Ears That Hear: How to Listen to a Sermon

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Ears That Hear
How to Listen to a Sermon

Preachers receive a vast amount of training in hermeneutics (the science and art of interpretation) and homiletics (the science and art of sermon preparation and delivery) – two essential skills necessary to craft a sermon. Unfortunately, parishioners – those who listen to the sermons – receive little or no training about how to benefit from the preacher’s efforts. For this reason, it is good to occasionally preach about preaching for the health of the church.

As important as this is, it is often difficult for preachers to preach about preaching. Why? This kind of preaching can appear self-serving. The preacher may feel like he or she is preaching, “You all must listen to me!” However, this is not (or should not be!) the case.

We are all – pastor and congregation – working toward the same goal, that is, to know God through God’s revelation in Holy Scripture. The preaching event is a mutual search by preacher and congregation to hear God. The preaching event is actually a “hearing” event. Both preacher and congregation seek to hear God speak through the opening of sacred scripture in the presence of Christ and the power of the Spirit. Thus, both preacher and congregation long to hear the word of God spoken, as if by Christ Himself – for all good preaching is “the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17) – in order to be nourished together in faith. For this reason, Origen (185 – 253) would often punctuate his sermons with prayers like this, “O Lord Jesus come again to explain these things to me and to those who are here in quest of spiritual nourishment.”[1]


Crave the Word!

The apostle Peter highlights the importance of a steady diet of God’s word when he gives this command: “like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk of the word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). The “milk of the word” is directly connected to the gospel message that initially brought about our salvation: “for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23). How was this life-transforming message communicated? Through preaching: “this is the word which was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:25). For this reason, Peter commands us to “long for the word” in order that we might more deeply grasp the truth and significance of the preached message that changed our lives. Put simply: since we have received salvation through the preached word, we should now earnestly desire more of the word in order to grow in our salvation.

Peter calls us to cultivate an earnest and intense desire in our lives. He wants us to crave the word. The “word” is described as pure, spiritual milk. It is untainted soul food that is necessary for growth and health – a sacred meal that gives and sustains life.

Our hunger should be as intense as that of a “newborn baby.” Newborn babies crave one thing: the milk of their mother’s breast. A hungry baby will reject items of great value – whether gold bars, diamonds, or dollar bills – and push them away in order to gain the sole object of its desire. Babies so single-mindedly crave one thing that when they are denied it, they wail as if there is no tomorrow! This is the single-minded passion and hunger we are to have in regard to God’s word. We are to come hungry to feed on the spiritual nourishment of God’s sacred meal. The pastor’s call to “Turn in your Bible…” should not be accompanied by sighs, yawns, and eye-rubbing, but with anxious anticipation and passionate desire to hear from God.

We are to have this passion because we know that God’s transforming and life-giving presence is known through the preached word. That is the reason for the connection to 1 Peter 1:23-25. We are those who have “tasted the kindness of the Lord” (1 Peter 2:3) through the preaching of the gospel message (1 Peter 1:25). We have personally experienced the fact that God speaks through the preaching of the word. We know first-hand that God’s word transforms lives. In the preaching event, God manifests his presence by means of his word. We taste of the powers of the age to come and “grow in respect to salvation.” When we are aware of this, the preaching event – even better, the “hearing event” – takes on monumental importance. It becomes something we crave!

In order to cultivate this desire – to crave the word – we must rethink preaching and its necessary counterpart, listening.


Eyes to See: Preaching as Sacrament

Preaching – and listening to preaching – is an act of worship. It is an expression of devotion by both preacher and community. Too often in evangelical lingo, the word “worship” is used to describe music, prayer, and perhaps offering and announcements. But worship does not end once the music is over and the preacher begins the sermon. The whole event is worship – including the preaching!

Since this is true, we should devote as much attention, passion, and participation to the preaching event as we do to singing, praying, and giving. Just as we long to share our hearts with God in music, we should long to open our hearts to God’s word through active engagement with preaching. Through music we engage our whole being – mind, will, and affections. In the same way, in preaching, we should be completely engaged! Sadly, this is not often the case – even in evangelical churches. “One only has to observe some worshipers standing with raised hands and closed eyes during a segment of musical praise, only to sit restlessly with no Bible in hand during the sermon.”[2] Jim Shaddix compares the Jews’ response to the reading and preaching of Scripture to the contemporary church’s response to music:

When Ezra prayed and prepared to read the Scriptures, ‘all the people stood up… All the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen!’ while lifting up their hands… They bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground’ (Neh. 8:5-6). When was the last time you or people around you responded that way when the pastor got up to preach a sermon? But here is what’s most interesting. Did you notice that these responses are all ones that we normally associate with musical worship?[3]

Preaching – and listening to preaching – is not only an act of worship, but also a means of grace. Preaching is a corporate spiritual discipline. It is an act that we corporately participate in to facilitate growth in grace.

