“And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.
(1 Thessalonians 2:13)
As a preacher, I realize that the quality of my preaching varies from week to week; sometimes the other demands of ministry cut into sermon preparation, sometimes as a speaker you just have an off day. By nature, so much of the sermon depends on the preacher, the time spent in study and prayer, the thoughtfulness in preparation, and the quality of presentation. One factor that is out of the pastor’s hands, though, is the quality of the listening.
How do you listen to a sermon? We gather together for an hour to worship each week, and spend about 25 minutes studying the Word of God. This is not something that just comes naturally, and Jesus instructed us to “take care then how you hear.” How can you approach this time on a Sunday morning with “ears to hear,” so that you get the most out of the message? Here are a few tips on preparing to listen well to the proclamation of the Word.
Receive It As the Word of God
When Paul praised God for the Thessalonian church, what he appreciated most was that they received his teaching, not as the word of men, but as the word of God. The Scriptures that are read are the Word of God and ought to be received as such. We are to sit under the word, to recognize its authority over us in matters of life and faith. The sermon, then, as it is faithful to the Word, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and guided by faith and love, should be received with a similar authority, as instruction, correction, and training in righteousness. George Whitefield once wrote, “If an earthly king were to issue a royal proclamation how eager would his subjects be to hear. Shall we not pay the same respect to the King of Kings, and lend an attentive ear to His ministers, when they are declaring, in His name, how are pardon, peace, and happiness may be secured?”
Back in college, you probably learned that you will get the most out of a lecture if you have done the preparatory reading in advance. The same holds true for the way we listen to sermons. Often, preachers will tell you what the next week’s Scripture text will be. Through the week leading up to the sermon, pray and read through that text. Read it in the larger context (the surrounding chapter, or the rest of the book). The Sunday sermon will be much more profitably received by you if you heart has been prepared prior to the service, ideally the night before, by prayer and confession and by reading the passage to be preached. And get a good night’s rest on Saturday, that way you can be alert and attentive to what is taught.
Listen Regularly and Actively
One of the best ways to ensure that you get the most out of the sermon is by actually hearing the sermon. Show up for worship where the Word of God is prayerfully taught, and you will hear and be blessed by the Word of God, guaranteed. Show up regularly, with a heart prepared for the message, and you will catch even more. You will begin to hear common threads through each sermon as you learn how the preacher communicates.
Also, listen actively. Many find it helpful to take notes. Write down questions that come to mind. Bring your Bible to church, highlight or underline things that stand out to you, tuck your sermon notes into the cover. Actively engage in the sermon.
Don’t Be Preoccupied with the Preacher
This can go both ways. I have seen some church that are so in love with their pastor that they believe he can do no wrong. The message may lack any connection to Scripture, or the Scripture readings are used as proof texts to support the preacher’s position, and the congregation receives it without question. Then again, there are sometimes when the preacher can do no right, and the congregation can’t get past his choice of tie and therefore will not hear one word that he preaches.
The congregation must be sure to check that what the preacher says is what the Bible says. There will be those preachers who will come along to tickle our ears, who will say exactly what we want to hear, and we must be careful. If your preacher is teaching something other than the gospel of Jesus Christ, then it is incumbent upon you, and upon your Session (elders, church council – whatever…) to correct and restore the teaching from the pulpit. We need to hear the Word of God; even as we mature and grow in righteousness, we will never satisfy that need. We stand in constant need of both comfort and correction. We must be called to both repent and rejoice.
So double-check what you are hearing, but also double-check your attitude toward the preacher. Remember, extend the same grace to the preacher that you would want given to you. Realize that, just as you are in daily need of the grace of God in Jesus Christ, so too is your pastor. He is not perfect, but neither is he a wretch beyond the mercy of God’s sovereign hand. Paul Tripp, in his book, Dangerous Calling reminds us that we are all, pastor’s included, in the midst of our own sanctification, none of us have arrived.
Your pastor will sin, that is a given. Your pastor will even struggle to do the things he teaches in his sermons. That does not, however, negate the faithful exposition of God’s word, and our need to obey. It does, in fact, call us to pray. Pray for your preacher. Pray that he may know and be afforded in his own life the same transforming grace that he preaches from the pulpit.
Pray in and through the Sermon
Keep in mind, doing all of these things may help put you in the right place and mindset, but without the illumination of the Holy Spirit, we will “keep on hearing, but not understand; keep on seeing, but not perceive” (Isa 6:9). Through the inward ministry of His Holy Spirit, God uses His Word to calm our fear, comfort our sorrow, disturb our conscience, expose our sin, proclaim God’s grace, and reassure us in the faith. You cannot manufacture or guarantee the presence of the Holy Spirit, but you can seek the Lord in prayer and ask for His Spirit to teach and guide you. As you pray for the pastor, pray also for your heart and mind to be renewed in the Word.
Apply the Sermon
Finally, Phillip Ryken, President of Wheaton College writes, “Good preaching always applies the Bible to daily life. It tells us what promises to believe, what sins to avoid, what divine attributes to praise, what virtues to cultivate, what goals to pursue, and what good works to perform. There is always something God wants us to do in response to the preaching of his Word. We are called to be “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22). And if we are not doers, then we were not hearers, and the sermon was wasted on us.”
Whitefield, who was quoted earlier, also noted, “If only all who hear me this day would seriously apply their hearts to practice what has not been told them! How ministers would see Satan, like lightening, fall from heaven, and people find the Word preached sharper than a two-edged sword and might, through God, to the pulling down of the devil’s strongholds!
Sola Deo Gloria!