How to Listen to a Sermon
by Robby Higginbottom
Peter's Sermon at Pentecost
But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: "Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. That is, 9 a.m. But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel:
"'And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants Greek bondservants; twice in this verse and female servantsin those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. And I will show wonders in the heavens aboveand signs on the earth below ,blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darknessand the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.'
"Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know--this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. For David says concerning him,
"'I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption.
You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.'
"Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says,
"'The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.'
Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified."
Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?" And Peter said to them, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself." And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, "Save yourselves from this crooked generation." So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.
“Surely you know that if a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighborhood looking for the church that ‘suits’ him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches.... The search for a ‘suitable’ church makes the man a critic where the Enemy wants him to be a pulpit.”
With these words, Screwtape encourages his demonic understudy to tempt people to cultivate a self-centered posture toward the church. Like other passages in C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, this shoe can fit so well that it makes us squirm. The same temptation to be a connoisseur and critic of a church also infiltrates our listening to sermons. Have we ever sighed when we arrive and learn that our favorite preacher is out of town? Have we made a mental or written note of things we would have done differently than the preacher? Have we ever left a worship service with little more than a judgment — “I loved it” or “I didn’t like it”? These questions reveal that the spirit of the connoisseur and the critic is alive and well in us. Sadly, we can prefer consumption and critique to conversion and conviction.
If we’re going to hear around 50 sermons a year (500 in 10 years...2,500 in 50 years), don’t we want to walk away with more than “I enjoy listening to him” or “I didn’t like that”? Preaching is not the only means of grace that the Lord uses to conform us to the image of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, Acts reminds us that preaching has always played a central role in the transformation of God’s people. Peter’s sermon at Pentecost reveals some of the pillars of biblical preaching: (1) the authority of the Word (Sola Scriptura), (2) the supremacy of Jesus Christ (Solus Christus), (3) the free offer of the grace of God (Sola Gratia), (4) the call to turn to Christ (Sola Fide), and (5) the zeal for the glory of God (Soli Deo Gloria). The 5 “Solas” of the Reformation help us distinguish between those who preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and those who do not. But beyond our biblical-theological convictions, the following questions may help us reflect on how well we listen to sermons.
“Am I present?” It’s hard to listen to a sermon if I’m not there. Have I made it a priority to be present when the people of God gather for worship? Once I am in the sanctuary, am I all there? Am I seeking to be still, to draw near, and, ultimately, to worship God?
“Am I prepared?” What does my preparation for a weekly worship service reveal about me? If “my soul thirsts for God” (Psalm 42:2), wouldn’t I anticipate the joy of worshiping Him before I walk through the doors? How can I redeem the night before or the morning of a worship service so that I am ready and eager to hear from God?
“Am I practical?” If I know the text of the sermon earlier in the week, do I spend time in the passage before Sunday? When I hear a sermon, can I focus on one or two practical things that I believe the Lord is calling me to address? Grace-driven application sounds like this: “Lord, after hearing this sermon, I need your grace to help me __________.”
“Am I prayerful?” Is my listening to sermons bathed in prayer...before, during and after the sermon...for myself, for the preacher and for everyone gathered to listen? The connoisseur and the critic in me suffocate in the presence of God. The pride that only looks down gives way to the humility that looks up. As the Lord teaches me to pray, He shapes my heart to receive His Word, to be “cut to the heart,” (Acts 2:37) and to “know for certain that God has made [Jesus] both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).
How are we listening to sermons? By God’s grace, how do we want to grow?