On Preaching and Listening: How to Listen to a Sermon

Reed JolleyCommunity News

I believe that the preaching of the Word of God changes the world.  I believe individuals, neighborhoods, cities and nations are changed by the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  For in preaching the good news of Jesus Christ (which is ultimately what any biblical text preaches), it turns out that we are participating with the living God in God’s ongoing transformation of the world.  –Darrell Johnson, The Glory of Preaching

Have you ever thought about the fact that the Bible makes much of the activity called preaching?

Isaiah was a preacher, as were Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, and a host of other Old Testament voices.  When John the Baptist shows up, he is preaching (Matthew 3:1).  Jesus claims at the outset that he was sent to preach (Luke 4:18-19), and eventually he sent his disciples out to do the same (Luke 9:2). Look at the early church and you find a high priority placed on preaching.  Paul sees his very conversion as a call to preach the gospel to the nations (Galatians 1:16).  And later in his life, the apostle passes the mantle to his young friend Timothy, exhorting him to preach the Word in season and out of season (2 Timothy 4:2).

And now, twenty centuries later, preaching is still a world-shaping, disciple-making, soul-changing, and church-driving gift from God to his people.  A healthy church is built on its preaching, on the steady and systematic proclamation of God’s Word.  It is really quite shocking if you think about it.  With all of our technology, with our dazzling media, with the colors and sights and sounds available to us, thousands upon thousands of believers nevertheless gather each Sunday and sit still and listen.  Why?

Something happens in preaching that happens nowhere else.  Again from Darrell Johnson, When we preach, when we dare to say again what the living God says, the Word and Spirit make something happen.  The going forth of the Word and the breathing by the Spirit are God coming to make something happen, to make salvation happen.  Preaching is to the church what ballast is to a sailboat.  A sailboat goes forward and doesn’t tip over because as the wind fills its sails, the sails are counterbalanced by a lot of weight in the hull.  Churches move forward into the world, into mission, into compassion ministry, and into a thousand other activities, in large part because these activities of the church are driven by the ballast of preaching!

Last month, I went to Ethiopia and taught a class to several seminary professors on the how-to’s of biblical preaching.  Somewhere on the flight home, I found myself thinking, If my class was about the art of preaching, what about the art of listening? Since there is a gift of preaching, does it not follow that there is a gift of listening?  If preaching is so important biblically and historically, how then should we listen?  I offer the following:

Come prepared.  Probably the best way to listen to a sermon, to receive from it what God has for you in it, is to come prepared.  And, to be deliberately redundant, coming prepared requires some preparation.  It means getting a good night’s rest before the early service; it means not coming frantic and frazzled to whichever service we attend.  If we try to squeeze in a run to Costco or are fighting traffic on the way back from Camarillo before we come to the afternoon service, we are in no position to really hear what God has to say to us through his Word.  It is difficult to hear God speak when you come to worship fatigued, famished, and frenzied.  Hearing God’s voice when his Word is proclaimed usually requires the three Rs of preparation: rest, read, and request.  Show up having rested on God’s Sabbath.  Read the passage several times and meditate upon it.  And request that God speak to you through the preacher.  Ask that he will use this ancient medium to incline your heart toward him.

Bring and open your Bible.  And bring a Bible made out of paper.  The Bible is God’s Word to us and for us.  Bring your Bible, look up the cross references, circle important words, jot a note or two in the margins.

Listen like a Berean.  On Paul’s second missionary journey, he was chased out of Thessalonica.  His next stop was Berea, and, as was his habit, he continued to preach the gospel.  The author of Acts tells us that the Bereans received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so (20:11).  In other words, they tested the words of Paul against the rest of the Scriptures.  The Bereans were critical thinkers, and they were commended for their circumspection.  They wanted to make sure that what Paul said was consistent with what the rest of the Bible said, and so should we when we listen to preaching and preachers.  That’s why our Bible needs to be open along with our mind.

Listen like a child.  Jesus said that to get into the kingdom of God, we have to be like little children (Matthew 18:4).  If you think about it, children ask lots of questions.  They are, indeed, little Bereans.  What separates children from so-called grown-ups is not that children don’t ask questions, but that they accept the answers.  There is a receptivity in children that Jesus commends.  When we hear the preaching of God’s Word, we need to listen receptively, asking,God, what do you want to say to me in this moment?

Take note, not notes.  If you listen better by jotting things down, fair enough: take notes.  When I listen to Steve or one of our other preachers open God’s Word, I always take notes. At all three services I take notes!  And then I promptly throw them away.  A sermon is not to be a lecture, and I am not to listen like a student.  But I am to take note of what God said:  What is God saying to me?  How will I employ and apply what God says to me?  This is what it means to take note.

Test your listening.  The Scriptures are full of passages that speak of God’s Word going forth and not coming back void.  God promises us, for example, that his Word will accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:11).  But this accomplishment must pass through the doors of a soft heart, a receptive spirit, an alert mind, and an eager soul.  The test of our listening is found in our living.  Are we hearers of the Word only? Or are we doers of God’s will as revealed in his Word?

Scottish preacher James Stewart pondered the benefits of godly preaching.  He concluded that such preaching aims toquicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, to devote the will to the purpose of God.  May it be so in our church and in our lives.