In part 1 of my advice on how to listen to a sermon, I said that listening to a sermon begins on the drive home Sunday afternoon and continues throughout the week. The reality is, the Sunday sermon is a sacred part of our worship, but it is not the only part of our worship. Worship is the act of ascribing value to God because He is infinitely worthy to receive it (Psalm 29:2). That happens in whatever we do that is good, righteous, holy and pure (1 Cor. 10:31; cf. Phil. 4:8-9). You can worship with your work, play, and your rest. But in order to listen to the sermon, you have to have more than two ears. You have to have a life centered on the worship of God. And this happens Monday through Saturday, as well as Sunday, the Lord’s Day.
For this final post, I want to list a few things that we should do within the context of a worship gathering to effectively listen to a sermon:
1) Arrive to the building where the church gathers early instead of just ‘on time’. Most jobs require punctuality, why would we give our Lord anything less? Rushing out the door with screaming kids is the norm for many families (hey, it happens sometimes in our house!), but preparing your heart involves more than being on time, it involves calmness and focus. When we are rushed, we are distracted. And when we are distracted, our ears are plugged. Coming early helps settle our hearts, which in turn gives our ears an opportunity to listen with a fully-engaged mind. (Plus, who knows, you could be an encouragement to someone else by arriving early and talking with someone!) Get to bed early Saturday, get up Sunday for a hearty breakfast, and teach your kids the sacredness of the Lord’s Day (a lost thing in the 21st Century).
2) Sing loudly and boldly. Singing is a thoroughly biblical concept, and in singing we are consummating our joy. In other words, as C.S. Lewis once said, (I’m paraphrasing), the appointed consummation of joy is praise. We praise (sing, talk about, delight in, etc.) what we prize. You find a good restaurant with good food, what do you do? You tell people about it. It’s the same thing with God, though admittedly He is far greater than a double bacon cheeseburger. Even if you don’t “feel” like praising God because the joy just isn’t there, do it anyway, and the joy will follow. (Tell yourself how good God is until your heart bends to that truth). Even if you feel like you can’t sing, don’t be shy. No one is bothered by that. Sing to your heart’s content. And do it boldly, knowing that in that moment you are fighting for joy and giving yourself over to God.
3) Pray that God the Spirit would take the sermon and ruin you with it. I know that sounds weird, but it’s true. The sermon isn’t made to tickle your ears (though for some people that’s exactly what they are doing); it’s there because it is God’s means to display His glory so that the Church is edified and lost & weary souls are found & comforted. Prayer is the key part. Say a prayer before the worship gathering begins. Say a prayer during a song. Pray that God the Holy Spirit would allow your open-yet-discerning heart a chance for the Word to grow deep in your soul. Preaching is not a passive thing–it takes effort both on the preacher’s part, and the listener’s part. Most preachers spend a lot of time in study so as to convey the truth of the passage at hand, but it requires an attentive soul to receive it. There will be points that will afflict you (the Law), but gospel-centered preaching brings comfort (Gospel), too. Ruining you means that it affects your soul towards repentance, not despair–a bolster of faith, not pride.
4) Take notes and discern. Be like the Bereans who checked what Paul said with Scripture (Acts 17:11). Have an open Bible (Study Bibles are great!) with notes on your phone or on a pad of paper. Not everyone learns with notes (I hardly took notes in seminary because I learn audibly by storing it in my mind), but if that’s you, don’t be shy. Listen to the points being emphasized. A good preacher will repeat himself and work hard to make sure the main thing is the main thing, emphasizing where emphasis is needed. Discern with your head, heart and hands. Flip quickly to other passages if the occasion calls for it, underline, highlight, and process. This helps you stay engaged instead of allowing your mind trail off.
5) Respond to the Word of God. At our church, we respond with communion and giving. We’ve sang to Jesus, heard about Jesus, and now we respond to Jesus. Not every sermon is going to give you three steps to “apply.” As John MacArthur once said, the preacher’s job is to give you the implications, it’s the Spirit’s job to apply it. If the Law and the Gospel are given, and the passage is appropriately taught, the implications become extensive. “Practical Theology” is an oxymoron. All practice is theological, and all theology is practical. The Spirit applies it by either driving you to 1) confess something, leading to repentance, 2) do something, like make disciples, 3) believe something–sometimes our hearts are out of sync with the truth, so we need to respond with faith that Jesus is better! or 4) feel something–sometimes our feelings are out of whack, but with truth proclaimed, our feelings can be properly aligned. Responding takes the monergistic power of the Spirit as He guides you, so be diligent and work it out (Phil. 2:12).
Listening to the sermon requires more than just two ears. It requires a heart full of prayer, praise, faith, a mind free from distraction and renewed by truth, and hands diligently laboring for the Lord (1 Cor. 15:58). While not exhaustive, I hope these couple of posts are an encouragement to you as you work hard at hearing the word of God.
“For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!'” (Romans 10:13-15)