Second in a two-part series, the first being The Preacher.
Since my Dad was a pastor, and we were in church three times a week, I heard a lot of sermons growing up. I’ve been in church almost every Sunday of my adult life, so I’ve added quite a few there. If listening to sermons was a contest, I’d probably win. The prize would be plastic trophy in the likeness of a Pharisee.
Of course, I’ve preached a ton of sermons as well, so I’ve been on both sides of the pulpit.
Listening to sermons is not always fun. Sitting still for 20-30 minutes, while one person gets to talk, is not a typical activity in our culture. Movies, TV shows, and all forms of entertainment tend to be rapid fire, constantly changing. Most of us are used to that frenzied pace, and so following a sermon is an active, intentional process. Sermons are ultimately not in the same category as entertainment, and yet we are used to entertainment being the main category of almost every activity. We have to admit it takes intentional focus to just sit and listen.
But its worth it, because God ordained that a person stand and preach the Gospel. Preaching is not a “man-made” thing. God wants you to hear a sermon at worship every Sunday. St Paul said it this way to the Corinthians:
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?
Paul even calls what we preachers do “folly” (thanks a lot, “Saint” Paul):
For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.
Why did God ordain that preaching is essential to our spiritual life and the cure of our souls? Everything we learn about our Faith in Christ is embodied. It is sacramental, in that there is a means through which every aspect of the cure of our souls is effected. We need to hear a human voice speaking. We need that human voice to speak through personal experience and personality. We need to hear the Gospel, explained and illustrated, out loud. Even when we aren’t sure what it is doing for us, we need to trust that God intended this.
But listening to sermons is also difficult in our evaluative culture. In our culture, we are trained from almost infancy to evaluate. We either like or dislike this food, or that movie, or worse, this person and that person. How did it go? Did you like the sermon? Our brains are usually defaulted to deciding whether we like someone or something. There is nothing wrong with evaluating, its just that we get stuck in that mode most of the time.
So it is very difficult for me to just listen to a sermon. Just take it in. Its hard for me to trust that God would use that person to speak to me. But of course, he spoke through Balaam’s ass (its okay, I grew up on the King James), so of course he can speak through us preachers. The best way to be a listener is to just listen, and to ponder, and to reflect on how the sermon leads me to the Gospel once again.
We all have our favorite preachers. Even in Paul’s day, they had superstars, as he wrote to the Corinthians:
With him we are sending the brother who is famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel.
Some of us connect with the grand oratorical style, others to the informal conversationalist, others to the complex academic. And no preacher is quite the same. We also have access online and in print to some of the greatest preachers of our day, and from the past. We tend to pick our favorite group, and wish everyone else was like them. So we have to be careful not to demand that our pastor imitate other preachers. We have to let him be who he is. We have to listen for how God is revealing the Gospel through this person, right here, right now.
We preachers are fallible creatures. This is is the point of our greatest challenge as a listener. This is the point in which we listen anyway, and have an opportunity for great spiritual growth. I want to encourage sermon listeners to see it as a spiritual discipline to listen to each sermon with an open heart to the Gospel. To accept the preacher “as is.” And to see the sermon as one important part, but not the whole, of our worship. God’s Word does what it seeks to accomplish. Resting and listening, and then pondering can deepen our souls. Hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches, listen for the Gospel, and God will meet you there.