It’s a strange topic for a sermon. In fact, this isn’t really a sermon. It’s a talk about sermons. If you’ve ever wondered what sermons are, why we listen to them, or if you struggle to connect or engage, then this is for you.
Let’s say you attend worship services for 20 years. Even if you only attend half the time, that’s 520 sermons and about 13,000 minutes of preaching! Don’t you want to make the most of it?
Along with things like Bible-reading and prayer, preaching is a “means of grace.” It can be, with the Spirit’s help, a channel of God’s divine generosity, guidance and help in our lives. And this is true whether the preacher is eloquent or cumbersome, old or young, or long- or short-winded.
This talk highlights Nehemiah 8:1-12 as an example of proactive attentiveness, highlights four important mindsets for us to have, and offers eight practical suggestions to get the most out of a sermon.
Listening to a sermon is proactive, not passive. “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”
Below is the YouTube video version. Under that is the audio-only download. At the end, I’ve included a shortened text version of the main points. Enjoy!
Shortened Text Summary:
Preaching is a “means of grace”
God has given us practices which can make us healthier and stronger as disciples of Jesus.
Traditionally, these are called “means of grace.” That’s a churchy phrase, so here is what it means. It is a channel of God’s generosity, guidance and help in our lives. The Bible is a means of grace. So is prayer. We would put Communion in that category too.
And also preaching.
Since we listen to preaching and sermons we can mistakenly think that it is a passive activity. But it’s not. It’s active. If you want to get the most out of it you need to approach it in the right way.
The Holy Spirit makes preaching effective
As I say all this I want to acknowledge that it’s an awkward topic for me as a preacher. I’m not saying this because I’m fantastic—I’m not. I’m not putting myself on a pedestal. I’m sharing this because it is something God has used—and continues to use—to build up his people. Just as there are things to know about studying the Bible and about prayer, so are there things to know about preaching.
Right out of the gate we need to realize that in addition to understanding that preaching can be a means of grace, we stress that only the Holy Spirit can make preaching a channel of God’s generosity, guidance and help in our lives. It depends on God, not a flawed preacher. There are times when a preacher has had a very busy week. They don’t feel as prepared as they should be. And yet, Sunday comes. God can take that sermon and use it for his good purposes. At the same time, a preacher can feel that they have a great sermon to deliver which includes clever insights and engaging illustrations. But the Holy Spirit can equally pass it over. It is from first to last dependent upon God.
Make the most of the time you’re already taking
My hope is that this is helpful for you whether you are a new Christian or mature, and whether you’re fresh out of Sunday School, thirty-five or a hundred and five. If you are a follower of Jesus, listening to sermons is a significant part of your discipleship.
Let’s say you go to church services for twenty years. Let’s say you only attend half of those Sundays. That’s five hundred and twenty sermons, or about 13,000 minutes of preaching! Would you rather squander that time or benefit from something God might be saying to you?
Our modern context makes it harder to focus
Let me highlight a few factors which may make it more difficult to benefit from preaching in today’s world.
First, our entertainment culture has shaped us to be spectators who want to be entertained. We can bring that attitude to church with us. We think that watching a preacher is like watching someone on TV. It’s not.
Second, our near non-stop use of media and technology has shortened our attention spans and lessened our ability to concentrate.
Third, we can easily forget what a sermon is and how God uses it. If we think a sermon is a random talk from a random person, we will most likely care very little about what is said.
Here’s how we’re going to proceed. I’m going to share some important mindsets for us to have. Then I’m going to share some practical things to do.
1. Know what preaching is
As already mentioned, a sermon is a “means of grace.” More specifically a sermon is the explanation and application of a biblical passage. That’s the very basic definition, but it’s helpful for us to keep in mind.
Charles Simeon described the goal of preaching in this way. It is “to humble the sinner; to exalt the Saviour; to promote holiness.”
