How to Listen to Bad Sermons

Dear Zion,
We have spent some time thinking about the importance of sermons in the regular, spiritual diet of God’s people, including how to hear a sermon, and also how to live from a sermon. But this all assumes that we are hearing good sermons to begin with. What should we do when we listen to a bad sermon?

Scripture tells us that there are some sermons so bad, we should not listen to them. When Paul soberly warned and admonished Timothy “to preach the Word” (II Timothy 4:2), the emphasis must be retained: a sermon is only a useful sermon if the content is the Word of God. Paul himself resolved to “know nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2). Unfortunately, we live in a day and age where the content of many (most?) sermons do not rely on God’s Word and His power, but instead rely on the preacher’s experiences, storytelling, practical suggestions, and eloquence. The preacher may even begin with a Bible passage, but the content of the sermon that follows is not coming from sacred Scripture. If sermons today were edited down to only “Christ and Him crucified,” how much would be left?

Similarly, Paul warned Timothy that there would be a time when “people will not endure sound teaching, but they will gather around them a great number of [preachers] to say what their itching ears want to hear, to suit their own desires” (II Timothy 4:3). We have to ask ourselves probing, heart questions: “Am I listening to this because this is what I want to hear? Because this makes me feel good; that I’m ok? Or am I listening because this matches up with the Word of God?” We must not let our ears (and egos!) be tickled by smooth talk, but instead diligently search to see if what we are hearing matches up to God’s Word (Acts 17:11). If sermons do not teach of Christ from Scripture, we should not make our lives follow these words.

But there are other times when the sermon does come from God’s Word, and the preacher is seeking to be faithful. Here, he isn’t preaching a bad sermon due to being biblically unsound, but perhaps something else is making us not like the sermon. Perhaps he stutters, or is lost in his own notes; perhaps he is difficult to understand or follow. Maybe his personality just does not sit right with you. There could be a whole host of reasons! So how can we benefit from a sermon when we perceive that it isn’t very good? Here are four suggestions*:

  1. Listen as if your life depended on it. Jesus quoted the Old Testament and noted, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4). We must understand the urgency of our situation. Right before a flight takeoff, the emergency instructions about oxygen masks and floating seat cushions seem boring and unimportant. But if our plane begins to nosedive, suddenly nothing seems more vital than following those directions. When we understand how crucial it is to live from God’s Word, we will listen even to bad sermons so that we can glean anything we are able to help us live for Him.
  2. Listen because you recognize the seriousness of our life situation. Paul taught that we are in a spiritual warzone (Ephesians 6.12). Satan is prowling (I Peter 5:8), sin is crouching (Genesis 4:7). At any moment (even tonight!) our lives could be required of us (Luke 12:20). God’s Word is our lifeline, and when we recognize the dire urgency we are in, we will treasure even a poor sermon to help us in our fight of faith.
  3. Listen because you understand that this is God’s help to you that you need. When life’s pressures begin to weigh down on us, we begin looking for relief and help in a variety of places. We look to other people to meet our needs, to food, to power, to sex, to drugs or drunkenness; we turn to just about anything… except God’s Word! We need to understand that it is God’s Word that we need, that He speaks to us through the sermon, telling us what we need to hear. Paul gave thanks that “you accepted [our preaching] not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (I Thessalonians 2:13).
  4. Listen because communion with God is our goal. Hear Psalm 27:4 “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple.” Our goal in hearing the message is not just to be entertained, or to get useful information, or even to receive instructions on holy living. The goal is to experience immediate, amazing and true communion with the Triune God! Even a preacher who may seem uninteresting, if he is faithful to God’s Word, can usher us into the presence of the living God.

Praying with you that God would meet us through the preached Word,
Pastor Brian
*Many of these suggestions were stirred in my mind by Rev. Dr. J. Ligon Duncan, who preached a sermon entitled “How to Listen to A Bad Sermon.”

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