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Some people have an insatiable appetite in hearing ; and hear only that they may hear, and talk, and make a party ; they enter into their neighbour's house to kindle their candle, espying there a glaring fire, sit down upon the hearth, and warm themselves all day, and forget their errand; and in the mean time their own fires are not lighted, nor their families instructed or provided for, nor any need served, but a lazy pleasure, which is useless and impudent.
Hearing or reading sermons is, or ought to be, in order to practice ; for so God intended it, that “faith should come by hearing,” and that charity should come by faith, and by both together we may be saved; for a man's ears, as Plutarch calls them, are virtutum ansæ, by them we are to hold and apprehend virtue ; and unless we use them as men do “ vessels of dishonour," filling them with things fit to be thrown away, with anything that is not necessary, we are by them more nearly brought to God, than by all the senses besides. For although things placed before the eye, affect the mind more readily than the things we usually hear; yet the reason of that is, because we hear carelessly, and we hear variety ; the same species dwells upon the eye, and represents the same object in union and single representment; but the objects of the ear are broken into fragments of periods, and words, and syllables, and must be attended with a careful understanding; and because everything diverts the sound, and everything calls off the understanding, and the spirit of a man is truantly and trifling ; therefore it is, that what men hear does so little affect them, and so weakly work towards the purposes of virtue. And yet nothing does so affect the mind of man, as those voices to which we cannot choose but attend ; and thunder, and all loud voices from heaven rend the most stony heart, and make the most obstinate pay to God the homage of trembling and fear; and the still voice of God usually takes the tribute of love, and choice, and obedience.
Now since hearing is so effective an instrument of conveying impresses and images of things, and exciting purposes, and fixing resolutions, unless we hear weakly and imperfectly ; it will be of the greater concernment, that we be curious to hear in order to such purposes, which are perfective of the soul and of the spirit, and not to dwell in fancy and speculation, in pleasures and trifling arrests, which continue the soul in its infancy and childhood, never letting it go forth into the wisdom and virtues of a man. I have read concerning Dionysius of Sicily, that being delighted extremely with a minstrel that sung well, and struck his harp dexterously, he promised to give him a great reward ; and that raised the fancy of the man and made him play better. But when the music was done, and the man waited for his great hope, the king dismissed him empty, telling him that he should carry away as much of the promised reward as himself did of the music, and that he had paid him sufficiently with the pleasure of the promise for the pleasure of the song ; both their ears had been
equally delighted, and the profit just none at all. So it is in many men's hearing sermons; they admire the preacher, and he pleases their ears, and neither of them both bear along with them any good; and the hearer hath as little good by the sermon, as the preacher by the air of the people's breath, when they make a noise, and admire, and understand not. And that also is a second caution I desire all men would take.
That they may never trouble the affairs of preaching and hearing respectively, with admiring the person of any man. To admire a preacher is such a reward of his pains and worth, as if you should crown a conqueror with a garland of roses, or a bride with a laurel, it is an indecency, it is no part of the reward, which could be intended for him. For though it be a good natured folly, yet it hath in it much danger; for by that means the preacher may lead his hearers captive, and make them servants of a faction, or of a lust; it makes them so much the less to be the servants of Christ, by how much they “call any man master upon earth;" it weakens the heart and hands of others; it places themselves in a rank much below their proper station, changing from hearing “ the word of God,” to admiration of the " persons and faces of men;" and it being a fault, that falls upon the more easy natures and softer understandings, does more easily abuse a man. And though such a person may have the good fortune to admire a good man and a wise ; yet it is an ill disposition, and makes him liable to every man's abuse. a fairer harvest of glory and service, and therefore that envy is against him ; that if we envy because we are not the instrument of this good to others, we must consider, that we desire the praise to ourselves, not to God. Admiration of a man supposes him to be inferior to the person so admired, but then he is pleased so to be ; but envy supposes him as low, and he is displeased at it; and the envious man is not only less than the other man's virtue, but also contrary; the former is a vanity, but this is a vice; that wants wisdom, but this wants wisdom and charity too; that supposes an absence of some good, but this is a direct affliction and calamity.
And after all this, if the preacher be not despised, he may proceed cheerfully in doing his duty, and the hearer may have some advantages by every sermon. I remember that Homer says, the wooers of Penelope laughed at Ulysses, because at his return he called for a loaf, and did not, to show his gallantry, call for swords and spears. Ulysses was so wise as to call for that he needed, and had it, and it did him more good, than a whole armory would in his case. So is the plainest part of an easy and honest sermon, it is “the sincere milk of the word,” and nourishes a man's soul, though represented in its own natural simplicity; and there is hardly any orator, but you may find occasion to praise something of him.
When Plato misliked the order and disposition of the oration of Lysias, yet he praised the good words and
the elocution of the man. Euripides was commended for his fulness, Parmenides for his composition, Phocylides for his easiness, Archilochus for his argument, Sophocles for the unequalness of his style; so many men praise their preacher; he speaks pertinent he contrives wittily, or he speaks comely, or the man is pious, or charitable, or he hath a good text, or he speaks plainly, or he is not tedious, or if he be, he is at least industrious, or he is the messenger of God; and that will not fail us, and let us love him for that. And we know those that love can easily commend anything, because they like everything; and they say, fair men are like angels, and the black are manly, and the pale look like honey and the stars, and the crooknosed are like the sons of kings, and if they be flat, they are gentle and easy, and if they be deformed, they are humble, and not to be despised, because they have upon them the impresses of divinity, and they are the sons of God.
He that despises his preacher, is a hearer of arts and learning, not of the word of God; and though when the word of God is set off with advantages and entertainments of the better faculties of our humility, it is more useful and of more effect; yet when the word of God is spoken truly, though but read in plain language, it will become the disciple of Jesus to love that man, whom God sends, and the public order and laws have employed, rather than to despise the weakness of him, who delivers a mighty word.