Our foundation for all of this is the Bible itself. Here are some claims within the Bible about itself. It’s teachings:
- Are inspired (or “breathed out”) by God (2 Timothy 3:16)
- Are sufficient to help you understand and receive salvation (2 Timothy 3:15)
- Point us to Jesus (John 5:39)
- Are true (Psalm 119:160)
- Are perfect, reviving the soul (Psalm 19:7-8)
- Are to be studied because they help us love God “with all your mind” (Luke 10:27)
- Are a lamp to our feet and light to our path (Psalm 119:105)
- Are the spiritual food we need to live (Deuteronomy 8:3)
- Are to be taught to children (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)
- Are to be pondered continually (Psalm 1:3, Joshua 1:8)
- Teach us our purpose in life, how to love, be wise, and be faithful (various…)
2. Be confident (or get confident) in the trustworthiness and authority of the Bible
In a recent article for The Gospel Coalition Canada, Dwayne Cline wrote: “The prevalent worldview on Scripture has shifted from: it’s God’s Book, to it’s one of God’s Books, to it’s a good book, to it’s a corrupt, unjust, and unethical book. That cultural ideology has penetrated the minds of many believers. They have an inaccurate view of Scripture that is shaped more by culture than by historical, orthodox Christianity. That shift has caused many believers to question, redefine, and even deny the authority of Scripture.”
If this is an issue for you, you need to do something about it. Ask questions about where it came from and why it can be trusted. Study or talk to others about why it has authority in our lives as Christians. If you don’t, I think you’ll struggle to approach sermons with the kind attentiveness that pleases God.
3. Cultivate humility
Imagine a big hairy ball in the middle of your chest. It’s alive. It stinks. It has gnarly teeth and gums. Its eyes are glaring. All day long it says, ‘me, me, me, me, me!’ That hairy ball has a name—Pride!
We cannot be full of God’s wisdom if we are already full of ourselves. Humility is removing the big hair ball in the middle of your chest and putting God first. People who are honest about their need, are willing to be taught about the things of God, and desire to put other people first are people who will be hungry to see God active in their lives. This includes how he may be speaking to them through preaching.
4. Guard against Satan’s plan to make you apathetic to (or absent from) sermons
Granted, there are times when you’re sick, working, or away for other reasons. But there can be an invisible force which makes going to worship seem difficult. Have you ever felt it? Might it be that Satan is keenly aware that God uses teaching from his word—even through imperfect preachers—to build up God’s people?
In the parable of the sower, Jesus says: “Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them” (Mark 4:15). How much better if they don’t even care to show up or tune in!
I remember talking with a woman who had gone through something very difficult in her life. It was hard for her to come back to church afterwards. She told me something she needed repeat to herself while driving to church: “The Devil’s not going to win. The Devil’s not going to win. The Devil’s not going to win…”
Some practical things to do
1. Pray for the preacher to faithfully understand, explain and apply God’s word
If God can use preaching to build up and guide his people, and if the preacher has been called to the task, and if you have committed yourself to a local group of believers, and if Satan and the world are against us, and if he has specifically set himself against preachers and their families, then you need to be praying for the preacher and his work in your specific congregation. Pray that they understand the text, that they explain it well, and that they help you apply its insights to your life.
2. Pray for personal illumination (ahead of time)
Before you plant seeds in a garden, you need to till the soil. That’s what happens in prayer as you ask the Holy Spirit to ready your heart and mind to hear from the Lord himself as you sit under biblical preaching.
3. Expect God to communicate to you
J.I. Packer writes: “If we dare to ask God to let us hear His word to us personally about our lives, He will.”[i]
One of the amazing things that I experience is when someone says to me, “I felt like you were talking directly to me.” It doesn’t happen all the time, but it happens some of the time. Those moments don’t occur because I am particularly insightful; they occur because God is at work! What I’ve noticed is that the people who say those things tend to be people who expect God to communicate with them.
4. Be attentive
I love Nehemiah 8:1-12. It takes place in the autumn of 445 B.C. God’s people had returned from exile, and Nehemiah had finished rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem after it had been destroyed. The people came together for a festival to hear the reading of God’s law. Everyone who could understand was gathered. They listened for half the day. The law of Moses was explained to them clearly.
