He Who Has Ears: Listening to Sermons

One of the things a pastor and a congregation spend a lot of time on together is the sermon that is preached every Lord’s Day in the worship service. The minister spends time preparing and delivering the message, and the congregation spends time hearing it and living their lives based off of it. But have you ever thought about how to hear a sermon? How can we obey Jesus’ command to “be careful how you hear” (Luke 8:18)? Consider a few ideas with me:

  • Believers should prepare themselves to hear. The Apostle Peter commands that we “desire the sincere milk of the Word like newborn babies,” and that one of the ways we prepare that spiritual “thirst” within us for God’s Word is by laying aside all sin (I Peter 2:1 – 2). Sin acts like wax in our ears, and keeps us from hearing the life-giving words we so desperately need. Do not allow Saturday night – or the week before Sunday – as an opportunity for sin, but instead lay aside sin by faith and focus on “thirsting” to hear from the Lord in the sermon.
  • Believers should prepare through prayer. One of the best ways to create this spiritual thirst in preparing is through prayer. We say with the psalmist, “Lord, open my eyes, that I would behold wondrous things out of Your Law in the sermon this Sunday” (cf. Psalm 119:18). Ask God to reveal to you His will for your life in the sermon; do it every Sunday! The Apostle Paul asked the Ephesians to pray for him as he preached, and to do so constantly (Ephesians 6:18 – 19). We should pray this way for our Sunday school teachers, Bible study leaders, and especially our ministers and elders.
  • Believers should test the sermon against God’s Word. Paul praised the Bereans because they “searched the Scriptures daily” to see if Paul’s message lined up with Scripture (Acts 17:11). As Christians, we are to “test everything; hold fast what is good” (I Thessalonians 5:21). Ministers must not preach on their favorite topics, heart-warming stories, practical advice for better living, politics, or anything else – but only what the Lord says in Holy Scripture. A congregation can hold their minister accountable by carefully testing what he says.
  • Believers should receive the sermon in a godly attitude. Even though we just said congregations should test the sermon, Scripture also says we must meekly receive the sermon in a humble and godly way. We must listen with faith in our hearts (Hebrews 4:2) or else the sermon will be of no profit to us. We must learn to “love the truth” (II Thessalonians 2:10), to receive the sermon with meekness to save our souls (James 1:21), and be eager to hear God’s Word (Acts 17:11). It is easy to grumble about the length of a sermon, or just sit through the service on autopilot. But God’s Word says that we should be active listeners, energetically exercising the fruit of the Spirit as we listen to the sermon.
  • Believers should be convinced that they are hearing from God. The most amazing miracle happens every Sunday morning: an average Christian man steps up into the pulpit, he opens his mouth, and through his sometimes stumbling and less-than-perfect speech, the Almighty God of the Universe can speak through him. Paul rejoiced because the Thessalonians “did not receive [the preaching] as the words of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God” (I Thessalonians 2:13). Our Reformed theology reminds us that when the powerful Gospel of God saves us (Romans 1:16), we find the Gospel in “the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word.”* When God speaks through His appointed servants, He can accomplish His divine purposes (Isaiah 55:11). This means that Sunday morning doesn’t need to be a tedious or dry task, but an amazing opportunity to hear from the living God as He addresses us through His Spirit.

You’ve just heard the benediction; the Sunday morning service is over. So now what? We disperse to go with our own families to our specific vocations and tasks. But just because the service is over does not mean that we can forget about everything we heard in the sermon or during worship, or that God is any less interested in how we live Monday through Saturday. Last time we looked at how to hear the sermon, now we will consider a few things about how to live based off of the sermon. For example:

  • Believers should meditate on God’s Word throughout the week. The truth of God that we hear – during the Scripture readings and sermons – on Sunday should occupy our thoughts Monday through Saturday. Jesus told His disciples to “Let these words sink down into your ears” (Luke 9:44); in other words, He didn’t want His teaching to bounce off our ears like a glancing blow, but rather to take root in our minds. “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it” (Hebrews 2:1). Does this describe how you think about what you learned in worship? Do you pay closer attention to God’s truth than anything else?
  • Believers should talk about God’s Word throughout the week. One of the things we can do to keep our mind stayed on what God has said to us through the sermon is by talking with others about sacred things. We saw in our Colossians series that we ought to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom” (Colossians 3:16). It is easy to leave the sanctuary after worship, go into the narthex, and immediately slip into only talking about sports, the weather, family news, and grain prices. But wouldn’t it be better if we kept our minds and conversations focused on what we had just heard and read from Scripture? Encouraging each other to have Christ’s Word dwell in us richly for the upcoming week? And what about later in the week? Do we take time with our families and believing friends to go over what we have been learning from the Lord? Surely Deuteronomy 6 is our example in this:

    “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”

    Let us look for every opportunity to stir each other up in godliness by discussing God’s Word together!

  • Believers should memorize God’s Word. In order to keep divine truth from glancing off our ears, we can hide His Word in our hearts. “Your Word I have hid in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11). Often our sermon series will look at the same few verses for several weeks in a row, with each sermon taking a different angle on the same verses. This is a great opportunity to memorize those verses, especially since you’ll hear them and read them every single week for several weeks! The wise decision comes from Proverbs 2:1 – “My son… receive my words and treasure my commandments up within your heart.”
  • Believers should obey God’s Word and produce fruit. Perhaps the most important aspect of taking the sermon with you through the week is to show how it changes your life. If we hear God’s Word but don’t change the way we live, we are like a man who looks into a mirror, sees the dirt and grime on his face, but doesn’t clean himself; the blessing comes from doing what God says, not merely listening (James 1:23 – 25). This is an important truth; it means that merely attending Sunday morning services is not a guarantee of blessing from the Lord, but listening to obey is what the Lord wants. You see, our hearts are like the different kinds of soil in Jesus’ Parable of the Sower (Luke 8:12 – 15). It is only the fertile soil that produces a fruitful harvest, and it is only when God’s Word produces change in our hearts that we have let the sermon have its proper effect in our lives. Do not forget about Sunday’s sermon! Rather, let Monday through Saturday be days of opportunity to demonstrate God’s power working in your life.

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 livefrom 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.

May we all strive to be godly listeners, straining to know the voice of our Savior, and to follow Him as He calls us to take up our cross and follow Him into everlasting life and joy.

References for this article were taken from Westminster Larger Catechism Q. #160, and many of the suggestions were stirred in my mind from Rev. Dr. J. Ligon Duncan, who preached a sermon entitled “How to Listen to A Bad Sermon.” This article originally appeared in Zion Chronicles.

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