“How to Listen to a Sermon”

The following message is based on 2 Timothy 3:14-17 and argues for the value of listening to a sermon with worshipful intentions, for selfish and selfless reasons.  It was delivered on April 29, 2012.

It pays to listen.  Sometimes our lack of listening gets in the way of our understanding.  “A woman had just returned to her home from an evening of church services, when she was startled by an intruder. She caught the man in the act of robbing her home of its valuables and yelled: ‘Stop! Acts 2:38!’ (Repent and be baptized, in the name of Jesus Christ, so that your sins may be forgiven.)

The burglar stopped in his tracks. The woman calmly called the police and explained what she had done.  As the officer cuffed the man to take him in, he asked the burglar:  “Why did you just stand there? All the old lady did was yell a Scripture to you.”

‘Scripture?’ replied the burglar. ‘She said she had an Ax and Two 38s!’”

Sometimes our lack of listening gets in the way of our understanding. Listening was a key part of Timothy’s spiritual formation.  Notice what Paul wrote to him near the end of his life, around 63 A.D.  “You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.  All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”  Those verses say a lot about the value of listening and understanding God’s word.  Listening is a struggling art these days.  Our ability to listen is tied to our attention span.

Our attention span is often linked to our desire for entertainment. Are we putting ourselves into a position to listen to God, especially in the context of the worship service?  Today and next Sunday, I want to speak on the value of two aspects of worship, that of the sermon and that of music.  Today, I’d like to ask you a number of rhetorical questions that have to do with the all important spiritual exercise of listening to a sermon.

First, what is a sermon? 

My own, homespun definition is the following: A sermon is a message from God, derived from His word, meant to inspire, educate and inform us in our faith.   A sermon is different than any other type of presentation.  It takes unique skills to deliver a sermon.  Seminary teaches the minister how to accurately divide the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:14ff).  Knowledge of Hebrew and Greek is needed as well as exegetical skills, how the words relate and flow, Systematic theology puts the text into the bigger picture of what we understand about God.  Because there is such a thing as false doctrine and there continues to be false doctrine.  And yet, we live in an evil age that says that objective truth does not exist.

A good sermon is derived from the word, and should speak into our lives.  But there are times when we are distracted and not engaged with the text or the speaker.  Sometimes we are our own obstacles to spiritual growth.  We need to have the right attitude going into worship and the sermon time; an openness, hunger, thirst, anticipation for what God will say. Psalm 119:18 states “Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in Your law.”  When we come to worship, our attitude plays into our ability to listen more than anything.  One dedicated church member was having a discussion with her youngster about why they had to attend the worship service.  “Honey,” she said, “that’s my lesson.”  A sermon is a lesson, and listening to a sermon is an act of worship whereby you are giving your attention to God, by listening to the minister, whoever they may be.  The right attitude is that we need to be humble, teachable.  There should be no trace of pride or arrogance on the part of the speaker or the listener.  We also need to be encouraged, but we also need to be confronted, rebuked, corrected and trained, so as to be equipped to be the person God wants us to be and to do the things He wants us to do.  The Lord wants to refine us through the message.

How does one listen to a sermon? 

Learn to get past the speaker.  I am not the world’s most gifted speaker.  But I am your pastor.  Look past my faults to listen to/for God.  Don’t get sidetracked or distracted by my accent, the baby crying in the third row, your upset stomach, or the loud outfit of your neighbor.  Strain to hear.  Sit on the edge of your seat.  Take notes.  Take 2-3 things away from the message.  If you are here to be entertained, you will leave disappointed.  I am a poor entertainer; God has not called me to entertain.  There are entertaining preachers.

Some make it their primary goal to make you feel good; others want to entertain; still some mark a good sermon by whether or not a tear was shed.  All of that may happen within a sermon, but that should not be the main goal.  The main goal of preaching is to point the listeners to Jesus.  John Calvin said: “It matters not what you say or I say, but what God says.”

Why do we listen to a sermon?

Instruction, reproof, correction, training in righteousness.  All of these are good.  We need these!  At my last church in Kansas, I had a very astute farmer visit my home for prayer one afternoon.  My 100 lbs. Black Labrador Retriever was going crazy with excitement when Frances approached my gate one day.  The dog jumped up on him.  He looked at me and said: “Dogs are wonderful.  But if they are not trained, they can be a nuisance.”  Humans are the same way.  We have wonderful capabilities, but if we close our hearts and minds to the training of God’s spirit, we become spiritual misfits.  Train yourself to listen to anyone.

Let me give you a couple of reasons why we listen: First of all, listen for the soul’s renewal.  As you receive the sermon, listen that you may be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  Romans 12:1-2: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  Sermon content, if it is based in Scripture, is meant to transform your mind and soul to the image of Christ.  Don’t let your mind wander.  Dr. Phil Ryken, former pastor of Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia and now President of Wheaton College states: “(Listening to a sermon)  is a prime opportunity for us to hear his voice.  We should not insult His majesty by looking at the people around us, thinking about the coming week, or entertaining any of the thousands of other thoughts that crowd our minds.  God is speaking, and we should listen.”[1]

Secondly, listen so as to learn how to be a missionary to those around you.  Maybe God wants to teach you something; remind you of something?  The Thought for Mediation is carefully selected so that you might take away a thought from the message to meditate on throughout the week.  Turn it into a prayer: “Lord, help me to….”

Thirdly, listen with the Bible open.  Be a Berean.  Acts 17:11 gives a great testimony of those from Berea: “Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, [a]for they received the word with [b]great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.”  Listen to judge what we are saying is found in the book!  That is why we should keep our Bibles open during the message, so as to interact with the text as we listen.  And we should write down those things that especially interest or spark us to remember.

What can you do for me as your “preacher?”

  • You can get a good night’s rest.  Prepare for the morrow, as Charles Spurgeon used to tell his London congregation in the late 19th century.
  • Come with your Bible.  Get familiar with YOUR Bible.  Do you realize that only 16% of church-attendees read their Bible on a daily basis?
  • Come, ready to hear; eager to learn; open to what God would show you.
  • Pray for me. Pray that I might accurately present the truth; that I might think and communicate God’s word clearly.

Listening has selfish benefits, but is also a selfless act; that is why we consider listening to the sermon as an act of worship towards God.  We benefit from giving Him our undivided attention.  We also show Him that He is of immense, indescribable importance.  Jim Reapsome, in an article that appeared in Homemade magazine stated that “Teenage prostitutes, during interviews in a San Francisco study, were asked: “Is there anything you needed most and couldn’t get?” Their response, invariably preceded by sadness and tears was unanimous: “What I needed most was someone to listen to me. Someone who cared enough to listen to me.”


[1][1] Phil Ryken, “How to Listen to a Sermon,” http://www.reformation21.org/articles/how-to-listen-to-a-sermon.php.

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