Spiritual disciplines are practices or exercises that put us in a position where we are likely to encounter God. Spiritual disciplines include such common practices as Bible reading, prayer, fasting, and confession to other lesser known practices such as contemplative prayer, journaling, and pilgrimage. Practicing these things does not guarantee that we will meet God, but they make it more likely. These are proven means – biblically, experientially, and historically – to greater knowledge of God. Preaching is one of these means of grace. When we sit under preaching we are not guaranteed to meet with God, but we are more likely than if we were sitting at home watching Star Trek.

Preaching has the added benefit of being a corporate means of grace. Preaching cannot occur alone. It demands a preacher and a congregation. Unlike most individual spiritual disciplines, preaching has the advantage of benefiting the entire community through one event. In preaching, both the preacher and the congregation are touched by God.

I readily admit that my primary means of spiritual formation has been through the discipline of research for, reflection on, preparation and delivery of, and follow-up to sermons I have given. Moreover, all of the individual good that I do does not come close to having the impact that my preaching ministry has accomplished. “More people are touched by a person's ministry through preaching than through any other ministerial activity.”[4]

Preaching is worship because God uses words as a vehicle of grace. This is the sacramental value of words. Through the means of words, God communicates his presence and grace. Though God certainly does this through the simple private reading of Scripture, he also delights in doing this through the personality and passion of a preacher. Indeed, this is the biggest difference between listening to preaching and simply reading words on a page. The preacher brings a personality – and thus passion – to the mix: “To listen to a living word flowing from the heart of someone is not the same thing as to read the same message from a book. As we listen to a person, it is a life and a spirit that are communicated. And God uses this living word to give life.”[5]


Ears to Hear: Listening as Worship

In order to benefit from preaching we must not only view preaching in a new light, but we must rethink what is involved in listening to preaching.

Contrary to what most people assume, listening is not passive; listening is a very active engagement with another. To really listen to someone takes great effort. It calls for patience and respect; we will not spend time listening to someone we do not respect. It demonstrates love to others; we show people love when we choose to listen to them rather than ignore them.

True listening does not happen naturally; it is a learned habit. People need to learn to listen, and learn how to listen. The possession of a listening heart is the result of active discipline. It does not come without a fight.

This is an important truth to emphasize at a time when preaching is considered to be merely “a lecture” and listening is decried as “inactive” and “non-participatory.” Those who make such claims understand neither preaching nor listening. Preaching is just as vital a component of worship as music, prayer, offering, drama, or whatever else we include in sacred gathering. Since preaching is worship, we have a responsibility to be engaged with it, think through it, and remember it – in other words, to actively participate through attentive listening. True participation in preaching involves more than simply hearing words. Instead, it involves – even better, it demands – attentiveness.

Once, in the middle of an argument with my wife, I said to her (partially in jest), “I see your mouth moving, but all I hear is ‘blah, blah, blah.’” As you might guess, she did not think this comment was humorous. This is how some people hear preaching. Because they are unwilling to put effort into listening, they soon lose the preacher. His or her words lose their meaning and begin to sound like, “blah, blah, blah.”

Losing our ability to listen puts us in a dangerous position. When we lose our ability to listen to God, we can no longer be changed. Love to God begins with listening to God’s word.[6] If we are unable to listen, then we will remain deaf to God’s voice. We will possess ears, but we will be unable to hear![7] Therefore, it is vital that we learn how to quiet our hearts before God and assume the position of simply listening. We must learn that listening is more than waiting for our turn to talk![8]

When we lose our ability to listen, we do not become completely deaf. Instead, our hearing becomes selective. We only choose to hear that which we want to hear. We become unable to hear anything that is troubling, challenging, or convicting. We only listen to that which affirms our preconceptions. We become hard of heart, unable to be changed, because we are unwilling to listen. We do not stop hearing altogether; we simply seek out those who say what we want to hear.

This is what Paul refers to in his final letter to his favorite son in the faith, Timothy. “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).[9]

If a preacher truly proclaims God’s word, you will not like everything you hear. Preaching not only comforts and consoles; it also challenges, confronts, and convicts. “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). The teaching may be difficult at times, the reproof may be hard to hear, the correction may seem like meddling, and the training may be rigorous and demanding.

Allow me to share a phenomenon I have noticed after twelve years of preaching and teaching. Generally speaking, people hear what they want to hear. Regardless of what I preach, I have noticed that people tend to filter out anything that does not fit their preconceptions. I have encountered this among even the most advanced saints. In fact, I am sure we are all guilty of this to some degree. This does not diminish the warning (“Oh, we’re just all sinners!”) but increases the importance of the warning. It is a dangerous thing to possess ears that do not hear – ears that demand to be tickled. This is the pathway to a hard heart that is unable to hear anything from God. The possibility for transformation is negated by ears that refuse to hear anything that is disagreeable, discomforting, or difficult.

At times, preaching should be like a warm security blanket that comforts and consoles. At other times, it should be like sandpaper that smoothes a rough surface. You may prefer dessert over veggies or milk over steak, but a good meal includes all of these things.


Helps to Attentive Listening

There are simple steps you can take to assure that you benefit as much as possible from the preaching event.

