep their distance. They would not have survived coming closer into his presence. They may even have preferred it had he told them to stand in a different valley.

Then God spoke to them. According to Exodus, they actually heard a voice speak out of the mountain. There are very few places in the Scriptures where people hear the Word of God except by means of a human intermediary. At Sinai his word apparently came directly:5

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them ….
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain ….
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.

We know the rest. These are what we would call the Ten Commandments, summarized by Jesus in the two great commandments of love of God and love of neighbor.

The later account of this same event in the Book of Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 4:11-14) gives another description of what happened:

You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, while the mountain burned with fire to the heart of heaven, wrapped in darkness, cloud, and gloom. Then the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice. And he declared to you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, that is, the ten commandments; and he wrote them upon two tables of stone. And the Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and ordinances, that you might do them in the land which you are going over to possess.

This second description makes even clearer that in giving them the “Ten Commandments” God was giving his people a covenant. He promised to be their God and told them what they would have to do to be his people. They would have to keep the Ten Commandments. They would have to follow the way of life that can be summarized by “love of God and love of neighbor.” God gave them the covenant, in short, by telling them what they would have to do to be in relationship with him.

God’s offer of the covenant with the subsequent response of the people was similar to what we would call “the exchange of vows” during a marriage ceremony, the time when a marriage covenant is finally established. Both parties commit themselves to a faithful relationship of a certain sort. In this case, however, we are not looking at a mutual contract, a negotiated agreement among equals. God offers the covenant and establishes the content of it. The people simply accept the offer by committing themselves to be faithful to it. The result, however, to use a phrase repeated often in the Scriptures is, “I will be your God and you will be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 36:28).

God’s word made the covenant relationship possible. If the people of Israel had not heard his word, they would not have understood what was going on. They would have been impressed with “the fireworks.” But they could not have entered into a committed, covenantal relationship with him and become his people.

God spoke to his people when they were assembled together. He did not speak to them individually, so that when they came together they discovered that they all had heard the same thing. The account of “the assembly at Sinai” makes that very clear. The rest of the Scriptures illustrate the same principle:

God normally does not give his revelation to individuals for themselves but for a people assembled together as a whole or by subgroups. Although he speaks through individual prophets or preachers, his message is usually delivered to bodies of people gathered together. This is true not only for the old covenant but for the new as well.

Reverence for God

There are conditions for entering into a relationship with God. Those conditions make clear that we are not looking at an equal partnership. The relationship is not symmetrical, to use a technical term. God has to be honored and respected as God. The first commandment (or two commandments by the reckoning of the Reformed and most Eastern Churches) makes that clear. We need to “worship and serve” God as God – and no one else and nothing else. Only the one true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, only he is to be related to as God.

“Worship” and “serve” are two words that are rough synonyms. They both can be used for honoring some being as a god, and therefore honoring the one true God as God. We will return to the meaning of “serving” God shortly. Here we will just consider “worshiping” him.

The Hebrew and Greek words for worship mean to bow down to or prostrate oneself before. They refer to a physical action that is a way of acknowledging someone’s position. An Israelite might bow down to or prostrate himself before a king, for instance, to show that he accepted that man as his king. To do so was to make a sign of submission and a pledge of obedience.

Of course, the first commandment(s) instructs us that we are not to submit to any being as God other than the one true God. This includes the most powerful of kings. Therefore, when a given action is meant to express that we are accepting some other being as God, or could be interpreted that way, we are strictly to avoid it. We may show, for instance, by a bow or curtsey that we respect and submit to a king, but not if that sign of submission is taken to indicate that we are submitting to him as a god. In English now we would normally reserve “worship” for the sign of respect given to a god.

The word translated by many versions of the Scripture as “worship” is translated by others as “adore.” Some use that term for a type of prayer, often a wordless prayer, in which we “contemplate” God. That usage, however, although helpful in certain contexts, loses much of the scriptural and traditional theological meaning and so is usually avoided now in translations of the Bible.

In the Scriptures, then, “worship”’ or “adoration” involves an outward expression of the fact that we recognize God as God and that we are submitting to him as our Lord, as the highest authority in our life. The physical or verbal expression of that fact in prayer expresses an inner reality. The inner reality is realized most fully when we “hear” his word, that is, when we hear it as God’s word, and, because it is his word, we accept it fully – by believing it and obeying it.

The chief response to the one being we accept as God is to believe and obey him above all, to submit to him precisely as God, the sovereign creator of the universe. But a divorce between inner and outer worship is foreign to Scripture, as well as to most Jewish and Christian tradition. Because we are human beings, we should express our submission to God as God outwardly by some words and gestures when we are prepared to inwardly submit to him by truly hearing his word.

Worship of God is associated with hearing God’s word with fear. The proclamation of the angel in the Book of Revelation is “Fear God and give him glory!” (Revelation 14:7). By fear we would probably mainly understand “being afraid of” him, afraid that he will hurt us or punish us. Such fear, of course, is never completely out of place in relation to God. As the people of Israel must have realized when they watched Mount Sinai go up in cloud and flames and shake to its roots, God can be very dangerous, and we need to know that he is willing to receive us before getting too close. As he said in the Book of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 30:21), “Who would dare of himself to approach me?” Moreover, from the beginning to the end of the Scripture he has assured us that punishment for disobedience will never be outdated.

But the English word “fear” does not communicate the whole meaning. The Hebrew word is sometimes translated reverence.7That too is a form of fear. When we appreciate the greatness of God, when we appreciate the fact that he has created us out of nothing, when we appreciate his holiness of character, his pure goodness, we should want to reverence him. We should “fear” to treat him as we would any other being. We should desire to interiorly regard him as the one worthy of fullest honor and respect, as God, next to whom we are nothing.

The English word “reverence” normally conveys not only fear of bad consequences but, even more, inner recognition of the way God, or other beings, is greater than we are, and a readiness to respond out of such a recognition. From our inner reverence should come any outward worship.

Reverence, then, puts us into the condition that allows us to hear God. It is the interior attitude that orients us rightly in relationship to God’s word. We cannot truly hear God’s word without recognizing that it is the word of the creator of the universe and that we need to believe and obey whatever he says simply because he says it. Among all the many things that come our way in the flood of information and communication nowadays, we have to pick out those things that truly are words from God and give them reverent attention.8

This article is a two part series: See Hearing God’s Word –  Part 2

This article is excerpted from Catholics and the Eucharist: A Scriptural Introduction, 2000 by © Stephen B. Clark, published in 2000 by Charis Books, an imprint of Servant Publications, Ann Arbor, Michigan USA.

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