The story is an example of proactive attentiveness. They stand, they call out ‘Amen.’ So struck are they by the words that they weep—most likely because they realize they have been unfaithful to God. The Levites have to tell them to calm down. They should not fear; God is holy, loving and forgiving; his joy is their strength (verse 8).
How can we be attentive today? Here are just a few practical suggestions.
i. Bring your Bible
This helps you follow along. Perhaps you can take notes in the margin of an insight that is especially meaningful to you.
ii. Use the sermon notes
This is a resource we have started to produce at Westminster Church. You can get a small handout at the welcome desk, download it on the website, or find it in the smart phone app. It has places for you to fill in key insights from the text.
iii. When your mind wanders, bring it back
Hey, it happens. When you find yourself drifting—like wondering how you’re going to get enough time to study for your calculus text on Tuesday, or regretting that you forgot to buy bananas at the grocery story—just bring your attention back and ask God to plug you back in.
5. Reflect on it afterwards
Perhaps this is with a friend or as a family. It can also be by yourself. Identity the key thrust of the sermon and talk about it.
One of the things (some) preachers do is use short succinct statements to summarize key takeaways from the text. Some recent examples from my own sermons are “Trust God, not your gut,” “Joy is a diet, not a pill,” and “Desperate times call for loving measures.” These are short and memorable on purpose. They help you take the sermon-in-a-sentence with you and ponder it.
6. Follow through on the applications
Preachers often include applications toward the end of their sermons. These are things to do or think about. When you follow up on them and do the suggestions you are putting certain insights into practice and reinforcing the words with your actions.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said: “every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit” (Matthew 7:17). A tree is a metaphor for a person. If we are good (i.e. faithful), we will bear good fruit in our lives, meaning that we will show actual evidence of our faithfulness.
Hearing without doing is to not hear at all. Follow through on the applications.
Joel Beeke tells a story about a man who came home from a worship service. His wife had stayed home due to illness. The preacher’s sermon was shorter than usual so he came in the back door sooner than expected. “Donald, is that you already? Is the sermon done already?” “Oh, it’s me, dear, but the sermon is not done. It has been spoken but it has yet to be done.”[ii] His point was that a sermon is not done until it has been acted upon by the people who heard it. And that includes you.
7. Keep track of key insights
I’ve heard of someone keeping a journal with insights which have been particularly meaningful to them. I know someone else who has marked up their Bible with underlines and little sticky notes as a way to remind them about what was said, or how they thought God was communicating with them.
Over time you can go back and remember what was said and you can even see a pattern of how God might be communicating with you! These days we tend to be very forgetful. Keeping track of key insights—perhaps in a notebook, journal or Bible—is a way to see the kinds of things God might be communicating to you over time.
8. If you miss a sermon, listen to it later
Technology can be frustrating. But there are benefits too. If you miss a sermon, you can most likely find it on your church’s website or podcast. You can listen when you ride the bus to school, walk the dog, or drive home from school.
The sermon is for you even if you’re not there. And modern technology is a great way for us to stay plugged in.
Preaching is a “means of grace.” The Holy Spirit makes preaching effective (not a clever or cumbersome preacher). Make the most of the time you’re already taking (after all, you listen to a lot of sermons!) Keep in mind that our modern context makes it harder to focus.
Important Mindsets: 1. Know what preaching is. Be confident (or get confident) in the trustworthiness and authority of the Bible. Cultivate humility. Guard against Satan’s plan to make you apathetic to (or absent from) sermons.
Practical things to do: Pray for the preacher to faithfully understand, explain and apply God’s word. Pray for personal illumination (ahead of time). Expect God to communicate to you. Be attentive (i.e. Bring your Bible; use the sermon notes; when your mind wanders, bring it back). Reflect on it afterwards. Follow through on the applications. Keep track of key insights. If you miss a sermon, listen to it later.
Brothers and sisters, the word “listen” is a verb. Let’s be proactive, not passive. “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear” (Mark 4:9).
[i] J.I. Packer, Rediscovering Holiness: Know the Fullness of Life with God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2021), 2nd ed., 175.
[ii] Podcast: “The Pastor and His Life in the Word of God” by Joel Beeke at the Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. Posted on January 14, 2022 here.
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