Prepare to receive preaching. A simple attentiveness to the need to prepare your heart for the preaching event will go a long way toward putting you in the right state of mind. In the parable of the four soils (Matthew 13:3-9; 18-23), only the soil that was prepared to receive the seed actually bore fruit and fulfilled the purpose of the sower. Pray that God would prepare your heart to openly receive God’s word.

Pray for the preacher delivering the sermon. A good sermon does not happen by accident. Pray that God would enable the preacher to adequately prepare and clearly deliver God’s message for the spiritual well-being of the church.

Make church attendance a priority. If faithful attendance is not an ingrained habit, there will be no end to the appealing alternatives – from simply sleeping in to an endless variety of leisure opportunities. Without being legalistic, we must recognize that our values are demonstrated by our priorities. We benefit most from that to which we are devoted.[10] If we truly believe that we will hear from God through preaching, we should make every effort to make attendance a priority. Michael Fabarez is bold in his recommendations to preachers in this regard:

Emphasize the importance of weekly attendance, punctuality, and practical planning on Sunday mornings. Challenge them to think counter-culturally about Sunday mornings! While the rest of the world sleeps in and ratchets back on the first day of the week, we need to build in a value that declares Sunday morning the most important time of the week.[11]

Expect to hear from God. If God’s word is truly preached, there is something in every sermon for you – even when the content is muddled and the delivery is poor.

Preaching is like a meal. Every week I prepare a meal for you to consume. You certainly do not remember every meal and its exact contents, but some certainly stand out. And even though you don’t remember them all, every one of them helped keep you alive for another week.

As a sacred chef, my responsibility is to prepare the meal, make sure it is nutritious and healthy, and place it before you. Your responsibility is to take, chew, and swallow it. I cannot force-feed it to you. And like most meals, oftentimes the same items are served again and again. This “same ol’ thing” is necessary in meals and in preaching. We need to be repeatedly reminded of what we already have heard. The apostles constantly revel in repeating material by way of reminder because they know it is good for their hearers (Rom 15:15; Phil 3:1; 1 Thess. 4:1; Jude 5; 2 Peter 1:12-15; 3:1-2).

Follow up each sermon for maximum life-impact. Review and reflect upon each sermon – not only the ones that immediately impact you, but, even more importantly, the ones that don’t. Put effort into attempting to understand what was said, why it is important, and how you should respond. This does not require that you agree with everything, but that you understand what the preacher was attempting to say and why it was said. Remember, “understanding is not the same thing as agreeing.”[12] At least, give the preacher the benefit of being understood. If you have done so, you should be able to state the main point of the sermon, whether you agree or not.

There are numerous possible ways to review any sermon. Almost every sermon I preach is available in manuscript form. (By the way, the manuscript usually includes additional material not covered in the delivery.) The audio is also available online in mp3 format. We also possess the ability to make CD’s and cassettes. These are available for the asking. Good sermons should be chewed over again and again for maximum impact. Take advantage of all the possible ways to do this.


Conclusion

Preaching matters. It is an act of worship and a means of grace. Our active and attentive listening demonstrates devotion in the same way our singing, praying, and giving does. As a means of grace, it is one of the major ways God manifests his presence to us. Through preaching, God’s word sustains, fuels, and furthers our growth in salvation – our life in Christ.

We do not simply listen to preaching; we listen worshipfully! Hearing is certainly not the final step (see James 1:22), but it is a necessary step between God’s giving of his word and our doing of it. If we lose the ability to listen, we cut off the possibility of growing in salvation. “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).


[1] Carroll, Thomas K., Preaching the Word: Message of the Fathers of the Church (Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, 1984), 45.

[2] Shaddix, Jim, The Passion-Driven Sermon: Changing the Way Pastors Preach and Congregations Listen Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 2003), 125.

[3] Shaddix, The Passion-Driven Sermon, 135.

[4] Trull, Joe E. & James E Carter, Ministerial Ethics: Being a Good Minister in a not-so-good world (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1993), 103.

[5] Vanier, Jean, Community and Growth (Mahway, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1989), 174-175.

[6] “The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them... ...he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too.” Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Life Together (New York: Harper and Row, 1954), 97, 98.

[7] “You will keep on hearing, but will not understand… For the heart of this people has become dull, and with their ears they scarcely hear” (Matthew 13:14-15)

[8] “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” – Stephen Covey.

[9] Note that this does not change Timothy’s call to preach the word, nor does it undermine the monumental spiritual importance of the preaching event (2 Tim 4:1-2).

[10] I appreciate Dave Paisley’s thought on this: “you sit in the pews and hear 52 sermons in a year (OK, so you're a stellar attendee...) Are all 52 of those sermons going to touch you equally? No. But the discipline of presence and attentiveness puts you in a position to hear the handful that are what you need to hear. And we never know which ones they are ahead of time...” http://davepaisley.typepad.com/disaster_area/2005/02/ec2005_brian_mc.html

[11] Fabarez, Michael, Preaching that Changes Lives (Nashville: Nelson Publishers, 2002), 155.

[12] Ursiny, Tim. The Coward's Guide to Conflict: Empowering Solutions for Those Who Would Rather Run Than Fight (Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2003), 216.

© Richard J. Vincent, 2005

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