‘What a silly subject!’ you may say. After all, it would be pointless to write a booklet called How to watch TV. And listening to a sermon is easier than watching TV, because I don’t have to master the remote. It is passive, something that is preached to me, not something I actively do. Ah, but it’s not! After the parable of the sower, Jesus says, ‘Consider carefully how you listen’ (Luke 8:18). He says that if we listen in one way, we will be given more, but if we listen in another way, even what we think we have will be taken away. It’s a life and death business, listening to sermons. So let us consider carefully how to listen. Here are seven pointers.
1. Expect God to speak
Although we are listening to a human being, if he is opening up the Bible then we are actually listening to the voice of God. ‘If anyone speaks,’ writes Peter about Bible teaching in church, ‘he should do it as one speaking the very words of God’ (1 Peter 4:11). We might add that if we listen to a faithful sermon, we should listen as those listening to the very words of God.
Pray for next Sunday’s preacher. Pray for yourself and those who go to church with you. Come to the sermon physically and mentally fresh and attentive. Quieten your heart and expect God to speak. ‘Lord, speak to me. I am listening.’
2. Admit God knows better than you
When Timothy preached in Ephesus, Paul warned that many would ‘not put up with sound [health-giving] doctrine’ but would want the preacher ‘to say what their itching ears want to hear’ (2 Tim. 4:3). That’s what we want, for the sermon to make us feel better about ourselves, to boost our self-esteem, to reinforce our prejudices.
But when God speaks, he calls me to turn from sin and trust in Christ, to ‘get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted’ in me (James 1:21). I need to sit under the Word, not over it in arrogant judgment. God is God and I am not. I need to change my opinions, my beliefs, my life, my heart.
3. Check the preacher says what the passage says
Every sermon should open up from Scripture what God has already put into Scripture. It mustn’t impose a meaning on the text. The authority of the preacher does not come from his office (pastor, minister, or whatever) or his powerful personality. It is a borrowed authority. When he says what the Bible says, he speaks with authority; when he does not, he has none. A friend said to me once that when the preacher preached, he had his Bible open and asked himself, ‘Where did he get that from?’ It is a good question. If I can see he got it from the passage, I should bow, repent and believe; if not, I should not.
Be humble but not gullible. Read the passage during the week. Think about it. You don’t have to be academic to do this. Think what is its main point. Check that the main point of the sermon is the main and central thrust of the passage.
4. Hear the sermon in church
You can download sermons and listen on your own. This is not a bad thing but it is not the best thing. God’s pattern is for his people to assemble (‘church’ means ‘assembly’) and sit under the Word of God together. It’s not a ‘me and God’ thing; it’s a ‘God shaping us together’ thing. We listen together. We hold one another to account. You know what message I heard and I know what message you heard. I’ve heard it. You know that I’ve heard it. I know that you know that I’ve heard it! You expect me to respond and I expect you to respond. We help one another, stir one another up to love and good works as we gather together (Heb. 10:24-25).
5. Be there week by week
So be regular in church. In our culture we drift in and out, we sit on the edge as spectators. But the commitment to be regular in church is important. Of course there are times we need to be absent, for some Christian service elsewhere, or for some family occasion like a wedding. But let’s not be casual about church.
God does not give us quick fixes that come from occasional listening; he moulds our minds, our hearts, our character, over time by the steady drip, drip of his Word. We need to hear Christ preached again and again. ‘I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them’ writes Peter (2 Peter 1:12). Keep a record of the Sundays you are – or are not – in church. You may be shocked at how often you are away. Resolve to be there regularly, for your own good.
6. Do what the Bible says
‘Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says’ (James 1:22). The purpose of sermons is not to make us know-alls but to make us like Jesus. We are to be those who ‘with a noble and good heart… hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop’ of godly character (Luke 8:15). We do not come to the sermon to be entertained, to have our brain cells tickled by intellectual displays or our emotions swayed by manipulative oratory. We come to hear and obey.
After the Sunday sermon, think how you will respond. Write it down. Tell someone what it is. It may be an action to do, or stop doing. It may be words to speak, or stop speaking. Most of all, it will be an attitude or desire of the heart. It may help to keep a journal, Sunday by Sunday. Come back to past entries from time to time and review your progress. Ask yourself how God is at work in you through his Word. You may find yourself surprised and encouraged.
7. Do what the Bible says today – and rejoice!
‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts,’ says Psalm 95, and the writer of Hebrews, quoting that Psalm (Heb. 3:7-4:13). Today! It’s urgent! Don’t put it off till tomorrow, for tomorrow never comes.
And then rejoice. Be glad that God has caused the Bible to be written exactly as he wanted. Be glad for the good news of all God gives us in Christ. Be glad that your name is written in heaven, if you are a believer. Let each time you sit with your brothers and sisters in Christ, listening to a sermon, be a time of glad fresh repentance and joyful fresh believing and obedience to Christ.
Christopher Ash is Writer in Residence at Tyndale House in Cambridge, and a pastor and author.
(A fuller treatment may be found in Listen Up! A practical guide to listening to sermons, by Christopher Ash, published by The Good Book Company, 2009.)